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Losing my religion? I blame the Internet!

This is kind of an old story in online time, dating all the way back to last week, on a study that links declining interest and participation in religion to the rise of the Internet. Of course, there's been handwringing over the weakening of interest in religion almost as long as there's been organized religion, something Elizabeth Drescher tidily sums up (again) at Religion Dispatches: from the piper on the English green to colonialism in the New World to Industrial-age indifference to--according to "research" from 2010--Facebook, there's always something steering people away from church. And she doesn't even mention radio, TV, professional football, or kids' soccer games. 
 
Never mind whether any of these have been definitively linked to "the problem" anyway; like video games and gun violence or vaccines and autism, blaming the Internet for [insert name of ailment here] has that easy intuitive appeal that comes with any simple, single-cause explanation for something that had seemed too complex or concerning to consider more deeply.
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Wear your ashes to work day

The celebrant of the Mass I went to yesterday said that if people asked us afterward if it was Ash Wednesday, we had permission to answer: “No. Why do you ask?”

It was the kind of benign joke meant to fade faster than the smudge on your forehead, but it came back to me last night while watching a local political news show on which one of the regular guests made sure to note the ashes on his forehead and declare it a true sign of what he called “RC” – “real Christianity, baby! Roman Catholicism!” The guest was Curtis Sliwa, founder of the Guardian Angels and by now just another more-or-less tolerated presence on the New York media and politics scene. So maybe it was only to be expected that he’d follow this by bending his bicep and proclaiming (here I paraphrase, because the clip isn’t available) that Ash Wednesday is the day “we RCs get to flex our Catholic muscle!”

Another joke, more stupid than benign, but maybe less benign than bellicose. I can imagine many viewers not recognizing it as humor, and maybe others willing to see it as an attempt at such, but also identifying in it something defensive if not hostile (never mind at odds with the gospel message of the day). Plus, he did it on TV.

Sliwa wore his ashes to work on Wednesday, like many other Catholics, as this National Catholic Register story details. Among them was another TV personality, Tony Reali of ESPN sports talk show “Around the Horn.” He’s done it for a number of years, though he notes in the story that he’s struggled “with the publicness” of it, his main worry being that non-Catholics might criticize his decision as an effort to force his faith on others.

Are there degrees of “publicness”? Is walking along the sidewalk different from sitting at your desk or running a large meeting—or going in front of the camera and into people’s living rooms? Forget about workplace policies. When and where does the silent or quiet evangelization become too noisy, the public expression of faith too pushy? Is it only at the point when someone like Sliwa comes in off the street and gets on the air?

That Cadillac ad isn’t about stuff?

If you’ve spent any time in the last ten days or so watching the Olympics you may have caught the ad from Cadillac and thought to yourself: wait -- what? To synopsize: pugnacious, squared-jawed guy speaks directly to camera about why the American way of doing things is so great, as he takes the viewer on a swaggering tour of his holdings: from the vista of his infinity pool, across the natural-lit expanses of his glass-sided home, and ultimately to his serene, manicured driveway, where a shiny new Cadillac ELR awaits the promised imprint of his imperial haunches. The ad is titled “Work Hard,” and on advertising site iSpot it’s summarized like this: “Why do you work hard, foregoing [sic] vacation, family, and personal time? For stuff? No, it’s for a sense of accomplishment.” 

Maybe the explanation is necessary, because the actual words—to say nothing of the accompanying images of male dominion (docile and quietly occupied daughters, winsomely smiling wife, immaculate open-floor layout)—do allow for other possible interpretations:

Why do we work so hard? For what? For this? For stuff? Other countries, they work, they stroll home, they stop by the cafe, they take August off. Off. Why aren't you like that? Why aren't we like that? Because we're crazy, driven, hard-working believers, that's why. Those other countries think we're nuts. Whatever. Were the Wright Brothers insane? Bill Gates? Les Paul? Ali? Were we nuts when we pointed to the moon? That’s right. We went up there. You know what we got? Bored. So we left. Got a car up there, left the keys in it. You know why? Because we're the only ones going back up there, that's why.

But I digress. It's pretty simple. You work hard, you create your own luck, and you gotta believe anything is possible. As for all the stuff, that's the upside of only taking two weeks off in August. N’est-ce pas?

So: Inspiring, or repulsive? That’s the either/or quality of the debate that’s taken shape in the days since the ad first aired, but after repeated viewings I find it to be neither. Or, at any rate, not simply repulsive; plenty of commercials just by dint of their being commercials are repulsive. But the (quite literal) wink that comes with this ad pushes it into a different category. Come on, it wants to assure us, we know we’re being over the top here; we’re really just joking. But like anything that comes with a wink, there’s the other, underlying assurance to those in the know that it’s not a joke. Don’t be fooled by the appropriation of talismans of cool like Les Paul and Muhammad Ali—these are just two more acquisitions for this guy, accumulated cultural “capital” no more familiar to him than the art he’s purchased for his walls (as others have pointed out, doesn’t he realize that Ali forswore his given American name, converted to Islam, refused military conscription, and criticized U.S. policy on race and economics?). Don’t be fooled that he actually unplugs his little reward to himself—how much of an offset to a carbon footprint like his will an electric car provide? And then there’s the snotty French sign-off, which against the backdrop of international athletic competition underscores the current “maker” contempt toward any system not explicitly tuned to maximize personal wealth, American-style.

But it’s just a joke. And it’s not about wealth or stuff, even though the Cadillac ELR is, according to the advertising, “priced from $75,000,” home-charging station not included. 

Are we at ‘peak Pope’?

Maybe it’s not a crisis of continued supply -- just the opposite, in fact -- but the unregulated flow of Francis coverage in the mainstream media suggests some decline in production is inevitable. Doesn’t it?

Andrew Sullivan has been writing with the unrestrained giddiness he’s reserved mainly for Barack Obama -- and now there’s his inaugural “long-form” piece on the pontiff for the Deep Dish spin-off of his daily blog. Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo (“I am not a Catholic but there's something about this pope...”) is running a multi-part report with reader contributions. This is on top of reports about Francis celebrating his seventy-seventh birthday with four homeless people; the news about his stint as a bouncer at a Buenos Aeries nightclub; and of course his selection by Time as its person of the year, which really should have been the pinnacle but then here came The Advocate to second the honor. Which itself was followed this week by approving stories on changes to the influential Congregation for Bishops and mostly glowing coverage of the pope’s apparent comfort with public breastfeeding—a development meriting both an email blast from my parish priest and a dotCommonweal post from Mollie Wilson O’Reilly. (Then there are posts like the one you’re reading, which in covering the coverage add to the flow without necessarily getting any closer to its subject.)

James Carroll’s feature on Francis in the current New Yorker (its tagline “a radical pope’s first year” blurring the fact that it’s really only been about nine months) is both an example and a partial examination of the phenomenon. (It’s currently sitting atop the most popular list at the magazine’s website.)  Carroll covers some by-now familiar ground (the interviews and off-the-cuff remarks of last summer; Jorge Bergoglio’s actions during Argentina’s dirty war) and wanders down some thoroughly trod paths in an obligatory-feeling section on the sexual abuse scandal. But Carroll also gives proper due to the resonant field-hospital metaphor from the Spadaro interview, and he introduces a new (to me) detail from the Bergoglio biography about his “extraordinary” boss at a Buenos Aires laboratory, a “great woman” to whom Francis has said he owes “a huge amount” and who for helping victims of the junta was later dropped from a helicopter into the sea. “I loved her very much,” Francis is quoted as saying. And through an interview with former president of Ireland Mary McAleese—whom some have said Francis is considering for appointment to the College of Cardinals—Carroll gets, if briefly, into “the prospects for women under the new Pope” and curial reform.

If all of this makes the story seem a typically wide-ranging magazine feature intended for a general readership – well, it is. But then there’s the fact that it appears at all. Why, Carroll asks, has

the response to the Pope been so outsized? Catholic enthusiasm is understandable, but the globe’s? … The press is obsessed with him… . Francis is clearly a world figure, but a figure of what? Does Francis’s explicitly Christian message of a loving, merciful God survive, even in the secular age, as an inchoate symbol of the human being longing for transcendence?

The questions aren’t explicitly answered, of course, but a personal anecdote in the first part of Carroll’s long story, about a memorable audience with Pope John XXIII, is suggestive: “Lately,” Carroll writes, “the fact that I once sought transcendence in the presence of a Pope has stopped seeming naïve.”

You can read Carroll’s full article here; you can hear him talk about it on NPR’s Fresh Air here. And to bring this item full circle: Does the New Yorker cover depicting a (cartoon) Francis making a snow angel say anything more about the media response?  

Power to the papal

It’s great reading something like Forbes’s annual power rankings, because you get article teasers like this: “There are nearly 7.2 billion people on the planet. These are the 72 that matter the most” and puffed-chest pronouncements like this, touting the methodology used in compiling the

annual snapshot of the heads of state, financiers, philanthropists and entrepreneurs who truly run the world. The list represents the collective wisdom of top FORBES editors, who consider hundreds of nominees before ranking the planet’s 72 power brokers — one for every 100 million on Earth.

Forbes measures power “along four dimensions”: whether the candidate “has power over lots of people,” the financial resources each candidate controls, whether “the candidate is powerful in multiple spheres,” and whether the candidate “actively uses that power.” By those criteria Vladimir Putin tops this year’s list, with Barack Obama falling to second and Xi Jinping, secretary general of the Communist Party of China, coming in third.

Fourth? Pope Francis, whose title Forbes helpfully lists as “pope.” His “power profile” doesn’t immediately make clear the criteria that helped Francis finish that high. But then here’s another great paragraph, again from the methodology, that sheds some light and includes an interesting juxtaposition:

Pope Francis (No. 4) is the spiritual leader of 1.2 billion Catholics, or about 1/6th of the world’s population. Michael Duke (No. 10), CEO of Wal-Mart Stores, employs 2.1 million people and is the top private employer on the planet.

Thus, Forbes Dimension Number One: power over lots of people (just like Benedict, who made the top ten in previous years). As for Bill Gates, David Cameron, and Benjamin Netanyahu: all comparative weaklings. The evidence is here.

North vs. South in Williamsburg

The New York Times carried a cover story on its Thursday Styles section that explored the cultural divide in the trendy Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, Northside vs. Southside. It is a startling example of how news organizations glorify gentrification by treating the long-time residents of a neighborhood as an afterthought and wallowing in the  lifestyle of  the newcomers. Here is an excerpt:

Grand Street is more than just the dividing line between streets that are numbered north and those numbered south. The border has become Williamsburg’s equivalent of the Mason-Dixon line, cleaving the neighborhood into two: a sleek, moneyed “North Williamsburg” and a gritty, hyper-authentic “South Williamsburg.”

To the denizens of South Williamsburg, the north is now a glitzy playground of glassy condos for banker types, chain stores and hordes of tourists from Berlin; Tokyo; Paramus, N.J.; and, worst of all, Manhattan. They’ve turned the area, especially around the Wythe Hotel, into Brooklyn’s answer to the meatpacking district.

The South, they argue, has maintained its bohemian D.I.Y. roots, with its indie boutiques, bearded mixologists, artists’ lofts and working-class families: in sum, the “real” Williamsburg.

The problem is that the article dismisses the long-time population of Latinos, Hasidic Jews and Italians in two paragraphs, and gives no real consideration to their impact on the culture of the community. They're nearly invisible. One would never know that Latinos are by far the majority of the Southside. In the 2010 census, the Southside's three census tracts are 53 percent, 65 percent and 72 percent Latino.

 

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Independent and Catholic: Remembering Robert Hoyt

The Columbia Journalism Review has a nicely done piece on Robert Hoyt, founding editor of National Catholic Reporter, and on that newspaper's origins. I never met Hoyt, but it seems to me that his son, Michael Hoyt,  former editor of the journalism review, has provided a nuanced and well-written portrait of his father in this article. He shows the importance of maintaining an independent Catholic press with outlets such as NCR and Commonweal, for which Robert Hoyt became a senior writer after leaving NCR.

It is good to see Robert Hoyt's life and work placed before the broader journalism community that Columbia Journalism Review reaches. Here is the top of the story:

Here are some of the things and people that my father loved: Gregorian chant, Joe Louis, airplanes, the Detroit Tigers infield of the mid-1930s, Salem cigarettes, Martin Luther King Jr., Latin, and big northern lakes. “That’s not a lake,” he would say, whenever I used the L-word about some muddy little man-made body of water, “that’s a pond.” Once, we drove all night from Missouri to vacation at Torch Lake, in Michigan, where he had experienced some happiness as a boy. I was in the front with him when we arrived, exactly at dawn, the rest of the family slumbering in the back of the wagon, a golden sun fingering across the blue water. He had tears on his face.

Another thing he loved: reporting. He was in awe of how good reporters find things out—interesting and significant things to be shaped into news, analysis, argument. He believed that journalism has a moral center, and that its motor is honest, independent reporting. Doing that reporting—asking questions of strangers—was not his cup of coffee. But he was an editor, and he didn’t have to.

My father’s claim to fame is that, nearly 50 years ago, in the fall of 1964, he and some colleagues set in motion a lively newspaper that covers the Catholic Church and its tidal pull on the world, from an independent and intelligent lay perspective—a paper that changed the rules for covering religion and remains an influential voice.

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Greeley, Gandolfini, and Clinton

Exclusive digital content featured in the July 12 issue of Commonweal Magazine, including articles from the archives over the past 75 years. Pictured here is Hillary Clinton after her loss in the Democratic Primary in 2008.

The digital edition of the July issue is now available for download. In addition to all the content featured in the print magazine, the iPad, iPhone, and Android version includes serveral digital exclusives you won't be able to find elsewhere:

 

  • Five articles written by Fr. Andrew M. Greeley published between 1964 and 2005
  • Four reviews of James Gandolfini's work published between 2000 and 2009, with a new introduction written by Cathleen Kaveny
  • A series of photos taken by Catholic News Service showing current events in a visually stunning format
  • The cover and one article from the July issue we published in 2008 (5 years ago--including a cover story on Hillary Clinton's loss in the Democratic Primary), 2003 (10 years ago), 1998 (15 years ago), 1988 (25 years ago), 1963 (50 years ago) and 1938 (75 years ago)
  • A link for digital subscribers to recieve a complimentary three month print subscription, as well as a copy of Commonweal Confronts the Century signed by the editor

 

To download your copy on an iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch, click here.

To download your copy on an Android device, click here.

Commonweal Digital Editions: Exclusive Content

The Great Gatsby screen review in Commonweal Magazine, formatted for iPad

You may have seen Richard Alleva’s review of Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation of The Great Gatsby in our June 14 issue. What you may not have seen is the original review of Fitzgerald’s novel that Commonweal published in 1925—unless you have an iPad.

We scanned the review from bound copies of Commonweal that line the walls of our office and uploaded it to our digital edition. The review wasn’t available anywhere else—until now. What’s particularly amusing about the review is its assertion that F. Scott Fitzgerald “may have had one eye cocked on the movie lots while writing” Gatsby, and that it would provide “some soulful director a chance to display his art.” Astute observations, considering they were written eighty-eight years ago. I can’t recommend reading Alleva’s screen review together with the book review highly enough.

Since we launched our digital (iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch, and Android device) edition in January, many subscribers have asked if they can get the digital edition free using their current print or online credentials. It works for The New Yorker and other similar publications, and we understand you’d like the same convenience with your Commonweal subscription. Unfortunately, we’re not able to make that happen right now—the production, distribution, and fulfillment costs make it difficult for a small (non-profit) publisher to link print, online, and digital subscriptions—although we continue to seek assistance from Apple in addressing it.

In the meantime, we’re making sure to feature a range of exclusive content in our digital edition—like that review of The Great Gatsby. And every digital issue also includes the cover, a summary, and an article from a print issue of the same date from somewhere in the last seventy-five years. What were we talking about on June 14, 1938? Find out by downloading our June 14, 2013, digital issue.

As we move forward with the digital edition of the magazine, we remain open to your ideas and comments. It’s just as new for us as it is for you, and we want to make it as wonderful as possible. If you’ve read Commonweal on your mobile device, we welcome your feedback—just email us here.

If you would like to subscribe to the digital edition of Commonweal on an iPad, iPhone or iPod touch, click here. For Android devices, click here.

The end of '30 Rock'

Tonight the funniest comedy on television ends its seven-season run, and I feel compelled to say a word of farewell to 30 Rock. I came late to the show, in part because everyone I knew who enjoyed it kept talking about how great Alec Baldwin and Tracy Morgan were. I had trouble believing either claim. And for what it's worth, I was right about Tracy Morgan -- he was and is just as limited and barely adequate in his performance on 30 Rock (playing a version of himself named Tracy Jordan) as I'd always thought he was on Saturday Night Live. Fortunately, it doesn't matter much; if the show is often funny in spite of rather than because of his presence, it's still very, very funny. On the other hand, as Jack Donaghy, an NBC exec, Alec Baldwin was a revelation. I still find him fairly odious as a celebrity/public figure, and I'm still scornful of his under-rehearsed, cue-card-dependent appearances on SNL and elsewhere. He even seemed bizarrely unfamiliar with his own show when the cast appeared together on Jimmy Kimmel Live Late Night with Jimmy Fallon (whoops) last week. But on 30 Rock, Baldwin is a one-man master class, turning in an utterly disciplined performance with consistently perfect comic timing. Even in the two live episodes they did, Baldwin brought his A game. He is indeed a major reason for the show's success.The major reason, of course, is Tina Fey, 30 Rock's creator, star, and guiding sensibility. The show is ostensibly based on her experiences as head writer at SNL, but it's really about the character of Liz Lemon, who happens to be the creator of a lame sketch-comedy show on NBC. The writers'-room stuff has always been hit or miss; the personnel connected with the show are often funny but, on the whole, disappointingly one-note (in part because there are so many of them; certain minor characters disappear for such long stretches that the show cracks nervous jokes about it when they return). The writing is always sharp and original, and every character has quotable one-liners. But it's Liz quirks, and her fraught relationships -- with New York City, with work, with success, and most vividly with Jack, her boss -- that make 30 Rock satisfying and, for a lot of viewers (say, young women balancing careers and life and various insecurities in NYC), amazingly familiar. Liz is specific and finely detailed, and while I'm reluctant to start picking her apart as a feminist role model/betrayal to the cause of womanhood (as many have done and still do), I will say that I see in Liz a kind of womanhood-on-television that I haven't seen anywhere else: fully individual, smart and driven but also flawed and human and hilarious, and frankly anxious about the very questions of What Should a Woman Be? that critics and commentators project onto her. (A recent episode found Liz fretting about the trappings of being a bride. Her supportive boyfriend told her, "Liz, it's OK to be a human woman!" prompting her to moan, "No, it's the worst! Because of society!")

A word, too, for Jane Krakowski, who plays Jenna Maroney, the vain, self-centered star of Liz's show, TGS. The character of Jenna has shifted over the course of the show, from (as Fey put it in a recent interview) "TV best friend" to "bananas and an awful person." She was never an especially credible best friend for the uptight Liz Lemon, and the "bananas" role she took on in later seasons has stretched whatever consistent character Jenna had precariously thin. (I had very little patience for Jenna's kinky romance with a Jenna Maroney impersonator, played by Will Forte, a joke that lasted well past the point of diminished returns. And for a stretch, "Jenna opens mouth, makes reference to freakish past involving Mickey Rourke" was such a predictable part of any scene that I found myself bracing for my own Liz Lemon eye rolls.) [UPDATE: I am pleased to note that the final episode included a joke about how overdone the Mickey Rourke gag was.] But Jane Krakowski is a master at her craft, and as Fey says in that same interview, she "has grown Jenna into this ridiculous comedy powerhouse." Her performance, like Baldwin's, is incredibly disciplined (though in this case I wasn't surprised, having admired her in other shows/films, and especially on stage). As an actor she is Jenna's opposite: always listening, always giving her best to every moment of every scene. There have been times I've rewound the show just to rewatch her react to a line I didn't even find funny.My favorite example, which of course I cannot find a clip of online: Jenna and her TGS costar Tracy teamed up at one point to form an inept team they called "The Problem Solvers." That episode ended with a brief promo for their services, with both wearing shirts that said "THE PROBLEM" ("SOLVERS" was supposed to be, but was not, printed on the back). At one point Tracy had a punch line about finding a stripper passed out on your boat. I found the joke too effortful and Morgan's delivery typically halting, but Krakowski's reaction -- a fleeting expression of confusion and horror, suppressed and turned back into a sunny smile for the sake of the camera -- makes me howl every time. And she has found ways to make the character seem fleshed-out despite Jenna's ever-shifting countours. She's been nominated for an Emmy 3 times, so she hasn't exactly been overlooked or unsung (see also this appreciation from Grantland's Molly Lambert, which features some of Jenna's great moments). But it can't be said enough. [UPDATE: The finale ended with an amazing callback to one of my favorite early 30 Rock jokes, Jenna's role in a film with an impossible-to-understand title, The Rural Juror. Krakowski wrapped things up with a song that somehow hit all the right emotional notes while also being one of the funniest things I've ever seen on this or any show. Watch her perform the title song from the musical version ofThe Rural Juror at New York's Vulture blog, where they also went to the trouble of deciphering the lyrics.]In her farewell to the show at The New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum focuses, appropriately, on 30 Rock's dedication to and evocation of New York. Unlike a lot of shows set in NYC, 30 Rock was really shot here, and NYC life is one of its richest sources of material. And I'm not talking just "Hey, we're in New York, let's eat bagels and read theTimes on Sunday," but real, specific references to the city's annoyances and oddities -- like the cops with enormous guns checking purses at subway entrances, or (as Nussbaum recalls) a "bakery in the Bronx, located on the corner of Malcolm X Boulevard and Guy Who Shot Malcolm X Boulevard."Thanks to Boston-bred Jack Donaghy -- and Liz's regrettable ex, blue-collar meathead Dennis Duffy -- there were also plenty of Irish and Irish-Catholic gags (and some forays into Catholic practice, with the usual mixed results; Jack in the confessional was funny, but his devout Hispanic girlfriend, played by the humorless Salma Hayek, would have been much funnier if more of the Catholic stuff was "right"). And, praises be, many appearances from the riveting Elaine Stritch in a recurring role as Jack's harridan of a mother. (She once made reference to a parish in their old neighborhood, "Our Lady of Reluctant Integration in Waltham.")It's hard to say goodbye, but it's probably time for the show to go. Nothing gold can stay. The good news is, if you haven't watched 30 Rock, it's never too late. And I do mean that; the show is in syndication now, so reruns air several times a week, and unlike with certain very demanding dramas, you don't need to start from the beginning. Fellow fans, report back here after tonight's finale. We'll have a good old Irish wake, sharing stories of favorite memories. Let's work through our grief together.

The Burden of ‘Compliance’

Compliance is the second feature from director Craig Zobel, and when it was shown at Sundance earlier this year, audience members reportedly booed and walked out. The concession worker at the theater where I recently saw it told me she hadn't yet worked up the nerve to watch it, and, while no one at the showing I attended booed or walked out, there was a lot of nervous whispering and disbelieving laughter, which soon enough turned to grim silence. Sitting through Compliance is an ordeal, and its meant to be.

The movie forces the audience to watch what happens when people unquestioningly follow orders, even when it results in harm to others. That Compliance is a small film is what makes the subject matter even more powerful. The setting is familiar and intimate: a fast-food restaurant on a busy winter Friday, manned by a skeleton staff of teenagers overseen by a harried middle-aged manager (Sandy, amazingly played by Ann Dowd).

Routine is broken when a caller identifying himself as a police officer asserts that one of the workers (Becky, played by Dreama Walker) has stolen from a customer, then deputizes Sandy to detain Becky and initiate an interrogation in the restaurant office, out of the sight of other employees and diners. The accused girl responds with increasing disbelief to the increasingly degrading demands of the unseen officer, relayed and carried out by the pliant Sandy: This is stupid, Becky says; there's no way it can keep going like this. But it does, and then it goes on some more, and then just when you think it has to stop, it goes even farther--with other employees dragooned into taking part while the late-afternoon rush kicks into gear on the other side of the door.

Unadorned writing and tight direction keep the main questions prominent: Why would ordinary people let themselves be talked into taking things to such lengths? Why wouldnt they rise up and say stop? The answer is that ordinary people are often only too willing to comply. Psychological studies like the infamous Milgrim obedience experiment, in which test subjects readily inflicted pain on innocents if the instructions came from an authority figure, demonstrate it. We like to think wed be brave enough, or aware enough, or smart enough to do the right thing in such instances, but maybe were not.

Few in Compliance are, least of all the hapless Sandy. Unsure, indistinctly middle-aged, clad in the color-coordinated scarf and blouse mandated by corporate for its female store managers, she's a ready mark for the smoothly manipulative presence on the phone. She's already having a crappy day--unruly staff, ungrateful regional supervisor, no pickles or bacon in the freezer. So she's eager to help, hungry for praise and validation, and blind not only to Becky's degradation but her own.

Amid the many unsettling moments is a low-key, single-shot scene outside the restaurant. Instructed by the voice on the phone to move important evidence to her car, Sandy sets out over the cracked parking lot, skirting piles of dirt-encrusted snow to reach her salt-grimed Subaru (model year 2001, the film makes sure to note). A discarded Styrofoam cup skitters across her path, but she's oblivious--she needs to hurry back to monitor the prisoner. Yet after depositing the evidence in the front seat as instructed, she stops to remove papers and cups littering the passenger side, lest she leave a bad impression for the officer arriving to retrieve it. It's an arresting segment, providing a momentary respite from the misery unfolding inside but also a sadly revealing glimpse of the neediness that makes Sandy so willing to help, so eager to please, so easy a mark. People who are hurting may prove more capable of hurting other people, especially if their actions are met with approval every step of the way. This is what gives Compliance such relevance and so much more immediacy than a psychological study, and what makes it work as art. 

Unquestioning compliance leads inexorably to complicity, and the locked office of a generic fast-food restaurant will spur thoughts of Abu Ghraib, concentration camps, and other arenas of atrocity. Sandy doesn't make these associations; in the end, explaining to another character that she was simply doing what she thought was expected of her, she blurts: It all seemed normal to me. Of course: She was only following orders. There's a beat, and then she switches to the topic of the weather--much less troubling to ponder since it involves no introspection.

Breaking Bad #508: Poetic justice

Well, I don't know about the rest of you, but I had nightmares after last night's "finale." I will put spoilers after the jump, but here I will say that at least some of those nightmares involved baby Holly toddling around with that uncovered, not-fenced-in pool five feet from the back door of her house. I don't know whether Junior pushing the baby around the perimeter of the pool while the adults chatted happily in the foreground was supposed to fill me with dread, but it did. Are there no parents working on this show?

Now on to other intimations of danger...

How will I make it to next summer knowing Hank is finally on Walt's trail??? The Hank-gets-dangerously-close sequences have always been terrific. And now that Walt has thoroughly lost my sympathy (that prison-killings sequence was so chilling, and I think the way it was presented shows that the creators know we're no longer rooting for Walt at all), Hank is the new hero, as Emily Nussbaum predicted:

To escape this moral checkmate, Gilligan might shift yet another character into the foreground, revealing that the show is actually (as a friend suggested) a hero's tale in disguise. In that version of Breaking Bad, the protagonist is not Walt but Hank, a man with no children. Despite injury and depression, Hank brings down a vast drug ring, even when he discovers that the kingpin is his own brother-in-law, a sneering brainiac who has always considered himself superior. But because Hank is decent, and the show is on the side of good, Hank triumphs. That ending would have the virtue of symmetry, and pleasure, and closure, and relief, for the suffering audience.

"Right now, however," she adds, "its easier to imagine someone innocent coming to harm." Yes, especially with that pool and the chronically undersupervised baby!! Ahem. Or, maybe the one who comes to harm is Hank. Will the last half-season find Walt considering killing his brother-in-law? Once that would have been unthinkable. But now, by the end of last night's episode, I have to ask, Who wouldn't Walt kill to stay on top? (Even though that raises a further question: on top of what?) Whatever happens, next summer's episodes ought to be good and wrenching.

Questions I have: did Walt really mean it when he told Skyler he was out? My first thought was "What game is he playing now?" But he seemed sincere, and I took the final sequence to mean that he really did want to retire on his earnings and go back to family life. (And now justice will catch up with him. It's like the Hayes code says: crime must not pay.) So, if he really did quit, what does that mean for Todd? And for Lydia? I'm guessing we'll see more of the Czech Republic scheme, and I'm certain we'll see more of Todd. I haven't forgotten that he's (apparently) more dangerous than Walt seems to appreciate.

How could Walt have been dumb enough to leave that Walt Whitman book out where Hank (or anyone else) could see it? Did he do it on purpose? Or had he never noticed the very incriminating inscription? ("Dear Walt, Thank you for teaching me to cook such good meth. 'W.W.' stands for your name. Love, Gale.")

Other questions? Predictions? What do you want to see happen (or, what do you dread happening) in the last eight episodes? And who's going to get that ricin?

Breaking Bad #507: "Say My Name"

Wow. I suppose we should get right to the thing I know everyone wants to talk about from last night's Breaking Bad: the use of the terrific but little-known Monkees song "Goin' Down" to underscore the meth-cooking montage! I've always felt Micky Dolenz was one of the '60s' most underrated great pop vocalists. No?

OK, let's jump and talk about the episode's big shock:

Walt shot Mike! And he did it for no practical reason; it was violence driven purely by emotion. A new and frightening step in his progress toward villainy. In the New Yorker essay that I linked to last week, Emily Nussbaum wrote perceptively about how the show is balancing out Walt's losing viewers' sympathy by giving us other characters to root for. "The grizzled ex-cop Mike," she wrote, "with his dry wisecracks and his Realpolitik masculinity, fulfills our antihero needs." I think that's right on, and it makes it especially shocking and daring for the show to have Mike killed by Walt. It's not hard to hate a character who keeps killing the characters you like.

Walt's power to manipulate Jesse is waning as well. During Walt's "You have nothing in your life" anti-motivational speech trying to convince Jesse to stay in the partnership, it occurred to me, and I wonder whether it occurred to Jesse, that in fact it is Walt who has nothing and no one else in his life now. Walt has all but lost his family and is finding it lonely at the top of the meth-cooking game. Now that Walt has turned violent, my husband wondered after we watched, is Skyler in danger? A good question -- but I recall that in the past, Walt has reacted to violence and frustration by taking it out on her. (The scene that haunts me is the one where Walt all but rapes Skyler, after witnessing traumatizing violence that he has no way to process. I'm trying to track down the episode -- I think it was the season 2 premiere.) The dynamic in this episode seemed almost the opposite: Skyler is the one freezing Walt out and making him feel powerless, and "professional" violence is his release. It can't be an accident that Walt's gloating in the opening scene (echoed in the episode's title) made him sound like a sexual predator.But, with the loss of Mike, the show has introduced a new way to shape viewers' attitudes toward Walt: dramatic irony. We now know something he doesn't -- namely, that his new meth-cooking apprentice is not simply the diligent (if doltish) student he seems. We know Todd kept a souvenir of the murder in episode 505. We don't know exactly what that means, but I expect it to bode ill for Walt.

I continue to suspect that Hank's "promotion" was really just a gambit to get him off the trail of the Fring empire.... And the mommy in me hopes we'll hear about what happened to Mike's granddaughter after he abandoned her on the playground (one presumes). (Another data point for Nussbaum's observation about how children in peril is "practically the shows trademark.") Your reactions?

What makes an ending a "cliffhanger"?

Since I've been posting so much about television lately, I want to say a word of appreciation for the New Yorker's new (well, fairly new) TV critic, Emily Nussbaum. (She's already written a whole lot of copy, but I think it's OK to call her "new" until the magazine gets around to including her in its online list of contributors.) I enjoyed the "On Television" columns by Nancy Franklin, but I got the distinct impression that no one at the New Yorker, including and perhaps especially Franklin, actually thought they mattered much. Franklin wrote not as a person who cared deeply about the medium and spent a lot of time thinking critically and intelligently about it, but rather as an intelligent person who could take or leave TV and thought about it only when a deadline loomed. Her approach to the beat was casual to a fault. Nussbaum, on the other hand, takes television seriously as an art form, and takes her job seriously enough that she watches pretty much everything. What is more, she seems to really enjoy a lot of what she watches (sometimes to an alarming degree), which is a good quality in a critic. I don't watch that much television, but Nussbaum's enthusiasm is almost enough to make me think I should, in the same way that Sasha Frere-Jones can make me briefly consider listening to more Rihanna. Also, Nussbaum's writing is crisp and funny and insightful (though I often think her pieces are a little longer than they need to be). Since she started at the New Yorker I am more excited about the back of the magazine than I have been in a long while.

The July 30 issue has an extra-long article by Nussbaum, "Tune In Next Week," a cultural history of the cliffhanger. Much thought and research went into this piece, which covers everything from Scheherazade to Dickens to Dallas and beyond. It's full of interesting historical tidbits and smart critical commentary about the evolution of serialized storytelling and what separates (or only seems to separate) "trash" from art.

A cliffhanger, Nussbaum says, "makes visible the storyteller's connection to his audience.... [Cliffhangers] reveal that a story is artificial, then dare you to keep believing." This is fascinating to reflect on. But by the end of the essay I felt the notion of "cliffhanger" had been stretched well beyond its useful meaning. Nussbaum gives a quick and very interesting history of how television went from shows like "I Love Lucy," whose episodes were self-contained stories "designed to run in any order," to "long-arc" series that sustain a story over many episodes and require more committed viewing. But is telling an ongoing story, one that ends and then picks up again in another installment, enough to qualify as employing "cliffhangers"? In her third paragraph, Nussbaum offers two definitions of the term:

Narrowly defined, a cliffhanger is a climax cracked in half: the bomb ticks, the screen goes black.... Cliffhangers are the point when the audience decides to keep buying.

That narrow definition is a very good one. But if you broaden it too much, it seems to me, you end up saying that any serialized story is a succession of cliffhangers, and that waters down the definition of "cliffhanger" too much for it to be useful. If a show is telling a story, in a serial fashion, well enough that I am invested in the characters, I will want to "tune in next week" to know what happens next generally. That is just the nature of being an audience to a narrative that isn't over yet. But a "cliffhanger" is something more specific -- a break, however long, that leaves a particular question unanswered. So the "Who Shot J.R.?" season-ender on Dallas, which Nussbaum discusses in detail, is a cliffhanger for sure. But when Jim kissed Pam at the end of season 2 of The Office -- to take another of her examples -- was that a cliffhanger? A "climax cracked in half?" Or was it just...a climax? A cliffhanger, I think, would have stopped the action just before Jim declared his love. ("Pam, I have something I need to say..." black screen; "to be continued.") As a devoted fan of The Office I spent the summer before season 3 in suspense, eager to find out where the characters and their story would go when the show started up again. But I don't think that suspense was specific enough for the ending to qualify as a cliffhanger.

This leads me to a quibble, and yes, it relates to Breaking Bad. Don't read on if you haven't gotten to the end of season 3 of that show (and you think you someday will). Go read Nussbaum's article instead. Now, Breaking Bad viewers, I want to know what you think:

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Summer Rental: 'Z Channel'

Xan Cassavetes 2004 documentary Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession (available DVD-only from Netflix) chronicles the history of the Los Angeles-area pay-TV station that specialized in cinema and gave viewers an art-house experience without having to leave the couch. That these viewers included Quentin Tarantino and other future luminaries is emphasized: Predating HBO and Cinemax, Z ran from 1974 to 1989 and influenced a generation of young artists yearning to make it big in the local industry.It did so mainly with fare unlikely to find a way into the multiplex, from the uncut versions of Ciminos Heavens Gate and Bertoluccis 1900 to Altmans McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Peckinpahs gory westerns. There were John Ford tributes, Hitchcock marathons, Fellini and French New Wave festivals, and a lot more. The man responsible for the eclectic selection was programming director Jerry Harvey, and its his (and every fanatics) relationship with film that informs the title of the documentary. Friends and former colleagues recount Harveys fixation via anecdotes, and a humorously told story about his subjecting a girlfriend to three straight days of memorized line readings from Kubricks Dr. Strangelove hints at his capacity for emotional and physical cruelty, while also foreshadowing his end. The documentary makes passing reference to Harveys fundamentalist Catholic father in attempting to trace his demons, while noting that both of Harveys sisters killed themselves, but it doesnt follow the thread much farther than that.Cassavetes spends more time on the films, those that Harvey unearthed, championed, and insisted on showing the way their directors would have wanted. With each viewing of Z Channel I come away with another list of movies its time to see (or see again); just watch the final montage from the documentary to understand why.

But its the commentary of critic F.X. Feeney that got more of my attention this time around. A Harvey confidante and a co-producer of the documentary, Feeney provides emotional first-hand recollections of working and watching movies with Harvey, and his energy buoys the film while steering it clear of hagiographic shoalsa necessary thing, given Harveys final act as the perpetrator of a murder-suicide at the age of 39 (with a gun presented as a gift from Peckinpah). While theres no way to overlook Harveys dark side, Feeney helps keep the focus on his creative impulse and the art he brought to light.

'The Killing' Returns

This weekend brings a momentous decision: To watch, or not to watch, Season 2 of The Killing? Anyone who forged through the first season of this AMC police procedural (a remake of a Danish hit) last year is probably still fuming about the lack of answers in the final episode. For weeks, we had been watching the stubborn and slightly self-destructive Seattle detective Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos) plod around the cityoften in the pouring rainas she attempted to solve the murder of high school student Rosie Larsen. We had glimpsed the light at the end of the tunnel: Following an ingenious bit of gumshoe work, a culprit had been arrested! Justice had been served! Detective Linden was on a plane to sunnier climes! And then, the episodes final minuteswith fiendish glee, it seemedsubverted that resolution, saddling us with questions we have now lived with for almost a year.According to The New York Times, AMCs head of original programming has promised that the whodunit will be wrapped upreally and trulyat the end of Season 2, which begins this Sunday. Of course, even if we trust his pledge, there remains the fact that The Killing has so far been a real downer of a program. Many of its elementsthe red-herring clues, the multiple suspects, the sleuth with personal problems, the law-enforcement turf battlesare detective-story standards. But has there ever been a police procedural that focused so intensely on the grief of the victims family? In Season 1, scene after scene conveyed the Larsens pain: We saw Rosies parents suffer as they planned her funeral and suffer as they debated whether to clean out her room and suffer as they fielded detectives questions. We saw Rosies younger brothers suffer, too, as their pain-deluged parents ignored them. (In one heartbreaking scene, the boys, getting their own breakfast, wondered whether they dared eat some of their dead siblings favorite breakfast cereal.)The cinematography made the saga even more depressing: Season 1 was shot in blue tones that made each image even more lugubrious than it might have been otherwise. The police headquarters, in particular, might have been dredged up from the bottom of the Slough of Despond. All in all, The Killing strays far from the escapist-puzzle mode that is the default option for the mystery genre. And yet.Yes, I admit it. I will watch Season 2. The lingering suspense from Season 1 is just too strong. But listen, AMC: Dont count on me for any Season 3.

All the World's a (Political) Stage

Just cant get enough of cutthroat politics? Find yourself on YouTube, replaying the meaner jabs from the Republican primary debates? You might want to add the 1990s BBC miniseries House of Cards to your Netflix queue. Based on a novel by a onetime Chief of Staff to Britains Conservative Party, House of Cardstracks the legal and illegal intrigues of Francis Urquhart, a Machiavellian party operative who wrangles his way up the rungs of power in post-Thatcher Great Britain. Urquhart (Ian Richardson) uses the press and the ambitions and paranoia of statesmen to his own advantage, but he hides his ruthlessness beneath a polite and even grandfatherly exterior. You might very well think that: I couldnt possibly comment, he primly responds, whenever he has cunningly planted an idea in the mind of a reporter or colleague.Manipulating journalists, tangling with the monarchy, destroying lives and careers with relish, Urquhart is a charming and seductive antihero, and his schemes and deceptions make for an engrossing soap opera. But its the theatrical trappings that really distinguish House of Cards and its sequels, To Play the King and The Final Cut. The scheming Urquhart is a Shakespearean figurepart Richard III, part Iago and a very large part Macbeth, and the scriptwriters highlight these resonances with Shakespearean quotes and allusions. The spirit of Macbeth, in particular, haunts the story: Egged on by his equally ambitious and amoral wife (Diane Fletcher), Urquhart eventually racks up so many misdeeds that he might easily say, with Shakespeares thane-turned-king, I am in blood/Stepped in so far that should I wade no more,/Returning were as tedious as go oer.Even more striking are the impishly self-satisfied remarks that Urquhart periodically delivers straight to us, the audience: In the middle of a scene, he will turn his head, look straight into the camera and share an unnervingly honest confession or observation, while the folks around him carry on, oblivious. These break-the-fourth-wall moments are like miniature Shakespearean monologues, and they underscore an all-too-familiar truth: that politics is, to a large extent, theatrics.It will be interesting to see whether a forthcoming remake of House of Cardsmanages to be as interesting and sly: Director David Fincher (Fight Club, the Hollywood adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, etc.) is an executive producer of the forthcoming remake, which will be a Netflix original series and will star Kevin Spacey.