Archive for November 2012

The SNL Sketch that Ate Homeland

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I've never taken the time to write about a Saturday Night Live sketch. Commenting about parody seems like an exercise in preposterous meta-analysis. But reader, I cannot lie. SNL's Homeland spoof has pretty much ruined the show for me.

It's possible that the sketch just happened to coincide with a downturn in the show's believability and quality, but with every passing episode, the parody forces me to question whether the show was ever that good.

Few would ever have described the show as a soap opera, but as the sketch perfectly conveyed, maybe that's what Homeland is, and if not, it's certainly heading that direction, as it spends more and more time on Brody and Carrie's "romance" ("It's ok! It doesn't have to make sense! She's bipolar"). As a soap opera, it utterly fails, covering up its inability to craft convincing relationships in cloaks and daggers.

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In season one, the relationship between Brody and Carrie made a most peculiar sense, as it was entirely premised on discovery. But now there's at least one scene a week which conveys how strongly Carrie wants Brody to leave his family, of how she's willing to compromise missions to save him, of how her love saves him from the edge (lately, we're getting all three of these in every episode).

This has the double effect of reducing the stakes of the ongoing terror plot (it's ok! Love will save us all!) and of infantilizing the moral questions that plague Brody.


I'm especially concerned after the twist reveal that Estes ordered Quinn to murder Brody after they stopped the terror plot. The preview indicated that Saul would resolve the issue with thoughtful machinations, but I predict a mess of hysteria and chin-quivering.

If Homeland dials up the emotions to 11 in every single episode, it risks distracting the viewer from what actually made it interesting - how circumstances warp our ideas of morality, and how that mutation affects not just our own lives, but the lives of those around us.

Skyfall's Troubling Gender Politics



There's no way to discuss this without talking about the ending. In other words, HERE THERE BE SPOILERS.

Let me start by saying that I loved Skyfall. I can comfortably state that it's one of the top two Bond films (I'm unable to declare it better than Goldeneye without seeing that old favorite again). Skyfall finds the perfect balance between acknowledging the tropes that make Bond such a treasured film commodity and acknowledging their quaintness.

But the problem, as the film so ably points out, is that Bond (and the whole of MI6) can't be judged by its activity in the past, but must be judged by the needs of the present. As a result, it becomes impossible to ignore that Skyfall gives us the most regressive gender politics since the Sean Connery era.

Two female characters are bedded and disposed of (quite literally in one case) with zero fanfare or sentiment. One is LITERALLY TOLD TO SHUT UP by her male colleague during a court proceeding. Meanwhile, in series regular territory, we're back to having a posh toff male heading up MI6, while our clever and highly competent field agent suddenly reveals her life's aspiration to be "sexy secretary". That's zero for five, Skyfall.


Let's start with Eve, who inspired this post. She spends the entire film being punished for a small mistake she makes under M's orders, while Bond goes around screwing up so badly that he can't even pass the physical fitness exam. Even worse, despite saving Bond's (and everyone's) lives twice in the interim, she somehow decides that she's not competent to be a field agent, simply based on a throwaway comment from Bond. The kiss of death? It turns out that she not only decides to be a secretary, she's actually gonna be that secretary (you remember the one. In fifty years of Bond films, she's notable for alternating "sexy" and "nagging" and "why don't you ever return my calls?".

To be honest, if she started the film as a secretary who went out into the field and then decided she wanted to stay behind the desk, I might have hand-waved it. But to invite the audience to smile knowingly as a capable agent surrenders her power to a man who was once her equal palls.

And why the hell did she end up shaving Bond? Is she his wife? Fail.


The head of the government inquiry may have been a touch long-winded, but her points were neither hysterical nor invalid. And as any student of the British government knows, long-windedness is not an affectation, but an expectation. Mallory's flippant shutdown of her right to speak (she's the fucking head of the inquiry!) is both against the way government inquiries work, and just flat offensive. And also, the audience is supposed to laugh. Women talking too much! Hilarious!


The whole Séverine subplot was incredibly bizarre. Bond finds her both traumatized and full of fear from being sold first into sex slavery and then to Silva, and nonetheless chooses to have her by sneaking up on her in the shower. Of course, James Bond is basically male privilege made flesh, but come on dude, she's TERRIFIED. She doesn't want your dick. Also, if he was so desperately taken with her, one would think he'd have slightly more of a reaction to her death-by-dick-measuring-contest. But la-di-da.


M comes closest to success, but we've spent enough time with her to know her pretty well (remember her fantastic introduction in Goldeneye?) Nonetheless, she dies pretty stupidly. She has no facility with a gun, knows it, but still sits out as a target, despite a wonderful escape route? Sure, she set off some exploding chandeliers, but what was the plan here? She's the head of the MI6, not some domestic terrorist. So we not only get Mallory accusing her of incompetence, she proves him right. M, who never makes a false step, makes a series of them in Skyfall. So she dies, freeing Bond of the only female who can stand up to him in every regard.


After the women are handily put in their places, Skyfall leaves us with the image of Bond and Mallory talking shop, drinking whisky and smirking about a job terribly done (guys, the head of MI6 is dead! I don't know how you define a job gone horribly wrong, but I am PRETTY SURE THAT'S ONE OF THEM). Mallory failed to track Silva despite Q's technical wizardry, and he still ends up boss. All the women end up dead or demoted, and the men get promoted.

I haven't even discussed the queerification of Silva ("Sure, he's killed a lot of people and blown up buildings, but what's really horrifying is that he might be homosexual!"), but that may be a topic for another day.

So long and thanks in advance for your polite, well-reasoned comments.

Filling the Gaps: Black Narcissus

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I didn't set out to watch a "Black" film on Black Friday, (nor do I wish to pretend that "Black Friday" deserves codification as anything other than a commercial black hole). An interview with Martin Scorsese, who described a certain moment in the film as the one that forced him to become a filmmaker, led me to pluck Black Narcissus from the quicksand of my Netflix queue.

Like me, dear reader, you may have the wrong impression of the film (and the Netflix description certainly doesn't help, with its vague intimations of a crisis of faith in exotic lands, tagging the film in the "faith and spirituality" bucket).

Black Narcissus has elements of horror, romance, and the subtly erotic (the horror scenes are perhaps the most unexpected, and the most beautiful). It's more in the vein of In The Mood for Love than of the "stiff upper-lip" films that transfixed post-war Britain. Sex and desire are ever-present, even through our leads spend most of the film wearing nun habits.

Five nuns, led by Deborah Kerr's Sister Clodagh, move to a remote palace in the Himalayas, kindly lent by an Indian general in exchange for providing schools and medical services to the local children. The sisters are forced to rely on Major Dean, a Brit who know his way about the locals. Needless to say, sparks fly in many directions.


Clodagh's studied restraint sits against the animal attraction between the Indian prince and Kanchi, a lower-class girl rejected by her family for being too open in her many affections. Rather than suggesting that this is some native savagery, Sister Clodagh comes to envy their youthful impetuousness, troubled by regrets of her own.


Now, despite being set in the remote hills of the Himalayas, Black Narcissus was fully filmed in Britain, at the Pinewood Studios. Which perhaps accounts for the one jarring weakness in the film.

Despite carefully researching the architecture, the climate and the foliage of its remote setting, the powers-that-be still chose to brownface the female Indian lead, Kanchi.

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In an incredible scene, we see Simmons do traditional Indian-style dancing, and to her credit, she's very good at it. But why not hire an Indian actress trained in classical dance? Which, as anyone who's seen even a single Indian movie knows, is literally every Indian actress (I could explain the reasons for intersection of dance and theatre in both classical and modern Indian culture, but I'll spare you).

It's even more jarring when you consider how carefully the film deals with "otherness". Certainly our good nuns believe they're bringing enlightenment to the savages, but Powell and Pressburger make no such judgment. In fact, with one line from our extremely handsome male lead (WWJD), the filmmakers reveal the inherent silliness of such beliefs, that if bringing the "light" means turning a man against his own family, it cannot possibly be more righteous.

(Clodagh and her sisters do come to recognize this, and certainly this contributes to their turmoil. If the motives of the Holy Order could be so wrong about one thing, why can't they be wrong about others, especially the right of a woman to be a woman?)

Basically, the filmmakers are saying that being one of the darkies is in fact a perfectly acceptable (even beautiful) human condition, unless of course you're in a mainstream movie. In which case, bust out the brown foundation and raven-colored hair dye.

Powell and Pressburger's film is well regarded as one of the first masterpieces of technicolor filmmaking, and I'd go so far to say that it's still one of the most beautiful films in existence.

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Despite its one great failing, Black Narcissus still stands up as a great study of what makes us human, even under the most stringent rules in the most trying of circumstances. Go watch it, then come back and play in the comments.

Tana French's "Faithful Place", Or, Murder Goes Very Very Irish

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Having purchased it years ago, I'm embarrassed to admit that I've only just got to Tana French's wonderful Faithful Place, a magnificently propulsive murder mystery set in the forgotten spaces of a swiftly gentrifying Dublin.

In Nick Hornby's slightly hysterical call for a quota on "literature about literature" in The Polyphonic Spree, he elucidates why novels like Faithful Place are so impressive:

"Writing exclusively about highly articulate people...Well, isn't it cheating a little? McEwan's hero, Henry Perowne, the father and son-in-law of the poets, is a neurosurgeon, and his wife is a corporate lawyer; like many highly educated middle-class people, they have access to and a facility with language, a facility that enables them to speak very directly and lucidly about their lives (Perowne is "an habitual observer of his own moods"), and there's a sense in which McEwan is wasted on them. They don't need his help. What I've always loved about fiction is its ability to be smart about people who aren't themselves smart, or at least don't necessarily have the resources to describe their own emotional states....It seems to me to be a more remarkable gift than the ability to let extremely literate people say extremely literate things."

So here we find ourselves, with Frank Mackey, back in Faithful Place, where working class" still counts as mere aspiration. Faithful Place has a very particular geography, all secret paths and abandoned buildings and dangerous cellars. And like most communities within communities, it has its own set of rules, blunt and simple:

"No matter how skint you are, if you go to the pub then you stand your round; if your mate gets into a fight, you stick around to drag him off as soon as you see blood ... even if you're an anarchist punk rocker this month, you go to Mass on Sunday; and no matter what, you never, ever squeal on anyone."

In a street of bruisers, its all too easy to let the characters go undefined, to have them inhabit archetypes of thugs, thieves and scoundrels that readers are all too familiar with. But that's where French's easy facility with language comes in. She takes us on a tour of Faithful Place and introduces us to Mackey's estranged family members one by one, his abandoned friendships, the very conversations that polluted the air during his ill-fated romance with Rosie Daly.

The mystery of who kills Rosie Daly certainly has its own interest, but the characters really shine here. Faithful Place is also very funny:

"My parents didn't like people with Notions; the Dalys didn't like unemployed alcoholic wasters."

I know I'm late to the party here, but if you somehow missed Faithful Place over the past couple of years, I highly recommend picking it up.

Keep Brooklyn Weird: Fulton's Rather Mad Hatter

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In a space that now houses Gran Electrica, Dumbo's foray into fine Mexican food, there once lived a haberdashery with a rather bizarre marketing strategy. While we can all thank Lewis Carroll for introducing us to the effects of mercury on lonely haberdashers (twinkle...twinkle...little...bat...), the reality of this particular mad hatter seems a trifle darker.

Can you explain how 2 chickens fighting over a frog could possibly convince the New York public to purchase new hats? (please invent your own captions in the comments)


And to think that you'd receive a free copy of this non sequitur just for gracing Turnbull's house of mercury poisoning? Keep on, dear reader, for the chicken-fight may be the most sensical of Mr. Turnbull's ads.

"Turnbull's hats turn dentists into vigilantes!"


"Turnbull's hats make cartoonish minstrels into cartoonish minstrels."


"Turnbull's hats give errant cats psychic control over the universe!"


You may enjoy many more ridiculous (and also beautiful) ads in the Brooklyn Public Library's digitized archive.

Teddy Roosevelt Reviews Anna Karenina While Chasing Thieves (He is JUST that cool)



Teddy Roosevelt once chased some bandits down a frozen river, captured them, and then found himself (and them) trapped on the frozen river for eight days. Being a forward-thinking man, he'd brought along Matthew Arnold's poems and Tolstoy's Anna Karenina.

In the course of being stuck, he not only managed to keep watch on his prisoners, but read both books completely, and even wrote a letter to his sister reviewing the book. ALL WHILE STUCK ON A FROZEN RIVER WITH THREE DANGEROUS BANDITS WITH NO FOOD BUT DRY FLOUR.

Sorry, I just had a case of the vapours ::fans self::


Basically he shares my essential reaction to the book, which might be summed up as "Anna! Stop being so cray-cray! Oh yay, thank goodness for the sanity of Levin."

Anyway, I'll let him speak for himself:

“I took Anna Karenina along for the trip and have read it through with very great interest. I hardly know whether to call it a very bad book or not. There are two entirely distinct stories in it; the connection between Levine’s story and Anna’s is of the slightest and need have existed at all. Levine’s and Kitty’s history is not only very powerfully and naturally told, but it is also perfectly healthy. Anna’s most certainly is not, though of great and sad interest; she is portrayed as being a prey to the most violent passions, and subject to melancholia, and her reasoning power is so unbalanced that she could not possibly be described otherwise than as in a certain sense insane. Her character is curiously contradictory; bad as she was however she was not to me nearly as repulsive as her brother Stiva; Uronsky had some excellent points. I like poor Dolly, but she should have been less of a patient Griselda with her husband. You know how I abominate the Griselda type. Tolstoi is a great writer. Do you notice how he never comments on the actions of his personages? He relates what they thought or did without any remark whatever as to whether it was good or bad, as Thucydides wrote history--a fault which tends to give his work an unmoral rather than an immoral tone; together with the sadness so characteristic of Russian writers. I was much pleased with the insight into Russian life."

Check out the original letter.

If you want more of an account of the actual bandit-chase, you can find it here in Teddy's own words.

Most importantly, read Edmund Morris's amazing biography.

Anti-Suffrage Ads of Yore: The Threat of "Petticoat Rule"


Vote no1

"Housewives! You do not need a ballot to clean out your sink spout!"


Published by the Albany Association Opposed to Women's Suffrage. What makes this even more odd is that one of the main contributors to this organization was Mary Arthur, better known to you as the sister of President Chester Arthur.

The Good Wife Season 4: "Waiting for the Knock," or, Eli Gold Learns What Hubris Meant to the Greeks

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The Good Wife's "Waiting for the Knock" felt like the middle section of a very long novel - the writing's sharp as ever, you're still having a great time engaging with it, but you can't help but feel like the writers are taking a little bit of a breather before they get to the really juicy stuff.

That said, I'm more than intrigued by the new tone the show's adopting. The show's always been happiest in the moral grey area, but its ethos always centered on Newton's third law - every action leads to an equal or opposite reaction - which, in The Good Wife, means that even the direst consequences stem from an action taken, even if those actions are long-forgotten.

But then, most of the driving factors from the episode centered from something that didn't happen, a void of an intern who seems to have a black hole in her head. That Peter didn't actually sleep with her turns the narrative into a Greek tragedy - Maddy found the excuse she needed to turn on Peter (indeed, it seems like she was looking for that excuse from the start), and the blogger hurls away from the void in his own rocketship, powered by grist from the rumor-mill.

But we're not Greeks, and we know that the gods don't actually punish us for our hubris, and yet, it's the only explanation. Without Eli's arrogant response to the journalist, without his quickness at employing the heavy hand of Lockhart Gardner, without his incorrect belief that lying to Maddy would be the right way to keep her on board, none of these need have happened.

It's strange for a mainstream CBS show to use such subtleties to drive its narrative, but of course we know that our show possesses those characteristics in name only - it really is a most uncommon show.



-Welcome back, Cary! I've missed your pretty face so! And kudos to the Kings for manufacturing hilarious homoeroticism between you and NATHAN LANE of all people. And thusly a thousand fanfics were born...(gif credit to

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-Diane would totally get into a dick-measuring contest with an opposing lawyer of any gender. Just one of the trillion reasons that we love her so.

-Kalinda, oh Kalinda. Stop involving thyself with douchebags, whether female FBI agents or British faux-thugs.

Finally, just posting photos of Cary Agos because hello! He finally had a role! And more because the gym trainer is clearly jealous of the love he shares with Nathan Lane.


Halloween Must-Watch: Suspiria

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"The only thing more terrifying than the last 12 minutes of this film are the first 92," reads the tagline for Suspiria, Dario Argento's accidental adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. Our heroine encounters three impossible things before breakfast, though it takes until dinnertime before she believes them.

Death, sorcery, witches. Our human tendencies prevent us from accepting a description of death as it truly is -- utterly mundane. Death is simple; expiration. Suspiria pretends at creating horror at the manner of death, while Argento knows (and shows) that the real horror is loss. We feel that undercurrent running through every action in the film; loss of control, loss of power, loss of sanity, loss of love. When you reach that point, there's nothing left. Just more death. Everyone reacts to the first loss in the film. We never meet her, but we can figure her out by the way people miss her.

Argento fuses German expressionism (think of the side-eyed angles in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) with a gleeful bloody mindedness the likes of which I've never seen. 35 years have passed since Suspiria came out; no horror movie shows such originality in its set-pieces. Argento takes full advantage of your visual senses, using color and design to great effect.


Suzy Bannion trips lightly through this rabbit hole, a ballet school where students mysteriously disappear and horrific accidents happen to all who cross the tightly drawn Madame Tanner. Part of the surreality of the film comes from Bannion's "curiouser and curiouser" attitude to the awful events that surround her. Even as the ballet school descends further and further into the pit of despair, she's mostly unaffected, which is for the best. Otherwise, the audience would be sitting in constant despair.


Suspiria takes horror back to its roots: nightmares. Think of your nightmares; even the most terrifying are more rooted in whimsy than in terror. The terror, in fact, plays in almost incidentally to the strange narratives our minds plant in our dreams.

After you see it, come back and tell me your thoughts. And that's an order!


The building filmed as the dance academy actually exists, including the loony exterior:


The Haus zum Walfisch can be found in Freiburg, Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany, and was known as the House of the Whale when it was built in 1516.


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