The Night Of

July 20, 2017

Dear Reader,

I was listening to a podcast a while ago on the subject of reforming the justice system. One of the guests said something that I had never considered; she said she didn’t want to send anyone to prison. Even guilty men and women who had committed grievous crimes personally against her, she didn’t want to send to prison.What she knew of prison had convinced her that even her worst enemy didn’t deserve to be subjected to it. I had never heard anyone say that before, although I am sure she isn’t the only one. HBO’s Emmy-nominated series The Night Of is a meditation on imprisonment that, like that moment, made me question my settled thoughts.

The Night of opens with the night that ended Naz’s (Riz Ahmed) life. He is a college kid excited to go to a party in the city (with girls!) when his ride bails on him. He quietly sneaks out and takes his father’s taxi into New York City so he won’t miss it. He is lost and fiddling with the taxi’s controls when a pretty girl gets in the back. She’s his damaged unconventional dream girl in the flesh. What we know of him at this point is that Naz is a bit of an innocent. His family is Pakistani and fairly conservative; he has only slept with one girl before he meets Andrea. You can tell, watching the sequence that follows, that Naz has always imagined meeting a girl in this kismetic way. She’s vague about her troubles, but clearly troubled. She drinks and does drugs with a carelessness beyond her years. Sitting on a pier, looking out over the river, Naz looks cautiously, covertly ecstatic.

They go back to her place, do more drugs, engage in a very unexpected bit of knife play, and sleep together. He blacks out, and when he wakes she has been stabbed to death. To an almost unbelievable degree he screws up his response. Panicking, he runs out of the apartment and speeds away in his taxi with blood on his hands and the knife from the aforementioned “play” in his pocket. He gets caught, of course. From there, the show walks Naz through every bend of the criminal justice system.

Naz, as mentioned, is a pretty innocent kid. For a while, the night of Andrea’s murder contains everything we know about Naz. For half of the eight-part series we have to go back to that night to understand our main character. From that night we know a few things: he is romantic, inexperienced, sensitive about his race, impulsive, responsible, smart, academically talented, and drawn to the experience he lacks. This may be enough for a first date, but hardly enough for us to decide whether he is capable of murder. Once charged with her murder he is sent to Riker’s to await trial; it is there that Naz becomes a real boy. Ultimately, The Night of is a coming of age for both Naz and his lawyer, John Stone (John Turturro). Their stories parallel each other, even as their lives remain very different. John is having his mid-life crisis. Tired of the low-level criminals he usually defends, he sees Naz’s case as a chance to do something meaningful. While Naz is literally imprisoned, John is stuck inside his own eczema-ridden skin. His eczema keeps him from everything he wants to be doing and makes every task more difficult and painful. The series skillfully plays this theme of imprisonment on several instruments. John is trapped by his skin, but so is Naz, whose race and religion endanger him in prison and affect his choices there. Andrea, we learn, is trapped by her addiction. Naz’s parents are shut out of their community and ultimately their home by their son’s arrest. Even the detective who built the case on Naz is restrained by his impending retirement, an event that he views as tantamount to death by golf-induced boredom.

It is Ahmed’s performance as Naz that holds these disparate threads together. He keeps Naz understated until about midway through the series. Naz is in prison and is contemplating whether he should accept the protection of Freddy, de facto king of Riker’s. Freddy (Michael Kenneth Williams) is able to do almost anything he wants, whether it be screwing a female guard or getting McDonald’s brought in. He tells Naz that he wants to protect him, a deal that will surely have repercussions. He values Naz’s intelligence and education; contact with another educated man is rare in his world. Under Freddy’s sinister, fatherly influence Naz rapidly grows up. It is to Ahmed’s credit that the Naz from episode one is almost unrecognizable by the end of the series. As the episodes progress we begin to understand we are watching a tragedy unfold separate from the original murder. Naz is being processed through the criminal justice system and it is breaking down and utterly reforming him. Naz’s life ended that night as surely as Andrea’s did.There’s a moment in the show Rectify that I keep coming back to. Another show about imprisonment and the justice system, Rectify is about what happens when you put someone on death row for 20 years, release him, and then expect him to function as a free man. There’s a moment when his mother tells Daniel, the former inmate, that she believes he is innocent. You can tell she means it, and so can he. She isn’t saying it just to comfort him, or because that’s what you say when your son is exonerated on a technicality. Just to believe entirely in the innocence of another person is a profound gift and it affects Daniel profoundly. Even Naz’s mother doubts him as she protests that she never could. It is Freddy, in the end, who believes in Naz’s innocence. Casting off his pretense of wanting to befriend Naz for his intelligence, Freddy admits that it is Naz’s innocence that he covets. Is it any wonder that it is this parental figure Naz ultimately emulates?By the end of the series Naz is imprisoned in some ways, free in others. What he experiences is largely senseless and does irreparable harm to him and all who surround him. It hardly matters what actually happened the night of. The consequences of that night are the same. It’s hard to understand the point of the criminal justice system by the end of the series; the innocent, guilty, and in-between all suffer. The innocent are all turned into criminals. The criminals either suffer seemingly too much or too little. The Night of depicts a system that is struggling, and failing to do what it was designed to do. Within the ethics of the show it’s hard to wish either it’s incredible atrocities or its tiny crucial mistakes on anyone, guilty or otherwise.

The Secret History

July 16, 2017

Dear Reader,

One of the elements that has kept The Great Gatsby iconic is it’s main characters’ incredible wealth. For the 2013 Luhrmann film, Tiffany’s debuted a new Great Gatsby collection and Vogue’s May 2013 issue put Carey Mulligan on the cover covered in the jewels. Daisy just isn’t Daisy if she isn’t draped in diamonds. Rich people fascinate us as much for the beautiful things they can possess as for the freedom their money seems to give them. Yet it is Fitzgerald’s critique of the apathy of the wildly wealthy that lends the novel it’s poignancy. In the last chapter he writes,

“They were careless people, Tom and Daisy- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”The phrase “vast carelessness” is useful when thinking about Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. The elite circle of wealthy friends in that novel are ultimately infected by the same ugliness of Tom and Daisy: they are careless people.

Roughly, The Secret History is the story of a murder. As soon as the book begins the reader learns that a murder will take place and that the main characters all have a hand in it. Tartt does not conceal the identity of the victim; this is no whodunit. The narrator, Richard, is telling us the story of his five friends and classmates from college. Henry is the brilliant Holmesian autodidact, blessed from birth with a practically bottomless fortune. Francis is louche, stylish, seductive (and also wealthy). Charles and Camilla are twins who, while far less well-off than Henry or Francis, are still from a wealthy background. Bunny is brash, damaged, and childlike. These five are the sole Classics students at a remote Vermont college. Julian, their professor, is a wealthy and inscrutable intellectual who waxes eloquent on the ancient Greek mind. Richard is the Nick Carraway of the tale, observing and reporting, flitting in and out of their world. A few other characters jump in and out of the story but are merely clutter and not worth the time Tartt asks us to spend on them.

The five, Henry foremost, treat Classics like a religion. They worship a constructed image of the Greek mindset, finding within it a kind of meaningfulness they lack. Julian teaches them that “beauty is terror” and that religious ecstasy is an exalted and enviable state. The Greek idea of the wisdom of a balanced life and a just society are subsumed by the group’s fascination with the extremes of The Bacchae and the frenzied violence of the maenads. Unbeknownst to Richard, the group aims to recreate an ancient bacchanal. They starve themselves, take drugs, and work themselves into a frenzy until they get it just right and completely lose control of themselves. The business of the novel is to trace the consequences of that act.

‘The death of Pentheus’; detail of a red-figure cup by the Athenian painter Douris, circa 480 BC

Each character has their own reason for inducing personal chaos and the novel dances around revealing these separate motivations. Yet the novel, and Richard personally, never directly questions why these characters believe it is morally acceptable to lose control of themselves. We are at a disadvantage, of a sort, because Richard does not seem to question the morality of their choices, nor does he indict them for the consequences of that loss of control. For most of the novel he declines to confront the selfishness that led to their decision and because he is our only narrative voice, it often feels that the novel does too. Nor do the characters understand the bacchanal or the evil that comes out of it as selfish. While out of their heads, the group accidentally kills a farmer while cavorting on his land. Yet the murder they later commit to cover up that crime has a far more haunting effect on their lives than the accidental murder of the innocent farmer does. The reason, as the group readily admits, is because the farmer’s life is worth far less than theirs. His death is regrettable insofar as any death is, but his particular individual death troubles their consciences hardly at all.

One of the most troubling parts of the book is the description Henry gives of the bacchanal. He begins by saying,“One mustn’t underestimate the primal appeal—to lose one’s self, lose it utterly. And in losing it be born to the principle of continuous life, outside the prison of mortality and time.” Despite the stated purpose of his story- to communicate to Richard that they have accidentally killed a man- he is still enraptured by his gain from the experience. Then Richard asks a small, but pivotal, question.

But these are fundamentally sex rituals, aren’t they?’

It came out not as a question but as a statement. He didn’t blink, but sat waiting for me to continue.

‘Well? Aren’t they?’

He leaned over to rest his cigarette in the ashtray. ‘Of course,’ he said agreeably, cool as a priest in his dark suit and ascetic spectacles. ‘You know that as well as I do.’

We sat looking at each other for a moment.

‘What exactly did you do?’ I said.

‘Well, really, I think we needn’t go into that now,’ he said smoothly. ‘There was a certain carnal element to the proceedings but the phenomenon was basically spiritual in nature.’

The casual nature of this answer is astounding. When Richard asks later about Camilla, the sole girl in this little cabal, Henry says, “I suppose we’ll never know what really happened… We didn’t find her until a good bit later. She was sitting quietly on the bank of a stream with her feet in the water, her robe perfectly white, and no blood anywhere except for her hair. It was dark and clotted, completely soaked. As if she’d tried to dye it red.” The question of whether a teenage girl can consent to group sex with three men, one of whom is her brother, while high out of her mind, is not explored further. We do know that she was traumatized enough to be incapable of speech for some time following this “certain carnal element” that was capped off by murder.

It is at this point that we must return to the intersection of wealth and apathy. The book is a frustrating read because it’s narrator, and the characters he transmits to us, all seem outrageously apathetic. This is not to say that the murders don’t affect them; each one is touched profoundly and tragically by the events Richard recounts. But the underlying morality, or lack thereof that leads to the two murders, is never denounced. There is no rejection of the use they make of bastardized Greek thought. Their is no external punishment; there is no reckoning. Julian, their professor, does not know about the murders for most of the book, yet he does know that they have been attempting and ultimately succeed to have the bacchanal. He encourages them to do this because it is a function of their elite status that makes achieving their spiritual heights worth the risk to others. It is a combination of their wealth (or appearance of it) and their intelligence that allows them into his class in the first place. Throughout the novel the circle is defined by their wealth and their elite status. Richard is always talking about how they dress, how much they drink, what they eat, and the places that they live. The fact that Henry, especially, is both wealthy and brilliant directly influences his system of morality. He seems to believe his life and his desires to be worth more than almost everyone else’s because he is wealthy and brilliant. In the end, his system is proven disastrous, but it is that system that the others ultimately follow to their separate sad ends.

I am of of two minds about the novel. I find it very hard to understand how every character could be so accepting of the moral bankruptcy that is so astonishingly pervasive. The carelessness with which Daisy and Tom treat Gatsby maddens Nick Carraway. I kept waiting for that from Richard. All I wanted was for each character to come to the moment where they say “How could we have been so careless? How could we have been so selfish?” but that moment does not come. Their world ends in ice, not in fire- and perhaps it does suffice, but it does not satisfy.

The Spectre of Bonds Past

July 10, 2017

Dear Reader,

The newest James Bond film, Spectre, is a rather bad Bond movie. This didn’t use to trouble most people about Bond movies; some would say a certain level of camp, horrific puns, and eye candy was necessary to distract from the outrageously telling male fantasy on screen. Of course, there were always some installments that took themselves more seriously. Goldeneye, for instance, flirts with sincerity in a way none of the other Pierce Brosnan flicks do. Casino Royale is even a rather serious novel. As a first installment in a series of increasingly fantastic tales of the gentleman spy, it’s quite a downer. It was a fitting pick, then, for the new more serious Bond to make his debut. Now, three films later, the series has produced a glamorous nostalgia vehicle that dazzles the eyes, confuses the brain, and inspires a collective feminist sigh.

The Bond franchise is standing at a crossroads. Most of American society is too progressive and feminist to enjoy the Sean Connery films with the same gusto of even ten or fifteen years ago. They are also a little racist (the books much more so) and simultaneously contain an improbable amount of sex and very little actual sex at all. The Roger Moore films are remembered chiefly for their perfect combination of sexism and punning. Who can forget the girl named “Goodnight” who was unceremoniously stuffed in the trunk of a car with the quip “Say goodnight, goodnight!” Timothy Dalton… I mostly skipped over, to be honest. Pierce Brosnan…. you can mostly skip over too.

And then, all of a sudden, Bond became eminently watchable again. Casino Royale is an excellent movie. It still couldn’t pass the Bechdel test, but we can’t have everything. Quantum of Solace was a lot like a short rebound from a bad breakup. Skyfall stunned us all by barely having a Bond girl at all, unless you count M. The end of Skyfall set the whole franchise up for a sort  of reboot within the reboot. The end of the origin story, as it were, and the beginning of the story proper. All the established characters came home to roost and the whisper of an Aston Martin could be heard coming around the next bend.

So what in the world is Spectre, then? Think of it this way: Spectre is like a very serious remake of a Bond movie from the early sixties that never existed. There’s an internal nostalgia to the film, as if the early sixties were looking back upon the early forties with rose-tinted glasses, except it’s all shot with the camerawork of 2017. Bond spends half the film as a slightly less gruff Humphrey Bogart, jetting down to Casablanca (Tangier) with Ingrid Bergman (Lea Seydoux). Each successive movie has seemed to take one step forward and two steps back, but this is like two steps back into a time machine.

The film is wobbly throughout, but it’s major problem comes from it’s confusion regarding what to do with its Bond girl. The concept of the Bond girl is not exactly a feminist one and no matter what people have tried, it’s been very difficult to rehab that role. There has been an attempt to make us care about these women, a tactic that worked in Casino Royale but hasn’t worked as well since. Who cried when that one lady with the long fingernails got shot in Skyfall? Bond quips that it’s a waste of good scotch. The problem is his joke… isn’t really a joke. The ghost of Vesper Lynd is conjured up in each installment because it’s the only bruise they can poke. We have forgotten the other women as quickly as Bond has. This, of course, is exactly how it used to be and no one had the slightest problem with it. Bond didn’t fall in love with his chippies, no matter how helpful they were or how good they looked in a balaclava. But the modern franchise is aware that screwing the women spectacularly and then forgetting about them entirely just doesn’t play the way it used to. So it gives the Bond girls personalities, multiple costume changes, and then makes Bond love them. In order to rescue the franchise from the sexism that is stamped on its legacy, the films have been rendered super-serious. Why do we suddenly need Bond and his girl to exchange vows in order to depict her in a non-sexist way? This does not remove the sexism from Bond’s character (something evidenced by a cringe-worthy sequence of potential non-consent near the beginning of the film). It just makes the whole thing feel rather joyless.

And this is the essential difficulty of the new Bond. The franchise is now trying to bring under its tent the glamorous insouciance of From Russia With Love with the startling assertion that Bond’s women are people we should actually care about of Casino RoyaleSpectre is the child of that union. An example: There is a long unconnected torture sequence reminiscent of the famous laser moving slowly up towards Bond’s manhood, from Goldfinger. In Goldfinger Bond is practically winking at the camera, as if to say “Laser to my penis! God, what a funny torture joke!” In Spectre Bond is apparently able to render bloodless AI brain surgery completely ineffective through sheer force of will and a totally straight face. The joke of the earlier movie is that Bond’s most valuable asset is his package, something we know the franchise could never do without. In Spectre the danger is the torture will remove his ability to recognize faces, something our villain half-jokes shouldn’t bother him too much, as his women are so interchangeable. His humor is undercut by a weeping Lea Seydoux pledging her love to Bond. It’s a joke that would be funny in Goldfinger but falls flat in Spectre, precisely because the latter is taking itself about twenty times more seriously.

The franchise’s answer to the long history of Bond is to try to make a 196o’s era film but take the emotions and the people very seriously. This marriage worked in Casino Royale, partly because the first novel both has that mid-century mentality and sexism, and also takes its emotions and people very seriously. But, it falls apart here. The unconnected sequences (like half an hour of running through Mexico city looking for a guy that matters almost zero to the plot), the complete misuse of Christoph Waltz (you cannot hire one of modern cinema’s most engaging villains for a two and a half hour movie and give him approximately 20 minutes of screen time. You just can’t.), and the confused depiction of the Bond girl (does she need rescuing? How can she possibly already be in love with him? Is she just there for fashion product placement?) all combine to make this a bad Bond movie. But worse, it’s bad and we can’t enjoy it. There’s nothing wrong with a bad Bond movie, but please don’t also make it a joyless one.

I have no idea what the remedy is for this problem. The character of Bond and the stories he acts out again and again have been steeped in mid-century sexism. The current franchise is going through some growing pains trying to figure out how to move forward under such conditions. Perhaps they will figure it out and we will get more Casino Royale level entertainment (where, of course, they had to kill the Bond girl to make that work). Or perhaps it’s time Bond hung up his Beretta and we found a new straight white male fantasy to obsess over.

Tana French: An Introduction

June 28, 2017

Dear Reader,

Novels in a series rarely seem to get their full due, either separately or as a whole, until the whole series has been written and the author has declared there will be no more. Tana French has been one of the exceptions to this rule, as her novels each stand alone as great works in their own right. Each novel centers around a detective squad in Dublin that investigates murders and each installment takes a character from the previous one and designates them as narrator. This is a strategy that plays to French’s strengths in constructing unique voices and nuanced characters. There are now six books, all of which feel both at home and misplaced on the Mystery shelf.

French excels at complicating tropes that have been grotesquely simplified. Her detectives have painful pasts and personal lives that drive and influence them on the job yet are not something they can shrug off and get the job done. The murders and the detectives who investigate them are intricately tied, each case something only they could work and solve. The trope of the grizzled detective with a dark side and an addiction to alcohol, coffee, and pain is familiar to the purveyor of mystery both on the page and on the screen. But here we are only shown one case from each detective’s perspective. They are given one story to narrate and no more. Thus, we get the one case that was pivotal to each individual career and life. This gives the victims as much import as each detective, elevating both.

Her latest, The Trespasser doesn’t dig into the gut quite as much as the other books in the series do (I was practically paralyzed on public transportation trying to read The Likeness). Each of the previous novels has a pivotal reveal- a gut punch moment that French always times perfectly. This one felt as though French pulled that punch just a bit; it’s odd to lament feeling unpunched.

There’s more to be gained from reading the series in order, although you certainly could read them randomly if you are some kind of chaos monster. The second book, The Likeness, borrows heavily from The Secret History. If you felt as ardently about that novel as I do, The Likeness will be very much up your literary alley. As should all of her books be. Enjoy!


Big Little Lies: An Unexpected Meditation on Violence

April 13, 2017

Dear Reader,

Jessa Crispin’s Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto asserts “If by declaring myself a feminist I must reassure you I am not angry, I pose no threat, than feminism is definitely not for me. I am angry. And I do pose a threat.”

The heavily hyped and yet somehow undersold HBO miniseries Big Little Lies begins with a murder. From there we go back to the beginning, when young and relatively poor mother Jane (Shailene Woodley) is introduced as the newcomer to an affluent California beach community and its reigning women: Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), Celeste (Nicole Kidman), Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz), and Renata (Laura Dern). Each woman is the mother of at least one first grader all attending the local (and undoubtedly excellent) school. Madeline is trying to get a production of Avenue Q past the small town censors, Celeste and her husband are just having so much sex, Bonnie is the new sexy yoga instructor in town (and married to Madeline’s ex), and Renata is a very entitled helicopter mom who is convinced that Jane’s son bit her daughter. But there it is again- that splash of violence. It’s at this moment we have to ask ourselves a question: what is the murder doing in here? The presence of the murder is where the genius of Big Little Lies hides. For the first few episodes it can seem jarring to be ostensibly watching a cozy beach read that is interspersed with little pockets of violence reminding you that someone is going to get murdered. Jane’s son Ziggy denies that he bit Renata’s daughter Amabella, leading to a good old fashioned class showdown. You think you are watching an episode about Madeline stirring up trouble to punish her old rival Renata, luring the kids away from Amabella’s birthday party by promising them tickets to Frozen on Ice instead. But someone is actually abusing this six year old and she has the bruises to prove it. We quickly learn that Jane was violently raped and Ziggy is her son from that encounter. Jane has a gun under her pillow and every time Ziggy startles her awake because of a bad dream there’s a moment where she conflates the child and his father.

And so it goes with each woman. There’s an atmosphere laid atop the soapy catfighting and female bonding. It’s like a storm is gathering and heat lightning keeps flashing in the corner of our eye. Celeste’s husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgård) is indeed a dish and they are indeed having a lot of sex. Every encounter hovers in the liminal space between consensual and rape, catching the audience right as they’re enjoying the scene and dealing them a swift punch in the gut. Perry beats the shit out of Celeste on a regular basis. She goes through the whole gamut of grief trying to find a way to make that situation acceptable.

As a viewer you come to see how constant the threat of violence is in these women’s lives, even as you see how unspoken that threat is. Jean-Marc Vallée, the director, highlights the undercurrent of male on female violence incredibly well. Jane’s rape is presented to us over and over. She imagines herself running after her rapist on the beach, cocktail dress torn, often with a gun in her hand but unable to catch him and unable to remember his face. This first violent act is mirrored in the accusations her son faces and then magnified in the increasingly unbearable scenes between Celeste and Perry. Throughout the series even smaller acts of violence are held accountable for their ubiquity. When one character’s ex lover pulls away from her violently during an argument I visibly flinched. Vallée does not let his characters get away with calling violence “passion,” instead indicting them for behavior that is unacceptable.

By the last episode, the audience must have been begging for the storm to fully break and provide them with relief. A murder seemed inevitable. But just like in S-Town, the murder was the tease but not the point. In fact, I imagine you can guess at each mystery before you start that last episode and if you’ve been paying attention you probably won’t be wrong. The point, it turns out, is that these women are not going to reassure you that they pose no threat. These women live with an undercurrent of male violence running through their lives and we are here to watch them deem that unacceptable. Six year-old Amabella experiences it. Bonnie’s young daughter screams in anguish when she sees it. It’s there when Madeline’s husband Ed complains they don’t have good sex like Celeste and Perry. It’s there when Renata and her husband have loud sex in his office and from the outside, you can’t really tell if they’re screwing or fighting. In the end, Big Little Lies is a meditation on female friendship as a bulwark against unacknowledged violence. And it’s a damn good one.