My unexpected assessment of The Maya Rudolph Show, last night on NBC: go small or go home.
“Movies about mothers – mothers’ relationship with their children, children’s relationship with their mothers – can trade in easy sentiment or melodrama. But motherhood isn’t all swaddling and coddling and comfortable archetypes. In the rough terrain where a woman becomes a mother, she can feel she’s been corralled, her personality, her persona, her entire independent self suddenly defined largely by her actual or idealized connection to a child. These three thrillers tap into the poignancy and pressures that many mothers face, digging into the complicated web of social expectations in a world that both mythologizes and devalues motherhood, while translating the everyday tensions of caregiving into the language of the fantastic and the grotesque.”
Today at The Toast, my essay about motherhood as depicted in Bunny Lake Is Missing, The Others, and El Orfanato.
[note: This isn't pretty and polished. I'm hammering out rough ideas about True Detective, specifically examining the gender roles of the show and how they are apparently employed as a plot point. This is written after S1E6 aired, and I'm curious to see how it lines up with what we'll learn in the last two episodes airing in March. Next: the overlooked girls of the Light of the Way School.]
Detective Martin Hart of HBO’s True Detective immerses the show in his literally paternalistic view of the world. in the first few minutes of Ep1, “The Long Bright Dark,” he describes several types of cop, wrapping up with “There can be a burden in authority, in vigilance, like a father’s burden. It was too much for some men.”
Marty neatly pierces his father-in-law’s rants about The Young People Today as old-fogey self-centeredness, but hours later he’s incapable of seeing his own self-centered assurance that his wife and daughters exist only for his comfort and convenience. After cutting short their planned family day, Marty stands by and complains while Maggie makes dinner. Having finally deigned to spend some time with his wife and daughters, he’s upset to face criticism at home, “the one place where there’s supposed to be peace and calm!” Maggie retorts “Who told you that? It’s not always that way. It’s not supposed to be,” but Marty continues with staggering assurance, “It’s supposed to be what I want, it’s supposed to help me.”
For years, Marty luxuriates in the unthinking privilege of believing that his wife, his daughters, his home life all revolve around his pleasure and convenience, as well as the larger conviction that women exist to serve, or service, men. Maggie and Audrey both clearly, concisely refute that idea, but Marty never seems to take it in. He can’t hear what’s spoken to his face, and he can’t see what’s right in front of him.
Marty muses “past a certain age, a man without a family can be a bad thing.” In context, he’s talking about his partner, Rust Cohle, but ss Rust points out “People that give me advice, I reckon they’re talking to themselves.”
Marty has become that bad thing, a man without a family. His wife manages to break the cycle of adultery, forgiveness, and reconciliation that has kept her trapped in their marriage by herself transgressing, and so egregiously that Marty cannot overlook or forgive it. She breaks off from him, and given Audrey and Maisey’s hostility and distance toward Marty in their teen years, and their later invisibility, it seems unlikely that they have much relationship with their insensitive, condescending, absent, neglectful father.
He does concede sorrowfully that “the solution to my whole life – that woman, those kids – was right under my nose, and I was watching everything else,” but Marty doesn’t seem to have internalized that harsh truth. Like most of the truths Marty hears about himself, it runs right off his back, even when he’s the one uttering it. Even after his wife forces an irreconcilable split, Marty comfortably invokes family – lumped in with “routine,” especially the busywork of running his own PI and security business – as a sustaining force keeping him active and engaged rather than an enterprise worthy of his attention and nurturing love.
Given his bedrock belief that women exist as accessories and ancillaries to their men, it’s no surprise that Marty also tries to prevent his young girlfriend Lisa from sleeping with other men, even if he has to frighten her into chastity. When we first see Marty visit her apartment, he breaks confidence about the ongoing investigation, urging Lisa to stay home, to stop going to bars and on dates, lest she be murdered like Dora Kelly Lange.
Lisa doesn’t seem fazed by her lover comparing her modest outings to the hazards brooked by a truck-stop sex worker with a handful of drug habits and several criminal acquaintances. She points out that Marty’s trying to have his cake and eat it by keeping her cloistered and waiting for him without making any commitment to her. Marty counters “What good is cake if you can’t eat it?”
Jan, the proprietor of the bunny ranch, immediately pegs Marty as a man keen to control women’s sexual agency. When he spouts outrage at the presence of an underaged sex worker on the ranch, she characterizes his indignation as “holy bullshit” that’s based not on the young woman’s sexual victimization but on her audacity in using sex to make money and control her own destiny rather than performing it as a favor owed to men. “Girls walk this Earth all the time screwing for free. Now, why is it you add business to the mix and boys like you can’t stand the thought? I’ll tell you. It’s ’cause suddenly you don’t own it the way you thought you did.”
Marty’s speech to the two young men caught in a car with his daughter Audrey suggests there’s truth in Jan’s assessment. Just before delivering a brutal beating, Marty taunts them from outside the jail cell, concluding “A man’s game charges a man’s price.” He’s explicitly posing sex – even with his underaged daughter – as a sport for men, and with a price exacted by men.
His logic twists around in a self-serving loop: when he spends his nights getting drunk and banging his girlfriends, he rationalizes it as a necessary release that a police officer, tasked with terrible duties and witness to unspeakable horrors, must take release and catharsis where he finds it “or where it finds you. I mean, in the end, it’s for the good of the family.”
Marty explicitly compares his duties as a lawman to his responsibilities as a father, and it’s no stretch at all to imagine that this includes a responsibility to provide release for those in authority and to cover it up for the good of society, the larger family of humankind.
Rust Cohle’s view of the same question is bleaker. As he tells his drug-supplier, the “Of course I’m dangerous. I’m police. I could do terrible things to people with impunity.”
Marty Hart’s taxonomy of police is brief and vivid: “We all fit a certain category – the bully, the charmer, the, uh, surrogate dad, the man possessed by ungovernable rage, the brain.” From the first moments, I was convinced that the end of Marty’s list described himself and his partner: the man possessed of ungovernable rages and the brain. We’ve since seen Marty’s furies given free rein, and seen Rust’s homespun nihilism and seemingly meticulous attention spin its web around suspects and interrogators alike. Next, I hope to outline the ways in which both Marty’s passions and Rust’s obsessive study both overlook the crucial points of their shared case.
“St. Valentine’s Day is an excuse to express our most intense or obscure passions. But words can be a frail tool to capture the complications and complexities of this thing we call love: the sweet blush of infatuation, the kinship and kindness of true companions, the frenzy of unfettered lust, the torments of jealousy, betrayal, or heartbreak. So perhaps it’s no coincidence that three films set on Valentine’s Day hinge on the fragility and feebleness of words, creating worlds where meaning and reason fall apart.”- Kiss is Kill
Today at The Toast, my guide to three Valentine’s Day films where meaning falls apart: Pontypool, Picnic at Hanging Rock, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
If you’re looking for a break from the holly-jolly and hall-decking and that abominable Frosty, check out my Tidings of Comfort and Joy: Alternative Christmas Movies at The Toast, where I outline five movies that take place at Christmas without invoking traditional cinematic Christmas sweetness.
The Coen brothers’ darkly comic A Serious Man uses the uncertainty of quantum mechanics — and especially the unresolvable uncertainty of Schrödinger’s paradox — as a metaphor for the unpredictability of life, and the pains we nonetheless take in futile attempts to impose predictability on the inherently uncertain future.
Physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is suddenly a man beleaguered — by fate, by coincidence, by a vengeful God? Who knows?
His marriage is in trouble, his job is in danger, his brother is ill, both mentally and physically (and sleeping, and seeping, on Larry’s couch), his children are sullen and misbehaved. Buffeted by uncertainty, Larry turns to his community, to his rabbis. He’s looking not for advice, but for something more concrete: for answers. [SPOILERS ahead.] Larry assures these studied, somber men that he can grapple with the greatness of God — that he too is a serious man capable of understanding, if only they will tell him why these hardships are befalling him.
If you believe in an omniscient, all-powerful god, surely it’s plain hubris for a layperson to think that he can, through a mere few days of application and inquiry, grasp the unknowable purpose of that deity’s actions. Job finally wailed his way into an audience with God and still didn’t get an answer, but Larry Gopnik thinks he can wrest one out of a few conversations with rabbis. The impossibility, the futility, of his task is emphasized by the very name the rabbis use to refer to the God whom Larry find so approachable: not Adonai, not Yahweh, not any of the names that can be spoken in worship, but HaShem, literally “the name.” Larry Gopnik cannot grasp the ineffable plans of the almighty; he must not even speak His name.
Larry’s field of study has perhaps emboldened him to such audacity. Physicists are able to fathom some of the great secrets of the universe and even represent them through equations, but Larry of all people should know that the ineffable doesn’t yield to cold hard logic and that not everything is knowable: his specialty is quantum mechanics, and the only physics we ever see Larry teach revolve around uncertainty.
In a dream, Larry presents his class with a breathlessly rapid and precise presentation of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, concluding as he writes, “It proves we can’t ever really know what’s going on.” The bell rings; class dismissed. As the students bustle out, Prof. Gopnik yells out “But even though you can’t figure anything out, you will be responsible for it on the mid-term!”
[Larry's dream; audio NSFW]
Compare this with Larry’s comically inept real-life lectures: he tap-taps at the blackboard with his chalk, writing a complex formula and narrating his progress with vague, uninstructive mutters: “You following this?… okay?.. so… this part is exciting…. so, okay. So. So if that’s that, then we can do this, right? Is that right? Isn’t that right? And that’s Schrödinger’s paradox, right? Is the cat dead or is the cat not dead? Okay!”
A failing student comes to Larry’s office to complain about his grade, and especially to complain that Prof. Gopnik’s standards are unjust. He can’t do the mathematics, the student explains, but “I understand the physics. I understand the dead cat.” Larry gently but firmly informs him, “But you can’t really understand the physics without understanding the math. The math tells how it really works. That’s the real thing. The stories I give you in class are just illustrative. They’re like… fables, say, to help give you the picture. I mean… even I don’t understand the dead cat.”
And it’s true, he doesn’t understand the dead cat or the fables. And neither do we. The Coens have already reminded us of this in the opening scene: a period piece, a haunting little story about a dybbuk (or is it?) performed in Yiddish. The first 7 minutes of the film are spent with characters we never see again, speaking a language most of the audience doesn’t understand, grappling with a mystery that will never be solved.
Larry Gopnik is in search of a certainty that doesn’t exist. He wants some tangible proof, a measure by which to decipher the future. He’s a serious man who expects his intelligence and diligence to render the confusing, unpredictable world into something logical, legible, verifiable. Larry is not so different from his poor lost brother, the unstable wanderer with a dog-eared notebook scrawled through with an elaborate “probability map of the universe.” Though the larger secrets of the universe can be revealed by study and science, the smaller mysteries — the ones that matter most to us, our lives and our loves — are not susceptible to our tiny writings and equations, however hard we try. Our futures cannot be predicted with mathematical accuracy, and often they cannot even be understood as they unfold.
So, if the meaningful, fateful events of our little lives cannot be predicted or controlled or even fully understood, how are we to extract any meaning from this existence? I think A Serious Man answers that question in its 20th-century opening: from the 19th century shtetl, the camera hurtles us down a dark passage outlined in blushing light and thrumming with intense music… which turns out to be the ear canal of Danny, Larry’s adolescent son, who sits in class with a transistor earpiece illicitly jammed into his ear so he can listen to Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” instead of his Hebrew lesson.
The song recurs as a chorus throughout the film. When Larry is at his most distraught — after his fruitless meetings with rabbis and lawyers, as he is crushed under the weight of accumulating troubles, when he despairs of ever finding the answer he sought — the song blasts out as the soundtrack to an erotic dream. And again, after Danny’s bar mitzvah (where he becomes, like his father, “a serious man”), the elusive Rabbi Marshak finally appears, intoning these heavily-accented words of wisdom to the stuporously stoned boy-become-man: “When the truth turns out to be lies and all the joy within you dies. Then what?”
As trite as it may sound, Jefferson Airplane delivers the answer: “You better find somebody to love.” This is the last message of A Serious Man: in the film’s very last moments, as the literal whirlwind (echoing the whirlwind from which God spoke to Job) bears down on a crowd of children milling around a parking lot, we hear it again through Danny’s earpiece: “You better find somebody to love.” And if that person leaves you or betrays you or dies or vanishes, you must find another, and another, and another: a spouse, a parent, a sibling, a child, a neighbor, a student, a rival, a friend. No matter what befalls you in this unpredictable, sometimes cruel world, you better find somebody to love, because love — giving love, creating kindness and passion and selflessness where there was nothing — is a powerful act of affirmation against uncertainty, an act of creation in a void. Maybe even a divine act: to find somebody to love.
Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s not-a-prequel to the Alien stories (but, c’mon, it’s totally a prequel) left me cranky and exasperated. Writer Damon Lindelof sets up an artificial opposition, just as he did in “Lost,” of science vs. faith, but it seems clear that he doesn’t understand, y’know, how science actually works: by wedding strict protocols and routines (to foster reproducibility and objectivity while protecting both personnel and irreplaceable samples) to unfettered creativity of intellect and appetite for knowledge.
That’s hard to reconcile that with the scientists of Prometheus, who fluctuate wildly between dull-eyed incuriosity and appalling recklessness, who seem to have little sense of the magnitude of the work they’re undertaking, and who are colleagues and equals only in the sense that they are all equally incompetent.
As we watched, I came up with several geeky [non-spoiler-y] ways to rationalize the stupidity and endless bungling of Prometheus’ entire scientific task force:
1. Realize that these people are scientists the way that Giorgio Tsoukalos of “Ancient Aliens” fame is a “scientist.” (“I’m not saying it was aliens, buuuuuut…. it was aliens!”)
2. Remember the B-Ark from Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, the massive spaceship full of incompetent, inane, unnecessary, and otherwise ineffectual bumblers who were packed up together and shipped off to a distant wasteland, all the while believing themselves to be boldly striking out as the vanguard of a whole planet’s survival? Yeeeeeah, the “scientists” of the Prometheus might as well be so many telephone sanitizers.
3. Peter Weyland, the posthumous underwriter of this bajillion-dollar expedition, was the Howard Hughes of his generation: brilliant and driver, but also tragically unbalanced and fantastically wealthy enough to do anything he wishes. His obsessions were fed by the poorly researched, blinkered speculations of the archaeologists who shape the mission, and the entire scientific team is selected with the same slapdash passion-above-protocol agenda. Any scientist likely to interfere with the mission by insisting upon, I dunno, following established procedure or maintaining rigorous standards during this monumentally historic event is summarily rejected in favor of a bunch of bungling pushovers.
4. Maybe arising from those cryo-suspension pods is like rousing from an long midday nap: you wake up all muzzy-headed and disoriented, and as often as not, the rest of the day is shot to hell. (Though that doesn’t explain why the flight crew, who also underwent cryo-suspension, appear to be thinking clearly and sensibly.)
5. They have developed SPAAAAAAACE MADNESS. Or maybe just a really bad (and highly transmittable) case of space-dumb.