Thursday, September 17, 2009

Fear Of A Nazi Coffeepot

[Plok continues his post from Tuesday -- and will conclude tomorrow.]

So to continue, then...

Is it now, finally, to be Painkiller Jane?

Well, you bet it is! It's just that we're going to get there by way of Akira and Bob Hope and Gilligan's



HIP, HIP...!

(plays cricket sounds on dictaphone)


(rewinds; plays again)

...Because okay, there I was, all set to write a post for Geoff under the title "Throwing Out The Laundry List", and make it all about how when a lot of people make a piece of entertainment these days, they cheat: they just identify beats, and hit them, and leave out the soul. Twists and subverted expectations and the like, these are all formulaic things now, you just have to have 'em: the nice old man was really the killer all along, because that's what the beats tell you is required as the least-expected thing...but of course once you see the formula there in front of you, whatever is least-expected becomes most-expected, and then it's hard to keep caring. It becomes difficult not to see a given TV show, movie, comic book as just ticking off items on the laundry list labelled "Show", just going through the motions, and if the beats are bloody STUPID then they're still the beats, so you're still stuck with them, even if they don't make any sense at all, even if they commit the most phenomenal atrocities of irony on their way to arriving at the dumb place they never planned to go anywhere else but...!

But I thought better of writing that post, after a while, because to just say that going through the laundry list makes a show insincere, leaves out a couple odd for example, sometimes when they do it, they do it well. And then other times it may be well-done, but it's horrifyingly zombie-like nonetheless. I'm thinking particularly, here, about how most episodes of Friends still to this day can make stoned people flee screaming from the room...but Gilligan's Island (for example), though it never had any ambitions past being the crappiest piece of crap that ever crapped crap, makes stoned people blow bits of potato chip out of their mouths from laughing too hard. But, what can explain this? Not the laundry list: since both shows move through its items very deliberately indeed. And not the relative dumbness, because each show is about as dumb as the other one is! And perhaps it isn't even the basic matter of skill...

So what's the difference?

I think I have my own answer, but just as preamble: my friend Ed suggests that the difference is that Gilligan's Island was made by the Old Pros, who came up through the strata of show-business never expecting a million-dollar paycheque. People who could've done something different, something "finer", but didn't...and thus never treated a job as though it was really a career, because lacking the million-dollar jackpot one job's just like another job, and any journeyman can get a job...and anyway "career" was something they'd already bailed on long ago.

But if you can get a million-dollar payout for writing a couple of seasons of a piece of crap, then that is a career, if you see what I mean...and so that complicates things. In a world where some entertainments can scale up, an enormous promise joins forces with an enormous pressure even in the manufacture of crap, and encourages shortcuts even among those talented folks who ought to know better...who are in all likelihood trying to know better, but who face a problem in their marketplace that makes that knwledge difficult to grasp, and harder to hold. The name of said problem being throughput: being board-feet per hour, battlefield triage...being maybe just one chance to get it right, and grab some of that good career stuff from the welter of the million-channel universe, so you grab at as many chances as you can, but you don't take too much time over any of them. The clock starts ticking in the lightning round and you just start free-associating, because that's all there's time for...and if you fall into something that happens to BLOW UP HUGE, then you get yourself as stuck into it as you can manage and try to play it hard, but until and unless that happens you have to rely on knowing how to Get In, Get Out, Get Paid, and Get Over It. Saying which sounds pretty cynical of me, I guess, but then again hopefully by the end of all this it will not seem so cynical, and in the meantime all I really mean to point out is that where there's money there's also lazy, sure as God made mortgage payments...and that million-dollar cheques can make cheaters of any of us.

Even the best of us: after all when Friends first went on the air it earned viewer loyalty precisely for daring to be well-constructed disposable crap...but such a difference does the new narrative of career make, that after a couple of seasons this simple production of adequate mediocrity wasn't enough. And yet there was nothing else for it to be, except what it was; and so it's the same problem, even if one is not solely fixated on getting paid and getting over, because both the mawkish and the mendacious erupt from the same flaw: which is the need to get somewhere, that the pressure and the promise carry in. Before the Eighties, there was never any such pressure as this, at least not in the world of the second-rate; there was never any such panic as the panic to suddenly make it good. Since the Eighties, though, things have been ramping up, up, WAY UP...because the unexpected B-grade masterpieces of yesteryear set the pace, wrote the recipe, set the choreography by which this kind of scalable success is recognized. Comics comes in here as much as TV does: Moore and Gibbons' Watchmen and Claremont and Byrne's X-Men had as much to do with concretizing this stuff as Hill Street Blues or Cheers ever did...and comics are trapped in the concrete now just as much as TV is, the blending of techniques and styles that was so fresh in those early days hardening around both of them together, no longer separated but joined up in the big world of scalable biz. You can see it in the forms they're both following: false closure, hurry-up-and-go gesturing at a simulated sense that practically cries out "here, take these beats, this is how the thing finishes up, well you know what I mean, after all haven't you heard this tune before? You know how it goes..."

So, no one can do proper endings anymore. It's all "gimme a C, a bouncy C"...and then it's dee-dee-dee, da-da-da, whatever the hell else you wanna throw in there...

(Old ref., lost on y.v...)

...And certainly if one had the time, one would like to spin up the idea that not only can you read all kinds of apocalyptic storylines in popular entertainment as subtle warnings about the dangers of trying to capture lightning in a bottle twice, but you can take those warnings and run them all the way back to the creative as well as the technological. Every apocalypse the failure of somebody's imagination? It may not have been deliberately placed in Akira for us to see there, but science fiction is a funny thing (and Japanese science fiction doubly so!), in that the allegorical tension between technology and humanity in a given story is never just about the actual tension of technology and humanity in our own real lives -- it's never just a cautionary tale about ethics and science and catastrophe! -- but it's more critically about what we can and cannot do about our human failings: about our causes and their consequences, our culpabilities and their cures. The specific landscapes and architectures and human actions of fiction (science fiction doubly so!) aren't anything so simple as "representational" -- rather, they're even simpler than that...!

...In that they show our relationship to the world around us as itself. In other words the apocalypse is not metaphorical, because we are living it, whether we're out on the mean streets or among the ruins of the city on the Moon...and our relationship to it is just as we see, even as the buildings around us in the real world are as founded on genuine human relation to environment as are the buildings in fiction. Both contain not a drop of meaning, that isn't our own meaning; the relation of human beings to an apocalyptic landscape in a fiction is just what our relationship to apocalyptic landscapes are...and so the End Of The World is ever-present in ourselves, as it's ever-present in fiction as fiction's Great Attractor...

Well, that's why it's there...!

And that's what makes your basic Apocalypse run, as the authors of Japanese science fiction well know. But it's getting past it that's the trick, of course; for which a little bit of luck is needed, but along with luck something just as important, something that luck is forceless without: self-knowledge...

...Wherein lies the proper end of every story.

Which brings me to the TV shows of today, and the comics and the movies and even (if you want to get all Dale Peck about it) the novels too...even, indeed, to pop-philosophy books designed to supplement institutional salaries. As I mentioned to Geoff the other day, one of the things I thought made "How To Read Superhero Comics" such a worthwhile book, was that it was not just a by-the-numbers and on-the-beats work of pop-philosophy, but instead it was actually educational -- having both a strong subject and a strong point: having some kind of genuine perspective. Good captioning, I would call it: which is a roundabout way of saying, something that has a beginning and an ending as well as a middle. Back when I was an essay tutor at university, I fell madly in love with beginnings and endings...I saw so many essays, you see, that I was informed were "basically done, except for the conclusion", but of course when there's no conclusion it usually means there's been no introduction either, which meant that the essay was "basically done" except for the trifling matter of what it was about. Well, this is what you go to school for in the first place, to learn how to read and think and write...but part of that deal is, after the schooling's done, you expect the knowledge to stick.

And I think it does, most often; but a lot of times it gets peeled away later on, too, and then you get some very arresting and peculiar collapses of "captioning", in a lot of places you don't really expect to find them -- like this show on Japanese steelmaking I saw on the Discovery Channel, oh wow, I mean you don't expect a show like that to get captioning wrong! -- as well as in a lot of places where you kind of do.

Such as Painkiller Jane.

...So there was this episode of Painkiller Jane about a haunted coffeepot, that every time somebody tried to make coffee in it, it would force them to confront their greatest fear. I know. But come on, it's only Painkiller Jane, why should we pick on it for having a haunted coffeepot in it? It's only doing the best it can, for heaven's sake! But then at the end of the show, something intrudes that I think we must pick on: as after the coffeepot problem is solved, the main character closes the show out with a voiceover. Here's how it begins:

"A President said, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself...Wolverine found his fear, the fear of losing control...and Storm found hers, the fear of being abandoned..."

(Okay, I confess it: I can't remember the names of the characters. But basically they're easily thought of as being the X-Men anyway, right? I mean every show like this has a Wolverine character on it now, every show has a Storm...and isn't that what gave those X-Men movies their crazy sense of deja vu...? )

"...And my fear?"

Oh, never mind about your fear, Jane. We've got bigger problems right now. Like: that telling phrase, "a President said". Man, I'm telling you, it wasn't even "a President once said", you know? I mean it was just all kinds of wrong, that business...because, what's so important about Presidents saying things, eh? Just Presidents saying things in general, is it really so important that they do? Not what they say or why, but simply that? And of course the way it was put, it could've been Lincoln or Taft, it could've been Chirac or it could've been Lee Iacocca (o.r., lost on...), just so long as it's a President saying it, for God's sake! And obviously: that's stupid. But we could still let it slide (because it's only Painkiller Jane!), if being stupid was the only thing that was wrong with it. Unfortunately, being stupid isn't what's wrong with it. Being stupid is only a symptom of what's wrong with it. And this is key: because critics can be lazy in the same way that writers can be lazy, and when they are they participate in the fault...! So if the only thing wrong with Painkiller Jane is that it's kinda stupid, then we either come down on the side that says "that ain't right" or we come down on the side that says "no big deal", and then we just disagree, and nothing gets done because the conversation stops. And that's no good.

Because what's wrong with this episode of Painkiller Jane is that if the story is all about "confront greatest fear; work through it to solve problem", then anybody ought to know that the FDR line is just waiting for its cue, to take the stage. I mean that line is right there, isn't it? It's just about the lowest-hanging fruit imaginable. You practically HAVE to take it, you'd be a fool NOT to! Jesus, let's not stand on ceremony, it's only bloody Painkiller Jane, man...!

But then, it doesn't work anyway. And that is a problem, because it really, really ought to, but instead it's all messed-up. A President...well that's ridiculous, everybody knows it was FDR, so why is the script so cagey about it? What mutant strain of pudicity is keeping the script from saying "President Roosevelt", when that's who it was, and everybody knows that's who it was? The answer is a sad one: because it should've been a haunted Nazi coffeepot, but somebody was just too goddamn lazy to make it one. And that's some serious irresponsibility, there: because how hard would it have been, just to make it a Nazi coffeepot? Or, you know, something. The FDR quote then fits right in: "During WWII, President Roosevelt told the American people that the only thing we had to fear was fear, lemme tellya he didn't know the half of it!" Awful, of course. Maybe even a little bit hideous. But it gets Roosevelt's name in there, and that's all that counts. It doesn't even matter if it's stupid, see? It just needs to get some identification in there of who's speaking. Because without that identification, no one is speaking, and if no one is speaking then you do it like this:

"They say the only thing we have to fear is fear itself..."

Which is beyond stupid, because nobody actually does say that, and anyway if it isn't cool to say all Presidents look alike in the dark, it oughtn't to be cool to say all quotes do, as though everybody said everything, or nobody said nothin', and it really doesn't matter...but once again, it isn't the uncoolness of the stupidity that's the problem, it's the need for closure, and the thing to keep one's eye on here is that you can't achieve closure by asking the viewer a Jeopardy question out of the blue for no reason at all, while they're patiently waiting for the screen to go dark. Because either it matters who said the line, or it doesn't matter; and either it is a Nazi coffeepot or it isn't. If it isn't, then either who said the line must go, or the line itself must go. Because that fork in the road only has two tines on it, and in your essay's beginning is its end...and that's that, and there ain't no more. If the coffeepot had been a Nazi one, there's no excuse for saying "President" and leaving out "Roosevelt"...but if the coffeepot is un-Nazi in complexion, there is no cause to say either "President" or "Roosevelt", and especially there is no cause to pick one over the other instead of saying both, when really you should say neither.

So, what happened there, then? How can this incredibly messed-up decision be explained?

My answer: it can't be, because it was clearly never made in the first place. And the "president" line really is a mutant strain of pudicity, of the same type that makes a person do weird nonsensical things when confronted with somebody whose name they don't recall: like, you know the person's name isn't Dave, but that's all you know, so you say

"Oh, HEY, uh, how's it going?"

You cough your way through it, only without actually coughing. Hey, at least you called him something, right?

Here's another one, from a thrift-store ad in my home town that plays all the time late at night:

"Out here, amongst the floral and the fauna..."

Another impossibly active mistake, that could never have been intended...and yet there it is, eh? And though I won't deny that one can imagine alternative scenarios, still the one that seems most likely is the one in which someone got paid to write that line...!

But okay: maybe that isn't such a good example. Let's do The Mentalist, then! Where at the end of one episode the Smart Guy turns to the Dumb Guy and says:

"You know, a great man once said that all the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players."

Which immediately made me want to hear Dumb Guy say:

"He did? But marry, sir, who is this great man thou speak'st of? ...Soft, here comes a television viewer, watch me sport with him!"

Which he did not. And so then I decided to have myself a damn drink; and then I decided to have myself another. Seriously, I'm not a religious man, but I just pray that I happened to be out of the room when, earlier in the episode, Smart Guy was extolling the virtues of Shakespeare only to have Dumb Guy say "I don't like Shakespeare; can't understand what they're talking about. I'll take an Elvis movie over a play any day." Because otherwise as far as I can see it comes down to just two possibilities: one, that the line was originally "you know, Shakespeare once said that all the world's a stage...", but then a network executive swung through all Chris-Bird-like on his trapeze and said "CAN'T MENTION SHAKESPEARE, MORONS! PEOPLE WILL CHANGE THE CHANNEL!"...

Or, two, that the writer of said dialogue just didn't remember who...who...WHO...!

...Oh God, it's too horrible to contemplate.

Because that the writer didn't know it was Shakespeare, well O Lord (tut tut! how now?), is that even possible?

I am tempted to say that well, no, of course not, ha ha! Don't be SILLY, dave...!

...So hopefully one of you will have seen the episode in question, and will reassure me that, yes, Smart Guy and Dumb Guy did indeed have a conversation wherein one said he liked Shakespeare and the other said he preferred Elvis, and then all will be well, and I can finally get some sleep. But that I can even entertain the thought is a pretty bad sign anyway, even if all's well...right?

So the question becomes: how come I can entertain that thought, that thought which makes me think the end times are upon us, and that the death-knell has finally dinged and donged for this whole big Civilization fiasco, that started out so promisingly? What's happened, to open the door to that possibility in my mind?

What's gone wrong?

Hey, exactly whose failure of imagination is this, anyway?


Huh, I guess in all the confusion I forgot to mention Bob Hope.

Uh...anyone care to come back one more time, and see how I work him in?



plok said...

Uh...apologies for the Great Big Font, everybody...don't quite know how I did that.

Wow, a cumbersome reading experience made even more cumbersome, without even trying! I'm a genius!

plok said...

Also, just after I sent this along to Geoff, in fact I think it was the very next night...guess what was on TV? That same episode of The Mentalist. So I just sat and watched it straight through from beginning to end, and I'm sorry to have to report: nope, Smart Guy and Dumb Guy never did have that conversation about Shakespeare and Elvis, nor did I see anything like any kind of space where they plausibly might' it seems my fears were justified. Rather, are justified...

Andrew Hickey said...

Fantastic stuff. Of course, for Gilligan's Island and Friends I read old Doctor Who and the Welsh show...

plok said...

Thanks, Andrew! And, ha, "the Welsh show" "the Scottish play", eh?

Andrew Hickey said...

Exactly. The Programme We Do Not Mention.

Justin said...

I always assume those "a great man once said" quotes are meant to be self-congratulatory for the audience. Readers and audiences *like* to do a little bit of *work*, but whoever's making the show may not trust that audience to leave any ambiguity in character, plot, motivation ... so they ask, like you said, a Jeopardy question. That way, I can go, "Why, that great man is Shakespeare!" and I can be pleased with myself for not having to be told, and feel superior to the theoretical viewer who *didn't* know that.

Monstrous if true! Then again, maybe the "great man once said" thing is so ingrained into popular entertainment that writers today think THAT'S JUST THE WAY IT'S DONE.

Hey, this one'll kill you: Rereading some 2000-era Superman comics for a blog post (the specific comic is credited to Joe Kelly and Jeph Loeb, but this line feels like a Loeb), Superman gives one of those boilerplate rousing speeches to Superboy, -girl, and Steel about how they have abilities above ordinary people blah blah, responsibility to use them blah, and Superman, WHO IS ALSO A SERIOUS JOURNALIST, actually says, "To paraphrase a great man -- 'Ask not what your world can do for you ... but what you can do for your world.'"

Congratulations! Your synapses are now fried.

plok said...


It is interesting to think about when and where "great man" can be used to good effect, vs. when and where it just stinks out the joint...

I may have to do that after a coffee, actually...

sean witzke said...

"As the great warrior poet Ice Cube once said, if today does not require an AK it is good" - well, they're not all bad.