Category Archives: Rants and Lists

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.

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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.

 


The sliding scale to movie hell

The last time I ranted peremptorily about Star Trek Into Darkness, the conversation in the comments reminded me that not everyone agrees what Star Trek was or should be. Yet the opening lines in this early review only reinforces my curmudgeonly stance toward the rebooted franchise. See if you can spot where the problem lies:

How quickly a steady starship can veer off-course. JJ Abrams’ brainy, ballsy 2009 reboot of Trek has given way to a shallow, shrill, all-action sequel that reduces the characters to parodies. The camaraderie between Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto) now makes no sense: one is a risk-taking, rule-breaking rascal, the other’s a whiny geek; their dynamic brings to mind a socially inept schoolkid who thinks his bully is his friend. Scotty, Chekov and McCoy are just silly voices in uniforms, and beyond demonstrating her fluent Klingon, Zoe Saldana’s Uhura gets little to do except wonder why her pointy-eared boyfriend is bad at discussing his feelings (d’uh!).

If Nick Dent didn’t specifically mention in the second sentence that this is a review of the 2013 sequel, I would’ve thought this to be a near-perfect encapsulation of the first reboot. The fact that he regards Star Trek 2009 as “brainy” and “ballsy” compared to Into Darkness suggests that film critics have had to hire the Army Corps of Engineers to construct a ladder down to Hell to find a place low enough to set the bar for what counts as brainy and ballsy. Perhaps that’s another reason why the love for ST09 pisses me off so much. It’s not that I’m against enjoying big, dumb summer blockbusters. But when a big, dumb summer blockbuster rolls off the Tinseltown assembly line and it’s directed by Michael Bay, it is what it is, and is recognized (and most often derided) as such. When it’s directed by J.J. Abrams, it’s brainy and ballsy, though no smarter or technically more proficient. Apparently J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek is now a golden standard by which we measure summer blockbusters, so much so that even his own sequel can’t measure up. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the sliding scale to movie hell. I’m not, by the way, using this review to confirm whether or not Star Trek Into Darkness is really as bad as I’d feared; it may, contra whatever this critic says, be a very good film. That’s the not the point. The point is that I don’t think Dent is alone in his perspective on Abrams’s Star Trek. The point is that we’ve lost our cultural moorings where it comes to establishing benchmarks for taste and accomplishment. When the first film — which itself was a shallow, shrill, all-action reboot of a franchise that was initially intended by its creator to be the opposite — now towers above its successor as a model of depth, restraint, and thrills, it’s pretty clear to me that we expect nothing from our entertainment, and we therefore get nothing in return. Except we call it an embarrassment of riches when the next-worst thing comes out a few years later. No wonder Purgatory looks so enticing if you see it from a subjacent angle.

Via Opus. ☕


In praise of controversy

When Roger Ebert died a couple weeks ago, movie fans around the world mourned. Most eulogies ranged from respectful overviews of his life and work to moving testimonials extolling his prose and insight. I may have been remiss in not commenting immediately on his passing, since his absence does indeed leave a large void in the profession of film criticism, but what I’ll miss most about Ebert has somewhat to do with his accomplishments, and somewhat to do with the particular role he played in pop culture. These two things are related, but not the same. Those of you who have been reading my blog for a while know that when I’ve mentioned Ebert, it has not always been in a flattering way. Don’t misunderstand what I’m about to say: I did appreciate his work, and he was a skilled critic. What we’ve lost, however, isn’t a good film critic but rather the only film critic in America (possibly the world) who mattered to the moviegoing public.

Lots of people read reviews. They visit Rotten Tomatoes or perhaps they follow their local paper’s resident critic; maybe there’s a blogger they particularly like, or maybe they just have that one Facebook friend who reliably gives the lowdown on everything s/he’s seen recently. There are still dozens — hundreds — of critics of Ebert’s caliber out there, and there are several that I frankly enjoy more than him. The thing about Ebert is that he came along at exactly the right moment in our culture to carve out a specific kind of persona. For a variety of reasons, not all of them having to do with his actual prose or personality, Ebert became the archetype of the Critic we all imagine when we think of those sitting in a darkened theater with pen and paper a week or two days before the release of a movie, ready to praise or savage it for their public. For the most part, Ebert was perceived as a benevolent sage, as opposed to an Addison de Witt, and this was an image he earned. However, his unique status as America’s preeminent film critic enabled him to attract a great deal of attention whenever he espoused views that weren’t always enlightened or ingratiating with the majority of his readership. Being the only film critic in the world who mattered to Joe Public meant that he was also virtually the only film critic in the world who could generate controversy simply by stating his opinion. (Sorry, Armond. Only haters and intrigued contrarians like me care what you think.)

Thinking back over the last twenty years or so, it’s difficult to think of many mainstream critics who have done anything that drew attention to the substance of their opinions by created anything resembling a controversy. Even if Ebert wasn’t the one to create the controversy, he usually benefitted from it. I recall when David Lynch’s Lost Highway came out, advertisements ran in the newspapers bragging that Siskel and Ebert had given it two thumbs down, which prompted a conversation about the relevance of critics and the way they resonated with various audiences. A popular YouTube video shows the pair debating with John Simon the merits of Return of the Jedi; the fact that this video is making the rounds thirty years after it was broadcast indicates that there’s a certain amount of stock in the fact that critics came to verbal blows over what is now a touchstone film in popular entertainment. Not just any critics; Siskel and Ebert.

There were similar mini-controversies from just the last decade. Remember the kerfuffle over Ebert’s four-star review of Knowing, which prompted not one but two further blog posts defending his opinion? Then there was the incident in which he reviewed a movie without having watched the entire thing, being forced to walk back his scathing review later. How about his not-entirely-unfair tweet about “Jackass” Ryan Dunn’s death? And, of course, there was his dismissal of video games as art. The point isn’t that Ebert was right or wrong in any of this stuff. The point is that when anybody but Ebert says or does stuff like this, the only people who care are probably hardcore cinephiles who thrive on manufacturing topics for debate. But when Ebert says it, it reaches a larger circumference of the public sphere. At least, it did. Now that Ebert is gone, there is nobody who occupies that particular place in American culture.

Much as I often lament the level of vitriol that passes for discourse these days, there is something to be said for having someone who stirs the pot productively — a provocateur who can bring attention to issues and generate actual debate, as opposed to name-calling and fiery denunciations of a truly Puritanical order. Public debate needs controversy to a certain extent. Not a culture war, per se, but issues framed in such a way as to amply demonstrate to the average citizen that s/he has a stake in whichever direction the issue is taken. Ebert did that for the movies. He knew that movies mattered, and he devoted his life to illustrating that as clearly as he was able. In that endeavor, I think his legacy was of success. But the degree to which that legacy remains immediate and relevant to the further evolution of motion pictures within our culture is anything but set in stone. With Ebert around, we always had a focal point around which to orient the larger discussion. With him gone, that responsibility falls to all of us with a vested interest in the subject, but none of us has the cachet he did. It is now incumbent upon the cineastes and cinephiles of the world to uphold Ebert’s legacy. As discourse wanes, so does the memory of his life’s work; let his death be commemorated by the continuing conversation. ☕


This is what I see this morning.

A quick impression for you:

One Side: “UP YOUR ASS, BITCHES!”

The Other Side: “WE WILL FIGHT YOU EVIL BASTARDS TILL OUR DYING BREATH!”

With some exceptions (and God bless them), this appears to be the state of the electorate right now. Full disclosure: even though I’m apparently a one-percenter, I’m glad that Romney lost because I think a Romney presidency would have been slightly more disastrous than four more years of Obama, and the Republican Party has, in my view, pretty much been in the process of a slow-motion implosion for the better part of the last decade. (And what the Tea Party movement became was a contributor to that implosion, as opposed to the galvanizing revival, as many conservatives have painted it.) What I had hoped — but not expected — is that, after a Romney loss (not to be confused with an Obama victory, which isn’t quite what happened last night), Americans would wake up and realize that they actually have to work together to find common ground and goals once the dust settles; that they are not enemies, but mere opponents. Alan Jacobs put it brilliantly:

I have seen (we all have seen) more and more articles, blog posts, and comments premised on the assumption that the writer’s political enemies really are enemies — wicked people bent on the destruction of all that is good and right in the world.

As for me, I don’t think people who disagree with me — about abortion, politics, religion, literature, whatever — are, on balance, any more wicked than I am. I just think that on the points where we disagree they happen to be wrong. That shouldn’t be such a difficult distinction to keep in mind.

After the North won the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln was re-elected president, the United States was probably in the most fragile position in its entire history. Some historically ignorant partisans may wish to claim that we’ve almost never been so divided, but until states start seceding from the Union and booting federal employees from their borders by force of arms, I call B.S. any such sentiment. To say that political tensions still ran high at the time of Lincoln’s second inauguration would be a fundamentally idiotic understatement. To their credit, both Romney and the president struck conciliatory notes in their respective concession and victory speeches. I don’t think either one put it quite as succinctly and eloquently as Lincoln, for whom, and for whose country at the time, the stakes could not have been higher:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

The United States hasn’t literally been at war with itself these last four years; the politics of this election cycle (or the last several) haven’t literally created widows and orphans, and the nation’s wounds are metaphorical. Yet to judge by the rhetoric I’ve seen on Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and video clips this morning, you’d think that Obama had just kneecapped grandma with a tire iron, or that Romney’s evil minions had been dragging people out of their beds at night and slapping them facedown on the guillotine. This is not a war, people, and just as losing losing political ground in an election does not mean losing the soul of the country, winning ground in an election does not equate to a unilateral endorsement of a monolithic (partisan) vision of progress. What it means is that, for the next two-to-six years, this particular set of people has been elected to debate, discuss, compromise, legislate, administrate, and generally do the hard work of running this country on its citizens’ behalf. That’s it.

So if you’re out there gloating or sulking, put a cork in it. Put on your big boy/big girl pants, wipe the spittle from your mouth, shake hands with your opponent, and get back to the business of being good neighbors. If you can’t do that, then it means you’ve never been interested in democracy, but domination. Show a little charity, please. ☕


What about Ender Wiggin? Not epic enough?

The Doctor tops io9’s list of 8 Epic Heroes Who Committed Mass Murder. Just so. The case for (against?) him:

For a character who frequently makes moralistic pronouncements and shows plenty of righteous indignation towards other people’s actions, he is probably responsible for more deaths than any action hero or horror icon of the 1980’s. […] In his 1103 years, the Doctor has racked up a body count that could be conservatively tallied in the trillions. It’s gotten so bad, for a while he was able to defuse any potential conflict by doing nothing more than introduce himself.

And now that he’s gone off grid with the whole faked-death thing, not even his reputation can hold him accountable to what he chooses to do. Prepare yourself, universe, for the Doctor unbound.☕


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