Archive | May, 2012

Assorted pop culture bitching (5/15/12)

15 May

When I first started this blog, I intended it to be a mix of pop culture musings and the occasional serious business post about feelings. Somehow it became much more of the latter, which is likely because I do enough pop culture writing for actual publications, and because I no longer have a LiveJournal and this is what it sounds like when doves cry.

In the spirit of the former, though, I’m going to try to make “assorted pop culture bitching” a semi-regular feature here. Keep in mind I sometimes go a month or two without blogging. If I manage to churn out one of these posts a year, that probably qualifies as semi-regular.

This particular set of complaints is horror-themed. Boo, etc.

The Paranormal Activity series
I just finished watching Paranormal Activity 3, which was — like the previous installments — annoyingly frightening. Not frightening in the sense that I’m going to have to sleep with the lights on tonight (I always fall asleep to The Golden Girls, anyway), but frightening in that I jumped several times.

“Annoyingly” because these are cheap scares, and they are the same in every Paranormal Activity movie. These films are not without merit: the first was the closest we’ve come to Blair Witch Project since, uh, Blair Witch Project. And there’s something particularly effective about scenes of mundanity (people sleeping, chattering on about bullshit) punctuated with loud bangs and creepy shit happening.

But “effective” doesn’t mean “good.” Once the novelty wears off, we’re left with reiterations of the same concept, and that pisses me off. There was more creativity in the Saw series, which — while often uniquely terrible — at least gave us different deaths each go-around. I keep watching Paranormal Activity movies because I half-expect them to try something new. Will I ever learn?

Probably not. Look, I don’t mind sitting through 90 minutes of people sleeping and occasionally being thrown into walls once a year, but if you want to actually impress me, find something new to do with the found-footage horror genre. At this point, we’re basically over it, because we get how it works. We’ll jump, and then we’ll shrug it off. There is unique work to be done with first-person perspective. It’s just not happening in this series.

Zombie apocalypse guides
Today I got a press release about a new zombie apocalypse guide. I’m not going to link to it, because I refuse to encourage this behavior. This was (or should have been) a single-use idea. Max Brooks’ The Zombie Survival Guide is brilliant, because it follows the form of actual survival guides and gives it a fun, supernatural twist.

Treating the horror world with sincerity was a somewhat novel concept at the time, and Brooks’ execution is perfect. It’s hilarious, because you’re reading a how-to guide on an impossible situation, but it’s also a little bit scary — some tiny part of you can’t help thinking, “Wait, but what if…?” Brooks’ novel World War Z works in a similar fashion. I highly recommend both.

But seriously, fuck the knock-offs. We can stop talking about how to survive the zombie apocalypse now. There will never be a zombie apocalypse. I am not sure of most things, but I’m willing to bet on that. If I’m wrong — well, if I’m wrong I’ll be torn apart by the undead, which is at least as bad as hearing you say, “I told you so.” It’s just such an absurd concept to keep milking, and nothing anyone does will stop feeling derivative.

I guess part of me is also annoyed by the way these persistent guides remove the mystery from the supernatural. It’s fun to do every once in a while: tell me how to stop a werewolf, or the best way to ward off vampires. But when you treat this as an actual genre with new, increasingly mechanical installments, you dilute supernatural fiction as a whole. Find a way to make zombies scary again, or move on to mummies.

Horror on television
I would love to see a good horror TV series, but I recognize that’s probably impossible. There are a lot of limitations to the form — on a practical level, a smaller screen size makes it tougher to scare your audience. Also, most shows won’t kill off major characters, so there’s not the same sense of foreboding. And violence, while not essential to all horror, is restricted on non-cable networks.

Still, TV horror could be better. I loved the sequence in the season finale of The Vampire Diaries in which Alaric stalked Rebekah (just smile and nod, non-fans), because it felt like I was watching a slasher movie. On a smaller scale, sure, but the set-up, cinematography, and direction all worked together to give the scene a horror movie feel. More of that, please.

The X-Files used to do it pretty well. But Supernatural is the closest thing we have to The X-Files now, and aside from the fact the current season is awful, it’s just not scary. The pilot was to some extent, so why doesn’t the show try for that anymore? American Horror Story attempted it, but mostly ended up being really gross. I will give the show props for (SPOILER ALERT) killing off essentially every character in the first season. The stakes were high, at least.

One of my silly dreams that I don’t often admit is the creation of a horror anthology series, like Tales From the Crypt. (I’ve seen some episodes of Masters of Horror. Meh.) Perhaps horror doesn’t work episodically: colossal disappointment The River was largely done in by unfortunate pacing and commercial breaks. Anyway, if someone wants to finance Peitzman Presents or whatever, I promise I’ll at least try to creep you out.

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Dissecting a bad review of Girls

1 May

Apparently I’m not done talking about Girls. Or rather, I’m not done talking about people talking about Girls. And here’s why: way too much of the criticism surrounding Girls has been overwhelmingly shitty. This is not a flawless series—there’s no such thing as a flawless series. I don’t care if people love Girls as much as I do, but I’d like to read some complex, nuanced reviews of the show. You hate it? Fine. Tell me why.

I’m not going to agree with an evisceration of a series I’m already quite fond of, but a well written negative review will at least give me something to think about. Eileen Jones’ “The Horror of HBO’s Girls for The Exiled is not a well written negative review. It’s actually kind of terrible. And while I usually don’t relish criticizing other writers, I’ve decided Jones’ review merits dissection.

So let’s go through this sucker, paragraph by paragraph!

The tidal wave of reviewer praise for the foul new HBO show Girls has washed up against a wall of resistance recently. But as far as I can tell, nobody, whether praising or blaming, has actually conveyed what this miserable crap-colored show is like to watch.

My first issue with this review? The use of the phrase “crap-colored” as a pejorative. It may seem like a minor point, but Jones later criticizes Girls for not being “real.” Depressing as it may be, the real world is more “crap-colored” than much of what we see on TV. The color scheme Jones objects to is, in my mind, far more grounded than the bubble-gum colors of Glee or anything on ABC Family.

First scene: our homely heroine Hannah, played by writer-director-producer-monster Lena Dunham, is trying to persuade her parents to continue supporting her while she lives and perpetually interns in New York City, where everything looks drably brown. These are immediate tip-offs: we’re in mumblecore territory here. Mumblecore’s an indie film genre about contemporary affluent young white people who don’t know what to do with their lives and are generally dreary and despicable. And indeed, Lena Dunham is a mumblecore film director, who did Tiny Furniture in 2010.

“Homely heroine,” Jones writes, as though Dunham’s unconventional look is a mark against her. She will repeatedly return to this point, callously suggesting that Dunham’s “TV ugly” face and curvy body should be kept off of our TV screens.

But I’m almost as annoyed by Jones’ depiction of mumblecore. Maybe that’s because I love films like Funny Ha Ha and Humpday. These movies (and Girls) capture a very particular life experience, one that is worthy of representation. Our problems are relative: are Hannah’s financial woes on par with Greece’s collapsing economy? Obviously not, but that doesn’t mean it’s not scary as shit to be a creative person in your 20s without a clear idea of where you’re going in life.

Next we have a scene featuring Hannah passively enduring rotten sex with a vile jerk named Adam (Adam Driver). Adam insists that Hannah pretend to be an 11-year-old girl he’s raping after abducting her on her way home from school, and she goes along: fine, whatever. Critic Dave Wiegand, in his rave review of the show, describes this as one of Adam’s “hysterically inappropriate fantasy scenes when he’s having sex.” Yeah, I guess Dave laughed and laughed at those.

Yep, Adam’s a vile jerk, and Girls does nothing to suggest otherwise. He’s a reflection of Hannah’s miserable self-esteem, which—as it does in real life—sometimes manifests itself as sex with someone unworthy. If we’re laughing, it’s because we relate—perhaps we’ve slept with a guy as douchey and noncommittal as Adam. His rape fantasy is, first of all, a fantasy, and second of all, the fantasy of a twentysomething guy who lacks basic courtesy and self-awareness. That’s why it’s funny.

Lena Dunham is getting hosannas from critics for exposing her nude doughy depressing body in humiliating ways throughout the show—makes it all so “real,” somehow. They’re all calling Dunham “the voice of her generation,” and maybe she’s the body of her generation too. She must’ve known she could count on critics to dutifully take dictation when she had her character Hannah ironically describe herself as “the voice of my generation…or of a generation.” You can picture them all noting it down carefully, muttering, “‘Voice of generation’…oh, yeah, that is GOLD.”

Yes, how dare Lena Dunham expose her “doughy depressing body.” (This is Jones’ most offensive phrase, and she should apologize for it.) You know why Hannah’s awkward nakedness makes the show real? Because that’s really Dunham’s naked body, and these are uncomfortable sexual situations that many young women have actually found themselves in. Moreover, what if Dunham’s is “the body of her generation”? Better that than an unhealthy focus on skinniness and “perfection.”

The “voice of my generation” bit is something that many Girls haters have latched on to, apparently unable to identify the irony of the statement. When Hannah says that to her parents, she’s supposed to sound ridiculous—in the same way she sounds ridiculous when she explains that she can’t finish her book of personal essays until she’s lived more of her life. Hannah is both naïve and entitled: these are not qualities Girls is asking us to praise. And if denser critics have chosen to take “the voice of a generation” at face value—well, that’s on them, isn’t it?

There’s been no irony in the way show-creator Dunham augments her generational-voice status by making the PR rounds, talking about how she was inspired to create Girls because she never saw herself or her friends represented on TV shows. So she set out to remedy this by showcasing her particular demographic, the creepy white female.

OK, you can’t have it both ways, Jones. Is Dunham writing for her entire generation, or for the particular demographic you have dubbed “the creepy white female”? It seems to me that she is writing about herself and her friends, which is exactly what she said. She’s writing what she knows, not pretending to speak for all young women. And if you’d object to her assertion that Dunham did not see her friends represented on TV shows, find me another show with characters like those on Girls.

The half-hour show drags on as you meet Hannah’s horrible friends, all of whom hold forth with bizarre self-importance on the topics of sex and abortion and AIDS and media and female identity, even the one who’s a cruel caricature of a provincial inexperienced girl (Zosia Mamet). There’s also the mean, square-jawed, gimlet-eyed “best friend” (Allison Williams), and the nasty Brit bitch (Jemima Kirke). All have hard poker faces and flat affectless voices. It’s impossible to imagine them laughing out loud, or relaxing, or having a nice meal or non-grim sex. Maybe they do those things in later episodes, but like I said, it’s tough to imagine.

Wait, twentysomethings discuss issues with “bizarre self-importance”? Anyone who has spent a significant amount of time with people in my age group knows how accurately Girls depicts them. I disagree that Hannah’s friends are “horrible”: I’d categorize them as “flawed.” Some are more likable than others, but that’s the way groups of friends are.

And if they seem too serious for “laughing out loud” or having “non-grim sex,” perhaps that speaks to the same self-importance Jones misidentifies as unintentional. There is no question that the characters on Girls alternately take themselves too seriously and not seriously enough. This is a reflection of real-life, not bad writing.

The backlash against the show has been mainly about the all-whiteness of the cast, the way there are no people in color in Lena Dunham’s NYC except bit-part, background workers here and there. Personally I think people of color have dodged a bullet, and should celebrate their own non-representation in this TV-mumblecore hellscape. While this show slimes along, I like to imagine the whole rest of mixed-race NYC having a terrific time everywhere that Lena Dunham and her friends are not, letting Dunhamites move around in a permanent bubble of privileged-white-girl malevolence, shunned by all decent people.

How interesting that Jones complains about “privileged-white-girl malevolence” when her review itself is so needlessly malevolent. The characters Dunham writes about may not be aware of the bubble in which they live, but that doesn’t mean Dunham isn’t. How else would she capture her peers so accurately? And while they may be a very particular group of people in New York, they do exist. Some of them are even “decent people.”

I’ll skip over the next bit, in which Jones remarks on a controversial tweet by Girls writer Lesley Arfin, and a Gawker post by Max Read. Lesley is a Twitter friend of mine, and Max is a colleague: I think that’s a pretty clear conflict of interest. And there’s so much else wrong in Jones’ review, I think we can overlook this section.

Let’s skip ahead to what Jones incorrectly identifies as the final scene of the first episode—it’s actually the final scene of the second. Incidentally, nothing undermines your credibility as a critic more than making such a glaring factual error. But enough about that.

The final scene features Hannah at a clinic where she’s getting tested for AIDS, a personal obsession of hers. There’s a woman of color as the gynecologist who’s forced to play the role as the wise-subaltern, feeding straight lines to Lena Dunham while squatting between her legs, so Dunham can toss off more of her dubious wit and wisdom about the harsh realities faced by snotty white mumblecore females today.

I loved this scene, and Jones willfully misreads it. In many ways, this is the most annoying part of her review—she refuses to look at what the scene is actually saying, because the words coming out of Hannah’s mouth are, on the surface, so offensive.

Hannah tells the gynecologist that she wishes she had AIDS. She actually says that! And yes, what an ignorant, awful thing to say—but indeed, something that a young woman like Hannah might jokingly assert without thinking about the implications. That same self-obsession, coupled with the desire to be funny before being sincere, is why she fumbles her job interview earlier in the episode. Hannah’s date rape joke isn’t funny: what’s funny is how little she understands about what date rape really means, and why it’s not something to be glib about to a potential employer.

There’s a bit more to Jones’ review, but you get the idea: she’s wrong. She’s wrong on every level, and reviews like hers take away from any legitimate criticism that might be leveled against Girls. It’s backlash for the sake of backlash, without any substance to it.

And maybe that’s how Jones would feel about my blog post. In fact, I welcome her response.