Some Sort of Live Comedy Show
October 30, 2010

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By the time this goes to print I’ll be down on the Washington Mall checking out some sort of live comedy event I heard was happening there this weekend. Two comedians, both of whom I like a lot, are putting it on. And despite everyone’s best efforts to either divine some kind of grand message or explain the finer points of comedy to two very talented professional comedians, I think this will actually be pretty fun.

What the hell is Don Draper’s problem?
October 18, 2010

Screenwriter Matthew Weiner
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(Lots of spoilers.)

I think that’s the big question a lot of viewers came away from tonight’s Mad Men finale with. Halfway through the episode: the bleeding at SCDP had been staunched, Don’s drinking was still (temporarily) under control, his friendship with Peggy was patched up, he was actually being a good father, and he was in the first stable, healthy, adult relationship we’ve ever seen him in. And then he made a terrible, terrible decision.

Matthew Weiner (pictured) has been pretty explicit about the fact that this season has spent a lot of time concerned with the very first line of the very first episode: “Who is Don Draper?” Unmoored from the office, house, and marriage that he called home, he became more desperate and frightened than we had ever seen him. All of a sudden, even he didn’t know the answer to the question, and that scared the shit out of him. So he tried to drown that slow-boiling panic with work, sex, and alcohol, but the more he anesthetized himself, the more things got out of control. It wasn’t until he hit rock bottom—and the final anchor to his old identity snapped free, when the original Mrs. Draper died—that he realized he needed to pull himself together and figure out a new identity. How appropriate that one of the key figures who was helping him do this—who may very well have, along with Peggy, saved his life—was a psychologist.

But introspection and self-improvement are both really, really daunting projects. Especially when you’ve spent much of your life scrupulously hiding your true nature from everyone around you. And especially when you realize that there’s no actual end point to the process. Don and Faye are good together. Don and Faye aren’t perfect. Perfect is eternally out of his reach. And Don being Don, and something of a coward, he doesn’t want to face that. He’d rather “move somewhere else,” as he said to Betty, and hope that place is perfect.

First he starts to slip back into old habits. The drinking gradually resumes its normal pace. He cheats on his blonde significant other with a brunette. When his old web of lies is threatened—when it seems like he might have to become Dick Whitman again for good, and face imprisonment for desertion—we see him more terrified than ever before. That’s the moment when we see just how deeply wedded Don Draper is to the “Don Draper” myth, and the enormous lengths he’ll go to maintain that fiction.

And then a crisis happens, and for Don, it must have felt like his prayers had been answered. He gets to tear all of that fuzzy, semi-articulate self-reflective crap out of his notebook and get back to being what he wants to be: a cipher. A ruthless survivor.

This whole regression is what causes him to ultimately settle on Megan instead of Faye. Faye’s been guiding him up that terrible, insurmountable hill, and he doesn’t want to climb anymore. He doesn’t want to go through the hard work of being, in her words, a person. Megan, he can deal with. Plus, she’s good with kids, and he still wants to project that picture-perfect Leave it to Beaver existence.

Short version:

Q: What the hell is Don Draper’s problem?

A: He wants, more than anything, to be an advertisement for the American dream. Because doing his own work to find answer the big question of season four—“Who is Don Draper?”—is too damn hard, and too damn scary.

(Kudos to Matt Weiner and the rest of the Mad Men cast and crew: season four was a season for the ages. And while the finale didn’t rank in the 50% percentile of season four episodes, it was still a richly conceived resolution to S4’s major threads. Plus, the stuff happening around the margins—most notably Peggy and Joan’s stellar bonding scene—was pure gold.)

October 15, 2010

It’s probably a little bit late for me to urge everyone to start watching AMC’s Rubicon, given that the season finale is this Sunday. But then again, this is the Netflix On Demand era, and maybe a modest boost in online sales will encourage AMC to give it a second season.

TV shows don’t get a lot of time these days to find their footing, and if this week’s episode is Rubicon’s last, that will be why. The pilot had the languid, meandering pacing of a mid-afternoon nap, which would have been fine if any of the characters had come into any sort of focus at all. But there was potential there in the way the lead performers were able to deliver dry exposition with some level of conviction, and in the creeping sense of dread. It was hard to find the show’s pulse, but at least it seemed to have one.

Turns out a lot of that was due to a major personnel switch-up: the lead show-runner (and creator) got swapped out mid-stream, and a conceptual rejiggering ensued. The first three episodes ended up being throat clearing, but the fourth, well. What was originally a fairly generic, if still intriguing, conspiracy thriller turned into a workplace drama-cum-morally ambiguous meditation on the War on Terror. The conspiracy mytharc was still there, but no longer suffocating, and the conspiracy itself started to seem less like an all-powerful Illuminati then a group of very rich, very unscrupulous men who had found that they could get even richer by toying with the lives of millions. That, to me, was a far more plausible and far more unsettling proposition. The banality of evil is always going to be scarier and more interesting than the Dark Side of the Force.

As for the workplace drama side: the supporting cast got fleshed out enormously, and the show finally started to take full advantage of its national security think tank setting. Much is made of the personal sacrifices these characters make, but the big draw for me—and probably for a significant chunk of my readers as well—is how much of the show is kind of porn for national security wonks. Most of our heroes have never fired a gun, but they spend a lot of time debating the relevance of classified documents and fighting the sprawling bureaucracy of the DoD and CIA. Somehow all of this is rendered in a way that’s engaging, suspenseful, even stylish.

Timely, as well. Most episodes remind me of the Washington Post’s Top Secret America at least once. Both draw the same conclusion: national security is a confused, murky business, now more than ever. What makes Rubicon so chilling is how it suggests how easily someone inside the enormous massive security complex to manipulate it to their own advantage and against the interests of the United States. It’s hard to imagine that sort of thing not happening on a micro scale with some regularity; Rubicon imagines it in the macro.

(This post was prompted by a well-worth-reading interview the AV Club did with Henry Brommell, the replacement executive producer. Check it out, and then track down and check out the fourth episode.)

The Man in the High Castle
October 14, 2010

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Hendrik Hertzberg and Matthew Yglesias are both optimistic about BBC’s upcoming adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. As for me, I’m feeling a little more cautious, although so far the signs are good. Doing a miniseries instead of a feature film means sidestepping the awkward compression and warping into a traditional three-act structure that’s garbled many a promising adaptation, and the BBC hasn’t been known to shy away from the bleak absurdism that characterizes much of Dick’s work.

I am skeptical of Ridley Scott’s involvement, though. Blade Runner was certainly a success on its own merits, but as an adaptation of the much funnier and more inventive Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, it was a failure. And the critical consensus on his recent work seems to be that it’s been pretty uniformly dour and rote.

Then again, it’s been a very long time since I read The Man in the High Castle, and maybe I’m idealizing it a bit. This was, after all, the book that introduced me to Philip K. Dick at the tender age of 13; I brought a small stack of his books with me on a long plane ride and ended up devouring each of them in rapid succession over the course of a couple of days. High Castle turned out to be an excellent introduction: the premise of this book turned out to be simpler and hookier than those of his other works, and the reality-bending weirdness that characterizes his bibliography was present but relatively subdued. Those qualities, at least, are virtually guaranteed to be present in the miniseries—that’s why it’s getting made in the first place, instead of an adaptation of, say, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Maybe if we’re lucky, it will end up being a gateway drug for a few more neurotic thirteen year-olds.

The Social Network
October 3, 2010

Caught it over the weekend, and thought it was fantastic. To state the obvious: this is a drama, not a work of journalism or a documentary. It’s meant to entertain and move you. To the extent that it teaches you anything, I don’t think it teaches you much about the specifics of Facebook’s creation, or the ensuing lawsuits. But it makes you feel something, and it keeps you hypnotized for a good two hours. In fact, when it was done, I found myself wishing I could stay in that world for another two hours. I’m looking forward to seeing it again.

I’d write more, but David Denby has already said pretty much everything that needs to be said.

Nietzsche Blogging: Thus Spoke Thus Spoke Zarathustra
September 20, 2010

I’m not sure I have much to say about the fourth and final part of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, as much of it seemed to be a restatement and summary of what came before. It was certainly the funniest of the four parts by far, and there’s a reason for that: as Zarathustra comes to accept the eternal recurrence and inches closer to ultimate enlightenment, he begins to truly live his philosophy of laughing at and making a mockery of the world. He is willing, finally, to laugh at himself.

Indeed, the latter half of Part Four unfolds as a drunken celebration in his cave along with the higher men who all represent steps towards the Overman. Notably, a priest is in the group, and Zarathustra goes so far as to explicitly endorse spiritual ritual and observance for therapeutic and social reasons.

Only about 250 pages left to go in The Portable Nietzsche.

Nietzsche Blogging: Ressentiment
September 6, 2010

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Oh, S. Pritchard, my unwanted reading partner. His liner notes are becoming even more obtrusive and obtuse—as I wade further into Part Two of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, I’m seeing more and more comments like “Yech! Sentimentality,” scrawled in the margins. Admittedly, Nietzsche’s stabs at poetry are more often than not unsuccessful and bathetic, but you don’t need to scribble all over the page to underline that point.

At least Pritchard’s notes on “On the Tarantulas” tell me something I don’t know, although perhaps they don’t send the message their author intended. The titular tarantulas of this passage are “you preachers of equality,” who Nietzsche accuses of preaching the morality of ressentiment (what I believe he would later call “slave morality”). In other words, the preachers of equality deem their oppressors evil and call the good that which harms their oppressors and brings them beneath the heel of the oppressed.

I’m not entirely sure of the historical/political context for these remarks, but it must be significant. There’s no doubt you can find certain ideologies in the modern era that fit the mold—a crude example might be the more hardline elements of Hamas—but to suggest that any doctrine of equality espoused by an oppressed minority is “secretly vengeful” is patently absurd. Is there anything in the actions or philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr. to suggest that what he truly sought was white subjugation at the hands of black Americans? Of course not, and to even suggest otherwise is monstrous. When he preached equality, he meant it.

Which brings us to Pritchard’s notes. “On the Tarantulas” seems to be the first passage in the whole collection with which our conservative Christian friend fervently and whole-heartedly agrees. In the margins, he lists who he believes the modern-day tarantulas to be: “nihilist punkers,” “sociobabblers,” “deconstructionists,” “free thinkers,” “civil rights politicos,” “gays,” the black power movement, and radical feminists. If some of these references—“punkers”—sound a little bit dated, it’s because this is an old copy. As far as I can tell, Pritchard wrote these notes some time in the early-to-mid-’80s.

But that’s neither here nor there. The takeaway, I think, is that Pritchard identifies slave morality with virtually every group or ideology which challenges white heterosexual Christian male hegemony in the United States. Which is funny, because in finding an agreeable interpretation of this one passage, he reveals his stunning ignorance of what Nietzsche has been teaching about morality for the rest of the book. The philosopher is just as quick to condemn the morality of the master as of the slave—indeed, his whole moral project is based around obliterating your confidence in the values you were taught, and forcing you to invent your own. Pritchard’s notes are a reminder of how easy it is to take a single passage of Nietzsche’s out of context and use it to reaffirm the very moral principles he condemns elsewhere.

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Idle Chatter
September 1, 2010

Jonathan Franzen on the online, info-saturated modern era:

I continue to believe it’s a phony palliative, most of the noise. You have the sense of “Oh yeah, I’m writing in my angry response to your post, and now I’m flaming back the person who flamed me back for my angry response.” All of that stuff, you have the sense, “Yeah, I’m really engaged in something. I’m not alone. I’m not alone. I’m not alone.” And yet, I don’t think—maybe it’s just me—but when I connect with a good book, often by somebody dead, and they are telling me a story that seems true, and they are telling me things about myself that I know to be true, but I hadn’t been able to put together before—I feel so much less alone than I ever can sending e-mails or receiving texts. I think there’s a kind of—I don’t want to say shallow, because then I start sounding like an elitist. It’s kind of like a person who keeps smoking more and more cigarettes. You keep giving yourself more and more jolts of stimulus, because deep inside, you’re incredibly lonely and isolated. The engine of technological consumerism is very good at exploiting the short-term need for that little jolt, and is very, very bad at addressing the real solitude and isolation, which I think is increasing. That’s how I perceive my mission as a writer—and particularly as a novelist—is to try to provide a bridge from the inside of me to the inside of somebody else. 


This is something I’ve written about before.

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Post-Apocalyptic Narratives of Today
August 31, 2010

Alyssa Rosenberg has been theorizing here and there about the proliferation in pop culture of post-apocalyptic narratives. Her hypothesis:

I kind of wonder if this has something to do with particularly American conceptions of frontier and Manifest Destiny. Having reached the coast and filled it up with people and development, do we need to depopulate the continent in order to feel like our main characters can explore, and discover things, and have adventures?

I think it’s actually a good deal simpler than that. For you to have a grand Manifest Destiny narrative, you’ve got to have protagonists who have an interest in making new discoveries, conquering new lands, and so on. In most of these stories, on the other hand, people are just struggling to survive in a hostile, unfamiliar world. That leads me to think that the modern obsession with zombies, the collapse of civilization, and so on, has far more to do with our own anxieties about decline—particularly in the United States. We’re transfixed by post-apocalyptic scenarios because it so often feels like we’re sliding towards an apocalypse.

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Nietzsche Blogging: Truth, Reason, and Moral Weakness
August 24, 2010

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I’m starting to get a better sense of Nietzsche’s style, and although I’m still a novice, I know this much: he would have made a damn good blogger. It’s not just his whole books full of pithy aphorisms—like The Gay Science and Human, All-Too-Human—that make me think this. It’s the fact that Kaufmann has seen fit to include a lot of his hastily scribbled notes, and with good reason. You could even excerpt a lot of his longer essays and turn those snippets into self-contained reflections.

But like posts from the best blogs, all of these little scraps are best viewed in the context of his greater project. If you’ll forgive the cliché, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

That being said, the whole is frequently bewildering, even in the early stages. (Maybe especially in the early stages? Hopefully.) Nietzsche often seems to contradict himself from one passage to the next, and I can’t decide whether it’s because of the inherent difficulty in translating all the nuances of meaning (which translator Kaufmann acknowledges in the introduction), or because apparent self-contradiction is simply a part of Nietzsche’s inimitable style. I’m leaning towards it being some combination of the two, especially because so far I’ve always managed to parse out some reading in which he’s not actually contradicting himself.

Take the odd juxtaposition Kaufmann creates (presumably intentionally) between the essay “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense,” some of Nietzsche’s 1874-1875 notes to himself and selected passages from Human, All-Too-Human. In “On Truth and Lie,” Nietzsche convincingly argues that very little of what we consider to be “true” is little more than a “lie according to a fixed convention.” He does this by pointing out the inadequacy of words to truly express what they represent, something that I’m already well familiar with from my recent reading of Sartre’s Nausea. (Here, as in the focus on projects, struggle and competition I noted in “Homer’s Contest,” we can see Nietzsche’s influence on the development of existentialism.) Because words have no real fixed attachment to the objects they represent, to use words to describe the outside world at all is to lie in some sense. The example he uses here is the use of the word “leaf” to describe an individual leaf. There is no true, default form of The Leaf as the Greeks might have suggested, and to imply that there is by classifying an individual leaf as being a descendant of that form is inherently dishonest.

So if “truth” is itself a lie, what to make of Nietzsche’s claim in his notes on the very next page that only “friends of the truth” can help determine the proper use of the German state’s power? Is there anything truly true behind this consensus?

Two pages later, we get the answer. If Nietzsche believes in anything, it’s reason. Our ability to describe the real world may be profoundly limited, but the thing that makes us human—or, as I would put it, persons—is that we have some capacity for a priori reasoning, and to, as Nietzsche later points out, “draw correct inferences.”

But then we stumble into another apparent contradiction. If the “highest” reason lies within “the work of the artist, and he may experience it as such,” then what to make of the assertion that, “regarding truths, the artist has a weaker morality than the thinker?”

Here, I think Nietzsche means to draw a distinction between truth in, as he puts it in the title of his essay on the subject, “the extra-moral sense,” and moral truth. The artist may be an enemy of moral truth, a destructive, nihilist force, but he challenges it in the service of truth overall. The artist is a vaccine, and it’s no coincidence that Nietzsche refers repeatedly to “inoculation” of society in Human, All-Too-Human. In his view, society could always use a bracing jolt of destructive nihilism in order to defend, reassess, and thereby strengthen, its convictions. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this is also what Nietzsche does for his individual readers.

“To educate educators!” he writes in his notes. “But the first ones must educate themselves! And for these I write.”

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