Rhetorical and Serious Men in GAME OF THRONES

One of my favorite critical insights to introduce into British Literature surveys comes from Richard Lanham’s The Motives of Eloquence. I will quote Lanham here as he is discussed in Stanley Fish’s Doing What Comes Naturally – where I first learned of Lanham’s work. Basically, in the opening pages, Lanham describes early modern disagreements between foundational/orthodox thinking and what he calls “rhetorical” revision. From this, there are two archetypes – the serious man and the rhetorical man. Here’s the serious man:

rhetman

In other words, the serious man is firmly bound to an orthodox tradition. He believes in a single reality that is realized in a cultural vision. Reality is “out there,” and everything we create and do should accurately, almost mimetically honor that reality. When I teach early English literature, the ultimate serious man is Gawaine: fiercly bound to a rigid code of honor that he can’t keep, even as he continues to pursue a heroic quest despite his failures. (I’d love to hear an argument against this).  By contrast, here is the rhetorical man:

rhetman

A much more complicated figure, and one who challenges the stability that the “Serious” man claims he lives by. You could argue that Shakespeare’s Henry V rejects the rhetorical in the form of Falstaff to become serious, or you could contend that the very act of becoming a serious man is rhetorical. But a more obvious example of the rhetorical man is Iago: gifted in manipulating social scenarios to “what is useful.” The rhetorical man is Machiavellian, and not in the sense that he likes to poison rivers. The rhetorical man is Machiavellian in that he resists the governance of “fortune” and seeks to create his own through virtu.

For GAME OF THRONES fans, the comparison is obvious. The Starks are serious while the Lannisters are rhetorical. In last week’s stunning episode, the Starks depend on and constantly invoke a stable order that the Lannisters use only to their advantage. It’s why Robb Stark is so boring – even when he defies a command, he does it for the right reason. But Tyrion Lannister is rhetorical to the core – it’s what makes he’s still alive. Where that puts everyone else (Jon Snow? Bram? Arya? Joffrey? All of the other people whose names I can’t remember) . . . I’ll leave up to you.

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“Why Don’t You Tell Me Who’s On The Phone?” – THE AMERICANS

The first episode of The Americans, the electric and perhaps soon-to-be-best show on television, does everything that a basic cable pilot is supposed to do. Characters are established, talents defined, backgrounds introduced but not fully explored. Phillip and Elizabeth are the spies next door – not a new conceit (see: Homeland), but the only time I can think of that they take the form of communists. The period details seem right: excitement over new malls, the space program, stereo equipment, and the new moralist-in-chief Ronald Reagan. The pilot is well-directed, recalling the best elements of the action of the Bourne movies and network shows (24, Lost) that contained a moral complexity ushered in by this new golden age of TV. The performances are uniformly good. But calling it a great basic cable pilot is a bit of a back-handed compliment: it lacks the urgency and intentional confusion of something like Deadwood or The Wire, shows that tell you to sink or swim. I watched it three times, however, and enjoyed it as much as any movie I saw last year.  The use of Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” is my favorite song cue since, I don’t know, Drive or something. It fully justifies Lindsey Buckingham’s maniacal vision of involving the USC Marching Band in the follow-up to one of the best selling albums ever.

Yet if the first episode signals that we are going to be watching entertaining television, the second episode shows the intellectual and historical vibes that you might think an FX show would ignore. I won’t spoil it too much, but it’s a dark storyline involving our spy protagonists poisoning the son of Casper Weinberger’s maid and only offering the antidote in exchange for putting a bugging device in the study of Reagan’s Secretary of Defense. It’s an intense plot that finds us rooting fiercely against our spies even as the domestic interludes force us to identify with them. As they violently bully a blameless African-American woman living in a small apartment in Anacostia, we rely on the vantage point of the villains in the scenario. Matthew Rhys, an actor I’ve never seen before who looks uncannily like a young Lindsey Buckingham, is brilliant and terrifying in these scenes: a psychotic nationalism coarses through his veins, which is all the more troubling because the first episode saw him attempting to give up his service to the motherland. In the pilot, Keri Russell’s Elizabeth was the one who put duty over feeling; now her husband becomes the one who is willing to violate a greedy empire at its roots by attacking it on any level.

This is an unusually dark plot for basic cable, but it works within the competing logics and ideologies of capitalism and communism: the way one might attack or characterize the other. For our communist heroes, the maid represents the dehumanizing luxuries of capitalist ruling class. Yet she has also internalized its core values, which her enemies are quick to point out. Marx famously called religion the opium of the people, and in this episode Phillip gives a similar spiel, basically reducing the devout woman’s faith to her submission to dehumanizing institutions. And yet it’s clear Phillip and Elizabeth don’t totally believe this: they also have internalized American values, particularly surrounding the family. The key symbol of this episode is caviar – one of the more blatant luxuries you can find – and its relationship to both the American patriot and the communist spy. The first episode ends with the couple reaffirming their commitment to the communist cause. The second concludes with them questioning it more. In 1981, we’re at a moment where socialism is (apparently) no longer about converting the masses, but using them as part of a political game. There’s a hypocrisy here that’s embedded within ideology itself.

The Americans may ultimately aspire not to the serial pyrotechnics of procedurals like Justified, but the intense clash between subjects and states recalls something more like The Lives of Others or Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy. It’s a tricky line to walk, because the more these characters rip away at the fabric of America, the more we’re encouraged to distrust them and even dislike them. They aren’t socialist Robin Hoods. They frequently refer to Ronald Reagan – who even Barack Obama likes – as a maniac. And further, the early episodes set up the shaky foundation on which their relationship is built, already threatening to crack. By pitting the narrative of these characters against Reagan’s increasingly fervent nationalist methods, we are probably going to see the worst of both forces. In the middle is Noah Emmerich’s ambivalent FBI agent neighbor (a contrivance I’m willing to accept for now) whom we’ve learned is extremely competent yet not entirely stable. After two episodes, The Americans has done a solid job of setting up the chess pieces. I worry that it may not be cut out for an extended run; the setup seems better suited for a mini-series that has a definitive end date. But so far the ambivalent relationship between the show and its characters is revelatory. I do hope its clear and intriguing premise put it in a better position than my beloved and now lost shaggy-dog detective show TerriersWhere that show mixed the dark with the delightful, so far on The Americans all we’re getting is the dark. Let’s hope the ratings keep up, if only so the show can ascend chronologically to the release of Fleetwood Mac’s Gypsy.

An Elegy to a Show That Won’t Be Missed

With little fanfare, Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23 was cancelled a few weeks ago. So far as I know, there hasn’t been a protest. Yet I was one of show’s few admiring if not evangelical fans. I particularly like the way it consistently befuddles and ridicules the highly conventional sitcom aspirations of its protagonist, June (played by the bright and big-eyed Dreama Walker, who is fantastic). June wants normal things, and for this she’s pushed into a Sisyphian struggle in which she frequently fails by behaving with optimism in the human race that so consistently disappoints her. On the flip side are the joyfully hedonistic “B” of the title, Chloe, and James Van Der Beek as himself (it was funny, trust me). In the midst of June’s simple ambitions, their extraordinary selfishness and superficiality works to destroy June’s dreams. As a deconstruction of the “we’re justa buncha people livin in the big city in apartments we would never be able to afford it it weren’ta fiction!” sitcom, it was frequently funny if not perfect (“The pervert next door” was just as unfunny as it sounds). Yet, perversely, … the B reaches out to the people who hated Friends and were indifferent to Seinfeld, even though those people are so suspicious of network television that they probably never watched it anyway. Also, they’re probably this guy:

television

In other words, why I liked it is exactly why it got cancelled.

Happy Endings, however, will continue unabated despite similarly low ratings. The show is ostensibly the kind of sitcom that the B is parodying and undermining. But I get the feeling that Happy Endings thinks it’s doing what I’ve just described above, and is immensely proud of itself for doing so. Yet while June’s almost platonic likability is constantly parodied, the fashionable bros and chicas of Happy Endings are ironically presented as the implausibly likable people who we’re supposed to wish we were friends with. To the contrary, I am glad I do not know any of these narcissists. In a recent episode, Penny – the show’s funniest character – spends time with normal individuals and wishes she was regressively engaging in impossible sitcom behavior with the core group. This is not an unfamiliar plot, but it happens in such a way that prizes the brilliant scenarios that the show’s creator see themselves as developing. Don’t get me wrong: there’s a “look at me” quality to …the B as well, but the gang at Happy Endings are always drawing attention to not-so-bad behavior as if it’s the kind of button-pushing that you don’t find on free TV. Yet . . . the B had the advantage of never desiring to make its characters likable, or to have us care about them.  (And I find Happy Endings funny, and will continue watching it, even if its maddening, and even if Damon Wayans’ son’s acting style can be best described as  “slightly more naturalistic than the Hamburgler”)

I listen to and read a lot of TV critics. They’re everywhere. I don’t know why someone should be recapping and thematizing the plot of New Girl or Bunheads and discussing its virtues and failings within an hour of its air-time, but there are a lot of them and they’re usually complaining on Twitter about having to review Criminal Minds before they go to bed. One of the virtues of sitcoms that these folks are constantly trumpeting is the value of “characters.” They’re always mentioning the episodes of The Simpsons in which Homer and Lisa have meaningful interaction, or the Sam and Diane relationship on Cheers. And, hey, that’s all great, but frankly I prefer the wall-to-wall silliness of Marge vs. the Monorail or Mr. Plow, or the episode when Cliff loses all his money on Final Jeopardy because he explains that three people he’s never of are “three people who have never been in my kitchen.” Yet those critics perversely love Community and talk about their investment in characters who are never remotely consistent and are often involved in comic book plots. I find Joel McHale’s character to be reprehensible in a way that I enjoy watching his comeuppance, and he’s the star of the show. Gillian Jacobs’ Britta seems insufferable; that’s supposed to be the point, right? I enjoy Alison Brie’s endless well of perkiness because it seems to be so misplaced and irrational, not because it seems like a clear outgrowth of her character. But mostly I enjoy plots centered around blanket-forts or paintball games framed as a spaghetti western parody. I like Community because of its experimentation, its wit its visual invention, and its endless supply of references. Not because these characters are people.

Caring about the characters on . . . The B is something of a fools errand. And with that out of the way, I was just free to enjoy their dangerous and off-kilter behavior. The joke of the show is that June, the corn-fed moralist, is just as self-destructive as Chloe, the hedonist, and nearly as vacuous as James Van Der Beek’s caricature of himself. The self-righteousness of June leads her, as she pits herself against these cosmopolitans, to denounce the hellish version of the big city that the show places her in. It’s not only that Chloe was better trained to navigate the worlds that June was constantly eating June up, it’s that what June sees as her fundamental optimism and decency is the same kind of misguided entitlement that Lena Dunham is chronicling on Girls. June believes that her work ethic makes her better than everyone else, while Chloe believes in nothing. And yet, because Dreama Walker is such a fine comic actress, we enjoy watching this. I will argue (probably inconsistently) that June’s defiant dignity puts her in the category of the Little Tramp or Cosmo Kramer: ridiculous figures whose self-belief and inexhaustible spirit makes their absurdity not only bearable but also weirdly inspiring.

In an outstanding article about the death of Mitch Hedberg, Sam Anderson wrote, “Sitcoms aren’t about jokes, they’re about zany neighbors who eat too much of your pizza and photogenic dogs who give you meaningful looks.” In 2005, he was writing in that dismal age when Arrested Development was doomed to be canceled and before 30 Rock and The Office would reinvent the thirty minute comedy. And what I’ve imposed above about Sisyphus and Charlie Chaplin is admittedly a weak intellectualization of a show that aspired to very little. Don’t Trust the B in Apartment was about jokes, and that’s mostly why I’ll miss it.

Carl Weathers is Here; Wish You Were Beautiful.

The central thesis of this visual diary is that every time Carl Weathers appears in Arrested Development, I am amused to a point of uncontrollable giddiness. I use images as evidence. I’m not only referring to the brilliant construction of pseudo “Carl Weathers,” a good-natured but impossibly cheap mentor to Tobias Funke whose most useful professional tip is how to milk craft services for all their worth on a Showtime movie called Hot Ice starring Anne Archer (“never once touched my per diem). That’s reductive. Every time Carl Weathers appears on screen, even if he is just listening to someone talk, it’s one of my favorite moments in the history of the art; its a lot better than all that Brunelleschi’s Dome bullcrap, for instance. From the second he appears walking into a Super Shuttle carrying an umbrella even though it is raining, Apollo Creed reinvents himself as a guy who seemed at once proud of his success and gloriously willing to make fun of himself. As Tobias explains he does not have the training to be an actor, Carl’s eyes move to the logical side of his brain. In addition to scheming against the airlines via a scheme that the wrong guy discovered, Weathers now realizes how he can dupe this Nelly out of 1100 dollars.

carlumbrella

Does Carl Weathers like ham? No, he loves it.

carlham

As he watches one of George Sr.’s “idiot video tapes,” his skeptical yet earnest curiosity makes for one of my favorite shots of the entire series. Just look at him, ya’ll.

carlwatching

“Oh hey Buster!”

carlbuster

According to the work of the legendary acting coach Sanford Meisner that I did not read and know very little about, “joy” is one of the hardest emotions to express naturally as an actor. To that, I give you Carl Weathers explaining his recent realization that Burger King lets you refill your soda as many times as you want.

carlsoda

As a director, Carl manages to balance the colossal ego and relenting desire for verisimilitude of Tobias with looks like these

carldirecting

Let me be clear. No one is making fun of Carl Weathers. Weathers brief yet memorable (and in my case, sadly, life-changing) appearances in Arrested Development show an untapped comic potential that he was never able to explore. With the exception of Happy Gilmore, where he’s wonderful, Weathers never got the ability to show the clear gifts of comic timing and reaction that he shows every second he’s on screen. The man had a fine career: as Apollo Creed, he was the perfect fictionalized and more conventional version of Muhammad Ali. In Predator, he’s the ideal institutional foil to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s mercenary. But whenever I need to feel better about the world, I watch one of the three episodes (“Public Relations,” “Marta Complex,” “Motherboy XXX”) in which Carl is featured. I can’t wait to see him in the reboot. Let us now praise Carl Weathers.

BOYS WHO LIKE “GIRLS”

For years, the defiantly uninventive provocateur B.D. Myers has been making the same unoriginal argument that always manages to get him published in places like The Atlantic, as well as a book that makes a trenchant point shared by engineering majors in lit survey courses: celebrated modern authors blow. Whenever someone like Don DeLillo or Cormac McCarthy has the audacity to write a novel, Meyers picks out a few sentences to use them as evidence of ” the decline of American prose since the 1950s.” Seriously: in his widely-read 2002 hand grenade polemic “A Reader’s Manifesto,” he makes this claim after reading a few sentences of a novel by Annie Proulx. Myers emerged in 2010 from his hibernation of irrelevance to crash the party again when he called the prose of Jonathan Franzen’s novel-of-the-moment Freedom juvenile.” The ultimate point of this diatribe is to explain that modern writers are self-absorbed, myopic, shallow, too focused on their own subjectivity to examine the subjectivities of fictional characters, and that the decline of style can be traced to this desire to look outward instead of inward. Instead, we should be reading the novelists of the 1940s and 1790s – William Godwin, Patrick Hamilton, etc. – because they write “in careful, unaffectedly poetic prose” that is free from authorial intrusion.[1] Attacks on style are always attacks on voice, and what Myers seems to be complaining endlessly about is the need to for authors to inject their own personalities into a language that desires to be combed like an award-winning haircut. When style calls attention to itself, or its author, it becomes “slovenly,” and we need the presence of a critic to tell us which economically-written and precise writing manners we should emulate. Nevermind that the apparent juvenilia of Franzen or the “plodding” nature of Raymond Carver might be interesting in itself, worthy of a more sympathetic analysis with attention to the reasons why such style is produced and continues to affect. It’s easier to mark that territory as a wasteland than to spend any time thinking about the conditions that have produced the apparently aggressive insecurity that has produced it.

It’s arguments like Myers that come to mind when I hear criticisms of Lena Dunham’s argument-starter Girls. I’m not talking about the more blatantly misogynist complaints; I’m referring to more subtly misogynist ones like the things I’ve said when I suggested that the show “wasn’t for me:”[2]

andyongirls

I made arguments about how shallow and unlikable the protagonists were, and how the refusal of Dunham to explore anything outside of her immediate vicinity made it uninteresting and myopic. Until my friend Amy corrected me on Facebook, I was blissfully ignorant that Dunham is the most important and compelling cinematic voice to emerge in the last few years: a writer who has her eyes firmly fixed to her subject (which is often herself), a director who has an unpretentious eye for a city that is often captured in grand visual language, and an actor who is unafraid of her body and of giving the most pivotal dramatic moments to her co-stars.[3] And while Dunham certainly possesses an invasive solipsism, so did Montaigneand so does Woody Allen, and so did Proust and Frieda Pinto, etc.  etc. I’m not saying she’s as good as any of those luminaries, but its not wrong to fit her in their hallowed tradition, and like her for the same reason we liked them. Like Franzen, it’s what makes her interesting rather than what makes her bad.

Rather than view Girls as a window into the shallow and meaningless lives of privileged early twenty-somethings, why not view it as an intimate and personal look at what it means to be twenty-four, overeducated, and underemployed in this particular cultural moment? What would you prefer we use television for? There are valid reasons to criticize Girls, but there are really no reasons to ignore it.[4] What Dunham is up to here is more interesting than about a hundred recently produced cultural documents that are less messy, more conventionally entertaining, or about protagonists who face higher dramatic stakes. If you want to say that her intervention into the “what it means to be a woman right now” conversation is shallow, you’re missing the point of what it means to have that conversation in the first place.[5] Dunham’s self-styled protagonist, Hannah, is equally assured of her entitlement and coming to terms with her failure to actuate it. Her best friend Marnie looks to find her own self-doubt in others and when she can’t find it, she finds herself in dark places. Jessa turns self-destruction into an ethos that she wields defiantly (against Marnie, mostly). And Adam defies expectations as soon as we make them.

I think there are better shows on TV than Girls (Treme, for instance), but none are as revelatory or pertinent for the moment they’re being made. Girls is an extension of the potential of mumblecore to capture the meaningful emptiness of twenty-first century life using categories that mainstream movies won’t go near and that post-Sundance independent movies used to find too mundane. Its cinematic roots aren’t Sex and the City (a show it frequently references), but John Cassavettes and Paul Mazursky. Both Dunham and her show have become, unfairly, the representative document of a cultural war that is linked to the Occupy movement, this article, and your parents’ neighbor’s kids who only wants a job worthy of his art school degree. But Girls is blessed apolitical, and often just as critic of your ambition to live of your highly successful blog. But lookit: we can’t become B.D. Meyers when we hear a voice like Dunham’s – seizing on a sentence or two to attack a more complex whole. Instead of Meyers cantankerous salvos, we might consider another cranky old man – Stanley Fish – in asking not whether a particular style is good or bad, but what that style does.

So read this as a glowing endorsement of a show I was deeply reluctant to like. Don’t just avoid it because it’s a show about privilege starring the daughters of Brian Williams, David Mamet, and someone in Bad Company. Criticisms of the show rarely discuss the content, focusing instead on the idea of it. I’ll admit that my initial disdain for Girls – captured above in my reactionary Facebook post – had more to do with me than the show I was passing judgment on. Whatever the case, I’m excited for the new season and the opportunity to watch someone as honest, assured, and vulnerable as Dunham.

[1] This is one of the topics of my dissertation: that whenever something is called “unaffected,” it is referring to an empirical and philosophical enlightenment ideal of a language that is divorced from intention. The idea such semantic purity is possible is what was at heart of the origins of modern science, and its what drives Myers. If you’re interested in this topic, start with Thomas Sprat’s apparently innocuous but ultimately paradigmatic statement that there is “a close, naked, natural way of speaking” and go from there. And then please tell me what you think.

[2] I’m not intimating that when you say the show isn’t for you, you’re hating women; only that when I did so, I was participating in a regressive anti-girl spirit that probably has to do with girls not liking me in college.

[3] Also, Lena Dunham is clearly a striking and beautiful woman, albeit atypically so, who allows herself to be presented unflatteringly. I throw that back against anyone who calls the show “narcissistic.”

[4] However, this has resulted in this funny hash-tag

[5] And if you think that’s all that the show is about, you’re wrong: Some of Dunham’s most insightful observations are about masculinity. Its led to the most interesting acting newcomer of the year: Adam Driver. I would like to see Driver in the Joaquin Phoenix role in The Master.