Archive for June, 2013

The Persistence of Mockery: Garfield and Surrealism

Posted in comics, criticism, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 30, 2013 by drayfish

Surreal Garfield October 23 1989

IMAGE: Garfield by Jim Davis (October 23, 1989)

I remember a time (many more years ago than I would care to admit) when I read Jim Davis’ Garfield comics lovingly.  Indeed, I know many others who have shared a similar experience, most often in their youth, and almost all eventually growing out of this phase and looking back on the experience with a nostalgic (if somewhat puzzled) glow.  There seems to be a curious shared history in Garfield, with the comic and its titular character operating as cultural touchstones, at one time so ubiquitous that even those who didn’t faithfully follow the strip – seemingly by some kind of referential osmosis – somehow still recognise the fat orange cat, are familiar with his hatred of Mondays and his penchant for sleeping, and know of the way in which he can unhinge his jaw to devour a whole tray of lasagne.

Garfield, as I remember it, was my entry point into the daily strips, that childhood wonderland that once filled out newspapers pages and sprawled across a rainbow-coloured lift-out on Sundays – a space that has since dwindled to the microscopic remnants still hovering somewhere in the vicinity of the cryptic crossword.  There was a time when his were the first panels I would flick to, the first gags that I would drink in to titter at the cat who thought he was people…

But if I’m honest, when I look back on the strip now, I cannot really articulate what it was that I once enjoyed.  Instead, it is  growing out of my affection for Garfield that I most accurately recall.  I remember suddenly realising that Garfield had none of the emotion, and imagination, and sumptuous visuals of Bill Waterson’s Calvin and Hobbes (although what does?); it was devoid of the wit and subversive absurdism of Gary Larson’s The Far Side; it even lacked the sense of character and universe-building of Lynn Johnston’s For Better or Worse, or (‘AACK!!!‘) Cathy Guisewite’s Cathy.  While many other comics seemed to be evolving and adapting and growing, Garfield remained happily shackled to the same handful of predictable set-ups and pay-offs, never bothering to look beyond its own introverted world to expand its horizons.

In a fantastic article on the website Wondermark, a writer going by the title The Comic Strip Doctor discussed the decline in quality of Davis’ strip over the (now thirty-five) years of its run, charting Garfield’s slide from anarchic, narcissistic sprite, to bloated, over-merchandised behemoth, sagging under a cache of exhausted one-liners worn into redundancy.*  And although I was struck by The Doctor’s astute diagnosis (and it really is a great article; do read it), I’m not sure I entirely share his faith in the material’s original greatness…

If you go to the Garfield website (and manage to machete your way through the advertisements and merchandising), there is a daily comic to read, where, above the panel, there is a button that says ‘Random Strip’; push it, and the site provides you with a sample from the fully digitised collection of Garfield’s past three and a half decades.  And what immediately becomes clear is that aside from the change in art style – the visuals get cleaner; the pencil millage more sparse – the strip seems to have always exhibited an almost belligerent unwillingness to evolve or expand or explore.

A real Garfield strip 3

IMAGE: Garfield by Jim Davis (June 24, 2013)

The jokes remain the same recycled derivations of the exact same handful of one-note premises that have been there all along: Garfield is fat and lazy; John is a socially awkward loser; Odie is dumb.  Garfield doesn’t want to get out of bed; John gets insulted by his date; Odie gets kicked off the table.  Now there are even seasonal retreads of gags, with Garfield every year lamenting his encroaching birthday and sneering at the reminders of his age.  The jokes aren’t built off these foundations, they just restate them endlessly.  Indeed, I was surprised how often (particularly in more recent offerings) Garfield literally looks out at the reader in the last frame and actually announces the joke, as if somehow, someone missed it.  For all of its superficial anarchic energy – for a cat who repeatedly proclaimed himself to ‘not play by anyone else’s rules’ (when I was younger I think I even had a mug with him printed on it stating that) – ultimately Garfield has always been wearyingly conventional.

As a direct reaction to this stagnation, in the absence of any variety or evolution on Davis’ part, others have taken to adapting and playing with Davis’ creation to give it new life.  One of the first such re-appropriations occurred in the form of the Garfield Randomiser.  A reader of Garfield believed that given the comic’s weary predictability, it was actually funnier to randomly splice together three panels of old Garfield strips and see what happened.  He/she programmed a website to do just that, and the result is often inspired…

I swear to you these strangely self-aware examples were the first things that popped up when I tried:

Garfield generic example

Garfield repetition

Garfields strange foresight

IMAGES: Examples from the Garfield Randomiser by Jim Davis and …Me, I guess

And as I goofed around, amusing myself wildly, it struck me that in many ways this playful reclamation of the series – finding a means of shaking out its tedium and investing it with new meaning – was a lot like the poetic Surrealism that arose in the wake of the Dada movement at the turn of the twentieth century.

The Dada movement had been a scathing reaction against society, and the old, established ways of creating art.  Enraged, and enflamed with a wickedly acerbic humour, Dada, in the wake of the first world war, sought to blow up all of the conventions of the way that art was created, exhibited, and interpreted.  It celebrated and actively cultivated nonsense, with its proponents, including figures like Tristan Tzara, Hugo Ball, Marcel Duchamp, and Hans Arp, tearing down traditional culture with radical manifestos of such crazed non-conformity that they even denied their own existence; with poems that defied all interpretation or reason; and visual art that desecrated the seemingly sacred (Duchamp painted a moustache on the Mona Lisa and exhibited a urinal with someone else’s name written on it).

When the scatological fury of Dada faded, a number of the members of the movement in Europe eventually went on to explore some of these contradictions of meaning that they had been manufacturing in more detail, and – rather ironically – came to find meaning within them.  So instead of merely self-destruct poetry and art by randomly aligning words and images and pretending that they had meaning, writers and painters including Andre Breton, Louis Aragon, Suzanne Muzard and Salvador Dali began exploring what meanings might genuinely be produced by randomly colliding images and language.  In doing this, they started researching the way in which the production of a poem (its poesis) could consequentially reveal unspoken truths about the mind and all reality; what deeper meaning an artful collage could reflect back at us about ourselves.  After all, they reasoned, this kind of weird collision of imagery was precisely how dreams seemed to function.  They therefore titled this exploration into the subconscious connections that could be drawn from these artworks: Surrealism.

Andre Breton in his ‘Manifesto of Surrealism‘ (1924) describes it thus:

‘ENCYCLOPAEDIA.  Philosophy.  Surrealism is based upon the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of dream, in the disinterested play of thought.

In exploring these connections, in finding new meaning in their art and poetry, these surrealists would play games together to try to access these subconscious spaces without allowing boring rational thought to get in the way.  And frankly, things got pretty trippy when they did.  They would gather together in one another’s houses for extended periods and stage ‘language-events’: hold lengthy ‘automatic writing’ seminars in which they wrote endless passages of material, freeform, without stopping, for hours; they tried hypnotism, trances, some drugs; and most significantly for the correlation I am about to draw with Jim Davis’ narcoleptic feline, they would play games.

In two of these games the surrealists would write images on slips of paper – sentences that began ‘If…’ or ‘When…’; or sentences that were either questions or answers – and shuffle them up.  The results, when these images were drawn randomly and assembled, were extraordinary:

When Children slap their father’s face

all young men will have white hair.

(Yves Tanguy, Andre Breton)

…..

If orchids grew in the palm of my hand

Masseurs would have plenty of work.

(Benjamin Peret, Andre Breton)

…..

What is daylight ?

A naked woman bathing at nightfall.

(Suzanne Muzard, Andre Breton)

…..

What are eyes?

The night watchmen in a perfume factory.

(Suzanne Muzard, Andre Breton)

By accidentally colliding rational, traditional imagery, they created something unexpected – something more surprising, more sublime.  And this is precisely what seems to result when three decades of tiresome predictability is fed through the Garfield Randomiser, regurgitated, and left to stand on its own.  Indeed, some of what is created appears wonderfully surreal indeed:

Garfileld and plants

Garfield and biting

Garfield surrealism

IMAGES: More examples from the Garfield Randomiser (with art by Jim Davis)

Currently, another website called Garfield Minus Garfield, owned and operated by Dan Walsh, likewise repurposes old Garfield cartoons, this time by removing the pasta-obsessed tabby entirely from the strip.  Like the Garfield Randomiser, the alterations elevate the original’s stale material, but in Walsh’s product, what remains is a more cohesive long-form exploration of John Arbuckle, Garfield’s one-time owner, who now lives alone, talking aloud to no one as his dateless, jobless, friendless, aimless existence stagnates in seclusion.  As Walsh’s mission statement blurb for the site describes:

Garfield Minus Garfield is a site dedicated to removing Garfield from the Garfield comic strips in order to reveal the existential angst of a certain young Mr. Jon Arbuckle.  It is a journey deep into the mind of an isolated young everyman as he fights a losing battle against loneliness and depression in a quiet American suburb.’

Extraordinarily, the resulting comics are, at times, quite hilarious, and strangely affecting.  With the character of John no longer tethered like a prop to the increasingly rote antics of his cat, or thanklessly offering the fodder for banal put downs (gone are Garfield’s lazy appeals to the reader’s incredulity, his ‘Whaddya think of this guy?!’ breaks through the fourth wall).  Instead, John becomes a forlorn, vaguely unhinged figure with a fascinatingly deep subconscious.  Staring at a telephone spouting self-loathing non-sequiturs; asking rhetorical questions yet still looking hazily insulted in the absence of a reply; his mood swinging wildly from hopeful bliss to numb shock on a whim; this John seems to be genuinely wrestling  with some inner personal turmoil that bubbles out into his abstract daily routine.  And since Jim Davis long ago stopped bothering to add any excess detail to his strips, leaving his backgrounds as non-descript one-colour slabs, John even seems to float in an empty transom, his bewildered self-assessment echoing into the uncaring void.

Garfield Minus Garfield March 04 2013

Garfield Minus Garfield March 26 2013

Garfield Minus Garfield April 27 2013

IMAGES: Garfield Minus Garfield by Jim Davis and Dan Walsh

And while neither of these projects, Garfield Minus Garfield nor the Garfield Randomiser, have fed directly back into the creative enterprise of Jim Davis and restored any vigour to his work**, it is worth noting how fruitful removing the most iconic figure of the original text, or shuffling his antics up, can prove to be for an audience that has long since grown tired of the predictable baggage of its overly-familiar gags.  Like the surrealists before them, who managed to reinvent an artistic milieu that had grown stale with familiarity – breaking the conventional to seek out new associations of representation and thought – these playful re-contextualisations of Garfield take hackneyed pratfalls and redundancies and breathe new life and meaning into them.  They return what has been sorely lacking from the original comic for many years (arguably the entire length of its run): nuance and the capacity to surprise – the primary ingredients necessary to elicit a laugh.

Garfield surrealism 2

IMAGES: Example from the Garfield Randomiser by Jim Davis and Me

* As The Comic Strip Doctor also notes, there is a Slate article from almost a decade ago that argues Davis’ intent was in fact always to create a purely marketable commodity: a character and premise as inoffensive as possible, that filled a targeted niche, with recyclable gags that could be spun into endless profitable merchandising.

** Although to Jim Davis’ credit (and no doubt financial gain), he has given his blessing to Walsh’s endeavour, even allowing selections from the site to be published in a book, also titled Garfield Minus Garfield.

‘It’s Not Me, It’s You’: Microsoft’s Search For Their (Xbox) One True Love…

Posted in criticism, video games with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 23, 2013 by drayfish

Don Mattrick and the xbox one

IMAGE: Don Mattrick and the Xbox One (Microsoft)

It seems almost a farcical understatement to say that the events of the past fortnight in the videogaming world have been unprecedented.  Not since DIY enthusiast Dr. Victor Frankenstein broke out the corpse-digging shovels for his last amateur craft project has there been so dramatic an example of a creation turning against and destroying its creators as Microsoft’s Xbox One.

…Maybe Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Within the space of a week Microsoft went from adamantly – even arrogantly – defending their product’s proposed requirements (an always-on internet connection; a mandated camera that could not be disengaged; the end of game ownership in exchange for game licensing at Microsoft’s ultimate discretion, etc) in the lead up to the electronic trade show, E3 (June 11-13), to utterly disavowing those policies in a public announcement (June 19), declaring that – after listening to their consumers – their new system would no longer require constant contact with their servers in order to function, and that they would no longer be restricting the ownership and trade of already purchased, physical games.

Whether one agrees with the ultimate decision or not, inarguably, some kind of public relations about-face was required given the landslide of public opinion that had turned against Microsoft over the preceding months.  For much of this year the message out of Microsoft – whether a product of hubris, or just extraordinarily misguided publicity – has appeared to continue a patronising trend in consumer relations that had began snowballing after their creative director Adam Orth instructed those who were uncomfortable (or incapable of) using their ‘always-on’ next generation console to ‘#dealwithit’.*

For some potential customers, these policies (and a non-optional Kinect camera and microphone apparatus that had to remain always connected to the internet) had indicated a disturbing trend toward potential corporate violations of privacy** – so much so that a bill, called the ‘We Are Watching You Act’, was being drafted for the US congress in an effort to restrict and monitor such observation.  For others, Microsoft’s position was needlessly alienating, with regional areas (and even whole countries) full of consumers unable to ensure the stable broadband internet connections necessary for the system’s operation.  Indeed, members of the US military on deployment (traditionally a faithful target audience for the Xbox 360) felt that they would be entirely ignored.  Still others were affronted by the apparent attempt to circumvent consumer rights of ownership and copyright law by forcing all games (even disc-based sales) to effectively become licensed, and thereby not applicable to the first sale doctrine.  And all of these negative perceptions of Microsoft seemed to culminate spectacularly in their main competitor’s E3 press conference, in which an unadulterated roar of approval met Sony’s announcement that they would not be imposing similar restrictions on the PS4.

Certainly, it was a frustration that I had found myself sharing, as, with every week that wore on, it had started to seem as though Microsoft were going to great expense to inform me – in the most elaborate, garish way possible – that they were breaking up with me.

After all, over this past console generation I have loved my 360 dearly – and looking back, have no doubt that the Xbox was the most satisfying experience I could have desired.  There was the first Mass Effect; Halo: Reach; there was the additional Grand Theft Auto 4 content; Gears of War got me through a rough patch; I even found myself going through a weird Forza phase; and for all of the littered broken promises they left in their wake, The Fable series were some goofy, power-fantasy rpg-lite playgrounds.  (I had, however, jumped on board after they’d finally pulled their heads out of their …not-for-heads-places… and corrected the cheap, overheating fault that kept self-destructing their product.  No doubt I might well have felt differently had I been forced to suffer their ridiculous red ring of death, and the gauntlet of jackassery I have subsequently heard ran their service repair process at the time.)

It seemed like a no-brainer that I would head into this next console cycle naturally upgrading to whatever Son-of-360 would turn out to be.  Not because of some ridiculous console-war fanboyism or anything (I would have lovesed me some Uncharted and Journey; and The Last of Us?  …come on!); it seemed natural because overall Microsoft appeared to have a bead on what I wanted as a customer…

But (literally) every single thing that I subsequently heard about the Xbox One*** since its announcement became evidence that I was no longer even a sliver in the consumer demographic that they want to chase.

I have never been an online gamer – I log on only for game updates and to download dlc – so the idea of being obligated to stay connected seemed an immediate, needless restriction that already appeared more ‘nanny-ish’ than ‘revolutionary’.****  Despite Microsoft’s trumpeting their wonder, I don’t (and do not want to) understand what ‘fantasy football’ is, and having been alive for a number of years, I’ve got a system worked out for my television viewering and internet usering that I’m pretty set with, so the Xbox’s proposed domination of my lounge room fell on deaf ears.*****  Meanwhile, Microsoft seemed intent on quashing the media that I do care about – independent developers not already signed to publishing labels were being effectively locked out of the market.

Similarly, I cannot describe the contempt I have for Kinect.  Besides the cute Sesame Street game from Double Fine that I can see a potential audience for, it seems little more than an excuse to make completely rational people periodically behave like constipated chickens; so forcing me to own one, having it seemingly inextricably bound to the gaming experience they demand I have, and telling me that I am not allowed to switch the leering little thing off, was a conflagration of revulsion.

And I remain a proud Luddite in my beliefs about the physical ownership of media.  Coming from the world of literary publishing, where, digital and physical sales are commonplace, I found Microsoft’s proposed system a disturbing and unprecedented targeting of consumer rights.  After all, if you buy a digital book for your reader you are (just as you are with Steam) entering into an agreement in which you understand at the point of purchase that you will not be able to sell the product on after you have read (or played) it.  It is why such sales are frequently less expensive than their physical counterparts – because it is built into the agreement that you have made between consumer and publisher.  When you choose to buy a physical book, however, you have ownership of that object, and can sell it on to used bookstores, to Amazon, give it to a friend, or prop it up on a fold-out table at a garage sale.  So Microsoft changing the rules wholesale to force all games to be ‘licensed’ rather than ‘owned’ struck me as an extraordinarily aggressive move that, again, was rather alienating.******

And after all of that, in the wake of questions about their restrictive policies, Microsoft effectively dismissed the customer that I remain as being unworthy of entering the new generation of gaming that they foresaw.  Xbox president Don Mattrick stated that, ‘Fortunately we have a product for people who aren’t able to get some form of connectivity: it’s called Xbox 360‘.

It was an extraordinary and rather petulant position to take; and given that his competitor was effectively (in the instance of E3 literally) standing beside him, with a more powerful, cheaper, less-personally-invasive machine, that is clearly going to have just as wide an array of third party games, it was so belligerently, self-righteously asinine a statement that it beggared belief.

Indeed, on mass, it was hard to think of an advertising campaign filled with more contemptuous disregard for consumer choice in a competitive market.  And yet they seemed so sure that they were connecting with someone…  So smugly positive that they were at the head of the pack…

The only way that I could contextualise it is was that Microsoft were positive they were on the precipice of a media revolution – that people like myself were all just waiting to be dragged kicking and screaming into the future where we would thank them for their Promethean wisdom; that this kind of entertainment proselytism would prove so self-evidently grand that it needed no justification.  But Microsoft is a company that has been wrong before (…sure, Zune’s been doing great; people still clamour for Microsoft Password; and Windows 8 and Windows ME were two of the most beloved product launches in history, but sure there were some less-dizzying highs too… maybe I’ll ‘Bing’ some examples), and their stubborn demeanour, and inability to articulate the great benefits they foresaw, only hastened the perception that they were headed for another debacle.

And so – even though I had no idea why they were so adamantly targeting me as consumer baggage they were happy to have sloughed off – it was clear that I was being sent a ‘Dear John’ letter with a HDMI input.  Suddenly, after years of being charmed by Microsoft, I was going to have to go with the other guy, no matter what.  And I was a little shocked to realise that I was fine with that.  At least he wasn’t talking to me as though I were stupid, or like I was wasting his time. (…Wait, why am I dating a guy in this scenario?)

And I guess I’d always have those memories of the times I farted on people in Fable.

…But then came Microsoft’s back-peddle: conceding to allow people to use their system offline, should they wish, and to own and trade physical games as they always had (…that camera was going nowhere though).  Perhaps the result of customer feedback; more likely a result of their competition throwing spit-balls; but either way it was an answer to that uproarious cheer that echoed from Sony’s press conference hall…

After all, what gave Sony’s E3 presentation such punch was not that they had schemed or plotted or undercut themselves to throw a wrench into Microsoft’s plans.  It was that they were simply offering a next-generation experience that built upon and evolved what consumers already seemed to love.  Their general tone was, ‘Of course we won’t impose weird, needless restrictions on the media that you purchase and own…’  And once the applause had died down, the implicit follow-up question of, ‘Yes, why would anyone do that?’ left hanging in the silence weighed heavy on their competitor’s proposed practices.

I suspect that many people (myself very much included, despite my abiding love for my 360) will continue to be steered away from Microsoft’s next-generation offering by the obligation of an unwanted, but required Kinect peripheral (where Sony allow you the choice of controllers), the strangling of the Indie developer market (while Sony seem devoted, this time around, to fostering an independent publishing avenue), and, frankly, the (paranoid) knowledge that Microsoft probably still harbour this long-term intent, and might well swing back around to that way of thinking later in the console cycle, but I am heartened to see that this response at least indicates that Microsoft are at last aware of their consumers that they were supposed to be seducing.

Adam Orth twitter message

IMAGE: From Adam Orth’s twitter feed

* Orth was actually fired for this exchange – which in hindsight seems extraordinary given that he was merely expressing (if somewhat acerbically) the position that Microsoft itself went on to espouse.

** And given Microsoft’s inclusion in the accusations currently circling around the existence of an NSA and FBI ‘PRISM’ program, perhaps not entirely unfounded.

*** Including the name itself, if I’m honest.  There’s already been an Xbox one, hasn’t there?! Are you pulling some Back to the Future nonsense, Microsoft?! Have pity on my linear conception of temporal existence…

**** Not to mention that I live in a country in which we have data-limits on our internet usage plans, so the idea of a machine chugging away freely downloading and sending information without my express ability to control it, was yet more needless cost and frustration.

***** And again: have Microsoft forgotten their own nightmare with the Red Ring of Death?  Can you imagine if people really do invest in this one-box-to-rule-them-all concept, and another such short-sighted fault starts tanking people’s machines?  ‘Sorry, you have to give over your entire entertainment media centre to us to fiddle with for an indeterminate amount of time,’ is not really going to fly like it did last time around.

****** And again: from my laughably meagre understanding of copyright law, potentially illegal, no?

[earlier versions of this ramble were inflicted upon the good people of AWTR]

‘Bees and Birds and Bluths, Oh My…’: Arrested Development Season 4

Posted in criticism, literature, television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 12, 2013 by drayfish

arrested-development-season-4-full-cast

IMAGE: Arrested Development (Netflix)

Sick B Colony

In 2006, freshly cancelled by the Fox television network, season three of Arrested Development ended on a note of dispersal.*  With the series-long unifying through-line of father George Bluth Sr.’s criminal trial for ‘light’ treason finally resolved, the revelation that daughter Lindsay was adopted, cousin Maeby no longer biologically related, and mother Lucille running from the feds by trying to sail a theme restaurant into international waters, son Michael Bluth finally decided to let his family take care of themselves for once, dislodging he and his son from the self-imposed burden of shepherding this narcissistic flock into order.  The show seemingly let the ties that held this universe together go slack.

After three years of being bound together through mutual obligation, these final moments were about freedom; ironically, for a show overburdened with self-involved characters, it was about Michael allowing himself to be selfish for once, finally deciding to put his and his son’s own happiness above everyone else’s.**  It literally ended (not counting the epilogue) with an image of the protagonist and his son riding into the sunset, limitless possibility ahead of them.

Over the intervening years, just as its name ironically implied, Arrested Development hung in a kind of suspended animation, waiting to be reborn as a new series on HBO or Showtime (both metatextually referenced in the Hail Mary ‘Save Our Bluths’ episode), or as a feature film (signalled in the series epilogue, in which Ron Howard, upon hearing the pitch for the show, observes that he cannot picture it on television, ‘But maybe a movie…’)  Its writers, directors and actors – all highly sought after – moved on to other projects, and the dream became progressively less likely.  Nonetheless, in a fervent, almost irrational passion worthy of the Bluth’s themselves, the show’s creators and their still-growing fan-base remained committed to the cause of bringing this family back together, continuing to keep hope alive.

And then, in May of this year, rising impossibly from the ashes like a phoenix (once again, self-referentially acknowledged in the title of its first new episode, ‘Flight of the Phoenix’), Arrested Development did indeed finally return.  Specifically developed for and screened upon the burgeoning content platform of Netflix as a simultaneous, fifteen episode release, the once-thought-impossible fourth season began with Ron Howard’s unnamed, omniscient narrator casually clearing his throat:

‘It was May –’

(*ahem*)

‘It was May 4th…’

It was a playful nod to the relative silence that he, these characters, and the audience that awaits them have had to endure for the several years previous, and it proved to be symbolic of the relative ease with which this communication between text and audience could be resumed – indeed, arguably enhanced – by the time apart.

Because rather than simply returning to pick up exactly where they last left off, Arrested Development chose to transform itself into something greater.  For a show that was once justifiably beloved for never taking its viewers for granted – celebrated for constantly embedding layers of subtle call-backs, searing social satire, and deep foreshadowing amidst the all the frivolity; that had already proved it could mix dadaesque absurdism into the collision of some identifiably human (if exaggerated) characters; that had consistently managed to deflate the saccharine with snark; flipped and back-flipped narrative convention and made it look effortless – Arrested Development once again proved its capacity to reshape the very fabric of comedy, to challenge what the television medium itself can ultimately achieve, and to offer what is perhaps the most transformative and culturally reflective work of literature for the twenty-first century.

When fans explored this resurgent new season, what awaited them proved to be one of the most audacious, revolutionary, and compoundingly hilarious evolutions in episodic storytelling ever conceived.  Instead of the lightning-paced episodes that had defined its first three years, in which nine characters constantly vied for screen time, all circling Michael’s ringleader straight-man, this season chose to respect the sense of familial drift with which the previous season had concluded, and concerned itself with following each of these figures individually, every episode tracking one character through a personal journey as they try (and most often fail) to satisfy some longing within themself.

By tackling this multiform narrative, choosing to recount the period of time between this family’s disbandment and the eventful night of Cinco de Cuatro through multiple viewpoints, the show devised a form of asynchronous, organically overlapping storytelling heretofore unseen in television.  Evoking the experimental narrative shifts in Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, the contextual point-of-view revisionism of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, and the tonal and referential density of Joyce’s Ulysses, Arrested Development utilised its nine characters and fifteen episodes to remake the conventional form of storytelling, tying this dislocation and cultural diffusion into the very fabric of its theme and narrative.

The show thus developed even more elaborate interlocking plotlines, with each of these character’s apparently individual storylines proving to feed directly into one other, their actions impacting upon each other’s experiences in myriad, imperceptible ways.  With each return to an already viewed scene the show expanded the ramifications of these events with new context, the comedy compounding exponentially, the narrative becoming endlessly more than the sum of its composite parts.

And alongside these larger, intricately woven plot threads, the new season also employed several adaptive metaphors that likewise operate across multiple character arcs.  This poetic colour acts as more subconscious imagistic connective tissue, dynamically refracting from episode to episode when placed into the wider context that only the organising principle of the narrator – and eventually the viewing audience – can offer, able to reason out the implications of these bonds.

Perhaps the most expansive systemic analogy utilised this season is triggered in the episodes ‘Double Crossers’ and ‘Colony Collapse’, in which Lucille goes to ‘Plan B’, ordering son GOB to meet his father in the desert to help with their border wall project.  Instead of providing assistance, however, ‘gentleman honey farmer’ GOB accidentally unleashes his newly invigorated colony of sick bees, consequentially tanking his father’s Sweat and Squeeze fundraising scam in a flurry of stings and screaming.

Soon it becomes clear why the letter B is so ubiquitous throughout this season.  From George Sr. becoming a phony guru called ‘Father B’, to Michael calling himself ‘Michael B’ while assembling his ‘B-Team’ movie production staff.  From Baby B. Buster, to GOB awakening after his new excursion into B-level Hollywood celebrity to find a message on his mirror that reads, ‘Hey Joe Withabee’; and most revealingly, Lucille becoming known by the prison moniker ‘The B Word’, or ‘Queen B’.

They are Bees – literal Bs – and with their Queen B out of action, and their communal bond dissipated, the Bluths do indeed fall apart.  And so, as George Sr. stands amidst the chaos of ‘Plan B’ wearing a beekeepers hat and blouse, hearing GOB describe the symptoms of CCD, it is clear that this is a diagnosis that the Bluth family itself shares.  George Sr.’s wall-building scheme swiftly falls apart and must be bribed undone; GOB’s marriage into the Veals and revenge scheme on Tony Wonder each go spectacularly awry; Buster tries to replace his mother with a terrifying home-made mannequin and a stint in the armed forces that proves he can make even a desk job personally hazardous; Michael’s career as a movie producer dissolves into a flurry of judgemental tantrums, petulantly tearing up the releases that he requires and kicking everyone else off the project; Tobias’ continued attempt to pursue his delusion of stardom leads him to cling to a piece of discarded Hollywood debris – a woman actually called DeBris – who he eventually leaves collapsed in a pile of garbage, while his theatrical copyright infringement proves to be chum in the water for circling lawyers; Lindsay’s attempt to reconnect with her inner, protesting liberal ends with her becoming a waspy conservative career politician; and Maeby’s search for validation from her parents leaves her adrift in a cycle of perpetual non-graduation, her natural talents of producing directed toward spruiking a product that ultimately does not exist.

Having spent three seasons growing closer together in a kind of dysfunctional but loving interdependence, the past several years are revealed to have splintered them apart again, a theme played out in the very structure of this season and its isolated character vignettes.  Gone their separate ways, often only unknowingly intruding upon each other’s lives, they are a family without cohesion and purpose – drifting, no longer able to validate themselves or each other as they journey on alone.  Just like GOB’s sickly hive, the Bluth Bs suffer their own Colony Collapse Disorder, their cross-pollinating storylines ironically failing to germinate anything productive.

arrested joe withabee

IMAGE: Arrested Development (Netflix)

‘I’ll Put Up A Wall’

Just as the Bluth family were originally symbolic of the dissatisfaction lurking at the heart of the American dream – a family of entitlement, rocked by flagrant corporate embezzlement, forced to renegotiate their hollow narcissism and excess (although almost never successfully) – in this latest season they continue to reflect contemporary culture.  Consequentially, the narrative is loaded with references to the modern political and social climate, offering the most comprehensive and dense satire of the early twenty first century yet conceived.

Since the Bluths disappeared from television screens the subprime mortgage crisis has erupted, almost collapsing western civilisation into a new depression, the casual application of drone warfare and the revelations that spooled out of WikiLeaks have darkened US international relations, political discourse has degraded into partisan hysteria and fear-mongering sound bites, celebrity culture and the rise of social media have mutated our conceptions of privacy, and systematised social inequity has given rise to rallying cries like the Occupy movement.  If anything, familial and social bonds have become only more diffuse and contradictory in the intervening years, and Arrested Development loads these issues into the framework of its tale, allowing each of its characters to exhibit aspects of this social dissemination.

Buster becomes a drone pilot for Army, mistaking the brutality he is inflicting for the detachment of a videogame.  Tobias and Lindsay purchase a palatial estate on the cusp of the housing industry’s collapse, literally losing one another amongst its needless, empty square-footage.  We see members of Anonymous lurking in the shadows, trying to threaten George Michael (Mr. Maharis) away from his goal of creating the world’s best wood block musical app.  A right-wing Herman Cain substitute (Herbert Love), like his real-life counterpart, runs on a family values platform while secretly engaging in an extramarital affair, and spouts endless, hackneyed Tea Party slogans, demonising government corruption while negotiating his own lobbyist bribes.  And in a culture where demonising illegal immigration through the language of ‘invasion’ and ‘otherness’ runs rife, the hot-button issue of building a wall on the Mexican border threads through all of their tales, utilising this impulse for isolationist ‘protection’ as emblematic of the culture at large.

Feeling alienated and abandoned by their loved ones, exposed in the glare of a daunting world, this season finds the Bluth family – much like the world at large – attempting to construct new walls, both literal and figurative, to fortify themselves from harm.  Thus, in lieu of communication or change, they barricade themselves away.  George Sr. tries to swindle the US government by exploiting the hysteria of illegal immigration, offering to build a wall on the border with Mexico.  Tobias laments the universe putting up all sorts of walls between he and his dreams and tries to build his own little musical theatre haven in the Austerity Rehab Centre.  GOB flees the closeness and sincerity of marrying into the Veal’s welcoming family, a group so devoid of emotional walls that they all live together under one roof and collapse into communal hugs when they hear good news; he is likewise unprepared for the effects of being open with rival Tony Wonder, the first person with whom he finds he can share an empathetic bond (they are the ‘Same… Same…’), and immediately resorts to sabotage, again barricading himself away from a human intimacy that is all too confronting.  Not to mention poor Steve Holt (sorry: ‘STEVE HOLT!’), a son yearning for connection, relegated to the role of the ‘boss’ that is ‘on [his] ass…’  Even George Michael, struggling to assert himself and desperate to impress, stumbles into promising to build a privacy-blocking wall of electronic software, while, Maeby, heartbroken at being abandoned by her parents and run out of show business, likewise devotes herself to this ‘Fake Block’ system utterly.

And in one of the most revelatory cross-purpose conversations ever orchestrated, when Tobias’ is eliciting Lucille to join his doomed Fantastic Four knock-off, he leads her to the realisation that she feels like an ‘invisible woman’, creating ‘force field’ walls to protect herself from harm.  Indeed, it is in her audition for the part of Lucia – singing a song she wrote herself – that Lucille exposes this fear and desire for withdrawal most acutely:

‘My children despise me, my husband defies me,

It doesn’t surprise me, to hell with them all.

I’ll put up a wall.

You think I’m a villain, a villain I’ll be

My heart is in pain, I just want to flee,

from me…’

This is a family that has been emotionally broken, and while the anarchic exploits that spool from this sense of loss and abandon are hilarious, there is a sombre truth to hearing ‘The Sound of Silence’ play as GOB loses himself down a bout of self-loathing reverie, or watching Buster stammer through juice-stained lips as he realises that the security blanket of his mother is being torn from him.  And there is most certainly a shockingly revelatory bite to hearing Lucille, the family’s matriarchal centre, their Queen B, who has famously ignored self-assessment throughout her life (‘If that’s a veiled criticism about me, I won’t hear it and I won’t respond to it’) finally exposing her self-loathing, and a desire to wall herself away from sorrow.

The great irony of these attempts to isolate themselves, however, is that despite their boasts for autonomy, this family proves incapable of escaping each other’s influence, their storylines bouncing off each other unknowingly as a product of their inexorable gravitational pull.  Glitter-bombs are stymied, bags are switched, dead doves turn up in freezers, cheques and beehive-shaped caves and red wigs and the brotherhood of Andy Richter, all float between these tales, repeatedly thwarting their plans – literally breaking down walls – as the tale unfolds.  Although they appear to be alone, although they seek to isolate themselves utterly, as the season progressively reiterates, the one thing that can break down these fearful barriers is family.

arrested ostrich

IMAGE: Arrested Development (Netflix)

Head in the Sand

For all of the recurring images of Banana-Grabbers, Blue-Men, sad-sacks, and hop-ons that have become signatures of the show, the most ubiquitous recurring image this season was that of the ostrich.

In the first episode, returning from Phoenix to remake himself once again, Michael was run over by one in the wrecked Bluth penthouse; Lindsay believed that the Indian guru who placed her on her spiritual path transformed into one, and follows her face-blind lover because he owned an ostrich farm, and that couldn’t be coincidence; George Sr. was visited by what he thought was an ostrich spirit in a desert hallucination; Maeby was attending a school that had an ostrich as their team mascot (Go Ostriches!); Lucille 2 was amorously savaged by one;  in lieu of the family stair car Michael was driving a vehicle described as one (a Google street camera)***; Buster fails to read the cartoon warning of one on his juice box; and when GOB swerves to avoid an ostrich he unleashes his box of bees, sees a decorative statue of one in Tony Wonder’s storage room, and hears one speak to him at his lowest moment (at rock-bottom in the bottom of a rock) informing him that if he does not dare to open himself up to others, then the treasures within him would never come out…

Pretty deep advice for a novelty drinking bird (…or the host of Locker Hawkers, who it is revealed was actually the one speaking).

Flightless, gangly, somewhat absurd in appearance, the ostrich shares a good deal of traits with the Bluths themselves – but it is the bird’s reputation the proves to be most revealing. Proverbially, the ostrich is a creature famous for sticking its head in the sand.  When they see danger, it is said that they bury themselves underground, oblivious to the world around them and ironically still open to attack.  It is a cliché that Maeby even expresses to her mother while disguised as the shape-shifting Indian guru: ‘Pull your head out of the sand’ – advice that both Lindsay, and Maeby herself, choose to ignore.

And fittingly, this utterly erroneous myth perfectly encapsulates the behaviour of almost every member of the Bluth family this season.  Troubled by a sense of loss and bewilderment, they foolishly choose to abandon their familial bonds and indulge selfish pursuits that more often than not further obscure rather than inspire self-awareness.  They bury their heads in the sand.  Indeed if the metaphor were not overt enough, we even see that whenever an ostrich appears it being directly aligned with some kind of wisdom – observed in a vision or as a spirit, uttered by a sage or a motto.  But every time that such a message is conveyed it is ignored by the wayward Bluths, who rather than heeding its advice – opening up to one another, seeking for validation and support – instead dysfunctionally continue to push people further away, compounding their misery in a roofie circle of de-actualisation.

And the most egregious example of this self-destructive blindness occurs in the most deceptively impactful scene of the entire series…

The narrative conceit of Arrested Development’s season four is intentionally misleading.  The show initially sets itself up as something of a noir mystery, purporting to slowly answer the mystery of what happened on one dark, debauched night at Cinco de Cuatro (a celebration long ago created by the Bluth’s themselves to peevishly undercut Cinco de Mayo).  In each episode we appear to be unravelling the truth about this literally explosive evening, travelling back in time to contextualise a night where people are going to be threatened, led to question their identity and sexuality, hospitalised, morally compromised, and possibly (although let’s face it, probably not really) murdered.

But while the narrative does gradually disentangle Cinco de Cuatro’s elaborate knot, dancing across the ingeniously interwoven experience of a family that seems cosmically fated to intersect, these revelations are ultimately proved less impactful than a deceptively innocuous scene that is dually being gradually unpacked in every episode: a gathering of the entire family in one of the most familiar of the show’s locations, the Balboa Towers penthouse.

In its earliest appearances in the season, the scene is appears to be little more than a company briefing between Michael and his parents, an exchange in which he declares that he is out of the business, and out of the family, for good.  As each episode continues to build upon the one previous to it, the scope of that scene literally widens, however, the camera angles shifting to reveal that more and more characters are present when this event take place.  Lindsay and Tobias have announced they are giving their marriage another try.  GOB declares that he will be marrying Plant  …I mean, Mouth  …I mean Egg  …I mean, Ann.  Buster is workshopping his testimony for the trial.  Maeby is looking on ignored.  And significantly revealed last is George Michael – for whom, ultimately, the whole gathering is taking place.  Because, as the banner above the door reveals (‘Look at banner, Michael!’), this is a farewell party for George Michael on the eve of his moving to college.

We therefore come to see that in the midst of this fractured series, this is chronologically the last time that this family have gathered together, and they are there to celebrate the boy who originally brought them together at the beginning of the first season – the young man who was the reason that Michael decided to stick around when his father’s business had dissolved into a legal quagmire.  George Michael has grown into a young, aspiring man, and (despite the fact that everyone eventually starts thoughtlessly singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to him by mistake) they are there to celebrate whatever future lies before him.

And so, Michael’s once clichéd storm out – declaring that he has had enough of his family’s selfishness; that he is leaving them all behind and taking his son with him – suddenly takes on a whole new and disheartening dimension.  Because for once his exit is in fact successful. The family does indeed implode, causing far more damage than he had foreseen.  As part of his selfish exit, Michael forces George Michael to tear up a gift just given to him by his grandparents, a gift of money that would have set him up to pursue his studies on his own terms.

Although Michael has always considered himself the most altruistic of the Bluth clan, in truth he has always skirted the edge of the rational himself.  Seemingly the uber-straight man to the panoply of madness around him, he is actually just self-deluded enough to believe that he is the only normal one in a family of spoiled egomaniacs.  In reality, he reveals himself to be just as self-involved as any of them, blind to the smothering relationship he has cultivated with his son.  For all his indignation and pomposity, Michael too has his head buried in the sand, his pride preventing him from appreciating the line that he has crossed in imposing his own issues upon his son’s life.  Consequentially, the tearing of that cheque symbolically echoes throughout the remainder of the season.

From that point on, although George Michael still tries to be the dutiful son, he finds his father’s presence and expectations a progressively choking imposition.  He wants to go by a different name than ‘George Michael’, given the pop-culture baggage that it carries, but is guilted into relenting.  Having stretched his wings in Spain he tries to reinvent himself at college as a young, sexually confident man, but ends up finding his father crashing on his top bunk, passive-aggressively convincing him to shave off his new moustache, and literally not willing to give him any space.  And most damaging of all, he tries to outgrow his childhood crush by dating someone else, only to find that his father has actively tried to steal this new girlfriend for himself.

This season ultimately proves to be about severing the final, previously most stable bond that this family has managed, in spite of itself, to maintain.  In the end, in his selfish efforts to divorce himself from his own family, Michael has managed to accidentally build the only successful wall amongst the many proposed but never brought to fruition this season: he has managed to drive a barrier between he and his son.  After a season of Michael licking the wounds of being voted out of George Michael’s dorm room in the first episode – a course of events that he still hubristically wants to believe was due to everyone else misunderstanding the ‘plan’ – the revelation that Michael was knowingly pursuing Rebel Alley behind his son’s back leads to the real emotional and literal blow that stops this rollicking, spritely story in its tracks.

And so, as the final scene of the episode (not including the epilogue) hangs in the air, George Michael having punched his father in the face, and both men left standing staring at each other, one seething with betrayal, the other numb with shame, both shocked by the new distance between them, there really does seem to be a divide where once there was unity.  Finally Michael and George Michael – like the audience itself – must acknowledge that this is a different world into which they have grown, and it is one that will require selflessness and trust if there is any hope to heal.

arrested love each other

IMAGE: Arrested Development (Netflix)

Love Each Other

Selectively blind to their own realities, the members of the Bluth family repeatedly miss the most important advice that the universe tries to impart to them.  Through broken walls, the preponderance of missed avian counsel, the inevitable, spectacular collapse of each of their selfish pursuits, there is a message that they keep overlooking, shouted at them from every conceivable angle, one that – like the proverbial ostriches, heads buried in the sand – they are unable to see.  Written on the tags of dead doves, gasped by a dying mailman, seared across the back of a sacrilegious magic spectacular; mumbled out as rambling romantic advice from a lecherous uncle (who means it as an excuse for promiscuity) to his befuddled nephew (who re-interprets it as a call for integrity and respect):

‘Love each other.’

It is even offered as the very last piece of dialogue in the season, in what is chronologically the final moment to which everything else has built, in the earnest sign-off of television presenter John Beard, who wishes his audience well as he bids them goodbye:

‘This is John Beard.  Remember: love each other.’

And despite the Bluth characters’ inability to cherish this instruction (even George Michael soon abandons his revelation by mistaking a threatening letter for an offer of enthusiastic lovemaking), it is here that we in the audience, with our metatextual perspective, can get the most out of the line.

Like the program Arrested Development itself, which swam in a kind of production vacuum until finding its voice again in its triumphant return on Netflix, newsreader John Beard is shown throughout this season similarly displaced.  Popping up all over the media dial in a variety of formats – naff morning talk shows, airport cable news networks, Catch-a-Predator gotcha specials, gas station update reports (seemingly geared around ‘pump’ puns) – by season’s end he eventually finds his home on Ron Howard’s burgeoning and remarkably personalised (there is a reminder to go to the doctors in the newsfeed crawl at the bottom of the screen) news network.  And it is from this new home, finally secure, that Beard stares out at us, through Howard’s television screen and though ours too, to offer his new mantra.

As has always been its style, when Arrested Development gets sincere, it does so in the most metatextual, subversive way possible – after all, this is the show that could go cornball while ‘cornballing’ it in the same second, that turns heartfelt hugs into an opportunity to ‘taste my tears’, to ‘taste the happy’ – and here, through Beard’s rote but heartfelt counsel, we have a statement as much to the fans as to the characters that keep missing its implications.

‘Love’ in the Arrested Development universe is bizarre.  It can be competitive, blind, asexual, occasionally incestuous and frequently borderline polygamous, but it is deep, and it is messy, and it is real.  For all of their fleeting fancies and fruitless passions, the Bluths do care for each other, and profoundly need each other; and over the span of these four seasons and across all of the madness of the past few years, when the Bluths could barely take care of themselves let alone nurture this bond of family, the show has been a series long meditation upon what exactly it does take to unite television’s most anarchic family.

Arrested Development began as a series about a group of marvellously oddball characters who (although oblivious to this truth) required each other to stay grounded.  As such, the primary organising factor for their past adventures at first appeared to be Michael, ‘The one son who had no choice but to keep them all together.’  But in this season he too is clearly adrift – feeling alienated by his son and so desperate to reclaim the sense of control he has lost that he spends his subplot play-acting being a Hollywood producer and trying to gather the permission to remake a film fantasy about his past.  At times it may have seemed to be Lucille, through whom the money and influence was ultimately said to be funnelled.   She could certainly scheme and manipulate her loved ones into servitude, but as a consequence eventually pushed them all away.

From a more abstract viewpoint, as the show went on it revealed that the unnamed, faceless, but ever-so-earnest narrator was something of a tenth character amongst the bunch.  The shaping of the narrative offered by Ron Howard’s detached voice – all-knowing, omnipresent, something of a proxy for writer/creator Hurwitz himself – was not just a structural crutch, he was actively trying to follow these now (seemingly) disparate plotlines and wrangle them into order, frequently undercutting and commenting upon the absurdity of these characters behaviour with a dry sincerity.  He was essentially the text itself, an amalgam of the writers, directors and their fictional universe, looking in on this strange little family and trying to puzzle it out.

But as the show has progressed, his objectivity too has gradually been brought into question – from his irritability when faced with lesser examples of television narration (he declares the Scandalmakers guy’s work, ‘Real shoddy narrating.  Just pure crap’), to his reluctance to attend Maeby’s sixteenth birthday after being invited (‘And a lot of us didn’t want to drive to Orange County’), to his spruiking the show for desperately needed ratings (‘Now that’s a clear situation with the promise of comedy.  Tell your friends about this show.’)  And now that Howard himself appears this season as a character within the narrative, a man with his own agenda and allegiances, the narrator seems compromised even further – from the way he proudly commends Rebel (apparently Howard’s illegitimate daughter) for knowing that the Wright brothers had a bicycle shop, to the way he lingers a little long on the Opie statue, noting that it must be an honour to have such an award named after you…

Instead the show is now saying that this family was held together by more than just these compromised individuals and their peculiar loves, bound in fact by something outside of the text itself.  With this fourth season, there is suddenly a new, profoundly necessary character in the mix: we the audience.  In its new viewing format Arrested Development literally requires the viewer to participate in connecting the pieces together, asking that we have the devotion and trust, throughout these unfolding episodes to make connections, to see patterns, to draw this family together – often even in spite of themselves – winding each story back into the whole that they have naively abandoned.

And so, in splintering this family apart, following their dissolve and lonely explorations of self, Hurwitz wrote a broad, interlocking, demented love note to the fans of the show, and the faith they showed in believing and hoping and begging for it to be granted more time.  By blowing open the way in which this show is now consumed, by adapting the very narrative itself so that the viewer literally has control over how this asynchronous story is absorbed, Arrested Development reveals that it was ultimately the fans, the viewers, those who dared to believe that this family could be brought back from oblivion, who kept the love for this show alive, even when its prospects looked most bleak – even, it seems, when the characters themselves had given up hope.

Where last season the show concluded on a state of freedom and abandon, this season ends with a desperate yearning for reconnection.  Torn apart, but narratively stitched back together through the affection of its fans and creators, the Bluths, and Arrested Development itself, hang suspended in a moment of disrepair, the beating heart of their sorrow exposed, but yearning always to reconnect.  As the strains of Lucy Schwartz’ track, ‘Boomerang’ assert over the closing credits,

Waitin’, waitin’

Heartbroken and frustrated

Hard to get around without your love.

It is a fitting note on which to end, a summation of the emotion fans felt when the show was first cancelled, and a resonant message for the characters within this narcissistic little menagerie, who will now have to shake off their self-involvement (at least temporarily) to gather back the unity they have lost.

To love each other – so that perhaps they can finally learn to love themselves.

arrested development hug

IMAGE: Arrested Development (Netflix)

* For my thoughts on seasons one through three see here.

** But since it was still Arrested Development – a show that always stirs the sour into the sweet – there was perhaps a bit of cowardly running away in the mix too.

*** The use of the Google maps car as an ‘ostrich’ has a lovely additional layer of metaphor due to that company’s own hypocrisy.  For, as Ron Howard’s narrator observes with a stinging bit of snark, Google – as a company that posts the address details and photographs of every address in the world without anyone’s permission – does not allow themselves to be identified freely because that name and logo ‘is their property.’

‘I’ve Made a Huge Mistake’: How Critics Failed Arrested Development

Posted in criticism, television with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 7, 2013 by drayfish

Michael Bluth and Vultures

IMAGE: Arrested Development (Netflix)

After a brief wait before being able to dive into the Phoenix-like return of Arrested Development, which two weeks ago released its fourth season over the streaming service Netflix, I have now finally made my way through the labyrinthine genius of this wondrous, multifaceted behemoth, and have been scrambling to try and unpack its splendour in words.

In the next couple of days I hope to inflict my sprawling (admittedly happy-ranting) take on this unprecedented marvel, but before I even get started trying to pick apart its every nuance and ramification (spoiler alert: it does involve me droning on and on about how much I love this new gift of a season), I have decided to add to my already punishingly long treatise by speaking briefly to the mystifying backlash this season seems to have received from a selection of critics in the first few days after its release.

To those who actually did bother to watch each of the new episodes, who got to see what the show was intricately building, experienced its breadth, but nonetheless felt that the show was lacklustre: well to them I will say that although I respectfully (vehemently) disagree, at least they were diligent in their duty as critics. (…But I cannot restrain myself from suggesting that they might want to give it another watch without the press of a crushing, arbitrary review deadline hanging over them – just to give the show space to breathe a little).

However.

To all of the ‘professional’ critics that stayed up until three in the morning on the day the show went live, who watched only a handful of episodes and then hurriedly bashed out snide copy that dismissed the show as a poor shadow of its former glory in order to fish for search hits on the morning of release (I’m looking specifically at you, New York Times television reviewer Mike Hale*), they have every right – indeed, if they take their occupation seriously, the responsibility – to feel ashamed of themselves.

To those critics, who despite now having plenty of time to familiarise themselves with the whole series, still write speculation about the entire season based on only slivers of the tale, they too continue to embarrass themselves.  To take but one example, Sydney Morning Herald commentator Giles Hardy wrote his review for the whole season (in which he declared the show only ‘semi-familiar’, ‘disappointing’, and lacking the ‘reflexes’ it once sported) weeks after release – but clearly after having only viewed the first episode.  His observations about the ‘strange’ new relationship between father and son Michael and George Michael revealed that he had utterly failed to even glean the context of this one moment in the greater narrative (the nature of that ‘new’ relationship is central to the entire season’s conceit), but he was still comfortable pompously deriding the entire exercise as a failure.**

Because even though these reviewers tried to justify their flippant invective, claiming that as this new version of Arrested is still technically labelled a ‘television show’ it can thus be reviewed like any other episodic text, one-at-a-time, with no idea of its place within the larger season’s arc, in reality it is cheap excuses such as this that reveal just how negligent critics like Hale and Hardy have been in their duty.

Firstly, most obviously: this is not a regular season of television.

It was devised and written as a single, cohesive piece, filmed altogether, and released into the world simultaneously.  Hurwitz and company did not take the Netflix model lightly.  They built it into the very DNA of their storytelling and humour.  As a consequence, they have created one of the most intricate, interlocking narratives ever crafted (in all of serialised fiction, let alone the sitcom form); and have offered one of the most inspired commentaries upon comedy, narrative universe-building, and audience investment, ever put to film.

Picking and choosing singular episodes to judge isolated from the whole defeats the very purpose of this viewing experience.  Despite what these critics might claim in order to justify their laziness, it literally is like watching part of a movie, reading half a book, or listening to a couple of tracks off an album, and then scampering back over to their computer to bash out a complaint that the whole work didn’t feel ‘finished’.  The failing is not in the text – it is in the overt hypocrisy of critics who presume they can get by only doing half of their job.

Similarly, it is asinine it is to condemn the show for no longer slavishly sticking to the 22 minute, commercially-oriented-act break format to which it was once forced to abide in its days as a product of broadcast television.  To happily, blatantly condemn a text for what they fantasise it should be, or what they have unjustly presupposed in their heads – rather than actually addressing the form in which it currently presents itself – is embarrassing.  It is the most fundamental mistake that any critic can make.

And secondly: have critics really become this petulant and cynical an audience?

Have they legitimately become so arrogant and eager to voice their opinion that they cannot even be bothered to fully form one before opening their mouths?  In the desperate need to be the first person to speak – to say something before everyone else – do they really have to scramble up to the podium of hyperbole to declare something dead (literally describing it as murdered in the example of Hale) before properly experiencing what it is that they are tearing down?

I mean, no doubt it is fun to shout, ‘Hey guys: that thing you like… it sucks now’ (after all, most every adolescent wallows for a time in that kind of reactionary scepticism), but in this case, actually taking the time to watch the show immediately proves just how inept such a statement is.

Yes, the show is different – that cannot be denied.  The program itself repeatedly leaves the viewer with no illusions that this is a new format, now capable of exploring new themes, a new tone, and new depth.  The necessities of wrangling a group of very talented actors who are all now in high demand (and under other contractual obligations), the need to work at a reduced budget, and the duty to the story itself, mindful of where we left these characters several years ago, required an entirely different method of presenting this season – and creator Mitch Hurwitz, his actors and crew, have found an innovative, creatively inspired, and thematically resonant means through which to do so.

Arrested could so easily have come back as some kind of anodyne reunion special – a three episode ‘mini-movie’ rehash of the old show’s format, shamelessly serving as a taster for a proposed movie.  It could have been a lazy regurgitation of the old, shouting ‘Hey, look at us!  Getting the team back together again!  Remember these gags?  Remember back when we were funny?’

Instead it chose to answer the faith of its audience by providing a season long arc that captures the spirit of the original, but one that has grown, that actually alludes to its potential going forward, one that deepens its characters in unique and legitimised ways, and that performs what is inarguably (whether you agree that it worked or not – and I am going to argue strenuously in the coming days that I thought it worked stunningly well) the most revolutionary leap in the production and delivery of television that has ever been conceived.

By getting cancelled from broadcast television, spending years in production limbo, working around budgetary constraints and a production schedule that must have looked at times like a disassembled Lego set, Arrested Development returned on an entirely new broadcast format and has managed to evolve the whole medium of episodic narrative in heretofore unseen ways.  The Bluth family might make crappy homes (both figuratively and literally), but as this season shows, they make hilariously bulletproof experimental television.

And while this article may all just read like the predictable screed of a die-hard fan who feels that something he loves has been jilted, I do want to reiterate that my indignation does not stem from people disliking the show – they are of course free to think whatever they like.  My issue is with those critics who contemptuously believe that they have the right to fundamentally refuse to respect what a text is asking of them as a viewer, and yet still consider themselves justified in condemning it as having ‘failed’ their fantasised requirements.

The petty part of me hopes that someone is cataloguing all of the negative reviews that have been spilling out over the past two weeks.***  I will enjoy watching those nay-sayers, so eager to leap ahead of their predicted ‘I liked it when it was cool’ clichéd backlash, scrambling as the success of this season and its gathering critical acclaim leave them behind.  Because there will be a certain kind of (admittedly petty) schadenfreude in watching these critics – who claim to seek out and foster the innovative and new, who presume to eschew the predictable and stale – have their reactionary, knee-jerk responses revealed for the lazy pessimism it was.

Indeed I will be curious to see how many of them, in the build up to what I hope will be a season five (please, universe, please…) try to swing back around to the ‘Hey, I always loved it too…’ catch-cry, casually sweeping aside their own words as if they had never been spoken.

Because when those commentators can finally put their egos aside and actually finish the job they were presumably paid to do, they will no doubt find something original and utterly revolutionary awaiting them.  And for a group that likes to bleat on about how they once bravely defended Arrested Development when no one else was watching, it will surely sting for them to realise that a more savvy, evolved audience than they has left their tired conventional thinking behind.

 arrested characters thumb

 IMAGE: Arrested Development (Netflix)

* Indeed, I notice that Hale’s review is nonetheless still being counted on the Arrested Development (season 4) Metacritic page, despite the fact that he himself admits to having not watched the whole season, and as of this writing, has not amended his initial, un-contextualised thoughts.

** Giles’ review, although included in their paper edition, is conspicuously absent from the Sydney Morning Herald’s online review section – one hopes indicating that perhaps even his editors knew it to be an insufficiently considered response to the season.

*** At least Ted Sarandos, Chief Content Officer of Netflix is willing to call them out and keep their inattentive response in context, even if he only means it playfully (http://variety.com/2013/digital/news/netflix-chief-rips-new-york-times-over-negative-arrested-development-review-1200489764/).

Swing-and-a-Miss: ‘Feminism’ in Sucker Punch

Posted in criticism, movies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 2, 2013 by drayfish

sucker punch

IMAGE: Sucker Punch, Directed by Zack Snyder (Warner Bros)

Superficially, Sucker Punch (2011) is an easy film to hate.  Between the maudlin histrionics of the plot, the stilted, tone deaf dialogue, and the glossy CGI pyrotechnics cluttering the screen while signifying little, it appears to be little more than a bombastic, exploitative spectacle.  Loud, voyeuristic, and seemingly concerned with the systematised objectification and abuse of women, upon its release it was savaged by critics who labelled it juvenile, misogynistic, and even hysterically, garishly overwrought.

However, as almost a direct reaction to this overwhelming panning, a select few critics sought to vehemently defend the film, lamenting that no one had taken the time to look beneath the surface of the work.  No one, they declared, had appreciated the irony at the heart of its narrative, the sardonic statement it was making about the exploitation and debasement of women that informs its narrative.

One film critic in particular, Scott Mendelson, went so far as to declare that the reaction to Sucker Punch was a harbinger of our cultural ruin, a kneejerk PC overcorrection that revealed ‘Why We Can’t Have Nice Things…’ (here)*  We, as a mass-market audience, were all too ignorant, and ‘couldn’t see past the surface’ to the genius beneath.  Indeed, in France, Mendelson argued, the film would have been hailed a masterpiece (although from what little I have gleaned it does not appear that it was beloved in Europe, either), but when a ‘visionary’ director such as Zack Snyder releases a film in America, it is unjustly maligned and rejected as exploitative trash.

Similarly, /Film’s Adam Quigley made the bold claim that no one but he had yet seen the true narrative of the film in a video essay literally titled ‘You Don’t Understand Sucker Punch’ (here).  Apparently what the audience didn’t understand (Quigley actually uses the slightly hysterical phrasing ‘prestigious journalists … don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about’) was that we were meant to infer that the entire narrative was bookended by another layer of fantasy, a ‘real’ world in which secondary-character Sweet Pea was being lobotomised, and that everything depicted was all just her dream.

…Why this entirely subjective hypothesis has any impact upon the themes of objectification and sexism at the film’s heart, why layering another needless ‘twist’ upon the several that already go nowhere is impactful, or how one single, fleeting scene with Sweet Pea being threatened by a lobotomy was distinct enough from every other similar sequence that it could distinguish itself as the singular key that unlocks the film’s puzzle, is never fully explained by Quigley.  (Although perhaps he doesn’t bother because ‘critics’ would no doubt be too stupid to understand anyway.)

However, while it is often easy to attack the media for concentrating too much upon the salacious, and for failing to address the thematic meat beneath an artist’s work – as both Mendelson and Quigley do with indignation – in this case, I would argue that to actually take up their challenge, to bother to scratch the surface of Snyder’s work and delve into its psychologically regressive meaning, rather than rescuing the film from condemnation, instead confirms its ugly pretence, and the exploitative sexism it mistakenly, clumsily believes it is debunking.

Before even leaping into the subtext, though, I should be honest and admit that even superficially the film does little to warm me to it.  Personally, I find its hyper-stylised cartoon action so flashy and weightless that it loses all sense of substance, meaning that as a punctuation for character drama it becomes impossible to invest in (particularly in light of the ultimate revelation that it is all just layers of fantasy within fantasy).  Likewise, the glossy sexualisation of the central female characters – reducing them to an amalgam of corsets, miniskirts and porcelain skin – was off-putting rather than enticing, sadly hollowing these women into figurines provocatively posed amongst a CGI cacophony.

But it is in the Russian Doll embedding of realities (with Babydoll descending into her mindscape to find herself, the namesake ‘baby doll’ in the stack) that the purportedly subversive message that critics such as Mendelson and Quigley have applauded is at its most invasive and corroding, where it becomes most evident that Snyder (I hope) did not actually understand how to articulate the themes that he was trying to explore, resulting in an offensively contradictory mess.

Fundamentally, the plot concerns a young woman, nicknamed Babydoll, who is incarcerated in a mental institution after accidentally shooting and killing her younger sister.  Babydoll had been attempting to fend off the physically abusive and sexually predatory advances of her stepfather, but he, unpunished, watches on as she is arrested, and bribes an orderly to forge the signatures that will ensure she is given a lobotomy.  Over the course of the following week, Babydoll finds herself and her fellow inmates taking refuge in the shared fantasy that they are actually trapped inside a bordello, where they must ‘dance’ for the entertainment of their clients.  Guided by Babydoll, who receives instruction from a wizened old man, in this layer of fantasy, the women then regress into a further layer of communal dream whenever Babydoll ‘dances’ to distract the onlooking men, imagining themselves on a quest to gather together a series of totemic ‘keys’ that will ‘free’ them from their entrapment.  These vignettes take the form of something akin to videogame levels – a world war one fight with robots; a samurai showdown; orcs and dragons – and when the item is retrieved the women return to the world of the bordello to continue their escape plan.

Advocates of the film suggest that it can be read as a postmodern feminist statement, because it is in these regressions into themselves that these women find a power that defies the dominance of the men who physically hold them down.  In such a reading, these women are attempting to escape their exploitation at the hands of a corrupted social structure that allows men to dominate the sanctity of a woman’s legal rights and autonomy (Babydoll was committed because she fought back against a brutal rapist, and is condemned to receive a lobotomy to shut her up), a gender politics that allows them to be sexually exploited at will (a kind reading of the narrative suggests that they must ‘dance’ for men’s entertainment; a more accurate reading reveals that they are being repeatedly raped by the orderlies who are running a makeshift slave-brothel), and even a media that reduces them to pretty faces that can kick ass in tight leather and school-girl outfits for the entertainment of a movie-going audience (those in the audience who came to watch Snyder’s film).  They do this by looking deep within themselves for a space that these patriarchal systems cannot touch, and by using the power that they find in this private recess to their advantage.

Now, if the point of this fiction was to argue that there is, ultimately, no way out of this kind of sexist, abusive cycle, then the film would be making a horribly grim, but consistent message.  It would be presenting a searing – if hackneyed – condemnation of a corrupt worldview that needs to change.  But Snyder attempts to go further, suggesting that there is a way to reclaim individual dignity in the face of such cruelty by playing into its expectation.  Sadly, Snyder’s film ultimately posits that women caught in the web of this debasement need to embrace the ‘power’ afforded to them by their imposed sexualisation, thereby achieving ‘freedom’.  It effectively offers a rather nihilistic message about the need for women to utterly abdicate their sense of self in service of survival.

At every level of the descent down the reality/fantasy slide these women are being dominated and defined by men, and must use these fantasies as a refuge (effectively looking away as they are violated).  In order to escape the horror of being raped in the institution, Babydoll descends into the fantasy of a bordello.  When she is likewise sexually exploited there, compelled to dress provocatively and turn men on with her dancing, she escapes this debasement by withdrawing into a series of computer-generated boss-battles, imagining herself and her fellow captives in sexy costumes.  So even here, in her most private depicted space – the landscape of her own mind and imagination – she and her fellow prisoners are shown to be viewed through a sexualised vision.  Snyder yet again reduces them to objects performing aimless spectacle for the gratification of their viewer.  Babydoll ‘dances’ for both the corrupted orderlies and bordello patrons, but also for the conventional movie-going audience who demand their empty, silky set-piece spectacle.

Snyder claims to take us on a journey into their mindscape to show their independence, the private space no man can enter to defile them, but in doing so he performs arguably the most grotesque violation of all: he distorts their inner imaginative space to be subsumed into yet another male-gaze.  Socially, physically, and (thanks to the film’s intrusion into their dreams) psychologically, they are being reprogrammed to believe that there is salvation and autonomy in such an ideological compromise of self.  Sure, they can be ‘heroes’ – they can control their own destinies – if only they will agree to put on the skimpy schoolgirl outfits and pout in the flare of the explosions.  In pigtails, short skirt, and high stockings, carrying glossy cold steel as she is bent into a sexual pretzel of poses, Babydoll becomes precisely what her nickname suggests: an objectified, sexualised infant being trained to behave.

And this, sadly, is evident in the rather vile ending that results.  Not only is there the clumsy patriarchal reinforcement of having these women delivered their ‘salvation’ by a fatherly figure who tells them what to do in each videogame mission (and who eventually appears as a bus driver in the ‘real world’ to carry the one survivor to freedom), but it is revealed that it is only through embracing these multiple exploitations, giving over bodily and psychologically to the hungry leering of both their narrative and metatextual captors, that these women can see their mission ‘succeed’.

Babydoll’s ‘reward’ for acquiescing to the objectification of her captors is to lose her metaphorical virginity in the dream of the bordello, to have her physical sanctity violated by being repeatedly raped and savaged in the asylum, and then to be robbed literally of her mind – firstly embracing the lecherous fantasy of crass commercial culture by playing a sexy ninjette, and then having that private space decimated anyway by being casually lobotomised.  (In the extended cut apparently she also gets to ’empower’ herself by choosing to sexually gratify the doctor who then goes on to literally cut the last vestiges of her independent personality away.)  But apparently all this sacrifice is a ‘win’ because she managed to help one other woman thread this vile gauntlet to be ‘freed’.

Yes, the film posits that men are weak, exploitative, institutionally-cowardly scum, but where it fails is in its suggestion that the only way women can overcome their enslavement is to actually embrace this grotesque misogynist vision of the world wholly, to become (both body and mind) the object that this debased social structure demands they be in the first place.  If they do so, it says, then maybe – just maybe – by being willing to literally sacrifice themself to this self-immolating pageantry, they can thread the leering gauntlet that would punish their autonomy, and a couple of them might find a nice asexual old bus-driver/spiritual-advisor man who can carry them off to safety.

These victims are shown needing to embrace their infantilisation and sexualisation at every level of their being – and, again, were the movie legitimately about showing how barren and wasteful such vile compromise is, it would have fulfilled its rather nihilistic purpose.  Instead, it chooses to reinforce the merit in embracing this kind of exploitation.  Sure, the majority of these women will be emotionally and psychologically indoctrinated to view themselves through the lens of their oppressors, put on display like dolls, raped, killed and lobotomised like so much cattle, but at least one of them might make it through this nightmare …only to spend the rest of her life traumatised and alone in a world still engineered to reward such ritual cruelty.

By making every male in the film a hysterically overinflated uber-villain, and by reducing the women to sexualised beings that must sell themselves physically and psychologically, Snyder might be deriding the whole process of reducing women to objects, but instead of condemning it outright, he (I hope unknowingly) actually reinforces it.  After all, as the narrative progresses, it is only by having these women embrace the fetishisation of mass market culture that the film disingenuously purports to critique that they are even offered an illusion of autonomy.  And it is in that contradiction – positing that there is independence and supremacy in the act of utterly divesting oneself of selfhood – that the film egregiously falls down, creating an equally damaging illusion of ‘feminist’ power by ironically strengthening all of the hateful misogyny that it claims to deride.

To be completely honest, if, as Mendelson declared in his vehement support of the film, Sucker Punch’s aesthetic titillation and reprehensible message are the ‘nice things’ audiences have denied themselves in future because they were unwilling to celebrate Snyder’s misogynistic snuff film as ‘feminism’, I struggle to feel the loss.  Hopefully, more films will arise that show women embracing their strength, independence and sexuality – not because they have been infantilised or patronisingly danced about like action figures, but because they are being rightly depicted as having every reserve of strength and autonomy that any man has – making the ‘novelty’ of a misguided film such as this a thing of the past.

 sucker punch institution

 IMAGE: Sucker Punch, Directed by Zack Snyder (Warner Bros)

* Mendelson’s celebration of the film gathers pace from the backhanded encouragement of ‘In the end, Sucker Punch is a messy, flawed, and ambitious movie that earns kudos for daring to actually be about something relevant and interesting’ in his original review (http://scottalanmendelson.blogspot.com.au/2011/03/review-sucker-punch-2011.html), to ‘it is a severely compromised and messy picture. But it earns points for being about something genuinely interesting’ in follow-up commentaries, to finally declaring it a ‘masterpiece’ by any conceivable standard, a symbol of everything that should be defended and celebrated in Art, ‘a big budget studio picture filled with provocative and challenging ideas …. creating at least three all-time classic action set pieces …. It is everything we say we want from our mainstream entertainments’ (http://scottalanmendelson.blogspot.com.au/2011/06/why-we-cant-have-nice-things-last-word.html).

** Consequentially, I have very real concerns about how Lois Lane – a character who, over the span of her existence has managed to finally shuffle off a good portion of the helpless, naive damsel-in-distress cliché that hung over her in some of her earliest incarnations – will be depicted in Snyder’s upcoming Superman reboot, Man of Steel.  I would hate to see a self-possessed, capable, heroic woman like the more contemporary Lois likewise reduced to a vulnerable waif, reliant upon a man to show her kindness.

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