Is it Thursday yet?

Last month, my wife and I finally stopped being outlaws. We had been watching Critical Role on YouTube for several months. Not on Geek and Sundry’s official channel mind you. Nope. Some user had thoughtfully put together his own playlist, updating it each Monday with the latest episode. I fully realize that this is the 21st century, and that a vast majority of people don’t care if they’re illegally pirating stuff. Screw those people. My wife and I spend precious little enough of our money on entertainment, but we figured that if Critical Role had given us nearly 150 hours of joy over the course of the last year, the least we could do is support it in the only way that matters in a marketplace. So we bought a Geek and Sundry Twitch subscription.

Geek and Sundry, of course, is the web-based entertainment company founded by Felicia Day. Capitalizing on the cachet Day earned with The Guild, G&S is home to nerdy shows like Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop and Co-Optitude, which Day hosts with her brother, Ryon. (Wife and I are fans of those, too.) G&S is a multiplatform presence, streaming videos from its official website as well as YouTube. Twitch bills itself as “social video for gamers,” which is apt enough. The platform includes live video streaming and chat functions, so you can watch your buddies play Halo or Hearthstone and comment on the game with other users besides the gamer in real time. Most of the popular channels are devoted to video gaming. G&S offers a variety of shows that are primarily oriented toward tabletop gaming.

What makes G&S’s Twitch experiment so intriguing is that it’s live. It seems, in other words, that broadcast media has come full circle. People from my generation and those even younger probably only know about old-time radio from movies like Woody Allen’s Radio Days (from what you might call his “peak Farrow” period), or perhaps they listen to shows like WPR’s “Old Time Radio Drama” (or whatever else is locally available outside of Wisconsin). While Twitch does allow its users to archive livestreams on their channel pages, the real draw is watching shows that are devised with the affordances and limitations of a live broadcast in mind.

Subscribers from around the world participate in the chat, peppering the hosts with questions, unsolicited advice, and solicited recommendations. While there are some shows designed around the chat function (like the recent trial of The Scavenger), most simply feature a confab of young, charismatic nerds playing games like Rock Band or HeroClix. The genius of Day and Wheaton is that they figured out that there was a fairly sizable niche audience of folks who would enjoy watching young, charismatic nerds play tabletop games. TableTop itself is almost paradigmatic in this regard. Each episode features Wheaton and four celebrity guests playing a different tabletop game, cracking wise about the diegetic absurdities of the games and sublimating their own cutthroat competitiveness into self-reflexive jibes. (Not to mention erecting a mythology around Wheaton’s own incredibly bad luck throughout most of the first two seasons. For instance, you now say, “I just Wheatoned,” when you roll really badly with your dice.) Unlike TableTop, the games on the Twitch channel unfold in real time, so many (though not all) hosts come from an improv background, flexing those theater muscles to carry two- to three-hour games with breezy insouciance.

That’s part of what makes Critical Role so special. As the host and Dungeon Master Matt Mercer opens every episode: “Hello! And welcome to Critical Role, the game where a bunch of us nerdy-ass voice actors sit around and play Dungeons and Dragons!” That’s pretty much it, but it explains very little about the show’s core appeal. What the description misses is just how gifted these actors are and how expertly they deploy their improv skills to flesh out and inhabit their characters. Some, like Sam Riegel and Marisha Ray, use something very close to their own accent and timbre as they play (respectively) Scanlon, the gnome bard, and Keyleth, the half-elf druid. Others, like Travis Willingham and Orion Acaba, demonstrate their professional range to give an Anglicized working-class growl to (again, respectively) Grog, the goliath barbarian, and upper-class twit brogue to Tiberius, the dragonborn sorcerer. The use of accents and different timbre is a helpful marker in the cast’s code-switching, as they flip merrily between their in-game characters and real-life personalities.

That, too, is part of the charm. Like any great improv troupe, the cast revels in surprising each other with totally in-character moments of ribaldry or pathos. One of Willingham’s greatest moments in the show, for instance, is when Grog locks himself in an outhouse to have a conversation with his cursed, sentient sword, Cravenedge. Though utterly hilarious, it carries some emotional weight, as one of the other party members, Percy (played with devilish calculation by Taliesin Jaffe), had just recently been delivered from bondage to his own cursed weapon. While Grog doesn’t want to pose a danger to his own group, he relishes the power given to him by the sword, and he’s no more inclined to sacrifice that power than Percy was, even with his growing suspicions. Similarly, Liam O’Brien and Laura Bailey play twins, Vax and Vex (respectively), whose comic bickering rings solidly true, but whose co-dependence delivers some of the biggest emotional impact in the series, especially when one or the other flutters over death’s threshold, instilling the other with uncontrollable panic. All of the characters often make very bad decisions for reasons that make total sense, and it then becomes the job of Vox Machina, their party, to pull their reckless butts out of the fire.

The commitment to character consistency has intersected with the challenges of live broadcast in some interesting ways. Perhaps the most controversial moment in the show’s run so far has been the departure of Orion Acaba after episode 27. Independent of the real life drama surrounding the event, the sudden departure was not entirely out of character for the flighty sorcerer, and his official farewell (performed by Mercer) in episode 37 was a somber highlight in the epilogue to the party’s first full arc without Tiberius. Another long-running challenge for Critical Role has been the incorporation of its gnomish cleric, Pike. Because Pike’s player, Ashley Johnson, pursues a live-action career that calls her away from Los Angeles, where the rest of the cast is based, she’s been missing for huge swaths of the show, not least including its initial few episodes. While she worked on Blindspot in New York City, Johnson telecommuted via Skype for several episodes. The distance and technical difficulties for Johnson meant that Pike was forced into a much more reactive role within the party, but her sporadic appearances also had the effect of reminding the cast and their characters how vital she is to the dynamic of Vox Machina. Indeed, one of the finest moments in the show was Johnson’s surprise appearance on-set for Episode 22, during a shooting break for Blindspot. The delight of the cast members to be reunited with Johnson was perfectly intertwined with the delight of their characters, who had not been together for four weeks. The necessity of having the players actually be present together physically in one place is something that can be dealt with in a live format, but it’s not something that can be “shot around.”

When technical difficulties occur in real time for us, the audience, it’s also about a thousand times more frustrating than a jam-up on YouTube. After all, when we were watching Critical Role on YouTube, we might have to abandon the video if YouTube was being stupid and come back to it later. That sucked. Then again, we rarely watched an entire episode all at once anyway. Critical Role episodes average three hours, and some have stretched past four. Given our schedules, my wife and I don’t usually get home until after 8:30 pm, and we’re usually asleep by 11. So while we were watching on YouTube, it became our custom to watch CR in one-hour blocks or so, breaking each episode into three nights’ entertainment. Besides prolonging the pleasure of each episode, finishing one also meant that we only had to wait four or five days until the next one.

Now that we try to watch Critical Role on Thursdays, when it airs (7 pm Pacific Time for its cast/crew, 9 pm here in the Midwest), that rhythm is severely disrupted. While it’s unusual for us to manage to stay awake until midnight on Thursdays, we usually watch at least two- to two-and-a-half hours as it streams live. That is, unless Twitch poops out on us. Or we poop out from fatigue. Neither of which is the worst thing in the world. And full episodes are uploaded by the next day, so we can pick up where we left off pretty quickly. But Twitch is, in our experience, still rather buggy. And since Critical Role is literally the first regularly-scheduled program that we have made a point to watch at its regularly-scheduled time since we got married,[1] not being able to watch it at that time is so much worse.

Worse, because we usually finish watching each episode on Friday nights. That’s awesome, in the sense that we get to finish the latest episode almost immediately afterward, and on our own schedule. But it also means that we have to wait until next week Thursday to see the new episode, and a less-than-perfect experience makes us all the hungrier for a better experience the next time. Which is usually no less than six days away, as opposed to the four or five it normally was when we watched episodes on YouTube.

There’s a bigger reason why it’s worse, though. After being spoiled for years by services like Netflix, Hulu, and Crunchyroll, which are at their best when you get to marathon episodes in large gulps, waiting for Critical Role each week is practically an exercise in discipline. There’s a reason why the fan-sourced tagline for Critical Role, “Is it Thursday yet?” is how Mercer closes each episode. The hunger for each episode is not felt by each fan alone; we feel it together. That time slot on Thursday is special because that particular time slot really means something. It’s the only time when all of us—the fans, the film crew, and the cast—get together for the Critical Role experience live. In real time. It happens first and for real only on Thursday. Everything afterward, while still thoroughly enjoyable, is not unique. It’s reproduced. That doesn’t lessen the enjoyment of the episode, but it also cannot replicate the sense of live connections being forged in the moment.

Fans of Critical Role are called “Critters,” and both the fans and players commonly refer to the “Critter community.” My wife and I don’t participate in the chat (which goes way too fast), the Reddit threads, or on Twitter, where the cast interacts with Critters on a regular basis. Yet I believe we do feel at least tangentially connected to the Critter community. In old message board parlance, we’re lurkers. But that sense of participation is something that we’re enabled to feel each Thursday night by virtue of the fact that we watch the show live, as it is streamed. The story itself is improvised with each breath and dice roll; the players are putting on a show for us, but they are also putting it on for each other. We, the audience, are simply invited. That invitation to the event itself, though, is always and only for Thursday at 1900 Pacific Time. It is the only time when none of us, collectively, knows what will happen next, and it is the only time when all of us, collectively, get to see what happens next. It is the only time when fear that something could go critically wrong is held perfectly in tension with the sincere hope that everything turns out all right. We, the viewers and players, are bound together in time to each moment.

There is something utopian,[2] I think, in the voluntary discipline of this ritual. Ritual discipline is something I don’t think I have appreciated enough in my life. It is, to be sure, qualitatively different from weekly worship services. It is also qualitatively different from live broadcasts of sports competitions, like football games. While I appreciate worship services far more deeply than sports competitions, I do acknowledge that, much like live artistic performances, there is something necessary to the human experience for events that technically only occur once—here, now, for those of us present—but which are ritually repeated at set times. These things give meaningful shape to our experience of time and space, and the most meaningful of these rituals take narrative form.

One of the great lies told about worship services is that it’s the same old crap every Sunday. In one sense, that’s true. Liturgies are cyclical, and they draw upon the same source material week after week, year after year, century after century. Yet. With each week, year, century, millennium, this circumscribed time with its own circumscribed set of conventions is made new by the fact that those present—here, now—are never the same. We are always older. Always slightly different. Always experiencing this same time in a new way, filtered by our passage through time. We die. Others take our place. They are not us, but we are them. We are made new by our participation in the ritual, by experiencing collectively a totally unique event that nevertheless replicates a set structure at periodic intervals throughout our lives. The narrative structure of these rituals is what gives narrative structure to our own lives.

Like any conventions, though, the governance of our life-narrative is not totally beholden to dogmatic minutiae. There is room for improvisation and surprise. These are also necessary. There is a certain delight, or perhaps catharsis, that can only be had by bonding together with others in the surprises that unfold themselves within the conventions of ritual. That’s why it’s healthy when someone farts loudly in church. That’s why it’s shocking when a pro ballplayer suffers a career-ending injury on the field. That’s why we know when stand-up comic tells us the truth. Are these things always delightful? Cathartic? Perhaps there are better words. Joy and awe. Rituals are not meant to be dry, empty obligations, but celebrations of being alive, and they are meant to inspire gratitude that we are alive to recognize meaning in this moment: here, now, together.

Rituals build communities, and communities thrive on ritual. That is true for individuals, families, villages, nations. It’s true that my wife and I simply don’t have the wherewithal at present to be active in the online Critter community. For now, though, we have made a commitment of time and treasure to experience Critical Role as it streams each week. It is something we cannot pilfer or reproduce and retain quite the same meaning. In finally subscribing to one of our favorite shows, we have finally begun to participate, however marginally, in a ritual that makes the lives of thousands, una communitas sine finibus, just that much more vibrant.☕

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[1] I don’t count Doctor Who, which we typically get from Amazon the day after each episode airs. That’s pretty close, but not really the same thing as watching it as it’s broadcast.

[2] I’ve written very critically about utopia in the past. I’ve changed my previous position on utopianism about 165 degrees. Someday, perhaps, I may elaborate. Suffice it to say that I think utopian hope and utopian process are necessary components of any thriving community. I agree with Ernst Bloch that anti-utopianism tends to stifle positive social change; I disagree with any utopian theorist who views the shoring up of inherited traditions as inherently regressive, weak utopianism or as anti-utopian.


Kosmas Aitolos: “love of God and love of brethren”

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Source: Kosmas Aitolos: “love of God and love of brethren”


Anime listicle: the utopian workplace comedy

As I’ve written previously, I don’t have the emotional patience to watch anything that isn’t fairly light and diverting, so even my anime diet is suffering reduced portions of the action and science fiction shows I used to consume in large gulps. Though there haven’t been any new shows like this in a few seasons, it occurred to me a while back that there’s a certain type of comedy that I find to be particularly appealing. Broadly speaking, it’s a slice of life show, but one that centers on the workplace as the unifying institution in the characters’ lives. There is almost always some sort of blossoming romance threading through the series, and there is almost always a self-conscious absurdity to the show—usually in the form of a character’s simply implausible eccentricity, perhaps in the form of a supernatural element. In any case, the most important thing about all these shows is a certain vibe that persists in greater or lesser degrees.

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure how to characterize this vibe. Categorizing it by the shows’ premise—the “workplace comedy”—doesn’t really capture it, just as the “school club comedy” doesn’t really capture the range of comedies anchored in after school clubs. Categorizing it by other (sub)generic classifications—farce, screwball, romantic comedy—also don’t quite suffice. Those labels fit, as do adjectives like “zany” or “charming.” They just don’t capture it. In fact, the closest American analogy I can think of to what I dig about these shows is Parks and Recreation, which is certainly a workplace comedy with farcical and romantic elements, and which is frequently both zany and charming. Parks and Rec also grows out of a long tradition of workplace comedies like Taxi, WKRP in Cincinnati, Wings, Newsradio, and, obviously, The Office. Perhaps the most characteristic thing I can say about the vibe is that it is strangely utopian. Think about it: as much as the characters in these shows annoy the crud out of each other—to the point of being arguably dysfunctional—the truth is that the workplace is what provides these characters what is, as far as the audience can tell, the most important social network in their lives. The sitcom format also requires the minor conflicts of each episode largely to be resolved by the end of each episode, meaning that longstanding conflicts or resentments can be nursed for extended periods of time, but that there’s enough stability and human connection there to patch over those conflicts for at least another week.

Think about M*A*S*H, for instance. This show was entirely about the struggle of its characters to maintain their sanity and basic human decency in the middle of a war. People of good will can disagree over whether it travesties Robert Altman’s original film or if the shift toward dramedy in its later seasons was a bridge too far.[1] At heart, what really makes the show work is the genuine affection that the characters cultivated for them in the audience—characters that started out as caricatures (especially in the film, if I may be so bold), but who discovered and cultivated their shared humanity amidst the most deplorable conditions. In essence, these were all characters stuck in the workplace from hell, but it was either form a passable community or bust. So it was that 4077, with all its dysfunction, absurdity, and (debatably) bridge-too-far descents into melodramatic tearjerkery, was a utopian space created anew each week for just over twenty minutes.

The best of these workplace comedies acknowledge that many of the characters (if not most) have other important relationships in their lives, of course. Many supporting characters have significant others that remain with them for most of the series, or they have friends or social lives that are fulfilling in other ways. But these comedies acknowledge the often uncomfortable truth that we spend more time with our coworkers than we do with our families, and that many of our most important relationships—or at least most of the small, daily, mundane activities and events that give shape and definition to our inner lives—are rooted in the workplace. There’s something utopian about seeing a dozen-odd characters forge a long-lasting community over the course of however many weeks we spend with them.

In short, I love workplace comedies when they’re done well, and the anime shows that channel this particular vibe are especially good at plugging into a little something extra that we just can’t get with most live-action shows (although, again, Parks and Rec somehow managed to do it). The following shows are listed to give you a sense of the kind of show I mean. I’ve listed them in descending order, with the most paradigmatic show listed last. If there are any that I have neglected to mention, by all means let me know in the comments. I’m always happy to take recommendations.

Honorable Mention: Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun

A technical case could be made that this is mainly a high school club show. Hence the HM, rather than a place on the list. But it absolutely has the vibe of what I’m talking about. All the characters in this show are linked by their relationships with a single character: Nozaki, who happens to be (secretly, natch) a popular shojo mangaka. The big joke of the show is that this artist, whose comics are so in touch with the authentic romantic desires of his female readership, is just some clueless dude who takes inspiration from the dumb stuff that happens to the people he knows in real life—only when he translates his comically dense misunderstanding of the world into shojo tropes, it’s romantic gold. The real heart of the show, though, is the way Nozaki’s social network coalesces into its own pocket universe, one anchored in what amounts to his part-time job.

Honorable Mention: You’re Under Arrest!

I haven’t seen all the shows in this series, but I’m calling it a HM mostly because it doesn’t quite reach the absurd heights of most of the shows elsewhere on the list, and it’s not as straightforwardly a comedy (although it’s frequently quite funny). The premise is simple: the daily adventures of a pair of traffic cops in a Tokyo suburb. As with most of these shows, the premise is a useful anchor point for bouncing a lot of characters off each other and slowly developing their relationships over an extended period of time. It’s wonderful in its various incarnations; I’m just not certain it gives off the vibe I’m talking about.

How editors motivate their talent.

7.) The Comic Artist and His Assistants

For the most part, this is an amalgam of harem and ecchi tropes packed into mini-episodes. You’d be forgiven for thinking, initially, that it’s just another dumb show about a perverted manga artist who somehow manages to find himself in uncomfortable scenarios. It is that, certainly, and if mild fanservice and pantsu humor are your cuppa tea, this is a passable series. What elevates it is that it becomes much more about one of the assistants and the real value she gets out of working for her (pervert) boss than about the titular comic artist himself.

At that hour, this must be powerful magic indeed.

6.) The Devil Is a Part-Timer!

Ranked slightly below the next entry primarily because the workplace aspect of this show is so tertiary to… well, pretty much everything. That said, it’s a fantastic show. The title explains the central joke: when the Devil flees his parallel dimension after a group of heroes defeats him in battle, he winds up in our world. With only minimal reserves of magic left to draw on, the Devil is forced to get a part time job slinging burgers, and he decides to rebuild his empire on our Earth by working his way up the corporate ladder. A lot of this show is devoted to supernatural battles (all excellently done), but the core emotional trajectory is that of the demon king learning the value of life, work, and friends.

Every joke in this show’s quiver, captured in one image.

5.) I couldn’t become a hero, so I reluctantly decided to get a job.

Nearly contemporary to The Devil Is a Part Timer!, Yu-sibu is, in most ways, terribly inferior as a show. The jokes are telegraphed and uninspired, the central romance is beat-for-beat predictable, and there’s a ton of gratuitous fanservice. And when I saw “gratuitous,” I mean there’s an episode early on that’s barely the respectable side of tentacle porn. Once the show figures out that it’s a semi-earnest comedy about a commoner teaching a highborn how to value living like normal folk (albeit one that continues with gratuitous, if not-as-rapey, fanservice), it works a lot better. What saved this show for me was, at rock bottom, the workplace vibe. More than most shows on this list, it makes a point of emphasizing the hierarchical structure of the Japanese workplace and the web of mutual obligations that go with it. For that, its high-stakes, action-fantasy climax feels weirdly earned and sincere.

4.) Denki-Gai

While not a masterpiece, Denki-Gai is an almost perfect example of the kind of series I’m talking about. It takes place in a manga shop in Akibahara, so all the clerks are otaku of some variety. Like a lot of school club comedies, it spends perhaps a bit too much time making a spectacle of its characters’ eccentricities and not enough time delving into their lives outside of the shop—there’s a relatively thin supporting cast here that is not institutionally connected with otaku culture—but it’s warm and funny. The focus is on the developing relationships among the core cast of characters, and a lot of wacky situations are contrived in order to make that happen. Much as I hate retail work, this kind of show makes it seem reflexively appealing (and necessary) without losing sight of how hard it often is.

The Boss, obviously.

3.) Servant x Service

Based on a manga by the creator of Working!, SxS follows the misadventures of a group of civil servants. Of all the shows on this list, it’s probably the most consonant with the feel of similar American sitcoms: a bunch of wacky characters bouncing off one another in the confines of their cubicles, with occasional detours into the lives of patrons or tertiary friends, family, and acquaintances. While not exceptional, like Denki-Gai before it, it is an almost perfect distillation of the vibe I’m talking about into a single series. Given a sequel, I think it could expand on its core cast’s relationships pretty significantly without losing sight of the dynamics that make it so appealing. Oh, and the boss is either a talking rabbit or he uses a robotic rabbit as his at-work avatar.

2.) Polar Bear’s Cafe

One of the truly great anime series I’ve ever seen, Shirokuma Cafe is not entirely about or set in a workplace, but overflows with the vibe I’m talking about. Like any sitcom, it has a relatively small core cast, but like great anime comedies dating back to Urusei Yatsura, it expands continuously on its cast in a rather astonishing feat of sustained social worldbuilding. Also like Urusei Yatsura, Shirokuma Cafe has a perspective entirely peculiar to itself: the humor is wacky and deadpan—not unlike Wes Anderson’s adaptation of The Fantastic Mr. Fox—but also pretty chill. Every once in a while, it sneaks in just enough snark to leaven the genuinely utopian feel of the rest of the series.

It’s one of those shows that you can easily describe in a single sentence and never quite capture: Humans and talking animals who hang out together at a cafe get into lots of dumb adventures. If that appeals to you, great—go watch the show immediately. But the particular characters in this show each have distinctive personalities and their relationships really evolve over time. The evolution is slow, and is more of a constant deepening—a strengthening of community by routine—but it’s also peppered with delightful absurdity and eccentric characters whose eccentricity is (thankfully) not stereocopied from any number of twee, so-called “indie” films.

The titular cafe and a nearby zoo serve as the institutional loci for the show’s copious network of characters, but the core trio is the lazy Panda, the unctuous Penguin, and the puckish Polar Bear, who holds the entire community together with a mixture of trickster humor and patronly care. There’s truly no end of delights in this motley assemblage of personalities, which range from the bizarrely eccentric to the aggressively normal. The cherry on top is that, by the end of this series, you feel as though all the main characters have truly grown—not just grown, but grown together, with their ad hoc community having been utterly central to their (ever-so-slight) maturation.

Takanashi is, quite sadly, not entirely misunderstood by his contemporaries.

1.) Working!!

If every series were like Working!!, I suppose the original wouldn’t be so special. That said, the anime industry could stand to strive for a little more market saturation if every studio could take a crack at making at least one Working!!-esque show. This show tops the list for the reason that it is utterly paradigmatic of the kind of show I’m talking about. While the drama, such as it is, is driven primarily by romantic comedy subplots (basically, they’re all idiots who don’t know themselves well enough to be honest with the objects of their affection about how they feel), the appeal of this show is the obvious pleasure it takes in following the daily absurdities that crop up when a bunch of slightly peculiar people wind up working in the same place. Based on a four-panel manga by Karino Takatsu (also the creator of Servant x Service, remember?) Everyone has his or her quirk, none of which are totally debilitating, but which set them all up for the kind of codependent niches they can only really find with the particular social set at this particular place. Not to say they don’t all have lives outside the workplace—they do, and Working! does a masterful job layering them all into the misadventures of the workplace crew—but our perspective on those lives is always filtered through our judgment of the characters as formed through their interaction with each other at Wagnaria, the family restaurant in Hokkaido where they all work.

So far, there have been three series focused on the original cast, and a new series set somewhere else is apparently on the way. Perhaps the best compliment I can pay to a show like this is that it makes working part-time in the food service industry seem like an innately desirable vocation. Given that working part-time in food service very nearly destroyed my mental health, that’s a testament to just how wonderful this offbeat slice-of-life comedy is. And as a sidenote, the opening themes for each series are about the most devilishly infectious confections you’re likely to hear. Whether you’re seeking the vibe I’ve struggled to articulate in this list, you should probably check Working!! out as soon as possible.

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[1] Personally, I’m a much bigger fan of the show than the film. I’ve been slow to recognize Altman’s genius over the years, but I’ve always like M*A*S*H. Two factors militate against my preferring it over the show: 1.) I grew up watching the TV version, whereas I didn’t see the film until early adulthood; nostalgia is a fearsome force when it wishes to be. 2.) As I grow older, I find that I much prefer bleeding-heart sentiment to the arch irony at which Altman excelled. I’m not sure that the characters in the TV show are necessarily more well-rounded than the ones in the film (although I think they are), but the anarchic film tends to use its heroes merely as archetypal tricksters, whereas most of the characters in the TV show are ultimately people. The only inflexibly dimensionless character in the show, Frank Burns, exited stage right just as the show figured out that its characters had to be people, and if the showrunners wanted to have moral monsters in the show, they couldn’t very well afford to have one as one of the regular cast. Rather than humanize Burns, they just wrote him out. Which is kind of a shame, since Larry Linville was brilliant, but also necessary, because it would be inappropriate to reframe the show’s tone on empathy, but retain the one character who couldn’t empathize with anyone, and with whom nobody else could, either.


Edgy and Modern and Hip and, likely, Morphitudinal

Don’t worry, fellow nerds: I’m not here to kvetch about whitewashing or how the new design looks nothing like Rita Repulsa from the 90s Power Rangers. I just want to register a comment about how easily the publicity for pop artifacts descends into utter vapidity. Consider what Elizabeth Banks had to say to People on Rita’s new look:

It’s definitely a modern and edgy re-imagining of the original Rita Repulsa.

This is an utterly content-free comment.

I know, I know. It’s People magazine, which has as its official mission statement: “Bringing you the latest in the totally irrelevant and salacious since 1908!”[1] One cannot expect movie stars to wax philosophical about the marriage of form and content when the secret marriage of Branjelica or Gwennifer or Whomsoever is the cover story. Nobody who reads People magazine cares.

Then there’s the fact that Banks is not being paid to wax philosophical by her studio masters, and even if she did, nobody expects great insight about the costume design for Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.

In short, I’m being pedantically picayune. If you’ve read this far, you’d expect no less.

The point is that it is utterly unclear what relationship this particular “re-imagining” has to the adjectives “modern” or “edgy.” If these words have not already been totally emptied of all meaning in public discourse, Banks moves them that much further toward the goal line, past which all signifiers are empty and all interpersonal communication is reduced to pheromones and copyright-protected emojis.[2]

Admittedly, I’m being deliberately obtuse about this. I have a sense of what Banks means by calling this re-imagining “modern” and “edgy.” Ideally, what I think she means to suggest is that her Rita will be “hip to the youth” and “envelope-pushing.” Perhaps even “subversive.” (Gasp! Can such things be?) “Modern” compared to what, or when? Where exactly does the “edge” lie, along which Rita Repulsa’s “modern” look, much like the snail in Col. Kutz’s fever dream, is precariously balanced?

To be honest, I”m rather looking forward to the new Power Rangers movie. I don’t expect it to be good. But I have a genuine soft spot for MMPR. I’ve always felt that the first (American) film, while sort of terrible for general audiences, did a pretty good job giving a big-screen gloss for fans of the low-budget TV show, but that its terrible-at-the-time CGI climax has aged so poorly that it wrecks the relative competence of the rest. Contemporary special effects, in other words, could do wonders for a Power Rangers flick that displays even modest competence in its writing and performances. Elizabeth Banks is a fine actress, and I look forward to seeing what she does with this role. So all the hang-wringing over the new film’s fidelity or lack thereof to the 90s show simply does not speak to anything I care about at this point in my life. I just want to be entertained for an hour and a half.

That’s why the Orwellian hypespeak strikes me as the most significant part of this “first look” exclusive. Give me panem et circenses: I know very well that the Power Rangers movie is just one more footfall in the long slide of empire into the decadence and cultural corruption of its people. Just don’t try to convince me that the culture industry Juvenal was writing about a couple millennia ago, and diagnosed by every other cultural theorist in the last century-plus, from Horkheimer/Adorno to Matthew Arnold, is “modern and edgy.” It’s not. The fact that I’m willing to fork over my time and money for a distraction from the evils of contemporary life is nothing new. Elizabeth Banks, why can’t you just let me luxuriate my intellectual decomposition without giving me the offense of assuming that said decomposition already has been completed?☕

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[1] This is not People magazine’s official mission statement. The official mission statement is probably: “Filling that emotional void in your life with meaningless drivel since 1908!” Just deducing here. I could be in error.

[2] Saints and angels preserve us.


Essaying the top 100

I suppose videos like this are always tough to put together. Not only must you choose one film (just one!) as the best of each year, but you must then decide on a single shot from each film that not only epitomizes what makes the film so great, but you must also consider how the shots will flow together. I suspect that a number of these shots (some of which are maddeningly truncated) are also edited with an ear for the soundtrack. All of which is to say that this video is fine (as in, “pretty okay”), but it’s most interesting to me in its capacity to stimulate reflections on the entire process that went into the video.

I’m guessing that other, smarter/cleverer people have already written blogs or articles about this, so I’m not (probably) breaking new ground. But as someone who has grown up with the spread of the Internet and the proliferation of accessible film editing technology, it is astonishing to reflect on the fact that this video is quintessentially a top 100 list. But it’s a top 100 list in a form that, unless I miss my guess, is likely to become de rigeur for any self-respecting cinephile who comes of age in the 21st century. Back in my day (all of what, twenty years ago?), movie fans would have to write out and mail such lists to publications like Film Comment (or the zine/newsletter of one’s choice) to circulate them.

Once net access became widespread, you had your pick: create your own blog, frequent a message board, join a listserv, etc. Even fifteen years ago (I’m once again guessing) you could find films of this sort out there on the web, but they were likely put together by people who were either amateurs or folks enrolled in film programs. More than anything else, YouTube (guessing again!) made it possible to exhibit video essays like this, but I don’t think it was until video editing software became a standard part of OS packages that stuff like this became really widespread.

At this point, we’re spoiled for video essays. Sites like IndieWire, MUBI, and Bordwell’s blog (along with, I’m sure, dozens of others) include video essays as standard fare alongside more traditional essays and criticism. A well done video essay, of course, still requires time and effort. Folks like Matt Zoller Seitz, Tony Zhou, and Kevin B. Lee probably (in all likelihood) don’t just sit down, cram a bunch of awesome shots together with a one-take voiceover, and hit “publish.” At the same time, I’m positive that it takes most video essayists today considerably less time to cut an essay than it did last year—not only because of technological improvements, but because I suspect that video essays are now increasingly part of a standard skill set, the basics of which they have likely mastered due to practice. The result is an embarrassment of riches for cinephiles (and film studies instructors). It’s also, though, a paradigm shift in film discourse.

Years ago, there was a distinction between cinephiles and cineastes. Most of the former aspired to be the latter (if they weren’t the latter already), but I doubt that the distinction has any practical use any more. You might think of Jean-Luc Godard’s legendary Histoire(s) du cinema project. At first, it was the kind of thing only JLG might undertake: an epic personal essay intertwining politics and film history, pinning key moments of the twentieth century to particular images or confluences of sound, image, and text, then upending the entire thing. Or, to be a wee reductionist, it’s a really long montage culled largely from other sources. In either case, it’s the kind of project that required JLG’s particular set of skills: a former critic turned filmmaker whose heyday was marked by a radicalization of politics and aesthetics, who else could mount a project like that? Wading through God knows how many miles of film footage and splicing it together just-so over the course of a decade into nearly five hours of a multipart essay? You may imagine a gaunt, bespectacled Maoist practically mummified in reels of and reels of filmstrip, the dark editing room illuminated by a single French cigarette dangling from his pursed lips.[1] That was twenty years ago. Now? Imagine a couple of undergrad dudebros spending five hours on a Saturday slinging together their 25 greatest times people were told to “Go to hell!” in a contextually ironic situation.

What I’m getting at is that the physically and financially demanding labor of putting together even a montage of brief clips is so relatively easy now that the video essay is not a long-term project, but a discourse in its own right. An increasingly common rhetorical form in that discourse. So common that the aforementioned dudebros could conceivably scrape together something as technically sophisticated as anything by JLG.

When I think about that, I get a little excited and a little sad. Excited, because I love the idea of film nerds talking film in film language. Sad, because I foresee a time in which reading a film essay—I should say, “an essay written about film”—is something you only do if you’re an academic, and even then you’ll never read blogs or magazine articles, because the “real” discourse is done in video essays, not in typewritten language.

That said, there are (I believe) real advantages to talking film in video. All those questions I asked at the outset are concerns that can be addressed by the form of the video essay itself. A top 100 list, however eclectic, however well-written the blurbs are, will lack a certain coherence. In short, a list can almost never be an essay. (Or perhaps it’s simply the case that few great essays are quintessentially lists, even if the essay form doesn’t proscribe list making.) A video essay, on the other hand, through artful editing and layering of images and sound, can create a unity of experience that, in my judgment, exists in few written lists. There is a wealth of possibilities yet to be explored here. While the video posted above is not by any stretch a great video essay, it is exemplary of what it is that video essays can do when they apply themselves to the process of listmaking. The responses they stimulate, I hope, also contain a wealth of as-yet unexplored possibilities.

(h/t Sploid)

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[1] Or you can imagine him buried under an avalanche of videocassettes, which is closer to how he actually made the film.

 


Five films: a Spring Break roundup

For the last few years, I have found less and less of the emotional energy I need to concentrate on a proper film, so I don’t watch many movies these days. I’m far more likely to binge TV shows or watch one piecemeal over the course of the week, as time permits. That said, this last week was spring break for me, and these are five films I took the time to watch.

 

John Wick (d. Chad Stahelski, 2014)

For purity of tone and generic convention, this one reminded me of Payback and A Bittersweet Life. As straightforward of an underworld revenge flick as you can get, John Wick relies almost entirely on nailing the atmosphere and cadence of the alternate reality inhabited solely by hitmen, crime bosses, and femme fatales, who seem to spend most of their time partying in neon-hued cellar nightclubs, perpetually renovated old cathedrals, and posh estates in the hills with lots of windows and austere, minimalist decor. Directors like Stahelski and Nicolas Winding Refn seem to be the heirs to Michael Mann, populating their films with who’s-who faces and cleanly-shot scenes of violence. Keanu Reeves is wonderful in this film, channeling his charisma into a subdued smolder for most of the film and explosive, calculated lethality in some really stellar action sequences. The karmic themes are perhaps a bit thin, and the climax feels a bit tacked-on after a sustained, single-minded drive toward one bloody goal, but it’s a great film for fans like me of noir pastiche actioners.

Kingsman: The Secret Service (d. Matthew Vaughn, 2014)

I’d forgotten that Vaughn had directed Kick-Ass until I saw that this was based on a comic written by Mark Millar, who can be incisive and tasteless, but never incisively tasteless or tastelessly incisive (if that makes sense). Among the things that work in this film are Vaughn’s feel for kinetic, deft action sequences and a marvelous eye for production design. Colin Firth is his typical amazing self, and I always like Samuel L. Jackson when he does over-the-top villains. Among the things that don’t work are the structure of Kingsman as an origin story; we’re in Joseph Campbell territory here, so fans of Star Wars and Fellowship of the Ring won’t be terribly surprised (or terribly emotionally moved, I suspect) by a moment in the film’s midpoint that I’m sure Millar thought would be “shocking” or “unconventional.” (Even as he probably thought it was “mythical” or somesuch thing.) Watching Taron Egerton come of age as a superspy is fun, but Egerton doesn’t have Firth’s charisma, though he might get there in ten or fifteen years. Then there’s the fact that the cultural politics of this film are weirdly ambivalent. The aesthetics of a scene where Firth kicks the crud out of some bullies near the beginning of the film are identical to a scene where he massacres a churchful of American bigots. There’s a sense in which each group “gets what’s coming to them” that, to viewers of one stripe, might seem “anarchically subversive.” For viewers of another stripe (and you don’t need to look too closely to see these stripes peeking above my collar), the revelry in this violence (set to “Freebird,” as such things are) seems genuinely gleeful, and therefore genuinely gratuitous. It’s tough not to conjoin the revelry in gratuitous violence with the validation of juvenile androcentrism at the film’s end, when our young hero slays the (metaphorical) dragon, then goes to fuck a princess in the ass. (This is not metaphorical.) So there’s fun to be had with this movie, but it’s a sleazy fun. It dredges all the innuendo and sanitized brutality that lurks barely beneath the surface of of the James Bond franchise, then dives into it headfirst, like a Hustler centerfold doing graceful backstrokes through a wake of chum.

Hotel Transylvania (d. Genndy Tartakovsky, 2012)

Honestly, this movie was delightful. The A-plot was a funny, sweet story about an overprotective father learning to let his little girl grow up and bring a strange boy into the family. The B-story (allow me to read a bit much into the subtext here) is about how a group of bad boy outsiders (literalized here as monsters) grew up to become the establishment. It’s hard not to see the cast of monsters voiced by Adam Sandler, Kevin James, David Spade, and Steve Buscemi (though I’ll admit I’ve no idea who CeeLo Green is) as a metaphor for their place in the Hollywood ecosystem: a group of former enfants terribles who are now among the elder statesmen of popular entertainment. Again, I admit that I’m perhaps reading a bit much into it. At any rate, I laughed a great deal with Hotel Transylvania, and I look forward to seeing the sequels (someday).

The Last Witch Hunter (d. Breck Eisner, 2015)

The best thing about this film was watching Vin Diesel as a relatively chillaxed seeker of vengeance. Playing an immortal can go any number of ways, but the mixture of amiable, aloof, and ruthless Diesel cooked up for Kaulder, the title character, went a long way toward lugging this B-film across the finish line. As a mid-budget tentpole flick, it’s very slick, moderately-paced, perhaps boasting a bit too much grayscale production design for its own good (although I credit Eisner with not shooting the whole thing through those damnable blue/gray/brown color filters that directors seem to have loved so much for the last decade or so), but definitively unambitious. For urban fantasy junkies, this’ll scratch an itch, but it won’t quench your thirst.

The BoxTrolls (d. Anthony Stacchi, Graham Annable, 2014)

Laika does pretty amazing things with stop-motion animation; ParaNorman is easily a high point in mainstream use of that technique. BoxTrolls is charming; it tries to balance the truly horrific implications of its cosmos (where genocide, fatal political malpractice, torture, and sadism, are narrative engines, just to name a few lovely aspects) with heartfelt relationships and positive messages about choosing one’s own path/identity and whatnot. It is one of the few children’s films that I’ve felt was appropriately cynical about the world. Yet it ultimately manages to resolve the major plot points without long-term negative consequences, and given the darkness this movie treats with, it felt like a bit of a cheat. If this film is a disappointment overall, it should be restated that Laika set the bar pretty high for itself with Coraline and ParaNorman. While I did totally buy into the relationships that Eggs, the boy hero, cultivates with Fish, his Boxtroll foster-father, and Winnifred, the girl who becomes his partner in heroism, the character dynamics of the bad guys worked especially well. Mr. Gristle is a chilling parody of unfettered cruelty, and Archibald Snatcher is the kind of main villain who is better precisely because his ambition and evil are so thoroughly human (and thus more monstrous); Mr. Trout and Mr. Pickles are the evil henchmen with enough of a glimmer of self-awareness to recognize at the vital moment in the narrative that they’re not on the side of the angels. This rogue’s gallery gives you a pretty good snapshot of the spectrum of human frailty, and it is they who emerge as the most compelling figures in the ensemble. ☕


Jodorowsky’s Dune ☕ d. Frank Pavich, 2013

Three films are competing for screen time in Jodorowsky’s Dune: a love letter to the greatest film never made, a Herzogian tale of a mad genius doomed to failure, and (drumroll) Jodorowsky’s Dune, the film itself.

Having not seen any of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s work, I may be at a bit of a disadvantage in suggesting ways in which this particular documentary does or does not take his oeuvre into account. Alejandro Jodorowsky himself is a transfixing raconteur; (apparently) a consummate artist, nothing he says is delivered at a rhetorical pitch below eleven. By his own account, his plan for Dune was that the film itself, like Paul Atreides, would become a prophet, leading humankind into a new age of enlightened consciousness. By the account of everyone else who worked on the project, Jodorowsky was perfectly sincere in his ambition. The film’s narrative trajectory traces Jodorowsky’s quest to assemble a fellowship of “spiritual warriors”—likeminded artists who, regardless of their film experience or credentials, had the soul needed to bring his project to fruition. Many of these people had never heard of Jodorowsky before he sought them out for this project; they, too, knew nothing of his oeuvre. What compelled them to drop everything and move to his headquarters in Paris was much the same as what this documentary expects will compel its own viewers, many of whom may not be familiar with Jodorowsky’s work: the charisma and prophetic vision of the man himself. Of a film that might have been, and which might have revolutionized human consciousness. Continue reading


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