Movies

Train in Vain

Snowpiercer cast
Snowpiercer is a modest-budget semi-indie post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie based on a French comic book from the 80s, and boy does it ever feel like it. I’d been seeing people raving about it on Twitter and Facebook, saying things like “drop everything you’re doing and go see it now.” While it’s not that good, it’s still interesting and kind of a marvel that it even exists.

It could be because I knew a little bit of its history going in, but I kept thinking throughout that it felt like a comic book movie. Not a super-hero movie — Chris Evans is here to show off his range and his commitment to interesting projects, not to show off his chest — but an “indie” comic book movie. It’s more concerned with imagery than with world-building, and more interested in legibility than in subtlety. The premise is about as direct an allegory of classism as you can make. The characters are broad — but still interesting — archetypes. The world is literally constrained, with each train of the car a “closed ecosystem” representing a single idea. Most scenes have just enough dialogue to fit into word bubbles. And the plotting and pacing are the kind you get when artists are rejecting Hollywood and trying to come up with their own conventions — with mixed success.

And maybe it’s only because I now know it’s based on a French comic book, but I kept thinking it felt like European independent movies from the 80s and 90s. It seems like Hollywood action movies filtered through a dream, where the tone’s all over the place, the pacing’s unsettlingly unpredictable, and Hollywood stars appear out of nowhere, for no good reason other than that they wanted to be in something interesting for a change.

Overall, I liked it but didn’t love it, but I’m still glad it exists. Especially as a counter to the standard action movie template, and I think that’s a big part of why it’s been getting so much positive buzz: people love it for not being Transformers, or even Captain America (which was actually good!)

The most intriguing thing about the movie, to me (and the only thing that made it worth a blog post), is the way the tone is deliberately all over the place. I think Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton both gave excellent performances, even though it didn’t seem like they’d belong in the same movie. Swinton was an over-the-top caricature, while Evans was playing it completely straight, particularly impressive considering that his most dramatic and emotional scene was a lurid monologue about cannibalism. Kang-ho Song*’s performance was entirely in Korean, but even without that, his seemed to be a performance from a more lighthearted, less high-concept action movie. With less competent — or even less confident — actors, it would’ve felt disjointed, as if they’d not bothered to talk to each other before filming. But it mostly works here, and it’s fascinating to see camp and deadpan work together without canceling each other out.

The screenwriter and director, Joon-Ho Bong*, also made The Host, which also seemed to veer wildly in tone between black comedy, camp, family comedy, and horror movie. It’d be easy to speculate that that’s just his style. And I’m still not 100% sure that it works; The Host was another movie that I wanted to like much more than I actually did.

But it’s interesting to see the attempt. Especially now that we’re seeing more and more long-form storytelling in television series. It’s meant that television is getting gradually better, but also that the rules are getting more ingrained. Even as the quality goes up, there’s less room to experiment.

Battlestar Galactica‘s final season was a complete disaster, but there was also something perversely thrilling about it — once everything had gone off the rails, you had the sense that for the first time, anything was possible. At any other point in the series, a scene threatening to blow Colonel Tigh out of an airlock would’ve been another example of “fake TV tension:” it still would’ve worked because these guys have had so much experience crafting television, they know how to make a tense moment fit in the overall arc of an episode, but you’d still know in the back of your mind what the real stakes were. But by the end of the series, after everything had gone horribly wrong, there was genuine tension. This would be bad, but they’re just crazy enough to do it.

Until the end of Snowpiercer, I got the same sense of exhilarated confusion: this isn’t playing by quite the same rules as a normal movie, so there’s really no predicting what they’re about to do. By the end, it settles into almost complete familiarity, but for a while, it’s just off-putting enough to be engaging.

*Apologies if I’ve got the surname/given name order mixed up for Korean names; IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes are inconsistent about which comes first.

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Television

Hello M’Lady


That sketch “Hello M’Lady” aired on Inside Amy Schumer, and it’s the one that should’ve gone viral instead of a very funny but mostly predictable Aaron Sorkin parody.

I’ve already seen bunches of comments online that the point of the sketch is to make fun of socially awkward creepy guys who come on too strong. Anybody who’s spent any time in any geek-oriented field like comics or video games or physical games or existing as a human being is already familiar with the myth of the “Nice Guy,” the hopeless romantic whose shyness dooms him to a lifetime of unrequited love. What makes the sketch so on-point is that it shows how, even when we’re acknowledging it as a problem, we still concentrate on how it affects the guy. It’s just one more thing that women are expected to just deal with.

Even when we say we’re doing something for the benefit of the ladies, it’s still always ultimately about the dude.

Believe me, I’m well aware how insufferable it is when somebody on the internet tries to explain a joke. But I’ve spent the last couple of days watching clips from Inside Amy Schumer, and realizing that they’re not just funny, but actually kind of brilliant. But I’d never bothered to watch it, not because I wasn’t aware of it, but because I thought I already knew exactly what it was.

The creepiest realization is that the reason I’d always dismissed it is exactly the kind of thing the show frequently makes fun of.

Red Bull and Slim Jims

I’m about to get to my mea culpa for being a Bad Progressive, but I’m not letting Comedy Central completely off the hook. They’ve done a lousy job of promoting the show. Not in terms of exposure — there’s been no shortage of promos for the show, and Schumer herself has been inserted into what seems like every single one of their Comedy Central Roasts and stand-up specials.

But the promos have made the show look essentially like Ms. Tosh.0. She makes a raunchy joke and then does a look how naughty I am! grin. I’d heard a mention of “feminism” here and there, but it looked like nothing more than another example of the vapid “women can make jokes about sex too and that’s empowerment!” flavor.

From the bits of her comedy routine I’d seen, I assumed I had that all figured out as well. I thought it was all just the surprise of seeing raunchy jokes coming from someone you wouldn’t expect, kind of like a female Bob Saget. (She even has a gag about finally having sex with her high school sweetheart that’s a lot like Saget’s joke about finally marrying his girlfriend of nine years). She’s a party girl, but she’s all edgy! And then the twist was her character of a ridiculously clueless, self-absorbed, over-entitled white woman… so kind of like a blonde, gentile, Sarah Silverman. Nothing wrong with it, really, I just felt like I’d seen it before.

Inside Amy Schumer has a sketch specifically about the series’s own marketing. A group of guys in Comedy Central’s target demographic are being asked about the content of the show and the ratio of sketches to interview segments, and all their responses are about Schumer’s appearance and whether or not they’d bang her. At the end, they’re rewarded with Slim Jims and Red Bulls, and Schumer considers it a victory because a couple of the guys said they would bang her.

It’s not exactly subtle. So it’s a little creepy to realize I’d essentially done the same thing. I’m not in the “would bang her” camp for obvious reasons (obviously, she’d need to have at least a 10% better dumper), but I still was basically dismissing Schumer based on her appearance. I’d thought that she was too pretty to be saying anything all that complex.

Liam Neesons Though

I can’t even use the excuse that my time is valuable or anything; I’ve seen entire episodes of Workaholics and Tosh.0. And they’re every bit as much the shallow, predictable “outrageous” comedy you’d expect. I’m wondering if that’s part of their (assumed) popularity, even: they’re easy to watch because they don’t take any effort. There’s nothing challenging about them.

But a lady-oriented sketch comedy show with a transgressive feminist message has to be didactic, though. You’re laughing, but really you’re learning about yourself, and life, and cat massage.

When Key & Peele was first announced, I wasn’t interested in that, either, for much the same reason. I assumed that it wasn’t “for” me. Even if I didn’t end up feeling like that one awkward white guy on stage at Showtime at the Apollo, I’d still feel like I was watching Chappelle’s Show. I’d be on the outside looking in. Sure, there was nothing telling me I couldn’t watch, but the show wasn’t really going out of its way to include me.

Which turned out to be total bullshit, obviously. Smart comedians can make their material relevant and universal. Key & Peele start from being movie nerds more than anything else — something I can totally relate to — and pull in satire and comedy about race and gender politics and never make it feel inaccessible, preachy, or alienating. They’re almost always more absurd than message-oriented, and it helped that Jordan Peele’s impression of Obama, plus their goofy East-West College Bowl video going viral, gave everyone an “in.”

That’s a message in itself, really. Take that mild hesitation and unease over “am I going to be able to enjoy this show without worrying whether I’m in the target audience?”, multiply it by every other show on every other television network, and then keep trying to make an argument that asking for more diversity in the media is unnecessary and the equivalent of introducing quotas.

All of that makes that Newsroom parody sketch the safest way to introduce people to Inside Amy Schumer. Mostly it’s a pitch-perfect parody of an Aaron Sorkin series, with the one line that delivers the real “voice” of the series: “and I realized: A woman’s life is nothing unless she’s making a great man greater.” Then there are jokes about finger-banging and a short bus, to make sure there’s something for everyone.

Tell Me What All My Remotes Do?


It’s not the best one, though. This sketch about sexting (after the street interview section) is so good; just about every second and every detail is brilliant, from the emoji to the romantic music to having it start and end with her eating plain spaghetti out of a colander.

There are silly sketches about “Finger Blasters” and an inappropriately homoerotic workout and TV makeovers and unconventional therapy and dating a guy who only loves her for her terrible perm because the show’s first obligation is to be funny, and because Schumer’s never afraid to make herself the butt of the joke.

But then there’s the sketch about what it’s like to be the only woman at Hooters. Or how women and men have wildly different impressions of a one-night stand. (Most comedy shows can only aspire to one day having a scene as brilliant as the one where she’s tasting wedding cakes while he’s wanking to the picture on a jar of pasta sauce). Or how women are never allowed to graciously accept compliments. Or a very realistic military game in which nobody else’s character was sexually assaulted, so Amy must’ve done something wrong. Even in a three-way, she’s got to acquiesce to what the men want.

Even when the premise of a sketch is relatively straightforward, it’s still smarter than it needs to be. A sketch where Amy negotiates over herpes with God is an extended riff on her Clueless Party Girl character, but it’s filled with little bits of brilliance. In particular, Paul Giamatti’s “I have got to stop making so many white girls,” and the completely unexplained older man putting his hand on the shoulder of Amy’s sister.

And of course, Schumer’s already addressed my assumption “She’s too pretty to be saying anything that complex” and made a joke not just about how dumb that is, but about how women are supposed to believe that something like that is a compliment.

You Can’t Win

The “Hello, M’Lady” sketch is brilliant for a whole bunch of reasons, not the least of which is the way the friend answers “Is that your boyfriend?” with “Fuck you, no,” without skipping a beat. The most brilliant aspect of it is showing that even “look at the poor pathetic losers” is giving more sympathy to the guys than to the women who have to deal with them. Romantic comedies teach us how unrequited love is so romantic and how you should just keep at it guys, and you’ll eventually win her over. What the woman actually wants? Irrelevant.

Extra double-plus brilliant is presenting it as a combination of dating app, Angie’s List, and Turbo Tax. First the app lists all the aspects of the woman that only the guy can recognize, and then it lets ladies take advantage of these “human hobbits,” ungratefully using them for things like helping a boyfriend move, or getting a free iPhone. That’s exactly how a lot of these guys think: self-obsessed while telling themselves they’re being selfless, and absolutely convinced that women exist to take advantage of them. It shows that this “harmless” passive-aggression comes from exactly the same place as outright misogynist aggression: the belief that women have something I want, and they’re keeping it from me. Even when “nice guys” convince themselves that it’s noble because it’s about romance and chivalry instead of sex, that’s bullshit because it’s really about something just as crass and base: power.

Meanwhile, the actual, not-imaginary women are left in the same place as always: powerless. “You can’t win.” And “it’s inevitable.” Just another chore to deal with because some guy decided to make you feel guilty.

That’s already a lot packed into one sketch, and then there’s the punchline that carries throughout the whole series: “Fuck it.” She’s not a victim. As long as she’s stuck with it, why not have fun with it? Ultimately it’s a comedy show, not a message show, and the savvy part is realizing they don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

Not Really JK


When somebody’s entire public persona is a character, it can be hard to tell what’s sincere and what’s part of the “satire.” I think it’s a lot braver to trust the audience enough — or more accurately, not be so hung up on the audience — to feel that you don’t have to draw the line for them. Male comedians don’t have to stress out about telling too many jokes about drinking or about sex, and they don’t have to keep winking at the audience to let you know they’re not really that racist, or they’re just kidding about being so self-absorbed.

There’s something implicit in Schumer’s comedy that turns every criticism into a kind of commentary. Anything you might be thinking about or saying about her, what is it really saying about you?

The joke in “Love Tub” seems on the surface to be just another version of Amy Poehler’s one-legged Amber character from SNL: she’s on a dating show, she’s a mess, and she doesn’t care. But there’s a little more going on here.

For one thing, she’s not explicitly playing a character; she’s just “Amy.” She’s not making the best life decisions, but she’s also not the one getting hung up on a reality dating show where the “prize” is a dude choosing among a pack of women to join him in the love tub. She’s the only one who’s getting what she wants, and what she wants right now are vodka and some curly fries.

The clincher is when the bachelor takes off Tiffany’s dress while creepily whispering “Congratulations.” When you see Amy riding off in a limo finally getting her curly fries and then leaning out the door to throw up, you’ve got to wonder who really is the “winner.”

And then you look at the YouTube comments calling her fat, or calling her a bitch, or making some sexual comment, and something magical happens: they’re rendered even more irrelevant than YouTube comments already are. When somebody owns every aspect of his persona, he’s unassailable. And when a woman owns it — you don’t get to make comments about my drinking, or having sex, or what I wear, or what I eat, or what I look like, because I’ve already commented on it — it’s the most frustrating and threatening thing for an insecure man to see. And that’s awesome. She doesn’t have to say what’s “real” and what’s not; it’s all real, and it can be tragic and frustrating and unfair but most often really funny.

A young female comedian is already starting out in an environment where hecklers are going to try to shit on her live set. TV executives are going to try and concern troll her into losing weight. Entertainment journalists and bloggers are going to talk about her responsibilities as a feminist. Some people in the audience are going to call her fat or ugly. Other people in the audience — including at least one well-intentioned but dense gay man — are going to say she’s too pretty to be taken seriously. Other comedians are going to announce that they don’t think women can be funny, in their own feeble grabs for attention. There’s going to be pressure to be highbrow but not so highbrow as to be alienating, and pressure to keep the politics out of comedy and just be absurd. And then pressure to split the difference, making funny videos that’ll go viral while still having a very special episode tackling some social justice issue.

Inside Amy Schumer navigates through all that and ends up with a sketch about sending a sext photo. It starts with the pressure that’s put on women to look sexy, then puts Amy through all kinds of abuse for the sake of making her look good, and then ends with a simple moral: “Just get fucked.” Said not as an insult or an objectification, but a simple reminder to get what she wants and enjoy herself. That’s not just naughty; it’s genuinely subversive.

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Television

How I Spent My Decade

HIMYMAirport.jpg
When the series finale of How I Met Your Mother ended, I felt as if I’d just watched someone do the trick where they pull the tablecloth out from under a complete table setting. I wasn’t awestruck, but more impressed that they were able to pull it off at all.

The more I think about it, though, the more I think it was bonafide magic.

This was a finale of a series that has “the ending is a surprise” built into the entire premise, so of course everything that follows is a big spoiler.

How I Met My Sponsor

If there’s a single episode that sums up the entire series, it’s… well, of course it’d be the one where Marshall picks up Lily at the airport during a snowstorm. But for the point I’m trying to make, the definitive episode is the one that was a shameless ad for Microsoft.

The reason it’s definitive is that the series regularly took stuff that absolutely, positively should not have been able to work, and then somehow pulled it off. It was corny, gimmicky, and prone to stunt-casting. It often seemed inordinately pleased with itself. It took each of its characters and gave each of them a flaw that made them genuinely unlikable. It took running gags and ran them deep, deep into the ground. And it constantly vacillated between raunchy and unabashedly sentimental.

But then it somehow absorbed it all, commented on it, and used it to its advantage. Starting out, it was kind of insufferable; it assumed the cast was way more charming than it actually was. (One episode in the first season had Ted & Marshall staging elaborate sword fights in their apartment, which is a big part of why I didn’t start watching regularly until the second season). Then as they got more confidence to do running jokes (like the slap bet), it made the sentimental stuff hit harder because it seemed like such a surprising contrast, and not just unearned melodrama. Over time, the characters’ quirks became genuine annoyances, if not outright sociopathic behavior. But then “Spoiler Alert” based an entire episode around that, then resumed course. And “Three Days of Snow” ended on a completely contrived bit of made-for-TV romance between two characters who call each other “Marshmallow” and “Lilypad,” but the last scene still makes me cry every single time.

As for the Microsoft episode: How I Met Your Mother was never at all interested in subtlety, but this was completely over the top. Windows logos all over the place, Maury Povich picking up an Xbox 360, all of it taking place in an alternate universe where anyone referred to Bing as the default search engine, and that’s without even mentioning how the characters had explicitly been shown using iPhones in previous episodes.

But it actually worked. It was another gimmick episode, but it was still pretty funny. And not just in spite of, but in defiance of the product placement. The show had been around for over 100 episodes by that point; it was pretty ludicrous to believe that a bit of network-driven brand promotion was going to destroy its integrity, at least any more than the years of aggressive marketing that CBS had been inflicting on the series in the form of Barney Stinson “bro”-themed books and Robin Sparkles merchandise. They ended up just using the advertising as part of the absurdity, but also using it to make an otherwise unremarkable episode memorable. Now it’s “the one with all the product placement.” On a series that’d been running for that long, being forgettable was a much greater danger than selling out. Plus it made this guy from Cult of Mac absolutely livid, which is of course a huge part of what makes it so delightful.

And more than that, it seemed to be in defiance of the idea that “selling out” was even relevant. The idea that genuine artistic integrity is actually based on anything that shallow.

Recognizing that is genuinely subversive. I always got the impression that I was at least 10 years older than the target audience for the series — but then, it’s hard to tell, because the show has guys ostensibly born in the 80s who are absolutely obsessed with Star Wars the way that only sitcom show-runners born in the 70s could be. And I grew up in an era where everyone was still getting an idea of how counter-culture worked after nobody was sincere about anything any longer. An era in which David Letterman mocking GE on his long-running NBC series was considered “subversive,” as was going on the cover of Rolling Stone wearing a T-shirt that said “Corporate Rock Still Sucks.” It didn’t take long for it to became clear that all of that was just posturing, and it ended up feeling all the more artificial because of its impotence.

How I Met Your Mother side-stepped that by acknowledging that its running gags, stunt casting, corporate marketing tie-ins, its formulaic sitcom format, even its deliberately post-modern premise, were all just window dressing that would never make or break the series on its own. They set themselves up with the problem of how to tell an earnest, unabashedly sentimental and hopelessly romantic story to an audience that was so self-aware and jaded that it had already spent a decade getting tired of being jaded.

How I Fixed Your TV Show

At least, that’s the show that I’ve been watching for years (and recording-and-meaning-to-watch for the past few years). It’s probably a mistake to assume too much self-awareness of an audience, though; some people just want to be calmed by the colors and moving shapes of insipid non-challenging network television and jump up on their sofa and clap whenever the funny gay man says “Legendary.”

Okay sure, it’s generally bad form to start insulting people who have a different opinion of a TV show. But I’ve got little patience for the kind of arrogance that makes somebody on the internet say, “Uh, yeah, we fixed your show for you. You’re welcome.” Even less when the “fixed” version is so, so much stupider.

To save everybody the trouble of watching it: the “fixed” version is just a few minutes of the last half of the finale episode, helpfully sanded down to remove anything at all surprising, challenging, unconventional, or that could be mistaken for a sign of actual story development or any kind of purpose to the preceding nine years of television.

It actually ends with Ted saying “and that’s how I met your mother,” cut to credits. I imagine the bright yellow umbrella was a big help as well, since anyone who thinks that that’s the “kind of sappy that totally jives with everything HIMYM viewers should have come to know and love” is someone who’s still amazed by object permanence.

Elsewhere on The AV Club, Todd VanDerWerff concedes that the finale didn’t retroactively invalidate the entire series, but that the show-runners were “shitty long-term planners” who painted themselves into a corner early on and were just too incompetent to pull themselves out of it. Which is not just colossally incorrect, but baffling and arrogant. It’s disturbingly reminiscent of the people who complained that the movie A.I. turned to shit as soon as the “aliens” showed up. It says “because my assumption turned out to be incorrect, you failed.”

Here’s the point where VanDerWerff’s take goes completely off the rails:

This is all well and good if the story the series is telling is that of the show’s title. But it’s not. The story the series ultimately settled on was that of not just how Ted met Tracy (and told his kids all about not just that but also several seemingly unconnected adventures) but also how his kids told him to get out of his own head and start fucking Robin again after his wife had been dead for a socially acceptable period of time. And this isn’t something Bays and Thomas pulled out of their ass to give a series that ran too long a happy ending!

Can you see the problem? It’s a word that starts with “f” and ends with the assumption that Bays & Thomas had less understanding of how American episodic television than the average message board poster. It assumes that the series was never anything more than a raunchy mainstream comedic soap opera; Friends for millennials. That there was never any “message” to it apart from “Who gets to fuck Robin now?” Which itself ignores the immature and misogynist attitude that people take for granted as acceptable in romantic comedies, and assumes that this long-running and popular sitcom couldn’t possibly have been commenting on that.

It assumes that How I Met Your Mother was ever really about how Ted Mosby met his kids’ mother. Worse, it keeps assuming that even after the series suggested several times over, and the finale definitively proved, that that could never have been the case.

How I Met Your Mary-Ann


I’m absolutely not claiming that I saw the ending coming. In fact, a few years ago I read that interview with Jason Segel, where he mentioned the idea of the entire story being told after the mother’s death, and I promptly forgot about it. It just seemed like tone-deaf, hipster posturing: Screw you, viewers, she was dead the whole time! Boom, edgy! That’s what you get for getting emotionally invested in a dumb old sitcom!

A couple of episodes ago, when they all-but-explicitly said that the mother was dying, I was extremely pissed off. If they did that, it would retroactively destroy any love I ever had for this series. The reason was that I didn’t see any way they could possibly make it work. It would only ever be a manipulative attempt at pathos instead of the genuine sentimentality the series has always excelled at. And worse, it would’ve violated the entire premise of the series. “Kids, as we sit in honor and remembrance of your mother and the one true love of my life, let me first spend hours telling you about the years I spent having sex with other women.”

But that’s the only way the series ever could’ve ended. I’ve read a few people say that the show-runners painted themselves into a corner when they recorded the kids’ final scenes for the finale, sometime at the end of the first season. That’s not true. They painted themselves into a corner the moment they said, “Let’s make an American ongoing television series called How I Met Your Mother.”

It has what’s probably the most contrived premise for a television series since Gilligan’s Island. The thing that the show’s ostensibly “about,” the thing that all the characters are striving for, is the one thing that can never be shown without the series ending. In fact, if you wanted to reveal the title character at all, you’d have to significantly change up the format of the entire series. Like, for instance, making the entire last season a compressed-time version of a single weekend that was pivotal for all the characters’ relationships.

The format of the show has always carried with it an implicit joke: Ted Mosby’s the world’s worst storyteller. Not only has it taken him years to get to the point with all his various distractions, but he’s spent a year telling his children about all the sex he had before he met their mother. But as meta-observations go, that’s about as insightful as pointing out that Mystery Incorporated are never chasing actual ghosts, or everything in Three’s Company was based on a simple misunderstanding. Not only did the HIMYM team make the above video for Comic-Con in preparation for the final season; they’ve made the joke in the series itself. As soon as it was revealed Stella wasn’t the mother, an episode had her walking in on the story with two blonde-headed kids, asking, “Is your dad still telling that story?!”

They did a lighter-touch, sincere version of it this season with the aforementioned saddest episode, when we learn that Ted and Tracy have learned all of each other’s stories, and she warns him not to get lost in his stories. The finale says it outright: Ted insists that he kept the story short and to the point, after his daughter points out that the story was hardly about Mom at all.

The credits sequence hasn’t changed since the second episode of the series. It’s always been a bunch of snapshots of Ted and his best friends hanging out at the bar. As if to suggest that those memories were the entire focus of the series all along. Finding his wife was the framing story for those memories, not vice-versa.

Throughout the season, they establish Ted as an unreliable narrator, for instance with a character named “Blahblah” and the running gag of using sandwiches as a stand-in for pot. Which could’ve been nothing more than a stylistic flourish or television gimmick. Or more likely: a constant reminder that Ted was telling these stories, and there was a reason he was choosing to tell these stories in this way.

And there are all the finale’s callbacks to the show’s pilot episode: showing the cast in their first appearances, and ending on the iconic scene with the blue french horn. VanDerWerff (whom I usually agree with to an uncanny degree) spends several paragraphs missing the point — and again, that in itself isn’t the problem, since I already confessed to getting the same clues and freaking out at the idea that there wasn’t going to be a purely happy ending with The Mother. The problem is seeing an artist pretty much explicitly tell you what he’s doing and why he’s doing it, and still insisting that it was clumsily or poorly planned. He writes:

But think back to the wonderful ending of the show’s pilot, to the moment when Ted’s kids realize the woman he met was their Aunt Robin, not their mother, and think about all that has been lost in the quest by Bays and Thomas to write themselves out of that moment, even when several viable alternatives presented themselves. The series finale of How I Met Your Mother insists that life happens to you, like it or not, that the bad things can’t be swept away in a single moment. It’s a pity that the men writing it tried so hard to stick to those guns once it became evident how far the show had trended away from their original plans.

He describes it as a desperate attempt to “write themselves out of that moment,” when the entire series has been five good seasons and four meandering ones attempting to deliver on that moment. I just re-watched the pilot, and the ending, which is indeed wonderful, is essentially a line-for-line prediction of the knee-jerk reactions to the series finale. The daughter’s upset that Ted promised to tell them the story of how he met their mother, but instead went into detail about how he first met Aunt Robin. And then when he’s asked how long it’s going to take to tell this story, he says, “long.” They might not have known it was going to be ten years long, and it frankly shouldn’t have been ten years long, but they were fully aware that episodic television means you’re not going to get a straight line from A to B.

More than that, it sets up the theme from the beginning; it’s not some retcon that came out of left field for the finale. At 27, Ted was already a hopeless romantic, so impatient to find The One that he described his perfect wedding to one first date and said “I love you” on another first date. He was contrasted with his two best friends who’d each already found their one true love in college, and his other horndog friend who was vehemently against the idea of “one true love.”

How I Met Your Step-Mother

A lot of viewers — myself included — believed that meant we were watching a romantic comedy series about a man’s mis-steps and false starts on the way towards finding the love of his life. What we got instead were several seasons with the story arc of incurable romantic Ted believing he’d found The One, having his hopes dashed, giving up on the idea, and then being encouraged to find the next The One.

All the while seeing his commitment-phobic friend lecturing him on the arcane rules of dating and manipulating women for sex (the kind of attitude that says stuff like “start fucking Robin again after his wife had been dead for a socially acceptable period of time”), but gradually growing into the kind of man who could have a mature honest relationship with a woman as an equal.

And simultaneously, Ted was seeing his other friends start at the end of any romantic comedy, the “and they lived happily ever after” part of their lives. Over time, they went through adversity, questioning their ideals, balancing their dreams with reality, and learning not to take their love for each other for granted and doing the actual “work” of being a married couple.

Which is why the shallow interpretations of the finale have me annoyed enough to go off on a tirade. There’s something defeatist if not outright elitist about it, an assumption that because the story takes the format of a formulaic sitcom, that’s all it can ever be. It’s all stunts and catch phrases and running gags and gimmicks and sex jokes, with the occasional sappy moment we all know and love. And all of those other stories are just killing time until Ted gets his happily ever after.

But this was, from the start, a sitcom that wanted to do more. It wanted to show that Ted was growing up and learning from these experiences too. That being an “incurable romantic” actually means having a juvenile idea about what relationships are actually about. VanDerWerff says that by spinning everything back to Robin, that both Ted and the show are guilty of “oneitis,” being so focused on one person at the expense of someone else who’s a better fit. That’s a complete mis-read; Ted’s story, from the pilot to the finale, is a rejection of the idea that you only get one.

(There’s even a foreshadowing of that in a running gag, deliberate or not: Barney’s constant insistence that Ted call him his best friend instead of Marshall, when nobody else cared to make the distinction).

Ted did find the love of his life. If my math is right, he and Tracy were together for as many years after their first meeting as the entire length of the series. And one of the many brilliantly-handled aspects of the last season was that we only ever saw that their relationship was perfect. She blended perfectly into the group. She wasn’t just “Ted’s girlfriend” but someone who genuinely changed all their lives. Their meeting was genuinely charming, as if the writers had saved up all the wit and romance caught in the drip pan of nine seasons and put it into one scene. We never saw their fights, only the years of happy memories that Ted had. Even during “the worst times,” we didn’t see ay of the suffering, just the acknowledgement that they were completely in love. One of the most perfect details was that they didn’t get married for years, not until after they’d had two children, and it was in small ceremony with their best friends. Ted’s perfect, fairytale wedding never happened, because all his abstract plans for his perfect romance stopped mattering as soon as he found the real thing.

Contrast that with the “fixed” ending up above, and you can get an idea why it’s annoying that anyone would call that superior. It’s not just that it’s an insipid, juvenile “happily ever after;” it undermines the entire series. It says that Ted was right all along, and he just needed to kiss enough frogs before he found his princess. It trivializes this relationship by setting up that she’s essentially just “the one after Victoria, and Zoe, and Stella, and Robin…” and also trivializes those relationships by setting them up as essentially practice runs from which he learned nothing. It ends with all the characters essentially unchanged from the pilot episode. And it just ignores the most obvious problem: we’ve been spending all this time hearing about everyone except the mother.

The ending that we got, however, owns that and puts the entire series in context. It doesn’t matter that the story barely has the mother in it, because we got everything we need to know: she was perfect, and she’ll be forever perfect in his memories.

And Ted’s story doesn’t stop the moment he meets Tracy, either. The thing that broke he and Robin up the first time was that they wanted different things from their lives: he saw himself having a fantasy wedding and settling down to a life in the suburbs with a perfect wife and two kids; she saw herself traveling around the world at a moment’s notice and had no interest in settling down. And in the seasons that followed, they both learned that it’s worse than futile to try and form a plan for the rest of your life while in your 20s, since you end up comparing everything that actually happens to that unrealistic plan.

Ted discovered — in what, in retrospect, seems like one of the most poignant storylines — that the house was just a shell, and he was still impatiently putting together aspects of his ideal life instead of letting life happen to him.

Robin discovered that the things she’d always assumed weren’t important turned out to be hugely important to her — in her most poignant storyline, she discovered she couldn’t have children and had to figure out why that was so devastating to her. And while the will-they-or-won’t-they back-and-forth with Barney was most likely an attempt to squeeze a few more seasons out of the series, it ends up fitting in with her story just as well. Barney was a cartoon version of the kind of no-strings-attached, whiskey-and-strip-clubs, complete freedom of being able to drop everything and do something completely reckless that she’d always believed she wanted. The wedding wasn’t a distraction; it was a process of the both of them growing up and learning what real commitment and selflessness was. And importantly: they were genuinely in love, and they continued to be in love after the divorce.

It’s fitting that she broke up with Ted because of their “expiration date,” her fear that she’d be tied down to one place and lose what she thought was her freedom, but then found herself thirty years later in the same apartment in the same city, still surrounded by her dogs. Both she and Ted got what they wanted, at least for a few years, but then the complication is that their story kept going.

There’s a reason Ted’s story — and therefore, the series — started with his meeting Robin. It wasn’t to set her up as the first in a line of failed relationships until he found the successful one. It wasn’t to say that the kids’ mother was fine but it was always Robin that he truly loved. It was to show that Ted at the beginning of the story is a different person than he is at the end, even if he doesn’t realize it until his kids point it out. (Yet another example of why the “fixed” version is so lousy: the framing story just becomes inert, an acknowledgement that everything interesting that happened is in the past). It’s because that relationship is one of the most important relationships of his life, even though it wasn’t — or maybe because it wasn’t — a romantic one. It’s because telling the story makes him realize everything he got from the relationship, while at the time he was always comparing the relationship to what it could be.

There was an excellent episode in the last season called “Sunrise,” in which Ted finally gives up on his one big final romantic gesture and symbolically steps down as an obstacle between Robin and Barney. Robin finds out, and she and Ted spend the night on the beach, talking about their relationship up to this point. In one of the simultaneously corny and beautiful scenes that HIMYM always did so well, Ted finally lets go of Robin and sees her floating away, like a child’s balloon. It’s one of the scenes that the finale puts in a new context, making the obvious interpretation seem shallow. Even if they both thought so at the time, Ted wasn’t really letting go of Robin, so that she could go on to marry Barney and he could go on to meet Tracy. Ted was finally letting go of his childish version of Perfect Robin. The version that was keeping him forever focused on what he thought he could have instead of appreciating what he had.

After the finale, that blue french horn stops being just a prop for the big Say Anything moment in a shallow, “One big gesture and my quest to win the girl is complete” romantic comedy. It becomes an acknowledgement that they’ve had a long history together. Everything has an expiration date, the worst thing you can do is let worries about the future stand in the way of enjoying the present.

And of course, it solves the problem they set for themselves in the pilot episode. If you want to tell a love story for adults that still builds to a climactic moment when one runs to the other and delivers a big, sweeping romantic gesture, you want it to be with a character we love and have gotten to know for longer than a season. There’s no one perfect story. You don’t have to choose between love at first sight and the depth of understanding that comes from knowing another person for a long time. You can have both.

How We Blew Your Rambaldi-Device-Finding, Cylon-Discovering, Island-Escaping Mind

I’ve spent years poring over the details of Lost, trying to put all the pieces together and predict what was going to happen. For a long time, I believed Battlestar Galactica was going somewhere and that the opera house dream would make sense. It seems weird to me now, but I even put a good bit of effort into trying to figure out Alias.

When I started reading people’s responses to the How I Met Your Mother finale, my first thought was that they were treating it as if it were just some kind of mystery story, or a puzzle to be solved, instead of letting themselves get genuinely invested in it. But really, it was a pretty neat mystery story. It used flashbacks and flash-forwards better than a conventional sitcom really needed to. It was exciting to get clues like the Econ class or the yellow umbrella doled out, like the episodes of X-Files that unpredictably dipped in and out of the larger continuity.

And just thinking about the finale in the context of the other episodes, and how it re-contextualizes the other episodes, has been interesting. Obviously, not all of it is deliberate, and a lot of it really was nothing more than a half hour of goofy television. But I’m impressed by how much of it fits. It really does seem as if they announced their intentions with an unconventional pilot, and then spent the next decade carrying it out. Of course, when your theme is “unexpected stuff happens,” it’s a little easier to say after the fact that nothing was a tangent.

I’ve been interested in long-form episodic television storytelling since the first time they showed The Smoking Man. I never would’ve expected that the first series to pull it off successfully would be a silly little formulaic sitcom that often could made me cry. If they’d gone for about three seasons shorter, and if the gang had ever made any black or Asian friends, it would’ve been about perfect.

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Disney, Movies

The Curious Case of Tow Mater

Empire Strikes Back ending shot
Everybody knows that sequels are always worse than the originals.

Except, of course, in the multitude of cases where they’re better (in order of universally regarded as superior, to this one writer’s opinion, which also happens to be objective fact): The Empire Strikes Back, The Wrath of Khan, X2: X-Men United, The Dark Knight, Toy Story 2, Aliens, Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness, Monsters University.

The reason I’m mentioning all of those (two of them Pixar sequels) is because of the announcement of upcoming sequels to The Incredibles and the Cars series. From what I saw, there was a wave of excitement — Incredibles 2 — followed by a backlash of Emperor’s new clothes — Cars 3. I saw several people say roughly the same thing: Why is everyone celebrating more creatively bankrupt cash grabs? If Pixar had remained semi-independent and hadn’t been bought by Disney, they’d still be focusing on original titles instead of churning out franchises.

I’ve been guilty of the mindset that “of course original content is always better, and there’s always an element of creative bankruptcy when sequels or licensed properties are involved.” But now I believe that that’s superficial. Having an adamant “no sequels” policy is at best being overly precious about The Muse, at worst extremely arrogant. Not to mention ignoring the fact that actual geniuses are capable of making something amazing even from a faithful adaptation.

(I should probably point out that my entire career in video games has been essentially that of a professional fan fiction writer. Sequels, spiritual sequels, or video game adaptations, all working with other people’s stuff. So I’ve put quite a bit of thought over the years into the topic of “original IP” vs. licensed content and sequels).

It’s understandable that people would be skeptical, considering that Disney spent several years making uninspired direct-to-video sequels of classic movies. And calling them “uninspired” isn’t a criticism of them in the same way it would be with a real movie, since at no point in the process were they intended to be creative works.

Of course it’s different when you’re talking about real feature releases. On that front, it seems to me that Pixar is just staying the course: sequels to Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, and Cars 2 have been announced, and so have two original projects. People are cautiously optimistic about Finding Dory, somewhat excited about The Incredibles 2, and calling Cars 3 an unsurprising cash-grab.

But look at the Cars movies. They are:

  1. The worst Pixar movies. (In my opinion. And of course, “worst Pixar movie” still means that they’re technically flawless, have striking concept work, and several clever moments, but are ultimately just “entertainment” instead of instant classics).
  2. The most profitable Pixar movies, by a wide margin.
  3. By all accounts the result (at least the first one) of a very personal, passion project by John Lasseter.

Which suggests to me, as an outsider, a less superficial and more realistic idea of how Pixar works. Any time a studio or production company is presented as a haven for tortured artists to get the resources they need to bring their artistic visions to reality, that’s probably bullshit, coming either from marketing or self-promotion or cynically idealistic fans. What’s a lot more likely is that like any creative business, you get the most success by being able to balance creativity, accessibility, and profitability.

My Singular Artistic Vision would’ve said that casting Larry the Cable Guy as a wacky sidekick in a Pixar movie was the epitome of the cynical marketing-driven cash grab. As it turned out, though, he’s a really good voice actor for animation, and he helped make a genuinely memorable character. Which shouldn’t be that surprising considering that his entire public persona is a fictional character, but still completely counter-intuitive when conventional wisdom said it should’ve been a disaster on the scale of casting Jeff Foxworthy. It still hurts me down to my soul to hear “Git R Done!” in a movie, or anywhere really, but give credit where it’s due.

I used to believe that LucasArts had the perfect can’t-fail business model: have the titles based on a ludicrously successful license which make your money and fund your original, creative titles that build your brand as an independent studio. In retrospect, though, that doesn’t make sense. Instead of being so precious about originality, why not apply creativity and imagination to titles that won’t be mediocre selling critical darlings? The balance got completely out of whack at that company, resulting in 100 variations of the Hoth battle or the Death Star trench run, but something like 1313 seemed to be the right idea. It just came too late to be realized.

Ultimately, if you’re arguing in favor of the creative process, then you have to acknowledge that creativity can come from anywhere.

It’s possible that this really is the beginning of the end for Pixar, their days of cranking out one classic film after another are over, and now that they’re wholly owned by Disney, they’re doomed to start cranking out movies like Planes. I’m extremely skeptical, after seeing not just the talent still at the studio, but seeing Wreck-it Ralph and Frozen. Anything’s possible. But if it does happen, then it won’t be just by virtue of putting out sequels.

For my part, I’m optimistic about Incredibles 2. The first is a movie I’ve always wanted to love but couldn’t. The art direction is amazing, every single environmental design is taken directly from the Book Of Stuff Chuck Likes, and the scene where drones chase Dash around the island is, without exaggeration, one of the best scenes in any movie ever made. If I can get all that without the creepy, didactic, bizarrely defensive, Objectivist message, then that’d be perfect.

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Music

If I Can’t Show It, You Can’t See Me


The song says that this is no time for confessing, but if I’m going to be talking about St. Vincent (or for that matter, St. Vincent) I’ve got to make a couple of confessions:

First is that while I consider myself a huge fan of St. Vincent, I really only like about 50% of her music. The songs run hot and cold with me, and I’m usually indifferent to at least half the songs on any particular album. But the songs I like, I adore. Actor is my favorite of her albums, even though at this point I treat it as a 5-song EP — but since those five songs include “Black Rainbow,” “The Strangers,” and “Marrow,” that ranks it as one of the best albums ever recorded. And if I’m being honest, I really only like one song from Strange Mercy — but it’s one of my favorite songs ever:

My second confession is that I never really “got” David Bowie, even though I’ve always wished I could see and hear what everybody else seemed to. My first exposure to him was Let’s Dance, and I just didn’t (and still don’t) see the appeal. And then when Labyrinth came out, it was already established that he was some kind of superstar. It really wasn’t until Seu Jorge stripped the songs down in The Life Aquatic that I could appreciate how many really good songs he’d written. Of course by that point, I’d already missed all the years of being exposed to his Persona, which is as much a part of the show as his music.

I mention the first part because St. Vincent is an outstanding album by any measure. Actor is still my favorite, but St. Vincent is probably her best. Most of the reviews, and Annie Clark herself, mention that the album’s more confident and self-assured. Usually I dismiss that kind of thing as meaningless music review talk, about as meaningful as the language used by wine connoisseurs. But it really comes through here. St. Vincent sounds like someone who doesn’t have anything to prove.

She’s an excellent guitar player, and it kind of became her schtick, undoubtedly because of the novelty of it: a beautiful young woman with an angelic voice suddenly pulling out an electric guitar and just wailing on it. I don’t think she ever used it as a crutch; it was never like early Van Halen albums that’d just screech to halt for the sake of “Eruption.” But each song still had the sense of and here’s the guitar solo. (And don’t get me wrong; that’s a big part of why “Black Rainbow” is still my favorite of her songs). But the new record feels as if she said, “Okay, I’ve pretty much got the guitar covered for what I want to get out of it.” Now it’s part of a new sound consistent throughout the album: a drum kit, minimoog, and guitar with none of them drawing too much attention to itself.

In an interview with NPR’s All Songs Considered podcast, Clark described the sound as taking analog instruments and processing them to sound digital and artificial. Actor experimented with a thematic (almost diegetic?) sound as well, and it’s why I love it — my crush on St. Vincent was sealed the moment she described making a rock/pop album inspired by the music in Sleeping Beauty — but I also have to admit it’s a little bit “on the nose.” Take something sweet and melodic and put a dark twist on it: paint the black hole blacker. St. Vincent feels less like an intellectual exercise.

But what really makes St. Vincent work as a complete album is one song: “Regret.” Right at the point when the album could run out of steam and have me reaching for the controls to jump back to “Birth in Reverse,” she launches into a second half that feels as if it has the potential to go anywhere. She’s never been at a loss for a good hook, but dropping everything down to just her guitar and a drum kit instantly evokes Houses of the Holy for me. Then “Bring Me Your Loves” works better than it has any right to; is this turning into a Moog-rock dance album? Apparently not, since “Psychopath” tumbles backwards through 80s pop and then “Every Tear Disappears” turns it into a Berlin record. Combined with the visuals of the “Digital Witness” video and the album cover, it all seems to exist as part of a late-70s sci-fi movie (Clark described the look as “near-future cult leader”) that’s predicting the 90s nostalgia for the 80s, transmitted into 2014.

Which is why I mentioned the second confession: St. Vincent makes me feel like I’m getting the 70s art-rock experience that David Bowie’s fans got but that I missed out on. It’s not as explicit as anything that, say, Janelle Monaé’s doing (or Ziggy Stardust, for that matter) but it does all feel like a concept album. Finally I get glam rock I can call my own!

Best of all, it seems as if my favorite songs from her earlier albums were just a kind of prologue for what’s coming up. They were displays of talent with frequent flashes of genius here and there; this is a burst of creativity. Pulling in disparate influences, experimenting with all the different things she can do with her voice (she doesn’t sound the same on any two songs, much less the same as she did on Strange Mercy), and combining a good old-fashioned hook with an art-rock high concept.

And the whole thing’s got her sense of dark humor running throughout. There’s a laughably defensive article on Buzzfeed saying that the album’s fine and whatever, but St Vincent just doesn’t get the internet, man. (“…extremely condescending toward the diverse range of people who regularly use social media.”) It’d be silly enough because “Digital Witness” perfectly describes the always-connected loneliness for those of us who watch movies or listen to albums while simultaneously trying to come up with clever blog post titles, or now judge every memorable sight based on whether it’s best suited for Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter. It’s even sillier when you combine it with “Huey Newton,” which — according to Clark, since the lyrics are kind of impenetrable — is about being in a hotel tripping on Ambien and falling down an Internet browsing rabbit hole.

That sense of humor and self-awareness is what bumps my admiration into shameless fandom. There are plenty of artists whose work I love but would never want to meet them in person; Annie Clark, on the other hand, seems like she’d be fascinating to meet. Hear her talk about guitar technique and pedals and her artistic influences, and it’s clear she knows what she’s doing. Watch her in a video or a live performance and she’s straight-up weird, putting everything into the creativity of a performance. Her teaming up with David Byrne was a surprise to me but seems natural in retrospect: if there’s anybody I can see putting on a giant suit and twitching and shuddering across a stage, it’s St. Vincent. But then she effortlessly turns it off. In interviews, and even between songs, she comes across as completely devoid of pretension or any sense of self-importance. Not as a persona but as a person.

I’ve already listened to the new record more times than I can count, and it’s got me excited about what’s coming next.

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