GREY MATTERS: The Decline and Fall of April Ludgate

GREY MATTERS: The Decline and Fall of April Ludgate

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I guess it was inevitable, especially when you think about the place of women in TV and the size of the NBC machine. But the worst has come to pass, and April Ludgate, the beyond-deadpan carrier of careless anarchic energies, the one-woman friction element who’s kept Parks and Recreation from being an Office clone from the unsteady git-go, has been muffled into a millennial-generation version of a wacky neighbor from a sitcom.

This, well, sucks. Because April Ludgate, it’s not a stretch to say, is the most extreme, most uncompromisingly strange, noncompliant female character in the history of broadcast TV. There is no mold for April Ludgate to break. When she ends up sunning herself in a South American dictator’s pool in one episode, the joke is that she fits there as well as she fits in small town America. Meaning she doesn’t, to her amusement.

Because of April, Parks and Recreation was an utterly unique situation comedy, set in a binary universe.

On the one hand we had Amy Poehler, playing Leslie Knope, a passionate bureaucrat in an Indiana small town’s Parks and Rec department, and her hugely adorable co-workers.

And on the other hand, as if reporting in from a parallel universe lorded over by deadpan semi-surrealist Steven Wright, there was April Ludgate (Aubrey Plaza), permanently hunched over, with huge, give-me-a-break rolling eyes, snark, and all-around Dada-esque hostility.

April’s acid grin gave the Libertarian outbursts of Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) their exclamation points. Her eye-rolling threw water onto Leslie’s eternal happy hour of optimism. She showed proper disgust when one-joke wannabe playa Tom (Aziz Ansari) said something, well, disgusting. Let’s put it baldly: April Ludgate was Parks and Recreation’s stealth weapon.

But now? Now the girl who used to answer the phone with impossible dates and times, glower at the horizon for fun, and hang up on people for sport—all to the endless delight of her boss, no-government Ron, it should be mentioned—has been shorn of her playful, perverse and puckish identity.

She now prefers conservative work force clothing to better integrate into the office. She also shares hugs with anyone when needed, and when her cutely thick musician husband Andy (Chris Pratt) does something really dumb, she will throw her arms up and cry “Andy!” like a million other flustered wives before her. All that’s missing is a laugh track.

How far the mighty fall. I mean, sure, she’ll say something surly every now and then: I bet they have five or six 18 year old interns at NBC tasked with the job of coining her devilish rejoinders.

Anyway. Back in the day (before this season), I loved the way that April and Ron had bonded as peers in their mutual disgust over institutions, government, groups and, hell, everything but rare steaks, whiskey and causing more problems.

Not anymore! Now that Ron has committed an actual act of governance and promoted April to a job with more responsibilities, he has also become a father figure for April, because all girls, the subtext logic goes, especially uppity ones like April Ludgate, are really looking for the right substitute father.

Maybe here you can see why The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was so remarkable. When Rooney Mara’s punk hacker was dragged into another dubious Girl Domestication scenario with another Oedipal-freighted father replacement, she soundly rejected it: that just doesn’t happen that much. That is breaking the law, after all.

Meanwhile, as I mourn April Ludgate’s spiky soul—I can see, in indelible ink, the writing on her face, saying “Don’t worry folks! She’s normal! Really!”—the show itself trundles to an ignoble season’s end.

Knope has run for city council. Since this is NBC and actual political parties cannot be named, the show instead goes for the Maureen Dowd school of politics, where there are no issues or ideologies, only personalities.

Knope should win, the show argues, because she’s wanted it longer. Me, I could use less of my favorite comic actor getting shitfaced and falling into hot tubs, failing career-making interviews and becoming the buffoon she never was.

Meanwhile, over in the kingdom of bad decisions of which April is queen, we find a high princess in Ann Perkins (Rashida Jones). Like April, Ann has been shorn of delightful prickliness and is now so needy that she pairs up with Tom, because he is now an adorable man-child. Or child-man.

Look. I revel in the promise of serialized TV’s ability to let people change. But there has never been any fine print about devolving them. And the other promise and pleasure is that they also stay essentially the same. I just don’t buy a Knope who’s recently so often a dope, or an Ann willing to forget everything she knows about romance so that Tom can annoy her into having sex—or as Tom described it, “The four sweetest words: you wore me down.”

Maybe I’m spoiled by girls doing whatever they want. Maybe I’m paranoid about endless notes and tweakings by suits after terrible ratings because lord knows Parks & Rec had those last year, but when all your female characters have been blunted and your male characters left the same or improved, it's just weird. Add on characters name-dropping the feminist critic Laura Mulvey and making knowing reference to “the male gaze” in time for Ron to have hot monkey sex with an actual female feminist, and I can’t help but feel as if the showrunners are not only winking at us, but at least partially aware that they knew exactly what they were doing with, say, April,
and probably knew we'd be at least somewhat put off by it, and hence the un-Parks and Rec-like avalanche of Community-style referencing meant to ensure we don’t get actually mad at them about doing any of it, because, like, see, we get the whole discourse, so we’re cool, right?

This irks me.

Still, the anarchy-in-the-USA energies have been passed to a male body now: that of real-life Republican Rob Lowe, here playing state auditor Chris Traeger.  (Yes, that is irony.)

At first a running joke of narcissism and mortality fear, Chris’s encroaching middle age anxieties have turned him into the show’s new wildcard of strange/insightful behavior (playing terrifying Gregorian chants at a Valentine’s Day DJ gig for example). Chris, it seems, is the new April.

With HBO’s Girls zeitgeist on the one hand and FOX’s retrogressive indie pixie gold mine The New Girl on the other, next season will tell whether April and the other women on Parks and Rec are allowed to rediscover their spiky roots. I hate to say it, but my hopes are not high. And maybe if I don’t watch any more demoted Aprils, I can think of this impossible character more as some incredibly rare, unstable mineral that let off this amazing, crazy light that was never meant to shine more than a few years before exploding beautifully into nothing. Yeah—I can think about it that way without getting cranky.

Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. Magazines and newspapers that have his articles include Detroit Metro Times, gothic.net, Icon Magazine, International Musician and Recording World, Lacanian Ink, MusicFilmWeb, New York Post, The Perfect Sound, Salon, Smart Money Magazine, Teeth of the Divine, Venuszine, and Time Out New York.

GREY MATTERS: Cabin in the Woods, Horror in the Dumps

GREY MATTERS: Cabin in the Woods, Horror in the Dumps

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***SPOILER ALERT: The following piece is one huge spoiler. So, if you haven’t seen this movie yet, consider yourself forewarned.***

If we’re lucky, The Cabin in the Woods will shut down the debased American horror movie machine for a good long while. God knows the damned thing has been creatively moribund for decades and hasn’t had a new idea since Scream, unless you count turning cinemas into torture porn abattoirs as new.

And actually, that was a main reason Joss Whedon co-wrote Cabin with friend and Buffy the Vampire Slayer writer Drew Goddard a few years back: as a protest of Hostel and movies of its ilk.

But Cabin—directed by Goddard—got stalled during MGM’s bankruptcy, and here it is, a dark echo of The Hunger Games, another film about kids trapped in psychotically violent arenas. This one, though, gives equal time to the people behind those funny games.

We know this because, right off, the words “CABIN IN THE WOODS” are hilariously stamped over a freeze frame of said masterminds, a bunch of middle management types in lab coats played by Richard Jenkins (delightfully worn out), Bradley Whitford, and Whedon regular Amy Acker. They joke, place bets, and work as surrogates for anyone grinding another massacre movie out during this period of the genre’s debasement.

Meanwhile, five teens get ready to vacation at the eponymous cabin. There’s Jules (Anna Hutchison), the blond who’s only dumb, it turns out, because her Clairol was secretly doped by agents of the lab (!). And Dana (Kristen Connolly), the “mostly virgin” redhead. And Curt (Chris Hemsworth), the hunk, and Holden (Jesse Williams), who’s the nice guy. And stealing the movie like he stole Whedon’s Dollhouse is Fran Kranz, as Marty the stoner.

As the teens drive “off the grid,” the stations of the Craven/Raimi cross are dully ticked off: road to nowhere. Creepy in-bred dude at gas station. And, finally, the saggy-roof cabin itself, courtesy of Evil Dead.

Once inside, Weird Shit happens. Freaky mirrors. Creepy toys. A text written in Latin is read aloud. Zombies rise. And then the violence begins, and we realize that this “cabin” and “woods” were controlled by the lab from the start of the movie, part of a vast underground installation that makes everyone do stupid horror movie stuff ending in sacrificial deaths meant to appease an Entity older than Time, blah blah blah….

Goddard/Whedon stage the first kill with savage efficiency. Three shots: girl gets aroused. Girl shows breasts. Girl gets bloodily skewered. Hip male critics love to excuse this in other films—well, Cabin says, excuse this. (Would the apologists be so enthused if films routinely showed penises being violently, bloodily liberated from their original owners? I know, I know: “Ian, you’re, like, so literal.”)

Generic zombies terrorize and kill in an efficient parody of the prototypical zombie story, which unfortunately drags the film until Marty and Dana break into the installation and find hundreds of Plexiglas cube-cages housing as many monsters for every possible teen kill scenario.

As a black opps cadre confronts Marty and Dana, the latter locates a Staples-style red button that, when pushed, handily opens the cube-cages, and . . . cowabunga! It’s the greatest monster mash in movie history!

It’s as if these beasts flew, crawled and slithered straight out of the last time American horror seethed with invention, due to a cultural cauldron boil of Thriller, the anxieties of Mutually Assured Destruction and AIDS, heavy metal, MTV, MIDI, perms, and a general global urge to out-crazy the next guy. The 80s.

The 80s could cough up an allegory for identity existentialism in the ever-shifting surrealist monster of John Carpenter’s The Thing, or the sexed-up, Lovecraftian latex abstractions from From Beyond, and still have time to create a monster metaphor for AIDS in The Fly. (And because Joss is such an Anglophile, Hellraiser and its Pinhead, the poster boy for S&M perversity in the plague years, are directly riffed on here in the form of another leather/razor creature, named “Fornicus, Lord of Bondage and Pain” in the credits.)

Speaking of politics—and you could—George Romero practically screamed his zombie-metaphor leftism in Day of the Dead while Wes Craven reported Haiti’s long suffering under dictator “Papa Doc” Duvalier in The Serpent and the Rainbow.

All of those movies, plus Gremlins, An American Werewolf in London, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Poltergeist, and dozens more comprise what turned out to be the final flowering of America’s dark imagination, and that’s what’s celebrated in Cabin’s monster mash.

And when all that’s left is a vast pool of blood, it’s like a sanguine sigh, because we all know there’s no room for such lunatic invention in American cinema, not any more.

But I digress.

Cabin ends with a trans-supernatural “Director” urging the campers to use their "free will" to die the way she tells them to. Marty and Dana choose to smoke one last doobie and let the world go to hell. What Whedon asks is: is a species that enjoys watching the graphic rape of a decapitated girl's head and worse in movies like, say, the French High Tension really worth the bother?

Cabin can’t help but be the most slight of Whedon’s efforts, mostly because even a mood master can’t quite negotiate the switches from slaughter to light comedy needed—he’s just not heartless enough. We’re just getting used to the idea that our pitiful heroes might escape, for instance, when one of them motorbikes into what turns out to be a force field that fries him like a gnat in a bug zapper. Cool effect. Which is kind of hilarious. Except then you’re like, "Wait, wasn’t I starting to like this guy?" And yeah, everyone knows Whedon is hoisting us on the petards of our affections—except we never had enough time to really like the zapped biker, so we’re in emotional limbo.

Still, what works is often funny. Goddard directs his first feature with impressive élan, and damned if that monster melee doesn’t inspire: it’s made by people who know that horror cinema can be great art or even awesome trash, carrying out a holy war against what it’s turned into. Plus—if you miss the evil white unicorn, you have nobody to blame but yourself.

But Whedon just can’t hew to the mission statement of creating teen kill archetypes: unable to resist the urge to create characters, he lands somewhere in between sometimes. He can’t even hate the engineers before starting to understand what it would be like having such a soul-killing job. He’s just too humane.

Cabin could, of course, actually fail in its intentions, as it inspires the industry to issue idiot look-alikes about entrapment scenarios that reference other movies, leading us to find, yet again, that nothing can drive a stake in the postmodern monster, because it lives freely on past dreams of the dead, no matter how much you scream.

Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. Magazines and newspapers that have his articles include Detroit Metro Times, gothic.net, Icon Magazine, International Musician and Recording World, Lacanian Ink, MusicFilmWeb, New York Post, The Perfect Sound, Salon, Smart Money Magazine, Teeth of the Divine, Venuszine, and Time Out New York.

GREY MATTERS: Here are the top 10 beautiful ideas, people and events that defined 2011

GREY MATTERS: Here are the top 10 beautiful ideas, people and events that defined 2011

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This is my theory and I’m sticking to it: if more things were more beautiful, everything else would be way better. Even in this age of fiscal cholera, beauty for the sake of it is it’s own sacred reward.

But as Americans, we’re saddled with the Protestant curse and the attendant pathologies of fetishizing plainness, respecting the mediocre and being in thrall to outright ugliness, whether that manifests in strip malls, lip-warping Restylane or mind-rotting Rush. We could all use a bit of Stendhal syndrome, that most wonderfully strange of
psychosomatic ailments that causes the individual to experience rapid heartbeat, dizziness and even hallucinations when exposed to beautiful things.

And so: a list, where I don’t worry on a genre or platform and instead celebrate ten people, events or ideas whose beauty shook me of the uglies in 2011.
 


1. Alexander McQueen, "Savage Beauty," The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, May 4 – August 7

Experiencing "Savage Beauty" was a ravishment and reminder that form is just a means, and that for Alexander McQueen, fashion, film, hologram, robotics and sculpture were all just avenues to transcendence. McQueen was expert in them all, even if he did make his mint in high end couture.

McQueen had the soul of a Romantic and a Gothic, and the sense of humor of a postmodernist who could contain and cross-reference Scorsese, Corman and Kubrick, Scottish nationalism, man versus and fucking machines, angels in water, angels in light, The Birds, and nature triumphant always. McQueen’s runway shows were performance art mixed with Oscar-worthy short films where nature, death and mourning fused.

As you walked the Met’s reverberant, church-like spaces, you encountered Poe in the thousand hand-placed raven feathers of a dress; HAL 9000 reborn in twisting machines that ejaculate clashing colors on a spinning model; the Alien as phallic chrome spine-jewelry; a hologram box of Kate Moss floating in an eternity-loop in what looked like snowy high fashion seaweed. Georges Méliès would have wept.

McQueen was on the verge of creating a new species in style, a hybrid of anime and aquatica glimpsed in Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance video. But after a protracted depression, the designer of the early 21st century took his own life at age 40.

2. The repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

On July 22, 2011, President Obama, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, officially started the process that would end Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell on September 20, 2011.

It is beautiful beyond words to know that, because of Obama’s kept promise, unknown thousands now live and serve without the virus of shame eating their guts away as a country begins the process of joining the civilized world.
 


3. Hugo, directed by Martin Scorsese

Good God, what a fourth act Hugo finds the 69-year-old Martin Scorsese in, taking the Stendhal-inducing gorgeousity of Kundun and triple-upping it.

There isn’t an inch that isn’t gorgeously fussed over to beautiful purpose. You could take any frame from the film and have the best artwork in your home. And yet it isn’t simple-minded pictorialism. Every image powers the one coming while advancing the narrative (exactly like a McQueen runway performance, although Scorsese’s an
Armani man.)

Sandy Powell’s wool-heavy designs are almost pornographically gorgeous in a mid-period Gaultier way. If gorgeous imagery mixed with deep-bone-felt humanism were food, you could feed a family of five for a month on a screening of Hugo.
 


4. Alex Kingston as River Song, Doctor Who

I remember Alex Kingston from ER: sassy, brassy, British – what wasn’t there to love? But, well, it was ER, you know? Limitations were the order of business.

But then came Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat’s resurrection of Doctor Who, which gave life to Kingston as River Song, a gleefully amoral time traveller who, unfortunately, is travelling in the reverse time direction as the good Doctor she dearly loves.

The result: every time she sees him, he remembers her a little bit less until, ultimately, he will recall her not at all.

As an elegantly painful metaphor for Alzheimer’s in particular and entropy in general, it’s hard to beat. But this is Doctor Who, for fuck’s sake, so there’s also River Song as butt-kicking, quip-popping action hero in the finest of couture. Being in kissing distance of 50 just adds some could-give-a-fuck Helen Mirren to the mix.
 


5. Timothy Olyphant's shoulders, Justified

It's been a really long time since a star's physiology symbolized his meaning so elegantly, so beautifully. The gold standard of this sort of thing was John Wayne's gait, which in three steps told you all you needed to know about his essence.

On FX’s Justified, Timothy Olyphant's shoulders do a Wayne sort of thing. The beauty in those shoulders is not just their sculptural appeal. It's how Olyphant, playing a modern day sheriff in white trash Kentucky, elegantly cleaves space, shoulders-first. He's carrying on those wide shoulders the weight of an angry man who must corral that rage with a moral code he most certainly did not inherit from the terrible father who betrayed him. When he's with the women he loves, his head sort of bobs down between his shoulders like a boy in trouble – which he is, really.

Along with the sadness of this new, angry, decent lawman, Timothy Olyphant’s shoulders announce a new, softer iteration of the recent masculinity-in-crisis craze (Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, Terriers). “I’m willing,” those shoulders say, “and I want to be very, very reasonable. But I will hurt you if you fuck with me. And it pains me how much I will enjoy hurting you.”
 


6. Janelle Monáe

McQueen lived long enough to base his last collection around Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance”. It’s a terrible tease to imagine what he no doubt would have done with the wonder that is Janelle Monáe and any song off her album The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III). They are, after all, drinking of the same wells – Fritz Lang, Hitchcock, Goldfinger, Ziggy Stardust, Philip-K.-Dickian simulacrum erotica – to which Monáe adds her amazing Cubist Afro/deco space-waitress look and her musical splashes of space-age Afro-funk, spazzy semi-metal, big band
played by a few people. There’s nobody on Earth even faintly in her league; the rapture is in listening to her Technicolor dream-trip mind flipping out at warp speed.
 


7. Lady Gaga, “Judas” music video, 0:44

Look at her face. The secret is she’s just…nice looking, possible looking, and she’s on this great adventure – that’s why they love her. And in this second and a half we see her at the precipice of the true beginning of the unfolding of the legend she co-wrote, programmed, played, sang, engineered. Unprecedented control. And here’s the release of joy. She may never quite have that expression again. It is ecstatic and pure.
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8. The ascendancy of e-reader culture

As the uber-cheap Kindles rolled out this November, the elegant beauty and ascension of e-reader culture became undeniable. At a low entry price during the worst economy, a book lover now gets anything instantly, and in so doing, everyone – the reader, the retailer and (God forbid!) the writer – profits.

I like – I need – to get books at slashed prices. I love supporting my friends’ books or small presses, and I love avoiding snide clerks, battered copies, sitting on dirty floors while I try to read sample chapters or discovering that only volume three of a six-volume series  is available.

It’s a windfall being able to choose between biographies on Isabella Blow (the visionary who discovered Alexander McQueen) or books on black metal, or finding fantasies like the Hunger Games books, which
really are quite good, dammit. Having access to informed criticism saves more money and time.

The bookstore as community hub, zine and subculture publication distrib is still vital and needed – Baltimore’s Normals is a best-case scenario – but for first run books, e-books are simply, quantitatively better.
 


9. Black metal invades (finally!)

Black metal was originally defined in the early ‘90s by low-fi misanthropic bursts of fast-picked, super distorted guitars, blast-beat drums and throat-slashed screams about sundry Satanic miseries. It was seriously niche.

But as it cross-pollinated with ambient, new folk and soundtrack music (see Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising), it morphed into something blatantly beautiful. Hopped up on highly processed guitars, echoed drums and washed out keyboards, I imagine the Cocteau Twins if they'd been born on 9/11, which is probably subliminally part of the picture.

Brooklyn's Wolves in the Throne Room suggest deep space, narcosis and sudden metal attacks. Agalloch, a Portland outfit, are more pastoral: they sound like the prettiest trees ever falling into the most lovely of icy rivers. The documentary Until the Light Takes You made black metal’s ascendancy official, but bands like Agalloch, Wolves, Havnatt, Alcest, Nadja and tons more proved the new breed’s sell is based entirely on a savage glacial beauty. You get it where you can.
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10. V for Vendetta masks

Released in 2006 at the peak of the new bellicosity, V for Vendetta’s anti-fascist/Christianist allegory was nobody’s idea of a hit or artistic success, but it did have the blunt-tool power of real political class rage you never, ever get in an American-bankrolled film.

That the film’s sardonically anonymous Guy Fawkes masks should become the 99 Percenter’s fashion accessory of choice was a beautiful bit of intuitive mass pop-political alchemy. The mask wouldn’t define the 99% movement, but a crowd without a few Fawkers just doesn’t feel quite right, you know? Talk about revolting into style.

Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. His column "Grey Matters" runs every week at Press Play. To read another piece about Drive, with analysis of common themes and images in all of Refn's films, click here.