Boogie Nights: Depiction, Endorsement, and the Wounded Humanity of P.T. Anderson’s Film

Depiction does not equal endorsement. An artist may explore the depths of something controversial or lurid or profane without giving it their stamp of approval. This is how we defend films, television shows, and other works of art against the myriad pearl-clutchers and watchdog groups who gnash their teeth, gather their pitchforks, and declare that “something must be done.” It’s how we protect the scores of transcendent works about unseemly, unsavory, or otherwise unpalatable personalities who offer compelling narratives, but who may never receive their societally-mandated dose of comeuppance or public shame by the time the story ends.

But here’s a dirty little secret – depiction is much more complicated than either the defenders or the scolds would readily admit.

Make no mistake — the fact that a film simply shows bad behavior, even in seemingly glamorous terms, does not necessarily mean that the director intends it as something to aspire to. The camera itself makes no judgments. Context speaks volumes. But merely pointing a camera at someone or something does still send a message. It says, “This is worth caring about, or at least worth paying attention to.” Aim it at a particular event, or individual, or group of people, and it says theirs is a story worth telling.

Which is to say that when Boogie Nights director Paul Thomas Anderson decided to point his camera at the lightly-fictionalized men and women of the San Fernando Valley porn industry in the 1970s and 1980s, he never truly glamorizes their existence or expresses his unqualified approval for how they live their lives. To the contrary, though the film ends on a note of bittersweet hope, the thrust of the work is how the flash and filth depicted, and the lifestyle that accompanies, thoroughly and pervasively runs these poor folks through the wringer.

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The Simpsons: “Duffless” – Homer’s Temporary Sobriety and How to Show Growth on a Sitcom

The Simpsons has never addressed Homer’s alcoholism more directly than it did in “Duffless”, and for good reason. As I discussed with the fine folks at the The Simpsons Show podcast this week, Homer’s love for beer is such an essential part of who he is to the general public, that it’s almost as synonymous with him as his dim-wittedness or his love of donuts. That essentially means the show can never truly change this facet of Homer’s personality, which, in turn, makes it pretty unlikely that The Simpsons will ever explore the issue in any greater depth than it did here. It’s a serious topic to tackle in the first place, and it’s a tough one to get right when you have to leave an iconic character the way you found him, to the point that he’s basically not allowed to make any sort of change for the better. Thus the series, as a general rule, tends to sidestep the issue.

Don’t get me wrong, The Simpsons frequently makes references to Homer’s vigorous beer consumption, but it’s generally played for laughs and never taken terribly seriously. I don’t have a problem with that either. Sure, at a big picture level there may be something mildly pernicious about depicting someone who drinks as much as Homer does never suffering any lasting consequences from it, but (1) The Simpsons is a comedy show, not an after school special and (2) Homer is, entirely independently of his drinking, already a terrible role model who rarely, if ever, suffers consequences for anything. Heck, the show centered an entire episode around that idea. If Homer Simpson is the example by which people live their lives, then they have bigger problems than one-too-many Duffs.

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ReBoot’s First Two Seasons: The Birth of Computer Animation on Television

Toy Story, the first fully CGI feature film, would still have worked without its groundbreaking, digitally-rendered aesthetic. The film’s visuals were certainly eye-popping in 1995, and Pixar’s decision to feature toys as the main characters was partly motivated by an aim to mask the limitations of computer animation at the time. But at its core, Toy Story is a universal tale about jealousy and acceptance than transcends the particular style employed by its creators. It could have been a traditionally animated film or a comic book or even a puppet show, and while some of its elements would certainly have been lost or changed in translation, the heart of the film would still work just as effectively.

ReBoot, on the other hand, the first fully CGI television show (which, incidentally, predates Toy Story by about a year), may very well be inextricable from the medium in which it was expressed. The show’s premise is inherently tied to technology. Set in Mainframe, an electronic metropolis that represents the inner workings of a computer, the world of ReBoot is replete with a series of anthropomorphic “sprites”, “binomes”, and “viruses” who deal with reality-altering games input by a mysterious “User”, unruly visitors from “The Supercomputer”, and vague whispers about “The Web.”

As with Toy Story, the artificiality of ReBoot’s setting helped the show to overcome the fact that full photorealism was beyond the reach of computer animation in the early 90s. But that same digital aesthetic also proved to be the perfect medium for depicting this sort of world, to the point that it’s hard to imagine the series working apart from the computer-generated imagery that made the show stand out among its Saturday morning brethren. That’s why I’m more than a little leery of the upcoming, inevitable reimagining of the series. Part of what made ReBoot so inseparable from its computer-animated style is the fact that the show was not merely closely connected to technology; it was closely connected to a conception of technology as it existed in 1994.

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Futurama: “The Why of Fry” – A Series-Defining Choice and the Relativity of Importance

Philosopher David Hume disclaimed the idea that man was “the rational animal.” He argued that a human being’s capacity for reasoning was as much a slave to the caprices of passion and the weakness of will as in the simple creatures his contemporaries looked down upon. He once wrote, “Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.”

I sincerely doubt that Philip J. Fry was inspired by David Hume, but in “The Why Of Fry”, he expresses a remarkably similar sentiment. In a pivotal scene, Fry learns that his journey to the future was no random mishap, but rather that the Nibblonians chose to cryogenically freeze him and send him a thousand years into the future, without his knowledge or consent, in the hopes that he would one day fulfill a prophecy to save the universe. Fry is outraged, and Nibbler pleads with him, “You were the only one who could help us. What is one life weighed against the entire universe?” Fry responds, clearly devastated, “But it was my life.”

“The Why of Fry” is about the relativity of importance, the way that a person, or an idea, or indeed the whole of existence can be magnified or shrunk in the funhouse mirrors of our minds. Fry is inessential to the Planet Express crew, but to the Nibblonians “the fate of all that exists and ever will exist” rests with him. Chaz has an inflated sense of importance as the Mayor’s aide, but when shown in a different light, he’s quickly revealed to be a puffed up nothing. Leela often feels lonely or isolated or uncared for, but unbeknownst to her, the fact that someone does care about her saves the entire universe from destruction.

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The Simpsons Will Go On Forever

Now that Harry Shearer has agreed to return to The Simpsons, we will never know whether showrunner Al Jean’s earlier statement that the show would recast all of Shearer’s parts was an empty threat. It would be a tall order to replace characters as diverse and as central to the series as Ned Flanders, Mr. Burns, Waylon Smithers, Principal Skinner, and Reverend Lovejoy, not to mention God, The Devil, and Hitler.

But I’m inclined to believe that Jean really meant it. During tense contract negotiations in 1998, Fox executives went as far as hiring casting directors in five states to replace its disgruntled stars. And as hard as it is to imagine someone new voicing Dr. Hibbert, let alone Bart Simpson, this latest round of negotiations may have proven a proposition that has vexed and delighted the show’s die-hard fans in equal measure — The Simpsons may never end.

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The Only Two Deaths in Jurassic World That Mattered

Death is a currency in blockbuster films. Faceless henchman are wiped out indiscriminately. Nameless bystanders are consumed in explosions and buried in rubble. This is the loss of life that makes up the dark matter of the standard action flick — those deaths that are just out of sight or out of focus, but which are intended to give weight to the larger forces of the plot and the choices of the main characters.

Jurassic World embraced this summer movie season truism wholeheartedly. Scores of interchangeable soldiers in the film quickly turn into dinosaur cannon fodder, with little more than blurred security footage and a few ominous beeps to remember them by. Dozens of random park-goers are snatched up by winged dinosaurs in a prehistoric take on The Birds, but it’s always off in the distance, always just for a second, to where the most notable moment in the rabble is Jimmy Buffett shuffling indoors with a pair of margaritas.

But two deaths in Jurassic World stood out, and they were not necessarily the ones I might have predicted when I walked into the theater.

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The Sopranos in “College”: The Seeds of the Show’s Spiritual Successors


The Sopranos is credited with ushering in a new “Golden Age of Television”. Its complex family dynamics, black-and-gray morality, and introspective bent were trademarks that set the show apart from its contemporaries. In its wake, a number of other shows emerged that embraced that approach and focused on antiheroes who, to one degree or another, were attempting to balance a double life. Two of these shows, Mad Men and Dexter, can draw a straight line from The Sopranos to their place in the television pantheon. In “College”, an episode from the groundbreaking drama’s first season, The Sopranos planted seeds that those two spiritual successors would have a hand in harvesting.

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The Royal Tenenbaums: When Living the Lie Goes Right

There are many works of fiction about people telling lies for so long that they start to believe them. These stories range from folks like Walter White putting on the costume of a villain only to realize that the role feels a bit too comfortable, to the cipher protagonist of Avatar, who spends so much time in his alien body that he decides he belongs with The Smurfs. Most of the time, these shifts are treated as triumphant awakenings or operatic betrayals. But few are as soft, simple, or sweet as when Royal Tenenbaum, in the film that bears his name, lives up to the lie he’s spun — that can be a better man.

When Royal (Gene Hackman) tells his pseudo ex-wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston) that he’s dying and wants to reconnect with his family, it’s a canard. Not only is Royal as healthy as a man who drinks, smokes, and eats three cheeseburgers a day can be, but his conciliatory gestures were merely a front to (a.) worm his way back into the Tenenbaum family homestead after getting kicked out of the hotel where he’d been living for the last twenty years and (b.) ward off Etheline’s suitor, Henry Sherman (Danny Glover).

But the crux of the movie comes once Henry has unraveled Royal’s deceit and confronts him in front of the whole family, including Royal’s children: broken businessman Chas (Ben Stiller), gloomy scribe Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), and washed up tennis pro Richie (Luke Wilson). Royal doesn’t bother denying the accusations, but in one last attempt to manipulate his loved ones, he turns to the family and says, “Look. I know I’m the bad guy on this one, but I just want to say that the last six days have been the best six days of, probably, my whole life.” A strange expression suddenly creeps onto his face, and The Narrator (Alec Baldwin) says, “Immediately after making this statement, Royal realized that it was true.”

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The Mountain Goats in Dallas: King of the Ring


I first learned about The Mountain Goats’ latest album, Beat The Champ, when a friend of mine messaged me saying, “I’m pretty sure John Darnielle is releasing an album for you and you alone.” My friend was obviously joking, but she’s right that Beat The Champ, a concept album where each track is about some facet of professional wrestling, is tailored to a rather unusual venn diagram of fans. Despite the fact that Darnielle, the main creative voice behind The Mountain Goats, resides in a traditional hotbed for wrestling, there are probably few other folks in the world who have both sung Darnielle’s praises and also waxed philosophical about the main event at Wrestlemania.

And yet, there’s something very natural about Darnielle directing his humanizing gaze toward the squared circle. In the past, Darnielle’s shown a particular aptitude for writing poignant, heart-wrenching songs about vagabonds, broken men, and other self-destructive characters. Sadly, none of these individuals are in short supply in the wrestling business.

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The Final Season of Mad Men: A Parade of Absentee Mothers and the Double Standard

Mad Men has never shied away from exploring double standards. It traced the challenges Peggy Olson faced while rising up the ranks in the advertising industry, obstacles that men in her position never even considered, let alone encountered. It contrasted the cult of domesticity that Betty Draper was expected to maintain with the casual womanizing that had become the norm for her husband. It showed how Joan Harris had become an expert at navigating the intricate rules for a woman in the workplace in the 1960s and how the men in the office could drift along without any of the same concerns.

But the final season of Mad Men sketched the contours of one of the most persistent double standards that American society still struggles with today — the different expectations of men and women in their role as parents. Mad Men’s Season 7 presents five mothers who have each, in one sense or another, left their children behind. These women struggle with the choices that they’ve made and deal with a level of societal scorn and personal guilt that their male counterparts never have to face.

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