The Baxter and Romantic Comedies

Written and directed by Michael Showalter, The Baxter is a romantic comedy about romantic comedies, where Showalter plays CPA Elliot Sherman, a decent but boring man who is doomed to be a “Baxter.”

Baxter n. “A good but dull man who is not the right partner for the female lead of a romantic comedy.  The Baxter is left at the alter when the leading man makes the dramatic return to win over the leading lady.”

Elliot has been stuck as a Baxter several times over the course of his life, and spends the film trying to shake the Baxter curse. Showalter displays great familiarity with the genre conventions of the romantic comedy, employing several classic motifs with Elliot and company being more conscious of the narrative structure that they’re fitting into.

Elizabeth Banks plays Caroline Swan, Elliot’s latest romantic interest, whom he meets the same day as Cecil Mills (Michelle Williams), who is hired as his temporary secretary.  Justin Theroux rounds out the cast as Caroline’s old flame, Bradley Lake.

The plot is as predictable as any romantic comedy, and it’s this predictability which the film siezes on to set itself apart from the majority of the instances of the genre.  The humor in the film is often understated, doesn’t go as far into slapstick as films like The Wedding Crashers or There’s Something About Mary, instead falling more into the Indy aesthetic of small moments with awkward but charming people.

The moral of the story is that the reason the Baxters get left behind for the romantic leads is bravery, the bravery/bravado/foolishness to do those big stupid romantic things like standing outside her house with a boom box, flying to Portugal to propose to her at work, doing a rain dance to make it rain, ask her to dance during the last song of the night, etc.

The Baxter urges us to take a chance, to put ourselves out there, to make the big romantic gesture.  not necessarily because the gesture works on its own, but that spontenaity and the willingness to be vulnerable will be what puts you in the situations to fall in love and win someone’s heart.

But even a romantic comedy about romantic comedies is still fitting into a formula, as do other meta-romantic comedies like Hitch The Baxter says that we can change our archetype within the romantic comedy structure, we cannot escape it completely.  Sherman only gets his happy ending when he realizes that he’d been living the wrong role opposite the wrong leading lady — which is only enabled by having the ‘right’ leading lady in his life to be able to make that realization. Without the ‘meet cute,’ the story cannot get moving, the real romantic comedy cannot begin.

For the people still looking for the person who stars opposite them in the romantic comedy of their life, these stories serve as consolation.  They are a cultural promise that says “Do not despair.  The right person is out there, and when you meet the right person, whackiness may ensue but if you put yourself out there, the two of you will have your happily ever after.”

Is this ultimately a healthy message that these films send?  Stories can be many things to many people — and for some they are consolation, for others passing entertainment, but they feed into a larger cultural mythology about how romance and relationships work.

We’re seeing more women in the protagonist romantic lead role of the genre, as the person who has to make the romantic gesture and put themselves out to get hurt or get what they want.  Gender equity in whose responsibility it is to initiate a relationship goes part and parcel with third-wave feminism, but cultural forces haven’t just dropped away to allow this gender parity to take place — everyone has expectations influencing their decisions.  Lingering double-standards position a sexually-agent male as a ‘go-getter, a virile man,’ while a sexually-passive male is ‘effeminite.’  But on the other hand, a sexually-agent female is a ‘loose woman’ while a sexually-passive female is ‘in her place,’ is being ‘proper.’

It’s good to have meta-narratives critiquing the assumptions of narrative genres, but when you engage a genre, you are often stuck feeding into the expectations of that genre or reacting against them.  Finding the middle ground more akin to Jose Esteban Munoz’s notion of disidentification, where a critique can be made and self-definition be made manifest, that is much harder, but it’s the path that each of us live day by day, taking the narrative tropes and stories that make up the fabric of our cultural canon and working them in and out of our lives.

This application and analysis of narrative is a necessary part of being a functioning being in society, but like any crafts-person, the better the raw material we have to work with, the more effective tools we can make for understanding and confidently and successfully moving through life.  What if more romantic comedies had strong elements of how-to videos, teaching body language, conversational techniques, and real-life appropriate methods for putting yourself in situations where you are more likely to meet people with whom to make a connection?  All of this would of course have to be done under the aegis of entertainment so as to be more widely distributed and more appealing to people who want to find love but are for one or another reason unlikely to purchase or investigate ‘how to’ manuals for dating.  This brings us back to aesthetics and the reasons why people seek out romantic comedies.  Not everyone is looking for advice from them, but perhaps a few people could find it, given the right film/show/narrative to provide it.

Now I’m not saying that all romantic comedies should be didactic dating how-tos with a thin plot, but it’s important for creators to be aware of the cultural/psychological effect their narratives have on the way people experience and understand life.  The stories available to us inform what we imagine as the range of possibilities in what has (and therefore can) be done.  It’s the approach I try to take with my own work, and in my research, I plan to investigate that part of the creative process as well, setting aside ‘the author is dead’ in favor of ‘the author is very much alive’ — there’s a maxim in writing that says ‘write the novel that you want to read’ — we write for many reasons, and exorcising our demons or exploring psychological possibilties are among them.

Ethnography can go in a lot of directions, and one of the things I want to do with my career is to see how working with people at all levels and stages of the culture-making business in addition to audiences and those who take narratives and transform them to their own ends (fan-fiction, vidding, etc.) can lead to a greater overal understanding of the cultural process of making meaning and understanding the world.

Supernatural 4×05 “Monster Movie”

This week’s Supernatural was a loving homage to the classic Universal Studios monster movies, complete with a bombastic soundtrack in the place of Supernatural’s classic rock and a full black-and-white episode.

A full unpacking of the expert genre and medium emulation on the part of the episode “Monster Movie” would fill an entire journal-length essay, which I intend to write, but not here.

The episode “Monster Movie” was written by Ben The Tick and Angel‘s “Smile Time” Edlund, a devotee of classic horror and expert in loving parody. The entire episode had its medium and genre conventions filtered through the Universal Studios Monster Movie paradigm.

But the genre elements were explicitly diegetic (internal) as well as influencing the credits, the color (as in none), and even including an intermission card in the middle of the episode before a commerical break. Sam and Dead listen to and comment on the horror-movie ‘radio’ which gives the soundtrack.

Throughout the episode, Sam and Dean are confused, then bemused by the fact that the popular, media versions of classic monsters such as Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, the Wolfman, and the Mummy pop up to commit murders across a Pennsylvania town during Oktoberfest (having the whole town dressed up Oktoberfest-style means that various locals can all be dressed up in a way that invokes the original Dracula, including Dean’s romantic interest of the week, a bartender aka “bar wench” named Jaime.

The reason for this genre emulation goes into the plot of the episode itself, rather than being just mapped on to an otherwise ‘normal’ Supernatural case. In a move consistent with Universal monster movies, the villain is made sympathetic in its monologue about being feared and reviled, then finding solace in the noble solitude of the “classic monsters” of film.

The shapeshifter villain is trapped in the genre conventions of the monsters he emulates, down to oh-so-slowly reaching for the switch that would electrocute Dean, explicitly casting our heroes and others into the Dracula story (Dean as Jonathan Harker, Sam as Abraham Van Helsing, with Dean’s romantic interest Jaime as Mina Murray).

In a genre-inverting turn, it is our damsel in distress who vanquishes the monster (with silver, which does not normally kill vampires in Supernatural‘s mythology) working both as an inversion of genre expectations as well as the expectation for Supernatural itself, which has been criticized for its treatment of women.

This level of genre emulation and careful parody happens from time to time in television and film, and “Monster Movie” provides more evidence that the best parodies come from a deep understanding and appreciation for the genre being parodied. One of the best examples of this mode of parody can be seen in the ABC Family show The Middleman, adapted from a graphic novel series into a tv superhero parody tour-de-force of Generation X/Y (mostly geek) cultural references.

Review: Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book

Neil Gaiman is the premiere Neo-Goth Noir Fantasy writer, or at least, he is according to one of the questions asked of him at a reading of his new novel, The Graveyard Book at the Tivoli theatre in Downer’s Grove last Thursday.  I went up to Chicago to visit with friends and attend the reading.

Gaiman is a Storyteller in the old sense, a person who lives their life by sharing stories with others, whatever medium is needed or appropriate.  Gaiman has written poems, novels, short stories, films, comics, radio dramas, etc, and is one of the most beloved storytellers in the speculative fiction field.

The Graveyard Book is Gaiman’s latest story for young readers, though it is delightful enough for this 25-year old reader.  A riff on Kipling’s The Jungle Book, Gaiman says the inspiration for The Graveyard Book came from the sight of his son Michael at the age of two, riding his tricycle through the headstones of a graveyard.  Now, over twenty years later, we have the novel.

Gaiman’s narrative voice is effortless and breezy, moving confidently through the story and taking the time to develop memorably particular characters like Ms. Lupescu, Liza Hempstock, and of course, the hero of the tale, young Nobody Owens, called Bod.  There’s elements of Lovecraft in the tale along with the influence of Kipling, fused in with Gaiman’s lifelong affinity for myth and other elements of folklore.  Illustrations from Dave McKean bring moments to life, starting with the blood-stained knife on the first page of the novel, the point ending just below the words “There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.”

The sole survior of his family of four, the infant is taken in by the ghosts of a graveyard, and the mysterious man Silas appoints himself as the child’s guardian.  He is called Nobody in a move that invokes Homer, and grows up as ghostly as a living boy can, ultimately facing challenges that test his character, his knowledge, and his loyalties.

The Graveyard book is not a grand, sprawling epic like American Gods, nor a whirlwind tour of weird like Mirrormask.  But it is a strong YA story which appeals to adults, and would be a worthy addition to a family’s bookshelf.  Pick it up, read and then pass along to your child, your niece or nephew, or just a friend who would appreciate an afternoon’s diversion, a short but fine journey led by an expert storyteller.

Review: Valentine

Valentine is a new romantic comedy/drama brought to us by Kevin Murphy, co-executive producer on Desperate Housewives, and the writer of the musical version of Reefer Madness (he then produced a film version of same).

The premise is this:  (Some of) the Greek gods are alive and living in LA, trying to eek out their divine existence by acting as agents of the Fates by bringing together soulmates who would otherwise miss their chance at True Love.  Jaime Murray plays Grace Valentine (aka Aphrodite), who runs the ‘family business’.  Kristoffer Polaha plays Danny “Eros” Valentine, as womanizing and playful as you’d expect a 20-something Cupid to be.  Autumn Reeser is Phoebe Valentine, aka the Oracle of Delphi, though I wonder why she strikes me as being fairly Persephone-esque.  Why they went with a deified Oracle is an interesting question.  Robert Baker plays Leo Francisi, aka Hercules.  In an amusing turn, Grace is currently married to Ari Valentine (aka Ares), but cheating on him with her original husband, Ray “Hephaestus” Howard, who is far more hunky in this version than classical depictions.

The Valentines help the fated lovers when the Fates send out a card to one of the Valentine’s many cover businesses (e.g. Valentine plumbing).

The formula suggested by the pilot leads me to think that the show will try to balance the romantic comedy and drama genre categories as such:  the romantic comedy element will come from the Couple of the Week, the Valentine’s ‘clients’ — this gives a procedural element to provide guest stars and extra plot to goad the Valentines into character development; the drama will come from the Valentine’s interpersonal squabbles, their struggle to remain relevant (and therefore divine).

All of this might be enough to try to make a show happen on its own, but the Valentines, realizing that their understanding of how mortals think of love is outdated, recruit a genuine romantic in Kate Prudence, a romance writer (who strikes me as being an ‘unlucky in love’ sort, meaning that we’ll also follow her personal efforts in love).  An amusing note from the introduction of Kate — she’s doing a reading from a novel to a room full of women of all adult ages — and then a middle-aged bespectacled man walks in, gets embarassed, and then says he’ll just order the book on amazon — then leaves.  This could be read as a reminder that men are embarassed about liking romance novels if they do, or that men aren’t the audience for them — which also suggests men aren’t the audience for the show.  Further episodes may clarify this message.

Initial figures on ratings are not promising: TV by the Numbers shows a 0.3 figure for the pilot, or just over 1 million viewers.  The show is not likely to survive with ratings like that, even if it manages to cohere and improve from the solid but somewhat unremarkable beginning.

Review: Pretty/Handsome

There are a lot of things that media can do.  It can inform, entertain, challenge, distract, instruct, condemn, rally, terrify, delight.

And of course, there are people in control of media distribution, company programming execs, network censors, etc.

Which means that sometimes, a show will come along to challenge our pre-conceptions and investigate difference, a show with the potential to display and normalize a valid but-often-misunderstood way of living and instead, it will get left out in the cold.

I can’t know for certain why Pretty/Handsome wasn’t picked up from its pilot (barring interviewing those who made the decision), but I can guess, and I can talk about what we could have had.  Because even if the show doesn’t run, we have the pilot, and it’s enough for a good bit of discussion.

Pretty/Handsome is a pilot created by Nip/Tuck director and writer Ryan Murphy for FX.  Hollywood pitch would be “American Beauty meets Transamerica.”  It stars Joseph Fiennes as Bob Fitzpayne, a gynecologist with an affluent family, a beautiful dedicated wife (played by Carrie Anne-Moss), and two sons–a child genius and a nearly-college-aged lacrosse star.

Bob is also a transsexual, and his family doesn’t know.  The main action of the show hinges on the growing tension of keeping this aspect of his life and personality secret from his family as he is faced with a challenge at work that brings issues of gender/sexual identity, community status and bigotry into the fore.  Bob is presented with a FTM transsexual who needs a gynocologist to treat him for an unknown issue.  The stir that having a male transsexual patient in a gynocology clinic in Small Town New England stands as the example of the social pressures and bigotry faced by trans people everyday.  Bob’s wife Elizabeth is un-satisfied with her marital sex life, but is too committed to Bob and her family to leave.  As she says in the pilot — “You can leave and be alone, or stay and be lonely” — she’s chosen the latter.  Genius son Oliver is too precocious for his own good, combining hyper-intelligence with youthful curiosity and libido to get himself into trouble, while older brother Patrick’s future is threatened by a teen pregnancy and being ‘dragged down’ by a dead-end girlfriend (dead-end according to everyone but Patrick, of course).

In just a pilot episode, the show clearly sets the stakes of the interpersonal and sociological drama, and they are high.  It’s intense the whole way through, jumping from dynamic to dynamic, but the leads are all compelling in their flaws, and in no place is Bob reduced to the stereotype of a transsexual.  Bob gets a taste of what it would be like to live and be seen as a woman, even for just little snippets of time, and it helps him re-connect with his wife (which of course makes for a larger turn as he reveals the fact that he would rather be a woman all the time) Bob is a person with a secret and enormous pressures to keep that secret, bound up with gender expectations, societal expectations, familial expectations, and more.  Given chance to unfold the story, we could have seen a maturely depicted narrative of a transsexual taking the steps towards unifying the person they see themselves as and the body they have/the way they are seen.

Instead, we got a pilot, and won’t get any more (unless the show gets picked up elsewhere, but that doesn’t seem likely as is).

I strongly believe we need shows like Pretty/Handsome.  Television as a delivery mechanism has a lot of space for genre and content, and I would hope that in-between Survivor and Hardball and Chuck and Monday Night Football, we’d have room in our televisual field for shows that tackle important social issues through the lens of fiction.  One of the important things media exposure does is normalize things.  It also provides validation through representation.  I don’t have much trouble feeling like a valid social being, because straight white males in their mid-twenties are frequently depicted on television and in film, especially in the West/1st world/Global North.  But you don’t have to go too far back to see an American TV/film world where white people were the only ones depicted with any kind of real range and breadth.  Even still, we have certain stereotypes that practically everyone are forced into.

Having a(nother) show (done well) that depicted a rounded individual who happened to be transsexual, working through the issues involved with being in that fringe group and dealing with very real social pressures could go quite a ways towards helping show transsexuals as people.  Just people, like you or me, with a particular set of challenges in life that they have to deal with.

But luckily, in the current age, pilots like this get leaked and scholars like me can talk about what could have been, and use opportunities to bring up the issues when they might not otherwise occur (in the field of American TV/film/new media).  Watching TV shows isn’t enough by itself, of course, but it can sometimes open a door for someone to re-examine their pre-concieved notions and provide room for further consideration and dialogue.

T:SCC Samson and Delilah — A Vid By Any Other Name

The opening sequence of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles‘ season 2 premiere “Samson and Delilah” is tightly-edited, and seems like it was structured beat-by-beat off of the soundtrack used for the scene, “Samson and Delilah,” as sung by Shirley Manson, former lead singer of the rock group “Garbage” who also happens to be playing a new recurring character in the series.

Watch here:

As I watched the opening, I couldn’t help but read the sequence as if it were a fan-vid, as in ‘vidding.’  My friend/colleague Alexis Lothian, author and maintainer of Queer Geek Theory (http://queergeektheory.wordpress.com/) has been working on/with vidding of late, which almost certainly helped inform my viewing.  Vidding has a great deal of transformative potential, in that juxtaposing specifically-edited scenes from one or more show/film to a soundtrack can easily and affectively change the original scenes and create/unlock new or underprivilidged readings.  Vidding is an argument, constructed and polished as any other, an argument using audio-visual elemets edited together in the proud tradition of a Henry Jenkins-style Textual Poaching.

More than just in that opening sequence, the whole episode seems to be a riff on the title/content of the song, casting John Connor as Samson and Cameron as Delilah.  It’s not terribly surprising to have this tightly-coded opening, considering the potent use of Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around” at the end of last season to support the inexorable menace of the Terminators.

Most of the time, a TV/film score is a supplement, a way of re-inforcing or undercutting the tone of a scene.  It’s more rare to have a scene where the music takes the foreground, and it seems as if the visual and diegetic-audio component is supplemental to the score.  But sometimes the music tells the story, sets the tone.  It remins me of the sequential art form, where the narrative relies at different times more on the text or more on the art.  Using the song “Samson and Delilah” allowed for the show to immediately set the stakes for the second season and ride the driving emotion of the song to open the episode and the season with a great deal of momentum, which then is carried forward by the relentless pace of the chase-and-hide-and-chase episode.  “Samson and Delilah” felt more like a Terminator film than most any of the other episodes thusfar, emphasizing the lack of fatigue or remorse on the part of the Terminators.

The Samson/Delilah dynamic is the latest layer of what is a growing theme in the show, a meditation on faith and the role of a messiah.  John Connor is the Promised Hero who is destined to save humanity, with his own personal angel he himself sent back to ensure that he could fulfil his destiny.  Agent Ellison (named for Harlan Ellison, whose story “Demon With a Glass Hand” was an inspiration for the original Terminator) is a man of faith, who comes to view the Terminators as agents of the Adversary, falling into Dr. Silberman’s paradigm, viewing the coming Judgement Day as being that of Revelation (the title of that episode “The Demon Hand” was another nod to the Ellison story.  The Terminator series has always had those strands running through it, but the series has the advantage of being able to develop these themes over time, subtly and incrementally.  In addition, with Cameron inquiring about the ressurection, we see another thread in the tapestry of that theme, as her character develops both along the Delilah angle, a continuing possible threat, but since she was just ressurected, her sins washed away, she is re-christened as a savior figure herself as John’s guardian angel.

The show has clearly found its stride, and if the rest of the season to follow the cues of the premiere, I think we’ll be in for a good year for Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

2008-2009 TV (P)Reviews

Autumn is here, which means many things.  One of those things is New TV.  Using my sources, I’ve found and viewed a few advance versions of TV pilots for this coming season.

Fringe (Fox — Premire: Tues Sep. 9)  Heralded by some as “X-Files for the New Generation,” J. J. Abrams’ new show posits a world where a society of “Fringe” scientists decide to use the world as their laboratory, putting into action technologies/concepts like teleportation, cellular disintegration, telepathy, and others.  The bad guys are the ones who are working to take the ‘pseudo’ out of pseudo-science, no matter what it takes.  The shows’ lead is Anna Torv, playing Olivia Dunham, an FBI agent who gets dropped into a ‘special’ case and turns to Peter Bishop (Joshua “Pacey” Jackson), the son of brilliant-but-crazy scientist Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble) to solve the case.

Torv helps the show give us an honest-to-goodness strong female character in a tv show.  And what I mean by this is a strong, cometant, believable character who happens to be female.  Her strength isn’t about being an honorary male or a heavyhanded political gesture, just a solid character.

Jackson provides a nuanced view of a troubled genius too smart to fit in, who has massive daddy issues with regards to his Einstein-meets-Frankenstein father.  The Bishop father-and-son dynamic is solid from the beginning, and will be one of the things to watch as the show develops.  The doctors Bishop match the bad guys whacky science for whacky science, and another awesomeness of the show comes from the fact that we it seems likely to have a cow as an ongoing character — because of the need for a test-subject on hand.

We’ll undoubtedly have a metaplot to track behind the week-to-week weird situations with weirder science. Dunham gives us the layman’s POV to ground the doctors Bishop’s incomprehensively-brilliant technobabble.  Certainly worth tuning in for–give it a shot.  Let’s hope that Abrams has left enough structure and enough attention left to keep things going on LOST while he gets Fringe off the ground.

Leverage (TNT — December 2008)  Hollywood-style pitch: Ocean’s Eleven meets Burn Notice.  Nate Ford (Timothy Hutton), a former Insurance Fraud  investigator assembles a team of a computer fraud expert (Aldis Hodge), a thug (Christopher Kane), a crazy thief (Beth Riesgraf), and a con-woman (Gina Bellman).  After their first heist stealing back secrets an avionics company on behalf of the company they actually belong to, Ford and the team decide to take up tough-luck cases and set themselves up as do-gooder con-people for hire, using “alternative revenue streams”

Here’s a quote from Ford that encapuslates the team’s mission statement:  “People like that, corporations like that — they have all the money, they have all the power, and they use it to make people like you go away.  Right now, you’re suffering under an enormous weight.  We provide…leverage

The show is witty, sharp, has great twists and turns and double-crosses, with a cast of complicated untrustworthy compelling people.  Undoubtedly we’ll learn about these people’s pasts, see them confronted with great ethical/moral choices, and get snarky smart geeky heist/capers along the way.  Set your Tivo now, even though it doesn’t debut until December.

True Blood (HBO — September 7)

Brought to HBO by Alan “Six Feet Under” Ball, this show is an adaptation of the Southern Vampire Mysteries series by Charlaine Harris.

Imporant note:  This is not just Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight for the 20-something set.  The series gives a fresh, or at least less-coffin-stale version of vampires, with the bloodsuckers having recently “Come out of the coffin” and joined mainstream society (or at least are trying).  The vampire community has the advantage to do so as a result of the wide release of a Japanese cocktail called “Tru Blood” which provides for all of a vampire’s nutritional needs — the ultimate protein shake, so to speak.

The sociological laboratory for the effects of this attempted integration works at marrying two still-relevant civil rights issues by setting the show in small-town Louisiana.  The Vampire-as-Other metaphor sometimes leans towards Vampire as GLBT, sometimes towards Vampire as black.  Our POV into this world is Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin), a telepathic waitress (smart money says the telepathy is some kind of connection to the vampire world, which means she’s already a liminal figure, between humanity and the vampires.  Folklorically speaking, it makes her a perfect mediator).  Her Beauty-and-the-Beast counterpart is Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer), a loner-type vampire with dark soulful eyes that will doubtless send as many/more fangirls into a heart-flutter as Paquin will do for geekboys (each of course will also woo fans of any gender identity and biological configuration that makes them attracted to either gender/sex, obviously).

Sookie and Bill’s romance will serve as our case-study for Vampire-Human relations, with the supporting characters filling out various stereotypes about dating across lines of cultural difference while playing out their own interpesonal dramas.  Such dramas include Sookie’s best friend, a mouthy african-american woman who can’t keep a job becaus she’s just too uppity (Huh?), Jason Stackhouse, Sookie’s womanizing trouble-magnet brother, and more.  The Telepathy effect is interesting, but can sometimes make it as hard to sort out the important information as it must be for Sookie.  I had to go back a couple of times to get the most important lines.

The preair I watched was missing a few bits, so I’ll have to re-watch now that it’s legitimately been shown.

All three of these shows get the 21st Century Geeks stamp of approval, ranging in enthusiasm from ‘check it out’ to ‘Made of Awesome.’