These Are My Friends

I’m going to say something many an “intellectual” has been shamed for saying: I love television.

Film has been accepted as a noble pursuit—though “film intellectuals” will argue a strict line between which films are worthy—but television, increasingly available to the masses, less so. “TV critic” calls to mind images of bespeckled, beard lovers munching Doritos on couches in dimly lit rooms that have seen better days. A film critic wears a turtleneck under their sport coats.

Yet, there exists a hierarchy within television series as well. Like film, however, this is mostly linked to access. Network television? Sure, that’ll do for the casual watcher (insert eye rolls), but premium cable is real television. In other words, the more exclusive it is, the harder it is for the masses to consume it, the better the programming is, obviously. Luckily for us plebeian masses, these practices (and this way of thinking) are changing. Online streaming platforms have made TV watching a bit more egalitarian, especially with HBO’s streaming subscription service and Showtime teaming up with Hulu.

I recently moved to France and lamented having to give up certain TV-watching practices (“ugh, now I have to try?”), but was rewarded when I discovered that my Netflix account carries over from country to country. Not only that, but a whole new slew of options became available. Orphan Black, Better Call Saul, and Fargo are all “Netflix Originals” here. My friends followed me.

Friends? Yes, that is what I call them, and that is what I love most about television. While it is possible to form a kinship with film characters–I’m in the midst of writing “Tom Hagen’s Diary”–it happens more easily and more naturally with television characters. These are the people we invite into our homes each week–and more frequently, for 12 hour “hangout” sessions–and get to know. We watch them grow for 13, 22, or 26 episodes. And then in the fall or the springtime, they do it again. We live their dreams and their disappointments. We wish they could go on forever and understand when they can’t. We get to know them as we get to know few film characters. And yes, they become our friends.

So maybe trading in my “intellectual” badge is worth it, if it means I get to hang with the Knope-Wyatts, and the Waldorfs, and the Belchers, and Annalise Keating every week.

Keep Walking: Rick Grimes and the Myth of Sisyphus

Possible spoilers for those not yet caught up.

It’s safe to say that our worlds turned upside down after what we thoughtwe saw last week, and are trying hard not to see. Every week, The Walking Deadthrows fans into a frenzy. After all, it’s not for nothing that the show’s tagline is “Fight the dead. Fear the living.”

As our favorite characters and villains fight to survive from week to week, their flawed leader stands above the rest. Rick Grimes gets the job done.

It’s hard, however, not to find the similarities between Rick and another character of note: Sisyphus.

Nearly everyone is familiar with mythical character Sisyphus, who after cheating death twice is damned to the deepest part of the Underworld, where he must roll a boulder up a steep hill, only to have it roll back down and start again.

Like Sisyphus, this time, he cannot do it alone, but rather must depend on his friends.

When we first meet Rick Grimes, he is waking up from a coma after a serious gunshot wound; essentially, we meet him after the first time he cheated death. In the myth, Sisyphus cheats Death (or Thanatos) by trapping him. The result? The dead walk the earth, unable to cross over to the Underworld.

Still, Rick does the best he can with this new “life,” taking the reins and (hopefully) leading his community to a safe place.

Which brings us to the second (concrete) time he cheats death: Terminus.

Like Sisyphus, this time, he cannot do it alone, but rather must depend on his friends. Without Carol, Rick’s death–as well as that of his closest friends–is certain.

Yet, that is not to say that Rick goes unpunished. Friends and family members are killed, yes, but it is is ultimate goal that comes tumbling back down the hill moments before being realized.

Hershel’s farm. The prison. And now Alexandria. He pushes his family to their limits to get to these so-called safe places. He pushes himself to his limits to keep these places. But inevitably, the boulder comes rushing back down the hill.

And he has no choice but to keep walking.


Brooklyn Nine-Nine and the Return to the Single Camera Comedy

It’s true that The Office did a lot for the televised sitcom. When Greg Daniels adapted Ricky Gervais’ comedy for American audiences, he couldn’t have known how he would change the way network comedies were made for the next 10 or so years.

What am I talking about?

The one-on-one camera confessionals.

It seems that ever since Michael Scott and the wary employees of Dunder-Mifflin hit American TVs, every successful comedy has copied its mockumentary style.  Parks and Recreation (who may get a pass, since it had the same creator/producer), Modern Family, and even more recently, The Muppets used it to get a facelift. Characters often break the fourth wall to convey their exasperation or let the audience in on a joke.

And we’ve enjoyed it.


In the past couple of years, however, there has thankfully been a return to the single-camera comedy. Amongst this “new” crop is Brooklyn Nine-Nine, created by Parks & Rec‘s co-creator, Michael Schur.

The show follows detectives in Brooklyn’s 99th police precinct, and features a cast of characters each outrageous in their own way, with Adam Samberg’s Jake Peralta taking the center seat. Together, they solve crimes and try to impress their stoic Captain Holt (Andre Braugher).

What’s even more refreshing than the single-camera format is its frequent avoidance of “comedic” tropes

Brooklyn Nine-Nine debuted in 2013, the same year The Office ended. Like many shows before it, it rewards fans’ fidelity with jokes that build over the course of many episodes for a more satisfying punchline (see: Craig Robinson’s repeat character “The Pontiac Bandit”, Boyle and Gina’s relationship, etc.).

Though storylines can be predictable (remember this is, after all, a sit-com), what’s even more refreshing than the single-camera format is its frequent avoidance of “comedic” tropes. Captain Holt, for example, is a gay Black man, yet plans into none of the stereotypes therein. Terry Crews’ Terry Jeffords is a body-building tough guy who rejects typical gender roles.

The beauty is that without on-camera confessionals and personal asides, we get to know the characters only by their interactions with each other. We don’t know what they’re thinking, and so more effort is necessarily put into fleshing out the characters in dialogue, rather than monologue. Characters do not directly attempt to win the audience to their side with their antics; for all intents and purposes, there is no audience.

And why do we watch television, if not to disappear?


The Three Circles of Time, or Nolan’s Proustian Universe

For a Frenchman, comparing Proust–author of a series of seven books called A la recherche du temps perdu–and Christopher Nolan, director of popular movies such as Inception or Interstellar, could be as outrageous as dissolving a croissant in a cup of coffee. But, whether or not Proust was an inspiration for Nolan, the treatment of time in their respective works links the two artists. Not far from Dante’s hell, time could be seen as three concentric circles that the characters have to walk through to get to the bottom of things.

First circle: Losing time.

This signification of time is linked to memories, and the inability for one to connect them and find any significance. In Memento, the main character suffers from a recurring loss of memory. He needs to write on little sheets of paper what he just did, why and most importantly, who he can trust, to pursue his search of the criminal who raped and killed his wife.

Memories are just as treacherous in Marcel’s life, and, though he tries to lean on them just as Leonard Shelby does in Memento, he is constantly misled. For instance, when Marcel arrives, in Le temps retrouvé, at a party, he’s bewildered to see how the very people he used to know have changed and aged. He tends to believe that he’s tricked into some game, and that all the guests wear masks. In all la Recherche, things tend to conceal their true meaning behind false appearances. It’s only when the narrator compares a church with a brioche, or the glistening rooftops of Paris with the grey feathers of the most well known pigeons, that he gets closer to the concealed meanings.


Second circle: Wasting time.

Time is a paradox that only few are able to understand. Inception is all about that. In this movie about the life of Dominic Cobb, expert into entering other people’s dreams. Not only is Arthur an architect of paradoxes (see “the paradox of stairs”, inspired by the Penrose stairs [image]), but time in itself is paradoxical ; the last two pieces of music from Hans Zimmer are called “Paradox” and “Time”. The very paradoxes are linked to the confrontation between subjective time and objective time. When the so-called Mr Charles (Cobb pretending to be someone else, a guard to protect the dreamer) explains to Robert Fisher, the dreamer, how paradoxical the shifting weather and everything around him is the whole dream is on the edge of collapsing. Fisher indeed is close to discovering that the time dimension he believes to be in is not real. But Mr Charles is able to help him restore the whole meaning of time, and therefore preserve the deceiving environment.

Everything is relative, and the narrator’s subjectivity, which divided the world in so many distinctive places, vanishes when faced with dull reality.

Marcel is confronted by these situations many a time. All it takes is train ride (which is also a keyword for Nolan’s Inception to find a way to come back to reality) for time to get away from him. When he happens to fall asleep between two or more stations, he’s unable to link the pre and post-nap worlds. Without any temporal leads, the whole world is made of places impossible to connect . As evocative as a single scene can be, time works in a proustian perspective as a framework, close to the cinématographe mechanism invented a few years earlier. The landscapes evolve as the train passes by, and the objects tend to change colours, aspects and let the viewer close to catch a glimpse of the infinity of shapes it can embody. There, subjective time is once again confronted by objective time. Whereas Marcel could be able to reach every point of the planet thanks to the new technologies (airplanes, trains) that were in the process of being invented, this way of knowledge is always deceptive.

When, by chance, Marcel does not fall asleep during one of his train trips, he’s completely disappointed to find out that the places he believed to be belonging to different worlds are actually one and only universe. Everything is relative, and the narrator’s subjectivity, which divided the world in so many distinctive places, vanishes when faced with dull reality.

Third circle: Finding the time.

This is the only way for the main character in Nolan’s Interstellar, and La recherche’s narrator to reach the true essence of time. In the books, the narrator is first tired by the many unproductive efforts to become the writer he always meant to be, then overcome with doubts about literature as a whole and the very idea of finding something worth it beyond the mere amusements of the bourgeois society. And it’s precisely when he least expects it, just before the masquerade, that, by chance, he trips in the street. That very movement reminds him of another time of his life, the same way he remembers from time to time the taste of the famous madeleine. Not only does this bring him back to his childhood, but the abolition of time between these two different moments of his life has the very opposite effect mentioned earlier.

It’s one’s ability to master it and link one’s various experiences in a key moment, to discover a truth hidden all along, that matters.

The colours (bleu azur), the odours (tea), the noises (a fallen spoon), everything conspires to create metaphor in time. Beyond the maze of the different moments of his life, his key experiences mingled together bring him the very feeling of time, not as a framework of life, but as a possibility to live the same thing over and over, without any memorization effort. Filled with joy, Marcel finally overcomes the paradox of objective time through an unwilling comparison, free of parasite thoughts, purified.

The superposition of the same key moment in one’s life to solve lifelong problems is a main theme of Interstellar as well. The movie deals with humanity’s last hope of escaping a dying Earth and discovering other inhabitable planets When Cooper falls into a black hole, and therefore in a sort of 5th dimension where time is not a long framework anymore, but a place where he can evolve, he find himself back to the place he was with his daughter at the beginning of the movie. Through a code word (transmitted thanks to a watch), he’s able to change the past. But it’s also at this very moment that he gets to understand that time in itself is not the important dimension. It’s one’s ability to master it and link one’s various experiences in a key moment, to discover a truth hidden all along, that matters.


Just an Old Woman’s Dream: How Film’s Most Idealistic Couple became Its Most Realistic

Jesse and Céline forever.

In a world of super sappy, “you complete me,” “I like you just the way you are,” and “I want the rest of my life to start as soon as possible” film couples, Jesse and Céline are so refreshingly normal.

But they didn’t start out that way.
When we first meet them in Before Sunrise, Jesse and Céline are just strangers on a train who fall in love in less than 12 hours. The bright-eyed youngsters are nearly irresistible as they discuss philosophical musings and bicker about the way of the world against the waning lights of Amsterdam. They are adorable. They are enviable. They are just characters in an old woman’s dream.

Yes, I love this Jesse and Céline but, they remain virtually unattainable outside the four walls of the cinema

At best, the Jesse and Céline of Before Sunrise can only represent a love based in fantasy; with little hope of seeing each other again (save for a last minute promise), they are freed from the real world. I love this Jesse and Céline. They are just sweet enough, unafraid to say what they are really thinking. When a street poet writes a poem for them on the banks of the Danube, Céline is quick to spot Jesse’s cynicism. Jesse reminds Céline she’s too quick to trust strangers.
Yes, I love this Jesse and Céline, but they remain virtually unattainable outside the four walls of the cinema.

Ten years later, we finally get to see what happened to our star crossed lovers. In Before Sunset, Jesse and Céline are a little older, a little wiser, and a little more jaded. Their lives have become more complicated, they’re not as quick to open up to others, but they’ve kept that twinkle in their eye. They’ve tucked away some part of themselves for each other.
While Jesse romanticizes the night they spent together all those years ago, Céline attempts to diminish it. It is what makes Jesse’s marriage bearable for him, and every relationship unbearable for Céline. These films, written by Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, and director Richard Linklater are increasingly influenced by he actors’ own lives and experiences; Céline becomes the cynical one, and Jesse grows to be idealistic.

In Before Sunset, they are still allowed their fantasy world, but reality leaks in. There’s Jesse’s wife and son just across the Atlantic, for example. We are permitted to enter intimate spaces, like Céline’s apartment and family life, but the film ends there; it is as if we have already gone too far into the quotidian.
Lastly, we have 2013’s Before Midnight, the final installment. Now with two children (plus Jesse’s aforementioned son), we see that their life is not all “sweet cakes and milkshakes” as that street poet recited all those years ago.

They are just so painfully normal. Beautifully normal. They still have sparks of that old light, but mostly they have us wondering if they can/should stay together. Whereas other heroines of romantic comedies would soon when her partner reenacts their first meeting and courtship, Céline rolls her eyes. The sappy stuff does not make up for real communication.
For me, Before Midnight is the hardest to watch, because Jesse and Céline have entered fully into reality. We’ve watched them go from bright-eyed lovers to adults looking for some sign of hope. The truth is, the trilogy ends with: Jesse and Céline Forever (?) It is, in short, not the ending we would have expected as Céline boarded that train on June 17th 1994, but that’s what makes this trilogy so special.
Delpy, Hawke, and Linklater weren’t afraid to change these characters, to change their situations, or to change their minds.


Ode to the Final Episodes

It is the thing that many-a TV lover hates to hear: Series Finale. We expect films to end, but week after week (or in the age of binge-watching, hour after hour) we grow more and more attached to these characters, inviting them into our homes and even to our dinner tables. They are there in a pinch, when a room full of strangers awkwardly try to make conversation, and they are there to help us through the tough days.

And just as suddenly as they entered our lives, they are gone.

But faced with their bitter end, we came clambering back and were often rewarded for our fidelity.

In more recent years, many favorite television shows have ended, especially on the comedy side of the dial. Then, of course, there’s Walter White’s iconic struggle, Sookie Stackhouse’s final decisions, Dexter’s mess… I can easily count over 10 series that have gone to the Great White Noise in the Sky within the past two years. Some of them saw a decline in quality in their most recent seasons (I’m looking at you, The Office), but faced with their bitter end, we came clambering back and were often rewarded for our fidelity.


To be quite frank, Parks and Rec‘s final season has made me cry every week–with the exception of this week. Propelling the series two years into the future has made each character’s growth that much more impressionable. Yes, “Treat Yo Self 2017” had me blubbering like a small child. When 30 Rock ended, I put off watching the show, just so that Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy could live just a little longer. Mad Men it seems has adopted the same concept, as they have been airing their final season for the past 3 years at least. Side note: How many times has Community been cancelled already?

Other than Breaking Bad‘s gasp heard ’round the world, there haven’t been very many recent series finales that can top the infamous Sopranos ending (leaving that restaurant to wade through months of new business).

This is not to say, however that the dead cannot come back to life; both Twin Peaks and The X-Files will once again face the dawn.
But it’s not the same.
We loved them, and would like to think they loved us, too. The final episodes often feel like love letters written to the millions who have kept the characters alive through the years. So, let’s say goodbye to our old loves and relive our glory days on Netflix.


Treatment of Celebrity in Documentary, And Some Docs to Watch Just Because

Celebrity infatuation is a hardy fixture of the lowbrow. If you’ve been in a grocery checkout line or at the doctor’s office or in a sorority house’s bathroom, you are familiar with the headlines of “OMG LOOK AT THAT SUPER HUNK WALKING HIS DOG JUST LIKE US” or “HOW IN GOD’S NAME DID THE PRETTY GIRL OF TODAY GET THOSE ABS?? SECRETS REVEALED” or, of course, “CHEATING SCANDAL REVEALED!!” These headlines come from the tabloid press and delve deeply and often falsely into the lives of celebrities, exploiting glamor and marital problems with inflammatory language that was previously reserved for such fine publications.

In recent years, however, this same language and content has invaded newspapers (or at least their internet footprint) and other “serious” news publications. Of the “important” news stories of 2014, some of the most shared and discussed included Kim Kardashian’s butt and hacked naked pictures of Jennifer Lawrence. On my conglomerate Twitter feed of relatively liberal media from The New York Times to Buzzfeed (a very confusing media company that has intense journalistic investigations but mostly has lists of 17 things you can personally relate to so well), butts and nudes seemed to outnumber the stories on Ebola and ISIS. Naked pictures became fodder for social activism in terms of gender and Internet security, while thousands of West Africans contracted Ebola and died.

So, the line between “tabloid” and “real important news” has blurred to the point of invisibility. News headlines no longer tell us information but convince us to click, much like the tabloid magazine of yesteryear. One (me) might say that reporting and journalism on the whole has devolved to appear to the masses instead of attempting that old-fashion “integrity” thing, and one (me) might argue that celebrity infiltration into “serious” news stories has something to do with said devolution.

One “serious” and (arguably) news-y medium that has been particularly hard-hit by celebrity in recent years is documentary film. We have witnessed a barrage of documentaries on celebrities that lack multiple perspectives. Instead of an investigation, these docs feature fit celebrities in sensational and expensively produced films that highlight the troubles and hardships of the celebrity and celebrate their being. The celebrity has seized his or her life, done nothing wrong, and is a victim, like the rest of us, to this harsh world. All of this despite a completely manufactured image and a product that lacks any attempt at authentic storytelling. These are documentaries made about Celebrity by Celebrity, Inc., with the sole purpose to celebrate the efforts and genius of Celebrity in question.

But, instead of continuing my and many documentary filmmaker’s disappointment with the world that documentary has been trivialized, I want to show how there is hope! Celebrity is a fixture, yes, of the lowbrow, but celebrity as a subject can also be in an educated, artful, and integrity-ridden documentary! Wow! And in documentaries that have come out recently! Double wow! So, to provide you with something other than a rant, with this inaugural Brow Blog, I want to provide you with three celebrity documentaries of varying brows for you to enjoy in the New Year. The key terms here is “to enjoy,” which does not necessarily mean your brain follicles will react similarly or at all to the three “films.”

Like any modern-day, pseudo intellectual plebeian, sometimes (often), one must venture away from the realm of deep thought and sophistication and quench the thirst for brain-dead and sensorial footage that requires limited analysis and after-thought. So, if you are going to watch a documentary of the lowest brow, I recommend Katy Perry’s Part of Me because its SO MUCH FUN!

To watch Part of Me, it is necessary to first find yourself in an emotional rut. Been broken up with? Lost a job? Made a dumb, life-altering decision? Are you slightly intoxicated and can’t exactly focus on your reflection in the mirror? Then, it is time to let Katy Perry take you to a landscape of bubbles, superficial plight, and Hallmark-style American dreams. “If you work hard, you will accomplish anything you want!” Thank you, Katy, I can become a famous media personality! I will be happy one day!

The documentary follows Katy around the globe during her California Dreams Tour. This is an exciting year for her: an international, mega-millions, high-production, whipped-cream-filled tour and the beginning of her marriage with former heroin addict (and famous comedian) Russell Brand. Katy rocks the house in each city, and during her short, three- to four-day breaks, she flies to Russell’s side as the doting wife. Katy is a superstar in her personal and celebrity life. She has overcome so many struggles with her super religious family and music corporations that didn’t let her express her true self, but look at what she has been able to accomplish. Wow! Of course, the curated story shows how the stress of being super famous and being super in love is super hard. Poor Katy! She is crying! And tired! But her Brazilian fans are so loving, and it is so touching!

The doc is in essence an enjoyable, prolonged music video with a smattering of interviews with Katy and her staff. It features one grand scene with Katy’s out-of-touch grandmother, who clearly gives zero toots about Katy’s pink dress and the camera crew. We meet fans who have transformed their lives with Katy’s musical authenticity. She has saved them by showing them it’s okay to just be themselves. The doc filled me with confidence about myself as I passed out on the couch and woke up the next morning with wine stains on my shirt.

Glitz, glamor, and pop music shape these lowbrow celebrity documentaries, but these characteristics easily described last year’s Academy Award winning documentary feature, 20 Feet From Stardom. So, whether you like it or not, 20 Feet is the middlebrow celebrity documentary selection!

20 Feet From Stardom applies some of the same tropes and glitz from the Katy Perry-tiered documentaries, but it also investigates a topic of celebrity culture much in the shadows…several feet from the stardom, one (me) might say. It focuses on backup singers who have had prolific careers but never quite made it on their own. They sang with big-time names like David Bowie and Tina Turner and The Rolling Stones. The documentary is ridden with celebrity sightings: Sting and Mick Jagger are two interview subjects that appear frequently in the film to offer their wisdom and knowledge on these backup vocalists.

Like Part of Me, 20 Feet does feel like a prolonged music video. But it is a music video of discovery. We meet Merry Clayton, who is the iconic yet unrecognized voice in The Rolling Stones’ hit “Gimme Shelter.” She came into the studio in the middle of night, while pregnant, and wailed, a wail that far exceeded Mr. Jagger’s hopes and dreams. We also follow Darlene Love, who eventually made it into the Rock-n-Roll hall of fame, but was virtually silenced by the famed producer Phil Spector in the 1960s. These women in the film had their dreams squashed, thrown in the trash, compressed in the garbage truck, and hidden in the landfill because they needed to make a living and also follow their passion. Like Part of Me, 20 Feet is sympathetic and celebratory but the stories show how error also led to failure and how living your dream can be a dangerous state of being. It’s interesting. It’s easy. It’s fun.

Finally, I turn to the highbrow celebrity documentary for your viewing thought and pleasure. The film in question harkens to a clearer time when tabloids were tabloids and newspapers were newspapers. In fact, just to be super clear, it is entitled Tabloid, released in 2010. Director Errol Morris, who won the Academy Award—certainly a measure of something—for his documentary The Fog of War, invented a special camera for his documentaries, the awe-inspiring “Interrotron.” It allows the interviewee and the interviewer to look directly into each others’ eyes through the camera lens. So, instead of the off-center-bobble-head-looking-off-screen effect, the subject stares at the viewer.

The story unfolds layer by layer until you are left with unlimited twists and turns that seem almost unreal. You meet Joyce McKinney, a former beauty queen, who seems reasonably sane if not slightly manic. In her words, she met a wonderful man named Kirk and fell in love with him. He loved her, too, but was then abducted by the evil Mormon cult and was sent to England for brainwashing. The other side of the story says that Joyce fell in obsession and kidnapped and raped Mormon Kirk during his mission in England. After the affair, Joyce became a tabloid sensation, known to Brits and Americans alike, who followed the melodrama through tabloid magazines and papers. Through her celebrity, more and more tabloid reporters investigated her life and discovered…DUN DUN DUN…so much more than the life of a simple beauty queen. As the interviewees in Tabloid point out, this story had an element for everyone: religion, sex, love, kidnaps, jail, disputes, and, most importantly, bondage.

 Tabloid tells a celebrity drama without the glitz and glam and high profile interview subjects. It also borderlines on “art film” with clever animation and effects that compliment a relatively confusing story. It gets unpacked, which can be hardly said for Part of Me.

So, it’s the New Year. You literally have nothing better to do but lose 1000 pounds, so go watch some celebrity documentaries. They at least encourage one to get in shape.