Conan at Comic-Con

Conan

Conan O’Brien killed it at Comic-Con. In the packed historic Spreckles Theater (yes, that is its real name), he delivered jokes from a huge spaceship stage bedecked with three enormous screens. They prominently displayed his face like the comedy overlord he was to a packed crowd roaring at his every silly gesture.

Over the course of his four day run at the convention, he littered the stage with gags, as well as some high-power guests. He interviewed the whole casts of both The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones. J-Law and the Hunger Games cast came by. And then on Sunday, he caused a sensation when he was visited by not only Peter Capaldi, the Doctor (of Doctor Who, who else?), and Michael Fassbender and the cast of X-Men: Apocalypse.

Michel Cieply in The New York Times called Conan’s episodes at the convention a refreshing “bit of old fashioned show-business.” What was refreshing, presumably, was to see a show from mainstream late night TV at this convention filled with fandom for characters and franchises built mainly out of alternative forms of media. But what was more striking, for longtime fans of Conan’s comedy, was precisely how much he has figured out how to cater to this audience, five years into hosting his TBS show.

In retrospect the transformation should have been rather obvious, given Conan’s rather self-conscious and awkward brand of humor. His antics have always been a cross between doltish cartoon clownishness and self-mocking hyper-awareness, ripe for the audience of a convention that celebrates the zany, over-the-top, and unbridled aesthetic of the comic book, and yet to that very extent remains wary of the excesses of mainstream entertainment commercialism. Appropriately, his jokes–always excessive and camp undercut with a heavy dollop of self-defeating absurdism–landed perfectly. (Perhaps his most pithy was when he introduced himself on at the beginning of his third show: “Hi, I’m Conan O’Brien. At Comic-Con I’m Spider-Man in the streets, the Flash in the sheets.”) And from the get-go he was dancing around on the stage, utterly charming to the theater with his puppety gangly body, asking them to give back some of the collectible merchandise he was handing out (because of course the show doesn’t have the largest budget).

But the breadth of the appeal in this community wasn’t by any means inevitable. Conan was the host of the Tonight Show, after all. And Conan’s comedy, as anyone who watched his surprisingly classy run on that show knows, emerges from a respect for this mainstream of broadcast TV as much as cheeky Letterman-like rebellion against it. The “character” Conan always says he plays (most recently in the last episode of this last season of David Steinberg’s Inside Comedy) is that of “someone who wants to do a talk show.” This goofy reverence is captured entirely in his signature little move: the clumsy knocking over of the mic followed with a clumsy self-reassuring smile into the camera. This is not to say that Conan ever ends up looking as slick as his idols: just that the particular zany nature of his comedy involved parodying a series of classic TV tropes that are precisely very mainstream.

The shows at Comic-Con revealed a production team hard at work on bending this classic showbiz aesthetic around to accommodate this new, unabashedly “alternative” audience. The first episode used the classic variety-show character sketches he does to bring in a missing killer whale from Sea World disguised as Yoda. The band was brought in on the nerd-dom, in a particularly great bit: an astronaut harmonica player joined them, only to have an alien burst out of his chest and play a saxophone (all of them jammed together into a commercial break). The large casts invited all onstage at once made the interviews feel more like panel discussions. Finally, there was a wonderful segment where Conan rewrote his origins story. We find out Conan survived a massive H-bomb attack—a “hilarity bomb” that made him irresistibly funny forever after. Andy reminded him the actual story was that he was a writer on The Simpsons and got the call for Late Night, but dwelling so long in the fantasy and its heroic narrative almost made this rather remarkable showbusiness story seem prosaic.

It has been a long journey for Conan after losing the Tonight Show gig. His devoted fans have been with him all the way, of course, and in a way the whole debacle over the last few years has allowed him to reconnect with them. At the same time, however, what Comic-Con made clear is that he is building a new fanbase in some of the most desired demographics out there. What he will do with that is not clear yet—one of the longtime running gags of his (featured prominently in his “Clueless Gamer” series) is that he is bored by nerds and video games. But at Comic-Con he was clearly doing more than importing an old paradigm there. Conan O’Brien has positioned himself to become the king of the fanboys and fangirls.

True Detective, “Down Will Come”

When the critics took a look at the first three episodes of True Detective that HBO handed to them, they generally concluded that it would be a story where the characters develop and confront their problems. Because it was set in the present, these characters’ pasts were going to give way, at some point, to something happening in the future. Each investigator looked like they were wallowing in something. Dwelling over old stuff. Still scarred from old wounds. But they also looked like they could move past them. There was just enough that was wrong, and just enough that was right in them, that they could do something more. You saw the hope that was left in them. And the positive LA culture around them only made their problems seem self-imposed, as if they were downers that could, with a slightly more chipper attitude, turn things around. This episode, Paul’s old boyfriend tells him that “all you have to do is just let go,” i.e. stop being so controlling and accept himself. It generally seemed like that was all that had to happen for stuff to turn up roses. Roses, at any rate, were in the picture—we weren’t anywhere so bleak where that hope was completely shut off and shut down.

Well, it turns out LA is in fact a fairly bleak place. Last week I myself told the show that it needed to pick up the pace on developments if it were going to portray any significant changes in these characters. But I, like many people, might have missed the point. This isn’t a show that is dwelling in the past and will move forward into the present, like the last series. This is a show that is going to delve even deeper into the past, plunge its characters even more into self-loathing, and to try and solve a mystery that happened not in the present but long ago. No one is moving on from what ails them. Everybody involved is going to meet their fate and be driven to their doom not moving forward, but in moving back. We’re going to get a lot of destruction. And whoever is left will not be because they triumphed over anything. It will be because they survived something catastrophic. Just like at the end of this episode, when Ani’s mission to capture a key lead ends in a massive failure and a clusterfuck of a shootout. The three investigators make it out alive, but not many more people do, and “alive” is about as good as anybody will be said to be doing by the show’s close.

That sounds dark and interesting, just as serious as the show would like things to be. It remains to be seen whether the producers True Detective can actually pull this off, and I don’t think it will ever pull it off to the extent that they wants to. The show carries itself way too seriously, sees its darkness as a mission against the unseriousness of other television. There’s nothing to be said for this type of indignant intensity and self-righteousness other than what it does by accident, which was apparently everything great in the last season. But you have to admit this is a more compelling direction for the show to be going than the one we were stuck in, and it certainly made this episode interesting to watch. Everyone seemed to be actually moving forward in their dealing with their wounds—sort of—and even we were getting somewhere in the case. And then it all blew up. And everything that looked like progress was really the impulsiveness of self-destructive patterns asserting themselves again.

There is, after all, an energy to the repression, an energy and even a perverse appeal that attends self-destructiveness. What this episode reminded you of was that this delusional enthusiasm was hounding these characters just as much as their depression—indeed was the reason for the latter. This is so from the moment we wake up with Paul in the apartment of his former overseas lover. It’s right there as he pushes the guy away and gets in a cab. They apparently had a nice evening together, though he doesn’t remember it. Instead, he doesn’t decide to face anything, cries, and looks around to be saved from himself. There is real pain there, and coming to confront what he is dealing with is surely difficult. But then again he’s not really confronting it. Neither does he confront anything when he gets dropped off where his motorcycle was—only to find it stolen—and wanders to his hotel to find the media there. He doesn’t say anything to them, doesn’t push past them, get to his room, and clean himself up. He just gets swarmed and literally runs away, down the block. He calls Ray for help, who comes to pick him up. His protestations of love to his girlfriend later in the episode when she tells him she is pregnant were the very image of desperation. These supposed developments in his life are only putting him further in a hole, it turns out, and if in his depression he realizes how deep this hole is, when he’s out of it he keeps on making the same mistakes.

This was the case with Ray too, at the auto shop with Ani looking at the car driven from the murderer in the last episode. Picking up Paul, he has great words of advice to him. About the press. About himself. Opening his glove compartment, which is full of all sorts of pills to cure hangovers and generally feel good. You see that he may be something of a good caregiving figure, if not the best father. There’s something confident about him in this role—you can see he is comfortable in it. But the problem is, he’s not a father to these coworkers, and above all he’s not this charitable and caring to himself or his family. On the job, away from all that burden, he helps strangers buck up. But with himself he sets the standard too high, is too controlling, and he is too traumatized by the legacy of abuse that he himself suffered to inflict any of this care on those he really loves. Where he acts most freely and is most comfortable turns out to be that very place that makes him so depressed in the rest of the series.

How fragile he has become was revealed in the first really interesting character decision with Ray that Colin Farrell has taken so far. It’s something subtle, something very small. While he’s in the car, telling Paul not to mind the media, that after Iraq everything for Paul should be a cakewalk, he delivers all this fatherly advice at slightly too fast a clip. The statements seem at once a little glib. The truth is they’re not glib: they’re good advice for a bruised ego. But they’re delivered nervously. The reason, Farrell makes you see, is that they are actually rather reckless for Ray: in delivering these comforting thoughts to a receptive audience, he’s slightly scared, because he’s not really used to being so comfortably empowered. It’s a very, very sensitive touch that shows how traumatized he was by his father. But it also explains how he’s become such a crooked cop: being in a position of clear, legal authority allows him to relax and be a softie that he won’t normally allow himself to be. This, in turn, makes him more liable to break more rules. He opens up that glove box and gives Paul some drugs, no doubt obtained illegally just like in the last episode he brings his father some weed he probably scored from the department. Here, we see him indulge in a guilty pleasure when he turns on the sirens and gets the car moving out of a traffic jam, so Paul doesn’t have to agonize too much in the car. Later on, he explains to Frank, who offers him a job at his side, that “I’m not muscle.” It’s true—he’s actually someone who really wants to care for others. But he hates this precise aspect of himself, and needs to feel secure before he can actually be so loving.

Frank is disappointed, of course, to hear this from Ray: he could use some muscle. He’s in the thick of indulging in all his old vices, having started on his vengeful path to regain his fortune two episodes ago. What’s increasingly clear is that this behavior is harder for him to justify, and it may soon cost him his wife. He rehearses a line to Ray that might justify even this: “Sometimes our best self is our worse self,” he says, trying to get Ray over to his dark side. It’s a revealing line as far as Frank goes. But what you quickly realize is that this is the fucked up logic that is actually claiming these characters’ lives. They hate themselves, and everything they think that is carrying them beyond their problematic pasts is in many cases just the result of them making that deal with the devil. It’s very liberating when you realize your best self might be someone no one would like, starting with you yourself: you don’t have to be accountable to anyone or anything.

And of course, when they screw themselves up believing this sort of thing, the only solace for these characters mired more and more in their old destructive habits is some sense of history: the sense that even these errors are, at least, improving on a remarkably shitty past. They were given a hard lot, they tell themselves, and at least they are making do with it. This episode only justifies this view of things, as the course of the investigation reveals connections between the mayor of Vinci and the weird self-enlightenment movements that took place in the 70s and 80s. Besides the location of a crooked pimp friend of Caspere’s named Amarillo, this is the major break in the case, which Ani and Ray discover through some weird detail about soil samples, a rather inexplicable trip up to Fresno, and another meeting with Ani’s guru dad. It is clearer and clearer that the case the cops will have to solve is a typical Gen-X fantasy: that the hippies fucked things up and are now in cahoots to screw over the nation. There is, of course, some truth to this, as there is in all fantasies. But especially right is the sense that because they’ve been so self-involved, there’s no recourse our otherwise able-bodied heroes—their sons and daughters—might go to for advice, for solace, other than self-destruction. These delusions at least don’t involve themselves in their parents’ delusions. We’re left cleaning up the mess of the me-generation, in short. It is also clear that more and more the show will end only when these characters will resolve what happened in those communes long ago, find out how much to blame this bizarre narcissistic generation of their fathers was, and thus how alone their more cynical generation really is in the world.

Ani has the most potential of the cops featured on the show to escape all of this self-destructive thinking, and to resist this pull of the Pizzolatto’s narrative. And so it’s especially frustrating to see her being caught inside it in this episode, with a bizarre sexual harassment investigation after her. She’s suspended from the department because of her flings with the patrol officer Steve who we saw her break up with in the last episode and—bit of a shocker here—her partner. It is clearly all a setup by the Vinci officials, who were angry she was snooping around in the Mayor’s house. And it shows a larger situation that she is dealing with, which is that she is working in a system that takes her vices and uses them against her. She’s not in such dire straits as Ray or Paul—though there’s some sense that she may be in the near future if she’s not careful.

The use of sexual harassment law against her, however, is a strange way for the show to actually put her in such a bind. It’s a little too clever by half. Ani’s problem here is hardly the creation of laws that supposedly can be used to discipline the very people it was meant to protect, which is what the show implies. It’s the culture and unequal structure of the institution in the first place—everything you see in that early shot in the first episode where Ani is alone in the locker room and all the guys are palling around in their own slapping towels. Making the sexual harassment to blame here is increasingly confirming the show suffers from litbro feminism: that typical mansplaining womens-rightsism full of empty self-effacing gestures, here meant to look progressive and respond to critics of the first, very bro-y series but which really only cover up some seriously regressive tendencies. To see sexual harassment law as some kind of fetter, rather than as an equalizing force, betrays the real attitude of this show to the law, which presumably should include the legal achievements of feminism: it thinks the law should be in the hands of cops, not legislators, who confuse its essentially disciplinary nature with enabling and liberating “values,” not least when these laws allow room for women’s desire.

What’s also bad about this bizarre twist of the law against Ani is to suggest that it’s Ani who is to blame for what happens to her. She’s not, of course, and the show makes it clear that her superior is really, infuriatingly patronizing when he suggests that “only someone fucked up would want to date a cop,” as Ani did. But there’s also, clearly, no option for her character in such a universe where such things happen–no other option than than to stifle her desire. It’s no accident, in other words, that the one moment we find it revealed that she expressed her sexuality, everything comes down to punish her. This narrative decision is so intent on proving some of the structural realities of oppression, it doesn’t really care about reflecting the experience of them, which would involve the depiction of something more than her desire’s dire consequences. Again, I’m left thinking that the show doesn’t give any screen time to women’s desire because it doesn’t know how to depict it other than as something that causes problems for Ani.

What the show does know how to depict, tellingly, is her impulsiveness—just like it knows how to depict this in all the men. That Ani calls the shots on going after the lead Amarillo makes the subsequent screwup all the more devastating for her. It’s of course amazing to watch, though we’re less certain of the point: the raid on the building, the slaughter of what seems like dozens of police and bystanders, the crash of the bus, the standoff with Amarillo that leads to his death. But what it also makes clear—besides just how much HBO can really produce something as impressive as any action movie—is that the show only really knows how to give dignity to her character by making her as fallible, if not more fallible, than a bunch of men. I guess that’s more accepting; but there’s a reason why it doesn’t entirely feel that way, too.

And this is why, to me, the show seems to increasingly stand or fall with what happens to Ani. There has to be a way for her to come out of this alive. What Molly Lambert said last week of Ani is (as usual) so right: there’s so much that Rachel McAdams brings to the character. There’s above all a sense of defiance of the fatedness that pollutes the narrative vision Pizzolatto has for his world here: she’s not, usually, making a choice between resignedness and self-destruction like the rest of the men. She’s choosing between survival and gambling. But I’m also increasingly sure that the show is not invested in any redemptive qualities any character might have, and maybe even sees them as a form of indignity—as something that the rest of the men in the story lack (think of Frank) but are more human (according to the show) for lacking. It seems determined to lay everybody low in a big storm of bullets like in that final shootout, and I’m not sure the character is going to escape this drift of things. Everything we may like in what McAdams gives Ani might have to be left behind as the show brings everyone further towards the inevitable dreary heavy-handed tragic conclusion.

True Detective, “Maybe Tomorrow”

I wrote a story once in college and I made sure nothing happened in it. It was for a fiction writing course. I wrote about a family having dinner. I kept all the action as minimal as possible so that when something happened it would blow everyone away. People passed the peas and the chicken, exchanged pleasantries, talked about their day. They exchanged glances, at the very most. I wanted to make it so uneventful that someone knocking over the salt shaker would seem like a bomb went off.

I had indeed a big shocker planned for the end, but the result, predictably enough, was that I put everyone asleep before I could get to it. The story ended up boring as hell. My writing professor sat me down and broke the news to me: writing a story in which nothing happens runs too contrary to the rules of storytelling. Moreover, unless you’re writing Seinfeld, the desire to write something about nothing, and to set the bar for what counts as action so low, stems from huge egoistic overreach: the conviction that, by some stylistic magic, you can transform the insignificant into the interesting. The hard truth is that what’s interesting is what’s interesting, and what isn’t, isn’t.

I wish someone would have given similar advice to Nic Pizzolatto, because this season of True Detective feels a lot like the story I wrote. These first three episodes seem like a deliberate attempt to turn the dial down to zero, so that nearly anything that happens later will seem revelatory. In these first three episodes we get so much background and tone and atmosphere. We get lots of sour glances exchanged between characters. But when we ask what has gone on, we still just have a dead body and no real sense of what happened to it or why. We’re just about as far along as that super self-congratulatory shot in the first episode of the cast being brought together, standing around that corpse. We’re asked in that shot — and increasingly, it seems, in the show as a whole — to accept that gathering a bunch of big name stars there around some mystery should be entertaining enough. The mystery itself isn’t important, and certainly not material for suspense.

Circling around in the first episode (Image: screencap)

One of the real appealing things about the first season, of course, was its slow tempo and the lengthy amount of time that the story took to unfold. But there was genuine suspense that attended this development, as well as two intensely well-developed characters to pique interest and make you ask questions between episodes. Furthermore, because the story was couched so much in the past, the dialogue it had with the present made any development interesting. Here, very little changes. By the end of this third episode, what do we know that we didn’t at the end of the first? We know a bit more about the histories of our characters, though very little about their personalities. We know a little more about a car. But that’s all. We’re basically still where we started.

Ray’s “murder” last week was really the only bombshell so far, and naturally it turns out it wasn’t anything at all. Resolving his father issues is too important to this show to let him go. We find him at the beginning of this episode splayed out on the floor, bleeding a little from his wounds. He has a rather unimaginative dream sequence. He’s talking in the bar with his fully uniformed cop of a dad. Conway Twitty — the internet has identified this Elvislike figure — is crooning under blue stagelights in the background. His dad tells him a dream he had, the singer behind and between them: a typically emasculating fable about how Ray, walking through a forest, will be eaten up by all the tall trees. Ray wakes up, he realizes he just got shot with some pellets used to disperse rioters. This opens up the possibility that the person behind the shooting had access to some cop gear, and so may also be a cop. That’s exciting, kind of. Except, you know, for the fact that there still are very few stakes still to this murder. The only people that seem to be hurt by it — the corrupt people who run Vinci — we don’t give a damn about. That it was committed in a rather gruesome way does nothing either: I can see plenty of weirder murders watching reruns of NCIS.

I guess getting shot a couple times is supposed to have made the case more personal for Ray, and that could count as a development. He foregoes whiskey for water “to stay angry.” He confronts Frank about whether the latter set him up. But nothing about his attitude really feels personal — this was a guy on the brink of suicide last episode, and in this one still doesn’t have a good response to a doctor who asks him whether he wants to live. Indeed, with Frank, it leads to some of the most unconvincing bits of “angry” dialogue I’ve probably ever heard:

Frank: There’s a certain stridency at work here. I’m going to put it off until you get blasted.

Ray: Oh frankly I’m apoplectic.

Frank: I’m feeling a little apoplectic myself.

And I’m feeling a little nauseous, hearing such things. They make you wonder whether the show is actually trying to sound like a film student wrote it.

They also make you wonder whether the show cares at all for its characters. It’s not the language that’s the problem in that dialogue, it’s that Ray isn’t a kind of guy who would correct Frank as to his use of the word “stridency.” I mean, c’mon. It’s no surprise then that we don’t get into Ray’s situation while he goes poking around on his medical leave for a few days after his injury. That his visit to his dad in real life, for instance, is entirely predictable. If we were looking for any clues as to why he screwed up his son, he just again delivers tired tropes talks about how good policing was in the old days, not like “after OJ,” when people started to tie their hands and generally take out their grievances on the poor white man. If this is all Ray had to deal with, well, I’m sorry. Buck up, Ray. Old bigoted white men have messed up bigger things in this country than your psyche. Also it doesn’t explain just how big a fuckup you are, either.

Ray’s problem, in fact, is actually more in the present. His ex-wife drops by again with a packet of money. She wants to convince him that having a custody battle isn’t a good idea. He’s offended, but she says she offers it mostly because people approached her from the attorney general’s office: they’re investigating him, and fairly certain he murdered the guy who raped her. The money is also to run away. But instead of delving into this, as usual, the show ignores this problem and lets Ray take some solace in grim policework, going with Ani to check on the car in which Caspere was left for dead. They find out it was stolen from a movie studio. And that’s all, folks, we get of Ray.

And as to the other characters, not much happens here either. Ani, still the most interesting character on the show, spends most of the episode pissing off the old white men. She visits the mansion of the mayor, pokes around, and tells a guy who seems to be taking care of the house to “dress himself.” Her snooping pisses off the mayor, of course, who yells at Ray about her. The only work she’ll have soon — this, besides the repetition of “fucking cunt,” is all that we get when it comes to witty insults and barbs — is “in a yoga studio.” Meanwhile the higher-ups behind the state’s attorney general’s Vinci probe tell Ani to keep at it, even to warm over Ray — with the promise of sex, if necessary — who they want to turn and use as a way to get more details about Vinci corruption. Being, it seems, the only really composed and competent person on this case is getting to her, and it shows in the rapidity with which she dumps her boyfriend, Steve. He says he wants to talk things over; she’s had enough of this weak whiny bullshit that passes for sensitivity only because of privilege. Again, this simply returns us to her very first scene in the opening of the first episode. And the larger struggles with Vinci mirror a dynamic she already played out then with her dad.

And as much as the show rehearses Ani’s frustrations, I’m starting to think this show likes showing men’s faces while they receive blowjobs even more. Frank’s face first appears in this episode while he is busy trying to fill a cup in the sperm bank and his wife is helping him out. Finally Kelly Reilly gets some lines in this show, as Frank starts implying the reason they can’t have a baby must be her: “why don’t you suck your own dick,” is the best thing that could be written for her, apparently.

Frank appropriately spends the episode in a funk. He goes around and leans on some people to get more cash. He also gets more inquisitive about what happened to the murdered city manager, Caspere. Things begin to get bad though when someone knocks off one of his henchmen. This gets him in trouble with the manager of his old club, who, when Frank goes around looking for what happened, doesn’t like the insinuations that they might behind it. Frank, for his part, doesn’t like people talking back to him even more. He beats the club manager to the ground and takes out his teeth with some pliers. As violent as moment is, for the rest of the episode it seems as if the ironic swagger he showed in the last episode was lost. We’re returned again to where we started here, too, watching him alternate despondent looks with glances of barely-concealed rage.

Paul at work (Image: screencap)

Paul, for his part, is hitting the streets to find out where Caspere got his girls. Ani in between vapes — which are always commented upon by the men in the car, as if it emasculates them — asks him about whether, because of his high-profile scandal with a star, he’ll be recognized or found out. He’s very sensitive about being exposed, not because he’s worried about compromising himself, but simply because he has a secret, which we find out when he meets up with an old friend from Iraq at a racecourse: Paul had a fling back in Iraq with the guy. Well. That certainly explains some things, first and foremost his confused blowjob face in the first episode. But it doesn’t do more than that. Confronted with the guy’s sentiment for the old days when they were together, he’s embarrassed, defensive, and runs away. While we got some new information here, it didn’t really alter the personality we saw in the first show.

When we start to ask what has gone on in this episode, then, it’s unclear until the end. And it’s seemingly by a coincidence that anything does happens at all. The birdman — or someone close to him, dressed in a different mask — burns the missing car right outside someone who was driving it. It’s a setup, or was supposed to be, until Ray and Ani see the flames and chase him — only to lose him in the end. The culprit inher sights, Ray pushes her to the ground, to avoid a truck coming down the offramp she’s standing on. She thanks him, and he asks what the state has on him: she doesn’t know, she replies.

That’s interesting. But it is also merely, again, reflective of that attitude of the first episode which assumes that if any two of these characters at all have a meaningful exchange of any sort it’s a game-changer. In the end, I’m left only with questions, and a lot of sympathy for what I put my professor through way back when. How many small bits of dialogue can these characters trade before something of significance comes out of them? How many miscommunications can they suffer before they communicate? How long can we watch people wade in self-destruction before something genuinely self-destroying occurs? How much lack of action can happen before some real action happens? Taking your time, setting the bar this low, is well and good. We just may not make it to the payoff. There’s a lot of other good TV out there, and not everyone is willing to stay and see whether this show is humming along at a slow burn or dying a slow death.

True Detective, “Night Finds You”

Well now. That was interesting. I didn’t go into this second episode of True Detective expecting Ray to exit the series, blasted away by a strange birdman on a tip about a house. Then again, I also didn’t expect such an entertaining episode.

It wasn’t just Ray getting shotgunned, twice, that made my day—or his, as it were. This was a good episode, developing all the characters and the plot, and generally picking up the pace. Overall, what the first series had going for it in terms of focus, this one has in terms of sheer quantity. Where the last episode felt needlessly disjointed, this one shows how much pinging around among the characters can work. Larger networks of complications come to be explored, and I’m generally interested now in seeing where everyone ends up going.

Not all of them are going to get there, apparently. Well, so be it. But that’s just the ending: let’s begin at the beginning. This is a recap, remember.

Vince Vaughn wins this episode. As much as it is Ray’s ending that is remarkable, it is Frank who dominates the action. Last week, it wasn’t exactly clear what he was. While he owned the town, there was a huge question of how much. Now we see how little this is. The house he has is double mortgaged. And it turns out the last of his liquidity was in the pocket of the dead Vinci City Manager, Caspere, waiting to be invested in the high-speed rail system. Now, that money is gone, and Frank’s lost everything: he’s cut out of buying into the development for the railroad, and lost the cash to boot. He’s screwed, in a tight place, exactly as impotent as, well, he actually is.

He explains this himself at the beginning of the episode. He sees two stains on the ceiling and feels like nothing in his life is real. The story’s obsession with fathers—who all seem, even in Ani’s case, to have screwed up their kids—continues: Frank tells a story of being beaten and locked in the basement for days. “Sometimes I wonder if I ever got out,” he says, looking at two stains on the ceiling, and complaining that the world is made of papier-mâché.

As far as that writing goes, it’s still a bit contrived, as usual. Vaughn does his best to bend it into something that goes somewhere where Pizzollato wants it to go, the location of which remains a bit of a mystery to me: I think he’s going for tawdry, in the end, here and later, especially in those hilariously bad lines about McAdams’ smoking a vape pen.

Regardless, Frank’s problems are bad, and the rest of the episode he goes on the warpath. It’s clear that now he needs Ray to solve this case, to find out who offed Caspere, because that man owes him five million and then some. He gets on Ray’s ass about it, and even does a favor for him by finding an address—the address that turns out to be the birdman’s house, funny enough.

In the course of his efforts to turn things around, Frank has two toughs clobber a guy, and then he walks over to him snarkily: “Jeez, what was that about? What’d you do to piss somebody off? Can you think of anything?” It’s this type of smartassery and irony that Vaughn can bring to a role, and which makes his comparative deadness in the rest of the series now appear interesting. When you see how excited he can be to break out of that basement, you’re beginning to get a sense of how deep his usual feeling of impotence goes—something deeper than the droll dialogue could tell you.

Frank is also taking things into his own hands because he doesn’t trust the efforts of our little ragtag group of heroes, who stand around the body of Caspere in the morgue, baffled. The State Attorney General decides to use them and the body’s location in the jurisdiction of Ventura Country to probe into corruption in the City of Vinci in general, and so has kept it from becoming a specifically Vinci case. Ray begins to suspect that they’re also simply staging something to cover anything up, and even confesses his obstructive role, “in the interest of transparency,” to Ani.But it isn’t clear.

Still, the murder is concrete enough to solve, even if the corruption isn’t. There’s the emasculating wound on the body, first and foremost, which we see in vivid detail. Everyone takes a slight step back upon seeing it. The most interesting character in the show, Ani, moves away slightly, but doesn’t, like Ray does, bat an eye. As she pursues leads throughout the show that have to do with Caspere’s frequenting escorts, she looks at porn and behaves similarly. Castration, penetration: there is nothing in the violence of these that is going to make her flinch, and Ray’s expectation that she would, at least in the one case, seems all the more bound up in his problems. I think the show is suggesting that we should think similarly about ourselves, too, in the second, which seems backwards. But I’m not sure yet: the show is so busy conflating sexuality and violence and vice in general, and so far has depicted female desire so thinly (as either longing for a hot hunk or for settling down), that it’s hard to parse what Ani’s stance actually is with respect to it all. We need more episodes to see.

In the process of her investigations though, she and Ray go casing places Caspere frequented: his house, which we’ve already seen, a creepy visit to a sunlit therapy center, where we’re informed Caspere suffered from “a painful past.” The result isn’t anything much, from an investigative point of view—indeed the investigation itself only proceeds in this episode through chance encounters and backchannel means. But in the course of Ani and Ray’s making their way around to Caspere’s various haunts we get the first inter-car talking-while-driving dialogue reminiscent of the last series.

Except it isn’t reminiscent of Rust and Marty, at all. Ray is self-defeating and stupid, Ani isn’t forthcoming. She smokes a vape pen. He makes a horrible joke about how not many people can pull off a ecig, though she does. For his part, it weirds him out: “a little too close to sucking a robot’s dick.” The dialogue is stilted and strange and uncomfortable. It is also relentlessly cold. The last series, Marty’s attempts to crack Rust were endearing but also just great pretexts for warmth and humor—not least when Marty would grow frustrated with him. This cast, by contrast, are rigorously trying not to touch or be touched by each other, or by anything. We watch them stay in their own worlds.

Ani’s coldness at least continues to be interesting. As thickheaded as he is, it doesn’t get by Ray that Ani has a knife strapped to her leg. She explains: being a woman in her line of work means being in a situation where any man can overpower you. That’s intolerable, maddening. “No man can walk around like that,” she adds.

Meanwhile Paul also retreats into himself. He does some work for the task force on the murder that’s been formed, turning up bank statements. But mostly he spends the episode leaving wherever he was—Malibu, I guess—and holing up in a hotel, nearer the investigation. He says his goodbyes, first to his mother, who, it turns out, is creepily incestuous! So, that’s something new. Then he ditches his girlfriend, making it incredibly clear that all this is her fault. But he is so passive aggressive because she wonders about his distance. Later, as he ogles rainbow-clad partygoers and a young man turning tricks from his hotel window, it’s clear: turns out to have all these girl troubles and conflicts because, well, he may be questioning his sexuality.

It’s a crude enough depiction of this questioning, and the link of it to his mother’s incestual longings doesn’t make his journey lose any taint of perversity. Again, by the crude logic of Pizzolatto’s brand of copland, a father’s to blame: she’s feeling him up on the couch, presumably, because, as she says, his father was never around. I’m still not sure where this character goes, but at least he’s not just the witless self-destructive former-Blackwater patriothunk he appeared to be in the first episode. Now he’s more on his own, and sees that solving the case could be a way back to his beloved bike. The question in this show remains, though, why characters’ struggles gain a kind of legitimacy only when they take up the burden of dealing with the legacy of their fathers.

This brings us back to Ray, who now is trying to be that father. He was supposed to meet his kid at the mall: instead he’s left standing with his ex in front of a Buffalo Wild Wings, pathetically holding a new pair of shoes he bought for the kid. She tells him she’s going to get sole custody. He shakes uncontrollably, reminds her of what he did for her, which was, long ago, on the tip from Frank, kill her rapist. She reminds him he didn’t have to do that, and he replies forcefully that he did, “by any natural law.” This is a world where all ties are artificial, where we long back for those past links to the natural. What’s interesting is that this feels a lot like mainstream crime writing: we might be witnessing one of the better pulpy detective fiction transfers to the screen, here. But that doesn’t make it any more satisfying.

Ray goes and meets Frank at the bar. All pumped up from his “investigation,” he can’t take Ray’s sour, sullen mood: confronted with his admission that he’s contemplating suicide, he simply says, in tones at once paternalistic but also simply beyond that sort of struggle, “I thought you were harder than that,” tells him never to speak of it again, and hands him the address that will lead him to his doom. Just as he is getting ready to leave, the bartender Felicia, played charmingly by Yara Martinez, sits down. She brushes her hair back, revealing a huge scar on her face, but doesn’t seem to care that it’s there—she’s beyond whatever trauma was involved. She suggests they could run away and have some fun together. Ray won’t have any of it. He’s too tired, he’s too trapped in his own struggles, those days are over. Choosing to see redemption simply as a kind of temptation, he gets up and goes to meet his fate.

It’s all over by the time he arrives: there’s a shot of the car in which we saw the City Manager being transported right outside the place. Frank pokes around and we enter a creepier place. He finds a huge pool of blood, the rack where presumably Caspere was tied up, and a camera, which is still on. But the man in the bird hat is already behind him, and just before he can draw his gun, blows him away.

What to make of this? It’s a tough time to be a TV character, apparently. We’re in an age of TV where we like to see them die as much as live. There’s something bizarre about this trend generally, but in True Detective especially: so much billing of Colin Farrell in this series, and then you get rid of him in the second episode? Really? The critics have been weirdly keeping up the possibility that he is alive. It’s certainly a way to make me tune in same time next week.

But at what expense? There’s nothing to the murder, no motive—Frank didn’t set this up, clearly. It’s just this masked man. All that matters for the story, really, is who is behind the mask. This is an appearance of some abstract and unclear kind of evil, then, a creepy killer like the first series. But evil, it turns out, is just not as creepy when he comes in blasting. Everything is too quick, too fast, too unexplained to be truly menacing, to make me even wonder about his identity, his motive. At most the death, like many things in the new series, it feels like just another thing to respond to and/or screw with critics, or with any sense of our expectations. The one real link to the last show, a brooding heterosexual male detective character who can’t get his act together, is done away with. Fine, I guess. But the question still remains, where is this show going then? As it stands, the death feels more like a freak accident than a twist.

A few notes:

Flashbacks: The show is doing a thing where it will take a scene, cut away and show some background, and then reinsert itself back into the scene. It’s almost as if Pizzollato can’t tell his story without filling in background, going backwards as well as forwards. History seems to matter a lot, though he doesn’t like filling it out fully.

Cliché, again: People made a lot of the clichés and bad dialogue in the last series, but I actually thought it was generally palatable. Maybe that’s because it was more interesting when delivered in an irresistible drawl over a steering wheel in the hot sunny swamps. There’s something just so compelling about even the pointless remarks of Rust that saves it from being cliché, and turns it into campy exuberance. Here, not so much. There’s something almost revolting about the idea of a campy detective dialogue in the back and forth Ray and Ani have over her “robot penis” vape pen. Something interesting is happening with Ray in this episode: we see a little more of just how insecure his masculine insecurity is. I’d personally have liked to see this explored, so I hope by some fiat of some sort that he comes back. But I think that’s about it.

Hippies: There’s something in this show about hippies. It’s about as obsessed with them as Justice Scalia, and mentions them just about as randomly. Even the mayor of Vinci is one. Or was at one moment. Speaking of his coked-up son, whom Ray apparently scooped up one night, he calls him in some strange Eastern metaphysical parlance “a destroyer.” And continues: “In my day it was about consciousness expansion.” The me-generation apparently is finding it tough in going in today’s California. People are too self-involved even for them. Later, Ani and Ray go up to the treatment center, which mostly deals in superficial wounds: plastic surgery.  Ray says something all these crumbling flower children might appreciate, speaking to Ani about the industrial waste dump the Mayor and his cronies have made of Vinci: “I tend to think you get the reality you deserve.”

Ray, again: I’m sorry to see Ray go, if he really indeed goes. I was starting to like him. His hapless line, “I support feminism by having body image issues,” is so unutterably bad. But it would have been interesting to see him pursue this strange self-defeating, self-victimizing attitude in dialogue with Ani more. Men’s ability to be self-deluding and to play the victim of women’s liberation knows really no bounds.

True Detective, “The Western Book of the Dead”

So, we have True Detective again. The much anticipated series is back and as brooding as ever. Except instead of mystical conundrums and serial killers in the sultry Louisiana sun, we get a fairly straightforward police procedural in the heart of LA. And instead of two buddy cops confronting a mysterious horror, we get a trio of very different people swept up in a wide-ranging case of corruption and rather standard-issue vice. Not the same at all, though it keeps the same name. The venture represents a huge investment of HBO in a production team to pull off something amazing. Did they?

Not yet, I think is the right judgment. But I’m willing to wait for things to come around.

The doubts many had at the end of the last season (after seeing the rather trite ending to that remarkable story) resurface here: Pizzollatto may just have lucked into something amazing last year, and when given free reign actually messes things up as much as he turns things into magic. But that’s as much as anyone does, of course, and while he’s perhaps not the genius he was promised to be, his skill in creating entertaining drama still manifests itself in the new series.

The first episode mostly spends time introducing us to the characters, starting with detective Ray Velcoro, a raging fuckup ably played by Colin Farrell. He’s at school, visiting his kid, doing due diligence so he can hopefully regain custody of him. Already the insecurities are apparent, as he tells the kid to “be proud” in a way that tries way too hard and watches, furiously, other boys make fun of his shoes as if an insult to his kid were an insult to him.

There’s nothing deep about these problems: they’re brutal scars and personal traumas—his wife was raped—that have ruined his life for him. Rust, by contrast, looked like Wittgenstein, was a genius who also happened to be a crack cop, and who came close to getting by on all this, living the good life to boot. He was damaged by loss, but then also made near mad. A strange combination of his own talent and tragedy that befell him. His problems were real, but they were also brought on himself, when they were brought on himself, in a noble way. Ray doesn’t quite do this. Something about him is more controlling, more brutal, but also weaker too, and his actions aren’t noble but simply compensatory: he later goes to the bully’s house and, in a glorious moment of Freudian craziness, makes him watch as he takes brass kunckles to the boy’s father.

As far as his talents as a detective go, they seem to amount merely to a willingness to compromise himself. He bends over backwards for a corrupt police department, that of the toxic industrial wastland of Vinci (a kind of grosser Carson). He’s only an average true detective, in other words, and none of his investigative work actually does anything to make up for the screw-ups in his life. This almost might make his redemption, if he ever has any, more satisfying. Still, it’s in the future: for now, he is stuck investigating the disappearance of the sex-addict City Manager, and passing along inside information to Frank Semyon, a dirty gangster who tipped Ray off long ago about the identity of the rapist.

We don’t really see much of Frank in this episode, though he’s a much more compelling character—largely due to Vince Vaughn, who plays him. Frank’s got a good life, and has made enough money through vice and corruption to get along comfortably. But he still seems to be low on the totem pole when it comes to playing power politics at the scale he would like to be. This may be because of his high ideals: he is proposing a huge business scheme to buy up land alongside a new high speed rail system to San Francisco, not for himself, but for his kids. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have any, and complains (to Ray) that it’s likely he won’t be able to. Maybe those with less scruples about the future are willing to seize more of the present. This impotence seems, however, to keep him driving forward in his minor schemes, and there’s something appealing about how he doesn’t lose sight of some high ideals, though he’s willing to compromise all the others. Vaughn has the right qualities to convey this strange mix of hope and desperation. For now though, there’s not much for him to do with it: Frank just seems to keep Ray busy, and to see hints of the sly machiavellianism by which he’s managed to get Ray in his pocket, after initially saying that giving him the name of the rapist was simply a favor, is the most entertainment we really get out of his character in this first episode.

If you like seeing frustration like his though, you’re in for more of a treat. Frank isn’t the only one with situational hangups: there is, too, Antigone Bezzerides, played by Rachel McAdams, of the Ventura County CID. She’s seemingly stuck cleaning up the messes of men, but she prefers it to the life of pointless permissiveness initially offered by her father, a new-age guru. In fact, she sees that permissiveness as far from pointless: she believes it is corrupting, all that talk of free love she was fed turning her sister, for example, into a camgirl. Patrolling the farms around Ventura County, and busting a camera operation in some farmhouse outside Oxnard or Somis, she actually finds her sister there, and gives her a stern talking-to and even makes her cry.

This is satisfying, but also disturbing. What McAdams stands behind is clearly the law, and its superiority to the lawless exercise of desire. The way she’s applying this law seems to be with a particular attention to policing (literally) sexuality. But it isn’t clear yet whether she is staging a pseudo-feminist complaint in a pro-sex world than revisiting her childhood, which is what her sister accuses her of. She is so tough with her sister because, well, there is a strong sense that her father’s values screwed everyone up. This might be a more retrograde motherly impulse than it appears, then, even if she tells her father herself—who explains this to her—that this reading of things is wrong. But then again, also retrograde is the anti-sex angle, which is the sort of perverse dilemma I presume the show is trying to stage. It’s not clear what is going on with McAdams, in short: the show has set up too many feints to be able to judge this, its greatest intervention into the formula of the original series, in advance. What is clear is that sex in the show in general is bad, and even more than that sex and free love is the opposite of policing: this might be, like a certain strand of detective fiction you can find in paperback, and very much unlike the first series, a very pro-cop show. And Ani’s general suspicion of it all might be just her playing her role in the values of the larger world she inhabits.

Frustration with sexuality is also what’s hounding Paul Woodrugh, a CHP officer played by Taylor Kitsch. He’s suspended after getting a blowjob from a starlet he busts for reckless driving out on PCH. But if sex appears at first a vice of his, an indulgence, wait until you see him at home, or rather at the home of his hookup buddy Emily (Adria Arjona). She practically tears his pants off, but he retreats to the bathroom. Later he ditches her to ride out on his bike, turns his headlamp off, to see how stupid he can be while showing to the world he’s divided on the issue. Sex! Yes? No? Let’s be self-destructive while we decide. Of course it’s an internal problem or dilemma of some sort, but we don’t know its origin yet or any real reason for it. So we’re left watching his face flap in the wind.

All this character introduction is well and good, then, but feels flat without a plot. All we get of this, throughout the episode, is a car with the City Manager’s body in it, driven by a dude with a crow mask. The car is on its way to Mugu Rock, where the body is dumped. Paul, on his bike, happens to skid off the road right where it is sitting, and calls 911. Ray is called out from Vinci, Ani because the body is found in Ventura County, and Paul, well, because he found it. They all stand around the body—and we zoom and fade out.

So everyone is brought together, basically, because of a dude in a crow mask killing a City Manager who blows a lot of money on sex parties. Will the show generate obsessive internet speculation over the man’s identity? I doubt it: he isn’t menacing enough to really be interesting, yet. Something falls flat about it, and about the whole episode. But it’s a serviceable first introduction to a new, highly sexually-frustrated and family-unfriendly world here, and Pizzollato seems to like to move slowly. Maybe there’s enough interest in that world to keep things at work for a while, in the absence of any real mystery or detection.

I’ll tune in next week, but in the meantime, here are some general notes:

Evil. What the hell happened to evil? The first show was so striking not for serial killers, mysticism, Louisiana, Nietzsche and nihilism, but their total combination, and the ability of this to suggest that evil was afoot and incarnate, roaming around on a riding mower. A victim wasn’t just another victim: it was a cosmic tragedy, and was something two strange buddies had to rectify. The show, at its best, was actually an experiment of combining a detective story with the horror genre, the sense that the world was actually a different and much more fearsome place than the one we think. Of course, it was only in the last episodes that we really realized how very much of a buddy comedy it was, too: the type of show where Marty can get hit in the chest with an axe and of course doesn’t die. But the point is that this was how the show made what felt like a genuine approach and revival of noir. Instead of the steely Philip Marlow indifference towards the dead as just another byproduct of society, the true detective was consumed by otherworldly forces that seemed to will wrongs to happen. That is completely gone in this new series. Utterly. Totally. What we’re given instead is a procedural. And so the most interesting element of the title—probably the only real reason for using the same series name—is also gone.

The milky lady in the City Manager’s apartment: Woah. What was that. It looked real. But then we find out it somehow is just another part of the dildo decor. I’m not sure if it is. Alan Sepinwall, as so often, had the best line on this: this was the opening of a door, only to shut it again. It felt like a mockery of everything mystical the first show involved, the way Rust’s hallucinations made the weirdness of the killer strangely more a part of the creepy insane world we were inhabiting. In that respect was very much like many elements of the show—such as the tape recorder Ray uses to talk to his son—which seemed to deliberately want to signal continuity only to reveal it to be a point of departure.

Narrative: The narrative is deftly put together. Pizzollato is, remember, the guy who put together most of the last series through retrospective narration, intercut with the present, and was responsible for one of the biggest yelps of joy my mouth ever produced when he brought his story into the present. Unlike some things that seemed excellent in the first series, this can only be pulled off with skill. Now, with a lot to juggle, and three characters to keep track of, the first episode moves along with surprisingly little effort, introducing us to people and a whole new world, at the same time as laying the groundwork for the rest of the show which will have them them together. I was impressed. Say what you will, the pacing is still great, and with that dead eyeless man driving through the whole story, the thruline is excellent. It could have been a little more suspenseful, yes, but no first episode of a series like this could probably pull that off. The shot of all three detectives that is the first episode’s culmination is a bit over the top, a little too triumphant—as if the story were saying, Hey! Yes! We pulled it off! They’re all here!—but the whole show is always over the top.

The direction: The direction seemed good. Some nice scenes of the ocean particularly. It’s not the first series, and remains throughout strangely imitative of that first show. Should this be the case?

The setting. L.A. is not La. When I first heard the show would be taking place in the north suburbs of Los Angeles, and that the Ventura County Sheriff would be involved, I was excited. I grew up around there. It’s a land of farms dotted with oil fields, dirt and dry grass next to the beaches. Something could be done with this that was similar to what the first series did, only now it’d look maybe like a mix of the Southern California of There Will Be Blood and Collateral. But then most of this episode was set in and around Vinci, which seems merely to be the industrial crud of Carson or somewhere nearby. This is disappointing, since it offers nothing of the sense of strandedness and isolation that is involved in the first series: indeed, the landscape was just as much a part of the show as anything else. There is still a lot of driving, but Ray also gets a parking ticket. The location, in short, is part of a much more social world than the last series, full of anything but lonely, empty plains and hidden, twisted communities that we came, weirdly, to enjoy traversing—though there is a sex cam shack hidden, rather improbably, in the middle of an Oxnard farmhouse. The episode ends at Mugu Rock, north of Malibu, however, and traverses a lot of PCH, so perhaps more action will take place along that strip.

Antigone: McAdams’ character Ani was easily the most appealing character in the show. She didn’t have the fucked up charm of Woody Harrelson, but she has something similar. She’s wound too tight on the one hand but also likes what it turns her into. She suffers no fools. But this toughness also seems like a weakness, and in that respect is just like the toughness of all the male characters on the show. It may be too close to father’s day, but I couldn’t help but feel that the confrontation with her father ended up attributing this disposition to his treatment of her, even when the scene was meant to prove the opposite. Her hippie dad (played by David Morse) doesn’t want to impose values on her, even accuses her of having a daddy-complex; she tells him to blow off, but ends up obsessed with values all the same, and isn’t afraid of telling people about them. There was a short shot of all the men roaming around naked in the locker room, contrasted with her putting her gear on by herself, which seemed genuinely interested in her lonely position on the mostly-male police force. But her emasculating conversation with her boyfriend was much more interesting, and seemed to be where the show really is concerned with her: “now’s not the time you want to talk about this,” she says to him when he wants to bring up something about “the relationship.” That’s not just straightforward, that’s right, and shows her toughness comes from a moral obsession as well as a knowledge of what commitment to any higher ideal means. Her dressing down of her sister, too, who she finds working in that strange sex cam house in the fields, is almost entirely in terms of a struggle to live life in terms of higher ideals. It may be that the show can really only get at her situation as a woman by seeing it as a moral one. Still, that’s more than the first show did with any woman, and it’s an interesting angle. Whether it makes her more like the boys, will be the question.

Flappy-face Kitsch and the ridiculousness of male drama. Men, on the other hand, are as ridiculous as ever. Colin Farrell seems serious enough to respect as a character. But oh Taylor Kitsch, what the hell are you doing here? Do you have a role? All you do is apparently screw hot women and then get angry about it. I’m really not certain what the hell he is here for. The scene of him on the bike, oh my. And his line about America. I’m perfectly willing to love the cliché in this writing: what are detective stories but clichés after clichés, well worn formulas that manage to turn out different each time. But “we fought for America”—a reference, I presume, to some sort of service with his higher-ups in Iraq—is something delivered in passing, it’s too pathetic an appeal even to be mocking. And so, in that flappy face of his on the motorcycle, we find really what’s going on: something trying to be too serious.

The music and the tone. I couldn’t help cringing a little throughout the show whenever I heard the music: those creepy strains were too serious for the sunny and generally cliché content. For some reason, the show has everyone always wondering how to address clichés. We’re more sensitive now about how the presence of cliché can reinforce things as much as play with them, because we understand well how postmodern irony and unseriousness can also be used to further agendas. There’s a way that the clichés of True Detective are a little too tortured. Vinci? Ray Velcro-I-mean-Velcoro? They sound like B-movie names. Maybe that’s what Pizzolatto is going for. But the truth is, we are willing to accept clichés now on TV when they’re a matter of psychology, when they explain behavior, not only because then we’re free not at all to participate in them, but because this gives them some clear purpose. So I can clearly say Ray’s beating the bully’s father figure is so over the top, and so classically, hilariously Freudian, it’s probably the best part of the first episode. But I feel certain in saying that only because it is also done by someone who I can also dismiss as a horrible asshole. When the whole show is cliché, we don’t have the same freedom to pick and choose what seems camp and what seems simply over the top, what’s simply play and what is trading in and reproducing well-worn and ugly ways of viewing the world. Making us guess like this is a way of restoring freedom to an author, though.

The Shook Twins at The Old Church

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Photos by ronitphoto

Katelyn and Laurie Shook litter the stage with stuff like it was a kid’s bedroom. On the old altar of The Old Church last Thursday, April 30, was a golden telephone, a banjo, guitars, a xylophone, music stands for a string trio, and giant golden egg.  They advertised their name on a Lite-Brite.  As the audience filed back into the renovated and repurposed pews, they may not have felt certain about the relation between any of these things.

But as soon as the identical twins from Idaho came on stage and began to play with them, the point of all these objects was more than clear. The phone, the egg (which turned out to be a giant shaker): these things were indeed as much toys as finely tuned instruments—with all the fun that implies. In the sister’s hands, they had been released of any trace of gearhead bravado threatens to produce so much of an indie folk band’s sound, and make a crowd wonder about just how authentic it can be. Ornamenting their crisp, beautiful voices everything on stage became instead a private, fanciful plaything everyone was now invited to witness and hear about.

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Everything came from a space of their own invention, in which they moved easygoing and carefree.  The twins played with their instruments and intertwined their voices in a siren-song that stole the crowd’s heart; they swayed in their skirts, wooing the church into their world through the easy grace of their own imaginative attachments.

Their world is one of sweet joys snatched up in hard climes. These can be comfortable escapes from frontier dilemmas, as in one of the first songs they struck up for the toe-tapping crowd, “Potter’s Daughter”: an antiquated tale of a father soothing his daughter’s worries about not being pretty enough to marry a local boy.  But they also focus on the half-imaginary delights of contemporary life in the Wild West, as in “What We Do,” from their new album of the same name (their third, made with producer Ryan Hadlock): “We got campfire songs in mason jars / Love lost ones tattooed on our arms … We got the fear of people dying knockin at our door / but that’s what we leave behind.” “Awhile,” the album’s highlight, is even more carefree, regarding the hesitations of two just-met lovers with a full-throated and joyful recognition that they’re just a trick of the mind more love might solve.  “I can tell baby this one’s going to be good / Stop thinking ‘bout the end when it’s just beginning / Hold my hand to make your head stop spinning.” As the sisters sang words like these beside a banjo with its little pop-country twang, it made everyone loll along.  They both shook a shaker or two and strummed each other’s instruments; the audience (and a few children, too) danced in the aisles.

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It is a world that sometimes seems like our own, sometimes doesn’t. But the similarity is not the point. The point is that there is so much fun to be had in singing like this, and the twins so clearly like seeing how much can be had. Especially when they probe the pioneer imagination’s creepier depths and play with the gothic visions of preacherly hellfire. Their song “Shake” channels the voice of a backwoods pulpit in its talk of “truth time coming.”  It tells the tale of a married couple beset by troubles while the rich move in and profit, and the dulcet tones of their voices together conceal a vengeful glee that the devil will soon be at work against our enemies.

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This was even more the case when in the Old Church they summoned the fire and brimstone spirit in “Daemons.”  The simple lyrics alone don’t convey just how haunting these two weird-sisters, in one voice that was really two, two voices that was really one, made of them: “The demons have come to introduce themselves / They’ve come to make a home inside ourselves,” they sang. “And they’ve come to battle / And they’ve come to win.”  Amidst strange pops and plucks wrung out of their guitars, and the strange devilish drawl of string—all sorts of ornamental, decadent sounds don’t, in the cool light of reason, seem like they’d be anything other than comic—the audience heard the sisters thunder out a warning to them: “Ahhh, discipline! / Don’t let them win!”

Growing up in Idaho, the twins didn’t know they were going to form a band, let alone an indie folk pop band.  But they did know they were going to sing.  Everything they did Wednesday reflected this lifelong confidence in not just one but two voices, around which they have assembled a talented group of players and new friends, having relocated to Portland.  But that the sisters could give stuff this dark an element of playfulness was yet another feat of the immense sense of fun they brought to the stage—and testified to a quietly clever sense of the enjoyments available in such a space.  After they finished, they laughed it all off and rummaged around for the things needed for their next song.

Hitchcock/Truffaut

My scheme to write weekly on my reading was almost thwarted. Nipped in the bud. You see, I didn’t read much this week but instead watched a ton of movies. I’ve been wanting to revisit a lot of Hitchcock, as Michael Wood’s amazing new book on him is out. And, well, one thing led to another, and I got to using all my spare time not looking at words but looking at the screen.

I’m not one to really impose a distinction between seeing and reading, and was thinking about writing on the films themselves here. But then I began looking at a related book, and so the issue became moot. And really, how couldn’t I have picked up, at some point, Francois Truffaut’s legendary 1966 book on Hitchcock, built up out of his 1962 interviews of the director?

The book has actually become the subject of a movie in its own right by Kent Jones coming out soon. As that will probably show — in its numerous interviews with famous directors like Spielberg, Scorsese, et. al. — the book has attained the status of a bible of filmmaking and become a repository of wisdom that, rightly understood, initiates one into the secrets of the great filmmaker and about film in general.

But, it should be said, this is not just because it contains the lengthiest reflections of most amazing director in film history on his own films. The book is so important because of the thoroughness of Truffaut’s attempt to make himself understand, to make the reader understand, and even to make Hitchcock himself understand — Hitchcock.

This effort extends from the introduction — which presents Hitchcock as the best example of the auteur filmmaker — to the innumerable stills throughout the book which isolate techniques and take apart entire scenes and sequences. Because Truffaut is so thorough, we get nearly all the major theories behind Hitchcock’s work, or as Hitchcock calls them, “generalizations:” the theory of the MacGuffin, understanding surprise vs. suspense, etc.

Along the way, too, we get happenstance profundities like this:

“To me one of the cardinal sins for a script-writer, when he runs into some difficulty, is to say, ‘We can cover that by a line of dialogue.’ Dialogue should simply be a sound among other sounds, just something that comes out of the mouths of people whose eyes tell the story in visual terms.”

That’s utterly brilliant, and brilliant in a way that Hitchcock is consistently throughout the book. It starts out with a pat consideration of the necessaries of a person’s job in a particular film. It’s perspectivised, in the way that Hitchcock always perspectivised things: Hitchcock naturally talks of the cardinal sins “for a script-writer,” and not one of the sins “of script-writing,” as he might well have done. The implication is that the fault is a fault for a person, and that as such, it is not only wrong in general, but it keeps him from his goal. It’s not a broad statement about what every script should be like: it doesn’t deal in absolutes that imply scripts can be dialogue-free.

And yet it then proceeds to something more general: dialogue should be just a sound. But even here Hitchcock is strangely concrete. The generalization carries its point not just because it is general, but because it is perverse: dialogue just happens to come out of the mouths of people, and it should be that way. There is a comprehension of the way things should be which, rather than critiquing the way all scripts are written, aims to get you to understand the way things could be nearly the opposite of the way you naturally look at them. It’s like when Hitchcock says that James Stewart in Vertigo is essentially a necrophiliac. You see immediately what he means, and how it appeared nearly the opposite of what we thought was normal. Hitchcock is confident about his own tastes even when they smack of perversity precisely because he knows they can show things are otherwise than they seem.

But getting Hitchcock to dispense such brilliance isn’t just due to Truffaut’s genius for interviewing. It is in many ways the result of the circumstance, which, like a true filmmaker, Truffaut works hard to exploit. There is, first, the fact that everything has to be translated from French to English, English to French, for the interview to even begin. This imposes a concreteness on everyone’s language: “generalizations” of any sort be only so general and have to take liberties that allow them to make sense in another language. At the same time, Hitchcock’s responses have to be direct, but can also become detailed in ways he couldn’t be elsewhere: he’s addressing a fellow-filmmaker, interested in the techniques, the money, things like that, just as much as any broad thematic questions, and the temptation for Hitchcock with someone like this across the table is to make the most of this.

And then just the nature of the interview format itself. Take this instance: in talking about the underwhelming Under Capricorn (1949), Hitchcock states how “infantile,” “juvenile,” and “stupid” he was for getting Ingrid Bergman for the thing (more for the reason that he wanted to run around arm and arm with her at premiers, rubbing the fact that he got the most popular actress in America in the noses of all the rest of the directors), and for not getting the right writer.

Hitchcock says that all this was some reason for the failures of the film:

For the director there should be no question on this one matter: whenever you feel yourself entering an area of doubt or vagueness, whether it be in respect to the writer, the subject matter, or whatever it is, you’ve got to run for cover. When you feel you’re at a loss, you must go for the tried and true!

But then Truffaut does not let it stand at that. He comes right back with: “What do you mean ‘to run for cover’ under ‘the tried and true?’”

And this pushback allows Hitchcock to get more specific, more creative, more direct, to say more of what he means, to expand: if you’re lost in a forest, he continues, you don’t just light out in the fastest direction, nor do you rely on blind intuition to help you out of the bind. You go right back to where you know you were, the path you got lost from, and find your way out:

I mean literally, that whenever there is confusion or doubt in your mind, the first thing to do is recover your bearings. Any guide or explorer will tell you that.

As much as filmmaking is about making something out of uncertainty, certainties — about what people like, about popular taste, about human nature and what it wants to see, about what you’ve done in the past that works — have their use too.

This may well be an instance of a Frenchman’s tedious need for logic and intellectual precision here. But, even more than that, it it issues simply from the fact of dialogue: the fact that any of Hitchcock’s statements is not the pronouncement of one person but issues from a need for another person to understand. The pushback it meets allows greater play with the concepts involved, to see even Hitchcock’s concrete words not as the final word on anything but as just another step in describing a long process.

All this makes the book more than just a key to Hitchcock or a sort of confession of all the professional tricks he employs: it becomes, the more you read it, a way to understand filmmaking as a process in dialogue with itself, as exploratory conversation. It makes you realize that even Hitchcock does what he does in order to try and be able to think with it and through it, add to what he is doing. That it is more than just a kind of formal invention or new artistic method applied to material, but a genuine mode of inquiry into things. That in doing what it does, it’s already asking questions, about art and also about life.

Hitchcock’s remark about how total plausibility just leads to documentary — something he comes back to continually while asserting that the essence of his films is suspense and not mere surprise — reflects this, and shows the other side of that point about what to do when you’re lost. Though you need certainties, you only really need them when you’re out breaking new ground. Otherwise you’re not really going anywhere.

Castellanos Moya, The Jinx, etc.

More news: my piece on Castellanos Moya is up at The Millions, and I tried out Medium for a post on the crazy finale of The Jinx.

Upcoming: a look at John Benditt’s new book The Boatmaker, and I’m beginning work on a review of the Joseph Mitchell biography.

Recent news

I have a new piece at the JHIBlog, the blog of the Journal of the History of Ideas, a great space for engaging as well as rigorous thought.  I hope to maybe contribute something there also in the future.

Coming up soon, I’ll have a review of Horacio Castellanos Moya at The Millions.  I think it’s the most fun I’ve had writing a review.

Then, I’m writing a piece on the new biography of Joseph Mitchell, Man in Profile, by Thomas Kunkel, which the New Yorker has been making so much hay about this last year.  I’m not sure where it will appear yet.

Then there are some pieces on Lionel Trilling, which I will post here, Edward Mendelson’s new book, and Jonathan Franzen’s recent remarks on morality.

And some writing on old films I’ve been watching and rewatching lately: Double Indemnity, Passage to Marsaille, The Long Goodbye.  I’ll be starting a little movie review section here, too: Citizenfour will be up next.

Also hopefully I’ll be getting some reviews of the BBC’s adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall out when it hits our shores in April.

D’Angelo’s questions

“Questions that call to us, we all reflect upon / Till it’s done,” D’Angelo says on Black Messiah—a new note, exploring a sonic space I haven’t heard before from him or anyone in recent music, really: a space where there are questions, where we are in dialogue with thought and reflection.  As much as the album is steeped, drenched, dripping in past forms, instruments from the past, sounds from the past and ways of singing from the past, it’s this searching attitude that seems to come from the future of music and invade our present.  D’Angelo is saying something more than that we currently have unresolved issues, that there are questions.  He is saying that we may not even know where the questions come from.  That we have to inquire into even the origin of the questions.

The song in which D’Angelo sings these words, “Till It’s Done (Tutu),” is a dour one, lamenting the inaction of the present on issues like climate change (“Carbon pollution is heating up the air / Do we really know?  Do we even care?”), the economy (“Clock ticking backwards on things we’ve already built…”), and war, against enemies and against our own population (“Sons and fathers die, soldiers, daughters killed…”).  And behind the entire album is the inaction about the plight of black lives, brought to the fore by the shooting of Michael Brown—the event which prompted D’Angelo to release the album early, to give a soundtrack to protest.  In his performance on SNL at the beginning of this month, there was the outline of a body in chalk on the stage.  Against this discouraging backdrop, we have to wonder whether the questioning coming out of this music really gives us any solutions.  Whether questioning may be, actually, a waste of time, as some people might argue.  Or whether, as I think, it is the only thing that may get us through the present.  The album gives no answers: it proceeds as if music can be open ended about even this.  In the hurried rush up to the release of the album, in the teeth of the protests in Ferguson, D’Angelo is said to have been fretting on how the album was too tightly constructed.

He need not have fretted too much, because one of the pleasures of the album is that it is so complex, fraught, and layered, despite just how completely wild, completely free, it sounds.  Everything in the music attests to the idea that dreamy textures, elaborations and commentaries of which it is composed can only coexist in a rich and varied texture, painstakingly put together using (the liner notes say) nearly all analog equipment.  The album traverses a huge amount of musical space: beginning with its opening Hendrixy feedback on “Ain’t That Easy,” it moves into the hambone ragtime of “Sugah Daddy,” the flamenco guitar of “Really Love,” passes through the deep spacey funk of “Till It’s Done (Tutu),” and ends up in the spiritual reverberations of the closing number, “Another Life.”  This is a long way to travel—too long for some critics, like Robert Christgau—but it also makes the album an open-ended business, producing open-ended sounds.

The vocals on this album are where questions arise most, however.  Exquisitely coordinated and harmonized, they also do the most work of blurring lines, creating the album’s experimental atmosphere. D’Angelo has always enjoyed singing with accompaniment.  Early on, on Brown Sugar, it was mostly women, in the style of much hip-hop at the time.  On Voodoo, it was himself in layered harmonies, or interspersed with guests.  Here, it is other men (and a few women), his band members, and this collective voice this produces is unlike all the others.  From the first line of “Ain’t That Easy,” we hear a diverse and almost motley assortment of singers, all with radically different pitches, all with radically different personalities, all at once.  The effect is to blur the edges of the lyrics: the voices don’t form a harmony so much as gradate a single utterance, forming a stream of song and sung words.  Furthermore D’Angelo himself doesn’t have as much recourse to his own distinctive falsetto crooning: he’s much more willing to mumble, change pitch abruptly and awkwardly, change everything, in fact, and inhabit other moods, statements—sometimes different songs.  The result is to undermine completely the figure of D’Angelo as the sexy solo poet, the talented maestro leading a faceless set of strings in “Cruisin,” his 1995 hit. The lyricism is collective, almost disturbingly so, when different voices seem to emerge from one.  It is all tightly controlled, tightly managed, and yet we get the sense that what we are listening to is less a clear set of statements, views, and opinions, and more of a dialogue and debate, an unfolding of a choral self-interrogation about the nature of speaking up and speaking out as a black artist, as black artists.  What we witness is a kind of community—in all its similarity and difference, its wild, seemingly unfocused energy.

Seemingly—because this is also a community of voices clearly on the move as one. The first song, “Ain’t That Easy,” is, like many of the tracks, a love song which is also a dialogue with the listener’s conscience.  It asks a lover to follow him on a journey, and it asks the listener to do the same: “Take a toke of smoke from me as you dream inside / Let your days slip away come with me and ride…”  But it doesn’t plead or beg, so much as show this temptation to be as inevitable as a historical force: “You can’t leave me… Just stay, when I want you to stay… You need the comfort of my loving.” The title—also the main refrain, “It ain’t that easy / To walk away”—is stating a reality, confronting its interlocutor with some harsh facts: though it’s tempting to leave, though it’s tempting not to keep on marching forward, it ain’t that easy to give up, to disassociate yourself.  The situation this puts us in is embattled: to leave, to put the album down, to not listen, to not think, to refuse to ask questions… this is not just to walk away into some safe space. There is no safe space.  Non-involvement is itself a kind of involvement; you’re committed even if you are non-committal, perhaps precisely then.  It’s this fact which every voice seems to acknowledge on the album, and that makes them march in step, even in their independence from each other. D’Angelo is explicit about this in his explanation of the title of the album: he does not want to suggest he sings as a leader.  “Some will jump to the conclusion that I’m calling myself a Black Messiah,” D’Angelo says in the liner notes.  “For me, the title is about all of us.  It’s about the world…. Black Messiah is not one man.  It’s a feeling that, collectively, we are all that leader.”

Of course this is wonderfully vague.  “Collectively, we are all that leader,” can mean that all of us, each of us individually, is a leader; it can mean that when we are together, collectively, we are all the same leader, the leader D’Angelo also says we all can “aspire to be;” it can mean, most confusingly, that we are all leaders, but only when we are together, that forming a mass together turns us into leaders.  It is unclear what exact dynamics of group action the album has in mind.  It’s unclear also why D’Angelo would invoke such a powerful image of a leader in the first place, if he is just going to turn around and deny its importance, and himself strenuously refuse to even play at the role.  Sasha Frere-Jones, reviewing the album in the New Yorker, wonders whether D’Angelo is actually just afraid to affirm that he himself is the Black Messiah, and hearkens back to a time when Marvin Gaye didn’t bat an eye before he self-titled an album Black Moses.  He suspects that what is keeping D’Angelo from personally avowing the image he wants the album to evoke is something like doubt, shame, even perhaps cowardice, and keeps comparing his sensibilities to those of Prince, who seems so free, so affirming of himself by contrast.

Then again, D’Angelo seems to entertain a different, more uncertain sense of political action than we may be familiar with: one where the feeling of hope matters more than the person it is embodied in, where the words “Black Messiah” themselves can signify “a feeling” first and foremost, and only after an image, an identity.  And the album, indeed, does not so much conjure up some clear image of the Black Messiah, so much as try to revive a general sense that there could be one. The title may not be about finding another leader, but about taking part again in the messianic hope itself, in whatever form that may take.  And it may take strange ones: he quotes Kalid Abdul Muhammad undermining the idea of “some blond-haired, blue eyed, pale-skinned, buttermilk complexion cracker Christ…” There is a thrill in this, a sense of possibility.  Being any more certain about who exactly he is seems, to D’Angelo, to confine our political sentiments to tired, worn out expressions, or to a mere empty style—which is what, we sense, Prince on the cover of Controversy must look like to him.  Finding out what identity of a leader is most effective to bring about change, and embodying that change oneself, using a clear, univocal voice, hoping it would actually produce change—the entire saga of President Obama has seemed to have called that model of politics into question for D’Angelo.  “Shut your mouth off and focus on what you feel inside,” he says in “Ain’t That Easy,” and the line could be directed precisely at the President.  Meanwhile, every voice on the album strives, paradoxically, to do precisely that.  It isn’t so much who speaks of hope, or whether indeed it is a well-founded hope that we speak about. What seems urgent to D’Angelo is being part of the movement, part of a quest, part of a questioning.