One Thing I Like About The Haunting of Hill House

The Haunting of Hill House had quite a few jump scares, but it saved its most masterful tricks for the finale

In my attempt to watch more spooky stuff for Halloween season, I watched The Haunting of Hill House over two nights this weekend. That’s not a typo; instead of The Haunting of Bly Manor that everyone’s talking about, I’m keeping true to my goal of staying at least one year behind popular culture.

I never binge-watch anything. On top of the time commitment, I hate the hollow feeling that comes after being invested in something for hours and then having it just… end. For some reason, I can still remember being in middle school, and a local TV station aired a marathon of episodes of the old sitcom Soap, and I watched hours and hours of it. After the finale aired, I got weirdly depressed and couldn’t sleep. Afterwards, I was trying to explain to my mother why I was so depressed, and I couldn’t make sense of why a sitcom — that I didn’t even think was very good — had such an emotional impact on me. I suspect I just remain a sensitive child who gets overly invested in stories.

Still, once I got hooked on The Haunting of Hill House — part way through episode 1 — there was no way I was stopping until it was over. It was completely compelling. Each episode focused on a specific character’s story and planted just enough intrigue to make you want to keep going. There were excellent performances and strong writing throughout; I never completely lost the sense that I was watching actors delivering character-defining dialogues, but nothing rang false and all the emotional moments felt earned and honest. Set direction, costuming, and CGI were always perfect, and the filmmaking on the whole ranged from “flawless” to “genuinely innovative.” There was a great reveal halfway through, finally showing us the true identity of one of the series’s scariest ghosts. There was even a fun, creepy game of trying to spot all of the hidden ghosts in the background. (Warning: that video has lots of spoilers for the entire series. Also, I only saw maybe two of them while I was watching).

It was Very Good Television. I was thinking of it as essentially Lost, but with an evil house instead of a mysterious island. Considering how completely obsessed I was with Lost, that’s not at all an insult. (The story structure is so similar to Lost’s first season that it seems like a natural comparison).

But then, about halfway through episode 9 of a 10-episode series, they started delivering the actual reveals. Not the stuff that we’d been wanting or expecting to see, but an acknowledgement of what the series had really been about the entire time. Unlike Lost, they knew where they were going from the first scene, and they’d been planting actual clues throughout the story. And they had the patience to keep the story’s actual depth a secret until the last possible minute, when it would have the most impact.

I should confess to two things: one is that I’ve read The Haunting of Hill House, but I’ve never felt like I understood it. At least, not to the degree of people who describe it as one of the scariest books they’ve ever read.1For the record, I don’t feel like I fully understand We Have Always Lived in the Castle, either. 2I do understand The Lottery, for what it’s worth. I knew going in that this series isn’t intended as a faithful adaptation of the book, having only character names, the notion of an evil house, and some memorable dialogue in common. Now I’m wondering if the book shares the series’s ideas about home, possession, and safety, since it’s now easier to see that Eleanor in the book was more or less translated into Olivia in the series.

Second is that I was perfectly happy having all my emotional buttons pushed so effectively, over and over again, to the point that I didn’t even care if there were more layers to the storytelling. Even if the finale had just shown us some Very Stressful Moments in which characters learned more about each other and themselves, and some flashbacks that revealed the True Horrors of That Fateful Night, and said that This Evil House is a Metaphor for Family Dysfunction, and The Ghosts That Follow You Are Your Own Self-Doubt, I would’ve gone away happy with this as an excellent TV ghost story.

But the actual finale was just beautiful. Tragic, and brutal, and scary, like I’d been expecting, but also beautiful. It somehow managed to tie all these stories together. And it did so much not with action moments or scares, but conversations. It explained why the evil of the house followed the characters into their adult lives, and it revealed that the cause wasn’t simply pure evil, but tragic love. The finale revealed that we haven’t been watching Lost, but a much more intense Finding Nemo.

Even more remarkable, it managed to keep all of its metaphors of family and personal dysfunction, but without sacrificing any of its supernatural elements. “Ghosts are a wish,” the show says, describing them as a metaphor for regrets and loss and unresolved emotions that stay with us no matter how much we try to protect ourselves and each other from them. The finale goes on to say, “Sure, they are all that. But they’re also still ghosts.”

The Word Is Murder, or, Write What You Know

Anthony Horowitz’s detective story “The Word Is Murder” is a page-turner, in both directions

Cover of The Word Is Murder via Goodreads

I started reading The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz knowing absolutely nothing about it going in, apart from the fact that I loved reading his book Magpie Murders last year.

I honestly can’t tell whether it was the fact I went it cold that gave me the feeling of surprise, delight, and discovery I had when going through the first half of the book. So I’m reluctant to say too much about it, because I don’t know what could be considered a “spoiler.”

So I’ll start with my summation and just say that I recommend it to anyone looking for a well-written, somewhat “old-fashioned” detective story. For fans of Magpie Murders, it’s a no-brainer. That book felt more ambitious with its central conceit — and honestly, I think it’s a little better — but there’s the same appeal for anyone who wants to get lost in a twisting, turning murder mystery told with cleverness and confidence. For fans of the British TV murder mysteries that Horowitz writes when not doing novels, it’s an easy recommendation.

To talk about why it’s so clever, I’ve got to talk about the main conceit of the book, which doesn’t become completely clear until the second chapter. I won’t mention any details of the mystery itself, but that process of gradually making sense of what was happening was fun, and I’d hate to ruin it for anyone.

If Magpie Murders was like Scream and Scream 2, I guess The Word Is Murder is more like a more conventional Adaptation. Or maybe a less introspective 8 1/2. The book is a fictionalized account of writing the book, and it maintains that fiction even into the final acknowledgements.

Horowitz casts himself as the Dr Watson to a brilliant but abrasive (and pointedly homophobic, for some reason) former police detective named Daniel Hawthorne. Or at least, he tries to. Hawthorne proves to be nowhere near as interesting or engaging a character as Sherlock Holmes, and he stonewalls all of Horwitz’s attempts to find out more about him. There’s even a bit of meta-commentary on that at the beginning of the book, as Horowitz insists that they’re called “detective stories” because people want to read about an interesting detective, while Hawthorne insists that reader only care about the mystery.

So much of the book reads like a heavily fictionalized memoir, with Horowitz telling stories about his (real life) work as a writer for television and books — he mentions Foyle’s War, Poirot, his Alex Rider books, and his Sherlock Holmes novel The House of Silk in particular —as it relates to a murder mystery done in the style of those classic detective stories. He never breaks the conceit that he’s writing true crime non-fiction, and it’s filled with so many real-world references, that you start to wonder how much of it is fiction. Wait, is there a Tintin 2 actually in pre-production? Is this actually the name of an actor in the Star Trek movies? Does Charlie Kauffman really have an identical twin brother, and was Susan Orlean really a drug addict and attempted murderer? I found myself hopping out of the book to check IMDB or look up stuff on Wikipedia, to reassure myself what was “real.”

The Word is Murder is a page-turner in the traditional sense — Horowitz is a master of writing chapter breaks that practically force you to keep barreling through — but I just as often found myself turning backwards in the book to see what I’d missed. He rewrites the book’s opening chapter while the book is still in progress, asking us to pay closer attention to the details. And he has a particularly clever gimmick in which he’ll alert us at the end of a chapter that we’d just learned a crucial clue, and we should go back and make sure we noticed it.

Almost all of it is a joy to read. It’s kind of a marvel that it works at all, considering everything that could’ve gone wrong. For a while, I was worried that Horowitz’s frequent mentions of his CV would overwhelm the book. But he seldom makes it seem self-congratulatory, and he seems so eager to knock himself down a peg and make his fictional self seem foolish, that he ends up coming across as an affable and charming surrogate for both the reader and the author.

It was also a risk to center the story around such a cold and unlikeable character as Hawthorne, but it somehow works. I never ended up liking the character at all, but I’m still not sure I’m supposed to. I suspect that the “trick” of the book is Horowitz’s acknowledgement that readers don’t follow Sherlock Holmes stories because of Holmes; he’s ultimately just there to keep the case moving along. Readers are more interested in Watson, who’s not always two steps ahead, but is just there trying to make sense of the case along with them.

I do have a couple of complaints, and they’re related. I don’t quite feel like the case was “fair;” it’s guilty of Murder by Death syndrome, i.e., there’s too much essential information withheld from the reader until the last minute. The book is very good at establishing its red herrings, and I spent the first half certain that I knew the motive at least, until that theory was thoroughly shot down. But there’s essentially a chapter-long monologue towards the end of the book, which feels like not only Horowitz dumping a ton of research on us all at once, but introducing a motive that had never been hinted at earlier. So when, at the end of the book, Hawthorne is checking off all the important clues, I didn’t react with Ah ha! Of course I should’ve noticed that!, but instead I noticed that but had absolutely no context that would make it relevant. That chapter also wrecks the pacing of the book right before the climax, which is my second big complaint.

Still, the book is such a fun mystery story that it’s hard to find fault with it. I get the sense that Horowitz is so technically proficient and understands the genre so completely, that he imposes these layers of meta-fiction on himself to keep it interesting. And like Magpie Murders, these have the unmistakable feel of someone who’s not only good at writing for the genre, but who thoroughly loves the genre.

Debussy Comes At You Fast

Stumbling through an inadequate description of how Khatia Buniatishvili’s interpretation of Claire de Lune got such a strong response out of me

Last night, as I was trying to get to sleep, I watched a video of Khatia Buniatishvili playing Debussy’s Clair de Lune from her video album Motherland Live: Concert in the Woods. (The embedded video, assuming it still works, is from the same performance, but for some reason has lower audio quality. For me, at least, it was enough to “break the spell.”)

There’s a part in Clair de Lune that always makes me gasp, as the tension of the song “breaks;” in this performance, it’s around 2:15. Hearing it last night, though, I didn’t just gasp. I burst into tears, to the point I was a little concerned for myself.

Suddenly I was like the women in Mulholland Drive listening to “Llorando,” except I wasn’t in an extra-dimensional concert venue; I was lying in my bed watching a performance of a song I’ve heard thousands of times before. Yet there I was, crying like I was auditioning for St. Vincent.1I couldn’t decide which reference I liked better, so I stuck with both.

I started experimenting on myself, like a surgeon with questionable ethics poking different parts of a patient’s exposed brain, to see what kind of reaction they can get. Here’s another video of Buniatishvili performing the same piece, with just as much expression, but while it’s no less beautiful, it didn’t provoke the same response. I watched this neat video from “Rousseau” that all but explains how the song works, and as I’d expected, I got no more emotional than I would have reading (and not understanding) the sheet music. But then I went back to the original, even fast-forwarded to the part that got me last time, and then boom I was crying again.

I have to admit that the music of Claude Debussy kind of scares me. As someone who can barely read sheet music and has little frame of reference for classical music apart from what shows up on compilations, I just don’t understand Debussy’s music at any kind of intellectual level, or how or why it has such an impact on me. I can explain why I burst into tears reading The Catcher in the Rye as a teenager. I can explain why I still gasp every time Raymond Burr looks at the camera in Rear Window, and I can explain why the seemingly mundane image at the end of The Blair Witch Project is more chilling and creepy than any of its contemporaries. I could even make a reasonable attempt of explaining why you can stare at a Magic Eye painting and suddenly see a dolphin.

Another classical music moment that always makes me gasp is Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring. (In that performance, it’s the section that starts at around 2:50, and the part that gets me every damn time (even now, as I’m surgically picking it apart) is at 3:35). But at least with that, I feel like I get it. As in a performance of Peter and the Wolf for children, I can pick out the different parts of the orchestra, and I know what kind of emotional response they’re designed to provoke. I can imagine Copland going to the Adirondacks or Yosemite or wherever he went, looking out over the vistas, hearing this kind of instrumentation in his head, and building a traditional melody into an anthem for national parks and beef commercials.2Yes, I know it was Rodeo and not Appalachian Spring in the beef commercials.

I can’t, however, imagine Debussy standing at the beach for a bit, cracking his knuckles, saying “Très bien, faisons cette chose!”3Or however you actually say “All right, let’s do this thing!”, then sitting down and coming up with La Mer. I’ve listened to that performed dozens of times, and I try to conjure images of the ocean because of the title, but I never “see it.” Instead, it seems to fill my brain with ideas and emotions in the abstract — wonder, suspense, victory, sadness, awe, mystery, calm — glowing words floating in a black void, like an educational cartoon. I realize that it’s not intended to conjure images of the ocean, but make me feel exactly how Debussy felt when he saw the ocean.

At that moment in Clair de Lune last night, I felt a similarly profound sense of connection. First, to Buniatishvili, because even though her connections to the song (which she describes in an interlude at the beginning of the video as being those of a woman realizing she wants more from the world) aren’t familiar to me, the emotional response is. And then Debussy himself, who seems to be reaching out across a century to transfer his feelings, Brainstorm-style, directly into my brain. And then, because I inevitably trace my strongest memories directly back to Disney parks, the Impressions de France film at Epcot, which might be the first time I heard Debussy’s music — in particular, an orchestral version of Clair de Lune is set to a flight over the French Alps at around 10:40 in that video — and I remember how much my mother enjoyed that movie. And it was one of the few attractions that we could share together. It was a sense that every human who’s ever heard this song performed has this exact same feeling in common with each other, even if we all have our own interpretations of and emotional connections to it.

So what I’m ultimately saying is that Debussy’s music feels unsettlingly intrusive to me. Even more when it’s being performed by someone with as much expressiveness as Khatia Buniatishvili. (Slightly less when it’s put at the beginning of “Dream a Little Dream of Me” by Pink Martini and the Von Trapps, which implies that everyone has their own emotional connection to the music and associations with it). He’s a dangerous alien, and he must be stopped.

Edited to add: I’ve been informed that M. Debussy passed away on March 25, 1918, and is therefore no longer an immediate threat. And it was raining. His music still has emotional volatility that seems to last beyond years and beyond death, so I recommend listening to it with caution.

Semi-new Song Sundays: Rina Sawayama

Have you been to that Japanese place, Wagamamas? The one in Heathrow is amazing.

(Warning in case you’ve got profanity-sensitive kids around: the video for “STFU” doesn’t actually say “STFU.” But honestly the f-bomb isn’t anywhere near as offensive as the stuff the boorish guy keeps saying in the first couple of minutes of this video).

Anyway, Rina Sawayama is awesome AF. I heard about her from a “Records in My Life” interview with, unsurprisingly, a few members of Dirty Projectors, in which Felicia Douglas picked Sawayama as an artist she’d recently gotten into via social media. I’m grateful for the reference, because I admit I probably would’ve skipped over Sawayama’s music, because I didn’t understand what she was doing with it.

In short, she’s treating genre as irrelevant, and glamour as irrelevant, combining hooks from pop, dance music, and R&B with heavy metal and whatever the hell else she wants. The result is that it feels like she’s tearing down preconceptions from the inside. She knows that people are going to make assumptions and “read” her as Japanese even though she grew up in England, and dismiss her as “just” a beautiful model instead of as an artist.

Even though I think the song itself is nice but kind of unremarkable, the video for “Bad Friend” is brilliant. It mimics a Japanese TV broadcast of a drama from the late 50s or 60s, with Sawayama in drag as a middle-aged man who’s his own worst enemy. From the sound of the song, you’d never expect it to be a beginning-to-end faithful homage to Tokyo Story-style dramas, much less that the singer would portray herself as a man getting in a bar fight until his hands are bloodied.

But I get the feeling that Sawayama is treating all of it as drag. The video for “XS” first comes across as an R&B-inspired dance pop song, but it’s immediately apparent that that’s just the hook that skims along the surface, in between a metal riff and what sounds like taiko drums and a little bit of flute that seems to mock the idea (or at least lean into the idea) that Japanese culture is alien and exotic. Sawayama’s in drag for this one, too: in the double role of a hyper-excited QVC host and the hyper-sexualized alien creature whose essential juices are being harvested for the product she’s selling.

So again: Rina Sawayama is fantastic, doing pop music with a sensibility that’s somewhere between glam and punk. I think the thing I like best about her work is that she probably doesn’t give a damn what I think of it.

It’s not difficult

A reminder from Amber Ruffin to stop giving a pass to so-called “casual” racism

This week on the Amber Ruffin Show, she did a segment calling out racist jackass Sonny Purdue for his disgraceful mockery of Kamala Harris’s name at a campaign rally. And damn, was it satisfying to see.

There’s been so much inexcusably vile stuff being flung around, that this kind of thing can get lost in the noise. Is it really that harmful? Aren’t there bigger things to worry about? But one thing that people always say about any skill is that you’ve got to make sure you’ve mastered the fundamentals before you can move on to more advanced things. I’d say that the same thing applies to being a decent human.

PS: If you’ve ever made a lazy joke about M Night Shyamalan’s name, that’s almost the same thing.

Edited to add: There’s one thing that I just can’t get over: the guy who’s trying to mock and belittle someone for having a name that reflects her race and her heritage, is named Sonny Purdue. Talk about glass houses, but with a rusted old pickup truck on concrete blocks out front.

Civics for Cynics

How to distinguish between healthy frustration with the political process, and arrogant, selfish, laziness

To start with: a less-than-four-minute video from Trae Crowder explaining why we should vote. I’m posting not because I’m necessarily a huge fan of Crowder,1He’s totally playing up that accent, right? but because this is the simplest and most direct incentive to vote, and it doesn’t require any arguments about selfishness or civic responsibility: if voting weren’t important, there wouldn’t be so many people trying to stop you from doing it.

Even if you’ve managed to convince yourself that the system is rigged by “the establishment,” and that voting doesn’t change anything, you can’t deny that there are blatant attempts at voter suppression happening in Georgia and Texas. (If you do deny that, you’re either out of touch or gullible, either of which is a liability if you’re going for “disaffected free thinker.”)

There are plenty more substantial reasons, too. I started writing this in response to a link I saw via Alan on Micro.blog, where some guy describing himself as an “entrepreneur and angel investor”2Unironically describing himself like that, as far as I can tell! complained about how mean people are always “vote-shaming” him even though it’s his right not to vote, and he followed it up with a list of attempted to justifications. It was quickly obvious there was no point in it, since that post is hot garbage, and there’s nothing to be gained in trying to make a point-by-point rebuttal of something that’s rooted in nothing but arrogance and selfishness.

Instead of that, I’m more interested in talking to people who’ve had the same frustrations with and disillusionment the state of politics (especially in the United States) that I have.

Because there have been a lot of times in the past that I’ve been so frustrated with and disappointed in the political process that I’ve been tempted to just drop out entirely. Or at best, to treat voting as an empty gesture with no real effect. There’ve been an awful lot of those moments this year. Back when Elizabeth Warren dropped out of the race, and it became clear that the primary was going to come down to a choice between white men in their 70s. And more recently when it’s seemed like the Biden campaign was undermining the message that Biden the candidate was trying to get across — taking a message of direct, honest talk and a pledge to listen to Americans; and then surrounding it with fear-mongering campaign ads and a non-stop barrage of automated texts and emails with misleading claims about poll numbers and fundraising.

My point is that there’s nothing special about being disillusioned by the system. When the call to vote is described only in terms of hope and change and civic responsibility, it can come across as naive faith in a system that’s demonstrably broken. But I believe there’s a way to restore trust in the system’s ability to fix itself: to challenge all your frustrated assumptions about the process, so they aren’t allowed to fester and metastasize into self-absorbed inaction.

It’s impossible for me to feel any sympathy for an American who chooses not to vote in this particular election. The stakes are simply too high. But for anybody who’s not making it a priority, or only votes in the “big” races and not midterms, or even anybody who’s already voted but is pessimistic that it was worth it: I get it, and here’s what keeps me motivated.

Proposition 8

I’ll start by mentioning California Prop 8, since I can’t overstate how profoundly that changed the way I think about voting. The night before the election, I was another middle-class white guy living in a system where pretty much everything was designed to, at a minimum, keep me comfortable, if not lavishing me with success. The night of the election, I had my right to get married taken away from me.

It’s also difficult to describe the feeling of uncertainty and paranoia that took over after that. Every social interaction with people on the street or in shops, I had to wonder: did you vote against me? And it’s different from the normal low-grade paranoia that every LGBT person goes through, because this was government-sanctioned bigotry. The “system” had declared that this was a topic about which reasonable adults were permitted to disagree, like tax rates, or zoning laws.3In my home state, the margin was even worse, since around 75% of Georgians voted for their marriage ban. Meaning that it was statistically probable that all my ex-classmates on Facebook who pleaded for tolerance had voted to make it so I couldn’t get married.

As the election results came in, I felt the bottom drop out and felt my faith in society drain away. It wasn’t just resentment at the people who voted for the ban, but resentment at all the people who didn’t bother to vote, who knew what was happening but did nothing to stop it.

Putting it in terms of “it’s different when it happens to you” makes it sound completely selfish — and it is, to some degree — but I believe it’s more profound than that. I’d always voted for liberal candidates and causes wherever I could, so it didn’t change how I voted. But it changed why I voted. It made me recognize that the things I could vaguely abstract away as “the right thing to do” were often of crucial importance to someone, and could have repercussions that ripple out for years.

Short version: Someday, the rights of a minority will never again be subjected to majority vote. Until then, give homosexuality a try, if you want to get a sense of what marginalized people go through.

“It’s my right not to vote”

Yeah, no shit. I want to get this one out of the way first, because it’s not a statement; it’s a tantrum. In the US in particular, we’ve got to stop humoring people who try to excuse selfishness and irresponsibility in terms of “personal freedom.” Responsibility is the whole reason you’ve got personal freedom in the first place. Grow up.

Short version: Adult society is as much about your responsibilities as it is about your freedom. Be an adult.

“My vote doesn’t matter, because we already know who will win in my state”

Everyone in California has felt, at one time or another, that their vote didn’t matter. Even more in the Bay Area, where we’re frequently entreated to contact our representatives about legislation, when it’s our representatives who wrote the legislation in the first place.

The most obvious problem is the electoral college, which is garbage and clearly has to go. (I used to entertain arguments that it was a controversial issue, but it becomes clear with the barest minimum of thought that there’s no democratic reason for it to exist. Even if you don’t believe that the only reason it exists was a racist concession to slave-owning states). A sure way to do that is to vote for candidates who are opposed to the electoral college. Several Democrats are talking about either removing it or disabling its outsized influence on American politics, and you know they’re sincere, because Democrats have a vested interest in getting rid of it.

Really, the only reason the whole notion of “red states” and “blue states” exists at all is to make life easier for pundits and candidates. We’ve seen over and over again that most states are some shade of purple. Still, the only voters who get any attention are the ones in “battleground” states, and candidates don’t even bother trying to appeal to the most populous states. If we don’t emphasize that that is inherently undemocratic, then we let it become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I’ve already seen early reports that higher voter turnout in Georgia might cause it to flip from red to blue, which is something that I’d never have expected to see again in my lifetime. And here in California, the growing progressive dissatisfaction with seemingly locked-in representatives like Speaker Pelosi and Senator Feinstein means that their next races (if they do run again) aren’t guaranteed. Voting often seems like the slowest and least direct way to bring about change, but things can change.

Short version: The electoral college sucks, but that doesn’t mean you don’t vote. It means you should vote for candidates who want to get rid of it.

“My vote doesn’t matter, because one vote doesn’t make a difference”

Even without the electoral college, it can seem like our individual votes are going to be effectively ignored, because there’s already so much support or opposition that the result is already determined before Election Day.

One response to this that I often see is a reminder that local races in particular often have very close margins, that can come down to a few hundred or even a few dozen votes. Which is true.

But I’d say the larger, overarching response to that is “Yeah, that happens. Get over it.” Your vote isn’t just about what you want. We’re conditioned to believe that it is, because we always hear that “our vote is our voice,” and we hear every two-to-four years that our vote will bring about change. Having to settle for slow, collective compromise and decision-making doesn’t feel satisfying.

We want to be making direct change. But even if the vote doesn’t go “your way,” your vote will help indicate whether it was a landslide or a close call. Knowing that an election was close can incentivize people to try and undo the new policy, or run against the unpopular candidate.

And don’t discount the difference in mindset that comes from knowing the actual numbers. The most obvious example these days: people keep pointing to the most recent egregious bullshit from the Trump administration and lazily saying “I can’t believe 50% of America supports this!” We know that 50% of Americans didn’t support this, because not only did Trump lose the popular vote — by the largest number of votes in history — but only 56% of eligible voters showed up to vote. So maybe about 25% of America supports this, if they even care. And that doesn’t even include voters like Susan Collins, who are perfectly willing to enable it but want it to be clear that they’re very concerned about it. Whenever I get depressed that there are still so many people willing to support Trump, it cheers me up to remember that there are so many more who don’t.

Short version: Your vote isn’t just about what you want, it’s about what’s best for everyone. And even when you don’t get the outcome you wanted, you’ve still helped send a message about what’s important to you.

“I Don’t Like Either Candidate”

Hey, I voted for John Kerry. I know what it’s like to have to convince yourself you’re making a difference, while you’re casting a vote for a candidate who seems to have made little effort to address anything you care about. He was the candidate the Democratic Party wanted.

I’m not even going to entertain the bullshit idea that there’s no substantive difference between the candidates or parties in this Presidential election. And a note to well-meaning liberals: anyone who tries to pass off this bullshit idea as being “moderate” is just wasting your time, and you need to move on. For some reason, the media loves to give undue attention to dipshits like Ken Bone. Maybe it’s intended to reassure voters that they have the power to make change, but all it actually does is perpetuate an already over-sized sense of self-importance about the power of any one single vote.

I’ve said it before (and I’m certainly not the first one to come up with it) but any process of choosing one person to represent the needs of over three and a half million people is going to require some significant compromise. It can be a drag to feel like you’re giving tacit approval to every negative thing a candidate is guilty for, but that’s not what you’re doing. You’re part of a collective decision to do the most good for the most people.

“Elections involve compromise” usually comes across as begrudging acceptance, but I wish we were able to feel as excited about being part of something huge as we were about being the hero of the story. Nothing’s stopping us from actively participating in causes we care about and promoting the candidates we’re enthusiastic about. Voting in an election that affects hundreds, thousands, or millions is about thinking beyond ourselves.

Short version: No really, your vote isn’t just about what you want. Don’t think of it as your choice, but your responsibility to everyone else.

“A vote for the establishment is a vote for the status quo”

I’m hopeful that especially after this year, we have a better understanding of how deep our problems are as a country, and how long we’ve spent trying to sweep them under the rug, or treat incremental progress as if we’d fixed everything.

But incremental progress is still progress. We shouldn’t mistake it for satisfaction and complacency, but we definitely shouldn’t mistake it for failure, either.

There’s no denying that the current system doesn’t represent all of us. That’s not just liberal disgruntlement; it’s statistically provable, comparing representatives’ voting records with polls of their constituents. Before the ridiculousness of the last five or six years, it’s felt like the two major parties are just racing each other to the center, with the Democrats settling to become Republican Lite.

Even if I were cynical enough to think that there’s never been a substantive difference between the parties, we’ve been able to see significant changes just over the last cycle. Progressives forced the Democrats to push themselves slightly to the left and acknowledge things that centrists always considered too hot to touch. Promising to address climate change and health care in particular became basic table stakes for candidates to even get taken seriously. And on the right, the Tea Party pushed Republicans to give up entirely on the idea of governance, set the bus on fire, and drive it off a cliff.

Short version: Change is possible. You’re seeing it happen right now. It doesn’t happen with just an election; the election is the start.

“We need a viable third party”

Yeah, we do. Ranked choice voting for every office would make that possible. With the current system, every vote for a third party and every non-vote is a vote for the worst candidate, no matter how many times “conscientious objectors” try to insist that’s not the case.

We’ve already got several Democratic candidates being outspoken about election reform. I haven’t personally heard any serious talk about proportional voting, but it’s a topic that comes up so often, that it’ll have to be part of the discussion, sooner or later.

That’s not the system we have right now, though. And while it has the potential to improve representation and put an end to the kind of dysfunction that hamstrung the second Obama administration, until it allows for 375 million parties, it’s still going to require some sense of civic responsibility. It’s no coincidence that the only third parties that have managed to make any significant showing at all in American politics since the Whigs, are the Green Party and the Libertarians. The one thing they have in common is that they both tend to attract people who feel that they know better than everyone else.

Short version: Until we have ranked choice voting for everything, we’re stuck with picking the best out of two parties. The best way to get ranked-choice voting is to campaign and vote for candidates who support it, or policy changes that implement it.

“The system is rigged”

There’s so much money involved in elections that it’s easy to feel like there’s nothing left but who’s got the most money. I find it encouraged to be reminded that no matter how over-sized their influence on the candidates is, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg’s votes still count for exactly as much as mine.4Plus someone else’s, of course. You get the idea.

We’ve already seen that there’s no such thing as a business that’s too big to fail. They collapse when people stop buying what they’re selling. It seems impossible, but it really is as simple as that.

Voting for change at the national level requires trusting that there are people involved who genuinely care about justice and government. And if you need a more cynical take, for this election in particular, just ask yourself why a man who’s already famous and a multi-millionaire, who’s got a healthy income from speaking appearances, would take a pay cut to take the most stressful job in the world in his 70s?

Short version: The people who love money more than anything else wouldn’t be spending so much of it trying to sway or suppress or influence your vote, if they didn’t worry that your vote was a threat.

Finally

Obviously, someone who doesn’t have the time or inclination to read through a voter’s guide isn’t going to take the time to read through this. So I guess I’m mostly trying to remind myself that the system is deeply flawed but still salvageable. And that some of the things I’m tempted to think of as flaws are actually part of what makes the system work for everyone.

Ultimately, it all comes down to having the humility to recognize that it’s not all about you, and having trust and faith that societies can collectively make decisions for the benefit of all. We’ve all had our trust and faith abused for years. We’ve seen how quickly a message of genuine hope for progress got turned into one of complacency. But I still believe that holding onto trust and faith is better than just giving up and letting ourselves slide backwards.

MustyTV, and a scaredy-cat’s guide to horror

Recommendations for spooky movies that I probably can’t watch!

We’re getting closer to Halloween, and all month my friend Rain has been doing her annual lineup of recommended horror movies and how to stream them on her Musty TV blog.

This year the twist is that she’s choosing movies she hasn’t seen before. Which means there are several interesting suggestions that I’d never even heard of; you’re likely to find some good recommendations on there so check it out!

I’m not sure how many I’ll check out, since I’ve always had a very low tolerance for horror movies, and that tolerance just keeps going down the older I get. It really sucks, because intellectually, I love horror, but it’s as if I physically can’t enjoy it.

In movies, horror is the genre with the most potential for being multi-layered: there can be a horror/suspense story that’s being experienced viscerally, while any social commentary or over-arching theme can be going on in a “separate channel.” It’s also got the most potential to be high-brow or low-brow, and you never know what you’re going to get. And filmmakers who really understand the genre, like Sam Raimi, can blur the line between low-brow and high-brow and combine them into one movie. Drag Me to Hell is still underrated.

I still think that’s why Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies work so well. He approached them as a horror movie maker doing an epic fantasy, instead of someone trying to make an epic fantasy story with a few scary moments. It’s most apparent in the scenes with the Nazgul and with Shelob, which feel as if they’re not holding anything back. See also: the transformation of Doctor Octopus in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2.

But that seems to be as close as I can get. Several times over the years, I’ve pledged to go to a Halloween Horror Nights at Universal, or Knott’s Scary Farm, and the pandemic isn’t the only reason I’m not going this year. I know from time in hospitals earlier in the year that I can’t just intellectually turn off my reaction to seeing blood; it makes me feel light-headed and just on the verge of throwing up or passing out (or both).

I’ve tried playing Phasmaphobia, and I haven’t made it past the tutorial. I want to love it, since it’s about ghost hunters and solving puzzles in typical horror movie environments, and it seems really clever. But it’s too good at setting a mood and being extremely creepy. I wasn’t able to distance myself from it at all, and it was just like walking around my own house with voices whispering and hissing, and doors opening and closing — not like being in a fun haunted house, but that feeling when you’re woken up in a dark house in the middle of the night. Even if I do play this again, there’s no way that I’d play it in VR.

But back to the horror movie recommendations: I may see Chopping Mall, since it looks silly, and I’ve always wanted to see it. I could also probably handle Host and Lake Mungo, since video adds a layer of detachment that I can always handle. I’ve already seen Hello, Mary Lou: Prom Night 2, and that just made me a little sad, because it feels like they were going for a self-aware tone and just not pulling it off.

More Dirty Projectors

On second thought, do I really need to like more than one musical group?

You know that thing where you’re minding your own business, and you randomly stumble on music from a band you hadn’t heard before, and then you discover that they’ve got well over a decade’s worth of interesting music, and song after song comes up gold, and you realize that the last time you really got heavily into a new musical artist was before the Obama administration, and it feels like there’s this huge wealth of creativity and talent available online that you just haven’t been paying attention to, and so you pledge to seek out music that’s new to you and share it once a week, but even into the second week of that pledge you remember that you find 99.99% of popular music boring, and you’d much rather just keep listening to your favorites over and over again?

Yeah, turns out I always underestimate how rare talent and originality are, and over-estimate how much I’m missing out by not staying up to date. I’m still pledging to keep looking for new stuff — since it’s such a thrill to find it, even if everyone else has already heard it by the time I do — but I’m concerned that in three weeks I’ll be reduced to being the middle-aged guy who goes online to say “Hey have you guys heard about this new band Vampire Weekend?!”1Just for purposes of illustrations. I’ve tried multiple times to get into Vampire Weekend, and they just don’t do it for me.

So I’m not expecting this to turn into a Dirty Projectors fan page — although really, would that be a big loss? — but I’m finding more stuff I love even as they’re putting out new EPs for me to look forward to.

Two favorites at the moment: “Gun Has No Trigger” from 2012, which sounds kind of like they were doing a James Bond theme on spec, and ended up with something better than most of the actual James Bond themes. I like the part where they scream.

Slightly newer is “Cool Your Heart” from 2017, which also has a remix by Ludwig Goransson that, unlike any other remix I can remember hearing, turns a weird, somewhat experimental song into an even more conventional version. The video for the official version is perfect, as if they’d wanted to make a traditional hip hop video and decided to film it at the entrance to the Black Lodge.

Tuesday Tune Twofer: Cookies and Milk with The Go! Team

Two tenuously and tangentially related tunes every Tuesday, starting off with an easy combo from The Go! Team

How about another weekly blog series as an excuse to share music I like? Every Tuesday I’ll choose two songs with some kind of connection — either tenuous or obvious — that I think more people should hear.

I’ll choose an easy one to start with: two from The Go! Team, “Cookie Scene” released in 2020 and “Milk Crisis” (one of my favorites) released in 2007. My fiancé introduced me to The Go! Team — I’d heard “Get it Together” in promotions for the video game Little Big Planet, but never knew who the band was — not long after we started dating, and I was quickly hooked. We’ve seen them perform live a few times in San Francisco since then. They’re so unabashedly joyful, and despite being led by a British man I’d reckon to be at least 10 years younger than me, they’ve somehow managed to plug directly into my nostalgia of being a child in the US in the 1970s, when my only knowledge of a world outside my neighborhood was via Disney movies and educational programming.

The Josh Gad Test

A fun and easy personality test for citizens of the Internet

Everyone on the internet loves to take personality quizzes, and that’s why I’ve devised a simple and fun one that can determine what kind of person you are. It should take less than 30 minutes to complete, but will open new windows into your own self-awareness that could result in a lifetime’s worth of benefits!

The Josh Gad Test

Question 1:
Do you have a strong opinion, positive or negative, about actor, producer, and media personality Josh Gad?

Evaluation

That’s it, that’s the test. If you answered “no,” “not really,” or “who?” you have passed. If you answered “yes,” I’m afraid that you’ve failed. Please see me after class.

Disclaimer: friends and relatives of Mr Gad are obviously exempt from the test, as are entertainment industry professionals who have a vested interest in his career. If you fall into one of those categories, feel free to substitute Jason Segel.

Methodology

I am neither a trained nor licensed psychoanalyst, but I hit the epiphany that resulted in this test while watching the 2014 music video “Can You Do This” by Aloe Blacc. I’d intended just to listen to an Apple Music-ad-friendly pop hit from a few years ago, and enjoy some product placement for Beats headphones. I had completely forgotten the video’s framing device and its surprising reliance on the woman from The Big Bang Theory1Her name is Kelly Cuoco, and I honestly mean no disrespect when I say that I can never remember her name without looking it up. and Mr. Gad playing a newly married couple.

My first reaction was boy, that sure hasn’t aged well! My second reaction was, wait a second, where did that first reaction come from? I’d somehow internalized the idea that I’m not supposed to like Josh Gad, but it was as if the idea had been inserted into my brain, via post-hypnotic suggestion, or possible alien abduction.

I don’t actually have an opinion one way or the other about Mr. Gad. I love Olaf, of course, because everybody loves Olaf, and the two Frozen movies are perfectly charming, and they have exceptional voice talent across the board. I’ve seen very little of his other work, I have no idea of any political activism or charity work, and I know of him mainly through his numerous promotional appearances, where he plays an abrasive-but-inoffensively-hapless version of himself. I have no reason to dislike the man. (Or particularly like him, either — my irrational goodwill towards celebrities I will never meet is limited to a small group including Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda).

But wait, some people might be saying, wasn’t he in a movie in which he made a tunnel through the ground by shitting out dirt as he ate it? And that would be a fair point, except that the little boys to whom that movie was aggressively pandering just love stuff like that.2Also, I must point out, Mr. Gad most likely was not actually shitting out dirt during his performance. But I can’t fault the CG artists either, for performing the jobs they were assigned.

I’ve been trying to think back to what could’ve planted the idea that it wasn’t cool to like Josh Gad anymore. The only solid thing I can remember is a podcast I used to listen to, which was ostensibly just a few fans of Disney parks chatting about their favorite attractions. In one episode they were talking about a promo that Disney had shot to tease the opening of Galaxy’s Edge, in which Gad played his abrasive self trying to sneak past a guard into the new land. The hosts of this podcast were decidedly not fans. I remember them making several comments about how awful and cringe-worthy the bit was. It stood out in my mind because it had never occurred to me that anyone could have that strong an opinion against Josh Gad. The video had been pretty much on par with the usual level of corniness that’s in every Disney promo; they’re corny by design. So at the time, I just dismissed the grumbling as the kind of thing that people who live in LA say.

But it’s come back especially strong today, because I’ve spent the bulk of the day looking for new music online, and I’ve seen so many people producing so much creativity: music, music videos, short films, short documentaries, educational films, animation, and tutorials. And then I stopped and read Twitter for a bit, and it actually made me miss the level of discourse that I’d been seeing in YouTube comments.

For the first time in a long time, my reaction to Twitter wasn’t to notice how mean and destructive it is, but how empty it is.

I’m not making a bold claim when I say that Twitter is bad, but I tend to think of it as a stream of toxic garbage that’s occasionally punctuated by a bit of useful news, or a clever gag. Even dragging someone — when they deserve it — can require a bit of inspiration to word it exactly the right way. But now I’m just thinking of all the times I saw professional comedy writers, many of them people whose work I adore, tweet out variations of A fly just landed on Mike Pence because flies are attracted to shit. It’s made me remember all the times I agonized over a joke, worried that it wasn’t original enough or funny enough, and I want all that time back. I used to fret that Twitter was full of Mean Girls, but now I think it’s more accurate to say it’s full of hacks.I can’t even enjoy the takedowns of Trump & his supporters anymore, since they’re all so lazy. 3So many people amplify “The Lincoln Project” as if it were insightful, instead of just a bunch of people wanting a return to the glory days of Reagan and Bush and having enough money to spend on hacky videos.

Tonight on Twitter, many of the same people who’ve spent months insisting that “cancel culture doesn’t exist” are participating in threads about how much Chris Pratt sucks and trying to come up with political justifications for it, instead of just acknowledging it as pointless celebrity gossip. And if I feel like I’ve wasted too much of my precious time here on Earth reading it, what does that say about the people writing it?

Conclusion

Honestly, I’m not sure exactly what point I’m trying to make. It’s not just a simplistic plea that we should focus on “positivity,” or saying that Twitter sucks, although both are true to some degree. Maybe I’m saying just let people enjoy things? Be more conscious of the energy you’re putting out into the world? Learn to amplify the things you love and ignore the things you don’t? If you feel the need to justify what you’re saying as “punching up” vs “punching down,” maybe you should take a step back and wonder why you think of social engagement in terms of “punching?” If you have a choice between being cool or being kind, choose kindness or STFU?

I often become acutely aware that I’ve spent more times talking about things that other people have made, than making things myself. That’s not entirely bad, since engaging with art and entertainment is an important part of the process, and I’m most often trying to parse it myself rather than explain it to anyone else. But there’s always a point where it feels like I’m taking more from the world than I’m giving to it. I wish we all, myself included, could be more mindful of how much we gradually chip away at our own souls when we engage in seemingly harmless acts of pointless pettiness.

Meanwhile, 2020 is the year I’ve been more aware of my own mortality than ever before, and I still chose to spend 10 minutes of my time left making a YouTube thumbnail-style image of Josh Gad instead of being productive on my own projects, because I thought it would be mildly funny. So what the hell do I know?

Edited to Add

I wrote this last night and scheduled it to be posted this afternoon. I was unaware that a columnist for The New Yorker would be caught accidentally exposing himself on a Zoom conference call with coworkers. Resulting in a constant stream of variations on the same three obvious jokes,4I do have to admit that riffs on The New Yorker’s umlauts are kind of clever. “Zoom Dick” as a trending topic, and several accusations that it was intentional. So, hooray for humanity, I guess?