When my 4-year-old son asked me if I would take him to see The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (Marc Webb) on Memorial Day, I’ll admit that I wasn’t even aware the sequel (to the reboot) had been released. I was also unaware that X-Men: Days of Future Past (Bryan Singer) or Captain America: Winter Soldier (Joe Russo) were playing in the same theater. I guess I’ve lost my taste for super hero films. I used to love them. In fact, when I was 13-years-old I became obsessed with Batman (1989, Tim Burton). I had posters and collected trading cards and listened obsessively to the soundtrack:
My interest in films like Tim Burton’s Batman and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002) was due less to their super hero antics (the amazing weapons, the acrobatic fight scenes, the spectacle of urban destruction) and far more to do with the idea of normal people who feel an obligation to act on the behalf of others. Because I loved these dark, brooding, almost-noirish heroes, I forgave these films for their lifeless female characters. Or rather, I never thought much about them. I never once identified with Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) or Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). I didn’t want to be rescued by Batman (Michael Keaton) or Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire), I wanted to be Batman and Spider-Man and rescue folks myself. Now, it’s no secret that super hero movies have a major gender (and race and ethnicity and sexuality problem). Almost all of the major stars of the super hero franchises are white, heterosexual, cis men. And after a while, the white male fantasies of control and power over a chaotic and inherently evil world were no longer interesting to me. I stopped going to see super hero movies.
Though I did not see the first film in the franchise reboot, The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), I wasn’t expecting to see anything other than 142 (!!!) minutes of CGI fight scenes, smashed cars, franchise-building, and pretty girls who need rescuing — and that’s exactly what I got. Now I don’t want to shit on Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). She’s adorable. Her outfits are amazing (amazing!). She’s the valedictorian of her graduating class. Her hair curls in all the right places. She snagged a sweet job (internship?) at Oscorp Industries immediately upon graduating. She wrinkles her little nose when she laughs. She even got into Oxford to study sciency stuff. She also uses her knowledge of high school science to help Spider-Man magnetize his web shooters, a key trick allowing Spider-Man to wrangle with Electro (Jamie Foxx).
All of these character traits and plot points appear, on the surface, to elevate Gwen above the usual superhero girlfriend role. Indeed, when Gwen finally decides to leave New York for England (Oxford! Science stuff!) Spider-Man cribs a move from Charlotte’s Web, by writing the words “I Love You” in giant web-letters. He then tells Gwen that he will follow her to Oxford. He will follow Gwen anywhere. He will be her trailing, Spidey-spouse, doing fixed term work across the Pond. OMG, swoonsville, right ladies?
But even as someone who knows nothing about the Spider-Man I know that shit is not going to happen. Spider-Man cannot give up his gift, his “great responsibility,” for the love of a woman. He can’t be secondary because he’s primary. He’s the protagonist. And Electro is totally sucking up all of New York City’s power so Spidey basically says “Now I’m gonna tie your ass this police car with some of my webs. Bye.”
This enrages Gwen, who is all “Fuck off, Spider-Man,” because she is a modern postfeminist woman (with GIRL POWER!) and she makes her own choices, and no one, not even fucking Spider-Man, is going to tell her what to do. She yells something to this effect and it is adorable but pointless because as we all know, this is not Gwen’s movie. Still, Gwen pulls out some scissors or a Swiss Army knife or something and hacks away at those sticky webs and then shows up at the big show down between her boyfriend and Electro at some magical place in New York City where all the electricity is kept. Gwen uses her vast knowledge of New York City’s power grid (what?), to help Spider-Man destroy Electro and save New York City from a black out, which is a super dire situation because then planes crash.
Despite Gwen’s key contribution to this epic CGI-battle, the whole scene felt a lot like the scene at the very end of the film (SPOILER ALERT!) when a little boy, dressed up in a Spider-Man costume, attempts to face off against an Oscorp-generated villain, Rhino (Paul Giamatti). It’s admirable and it’s adorable (his costume is too big for him!), but ultimately, we take a deep sigh of relief when Spider-Man finally appears on the scene, thanks the little boy for his bravery, pats him on the head, then delivers him into the arms of his weeping mama. Gwen is like that little boy: we admire her, she’s adorable and brave, but ultimately, she needs to move aside so the real heroes can do their work. Superheroing is a (white) man’s game. It is not for women and children. It’s not for poor, lonely, invisible Electro either.
This became most apparent in the final battle of the film between Spider-Man and the newly villainized Harry/Green Goblin (Dane DeHaan, looking like a cracked out, lost member of One Direction). Because although Gwen reminded Spidey about how magnets work and knew how to access New York City’s power grid (again, I must ask, how does an 18-year-old who jut started working at Oscorp know this?), she is, at the end of the day, just a woman. And a woman’s main value in cinema, especially a summer blockbuster reboot of a successful comic book franchise, is in her to-be-looked-at-ness. That is, Gwen’s purpose is to be an object of the Gaze: Spidey’s gaze, Green Goblin’s gaze, and the audience’s gaze. Her greatest value and power in the film lies in what she means to Peter Parker/Spider-Man. Gwen’s photograph appears all over Peter’s bedroom. She is an image to be adored. She is Peter’s everything. She is his crime-fighting muse. After they break up, Spider-Man sits atop New York City buildings,
stalking watching Gwen going about her day. We watch her too. Her outfits are amazing.
Gwen exists to be looked at and she exists as an object of exchange. Harry/Green Goblin values her only because Peter values her. That is, Gwen’s worth is determined by the men around her. As Gayle Rubin argues in her seminal essay, “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex” (1975):
If Harry possesses Gwen, he can exchange her for something he values, in this case, the blood of Spider-Man (which Harry believes will save his life). Gwen gains nothing in this exchange of her body (other than, she hopes, the opportunity to remain alive) because she is the object, the gift, that the powerful white men toss back and forth like a beautiful little rag doll. In the film’s (almost) final battle scene, Harry, now in full Green Goblin mode, scoops up little Miss Gwen and carries her off to a Dangerous Place. Spider-Man, predictably, chases after his love, intent on both saving her life and stopping Green Goblin.
And so, near the end of Spider-Man 2 we find ourselves in a familiar situation: our beautiful damsel, our muse, the gift/ransom exchanged between two men (one selfless, the other selfish), is literally dangling by a string. Here Gwen becomes more valuable than ever because she is now the audience’s gift. Because we identify with Spider-Man, the protagonist, Gwen’s peril is intended to fill us with the worst kind of dread. If she dies, how will Spider-Man feel? I mean, it’s gonna really fuck him up, right? Gwen’s life is the film’s climax.
Look, I get it. The movie’s title is The Amazing Spider-Man 2, not Gwen Remembers How Magnets Work or Gwen Goes to Oxford. Of course every supporting character’s role is there to do just that — to support the story of the Amazing Spider-Man. But I suppose it’s Gwen’s postfeminist accoutrement that leaves a sour taste in my mouth. I almost wish Gwen were more helpless and passive, stupider and more frightened. But it’s the fact that Gwen is so damn capable: she’s pretty and smart and plucky and brave and has the love of a good man. She is living the postfeminist dream (until she dies, that is!) and for that, she gives the film an appearance of some kind of gender equality. “Look, she helps Spidey! Look, she’s pursuing a career!” At the end of the day, these stories belong to the same white men they’ve always belonged to.
Most bloggers publish their Oscar picks hours, or at the latest, days, after the nominations are announced. Because that’s when most people are interested in hearing about Oscar picks — before the Oscars. But Nana and I aren’t “most bloggers.” Sure, we’ll give you our Oscar picks, but we’re going to publish them just hours before the actual ceremony. That’s because Nana and I like to throw caution to the wind. We’re free-thinkers. We’re iconoclasts. We’re rebels. But mostly? We’ve both been really, really busy the last few months and didn’t have the time to sit down and discuss our Oscar picks today, the day of the big O.
Amanda: Okay, Nana, so we don’t have a lot of time because we sort of waited until the last minute — we were both trying to see as many of the 2013 films as we could. So before we begin our conversation, in the interest of full disclosure, I think we need to tell our readers what movies we haven’t seen. I’ll start with mine: The Wolf of Wallstreet (Martin Scorsese), Nebraska (Alexander Payne), Philomena (Stephen Frears), Captain Phillips (Paul Greengrass). So there are quite a few holes in my ballot, I’m afraid. What about you?
Nana: Wow. Well, you’re going to have to see those.
I know, Nana, I know.
The movie Her (Spike Jonze) is the one Best Picture nominee that I have not seen.
That’s the only one?
Wow. Good job, Nana.
What are your picks for best actress in a leading role?
Frankly, all five of them were very, very good. I enjoyed all of their performances. But, by far — and it will be an absolute crime if she does not win — the best performance was by Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen). Her role was so interesting: it was a woman who had experienced great wealth and then lost it suddenly, and it really affected her mentally. To watch her try to cope with life from one extreme to another was fascinating. She’s just absolutely gorgeous and she’s such a wonderful actress. At the end you almost just had to cry with her.
Almost! Well my pick is definitely Sandra Bullock in Gravity (Alfonso Cuaron). Now I did enjoy Amy Adams in American Hustle (David O. Russell) and it was a hard role because she was playing alongside Jennifer Lawrence, who clearly had the showier role. But I think she made her character matter in that film, and she made me care about her. But still, I have to stick with Sandra here because it’s very difficult to carry a performance by yourself, when you have no humans to interact with, to play off of. Her costars were the films’ special effects. I thought she pulled off the complexity of emotion you need in a controlled role like that. She made me care about the human element in a film which is otherwise about how insignificant humanity is.
Oh I enjoyed that movie, though I did find it almost silly in areas.
What do you mean?
I mean the whole thought of a person being alone in space and what she was going through. A quarter of the way through I almost turned it off.
I also watched it on OnDemand at home, so that may have something to do with it.
Ha, yes. What are your picks for best actor in a leading role?
Again, all five were superb (except for Christian Bale, I disliked American Hustle tremendously, I thought it was a stupid movie). As you know, I am such a fan of Leonardo, and I was pulling for him to win up until last night, when I finally watched Dallas Buyer’s Club (Jean-Marc Vallee). But now I think, without question, Matthew McConaughey* must win. He was phenomenal.
Because he lost a ton of weight?
Oh goodness, no. It was the role: this pathetic man who tried desperately to secure a life for himself and had nothing but his weekly paycheck, which always went towards gambling and women. And then the one thing he prided himself on was his sex drive, and how frequently he has sex with women, and then it turns out he has HIV. And then, of course, his friends turn against him. Then, he tries to desperately to bring these drugs into the country, which have been banned by the FDA. Just a fascinating story.
*Note: Nana keeps calling him “Matthew McConnelly”
Well, Nana, as you know, my pick has been, and remains, Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen). In some ways, it’s a similar role to the one played by McConaughey in Dallas Buyer’s Club: a man who finds himself in a horrible situation, a life or death situation, and how does he negotiate that, how does he keep himself alive? For me, I thought it was a very subtle performance — Michael Fassbender had the showy role in this movie — but this actor was expressive and restrained at the same time.
For example, there’s one scene, about halfway through the movie, where Solomon attends the funeral of an older man who has died from heat exhaustion or malnutrition — the result of his status as an enslaved worker. At first, Solomon remains silent as the other slaves sing a funeral dirge. His mouth is tight and his eyes are distant. The director uses a long take here that focuses on Solomon’s face and these subtle degrees of change — the camera stays with him through the entire song, it never cuts, never looks away. But over the course of the song his face makes these micro adjustments. He begins to sing along, half heartedly. Then he begins to sing in earnest. For me, this was the moment when Solomon decided he was going to continue to commune with his own humanity. He was going to mourn this man’s death and recognize that death matters, even though he is in a seemingly hopeless situation. He could have gone two ways — go numb or continue to feel. He chooses to continue to feel here, which is arguably the tougher choice. To convey that with no dialogue? That’s an Oscar, Nana.
Oh, I agree, he did a great job.
What are your picks for best supporting actress in a leading role?
June Squibb, in Nebrasksa, was one of my favorites. At eighty-four years old, she’s just incredible. But she won’t win. My pick — and I don’t know if she’ll win because she’s so hot right now — and that’s Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle. The only saving grace in that film is Jennifer Lawrence.
Oh I agree with you on that point…
I don’t really think she should have won last year (for Silver Linings Playbook). But for this role? If she doesn’t win, I think it’s because she’s so pretty. People don’t want to like her.
This is a tough one. I can’t pick between Jennifer Lawrence and Lupita Nyong’o. The reason why I’m on the fence is because I think these roles — in a lot of ways — are serving the same function. There are a lot of parallels between Rosalyn and Patsy: they’re both women who have little to no control over their own lives. Their actions and their livelihoods are controlled by men. And the outcomes of their lives are both very much tied to their bodies. Rosalyn’s only power is in her sexuality — in her sloppy up do, her ample cleavage, and her nails that smell like flowers and garbage — and she uses that to get what she wants. But for Patsy, her sexuality is a liability. It’s the reason she is repeatedly raped and why she becomes a target for the jealous wife of her rapist. I think that illustrates, ironically, the way white privilege functions in the cinema: female sexuality is empowering for powerless white woman and destructive for the powerless black woman.
What are your picks for best supporting actor in a leading role?
Ohhh. Absolutely Jared Leto. The way he talked, the way he walked. There was such love in him. And everybody loved him, except his family. Not only was he very sick with AIDS but he was so addicted to cocaine and heroine and whatever else he was taking…And then the scene where he had to put on a men’s suit to meet with his father?
Yes, that was one of the more poignant scenes in the film. When we see him that suit — with no make up, no color — he just looks so despondent, like it’s killing him to be dressed that way.
When you see the relationship between Rayon and his father you can see why he turned to drugs — his family didn’t accept him. And then when he knows he’s about to die and he’s looking in the mirror and he says “When I go to heaven, I want to be pretty.” Oh God.
Yeah, I think he’s my pick, too, Nana. So let’s wrap it up: what is your pick for best picture?
I am still in favor of The Wolf of Wall Street.
You’re blinded by your boyfriend [Leonard DiCaprio].
[Here Nana precedes to trash other Best Picture nominees and we argue a lot]
The Wolf of Wall Street had everything: it had incredible acting, it had — if they want the sex thing and naked bodies — it had that, it had humor, it had a fascinating story. It was just extremely well done. I’m going with The Wolf of Wall Street.
Okay, so you know I haven’t all of the Best Picture nominees, but I am going to stick with my original pick in this category, 12 Years a Slave. My reason for that — and we’ve discussed this before — is that my criteria for Best Picture is that the whole be greater than the sum of its parts. So a Best Picture winner has to have great performances, beautiful cinematography, a strong script, etc. But then, the picture itself has to be more than that. For me, this movie has been long overdue. I know there have been movies about slavery made in the past, but no other film, in my experience, has delved into the subtle and ongoing damage that the institution of slavery has created in this country like this film has. We see how slavery impacts the relationships between African American men and women — how they are both suffering but in such very different ways (for example, getting rape versus watching helplessly as someone gets raped, those are two very different kinds of horrors). We also see how it impacted the relationships between the male and female slaveowners — how the white mistress was powerless, except when it came to the slaves, the one arena in which she could flex her muscles and exert power. We see that in the scene where Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulson) throws a crystal vase at Patsy’s head. I found those scenes to be so much more devastating than the more overtly violent moments. I think America desperately needed this movie to be made.
Okay, so my final question for you is this: are there any movies or performances that weren’t nominated that you feel should have been nominated?
Hmmm, you know the one film I was surprised didn’t get anything is The Butler (Lee Daniels). I was surprised it didn’t get more. Did Oprah get anything for this?
Oh wow. Well the lead, Forest Whitaker, was superb. The role he played — from when he was a little boy and his father was shot in the fields and his mother was raped — and he goes on to get a job in the White House. I really thought that film was wonderful, Not sure why it was snubbed. Also, All is Lost (J.C. Chandor). Poor Robert Redford.
For me this year’s big snub was Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine). Spring Breakers failed to find it’s audience because on the surface it looked like a fun teenpic about “good girls gone bad” on Spring Break — this misconception about the film was encourage by the foregrounding of its Disney princess stars — Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens — and the images of neon-bikini clad revelers that accompanied advertisements for the film. The folks who were drawn in by the ad campaign got a very different picture: a borderline-experimental meditation on capitalism, whiteness, femininity, and the affectless violence and sexuality of contemporary visual culture. So, in other words, not a light film in the least. In fact, I just taught this film in my course, Women and Identity in American Cinema, and one thing my students mentioned is that they didn’t believe that the film’s young stars — particularly Selena Gomez — were even aware of the kind of film they were starring in. Instead, the women acted as they always do — as the beneficiaries of white privilege, immune to critique, physical harm (except for a single gunshot wound), or laws. One of my students explained it this way on our class blog:
While the girls do little, they are rewarded nonetheless, whether their efforts were good or bad. This allows the “white privilege” of the girls to be seen more like armor because they act as though nothing can touch them, they are invincible– immortal. They’ve been taught and proven right many times (robbing a restaurant, etc.) that there are no consequences for them…That is the role whiteness plays in this film, the illusion of immortality and security.
Beyond it’s cunning commentary on race, Spring Breakers offers up one of the best performances of the year with James Franco’s turn as Alien, a cornrow-and-diamond-grill-wearing drug dealer/wannabe-rapper. My students all agreed that Franco definitely knew what kind of movie he was acting in (one student noted “I mean, he has a PhD”). Yeah, that’s the kind of movie this is — the kind of movie that may require one of its actors to have a PhD in order to fully understand the meaning of his own character.
As Jeffrey Sconce notes, Alien is a tragic figure in this movie. While the pretty white girls he brings under his wing are just “playing” at being gangstas and “bad bitches,” this world is his life. When he delivers his “Look at my shit!” speech he means it. He loves his shit and he believes his shit makes him important. But it was the acquisition of so much shit (specifically, the deadly duo of Candy and Britt) that leads to his ultimate demise.
Other snubs? I loved Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach), and really, I feel that film deserved more recognition overall. Also, Don Jon (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), which was a visceral counterpoint to the more philosophically-inclined Her on the subject of online intimacy.
Well, Nana, thanks for talking with me again. Your fans thank you.
Baby, you know I love you. I do. I think about you all the time, even when I’m too busy to spend time with you.
But, baby, sometimes Mama likes to write for other blogs. Now that doesn’t mean that I don’t love you anymore — I will always love you best. It’s just that sometimes Mama needs to do some talking with other people on the internet, people who may not follow this blog.
But I don’t want you, my small but wonderful readership, to feel left out, so I’m posting that piece here. It’s a conversation that I had with Dr. Kristen Warner about the intersections of race and feminism in light of many recent examples of the disconnect between white women and the black bodies they appropriate for their art. Kristen’s suggested title was “Intersectional Solidarity or Knowing when to Tell Folks to Take a Seat” but alas, The Blot changed it. Can’t win ’em all, baby.
You can read that one here.
And please, baby, go on over there and comment and get this conversation started. Don’t be mad at Mama, now. She loves you.
Normally, I’m not a big fan of rewatching films I’ve already seen. I have to do so much rewatching for my classes and for my research that in my free time my goal is to see new stuff. Nevertheless, over the last few months I’ve been rewatching some favorite films from my childhood, like Home Alone (1990 Chris Columbus), Mrs. Doubtfire (1993, Chris Columbus), Teen Wolf (1985, Rod Daniel), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986, John Hughes), Karate Kid (1994, John G. Alvidsen), and Footloose (1984, Herbert Ross), with my own children and I’ve been surprised by how much I’ve (mis)remembered those films. When I rewatched Mrs. Doubtfire, for example, I was shocked by how my memories of that film were so conditioned by its theatrical trailer. The scenes that I found myself remembering before they happened — Robin Williams asking Harvey Fierstein to make him a woman, Robin Williams throwing a piece of fruit at Pierce Brosnan’s head, Robin Williams’ rubber breasts on fire — were the scenes that were featured in the film’s trailer:
As a child of the 1980s, I grew up with commercials, with flow, and I watched these commercials over and over, even when I didn’t actively watch them (because I was fighting with my brother or gabbing on my sweet cordless phone). These scenes travelled through my brain repeatedly, wearing a groove, making themselves at home. Robin Williams’ burning rubber breasts are a permanent part of my memories.
But it wasn’t just frequent exposure to trailers that shaped my memories of these films — my memories have also been shaped by the way I watched movies as a child, that is, by my child-self’s attention span. A few weeks ago we decided to screen Footloose for our kids, reasoning that its numerous dance scenes would make up for its snoozer of a plot about an uptight preacher (John Lithgow) who won’t just let those kids dance! But my husband and I misremembered the film — there aren’t that many dance scenes in the film. And when those kids aren’t dancing? Well, the film is pretty boring. Our kids (and our neighbor’s kid) were antsy throughout, only pepping up when a dance number came on. Then they would leap off the couch and dance furiously until the narrative started up again. So perhaps they, too, will misremember the film when they’re old like me, filing away the “good stuff,” the dancing and the Kevin Bacon, and forgetting the boring stuff.
What I’d like to talk about in this blog post, though, is my experience of rewatching a beloved film from my childhood and realizing that the film my child’s brain watched is very different from the one I watched as an adult. I’m talking about Ghostbusters (1984, Ivan Reitman). I remember being 8-years-old and actively anticipating the release of Ghostbusters, a movie which was most certainly a must-see for the elementary school set. Like most kids my age, I was obsessed: I watched the sequel and the Saturday morning cartoon, ate my Slimer candy, and of course I drank my fair share of Ecto Cooler .
This past Saturday we rented Ghostbusters, made some popcorn, and invited another couple and their son to watch it with us (at this point my child-free readers might be asking themselves: is this what Saturday night looks like when you have young children? Yes it does, child-free friends, so please, practice safe sex). As we all sat down to watch the movie, the first thing I remembered about the film, or rather what I had forgotten about the film, is that before they become “Ghostbusters,” saviors of New York City (and by extension, the entire world), Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), Raymond Stantz (Dan Ackroyd) and Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis) are actually professors at Columbia University, studying the paranormal.
I had completely forgotten this but the moment the film cuts from a frightened librarian to the interior of a Columbia lab where Bill Murray flirts with a student participanting in his ESP tests, I turned to my children and declared “The heroes of this movie are professors, kids, just like Mommy!” The friends who were over are also professors, in Biology and Geology, so they were also excited for their son to see professors doing cool shit in a movie (this rarely happens, as you all know). After we watched the scene in which the professors are informed that their grant has been terminated, my daughter was confused “What just happened?” she asked. I explained, “It would be like if Beth’s boss took away her corn fields or if Eric’s boss took away his rocks.” Then my husband piped in “Or if someone said Mommy couldn’t watch movies.” Rocks and corn are not ghost busting, but they’re more tangible than the study of film. Nevertheless, this answer satisfied my daughter.
As I watched Venkman, Stantz, and Spengler pack up their offices and their life’s work and leave Columbia’s grand campus, I thought about the current state of academia and then, I began to watch Ghostbusters in a different way. Instead of watching the fun, comedy-horror-blockbuster of my youth, I found I was watching a vision of the future of academia, a fantasy of the Alternative-Academic career, one based wholly on the market value of the university professor’s research, rather than the broader, and somewhat less market-driven value of the professor’s ability to instruct students in that research and to engage the public in those findings.
When the professors leave academia they are not ghost busters. They’re just unemployed PhDs, which, as we all know, are a dime a dozen. What transforms these useless, unemployed academics into Ghostbusters? An ancient Sumerian god named Gozer the Gozerian, who wants to destroy New York City! These professors are literally the only people in the city who can do this job. They actually have ghost busting equipment: proton packs (for wrangling ghosts), ghost traps, and an Ecto containment unit on hand. I mean if there’s something strange in your neighborhood who are you gonna call? I don’t need the 1984 Ray Parker Jr. hit to answer that question, because the answer is, naturally: GHOSTBUSTERS! The university may not value these men, but the good people of New York certainly do. Their research will save the world! Does your research save the world? Mine sure doesn’t!
So you see, these professors have a real value. As soon as their first commercial airs, glimpsed (fortuitously) by beautiful Dana Stevens (Sigourney Weaver) just before she finds a demon in her fridge, the phone at Ghostbusters central never stops ringing. In fact, the Ghostbusters have so much business, they must hire a fourth ghost buster, Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson). My childhood memories of this film have Hudson’s character, aka the “black Ghostbuster,” playing a much larger role, perhaps because he gets more screen time in the sequel? But during this viewing at least, I was surprised by how little screen time he gets. His character truly feels like an afterthought, like a producer said “You better get a black guy in there somewhere” and so they threw him in at the last minute. But I digress. All of this is just to say that business is booming at Ghostbusters and the men are finally getting the chance to prove the value — the real, incontrovertible value — of their life’s work. The market says so.
In this neoliberal (a term I use here to reference the broader trends toward the privatization of higher education) fantasy of higher education, academia within the walls of the academy is stifled and limited. But once professors are freed from the constraints of the Ivory Tower, with its navel-gazing and its pretentiousness, and are placed at the mercy of the market (aka, “the real world”), they can demonstrate the true value of their research and their pedagogy. Professors should be training our college graduates for real jobs in the real world. After all, isn’t the whole point of a university education to create future workers, future entrepreneurs, future moneymakers? Sure it is.
But what happens next? What interrupts our fairytale of flourishing academics? It’s the goddamn Environmental Protection Agency, that’s who! Walter Peck (William Atherton), the EPA representative, is the film’s heavy. I remember hating this character when I was a kid. “Why won’t he just let the Ghostbusters do their jobs? Doesn’t he realize the fate of the city is at stake? Regulation is the worst!” Peck wants to investigate the environmental impact of the Ecto containment unit, which, I have to admit, looks super shady. I wouldn’t want to live downstream from the Ecto containment unit, but if I had to choose between living with Gozer and living with Ecto in my water? Bring on the Ecto cooler! Screw the EPA! Regulation, boo, hiss!
In the final scene of Ghostbusters, all four men (yes, even Winston), are cheered by New York City residents who are grateful that they’ve been saved from the wrath of Gozer. I told my kids “Look, they’re cheering for the professors!” And then the four adults in the room laughed for a long time.
My kids laughed too. They were delighted by the film, just as I had been as a kid. But this time around, Ghostbusters gave me pause. The narrative hit a little too close to home because I am acutely aware of the market value of my degree and my profession. My Governor tells me my work is useless and elitist. So I’m waiting for the day when this dystopian future is upon us, when the key master finds the gate keeper, and we’re all packing up our offices, just waiting for a chance to prove our true worth.
7-year-olds are cultural omnivores, taking in everything around them. It’s only later that they sort through what they’ve accumulated to figure out what they like and don’t like. Right now, my 7-year-old has been soaking up a lot of music, trying to figure out what she likes and what she doesn’t. She wavers between two basic categories of pop music — what we call “love songs” and “heartbreak songs.”
So, for example, Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe”? That’s a love song, of course:
And Adele’s “Someone Like You”?:
So much heartbreak.
I explained to my daughter that sometimes the distinction between “love song” and “heartbreak song” is difficult to discern. The other day I introduced her to one of my all-time favorite “heartbreak songs,” the Bob Dylan classic “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” But before I played her the original, I played her this cover (which I love):
After a few bars she looked confused, “This doesn’t sound like a heartbreak song,” she told me. “I know,” I said, “but you have to listen to the words.” So I played her Joan Baez’s cover and we both closed our eyes (really, we did) and listened:
“So long honey, baby
Where I’m bound, I can’t tell
Goodbye’s too good a word, babe
So I’ll just say fare thee wellI ain’t saying you treated me unkind
You coulda done better but I don’t mind
You just kinda wasted my precious time
But don’t think twice, it’s all right.”
We talked about the meaning of that last line — “But don’t think twice, it’s all right” — and whether the singer really meant it or not. Was it really “all right?” My 7-year-old thought not. She asked to hear the original:
“That was so much sadder,” she told me, and then added “I like this one the best.”
My daughter’s into love songs and heartbreak songs but she also inherited her mother’s love for kitsch. So it follows that the 7-year-old is really into Toto. We have a boom box/I-Pod combo in our kitchen and on most days my daughter can be found scrolling through song titles, searching out her favorites, and singing along. She’s been singing “Rosanna” so often lately, in fact, that she’s taught it to her best friend during their shared 20 minute commute to school. I feel a little bad about this — like I’m passing my kitsch-love on to my child who is then passing it on to her friends. But Toto has taught my daughter a valuable lesson and it is this: don’t judge a book by it’s cover, or “Oh My God, is this what Toto looks like?”
Isn’t that a great lesson? But then I told her: though you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, a pretty face doesn’t hurt things either. That brings us to the main topic of today’s blog post: One Direction.
You were getting worried, weren’t you, that I pulled a bait-and-switch and that this blog post was actually a think piece about listening to love songs and heartbreak songs with my kid and not a review of the new 3-D hit, One Direction: This is Us ?
Relax. I got this.
My daughter has been marginally interested in One Direction for about a year now. We first discovered “What Makes You Beautiful” in the summer of 2012 and the song soon made it’s way onto the holy I-Pod. From there it was a slippery slope to kitchen floor dance parties during which we loudly sang the chorus:
“Baby you light up my world like nobody else,
The way that you flip your hair gets me overwhelmed,
But when you smile at the ground it ain’t hard to tell,
You don’t know,
You don’t know you’re beautiful”
We all sang along and we loved it. We had no choice: completely ignoring “What Makes You Beautiful”‘s lyrics, which validate the persistent popularity of “Who me? Pretty?” female characters like Twilight‘s Bella Swan, the feeling of the song is infectious. I mean, as a love song it’s pretty fantastic. But that’s not why I took my daughter to see One Direction: This is Us on Labor Day. The decision was made, rather impulsively, last week, when One Direction went on the America’s Got Talent results show in order to promote the film and perform the single “Best Song Ever”:
When the One Direction boys — Harry, Niall, Liam, Louis, and Zayn — walked on stage my daughter was immediately enchanted even though I was sure that she had never heard “Best Song Ever,” the song they performed (which incidentally, is not the best song ever — it’s merely “okay”). She’s not a 1D fan (and neither am I) but she was mesmerized. We both were. We were entertained.
As soon as the performance ended there was SO. MUCH. SCREAMING and then a trailer for the 1D movie. I turned to my 7-year-old daughter, because, really, we had no choice in the matter. There is no reordering of events that would conclude with us not seeing One Direction: This is Us. “We’ll go Monday,” I say.
One Direction: This is Us is not, technically speaking, very good. We hear the boilerplate narrative — a story of five ordinary boys who tried out for The X-Factor, lost, then found themselves with a recording contract and 10 million records sold. We learn that the boys “can’t believe!” they’re famous. They lean over balconies to control the volume of their swooning fans’ screams like orchestra conductors. This happens multiple times and it’s meant to show us that One Direction is REALLY FAMOUS. In many countries. Can you believe it? The boys — who genuinely seem to like each other — even have an earnest chat around a campfire about their fame and what life will be like when the fame is gone. It’s like having a chat with One Direction’s publicist. And no, I wasn’t expecting more than that. Because why would One Direction want to derail this train? I’m onboard — toot! toot!
There are a few moments, of course, that disrupted this master narrative, and I’d like to think that Morgan Spurlock (he of the brilliant, important Supersize Me) temporarily awoke from the lobotomy that must be responsible for the rest of the movie and decided to do something interesting. For example, in many scenes we see the boys playing the role of merry pranksters (and how we all do love the antics of young white males!): running away from body guards who then have to chase them (because it’s their job) and toss them over their shoulders, and plant them back in safe territory. The bodyguards tell the camera that boys will be boys, and that this is life on tour, but I detected weariness in their eyes. Those eyes are saying “Enough already.”
And in at least one scene I’m pretty sure Harry Styles is very drunk — which is the only whiff of alcohol in the film. These boys sleep, call their mums, get mobbed by fans, and fret over who they can trust to really like them for who they are and not because they’re celebrities. But they don’t drink and they don’t have girlfriends (only exes). Fiances certainly never appear. There’s also a touching scene in which the boys’ mothers look over the merchandise on sale at a concert venue. One of the mothers purchases a cardboard cut-out of her son, Liam (I think? It’s so hard for me to keep the names straight), because she explains (with tears brimming in her eyes!), she never gets to see him in person. Later in the film, Liam (or maybe Louis?) goes home for a visit and is surprised to find himself already there. I enjoyed these moments, because they felt real to me, and I need that realness in a documentary.
There was also this scene in which Simon Cowell is explaining how One Direction’s popularity was due in part to British girls and social media. We then see footage of different excited fans bragging about how many tweets they wrote about the band. They are so very excited and earnest about their role in 1D’s success. They’re certain of it. And, for a moment, I feel their power. In the next shot Cowell says he can’t explain the band’s appeal among girls because: “I’m not a neuroscientist.” Spurlock then cuts to a white-coated doctor holding a model of the human brain. The nueroscientist points out how certain kinds of music cause the brain to release dopamine. “They’re not crazy,” he says, “just happy.” In other words, One Direction: This is Us is validating this particular kind of fan love — a love that is so often invalidated.
Dina Gachman chronicles her experience watching the film over at The Hairpin and describes the fans this way:
“I should stop being so judgmental.
Their fans are insane.
These fans really love them.
Pre-teen girl lust is the most powerful force in the universe.
I hope they’re saving their money.”
Yes, they are powerful. In One Direction: This is Us we meet a girl who says “They sing our feelings.” It was around this time that I started to think maybe all this movie needed for me to enjoy it was to remember that word: happy. It was also around this time that my daughter leaned in to me and whispered “I don’t really see how this is a movie.”
What I think she meant is, One Direction: This is Us has no real story, and what it does tell us, we already knew. But that doesn’t matter. When, towards the end of the film, Harry finished singing a love song (does it matter which one?) and looked out at his audience of screaming fans and also at me and my daughter, and he told us all: “I want to kiss every one of you!” I believed him. Not because I want to actually kiss a child who is, seriously, young enough to be my son. No, not that. What I mean is: I believed the dream of the love song and the heartbreak song and of someone singing your feelings.
This week I attended the annual Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in Chicago. I decided to share the paper I presented there as part of the panel, “Affect in the Age of Transmedia Storytelling” on this blog in an effort to make research that was presented to just 20-25 people (not a bad turn out for one of the first panels of the 5 day conference!), available for a wider audience. My paper was originally titled “‘Falling in Love with Hermione Granger’: Affect, Genre, and the Harry Potter Franchise” but I ultimately did not have time to discuss the song, “Granger Danger” in this brief paper (a note that drew at at least one “Booooo!” from the audience when announced), so I changed the title for this post to reflect that omission.
To watch “Granger Danger” start at the 2 minute mark
Other than the title change and some added clips (yay internet!), the paper below is what I presented last Wednesday. I welcome any feedback.
“To Dance Again!”: Affect, Genre, and the Harry Potter Franchise
I want to begin this discussion of affect in the transmedia franchise by discussing a scene from A Very Potter Musical, a full length stage musical written, directed and performed by a group of University of Michigan performing arts students and recorded and broadcast online via YouTube in 2009. The show has 14 original numbers and over 9 million page views. The scene you are about to watch is a recreation of a significant moment from JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire –when Lord Voldemort finally reclaims a human body after more than 11 years of painful disembodiment. What is the first item on Voldemort’s evil agenda? Why, to dance of course!
Begin watching “To Dance Again!” at the 3 minute mark:
In this number Voldemort usefully describes how music can compel the body to dance, even when the brain rejects the idea:
“The other boys would laugh and jeer
But I’d catch em tappin their toes.
‘Cause when Id start to sway
they’d get carried away.
And oh, how the feeling grows…”
These lines—and the whole number for that matter, highlight the relationship between affect and music—how the compulsion to sing or dance is frequently pre-cognitive.
In “Serial Bodies,” Shane Denson defines affect as “the privileged but fleeting moments, when narrative continuity breaks down and the images on the screen resonate materially, unthinkingly, or pre-reflectively with the viewer’s autoaffective sensations.” Denson then goes on to cite Linda Williams’ famous essay on body genres, “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess,” in which she argues that when watching horror films, pornography or melodramas, “the body of the spectator is caught up in an almost involuntary mimicry of the emotion or sensation of the body onscreen” (144). Though Williams makes a passing reference to musicals in her list of potential body genres, the musical is rarely discussed in terms of its relationship to affect. However, the instinct to sing or dance to a catchy tune is frequently takes place just before our conscious mind reminds us that such an impulse could lead to public humiliation.
I am also using affect in this talk to reference the very real emotional connections between fans and the texts they love. In fact, the syntax of the musical favors emotion in that the genre’s most valued characters are those who sing and dance because they love it so much–because the pure bliss of performance cannot be resisted. Those characters who sing and dance purely for money or who overthink their art are usually proven to be villains, or at the very least, in need of reformation.
For example, in The Bandwagon (1953), Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan) is only able to create a successful show when he stops aiming for “high brow” status and just makes a show filled with music and dance:
So what does a singing and dancing Lord Voldemort have to do with transmedia franchises and affect, the subject of today’s panel? By translating key plot events from the Harry Potter franchise into musical numbers, I am arguing that A Very Potter Musical transforms the fantasy franchise’s key opposition between good and evil to the musical’s own preoccupation with joie de vivre over monetary gain. In her study of Roswell fandom and genre in fan discourse, Louisa Stein argues that fans “use generic codes as points of identification with story and character, making fictional narratives and characters personally meaningful or resonant through processes of genre personalization” (2.4). Likewise for fans of the musical, A Very Potter Musical offers an affective entry point into the vast narratological universe of Harry Potter, making the franchise more personally meaningful. This is not to say that Potter films and books don’t generate affect in their audiences, but rather that the structures of the musical create new opportunities for affect among Potter fans (and of course, for Potter fans who dislike musicals, AVPM will not provide any form of engagement because they won’t seek it out).
As a transmedia franchise that includes 7 novels, 8 blockbuster films, a Disney theme park, toys, videogames and countless other product tie-ins, Harry Potter fandom is necessarily broad, heterogeneous, and expressed through a range of media platforms: thousands of fan-created websites, newsletters, slash, conventions, a thriving genre of Harry Potter-themed rock music known as “wrock,” and even an activist group known as the Harry Potter Alliance. A Very Potter Musical, which seems to straddle the spaces between fan fiction, wrock, and possibly even filk, disguises its budget limitations with winking musical performances, self reflexivity, and the unabashed passion of its actors. Fan love fills in production gaps and adorns the visible seams of this otherwise amateur production. The lengths that fans will go to express their adoration for a beloved text have been well-documented by fan studies scholars like Henry Jenkins, who describes fan fiction as “a celebration of intense emotional commitments and the religious fervor that links fandom to its roots in fanaticism” (251). Thus for scholars of fan studies, AVPM is nothing new. However, for a scholar of film genres like myself, the show is quite useful for understanding the role that genre—specifically the musical–plays in the relationship between fandom, transmedia franchises and affect.
Watch Darren Criss (Harry Potter) and Joey Richter (Ron Weasley) perform “Goin Back to Hogwarts” with some fans. Note the moment when the fans chime in at the 55 second mark and Darren Criss’ reaction:
One way that AVPM creates an intimate relationship between fan and text is by transforming the multibillion dollar Harry Potter transmedia franchise—the ultimate form of mass culture–back into folk culture. Whereas folk art is an expression of the community who is also its audience, mass art is disseminated to its audience already made, articulating its values for them. However, as so many fan studies scholars have noted, fan fiction allows fans to convert mass culture back into folk culture. I would add that by explicitly relying on the syntax and semantics of the musical, AVPM is even more adept at creating the sense that mass art is folk art. Jane Feuer argues that: “In basing its value system on community, the producing and consuming functions served by the passage of musical entertainment from folk to popular to mass status are rejoined through the genre’s rhetoric” (3).
For example, film musicals often offer up images of the diegetic audience to compensate for the “lost liveness” of the stage, serving as a serving as a stand in for the film audience’s subjectivity (27). Many Hollywood musicals include a diegetic audience that cues the non-digetic audience in about how to feel about a performance—if they clap and cheer, the performance was successful. If they sit silently in their seats, the performance was a bust. A similar effect is created when watching the streaming video of the live stage performance of AVPM. As you heard in the “To Dance Again!” number, the laughter, applause, and hoots of appreciation stemming from the live, diegetic audience solidifies the non-diegetic audience’s understanding that these low budget performances are, in fact, successful — even when it is difficult to hear some of the actors’ lines and jokes are lost. This is especially important for something broadcast over the internet, since most viewers of AVPM are likely watching on their computer screens, alone. The diegetic audience thus serves as a viewing companion, reassuring us about when to laugh or applaud.
Likewise, Feuer argues that many musicals include characters who are not supposed to be professional singers and dancers but who instead sing and dance for the love of it. This use of “amateurs” gives us the feeling that stars are singing and dancing on screen because they love to, not because they are being paid to do so. By masking this professionalism, the musical’s performers are closer to us, the amateurs in the audience. AVPM offers a similar experience, only the performers we are watching really are amateurs in that the show itself is a labor of love rather than a profit-generating venture.
This feeling is bolstered by the show’s shoddy production values. For example, in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the evil Lord Voldemort attempts to revive his body by attaching what little remains of his soul to the simpering Professor Quirrell. In the book, and even more so in the film adaptation, this melding of two men—skull to skull–is a horrifying spectacle. However, in AVPM the inability to create a CGI monster and the need to improvise becomes one of the show’s best gags.
We marvel, not at Rowling’s fantastical prose nor at the wonders of CGI, but at the cleverness of the students who have put on this show.
Watch the big reveal here:
When watching AVPM the amateurish costumes and sets, the imperfect sound and image quality, and the occasional mistakes, lets us know we know we are watching Harry Potter fans who are just like us—rather than seasoned professionals. Such moments work, to quote Feuer again, to “pierce through the barrier of the screen” (1). So while AVPM is not spontaneous (clearly it was rehearsed and well though-out), its imperfections create the feeling of spontaneity, which is so central to the task of making mass art appear as folk art. Furthermore, Glen Creeber argues that the rawness of online video and the solitary viewing conditions it generates creates a sense of intimacy and authenticity not found in cinema or television. He argues that the “homemade” aesthetic of webcam images creates the “profound intimacy of the image” (598).
Watch Harry Potter face off with a Hungarian Horntail at the 1 minute mark:
In addition to creating intimacy between fan and text, A Very Potter Musical—due to the genre’s focus on the joys of song–creates an affective relationship between viewer and text. For example, in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry Potter’s participation in the Triwizard Tournament leads him to engage in battle with a Hungarian Horntail, a fierce breed of dragon. Harry ultimately defeats the Horntail with his exceptional broom-flying skills. And in the film adaptation, we get to see this fantastical scene come to life through the magic of CGI. However, in AVPM, Harry defeats the dragon by summoning his guitar, not his broom, and then by performing an emo ballad about the futility of hand-to-hand combat entitled “Hey Dragon”.
Watch the number here:
The song concludes with the lyrics:
“I can’t defeat thee
So please don’t eat me
All I can do
Is sing a song for you.”
The dragon is eventually lulled to sleep by Harry’s song. Harry thus relies on the power of music—rather than magic—to win a seemingly insurmountable challenge. So while this musical number is a practical way to disguise the absence of state of the art special effects, it also highlights the way that music can impact the body, turning a fierce dragon into a purring kitten. The consumption of spectacle is a pleasure central to the Potter franchise but in AVPM these are replaced with the pleasures of musical performance.
Like most examples of fan fiction, AVPM also highlights aspects of the Potterverse that may not be apparent in the novels, films and officially licensed paratexts, but which fans desire. For example, in the books, secondary character Ginny Weasley is defined almost entirely in relation to her older brother, Ron, and her love interest, Harry. Likewise, Ginny’s romantic relationship with Harry is primarily understood through Harry’s point of view. For example, in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, Rowling describes Harry’s budding feelings for Ginny in this way:
Likewise, the films cue us in to Harry’s desires via longing close ups or by frequently putting Ginny in a position to be rescued by Harry. This is such a prevalent plot twist, in fact, that wrock band Harry and the Potters wrote a song about it:
The fan knows little of Ginny’s interiority, other than through bits of dialogue or the occasional longing glance at Harry:
In AVPM, however, Ginny performs the torch song “Harry,” which puts a literal and metaphoric spotlight on what it feels like to be in love with the Boy Who Lived.
Watch “Harry” here, performed by Ginny Weasley (Jaime Lyn Beatty)
Ginny’s moving performance, in which she dances awkwardly with Harry’s guitar—a proxy for her absent love object—provides a renewed emotional connection with this secondary character. And Ginny’s performance—which is passionate but imperfect as she struggles to hit her big notes—creates an affective relationship with this character that may not have been possible when watching the Potter films. The goosebumps that appear on my arms as Ginny sings, are a testament to the way that music generates an affective viewing experience.
Here again we can see how the choice of genre—the musical—allows Potter fans an entry point into the transmedia franchise that is personal and intimate. Indeed, there are numerous covers of “Harry” on YouTube, a testament to the way that AVPM allows Potter fans a different, more embodied way, to express their fandom.
Watch my favorite fan covers of “Harry” here:
One thing all of these performances share is a nervous, almost giddy, sense of joy—we can trace the joy expressed in the original AVPM performance as it is then translated and transmuted through each fan video—a domino effect of pure love. Likewise, the comments on each video are generally supportive, with the Potter fan community coming together to support each new iteration of the original fan text.
In this way, AVPM fandom appears to mimic that of the wrock community. Suzanne Scott argues that wrock, unlike filk, “mimics a conventional performer/audience dialectic rather than a collective creative enterprise when performed.”
Although there is a separation between performer and audience here, I believe that the significance of AVPM lies in the affective relationships it facilitates between fan and text, even if the text’s various performers are performing online with one another, as opposed to face to face in a filk song circle.
In conclusion, A Very Potter Musical translates the fan’s love of the Harry Potter storyworld and its characters into a series of musical numbers that fans can then sing themselves. By depicting bodies that must express themselves through song and dance, A Very Potter Musical is an ideal venue for understanding the importance of affect in fan fiction. AVPM demonstrates the way that mass culture can be transmuted back into folk culture, thereby offering fans of the transmedia franchise a personalized, emotional engagement.
Creeber, Glen. “It’s Not TV, it’s Online Drama: The Return of the Intimate Screen.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 14.6: (2011): 591-606
Denson, Shane. “Serial Bodies: Corporeal Engagement in Long-Form Serial Television.” Media Initiative 22 Feb 2013 http://medieninitiative.wordpress.com/2013/02/22/serial-bodies/
Feuer, Jane. The Hollywood Musical, 2nd Ed. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1993.
Jenkins, Henry. 2012. “‘Cultural Acupuncture’: Fan Activism and the Harry Potter Alliance.” In “Transformative Works and Fan Activism,” edited by Henry Jenkins and Sangita Shresthova, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 10. doi:10.3983/twc.2012.0305.
——-. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press, 2006.
———. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge, 1992.
Rowling, JK. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. New York: Scholastic Inc., 2005.
Scott, Suzanne. “Revenge of the Fan Boy: Convergence Culture and the Politics of Incorporation.” Diss. University of Southern California, 2011. Online.
Stein, Louisa Ellen. 2008. “Emotions-Only” versus “Special People”: Genre in fan discourse. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 1. http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/43.
Tatum, Melissa L. 2009. “Identity and authenticity in the filk community.” Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 3. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2009.0139.
Williams, Linda. “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre and Excess.” The Film Genre Reader III. Ed. Barry Keith Grant. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003. 141-159.
Around this time of year, every newspaper, magazine, and blog offers up some form of the “Best Of” list, chronicling the best films, television series (or episodes), music, books, Broadway shows, trends, etc. of the previous year. Obviously, ranking the year’s best of anything is subjective and also impossible (after all, only an individual who was watched every television episode that aired in 2012 could state, definitively, which were in the top 5). And yet, such lists are so alluring. As a working mom, who reads, watches and listens to only a fraction of what I would like to read, watch and listen to, these “Best Of” lists take an unwieldy set of pop culture possibilities and whittles it down to a manageable chunk. These lists tell me “These are the only films from 2012 that you need to watch.” Then I take a deep breath and load up my Netflix queue.
You might thinking to yourself “Why would I read a ‘Best Of’ list compiled by a woman who has just admitted that she relies on other people’s ‘Best Of’ lists to tell her what pop culture was worthwhile from the previous year?” Excellent question. Why are you reading this? Don’t you have something better to do? No? Well then settle in, friend. I have some completely subjective selections for you based on an unrepresentative sampling of the year’s popular culture. I think you’ve made the right choice.
So without further ado, I present Part I of my “Best of 2012” list:
Best Television Series
2012 was an excellent year for television. I loved watching Walter White (Bryan Cranston) lose the final pieces of his soul on Breaking Bad. The last shot of the Girls season finale, in which Hannah (Lena Dunham) finds herself on Coney Island (after passing out in the subway and getting her purse stolen) and slowly stuffs her face with cake, was the perfect end to a first season filled with uncomfortable, body-focused stories and imagery. The look on Don Draper’s (John Hamm) face when he sees his daughter wearing fishnets and go-go boots or the scene in which Henry (Christopher Stanley) feeds his newly-plump wife (aka, “Fat Betty”) some steak at the kitchen table in the middle of the night were two highlights of the Mad Men season. I also loved watching all or most of the 2012 seasons of Louie, Boardwalk Empire, Happy Endings, 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, Don’t Trust the B in Apt 23, Parenthood, Teen Mom, and Game of Thrones. No, I don’t watch Homeland, The Good Wife, or Justified. I’m sure I would like all three, but right now I don’t have room for them in my TV diet. Like I said, “best of” lists are subjective. Let’s move on.
Dog smoking cigarette = win
While I loved all of the aforementioned programs and could make a “Best” case for many of them, my choice for “best” television series of 2012 goes to the FX series, Wilfred, because it is, simply put, the most bizarre show I have ever watched, with the exception of (of course) Twin Peaks.
“Can you hear it?” “No, ma’am, I cannot.”
The pilot episode of Wilfred opens with Ryan (Elijah Woods) trying and failing to commit suicide. We eventually find out that Ryan used to be a successful lawyer, working in his father’s firm, but when we meet him he is unemployed and estranged from his father (the reasons for this are only explained in the second season). Ryan’s attempts to end his life are finally interrupted by his neighbor, Jenna (Fiona Gubelmann), who wants him to watch her dog, Wilfred. Ryan is surprised to discover that Wilfred appears to him as a large, vulgar, Australian pothead (Jason Gann) wearing a very unconvincing dog costume. And the kicker is: Ryan is the only one who sees Wilfred in this way. This may seem like a gimmicky basis for a show, but it is also the source of some of the show’s greatest gags: one minute Wilfred is lecturing Ryan on ethics and the next he is chasing and maiming pelicans on the beach (“It’s a pelican !!! IT’S A PELICAN!!!..It was a pelican!!!”):
In a lukewarm review of pilot, Todd VanDerWerff explains “the show gets a surprising amount of mileage out of having Gann running around in a dog costume and saying things a dog might say if it could speak.” But Wilfred isn’t just shots of Jason Gann humping or chatting up his life partner, Bear, who is a large stuffed bear. The reason I love the show is because it so deftly shifts from bleakness to laugh-out-loud comedy. I often read about how shows like Louie and Girls are changing the rules of the sitcom by offering up tragic moments (like when Louie’s love interest dies in front of him on Christmas Day) in between low-brow body humor and Seinnfeld-ian levels of navel-gazing. But Wilfred takes those devices to another level. In Wilfred, despair and laughter are produced by the same cue — what is light quickly becomes dark, and vice versa.This is because the series is structured around the tension between two realities: either Ryan is a lonely, depressed, schizophrenic who uses an imaginary friend to work through his life’s problems or he is a lonely, depressed but otherwise sane man who happens to see his neighbor’s dog in human form because that is something that happens in this world. Therefore almost every scene on the series can be read in two ways.
Each episode is named after a particular lesson or virtue that Ryan needs to learn, such as “Letting Go,” “Avoidance,” and “Honesty.” Wilfred teaches these lessons to an unwilling Ryan , usually embroiling him in interpersonal conflicts that force the passive man to say or do things he normally wouldn’t. Although Ryan’s suicide attempt from the pilot is barely acknowledged, the series is clearly about teaching Ryan how to “live” (and live) in the world again. Of course, every “lesson” Wilfred teaches Ryan serves Wilfred’s interests in some way. We feel good when Ryan learns to stand up for himself or to reconnect with his institutionalized mother (played by an excellently loopy Mary Steenburgen), but we are always left wondering: is Wilfred helping Ryan to live or is he destroying Ryan’s life, piece by piece? And if Ryan is simply imagining Wilfred, then is Ryan using this dog-shaped delusion as an excuse to destroy his own life? Is he committing suicide, just at an incredibly slow rate?
Wilfred dances in between these many possibilities. Its genius lies in convincing the viewer to believe one scenario and then upending that belief with a single line or image. For example, after Ryan finally gives up on the possibility of romance with Jenna, he begins dating a co-worker named Amanda (Allison Mack). Amanda seems perfect — she’s funny, quirky, and clearly besotted with Ryan. It seems that perhaps Ryan will finally be able to have a loving intimate relationship after past traumas had made this kind of human connection difficult for him. But in “Truth,” Wilfred tries to convince Ryan that he should not move in with Amanda because he is still too mentally unstable. Ryan believes that Wilfred, as usual, is just looking out for his own self interests — if Amanda moves in, Wilfred will lose his best friend. Who will take him for walks or smoke pot with him? As they have this argument, an earthquake traps Ryan and Wilfred in the basement (of course). Bruce (Dwight Yoakam), the only other human who can see Wilfred (and thus the only plot point in the series that lends credence to the theory that Ryan might not crazy), appears to rescue the duo, promising to reveal the “truth” about Amanda that is concealed in a suitcase. This truth will prove why Wilfred is right.
But first, Ryan and Bruce must engage in a game of “Calvinball,” which involves pillow fights and “truth or dare.” The game is deliriously surreal, like so much in the series. When Ryan finally “wins ” the game and is granted access to the magical suitcase, he doesn’t discover anything about Amanda. Instead he finds a timer that tells him that he has spent 12 hours in his basement playing a bizarre game orchestrated by his neighbor’s dog. In other words, Wilfred was right — Ryan should not move in with Amanda.
Ryan is such a likable character (he is kind, empathetic and selfless to a fault) and we want him to be happy. But when we see the timer, the audience realizes — at the same moment that Ryan does — that he is crazy … but wait, is he? Or is this just what Wilfred wants Ryan to think in order to maintain the status quo? Isn’t it suspicious that everything that ends up “being for the best” also happens to serve Wilfred’s interests? These uncertainties are what drive the series and which make this show more than a collection of pooping on the lawn jokes (though I am 100% for a show that is nothing more than pooping on the lawn jokes).
And if that doesn’t interest you, Wilfred is worth watching for its “couch scenes” alone. Incidentally, as I was writing this post I found out that these short scenes, appearing at the end of show (after the main story has been resolved), are called “tags,” or “codas” (thank you Twitter):
Learning is fun!
The tags in Wilfred almost always take place on the couch in Ryan’s basement and feature Ryan and Wilfred engaged in a banal task, like playing a board game or having an inane conversation. They’re always fabulous:
And if that doesn’t interest you? Well, there are loads of other shows to watch. I hear The Good Wife is awesome, so maybe you should watch that instead?
I will be posting my “Best Meme,” “Best Film,” “Best Single,” and “Best of Social Media” picks over the course of the next few weeks. Stay tuned! If you dare!