Sunday, October 19, 2014

Top Chef 6-14: Season Finale, Part 1

Whereas most reality shows take glee in rolling around in cultural trash, Top Chef has aspirations (some would say pretensions) of being classier and perhaps more edifying.  Like its stablemate Project Runway, it aims to bring a high-cultural world to a mass audience without losing the sheen of prestige that comes with that high culture.  The later episodes of each season are especially serious in tone, with most of the reality-TV drama gone as weaker contestants are weeded out and strong chefs have to bring their A games.  It's the equivalent of the play-offs, when all of a sudden everything seems to really matter.

But that's not a garauntee that the final episodes of Top Chef will be compelling television.  This is an obvious point: we can't actually experience the great taste of a masterfully-cooked dish.  There's an appeal to watching someone be excellent at something, whatever that something is, but in the case of Top Chef that excellence seems more distant to the viewer than perhaps in any other non-cooking competition show.  Despite this, Top Chef has succeeded in being good television because of its ability to present compelling narratives about what it means to pursue that excellence.

Season 6 is often regarded as the high-water mark for talent on Top Chef, but there's been relatively little interpersonal drama, and most of it has involved Robin being irritating and people reacting by being dicks to her.  The four chefs left, while obviously talented, are not the most compelling characters Top Chef has ever produced: Mike Voltaggio is vaguely douchey without ever rising to the level of villainy, his brother Brian is dull, Jennifer is talented but seems perpetually drunk, and bearded Kevin is the most likeable by default.  There are a couple of narrative frameworks created by the competition -- Jennifer's downward spiral, the sibling rivalry between Mike and Brian, Mike's vague snobbishness towards Kevin's cooking -- but they're presented almost as an afterthought.  The pleasure comes not in watching these fairly staid people interact, then, but in seeing the culinary invention as they try to one-up-each-other.

This is where season 6 really finds its success.  While we still can't taste the food on screen, seeing obvious innovation is exciting.  There's also the fact that food does in fact have visual appeal, especially the type of cuisine made on Top Chef, which frequently resembles more of a food-based art exhibit than a fulfilling meal.  Unlike in some seasons, there's no clear favourite to win, and everyone left is a contender.  So the season 6 finale works because we don't really need a narrative to care about who wins the competition: we want to see excellence.

As per usual, the finale is held in a different location than the main season and is filmed substantially later, usually after the season has begun to air on television.  As a result, there's a sense of re-acquaintance when we see all of the contestants.  It's only been a week since we last saw them, but the time that's passed is conveyed in their appearances and their refreshed attitudes.  Kevin's facial hair is even more out of control, and Padma has acquired both a baby bump and a bizarre bowl-cut.  The physical changes create a sense of renewal, a sense that this chef has already "made it", and also a sense of separation from the harried chef driven through the meatgrinder of challenges that is the regular season.  These are the contestants with their best feet forward, aware of themselves as both reality TV stars and as top culinary prospects.

The finale this year is set in Napa Valley, and that carries with it all the contradictions of wine country.  Padma arrives on a bronze train with a dining car, rustic and antiquated, but also with the air of old-world cultural prestige that defines fine wine.  And of course, the contestants have to cook on the train.  This is the weird class jumble of Top Chef: making fine cuisine with ingredients like Napa grapes, the type of food that would normally be served for obscene amounts of money, but doing so in an ad-hoc environment usually peopled by low-level service workers like the people who bring you pretzels on the train (train attendants?)  But of course, this is also the contradiction of the fine dining world: elegance and expense up front, monotonous body-destroying low-wage labour in the back.  Top Chef glamourizes this reality, but also is not afraid to call upon the toughness of being a line cook and coming up through the culinary ranks as a source of virtue for its protagonists.  This is, it seems to me, a very neoliberal maneuver: downplay labour exploitation in favour of portraying work as a (competitive) art, while at the same time making the ability to survive said exploitative labour the be-all and end-all of morality.

This particular challenge doesn't so much focus on toughness -- the obligatory mentions that real cooks have to do this work is by now long dead -- so much as it stresses the wacky environment and the difficulties it presents.  (It's not unlike the much-maligned "cook in a gondola" challenge from season 9 in that.)  Also, the winner gets a Prius.  People always win cars on reality competition shows, and it's one of those well-established tropes of the genre that doesn't serve a whole lot of purpose -- it doesn't really raise the stakes, as it has no real weight in the show's narrative, and even as product placement the strained enthusiasm of the contestants has to be a poor advertisement.  ("That's a pretty sweet prize to win" says Kevin with no notable affect).  To be fair to the contestants, it's hard to get excited about a blue Prius.

The omnicompetence of the chefs means that we don't really get the slapstick promised by unprepared people trying to cook in a moving train car.  The less exciting part of the challenge, cooking with Napa grapes, actually ends up shaping the dishes much more.  In Top Chef, food and wine have always gone hand in hand, as in the magazine that heavily sponsors the series (and provides a regular judge).  As someone who doesn't drink, this feels a bit strange to me -- no one ever asks chefs to pair a meal with a particular brand of cigarette, or their favourite type of cocaine -- but I gather it's a well-established part of the culinary world.  Nothing says prestige and sophistication like fine wine, and this prestige seems to exist even when the wine is in its embryonic form of the grape.

Bryan doesn't quite understand the importance of Napa prestige in this challenge, and uses a Concord grape instead of a local variety.  A miffed guest judge criticizes him for this, under the guise of locavorism.  Kevin is the only one to make a desert, showing that he's once again much more on my wavelength than the other contestants.  But the dish he makes ends up looking more like something you would stick a flower into.

The winner is Mike, who is rapidly emerging as a frontrunner.  His dish includes one of his patented conceptual tricks, this time placing the grapes on a wooden skewer with scallops.  It's a simple enough gimmick, putting one food (grapes) in the context you would usually find another (meat), but it's worked time and time again, especially when you add a perennial judge-pleaser in scallops.  Mike seems to have a better ability to conceptualize dishes, and that communicates skill to a TV audience much more than taste.  Jennifer and Bryan's dishes were both praised, but I couldn't follow all of the permutations Bryan's grape took, and Jennifer just seemed to throw it on top of a chicken dish.  Mike doesn't really have the mad genius persona of Marcel or Richard from past seasons (his aura is more that of your vaguely douchey college roommate), but his ability to come up with simple but inventive concepts for dishes makes it easy for Top Chef to present him as the frontrunner.

Following the Quickfire, we get a few brief moments of the chefs hanging around their hotel suite between challenges.  This is normally the milieu in which drama happens, but since everyone is being stubbornly civil to each other, it's just a quiet moment.  There's a kind of recognition, if not beauty, in seeing the contestants do totally mundane things like fix their hair or eat breakfast.  Were it not for the pointless voiceover where Jen tells us that she wants to win, this could almost be mistaken for a scene from an arthouse film.  I'd like to see a little more of this reality in my reality TV.

For the elimination challenge the guests have to cater a crush party, which was sadly not what I thought it was.  The event kind of has its roots in the traditional harvest festival, but abstracted to a point where it becomes indistinguishable from every other gala the Top Chef contenders have to cater.  Still, the aesthetics of harvest and the autumnal setting do add a rustic glow to the episode that the sanitized and geometric world of high cuisine usually lacks.

Actually, this episode kind of sits at the nexus of the culinary world's contemporary contradictions.  There's a back-to-the-earth focus on natural ingredients and farm freshness alongside a veneration of dishes that said farmers would neither recognize nor want to eat.  Food as presented on a Top Chef tasting menu is denatured, usually no longer resembling its original form and certainly having nothing to do with the sustenance of the body.  I don't want to bang the food-populist drum quite too loud, as simply rejecting high cuisine in the name of common sense has its own problems and contradictions,  But this season highlights these ideas in the narrative pitting Kevin and Mike Voltaggio against each other.

The crux of the conflict, as both men explain in confessional interviews, is that Kevin cooks simple Southern food while Mike cooks more complex modernist fare and looks down at Kevin's cooking with condescension.  If this was a movie, we know how it would go: Kevin's simple down-home cooking would eventually overcome Mike's snooty and elitist ways.  But reality, even reality TV, doesn't go quite as smoothly.  For one thing, neither man fully fits their role in the slobs-versus-snobs narrative.  As mentioned above, Mike is not Marcel -- with his frat-boy haircut and baseball cap, he looks just as much like a slob as Kevin does.  And despite the narrative, Kevin isn't exactly serving big platters of chicken and bits.  He twists and transplants Southern tastes into a format that's ultimately pretty familiar to the Top Chef world.  And Mike's desire in this episode to highlight the natural taste of farm-fresh ingredients hardly fits this profile.  This is the blessing and the curse of reality shows -- no matter how much the producers try, the narratives are never neat and tidy, and as a result conflict often ends up being more multifaceted and nuanced than scripted television.

There's nothing particularly complicated about Jen's fall from grace.  She started out at the top, and seemed to grow increasingly disorganized and manic as the competition wore on.  What's weirdly unnerving about this narrative is how there's no apparent cause for Jen's meltdown.  This episode tries to drum up a narrative about her going in too many different directions, but really what we see is an example of the inexplicable self-sabotage that affects so many people in real life.

Along with the narrative, there's a lot of proccessual stuff too: we hear about how Bryan prepares his ribs and how Jennifer adjusts to her coals dying.  This detail in part serves the same function as technobabble - even (especially?) if we don't know what the chefs are talking about, having them talk about it in detail still conveys their competence.  For those who know about all the cooking techniques mentioned, I doubt the series will really add much educational insight, but it may create a point of connection -- "oh, I should try that thing with the duck fat!".  The strength of Top Chef is the way it folds these processual moments into the broader competition narratives that are, at their core, unrelated to whether the cook chooses to braise or roast their meat.  This is best embodied in Tom Colicchio's tours of the kitchen (dubbed by some as the Sniff and Sneer), where he quizzes contestants on both what they're cooking and how they're feeling right now.  The trick of Top Chef is that it isn't really about food, but it manages to convince us that it is through carefully sparse moments of technical information.

The challenge proceeds as these things usually do: luxurious close-ups of the meal in question, brief comments from the judges, and a couple quotes from amazed diners.  The judges seem to both overreact and underreact: Gail responds to a salty dish like she's been punched in the face, while the top dishes just get tight-lipped approval.  And then we get the judge's table, which is actually a little different than usual.  There's a lot of disagreement among the judges, which could potentially highlight the arbitrariness of the whole selection process.  But we do have the narratives to lend credence to the result -- Kevin cooks simple, Michael and Bryan cook complex, and Jennifer is talented but is in a downward spiral.  So Jen goes home.  This is, in fact, where more recent seasons of Top Chef have gotten in trouble.  Instead of building up a narrative that justifies the elimination, later seasons attempt to fake the viewer out by using reality TV tropes to subvert the viewer's expectations.  With viewers still having no way to judge the decision, this can lead to confusion and even a sense of injustice, as with the eleventh season finale.  Season six uses a more conventional structure -- when you hear someone get the phone call from home, you know they're going to be on the chopping block -- but it works.  There is, after all, little room for the avant-garde in reality TV.

Given the formulaic nature of the genre (and fans who are not interested in seeing it rise above that formula), how can we critically gauge reality television?  To be more specific, what is it that makes Top Chef's sixth season so acclaimed and its ninth so despised?  The calibre of chefs?  The personal conflict on display?  (TV producers assume that viewers want a lot of drama, but the mostly conflict-free season 6 is better liked than the drama-filled season 2 or 9).  The personalities?  The unpredictability?  The prettiness of the food?  This season, and this episode, has some of these qualities and very little of others.  All we know is that we are drawn into the series and, in the end, satisfied.  Perhaps, instead of dragging over the expectations of scripted television, we need a new critical apparatus to figure out why.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Chris Gethard Show 141: Should We Keep Doing This Show?

In my last post, I talked about how network TV shows have their creative direction constantly affected by the network's ability to cancel or renew them.  In an age of long-term story arcs, the network show is never quite sure just how long it will last.  On the exact opposite end of this spectrum is The Chris Gethard Show.  A product of public-access television and Internet streaming, the show can go on for precisely as long as the creators keep showing up to the studio.  And as a call-in/variety show, Chris Gethard doesn't have to think about when a story goes on to be wrapped up.  Theoretically, this show could go on forever, or at least until New York is underwater.

This is the most absolute form of creative freedom you'll find in TV (as in most popular art forms, freedom and obscurity go hand in hand).  But as we've all learned from Uncle Ben, with great power comes great responsibility -- or, more precisely, with great freedom comes great significance.  Ending Chris Gethard would be a deliberate act, one that cannot be blamed on ratings or storylines.  There can be no "save our show" campaign, as the fans would have to uncomfortably argue that the show should be saved from those who create it[1].  I don't like to talk about "agency", but in independent art the agency of the creator is both blessing and burden.

"Should We Keep Doing This Show?" is a mostly symbolic attempt to extend this agency to the fans of the show.  The format is about as barebones as Chris Gethard gets: each caller phones in and responds to the titular question with either "yes" or "no".  After three weeks of deliberation and ambivalence by the creators, the yes-or-no format is refreshing in its directness, although it doesn't stop one caller from hemming and hawing through a longwinded list of TV analogies.

This episode is the culmination of a month-long arc titled "Evolve or Die", with each episode dealing in some way with the possible impending end of the show and the possibility of its reinvention.  This is another divergence from the chronological world of the TV series, which resists both evolution and death.  If anything, there's a palpable fear of The Chris Gethard Show becoming an institution, or even a regular job.

In part this is a discomfort with the show's success and its ever-growing cult following.  A few weeks prior, a remarkably sober panel discussed how Gethard could no longer describe himself as the underdog.  What was a scrappy public access call-in show watched by no one is now an internationally-watched show that is praised and criticized just like any other TV program (by people such as myself).

The Chris Gethard Show's improvisational interaction with its audience and friendly, accepting ethos (summed up by Mal Blum telling the audience "no one should ever be alone" the previous week) created an affectionate bond between performers and audience that was far beyond the usual relations of fandom.  Several viewers have spoke of the show as a kind of therapy.  But what is becoming increasingly clear is that this relationship is not all warm feelings, but also constitutes a responsibility, perhaps even a burden.  In previous episodes, Gethard despaired at the idea that he would have to stay on the air to keep helping people through their mental issues.  He said that it wasn't his responsibility to look after the mental health of strangers, especially at the expense of his own mental health, and that's certainly true.  But perhaps what's psychologically helpful about the show is precisely that it allows the audience to believe that they aren't strangers to Chris Gethard and the rest of the cast.

After weeks of experimentation, including the shocking cold open of "Why Did You Stop Watching The Chris Gethard Show" and the solo lunacy of "I Can Be Bad All By Myself", we get a conventional Chris Gethard opening: Murph screams at the camera, the LLC play the opening theme (sans Hallie this time), and the panel introduces us to the theme for the week.  It's a classic Chris Gethard panel too, with all of the show's regulars.  This return to convention serves two purposes in the episode.  Firstly, giving the audience what they've come to expect after weeks of scorning them is a gesture that helps invite them back into the fold.  (Although this is mitigated a moment later when Gethard chastises the audience for chanting.)  Secondly, it repeats the typical opening with the knowledge that this might be the last time it happens.

The actual call-in portion of the show is fairly straightforward.  There's some early pretense at keeping score, with Bethany drawing a tally on Jesse's chest, but pretty much everyone who calls in says "yes", and even the few who say "no" just want to see the crew work on other projects.  Whatever mixed feelings that are felt by the crew aren't shared by the audience.  This puts the creators of the show in a somewhat awkward position.

What emerges from the conversation is less a sense of creative exhaustion than physical exhaustion.  Gethard says "I'm very tired, almost all the time.  I'm growing up.  I don't know if I want to spend my whole life getting hit with broom by relative strangers".  As such, this string of episodes has felt a lot like Gethard asking the audience and the rest of the crew permission for a decision that he's already made, frustratingly disguised as a discussion.  This is permission that, for the most part, the audience refuses to give -- most if not all would be accepting of Chris's decision to end the show, but there are few "nos" among either callers or panelists.

But a funny thing happens.  A guy calls from Pakistan, and talks briefly about the weird cricket-star-lead revolution that's taking place in his country.  Gethard gets excited at the prospect of connecting to someone in such a radically different situation.  Towards the end of the episode, a guy with tattoos ased on the show calls in and proceeds to blow everyone's minds.  Far from the dejected, exhausted Gethard of "Why Did You Stop Watching?", we have the Chris Gethard of endless and uncomplicated enthusiasm, the force of positive energy that provides the ethos of the show.  He starts making plans for "If we come back".  By the end of the episode, I was distinctly more convinced that we'd see the show return than I was at the start.  The audience renewed their commitment to the performers, not by simply voting "yes" but by engaging Chris on a human level.

As usual, there's a lot more weirdness going on around the edges of the episode's main topic.  The set of The Chris Gethard Show is designed to convey total anarchy: there's Mimi on the Hoops, a man behind the plant, and a bunch of people in costumes sitting behind the main action.  These aspects are rarely commented on, but there's a sense that any one of these people could step up and become the protagonist of the show at any time.  Starting with its tradition of including "randoms" on the panel, The Chris Gethard Show has made the line between performer and audience porous to the point of nonexistence.

This sense of anarchy extends to the show's proceedings, where unexpected tangents often take on a life of their own.  The most notable example was a monologue by the Human Fish.  Besides being a great visual, the Human Fish usually doesn't do much more than his typical "A vs. B" judgement.  But suddenly, he speaks at length, and of course he has a complex inner life, and the flimsy backstory about him being here to learn about human society becomes meaningful and even touching.  The moments that have been self-conscious markers for the show's dumbness, like the "eat a burrito off my belly" episode, are moments of hope here.  When he announces that he will be returning to the sea, it's a more poetic rationale for why it might be time to end the show than any other justification made over the last month.

Less memorable is a recurring bit where the writers try out "characters we have to get on the show before it ends", which are of course all stupid one-note puns (Santa and Satan, Dr. Heckle and Mr. Snyde, the Nun-Chucks).  The purpose of The Chris Gethard Show's writers, as the show is usually better when it's being spontaneous, and as such the writing has often been the but of jokes.  This hews pretty close to the alt-comedy isn't-it-funny-to-think-someone-would-laugh-at-this routine, which I'm not a big fan of.  But even these jokes are enlivened by the positive energy that flows through The Chris Gethard Show, which suggests that maybe terrible puns deserve to be celebrated as well.

If this is the last episode of the show, it will be an odd one but definitely a fitting one.  Lots of television series, some quite mainstream, have done self-reflexive finales, but I can't think of any that have tackled the act of ending a beloved show so head-on.  But even with such a seemingly depressing topic, so much positivity comes flooding in through the phone lines and the energy of the performers.  Even the grimmest episode of "Evolve or Die" had a moment where a story about Gethard going to a baseball game made everyone crack up.  Even though I hope the show comes back, there would be no more appropriate way to end than everyone beaming and trying not to laugh at the end of a night they were prepared to be miserable.

[1]Although this hasn't stopped Doctor Who fans over the past decade.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Freaks and Geeks 1-16: Smooching and Mooching

What happens when you attain the unattainable?  What do you do when you get what you always wanted?  Well, if you're a fictional character it's the end of the story.  But things are a little different in television.  Because of the material conditions network television is produced under, writers find themselves producing a story whose length they have no control over.  The result is that TV shows have to choose between endlessly delaying the resolution of their central conflicts, or finding out what happens after the resolution.

As it would happen, Freaks and Geeks didn't really have to make this choice.  There were only two episodes aired after "Smooching and Mooching", and with a little helpful rearranging this episode could have easily been the happy ending that would tie a neat bow on the series.  This is an episode in which multiple characters have their fantasies fulfilled: Sam gets to make out with Cindy Sanders, Nick finds a supportive family, and Bill gets treated like a human being by the popular kids.  In fact, some of the later scenes come off like a male fantasy.  In the sixteenth episode of the first season, this is a bold bolt-from-the-blue moment.

The news in the episode's first act that Cindy has dumped the personality-less Todd and is now interested in Sam as more than a friend is rather sudden, perhaps justified by the fact that we never really know Cindy as a character in her own right.  Cindy's gradual disenchantment with Todd has been going on somewhere else while Sam has been taken up by other things (mostly sliding into the role of a secondary character in his own show).  For all his fixation on her, Sam really has little understanding of Cindy's life and her psychology, and needs to be coached on what she wants and how to approach her.  We're told that Sam and Cindy have an hours-long phone conversation, but they don't really seem to share much at all -- which leads to Sam's disappointment in the next episode.

Part of this is Sam's immaturity, but I think part of it is also the writers' lack of interest in Cindy as a character.  Paul Feig, Judd Apatow and the other writers (including Steve Bannos, who plays Mr. Kowcheski and is credited as the writer for this episode) are certainly capable of portraying realistic and three-dimensional female characters, with Lindsey and Kim being the least easily-stereotyped characters on the show.  But when women appear as the objects of desire in the male protagonist's storyline, this depth seems to go away.  Cindy's behaviour appears arbitrary and unpredictable, which is probably exactly how Sam would see it, but unlike so many of the series' other secondary characters it's hard to imagine her interior life.  This will in turn make the episode's conclusion a little unconvincing.

With Sam temporarily elevated to the status of desirability, Neil and Bill become the underdogs of the story, torn between envy and trying to ride on Sam's coattails.  One of the more interesting character dynamics throughout Freaks and Geeks is the fluctuating element of power within the geeks' friendship.  Talkative and bossy Neil is usually in control, while Bill is the one that the other two clearly consider even more of a loser than they are.  (You also have Gordon and Harris orbiting on the edges of this group, who both have fairly nebulous places in the hierarchy.)  This stands in contrast to the freaks, who despite their frequent fights all seem to be on a more or less even playing field.  While the geeks also exist on the hated fringes of high school life, Freaks and Geeks suggests -- correctly, at least as far as my experiences with nerd culture go --that those on the outside can also be as status-conscious as those on the inside.  The female geeks in "Looks and Books" also have a clear hierarchy, suggesting that in the view of Feig there's something insidious or at the very least paradoxical about the geeks that their own self-pity prevents them from realizing.  Whereas the freaks willfully reject the society of the popular kids, the geeks desperately dream of entering it.

It's a small and pathetic world, but Neil enjoys being at the top of it.  When Neil's control of the world around him is undermined, as in "The Garage Door", it creates a kind of social vacuum that all parties involved are obviously uneasy with.  In this episode, Sam's success with Cindy destroys Neil's self-appointed position as the worldly ladies' man of the group, the one who can dispatch advice about girls even if this advice is only based off sitcoms and magazine articles.  He frantically invites himself to the popular kids' make-out party, and doubles down on his attempts to systematically master the world of romance.  In one scene he displays his apparent mastery of spin-the-bottle, confident that this will win him the heart (or at least the lips) of Vickie Appleby.  Like the classic (perhaps stereotypical) geek, Neil can only think in systems and is not aware how his straightforward logical thinking will collapse in the realm of emotion.

Speaking of spin-the-bottle: I don't think I had quite realized before this episode just how cruel that game is [1].  At best, it conceals teenage sexual desire beneath an element of chance, allowing someone to kiss who they want (especially if it's someone, or multiple someones, they're not supposed to want to kiss) without taking responsibility for it.  At worst, it's a group denial of consent with results from humiliation to sexual assault.

Bill nicely points out the element of pain for the undesired: "What if they don't want to kiss us?  [...]  I just don't want to see the expression on their face after the bottle lands on me".  Neil, on the other hand, is thrilled with the chance to compel girls to kiss him: "That's the genius part of the game.  They have to kiss us.  Who cares [about their expression]?"  Neil's callousness would be extremely creepy if it weren't obviously covering up for deep-seated insecurity.  And so the trio of geeks prepare for the make-out party with their usual reaction to any milestone of adulthood they encounter: Sam with apprehension, Neil with fake bravado and expertise, and Bill with full-throttle resistance.  There's a great scene set in the cafeteria where Bill details the physical acts of French kissing in a way that makes them disgusting, focusing on all of the germs and detritus that gather on the tongue.  "Do you lick the inside of the mouth?  Do you lick the inside of her tongue?"  Up until the episode's final moments, the prospect of making out with a girl is more horrifying than erotic.  "Smooching and Mooching" clearly suggests by the end that Bill's resistance is fueled by immaturity, but it's also worth noting that Gordon and Harris are completely uninterested in the party, undermining Neil's idea that getting to make out with a cheerleader against her will is an obvious goal.

The actual experience of the party is a reversal of expectations for both Neil and Bill, and a fulfillment of dreams for Sam.  For the actually popular kids, the party is a way to fulfill their omnidirectional sexual desire without actually admitting a desire for anything outside of "going steady".  Neil's mastery of bottle-spinning fails him, with his spins constantly landing on Bill.  For Bill, who keeps landing on Vickie, he receives at first his expected humiliation.  Vickie clearly finds the prospect of kissing him revolting (not entirely unfair) and only allows him to kiss her hand or forehead.  The mutual discomfort is conveyed through body language, Vickie's desperate negotiating, and the soundtrack, "Poor Poor Pitiful Me".

The torturous recognition of Bill's status as undesirable culminates when he and Vickie are selected for "seven minutes in heaven", which they both react to with obvious pain.  But this is a TV show, so they end up making out instead.  It's not unbelievable per se, and it fits in nicely with Freaks and Geeks' continued interest in friendships and other connections which transgress the seemingly clear-cut boundaries of high school[2].  But it's hard to deny that this feels like a nerdy male fantasy, in which the loser's ability to recite lines from comedy movies attracts the head cheerleader to him (as reported in The Onion).

Spin-the-bottle is just as repulsive for Vickie as it is for Bill.  While she may be interested in using the game as an excuse to make out consequence-free with members of the football team, it quickly becomes a forum for boys she isn't attracted to forcing their bodies on her.  This is, if one stops to think about it, much worse than the humiliation Bill feels from her repeated rejections.  But the (almost entirely male) writing staff doesn't focus on this side of the game.  Bill asks Vickie what it's like to be pretty, assuming that it must be great, and there's no sense that being an attractive teenage girl can be incredibly hazardous.  The montage of the two geeks making out with their dream girls is set to Bob Seger's "You'll Accomp'ny Me", a song whose chorus insists on an inevitable romantic future over unheard refusal or disinterest.  In a roundabout way, Bill's happy ending proves that Neil was right: making out with an unfamiliar girl is in fact universally desirable, and it can be accomplished through compulsory games.

This problematic message is all the more surprising, since it is set in parallel to Cindy's straightforward and open desire for Sam.  Despite the suggestion that she dumped Todd for only being interested in sex, Cindy is the most openly libidinous character in the episode.  Instead of couching her desire in games, she all but tells Sam that she wants to make out with him, and tells him how she wants him to do it.  In fact, as we find out in the next episode making out is just about all Cindy is interested in.  Pairing this awkward but open courtship with the furtid compulsion that forces Vickie together in a softly-soundtracked montage that encourages us to think of both as part of the same magical moment feels like a betrayal.  I'm not suggesting that Freaks and Geeks needs to be didactically sex-positive, but I would have preferred a tenuous connection and perhaps a budding friendship between Bill and Vickie that respects both of their initial refusals to kiss instead of brushing them aside [3].

The episode's Freak-centred plot is also about a teenage boy's fantasy coming true, although a less libidinous one.  Nick briefly moves in with Lindsay and bonds with her parents, who provide the kind of loving and unconditional support he's been desperate for throughout the series.  The last straw for Nick is when he comes home and finds that his father has sold his drum set.  This could easily be presented as a goofy sitcom-father overreaction, but there are a number of factors that makes this incident seem like a chilling betrayal.  One is that Nick's musical aspirations are well-established and have been the subject of previous episodes.  Characters in Freaks and Geeks have a tendency to pick up interests for one episode and then never talk about them again, but this is not one of those instances.  In addition to script continuity, the visual choices give this scene an aura of violence that make it seem like much more than a father-son squabble.  Kevin Tighe remains seated and never raises his voice, projecting an air of cold-blooded menace.  It would be one thing to get rid of his son's drums out of stubborn passion or tough love, but here it seems like a calculated act of violence, one of the thousand cuts by which Mr. Andopolos controls Nick.  The confrontation is blocked so that Mr. Andopolos grows gradually more menacing.  Nick is initially in an aggressive, physical posture, but as soon as his father stands up he visibly shrinks.  Kevin Tighe is shorter than Jason Segel, but it sure doesn't look that way.

Nick's father's action doesn't really come across as a pointlessly cruel punishment: the series has frequently mocked Nick's delusions of musical genius and even hinted that this dream is keeping him from achieving greater things (a hint which is given greater nuance later in the episode).  His father also references his drug use, which the series has presented as a problem before.  So there is a logic to Mr. Andopolos's actions, and it's that framework of emotionless logic that he uses to justify himself, saying that Nick broke their deal.  Nick sounds less angry and more frustrated.  He can argue all day, but there's nothing he can do to change his father's actions.  Here Freaks and Geeks fully draws out the agony of adolescence: not just coming to grips with bodily urges, as in the Geeks' plotline, but also the pain of being an adult-sized person whose world is completely controlled by another.  Mr. Andopolos is a classic example of the disciplinairan, using his control of the environment and ability to act suddenly and arbitrarily to enforce his own allegedly fair rules and remind his subjects of their ultimate powerlessness.  His power is precisely the ability to act without consent or justification -- he repeatedly tells Nick "end of conversation", emphasizing that he does not need or want Nick to understand, much less agree with, his actions.  So of course, Nick revolts.

Lindsay is clearly reluctant to have Nick stay at her place.  She sees this request as just another one of Nick's attempts to get close to her and try to sneak back into a relationship with her.  Nick basically imposes himself on her, so it's easy to understand Lindsay's irritation, but at the same time it's an example of how people find it difficult to adjust between dealing with everyday personal issues and dealing with life crises like Nick leaving home.  Lindsay's quickness to leap to the "well, I would, but my parents" line suggests, as "Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers" did, that as much as she berates her square and unpermissive parents Lindsay also likes being able to go to a "straight" world that's divorced from her flirtation with the freaks.  When Nick moves in, that space vanishes -- and Lindsay is even more horrified to see her parents actually getting along with him.

Lindsay is sort of right to suspect that Nick is using this crisis as an attempt to get back together with her.  It may not be a conscious effort, but there's a scene where he wanders around half-naked and pesters Lindsay at the middle of the night.  Then again, this could simply be the increased intimacy of actually living with a person -- an intimacy that Lindsay wants nothing to do with.  She's also right to feel a little slighted by the fact that her parents, normally so critical of her, are so accepting of Nick.  Her father's justification for this different treatment is that he expects more from her than he does of Nick, and that Nick has had a harder childhood than her.

I think there's a bit more to this, though.  One of the major differences here is gender -- consider the way that the Weir parents generally encourage Sam's mischief with a boys-will-be-boys attitude, while restricting anything Lindsay wants to do.  This is the old law of conventional parenting: encourage your sons' desires, and protect your daughters from theirs.  But the Weir parents also probably sense that a disciplinarian approach is not what Nick needs right now.  Strict discipline is in fact what he's fleeing from.  Instead, Harold Weir sees through Nick's psychology in a way Mr. Andopolos doesn't try to, and calls him out on using his ambition to be a drummer as an excuse for laziness.  This is, it turns out, the kind of chastisement that Nick needs: one that recognizes his ambitions, unlike his father, but one that treats them as serious work that needs to be done.

And so Nick goes from wanting to get closer to Lindsay to wanting to get closer to her parents, from wanting to be her boyfriend to wanting to be her brother.  Lindsay is even more horrified by this turn of events.  (Seriously, Linda Cardinelli's reaction shots are the best thing in the show, and if Freaks and Geeks was around today you wouldn't be able to visit a webpage without seeing a .gif of horrified Lindsay.)  But as with Sam and Bill's fantasies, it can't last forever. Nick's father returns to take him home, and even makes a show of contrition.  Nick seems stunned that his father even cared enough to make the trip.  You can read this one of two ways -- as a sign that Mr. Andopolos cares about Nick more than he lets on, or a sign of the lack of affection he usually displays.  We see so little of Nick's familiy life -- his father only appears in two episodes -- that it's hard to tell whether the relationship really is abusive, as some speculate, or whether it's a more benign case of over-strictness and a generational divide in expectations.  But, as Nick's interactions with Harold show, there are ways to cross that divide and avoid the cold warfare of the Andopolos house.

But even if Nick eventually has to return to that frosty house, he still has those moments of connection, listening to Gene Krupa and dancing with Lindsay's mom.  More than anything, Freaks and Geeks is a celebration of these brief and unlikely connections -- the cheerleader kissing the biggest dork in school before they both head back to their normal lives, the straight-laced Christian girl talking her freak friend down from a drug trip.  The ostensible central narrative of the series, Lindsay turning from mathlete to freak, is another one of those moments of brief but powerful connection.  Freaks and Geeks isn't utopian enough to suggest that these connections can persist and subvert the social world they exist within.  In the two episodes after this, we see bonds that have existed throughout the whole series coming undone and the characters in the early stages of drifting apart.  In a way it's a good thing that Freaks and Geeks only ran for one season, as having these characters be in constant and static social groups would seem increasingly contrived.  As it stands it reminds us that our dreams can't come true forever, because then they would cease to be dreams.  But it's those all-too-brief dreamlike moments that give us happiness.

[1]I hadn't given it much thought before because, well, let's just say that my teenhood did not involve very many make-out parties.

[2] In this, as in many other things, Freaks and Geeks follows its obvious influence Dazed and Confused.

[3] This ending also trivializes Bill's subtextual crush on Cindy, which makes many of the earlier scenes in this episode so heartbreaking at the same time they are miraculous from Sam's more explicit perspective.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Frontline: Separate and Unequal/Omarina's Story

In this two-part episode, PBS's venerable investigative-journalism series Frontline takes on the issue of education in America and its unequal distribution.  Education is one of those issues that everyone says is important to them on opinion polls, but rarely forms the subject of mass debate.  For TV producers, education is a less visually exciting topic than crime or medicine -- there's no such thing as a "teacher procedural".  Learning, at least as practiced in contemporary schooling, is a process that takes place over years, mostly through dull-as-dirt lessons and repetitive work.  For another thing, there are few political loyalties to flare up when it comes to discussing education, as both U.S. parties are committed to the same (disastrous) neoliberal education policy.

Even when people talk about education, they have a way of not really talking about it.  That extends to the most recent Frontline episode.  In the first segment, the question is all about distribution of education funding, but in this discussion schooling is talked about like a concrete and measurable resource which various groups are fighitng over.  Obviously, funding is an important aspect of education in a capitalist system -- underfunded schools can't provide the same programs and opportunities that richer schools can, which results in students having even less opportunity to pursue their own interests and learn organically.  But still, the episode struggles to express, visually and verbally, what "good education" is.

That difficulty is key to the segment's central conflict, between a group of affluent Baton Rouge residents who want to secede from the city's school system and a municipal authority which wants to hold on to its shrinking funding base.  The secessionists argue that Baton Rouge schools are too poor to save, and that they must start again with a new town.  The opponents of the newly-proposed town, Baton Rouge's mayor among them, argues that this desire to separate is rooted in race and class and is akin to the "white flight" that bankrupted inner cities in the 1970s.  Frontline implicitly takes the latter side, editing the program so that anti-separation talking heads always get the final word in, but there's little way to tell if complaints about the quality of education are actually valid.

One school's principle tells us that it has recently been upgraded to a "C" school from a "D" one, but we have little idea of what that means.  On the other side of the argument, we hear that this school has a notorious record for fights, many of them uploaded to YouTube, but again it's hard to say what the causes of these fights are or whether they compromise the process of education.  We get generic shots of students listening and doing homework, but again it's hard to see a direct relationship between the school's funding and the ability of children to actually learn.

The way in which the process of education vanishes in this conversation is indicative of liberal discourse around the issue.  Here, education is a commodity like any other that can be distributed equally or unequally.  Liberals prefer to distribute it through the government, while conservatives want to edge it towards the marketplace.  There is no room here for debate about the purpose of education, pedagogical technique, or a wide-ranging critique of the system a la Ivan Illich.

What this Frontline story does point out is the way in which school inequality can't be broken down into a private-public dichotomy.  Under the new town, both school boards would be public, but there would exist a substantial inequality between two ostensibly public schools.  There's a brief mention of the pattern of "white flight" which suggests that this is not an isolated or new phenomenon.  Without the drastic step of making a new town, many white middle-class families essentially did the same thing in the 1970s by moving to suburbs and draining the coffers of actual cities.  What the program doesn't mention is the way in which current government policy such as Race to the Top, the very programs that separate a C school from a D one, exacerbate already-existing divides.

This is perhaps an inborn limitation of Frontline, and of any PBS program.  It can examine quite cogently a controversy or an instance of corruption or a minor scandal.  It can in some circumstances even raise a criticism of an entire system, as in an episode last season that raised doubts about the use of forensic evidence.  But structurally it's a product of the government, and it can't create a fundamental critique of any major institution, private or public.  Any corporate-owned network would be unable to do the same for the same reason.  Still, it doesn't take too much thinking to realize that Baton Rouge is not an isolated incident, and knowledge of a conflict like this -- one which is largely unknown outside of its local area -- can help to create a broader critique.  So even if Frontline can't be a voice for a truly radical critique, it can perhaps help to contribute to a general awareness about the world and the systems that govern it.

The second part of the episode, "Omarina's Story", further highlights the class divide in education across the United States.  This is a follow-up to an earlier episode, which I haven't seen, about a program to intervene in middle school when children show the first signs of going off the rails.  This seems like the usual technocratic silver-bullet narrative, in which Omarina is the shining exemplar.  In this segment, we learn that she has been accepted to Brooks, an elite private high school.

Omarina's presence at Brooks could be seen as a confirmation of America's essential meritocracy, but to its credit Frontline never presents it as such.  The point is not that there is a black inner-city girl at a prep school full of rich white kids, the point is that the prep school is full of rich white kids to begin with.  "Omarina's Story" suggests that many poor children -- Omarina suggests that her brother is just as smart -- could accomplish the same things if it weren't for systemic problems.  The scenes of her struggling adapt to a new environment imply that tokenistic scholarship programs don't do anything to make an environment less privileged and less alienating to people who come in without a sense of economic privilege.  When she has to come home to visit her brother in the hospital, she becomes a gripping character, caught between two worlds.

The narrative presented here is rather schematic, like a scientific experiment: Omarina succeeds with the intervention of the program, but her twin brother Omarlon (the control group, if you will) slides into a life of crime without the program.  But anyone who thinks about it for a minute will realize that not everyone who receives middle-school intervention will go on to Brooks.  What about the impoverished kids who are nurtured to a steady attendance record and a B average?  From the academic perspective their lives have been improved, and they may perhaps have a more comfortable adolescence (and that may be enough).  But will they really have more opportunities once they get out of high school?

"Omarina's Story" provides a better sense of what education is than "Separate and Unequal" does.  In this short, education is very much an affective relationship, with the close and nurturing relationship between Omarina and her teacher Miss Miller stretching beyond middle school itself.  Robert Belfans, creator of the "middle school moment" program describes it as "that sense of shepharding that kids need to tell them that not only an adult cares but that an adult can help them".

But there's a way in which this narrative removes any kind of agency or intelligence belonging to Omarina herself.  The narrator begins by saying that Omarina probably wouldn't be there if it wasn't for Belfans' intervention, then describes her as "lucky" that her middle school had the program he created.  In this way "Omarina's Story" becomes not Omarina's story at all, not the story of a black girl achieving remarkable things but the story of a white man's genius.  There's a sense throughout the segment that Omarina's own voice is struggling to overcome the more authoritative one of the documentary.  She reads an essay describing her life as a "one-way street", but instead of dealing with her concerns the teachers simply praise her eloquence.  The narrator says that "she didn't know it, but she was starting down a path that so many other students take" -- even though her comments suggest that she was well aware of the systemic problems in her area.  This, too, is a problem in talking about education: that in focusing on administrative process programs like Frontline can silence the very children it is attempting to help.

I don't mean to suggest that this should be a story of individual achievement either.  The infrastructure that supported Omarina is undoubtedly important, but there needs to be a way of talking about it that doesn't diminish Omarina's own intelligence.  This is perhaps the true difficult in describing education, or describing any kind of institution: how to maintain both structural analysis and individual agency.  It is not surprising that a PBS documentary does not succeed in untangling this knot.  But Frontline's flaws do a lot to remind us how even the most well-intentioned and earnest attempts to engage with the institutions and systems that rule our lives are constrained by our culture's imaginative limits.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Steven Universe 1-16: Steven the Sword-fighter

One of our foremost critical axioms is that characters should be human -- that is, even if they are talking animals or aliens, they should behave in a way akin to human psychology (or at least the pop-cultural understanding of it).  Steven Universe, however, confronts us with heroes that at first appear entirely human and gradually reveals how their non-human physiology has created a distinctly non-human mindset.  Which sounds very intellectual for a cartoon, but really it's an idea that is expressed more in humour than anything else.

This theme has been going on since "Together Breakfast" and "Cat Fingers", but really became prominent in "Giant Woman", when Pearl and Amethyst's discrete human bodies and identities proved not to be so discrete after all, and "So Many Birthdays", in which the Gems' immortality made them unable to relate to human social custom.  "Steven the Sword-Fighter" riffs along the latter lines, creating a storyline in which the viewer is reminded of the Gems' fundamental nonhuman properties and how these can be alienating and disconcerting as well as useful and amusing.

The episode begins with a feint.  Steven wants Pearl to teach him how to swordfight, and she obliges.  This would appear to be an episode along the lines of "Cheeseburger Backpack" or "Serious Steven", in which the main conflict is Steven's desire to prove himself to the other Gems and the main take-away is his gradual growth into a hero.  But everything changes when Pearl's training dummy runs her through with a sword, an act of sudden violence which, at least to me, was as momentarily shocking as the conclusion to Breaking Bad's "Half Measures".

When Pearl is stabbed, it's when she's at her most human: distracted by her irritation with Steven, her balletic sword technique is unable to parry the simple robotic patterns of the training dummy.  She reverts to a gem, losing all qualities of a living being.  There is a kind of tug-of-war to the episode's opening: first we have Pearl's humanity in wanting to help Steven, then an inhuman display of grace in the initial fight scene, and then her human irritation, and finally she is reduced to the most alien state imaginable.  It would appear that, after a struggle, the Gems' alien nature has triumphed over their human appearance.  After all, the fully dehumanized Pearl was able to best the semi-human one in combat.

The other Gems are nonplussed, calmly assuring Steven that Pearl will be back to normal in a few weeks.  As in "So Many Birthdays", their physiology impacts their psychology: their inability to die makes the way they understand the world fundamentally alien.  They can't even conceive of Steven's grief, and as such do nothing to try and assuage it.  Steven, despite being a gem himself, is a viewer surrogate in that he's new to the life of being an immortal superhero and still has a fundamentally human and child-like psychology.  Maturity may mean having to abandon that humanity in favour of the coolness of Garnet or the carelessness of Amethyst, both of which are powered by their essential invincibility.  But for now, Steven is human and vulnerable and traumatized by seeing the closest thing he has left to a mother figure apparently killed in front of his eyes [1].

This could be very dark stuff, but of course it becomes a source of comedy in Steven Universe.  Since the robotic Pearl triumphed over the more emotional one, Steven tries to take it on as a new maternal figure.  He tries to teach holo-Pearl to act like the real one, but it lacks all of the real Pearl's emotional complexity, in particular the mix of affection and aggravation that defines Pearl's relationship with both Amethyst and Steven.  Instead, it responds with the same simple aggression to everything.  It is Pearl's equal in combat skills, and thus can match the supernatural feats that make her both a hero to the world and essentially inhuman.  But it can't match the emotional relatability that makes her seem essentially human as well.

The episode ends with a physical fight between Steven and the training dummy, one that encapsulates the struggle between Steven's emotive understanding of Pearl and the dummy's physiological understanding of her -- that is, between the view of Pearl as basically human and Pearl as basically inhuman.  Steven is able to defeat the physically superior dummy with his human ingenuity and goofiness.  Shortly afterwards, Pearl returns in her full, relatable form.  "Steven the Sword-fighter" sides, perhaps inevitably, with the more human and comprehensible part of the Gems' nature -- without letting us forget their less human attributes

This draws on a fairly conventional man-versus-machine narrative, in which humans' ingenuity and ability to feel emotions triumphs over the numerically superior machines.  It's a narrative that's rather tired, and which does not recognize the ways in which humankind and its tools are so intricately connected as to be inseparable.  If this story had been a two-hour movie, it would probably have been turgid and tedious, but a fifteen-minute cartoon series like Steven Universe can tap into our cultural knowledge of such narratives to create a brief and enjoyable story.  It probably helps that instead of putting faith in the Enlightenment idea of the creative individual, as moth man-versus-machine narratives do, Steven Universe puts its faith in a maternal connection and human bonding.

You could read this as a reaction to the cartoon format itself.  Like the Gems, cartoon characters appear human but are not, and their psychology can be both familiar and radically alien.  In this reading, "Steven the Sword-fighter" is a plea to be patient with cartoon characters but also to be open to forming bonds and emotional attachments with them, recognizing their part-human nature (embodied by the voice actors and the writers who create the characters).  There is, however, no need for this message: Steven Universe has already wormed its way into my heart.

[1]This could also be reminiscent of the actual loss of Steven's actual mother, although the series hasn't revealed much about that yet.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

American Masters: Good Ol' Charles Schultz

American Masters is a series of documentaries shot in a variety of styles about a variety of subjects, but all tied together by the idea of artistic mastery. What is most notable about the title is the way in which it puts the individual artist ahead of their works – after all, the show isn't called American Masterpieces, perhaps because that would infringe on another PBS band. But there's a pervasive sense that art, instead of being interesting in itself, instead bestows importance on individuals who become truly important.

It would be easy to knock down the series, or at least this episode, for its unreconstructed auteurism. After all, the author has been dead for half a century, and was scarcely outlived by the director or the cartoonist. But I'm not interested in condemnation right now. Rather, I'm curious about why we talk about art in this way, and what artistic values biographical reading supports.

Of course, the first and foremost reason why American Masters is about artists and not about art is because it is easier (or at least more familiar) to tell stories about people than texts. We are used to the patterns of a life story, particularly the life story of a gifted artist: promising childhood, harrowing maturation, success, corruption, old age, and finally a well-mourned death. “Good Ol' Charles Schultz” quotes Citizen Kane in its opening minutes, and draws several implicit parallels between its subject and film's most revered character. The story is already written, and all that remains is to change the particulars of the fiction to those of reality.

By contrast, how would you make a 90-minute documentary about Peanuts the comic strip? There isn't a lot of plot to recap, nor would there be a point to doing so even if there was one. You could talk about the strip's cultural impact, or attempt a critical analysis, but at that point it starts turning into a dissertation committed to screen, and it's hard to think of a way to make such a thing visually compelling. Of course, “Good Ol' Charles Schultz” could also be a dissertation, albeit one that would not pass much muster in today's academic environment. Which raises the question: is there a possibility for criticism on television?

It would be inaccurate to say that “Good Ol' Charles Schultz” doesn't include any actual criticism. Throughout the special we see numerous Peanuts strips, presented one panel at a time, the neatest way of translating serial images to video. These are sometimes accompanied by narration by one talking head or another, and sometimes presented without comment other than the implicit link between the strip and the biographical material surrounding. The first of these, documenting the first strip of Peanuts, has some commentary on how shocking or emblematic its bitter punchline was, although this mostly falls into the “Why is this art great?” genre of criticism. Later strips will be approached chiefly for their resonances with Schultz's life.

Said life presents an interesting challenge for the filmmakers. Schultz did not follow the Behind the Music trajectory: there is no crash and no sordid scandal, just ever-mounting success. He was not a reclusive genius, or a tortured artist. There are dramatic moments, but it does not fit into an easy dramatic arc. But this inability to fit a narrative mold is perhaps what gives the story of Schultz's life the amount of power that it has. You could also, perhaps, say the same thing about Peanuts – that beneath the generic cartoony exterior there was a kernel of bitterness and alienation that spoke to the feelings that people felt but couldn't share.

As mentioned above, the opening moments of “Good Ol' Charles Schultz” are also the opening moments of Citizen Kane. This is the boldest directorial act in what is otherwise a fairly standard PBS episode – it takes a lot of cajones to place your public television documentary about a newspaper cartoonist in direct proximity with the Greatest Film of All Time (c). The opening shots of Kane are juxtaposed with the familiar (and familial, for the typical North American kid weaned on Merry Christmas Charlie Brown) images of the Peanuts characters, and a Peanuts strip in which Lucy spoils the film's famous ending for Linus. These opening shots establish a kind of thesis: that despite the obvious aesthetic differences between Peanuts and Citizen Kane, they have many underlying similarities, and absolutely deserve to take place in the same canonical situation. By having Lucy proclaim “Rosebud is his sled” as the opening credits of Kane roll by, “Good Ol' Charles Schultz” alerts viewers to the fact that it is essentially spoiling its own conclusion by telling you its central point right at the beginning.

The explicit justification for this comparison is that Charles Schultz watched Citizen Kane dozens of times in his life, and there must have been some parallels that drew him to the film. This statement is, in some ways, a reading of a reading: it is telling us what Schultz thought of Citizen Kane, and then suggesting how we should think of said thoughts. The documentary implicitly assumes that Schultz loved Citizen Kane because he identified with it. But there are many different motivations for watching, reading, or otherwise studying art – escapism is just as likely as identification [1]. “Good Ol' Charles Schultz” assumes that good art is art that relates to real life, here the very specific real life of Charles Schultz.

But even in this formulation, there's a dual nature to identification. The text is identified with the lives of both reader and writer – hence both Citizen Kane and Peanuts reflect Schultz's life. All of which raises the question of whether director David van Taylor's reading of Peanuts is just as personally motivated as Schultz's reading of Citizen Kane. The presence of the director and the reasons for his interest in this topic have been scrupulously removed from the documentary we have before us, so as to cut off what should logically be an endless chain of interpretation. This is perhaps not a flaw in biographical criticism, or identificatory reading, but a sign that analysis is never so neat as American Masters often makes it look. Criticism has a funny tendency of leaping out of bounds and catching the critic in a way they never anticipated.

If we didn't get the message already, we then immediately see a photo of a young Schultz with a sketch of Charlie's Brown head fitted over it. They aren't really a match, at least no more than any person's head would resemble Schultz's broad, universalizing character designs. Maybe this image becomes, instead, a symbol for the looseness of artistic comparison: just as Charlie's Brown head can fit any head, so can the themes and tropes of Peanuts map onto any life in the way this documentary does for Schultz. Or at least that's how I would like to think of it.

Still, one of the talking heads poses an interesting point in this sequence: “What does it mean to draw 18, 977 comic strips? Drawing fifty thousand times Charlie Brown's head? You must be looking for something”. This is one of the distinctive qualities of the comic strip as a form: it is an endless, daily repetition, less a bolt of inspiration than a constant effort. It's this workmanlike nature of production that makes comics easy to dismiss as art. What the aforementioned quote, placed prominently right before the title sequence, does is to reverse this assumption by turning this production schedule into proof that Schultz was in fact a tortured artist drawing on inner emotional dissatisfaction. This claim is highly questionable – the artists of Hi & Lois and Hagar the Horrible have also drawn the same thing thousands of times, but we are less inclined to assume that their work stems from a deep melancholic longing. The film briefly touches on the idea of process, but quickly abandons it for more psychologizing.

The psychological experience of toiling away at a comic for decades could be a potentially fascinating subject, but it's the one that we have the least ability to understand. Schultz left a huge amount of material for any prospective biographer. He was not a Salinger-esque recluse, but maintained a modest public persona as a kind of jovial uncle. The documentary includes numerous clips from interviews and a goofy hockey-themed promotional video [2]. American Masters is able to give us some idea of how Schultz thought about his art and the world. But what interviews don't preserve is everyday experience, the sense of routine and habitus necessary for the production of so regular an art as a daily comic strip. There is no way to archive or replay the experience of a life.

So the question of what it means to draw Charlie Brown's head fifty thousand times is perhaps unanswerable, or at least unanswerable by so functional a TV program as this. Still, “Good Ol' Charles Schultz” does pay a decent amount of attention to the habitus in which Schultz lived. In particular, the segments about Schultz's Xanadu-like residence in California, which projected the kind of idealized and sanitized family life that Peanuts never believed in, have a kind of genuine power if only because of the strangeness of Schultz's ersatz living situation. That private encampment, of course, was a form of suppressing the fault lines in Schultz's family that would eventually lead to divorce – a classically Freudian narrative.

The psychoanalytic lens taken throughout suggests that Schultz is in some ways a tragic figure, an artistic genius caught in arrested development and consigned to the Sisyphean task of drawing the same characters every day for sixty years in search of inner peace. But American Masters also wants to celebrate its subjects, and that is certainly true here, as seen in the plentiful testimonials and visual evidence of Peanuts' incredible success, both commercial and critical. So the documentary ends up at a kind of impasse: Peanuts is simultaneously the product of a tragic yearning and an artistic masterwork that brought joy to millions. I actually don't think these two narratives are contradictory, and I've always believed that art can be more than two things at once. Picasso and Dostoevsky, for instance, made great works of art drawing on the inner problems that eventually doomed them – their art was great for the world but harmful to them. Schultz, as presented by American Masters, is a kind of suburban American version of that tortured-artist narrative, with the demons less dramatic and the success much more popular and less high-cultural.

The ease with which such comparisons can be made suggests that this narrative about Charles Schultz's life ultimately doesn't tell us much about Peanuts: any other acclaimed work of art could easily have taken its place. Biography makes poor criticism, but maybe that's because it's not meant as criticism. Perhaps it would be fairer to judge American Masters as producing biographical narratives. On that level, “Good Ol' Charles Schultz” is more of a success. It's not exactly riveting, but it has a bit more style than your average PBS documentary, and there's enough fairly interesting material. But it still leaves me hungry for a TV show that would genuinely engage with works of art.

[1]I've been looking into different modes of study for a “serious” academic project, so maybe it's just because of my current circumstances that I'm seeing resonances in this documentary. Regardless, if you're interested in further theorizing about why and how readers read, Rita Felski's Uses of Literature is one of the best books I've read on the subject, and certainly the most approachable to a non-academic audience.

[2] The amount of video material available on Schultz makes the film a bit more visually interesting than a documentary on, say, a nineteenth-century novelist, but it also has the effect of demystifying Schultz. One wonders if, a couple decades down the line, we'll be able to work up reverence for authors whose entire life is available through banal Twitter feeds.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Samurai Champloo 25 - "Evanescent Encounter (Part 2)"

Samurai Champloo's concluding three-parter, “Evanescent Encounter” has a lot of narrative work to do. On top of the task of bringing the series to a satisfying conclusion – a Herculean labour in any TV show, one that anime shows in particular have a habit of botching – it also needs to bring together a story that has been disparate and episodic, ranging over a host of genres and tones, and make it seem like all one satisfying progression to a climactic moment. The search for the samurai that smells like sunflower has been until this point something of a quixotic dream, maybe even a joke, the thin framing device used to put these characters together. Now, it takes central stage, and we need to believe that the sunflower samurai has been essential to the series all along.

Once upon a time, this would not have been a problem. In the age of fully episodic TV, a finale could just be a regular episode with perhaps a bit more in the way of dramatic stakes. It didn't really have to tie together the entirety of what had come before. But in our day even episodic series like Samurai Champloo make pretensions to an ongoing narrative, a narrative that must ultimately be settled. So these episodes take great pains to assert that the seemingly rambling narrative has actually been a seamless whole. One-off characters from past adventures are mentioned, and we learn that there's been a hidden force guiding our characters' mission this whole time. I'm not sure that this is entirely successful, nor do I think it needs to be: fragmented narratives are not intrinsically worse than singular ones, and offer pleasures and possibilities that one continual story does not.

Evanescent Encounter” succeeds as a finale in another way: by taking the series's usual ideas and amplifying them, turning the rhythms of an episode into a movie-length maxi-adventure. While there are plenty of atypical installments, your average episode of Samurai Champloo has a kind of pattern: the central trio roll into town, hungry and broke, get split up, run into a character with ambiguous allegiances, there's some swordfighting, and ultimately they're the few that get out alive. The conclusion escalates all of these trends to their highest points.

The first part of “Evanescent Encounter” mostly concerned itself with the first part of this plot. Fuu leaves the group, as she has on numerous times before, but this time it is treated more seriously: after a rare harmonious night by the fire, she leaves a heartfelt letter and dismisses her two alleged bodyguards. Fuu leaving, which would previously be a comic beat to set up the plot, is here allowed to be a genuinely emotional moment. It is not the comedic act of an impetuous girl but the proverbial sparrow leaving the nest, with Fuu finally deciding to confront her problems on her own. Similarly, we have more and more important guest characters with ambiguous allegiances, and they seem even stranger than the usual crop. There's a samurai more skillful than any seen before in the series, and a trio of assassins that . And then of course there's the sunflower samurai, who has achieved a colossal presence in the series despite having yet to appear.

The second episode in this trilogy opens with a recap, a rarity in Samurai Champloo. The recap is mostly functional, but contains some interesting choices. We get almost all of Fuu's letter, set to quiet and contemplative beats and shots of Mugen and Jin walking in a daze through the town. This suggests that the emotive impact of Fuu's departure and the perhaps-final splitting of the party is what is really important, instead of the more plotty developments that occurred in the first part. Fuu's letter gets so much weight in the short recap because it is what we are supposed to have taken away from the previous episode. The music, rather than psyching the viewer up for a climactic fight, reinforces the sense of ambivalence and maybe even loss to Champloo's conclusion.

The beat changes to something higher-paced when the episode proper starts, and with it the seemingly climactic swordfight between Mugen & Jin and Kagetogi Kariya, the shogun's hired man and hence the bearer of institutional power. Kariya draws his sword in slow motion, while Mugen rushes forward, apparently more in time with the music. In the past, Mugen's wild fighting style has made him appear a force of nature, as in the chilling final scene of “Misguided Miscreants”. Here, it makes him look sloppy and careless next to Kariya's delicate swordsmanship, and Mugen's wide swings come nowhere close to drawing blood.

Fight scenes, when done properly, are really character moments – the way in which a character fights reveals something about their personality, or at least their history. So Mugen fights in a way that is powerful but undisciplined, willing to chanllenge orthodoxy and make a ruckus – as he does in his assault on Kariya when he tries to use a barrel of beans as a weapon. But none of this works against Kariya. Reflecting his placid character, a personality that almost doesn't register, Kariya appears to momentarily become a ghost and take Mugen by suprise.

Jin battles Kariya one-on-one later in the episode, and doesn't fare much better. The fight is your classic samurai duel, which is to say that it's basically symmetrical, with swords flying fast but always meeting in the middle – until one doesn't. Jin's style and ethos are too close to Kariya, the avatar of authoritarian power. He is exceptionally good at following the laws of swordsmanship, but this will never succeed against the man who writes the laws.

We learn via flashbacks that Kariya previously wanted to enlist Jin's school of samurai as assassins, and ordered Jin's master to kill his prized pupil. Jin surpasses his master in a quick late-night scuffle, but the real father figure here is the man who controlled his master all along, and who represents the state-supported system of honour that Jin has been cast out of. This bit of backstory resolves the moral ambiguity that's been with Jin since we learned he killed his master, putting his actions in the best possible light. In that, it is simply convenient storytelling, but it also serves a greater purpose: establishing Kariya as the paternal force that Jin has to overcome in order to leave behind societal rules and truly be his own person.

It's worth noting that Mugen and Jin appear to have the most success when fighting Kariya two-on-one, although this is quickly abandoned as not suiting honour or ego. Mugen and Jin are foils for each other, reserved and classical matched against of outspoken and wild. This is also reflected in their fighting styles. Jin's classical kenjitsu is more beautiful, but it lacks the kinetic energy that Samurai Champloo finds in Mugen's style and the hip-hop music it samples. To stretch the metaphor a bit too far, Jin is the classical chanbara element of the series, and Mugen is its anachronistic remix side. Fuu is, I dunno, it's emotional core, or maybe the act of creation involved in bringing the two together.

This is why it's crucial for the series that Jin and Mugen never resolve their delayed battle. This is not just because it would kill off one of the main characters. For Samurai Champloo to ultimately make one man's style victorious to the other would deny the power, both aesthetic and philosophical, that Champloo finds in the other. The series's entire ethos is the merging of the modern and the traditional, of chaotic creativity and orderly aesthetics. Mugen and Jin began the series alone and in mortal peril, and when the party seems to finally have separated for good their existence is almost immediately threatened.

This is underlined by the cut to Fuu on her own. While Fuu has her own strengths, she is physically the weakest of the group, and as such is vulnerable to any two-bit shogunate thug she runs across on her own. It should be said here that Samurai Champloo does not have the most progressive gender politics. Fuu often plays the role of the damsel in distress, with her stubborn pride and rambunctious affect being the only form of resistance she can offer in a world of violence. She is often sexually imperilled, as in the multiple times she is trapped in a brothel, and there are undertones of that in this scene. Fuu isn't even touched by her opponent's blade before she falls to her knees. Her yukata rides up and Fuu has to hold the fabric so as not to expose her crotch, highlighting her sexual vulnerability.

Her assailant crouches down next to her and appears to molest her. As much as Fuu has been sexually threatened over the course of the series, this is the only scene where she is actually abused. Absent her protectors, Fuu's spiritual strengths offer little protection against the world of masculine violence she finds herself in. When trying to escape, we see her running as fast as she can through the grass, but her pursuer only has to speed-walk. In a world defined by the physical, Fuu simply doesn't have the right body [1].

So of course, Mugen has to go to the island and rescue Fuu. There's a brief exchange between him and Jin in which Mugen clearly wants to be the one to fight Kariya, but eventually agrees to accept the less glorious mission of rescuing Fuu from a less impressive group of baddies. This would appear to be callousness on both men's part, but the subtext of the scene suggests that this is a careful negotiation that involves an evaluation of the relationships between the trio.

Throughout most of Samurai Champloo there's been little romantic tension between the main trio, especially considering that in different hands the same premise would have instantly resulted in a love triangle. The central characters even correspond to the archetypes in a two-suitors romance: the wild but sexy Mugen, the dull but dependable Jin, and the woman stuck between them. Samurai Champloo takes these characters' flaws to extremes: instead of being a sexy outlaw Mugen's wildness makes him an unappealing brute, while Jin's devotion to the straight-and-narrow makes him frightening, and Fuu's desire to postpone the conflict between the two becomes petulance. In this way, Samurai Champloo chooses farce over romance.

But there have been glimmers of attraction between Fuu and Jin throughout, and a moonlight conversation between the two in “Evanescent Encounter Part 1” would seem to confirm a degree of affection. But Fuu ultimately ends their conversation with the ambiguous phrase “Because Mugen is... I'm sorry”. When Jin flashes back to the scene in Part 2, this is the only line he recalls. Jin seems to interpret this as Fuu refusing him in favour of her love for Mugen, but I think it's more likely that she recognizes that choosing one man to have an affair with would disrupt the essential unity of their trio[2]. This is akin to her refusal to allow Mugen and Jin to fight, postponing the inevitable choice that will collapse a dynamic trinity into an uncomfortable dyad. Jin sends Mugen after her, but perhaps it would be better if both ronin went together. In the end, their decision to separate ends up nearly killing all of them.

Fuu is kept captive in a ruined church, with a red cross the only undamaged thing in sight. This is as good a time as any to talk about the role Christianity plays in this plot. We learned in the last episode that the Sunflower Samurai was the leader of a group of reclusive and persecuted Christians. The struggle between Japanese Christians and the dominant culture has popped up in a number of episodes before, and is presented here as a fairly straightforward group of virtuous rebels.

It seems at first a little strange for a contemporary series to celebrate Christianity as a form of rebellion against the mainstream. But I don't think that it's the specific precepts and values of Christianity that Shinichiro Watanabe wants to praise. Rather, it's the presence of Christians in a predominantly Shinto society as a marker of cultural hybridity – the same hybridity that comes from, say, using hip-hop music in a samurai anime [3].

Samurai Champloo presents Edo Japan as a society on a doomed quest to enforce cultural purity. It sees the mixing and remixing of cultures as not just inevitable but ultimately beautiful. This is in evidence throughout the several episodes involving improbable encounters with foreigners (“Artistic Anarchy”, “Stranger Searching”, “Baseball Blues”). Samurai Champloo makes us aware of the shogunate's extensive and complicated attempts to regulate cultural exchange, and how the influence of Western society seeps through anyways. In “Evanescent Encounter”, this cultural warfare becomes literal violent combat.

Christianity is in itself not a force for hybridity and openness – the Old Testament in particular is obsessed with purity. In “Unholy Union” Samurai Champloo shows some skepticism to the religious impulse, while still portraying the Christians as more or less virtuous. But it also recognizes that even a conservative piece of culture can become revolutionary when it becomes hybridized, as in fact Japanese Christianity did during the Shimabara Rebellion. Similarly, the mostly flawed personalities of Mugen, Fuu, and Jin become something more – something disruptive – when they are put together.

Ultimately, these are really the values that Samurai Champloo celebrates – hybridity, openness, and rebellion against a hegemonic society. These values inform the show's style arguably more than they do the content of its stories. Champloo exults hybridity in both word and deed. It's possible to criticize this aesthetic politics as merely a neoliberal celebration of individual creativity, but I think that ignores that the series's protagonists never fare well on their own, and need each other in order to create a truly hybrid social unit. It's this kind of new, artificially-fashioned unit that Champloo tentatively suggests is truly heroic.

[1] I'd have to go back to check on this, but it wouldn't surprise me if the stories in which Fuu has the most power are the ones in which she is comically overweight.

[2] It's possible to take a pro-polyamory message out of this, as in this reading of the Hunger Games. If you're so inclined, that is.

[3]Japanese Christians play a similar role in Watanabe's series Kids on the Slope.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Attack on Titan 12: Wound -- The Battle for Trost (8)

Attack on Titan 12: Wound – The Battle for Trost (8)

So, this is the second of three Attack on Titan episodes about Eren lifting a rock.

That description is a little facetious, but not very. A lot of people have complained about the pacing of the series, and these problems crop up towards the end of the Battle for Trost arc more than perhaps any other. I'm not exactly sure why this bothers me so much – after all, Space Brothers has a similarly glacial pace, and I generally enjoy it as a way to chill out for 24 minutes a week.

But there's also no real aesthetic of urgency in Space Brothers, whereas there definitely is one in Attack on Titan. The best moments of the series are moments of total panic and confusion, where Titans have devastated the city and no hope is in sight. Attack on Titan sells the total despair and devastation of war better than almost anything else I've seen. But the flip side of that success is that the stalling techniques developed by long-running episodic series[1] are more egregious and seem like more of an affront to the visceral drama that the scenes of devastation promise.

Eren's resurrection as a superhuman has already undercut some of the grisly aesthetic of the early episodes, taking away the sense of consequence to the carnage by at first challenging and then reaffirming the central characters' invulnerability. When the colossal titan appeared behind Eren in the fourth episode, it was a dramatic jolt of immediacy: the narrative distance we expected to appear between the training arc and the next fight sequence was abridged abruptly, defamiliarizing the viewer from their genre expectations and establishing the uncompromising brutality of the setting. The later episodes in this arc make an opposite maneuver, stretching out the narrative distance we expect from such a seemingly simple task, and making Attack on Titan seem much more generic (in the non-pejorative sense) than it had before.

Still, what happens in this episode isn't total filler. The central drama, of Eren attempting to lift a boulder in order to seal the hole the Titans busted in a wall, is not as trivial as such a brief description makes it sound. I'm reminded of the famous Steve Ditko sequence in Amazing Spider-man, where Spider-man lifting a heavy metal object is transformed from a simple physical task to an expression of the human will.

Compare & contrast:

The labouring body has been aestheticized for political purposes by pretty much every ideology imaginable over the past century. Capitalists like Ditko used extreme physical labour to portray the individual claiming their own personal freedom. Communists romanticized the manual labourer as the source of revolutionary fervour. And fascists made the perfect labouring body an object of national desire through Olympia and other pieces of propaganda. Of course, most people who did (and do) manual labour would be surprised to discover that it was liberatory and noble instead of just painful and miserable.

Politically, Attack on Titan leans closest to fascism. Like many popular genre narratives, it adheres to Susan Sontag's ideas of fascist art in that it fixates on a single heroic individual, the need to obey him, and the idealizaiton of the body. But even moreso than your usual superhero narrative, Attack on Titan understands the role of the state and the role of the military in much the same way as fascist leaders in the 20th century did, which is to say that the two should be basically coterminous, and that weak civilian leaders and soldiers who do not follow orders are responsible for societal weakness and must be purged. The series also demonstrates some of the fixations of fascist art and politics: the unfairness of borders (and with it the nobility of conquest) and the enemy as simultaneously subhuman and superhuman. Whatever its virtues may be, Attack on Titan is fascist in not just an abstract way but a way that is very specific to the history of fascism in the 20th century, mimicking the self-justification of Japanese militarism and the aesthetics of the Nazi's Aryan idyll [2].

But Attack on Titan's use of the labouring body is distinctly different from what you would see in, say, the films of Nazi Germany. In Attack on Titan, the ideal labouring body is literally monstrous. Instead of becoming a shining example of Aryan masculinity, Eren can only achieve strength by turning into a dark, bestial figure. The colossal titan is the extreme end of this process: it is the most powerful creature in the show's universe thus far, and its muscles and inner organs are on full display, making it grotesquely embodied.  When Eren transforms into a titan, he is literally portrayed as on the border between humanity and monstrousity:

Eren's characterization also suggests that Attack on Titan feels uncomfortable with the actors and tropes that its right-wing ideology enshrines. Eren is, the anime tells us, everything that the remains of humanity needs in a leader: he is hard-nosed, incorruptible, willing to challenge the decadent complacency of his times even before the walls start falling, and completely merciless when it comes to the titans. His stated goal is to kill every last titan in the world – genocide, essentially. We're never given any reason to think that these qualities are not exactly what is required to face the titans. But at the same time, whenever Eren goes on a rant about how much he wants to kill all the titans, the anime is not shy about making him appear dangerously unhinged (and then later showing him how he is completely unprepared for combat). Mikasa's loyalty to Eren is both celebrated and made to seem more than a little insane.

This is not to say that Attack on Titan's fundamental queasiness about the actions of fascism make it progressive. I don't believe that it is, as some have argued, a deconstruction of the typical shounen narrative. It is still quite frequently didactic about the necessity of military vigilance and intolerance towards the enemy, and gives no sympathy to the straw-men characters who represent weak hearts and clouded minds. Moreover, the fundamental scenario it presents – fighting an enemy that actually is inhuman and actually is a threat to your existence – is one in which the precepts of militarism seem almost natural.

So what's going on here?  I'd like to think that this is a bit of natural humanity surfacing even within the strictures of reactionary ideology. But we also need to recognize that you can simultaneously recognize an act as having some kind of moral taint and still advocate it. Glenn Greenwald says this frequently about torture: those that advocate for it don't do so on the basis that torture is morally right, but rather that it is unpleasant but necessary to fight the greater evil. Advocating extreme measures (torture, fascism, turning into a giant monster) are thus less a sign of moral turpitude than a sign of toughness. Presenting these measures as morally ambiguous is not necessarily progressive, as it often rescues them from being clearly unacceptable.  In the beginning of "Wound", Dot Pixis remarks that he's willing to be labelled a murderer for ordering his men to distract the titans.  The way this is formulated, as Pixis ruining his reputation for the greater good, turns what could be seen as a barbaric act of brutal command into a heroic sacrifice.

But understanding Attack on Titan's unease with its own ideology helps to justify the structure of this episode. “Wound” is all about resolving Eren's indecision as to whether or not to become a monster in order to fight monsters (to use extremely tired language). But to have Eren mopily contemplating this decision, Hamlet-like, would go against not just his character but also the virtues that Attack on Titan holds dear. So instead hesitancy is dramatized by Eren losing control of his monstrous form. Titan-Eren lashes out at the humans he holds dear, and literally hurts himself, punching himself in the face while trying to get at Mikasa. His hands and face steam after the impact: not only is the damage self-inflicted, but it makes the tools he needs to use invisible beneath the smoke.

On the inside, Eren faces the dilemma through a dream of a picturesque familial life. In his semi-conscious stupor, he is allowed to face the questions that his much-praised determination and single-mindedness would normally not allow him to consider. The people he sees in this vision are all in some way associated with pain and dysfunction: his father was distant and possibly experimented on him, his mother was killed by the Titans, and Mikasa has turned into a jaded and obsessed warrior. But here, they are all part of an idyllic, personally functional family. Precisely for this reason, they can't really do anything: they are static, only passively beckoning Eren to them.

This is the temptation of accepting life within the walls and of trying to make the best of what you can. For political actors of any type, at least those who have the privilege to “not care about politics”, there is always the temptation to slide back into a passive life, espousing your radical opinions over dinner but never doing anything to implement them. The universality of this situation means that it cuts both ways: there are some people just focusing on their own lives who should undoubtedly be taking to the streets (myself perhaps included), while there are other political actors who you wish would have chosen the passive family life instead. And indeed, only a dogmatist could argue that family, friends, and hobbies are meaningless pursuits which only serve to distract people from the One True Cause.

But Attack on Titan is a dogmatic series that takes place in a dogmatic world. The humans of the series are constantly threatened by the titans' assault, so for them the domestic life that Eren envisions is never an option. Even if Eren decided to settle down instead of fighting, he could never attain that domestic idyll: the people involved are missing, dead, or irrevocably changed by their experience of war. We see people resort to cowardice every episode, but they have increasingly little space to run to: in such an environment, bravery becomes not a virtue but the only available option.

So why does “Wound”'s drama hinge on Eren making a false choice? When Armin stabs Eren and leads him back to consciousness [3], he does not try to convince Eren that the domestic idyll he sees is an illusion. Rather, he argues that Eren doesn't even really want that domestic idyll: he wants to go beyond the walls. Perhaps Eren could stay there forever in that Titan, living out a peaceful agrarian existence in his mind. Attack on Titan maintains that this would be a sin. By the end of the episode, Eren is reminded of his ambition to go beyond the walls, to conquer the territory as a sign of his human will.

This plot also suggests that Eren is not fully in control of himself or the forces he has unleashed. This is mirrored in a subplot about Jean's gear jamming down in the middle of battle. For as much clear aesthetic pleasure as Attack on Titan takes in the aerial assault gear, it seems to break an awful lot: we've already seen it happen twice, plus one instance of the gear running out of gas in mid-fight. Much like Eren's Titan transformation, the tools of war are unreliable and unsavoury, but in the Manichean drama of Attack on Titan they are the only tools that can be used.

By looking at the series's larger ideology, the seemingly uneventful “Wound” begins to seem more important. Eren has already made his decision to go beyond the walls and eradicate the Titans, but “Wound' tests his resolve by offering him a genuinely desirable alternative. Moreover, it reaffirms Attack on Titan's political commitments by confronting and ultimately appearing to resolve its discomfort with the tools of fascism. “Wound” is still perhaps a filler episode, but it is often filler episodes that give us the clearest glance at a show's central priorities and ideas.

[1]I've talked about this previously, but due to a mixture of budget and concerns about catching up with the source material, long-running shounen series like Naruto and Bleach have perfected the art of making a fight last ten episodes without actually animating two hundred minutes of action. Flurries of activity are paced out with flashback sequences, monologues, and commentary from minor characters standing on the sidelines. This episode uses a lot of these techniques in order to draw out what is not a lot of story material. Such techniques seem much more unnecessary in a limited-run series like Attack on Titan than in a weekly serial, of course.

[2] In an earlier episode it is revealed, almost as a sidebar, that all of the Asian population was wiped out by Titans, leaving the almost exclusively white world in which the series is set.

[3] You could probably do a whole thing with the homoerotic imagery of this scene, namely Armin penetrating Eren from behind, but I don't feel like it.