KICKING TELEVISION: ‘The Ranch,’ Redemption, and the Multi-Cam Sitcom

KICKING TELEVISION: ‘The Ranch,’ Redemption, and the Multi-Cam Sitcom

It’s a strange time in the life of the sitcom. Somehow, television seems suddenly incapable of producing a true hit comedy, a show that goes beyond simple ratings success and enters the cultural zeitgeist. While Modern Family and The Big Bang Theory—both of which premiered last decade—capture viewers and Emmys, the shows have never penetrated the fabric of Western culture. No one calls another “such a Claire” or inserts “Bazinga” into their everyday parlance. The last sitcom to find such relevance was Friends, which left the airwaves in 2004. While the drama, be it Game of Thrones or Mad Men or the soap of Shondaland, has found a way into life beyond television, the sitcom has been left out of our conversations and colloquialisms. This is partly because of ambitionless productions, partly due to the ebb and flow of viewers’ tastes, but mostly because we, as viewers, have been left wanting for better comedy fare.

I’m critical of the sitcom, and yet hopeful for its return to prominence. But, perhaps I’ve been too hard on the form. Maybe it’s time to lower expectations to find a suitable metric with which to measure artistic success. I came to this realization while watching Netflix’s The Ranch. When I first tried the latest Ashton Kutcher project, I got about two and a half minutes in before giving up. Formulaic plot, grating laugh track, Ashton Kutcher. But a day later I returned, because I felt I owed any attempt at art more, because I have the utmost respect for and affinity with co-stars Sam Elliott and Debra Winger and wondered what they were doing in a sitcom, because I have fond memories of Kutcher and co-star/co-producer Danny Masterson in That ‘70s Show, and because I was bored and there’s not much left I haven’t watched. And though The Ranch won’t single-handedly change the sitcom, it is a surprisingly deft, funny, and insightful portrayal of Middle America, and a hopeful sign of a resurgence of the multi-cam sitcom. Once a prominent form that was always TV’s connection to theatre, its association with art over entertainment, the multi-cam has given way to the single-cam sitcom, reserved mostly for family comedies (The MiddleLast Man StandingFuller House) or Chuck Lorre.

The Ranch is about a former high school football star Colt Bennett (Kutcher) who returns home to his family’s struggling Garrison, Colorado ranch after failing to make it as a pro. His parents Beau and Maggie (Elliott and Winger) live separate lives, torn apart by Beau’s stubbornness and a dying way of life. Maggie owns a bar in town, and lives in an Airstream out back. Beau runs the family business with the son who stayed, Rooster (Masterson). They are middle-class farming Americans: Bud, bourbon, and bovines. But while TV tends to make caricatures out of the red states and their denizens, The Ranchtreats them with respect and deference. The characters in The Ranch feel genuine; people struggling to make ends meet in a world that doesn’t pay them much attention.

The Ranch is the first sitcom, or TV series for that matter, to accurately and respectfully discuss middle class families and values since Roseanne. For whatever reason, sitcoms tend to revel in the lives of the upper class, featuring characters with fabulous jobs, luscious apartments, and lives of privilege. Poverty is either mocked or ignored, though usually played for laughs. The Ranch doesn’t aspire to find its characters better lives; it concerns itself with the hardship of the lives they live. Like RoseanneThe Ranch is about paying bills, supporting your family, and settling down with a beer at day’s end.

Politically, The Ranch differs from Roseanne in its right wing leanings. Jokes are made at Al Gore’s expense; the liberal world of the blue states is mocked for its folly. But, in turn, The Ranch doesn’t mine Beau Bennett’s conservatism for easy laughs, but rather respects a character who may have voted for George Bush simply because in his democracy that seemed like the best choice for his family, his ranch, his livelihood. And The Ranch doesn’t linger on the clash between Democrats and Republicans as a point of narrative, but lets it exist in the fabric of the show’s setting.

The Ranch also shares a kinship with Roseanne in the way it allows the comedy to disappear into drama. Roseanne was graceful in its discussion of adolescence, poverty, domestic abuse, gender roles, loss, and sexuality. While The Ranch has yet to delve into such issues, and perhaps never will, like ‘Roseanne’ it is not afraid to leave the jokes and laugh track behind and settle in silence, or anger, or sadness. Freed of the twenty-two minute episode constraints of the network model, Netflix gives The Ranch the luxury of long scenes that defy the laugh-a-minute construct of the contemporary sitcom. The way that part one of season one (part two will be released later in the year) evolved promises that issues of substance may be addressed, and the series has proved itself capable (aesthetically, anyway) of crafting such television.

At the core of the show is redemption—primarily in the reparation of a fractured family, a fractured way of life, a fractured class—as Colt tries to make amends for his failings as a son, as a football player, as a man. In many ways it’s also about the redemption of the multi-cam form, an art lost in the raging sea of single-cam comedy and a form that’s lost its way. But beyond that it’s about the reclamation of the careers of its cast. Kutcher never became the rom-com/action star that Hollywood and Demi Moore expected after the breakout success of That ‘70s Show, and always seemed like Charlie Sheen’s stand-in on Two and a Half Men. Masterson disappeared into the abyss of on-and-gone series like Men At Work and off-camera successes as a DJ and entrepreneur. Winger, once Hollywood’s it girl, a three-time Oscar nominee, left acting for seven years in the late 90s. To see her in a multi-cam sitcom—and being wonderful in it—goes against the image of a preconceived difficult star, who took her craft (and self) too seriously. And Elliott, well, Elliott was born to play a rancher. His genius pervades each scene, and to see him both satirize and build upon his caricature is sitcom perfection.

I didn’t have high hopes for The Ranch, but somehow fell for its simple charm, its subtlety, its quiet ambition, and its cast. When season one, part two arrives, I hope it’s able to maintain its delicate balance between comedy and drama, its affection for blue collar America, and its use of the liberty of Netflix. I also hope that they give Elisha Cuthbert, who plays Colt’s high school sweetheart, more to do. Cuthbert was sublime in the gone-too-soon Happy Endings, and the only thing worth watching in One Big Happy. While I would also love more of Elliott and Winger, Cuthbert hasn’t quite gotten her due as an actress, perhaps because the industry prefers to see her as a Maxim pinup, literally The Girl Next Door. She seems to embody the essence of comedic brilliance, and the ability to temper that with dramatic flare. There’s a quiet perfection to her comedy, like she doesn’t seem to know she’s in on the joke. Hers is role that is often left scraps, the love interest. But her talents beg for more screen time, which would allow The Ranch to continue to evolve into, dare I say it, a model for what a relevant multi-cam sitcom can be.

Mike Spry is a writer, editor, and columnist who has written for The Toronto Star, Maisonneuve, and The Smoking Jacket, among others, and contributes to MTV’s PLAY with AJHe is the author of the poetry collection JACK (Snare Books, 2008) and Bourbon & Eventide (Invisible Publishing, 2014), the short story collection Distillery Songs (Insomniac Press, 2011), and the co-author of  Cheap Throat: The Diary of a Locked-Out Hockey Player (Found Press, 2013). Follow him on Twitter @mdspry.

Watch: Steven Spielberg’s Artistic Strength Depends Upon His Humanity

Watch: Steven Spielberg’s Artistic Strength Depends Upon His Humanity

Fans of Steven Spielberg say he gets them at their gut; critics of Spielberg say he goes corny too often, and in so doing betrays his craft. Both viewpoints hinge on one attribute: his ability to capture moments of what we call, for lack of a better word, humanity, or times when human sloppiness, idiosyncrasy, even stupidity, might achieve resonance, even luminosity. This video essay by Andrew Saladino does an excellent job of calling out these moments, explaining Spielberg’s technique in executing them, and discussing their relevance to Spielberg’s work. Whether it’s an alienated scientist playing with mashed potatoes in ‘Close Encounters’ or a boy crying for his mother (or any mother) in ‘A.I.,’ the ability of Spielberg’s films to drop anchor, to reach his viewers in a memorable way depends on his skill at observing those viewers and the way they act when they think no one’s looking.

Watch: David Fincher’s ‘Gone Girl’ Retells Euripides’ ‘Medea’

Watch: David Fincher’s ‘Gone Girl’ Retells Euripides’ ‘Medea’

Every story you know and love originated in ancient times. David Fincher’s ‘Gone Girl,’ adapted from Gillian Flynn’s brilliant, acidic novel, is no exception. You’ve been listening to, reading, and witnessing tales of revenge, tales of escape, and tales of murder for as long as you can remember, but you may not have made the link, when doing so, between the modern-day film you’re watching or story you’re reading with the dramas of ancient Greece, the dramas with themes and ideas so enormous they had to be screamed to be fully realized. This video essay by Ivana Brehas makes its crucial point, which is that ‘Gone Girl’ is a retelling of Euripides’ ‘Medea,’ in a calm but firm manner, Trent Reznor’s soundtrack circulating beneath the methodical analysis, an analysis which bears down upon barbarism, betrayal, and a level of discomfort in the relations between two people that would be enough to curl most viewers’ toes for an indefinite period of time, doing so through point-by-point comparison which, as presented here, makes perfect sense.  One would have to imagine that Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike would have had to have ample PTSD therapy after dipping their toes in Flynn’s sea of dysfunction, but hey, perhaps not. The story of Medea, of revenge, of escape, of rage, is in our narrative bloodstream. We see these stories, and we are horrified by them, but we aren’t that horrified–because we recognize their essential truth.

Watch: Guillermo Del Toro Thinks in Pure Colors

Watch: Guillermo Del Toro Thinks in Pure Colors

Shame on anyone who says watching a film is passive! When you watch a film, you’re actually doing several things at once. First and foremost, you pay attention to the nuts and bolts of the story. Almost as gripping, though, is what your retinae are doing. In certain filmmakers’ work, and Guillermo Del Toro is one of these filmmakers, the visual play acts as a complement to the story, such that if you were in a certain mood, you might simply look at the colors and not even notice the plot-character-setting scenario being laid out before you. This video by Quentin Dumas takes us on a lush tour of the colors Guillermo Del Toro likes best: red, blue, and yellow. These colors have meaning, certainly; who could deny the importance of a deep, decadent red in a dark film like ‘Crimson Peak,’ and who could consider the use of blue, the color of night, in the revelatory and mind-stretching ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’? These colors are coded, yes–but don’t try to figure out the code. You won’t be able to. Accept that they have an effect on you: a weakening of the resolve, a quickening of the pulse, the vaguest sense of dizziness. The less you try to figure out the "why" of these feelings, the happier you’ll be.

Watch: John Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’ Scares Us With Simplicity

Watch: John Carpenter’s ‘Halloween’ Scares Us With Simplicity

If fear made a sound, what would it be? That’s a trick question, somewhat, because fear and silence, the complete absence of sound, are inextricably linked. John Carpenter understood this when he made ‘Halloween.’ We can’t say, of course, that the film is completely without an audio component, given that its soundtrack is one of the most famous soundtracks in film history, but we can say that Carpenter’s approach, in his acute sound editing, in his spare production design, was to narrow the viewer’s field of attention so that whatever was happening to his central figures at any given moment was the only thing readily noticeable–making the scenes of attack in the film all the more frightening, given that they seemed almost as if they could be happening to us. As Julian Palmer indicates with this excellent video essay, the actions in the film occur in something of an aesthetic still chamber, and are all the more harrowing for that.

KICKING TELEVISION: ‘Fuller House’ and the Stasis of Nostalgia

KICKING TELEVISION: ‘Fuller House’ and the Stasis of Nostalgia

One of the most vivid memories I have of my adolescence is gorging on Doritos and Pepsi in my friend Tim’s basement and watching TV. There was no junk food in my home. I used to try and make my own Orange Crush from tonic water and orange juice. I was not a cool tween. I don’t know what the cool 12-year-olds were doing on their Friday nights in the late 80s, but they definitely weren’t in Tim’s basement laughing at the comedic stylings of the Olsen twins, cutting-it-out with Dave Coulier, digging on Jesse and the Rippers, crushing on Candace Cameron, and augmenting our sugar cravings with the sweet banality of Full House.

Full House has returned to the television landscape as Fuller House, part of a wave of reboots. The Netflix series essentially flips the premise of its forbearer; recently widowed DJ Tanner-Fuller (Cameron) welcomes her sister Stephanie (Jodie Sweetin) and best friend Kimmy Gibbler (Andrea Barber) into her home to help raise her three sons, as DJ’s recently widowed dad (Bob Saget) accepted help with his three girls in exchange for room and board for his brother-in-law Jesse (John Stamos) and best friend Joey (Dave Coulier). Sterile hilarity follows, as do occasional guest appearances from series originals Saget, Stamos, Coulier, and Lori Loughlin. Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen (Michelle Tanner)—Forbes Celebrity 100 listed, fashion icon paparazzi subjects—declined participation

Full House wasn’t a show that revolutionized the sitcom or embedded itself deeply in the cultural fabric of TV, but that didn’t matter then and it doesn’t matter now. It wasn’t offensive or malicious. It was benign—comfortable. It served its purpose as a family comedy, a staple of ABC’s TGIF lineup, and a sitcom that made 12 to 14 year-old me laugh bootlegged Crush out my nose. Tim did not live in a sugar-dry home. I remember very little about the show other than hanging out in that basement, ignorant of my absence of cool, and happier for it. Teendom came soon after, and being cool became infinitely more important, and so I didn’t watch much of the later seasons of Full House. The only time the show entered the zeitgeist was in conversation about the Olsen twins, the websites counting down to their 18th birthday, and the piracy of their youth by the infancy of the Internet’s intrusiveness.

I’m not sure how many Full House episodes we actually consumed in that basement. But that’s how my memory places the show, and that’s where Full House will remain, regardless of the truth, whatever that may be. Memory is static—it exists in our solipsism. Television is a mnemonic device as much as a form of entertainment. It gives personal associations cultural and temporal references points born of its archival inertness. It’s a literal record of a performance, but a figurative record of individual experiences. No one else, not even Tim, likely associates Full House with Pepsi and Cool Ranch, but for me the affiliation is so vivid, so real as to have the essence of fact.

Our televisions and streaming apparatuses have become inundated with reboots and revisions of beloved series, and Fuller House has chosen to rest in its past, much like The X-Files echoes its earlier seasons, as if Mulder and Scully had just been waiting in stasis for us to find them. Properties are given the choice to either contemporize their efforts or mine nostalgia for viewers. Fuller House attempts to revel in the nostalgia of Full House in order to build upon its audience, much as Star Wars did with The Force Awakens. Star Wars provides a new foundation for a narrative that will leave behind the past while Fuller House stays in the past. The mixed family of Fuller House lives in the same home as the extended Tanner family did on Full House; the set is nearly exactly the same, as is the comedy. Maybe they should’ve killed Danny, Jesse, and Joey off in the first episode, but that would’ve made for a different show—a darker, perhaps more interesting series—one that would ask that its original audience disregard nostalgia and indulge in a universe that has aged as its viewers and their universe has.

The show is keenly aware of itself as a cultural entity; often making reference to the absence of the Olsens and the fact it’s a reboot. In almost breaking the fourth wall, the show continues its participatory nostalgia in winking at the audience it indulges as we do. It dances the edge of satire, with grand canned oohs and aahs and reactions to the guest appearances of Saget, Coulier, Stamos, and Loughlin. In fact, a close watch of Fuller House finds a much more complex sitcom then what shows on the surface, discussing loss, the modern nuclear family, and puppy ownership. But the core of the show remains its fascination with an ever-static past, both theirs and ours.

Interestingly, the reboot’s three principles—Cameron-Bure, Sweetin, and Barber— have been mostly absent from show business since the original series. Removed from the cultural landscape, its almost as if they’re characters were off living the twenty-one years between episodes as we were. Perhaps this is why the original’s leads—Saget, Stamos, Coulier, Loughlin—who have remained part of the zeitgeist, have mere ancillary roles in Fuller House. (Okay, maybe not Coulier.) In this way, the show is honoring both universes, that of Full(er) House and our own, respectful of the associations of memory that exist in relation to the original. 

There is nothing revolutionary in Fuller House, other than that it is fearless in living in the past. Complete with groan-worthy catchphrases—old (Oh Mylanta!, How rude!, Have mercy!) and new (Holy chalupas!)—the show remains committed to the bygone era of TGIF and the big, fluorescent family sitcom. Watching the series will probably not attach a marker of memory to this moment, to my now. I’m able to procure my own sugar these days. But the show is successful in recapturing its own youth, and perhaps a bit of mine.

Mike Spry is a writer, editor, and columnist who has written for The Toronto Star, Maisonneuve, and The Smoking Jacket, among others, and contributes to MTV’s PLAY with AJHe is the author of the poetry collection JACK (Snare Books, 2008) and Bourbon & Eventide (Invisible Publishing, 2014), the short story collection Distillery Songs (Insomniac Press, 2011), and the co-author of Cheap Throat: The Diary of a Locked-Out Hockey Player (Found Press, 2013). Follow him on Twitter @mdspry.

‘Burnt,’ ‘Whiplash,’ and the Myth of the Lonely Triumph

‘Burnt,’ ‘Whiplash,’ and the Myth of the Lonely Triumph

nullIt’s easy to imagine how life as a writer or director in Hollywood—which on a good day promises meddling producers, scripts-by-committee, and fealty to test audiences—might seriously distort how you think about the relationship between art and commerce. Given these obstacles, just getting a film to the screen might feel like a victory, though that victory can quickly turn pyrrhic. Just watch any actor or director on a late-night talk show, trying to put a shine on a film that’s DOA.  It probably shouldn’t surprise us, then, if a film stumbles a bit when it addresses artistic life. I was thinking about this recently while watching Damian Chazelle’s Whiplash for the first time. I was four hours into a flight home from Amsterdam, tucked away in a cozy business class pod I’d poached at a bargain at a Schipol kiosk, and I was already on my second film—I’d started Whiplash almost immediately after finishing Burnt, the Bradley Cooper vehicle from last year, about a bad-boy chef’s scheme to bully his way back into the culinary thermosphere. Even the airline’s precision-tuned hospitality couldn’t stop me from feeling slightly dispirited. By any popular accounting, these were very different films (a heralded debut, a failed vanity project) and yet, in certain fundamental ways, they seemed disappointingly indistinguishable.


In Bradley Cooper’s hands, intelligence is a protean thing—charming, willful, defensive, and destabilizing, at once or in waves, at times touched by mania (Silver Linings Playbook), overcompensation (American Hustle), or even fraud (LimitlessThe Words). In Silver Linings Playbook, David O. Russell gave Cooper’s self-doubt room to breathe and leveraged Cooper’s stubborn enthusiasm against the intractability of our idea of mental illness. In American Sniper, Clint Eastwood pushed Cooper’s charm inward, allowing it to bubble to the surface only occasionally, while simultaneously projecting the anxiety and insecurity out into the world, reconfiguring T.S. Eliot’s objective correlative as political gesture. If American Sniper is, as Richard Brody has written, a story about “genius in crisis,” it’s also a story about genius in the making and, ultimately, a story about the self-bargaining and self-deception with which we justify the sacrifices genius demands. That Kyle’s particular “genius” is lethal is a sly touch, though it doesn’t change the calculus. Eastwood’s film, far from being glib, elevates an abiding sympathy and righteous anger into a form of patriotism. As the Manichean architecture of Kyle’s moral universe crumbles, and his notions of duty, honor, good, and evil are undone by the complexity and carnage of war, Kyle crumbles along with it.  Eastwood makes the heroic seem inherently fragile.

In John Wells’ Burnt, Cooper is, once again, a genius, though this time culinary. It’s a shame the film doesn’t take better advantage of Cooper’s comedic gifts and its own diminished stakes to inject the levity its premise demands: 

Adam Jones had it all – and lost it. A two-star Michelin rockstar with the bad habits to match, the former enfant terrible of the Paris restaurant scene did everything different every time out, and only ever cared about the thrill of creating explosions of taste. To land his own kitchen and that third elusive Michelin star, though, he’ll need the best of the best on his side, including the beautiful Helene.

Wells is an accomplished writer and producer, though Burnt is just the third feature film he’s directed.  Perhaps the pitch-meeting heuristic of “Top Gun meets Top Chef” appealed to John Wells, Producer even as the script’s reliance on exhausted signifiers doomed John Wells, Director, to failure. I’m saying it’s bad. But there are a lot of bad movies.  So why did critics carve into this one with such cruel high-spirits? (This review, for instance, does yeoman’s work.) The answer, I think, resides in the film’s mistaken belief that it has something to say about something (“Art”) critics care about; that it proceeded to say it in such a hackneyed way only made the offense worse. Take an early scene in which Jones solicits a favor from a powerful restaurant critic, played by Uma Thurman, who not only goes along with his unethical plan but also says, to no one in particular:

“You know, when I lie awake at night and list my regrets, you’re one of them.  I say to myself, ‘Simone, you’re a lesbian. Why did you sleep with Adam Jones?’”

This is the stuff of failed rewrites. Worse, however, this dialogue shows up just moments before the film’s protagonist screams at his staff that perfection takes priority over convenience (“Throw it away if it’s not perfect!”). That’s brazen.

The answer to Thurman’s question, if you’re wondering, is that everyone sleeps with Adam Jones. Or wants to. The film works diligently to ensure we understand Jones’ asceticism as a choice—men and women fawn all over him—tied to his heroic focus on craft.  He’s more smug than seductive, however, and we’re left to infer his appeal from the fact that people around him react to him as if charmed. This is a perfectly fine method for detecting black holes from 8000 light years away (until recently, the only way), but it feels a tad lazy as a screenwriting technique. And yet, if the metaphor fits: Jones’ efforts at brand-rebuilding are driven by a pragmatic calculus that thinks nothing of blackmail and theft, and he’s no less of an asshole in the kitchen. In one particularly egregious series of events, Jones wheedles a fellow restaurateur to fire his head chef, Heléne (Sienna Miller), a single mother, so that she’s forced to work in Jones’ kitchen in spite of her clearly-stated preference otherwise.  In due turn, he screams at her, assaults her, and fires her. They reconcile, of course, and yet even then he refuses to grant her a half-day off for her daughter’s birthday. Naturally, she develops into a love interest.  Why?

No matter. Burnt makes masochists of all of us.  The chefs are petulant, if talented, children who take a kind of survivor’s pride in their cruelty. Abuse is mistaken for competition, and competition is mistaken for education; it’s a marketplace of culinary idealism animated by a petty animus and creative destruction, regulated only by the invisible hand(s) of loyalty and respect.  That’s not a complaint, mind you—I went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, so I get it—or at least it wouldn’t be if the movie took the idea seriously. But the film refuses to entertain the possibility that Jones isn’t the best (Jones never doubts himself and his peers never doubt him, and thus we’re never permitted to question it). As a result, Burnt isn’t the story it thinks it is, that of a persevering, battle-tested genius; it’s a story of peerage, more Russian oligopoly (or kleptocracy) than Adam Smith.

In spite of the focus on greatness, the film shows little interest in exploring the nature of Jones’ talents. We learn nothing about his origins (he had the standard “difficult” childhood, someone mentions), or his skills, or even, and this is most remarkable, his tastes.  It’s fair to ask if the movie cares about food at all. Instead of taking a deep dive and showing us what culinary inspiration means, the film leaves us to watch him fret and fuss while he chases a form of perfection designed to please a Michelin reviewer. A third star is an accomplishment, but it’s one that completely ignores the relationship between a chef and his audience (whether it be his diners or those of us watching at home). Perhaps it’s a necessary narrative crutch. How do you show culinary inspiration, after all? But even so, it’s a MacGuffin that swallows the entire film. We’re left listening to Jones wax psychological about the kitchen being the “only place he’s every felt like he belonged” and his attraction to its “heat, pressure, and violence.” Save for a turn toward graciousness at the end—the equivalent of a tyrannical director dutifully checking off names from the Oscar stage—Jones behaves a bit like a sociopath. If only the film had the courage of its convictions and let Jones be the cipher or black hole it insinuates he might be… There’s a formalist and utilitarian appeal to the idea that art (culinary or otherwise) can channel our most unruly and dangerous impulses into another person’s pleasure. To recognize this appeal, however, you also have to recognize that art is larger, more interesting, and longer-lasting than its practitioners. Wells, caught somewhere between test audience expectations and serious inquiry, gets it precisely backwards. Burnt devotes too little attention to real emotions or real cooking to teach us anything about either. 


nullWhiplash, a year older, might have provided Burnt some tips on how to dramatize the obsessive pursuit of artistic perfection. Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), the protagonist of Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, truly comes alive at his drum kit. But that’s just a charitable way of saying he’s a bit of a snooze everywhere else. For the first fifteen minutes of the film, Neiman, a freshman at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory in New York, shuffles from frame-to-frame, an amiable if blurry presence.  There’s a hint of something edgier, though. It’s in the quickness with which he tells people that Shaffer is the best program in the country, and his semi-endearing, slightly-annoying transparency about his ambitions. Everything changes once Neiman falls under the tutelage of Terrance Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the director of Shaffer’s top jazz orchestra, however. The movie turns abruptly away from its minor key realism and toward the allegorical, and what follows is a showy psychodrama that pits a father’s unconditional support against a legendary teacher’s arbitrary rules and impossible demands, making for crackling drama but shoddy psychology.  As a theory of art, it’s worse. Fletcher, for whom “tough love” is too long by half, elevates withholding to an art form. And yet, for all of his splenetic, rhetorical force, Fletcher’s doctrine is incoherent. If he’s such a purist, and if validation is such an enemy, why does he rely so heavily on professional validation to motivate his orchestra? Ironically, Fletcher’s band is built for competition, and it’s safe to ask, as one cousin does at a Neiman family dinner, only to be met by Neiman’s contempt, how one decides who “wins” when aesthetic response is subjective or when genius is supposed to be its own reward.  For Neiman, “the best” requires a belief that greatness can be measured and recognition meted out accordingly. Nothing Fletcher says challenges this conception. For all of his railing against the dangers of validation, he’s telling himself “good job” every time he polishes his trophies.

Fletcher is less a teacher than a cult leader, and his jazz-based religion (sadly, not this one) demands not discipline but monomania. Neiman is disappointingly quick to adopt Fletcher’s disdainful view of everything not-jazz, however, and almost immediately his successes and failures at Shaffer exert a Sims-like control over his outside life: when he earns praise, he asks the lovely cashier at the local art house theater on a date; later, when he’s castigated by Fletcher, he meets her for coffee and breaks up with her. She is dead weight, he says, and he’s on a path to glory that requires him to travel light. Worse, perhaps, at least professionally, he treats his fellow musicians with contempt. We watch him practice alone until his hands bleed, and this tortured solitude carries over even when he’s playing with the orchestra.  Even if we accept that the life of a musician can be a bleak one, jazz itself has never felt so lonely. 

In the final scene, an ambitious, tightly-choreographed set-piece, Neiman launches an epic drum performance, dragging the orchestra into a stirring rendition of Juan Tizol’s and Duke Ellington’s standard “Caravan.” As the camera circles, Neiman is framed in sharp focus as the rest of the orchestra blurs at the edges of the frame. The camera picks up even the smallest details of Neiman’s solo, the sweat bouncing on a cymbal, tiny specks of blood on his kit, before swiveling to Fletcher, now reduced to being a cheerleader, and then to Neiman’s father, looking on in disbelief from behind the small glass window of a door. Watching Neiman leave everything behind—Fletcher, his father, his fellow orchestra members, and seemingly physics itself—I thought, of all things, of Kubrick’s star-child and 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Dialectical, allegorical, virtuosic, and fetishistic, Whiplash seems to be talking less about artistic genius than it is about something both more grand and more abstract, a transcendent individuality based on technical proficiency, at once accomplished and utterly masturbatory. Sure, as Neiman drums deeper and deeper into solipsism, he gets an approving nod from Fletcher, but at what price to his friends and family, his bandmates, and, finally, his audience? To Chazelle, like Kubrick, audience members are like taxpayers, expected to foot the bill for an exploration that was designed to leave them behind all along.


nullGround control to Major Tom? The risk inherent in thinking of artistic ascendance as a dialectic is an almost pathological linearity. The narrative necessitates that everything feed into the development and arrival of the artist and thus that everything be consumed or discarded along the way. It’s fundamentally solitary.  And through it, even the past is converted to fuel: Jones is drawn to flash of fire and the knife’s-edge, and his derogation of sous-vide cooking as poaching fish in a “condom” is intended, I can only imagine, to posit him as a bareback kind of guy in a world of culinary safe-sex. Neiman draws inspiration from the mid-century virtuoso Buddy Rich, identifies with the jazz of the 1930s (he tries to impress his date by noting some swing from 1932 on the pizza parlor stereo) and, as far as I can tell, ignores anything after 1960. The films fetishize tradition but can’t be bothered to get that tradition right. Through this kind of utilitarian alchemy, the rich, complicated history of jazz—quintessentially American, born of slavery-era African American culture—becomes the story of a white private school student’s struggle to play drums in front of Lincoln Center millionaires (right next to Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theatre). Is this kind of white-washing a symptom or side-effect of this process or is it the point?  Does it matter? The method by which Fletcher “teaches” Neiman is a caustic winnowing in which he attacks everything—Neiman’s sexuality, his ethnicity, his socioeconomic background, his birthright—that’s not straightwhite, male.  Burnt doesn’t fare much better, braced and bracketed by its own rigidly hierarchical notions of masculinity. It’s not just that lesbians stop being lesbians around Jones, it’s the almost-vampiric unilaterality of Jones’ relationship with Tony, an old friend who funds Jones’ restaurant, cleans up his messes, and pines for him from across the kitchen. There’s a risk inherent in confusing competition for natural order.  The films’ faith in competition as a kind of meritocratic clearinghouse is essentially neoliberal, and like neoliberalism the films are frustratingly blind to their own narrow demographic sensibility. The films rise out of, and give in to, the same narrative Hollywood has been telling itself for years and, as a result, serve to justify and reify Hollywood’s entrenched successes, excesses, and biases.

This world-view is called into question by the Coens’ Inside Llewyn Davis, which dares to suggest, in an almost Rawlsian way, that the distribution of talent and success might each be inequitable or even arbitrary. Set at the turn of the 1960s in New York’s Greenwich Village, it follows a few days in the life of its titular antihero, a folk singer trying (and failing) to carve out a career. Davis isn’t so different from Jones or Neiman. He sings beautifully, and he’s darkly charismatic, self-absorbed, ambitious, and self-sacrificing. He is, in other words, a character of thorny complexity, and thus perfectly at home within the Coens’ cosmology. But there’s an uncomfortable neutrality toInside that’s a far cry from the hero-worship of Whiplash and Burnt. The film is decidedly agnostic about Davis’ talent.  He’s not bad, mind you, but he’s not great, and the way this plays against narrative expectations creates a fog of uncertainty that rolls in early and never clears. Davis, on the other hand, is convinced that he’s special, and his sense of his own specialness drives him onward, over and through everything that might stand in his way. Although he’s not without conscience, his loyalty to his own ambition is blinding and, as a result, even his attempts at accountability tend to exacerbate his mistakes—he’s like “King Midas’s idiot brother,” he’s told, because “everything he touches turns to shit.” Like Jones and Neiman, Davis looks for validation everywhere. He’s hungry for commercial success, and he’s hungry for artistic recognition (even from people he doesn’t respect) and, in their absence, he’s prone to a petty nihilism that expresses itself through bullish destruction, whether by angrily heckling a performer onstage or sleeping with married friends. For much of the film, we’re inclined to question Davis’ behavior, but not his ambition. By the end, it’s impossible to tell the two apart.

The film blurs these lines by up-ending the myth of artistic ascent and instead tracking what might be Davis’ last days as an artist.  Davis is broke, dead-eyed from his day-to-day hustle, exhausted from couch-surfing. He’s no longer young. His solo debut album isn’t selling. As a result of all of this, his search for validation takes on an almost manic intensity that inspires Davis to tag along on a drive to Chicago in a last-ditch attempt to catch a promoter’s eye. Davis fails, of course—the promoter doesn’t “see a lot of money” in Davis’ songs. But even the successes don’t feel much like successes—the film is stacked high with remaindered albums (by Davis and others) that drive home the point that what feels like artistic arrival often ends up disappointingly anticlimactic.  Here, validation seems less a coronation than a kind of payday loan, a usurious line of credit fueling a bad bet. Artistic neediness becomes indistinguishable from blind self-bargaining.  If this sounds dispiriting, that’s because it is. One evening, after dinner with the Gorfeins, a sweet, middle-aged bourgeois couple who now-and-again provides Davis with a meal and a bed, Mrs. Gorfein asks Davis to sing for them. The wife struggles to comprehend his hesitation, noting that music issupposed to be “a joyous expression of the soul.” It’s clear, however, that Davis doesn’t even understand what that means anymore. Like Jones and Neiman, Davis mistakes his lack of generosity for purity and purpose, and defines himself through what he rejects. The difference, of course, is that the Coens recognize this as a character flaw. They don’t elevate it to an ethos. 


I was Andrew Neiman. I was built for my MFA program, a natural fit for an environment where the fight for funding (and by extension status) was very public. Those times I managed to come out on top, I imagined it to be not only fair but just. Like Jones and Neiman, I was an outsider, or felt like one—small-town, middle class, a middling student who graduated from a mid-sized state university—and I viewed my time in graduate school as a kind of class struggle, relying upon fellowships, awards, and praise to prop me up and propel me onward. By the time I left Iowa, I’d won a national prize and my first book of poetry was on the verge of being released by a giant New York publishing house. Which is why it would be hard for me to say that the MFA system as I knew it doesn’t “work.”  It just depends on how we define “work.”  I improved dramatically, others around me improved dramatically, and something akin to literature was created almost daily. That’s no small thing. But the system­—an illusory gift economy that also yields at a nudge to reveal a neoliberal faith in competition—could hardly be called fair or just. In retrospect, I’m not even sure what “winning” meant, other than that I was the right person, in the right place, at the right time.  It’s probably not coincidence, then, that the “winners” of the Workshop sweepstakes (and, honestly, the program itself) looked an awful lot like the monolithic casts of Burnt and Whiplash

Further, as much as the structure and validation—the constant reassurance that I was, in fact, talented—provided me with a temporary fix-it or release from lacerating self-doubt, it wasn’t the source or catalyst of my improvement. Not really. Inside Llewyn Davis seems to grasp this. For all the struggle and internal competition within his Greenwich Village community, Davis is cared for by those around him, both artists and patrons, who provide him with meals and shelter, find him jobs, line up his performances. The artists struggle with one another, but they struggle together. As such, the Coens construct a Village that is truly a village and it’s hard not to feel some longing for their shared purpose and experiences. If the film allows for any redemption at all (and if does, it merly flickers), it rests in the possibility that Davis might come to appreciate those around him just a little more by the end. Art isn’t forged in the fire of competition. Not really. And, although artists may live for moments of Neiman-like transcendence, they still need to figure out how to live every other minute of the day. Two years after I left Iowa, I’d stopped writing altogether.

If we’re at the end of the MFA’s reign as a gatekeeper and tastemaker, I’m not going to mourn. I benefited from it, without question. I not only ended up publishing a book but managed to parlay my experience there and a decent LSAT score into a legal education.  But the fact that I so desperately craved admission and approval, that I blindly accepted both as a measure of actual value, explains a lot about the trajectory of my writing career after. When I walked away from academia and writing, it was in large part because I realized that I’d gotten the math all wrong. And Mrs. Gorfein, it turns out, was right. As the credits to Whiplash began to roll, and I tilted back into the dark quiet of the cabin, high above the Atlantic, I thought of James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues.”  It was the first short story I ever loved, and I used to teach it in my writing and literature classes.  Like Whiplash, it’s the story of a young jazz musician. Narrated by the title character’s brother (like Neiman’s father, a high school teacher), who has been at odds with Sonny over his lifestyle, Baldwin’s short story concludes with Sonny’s return to the stage after his release from prison on drug charges. Baldwin’s depiction of the performance shares little with Whiplash’s celebration of willpower and technique, invoking instead the idea of art as an act of generosity and community:

And as though he commanded, Sonny began to play.  Something began to happen. And Creole let out the reins.  The dry, low black man said something awful on the drums, Creole answered, and the drums talked back. Then the horns insisted, sweet and high, slightly detached perhaps, and Creole listened, commenting now and then, dry, and driving, beautiful and calm and old.  They all came together again and, and Sonny was part of the family again.  I could tell this from his face.

In the ebb-and-flow of the on-stage collaboration, Baldwin provides a compelling argument for the pain (collateral and otherwise) that we must accept as the price for art. Genius, he suggests, resides in performance, not the individual, and as such it is a fleeting thing, existing “only for a moment” before releasing us back into the world, where “trouble stretches above us, longer than the sky.” For Baldwin, the quintessential outsider, this is far from a lonely act:

Sonny’s fingers filled the air with life, his life. But that life contained so many others. And Sonny went all the way back, he really began with the spare, flat statement of the opening phrase of the song. Then he began to make it his. It was very beautiful because it wasn’t hurried and it was no longer a lament. I seemed to hear with what burning he had made it his, and what burning we had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting. Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did. Yet, there was no battle in his face now, I heard what he had gone through, and would continue to go through until he came to rest in earth. He had made it his: that long line, of which we knew only Mama and Daddy. And he was giving it back, as everything must be given back, so that, passing through death, it can live forever.

Spencer Short is an attorney and author. His collection of poetry, Tremolo (Harper 2001), was awarded a 2000 National Poetry Series Prize. His poetry and non-fiction have been published in The Boston Review, Coldfront, theColumbia Review, Hyperallergic, Men’s Digest, Slate, and Verse. He lives in Philadelphia.

Watch: In Andrea Arnold’s ‘Wuthering Heights,’ Music Is the Film’s Soul

Watch: In Andrea Arnold’s ‘Wuthering Heights,’ Music Is the Film’s Soul

Emotions cannot always be expressed in a straightforward conversational manner. We gesticulate, we make facial expressions, we shift our body language… or perhaps we sing. Usually the singing is self-directed, and the emotion being expressed isn’t necessarily nameable. There are many moments in Andrea Arnold’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ when characters simply sing, either to themselves or to each other. This new video essay by Filmscalpel gathers together some of these moments, and the overwhelming sense one gets, in watching the moments unfold, is that the chief emotion being expressed is a desire for contact, for recognition, above and beyond the emotion being expressed. And what more basic emotion could there be for a human being to express, either in public or in private?

Watch: Lars von Trier’s ‘Melancholia’ Captures the Experience of Depression

Watch: Lars von Trier’s ‘Melancholia’ Captures the Experience of Depression

If you’ve ever been immersed in the condition known to clinical psychologists and others as "depression," but really too indescribable to fit within one label, then Lars von Trier’s ‘Melancholia’ should have great resonance for you. Evan Puschak, aka "The Nerdwriter" on YouTube, makes the great point  (one of several) at the beginning of this piece that von Trier’s film inscribes the physical experience of depression in his cinematography, in his painfully slow pacing, and in Kirsten Dunst’s performance as Justine, one of her most memorable, strange performances yet. Von Trier uses slow motion quite frequently, and yet here it has special poignance as it recalls the feeling many depressed people have that time has slowed down, that each second feels like sixty, each minute feels like a lifetime, and that were a rogue planet to crash into Earth, it might not be such a bad thing. 

Watch: What Lies Between TV Shows’ First and Last Frames?

Watch: What Lies Between TV Shows’ First and Last Frames?

There is a pressure on any work to create, within its span, a tiny world whose life begins at the film’s opening credits and ends with its closing credits. It would seem that for TV dramas, that pressure is doubled because of the additional boundary the TV screen, so much smaller than a movie screen, places on it for containment. This video piece by Celia Gomez, inspired by Jacob T. Swinney’s near-canonical study of the first and last frames of films, shows us some shocking correspondences between many shows’ opening frames and closing frames, among them ‘Mad Men,’ ‘The Sopranos,’ ‘Lost,’ ‘The Network,’ and, oddly enough, ‘Frasier.’