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Monthly Archives: October 2015
To understand something is to take away its power. A look behind the curtain renders the tricks in front of it less formidable. The mechanical dinosaur isn’t as scary after the director opens it up to show us the gears and pistons that make it move. The things that we understand are less imposing, even if they are beyond our control, because they can be classified, categorized, and broken down into digestible little chunks until they no longer represent the unlimited, terrible possibilities of the unknown.
In Halloween, director John Carpenter never gives the audience a chance to fully understand the monster he crafts in celluloid. He never lets us truly know Michael Myers — what makes him tick, what produced the cold-blooded killer who emerges from the void at the film’s beginning. Indeed, through the character of Dr. Loomis, Carpenter suggests that Michael may very well be something unexplainable, something that cannot be parsed or reduced to understanding. He simply is.
And that’s a sizeable part of what gives Michael Myers so much power on the screen, so much capacity to terrorize and frighten us. Michael stands a step apart from any discernible human thought or feeling. He is simply a force, lurking in the shadows, silent, cold, and methodical as he completes his grisly labors.
What makes a work of art a classic in one era and laughable in another? I’ve written before about the Citizen Kane Effect, or the idea that some works that were groundbreaking for their time had such a profound effect on the medium that they essentially became the new standard, to the point that the innovations of the past might appear mundane to the modern eye. But there’s a flipside to this phenomenon — sometimes a work is innovative and interesting for its time, but as the years pass on, the tropes of the genre change, or the grammar and shorthand for how particular ideas are expressed evolve. When this happens, older works can feel miscalibrated or even half-baked to viewers who come to them after their heydey, having grown accustomed to the conventions of follow-on works that build on, and eventually move away from, their hallowed predecessors.
Perhaps this is why, despite my best efforts, I essentially laughed my way through A Nightmare on Elm Street. It’s prudent to go into any work of art, especially those considered landmarks of the genre, with an open mind. While some seminal works may be overpraised, it’s worth the effort to appreciate why something is considered a classic, even if a modern viewer may have trouble connecting with it. But at a certain point, no matter how hard we try, we cannot escape the baggage that we carry into our viewing experiences.
Perhaps it’s naive to expect a horror film to have the same impact thirty years after its debut that it did when it was originally released. And yet, my prelude to A Nightmare on Elm Street was The Exorcist, a film that predated Nightmare by nearly a decade, but was still just as vivid, striking, and scary in the present day as it was to audiences in the seventies. At the same time, my postscript to the film was Nightmare director Wes Craven’s own Scream, released a little more than a decade later, which manages to be both frightening and fun while trafficking in the same tropes that Craven himself helped establish in Kruger’s first slasherrific outing. So what makes the difference? Why is one scary movie chilling and another chuckle-worthy?
The first season of Daria is good, but not great. Many of the elements that would eventually establish the show as a touchstone for disaffected youth were already in place in these early installments. From the beginning, Daria showed off the deadpan snark that would make her famous; the rest of the Morgendorffer clan had their basic personalities sketched out, and the show was already devoted to shining a satirical light on the lumpier parts of high school and teenage life writ large.
But in the show’s early going, its bread-and-butter humor and critiques of life as a young adult are a little less sophisticated and a little more obvious. The satire isn’t as sharp or incisive as it would become later in the series, and the secondary characters are flatter and more stereotypical. Most of all, the series only gives glimpses of the depth and insight series creators Glenn Eichler and Susie Lewis Lynn would eventually imbue into Daria and the show’s title character.
This all makes me sound far more negative on Season 1 than I mean to be. Even if Daria had never progressed past what it was able to accomplish in its first season– creating a fully formed protagonist who could wield witty barbs like a literate ninja, mustering a solid dose of knives-out fun directed at one-dimensional high school archetypes, and offering a fractured take on life as a teenager–it would still be an enjoyable series with a memorable hook.
But in “The Misery Chick”, an episode written by Eichler that served as the finale of the show’s first season, the folks behind Daria showed the series’s uncanny ability to address complicated, meaningful topics with a deft hand. What’s more, the episode served as something of a mission statement for Daria herself and also proved that the series could show empathy for its broader, less likeable secondary characters, revealing the hidden depths and humanity of the less-flatteringly-depicted residents of Lawndale. These are the elements that allowed Daria to transcend being a simple paean to teenage snark, and become one of the most incisive and hilarious looks at young adulthood ever on television.
Who is Rick Sanchez? Is he simply an amoral (or post-moral) mad scientist with a drinking problem? Is he a reluctantly self-sacrificing grandfather who secretly loves the family he occasionally torments? Is he an anti-authoritarian hedonist with no regard for sentient life or anything else that stands in the way of his fun? Is he a man in pain who keeps himself constantly moving forward so as not to have to face his own demons and personal failings? Is he a jaded spacefarer who’s seen a universe’s worth of crap and has to dig through it to recover the remaining scraps of his humanity buried underneath?
Rick Sanchez is all of these things. He’s a man who’s keen to kick back and watch the turmoil of a “Purge Planet” like it’s a spectator sport. He’s a man who’s willing to sacrifice his own life to save his grandson. He’s a man who would create an entire miniature universe, complete with intelligent life just to power his spaceship. He’s a man who attempts to kill himself after being left by an old flame once more and told he’s a bad influence. He’s a man who has fought in a war, walked away from a failed marriage, and accordingly refuses to leave himself vulnerable. And he is also a man who scarred his daughter by abandoning her when she was young, but who later turned himself in to the authorities to keep her and her family from having to live as intergalactic fugitives.
In short, he’s complicated. It’s easy to mistake the divergent takes on the same character that inevitably emerge from the cacophony of voices in a T.V. writer’s room for complexity. But given Rick and Morty co-creator Dan Harmon’s history of writing damaged, multifaceted characters, it’s no stretch to see these characteristics as something more than just a jumbled series of inconsistent traits. Instead, they are signs of the conflicting impulses within one of the most three-dimensional characters to ever anchor a comedy as madcap and irreverent as Rick and Morty.