Television

Not So Goode

Thanks to TDK, I finally got to see Mike Judge’s new animated series, The Goode Family, which follows an environmentally obsessive PC household and their ostentatious concerns. Here are the first three episodes.

Goode_Family_2 Given Judge’s previous creation, King of the Hill, there are inevitably some good moments. There’s an amusing scene involving carrier bag anxiety, and the local overpriced whole food store has an electronic display informing customers of the latest ethical shopping practices, which change in real time. And there are odd flashes of demented ingenuity, as when a visiting Freegan uses his own tears as seasoning. Unfortunately, these moments are spaced much too far apart. What we get instead are misfires like this scene, in which the Goodes fret about the correct way to refer to their black neighbour. There’s a joke lurking in there somewhere, but nobody managed to find it. And that’s pretty much the default setting for the first few episodes.

King of the Hill quickly grew beyond Texan small town caricature and, however grotesque its protagonists could be, they felt both plausible and deserving of some empathy. Comedy emerged from character and didn’t depend entirely on stereotypes, knowing references or the weekly plot contrivance. Viewers soon came to share the producers’ obvious affection for the Hills, despite – or because of - Hank’s unwavering squareness and preoccupation with propane. And while Hank was often stuffy, unadventurous and emotionally repressed, he remained above all an honourable man – something of an oddity in modern animation. The rooting of comedy in character and culture – as opposed to politics - also made possible a collision of surrealism and genuine poignancy. Peggy’s need for oversized shoes and her subsequent, unwitting friendship with a transvestite springs to mind or Khan’s off-meds mania and all too brief grill-building genius. Likewise, Bill’s near-constant teetering on the brink of despair – a gag that could only be sustained over 13 years because his innumerable failures were offset with moments of real pathos and humanity.  

In contrast, The Goode Family is laboured and affected, as if built by committee from the outside in, with unlikeable characters and a premise that’s somehow both obvious and thin. There’s no evidence yet that Judge or his writers have any sympathy for the Goodes and their self-inflicted predicament, and it’s not clear whether we’re supposed to see them as victims of their own politics or just unrelenting grotesques. The daughter, Bliss, is presented supposedly as a foil for her dysfunctionally PC mother, but the tension on offer is between preening political concern and preening teenage ennui. Perhaps these are teething troubles and The Goode Family will find its footing and become much funnier and less self-conscious. But if so, it needs to improve a hell of a lot, very quickly. Right now, the protagonists seem more suited as secondary characters in a show about someone else, and the air of contrivance leaves the series feeling almost as fake and unappealing as the pretensions it mocks.


Uprising

Poking about in the archives, I unearthed the second episode of Vanessa Engle’s excellent documentary series, Lefties. Titled Angry Wimmin, the film traces the rise of radical feminism in a grim Britain of the 1970s. As a record of social history it’s interesting stuff. The revolutionary politics of shoes, for instance, is quaintly entertaining, and the subsequent, post-revolutionary fear of being caught shaving armpits or wearing lipstick may also amuse. Around 6 minutes in, there’s a section on “political lesbianism,” i.e. lesbianism as an ideological duty, irrespective of desire. One of the figures interviewed is Julie Bindel, a Guardian commentator whose subtleties of mind include a belief that “[get] men off the streets” is “a fabulous slogan” and “all women know that if we have not been raped, we are lucky.” In the first clip below, Ms Bindel airs the following reminiscence:

What I could never understand – and I did resent – was [heterosexual feminists] going home to men at night. It just seemed such a contradiction. And often I would get very angry when I would challenge them about this, and they would say, “Well, that’s just the way I am. I just don’t fancy women.” Having no understanding at all of the fact that sexuality is a social construct and that we all make choices depending on the way we want to live and the world we want to see.

What’s striking is Bindel’s adamance. It’s not even open to debate. This, presumably, is how she still sees the world. Sexuality simply is a social construct - it’s a fact - and all human beings can reconfigure their desires in accord with ideology. Though the basis for this claim remains somewhat mysterious. Former activist Lisa Power recalls her own, rather different, experience of sexuality by decree:

It was a bit of a pain because there were all these women who suddenly wanted to be lesbians, but they didn’t actually terribly want to sleep with women. But they sort of felt they ought to, to pay their dues.

Here’s part 1:


Watch Angry Wimmin Part One in News  |  View More Free Videos Online at Veoh.com

Continue reading "Uprising" »


Reheated (4)

For newcomers, three more items from the archives:

Spooky Action.

Jim Schnabel’s charmingly bizarre film about Cold War research into extrasensory perception as a tool of espionage. By turns intriguing and hilarious.

Rebellion, Revisited

Classroom impropriety and the grooming of young minds.

Even if we set aside the not insignificant issue of whether professors of, say, literary criticism have any business trying to “win over” their students and mould their political outlook, reasonably or otherwise, there is another problem. Is the student-professor relationship sufficiently equal and reciprocal to ensure evidence and reason prevail? Is there no pressure on students to defer, to please? Can we simply assume that improper leverage will never be brought to bear – for instance, in terms of grading or more subtle signs of displeasure? And isn’t there an unavoidable air of… predation?

Infestation.

A Guardian writer asks, Am I Fit to Breed? Other, less hesitant souls long for human extinction.

Explore the greatest hits.


Cheap and Nasty

Tim Cavanaugh recently noted the tradition of grafting highbrow socio-political subtexts onto lowbrow zombie films, often regardless of the film makers’ intentions. As, for instance, when the film historian Sumiko Higashi saw the Vietnam War lurking somewhere among the zombies and wrote that although “there are no Vietnamese in Night of the Living Dead... they constitute an absent presence whose significance can be understood if narrative is construed.” Or when cineaste Robin Wood informed readers that the zombies’ cannibalistic tendency “represents the ultimate in possessiveness, hence the logical end of human relations under capitalism.”

I’m not a great fan of the zombie genre and a little flesh-eating goes an awfully long way. But it seems to me that with a couple of exceptions, most notably Homecoming, such lofty critiques are misplaced and say more about the critics and their politics than the films being discussed or the audience that watches them. Even the more, er, distinguished zombie films, including George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, are at best a kind of coarse nihilistic satire, in which all values are upturned with adolescent glee.

Shannon Love offers a less grandiose explanation for the lingering appeal of the walking dead: 

I think most modern literary criticism seeks to exploit the analysis for political purposes instead of seeking to understand why and how the artist chose to tell the story as he did. The critics avoid trivial but true explanations and instead grasp at exotic but false ones solely to gain attention for themselves and their pet causes. Why would anyone need to presume that people find zombies scary out of some broader contemporary social or political phenomenon? The modern zombie created in George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead encapsulates many core human fears. Fear of the dead. Fear of a painful death. Fear of decaying flesh. Fear of contagious disease. Fear of betrayal. Fear of a loss of social order and support. Is there any social or political milieu or even any culture ever in which masses of nigh-indestructible ambulatory dead people trying to eat people alive is not a frightening thought? Even cultures that mummify the dead and keep them around would find the idea that grandpa’s corpse could come alive and eat the family disturbing…

Zombie stories (and most survival horror or science fiction) also appeal to us as parables about cooperation. Beyond the physical excitement of the zombies themselves, a zombie story’s main drama evolves out of the conflicts between the survivors. The beleaguered survivors must organize themselves and cooperate to escape the zombie menace and all zombie stories spend most of their time examining that process.[…] 

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and a zombie is just a zombie. People like zombie movies because zombies and the apocalyptic you’re-all-on-your-own setting they come with is genuinely horrifying. You can easily write interesting variations around the basic theme. Financially, zombies are cheap monsters and isolated farm houses are cheap places to film. Cheap, horrifying monsters explains the appeal of zombies for both film makers and their audiences, not tortuous allegories or appeals to zeitgeist.

As if to prove the point about shoestrings, British director Marc Price has apparently been turning heads at Cannes with his ultra-low budget zombie film, Colin. Price’s production company, Nowhere Fast, recruited aspiring zombies via Facebook and assembled the film over 18 months and for a mere $70. If you’ve a taste for lumbering reanimated flesh, by all means watch the trailer.


Collective Enterprise

Further to recent rumblings on the subject, Ilya Somin ponders Star Trek and socialism: 

Star Trek is a cultural icon watched by tens of millions. Many more people will derive their vision of what the future should be at least partially from Star Trek than from reading serious scholarship. Law professor Benjamin Barton wrote that “no book released in 2005 will have more influence on what kids and adults around the world think about government than The Half-Blood Prince [of the hugely popular Harry Potter series].” Similarly, no nonfiction book of the last few decades is likely to have more influence on how people see the future than Star Trek. If Star Trek continues to portray a socialist future as basically unproblematic, and even implies that a transition to full-blown socialism can be achieved without any major trauma, that is a point worth noting.

With rare exceptions, the Star Trek franchise has been far too blasé in its portrayal of future socialism and its implications. After all, socialist regimes have been responsible for the death and impoverishment of millions. There has never been a society that combined full-blown socialism with prosperity or extensive “noneconomic” liberties for the population. And there has never been a transition to socialism without large-scale repression and mass murder. If Star Trek’s writers want to posit a new form of socialism that somehow avoids the shortcomings of all previous ones, they should at least give us some sense of how this new and improved socialism escaped the usual pitfalls. Had a similarly prominent pop culture icon been equally obtuse in its portrayal of fascism or even milder forms of right-wing oppression (e.g. - by portraying a rightist military dictatorship that seems to work well and benefits the people greatly without any noticeable loss of personal freedom), it would have been universally pilloried.

The whole thing.


Political Muscle

For all its faults, the Guardian can be counted on to steer one’s mind to subjects whose political import had previously been overlooked. It’s difficult to forget Adharanand Finn mulling the politics of showering, or Cath Elliott’s timely ruminations on KitKat bars and peanut butter residue. Today, Tracy Quan ponders the socio-political significance of Michelle Obama’s upper arms, while posing that thorniest of questions: Are Biceps the New Breasts?

Like the J Crew outfits women are buying en masse, the first lady’s biceps are quickly becoming the next must have on our list. Women at every stage of life are finding ways to emulate Michelle, wanting to bond with her physically, whether through exercise or the display of flesh. I just can’t imagine feeling this way about Laura Bush or Hillary Clinton, can you? Neither seemed to be physically in love with herself the way Michelle is. No wonder her body lends itself so nicely to political myth.

Shamefully, I hadn’t hitherto considered Mrs Obama’s upper arms, or those of ladies generally, as the stuff of “political myth.” I shall, of course, try harder to register these things. I’ll also try to fathom the correct political response to Ms Quan’s belief that,

Those of us who regard our breasts as a private treat are always in need of alternative cleavage.

Amidst this celebration of the First Lady’s forelimbs, readers are warned,

We should avoid treating the female biceps as a visual trophy. Whether we oppose or welcome its display, it’s a mistake to get too fixated on a particular muscle.

Indeed.

Getting your arms to such an exalted place involves the use of many different muscles. Indeed, Michelle shouldn’t be known for “one body part” but rather for the way she uses her lats, traps, rhoms and delts – muscles in the back and shoulder – to get there… The bicep is a showy muscle, ripe for comic symbolism. Think of Popeye.

Actually, Popeye isn’t memorable for his biceps, which are rarely seen and are generally depicted as somewhat puny. Ms Quan is perhaps thinking of Popeye’s distinctive facial deformity, or more probably his forearms, the alarming proportions of which suggest a need for immediate medical attention.

I’d be more impressed if the symbol of our strength were the first lady’s less-talked-about triceps. This is the harder muscle to train, and a real challenge for most women. Also, the state of your triceps is what really determines whether you should go sleeveless in the first place. Michelle’s are unimpeachable.

Swoon.

Ms Quan has been hailed as “the only chick-lit writer to discuss indentured labour... and the proper purse in which to carry a dildo.”


Inscrutable

Speaking of comic adaptations, here’s something for enthusiasts of incomprehensible kitsch. Marvel.com has unearthed episodes of the Japanese TV Spider-Man, or Toei no Supaidâ-Man, originally broadcast in 1978. The pilot episode is embedded below. It’s a heady mix of lobster monsters, giant robots, astro-archaeology and kung fu, and it’s not always easy to follow. You may want to bite down on something, possibly your own neck.

If the above is too rich to take in one sitting, you can always sample the trailer.

Oh, and cat lovers avert your eyes.


Ray Gun Patriarchy

Readers may recall Theo Hobson’s rather colourful assertions regarding James Bond. Among them, his belief that the implausibly competent fictional spy is  

a deeply malign cultural presence. He represents a nasty, cowardly part of us that ought to have been killed off long ago.

And that,

Bond is a big factor in the sexual malfunction of our times; the difficulty we have finding life-long partners, and the normalisation of pornography.

Yesterday, one of Hobson’s Guardian colleagues turned her righteous disapproval to the subject of science fiction and its

paucity of simple respect and human understanding.

A paucity demonstrated by the genre’s alleged inability to

create women who are not token geishas (or, given the genre, wild assassin women, escaping court hookers or muscly babes in bronze breastplates), non-white characters who are not noble magical heathens with psychic abilities and a strong connection to the earth, or perverted gay interplanetary warlords.

“Perverted gay interplanetary warlords” sounds promising and readers may wish to Google further and report back with their discoveries. However, the claim that the world of science fiction is inordinately populated by “homophobic white male straight writers” and “woman-hating racists” – none of whom are named - sits uneasily with the author’s admission that science fiction fandom is noted for its breadth and inclusivity and a propensity for discussing “sex, race, whatever.” Nor is it entirely consonant with her own extended list of suitably inclusive authors. Indeed, so extensive is this list, and so numerous are the writers and characters unfairly omitted from it, one might suppose the author of this article is intent on disproving her own premise. (One might even wonder if the real objection here is that some science fiction doesn’t yet comply with how she feels it ought to be. Which seems rather at odds with the title of her article, Planet Diversity.) The author also concedes that the popular series Battlestar Galactica is actually rather good, not least because its most interesting characters come in various ages, shapes and colours and are very often female. We are, however, told that for every BSG - or Buffy, or Voyager, or Firefly, or Alien - there’s

a homosocial all-male fantasy fest like the film Dark Knight.

Well, I too was disappointed by Chris Nolan’s overpraised, overlong Batman sequel and its glib ambiguities, but its grievous status as a “homosocial all-male fantasy fest” somehow escaped my notice. I shall, of course, try harder to detect such things in future. After all, the forces of patriarchal oppression are everywhere and eternal vigilance is required:

We should take it as given that sex, race and sexuality bigotry manifest in cultural works just as they do in society. Outrage against such bigotry is met with bafflement by apolitical people who simply don’t get what the big issue is and are too lazy and complacent to fight the status quo.

The animated, nay heroic, author of this article is Bidisha, a woman so unassuming she declares only one name and describes herself as “a non-white angry political female.” She also defines racism as, exclusively, “despising non-whites.” So no bigotry there. Those who’ve followed Bidisha’s penetrating insights will surely recall her no less remarkable assertions regarding the sexualisation of the Olympics and its “brutalising” and “devastating” effects on the male psyche.


Maybe Toy Car

This is oddly charming. James May meets an upgraded ASIMO robot – one being trained in object recognition. What struck me about the clip isn’t so much the robot’s ability to discern types of object and note their similarities, though its abilities are impressive. It’s the fact that watching ASIMO in action elicits a distinct urge to treat it as a child

(h/t, The Thin Man)