Pretty crazy what you can do with a phone and iMovie these days.
The ‘Outhouse Obama Library’ is another controversial mockery of the president that has people arguing across familiar battle lines. It is similar to the rodeo clown incident from last year. Most of you that read this blog probably know me and know how I feel about race relations in America, but so as there is no confusion as to my positions I feel compelled to lay out how I feel about race and politics in America:
- Do I believe the US has a race problem - Yes
- Do I believe it is getting better, albeit slowly - Yes
- Do I believe a significant number of people that dislike Obama dislike him for reasons of race - Yes
- Do I believe that the current polarized nature of the country means that Obama could be the same guy except be white and be irrationally hated by most of these same people - Yes
Until 2008, every president of the United States had been a white man. Aside from our long tradition of only electing white men to the office of the presidency, there has been another tradition: badmouthing the president. In my experience, this has gotten more outrageous since I can remember. Do I have a problem with that? I don’t know for sure. Part of me wants to hold some respect for the office, but I don’t know if I really do. To be more specific, I mean that I don’t hold any more respect for the president than anyone else — overall, I think I am generally a respectful person, but I’m not the best judge of myself. OK, lets be honest…I’m generally less respectful of authority and people in power. People at the top of the power structure are deserving of the most mockery.
So that leads to the strange new conundrum I feel. Is Obama exempt from the traditional mockery pointed at the president? The rodeo clown display had some subtext that could easily been interpreted as racist. (I’m not trying to be equivocating here, I just know I can’t say for sure 100% what the performer’s intent was — though I’m sure I know some of the audience had racist intent in their laughter. This is another debate though — artist’s intent vs. audience interpretation. Yes, this issue is bigger than clowns, which is why I used the term ‘artist’. I don’t think I have ever felt the need to over-explain anything before…) The outhouse thing, I’m not as sure. That could easily be racist in intent, or not. The display itself isn’t racist in it’s subtext that I can tell. If I am missing something, please let me know. From what I can tell it is a zombie with a walker in front of an outhouse that says Obama Presidential Library on it. It’s a lame gag for sure, but not too dissimilar to a ballot referendum I literally voted on for naming a sewage treatment plant after George W. Bush. For the record, I voted against it even though I think W. was one of the worst chief executives in history. Maybe I do have some respect for the office.
To be bluntly honest, thinking about this just leads to circles. Even the most crude and racist mockery is still pointed at the most powerful man in the world.
The Nature of Mystery and The Leftovers
If I don’t explain what you ought to know
You can tell me all about it
On, the next bardo
I’m sinking in the quicksand of my thought
And I ain’t got the power anymore
Don’t believe in yourself
Don’t deceive with belief
with death’s release
Quicksand - David Bowie
How a person feels about the nature of mystery is one of those defining lines that separate us. Some of us will accept mystery as part of the human experience, some of us will not. By my use of the Quicksand lines, it should be pretty evident where I fall on that continuum. It has most certainly changed as I have gotten older, too. As a younger man, I was far less satisfied with not knowing.
I don’t think either of these approaches is right or wrong either. It will, however, greatly affect how you feel about stories. A very irritating man once sung, ‘Some dance to remember, some dance to forget’ — it’s all about how to frame the human experience. It is a similar dividing line to plot vs. character, or how you view life, as a destination or a journey. This dividing line will be the predictor of whether or not you like The Leftovers. Based on the pilot, it seems to me that this story isn’t about why or how the people are gone, but what will the everyone else do. (I think the title is a dead giveaway as to what this is all about.)
To give you a baseline let me try to define how I see my existence. I find peace and solace in the enormity of the (uni?/multi?)verse that we inhabit. My cosmology is one of chaos and no meaning but the ones we forge for ourselves. It is human reason and emotion that is the hammer to shape it. Some of this will be universal to the human experience, some of it will polarizing, and the smallest sliver will be something unique. That small unique sliver is still built from those same universal and polarizing bits but just beat together a little bit different for each of us.
The Leftovers is based on a premise that 2% of the world’s population has disappeared. It’s not very pretty. So many post-apocalyptic-type stories deal with a full collapse that happens quickly, but I don’t think that’s how it usually works. When humans write history, there is an injection of stark dividing lines, but these are weird time-compressed lines. If you live through them, they are slow decays and spackles. It is the analysis later that yearns to categorize. Life is falling apart in Mapleton, New York. There are bizarre cults that have sprouted up to deal with the people’s trauma. (We see another location, but I’m not sure where it is. California, maybe?) Packs of reservoir dogs terrorize the town, hokey tributes are made including the worst statue I think I have ever seen for expressing grief.
The story focuses on one family. The father is the chief of police and he lives with his daughter who is in high school. It is implied the mother is one of the disappeared, but it is revealed she is the cult member we have been watching since the beginning of the pilot. They also have a son that appears to be in another cult in the place that might be California. They haven’t lost anyone to this disappearance, but the event has driven wedges between all of them. They are a microcosm in the microcosm that is Mapleton.
This ‘rapture’ type event is something that a person’s willingness to accept that which they will never know or understand is paramount to how they will move on. The same can be said for those that like the show. That isn’t to say that it’s not compelling to try to figure it out. There are a couple of Stephen King books that deal with this same theme. The Colorado Kid and From a Buick 8 both deal with the nature of mystery and how people react to it. The Colorado Kid is mystery story with no answer. It is obvious from the first pages that there will be no answer. The story is really about passing along stories from generation to generation, the desire to find answers as a journalist, and human curiosity. From a Buick 8 has a similar theme, but there is a slight difference. Careful readers of King will know exactly what the Buick 8 is, but the characters in the story never will. The Colorado Kid was very polarizing. People loved it or hated it. From a Buick 8 didn’t seem to bother folks as much, but maybe it is because there are more ‘answers’.
As a side note, I would like to point out that most of the stuff I have read about The Leftovers likes to point out that Damon Lindelof, the show runner and writer, failed with the Lost ending, or ‘piloted Lost into the ground’. Maybe you don’t like how it ended, but to state that it is wrong is just a lazy, weak take. Cuse doesn’t take as much heat, but I think that’s probably because he didn’t let the trolls know that they got to him. Lindelof was a bit more thin-skinned. Personally, I think art that is polarizing is far more compelling than art that is universally loved or panned. In the end, the people that hated the end of Lost had a strong opinion. They cared. That might be why Lindelof was so thin-skinned. There is a lot of very personal stuff in that last season about how they think the universe works. I find quite awesome that the whole show was really just about bad parenting, which in hindsight was right out in front all along, just like the title for The Leftovers.
A few months ago I needed a quick test video of stills so I just chucked all these images from my Photo Booth folder into a video. Enjoy?
As I general rule I try not to judge characters in stories I write, at least not where the audience can see it. I am far more judgmental about characters in other people’s stories. This may sound like a contradiction, but the reason that I don’t judge out in public when writing, is so the audience gets the chance. Now, this judgement doesn’t get in the way of what I find compelling or likable. Many characters I have judged to be awful people are often my favorites. Al Swearengen, Walter White, Kenny Powers, or Mags Bennett, just to name a few, are all fairly loathsome people, but I love them. I know that part of good acting is using charisma to make me like the character even though I know they are morally or ethically opposed to how I perceive my values. Even so, I probably would still find the darker characters more compelling. I hated Walt for the last two seasons of Breaking Bad. I found him revolting in every way and rooted for him to lose, but I still kept watching.
I don’t know how to judge most of the characters in The Americans. I have no framework to even understand a lot of what I see in regards to my life or anything I have ever experienced. Let’s start with Philip and Elizabeth Jennings. I have no problem rooting for Soviet spies in the 80s. Knowing how it all turns out helps to put the idea that they were the ‘enemy’ out of my head, but I don’t really think about it that way too much. The Jennings are deep cover spies. Originally, they were just partners for cover’s sake. They have had two children. Elizabeth is more dedicated to the cause. Philip has doubts. They have fallen in love since they got here. They often have sex with others as part of their missions. This is not a problem with either of them that I can tell so far. (I’m at the beginning of season 2.) The one exception was when Philip had sex with an old flame, but Elizabeth was more upset about the lying about it. They kill people. I don’t really judge them poorly for any of this, well relatively against their spy jobs. If I were a deep cover spy and I had to kill someone to do my job, I would do it. I can’t really judge them harshly for that then, can I? I can’t imagine being so dedicated to a nation-state that I would do this job, either, so there’s that…
What do I judge them harshly for? For one, I find Philip’s long term sham marriage with Martha to be heartbreaking. In some ways, she is being treated really well, but when that rug gets pulled out it will be so cringe-inducing, I am already starting to pucker. Matthew Rhys’ character really struggles with what he has to do. You can read it on his face. I was sickened, but also glad they put in the part when he kills the dishwasher in the first episode of season two. It is important to remember that they are murderers. It is worse to me that he tells him that there is nothing to worry about. Elizabeth I wouldn’t judge as harshly because she is so much more hardened. It’s not fair of me, but that is how I feel about it. The other part that I have a problem with is the kids. I understand that they probably didn’t really know the true consequences of having kids for cover, but this is awful. It really speaks to why living a lie can crush you from the inside out. The kids will learn someday, and they will be livid, if they are still living.
Beeman is easy to judge. I don’t really judge him for being duplicitous with Nina, but he doesn’t need to be duplicitous with his wife. Furthermore, as a domestic CI agent, he doesn’t need a family for cover. It probably would help if he didn’t like his old partner. I do give him some slack for probably not knowing what he was getting into and the real consequences of it.
Nina is probably the character I judge the least. This is mostly because she got caught up in the game because she was selling black market stereo equipment. I fully support rock music in Moscow! Joking aside, she doesn’t have as much of a choice as everyone else, in my opinion. I also felt that she felt pangs of conscience when she was promoted and took the oath. Is she playing the Rezidentura? Probably, but I find her to be the most sympathetic character in many ways.
Margo Martindale’s ‘Granny’ is another great character. I pretty much love her in everything she does. She does a menacing villain perfectly. I found her character to be compelling, especially because she saved the Jennings even though they back-stabbed her. She is what Elizabeth could be if she keeps honing her craft, but I have a hard time believing the Jennings will stick it out that long.
I can’t imagine what it would be like to have to compartmentalize like these people do. I’m just not made for that type of work, but it is fascinating to figure out what it all means. I’m still not sure.
- I was yelling and fist pumping when they spray painted the car
- The wigs are one of my favorite parts of the show
- The use of Numbers Stations are so intriguing to me (click the link to hear some…or pick up Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot)
- The show is pretty deft at maneuvering around the history of the events depicted. I loved Haig’s ‘I’m in charge’ as a plot device.
- I wonder how long in time it will go. I would love to see a reverse angle take on the late 80s as well — IranContra, the coup on Gorbachev