Category Archives: Rants and Lists

2016-2017: A Books Review

As in my last year-end book recap, this post will cover books that have enriched me in some profound-yet-vaguely-defined way. Two key differences, though: 1.) I’m reviewing two years’ worth of reading at once, and 2.) I’m including both fiction and nonfiction. In truth, I haven’t read nearly as much fiction as I have in previous years, which is mostly due to my dissertation research. Apart from prose style, I still generally feel that ranking fiction and nonfiction against each other is a bit like comparing apples and teakettles. But there’s no version of an account of the books I’ve read in the last two years which doesn’t reckon with the huge swath of nonfiction that has imprinted its contours on my spirit. So I’m not ranking anything strictly, but the following is more or less in descending order.

I must also admit that there wasn’t much fiction in my life within these last two years that gave me such a high as the first three books on my last list. Much was enjoyable, but little really felt like a revelation. By contrast, there were quite a few nonfiction works whose clarity, force, or style really swelled my sails.

As a bonus, I’m going to recommend complementary pairings for several of these books. In the case of some of them, I think that the dialectic forged between certain authors in my reader brain has been more potent than any text alone. All of these (with exceptions noted) are books that I read in 2016 and 2017, and I’m grateful to have done so.

Cornel West.

Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity by Cornel West (1982). A relatively simple contention: we can’t find a workable solution to any political problem in the U.S. without taking to heart the historical experience of African-American Christians. Having grappled with a long chain of promises made and thwarted, black American churches have had to develop spiritual and cultural resources that are necessarily political, and especially well-suited to an era defined by unequal power relations among people, states, and the tectonic flows of global capital. So says West, whose politics are, of course, radical. He’s also a rare visionary stylist who can graft together the patois of continental poststructural philosophy, Marxism, race theory, and American pragmatism and not only make it intelligible, but often lyrical.

Pairs well with: The City on the Hill from Below: The Crisis of Black Prophetic Politics (2011) by Stephen Marshall or The Prophetic Imagination (1978) by Walter Brueggemann. Marshall comes at the African-American political tradition from a historiographical standpoint and affirms the power of black prophetic critique going back to David Walker’s Appeal while also being critical of its patriarchal bias. Brueggemann’s book is justly a classic appeal to Christian theologians and pastors to take much more seriously the Jewish and Christian prophetic traditions as challenges to established hierarchies, especially within the church—and not just for social justice, but for the renewal of commitment to the Gospel.

It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis (1935). The first time I read this was in the late summer of 2016, in the parlous moment when half the country wrung its hands over the bizarre rise of Donald Trump while still serenely self-assured that Hillary Clinton would, in the end, triumph over the vulgar authoritarian. The second time I read this was in the fall of 2017, not long after President Trump failed to slam-dunk a generic condemnation of violent Nazis in Charlottesville. Looking back at American history, it seems to me that Lewis’s satire is relevant in pretty much any period, let alone the present. That’s because Lewis observed the simple fact that democratic tradition itself is no inoculation against tyranny. All you need is a large enough number of people who desire tyranny (with its deceptive promises of restorative greatness) and are willing to install it in government. Though I don’t think Donald Trump is a fascist per se, he is an authoritarian, a bully, and a hateful human being, and my fear is that his electoral success presages a future in which authoritarianism becomes an appealing option for voters across the political spectrum. Which means that It Can’t Happen Here will continue to be perennially relevant. Sad!

Pairs well with: The Coming of the Third Reich by Richard J. Evans (2003) or The Anatomy of Fascism by Robert O. Paxton (2004). Frankly, these two books pair nicely with each other, too. Once you read the historical particulars of European fascism, it’s amazing how dead-on Lewis was in nailing the structure of their ideology and political life cycles; it’s even more amazing how well Lewis translated fascism into the all-American tropes which are now standard operating procedure at FOX News and its kissing cousins.

Soulless by Gail Carriger (2009). It’s a steampunk adventure! It’s a Harlequin romance! It’s an effortlessly witty British comedy of manners! For all that, it’s essentially Underworld (the Kate Beckinsdale series, not the DeLillo novel) served as afternoon tea. I’ve read the next two books in the series, and I have enjoyed them, but the first book is free of the burden of developing a saga—it’s just a colorful, sexy, immensely entertaining romp. It’s also one of the relatively few novels I’ve read which made me laugh out loud quite a few times, and the central romance is laser-calibrated to fan the flames of shipper hearts everywhere.

Pairs well with: whatever’s in the current news cycle. Because when you’re in the depths of despair, it helps to read a book about a sardonic woman who tames vampires with her umbrella, werewolves with her force of personality, and her appetite not at all—because there’s nothing not to love about a heroine who loves a good meal while she peruses the latest scientific literature.

Fullmetal Alchemist by Arakawa Hiromu (2001-2010). Though I read the first few volumes in 2015, I finished the series in 2016, thanks to our local library’s shockingly well-stocked comics collection. To date, I have seen precisely one episode of FMA: Brotherhood (after having finished the manga), and I rather enjoyed the experience of reading this without feeling compelled to compare it to its anime adaptations. At heart, it’s a variation on Frankenstein, but it’s one that surveys the wreckage of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which rapidly adopted poor Victor’s ideology and embedded them in the global cultural and institutional framework. Arakawa is wise enough both to seek empathy with her villains but also to recognize political evil for what it is.

Pairs well with: Harrow County by Cullen Bunn and Tyler Crook (2015-present). I read the first six volumes of this series. I guess it’s considered horror, but it’s much more of a folk tale. This is another story of gods, men, and ghosts and the trouble that brews when powerful people categorically confuse the distinctions between them. Bunn has a storyteller’s sense of evoking resonance with cadence and simplicity, and Crook’s art is almost unbelievably atmospheric.

Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke (1790). The 2002 critical edition I read was edited and very helpfully annotated by J.C.D. Clark. In previous posts here on Catecinem, I wrote a bit about why I can no longer identify as conservative. Actually reading Burke, at long last, was instrumental in that. My suspicion is that Russell Kirk might have understood what he was doing when he elevated Burke into a conservative icon and helped a generation of American conservatives enshrine Reflections as a canonical text for their movement. But those who have imbibed Burke second- or third-hand don’t really grok how historically and culturally contingent Reflections is. Nor would they recognize that conservatism post-Goldwater is basically a kind of fundamentalism—a radicalism that is temperamentally incompatible with Burke’s in this tract. Burke damn well knew, far as I can tell, the difference between taking the historical longview and mythologizing his nation’s past as a model Golden Age for political reform. His very pragmatic point is that sometimes we need to treat the status quo with respect in order to keep fundamentalism at bay. For all his outmoded (even in his day) blindnesses and biases, Burke’s Reflections does not read to me as “conservative” in the narrow ideological sense. It reads, if I were to inadvisedly abstract it into a manifesto (which it is not), as a well-considered warning against revolutionary radicalism. The very idea that shutting down the government, gutting decades-established programs, or blowing up the deficit because free markets will magically solve every program—this is all revolutionary radicalism. And any appeal to the founding fathers, the pre-New Deal status quo, or the genius of Abraham Lincoln as support for such measures is an ahistorical, asinine delusion. If nothing else, what I learned from reading Burke is that people who treat their revolutionary politics as history’s redeeming grace are to be feared.

Pairs well with: Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920 by Jackson Lears (2009) or Marxian Socialism in the United States by Daniel Bell (1967). Lears makes a strong argument that the re-alignment of national identity along corporate capitalist lines in the late nineteenth/early-twentieth centuries was guided by a revamped masculinist ideology that continues to shape America’s sense of self and its role in the world. Though it echoes with Lefty Bush-era exigencies, I think it’s still relevant. Bell’s classic essay argues that socialism failed to take root in the U.S. in large part because it fell victim to quasi-religious sectarianism. Besides being a sterling historical argument (not without persuasive detractors, but still a lodestone), Bell’s prose is lively and laced with sardonic humor. It was, strange as it may seem based on the title, a genuine pleasure to read.

My Monster Secret (Actually, I Am…) by Masuda Eiji (2013-2017). I’ll admit, I have a soft spot for harem comedies. I’m not ignorant of the many problems inherent in a mostly exploitative genre. I think the best harem comedies function as romantic comedies, as opposed to unreconstructed adolescent wish-fulfillment fantasies. Of course, harem comedies really just inherited the problems of the romantic comedy and amplified them, but… I also have a soft spot for romantic comedies. C’est la vie. As someone who has spent large swaths of my life feeling intolerably lonely, I’m inclined to forgive anyone for responding instinctually to a story in which stifling, bumbling awkwardness is the primary obstacle to two people recognizing in each other the love of one’s life. Actually, I Am… gets that, I think, on a primal level. The characters are all given some dimension, the gags and timing are hilarious, and the art is simply stunning. I’ve only read the first seven volumes so far; this series is sweet and endearing and it’s smart enough to laugh at how absurd its unnecessary complications are.

Pairs well with: A sunny, cold afternoon when your highest ambition is to drink hot cocoa and snuggle under a homemade quilt.

Anime: A History by Jonathan Clements (2013). Physically, it appears to be a coffee table book, but it’s a nuanced, accessible, and (as far as I can tell) scrupulously well-researched history of the anime industry. Clements broadens his contextual focus from key artists and titles to account for how economic trends, technological advances, and institutional gambits work as an ecosystem to produce Japanese animation and its aesthetics. In sum, it’s fascinating, concise, authoritative, and written in a lively prose style. My favorite anecdote from the book, by the by, concerns the role that prints of Princess Iron Fan and Fantasia confiscated during WWII played in the development of Japan’s wartime (and thus postwar) animation.

Pairs well with: The History of Science Fiction by Adam Roberts (2006). Roberts argues that we can best understand science fiction as a mode of artistic creation by tracing its contours as a dialectic between Enlightenment rationalism and the premodern religious worldview. I find his case to be very persuasive, although I admit I may be more bowled over by his audacity and encyclopedic knowledge of the literature than I am convinced by a thorough examination of his interpretation of the evidence. It’s a great critical performance, at any rate. One of the major shifts he charts in sf, especially moving into the twentieth century, is that sf became primarily visual in its mode of expression. Clements is often at pains to emphasize that all anime is not giant robots, magical girls, and high school tournament epics. But the explosion of anime in the international video market in the 1980s was very much tied to sf aesthetics. Further, I suspect that scholars could do a lot more to work though the marketing and fan reception of anime in Western countries in conjunction with Roberts’s thesis. Roberts’s thesis, in turn, could benefit from deeper engagement with historians of the impact on sf tropes in the public imagination worldwide.

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (1962). Easily one of the great alternate history stories, but, like most everything else PKD wrote, its premise doesn’t quite capture how trippy the novel is. A 1960s North America governed by the Japanese empire in the west and the Third Reich in the east might seem like a nightmarish fantasy far removed from the postwar America people knew. In Dick’s view, life under the Japanese isn’t functionally that different from the real world, with its racial hierarchies, authoritarian police, almighty corporate culture, and uneasy Cold War detente with a more aggressive totalitarian superpower. There’s more to it than that, because PKD. Man in the High Castle may be the best novel of his that I’ve read so far, if not his most characteristic.

Pairs well with: Astro City by Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson, and Alex Ross (1995-present). Though I’ve been reading this series for a long time, there was a long dry spell where I didn’t keep up. In the last few years, I finally devoured volumes six through ten, including the excellent Dark Age arc. As you probably know, Astro City takes place in the titular metropolis where the superpowered heroes, villains, and regular folk are all given roughly equal due, and the series really shines in its vignettes. At first, Astro City came across to me like a more character-driven riff on our favorite superhero icons as well as a love letter to the Golden Age. It is that, but it’s more. The creators have apparently worked out an incredible continuity for their series (no major reboots or crossovers yet!), and it only now occurred to me that they’re not just telling the metastory of superhero comics of the twentieth century. They’re telling the story of America in the guise of an alternate history, and the major movements and tropes of the various comic trends form the periodization. It’s spectacular and stunning and, as the vignettes collage together, it’s breathtaking.

The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in Post-Christian America by Rod Dreher (2017). Yes, this is that book by the American Conservative blogger who thinks Obergefell is the court case that tipped America over the precipice into moral chaos. Unless and until you read it, though, you’ll miss that it’s an essentially utopian jeremiad. The wrack and ruin at the heart of American communities is a symptom of the self-imposed degradation of Church culture, which hollowed Christian identity out from the center of American culture, or so Dreher contends. His critique of the Enlightenment’s legacy and its effect on Christian praxis is not so far flung from the diatribes of the Frankfurt School, save for the fact that he thinks rebuilding the church from the inside out is the most important task for saving the human spirit (as opposed to socialist revolution). This is not a book advocating total separation of Christians from secular culture; it is also not a book attempting to impose draconian rules on who gets to be in a Christian church and who doesn’t. (Surprise: in his own way, Dreher tries to make room for LGBTQ Christians in the BenOp!) It’s a book about the fact that the Church has sold Christian orthodoxy down the river for the comforting illusion of cultural relevance and the power that comes with being capitalism’s handmaiden. Thus the Church has hollowed out its internal resources for resisting the relentless advance of a social hierarchy that values only efficiency, exploitation, and the genuflection of the atomized individual before the almighty dollar. I don’t accept every claim Dreher makes, nor do I subscribe to his brand of small-o orthodoxy (my church ordains LGBTQ+ clergy, soooo…), but I think his diagnosis and his prescription are worth pondering. A challenge he struggles with is how to integrate his Benedict Option into liberal churches. He makes the claim that liberal churches can and should do so, but he never really articulates how that would work. I think that those of us who belong to churches with more progressive tendencies should take up that challenge in good faith, even if it’s only a starting point for constructive dialogue.

Pairs well with: News from Nowhere by William Morris (1890). While it’s a failure as a novel (as many nineteenth-century utopian novels tend to be), and thus a bit of a chore, I found Morris’s retrograde, pastoral utopia to be a welcome challenge to Edward Bellamy’s industrialized corporate vision of command and control. While Dreher tends to reject the label of “utopia” for his own project, I think he and Morris are actually kindred spirits in significant ways. Not least is the fact that Morris insists much more persuasively than Bellamy on the importance and sustainability of community—one that is organized around duty and pleasure, not ease and competition for status. One significant feature that serves as a complement to Dreher’s call for pastoral monasticism is Morris’s focus on crafts and beauty. Dreher knows we need those things, but his book wasn’t the place to address it satisfactorily; Morris shows in a more dramatic fashion how the building of community and the production of culture in a localist framework might actually work.

My Hero Academia by Hirokoshi Kohei (2014-present). About as winsome and exciting as high school manga get, this series is also a wonderful homage to superhero stories and why they matter. The art is jaw-dropping, and the character designs are distinctive and quirky. (Pun intended.) I’ve read the first ten volumes, and I can’t wait to see what happens next. If you like superhero comics and you’re not reading this, get thee to a biblioteca!

Pairs well with: Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson, Sana Amanat, Adrian Alphona, Takeshi Miyazawa, et al. (2014-present). Wilson is crackerjack at dialogue and characterization. Takeshi Miyazawa, artist of the last couple volumes I read, draws dynamic panels with evocative facial expressions. But Adrian Alphona’s art in the first couple arcs is truly amazing. Besides being dynamic and expressive, Alphona also squirreled away tons and tons of details that made studying each panel a real delight. The quirkiness of his art paired well with Wilson’s writing, and I don’t think the series ever quite matched that high afterward. Ms. Marvel’s rogue’s gallery doesn’t have as many villains of archnemesis quality in it (yet), but Kamala Khan and her friends are a wonderful cast of characters, and Wilson works hard (sometimes not quite effortlessly) to write a comic written for teens that offers hope untainted by saccharine falsity. As a Christian, I found it refreshing that the main heroine is a person of faith—a Muslim—and that the creators don’t seem to think it’s their sacred duty to lead her to reject her faith or angst about the seeming rigidity of her family’s or community’s religious practices. Her faith is, in fact, instrumental in leading her to want to use her powers to help people. I feel like artists of faith in any media could learn from this example.*

Log Horizon by Touno Mamare (2011-present). I’ve only read the first two volumes of this light novel series, but it’s a captivating pastiche of fantasy adventure, political social novel, and science fiction mystery. In a post-Sword Art Online fanscape, the premise of MMORPG players trapped in their favorite fantasy realm might smell like a clone. It’s not. This is a utopian story through and through, and it is far more about the difficulty of creating and sustaining community. In almost Asimovian fashion, a great deal of the series so far consists of Touno establishing rules for this world, then having his main protagonist work out ways around those rules. Weirdly, the author (real name: Umezu Daisuke) was charged with income tax evasion. Upon discovering that, my only real reaction was a gripping terror that he’d never finish Log Horizon or that the publisher would stop translating it.

Pairs well with: Swords and Deviltry by Fritz Leiber (1970). From the author’s introduction: “This is Book One of the Saga of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, the two greatest swordsmen ever to be in this or any other universe of fact or fiction, more skillful masters of the blade even than Cyrano de Bergerac, Scar Gordon, Conan, John Carter, D’Artagnan, Brandoch Daha, and Anra Devadoris. Two comrades to the death and black comedians for all eternity, lusty, brawling, wine-bibbing, imaginative, romantic, earthy, thievish, sardonic, humorous, forever seeking adventure across the wide world, fated forever to encounter the most deadly of enemies, the most fell of foes, the most delectable of girls, and the most dire of sorcerers and supernatural beasts and other personages.” How could you not want to read this? It’s one of the ur-texts that the RPGs (and later digital versions) drew on to make stories like Log Horizon possible.

When Harlem Was in Vogue by David Levering Lewis (1981). Had I the time, I’d re-read this for Black History Month. Most reputable editors will include representatives of the Harlem Renaissance in American Literature anthologies; hence your familiarity with (even in passing) such writers as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. Perhaps you are more familiar with legendary jazz musicians such as Duke Ellington or Fats Waller. Besides being an exciting, nimble account of the dozens of luminaries for whom Harlem became something of a Mecca, Lewis manages a tricky feat: he shows how foundational the ferment of the Renaissance was to the formation of American culture from the mid-twenties onward while never losing sight of the specific people, place, and time of his story. I remain scandalized by how little I knew of the Harlem Renaissance, even with my years of English education, and humbled by how much I have yet to learn. This is simply an outstanding intellectual and cultural history, perhaps more urgently needed now than at the time of its original publication.

Pairs well with: Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 by David M. Kennedy (1999) and Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil by W. E. B. Du Bois (1920). Of Kennedy’s magisterial volume, there’s little to be said: it’s simply a great overview of a period of American history that has attained mythic status. And it’s an incredibly helpful survey of the context of the Harlem Renaissance and its artists. I think he does justice to it without letting myth overtake good history. Du Bois, by contrast, was a mythopoet of the first order, but only part of the time. A scrupulous sociologist and debunker by training, a polemicist and muckraker by profession, and prophet by disposition, Darkwater is one of Du Bois’s counter-myths of pan-African history. Brilliantly composed, Du Bois places black Americans at the forefront of history in a series of essays, poems, and stories that comprise a ferocious and poignant mosaic. For those looking for more on Du Bois’s life and times, Lewis has written an authoritative two-volume biography.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985). The occasion for reading this was my wife’s Engaging Books Challenge, but it’s a book I should’ve read long ago. Far from being an anti-religious screed, it’s a testimony to the ways that oppression and violence are woven into our culture and institutionalized beyond reckoning. If anything, Atwood takes pains to emphasize how cynically the guise of religion is abused by the men and women in power in her futuristic dystopia. Nothing about the world of The Handmaid’s Tale is plausible in the strictest sense of being an extrapolation of how current trends could fall together. That is to say, I don’t think the world of Handmaid’s Tale could exist in the form in which it’s presented. The tensions between the conflicting desires, ideological mystifications, and historical memories could not be sustained in this particular thought variant. Then again, it often strikes me that our current, real-world conflicts of desire, ideological mystifications, and historical memories are mindbendingly unsustainable and implausible. It violates plausibility that the hot mess of American civilization has not flown apart in centrifugal rage—not really—since the 1860s. That’s why I think The Handmaid’s Tale ultimately feels real, even if it doesn’t feel strictly plausible. It doesn’t seem possible that the endless flow of women stepping forth to testify about the horrific systemic abuse they’ve suffered could have gone on so long unchecked. It doesn’t seem possible that people could, even now, ignore and deny the sheer flood of plausible allegations of sexual assault and misconduct, or—in grotesquely comic fashion—tacitly acknowledge the truth of these testimonies and simply keep on keeping on without doing a damn thing about them. When the world as it exists feels unreal, that’s when we most need science-fictional narratives to make sense of it all. Offred’s story isn’t realistic because the world could become Gilead; it’s true because the horrors of Gilead already surround us in all their numbing complexity.

Pairs well with: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (2003). I confess: I’m cheating a bit. I first read this in 2015 and didn’t include it on that list. In retrospect, the prophetic value of this novel has only been amplified. As with The Handmaid’s Tale, I don’t think it’s the holistic assemblage of specifics that are likely to come to pass. Instead, I think Atwood’s parable accurately captures the essence of a certain amoral emptiness at the heart of how we deal with the problems of power. Oryx and Crake is a North America plagued with industrialized excess, pornography, corporatized inequality, and engineers and technocrats who, thanks to gene-editing technologies, have the power to be like gods. The emergence of a Crake, in whose nihilistic narcissism someone like Snowman finds direction and purpose, well… Does it sound paranoid to say that this is not merely inevitable, but that it’s the current state of the world? How many Crakes do you know? How many Oryxes and Jimmies? How badly have we underestimated the implications of remaking our reality at the genetic level? How badly have we failed to grasp how unready we are—as a society, as a species—to be our own gods? The men in Handmaid’s Tale have a taste of that power, but Gilead is, strictly speaking, only a corner of North America. The Crakers inherit the Earth.☕

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  • Quick nerdrant: At its most frustrating, Ms. Marvel is a perfect example of why I’ve generally always loathed mainstream superhero comics. Picking up any mainstream superhero title is sort of like randomly starting to watch a long-running soap opera, but worse. I mean, there’s probably forty years of history you don’t know about, with all sorts of characters and setting details that are totally obscure unless you’ve been reading the whole time. So the buy-in is pretty steep to start with, and the publisher just tilts it further. Story arcs are interrupted for major, universe-changing events which are given zero context; characters from other titles are randomly shoehorned in, because oh my lord we absolutely must have Wolverine fanservice in every freaking single Marvel property ever. Without being a total poop about it, I get why Marvel (and the other major publishers) pull these stunts. They help drive sales. Sure. Except readers like me have not time nor money nor interest in reading thirteen other titles just to get the big picture. If it weren’t for the fact that most of the references from Ms. Marvel are echoed in Marvel’s film and TV franchises, I’d have been totally lost. It’s a serious drawback in a title that is otherwise delightful. The idea that Kamala’s story cannot be decoupled from the rest of the Marvel Comics Universe has some appeal; in theory, it gives dimension and weight to living in a particular place and time, with the decisions and actions of mighty powers far away having major impacts on others who don’t have that kind of power. Handled right, that could be poignant and meaningful. The way it’s actually handled feels cheap and random. Rather than feeling connected to the “Marvel Universe,” Ms. Marvel often simply feels chained to the exigencies of Marvel’s marketing division, which is less interested in telling meaningful stories than larding comic book stores with a neverending succession of crossover EVENTS that always ultimately cancel each other out. One thing you can say for soap operas is that at least their stars grow old and die. I sometimes feel like being a Marvel or DC superhero with the self-knowledge of my role in the comics universe would be the greatest existential nightmare: I exist, I have no agency, my creator-gods themselves manipulate me at the discretion of senseless forces beyond even their control, my actions have no meaningful consequences whatsoever, and my torment will never end.
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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.

 


The Books of 2013

This last year has been short on cinema and long on literature, and it has all gone by far too quickly. But what a great year for literature it has been. I set for myself the goal of reading (more or less) a book a week and I surpassed it by one. Most of the books I read were new to me, and the majority of them ranged from quite good to simply breathtaking. The following are the ten (er, technically eleven) best books of fiction I read for the first time in 2013.

Bleak House by Charles Dickens. Thank you so much, Professor Jacobs. I’d been meaning to read more Dickens for years, and your post spurred me into tackling this wonderful, wonderful book. Tell them my opinion of it.

The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu. My wife has already written extensively about this one. Maddening as its protagonists are, they are ineffably human. Between this and Bleak House, I’ve been left in awe of the ability of two writers, centuries and hemispheres apart, to convey the weight, in anything but minor detail, of life’s pageant.

The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe. Without a doubt, I will return to this one. As sure as I am that I’m missing significant depths of meaning, I was unmistakably astonished by the richness and complexity plainly evident on the surface. I’ve no doubt that it will reward further contemplation.

Tales of Civilians and Soldiers and Other Stories by Ambrose Bierce (edited by Tom Quirk). This was the most pleasant surprise of the year for me. Bierce’s range is amazing, and I was as moved by his calculated portraits of cosmic cruelty as I was delighted by his macabre sense of humor.

The Awakening by Kate Chopin. Can you believe I made it this long without reading this? The prose is pure pleasure, and it manages to be empathetic without embracing solipsistic hedonism.

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein. Sure, Heinlein’s forays into Platonic dialogues are a bit hoary, but there’s a vibrant power in the sheer commitment to his looney prophetic vision. He stares the messiness of revolution in the eye, then sticks out his tongue.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. Another one that will likely disclose more layers upon revisiting, but an impressive feat at first glance, if nothing else than for the stylistic mastery of different voices.

Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko. Impeccably constructed and radiating compassion, even as it claws and scratches as the darkness infecting the land we’ve made for ourselves. Hopeful but anti-saccharine.

Nostromo by Joseph Conrad; Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks (tie). Stunning tapestries of corruption, violence, and misguided teleologies anchored by different incarnations of The Right Man For The Job, who are inevitably crushed under the burden of civilizations’ dreams — which are, of course, nightmares.


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. ☕


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