The Cycle Continues: A Review of The Wire, Season Four

I binge-watched the fourth season of The Wire within about a week and a half of finishing the third season. And yet here I am, something like a month later, still trying to write a review that will do justice to the absolute beauty of the story so far. The fourth season is by far—by far—my favorite (although I haven’t watched the final season yet). It is beautiful and heartbreaking and overwhelmingly sad. So let me just jump in here.

This season is sad because we finally begin to understand the systems that are involved in inner-city Baltimore. We finally begin to glean an understanding—if we truly can understand such things simply by watching television—of the impossibility of fixing the problems that are apparent throughout the show. Sure, McNulty seems to have turned his own personal life around and the changes that he made at the end of the third season seem to be permanent. And sure, Cutty seems to be doing a pretty cool thing with his gym, teaching corner kids to box and thereby making sure they spend time doing something other than selling drugs (and also learning at least a little bit of honor). But though Cutty has become a sort of father figure for these kids—many of whom have no fathers at home—we realize that this literally does nothing to improve the overall culture of the city. Nada. Zilch.

I think the best part of this season—besides the terrifying sociopathy of Marlo and his goons, who all act the part very well—is the focus on the corner kids. Instead of seeing the higher ups of an organization, we see the children who go to school during the day, get into fights, fail to learn much of anything in a broken school system that emphasizes standardized testing over actual learning, and then sell drugs on the street to make money—often at the request of their own families. At the center of this story arc is none other than Namond Brice—the son of Barksdale enforcer “Wee-Bey” Brice. Namond’s mother has plenty of money from Wee-Bey’s time with the Barksdales, as well as (it is implied) generous monthly payouts from the Barksdales as payment for Wee-Bey eating the twenty-odd year sentence he copped in Season One. But when these payments dry up on account of there, well, not being any Barksdale organization to speak of anymore, Mama Brice gives Namond an ultimatum: he better get his ass out on the corner selling drugs like his father to support the family, or else. When Namond runs afoul of the law, his mother tells the cops to keep him in “baby booking” to toughen him up rather than suspend her shopping trip to New York. As viewers, we begin to see why so many people from these inner-city areas become drug dealers and criminals. We begin to see the failure of the education system and the attractiveness of the kind of money you can make selling drugs. It’s a culture, and cultures are cyclical.

That said, there is one man hell-bent on trying to fix the system and offer Baltimore youth a viable way out. Ex-Major Colvin winds up assisting in an experimental classroom filled with all the key troublemakers in school—including Namond Brice. This classroom, I contend, is the centerpiece of the season. It is where the writers make their most important thematic points about the cycles that permeate the system. For instance, there is a moment in which the children are asked where they see themselves in ten years. It’s a simple exercise in forward thinking and planning: ask the kids for their long-term goals, then follow up by asking them about how they will make those goals into realities. The answers the teacher receives are mostly jokes about being NBA or NFL stars. And yet the real meat of the scene occurs when the teacher asks how many of the students think they’ll be dead in a decade. Nearly all of the kids raise their hands. It is at this point that we must remember that The Wire was created and written by a journalist and a cop-turned-teacher, both from Baltimore. They’re not just writing interesting television. They’re telling the story of hundreds of kids they know, have seen, or have heard about. This is tragic stuff, and it’s going on in cities all around the country. Today. Right now. There are middle schoolers in this country who genuinely don’t think they’ll be alive in a decade, and yet that’s okay to them because it’s all “just part of the game.” I don’t want to spoil too much for anyone who has yet to see the series, so I’m leaving out the absolutely heartbreaking story arc of Michael. Anyone who has seen Season Four will understand why his is perhaps the most tragic of the stories in this series.

I want to take a break from that depressing scene and talk about what makes good television, for me. One of the most compelling aspects of a dramatic series is a competent, believable, terrifying villain. In Season Four, which is (in my opinion) all about “change” manifesting in repetitions of the same systemic cycles, Barksdale’s role as the villain is replaced by Marlo Stanfield. And Marlo is a full-on sociopath. He will do anything, to anyone, at any time, provided it furthers his goal of taking over his side of Baltimore and making lots of money. He is what I imagine real-life kingpins to be—ruthless, devoid of empathy, etc. Even though he rarely does the killing in the show, he reminds me of the “Ice Man” Richard Kuklinski—and just as an aside, you should look up this dude’s interviews on YouTube if you want to see the face of a killer with frontal lobe problems who literally can’t feel empathy. The definitive Marlo scene, for me, is when Proposition Joe (a man who always struck me as the real threat in Baltimore rather than Barksdale) tries to recruit the young kingpin into the co-op Stringer created. The offer of increased protection doesn’t sit well with Marlo (“No one fucks with me now.”) and when Prop Joe tries to argue that maybe in the future folks will try to come at Marlo, the latter interrupts him by sticking out a hand for a handshake. “No one fucks with me now,” he reiterates, and the meeting is concluded. This is the point at which it is truly apparent that Marlo has overtaken the other gang rulers of Baltimore. He can dismiss Proposition Joe with a single sentence and a handshake. And so, to get back to my original point, this season’s villain is menacing in the extreme. (But, real quick, I want to make sure I say that the writers go out of their way to show that the true masters behind the scheme are the rich, white-collar dudes like The Greek—who is the supplier behind Prop Joe’s co-op, which Marlo eventually joins).

There is so much more in this season that deserves a lengthier review—the election of Carcetti as Mayor and the subsequent shakeup within the police department, a deeper discussion of Marlo’s henchmen Chris and Snoop, Colvin’s eventual pseudo-adoption of Namond Brice and the accompanying clarity of Wee-Bey’s approval, the plight of Duquan “Dookie” Weems, and especially Namond’s and Dookie’s friend Michael—but I know you probably have stopped reading by now. This is already quite a long article for a show that started over a decade ago.

I’ll sign off by saying this: my view on The Wire has progressed with each season. At first, I thought it was a good show. Then I thought it was a great show. Then I thought it was one of the best shows of all time. And after the fourth season, I’m left thinking that this might be actually the best show ever, as so many people before me have said. The character development is just unbelievably complex and good. What a journey this has been.

Advertisements

Things Fall Apart: A Short Review of The Wire, Season Three

Finishing season three of The Wire has taken me quite a while, dear reader. This is mostly due to scheduling conflicts and difficulty finding the time to sit down and actually watch the show, so this fact should not be construed as bearing any sort of relation to this season’s quality. With that caveat out of the way, let’s dig in.

So far in my experience of The Wire, I have found that each season has multiple themes layered one atop another—it is difficult to really pin down the “main” point the writers are trying to make. I could discuss how Season Three is about blame-shifting, or about politics, or about the human inability to put other peoples’ interests above one’s own. And maybe I will touch on those issues. But, for me, this season is about the slow disintegration of all things. It’s about the destruction inevitable in anything we build. Gradual decay.

Let’s examine Major Colvin for a minute. The man, feeling pressure coming from a long line of superiors that stretches all the way up to the mayor, realizes that police work itself has been slowly rotting away for years. Walking a beat and having face-to-face contact with the community—what Colvin considers “good policing,”—has been replaced by busting up corners and chasing down drug-trade lookouts. His solution is to set up Hamsterdam—three designated areas within West Baltimore in which police will tacitly allow the sale of illegal drugs. (Side note: here I could touch on how Colvin thinks he’s being magnanimous and saving the community with this idea, but really he is putting his own interests above both those of other human beings and the law—because he, like McNulty at the end of this season, feels as if the water has been emptied out of him in a slow leak and everything he pours into himself is drained out… That’s what modern policing feels like to him, and he wants to change that. But I won’t get into that). The eventuality that all of the viewers surely saw coming was that Hamsterdam does not last. It falls apart. Even before City Hall gets wind of it and shuts it down, the area is essentially a cesspool of hurting people—and when Colvin tries to fix this by allowing other agencies to distribute clean needles and condoms and perform health checks, it doesn’t work. Despite his best efforts, shootings happen in Hamsterdam. Despite his best efforts, Bubs’ white druggie friend winds up dead from drug usage. Colvin’s big plan to change “the game” suffers the same fate that old-timey police work suffered. It doesn’t work.

That was a long paragraph on Major Colvin. Since I’m trying to make this review a bit shorter than my 2000+ word Season Two review, I’ll go ahead and just spend a paragraph discussing the other police/”good guys.” First, Kima: we see her marriage, which was already thrust into chaos by the birth of her partner’s child, collapsing to the point of her eventual infidelity. As for McNulty, his attempts to rebuild his life and perhaps start a meaningful relationship fall apart when he realizes his lady-friend “looks through” him (his words) and is using him for inside information about the inner workings of the Baltimore police department. The Commissioner and Rawls are feeling incredible pressure to reduce crime-rates throughout the entire season, and by the end we can feel the axe dangling dangerously close to the heads of both of their political careers. Same for the mayor, who is portrayed as a man almost without a clue in this season—he seems to be torn between loyalties at all times, torn between shutting down Hamsterdam and finding a way to keep it for the statistics while maintaining public goodwill. The power structure within the BPD is crumbling even as our “heroes” zero in on the Barksdale criminal organization, with Carcetti looking like a man who will eventually take over. But even he is plagued with doubts. To bring about the change he wishes to see within the city, he has to abandon some of his ideals and become, in that abandonment, a new individual. He has to first incinerate himself before he can attempt to rise again, phoenix-like. And then there’s Pryzbylewski, who accidentally shoots and kills a fellow cop. He subsequently reveals that he doesn’t think he was meant to be a police, and when Freamon inquires as to what he was meant to be, Pryzbylewski has no answer.

As for the main criminal element in the show—the Barksdale organization—several very important things happen in this season. Mirroring Major Colvin, Stringer Bell attempts to start a conglomeration of previously antagonistic criminal organizations in order to understand and change the way that “the game” is played. For him, everything is “just business.” It makes more financial sense to join up with the other gang leaders and distribute the same high-quality drugs, and so that’s what Stringer Bell wants to do. But when Avon is released early from prison, everything begins to collapse. Marlo—a young up-and-coming head of a rival drug trade—has quietly taken over former Barksdale corners while Stringer focuses on business, and Avon—who does not understand, nor does he want to understand, the new shape of “the game”—is ready to go to war. Smoothing over all the details, the relationship between String and Avon unravels in a beautiful and yet tragic spiral, eventually ending with each man’s betrayal of the other. I don’t want to spoil too much for anyone who hasn’t watched the season (though by this point I probably already have), but once again we see that everything we humans try to build winds up dust. In the finale, we see Avon about to be locked up for violating his parole (at the very least) while Marlo looks on in the courtroom and smiles, the “heir-apparent” winning the victory just as, the viewer imagines, Carcetti is soon to do in City Hall.

But all is not doom and gloom in this show, however much it may appear. There are some high points as well as the lows. In the last few scenes, we see McNulty visiting Beatrice Russell (from Season Two) and turning down an offer for drinks—which, given his history, the viewer is invited to interpret as more of an offer for sex—and instead opting to meet her children, “if it isn’t too late.” This seems to be the first genuine attempt to start a meaningful relationship that we’ve seen from McNulty. I don’t know if it’s going to last, and to be honest I see in it a sad echo of both Colvin’s new approach to drug prevention and Stringer’s new approach to crime, but he bears his soul to the woman, turns down quick gratification, and tries to do something that will make a genuine connection. And the final scene with McNulty is him walking a beat path in full police uniform, chatting to the local Baltimoreans, sporting a wide smile. Perhaps, we are invited to think, he is finally stopping up the hole within him through which everything seems to leak.

And there is more hope to be found here, albeit a hard one. Cutty—the man on the inside with Barksdale, serving time for a murder he committed in his teens—is released from prison with Avon’s invitation to join up with the Barksdale organization. After numerous attempts to make a living through more reputable avenues, Cutty takes Avon up on his offer. He’s meant to be an enforcer, but when he finally gets the chance to kill one of Marlo’s lieutenants, he can’t pull the trigger. Avon lets him leave with a strange sort of honor-among-thieves type of vibe, and then the real magic happens. Cutty realizes that his fulfillment can be found in attempting to bring some kind of stability to young kids caught up in crime, and so he starts a gym. He works hard to renovate it, gets all the necessary paperwork filed away, and even gets a generous donation from Avon to purchase better equipment. He pulls his students from the crews of lookouts and runners that have become jobless with the advent of Hamsterdam and begins to bond with them, begins to teach them how to box, but more importantly begins to demand a certain respect from them—a respect that he seems able to channel and reflect back to them, giving them the ability to respect themselves. And then it turns sour. When Hamsterdam is closed, some of his older students end up back on Marlo’s corners selling drugs—and yet, when Cutty comes around to see them, they agree to come to the gym later in the day. So he hasn’t changed the fact that they are selling drugs, but he has created an avenue to, possibly, lead them out of that life. Of course, Avon used to box back in the day… so all this could be for naught.

I’ll leave you all with this last thought. I think Cutty’s storyline is a metaphor for the kind of activism and action that Carcetti demands in his finale speech. Turning the tables on the Commissioner and Rawls, Carcetti demands that the buck not be passed. He demands that we each, as humans within this crumbling society, take responsibility for the fact that these problems are our problems. Blame-shifting, while serving political ends and saving one’s job, does not solve anything. It just hides the issue—like Colvin tried to do with Hamsterdam, even comparing it to “brown-bagging” alcohol. Cutty is enacting this kind of personal responsibility even before Carcetti reaches this conclusion. Notice that Cutty never once acknowledges his own criminal past to appeal to these kids—he never once mentions to them that he killed a man in order to gain their respect. Though I’m sure they all know who he is, he never mentions that Avon Barksdale offered him a job and let him leave unscathed after failing to perform a hit. In short, Cutty has shunned his criminal past and is building something anew. You can see the light in his students’ eyes as they learn that truth and feel that hope.

Let us hope, us viewers, that Cutty’s project doesn’t disintegrate in the way that everything else did this season. I’ll be back to review Season Four soon. My final sentence here is this: The Wire is in certainly in the running for the status of Best Television Show of All Time.

No Stone Left Unturned: A Short Review of The Wire, Season Two

We begin season two of The Wire with the first of many stark changes from the first season. Jimmy McNulty, our schlub of a heroic, impassioned, murder-case-cracking detective, is now stationed over at the docks. He rides a boat now and, seemingly, has left the world of murder cases for good. Like Lester Freamon before him, McNulty has been banished to an unwanted position due to his unorthodox method of basically having no regard for the chain of command. Unlike Freamon—who had his dollhouse furniture to supplement income and keep his mind occupied—McNulty has trouble living this life. He was built for solving murder cases. And the viewer gets to see exactly what happens when McNulty can’t be involved in a murder case: he disintegrates, self-destructing into more than his usual number of booze bottles and having one-night-stands with several women even as he tries in vain to repair the damage his tornadic personality has wreaked on his marriage. It shouldn’t come as any surprise to us, then, that Fate grants McNulty a bit of a boon (though cruelly twisted) when he finds a floating dead woman in the harbor.

Now, the absolute beauty of the writing in this series is that I’ve just taken a bit to set up the starting position of our main character, but I’ve left out so. much. information. I’ve left out subplots and side stories, small character arcs and arguments. I know that you’ll leave out stuff like that with any short review of a television season, but the key point is that in The Wire none of that information—none of those little side stories and cutaway scenes—is wasted. Even the most mundane scenes serve to simultaneously further the overall plot and develop characters in complex ways. And so when McNulty finds the body of the woman, we’re all expecting him to get reinstated immediately into the murder unit—but instead Rawls stays an asshole and refuses him. Then when the body is linked to a shipping container on the local docks that is found to be full of dead Eastern European prostitutes, we’re sure that the resulting 13 Jane Doe cases will make Rawls bring McNulty back (I mean, I thought for sure he’d do that and stick McNulty on the cases to further ruin his career). But no. Even when, through a series of convoluted but entirely believable police politics, Lt. Daniels winds up with a detail comprised mostly of the old crew from the first season, it takes Rawls like at least half the season to allow Daniels to call up McNulty. So all of this background stuff is there developing tension and thickening the plot, making the characters into actual people that seem real, etc. The writing is nothing short of incredible and I understand why people call this the best television series of all time (and I’m only in the second season!).

But okay. I want to briefly discuss some things that carry over from the first season. I called this piece No Stone Left Unturned because I think the writers successfully deal with, like, everyone from the first season at some point in the story. You got Avon, D’Angelo, and Wee Bey behind bars in their own subplot that ends in D’Angelo’s staged “suicide.” You got Stringer Bell running the Barksdale criminal organization, shacking up with D’Angelo’s wife, ordering the hit on D’Angelo, and making deals with Proposition Joe behind Avon’s back. You got Omar coming in and wreaking havoc on Stringer’s complicated plans, as he is wont to do. And you got Bubbles descending back into his addiction. I was close to getting angry with the writing of this season toward the end, when I thought Bubbles was returning to the show just as a sort of obligation instead of as a useful plot device. But then the writers made even his short appearance matter to the plot. He turns Kima and McNulty onto the Stringer Bell/Proposition Joe dirty dealings, which I can only assume will become more important in coming seasons. And then even the lower-level guys in the Barksdale organization are given a spotlight—the kids in the pit have a solid amount of air time in this season as they progress into pit bosses and, slowly, become Stringer Bell’s favorites (maybe… Bell is a complex dude). The writers truly turn over every stone from the first season and make it all count toward a greater plot. This is something that is extremely difficult to do in any story—and I can only imagine that it is made even more impossible when one is writing for a television series with a set amount of episodes each with their own set amount of airtime.

However much I laud the writers for developing storylines from the previous season, Season Two isn’t simply (or even mostly) a rehash of the first. Instead we’re introduced to the Stevedore’s Union—presided over by Frank Sobotka. These guys have made some deals with “The Greek”—a mysterious man who helms an international crime syndicate—to lose some shipping containers on purpose. One of these containers contains the previously mentioned dead prostitutes, which is the central and case that sets off the slow destruction of everything Sobotka holds dear. (Although, in a mark of true writing brilliance, the case isn’t actually the central conflict—that honor belongs to the dispute between Valchek and Sobotka over the Stevedore’s Union putting up a stained glass window in a local church when Valchek wanted the police union to have their own window put up instead). But even though the specifics have changed, I want to talk about what I see as the pattern that the writers of this show are trying to draw to our attention with the first two seasons. That is, I want to talk about the fact that the true villains in the first two seasons—the ones who aren’t really humanized and who seem like almost pure avatars of evil—are the sort of white collar guys high up the food chain. In the first season, we know that certain corrupt politicians are bank-rolling Barksdale and are thus behind his ascent to the top of the West Side criminal element. But those folks aren’t punished—ever. In the second season, we see the Greek and his sidekick—Spyros—drinking tea out of expensive teacups in expensive restaurants while eating expensive food and drinking expensive wine and laughing even at the end of the season when they’ve had to take a loss on the whole dock-smuggling enterprise. Even after their primary muscle—the Russian-whose-name-is-not-Boris—is locked up; even after Frank Sobotka’s loose-cannon of a son has killed one of their primary associates. These men are the monsters of the show, and I think I know why. The reason we feel so strongly about the Greek and Spyros and the mostly faceless politicians in the first season is complex—but, I contend, it is not solely because they escape justice. Rather, one of the main reasons we hate them has to do with the humanization of the lower-level guys like D’Angelo and the Sobotkas, and it has to do with how the top-tier—the white collar guys—operate.

In the first two seasons, we’ve seen the “villains” like Sobotka and D’Angelo do horrible things. They sell drugs; they lose containers full of women (I mean, who knows how many of those poor women actually went through the process and, instead of dying alone in a container, ended up in sex slavery); they obstruct the work of police trying to bring to justice people responsible for murder. These are not good people. But what we learn in the process of watching the show is that they have some good motives. Though their circumstances and specifics are different, both of them (as well as Ziggy and Nick Sobotka, and all the other minor-league criminals in the show, as far as I can tell) are doing these things to better the lives of their loved ones. Frank is maybe a better example of this, as D’Angelo is shown in the first season to be a bit obsessed with flash and his own wealth (spending hours picking out the right outfit to wear, for instance). And what makes season two interesting is that Frank is simply trying to earn more work for his union brothers so that they can all make a living. He’s not even trying to get rich! He’s trying to make it possible for men to use the skills they’ve honed over decades to continue to… get by. He gets thrown in over his head, and he knows there is no excusing what he’s done (see the scene in the second-to-last episode in which he tells Ziggy “you’re more like me than you think”), but he’s trying his best to work with the only options he thinks he has.

So that’s why we end up hating the higher-ups. Not only do they use poverty as a weapon (setting up a system in which it makes sense for young black men to sling dope because it’s one of the few ways they can make good money; offering money to a union president for his silence and cooperation when they know he needs the revenue), but the way they deal with poverty is the way they deal with everything. They find weaknesses and, instead of trying to help people fix those weaknesses, they exploit them. They back people into corners because they know the instinct to survive will force those cornered people to do anything regardless of moral conviction—and they know two other things: 1) that once a person has done one illegal act, they have leverage over that person and can make him continue to do illegal acts, and 2) that when the police come cracking down on the system, it’s the ones who have actually physically done the crimes who will get punished and they—the white collars—will get away. What I like about this show is that it doesn’t shy away from these realities. I’m sure that every single viewer rejoiced when Nicky Sobotka was shown the picture of Spyros and some suited person, paused, pointed to a seemingly unimportant person in the foreground, and said “Wait a minute. That’s the Greek.” And I’m sure every viewer harbored the hope that the big bad guys were about to be taken down. But the show knows how the real world works, and the real world doesn’t conform to our hopes. In real life, the men who exploit weakness for personal gain—the men who have become so politically powerful, so extraordinarily wealthy—are not caught. (Side note: if you read history, you’ll see that these folks are sometimes caught and dealt with, but like with Bernie Madoff this is almost exclusively the case when they have harmed the money of some other equally guilty wealthy one-percenter).

If I sound bitter here, that’s a good thing. This show is supposed to make you feel bitter. The aim is to take a look at how the real world works and to see the horror involved. The writers make you understand the Sobotkas and D’Angelos (and even the Avons) even when you don’t like them, and this makes you feel for them to at least a small extent. You begin to ask yourself questions like “If I grew up in inner city Baltimore and saw people slinging dope and making bank, would I join them?” or “If I was entrusted with the livelihood of dozens of other men, and someone approached me with the amount of money necessary to make the right political contributions that would result in more work for my union brothers, would I do it?” And once you start realizing that these blue-collar guys aren’t all that different from us non-criminals—that they want the same things that we want and wind up with their backs to the wall, weaknesses exploited—you start realizing that the problem is really the system of the world. The problem is that in our societies it is more profitable to exploit people than to help them. And, like a chain reaction, that realization leads to the idea that the only way for real change to occur is for those in power—and therefore those who have benefitted the most from the current system—to decide to change the system. Obviously this leads to bitterness, because the chances of that happening are virtually nonexistent. Like the Baltimore Police Dept. in The Wire, we wind up with case after case of the same crap. Even if we solve them, more crop up faster than we can deal with. And, as the BPD’s higher-ups repeatedly express in the show, our goal shifts to just carving out the best career for ourselves—it becomes less about fixing the problems and more about learning how to ignore them long enough to maybe better our own lives. And so, subtly, we become the exploiters and buy into the system that has corrupted so many.

On that cheery note, I’ll leave you. I’d discuss a bit about the father/son themes and dynamics in this season (mostly concerning the extended Sobotka family), but that stuff is always especially emotional and I’d probably end up crying. Anyway, on to season three! Maybe the third season will show some progress for the moral development of the system itself. One can hope. One can always hope.

ML Candelario Watches ‘The Wire’ 13 Years Too Late

Over a decade after the show initially aired, I—ML Candelario—have finally started watching The Wire. Though my being behind the times is not news, it does allow me to embark upon what I’ve been told is one of the most amazing rides in television history with a certainty that the plot is going somewhere. The Wire has been called, by several of my personal friends and by many in the wider world, ‘one of the greatest shows of all time’—and I get to sit down and watch it knowing that there is an endgame, that the show is working toward some sensible, poignant conclusion. It’s not going to be another Lost debacle (don’t get me started on why I’m still bitter over that show). Lord knows I’m glad it won’t be another Firefly. Anyway, my plan is simple. I’ll write something like this after finishing each season’s finale. So without further ado, here are my thoughts on The Wire: Season One.

I like to start with the bad stuff, but there isn’t much here that fits that category. Perhaps I’m giving the show too much nostalgia-credit—you know, the leeway we give to shows that are objectively poor in quality and yet somehow subjectively wonderful after a decade or so has passed. Perhaps I’m looking at the early 2000s with rose-colored glasses and allowing certain camera angles and weird lighting to slide by unnoticed. But you know what: I don’t see much here to criticize. And that’s not just because a lot of my friends pressured me into thinking this is the best show ever. Actually, I’m sure my friends would tell you that I’m often contrary—sometimes to a fault. I can certainly tell from the look of the show that it first aired in 2002, but that doesn’t really detract from its beauty. But let me tell you what I loved about this first season.

I come from a middle-class family in eastern North Carolina. I’ve never bought or sold drugs, never killed anyone, never even seen a prostitute in the flesh. What I’m saying is that I have no right whatsoever to judge this show on the accuracy of its depiction of such things. I can’t tell you whether or not it gets the streetlife right, because I’ve never lived the streetlife. But the aspects of the show that I can judge are the quality of its writing, the performances of the actors, and the resonance of its story. Let it be known that I’m writing this at a time when the Baltimore riots/protests have been going on for a couple weeks and in cities all across the USA there are minorities who feel (not without justification, I might add) that their law enforcement and legal proceedings are slanted against them, that their justice system does not reflect their own best interests. In short, I’m watching this show at a time in which the whole nation is feeling the cuts of the kind of institutionalized racism that leads to tragedies like The Wire’s characters’ lives. Like D’Angelo’s mother tells him, if it wasn’t for ‘the game’ (read: selling drugs, killing enemies and snitches, and otherwise profiting off of the vices of others), his family would be living in the projects, looking for scraps. So as I talk about this show, as I watched it, and as I listen to the news reports coming out of Baltimore, I have to ask myself: why is that? And why is it that McNulty—certainly the show’s protagonist despite having that ‘anti-’ prefix attached to his ‘hero’ role—why is it that he chafes so much at the FBI’s willingness to let Avon Barksdale and his lieutenants off easy in exchange for the politicians in league with Barksdale’s organization?

Another word on that. I just watched the season finale, obviously, and one thing I really dig about the way the writers chose to close out the first season is that they show the snake regrowing its head. We think the police have D’Angelo all sewn up—he’s going to give them Stringer Bell and Avon and Wee Bey, they’re all going to do some serious time—but in the end we’re left with Stringer on the outside running the organization (which is, as Avon so succinctly puts it, “not dead”), D’Angelo apparently deciding not to cooperate and thus the one truly relatable criminal character (who I think is McNulty’s true foil, his equal and opposite half, sort of the hero-anti to McNulty’s anti-hero) gets locked up for 20 years while his cousin the kingpin gets a mere seven, and Wee Bey avoiding Death Row by giving up a string of murders that he’s done and thereby closing cases for the homicide unit (and yet one of the murders he cops to is the murder of state’s witness Gant, which means there is going to be some complication in the trial of Bird, who was [rightly] charged with Gant’s murder in the first place). All this is not by accident. It is, I think, the point of the whole season. Look at McNulty at the end of that trial, sitting outside the courtroom where the people he has been tailing for months are finally being sentenced. Does he look happy? No. He slouches. He looks a bit drunk. Dazed. I submit that it is not just because he has been demoted to the Marine Unit. It’s because he realizes that the entire case was pointless. The organization will live on, and though some people are behind bars, others will rise up to replace them. Why? Now, maybe McNulty doesn’t get this, and maybe this part is just my wild political leanings coming into play and has nothing to do with what the writers intended, but I submit that this phenomenon is because McNulty and his unit did not give the case to the Feds. Had they done so, perhaps some of the politicians—the real people at the top—are arrested. Perhaps others become scared that if they take bribes and launder money from drug dealers and crime lords, they too will be arrested. And thus perhaps the system changes and we start making it less profitable for the D’Angelos of the world to fall in line with the Avons. Perhaps.

I’ve hit on this already, but let’s talk about the characters and why they seem so relatable and real. The acting is fantastic, blah blah blah. This is known. But: Is there a single character in this show who isn’t severely flawed—is there a single one who comes off as a paragon of virtue? I don’t think so. Maybe Kima. Maybe. (As I write that, though, I think about how all the other characters have serious flaws and aren’t totally ‘good guys,’ and I think about how much progress we’ve made in the past decade and a half in the treatment of homosexual people, and I hope very much that Kima’s being a lesbian wasn’t supposed to be her ‘flaw,’ but I’ll leave that unexplored). McNulty is obviously anti-heroic. He has his kids tail Stringer Bell—a man who McNulty knows has ordered the deaths of numerous people. He’s an adulterer with no respect for authority—even when respect for authority ought to be warranted. Like, it’s easy to champion McNulty when Rawls is being an asshole. But McNulty is also a complete jerk to people when they’re just trying to do their jobs and advise caution—and it turns out caution might have been warranted, what with Kima’s near-death and all. The Lieutenant apparently committed some embezzling in his old unit and has come into lots of money as a result. Pryzbylewski—just a side note, probably the character with whom I identify more than any other—is a bit unhinged and (I submit) wants to fit in so much that he ends up coldcocking a teenager with his gun and making the kid go blind in one eye, and then is unable to even look the kid in the face afterward. Our two comedic-reliefsters—Herc and Carver—steal money from the unit, Carver is a snitch to the Deputy, and Herc holds his new Sergeant rank above Carver’s head in a way that seems utterly coldhearted and dickish. You have your two old near-pensioners in the beginning, one of whom is an alcoholic and both of whom are trying to scam the system into getting early pension. The one man unanimously identified as ‘good police’ is Lester Freamen, and he seems to start dating or having some kind of ethically immoral relationship with an informant. All of the higher-ups in the show are more concerned with reputation and promotions than they are with solving actual crimes (until a policewoman is shot, and even then they do a hash of the job). What we’ve got from the very beginning of the show is a situation that Lieutenant Daniels explains to Carver in the finale: whatever game the higher-ups show their subordinates, that’s the game those subordinates will play.

Now, I’ve already been talking about this next point I’m about to make. It’s wrapped up in the rest of The Wire—which, side note: this sort of wrapped-up-ness, this convolution in which one topic can’t really be discussed without referencing another topic, is what makes for good television writing; I think the complexity of this story mirrors the complexity of our everyday lives, and yet subtly superimposes a narrative that allows us to retroactively put a narrative on our own lives and thus make sense of our world. Anyway, one thing this show does really well is summed up by Stephen King as an essential rule of writing: KILL YOUR DARLINGS. KILL YOUR DARLINGS. KILL YOUR DARLINGS. I don’t know if the writers were reading George R. R. Martin’s novels back in 2002, but they sure took a page out of his notebook. Kima: shot. Wallace: dead. D’Angelo: locked up for 20 years at the end of the season finale. McNulty: put on Marine Unit duty. I won’t discuss the terrible, awful, no-good, tragic, excruciatingly sad conclusion of the Bubbles storyline. Because I grew to love Bubbles and he became probably my favorite character and he was making all the right choices and it was just bad timing that screwed him over when Kima got shot and dammit why couldn’t you writers have spared just ONE darling for me?

I won’t waste your time anymore with my ramblings. This show is phenomenal and I’m sorry it took me so long to start it. The character development is just astounding. I went from hating Pryzbylewski to feeling sorry for him, to finally identifying with him the most out of all the characters. I went from loving McNulty to feeling ambivalent at best toward him. I went from hating D’Angelo to relating to him, to being proud of him for standing up to his uncle—finally having my heart ripped out when it was revealed that he backpedaled. What I’m saying is… hold onto your butts here, because I’m going to make a really terrible punny-type observation. What I’m saying is that in a show that has black/white relations at its heart, there is not a single character in this who isn’t a variable shade of gray. Everyone is both good and bad, both relatable and hate-able at some point. That’s why the show is good.

Alright, I can hear you laughing as I type this in my livingroom. I know a lot of what I’ve written above will change throughout the show’s duration. For that reason, I won’t be reading or responding to comments here. I want to keep my thoughts my own so that you can get an accurate representation of how I feel after viewing each season.  Stay tuned for Season Two!

 

Mad Men and the Anti-Hero – Why Christians Can Love Donald Draper

There is no other show that does what it does better than AMC’s Mad Men. And amongst all the wonderfully painted characters in the show, the lead character shines brightest: Sterling Cooper’s creative director, Donald Draper. His talented work and insight into human behavior coupled with his own domestic and psychological demons creates the most interesting dichotomy on television.

However, in my own circle of friends, many haven’t watched the Mad Men series under the objection that the lead character is an alcoholic serial adulterer. He’s too brash, too harsh, too unlikeable (what!?), and/or too hedonistic. (See the past two posts to get a our opinions on why these are bad reasons not to see a piece: Part 1 here and Part 2 here.) They don’t like him. He makes them feel… icky. 

But here’s the thing: I don’t believe people can’t watch characters like Don Draper. They do it all the time. What’s uncomfortable for them is that Don Draper is the protagonist. He’s supposed to be the good guy, but he’s a bad guy. They’re used to someone like him being the villain.  How could they root for someone like him? How could we wish good upon someone who unapologetically cheats on his wife?

Enter the anti-hero.  It’s been a sexy fad for hollywood recently (See Breaking Bad, Dexter, House of Cards, and Game of Thrones) and the audiences seem drawn to these shows.  In this archetype we see main characters who lack conventional attributes of a protagonist. Most notably, a lack of morality. For Don Draper, he lacks quite a bit.

So why do millions watch this show? Why do we shower the program with accolades? How can an anti-hero be so popular? And specifically, why should a Christian love (to watch) Don Draper?

Don is relatable. He has two sides to him: The side he lets people see, and the side that he stashes away for no one to witness. He keeps secrets.  He hides in his work. He doesn’t fully understand who he is.  He constantly decides whether to do what’s right, or to do what he wants to do. He does good things for bad reasons. He does bad things for good reasons. Raise your hand if any of these things apply to you… Okay, put them down.

“We’re flawed because we want so much more. We’re ruined because we get these things and wish for what he had.” Season four, The Summer Man

Don is what we could be. We can relate to Don, but most of us aren’t quite at that level of depravity… yet.  I believe deep down we have similar, if not the same, negative desires that Don does.  We possess a selfishness that we frequently suppress in order to appear moral or to win affection or admiration. Many times, it’s not pure. Neither is Don’s, he just chooses to ignore his filter sometimes. Imagine if you ignored yours. Christian, imagine if you didn’t know Jesus, how closely would you follow Don’s route? How closely are you following it now?

“This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.” Season two, New Girl

Don has to cope with the past. Whew, and does he have a past! No spoilers here, but the man had it rough. It’s shaped him, and he’s constantly looking over his shoulder to either bring closure or relive his history. Lots of it is painful. Much of it influences what he does in the show.  Does your past influence your present? I believe it’s difficult to let the past go much less preventing it from affecting your life now. Is it okay to completely ignore your childhood? Eesh. I don’t know. This is stuff I wrestle with all the time.

“We don’t know who he is yet, and who he’s going to be, that’s a wonderful thing.” Season three, Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency

Don struggles with death. This guy plays basically makes his career off of the fear of death. He knows that people don’t want to die alone. They want to stay young and be surrounded by people that love them. He knows this because he struggles with it too. He desperately runs from this fear, but its so deeply rooted in his psyche that he doesn’t know how to cope with it.  Will death solve his problems? Are you afraid of dying? How is that motivating or affecting you and/or the people around you? Christian, are you afraid of dying? If you believe that Jesus has conquered death, why are we still scared of dying?  Is anything that Don says about death true?

 “It’s your life. You don’t know how long it’s gonna last, but you know it doesn’t end well. You’ve gotta move forward … as soon as you can figure out what that means.” Season two, Six Months Leave

Don needs and desires a savior and not religion.  Don repeatedly confronts his depravity.  He knows he does bad things. He chooses to ignore his feelings and crushes it deep down in his brain like you would a full trashbag. But we get these rare glimpses of the pain he harbors, the desires he has for reconciliation, for justification. He can’t stand the church, the preachers, the hypocrites, he views them as boring band-aids.  He wants a deep cleansing and renewal. For the Christian, we see this and know that what he really desires is a savior.

“I was surprised that you ever loved me.” Season three, The Gypsy and The Hobo

That last line KILLS me every time I hear him say it. Guys, he is, without a doubt, my favorite television character. He’s far from perfect, he wants what he can’t have, and he needs Jesus, just like me.

So please, don’t shy away from the anti-hero. Look at them and then Look at yourself. How much holier are you than them?

I’ll leave you with some of my absolute favorite Don Draper scenes from Mad Men. On the last video you might want to grab some tissues. Enjoy.

“I’m living like there’s no tomorrow, because there isn’t one.” Season one, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

“What is happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness… ” Season five, Commission and Fees

“…Nostalgia: it’s delicate, but potent. In Greek, ‘nostalgia’ literally means ‘the pain from an old wound.’ It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone…” Season one, The Carousel

A Response to “Good Art/ Bad Subjects”

In ML Candelario’s post “Good Art/ Bad Subjects”, he points out the difficulty one might have in appreciating the form of a piece while at the same time objecting to the exposure of the depressing and/or horrific content. He also questions the worth of subjecting oneself to the wonderfully made content if it makes one so…sad.

My short answer: Yes.

Before I go on, I have to assume a few things.

I believe when Candelario says “Bad subjects”, he doesn’t mean that they are subject-matters without merit. They are matters which distress or cause deeply rooted sadness to crop up.

I believe that when Candelario questions “Is it worth it?” He’s not questioning the artist, but the viewer. He asks that every individual assess how much is too much and where to draw the line.

Here we go.

///

Let’s start with an example: 12 Years a Slave.

The film is an incredible unflinching look at slavery in the south. And when I say unflinching, I mean unflinching. Several shots are wide masters that won’t cut away for several minutes, meant to force you to watch the atrocities on screen and view them as the truth. It’s a tough watch, and one of the most important films ever. I heartily recommend it to my friends frequently and always warn them of the content. Through my recommendations, I’ve come across several people who have not seen the film on the grounds that “It’s going to be too depressing to watch.”

Listen, I understand that people don’t want to pop in a depressing movie every day after working for 8 hours. Usually they want to unwind and forget about the worries you have or the problems that are left unsolved.  Sometimes certain films, novels, plays contain content that could rouse up distressing memories or-I know, I know. I’m right there too. But I submit that value lies in making time to see these types of films even if the movie saddens you.

These types of films challenge what, and how we think. They push us to see things differently, to picture different perspectives, to learn about ourselves and other people, to uncover what we’ve hidden within ourselves. They reveal what we have in common and what separates us from one another.  Films like these resonate in our minds days after we watch. They’re important. They’re necessary.

Avoiding an art piece merely because it will be too depressing is cowardly.  Cowardly because the true reason for avoidance lies in the unwillingness to confront vulnerability.

No. I’m not calling the masses to consume all depressing, challenging content for all their entertainment needs. I’m saying that “It’s going to be too depressing” is the wrong excuse.

 

Good Art / Bad Subjects

This article started conceptually as a review/discussion of the movie Nightcrawler, similar to my “review” of Interstellar, but over time I realized that there were themes here that weren’t specific to any single movie or piece of art. What I really wanted to write about was the juxtaposition of high-quality art depicting terrible events or people. It wasn’t just that I wanted to dissect my views of Nightcrawler. Instead, as I contemplated exactly what my feelings were about that film, I realized that the crux of that discussion is really how to deal with art that makes us feel very badly. So let’s begin.

Nightcrawler

When I talk to people about Nightcrawler, I find myself using one phrase over and over again. “It was a brilliantly made film,” I’ll say, “but I don’t know that I can say ‘I liked it’ because it was so unlikable as a story.” Yes, the technical aspects of the film are done very well indeed. The acting, the lighting, the angles of the shots. I’m not a filmmaker, so I can’t expertly go into detail on all the gritty aspects of filmmaking—on the nuts and bolts and whatnot—but I can say that I “got” the repeated motifs of the city skyline at night/dawn/midday and I thought that many of the sets and clothing selections and acting choices were spot-on. The dialogue was great, the story progressed at a reasonable rate (i.e. it didn’t seem to lag behind where I thought it should be, didn’t seem to skip over anything, developed in a steady crescendo instead of jumping inconsistently to specific plotpoints… which is all to say, I guess, that it flowed). It’s a film I would recommend. But I’m interested in parsing out what it means to like such a film, or to say that I did.

If you haven’t seen the movie, it is essentially a character piece. It is designed to show you a specific character whose development is the meat of the film. Instead of a specific event, theme, or story per se, the film’s main character is the story. He’s the big deal. So you follow, in Nightcrawler, a character played by Jake Gyllenhall (to devastating effect, I might add) who discovers that he can make money by becoming a “nightcrawler”—a term that refers to people who capture video footage of tragedies/crimes in order to sell the footage to local media. Gyllenhall’s character is out to make money, out to make a name for himself. Out to succeed. But the problem is that he’s a sociopath. Or a psychopath. Or maybe both. I’m fuzzy on the terminology.

I won’t spoil any of the major developments in the film, but you can basically watch the first five minutes and figure out that Gyllenhall is a monster inside. I don’t know if he doesn’t have feelings, if he’s repressed them, or if he has feelings but they’re just aligned differently than normal folks’. But I do know that every aspect of this film is meant to show his character’s sinister uniqueness. Every aspect is meant to be unsettling. That’s the adjective that most describes this movie. It is unsettling in a way that even most horror films—perhaps even many of the good ones—don’t match. It is lingeringly unsettling. And after months of contemplation I’ve realized the main reason why this is so—why this movie captures something unsettling that I think few other pieces of art have captured for me: it is because it is so well made. That’s the simple reason. Gyllenhall is this character. And the movie is so wrapped up in him, so expertly crafted to make you identify with him (even while not sympathizing with him) that by the end of the film you feel like his mental disorder has reached into you, has tainted you. I walked away from that theater feeling as if maybe a piece of me had become marred by watching it, like a duck that swims through an oil slick and finds its feathers coated so that it can’t fly. The film stuck to me in some way.

What would it mean to “like” something like this—something that effects you in (possibly) seriously negative ways? The film is brilliantly made, I’ll say again, and so therefore do we come away from it having learned something valuable? Have we encountered an evil that we are now better equipped to combat—or does coming into contact with a character like this harm us in a real way, infect us with some of the same outlooks on life? I don’t know the answer, so if you’re looking for one you may want to stop reading. But to explore the issue more, I need to deal with some other artworks and how they disturbed me.

There Will Be Blood

One of the masters of the modern character study is director Paul Thomas Anderson. Although I felt that his recent film The Master was a bit too odd and didn’t “go anywhere” thematically (for me), one of my favorite films of all time is There Will Be Blood. Maybe it’s my obsession with Daniel Day-Lewis, maybe it’s that I watched it as an angst-ridden late-to-post-teen, but something about the film stayed with me. Like Nightcrawler, its main character is not a likable guy. He’s a sociopathic madman trying to get rich. Nobody else seems to matter to him, and it’s not as if the movie ends with some kind of righteous, he-got-what-he-deserved moment. Spoiler: he gets his riches in the end. He succeeds at his goal(s)—virtually all of them. But to me there is one specific difference that makes me feel less marked, less internally messed-about-with, than Nightcrawler.

In There Will Be Blood, Day-Lewis’ character suffers one significant loss. I don’t want to exaggerate it too much and say that there is a sense of retribution by the end. There really isn’t. But the scene in which his son basically leaves him for good has an aura of real, profound loss in it. Day-Lewis’ Daniel Plainview may act heartless and uncaring, he may have just disowned his son by saying some of the most heart-wrenching, hurtful things one can say to one’s child, but you get a glimmer of an expression on his face that he has just lost someone he actually deeply cared about—literally the only person he actually deeply cared about. This is foreshadowed by the absolutely stunning “I abandoned my child” baptism scene. Both are the kind of scenes that make you pause for a moment and utter curse words in your deepest unconscious.

In Nightcrawler, though, Gyllenhall is a consistent sociopath. He legitimately doesn’t seem to care about anyone or anything other than his own desires, his own needs, his own success. There is no scene in which I thought to myself “okay, he’s a monster, but he just felt something profoundly sad there.” He gets upset only when his own goals are undermined, only when his own ambitions are contested. On one hand, it is interesting to me that a film has been made in which the “sociopath” seems to behave consistently as such. On the other: damn, he’s a sociopath. Perhaps it is this very thing that makes the movie so disturbing to me in a way that even There Will Be Blood was not. In Nightcrawler, there is no redemption—not even in the slight, almost subconscious way that There Will Be Blood exhibits.

Incarnations of Burned Children

I’m going to shift to the written word for a second, mainly because I want to deal with how this sort of weird juxtaposition of good art and bad things works differently in different media. I prefer my television shows to be comedic and my books to be sad. It’s the center of a whole personal media-based theory I’m developing about my watching/reading habits. (I can obviously “enjoy” a good melancholic movie [see above], but for whatever reason I don’t like super depressing t.v. shows. Exhibit A: I’ve quit both Madmen and Breaking Bad within like six episodes because I could tell it was going to be too depressing for me—and I DON’T APOLOGIZE FOR THIS.) I don’t know why this is so—I just know that a lot of the books I like are depressing and I’ve even been accused of writing almost exclusively depressing stories.

Even so, there is a limit. Like in the case of Nightcrawler, there is a point at which a story so accurately captures irredeemable tragedy without flinching that it leads me to feel sick to my stomach. My go-to reference for this type of thing is and probably always will be the short story “Incarnations of Burned Children,” by my all-time favorite author, David Foster Wallace. As the title suggests, the story is about a small child (still in diapers, in fact) who accidentally pulls over a pot of boiling water onto himself. The story’s few pages (I just checked and it’s all of like two pages… but even just checking the length made me read a few sentences and now I feel utterly wrong inside, no joke) pack a horrific punch. The language is not just beautifully written—it’s almost perfectly so. DFW’s art is so precise and cohesively thought-out that you feel in the story in a way that few other pieces of literature have made me feel. And he uses this to show you, without blinking or shyly turning aside from the real horror, just how—excuse my language here—but just how fucking horrifying our world can be (and is). You come away realizing within your person that something has shifted, something has irrevocably popped into focus for you about this world. You will not be the same again. You cannot be.

Is this good art? If you’ve read my definition of art in previous entries on this website, you’ll know that I consider “art” to be, essentially, communication—and “good” art to be effectively communicated. In that sense, this story (and Nightcrawler, and all the other examples of nearly pure art that get at something so bleak/sad/terrible that it leaves you sort of stained) is a work of exceedingly good art. But the question I struggle with is: is this good? Like the old adage says, ignorance is bliss. Ought we to remain blissfully ignorant of the horrifying world around us or, conversely, ought we to seek out these life-changing works of art that can show us what reality is like? I mean, we can’t fix problems without knowing that they’re there, right? So in some sense this sort of awakening that I’m talking about is vitally important. It can move us to action. On the other hand, it doesn’t feel too great. I have a strong feeling that I (and other writers/artists/musicians/etc.) make our own depressing art as a method of coping with our own existential pain—often after experiencing personal tragedy or, at the very least, partaking of someone else’s art that, like “Incarnations of Burned Children,” presses our very noses into the bad things of this world. Is this a cycle that is worthwhile? Alternatively, can it be helped? Humans have been making art for millennia as a way of escaping the horrors of the world. It seems to be something ingrained on our very nature.

Dear Zachary

This brings me to possibly the most eye-opening, soul-crushing, I’ve-just-transcended-some-kind-of-collective-malaise-and-have-now-become-a-blubbering-mess piece of art I’ve ever encountered. I won’t go into too much detail (as is usually my wont when talking about these things) for fear of spoiling the experience for someone else. Although, really, the experience itself sort of spoils you, as by now you’ve probably grown tired of me saying. What I’m talking about is the documentary Dear Zachary.

In short, the doc is a filmmaker’s tribute to his friend’s son—because the friend was murdered by the mother of the child. Did you get that? Basically, one man had a child with a woman, who then killed him, and then that man’s friend decided to make a documentary for the child in order to give the child a glimpse of what the father was like. I hope that explains both the general idea of the documentary and why it’s an utter tear-jerker.

Again, what seems to be the crux of my issue here is that what makes the documentary so powerful is how well-made it is. The director expertly maneuvers the elements of the film—its sequence, its interviews, its music, etc.—to deliver what amounts to a spiritual knockout punch. I “recommended” the doc to a friend of mine who we sometimes (jokingly) accuse of being emotionless and his response was basically “why the hell did you do that to me?” It strikes the viewer at one of the deepest possible levels. And I think that’s what I’ve been sort of circulating around in this article so far. What makes these pieces of art so devastating and even more intensely unsettling than a movie like There Will Be Blood (that is, honestly, itself a very bleak and depressing story) is that they succeed at peeling away all of our personal defenses. They get at the heart of us, as cheesy and unhelpful as such a cliché sounds.

This one is a bit different, though, because the subject matter isn’t fictional. This is real. This is reality. Sure, a documentarian crafts his film to make a certain point—that’s what makes him an artist. But the fact remains that this is still the story of the tragic loss of a life that actually happened. And so it goes a step beyond where “Incarnations…” and Nightcrawler can go. Dear Zachary forces us to confront the fact that this isn’t all just some story written down to deal an emotional blow, and it isn’t just a character study in the vein of “what-if.” Rather, it’s a reality. This is our world. This is what it’s like. And that’s why those other works pack the punch they do: they ring true.

A Couple Paintings That Speak to Me on a Similar Level

Don’t worry, reader. I know this has been a longer journey than most of the stuff we post on this website. Heck, it’s longer than most of the stuff I post on this website, which is saying something. But we’re nearing the end. Bear with me for a few paragraphs.

I want to talk about two paintings that, for me, represent the kind of existentially unsettling art that I’m talking about. They are, in order, Repin’s Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan and Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son. See them below:

Now, let’s set aside the facts that (a) a lot of the stuff in this article deals with sons and fathers and (b) I myself am the father of two sons. While that probably makes the impact a little worse for me than it would be if I wasn’t a father, I watched Dear Zachary and There Will Be Blood before having kids and so I don’t think it’s just the fact that I’m a dad that makes these pieces of art so intensely unsettling to me. (I’ve decided on that word to describe them all, by the way: “unsettling.” See the paragraphs about this kind of art’s ability to wake you up from what is essentially a slumber, a deadness to what the world is like at its core. We become settled in life, assured of the big picture and our relative contentedness, and then a piece of art like this comes along to unsettle us and make us deal with the horrors that have always been there, masked beneath our ease and comfort.)

What I think is so moving about these two paintings is the respective artists’ ability to capture facial expressions. Look at the eyes of Ivan and Saturn. Look at them and tell me they don’t say “what have I done? What am I doing?” It’s a kind of layered effect, the terribleness of the events in question and the eyes’ remorse. Ivan cradles his son, desperate, it seems to me, to undo the event that has just transpired. Saturn seems caught in a whirlwind of fate—I’ve always imagined his eyes to be the real glimpse into his soul, seemingly saying “I don’t want to do this to my son, but I can’t stop. I can’t stop.” Then you move on to the rest of the paintings with that in mind, and the artists paint the tragedy, like DFW, unflinchingly. The blood runs down the sons’ necks. The fathers clench the sons’ bodies to themselves—one in uncontrollable hunger, one in despair. And I’m left staring at these paintings, my heart in my stomach, knowing that I will come back to these images again. I’ll look at them again. But I can’t say I “like” them. They’ve changed me in a way that I can’t undo, even if I wanted to—and though sometimes I want to, I’m not even sure I should.

This article started out as an attempt to review Nightcrawler. It became something else by its end. A depiction of my struggle with amazing art that, basically, hurts me? A kernel for a discussion on what it means to say we “like” such art? A way for me to ask permission to like them while not liking them? I don’t know. I haven’t resolved anything here. I know I’ll keep reading depressing things, keep watching depressing movies. There is something beyond articulation that draws me to them, some desire for transcendence, for catharsis. But is it worth it all? I’m interested in your ideas, though in reality I’m sure that someone who frequents a website about art/creativity/the soul/spirituality will end up in a similar place, will have resigned herself, as I have, to this dichotomy. What can we say about such things? What kind of box can we put this art in? I don’t have the answer. Maybe there isn’t one.

Not a “Review” but a “Discussion” on Interstellar

I am the kind of person, dear reader, who takes every available opportunity to discuss philosophies, theologies, worldviews, etc. I’m the kind of guy who, when he’s had one too many drinks, starts to assail you with weird theories about time and free will and fate and any manner of obnoxious topics. So it is a real temptation for me to go into this review of Interstellar with that purpose in mind—to launch into an exposition on the worldview behind Christopher Nolan’s newest masterpiece (and yes, my use of that word should tip you off to the way I feel about this film). But to do so in this case would be a grave disservice to you. The philosophy behind the plot is too tied up with the plot to even begin to parse without giving away major spoilers. And I think this film is so terrifically beautiful that to give even the most minor spoiler would, well, spoil a whole lot of beauty for you. So you’re off my philosophy-hook this time, reader. Thank your lucky stars.

By the way—and I’ve never actually said this seriously before—if you’ve yet to see this movie you absolutely need to stop reading this review, hop into the nearest available transport, and get thee to a theater. It’s that good.

Now let me tell you why I have that opinion.

 THEME(S)

 

Christopher Nolan is the man who made The Dark Knight and Inception, so we should never be surprised at the ambitious reach of his films’ themes. In Interstellar, Nolan discusses the family crisis writ large. The world is bleak—a man’s children have been born in a time in which our very food is running out. And so, out of love, he must find a way to save them. It’s not a new story. It’s probably our oldest story, really. Someone on a quest to save the people he loves. A noble cause, and mythic. We all have families, or at the very least people we hold so dear that they have become to us like a family, and so we all can relate to this story—which is why it’s so very old. But what Nolan is able to do in this film is to play with that idea in a new way—the idea of connection and isolation, of love and despair. From the start, because of the sheer number of times that this story has been told, the film is balanced on the knife-edge of cliché. But just go and watch it and see the masterful way in which Nolan manages to navigate that very real danger.

The second most important theme (though really they exist without a ranking system and are probably interchangeable) is the theme of hope. Why can we hope? Is hope a real thing? That is, can we trust that things will work out or can we not? And how do we reconcile that hope with all the pain and suffering that can be seen in our world? If you or I were born into a world that is literally losing the stuff that allows us to live, would it be foolish to hope that we would survive? I’ve probably asked too many rhetorical questions, but I think that this is the central idea in the film. It’s not just a movie about a man trying to save his family from disaster. We’ve seen plenty of those. It’s a film about whether that’s even a realistic goal—or a laudable one. I think Nolan has his opinions, which he artfully gets through the screen, but to say more would require spoilers and so I will refrain. But seriously. Let’s get a beer sometime and talk about this.

Christopher Nolan might just be my favorite director. I don’t recall a single film that he’s made that wasn’t up to par for me. Some of them work better than others, but all of them work. Yes, even The Dark Knight Rises. And asking myself why I rank him so highly on my personal list of directors has led me to conclude one thing: I think the man just “gets” the visual medium. He understands that though a story is central to a film, and though the acting has to be spot-on, and though the dialogue must crackle along quickly and efficiently, the real reason people go to see a movie is to see the movie. And thus Interstellar’s next big theme is the sheer awe-inspiring, wonder-inducing visuals that Nolan and his team of special effects artists have managed to create. I mean, there are so many beautiful shots in this film. From the ridiculously complex and beautiful shots of space to the simple, refined-and-yet-dirty images back on Earth, every shot in this film looks incredible (and I haven’t even seen it in IMAX… yet). The main character, Cooper, expresses this sort of awe and wonder by repeating the phrase that sort of becomes his mantra throughout his journey: “we’re explorers.” Take some time to look up at the sky and “wonder about our place in the stars,” Nolan is saying to the viewer. Take in the magnitude of our universe and the sheer immensity of space. Let that awful beauty inspire you.

Overall, I think the film fits firmly into the recent string of Hollywood projects about science. There is a very clear push among certain intellectual circles in the movie-making industry to make kids excited about science again. Just in the past few years, we’ve had Interstellar, Gravity (which, I’ll say it… I think Interstellar does what Gravity only tried to accomplish), and the revamp of Cosmos. And while this sort of clear agenda could be construed as preachy, I never once got that feeling while watching Nolan’s film. The movie rings as true—as a passionate appeal instead of a science-salesman, if that makes sense. You can see in the film a love for science that is held at bay by a love of cinematography. For Nolan, the quality of the film comes first. Which, in the end, only makes his appeal more palatable.

 

ACTING

 

This section is going to be really short: the acting was great. I cried in the movie. I literally starting choking at one point because I was trying so hard not to sob loudly that I accidentally inhaled my own spit and began coughing, which I’m sure ruined that scene for most of the people around me. (Sorry, folks). This is the first movie I’ve seen in Matthew McConnaughey’s recent not-just-shirtless career, and he absolutely floored me with the range of his performance. Just great. Good job, slick.

Now, I did have a few issues, but the first isn’t even really solidified in my thinking and the second is just my own personal problem. The first is this: I thought that one of the crucial, heart-wrenching scenes was spoiled a bit by either weird acting or by slightly corny dialogue. It’s not really a spoiler, I suppose (since the scene is partially in the trailer for the film), but I thought that the scene in which Cooper is saying goodbye to Murph felt… unintentionally awkward. At first, I decided that the problem was the young actress’ acting, but I’ve since thought that it could also be a few lines of dialogue that didn’t feel true. Either way, McConnaughey’s performance carried me past that problem and into a world of tears. The second—entirely subjective and personal—issue I had is this: Michael Caine is very similar to most of his other roles in Nolan’s films. Which is fine. I mean, Burton has Depp, after all. And I do think there are subtle (yes, that’s the word I’d use to describe the acting in this movie!) differences that make his character in this film unique, but it felt too close to his previous roles to me. It took me out of my immersion slightly—but only slightly. And the movie is so damn good that I hesitate to really call either of these actual “problems.”

 

SCIENCE

 

I have this section in here because a host of other reviewers have complained about the science behind some of Nolan’s plot points being off. In reality, I’ve read positive reviews from actual scientists like Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who tore Gravity a new one on Twitter. Plus, Nolan had a physicist as a co-producers and chief science-checker-guy. Sure, not everything is going to be spot-on—it’s a movie!—but I think the film’s science is good when it needs to be. One of Nolan’s biggest assets as a director is his understanding of the story’s pace—knowing when to explain and when to let stuff slide, knowing how to weave the technical bits into a compelling story without sacrificing either. In my opinion, all the important questions are answered in this movie. And if they aren’t, the answers can be inferred. All the “plot-holes” and science mishaps in the film either don’t matter to me or are simple misunderstandings (because let’s face it, if you go into a Nolan film you ought to expect a plot that makes you think). As I was looking at other reviews, I came across this quote from someone I’ve been unable to track down, and it completely sums up my feelings about this whole issue: “It’s science fiction, not science boring.”

 

CONCLUSION

 

So, go see the movie. It gets all my stars, all my thumbs-up. I can’t figure out how to say it any other way. But I’ll give you a bit of a preview of the film to cap this review off. It is the refrain that echoes throughout the movie, the real backbone of the plot. If there was one aphorism I think Christopher Nolan would want his audiences to walk away with, it would be this. Coincidentally, this is also one of my favorite poems, even if it is pretty popular and oft-used. Here it is, the famous poem by Dylan Thomas:

 

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,

Because their words had forked no lightning they

Do not go gentle into that good night.

 

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright

Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,

And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,

Do not go gentle into that good night.

 

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight

Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 

And you, my father, there on the sad height,

Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Some Spoilery Thoughts on Aronofsky’s “Noah”

I just watched Darren Aronofsky’s newest controversial flick, “Noah,” so you can see just how behind the times I am. For weeks pundits and bloggers have been back-and-forthing each other on the merits and demerits of the movie, with many in my ultra-conservative Bible-belt town imploring their friends and fellow churchgoers to spend their hard-earned dollars elsewhere—on movies like “God’s Not Dead.” After reading and listening to these folks for a bit, finally watching the darn thing myself, and then waiting a day to sort through my feelings, I’ve compiled some thoughts on whether or not the movie works.

THINGS I THINK MANY CHRISTIANS DISLIKED ABOUT THE FILM 

  • It’s not biblically accurate. Instead the movie’s a hodgepodge of biblical characters, Jewish folklore, controversial interpretations (I’m looking at you, “Nephilim”), and the director’s own morals and faith-struggles.
  • The director is openly an atheist. This is actually a fair criticism. I think that many evangelicals were afraid—given the liberties with which Aronofsky tells the story—that the director was secretly poking fun at Christians. I thought the rock-creature/Nephilim-angels were a pretty neat idea, but one can easily see how Christians would get upset that their faith was being caricature-ized, mythologized, etc. They worried about any ulterior motives Aronofsky might have had. I can understand that fear.
  • The Creator isn’t really a character in the film. Sure, the existence of God is not really debatable in the world of this movie, but Noah doesn’t actually talk to God at all. He gets a dream “from the Creator” about the coming flood, and he has to decide what to do with that information. So he builds an ark for the innocent animals and prepares for mankind to be wiped out. This absence of God in the Noah story is understandably jarring for many Christians.
  • The theology is off. This is related to the fact that the movie isn’t biblically accurate, but it goes a bit deeper. In the film, it is Noah himself who must decide whom to save and whom to damn. He decides that all of humanity is to be extinguished—including his own family. But the important thing here is that Noah decides this. The whole storyline with Shem’s unexpected offspring is the only thing that keeps Noah from going through with this judgment—and his mercy is (at least in Noah’s mind) painted as a failure to live up to the Creator’s will. The rainbow at the end could signify that the Creator wanted things this way, that He is delighted by Noah’s mercy, but once again we don’t explicitly hear from the Creator and so this is ambiguous.
  • Also, evolution. You know the part I’m talking about.

and…

THINGS I PERSONALLY DISLIKED ABOUT THE FILM

  • It’s not biblically accurate. At first I was uncomfortable with this, but I soon got over it and enjoyed the movie as a film about faith itself—a film that wasn’t trying to be accurate. A film that was trying to tell its own story. But for the first several minutes of the film I was uncomfortable.
  • Relatedly, some of the theological differences I had with the film made me uncomfortable—until I realized that this movie wasn’t about conveying a specific theology. When I began to see that the movie was telling an entertaining story about Aronofsky’s views on faith, I no longer cared at all about the theological differences he and I have. Because—as I’ll tell you later—much of his feelings on faith seem to be similar to my own. I connected with the story.
  • I’m sad to say it here, but Anthony Hopkins was too… I don’t know. Comedic? Joyful? Whatever the word is, his Methuselah didn’t fit the feel of the rest of the movie. And not in a way that seemed intentional. Sure, he’s like a beacon of mercy for Noah’s wife, but his acting still felt forced and not quite one with the film’s whole.

but…

THINGS I LIKED ABOUT THE FILM

  • You never see God. This, to me, is the entire point of the film. Noah operates on faith—utterly blind faith. It drives him crazy. He is going to kill his own grandchildren—and when he can’t do this task he immediately plants a vineyard and gets drunk. Not only does he refuse to save anyone from the flood, but the birth of his grandchildren makes that staggeringly sad decision utterly pointless: the sin of Adam will live on in his line, corrupting the world. Of course, in the end the rainbow and the coincidence of the twins’ birth can be interpreted as the expression of the Creator’s pleasure. But even this “happy” conclusion is not accompanied by an explicit word from the Creator—it must simply be believed that they are doing the right thing. God it not a present character. And this eats at Noah. This is a very scary, very human kind of feeling. I dug it. A lot.
  • Noah is not a hero. He’s kind of an ass. No. Not even kind of. The man is cruel to Ham, seems driven more by his own hatred of people than by the Creator’s law being broken, and is convinced that it’s a good thing to kill his own just-born grandbabies.  Why did I like this? Because it captures the feel of the Bible’s stories. The people are never the heroes in those stories, man. Don’t believe me? Read about how Abraham gave up his own wife to rulers (twice!) to save his own skin. Or about how David had sex with one of his soldiers’ wives and then put her husband on the front line when she became pregnant so his sin would be hidden. Samson sins. Moses doesn’t get to see the promised land. Adam fell. The titans of the Christian faith are all terrible human beings. The moral is that we need God to save us—and that is one bit of theology this atheist’s film got spot-on.
  • Russell Crowe. I thought he acted his guts out. His descent into madness was believable and frightening. His tortured, torn soul was on display. For me, his acting was a significant high point.
  • As usual, Aronofsky delighted me with the beauty of his shots. The evolution shot stands as my favorite sequence in the film just for its sheer inventiveness, but there are so many others. The river snaking through the world, the jump-cuts of the snake and forbidden fruit, the shot of the angel returning to heaven as he flies past an Earth covered in hurricanes. There were countless moments of simply beautiful cinematography. The man blows my mind in pretty much every film he makes, and he didn’t disappoint me in this one.
  • It was made by an atheist. Why is this a good thing? Because it means the old tradition of finding artistic merit and meaning in religious stories is still alive and well in the secular world. This film sparked a national conversation about faith and art and how the two meet. Hopefully this means that many Christians will start thinking seriously about how their own faith can be on display in the mainstream, where the people they’re trying to reach will actually see it. And more importantly, I think it sparked a conversation about whether or not a movie has to be biblically accurate to accurately handle biblical themes.

BUT DON’T TAKE MY WORD FOR IT

Let me know how you liked or disliked the film—and why—in the comments below. The discussion is what’s important.