wax banks

second-best since Cantor

Category: essaying

How and what should you read?

Someone asked the other day whether the things I read bear directly on the writing I do.

I said somethingsomethingsomething but what I meant was:

You can’t plan knowledge

Learning is association-making, connection, but those connections are capricious (cf. those sexually aroused by feet, those who think they saw the Virgin Mary at Fatima, those who can play twelve games of high-level chess simultaneously without actually loving chess). Human brains aren’t purposefully wired, they’re grown; instead of plans they develop according to tendencies. The phrase ‘perfectly reasonable deviations from the beaten track’ might come to mind here if you’re me.

You can consume information according to a plan. I wanted to know about the influence of Charles Fort on midcentury pulps and comix; I read Kripal’s Mutants & Mystics. I wanted to know what Jacques Vallée actually argued in Passport to Magonia; I read it, simple. But it’s silly and self-defeating to start out wondering what you’re going to do with that information. You can’t know, and in any case the action-arrow points the other direction: as it transforms interpenetratively into knowledge, the reading does something with you.

I mean that almost literally. We can only consciously control our learning with gross imprecision, which is why cramming for tests is a terrible idea (too much too late). You learn in a trickle or a rush, but crucially you don’t decide which, and it’s best to think of learning practice and knowledge-formation (not ‘-acquisition’) as distinct and almost disjoint practices. The making of your mind can go on without you. Good thing, too: it’s what ‘you’ are made of.

Point being, you can control the inputs to the psychotropic process (the books you read, the drugs you take, your adherence to or rejection of the diurnal cycle) but you can’t control the emergent coral-reef forms which knowledge takes in the mind/brain. And this is good, because while you are a sadly limited person living in a sadly limited world, the self-modifying bioelectrical system which epiphenomenally generates ‘you’ is a good deal less neurotic and scared.

And so you should read whatever you’re passionate about, because

  • passion intensifies and accelerates this mindmaking process, while
  • boredom kills it, and since
  • you can’t control whom you turn into,
  • your best bet for generating a robust mind-body ecology is richly varying inputs

Which brings us to the secret central question of all blogposts,

What does this have to do with my D&D campaign?

But the only reason anyone asks this question is that he hasn’t yet internalized the great paradox of our everything-bad-on-demand-everywhere time, which is that

Fantasy isn’t a genre, it’s an activity

If you get that fantasy is something you do (creation connection narrativizing spatializing eroticizing etc.) and not a set of genre markers (elves sorcery talkingswords) then you already know what all this has to do with your D&D campaign — the more and better you know, the more deeply and widely you experience, the richer your fantastic imagination.

False Patrick occasionally looks for D&Dables in James Scott or Geoffrey of Monmouth with superb results — you can see why G. of M. would be a good RPG source, but James Seeing Like a State Scott? Well, read the post. I picked up Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror having heard it described as the book that birthed not only Game of Thrones but a generation of medievalists (who later went on to disavow it as decidedly non-scholarly history), but in the end I experienced it as a kind of hellish postapocalyptic dystopia, the apocalypse in question being the bubonic plague. That, in turn, put me onto William NcNeill’s Plagues and Peoples, a brilliant short book which argues for an advanced understanding of humans as coexisting in complexly evolving predator/prey relationships with, say, syphilis (or bubonic plague, or HIV). That was immensely clarifying as history, but it doubled for me as a kind of SFnal primer on both ‘deep time’ and dystopic transhuman history — a depectively matter-of-fact story about the place of the human species at the center of a slowly tightening ecological net.

Not longer after I finished Plagues and Peoples I picked up Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation, the first third of his Southern Reach trilogy, which is a kind of Rendezvous with Rama/Lost/Lovecraft mashup with mushrooms swapped in for tentacles. I liked it, but it was twice the book it otherwise would’ve been, and ten times the dream-fodder, for the way it echoed and weirded-up McNeill’s book.

Come to that, there’s no reason Lovecraft’s ‘cosmicist’ vision requires tentacles in the first place — the creepiest thing about ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ is the bat-winged things in the swamp, and frankly the Cthulhu statue itself only creeped me out to the extent that it recalled the statue of Mbwun from Lincoln/Child’s Relic, which I read in middle school because I’d heard that ‘If you liked Jurassic Park‘ and of course I did, but then I only picked up Jurassic Park because there was an article about it in a science newsletter we read in our Earth Science class, and if we’re in honest-confession mode then the fact that my godfather went to MIT (Course 2, class of 1924) made me wanna attend that school slightly less than the fact that Michael Crichton had spent a year as Writer-in-Residence there…

See?

Evolutionary weirdness

The least interesting thing about fantasy is its content. (Have you ever had to listen to someone else tell you about last night’s ‘amazing’ or ‘hilarious’ dream? Soporific stuff.) What makes fantasy fantastic is its visionary quality, the way it animates primal urges and throws light on hidden mental corners. Worthwhile art is deeply personal: the work of a strong ego seeking out egolessness. The best stuff is necessarily at least a little inaccessible, mysterious, resistant to analysis, however welcoming its formal presentation; great art always proceeds according to an intuitive logic that’s inexpressible in rational terms. And because it speaks to a unified (continuous, cohesive if not logically coherent) vision, it could only have been made by the person or people who made it.1 Good, in other words, is always strange.

But ‘strange’ is the last thing central planners want to deal with — cf. the aforementioned Seeing Like a State. The inescapable, essential fallacy of the central-planning ethos is this:

Orderly processes do not necessarily produce orderly results.

Indeed the one’s got little or nothing to do with the other except by chance.
Working artists get this, hence the irritation/frustration/disappointment writers evidently all feel when asked when their ideas come from. Critics, meanwhile, tend not to understand this — if the disjunction between aesthetic means and ends were widely understood, entire schools of criticism woulda been strangled in the crib. I think of the weird mismatch between Joyce’s literary dreamworlds and his pedantic fan-critics, and (because I’m me, and have written the books I’ve written) of the way Phish’s most hyperrational practice exercises have generated their wildest improvisations while their most deeply structured longform improv has come at moments of surpassing looseness and intuitive responsiveness. (The same goes for other rational/ludic/dreaming improvisatory scholar-artists — think of Johns Zorn and Coltrane.)

I want to have The Right Information at my fingertips when I write, but I also want to experience and share strange knowledge, a Weird innerworld which only I can see but which through my craft I can make knowable to others. And I aim to build deep written structures through intuitive improvisatory methods — so that, for instance, the structure of my 33-1/3 book mirrors the structure of the album it discusses, and the fractal form of my Allworlds Catalogue embodies/allegorizes the Big Themes it bangs on about, etc., though both those formal arrangements were arrived at with those pretentious-sounding purposes in mind.

And I find that the best way to achieve these tight-loose performances, this particular pleasing-to-me dreamlike relationship between form and content and private experience, is to immerse myself in material and see what forms spontaneously appear.

We forget that evolution isn’t just a winnowing process of natural selection — it’s punctuated and catalyzed by far-from-equilibrium self-organization, which can altogether shift the topology on which the selection process works, ‘skipping tracks’ in terms of descent. This is biological innovation, and its absence from the standard schoolhouse evolutionary narrative is just one more expression of (and reinforcing element in) a dangerous, thoughtless cultural conservatism, a pseudosci retelling of the myth of heavenly bureaucracy. Evolution isn’t a one-way road running straight, it’s a network of migrations through an ever-shifting topology toward no particular destination — the endless fitness gradient scarred with switchbacks, channels, deep caves, inscrutable truths spelled out in the bones of lost travelers…

Back to the start

‘No one can see beyond a choice they don’t understand,’ said the Oracle in The Matrix: Revolutions. Put another way: you’re trying to get from one stable equilibrium (not exercising, say) to another (being in the habit of exercising daily) but between them is a hill down which you can backslide all too easily (forcing yourself to exercise daily for a few weeks until the habit has formed). The zone of extreme flux — of frustration, worry, pain, seemingly endless struggle — of uncertainty — between equilibria is a hard place to be if you can’t handle uncertainty. If you need to know the outcome before you begin the process, you’ll never do anything new. Everything truly new is a risk.

So how and what should you read?

My sincere answer:

Keep reading until you figure it out.


  1. Reasoning through the ethical implications of this paragraph for the art-consumer and the DIY creator is left as an exercise for the reader. 

Concerning a reread of LORD OF THE RINGS.

Wrote this in a bit of a swoon after finishing Return of the King couple months ago. I forgot to mention the thing that surprised me most, the conversation between the two orc soldiers in which one orc suggests running away and starting a new life away from the masters and their stupid endless war — but this is long enough as it is.

I first read Lord of the Rings in late summer and autumn of 1994. I can now see some of the ways it changed my life, revealing to me the previously unknown ‘categories of my imagination’ — though I’d already read the Dragonlance Chronicles and maybe Legends trilogies, the combination of the trip to Europe, the week at a guest house in the south of England, and my first exposure to Tolkien’s hobbits on the train back from Brighton was definitive. It was the greatest reading experience of my life, I suspect never to be surpassed.

That was a little more than 22 years ago. I mustn’t wait another 22 years for my next visit.

In fact I might go back at the end of this year.

What’s left to say about this story? It’s greater than its critics. The contemporary tendency to reduce books to their authors’ presumed political perspectives is more embarrassing than usual in contrast with Tolkien’s mythic vision, so I’ll refrain from moaning about Tolkien’s king-worship and luddite conservatism. They seem so small, so fanciful (in Coleridge’s usage), when set against his imaginative achievement.

Frodo and Sam’s trip through Mordor is fully imagined; you feel every step, every ragged breath, every precious sip from Sam’s water-bottle. My patience with descriptions of landscape starts out thin and wears quickly, but Tolkien wrote with extraordinary passion about the land itself, not the geography or topology but its meaning, its history; both past and present were fully alive for him in a way that (to me) anticipates the ‘psychogeographers’ without falling into the triviality of psychology itself. Tolkien’s ‘subcreation’ was infused with myth-history — there are interesting moments in Return of the King where the narrator will speed ahead for a paragraph, accounting briefly the future history of an artifact or figure, and it seems less like a modern literary device than a matter-of-fact reflection of his conception of time and place.1

I’ve seen the films too many times, and so been conditioned to think of Return of the King as misshapen in a sense — too many codas — but of course the Scouring of the Shire would be an anticlimax if it came too quickly after the eucatastrophe, or even the coronation. The long journey back to the Shire is a structural necessity, because the Scouring is essential to the arc and meaning of the whole story, and it mustn’t be hurried. Tolkien had more savvy as a storyteller than he’s given credit for by pop critics (though lay readers seem intuitively to understand this).

I responded most strongly, this time, to the smallest things, the extraordinary contrast effects which Tolkien’s shrewdly juxtaposed setting (a mysterious continent with 10,000 years of history) and subject (the suffering and triumphs of little hobbits, and little people) are uniquely able to generate. Lobelia’s resistance to Sharkey’s goons, her bequest, and the other hobbits’ candid assessment of both her personality and her pluck; Pippin’s umbrage at the gate-keeper’s disrespect shown to the Ring-bearer; Merry’s cocky hornblowing; Gimli and Eomer settling the matter of Galadriel’s beauty; Ioreth’s gossipy narration to her country-cousin; Rosie’s easy familiarity with Sam; the way the hobbits of Bree are less interested in business ‘away down south’ than in their own families’ safety; and of course the love story of Frodo and Sam: the passing of the Third Age would be mere abstraction (‘worldbuilding’) in the hands of a less humane author, and complaints about Tolkien’s royalism ring false when the book lingers so long (both at first and at the end) in the Shire. The King doesn’t matter much to the hobbits; in the end, as always, they defend their own, and Saruman’s men underestimate them at great cost.

In any other book, Pippin’s reaction to the arrival of the Eagles — his belief that they are characters from someone else’s story, and his consciousness of himself as a bit player in a story of his own — would seem like a modernist literary gesture. But here it seems like correctly ordered consciousness: Pippin has come to see the great Tale of Years unfolding, and perceives his place in the narrative. A whole life passes before his eyes. Zaphod’s trip to the Total Perspective Vortex is a joke about the same experience, but Tolkien — who like Robert Graves lost more than friends at the Somme, and who began writing about Middle-Earth while recovering from his wounds — was finding a way to report his own harrowing experience, and would never joke abut it. His battle scenes celebrate glory, but not for nothing does the Beowulf scholar dwell on the death-songs of the Rohirrim, the carnage and cost of every victory. What makes Lord of the Rings a great war novel is, I think, its attention to the impossibility of returning to the world after the war, the world that the war made.

Does Frodo survive his adventure? The answer isn’t simple, nor is his story. And as for Sam…

He drew a deep breath. ‘Well, I’m back,’ he said.

…in a scene of such happiness, with his wife drawing him in and setting their baby daughter on his lap, hot dinner on the table, and a fire in the hearth, I’m not sure that deep breath is necessarily one of ease or contentment. Several times during those final days, Frodo insists that Sam must be whole, because he (Frodo) can never be so — but Sam isn’t, is he? He survives, as Tolkien survived his friends at the Somme. Standing on the shore at the Grey Havens, looking west, he sees heaven — heaven is where his friend has gone, the ‘Undying Lands’ — and for the time being he’s denied passage. Someday he can go, but he can’t die yet, he has things to do: Frodo has laid down his burden, and Sam once again carries it for both of them. Frodo doesn’t survive his wounds. Tolkien awakens in a field hospital and begins to create another world whose true heroes will be little folk, boys really, who faithfully serve their masters and their quests and do not die at the appointed time. Crucially, his heroes live to tell their own stories, in their own time to their own people, but they all return to the world transformed, nearly unrecognizable. (Literally so: confronted at the gates and in the village, the Weirdly stretched out hobbits — Merry and Pippin by the ent-draughts, Frodo and Sam by the Ring — appear to their former friends and neighbours unprecedented, alien.)

In any case, I long to return to Middle-Earth. The Lord of the Rings has now given me not one but two of the best reading experiences of my life.


  1. Ursula Le Guin cites one of these depth-first narratorial maneuvers, a brief jaunt into the consciousness of a passing fox, in her book on writing. 

Spirited away; goodnight moon.

I saw Spirited Away (the English translation/adaptation) last night with my wife and son, and was reminded that this magnificent film would never, ever be made in the United States today — none of our animation studios, not even Pixar at its best, would trust children as Miyazaki does with scenes of such quiet contemplation, dream-logic, languor.

I’m reminded, actually, of Brown/Hurd’s Goodnight Moon: Margaret Wise Brown was both an acolyte of Gertrude Stein and part of the Bank Street Writers Lab, whose members emphasized the concrete details and intuitive surrealism of children’s own imaginative fancies, interviewing young children and mimicking their storytelling rhythms. (‘Goodnight noises everywhere’ is one of the great final lines in our literature.) Spirited Away gives me the same feeling of melancholy dissolution as Goodnight Moon, of drifting down into an inexpressibly vast strange universe, and celebrates the same virtue, the courage needed to face the world and speak the names of things.

Spirited Away is so full of visual invention that a complicated story would render it unwatchable. As it is, after the concise opening movement, there’s very little discrete incident in the entire film: the boiler room, the contract, No-Face’s arrival, the stink spirit, Haku wounded/Zeniba’s debt named, No-Face calmed, and then the extraordinary train journey to Zeniba’s home in the swamp — the last sequence with no obvious parallel in American animation, gorgeous and sad without being about sadness, if that makes sense. After that, naming the pigs is a brief formality — of course Chihiro can do it, the animals have gathered for a celebration not an execution — and what remains is the walk home, a final release of breath. Spirited Away is more than two hours long(!!), but I can easily imagine an American animation studio cramming its action into 90 minutes, complete with 3-D dragon ride around the bath house and more pratfalls from the sidekicks…

I first saw Spirited Away in 2002 when it made the arthouse rounds in the USA, and in all that time certain images have never left me: Kamaji working the boiler, Haku terrorized by the paper spirits, Yubaba wrapping herself in a shawl and flying away. But I’ve always treasured Chihiro’s train ride. I want to say it’s not like anything else I’ve seen, but the opposite is true; it’s like dozens of other sequences I’ve seen, almost exclusively in foreign pictures and ‘art movies,’ which invite the audience to watch the characters watch and wait,to take a long moment to see not what they see but as they do, not pedantically in terms of POV but in their time, so to speak — waiting as they wait, bored or curious as they are.

The train ride lasts three minutes, an eternity in children’s films. Chihiro’s companions fall asleep, No-Face bows its head and rests, and Chihiro simply looks out the window with an expression we haven’t seen before, seeming (to me) tired, resolved, resigned, fully present — I believe this is the moment when the fullness of her family’s outer-world (real-world) transformation, the frightening move to the new house and school, has finally settled in. By choosing to travel out, to assume responsibility for Haku’s theft of the seal, she has become…well, not an adult, that wouldn’t be fair, would it? But she’s transformed all the same. Not knowing what comes next, she changes because she has to. The train ride might be the end of her story, which is a hell of a thing for a children’s movie to dramatize: death as resignation and loss and the final turn of the page rather than glorious climax.1 And to do so wordlessly, as other worlds and stories drift by uncommented-upon, not for spectacle’s sake but because even in the third act of a film that’s just how long train rides (and nighttime soul-transformations) are, and the world is more important than any story we might tell about it…

This, I think, is the bravery that Spirited Away shares with Goodnight Moon, or rather that Miyazaki shares with Margaret Wise Brown. For kids (as I understand things), the world is full of stories, yet it isn’t itself a story — hasn’t yet been instrumentalized. Kids’ worlds are bigger than they are (not least because literally), bigger and stranger and terribly older, impossible to understand and so easier in a way simply to accept. In my experience kids deal with the world more sanely than adults in that specific sense, accepting that the world is a world. Which is why their own stories can at times be absurdly boring, their fantasies so repetitive: the world is enough for kids. The stories they find in the world are enough, and so are the trees, the uncapped pens, full and empty plastic bags, loud sounds, snatches of song, dogs playing, grandmothers, water and its coolness, its way of sneaking into every space… The visual richness of Spirited Away paradoxically serves the same end as the stark simplicity of Clement Hurd’s Goodnight Moon illustrations (and Margaret Wise Brown’s poetry): to see and show a world as it is, merely inescapably real — whether it contains a telephone and a little toy house and a painting of bears, or a flying river spirit and three friendly rolling heads and an eight-legged boiler-room demon.

Their animating principle is honesty; wonder and whimsy and whatever else follow from having resolved to see a child’s world on its own terms. Most kids’ stories (and ‘adult’ stories, now) can’t help but anxiously hang lampshades on their own fabulations, which right away dates them — you can place a story in spacetime by what it’s embarrassed about. But to depict a country of the imagination without embarrassment or self-consciousness, to see even imaginary things as they are, is to create something ‘timeless.’ We use other terms for this quality as well: ‘mythic,’ ‘sacred,’ though honestly I prefer ‘wise.’ Timeless children’s work goes beyond dated, socially contingent ideas of innocence and appropriateness, and discovers that the common element between children Then and Now, Here at home and unimaginably far Away, is the world itself.

Which is to say all great art explores the absolutely specific in order to discover the universal, but you already knew that, right?

If you haven’t seen Spirited Away, you should, you must. It’s beautiful because it’s true and vice versa, which I take to be a straightforward observation about the world rather than empty cliché, and by way of justification I submit the rest of this blogpost and the entire history of art and (why not?) the universe, amen.


  1. The phrase ‘death as glorious climax’ seems to me to sum up a lot of what’s sick about contemporary American culture. 

A note about STAR WARS and myth.

Episodes IV, V, and VI

Star Wars is a myth: ‘The Labours of Luke Skywalker.’ It accumulates story-stuff as it goes along, but the first trilogy focuses on Luke and his companions undergoing trials, separations, revelations, tests, purifications, and transformations (farmboy-to-knight, princess-to-soldier, thief-to-citizen) before the final confrontation with Evil. In the end, the knight enters the castle to slay the father-dragon and the corrupter-god, the princess and the citizen return to the primal/magic forest to do battle with great tree-sized monsters and faceless demons, and Good is restored. They gather by a fire and tell stories as night falls.

This is not news, nor is it terribly interesting on its own. Crucially, the original Star Wars films aren’t about myth — they’re ‘innocent’ in a sense, if anything is.

Myths, as I think Joseph Campbell said, are psychology misunderstood as history.

Star Wars is about the transition from childhood innocence to adult knowing and action.

Episodes I, II, and III

The prequels tell two stories: ‘The Fall of Anakin Skywalker,’ in a mythic register, and the somewhat less popular but more contemporary-conventional ‘The Fall of the Old Republic.’ The latter political story is more complicated than what made it to the screen, all but disappearing in the third film; George Lucas reconceived Revenge of the Sith in the editing suite as a tightly focused story about Anakin, further imbalancing an already clumsy prequel trilogy.

The Fall of Anakin Skywalker is an inverted messiah/saviour story. Prophesied miracle-baby is taken from his mother, comes to the castle to become a knight, meets and is turned away by his future queen, and in his arrogance struggles with whether to turn his back on his teacher. His mother is captured and killed by monsters; in his fury he bloodily murders them. In his selfishness he courts a princess and conceives a child. In hubris he duels a master knight, losing a hand. In a second duel he bests the old master, and in his weakness of character murders him. Misled by the corrupter, in his terror and arrogance — in his inability to cast aside the misprision of Self which was always the primary obstacle for him and his fellow knights — he declares himself a servant of Evil and helps wipe out the knighthood.

Finally, he duels his teacher, and in his arrogance and pride and dogmatic certainty he is wounded and left for dead. The corrupter makes him into a dragon, and the dragon flies off to burninate the countryside and burninate the peasants…

The political story is there partly to provide context for the two myths. Because we know the outcome — these are ‘prequels’ — there’s no real suspense to it, only deferral. It takes up a far amount of the prequel trilogy, and is the prequels’ most enjoyable aspect, as far as I’m concerned, though primarily in the abstract, i.e. I enjoy reading the story more than I enjoy watching the movies, which are not entirely incorrectly regarded as shit.

‘The Fall of Anakin Skywalker’ is also about the transition from childhood innocence to adult knowing and action. The political story is, in part, about myth and mythmaking. The prequels lack the laser-clarity of the original films partly because their second story-strand ‘problematizes’ the first; Anakin isn’t simply the author of his destiny, and while the tragic ‘Fall of Anakin’ story is told like an ancient myth, all archetypal locations and abstract gestures and iconic clashes, ‘The Fall of the Old Republic’ is a modern tale which fits uneasily with its parallel mythic story. When they converge — as in the magnificently pedantic wizard-duel in the Senate chamber between Sidious and Yoda, or Anakin’s quietly horrifying murder of the children at the Temple — the story seems somehow greater than itself; it all seems almost worth it.

Lucas doesn’t get enough credit for the complexity (and I’d say importance) of the task he set for himself in the prequels. He failed to bring it off, ‘as everyone knows,’ but throughout that series you can see flashes of something like a work of genius, which is to say, among other things, imaginative excess.

I say all this as prologue to a comment about The Force Awakens and millennials LOL, which I will not now write because it’s time to take my son to school.

‘The Force Awakens’ in light of ‘Rogue One’ and vice versa.

(Spoilers ahead, rubes.)

I find myself thinking that The Force Awakens is an extraordinarily well executed piece of fanservice — and in boring conventional ‘is this good art’ terms, an embarrassment. Its dialogue is snappy, the performances range from good to great, the clumsy ‘power creep’ of Rey’s story is nearly erased by Daisy Ridley’s charisma (which outstrips her perfectly reasonable acting skills), and the creators’ commitment to expanding the Star Wars universe is admirable. Walter Chaw is right: The Force Awakens fulfills one promise of the original trilogy by offering a vision of the galaxy that seems, at moments, almost galaxy-sized.

Well, almost.

By the end, The Force Awakens has collapsed into a series of by-the-numbers repetitions and blood feuds and familial agony, and I’m left attending to the good bits: the lead performances (especially Adam Driver’s) and the maybe-brilliant subtext. To wit: A new generation of kids have inherited a Star Wars legacy that’s too big for them, they shrink from their duty, they fool around with the old toys, and in the end the people they love — the stars of the old movies — start dying. This is JJ Abrams’s schtick, I think; I don’t think he has any real value as an artist but he does seem productively and even admirably aware of his lateness, so to speak. To my eye he’s made derivativeness itself the center of his aesthetic, such as it is. The subtext of The Force Awakens (which I’m happy to credit to its creators and not my own overcompensatory urge) elevates the material.

It’d better! Because near as I can tell, nothing is at stake in Abrams’s film. Finn isn’t going to die, Rey isn’t going to kill Li’l Ben, and the Starkiller Base is gonna blow up good. The Plot Points are ticked off.

The Force Awakens is like a midseason episode of a long-running TV series. It can’t take risks. Kathleen Kennedy did the right thing, then, by hiring a writer/director who won’t take them either.

Which brings us to Rogue One, Gareth Edwards’s equally well executed bit of fanservice, which in boring conventional ‘is this good art’ terms is the best Star Wars film since Reagan was elected. It takes a question that millions of misprising adolescents have pointlessly asked — ‘Why does the Death Star have such a stupid fatal flaw?’ — and wraps a wonderful Dirty Dozen-ish war story around the appropriately ridiculous answer (‘Because the heroine’s terminally noble father put it there’).

Rogue One is the first movie in the saga since Return of the Jedi to offer meaningful stakes — its position as ‘infix prequel’ lets Edwards introduce an entirely new cast of characters whose fates the audience can’t easily guess, and he and his writers have the audacity to do the one thing no Star Wars fan would expect in that situation: they kill every single new character they introduce, heroes and villains and droids and aliens. In doing so they subtly alter the original film, recasting the Rebellion in more visceral and active terms than the first movie managed to suggest. (The sparseness of most pre-CGI science fiction film and early video games was an enormously consequential economic phenomenon about which, as they say, we will say more.) And unlike Abrams’s film (but much like the prequels), Rogue One makes the Star Wars galaxy feel bigger, more crowded. To my mind that’s the best thing about it.

OK, the nervewracking third act suicide mission/epic battle is the best thing about it. And Alan Tudyk’s droid is also the best thing about it.

The cast is pretty swell, Giacchino’s score is largely on point (though the (studio orchestra’s?) performance of the end credits is a little embarrassing), the funny bits are funny, and it’s the first film in the series that concedes nothing to its young viewers. In that respect it differs not only from the prequels, which foreshortened and dumbed down Lucas’s genuinely interesting political story, but from The Force Awakens, with its two cringeworthy uses of the word ‘boyfriend.’ (They’re both funny! And slightly discordant, in a Thoroughly Modern way.) Rogue One isn’t a tale of deeply complicated crosshatching moral codes and weary cynicisms, not quite, but it’s the first Star Wars film to successfully combine the operatic omnisignificance of the core generational narrative with something like ‘realistic’ grownup characterization — not to mention ‘worldbuilding’ of any seriousness.

The Force Awakens is, as usual for Abrams, absolutely risible in this area. The final act of the film kicks off with a bit of offhand planetary genocide — billions of people wiped out in the blink of an eye solely to advance the paper-thin plot. The only lives that matter in that film are the protagonists’, which is part of what I mean when I say ‘no stakes.’ (Did Han’s death actually surprise you? Have you seen a film before?) Nothing but Plot is ever in play for Abrams, except of course Nostalgia — but Rogue One gobbles up every character who appears onscreen and you feel every death; by the end you feel as if the heroes of the original trilogy were lucky to’ve made it that far.

Rewatching part of it today, I was surprised by my own feeling of…resentment? at the fact that the story didn’t end with that stunning image of the two heroes dying on the beach. ‘Oh, we need some Darth Vader of course,’ was my thought. But when the credits rolled I had to admit that handing the baton to Leia and Vader/Anakin was the perfect ending. The work never ends, is the point, or one point, or part of the point. Jyn and Cassian die in service of something that the writers and director and actors and — I suspect — the audience understand to be greater than the narrative: an idea too complex to fit neatly into the ‘Character Motivation’ slot in the script. Which is only to say that I believed in Rogue One in a way I’ve never, after four or five viewings, managed to believe in The Force Awakens.

Anyhow, this isn’t supposed to matter, because these aren’t movies, they’re Star Wars popstuff thingies. But pretending for a second that we’re allowed to judge nostalgia-objects as if they were actual existing artworks has been, I hope, a useful exercise, even as our culture-sized canoe heads for the waterfall.

Stories are made of time and change, not information.

The justification for spoilers (beyond ‘I am anxious, impatient, and have no self-control’) is that you don’t need to receive the story’s info-payload at the moment prescribed by the writers — having the facts, we are told, only clarifies the story, it doesn’t diminish it. Knowing how it ends frees you up to enjoy the unfolding of the story without anxiety.

This disgusts and worries me.

We might think about stories this way:

Narrative structures aren’t vessels containing information, they’re machines for creating information in the mind of the audience. ‘Little Nell dies.’ ‘Oh, is that so? Who’s Little Nell?’ Little Nell is part of a structure which, when activated, effects psychotropism — mental transformation — in the reader. She’s not ‘contained’ in the machine The Old Curiosity Shop, she’s a gear in that machine. To put it another way: the production of fictional knowledge (e.g. ‘informing’/’teaching’ the reader about hobbit feet or the one-eyed bigot at a Dublin bar) is an epiphenomenon of the process of generating the experience of reading itself.

Fictions don’t contain facts, they contain meaningful time: algorithmically generated encounters between audience and story. The text exists to generate the experience of living through it. Characters, plot, setting, are just ‘local variables,’ generated at runtime, which cease to exist when the work is done. But more than that: the work of a fictional scene can’t simply be summarized after the fact (writing tip: if it can, the scene is bad and probably unnecessary). The story effects a set of transformations through sustained audience contact: it’s a smooth curve, flow, the path on which the fictional outcome is dependent. Alter the path, break the curve, obstruct the flow, and you lose the story. What remains are chains and gears, sprockets and lenses — pieces of the machine, meaningless outside of its working.

This isn’t a niggling narratological concern, it’s a serious cultural problem. What’s good about a story is the telling, the reading, the watching, encounter, immersion, sharing — the act of communication, the provisional formation of a network which includes reader, text, artists, imagined-artists (notions which complicate the reading experience), setting, moment… Surprise, as Joss Whedon puts it, is a ‘holy emotion,’ and even in the small doses afforded by the ‘literary novel,’ surprise is an essential element of the fictional contract. But it seems that more and more Americans are terrified of surprise. Parents, bosses, workers, people on dates, schoolteachers, students(!), and of course Discerning Media Audiences — we imbue surprise and uncertainty with anxiety (wishing not to be tested, to risk our precious selves, in a world where the Self is our only permanent or meaningful possession) and seek dumbly to control our microworlds instead of seeking out or cocreating new ones.

Serial novels (‘franchises’) sell like hotcakes, ‘literary’ fiction all but disappears. We read a dozen reviews before settling on a TV show. We ‘swipe right’ based on the literal covers of figurative books. Theaters (both cinemas and the other sort) run only remakes and sequels. We seek out films by particular studios. We welcome a new era of nakedly partisan pseudojournalism. A man who plays a businessman on television becomes president on the strength of his ‘business acumen.’ We are horrified by the news but can hardly pretend to be surprised…

In the grand scheme of things, ‘spoilers’ are a small thing. But as we reconceive what stories and storytelling are, what they’re for, we incur hidden costs. One honourable task for ‘critics’ in this fallen era would be to tally up those costs.

P.S. Scott Alexander writes authoritatively (vs anecdotally) about the value of ‘trigger warnings’, which I pass on as countermelody to my naïve carrying-on about ‘surprise’ as a pillar of fictional experience.

Graves’s Greek myths.

Updated 21 May (see below)

Three ways into poet/novelist/crank Robert Graves’s retelling (synopsis) of the the great body of Greek myth:

  1. Naively treating the book as a neutral compendium of Greek myths (this is a recipe for madness, and will likely lead in short order to the next reading-posture)
  2. Knowingly treating the book as two — expert retellings of the myths marred by oddly deflating synoptic intrusions, plus a parallel, less compelling work of fantasy in the endnotes — and savouring the main text while dipping into the notes from time to time
  3. Knowingly treating the book as a single work of fantasy based on the Greek myths, marking the endnotes as a kind of optional countermelody

The advantage of the third approach, which I’ve tried to adopt in my own reading, is that it accommodates Graves’s deflating alternate versions and parenthetical insertions — instead of damaging a conventional narrative flow, they can be understood as a necessary feature of an alternative form.

If you haven’t read Graves, this is the sort of thing you can expect:

The Eleventh Labour: The Apples Of The Hesperides

a. HERACLES had performed these Ten Labours in the space of eight years and one month; but Eurystheus, discounting the Second and the Fifth, set him two more. The Eleventh Labour was to fetch fruit from the golden apple-tree, Mother Earth’s wedding gift to Hera, with which she had been so delighted that she planted it in her own divine garden. This garden lay on the slopes of Mount Atlas, where the panting chariot-horses of the Sun complete their journey, and where Atlas’s sheep and cattle, one thousand herds of each, wander over their undisputed pastures. When Hera found, one day, that Atlas’s daughters, the Hesperides, to whom she had entrusted the tree, were pilfering the apples, she set the ever-watchful dragon Ladon to coil around the tree as its guardian.

b. Some say that Ladon was the offspring of Typhon and Echidne; others, that he was the youngest-born of Ceto and Phorcys; others again, that he was a parthogenous son of Mother Earth. He had one hundred heads, and spoke with diverse tongues.

c. It is equally disputed whether the Hesperides lived on Mount Atlas in the Land of the Hyperboreans; or on Mount Atlas in Mauretania; or somewhere beyond the Ocean stream; or on two islands near the promontory called the Western Horn, which lies close to the Ethiopian Hesperiae, on the borders of Africa. Though the apples were Hera’s, Atlas took a gardener’s pride in them and, when Themis warned him: ‘One day long hence, Titan, your tree shall be stripped of its gold by a son of Zeus,’ Atlas, who had not then been punished with his terrible task of supporting the celestial globe upon his shoulders, built solid walls around the orchard, and expelled all strangers from his land; it may well have been he who set Ladon to guard the apples…

Graves goes on this way for several pages; his retelling of the Labours of Heracles expands zenoparadoxically into a series of digressions and clarifications and alternate visions that seems as if it may never end. But it does, and I was sorry that it did — Graves tries my patience but I love this stuff all the same. Paragraph b is typical: I can’t imagine a nonexpert caring one way or the other who exactly gave birth to a 100-headed polyglot dragon, and it matters not even a tiny bit to the flow of the story, but this is neither ‘proper’ scholarship nor pure narrative, and conventional satisfactions aren’t the point.

The function of paragraph b — assuming you think Graves has a point and isn’t simply mad — isn’t to slow the story but to broaden it: Typhon and Ceto don’t figure in this particular story, but by invoking them in this quasi-scholarly way like a Biblical scholar noting concordance between the synoptic gospels, Graves sets them to echoing in the background, as it were. Heracles’s labours matter to Graves and to the book’s metanarrative as part of a system of knowledge; on their own, as a series of well supplied violent rampages by a psychotic demigod, they’re Neat but not hardly Significant. But the mention of Typhon, with his arms 300 miles long and an ass’s head that touched the stars, deepens the colour of the story somewhat. Graves’s endnotes ground the stories in a (ridiculous) myth-history, and his cross-cutting invocations of a heavenly genealogy ultimately function as worldbuilding rather than, er, monomania and indiscipline.

If you think of stories as payloads for information, this strategy won’t make sense; there are better ways, for Christ’s sake, to establish the complexity of the Greek mythos than by dropping a steaming info-pile in the middle of the narrative pathway. But if you think of a story, like any work of art, as a machine for inducing psychotropism at a distance rather than a kind of inductive proof, then Graves’s approach has a certain imaginative logic. The mythos is a map whose territory is an entire long-dead culture’s collective imagination, and you don’t need instructions (‘plot’) to browse a map.

Which isn’t to say Graves’s individual retellings aren’t fun to read — I’ve been reading the Myths for months, a little at a time, and I’m enjoying them more now than ever — only that ‘fun’ isn’t exactly the point.

Non-Newtonian narrative

Sticking only to stories here for a second:

‘Visionary’ narrative maps an imagination — it attempts to render the encounter between a complex mind and a complex world without reducing either to the status of narrative components. Visionary art tends to be unconcerned or at least under-concerned with its own parseability. It doesn’t concede to convention, which at any rate is always a post hoc rationalization of an originating vision.

Conventionally satisfying linear (‘sane’) narrative does not directly map an imagination. It maps a kind of second-order reality: the narrative sequence you cocreate in your mind, Reader(s), is and must be orderly in a way reality never ever is, and the same goes for the author’s private story that the text bundles, encodes, and transmits. A story must be tellable to be told, duh, but the world isn’t. The world is the opposite of a story: it doesn’t presuppose sense and then work within it (unless of course you think the world is a story made by gods, in which case good luck with that), because the world doesn’t assume or presuppose anything. Before everything, being is. Telling comes after, because everything that dreams is needy.

My point here is that when I talk about ‘visionary’ art (which I do a hell of a lot, I know, and not only in the context of ahem psychedelic improvised rock), I mean art that doesn’t presuppose an orderly knowable ‘tellable’ world — nor a tellable mind. I’d say Graves’s own mad autodidactic myth-history falls into this category, though his close contemporary Tolkien’s mostly doesn’t: Tolkien’s legendarium is supremely orderly, which geeks like, and his brilliant long novel, though a work of actual genius, is satisfying in (among others) the totally conventional sense of putting its heroes through escalating heck and restoring them to something like sense on the other side, wrapped up in a bow. As GRR Martin points out, Aragorn is a good ruler because he’s the titular returned king, and for no other reason, really; he represents a neat’n’tidy idea, and he never attains the particularly complexities of a human being because he never actually has to rule. Frodo and Sam, meanwhile, are more richly imagined figures, their humanity tested rather than their fitness for the role of ‘plucky heroes.’ They’re the ones who grow in the telling.

I’d say that Tolkien attains a dreamlike ‘visionary’ power at points in Lord of the Rings — Shelob’s lair, Moria, Minas Morgul, the doom of the Rohirrim — but his storyworld always snaps back into place afterward. Middle-Earth isn’t elastic like Graves’s ‘encoded patriarchal overthrow of authentic Triple-Goddess worship’ frame; part of the ‘adventurous expectancy’ (HPL’s term) in Graves’s Myths comes from the feeling that he might, on page 600, just start gibbering about Celtic paganism and never stop. The basic imaginative content is the opposite of definitive, not least since you (I) have no idea which of his goddamn endnotes (which take up at least half the book) he’s just made up whole cloth. Whereas Middle-Earth is or at any rate can be written down somewhere, safe and sound. (This is no deprecation of Tolkien or his creation.)

All of which is why I don’t fault Graves’s dryly synoptic presentation. He’s not trying to tell a series of little stories, he’s trying to accurately render his felt sense of the deeply weird complexity of the whole sort of general mythos-mishmash. It is boring at times because worlds are. It contradicts itself at times because worlds do. It makes no sense because the world doesn’t, can’t, because the world isn’t made to make sense. It isn’t made. This is the great virtue of what we might call a ‘mythic outlook’: it pushes us toward an acceptance of the world of the mind (and the world itself) as it is. It is a posture of eager receptivity.

Visions come to prepared spirits. (Kekulé)

Update (21 May 2017)

Coda: The final piece of Graves’s project is a retelling of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Despite his odd dismissal of the latter (‘the first Greek novel,’ a lower form than myth of course), throughout the Myths Graves has given himself freer rein when nothing was at stake, mythographically speaking. And his dry presentation of the myths, which for a long stretch prior to the labours of Hercules had gotten a little boring, crackles to life whenever the focus of the stories shifts from the divine to the (comparatively) human. The Odyssey is suffused with melancholy anyhow, but Graves treats it as the coda to a vast cosmology, the birth of the modern in a sense — ‘Well, I’m back’ and ‘Goodbye to all that’ — and that framing only intensifies the source texts’ deflationary effects. By linking Homer’s poems to various Mediterranean myths of city-founding, and devoting so many pages to partings and dissipations, Graves undercuts Homer’s narrative arc but finds a deeper, sadder story: the end of the Trojan War seems to take as long as the war itself, and Odysseus’s reclaiming of his throne barely registers as climax before he’s banishing his son to avoid prophesied death (which comes from the sea anyway, ironically in the form of one of his illegitimate half-divine children).

The Homeric material concretizes the Myths, makes them finally into a book rather than a grab-bag of Frazerian fixations.

Plus Graves has one more goofy surprise waiting in his penultimate notes section: Homer was Nausicaa, whatever the hell that could possibly mean.

John Le Carré, THE HONOURABLE SCHOOLBOY.

The third Le Carré I’ve read and the most impressive, the most ambitious. I look forward to finishing the ‘Karla trilogy’ soon — though not right away, and not only because I’m reading Blood Meridian and Graves’s Greek myths…

Schoolboy‘s not quite as warmhearted as Tinker, Tailor for several reasons, not least the change of primary venue from beloved England to Southeast Asia at the end of the Vietnam War, centering on Hong Kong. Le Carré deftly handles the intricate politics of his setting, letting the American humiliation in Saigon serve as backdrop to a more complex and far-reaching story of ’round-eyes’ integrating into a society which (for all its strangeness) is as wearily, complexly human as Le Carré’s Europe. But for all its effortless evocation of time and place, and Le Carré’s usual eerily precise characterization, Schoolboy‘s plot is a touch more diffuse than Tinker‘s. It breathes, its rhythms make sense in retrospect, but it’s a damned long and complicated book — and Le Carré’s deftly employed narratorial touches (proleptic insertions and retrospective commentary, unexpected almost gossipy asides) pull focus, somewhat, from the ‘Russian gold seam’ premise to enact a kind of ‘literary’ meta-level mystefaction: Schoolboy‘s narration suggests not only that it may end with a surprise but that the kind of ending it will deliver will come as a surprise.

In other words, you always get the rug pulled out from under you with the master’s books — deception as such is a deep thematic interest of Le Carré’s — but Schoolboy goes further than the previous ‘Karla’ novel in unsettling the reader, upsetting not just the world-frame but the narrative frame. Of the three I’ve read so far, it’s the first Le Carré novel I’d identify as making a consciously ‘modernist’ commitment, engaging in the kind of epistemological games which litcrit types enjoy in lieu of actual fun.

Which isn’t to say Schoolboy isn’t conventionally satisfying! It’s a grandly cynical romance, an Englishmen-abroad potboiler, a great ‘jungle novel’ — the long setpiece in which Westerby and his charming young driver cross into Thailand is an extraordinarily vivid and exciting piece of adventure writing, reminding me so strongly of Norman Rush’s canonical Mortals that I wondered whether the latter novel was intended partly as an homage — and it ends not only with an extended bang-up climax but with a perfectly judged coda in which the ashes of concepts like ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and ‘win’ and ‘lose’ are scattered unceremoniously in the Thames.

It’s just that Le Carré seems to be trying here for a level beyond what his previous ‘spy novels’ had attained. Tinker, Tailor is about (among other things) the madly, ruinously circular clash of two declining empires, but plotwise focuses tightly on the Circus, its gorgeous boys’-school interludes working thematically off to the side a bit; Schoolboy attains both greater intimacy with its fully human protagonist Jerry Westerby and painfully harrowing distance, Greek-tragedy distance you might say, by carefully rendering what feels like a vast civilizational unraveling all around him. Awe-inspiring wide shots of a world at its end…and then inescapable, claustrophobic closeups. And again. And again.

I didn’t love Westerby’s story as I loved Tinker, Tailor — honestly I wanted to spend more time with Smiley, because I’m a sap, and Westerby’s great Error is the one element of the novel I had trouble subscribing to, and there are a lot of hateful bastards harrying the Better Guys in this story. But while the previous novel inspired admiration and love, Schoolboy inspires awe. Days after finishing, I can’t believe what I’ve just read.

Girl note

Well, there’s one other shortcoming to talk about. The three Le Carré novels I’ve read have spent little time on the inner lives of women, and not one that I can recall has passed the ‘Bechdel Test.’ Yes, he writes about a largely male world; yes, he peppers these stories with interesting female characters with serious expertise and complex private views facing grave moral choices. Yes, he was a ‘man of his time.’ And Lizzie Worthington, the great test of our schoolboy’s honour, is a self-created protagonist of her own story, wearily trading on sex and perceived shallowness to make her way. She’s an Interesting Female Character. But her viewpoint doesn’t enter into the book’s narrative calculus — the book’s ‘third act’ would be something very different if Worthington’s view of Westerby and the Circus were made explicit, but for Le Carré it’s enough for us to watch her watch the plot.

That didn’t strike me as any sort of great problem while reading — Westerby’s emotions are laid bare throughout the book, and any vividly rendered inner life is a gift; plus the book is brilliant (did I mention?) — but the pattern’s there, and it matters. Only in our idiot century could it be said to matter more than the stories themselves, and to me it doesn’t. But a true account of this extraordinary book, and its extraordinary author, demands honesty on this score.

Logan.

  1. I suspect Hugh Jackman is the last screen Wolverine; I hope so. You can only ring changes on that character so many times, within the confines of the ‘tentpole actioner’ as they say. Jackman grew into the role, doing solid work even in terrible films, and created — pardon me — an iconic screen character; he deserves the chance to bring the curtain down. The fact that whoever’s making those alternate-timeline X-Men movies won’t cast anyone else in the role is a real compliment to him. (That said, I wondered a couple of times what Mel Gibson could’ve done as old Logan — it was the beard that set me off, but Jackman’s fellow Aussie is still, I think, better at communicating Logan‘s mix of pain, confusion, resignation, misanthrophy, and (lest we forget) feral rage.)
  2. Patrick Stewart deserves an Oscar, not only because he’ll make an excellent speech. He takes a risk here and delivers a flawless performance that owes nothing to the standard language of ‘superhero films’; Jackman does a lot of fighting, as you’d expect of Wolverine, but Stewart is playing a low-key drama about aging ungracefully. I’m reminded of Gielgud’s frail Prospero, and wish I’d seen Stewart’s…
  3. Dafne Keen provides a feral take on Stranger Things‘s ‘Eleven.’ She’s every inch as good as her costars, especially in the film’s many intensely quiet moments. So’s Stephen Merchant as a run-down Caliban, who must’ve loved playing scenes with the naughty Mr Grant. And though Boyd Holbrook’s role is a bit of a clunker, he does his best to run off with the film. Everyone onscreen is in top form. As someone else points out: a lot of excellent screen actors pop up in cape’n’cowl films with nothing to do, and Logan shows how deep you can go once you’ve established the characters and ensemble and are no longer beholden to the almighty ‘mythology.’ (By all accounts Logan diverges completely from its ostensible source material, profitably cynical hack writer Mark Millar’s Old Man Logan.)
  4. Logan is a Western (no points for figuring that out), and makes heartbreaking use of footage and dialogue from Shane. Yes there’s much talk — predictable, since film critics are almost all hacks, even the ‘names’ — of Logan ‘transcending’ the comic-book film and ‘defying genre conventions,’ etc., but for God’s sake ignore all that chatter. It’s squarely within the conventions of a different sort of story that’s fallen out of favour with (young) film audiences, and it will be overrated by critics as a result. This is an important thing to understand about critics and tastemakers: when a media text that appears, or is expected, to belong to one genre is revealed to belong to another, they flip out, because in that case they have something to do. Sci-fi story that’s actually a domestic melodrama? Gush. Fight movie doubles as anticapitalist protest? Gush. Surprisingly gory superhero film is really about old people? Gush. (Star Wars meets The Dirty Dozen? Gush of relief.) It would be a very good (if somewhat old-fashioned) Western if it didn’t have superheroes in it, its iconography smartly utilized by James Mangold et al., but once those adamantium claws go snikt there’s no stopping the fanthusiasm, and critical perspective collapses.
  5. As ‘awesome’ violence is to comixxx fanboys, schematic genre-crossing is to film critics.
  6. I cried at the end, during the eulogy (it doesn’t spoil anything, really, to suggest that there’ll be a eulogy, though I won’t say whose). I had an intense feeling of having come through something, and I can’t tell whether I mourned the character or the franchise, which is a little disgusting. Jackman’s been Wolverine for, what, twenty years? That’s a long time to live with an idea. But during the other obvious tearjerker moment, not only didn’t I cry, I didn’t feel much of anything — it felt like a necessary step in the narrative progression of a dark Western film. ‘But this is a big deal in a superhero movie!’ went my inner nerd, and I began to wonder whether that voice, too, needed to die in order that everyone else might glimpse transcendence.
  7. The idea that every aesthetic judgment about a superhero film must be conducted in terms only of other superhero films is cowardice. If they’re good films, they’re good even with masked vigilantes in them, and we shouldn’t use the words ‘guilty pleasure’ to mask our interest. If they can’t hold up to that standard — if, for instance, your connection to Logan and Logan is nostalgia for a line of commercial products, and you’re just better off watching Mangold’s riveting 3:10 to Yuma — then why do we bother? Because they’re popular? Logan‘s quite a good film on its own terms, and that’s enough to justify the price of your matinee ticket, but the gushing has to do with its status as a ‘genre-defying’ popcorn flick, which shows how deep the rot has gone. One critic approvingly points out that the heroes fail, at one crucial juncture, to drive over a chicken-wire fence; they get snarled in it instead, and have to back out. Funny, no? Clever, no? Honest, no? And so we must deduce that no superhero film has ever been honest before, because we’re goldfish forgetting the other side of our tank.
  8. Lemme put it this way: I saw the movie yesterday and can vividly remember much or most of it now, nearly twenty-four hours later — but only because I’m trying. Honestly, until I sat down to write about it, it had slipped from my mind, like so many other good movies.

THE WIRE and THE SOPRANOS, dirt cheap. Buy?

The Wire and The Sopranos were on sale on Blu-Ray for $60ish apiece yesterday only. If you haven’t seen them, you should consider buying them next time this happens.

It’s been a while since I wrote one of these posts, forgive me if I’m a little rusty.

The turn-of-the-millennium ‘Golden Age’ of primetime drama kicked off with damaged/compromised classics like Twin Peaks, NYPD Blue, and The X-Files, which incorporated soap-opera seriality (via shows like Hill Street Blues) into the hourlong network drama format. Canonical shows like Buffy and My So-Called Life reveled in that new freedom, clearing way for achievements like the first two years of Veronica Mars, but it wasn’t until HBO got into the game that the primetime drama reached full maturity.

Oz was their first step, but The Sopranos was the breakthrough: a domestic ‘dramedy’ playing on familiar tropes (the henpecked Kramden/Bunker figure, the dysfunctional ethnic clan) with a theretofore unimaginable intensity, viscerality, subtlety, and — this is the key — honesty about sacred institutions like marriage. The Sopranos, by no means the subtlest of HBO’s great dramas, demonstrated that a primetime series could leave important matters of plot and character unexplained from week to week, trusting viewers to follow not only the in-world action but the various social-critical and symbolic levels of the show as well. Though this may seem silly to young viewers today, it was an extraordinarily demanding show in its time.

It was an actors’ showcase. James Gandolfini and Edie Falco not only gave two of the great individual performances in the history of the medium, they collaborated on one of the essential onscreen depictions of a marriage. The cast wasn’t uniformly excellent, and there were only a handful of sizable female roles, but the high pitch of the action meant that everyone on the show had great material to work with, and a handful of performances were career bests. (The rise and fall of Johnny Sack, for instance, is a masterpiece of writing, acting, and direction.)

It was a writers’ showcase. David Chase and his staff took huge risks: showing the main character committing horrific violence with his bare hands, say, or doing a Rosencrantz & Guildenstern episode in the Pine Barrens. Carmela and Tony’s showdown in the Season Four finale (‘Whitecaps’) includes two bravura scenes which belong in the American dramatic pantheon. ‘The Test Dream’ is pure Freudian nightwork. And of course the finale is an extraordinary achievement — perfectly emotionally correct but, at the level of plot, a bit of a tease.

It was laugh-out-loud funny — indeed, it was in many ways a domestic/workplace sitcom in the All in the Family mode — yet its often broad comedy only deepened its horror, denying viewers easy acclimation to a single tone (unlike Game of Thrones, say, a fine successor show which has traded wit for (self-)importance). Of the Golden Age dramas, The Sopranos was the jokiest one, and the most disturbing.

It was, in the final analysis, the Peak Era show that most harshly defied viewer expectations. Deadwood‘s anticlimaxes, The Wire‘s ‘inner’ climaxes, the unintentional hilarity of Galactica and Lost‘s endings…none of these assaulted the basic art/artist/audience contract the way the final season(s) of The Sopranos did. David Chase’s deep cycnicism is the primary colour of those last 20ish episodes, making the show less immediately satisfying but ultimately more haunting. Like the Seinfeld finale, Chase’s closing episode ‘Made in America’ reveals the pitch-black heart of the work; of course viewers hated it, didn’t get it, asked the wrong questions. But it works and it’s beautiful.

The Sopranos is one of the great American dramatic achievements.

(And yet Mad Men, helmed by Sopranos alum Matt Weiner, surpassed it in most respects. Weiner’s achievement is secondary, late: he applied the dramatic model of The Sopranos to a meticulously reimagined 1960s Manhattan, foregrounded female characters (and writers) (neither of which Chase took to), and sacrificed none of the comedy or dramatic intensity while doing without the lurid violence. I’d say Weiner’s series is ‘the better show’ overall, for what that’s worth. But as with the imperfect Buffy and X-Files, at its peak, nothing could touch The Sopranos.)


The Wire, meanwhile, is harder to talk on without parenthesizing. It’s the most tightly constructed Peak Era show, and the one with the biggest immediate social impact. It’s hard to celebrate individual scenes, sequences, and episodes, because the show was conceived in purely serial terms, each episode existing solely as a portion of the whole. No standalones, no gimmicks, just pure longform drama of a kind never before seen on primetime TV. (Even Babylon 5 couldn’t work on its level, though Breaking Bad fans claim that show did.) The well wrought multiyear narratives of The Wire make the X-Files ‘mytharc’ and Lost‘s endless backstory tap-dancing seem even more childish than they actually were.

Yet the satisfactions of the series are very different from those of the other ‘Peak Era’ dramas. By creator David Simon’s own account, The Wire‘s characters were conceived in a more limited way than Chase’s (or David Milch’s) — a ‘Greek’ vs ‘Shakespearean’ dramatic model, with the little guy crushed over and over by ‘postmodern institutions’ — so the only completely imagined character on the show is its dearest subject, Baltimore itself. The private lives of the individual characters barely register, except as (usually ironic) counterpoint to the ongoing polemic. This is risky business, but Simon managed to put together one of the best writing staffs ever assembled for a show of this kind. They pulled it off.

The Wire, then, is the ultimate treatment of a single city in American TV or film, each season focusing on a different community (cops and drug dealers, dockworkers, City Hall, city schools, the Baltimore Sun) to make an inescapable point about the disaster of the ‘drug war’ and the suffocation of the urban underclass under late capitalism. Its chief virtue is ‘authenticity’: driven by a collective reportorial instinct (and Simon’s own experience as a journalistic ’embed’ with Baltimore PD’s Homicide unit) Simon and his writers attended to details which might never have occurred to writers on an ordinary cops’n’robbers show. The series’s pragmatic attitude toward the drug trade (‘the only profitable industry left in West Baltimore’) and the creators’ realism about the limitations of police work (the cops and corner boys are soldiers in a war none of them actually want to fight) keep the drama even-keeled, in a sense, making room for small victories and drawing extraordinary power from small defeats — there are heroes and villains aplenty, but The Wire‘s world is one in which the Struggle, the Dream, is simply to be able to slow down, to survive, to be ordinary. Even moreso than The Sopranos, which focuses on the long second act of a man’s life, The Wire dramatizes continuation, settling, even boredom.

Plenty of gunfights, of course, and highly technical discussion of investigative techniques (infodumped so skillfully at times you’ll never know what hit you), some superb comedy, and each year, a penultimate episode so crushingly sad and intense that you’ll swear it was the best thing ever aired on American TV.

Which, honestly, it might’ve been. I know which shows I prefer from hour to hour, but taken as a whole, there’s nothing like The Wire. It’s one of the classic works of American agitprop — but it’s also a great crime drama. The Sopranos is no longer one of a kind, but The Wire is, and will (I suspect) remain so.