Borgen: A soap opera about a politician’s family

I’ve enjoyed aspects of Borgen, but by the end of season two I’d had enough. This is not a show about politics; it is a show about a politician’s family. The last shreds of doubt on my part vanished when I was subjected to a scene in which the Prime Minister’s ex’s partner has an emotional outburst about not feeling included in the treatment of the Prime Minister’s daughter. Now that I think about it, I realise that I know as much about the ex’s partner as I do about most of the politicians besides the Prime Minister.

Even in terms of the politics, the problem for me was that the show never really had a narrative arc, and because of that ended up wandering a little aimlessly. From episode to episode there are political events that happen; but these are dealt with in an episode or two. There is no overall struggle that the Danish Prime Minister faces, apart from – perhaps? – clinging to power, but even that doesn’t present as a continuous, unified struggle.

Because there is no greater struggle, I think it’s possible the writers had to fall back on areas they felt more comfortable in. Hence the continual recurrence of the PM’s frustration at her ex leaving her. Which, ultimately goes nowhere and doesn’t tell us very much about her.

Borgen had a lot of promise, and there were parts I quite enjoyed. And I don’t mean to say that families aren’t important – quite the contrary, families are important, and interesting. But in a TV show that’s purportedly at least partially about politics, it felt as though the weighting was skewed far too heavily towards the domestic.

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Jerry Gergich

I’ve been enjoying the melancholy beauty that is the last few episodes of Parks and Recreation. It feels like they’re doing the wrap-up well, so far.

And I came across this article at The Atlantic; it made me think. It’s a lovely reflection on Jerry’s character, and particularly on how the show’s other characters have interacted with him.

I think they’ve actually pinned down something that bothered me for a long time. Jerry was, effectively, the butt of some quite cruel jokes in what is otherwise a very … fuzzy, heart-warming show. There. I said it. You love it too.

So it felt strange when those jokes happened, and Leslie would do mean things to Jerry. It was like watching a kind, elderly auntie who’s always been caring and considerate, kicking a dog viciously in the guts.

Of course, as the show goes forward, there is redemption. Jerry’s love-able characteristics are revealed, other characters appreciate him, and he wins success. The article ties that together into a story, of sorts, about opportunity for people who don’t get the limelight.

I think, though, that what really shows through is the different impulses in the writers. They were writers of a heart-warming, genuinely optimistic show – that is also a comedy. And while there are a lot of different laughs to be had, it’s true that you can also get laughs from comedy that appeals to something baser in us, a part of us that is afraid of being the butt of the joke and so laughs with relief when someone else is. I know I laughed.

So I think if Jerry’s redeemed in the show’s end, it’s … an encouraging sign of one tendency – the fundamental optimism and conviction of the writers and their narrative – winning out over something darker and meaner in our nature.

Boyhood: Fun if not gripping

I enjoyed Boyhood a lot.

I’m still not quite sure how I feel about it. On the one hand, it’s a technical masterpiece. To take five core actors, and build a coherent story around scenes shot over the course of twelve years, is an incredible achievement. In that sense – working over that time frame – is almost not a film any more, it’s an entirely new medium. A review in The Guardian quotes Richard Linklater, the director:

“It almost isn’t even like a film at all,” Linklater tells me. “It’s somewhere between summer camp and an art project. It’s like a time sculpture.”

That seems fair to me. Simply to manage a coherent storyline, a consistency in the feel of the filming, the art, the characters and the script is … remarkable. As a piece of art, Boyhood is an outstanding achievement.

I think that’s what a lot of the critics may have been responding to. It’s gotten rave reviews – there’s a summary at Wikipedia, and I’m sure in other places on the interwebs.

For all of that brilliance, though, it felt as though there was something that still felt … missing, a little. I suppose that thing for me was narrative. I’ll try to unpack what that means.

I spent the first few scenes of the movie … wondering, I suppose, if something was going to go wrong? That sounds a little anxious – I think I was waiting for what Robert McKee might call the inciting incident, the moment when something throws the protagonist off-balance, and gives her or him something to strive for.

But none of that really happens in Boyhood. We see a boy, in childhood scenes that are superbly shot and … beautiful in how authentic they feel. Gradually, as the movie moves through its different phases, we see story arcs emerge. There is his mother’s struggle, to find a relationship and stability. There’s his own struggle, that felt … top heavy, to be honest, crammed into the last sections of the film. Here we see him as a teenager, trying to … define what he wants, to a limited extent.

But unfortunately through it all, Mason doesn’t … do anything at all, really. He shows some talent for photography, but there’s no real choice that we’re aware of, no choosing between mutually exclusive but meaningful options.

The movie offers a few reflections on life through its characters; a moment in a psychology lecture his mother gives, advice from a father to a son, the yells of wasted teenagers into the evening sky. They can feel a tiny bit heavy at points.

At other stages there is some lovely, more subtle commentary – as a friend put it, a character showing up out of the blue ‘to speak what the others are thinking’ (wait for the scene in the restaurant with the guy wearing a tie).

But for all that, it was hard to think what the story was. It was … a lot of things – a beautiful reflection on time, a stunning portrait of the process of getting older, a lovely sketch of how difficult it can be defining yourself, a reminder of how exciting life can be and the opportunities that are available – there’s all that in Boyhood, and it’s beautiful.

In The Guardian review I quoted earlier, Xan Brooks writes that ‘Film is a narrative and narrative means time’. Which, may be technically true on some level, but I think really misses the point of what narrative is. Time in a narrative can be any scale at all, and I don’t think it really matters that much except as it serves the purpose of the narrative. Time can be a person’s life, condensed into a single day (Ian McEwan’s brilliant Saturday immediately comes to mind), or a good story can be about the experiences of a single day. McKee says this better than I do, but I think I agree that fundamentally narrative is about choices, and the self-revelation that they offer; and ultimately Boyhood doesn’t offer that to the viewer.

And now that I think about it, it … it would be possible (again, immensely difficult given the format, but possible) to tell a story about decisions, rippling through time.

So I would say that Boyhood is a stunningly beautiful piece, a lovely meditation on family, and growing older, but it is not … a narrative, in the deeper sense.

Seeing ‘Into the Woods’, and reading ‘The Ship of Theseus’

There are a few different posts I’m hoping to put up here. But for now I just wanted to think a little about The Ship of Theseus (which I finished reading a week or so ago), and Into the Woods, which I just saw this evening.

Into the woods

I’d heard about the premise for Into the Woods a while ago, and it sounded great – a musical built around intersecting fairy tales, cynically re-told. So I was excited to see the movie; but while I found it amusing, I was a little disappointed.

I’ve had a look, and from my brief inspection, it seems that the movie stayed fairly true to the musical (let me know if I’ve missed anything). So I don’t think it’s something about the translation. I think it’s more that the structure. To be fair, a two-act structure might have worked better in a play with an intermission. In a movie, however, it felt disjointed. The first act is more comic; a chaotic intermingling of different fairytales, that ends with something that approximates a fairytale happy ending.

In the second act, in the play (from what I’ve read on Wikipedia), it seems that there’s a sense of time passing. Characters are discontent with the happy endings that they’ve been given; and it’s there that things take a melancholy turn. That sense of time passing isn’t really conveyed in the movie; it feels more abrupt, a sudden shift in pace and drive, without any real frame. From there it’s an adventure as several of the characters are drawn together, facing a common foe.

I liked the way the movie drew out the … complexity, I suppose, of fairytales. Sometimes the prince is a terrible person; sometimes the happy ending isn’t happy, it’s just … annoying. I felt as though that broader theme wasn’t quite carried through in the movie; perhaps because the prince and the wolf were played by different characters (in the play they’re apparently often the same actor). Some of the songs (particularly in Act II) were good, but … felt confused to me, as though they weren’t quite connecting with the plot, or had come in too late.

But regardless, it’s always lovely to hear/see a musical; there’s something about a chorus that I quite enjoy.

The Ship of Theseus

I’m not quite sure where to start with Ship of Theseus. The obvious point of comparison is House of Leaves, which I read at university, and found absolutely remarkable. Ship of Theseus, like House of Leaves, is a story told in multiple layers. There is a text, and then footnotes to the text, and in the case of SoT, handwritten notes in the margin.

SoT goes a step further, in having multiple scraps physically inserted in the book. A map drawn on a napkin, handwritten letters, photographs, postcards. They’re all part of one of the intersecting strands.

Having said all that, I think that where as HoL, despite its technical intricacy, still featured some gripping stories, I couldn’t say the same for SoT. That felt … less real, in a story sense. I’m still thinking about Robert McKee’s articulation of what stories are about – in essence, characters revealing themselves through the choices they make [I realise now I didn’t include that statement in my review; it’s true nonetheless]. In SoT, there’s very little that the central characters do by way of choices. There are struggles, at points; but it feels curiously disconnected.

In the first storyline, there is a character whose entire initial struggle – to discover his own identity – is cast away as unimportant. While there are other struggles for him, they’re defined in the last part of the book; which makes me wonder why that story wasn’t bought forward. In the second storyline, built on top of the first, it’s a little harder to care about the characters. We do learn about them, a little – and they do make a choice, in the final chapter. But for most of the story, they are essentially playing word games.

I think it’s this particularly that didn’t grab me about SoT; it felt very proud of itself, like it had done something clever in overlaying two stories. And don’t get me wrong; to do that in a way that was coherent, throughout, is a major project, and impressive. But it’s still not a story. Similarly, with the handwritten notes in the margins, second guessing the symbols and meanings of the characters; that was interesting at points, but at times felt belaboured, and didn’t add as much as I would have liked to the story.

Oh, a final point; if you enjoy lying down while reading a book (say before going to bed), then SoT is not for you; the way the items are inserted means it’s virtually impossible to read it anywhere but at a desk, or they’ll come spilling out.

Great potential for both Into the Woods, and SoT; but for both, and particularly SoT, I felt like there could have been more.

Selma

I saw Selma this evening. I found it deeply moving. I’m still thinking it through, in some ways – this blog post is part of doing that. But in short, it’s worth seeing.

It’s hard to know where to start, reviewing a movie like this. The reality is that because of its topical material, the weight of history bears down incredibly on this movie. It’s a turning point in American history, an enormous shift in a massive country. A moment when, from what I understand, a grass-roots, non-violent protest contributed to an enormous shift in government policy, and real change that re-shaped participation, democracy, and the country.

Because of how significant the moment is, and how complex it is historically, two hours will never really be enough to tell the whole story. As someone with no detailed knowledge of the story, there were scenes that felt as though they were short-hand, quick mentions of topics in a way that seemed more acknowledgement than meaningful examination. The relationship between the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Committee was one clear example; it felt as though there was a more complex history, that wasn’t spelt out.

More broadly, there’s a question of what the narrative arc of Selma is really about. The title – the name of a current US town – could suggest a whole host of things. The protests, building on a national movement with work by dozens. The conflict, and the experiences of hundreds and thousands of people, coming from across the country. The complexities of it, the experience of what it was like to march through the heat towards implacable violence and meaningless hatred. But in narrative terms, the film seemed to me a little unbalanced. The first half is strong, in many ways; it pits a movement of unarmed, non-violent protestors, and shows their cunning in using a particular strategy and context to fight for their rights and freedoms. That’s an empowering message, and it tells that half well. The second part, and the narrative arc that went with it, though, felt a little forced to me. Ultimately, it seemed to come down to a conflict between Martin Luther King and Lyndon Johnson; one committed to the cause, the other wanting to move on to other political goals. The issue becomes a struggle between them; in a way that seems to make LBJ the villain, rather than the broader society he’s part of, or the system that prevents equal rights.

I don’t have enough historical knowledge to say anything about LBJ’s role, or what his relationship with MLK was like. But it seems to me that there are bigger questions, and bigger conflicts at stake in Selma, than simply shifting a President who it seems was already reasonably on side. There are questions about how a society sees itself; how non-violence can triumph; a dozen other questions. The battle between MLK and LBJ doesn’t strike me as the most interesting one.

I should say, that for all of the dryness in my discussion of the history, and the view the movie takes of events, it’s incredibly moving. It shows people who have suffered for years (there’s a haunting scene where after jumping through ever harder hoops, a woman is denied her vote), standing up and assertively but not aggressively working for their rights. I struggle with the language here; I feel clumsy in what I’m trying to say. It is a movie about bravery, about enormous courage and commitment in the face of horrific and incredibly selfish violence. [I was about to say senseless violence, but that’s not right; racism fits into a larger power structure and can be very clearly self motivated; I won’t go into that here, but as always Ta-Nehisi Coates says it brilliantly in his article on reparations, and in various posts on his blog]. It left me sniffling, and with tears trickling out of my eyes at points. It is enormously moving; not because it plays particularly on the emotion, or overdraws it, but because it tells about incredibly powerful events, and does so well.

It does that, even without drawing directly on MLK’s famous rhetorical ability. Something I didn’t know was that MLK’s estate has his speeches restricted; so they are not available for use. So, none of the famous speeches are in the movie. Despite that, the rewrites provide King with powerful words, and they’re delivered to good effect.

A final factor that makes the film particularly poignant is the historical context. The movie itself is very grounded in the moment; perhaps wisely, it doesn’t explicitly make any statements linking the events in Selma to a contemporary context. Regardless, subtext is virtually impossible to miss. People struggle in a system that systematically discriminates, under a power structure that disenfranchises and does not represent them, and a government that tracks dissident voices. Voter ID laws are a real threat to enfranchisement; key parts of the Voting Rights Act have been gutted.

Because of all that, it seems apt when the trailer features a voice pounding out in time to the footsteps of the marchers, ‘This revolution goes on and on’. After several attempts, I’ve just found out that the music is drawn from ‘Say it like it really is’; a 2011 song by Public Enemy.

Music is another theme that isn’t prominent, but that runs through the movie. Apparently MLK used to ask for gospel songs when he needed encouragement, and that’s reflected in the movie.

The credits close out with ‘Glory’ by Common and John Legend. It’s superb. But as Common raps, ‘Now the war is not over, victory is not won’.

What not to say on a first date

Not that I’m an expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I thought I’d collect a few ones which weren’t brilliant. These are all either mine, or from someone I know. Let me know if you have any great suggestions.

#1 ‘Fibre – it makes you regular

#2 ‘The colon cleansing power of fibre [this was genuinely a different person from #1]

#3 ‘How is someone like you still single?

UPDATE: Thanks for writing in, S! These are excellent

#4 ‘So, how do you think this is going so far?

#5 ‘When was your last relationship?

#6 ‘Tell me about something nobody else knows. Tell me a secret!

#7 ‘What’s your story? [too open-ended, S says, although I’ve heard worst – see #1 above]

#8 ‘I can’t believe that’s what you’re ordering!

UPDATE 2: One of mine – #9 ‘Do you have a five year plan? Does it include kids?

The norms of governance

There’s a great short blog post up by James Fallows, on ‘the norms on which governing depends’. I find the idea fascinating, and think it’s extremely important. He highlights that it’s too hard to make laws for every situation; and that we rely on institutional norms to guide the functioning of those institutions in many ways. Norms in the sense of expected behaviours that everyone takes for granted, that aren’t explicitly legislated, but that are a crucial part of how the system functions.

I would argue it’s something a little more fundamental than that. Perhaps that we expect many of our governance and political systems to be in some sense adversarial; that they will in effect be a contest of ideas, of rhetoric, of political ability and organisational capacity, often.

But I think while we expect adversarial approaches within those systems, they rest on an assumption that the adversarial context will take place within the system, and that contestants won’t seek to undermine the system itself in efforts to win. If two boxers are fighting in a ring, we expect them to still play by the rules; to not be so caught up in the contest that one of them sneaks in a knife, or tries to strangle the other with the ropes. I think it’s bound up with the idea that there must still be an external other, perhaps, and a sense of identity that unites both sides of the contest. When that’s gone, then perhaps the contest becomes the entire context, and there is no reason to value norms, or preserve institutions, except in so much as they serve to further the interests of one side or the other.

This is something I think is both interesting and important, but I haven’t seen it clearly articulated many times. You might call it ‘the tragedy of this is why we can’t have nice systems of governance’.