‘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.

ARIELLE BERNSTEIN: The Imperfect Male Artist: From Pablo Picasso to Kanye West, We’re Still Fascinated by Jerks

ARIELLE BERNSTEIN: The Imperfect Male Artist: From Pablo Picasso to Kanye West

Soon after David Bowie’s death, many bloggers expressed unease at valorizing a man who slept with 15-year olds, pointing out that Bowie was yet another
“problematic fave,” the go-to internet term that can be used to describe
anything from a mild social gaffe to a history of sexual assault. Like
clockwork, Bowie defenders asserted that the 70s were a different time and place and that the “baby groupies” who Bowie slept with don’t express that what they experienced was rape at all.

Like most Internet Wars, the focus quickly became about the individual—whether we should herald Bowie for his tremendous legacy, or condemn him as a rapist. Both Erin Keane at Salon and Jia Tolentino at Jezebel stressed a more nuanced look at the complicated issue of separating art from artist, while in his essay, “Celebrity deaths and the ‘problematic fave’: Enough with the moral tug-of-war between “hero” and “villain” legacies,” Arthur Chu fell back on a stand-by argument about bad men who make good art:

“So yes, in a way I am saying that if you’re a fan of the awesome feminist triumph that is 2015’s “Mad Max: Fury Road,” then you owe something to the horrific abusive racist bigot Mel Gibson. You don’t have to like him or “forgive” him, but if he hadn’t been there–and I’m not just arguing in terms of acting talent but in terms of all his deep and wide-ranging flaws–then a great work of art might not exist.”

Chu’s argument, that bad behavior, though not exactly excusable, is often inextricably wed to the production of art is deeply embedded in our culture. The idea that artists in particular must be permitted to be “bad”—that the artist must, in some ways, be allowed to be overly dramatic or reckless, or self-injuring, or obsessed with alcohol or drugs or sex, in order to be a creative powerhouse, is a mainstay in popular discourse.

After all, many of the most challenging and talented artists we still today herald
are men who, in their personal lives, were outright jerks: from Pablo Picasso to
Kanye West, from Ernest Hemingway to Roman Polanski, we not only tolerate male “bad behavior,” we often see it as the necessary backdrop against which male artists create.

For all the talk of the current age of outrage culture—how it’s changing the face of online discourse or demanding that certain ideas should be censored—the reality is that we live in a culture that continues to praise macho artistic swagger. We tolerate Roman Polanski’s and Woody Allen’s sins, precisely because there seems to be a prevailing attitude that if they were different, better men, they might not be as actively creative. Likewise, we tacitly permit Kanye West’s wildly misogynistic tirades against his ex Amber Rose, as well as his odd ongoing feud with Taylor Swift, precisely because his brand of in-your-face bravado is seen as an element of his innovative albums.

Where do women fit into this culture? If in today’s world the male artist is still heralded for dangerous and destructive “risk-taking,” the female artist is generally heralded for being a role model. Artists like Beyoncé are required to not only produce work that is compelling and edgy, but to also appear effortlessly poised and perfect while doing it. If today’s female characters are allowed the latitude of being jerks like never before, the creators of series like “Transparent,” “Orange is the New Black,” and “Scandal” are also expected to be Hollywood’s moral compasses, ushering in a world of greater representation, better public policies, and feminist awakenings. The female artist who has “lifestyle problems” ranging from addiction (a la Britney Spears), to shoplifting (a la Winona Ryder) to violent behavior (a la Amy Winehouse) is seen in need of reformation, a “trainwreck” who must be saved. This is in stark contrast to Hollywood celebrities like Charlie Sheen and Bill Murray, whose colorful pasts, and even run-ins with the law, are seen as edgy and endearing, rather than deeply troubling.

The attitude where “male artists will be male artists” is an unsettling double
standard. In some cases, the tacit acceptance of male artists as likely to be a
bit rough around the edges is harmless, but in others, as is the case with
stars like Charlie Sheen and Woody Allen, the result is a long line of women
coming forward with claims of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Moreover, the conversations we are having online tend to focus on demonizing individual men, rather than discussing a culture in which an artist like David Bowie traveled in a world where bedding 14-year old groupies was considered normal, or a world in which R. Kelly is laughed about rather than looked at with true disdain.

I think one reason Bowie fans felt so exhausted by the discourse surrounding his relationship with young female fans, is that it felt like a “gotcha” moment,
rather than a serious discussion about the ways that our culture permits,
excuses, or even pressures artists to behave in certain ways. It’s not fair to
expect celebrities to be “perfect” but it’s equally strange to see predatory or
abusive behavior as arguably normal. While some who protest the double standard are eager for the day that women are given equal opportunity to engage in the same antics that many male artists do, without judgment, I think a more revolutionary change would be to live in a world where kindness is seen as cooler than cockiness, and a world where we can distinguish between behaviors which are quirky and offbeat and those that really do hurt others.

Arielle Bernstein is a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American University and also freelances. Her work has been published in The Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review and The Ilanot Review. She has been listed four times as a finalist in Glimmer Train short story contestsShe is currently writing her first book.

ARIELLE BERNSTEIN: Women’s Bodies and the Outrage Machine

ARIELLE BERNSTEIN: Women’s Bodies and the Outrage Machine

nullIn 2007 I was working part time in a Borders bookstore while completing my MFA. It’s not uncommon in service jobs that customers will say completely strange, off-putting, or frustrating things, but one comment clearly stands out to me as most painful. Two men were standing at the register, chatting and looking at the magazines, one of which featured Jennifer Love Hewitt on its cover, wearing a black bikini and swimming in the ocean. She was smiling broadly and looked like she was having fun, even though all the recent articles about her pointed out that she had clearly gained a lot of weight.

The men laughed at how fat she looked, and then one looked at me. “Remember when she was young? She used to look like you. Nice and thin.”

The men were probably in their thirties or early forties and not in very good shape. One had a beer belly that very clearly hung over his jeans. I didn’t know what to say. In a world where the customer is always right, well-meaning managers will do anything to placate a difficult customer, rather than come to workers’ defense. And in this particular case, the boorish comment was even meant to have been softened with a supposed compliment. But underneath that compliment was also a very clear warning—that gaining weight or getting older was clearly a hilarious and utterly unacceptable thing for a woman to do.

I thought of this experience when reading about the hostile barbs and insults hurled at Carrie Fisher for recently daring to resume her role of Leia in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, even though her body had changed as she got older. The response was uncomfortable precisely because the later film was deliberately crafted in order to show Leia growing up, going from princess to general, changing her hairstyle, sharing a bittersweet moment with Han Solo, who had also aged, but who received no contempt from audiences when he did not remain a young heartthrob.

We tend to think of media as something we passively accept, rather than actively engage, even though the advent of social media has obviously changed that dynamic significantly. Our constant interaction with media images, from tweets, to blog posts, to internet think pieces, would, on the surface, seem to assume that we are more sophisticated media consumers than in the past. But I would argue our relationship to images has stayed relatively the same as always; only now we spend even more effort contorting ourselves into the same images we see on the screen, editing our faces, Photoshopping thigh gap. We torment each other more directly with the comforting shield of anonymity. Social media hasn’t humanized actors; it’s dehumanized the rest of us, turning us into easy targets and prey.

Issues of body image are not new. Every semester I have a new class of students, and every semester I have several young female students who want to write about body image. “There’s so much pressure today,” they say. “Being a teenage girl is the worst thing in the world.” They don’t think about whether women in their 20s and 30s and 40s and 50s worry about the same things. They seem confident that eventually this specific kind of pain is going to stop.

Every year reveals another ad campaign intended to supposedly make girls and women feel more confident, to make women feel less like failures. We get realistic Barbies, and dolls with less makeup, and then with more makeup. We get memes and hashtag campaigns. We get girl power anthems. We get Notorious RBG. We get Star Wars films with girl heroes and princesses who become generals. But the problem is still there.

The cycle of shaming women and then exalting them when they refuse to be reduced to exceptionally limited views of beauty is exhausting, and it’s not getting us anywhere. I feel terrible that I don’t feel liberated by Carrie Fisher’s response, because I do admire her tremendous resolve to not let other people bully her online. But I think the problem is bigger than Carrie Fisher, who was lauded when she was younger for dieting and working out to fit into that famous gold bikini, and was likewise encouraged to diet for her role in The Force Awakens. It’s bigger than Beyoncé telling us to “feel ourselves” and then also appear in an advertisement for her new vegan diet. It’s bigger than the exceptionally talented Jennifer Lawrence consistently getting roles to play women 10-15 years older than she actually is, at a time when women only a little older than Lawrence talk about struggling to find roles. It’s bigger than Oprah encouraging women to love their bodies and then expressing how ashamed she feels of her own.

Outrage culture makes some people feel empowered to effect social change through collective criticism, demands, and boycotting. But the reality is that cultural change takes time and, for issues related to women’s bodies in particular, things haven’t changed very much since the advent of the Mad Men era.  We still want to be beautiful and loved. We still want to be seen. We carefully craft our own image so that we can be Instagram-perfect, so that we can all be like movie stars in our own personal magazines.

For some bizarre reason, a few months ago I found that someone, somewhere, had signed me up for a subscription to Teen Vogue. I’ve been incredibly amused. I’ve been saving the magazines, curious to see what teen girls today are like, and I find it a bizarro version of what being a teen girl actually felt like. After all, in the magazine, everyone is beautiful and popular and pretty and has nice hair. Everyone looks like they are having the time of their lives.

Of course, being a teenager was often awful and none of us felt beautiful or cool, at least not all of the time. But riffling through Teen Vogue as an adult, I am struck with a strange sense of nostalgia for a teenage life I never really experienced—a world where youth is constructed as eternally beautiful and joyful. Often, these magazines sell feminism as much as they are selling makeup or fashion. The magazines’ editors seem to have incredibly short memories, forgetting that many of the fashions we are being sold as new have actually been around for years. After all, it’s the illusion of newness that sells articles. Perhaps that’s why when so many headlines have praised Fisher for her “revolutionary” statements, I remain relatively cynical. Until “body positivity” isn’t sold back to us as a new kind of consumer culture fantasy, nothing is actually going to change.

Arielle Bernstein is a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American University and also freelances. Her work has been published in The Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review and The Ilanot Review. She has been listed four times as a finalist in Glimmer Train short story contestsShe is currently writing her first book.

KICKING TELEVISION: Seeing Ourselves in the Golden Globes

KICKING TELEVISION: Seeing Ourselves in the Golden Globes

nullThere are few things I detest more than celebrity culture. But, in stark contrast and wrapped in hypocrisy, I love the Golden Globes. Not that long ago, just after my now wife and I had become friends, we were taking a nice walk on a beautiful spring day in Montreal, headed out for some breakfast to try and get to know each other better. I was tipping shy that day, a bit in awe of her beauty—a beauty that I refuse to describe analogously through comparisons to indie songstresses or pixied actresses—and was kind of fumbling through early friendship questions. What are you reading? I dunno… not much—Saunders. What bands are you in to? Uh, Silver Jews. Do you like stuff? Hmm. Mostly just things. My responses provided no insight, revealed no interesting character beneath my Bon Iver beard and unwashed aesthetic. I was losing her. But then, in a flash of inspiration, and out of nowhere, I uttered: All I really want out of life is someone to watch the Golden Globes with. And a love was born.

What was important in this transcendental moment was that I didn’t profess my desire to have someone to watch TV with. That would’ve been too simple and lacking of perceptive interiority. And I didn’t claim a longing for the Oscars or the Grammys or the People’s Choice Awards. Affection for those ceremonies offers suggestions of alternate character: Glamour and elitism, fondness for trite song writing, celebration of the pedestrian. The Golden Globes suggest an understanding of culture, but also a devotion to the playful, a love of honesty, a tenderness towards organized chaos, and respect for accomplishment and an open bar. In an inspired moment I revealed myself to someone who is three leagues beyond me, and perhaps endeared myself to her.

What I love most about the Golden Globes is the way they reflect the time in which they exist unlike other forms of pageantry and celebrity. The Oscars always seem dated, with safe jokes and anachronistic musical productions. The Grammys don’t seem to understand that music exists outside of Top 40 radio, which further exposes the insulation and ignorance of celebrity culture. The Emmys try to get it right, but then celebrate The Big Bang Theory and Jon Cryer as comedy, and not in a meta way. The Golden Globes—perhaps organically, perhaps by design—communicate a moment in our culture, a snapshot of where we are as a people.

Case in point: The ignorant and transphobic jokes at the expense of Caitlyn Jenner, Transparent and its exceptional star Jeffrey Tambor. Of Jenner, host Ricky Gervais quipped: “I’ve changed. Well, not as much as Bruce Jenner, obviously—now Caitlyn Jenner, of course. What a year she’s had. She became a role model for transpeople everywhere, showing great bravery in breaking down barriers and destroying stereotypes. She didn’t do a lot for women drivers, but you can’t do everything.” He then joked about Tambor’s testicles. No only are these punch lines not funny, but they’re unfortunately indicative of where our tolerance is in terms of understanding LGTBQ issues. That it’s still acceptable to use these issues as punch lines shows that we have yet progressed to the level of understanding we need in order to assimilate all people into our culture. It was like Gervais had told a black joke in 1985 or a gay joke in 2005. It reveals the distance between where we are and where we need to be.

Despite Gervais’ failed humor, the Golden Globes provided, as they always do, a forum for the celebrated artists to address larger societal concerns. Transpeople’s issues are important right now, and Transparent, Caitlyn Jenner, and Laverne Cox are important beacons of that conversation. Last night, Leonardo DiCaprio and Alejandro González Iñárritu (after wins for The Revenant) both asked that indigenous people’s issues be more prominent in our cultural and political discourses. In many instances, certainly too many, venues like awards ceremonies are the only place much of the audience would be exposed to issues more relevant than the Kardashians’ meal choices. And while at the Oscars or the Grammys or the Cable Ace Awards such speeches could come across as preaching, the laid-back and jovial manner of the Golden Globes seems to make political messages more palatable to the audience.

Beyond societal concerns, the Golden Globes provide a place to reflect upon the condition of the mediums of film and TV, and the roles they play in cultural discourse.  Last night, Gervais recycled jokes from previous eras and hosting efforts, mocking Charlie Sheen’s addictions, Angelina Jolie Pitt’s adoptions, and Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitism. And while not being funny, they did illuminate and illustrate where we seem to be as a culture artistically, certainly in film and television: We seem to be out of ideas. Now is a time of recycling and rebooting; from Star Wars to The Muppets to old white men in late night film and TV, we seem to be plagued (except in some exceptional cases) with an inability or unwillingness or fear to be ambitious or innovative. The Golden Globes were a reflection of this, from Gervais’ jokes to Sylvester Stallone’s Best Supporting Actor win for Creed to the endless close-ups on Harrison Ford. Even the appearance of BFFs Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Schumer seemed rebooted, like a joke we’ve seen before: this time, the punch line didn’t hit.

The funniest part of the production, and further reflection of the disparity between society and the entertainment we’re fed, was the excessive bleeping of cursing. How is it possible, in an era of unconscionable violence both in art and reality, that expletives can be deemed so dangerous? This is indicative of the flawed manner in which we address issues in society. Swearing in a Versace gown is unacceptable, but the 2nd Amendment is important. Expletives are dangerous but Donald Trump isn’t. The Golden Globes, through the flaw of their network oversight, illuminate this hypocrisy. Perhaps futilely, but at least its there. Nary a celeb would dare drop an F-bomb on the Oscars, even while drone bombing plays live on other channels.

In a more positive light, what I do love about the Golden Globes is the honesty it seems to project, in stark contrast to the polished and tapered product of celebrity we are fed by Entertainment TonightPeople Magazine, and publicist-driven narratives. Other awards ceremonies revel in that culture of disingenuous production, but the Golden Globes celebrate its absence. Everyone has had a few cocktails. Lips are loose. Mistakes are made. There are always a few moments of truth that we don’t often get from the Hollywood machine. Rachel Bloom’s exuberance in her upset win as Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy TV Series, Denzel Washington and his wife without their glasses stumbling through his acceptance speech for his Cecil B. DeMille Award, Jamie Foxx’s noting the absence of recognition (at least musically) for Straight Outta Compton and his love for his daughter (Miss Golden Globe), and Tom Hanks’ Denzel impression are examples of polished and pampered stars being human. And I find something inherently beautiful about that.

We filter ourselves through celebrity. We quantify our aesthetic through its dissemination. We value our art in contrast to theirs. And their success—family, fame, fortune—is what we aspire to, no matter how impractical those aspirations are. I writhe at the lack of humility and grand ego that encompasses it all—both the celebrity and our obsessive filtering. But, once a year—when it’s at its best—the Golden Globes provide a glimpse of the virtue of celebrity and a reminder that these are simply people at the top of their industry, all dressed up, and out for a night of free champagne.

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.

KICKING TELEVISION: TV and the Death of the American Marriage

KICKING TELEVISION: TV and the Death of the American Marriage

nullThe first episode of season two of Transparent begins with a wedding. “Kina Hora” opens with a long, uninterrupted shot of the Pfefferman clan, draped in expensive, virginal white vestments, opulent garb against an epic California coastal backdrop. The series, which is the anti-thesis of tradition in society and on television, chose to invite the viewer into its sophomore effort by indulging in the very essence of tradition. Despite the immaculate aesthetic of the event, the wedding and its participants and guests were ugly, and in such a depiction Transparent stood with the traditions of its medium in presenting marriage as a deeply flawed and false institution.

Transparent explores the challenges of relationships. It beautifully examines how individuals construct, compromise, and conform in order to find happiness, or at least endure the journey. At the center of Transparent lie several marriages: the transitioned Maura and his ex Shelly; the newly betrothed Sarah and Tammy; Sarah and her ex Len; Josh and his partner Raquel; and all the bits and pieces, characters and relations who intersect and intertwine. It’s a look at marriage that introduces the contemporary evolution of our culture to the medium of television, a medium that tends to treat marriage with contempt. It’s also a medium that has evolved with the advent of streaming services like Amazon, which allows shows like Transparent the freedom to discuss an institution like marriage with less attachment to the traditions that permeate the network model. 

In “Kina Hora”, the defining moment—as the ugliness of the event meets the realities of the institution—finds Rabbi Raquel (the exceptional Kathryn Hahn) describing weddings as, “a ritual. It’s a pageant. It’s a very expensive play.” The same could be said about television itself. It’s part of our lives, an ongoing and unannotated play, in many parts, in many forms, with no end in sight. It’s a filter by which we quantify and qualify our own attempts at life. The streaming services have broadened the modes and conversations by which we apply that filter. And for the most part what we know as “television” seems to deplore marriage.

I got married this past summer, which was a surprise to many because I had never expressed any interest in marriage. This is not because I didn’t believe in love, which I did; or eternal happiness, which I aspired to; or gifts, which I rely on. I didn’t really want kids, but that became irrelevant, as marriage and kids ceased to be connected the way they once were. I think diamonds are a contrived industry, but I’m not wearing one. Ceremonies seemed opulent and gluttonous, but we eloped. Marriage, to me, had seemed simply a precursor to infidelity and divorce.

I’m not sure why I believed this. My parents have been together for more than 40 years and are very happy. My sister has been married for a dozen years or so, and my niece and nephew report no issue. Many of my high school friends are married and don’t complain about it much. But still, I had issues with the institution. And then, a few weeks ago, I was reading one of the many asinine and short-sighted op-eds that link television and movie violence to American gun culture, and I decided to blame what I believed to be the death of marriage on TV as well.

Television has killed the American marriage.

Unlike the facile arguments that blame media for gun violence, I decided to attempt to link my hypothesis to fact before asking my editors at Indiewire to publish it. Kind of like what Fox News does except the complete opposite. Is marriage, as television to me implies, dead—only worthy of farce, ridicule, and revile? Apparently, the meme that 50% of all marriages end in divorce is actually untrue. According to a New York Times study, “The divorce rate peaked in the 1970s and early 1980s and has been declining for the three decades since.” The piece also cites Fox, ABC, and Bravo references to the divorce rate myth as fact. The same media that both perpetuate and deride TV and film violence as contributing to a violent culture apparently do the same for the institution of marriage.

Violent shows bear ad revenue, as does programming of punditry that condemns them, as does the contemporary news model that treats myth as fact and viewers as sheep. Entertainment is an industry, and I like capitalism as much as the next guy with a paralyzing disinterest in nuptials. But I like facts and informed discourse too, which doesn’t explain why my own fears about marriage were tied to a straw man with commitment issues.

Interestingly, the Times piece begins with a reference to Chris Martin (a musician of some sort) and Gwyneth Paltrow (Blythe Danner’s daughter) ending their marriage. Of course it does. Even a respected outfit like the New York Times can’t make a concise argument in this day and age without tying it to B-list celebrities. It’s a trope of contemporary discourse that we filter issues through celebrity and media institutions. Television is a convenient barometer by which we tend to measure ourselves. It’s in our homes, a flawed mirror reflecting society and our notions of self. Am I as pretty as Rachel? Am I as funny as Chandler? Am I as successful as… well, none of the Friendswere particularly successful, but they had nice apartments and love and friendship and pet monkeys.

But beyond the aesthetic comparisons, there are institutional quantifications, which has lead me to believe that what has actually died is the representation of marriage on television. Once marriage was the aspiration of television, a narrative progression borrowed from Shakespeare. Boy meets girl, boy marries girl, and if it lasts more than four seasons everyone gets rich in syndication money. Weddings were sweeps staples, the ultimate achievement of television narratives: Luke and Laura, Jim and Pam, Ross and Emily. Weddings were beautiful, happy, defining moments that led to a lifetime of martial bliss, either on screen or in the world we imagined as completed series continued in our minds.

The current TV landscape sees marriage as either a cartoonish institution or one unworthy of reverence, perhaps as a result of the false meme or as a contributor to it. The sitcom revels in the former; a contrived wonderland where marriage is bliss, where flaws are adorable, and divorce is just a preamble to second chance happiness. Modern Family is a mockumentary meant to capture the contemporary American marriage, but instead it gives us animated generalizations. Phil the goofy loving father is married to Claire the overbearing mom, whose pratfalls bring us such joy. Jay is on his second marriage to the buxom Gloria, whose accent and ethnicity are a source of endless amusement. Cameron is married to Mitchell, and they’re both men, which is hilarious!

Two and a Half MenThe MiddleThe GoldbergsMindy: these shows all portray similar caricatures of marriage. Marriage is goofy. Men like football and synthetic cheese and drinking and they have penises, while women like shopping and makeup and Jon Hamm and they have vaginas. The dichotomy therein is a hoot.

In dramas marriage is a dismissed relic. The genre just doesn’t seem to like marriage very much. The modern day pulp of Shondaland savours infidelity common as oxygen and rarely attached to repercussion. The adulterous spouse can still be a president or a tenured prof or happy. Game of Thrones is filled with marriages of convenience and despair. Parenthood aspired to a more realistic depiction of marriage, but still filled its six seasons with adulterous leanings and desperate compromise. Maybe that’s what marriage is. Maybe mine is too new. Maybe I’m naïve. Maybe I should ask my wife.

These two representations perhaps help explain my media-driven fear of commitment. While marriage itself is a healthy and vital institution, television revels in its mockery. In actuality, marriage is a joyous union, an entry to a better life, not one of restriction or farce. I like being married, though I’m not very good at it yet. I’m heavier than I was when I was single, attentive but somewhat lazy with my affection, and not as responsible as a married man should be. But I’m trying. I aspire to better. I wish TV felt the same way.

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.

KICKING TELEVISION: Depression and the Sitcom

KICKING TELEVISION: Depression and the Sitcom

nullThere were times not too long ago when I was not happy. Not because I was alone, which I was, or I was wasting my life, which I was, or because I was immersing myself in bad decisions, which I was. My unhappiness was easily masked. It was kept secret. I took a perverse pleasure in that secrecy. Mental illness, in my experience, takes on its own life. It becomes a tangible entity, an unwanted partner, a relationship with the self built on parasitic dependency, among other dependencies. And yet, when depression is portrayed on TV, it seems so foreign, so abstract, a caricature of what the illness really is; sometimes a literal caricature (like in BoJack Horseman or The Simpsons) and sometimes a more subtle cartoon, like in Two and a Half Men.

In the sitcom, depression is just another punchline. The canon is filled with scripts that mine depression for laughs. Alcoholism on Cheers or MomFrasier’s desperate help line callers, Two and a Half Men’s hedonism and loneliness, or years of trauma comically manifesting in the fallibility of the real world on The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, are all born of some form of depression. It’s interesting that sitcom writers can find creative ways to discuss cancer (The Big C), divorce (Louie), war (M*A*S*H), homophobia (Will & Grace), class and domestic abuse (Roseanne), race (All in the Family), or alcoholism (all of them), but examples of engaging and inventive discourse on depression are hard to find. Even on shows that feature psychotherapists, like Frasier or The Bob Newhart Show, depression is a caricature.

I’m not condemning that mode. In my writing, I’ve used my struggles with happiness as a vehicle for humour. I have found self-deprecation in discussing my own struggles cathartic. And I would imagine that’s what sitcom writers find as well—or they’re just monsters that love other people’s suffering, like Republicans or cable news.

Accurate and deft sitcom portrayals of depression may often be found in animated series. Moe the bartender’s annual suicide attempts on The Simpsons are played for laughs, but careful consideration of Moe Szyslak finds a nuanced and skilled portrait of a character struggling with mental illness. His frequent attempts at self-harm and his violent oscillation between anger and indifference are contrasted by sentimental and selfless acts like reading to sick children and a genuine and hopeful capacity for love.

Similarly, BoJack Horseman manages to discourse on despondency and emotional disorder through the filter of an anthropomorphised horse/former sitcom star with a skill live-action comedy can’t seem to muster. As a faded member of the institution that is—for the most part—incapable of balancing comedy and analysis of mental illness, the titular character (voiced by Will Arnett) in the animated Netflix sitcom tries to manage his pain through attempts to find solace and context in those around him: A pink Persian cat/agent, a freeloader, yellow Labrador Retriever/rival, and a Vietnamese-American feminist/human ghostwriter who herself is spiralling into depression. Like many manic depressives, BoJack self-medicates, and though this is certainly played for laughs, moments born of his depression lend themselves to salient and sobering moments of self-realization that are rarely found in a sitcom, like, “You know, sometimes I think I was born with a leak, and any goodness I started with just slowly spilled out of me and now its all gone. And I’ll never get it back in me. It’s too late. Life is a series of closing doors, isn’t it?” Compelling reality, straight from the animated horse’s mouth.

Animation lends itself to intelligent consideration of something so difficult and inherently personal because as an audience (and as creators) the idea of sadness can exist in the abstract. The static nature of animation in The Simpsons and BoJack Horseman provide a forum for discussion, which allows the audience to filter mental health through the transcendental. One of the most difficult aspects of depression is recognizing it, and perhaps we, as an audience, find it easier to recognize it in an anthropomorphised horse than in a mirror.

Sitcoms are not typically a place where we confront ourselves. Sitcoms love to gloss over more serious conversations when given the opportunity to use them to evolve their narratives. Depression is a walking nightmare; it’s an attempt to quiet a screaming cancer while everyone watches the tumour grow. The TV drama makes it a character flaw or a tick, often treated as an affectation or virtue. Dr. House is depressed as a result of his atrophied leg, but a genius. In Scandal, Millie becomes depressed after the death of her son, but predictably recovers. In Nashville, Juliette suffers from post-partum depression, but will inevitably return to country music stardom. In all of these cases, and so many more, depression is the result of something. It has a cause that the character can address directly. The depression is almost tangible, a character with a background story who can be operated on, prosecuted, persecuted, killed off or written out.

But depression doesn’t have a cause. It’s born of nothing. One day it just exists. There is medication, but there is no cure.

Enter Aya Cash.

Cash’s portrayal of Gretchen’s spiralling depression in this season of You’re the Worst is nothing short of brilliant. I was an unabashed fan of the first season of the FXX sitcom, but I had concerns about how the re-imagination of the boy-meets-girl story would play out after boy (Chris Geere’s Jimmy) and girl (Cash’s Gretchen) moved in together. It seemed like the world of You’re the Worst may have had nowhere to go other than devolve into farce. And that would’ve been fine, but unspectacular and certainly unambitious—two regular traits of sitcoms seen in recent additions to the genre (Truth Be Told) or inexplicably still airing (2 Broke Girls) trading on recycled jokes and premises. But somewhere in episodes 3 and 4, the show took an unexpected turn concerning Gretchen’s clinical depression. And somehow, magically, creator Stephen Falk and his staff of writers have managed to take a serious and precious subject that the sitcom form has been mostly incapable of disseminating and used it to increase the show’s narrative scope while still being the funniest thing on TV outside of MSNBC debates.

What’s most impressive about You’re the Worst’s use of depression is that the world of the show has continued on despite Gretchen’s pain. The series hasn’t paused its narrative to focus solely on Cash’s character’s spiral—plot unrelated to her illness is still featured prominently. And therein lies the horrible truth of depression: The world doesn’t stop for it. So, while Gretchen falls apart, the universe the show has created goes on, with the characters Sunday Funday midday day drinking exploits, Lindsay’s (Kether Donohue) frozen semen, visits from Jimmy’s family and his temptations with infidelity, and Edgar’s (Desmin Borges) burgeoning relationship. While a lesser show would try to make the entire season about Gretchen, You’re the Worst instead allows her depression to exist within the show, and in so doing finds one of the most true and realistic depictions of mental illness to ever grace the small screen, and certainly the best to ever be on a sitcom.

The frustrating futility of a disease without a cure is beautifully depicted in episode 9, "LCD Soundsystem." Gretchen stalks a seemingly perfect couple, whose idyllic life she idolizes and aspires to. They have the nice house, the cute baby, the cool jobs—an aesthetic that suggests happiness and the life she believes she could have if she weren’t sick. But in a dose of reality that mimics the crushing severity and impossibility of mental illness, the couple ends up being as flawed and disappointing as Gretchen’s own existence. The husband is lecherous and desperate, hitting on Gretchen and dismissing his perfect life and family. The couple fight. The moment when she—and the audience—realize this is equally familiar and heartbreaking, while Jimmy (as many acquaintances of the depressed are) is wonderfully oblivious, and the look in Cash’s eyes in that instant are Emmy-worthy if ever a performance was. Without dialogue or animation, Gretchen’s eyes suggest a deep and resound loss, as if helplessly watching the very notion of ever being happy sink slowly into a dark and vengeful abyss

This is where the peerless brilliance of You’re the Worst’s recent season can be found. In episode 3 Gretchen misses her old "posse" and throws a party to reunite them. In episode 4 she sneaks out of the house in the middle of the night, where (we discover in episode 6) she has gone to cry alone in her car. Carelessly, and without warning, Gretchen and the audience are confronted by her depression. That violent and graceless fluctuation is perfect effigy of the sudden onslaught of mental illness. And though there will be laughter around Gretchen as the season progresses, Cash’s character exists in frightening isolation, familiar to those who have suffered from a similar affliction.

There are still a few episodes of You’re the Worst left this season, and who knows how many years of the show and its universe. I’m curious how it will deal with Gretchen’s depression and balance the tropes of the sitcom. Television is escapism. It is not the responsibility of artists to adhere to the audience’s needs. The sitcom is a form of expression, and a way of taking some small microcosm of common existence and giving those who actually exist in it a moment of solace. Cash’s performance is a caring tribute to those who suffer from mental illness, and a lesson for other sitcoms on how television can be ambitious and funny while respecting both the audience and the medium. Certainly humour may be found in dark and troubling places, but so can understanding and compassion. A well-crafted sitcom can respect its traditions—and audience—while aspiring to new modes of employing the genre.

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.

KICKING TELEVISION: Reboot, Reuse, Recycle

KICKING TELEVISION: Reboot, Reuse, Recycle

nullThe other night I was watching ABC’s The Muppets with my wife, who is a bit younger than me, and doesn’t have the memories of The Muppet Show and Muppet movies of the ‘80s that I do. She laughed when it was funny and rolled her eyes when silent groans were required. And I suppose I did too, and I’ve enjoyed the show, three episodes in. But there’s also something very sad about this reboot of the franchise. Not for the show, or its production, which cleverly takes us behind the scenes of the Muppet universe in faux documentary style. But rather, the sadness was mine, because somewhere five-year-old me was aghast at the adult version of a children’s classic. Kermit was drinking. Fozzie was dating. Ms. Piggy was…ok, totally unchanged. And in an entertainment era where no franchise can escape a reboot pitch, the revisiting of memories past has altered our once-static television mythologies. Now a series finale is meaningless, and where narratives used to have definitive beginnings and endings, the contemporary TV landscape has made its canon malleable.

TV reboots are not new for an industry rich in talent but handcuffed by corporate ideology. How else can you explain Chicago FireChicago PD, and this season’s addition, Chicago DMV? Series need to guarantee, or at least give the illusion of a guarantee, that they will be successful and profitable. Typically, the industry has leaned towards recycling. Medical, legal, and forensic science serials are churned out every pilot season. Sitcoms still have wacky neighbors and hetero coupling, even if the studio audience and ratings have all but disappeared. Late night is full of penises, mostly white men telling the same jokes about being white men. Recycling is born of fear, because in TV ‘new and revolutionary’ doesn’t come along all that often and when it does it’s either by mistake (Empire) or on HBO. But while the idea is not new, the employment of their methodology has changed.

We’re used to remakes, and enduring Matthew Perry cringing for a paycheck on The Odd Couple. But revisiting a past series, and continuing its narrative, is a new premise, at least on a large scale. In recent memory, we have seen or will see The X-FilesMelrose PlaceBeverly Hills 90210, The Muppet ShowBoy Meets WorldFull HouseArrested DevelopmentSex and the City, HeroesCoachWet Hot American SummerTwin PeaksXena: Princess Warrior, and Cop Rock rebooted. Well, not Cop Rock. Not yet. Not until someone can find Steven Bochco.

No TV property can escape the greed for easy ratings. Even Fear of the Walking Dead is a reboot of sorts, reimagining the early days of The Walking Dead universe. And while season one is a mixed bag at best, it certainly lacks the bold vision and ambition of its parent series. Why be ambitious when you can be simple-minded? Which begs the further question: If The X-Files or Xena are successful, what does TV reanimate next? Do we return to Lost and find out what the afterlife is like on another island, say Fiji? Is House, M.D. addicted to Adderall and working as an on-campus physician at UMass-Amherst? Was Tommy Westphall’s dream in St. Elsewhere actually part of another kid’s dream? Are Ross and Rachel divorced? Is Jerry dead? Is Tony Soprano?

The trend of sequels, prequels, and reboots is not unique to TV. We’re about to endure the return of the Star Wars franchise. Harper Lee’s publishers saw an aging icon and dollar signs and brought back the seminal characters from Too Kill a Mockingbird back to life in the unfortunate Go Set a Watchman. Meat Loaf revisits Bat Out of Hell whenever he needs an infusion of nostalgia-driven cash. But while I can understand nostalgia, the genius and gift of art is that it’s always there for us to revisit on our own schedule and accord.

I’ve read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Cat’s Cradle over and over so many times that I’ve worn out the pages. I’ve listened to the Silver Jews’ Bright Flight at least once a week for as long as I’ve owned the album. Once a year, I find a repertory cinema playing The Godfather or Pulp Fiction or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and revel in both the genius of the films and my memories of first watching them. And while revisiting television was once reserved for syndication—and then home video—digital technology has allowed me to rewatch my favourite series, like LostFriday Night Lights, or West Wing whenever I feel the need to immerse myself in their universes. To visit old friends. To be held safely in the nostalgic warmth of familiarity and television acumen. But to alter the anchored narratives of those series would mess with an already weary mind.

Unfortunately, TV doesn’t use the reboot trend to satiate the lingering the TV junkie’s appetite for series that died too soon. Seth Rogen, Linda Cardellini, Jason Segal, James Franco et al. will not suit up for Freaks and Geeks and Their Freak-Geek Kids. There will be no season two of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. The surf is not up for more John from Cincinnati. Instead, TV tests the reboot waters with mid-range nostalgia like Boy Meets World and cult hits like The X-Files, before venturing into more seminal TV fare. Somewhere Mark Linn-Baker and Bronson Pinchot are dusting off their "Dance of Joy" shoes. Somewhere, Jaleel White is hopeful. Make no mistake; the reboot is the new spin-off. And no TV series is safe. Except for Viva Laughlin. Probably. The spin-off had too many variables that could lead to failure. The reboot is a safer root, as it just offers what was previously successful with minor twists.

In the meantime, I won’t close myself off to these reboots. I’m as curious as anyone. Which is why networks will churn them out. Because even the most ardent fan of a series’ mythology can’t resist a dalliance with the unanswered, the unsaid, the unproduced. So I’ll watch The Muppets, even if it messes with my past, and answers questions no one asked like, What’s a Muppet prostitute look like? and Is Muppet-human sex bestiality? I’ll dig in. I’m a consumer. I’ll be the Statler to ABC’s Waldorf. But, in the meantime, I really have to know: Where the hell are “Pigs in Space”?

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 ofCheap Throat: The Diary of a Locked-Out Hockey Player (Found Press, 2013).Follow him on Twitter @mdspry.

ARIELLE BERNSTEIN: ‘Inside Out’ and Today’s Reductive Emotional Landscape

ARIELLE BERNSTEIN: ‘Inside Out’ and Today’s Reductive Emotional Landscape

nullIn 1943, Walt Disney Studios released a cartoon called ‘Reason and Emotion‘ which depicted man’s inner life as a battlefield between sensible Reason, portrayed as an elegant little man with a suit, tie, and glasses, and wild man Emotion, portrayed as a small caveman. In the cartoon, Reason and Emotion battled for control inside a man’s head, seen in silhouette, with Reason confidently driving in front and Emotion dejectedly confined to the backseat. When Reason spies a beautiful young woman on the street he suggests being respectful, while Emotion attempts to take Reason’s place at the wheel by encouraging cat calls and whistles. When the camera zooms inside the young woman’s head, we see a similar scenario, with Reason portrayed as a prim and proper woman with glasses, while Emotion, with her loose hair and short skirt, tries to take control of the wheel, so that she can get dessert, ruining poor sensible Reason’s diet.

It’s clear that our cultural attitude about the role of emotion (as well as gender roles) has evolved significantly since 1943. Pixar’s latest film, ‘Inside Out,’ portrays a world where the emotions—Anger, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Joy—play equal and important roles in helping Riley, the film’s young heroine, navigate the world around her. The film starts with Joy taking the helm, but ends with the express argument that as 11-year old Riley grows up she will need to confront new situations, and that each emotion will play an important role in helping her to navigate this new landscape.

Critics have rightly gushed over ‘Inside Out’—at Slate, Amanda Marcotte notes how wonderfully universal the film’s themes are and also points out the strong feminist undercurrent about how girls shouldn’t be encouraged to mask their feelings and put on a happy face.  Many critics also note the sheer gorgeousness of the Pixar world inside Riley’s head. Anthony Lane at The New Yorker declares, “On the scale of inventiveness, ‘Inside Out’ will be hard to top this year. As so often with Pixar, you feel that you are visiting a laboratory crossed with a rainbow.”

If the world of ‘Reason and Emotion’ portrayed a landscape where emotion was seen as dangerous, the world of ‘Inside Out’ portrays a world where emotional lives are stunningly compartmentalized. Core memories, portrayed as brightly colored orbs, are located at the forefront of Riley’s mind, while older memories are either stowed or thrown away into a vast sea of memories that no longer seem to matter. Riley’s overall quality of life and personality is based on the health of each of her core “islands”—one is based on family, one on “goofball,” another one sports. These islands are surprisingly fragile, completely disintegrating when Riley encounters a situation that is hurtful, or frightening, or frustrating. When Riley’s core memories are threatened after she moves from Minnesota to California, feelings Joy and Sadness must begin an epic quest to place them where they rightfully belong.

Riley’s emotional world in ‘Inside Out’ is portrayed as inherently fragile; her “islands of personality” for example, are portrayed as actual physical islands made of real raw materials that crumble and break and disappear forever when Riley’s trust in those worlds is diminished. This physical representation of memory is shaped by our current cultural moment as much as Disney’s 1940s portrayal of reason and emotion was.  After all, Riley’s increasingly complex collection of memories looks a lot like the way we collect and store memories online today, with happy ones on proud visible display on our Facebook timelines and Instagram accounts, and sad ones minimized, covered up, or pushed to the side.

In ‘Inside Out,’ all of our emotional worlds seem dangerously close to extinction. Each of Riley’s personified emotions is reactive when encountering a new situation. Anger blows his top. Disgust turns up her nose. Fear flails around terrified. The film’s core message, that emotions, even Sadness, who at first seems quite useless, play key important roles in helping to maintain Riley’s emotional stability, seems in some ways to reject the notion of reason whatsoever. When entering the heads of Riley’s parents, for example, we see older, wiser “mom” and “dad” versions of these same five emotions, each of whom, often to comical effect, struggles with many of the same feelings that Riley does.

‘Inside Out’ illustrates how we live in a world that is on the surface much more open to the complexities of our emotional inner worlds than was the 1943 world of ‘Reason and Emotion.’ And yet, in many ways ‘Inside Out’ also reflects just how reductive today’s emotional landscape ultimately is. In today’s current cultural climate we are rarely given the latitude to express a complicated emotional response to something we read and see. The world of social media encourages knee jerk reactions—a like, or dislike, an outraged tweet. We’re allowed to feel the same five emotions that Riley experiences—joy, fear, disgust, sadness, and especially anger, but are rarely encouraged for sharing emotions that are too complex to boil down to a hashtag. We live in a world where emotions are plentiful, but they are also stock responses that don’t allow for very much in the way of nuance.

In the end of ‘Inside Out,’ Sadness saves the day, as Riley is able to express the complex emotions of nostalgia and grief, which are depicted as an intermingling of joy and sadness, and Riley’s core memories are allowed to shift hues from purely golden to shades of blue. But the final scene is a bit more unsettling, as Riley’s emotions consider a far more advanced motherboard, along with a large red button labeled, “puberty” that has yet to be pushed yet. While ‘Inside Out’ presents emotional growth as a natural transition from childhood to adulthood, it also presents a relatively modern cultural attitude that expressing emotion, even emotions that can be upsetting or unpleasant like fear, anger or sadness, can actually be a good thing. As a parable for coming-of-age in a digital world ‘Inside Out’ also suggests that we are still learning how to communicate our emotions to one another in ways that help us establish dialogues, as opposed to emotional battlefields where feelings are often wielded as weapons to protect ourselves or hurt the other person.

Arielle Bernstein is a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American University and also freelances. Her work has been published in The Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review and The Ilanot Review. She has been listed four times as a finalist in Glimmer Train short story contestsShe is currently writing her first book.

ARIELLE BERNSTEIN: The Women in Noah Baumbach’s Films: Gentleness as Strength

ARIELLE BERNSTEIN: The Women in Noah Baumbach’s Films: Gentleness as Strength

nullIn Noah Baumbach’s most recent
film, ‘While We’re Young,’ the smartest person in the room is Darby (Amanda Seyfried), a talented
ice cream maker and the young wife of an ambitious young film director named
Jamie (Adam Driver), who, we find out later on, is also stealing many of her ideas. While the
film on surface is about aging and art, a major subtext of ‘While We’re Young’
has to do with the ways that gender dynamics shape relationships. After all,
even though there is a twenty-year age gap between Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts), and Jamie
and Darby, the men in both couples push away the possibility for true
collaboration with their wives.

In A.O. Scott’s review of the film,
he argues that gender is a major blindspot in Baumbach’s films. He comments on
the fact that Baumbach, like many other male film directors, treats ambition
like it’s “…a guy thing. Men make movies. Women make ice cream and babies, or
help the men make the movies.” But where Scott sees a pat dismissal of the
female experience, I think Baumbach is actually doing something more
challenging with his female characters. In a world where we often doubt whether
female characters can still be perceived as “strong” if they long for romance
or babies, Baumbach offers a vision of femininity in which there is power in being

Films like ‘The Squid and The Whale’, ‘Greenberg,’ and ‘While We’re Young’ are fascinated with the lives of men who are
often disdainful of their female companions, too self-absorbed to acknowledge
them as having an interior world that is equally as complex as their own. 

In ‘The Squid and The Whale,’ for
example, we see husband Bernard (Jeff Daniels), expressing contempt for his ex-wife’s
burgeoning literary accomplishments as he flounders and fails to write a
successful new novel. The father’s frustration with his wife’s success
manifests as misogynistic instructing of his own son, Walt. He implores him not
settle down too soon, and seems to be unimpressed by the looks and talent of
his son’s girlfriend, who is portrayed as exceptionally warm, smart and kind,
actually reading the books her boyfriend professes to have read.

Likewise, in ‘Greenberg,’ Florence (Greta Gerwig),
the young housekeeper who is trying to figure out life, is portrayed as far
more stable, dependable, smart and interesting than older and supposedly wiser
Roger (Ben Stiller), who suffers from extreme anxiety, and just as extreme narcissism. It is
clear throughout ‘Greenberg’ that Florence could do a lot better than Roger, but
the criticism that Florence is not a developed character, or exists merely to
inspire change in Roger, seems patently unfair. Throughout the film Florence is
portrayed as bright and vivacious, though she is very insecure, and the film
begins and ends by focusing on her perspective, rather than Roger’s.

As a feminist critic I’ve been
taught to be wary of female characters like Florence, young, talented and
beautiful, yet strangely vulnerable, and willing to put up with a lot of male
bad behavior. We’re in an anti manic pixie dream girl moment, perhaps the
backlash from a few years where every female character on screen seemed to have
a bit of manic pixie dream girl magic about her. Initially meant to describe a
particular type of inspirational female character who existed to help a male
narrator along his journey, the term came to mean any female character who was
portrayed as quirky, gentle, and offbeat. 

Even the creator of the term,
Nathan Rabin, would eventually apologize for inadvertently creating the clichéd buzzword.  In his 2014 piece for Salon, he argues that
the term is actually being used to devalue female characters, rather than
criticize the limited roles that women have on screen. The term manic pixie
dream girl is used to criticize a particular kind of girl, one who likes Zooey
Deschanel bangs, and kittens, and quirky, gentle things, like knitting and
xylophones and pretty art.

In short, the term has evolved as a
kind of catch-all to dismiss female artistic potential. Youthful male energy is
cast as exhilarating, creative and powerful, while youthful female energy is presented
as lacking gravitas. (A male ice-cream maker with the kind of talent Darby
exhibits would be presented as a talented businessman, not a burgeoning
housewife, as AO Scott suggests in his review.)

As Eva Wiseman argues in her review
of Miranda July’s latest novel, ‘The First Bad Man,’ female creative talent is often dismissed
with words like quirky, as if liking glitter and kittens is antithetical to
producing work that is serious and substantive.

She says of July’s novel, “Loneliness is not trivial. Death is not cute.
To call stories like this quirky is to admit that you haven’t really listened.
Occasionally a male artist is labelled quirky, but usually because his style is
perceived as feminine. ‘Surreal.’ In fact, male artists who are similar to
July, whose work is unusual and prolific and who divides critics, are likely to
be labelled geniuses. A genius, perhaps, is a male artist whose work is
difficult to define. While with a female artist we have the word right here,
ready. It’s ‘quirky’.”

Later in her article, Wiseman goes
on to suggest that the use of manic pixie dream girls in films contributes to
invalidating the importance of female creativity. In reality, I think it’s the
disdain for femininity that leads us to assume that delicate female characters
are unworthy of respect or recognition. The female characters in Baumbach’s
films may often be dealing with men who have the potential to lash out and be
abusive, but that doesn’t mean they are shrinking violets.  At the end of ‘The Squid and The Whale,’ a son
who idealizes his father learns to see their divorce from the perspective of
his mother. At the end of ‘Greenberg,’ Florence listens to a rambling message
from Roger. At the start of the movie she pleaded with traffic, “Are you going
to let me in?” In the end, she is the one who gets to answer that question.
Will she continue to date Roger? Will she let him go? Florence’s becoming aware
of her own power is just as important in the film as Roger coming to terms with
his being an abusive jerk a lot of the time.

A look at Noah Baumbach’s women
would be incomplete without a consideration of the brilliant and beautiful
film, ‘Frances Ha,’ a film that is first and foremost about female friendship. In
it, two young women, Frances and Sophie, grow together and apart from each
other, as they each struggle to make it, both professionally and personally, in
New York. In one of the most moving and memorable moments in the movie, Frances
drunkenly describes what she wants out of a relationship to a few acquaintances
she has just met at a dinner party:

“It’s that thing when
you’re with someone, and you love them and they know it, and they love you and
you know it… but it’s a party… and you’re both talking to other people, and
you’re laughing and shining… and you look across the room and catch each
other’s eyes… but—but not because you’re possessive, or it’s precisely
sexual… but because… that is your person in this life. And it’s funny and
sad, but only because this life will end, and it’s this secret world that
exists right there in public, unnoticed, that no one else knows about. It’s
sort of like how they say that other dimensions exist all around us, but we
don’t have the ability to perceive them. That’s—That’s what I want out of a
relationship. Or just life, I guess.”

Towards the very end
of the film, Baumbach presents a scene at a party celebrating Frances’
choreography for a modern dance show, where we see Frances and Sophie lock
eyes. “That’s Sophie. She’s my best friend.” While a show like ‘Girls’ often
paints girliness as vapid or cruel (we spend a lot of time waiting for Hannah
and her friends to grow up and stop being girls, after all), ‘Frances Ha’ insists
on a vision of female friendship that is imperfect, but also genuinely tender.

There were echoes of
this kind of gentle warmth in another one of my favorite films about women’s
lives and relationships, ‘Blue is the Warmest Color’ (another film about women
directed by a man) where the young lovers meet again, years later at an art
show. At a time when many feel skeptical about the ability of male artists to
effectively convey the female experience, I remain heartened by the idea that
the creation of interesting, complex characters is not limited by one’s
experience of gender. At a time where “strong female characters” are still
often thought of in regards to the “warrior” archetype (the Ripleys and
Furiosas of the screen), it’s refreshing to see a portrayal of femininity that
doesn’t need to be pumped up or loud or physically powerful. It just needs to
be genuinely human.

Arielle Bernstein is
a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American
University and also freelances. Her work has been published in
Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review and The Ilanot Review. She
has been listed four times as a finalist in
Glimmer Train short story
. She is currently writing her first book.

METAMERICANA: What ‘Into the Woods’ Has to Do with David Foster Wallace

METAMERICANA: What ‘Into the Woods’ Has to Do with David Foster Wallace

Into the Woods, a film based on
the 1986 musical of the same name, offers its audience an interweaving
of well-worn material–select fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm–and
an original story by James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim. The script
of the musical (and now its cinematic adaptation) mirrors its central
theme: throughout the story characters are heard to complain that the
life they want is one that combines a gritty realism of their own
authorship with a magic that’s beyond their understanding. As Anna
Kendrick’s Cinderella tells Chris Pine’s Prince Charming, "My father’s
house was a nightmare. Your house was a dream. Now I want something
in-between." If modernism urged us to shoot for the moon, and
postmodernism compelled us to take our blinders off, the metamodernism
of Lapine and Sondheim proposes that we do both things simultaneously.
This sentiment carries even greater resonance today than it did in the
mid-1980s, given the "both/and" ethos of our contemporary, fully
digitized American culture.

David Foster Wallace, widely
considered the first and still most important metamodern novelist, began
writing his magnum opus, Infinite Jest, the same year Sondheim and Pine’s Into the Woods
saw its first live performance. While in 1986 Wallace was still
developing the metamodern rhetorical framework that would come to
fruition with the publication of Infinite Jest in 1996, the late
novelist had for years been explicit with friends and the media about
deeming postmodernism an artistic dead-end. His reasoning: the
"either/or" ethos of the postmodern novel dictated that it be entirely
one thing or another–for instance, entirely self-serious or entirely
ironic–and for this reason it was doomed to remain "hellaciously
unfun." Wallace envisioned a literature in which novels could indulge
diametrically opposed principles simultaneously, and do so with an
earnestness of intent that would make of those opposed principles a
"single-entendre" ethos. In other words, Wallace-the-metamodernist
believed that one could simultaneously articulate opposing ideas with
such a studied sincerity that the usual tone taken by any artist setting
ideas against one another–irony–could be abolished entirely.
Wallace’s ideas were inspired by films and novels he’d been exposed to
in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

It’s popular these days
to say that metamodernism was born of Internet culture, and that in
metamodern art the artist "oscillates" between opposing ideas rather
than stacking them atop one another the way Wallace proposed and then
performed in Infinite Jest. It’s popular, too, to reject the
notion that metamodernism flourished in the 1980s on the grounds that
irony also flourished during that same period–e.g., in Bret Easton
Ellis’ two late-80s novels. The problem with this reasoning is that when
one looks to historicize a movement or cultural paradigm, one really
looks first to the emergence of such ideas and commitments among the
geniuses of each generation. Wallace was a literary Great, whereas Ellis
was and is not; Wallace showed us the vitality of metamodernist
principles in the 1980s and 1990s, while Ellis merely aped an ironic
posture that was already the order of the day in mainstream American
culture by 1986.

The situation is much the same today in literature, and also in film. Writers whose work merely doubles down on the
apocalyptic cynicism of late postmodernism are received as cutting edge
not because they offer their readers anything new, but because they
crystallize things that have been in the water for many years now. In fact, what Generation Y is craving now is very much in line
with the vision Sondheim and Wallace offered us in the mid-1980s: a
world in which we can take things we find in our culture, combine them
seamlessly with materials or self-expressive instincts of our own, and
through this unholy alliance experience multiple realities at once. In Into the Woods,
the characters experience the magic of "the woods" alongside the
hardscrabble moral quandaries of their daily lives in "the village." In
America, we now conjoin the magic of "the Internet"–a place where
fantasy and reality lose all distinction–with the workaday exhaustion
of post-industrial America.

Postmodern artists fear that if
young creatives begin intermixing concocted fantasy and received
reality, or self-expressive imagination and plagiarized material from
online, the result will be an inability to distinguish between fact and
fiction and therefore political ennui. It’s a red herring that’s
admirably dealt with by the Baker’s wife (Emily Blunt) in Into the Woods, who says the following after she sings "Any Moment" with a (quite suddenly) adulterously amorous Prince Charming:

it all be either less or more? Either plain or grand? Is it always
‘or’? Is it never ‘and’? That’s what woods are for: for those moments in
the woods….[but] just remembering you’ve had an ‘and’, when you’re
back to ‘or’, makes the ‘or’ mean more than it did before. Now I
understand–and it’s time to leave the woods!"

It’s a
useful commentary on the easy misogyny of the 1980s that only moments
after her epiphany–only moments after the unfaithful baker’s wife
realizes the passing but not insignificant utility of infidelity–she is
violently killed. But the epiphany remains, and will make sense to any
adulterous spouse who’s read the latest conventional wisdom on whether
affairs must always end marriages (the CW says no), or to anyone who has
quit the Internet after ingesting near-fatal doses of its toxins (the
CW now says that doing so makes you appreciate daily living all the
more).  We may
not yet have reached the point, in the political/social spheres, at which pollsters give us
three options rather than two for their infamous "right track/wrong
track" question–that is, permit us to say that the nation is
simultaneously on the right and wrong tracks–but films like Into the Woods
demonstrate that this hybrid view of the human situation is alive and
well in art and in our hearts if still not in our discourse or our

Watching Into the Woods reminds us that for every website like Salon
whose cynical click-bait articles are rife with bitterness at the
injustices of the world–and are therefore rigged to fill our throats
with bile–there’s an Upworthy.com filled to the gills with videos of
small kindnesses and grand romantic gestures. For every use of
technology to harm or invade, there’s a simultaneous use that
saves many lives. For every Ferguson, there’s a type of dialogue on race
and policing in America that tragedy and only tragedy makes possible.
For every Mr. Wolf (Johnny Depp) in Into the Woods, there’s a wolf-skin cape waiting to be made. For every unfathomable philosophical intricacy in Infinite Jest,
there’s a moment of such pure comedy in the novel that cannot be missed
or misread. And most importantly, all this good and bad is happening to
each of us at all times and simultaneously, a fact the Internet has
made clearer to us than ever did the offline but nevertheless carnal
consumer culture that typified the eighties. For many decades now–not
just since the turn of the century–our most energetically inventive
artists and thinkers have been urging us to turn aside from zero-sum
games to find strength and vitality in contemporary juxtapositions; the
question is, are we listening? Or must we wander in the woods forever?

Seth Abramson is the author of five poetry collections, including two, Metamericana and DATA,
forthcoming in 2015 and 2016. Currently a doctoral candidate at
University of Wisconsin-Madison, he is also Series Co-Editor for
Best American Experimental Writing, whose next edition will be published by Wesleyan University Press in 2015.