Thursday, April 26, 2012

Dance, Little Monkey

So, there was a little kerfuffle recently about David Simon saying that it's silly that people spend so much time and effort doing episode-by-episode analyses of shows that are meant to have long arcs. Actually and not surprisingly, he was saying something much more important and interesting, about what happens when you actually try to say something through a cultural medium. Anytime someone talks about political art, there's lots of hand-wringing about how it can't be "preachy" or "simplistic" or a "pamphlet" and it has to do more than "preach to the choir." Well, here's someone who made a brilliant and genuinely radical piece of art that, even if it got less viewers than Jersey Shore or what have you, became a force in at least a segment of mainstream culture, and among a lot of media/cultural type people who we might think have some sway over how we talk about things. But as Simon notes, what becomes of that? You get a sports reporter asking a fanboy question of a certain fan who happens to be the most powerful person on the planet:

And yes, I understand that the reason for that interview – the precondition under which Obama participated, no doubt – was that it was a discussion of sports.  So, okay, no one needs to bring up a TV drama with the President of the United States for any sensible reason.  And yet at the end, Simmons chose to invoke The Wire.
If he were a hectoring asshole, an argumentative scold, a fucking killjoy, he might realize that he has The Man right there, and that he is at the end of the day acting as, well, a journalist.  So if anything is to be said about that show, well, here is a rare chance to break some ground.  He might swallow hard, seize the moment and say something along the lines of, “Mr. President.  I know you’ve said you’re a fan of The Wire.  Well, one of that show’s basic critiques is that the drug war is amoral.   More Americans are now in prison than ever before, and the percentage of violent offenders in prison is lower than ever.  We are now the jailingest society in the world, incarcerating more of each other than even totalitarian states.  How can we go on supporting this?”
Balls out like that.  Truth to power,  brah.  Get some.
Instead, to use a sportswriting cliché, Simmons choked, throwing up an ugly brick at the buzzer: “Who’s the best character in The Wire?”
So, yeah, the depressing news is that you can make a radical and brilliant work of art that gets some play, and make it entertaining  enough that it's not dismissed as yet another dreary liberal preachy thing, and people get so entertained they say, hey, chill out, it's just entertainment. Yeah, you were a reporter, but that just makes your entertainment nice and real. Neat little trick, that:  
Arguments about the taste of the bread or the look of the circuses go on forever, because, hey, Omar is cool and Bunk is funny as hell and isn’t it great when Clay Davis says the word shit.   Yes, it is nice to know that people were entertained.  It’s not that anyone begrudges an audience its pleasure; we wrote the cool stuff and the funny stuff and we enjoyed it, too.   But four years after The Wire is off the air, are we wrong for admitting aloud to other hopes and purposes for the finished work?

Probably some of my non-English major friends would say, well, yeah, that's the way things go, and that's why serious people should stick to serious straightforward journalism and activism. But it's not like earnest journalism doesn't just as often cause people to say, oh yes, and turn the page - they may not be entertained the way they were with The Wire, but it is similarly pleasure and not a spur to action that motivates them. Right now I'm sitting here typing this with my gorgeous almost-three month old on my lap, and listing to NPR, to reviews of books I won't have time to read and outrages I won't effectively combat (though I might toss off a rant about how NPR gets them wrong.)  And there is a reason "art" - however you look at it - creates the sense it might "break through" where the earnest and straightforward fails. Mike Daisey may have given creative non-fiction a bad name, but there's a reason so many people were drawn to his piece. And obviously there's lots of reasons why David Simon started writing books and making TV instead of being a full-time daily reporter.

I'd be curious how many cops or politicians watched The Wire, and whether it impacted their thinking. Closer to home, it made me think about my own profession, teaching somewhat differently. I'd like to think that if nothing else, it's some kind of counter-programming to the relentlessly pro-lock 'em up drumbeat of just about every other cop or lawyer show on TV. It's not impossible to imagine it spurring some people into action, and having a kind of cumulative effect with other forces pushing towards a more open debate and change. 

On the other hand, I read somewhere recently that The Good Wife had been called "the new Wire." Here's a show basically about a bunch of rich lawyers and their rich lawyer problems of every once in a while having guilt about letting people off, because on lawyer shows it's defense attorneys who are supposed to feel bad about themselves, never the prosecutors. It's enough to make one imagine Simon pulling a full-on McLuhan. In any case, the man knows a thing or two about pushing a form, and it's a treat to see blog writing that pushes outside the normal point and click.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Small Moments in Gendered Parenting Advice

It's the little things: from a list of "unnatural" barriers to healthy sleeping patterns, from Marc Weissbluth, MD:
- Mothers have to work outside the house, miss playing with their baby, and keep their baby up too late at night.

- Fathers or mothers have a long commute and return home from work late, want to play with their baby, and keep their baby up too late at night.
I'm sure it's very reassuring to all working fathers out there that they can't actually miss their babies like moms do, they just want to play with them, and that this can't just happen after a regular day at the office, or even a twelve hour day, but only if the have a long commute. I guess if Betty hadn't bought that damn house in Ossining, and lived in that swank Megan-pad with the kids, he would have been the perfect father!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Not-That-Much-Shorter Jonathan Franzen

"No major American novelist has led a more privileged life than Wharton did." Exhibit A: she had a secretary type her shit! Silly girl? Doesn't she know that's what wives are for? Unless you're Kerouac and write shit that types itself! And not only that, Wharton was a rich white lady who shared the prejudices of rich white ladies of her time! Unlike every other writer in the American canon who are all perfectly non-racist, non-snobby humanitarians, and migrant workers to boot! But wait, perhaps we could consider that a ladynovelist born in 1862 might have faced some kind of struggle? What could that possibly be? Something that rhymes with -ism and starts with s? No, silly, it's that she was uggo! But she was an uggo and made a bad marriage - which has never happened to a beautiful woman, ever! Marilyn Monroe and Betty Draper married their perfect men and lived happily ever after: true fact! And then she had a passionate affair in her forties, but eww, gross. But sadly, unlike migrant workers, who of course dominate the American canon, so much do Americans "sympathize" with them, no one likes or sympathizes with uggos! Uggo ladies, that is. I mean, duh. Uggo for a male novelist just lends poignancy to the novelist/protagonist's desire for young and non-uggo ladies, who are of course metaphors for life, death, and being seventeen. Nevertheless, definitelynotalady novelist Jonathan Franzen has taken the time to write a few pages about her best novels, and decided that she overcame being a stuck up uggo richlady by writing well about some beautiful but damned ladies. Which was a great way of getting narrative revenge on the beauties! I guess uggo men write so they can fuck beautiful women, and uggo women so they can stick it to them more metaphorically.

Yes, I'm a month or so late on this and many others did a good job of taking him down. (This is probably the best.) Since I became a mom, not only do I fail to sleep when my baby sleeps, or leave the dishes until whenever, I can't give up my habit of trying to read every New Yorker straight through and in order, no matter how much farther I fall behind. Some ladynovelist probably has something interesting to say about what this says about my clinging to an illusion of control over my life, and my refusal to avoid reading things that will annoy me, but she's probably the kind of ladynovelist whose books are on Oprah, and so it probably wouldn't be interesting to the Great American Novelists who write about much more Universal Themes like suburban adultery.