Tag: TV

Infinitely Jesting: Weird fictions, tangentially

I had planned on writing about the ease of reading Infinite Jest in this entry of the (probably infinite) series, but then something strange and wonderful happened. I started listening to a podcast and watching a tv show that both had these odd connections to one of the genres Infinite Jest dabbles in: Weird Fiction. One of the major weird fiction writers was H.P. Lovecraft, and he described weird fiction in his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature“, “The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain–a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.” At the (still) 63rd page into Infinite Jest, this uncanny idea has certainly creeped into the edges of the story so far. See my previous post for some examples. Those 63 pages have continued to ring in my mind as I watched HBO’s True Detective and listened to the fantastically funny and weird Welcome to Night Vale. Both are drenched in that weird fiction vibe that really gets my goat. So much fun, let’s investigate!

True Detective is one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. It instantly became a favorite when Matthew McConaughey began his quiet drawling musings on the unnatural quality of humanity. Here’s a guy who is very clearly out there, maybe crazy, maybe just drug addled, and yet he holds a pretty important job. We’re introduced to him as he takes his first major murder case with his partner, played wonderfully by Woody Harrelson, and already it is quite obvious that they are two different kinds of men. McConaughey plays Rust Cohle (best name ever?) as close to an alien as you can get while still being technically human. He has a past in deep undercover situations with drug runners so maybe he’s just done one too many lines to function like a normal person anymore. Or maybe he’s tapped into the deep dark secret that we’re hiding from ourselves. Maybe we have, as he opines on in the car as they drive away from the ritualistic murder scene at the beginning of the pilot episode, become too self aware. We have separated ourselves from nature and we do horrible and strange things because of that. I don’t really agree with much of what Rust Cohle says, but his ideas can’t help but be mesmerizing. The show acts as a genre piece, a serial killer murder mystery steeped in the weird and exotic Louisiana bayou atmosphere tinged with the supernatural.

There have been about a billion blog posts about True Detective‘s connection to The King in Yellow, a weird fiction book by Robert W. Chambers which influenced people like H.P. Lovecraft and, pretty obviously, Nic Pizzolatto, the writer of True Detective. The first and biggest clue is that the big bad in True Detective is called The Yellow King, and a diary left by the murder victim in the first episode has several other references to the The King in Yellow. The majority of the stories in The King in Yellow take place in Carcosa, a fictitious town where a bunch of strange things happen throughout the history of weird fiction. It has popped up in Lovecraft’s stories and originated in an Ambrose Bierce short story. And it is the supposed location of The Yellow King in True Detective. These references cannot be coincidences and they point the show in a more uncanny direction than a story about police normally goes. It’s fascinating to watch a show become a huge cultural phenomenon and also immerse itself and its viewers in the deep end of this little known genre.

Speaking of fictional towns where a bunch of crazy things happen, Welcome to Night Vale! This parody of A Prairie Home Companion gets its fun from turning Garrison Keillor into a local radio host in a town where the dog park is not fit for dog or human occupancy thanks to the supernatural forces and wormholes to other dimensions that pop up in it from time to time. It’s a comedy show first and foremost, but I only listen at night to bring out the more insidious elements in the show’s production. Mixed in with reports of a Glow Cloud that slowly moves over the town raining animal carcasses (starting small and building up to a lion, for maximum absurdity) are the usual things like traffic reports, though those often have the narrator/host relaying information about traffic in their small south western town and asking why we’re even driving when cars have been specifically outlawed by the town’s not-so Secret Police. The deadpan delivery of these jokes/genre tropes works superbly well, echoing the voice of Rust Cohle’s philosophical ramblings and letting the weird fiction elements feel as real as possible.

There’s more going on here than just three things that work in the weird fiction genre. The King in Yellow is, in the book, the name of a play which, when read, will cause the reader to go insane. I haven’t gotten to that part of Infinite Jest yet, but I’m pretty sure there’s an obvious parallel there to the film cartridge that lends its own name to the book’s title and is “so entertaining to its viewers that they lose all interest in anything other than viewing it and thus eventually die”(Wikipedia). Maybe Rust Cohle has read The King in Yellow and has tapped into the sub- or un-conscious of the universe itself. He has these visions that might just be drug flashbacks or might be nature telling him that he’s on the right path, or, alternately, on very much the wrong one. This is the excitement of a show that hasn’t ended yet. Maybe Night Vale is the sister city to Carcosa, too, and perhaps they share cultural exports like the shrouded figures that inhabit Night Vale’s seedier locations. The King in Yellow is, perhaps, the prequel to Infinite Jest, both exposing the sub-human nature of humanity to their readers or viewers. It’s something to think about, at least.

25 Christmas Things: Thing 16 – New Girl: Santa

New Girl is a show that everybody should like but very few give it a chance thanks to the “Adorkable” advertising it got early on. Late in its first season it developed into a truly great show with a cast of characters to rival any other show on TV. The second season’s Christmas episode, “Santa”, gets a heck of a lot out of a superb cast. Everybody gets a moment or two to shine, whether it’s Wilson’s nut-induced-deafness or Nick’s amazing confession followed by the best worst lap dance I’ve ever seen. It’s all a part of a jam-packed episode which features the group going to as many holiday parties as they can fit into one night. It ends up at a children’s hospital, of course, and the gang attempts to sing “Jolly Old St. Nicholas” except none of them know the words. It’s a really wonderful episode of a great series.

25 Christmas Things: Day 12 – Doctor Who

The first episode of Doctor Who I ever watched was its 2010 Christmas episode in which the Doctor must inspire a grumpy old alien (Michael Gambon) to be less mean so he can let an out of control spaceship land. There’s also a flying shark. In the end the Doctor uses a bit of time travel to become the ghost of Christmases past present and future all in one. It’s yet another clever twist on the old Christmas Carol formula and worked as an excellent introduction to the Doctor and his wonderful universe. In fact, his line at the end of the scene above is what sealed it for me, “You know in 900 years of time and space I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important before.” That’s an ethos I can get behind. The episode inspired me to immediately seek out the rest of the Doctor’s run available at the time, starting with the 2005 reboot. I learned that the Christmas episode was kind of a thing and though none have yet topped that first one I saw, it’s always a nice to to rejoin the Doctor and his companions for an hour on Christmas day. This year promises great excitement as it will be the end of the 11th incarnation of the character and the beginning of the 12th. Matt Smith has been my favorite Doctor so far but I can’t wait to see what Peter Capaldi brings to the role.

25 Christmas Things: Day 10 – Lost “The Constant”

This episode of Lost is mostly not about Christmas. It is, rather, a crucial turning point in the series as the sci-fi stuff ramps up and timelines are mixed up. Desmond flashes back and forth between his earlier self and the “present” day version who’s just escaped from The Island thanks to a mysterious helicopter/boat combination. He’s not the only one afflicted with this time sickness, either, as Fisher Stevens seems to be a few hours ahead of him and not looking all that great for it. Mixed in with all of this temporal turmoil is a love story (because the show was always about the characters) between Desmond and his ex-girlfriend, Penny. Thanks to the advice of the long-haired and potentially hair-brained scientist still stuck on the island, Faraday, the time hopping Desmond tells Penny that he needs her phone number but won’t call her until Christmas Eve 2004, 8 years in the future. It’s that scene, shown in the show only moments later, that earns the episode a place on this list. In the time between that last conversation and the one above, Penny has gone from anger to fear that her boyfriend might be lost forever, since he disappeared some time in between, getting stranded on the island. The telephonic reunion is tearful and touching, and supremely well shot as it cuts back and forth rapidly between the two separated by what might as well be a million miles. The phone call not only saves their relationship, it saves Desmond’s life as well, establishing a constant between the two timelines which grounds him back in the present. It’s a marvelous piece of storytelling on a show that doesn’t get enough credit for that kind of thing.


The Long “S” Stupid: Embracing the shock of The Cabin in the Woods and other things

“To call you stupid would be an insult to stupid people! I’ve known sheep that could outwit you. I’ve worn dresses with higher IQs. But you think you’re an intellectual, don’t you, ape?” – A Fish Called Wanda

It happened again. It haunts me. Family members do it. Friends do it. Random audience members do it. And whenever they do it I seethe. It’s the thing that makes me the most angry and I hate it. It’s the Long “S” Stupid. That sibilant that expresses just how contemptuous the speaker is of the subject. “This is SSsssssstupid,” they’ll say, and I’ll know that they’ve checked out. Something has turned them off and they’ll never recover again. I first noticed it when I was watching an episode of Community with my family, and at some point, likely one of the more slapstick-y points, my dad just said “SSSssssstupid.” But there’s a problem. The subject, the SSSsssssstupid thing, is almost never actually stupid. It’s weird, sure. It’s different, it catches you off guard and it challenges you, but it is rarely actually stupid.

I most recently heard the Long “S” Stupid in the theater, watching The Cabin in the Woods. That is a film that is different from a lot of the horror that is popular today, and it’s even different from the movie that the marketing told you it’d be. If you went to the movie expecting a slash-fest you’re in for a shock. Firstly, it’s a comedy as much (or more than) it is a horror film, an element that was absent from most of the advertising of the film. Horror is a genre that generally takes itself seriously – too seriously, often (Saw) – and an audience that goes to a movie called The Cabin in the Woods won’t be expecting to laugh a lot. My audience didn’t crack up until a good 15 minutes into the movie, long after the first joke flew (that happened in the first few seconds of the film). After the dam burst they were looser and quicker to laugh, which was great, but those first 15 minutes also contained some great jokes that were missed because the audience wasn’t even looking for the film to be funny. This is, however, just setting the table for the Long “S” Stupid.

The Cabin in the Woods is a movie that has a few surprises in store for it’s audience. I won’t go into much detail here but if you want to go in completely unsoiled by spoilers you might want to skip on to the next paragraph and assume that I made excellent and salient points about everything. Ok, here we go. The first surprise happens with the first shot of the film, showing us that there’s more going on in this movie than in your typical horror flick. It’s hinted at in the trailers, so it’s not a total surprise, but the full story is a little more in-depth than what you might expect. A lot of good horror works on a psychological level as well as a visceral level, so it’s not unheard of that there’d be more than just slashing, but the past few years have shown that the smart horror film is not the most popular genre. I’ll point again to the Saw franchise. The first film is pretty smart, but each successive sequel got dumber and dumber, raking in more and more money as they did so. When The Cabin in the Woods twists even further and the characters begin to realize what’s going on there’s a point where you’ll either go with it or jump off the train. It happens in an elevator and we get a peek at what’s to come. It was at this point where a member of my audience announced that, “This movie is SSSsssssstupid.”

Of course, that moment was the point where the film solidified into my favorite of the year so far, and a potential top 100 film. So what is it about those Long “S” Stupid moments that turns some off and energizes others into love? It seems, in my experience, like some people just don’t want to go exploring with their entertainment. We’ve become so entrenched in specific forms and expectations that we can practically predict an entire movie from a two-minute trailer or know what’s going to happen in a TV episode within the first five minutes. When those movies and TV shows then confound our expectations and do something different we can have one of those two reactions, embrace or reject. Neither is inherently better than the other, both are completely valid reactions. But if you have uttered the Long “S” Stupid at something, ask yourself why. Why are you reacting that way to that piece of media? What, exactly, is stupid about it? Is there a different way to see it? Could it maybe be silly instead of stupid (I’d call both of my examples, Community and The Cabin in the Woods, stupendously silly and I love that about them)? Could it just be different from what you were expecting? Don’t fear difference! Embrace it! Love it!