The Dystopia Fetish

dystopiaHave you ever had one of those experiences where you’ve been quietly tolerating something that really bothers you for a long, long time, but then you suddenly, in a dramatic moment, realize that you can no longer tolerate it?

Well, I’ve just had that experience, and I’m here to pronounce that I have no more tolerance to offer for what I see as a rampant dystopia fetish.

Dystopia: that mostly fictional construct of a future, sometimes post-apocalyptic, sometimes the product of a long, slow decline, filled with darkness and oppressive authoritarian government and violence, societies that retain just enough resemblance to present day realities as to give the impression that we’re heading down that slippery slope.

Fans of dystopian fiction, in print or onscreen, argue that we need these cautionary tales of possible futures, so that we, ideally, wake up and do everything we can to prevent such a future. But, what I see happening more and more is that people are starting believe that dystopia is unavoidable and already manifesting.

And, it wouldn’t be nearly as scary if it weren’t for the fact that some of these dystopians are already heavily arming themselves and preparing for the worst.

In some ways, we all contribute to the problem, by continuing to consume massive quantities of dystopia in books and movies and on TV. The media are happy to keep meeting the demand. I’m talking about everything from The Hunger Games to even the whole zombie craze. (Zombies aren’t real, of course, but they adequately serve as an easy metaphor for any number of evils that can fester in dystopia.)

You know, there’s enough real darkness in the world today, as a brief glance at news headlines will confirm. I’m not preaching head-in-the-sand escapism, but I do think we all should be rationing the attention we place on the dark side.

A friend of mine, a Seattle blogger at sealife chronicles, posted something today that I think is a good companion piece to this post, titled zen test. In it, he provides a wonderful quote by William Rivers Pitt and then writes:

bad happens every day.

and our collective survival instinct demands that we pay attention to it, so we learn to avoid it. trouble is, fed too much attention, the bad can take on a grim, feral life of its own. it’s a wild, dark energy that can turn on you and eat you alive.

this is true…and yet somehow the world is not, always or entirely, a carnivorous beast. we know this because sometimes ~ in quiet moments between the relentless waves pounding our souls ~ sometimes awesome happens.

amen.

Hamlet Mashups: Brevity Is The Soul Of Wit

hamletI’ve mentioned several times, here at Fish & Bicycles, that I concentrated in Shakespeare while working on my bachelor’s degree in English, most notably in my October 2011 post concerning the film Anonymous, a fictional exploration of the Oxfordian Theory, which argues that Shakespeare didn’t actually write the works he is so famous for.

All that is to explain that most things Shakespearean usually grab my attention, and today is no exception, as I’ve come across two items on the web, within minutes of each other, both related to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, arguably the Bard’s greatest and most influential play.

First, via a tweet by Studio 360 host Kurt Andersen, an eye-popping and highly entertaining mashup, by Geoff Klock, of 65 very short clips from 65 movies and TV shows, some from actual productions of Hamlet, and others references to or quotes from Hamlet, the latter often from the seemingly most unlikely sources imaginable.

As a former student of Shakespeare, I find the sources of the references and quotes to be particularly fascinating. From Gilligan’s Island to action flicks, from children’s cartoons to The Simpsons, I have to wonder just how many original viewers recognized, much less understood, these.

I suppose the fair and non-cynical thing to say would be that the widespread influence is undeniably impressive, regardless of how much impact these snippets of Shakespeare may have had. So, yeah, I’ll leave it at that and not spoil it by over analyzing.

Next, via McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, John Peck’s hilarious Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Hall and Oates, a kind of mashup of its own, with just words instead of video.

Here, without any commentary from me, for it needs none, an excerpt:

    ACT III, SCENE II

    Danish march. A flourish. Enter HAMLET, KING CLAUDIUS, QUEEN GERTRUDE, POLONIUS, ROSENCRANTZ, GUILDENSTERN, HALL, OATES, and others.

    HAMLET

    They are coming to the play; I must be idle:
    Get you a place. Where be Ophelia? My own person,
    Like the sun, doth daily rise to greet her.

    HALL

    I wouldn’t if I were you,
    I know what she can do,
    She’s deadly, man, she could really rip your world apart.
    Mind over matter, ooh, the beauty is there,
    But a beast is in the heart.

    OATES
    (silent)

    HAMLET
    (clears throat)

    Go, bid the players make ready.

    ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN

    We will, my lord.

    Exeunt ROSENCRANTZ and GUILDENSTERN. Enter OPHELIA.

    OATES

    Whoa-oh, here she comes.

    HALL

    Watch out boy, she’ll chew you up.

    OATES

    Whoa-oh, here she comes.

    HALL

    She’s a maneater.

    HAMLET

    Let the show begin!

    Enter a dozen SAXOPHONISTS.

    KING CLAUDIUS

    Gods, no! Give me some light: away!

    Exeunt all.

Tweet of the Day: @soulpancake

soul-pancakeI gotta say, the more I see of actor Rainn Wilson, the more impressed I am with him.

I first discovered Rainn, appearing as Arthur Martin, the quirky/slightly-creepy/yet-endearing intern at the Fisher Funeral Home, in the 2001-2005 HBO series Six Feet Under. And then, very soon after, he appeared in his most-known role, as Dwight Schrute in the U.S. version of The Office.

He has also appeared in a couple of movies, and has hosted an episode of Saturday Night Live, but the project I’m most impressed with is his website, Soul Pancake, and the the book of the same name. Soul Pancake is a kind of Web 2.0 platform, best described by this blurb from the site:

Our brain batter of art, culture, science, philosophy, spirituality and humor is designed to open your mind, challenge your friends, and feel damn good.

I particularly like Rainn’s video series, Metaphysical Milkshake, filmed in the back of a van, in which he has hosted a wide range of guests, from musicians to actors to entrepreneurs to Deepak Chopra. Now, plenty of fun has been poked at people who are inquisitive and think about life’s big questions, spiritual questions, but Rainn Wilson has achieved a wonderful balance between comedy and seriousness. He keeps things very funny, but the jokes don’t rob the discussions of their sincerity.

If you read up a little on Rainn, you find out that he’s from right here in the Pacific Northwest (Seattle), his mom was a yoga instructor, he’s very open about being a member of the Bahá’í Faith, and, while his humor can be as dark and risqué as it gets, he doesn’t allow it to be mutually exclusive with his spiritual side.

And so we arrive at the reason for today’s Tweet of the Day installment, something that, despite the typo in the tweet, I found very sweet and meaningful and representative of Rainn’s sincere big heart.

Enjoy!

Video Fridays: R.I.P., Allan “Sidney Freedman” Arbus

allan-arbusI’m late getting to this, but I’m sad that I’m posting my second obituary in one week.

Following my post on Monday on the loss of Richie Havens, I heard the very next day of the death of actor Allan Arbus, at the age of 95, mostly known for his role as the psychiatrist, Dr. Sidney Freedman, on the TV show M*A*S*H.

(In a creepy example of the urban myth that celebrities die in groups of three, since I started writing this, I’ve learned of the death of country music legend George Jones at the age of 81. I may or may not be able to post an obit for George later today.)

Anyway, I mentioned once before that I practically grew up on M*A*S*H. In fact, it was such a central experience for me, as well as for many of the people I knew, including my best friends, who would talk about it constantly, reciting our favorite lines, analyzing it’s ups and downs, that it is not unsurprising to me at all that Allan Arbus’ passing would inspire more than just a brief note about how I used to enjoy him on television.

(If you aren’t a TV geek who enjoys exploring the themes of a show, if you are someone who simply likes entertainment, that’s cool, but you might want to skip ahead below, to the video part of this Video Fridays installment, a montage of clips of Allan Arbus from various M*A*S*H episodes.)


Now, the fascinating thing here, for me, is that Allan Arbus and his character, Sidney Freedman, actually represent the epicenter of an aspect of M*A*S*H that divided its fans into two opposing camps:

  1. Those who preferred the earlier seasons of the show, when comedy far outweighed drama, and when the comedy was, as I would argue, of a more sophisticated style.
  2. Those who loved the evolution of the show from mostly comedy toward increasing amounts of drama, and despite the shift in comedic style.

You see, although Arbus only appeared in 12 of the 251 episodes of M*A*S*H, and although his earliest appearances were in Season 2, when the show was still firmly mostly-comedy, I contend that the very fact that Sidney Freedman became a recurring character is symbolic of the evolution of the series towards drama.
Gradually, the show became less and less about the farcical absurdities of war, in the style of, say Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 — the style, incidentally, of the original source material, the novel by Richard Hooker and the film by Robert Altman — and more and more about the emotional, dramatic, traumatic and tragic nature of war.

That said, a convincing argument could be made that, once you delve into the ugliness of war, as would, let’s say, a psychiatrist, digging through the horrible toll it takes on humans and humanity, that it necessarily gets harder and harder to make light of it. A sitcom about war, then, could eventually become shallow or even insulting to those who have faught in, been injured by, or have lossed loved ones to war.

And, nothing underscores Sidney Freedman’s central role in this evolution than his central role in the very last episode of the series, 1983′s Goodbye, Farwell and Amen, M*A*S*H‘s swan song, the show’s last statement on the subject of war, which centered on therapy sessions between Sidney and Alan Alda‘s Hawkeye Pierce, who had suffered a nervous breakdown over a traumatic experience involving a mother who silenced her baby, thereby suffocating and killing it, in order to protect Hawkeye and the other passengers on a bus that was under enemy fire.

Drama indeed. Nothing funny about that.

Now, I should make it clear that, despite my preference for the earlier seasons, I do appreciate the significant achievement of keeping the show on the air for 11 seasons, while maintaining a huge audience and mostly positive reviews. After all, I kept watching and never missed an episode.

Truthfully, my beef with the show wasn’t really with the trend toward drama-over-comedy. Rather, as mentioned above, I found the comedy that did remain to be lacking in sophistication, too often heavily laden with silly puns, slapstick arguments and personality clashes.

Whatever you make of this analysis, regardless of which camp you reside in, I think we can all agree that Allan Arbus was wonderful as Dr. Sidney Freedman. As Alan Alda said, quoted in the Los Angeles Times Arbus obituary, “He was so authentic in the role it was hard to believe that he wasn’t that person.”

R.I.P., Allan Arbus. Thanks for the memories.

Video Fridays: R.I.P., Jonathan Winters

jonathan-wintersVery, VERY sad news today…the brilliant comedian Jonathan Winters has died at 87.

I know I’m dating myself, but, because I was raised on television, I saw a LOT of Jonathan as I was growing up, on a wide variety of TV shows and in many of the movies he appeared in, and he always stood out as one of the most unique people on the tube.

There was a wild unpredictable quality to his presence and his work, born from a virtuosic improvisational style that was WAY ahead of his time. Winters was the proverbial box of chocolates, you never knew what you were going to get, and you never knew when he’d change characters, which he could do at the drop of a hat.

I remember distinctly the occasional awkward silences created when he’d abruptly switch gears and the television actors he was working with were caught off-guard, needing a moment to catch up. Rather than being jarring, I always recognized these moments as refreshingly unscripted, the product of a fearless master artist who was not afraid to take chances, and as a result mostly succeeded.

Anyway, the internets are abuzz with this news, along with loving and admiring tributes from his fans and colleagues, and of all the stuff I’ve seen so far my favorite has been the following video, in a tweet from Patton Oswalt, a stunning example of Jonathan Winters’ genius for improv, many, many years before the rest of the world would discover the “prop game” on Whose Line Is It Anyway?.

Rest in peace, Jonathan, and thanks SO much for all of the laughs!

Video Fridays: The West Wing

west-wingA few weeks ago, I wrote about the new Netflix TV series House of Cards, expressing that I strongly dislike the show, comparing it to a political drama that I did like, very much, the 1999–2006 series The West Wing.

Well, I’ve started to re-watch The West Wing, and last night I caught an episode that inspired a thought about why I liked the show so much, and I suspect that many fans of the show might feel the same.

As you know, that is, unless you’ve been living under a rock for a long, long time, the U.S. government is all kinds of fucked up. We either have one party in power that trashes everything, or we have the other party “in power”, but actually nearly powerless to get anything substantive done, because they are too busy cleaning up the mess left by the previous party in power and face absolute obstruction by the opposition to anything they want to do. We have a deeply entrenched and polarized two-party system, third parties face prohibitive disadvantages to challenging that system, and BIG money heavily influences elections and policy.

It’s ugly, and it’s easy to lose all faith in the entire system, even the people who make up that system, like, say, President Obama, whom we believed in and supported, who made us feel hope again after eight long, dark years of the Bush II era, only to hit the brick wall of our governmental dysfunction.

Enter fictitious President Bartlet, his Chief of Staff Leo McGarry, Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman, Communications Director Toby Ziegler, Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn, Press Secretary C.J. Cregg, whom we get to know in ways we can’t know the real world administration, we laugh at and with them, we occasionally cry with them, and suddenly we remember that these are merely human beings. Sure, they screw up from time to time, in fact they screw up badly from time to time, but they care, they work ridiculously hard, and they have the best of intentions.

The final scene of last night’s episode is a perfect example of this. It’s a scene that starts in the Oval Office and ends in the Chief of Staff’s office, it very well may be that there have been scenes like this in real life, but we’d never know it because those are two offices where we’re NEVER allowed to be a fly on the wall.

Anyway, I think we who love The West Wing love the show because, though it’s not an all-out, sugar-coated fantasy where the administration you like does everything right and everything goes well for them, we’re at least given comfort that at least there are real human beings in there trying to do good. It’s about possibility and hope, two things seemingly in short supply from our real world perspective, looking in on our government.

Happy Weekend, everyone!

The Math of “House of Cards”

house-of-cardsSo, in case you haven’t heard, the TV world is all abuzz over the new Netflix political drama House of Cards.

What’s telling, I think, is that so much of the buzz has nothing at all to do with quality of the show. Rather, the buzz is mostly about the fact that it’s the first show produced by Netflix, with all 13 episodes of the first season having been made immediately available for streaming.

In an interesting read in The Guardian, one British TV producer went so far as to bluntly say:

“I stayed up and watched three episodes in a row and I realised that I was watching the end of an era,” he said…

“This was something that was nothing to do with traditional broadcasting,” he added, comparing the service to being delivered an instant box set. “If I was a traditional broadcaster watching that I would have been shitting it if I saw that show.”

Ok, fine, but is it, the show, like, um, any good?

I’ve watched three episodes, really wanting to like it, since I have an interest in politics and LOVED the 1999–2006 series The West Wing, but, truth be told, I’m already done with House of Cards/

In order to describe why that is, I’ve worked out this simple mathematical equation:

westwing

Listen, all I have to do is read the news and a handful of political blogs to see all the ugly of Washington, D.C. And yet, I’m not saying that a show about politics should be sugar-coated beyond any sense of reality.

No, somewhere in the middle lies a creative mixture of the two, and to me, the most important element is sympathetic characters.

In my eyes, the best drama has at least one sympathetic central figure, someone the reader or viewer cares about, so that when something happens to that character, good or bad, or when that character does things, good or bad, we feel it more intensely because we care.

Watching House of Cards, there’s not one major character who pulls at my heartstrings, and the same goes for most of the secondary characters. I think to myself, “Self, why the HELL would you voluntarily choose to spend any time at all with these people?!”

Fortunately, The West Wing was recently added to Netflix for streaming, and so, when I feel a need for a dose of political drama, I can always revisit my old friends there, characters like Josh, Toby, C.J., Sam, Leo, Charlie and President Bartlett, characters who don’t always do the right thing, but characters whom I care about.

Otherwise, what’s the point?

David Attenborough: Plague On The Earth or Robot?

SIR DAVID ATTENBOROUGHListen, I LOVE nature shows on TV.

And if you’re talking TV nature show hosts, two guys that I grew up watching were Marlin Perkins on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, and Sir David Attenborough, host of many, many BBC nature series.

Well, today I’ve had the unpleasant experience of coming across a rather bleak statement from Sir David, a man who knows a little bit about these things.

Via RadioTimes:

“We are a plague on the Earth. It’s coming home to roost over the next 50 years or so,” warns David Attenborough in an interview in the new issue of Radio Times magazine.

“It’s not just climate change; it’s sheer space, places to grow food for this enormous horde.”

So, if we, meaning humans, are a plague on the Earth, that means that David Attenborough is either a plague on the Earth as well, or he’s a very sophisticated robot or an extraterrestrial.

Regardless, I REALLY don’t think we need his pessimistic alarmism right now.

Personally, I wish Attenborough would stick to his voice-over narration of shows that help us appreciate the beauty and wonder of the planet we live on, shows that inspire people to do more to protect it.

And that voice! It really is iconic, so lovely and so British!

I’ll never forget that time I was watching episode 7 of the Planet Earth series, titled Great Plains, I was watching with my son who was then 10-years old, and as the show transitioned from the bison of the North American prairie to the foothills of the Himalayas, Sir David introduced this fella, without a trace of irony, as a:

“Wild Tibetan Ass”

kiang

…and it was amazing, because he made it sound like something he was presenting to the Royal Geographical Society rather than the surreal title of a disturbing porn video.