12 Years A Slave (Spoilers)

Last night after it took home the Best Picture Golden Globe, I finally got around to watching 12 Years A Slave. I had anticipated it for most of the year, but various boring reasons caused me to miss it in theaters. I greatly admired Steve McQueen’s earlier films (Hunger, Shame) and have loved Chiwetel Ejiofor since he first popped on my radar in 2006 with Children of Men and Kinky Boots. So I was fully open and prepared for loving the film, as much as a film that depicts the brutal realities of slavery can be loved.

When it finished, I knew I had seen a masterfully directed and acted piece of work. But something about it didn’t sit right with me. So I slept on it, and read a few of the dissenting opinions (most notable Vince Mancini of Filmdrunk’s, who doesn’t much care for McQueen’s work), and now I feel like I’ve come to an understanding of what didn’t work. For me, it’s a good film, held back from greatness by several tonal and narrative choices.

To begin with, let’s talk about McQueen’s style. McQueen’s general pet issue across three films is the destruction of the body - in Hunger, it was a man who went on a hunger strike to protest brutal prison conditions, and in Shame, it was a man who destroyed his personal relationships and himself through his crippling sex addiction. In 12 Years, the destruction is obvious; it’s about slaves, so there will be various beatings and verbal cruelty inflicted on the characters. He also devalues bodies, as he did in Shame and Hunger, with copious non-titillating nudity, here shown in early scenes where the enslaved are forced to shower and paraded naked in front of potential buyers by Paul Giamatti’s slave trader.

But the crucial difference in 12 Years is that it’s destruction of the body inflicted by others. Hunger was about a prisoner, true, but the hunger strike he embarks on was solely his choice, made via his own agency. And Shame was about a man who, on some level, knows that he is destroying himself but is powerless to stop it. Solomon Northrup doesn’t really have a choice in his destruction; he is stolen from the North and sold into various Southern plantations, so his choices are either to die or to carry on. It robs the character of agency, and makes him more of a victim of circumstance, rather than a person who doesn’t want to cause his own destruction, but does anyway out of a sense of self-worth or a buried impulse.

The other problem comes with McQueen’s general approach to his subjects. He brings a cold objectivity to his films, simply watching in long, unblinking takes as these terrible things are inflicted on his protagonists. It worked in Shame and Hunger, because those films are primarily about a single protagonist. 12 Years has a single person as its focus, but the film is populated with various other slaves and slave owners he meets along the way, each a small reflection of some aspect of the institution (Patsey and Eliza particularly). Bringing that level of cold objectivity to a story that encompasses many individuals who, again, are victims of timing and circumstance means that we have several somewhat underdeveloped characters, and by consequence the film becomes narratively inert, because it lacks a strong core to propel it along beyond “here’s some horrible things that happened to this guy, and he eventually escaped.” It becomes a series of vignettes about how horrible slavery was, rather than a gradually building head of horror. And while it is a common factor in many of these films that there are people who do not have happy endings, in order to enforce the horror of the situation, the way Solomon leaves Patsey behind at the end left me feeling uneasy, simply because of how often black women are used and abused by our culture. There’s an entire film there that needs to be made.

This is to say nothing about how some of McQueen’s arty touches, while beautiful and horrifying, sort of call attention to themselves rather than the situation. I’m thinking of the now-famous scene where Solomon hangs for several long minutes while slave life continues around him. It’s an expertly composed shot, and it’s probably something that really happened, but what purpose does it serve dramatically and thematically, aside from reinforcing the horrors we’ve been pummeled with for the previous hour?

Vince Mancini mentioned this in his review, but the distancing from the subject occurs even more when it comes to the slave owners. He says:

"By depicting the slavers as these cartoonish monsters, it reinforces the idea of evil as “other,” where you can easily create a psychological barrier between them and yourself, as if you’re different beings. It goes back to the idea of timshel (here, the lackthereof), where the humans involved are always trapped and have no choices, and thus the onus for being good or bad is left to some higher power, and everyone’s trapped in this oppressive, inescapable romantic melancholy.”

I’m certain that there were slave owners like Michael Fassbender’s Master Epps and Paul Dano’s John Tibeats. The problem is that these characters are not much deeper than something you would find in your standard PBS re-enactment of slavery. When they’re given just as much depth as the slaves (that is to say, not much at all), and presented in a fashion that doesn’t offer any insights into why they are this way, it holds the audience at arms length from the emotions of the story, because they are essentially caricatures. If the chief purpose of the film is to offer audience identification with its subjects, we need some level of understanding, some sense of how these minds tick. Otherwise, we can back off, pat ourselves on the back and say “Boy, isn’t it great that things aren’t like that any more!” which is exactly the opposite point a film like this needs to make.

It doesn’t help that the much-maligned Brad Pitt sequence calls direct attention to this sketchiness. Pitt comes in toward the end of the film as a Canadian who hates slavery and espouses all the White Savior cliches (he ultimately is a white savior, sending along a letter to Solomon’s family that gets him his freedom papers and a trip home). At one point, Pitt’s character directly asks Fassbender’s how the black men are any different from the whites, and why they shouldn’t be treated like property. Fassbender says something like “They ARE less than us. They ARE property.” And Pitt’s character just leaves it at that. A better film would have had the character probe deeper. Where does that mindset come from? How, specifically, are these people that you own as property and force into labor less than you? What events in our national psyche and our way of life led to this institution?

The film, like the characters, considers too many things at surface level. To quote Mancini again, “To me there’s a big difference between exploring the causes and psychological underpinnings of a murder and just filming a murdered guy’s exploded guts for ten minutes, to ‘unflinchingly’ drive home the ‘reality’ of it… Rubbing the audience’s nose in something terrible isn’t particularly valuable if you’re not offering insight. McQueen seems to think he’s offering insight simply by making you want to turn away.”

Now, even with all these criticisms said, I want to reiterate that I don’t think 12 Years is a bad film. It’s a good one. It has masterful performances, the direction is largely stellar, there’s great cinematography, and individual moments have power. But at the end of it, I felt like I had watched a really good educational film, rather than a really good film that actually illuminated its subject. Slavery is a subject much discussed and much sanitized in the movies, and we need films that reflect the reality of it. I just hope that next time, we get a film that brings more insight into the subject and truly implicated the culture that produced it and continues to produce it in refashioned forms.

(EDIT: I haven’t read the book, so I’m not sure how much of this was present in it.)

Why I Love The Assassination of Jesse James

     I had perhaps the most perfect representative anecdote of the appeal of certain movies to certain people at the very, very end of my first viewing of THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES. I was slightly hungover in a tiny theater in Carbondale, IL on a Saturday afternoon, and despite the small screen and spotty sound system, I had been absolutely transfixed for the past 150 minutes by this beautifully photographed and virtually flawless Western. I realized as the final narration began how the film was coming full circle thematically and my heart began to race.
     Sitting in front of me were two older gentlemen. They had been quiet through the whole film, but some soft snores around the halfway mark suggested that at least one of them was less than enthralled. On screen, Edward O’Kelly gathers his gun, heads to the saloon, says “Hello, Bob,” and the frame freezes.
     Hugh Ross narrates, “The shotgun would ignite, and Ella Mae would scream, but Robert Ford would only lay on the floor and look at the ceiling, the light going out of his eyes before he could find the right words.”
     In the split second between the final fadeout and the music/credits beginning, in that split second of silence where the implications of that final moment are resonating, the guy sitting in front of me says “Well, that’s probably because he got shot in the head.”
     And that said it all for me. This comically-missing-the-point statement from this guy who probably just thought he was seeing some shoot-‘em-up, while I sat behind him and knew I was seeing one of the great films of the decade and possibly all time, showed how some films have very specific appeal, and though they may not be huge successes, they should not be forgotten.
     And that’s why the Jesse James revival is so important to me. Aside from a few of my film school colleagues and a couple people I showed it to here and there, almost no one I encountered had ever heard of the movie, and fewer still loved it. But for those of us who did, it’s stuck with us, growing deeper and more profound with each passing year. And the idea of a director’s cut stimulates the imagination. Not simply because the initial Blu release had a pretty terrible transfer (if any film screams to be seen in flawless 1080p, it’s JESSE JAMES). Not simply because it’s one of the few long films that I could have watched for hours more. Not because I necessarily think a director’s cut would improve upon the theatrical release. But because the idea of there being a longer, more complete, more suited to the director’s vision version of this story existing in a vault somewhere, never to be seen by the public, is too tragic to contemplate
     As Hulk mentions, studios do love movies but are often confined by the whims of the market. But they cannot and should not be confined merely by commercial concerns any more. There is a market for this film. It may not be a big or strong or fierce market, but it exists, and there are ways to appease both the commercial and the artistic. This is a film for the ages, and if Warner Bros. can get it out there, hopefully it can find its way into the canon and be recognized for its artistry for years to come.

Unacknowledged Sincere Pseudo-Profundity: On My Most Hated Moves

I was badmouthing Rent yet again on Facebook last night with a couple people who love it. For those who don’t know, Rent is the movie I hate more than any other movie I’ve seen. I feel it’s important to distinguish here that Rent is not the worst movie I’ve ever seen, merely the one I hate the most.

See, much like there’s a distinction between the best films I’ve see (stuff like The Godfather and Citizen Kane) and my personal favorite films (stuff like Boogie Nights and Goodfellas), I think there’s a distinction between the absolute WORST films and films I just despise. Movies that are technically incompetent, flawed at the conceptual level, or any number of other things that denote sloppy product… these are different from something I find offensive, unrealistic, meretricious, and other negative adjectives in its presentation of material.

And really, films that are technically incompetent, etc. are, in my opinion, not really the worst movies ever made. To steal and twist a quote from Gene Siskel, I’d much rather see a movie that aims high and misses than a movie that aims for the middle and hits the target. For me, a truly awful film is so much easier to sit through than a truly mediocre one. Sure, I might be squirming in my seat at the awfulness, but at least I’m having a reaction and taking something away from the experience. 13 years ago, my mom and I watched this truly abysmal movie called Walking Across Egypt (with Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Mark Hamill and Ellen Burstyn) that I remember better than some movies I’ve seen this year. I remember bad movies. On the other hand, watching  a female protagonist go through the romantic comedy motions, or watching an action hero save the world from whatever bullshit is going on this time, provides nothing for me as a viewer and I’ll have forgotten it by the time I hit the parking lot.

But I’m rambling. My bigger point with the whole Rent debate was that it got me thinking about the commonalities between the movies I hate the most, and I think I distilled it down to what I refer to in the title of this post: unacknowledged sincere pseudo-profundity, a common trait in a lot of the films I hate the most. Basically, it’s stories in which the story, the filmmaking, the acting, and all the filmic elements try to present something that is deep and profound and moving about whatever (usually the human experience), but if you scratch the surface even a little, you see that it’s a complete crock.

Rent is the obvious choice for me, because it presents this bohemian lifestyle as somehow better and superior to everything else, when in fact it’s a bunch of shitty artists who are old enough to know better making bad art amidst a New York City that never existed and amongst people for whom AIDS, poverty, and drug addiction are the excuse for fun, Disney-fied adventures, where none of the real consequences of those things are faced. (Interestingly, I saw Elizabethtown within a month of Rent, hated it just as much and had similar problems with it, just as I equally hated and had the same problems with Crowe’s earlier film, Vanilla Sky).

Another one I absolutely despised was Across the Universe, which approached the jukebox musical seriously, a fatal flaw on the basic conceptual level. Jukebox musicals are by definition silly, because their plots are clotheslines on which to hang the songs, and the songs are shoehorned in wherever they fit. The reason stuff like Mamma Mia and Rock of Ages is (in my opinion) successful is because it’s not taken seriously tonally for a single second - every moment is a cliche and the films know it. Across the Universe not only uses the Beatles songs in the most obvious ways possible, but it uses 60’s politics and culture in a way that’s presented as profound, when really it’s just a repackaging of cliches we’ve seen in a thousand other movies.

I saw “unacknowledged” because sincere pseudo-profundity is not necessarily a bad quality in a story. One of my favorite shows of all time, Six Feet Under, indulges in it frequently. But that show at least acknowledges from time to time that a lot of its characters are full of shit, and some of the pseudo-profundity is infused with actual profound or meaningful thoughts that I can relate to. Garden State’s another one - it’s not a great movie by any means despite what I thought when I was 16, but it does sneak some small, quiet truths about twentysomething ennui, parental relationships as we get older, etc. into the stupid bullshit about screaming into canyons and whatever Natalie Portman was doing.

But it’s all about tone and approach, which are perhaps the two most crucial aspects of making a film. It’s the difference we talk about every time there’s a remake or a re-imagining or any time a filmmaker rides the coattails of something that came before or attempts to repurpose cliche elements to their own devices. And that difference can mean everything, as Gus Van Sant, Marcus Nispel, Fede Alvarez, Julie Taymor, Cameron Crowe and countless others have shown.

2013 Ranked

Gravity

Before Midnight

Short Term 12

Her

Pacific Rim

The Place Beyond The Pines

A Band Called Death

Fruitvale Station

Side Effects

No

Iron Man 3

The East

The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete

Blue Jasmine

Only God Forgives

Spring Breakers

Saving Mr. Banks

12 Years a Slave

The Way, Way Back

The World’s End

Monsters University

Blue Caprice

Much Ado About Nothing

Mother Of George

Blackfish

An Oversimplification Of Her Beauty

Stand Up Guys

The Great Gatsby

It’s a Disaster

Warm Bodies

Four

Prisoners

Captain Phillips

Oblivion

Frozen

The Wolverine

Girl Most Likely

The Act of Killing

Frances Ha

We’re the Millers

The Spectacular Now

Trance

All The Boys Love Mandy Lane

Don Jon

The Bling Ring

Now You See Me

Anchorman 2

I’m So Excited

Stoker

Evil Dead

Stories We Tell

Elysium

Drinking Buddies

42

Machete Kills

Man of Steel

Star Trek Into Darkness

A.C.O.D.

Bad Milo!

Europa Report

The Last Stand

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

The Butler

The Fifth Estate

Elysium

Maniac

Adore

World War Z

Room 237

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

A Good Day to Die Hard

Aftershock

Identity Thief

Bullet to the Head

Movie 43

For Roger

I won’t relate to you the story of how I changed Roger Ebert’s mind about Armond White. I’ve told it before (though I will say that I’ve always recoiled getting credit for the link I posted, since I didn’t write it). I want to tell another, perhaps-not-very-interesting-but-whatever story about Ebert from my childhood.

In the 90’s, the Chicago Tribune used to run a section called KidNews on Tuesdays, the content of which is fairly self-explanatory. Although this section was typically written by staff writers, in the fall of 1998, they put out a call for kid writers who wanted to create a special end-of-the-year section written entirely by kids. I wrote a review of Titanic, submitted it, and got the job. I remember walking into my very first newsroom, and having my very first editorial meeting, as a huge group of kids and the editors (whose names I’m blanking on) sorted out the content. I was told that I would be coming back to Chicago in December to attend a press screening of a new, undetermined kid’s movie, and would write my review then.

December rolls around, and I get my assignment: Jack Frost, the movie where Michael Keaton was a snowman. I went downtown with my mom and met Mark Caro, film critic for the Tribune. We talked about movies that were out then that I liked, and I felt like such an idiot, espousing the virtues of A Bug’s Life to a guy who got to see R-rated movies whenever he wanted. We wandered over to the Lake Street screening room, where my mom left me, and I was officially in the world of critics. I remember meeting Michael Wilmington at the door (he also wrote some reviews I was not fond of, but I was starstruck), walking into the dark, tiny screening room, and seeing two figures sit down just to my left: Siskel and Ebert.

I wanted to say hello. I wanted to say ANYTHING. I had been watching them for a while by that point, and couldn’t believe I was lucky enough to watch this forgettable comedy with them. But I was 10, I wasn’t exactly assertive, and the best I could do was sitting in front of them, which was still about the coolest thing in the world. I sat through the movie, wrote the review (3 stars), got upset when Ebert gave it one star, and learned the error of my ways upon rewatching the film years later.

Siskel was sick at that point, and died two months later. I never saw him or Ebert in person again, and the Armond White correspondence, along with a couple responses to blog comments, were the only contact I had with him from that point forward. But Ebert, through his blogs and reviews, has been such a part of my life that I feel like I knew him, even though I didn’t. I’m sure many would say the same.

His death, along with my previous job postings and the oncoming end of my graduate career, feels like a shift in my own life. Since I’ve wanted to do what Ebert does as a career since probably the single digits, him not being around any more feels like the end of a phase and the beginning of a new one. He’s always been my imagined ideal reader, and I hope that I can honor his memory by taking his lessons and making my own mark in the world of film. All the same, I cannot imagine what it will be like to go to the movies and not have his voice to compare my own thoughts to.

I miss him already.

Brave

Brave is an interesting case: a movie where I liked just about everything except the main plot. Since some films don’t even have the side stories to keep interest afloat, I must give Brave credit for that if nothing else.

Stop me if this sounds familiar: In a Scottish countryside, Merida, a princess and a skilled archer, wants to break free from the confines of royalty. Her bear-hating father and strict mother try to get her to understand the importance of her heritage, but she isn’t having it. The time comes when she must be married off, and she defies tradition by fighting for her own hand, leading to a big fight between her and Mom. Merida runs off into the woods to try to figure out her fate, finds a witch who gives her a cursed tart to change her fate, and she feeds it to her mother, who turns into a bear. The witch tells them that the only way to reverse the spell is to repair their rift, and she only has 2 days to do it. Add the complication of the father hating bears, and you pretty much have the plot.

The fault of Brave’s story is only partially with the film itself. It’s the kind of story Disney has been telling since its inception, and the origins of its structure go back to fairy tales, likely even further. Because the structure is something I’m so intimately familiar with, I feel a story like this has to work harder to overcome its predictability and get me emotionally involved – as a wise man once said, a formula movie works if you’re enjoying the story and not noticing the formula. Here, it didn’t quite make it, primarily because Merida’s story is so derivative of other Disney characters. How could I not think of Ariel when she defies her mother and sets off on her own path? And Belle when her mother is transformed into a bear and she must repair her relationship in order to change her back? It’s a bit reductive for me to fault a film that doesn’t aim as high as some of Disney/Pixar’s other work, and the film does work on its basic level of competence. But I must admit that I didn’t care much about the journey to the obligatory happy ending because the basic plot was so preordained, and the characters didn’t come alive enough to detract from the formula. I believe I’ve officially moved outside the target audience.

Another area that’s both a detriment and a blessing to the film is its lack of a villain. Disney films typically live and die on the strength of their villains, and Brave doesn’t give us one. The old witch who gives Merida the spell is set up as the obvious choice, but she disappears after two scenes. And Mordu, the bear with the spirit of the prince, appears too late to establish himself as the true villain or a character of much interest, instead providing the conflict in the closing scenes (conflict here being the traditional fight scene that ends many modern animated films). This places the central conflict of the film between Merida and her mother. While I appreciated that the screenwriters tried to bring the typical Disney story away from the presence of a typical Disney villain and toward more substantial character relationships, the conflict between mother/daughter/princess/queen presented here is too simplistic to sustain the narrative. Once it’s in place that Merida has two days to save her mother, complete with the token Disney “way out” of the spell being reversible through a repaired relationship, we’re simply waiting for the plot to catch up with the pair, leaving us with scenes like the well-composed but mostly superfluous montage of Merida and the bear frolicking and catching salmon in a stream. To make a film about a mother and daughter coming to understand one another is a fairly modern choice in an antiquated setting, and I would have liked to see a story that truly dealt with it.

Brave is on much more stable ground when it comes to its other elements. As is expected from Pixar at this point, Scotland is rendered in a cross between photorealism and fantasy, giving us sweeping glens and vistas and foggy ruins that put this among Pixar’s most beautiful films. The soundtrack is fantastic to match. The suitors and their fathers are typical of films of this sort, but they provide some good comic relief in the early scenes. Billy Connolly gives a nice performance as the king – Connolly is a reliable presence in animated films of this sort, since his voice work gives us the stereotypical brogue we expect from the character with an air of kidding and humor that endears whoever he plays. We find him to be a bit of a buffoon, but someone who loves his daughter and who seems to catch on to the person she’ll be long before the mother does. For my money, the most entertaining characters in the film are the three young prince triplets, who don’t have a word of dialogue and are partially responsible for the film’s best sequence, in which Merida and her bear/mother try to escape while the princes lure their father away with shadows and secret passages. The characters remind us that one of Disney’s great contributions to many old fairy tales, aside from occasionally fleshing out the one-dimensional protagonists, is in the various supporting characters that pad out the story and help the hero on their path to glory. I’ll remember the three princes far longer than the rest of this film.

Brave ultimately comes across as a strong entry from another animation studio. It’s a baseline good movie, visually excellent and with entertaining fringes, but the core story doesn’t come alive and it lacks the emotional resonance I expect from Pixar’s work.


6.5/10

Thoughts on this week’s People Magazine

  • There’s an article with newly released Audrey Hepburn photos under two headings: “Her Early Years” and “Her Final Years.” Apparently no photos were taken of her between 1960 and ‘80. I know she mostly withdrew from Hollywood to do charity in that time, but if we have photos of Marilyn Monroe eating breakfast every day of her life, surely we have photos of Audrey between “Hollywood royalty” and “grandma.
  • Speaking of the overphotographed deceased, new Princess Di photos, including one of her at a marriage conflict resolution seminar, giving the author another chance for a cheap potshot about a 20-year-old divorce.
  • I hate to mention it, but there’s an article on Kim Kardashian and her baby bump. Since the baby is due in July, that would put her at about 2 months in the pictures. Kim is… generously proportioned, so the odds of her bumping are slim, rendering the article moot. The article also says that her pregnancy style “proves she has nothing to hide.” Um, what? Kim and her family have been whoring their lives out for years - why would it be different now with the millions to be made in pregnancy/baby/trophy husband pics? Sigh.
  • Ryan Gosling has a Giving Tree tattoo. Beautiful bastard.

The Impossible

The Impossible is nothing more than the story of a British family on vacation in Thailand when the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami hits, and their struggle to reunite in the ruins. It sounds like it could be a boring or clichéd endeavor, but The Impossible triumphs through its unflinching realism and depth of emotional feeling.

It also works because of the skill of the filmmakers – the tsunami sequence is absolutely terrifying and immersive, going on for what seems like hours as the characters are tossed about among the debris. Director. J.A. Bayona and cinematographer Oscar Faura find a nice balance between the long, uninterrupted shots of classic cinema and the shaky-cam immediacy of documentaries and the unfortunate “found footage” genre to lend the film a level of immediacy and keep the audience on edge. We don’t find out a great deal about any of the characters, as it should be. We don’t know much about most people beyond a few personal/appearance details, and the film gives us just enough to care about each person it focuses on before moving forward with the story. There are a couple of shots that perhaps go on for too long where the sound cuts out and the film focuses on, say, Watts’ character’s eyes as she stares at the sun. This is similar to the technique used by Spielberg in Saving Private Ryan where bombs would puncture the eardrums of the Tom Hanks character and render him deaf to his surroundings – I’m sure Bayona wanted to convey how such a tragedy would seem like a dream to the survivors, but the shots also run the risk of breaking the level of realism that he wants to convey, and I think they could have stood to be a bit shorter. A minor flaw in a film that does so many things right.

The performances are uniformly excellent. Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor have shown their skill at bringing humanity to the midst of bombast in numerous other films, and find a perfect note of realism, frustration and terror in their performances here. Watts has many difficult scenes where she’s injured and slowly getting worse while trying to save her children, and she keeps the character grounded and histrionic free. The big surprise in the cast is Tom Holland, playing the oldest boy, Lucas, as a stubborn preteen in the early scenes and a surprisingly courageous and level-headed rock for his mother in the later ones. The sequence in which he wanders the hospital collecting names of the missing has a nice realistic build and gives us pages of dialogue worth of insight into his character in a few short moments.

One of the chief criticisms posited against the film is that it shows the tsunami from the perspective of a white family, even though there are millions of stories that could have been told about people actually living there. There’s also the fact that the true story that inspired the film happened to a Spanish family, especially strange considering the director and writer Spanish. There is some truth to that criticism, and it is likely that the decision to make it about a white family was a financial one; indeed, most of the primary speaking roles in the film are white characters. However, the story that the film tells is one of more universality. Natural disasters don’t discriminate, and the film shows how brutally such tragedy equalizes people of all backgrounds, as it must. When a Thai man carries the Watts character across the rubble to safety, the fact of the situation undercuts the racial aspects: it is merely one human being helping another. Perhaps a film could be made about such issues in relation to the tsunami, but this is not that film, nor should it be. As with many films about great horrors, The Impossible is about the small triumphs that offset the horror. A film about the realities of, say, the farmers living near the coasts would have been too relentlessly bleak for most mainstream audiences.

The Impossible was a powerful and moving experience, expertly made on all the technical levels, tear-jerking and draining. I’m not sure I could sit through it twice, but despite the difficulty of watching it, it is absolutely worth seeing at least once.


9/10

Are we having fun yet?

Introduction

 In the late 90’s and early 2000’s, John Enbom, Dan Etheridge, Rob Thomas and Paul Rudd began to develop a show called Party Down, about the Party Down catering company in Hollywood. The show’s characters included Henry, a failed actor back at the company after a 10 year absence, Casey, a struggling comedian whose big break is a bit role in a Judd Apatow film, Constance, a long faded B-movie actress who tutors Kyle, a vapid pretty boy reality star, Roman, a failed hard science fiction screenwriter, and Ron, the team leader, who wishes to open a soup buffet restaurant. The show was developed off and on for several years, even shooting a makeshift pilot in the backyard of co-creator Rob Thomas in order to shop the show to networks. In 2008, Starz picked up the series, hiring directors Fred Savage and Bryan Gordon to assist with production, and the cast of the pilot, along with a few new faces, was reassembled to begin production (Pastorek 2-3). 

 Premiering on March 20, 2009, the show was an almost immediate critical success. It was named one of the top shows of 2009 by AFI (AFI), and maintains a 66 percent approval rating on Metacritic. Andrew Wallenstein noted, “Lurking behind the surface of this raucous comedy is an astute meditation on the promise and peril of leading an unconventional life, something about which aspiring actors know a thing or two” (Wallenstein). The show worked – as a television comedy, as a comedy about the workplace, and as a deconstruction of the Hollywood lifestyle that claims so many. But it was not enough to keep the show running.  On June 30, 2010, two seasons, the loss of two cast members, and a season 2 finale which snagged less than a million viewers in its time slot, Starz pulled the plug on the show, citing low ratings. The critical response to the show had remained constantly good throughout, but the show did not have enough viewers to sustain it.

 However, after the cancellation of Party Down, Starz removed it from their On Demand services, sparking a fan backlash. The first two episodes were reinstated, and eventually the entire series made its way to Netflix, where it is still streaming to this day (Umstead and Spangler 1).  The DVD sales for the series have been relatively strong for a sitcom that never scored more than 3 million viewers, and fan sites have sprung up across the web, analyzing the relationships of the characters and asking what happens next (the end of the series is a hopeful moment, where Henry, the main character, heads into his first audition in months – not a strict conclusion to the storylines, but a moment of hope after a series predicated on misery and struggle) (Shore). Much like Arrested Development before it, the show found a second life on DVD and the Internet, and now rumors about a finale movie have begun to circulate, among both the fan communities and the cast and crew of the show itself.

 So the question becomes, what was the importance of Party Down, and what does it say about television comedy? I would argue that Party Down, with its late in the decade premiere and workplace comedy style, was the natural endpoint for the previous decade of comedy. In terms of the fan response, the network response to the show, the distribution of the show on various platforms, and the ways in which it reflected larger trends in mainstream American comedy, it was a show that captured a small-scale zeitgeist, one that spanned about 10 years and was the natural evolution of the sitcom form. Its early cancellation only solidified the cruel nature of the business that it parodied, and the ways in which television is both changing and remaining the same in allowing programs to breathe. As costar Jane Lynch said, “You never have to cancel Party Down. There are undiscovered, talented, funny people in Los Angeles, and we all know each other. I could cast that show right now. I don’t know what goes on behind the scenes, but there was an audience there” (Pastorek).

This paper will examine Party Down in three contexts – the television/workplace comedy, the Hollywood that the show creates and satirizes, and the fan culture, which developed in the show’s wake. By looking at what gave way to these factors, why the show evolved the way it did, and why the show is important to the comedic medium, we can see that Party Down is reflexive of the industry that produced it. Ultimately, Party Down is an important text worthy of examination, and must be placed in its proper historical context. The framework provided here will help to do just that.

Party Down and Television Comedy

Ian Jarvie asks “Who made films and why? What was the context of their release? Why are these films being made?” (Jarvie 4).  The same questions can apply to a discussion of television. The workplace comedy did not appear from a vacuum. As noted by Nussbaum, the American sitcom was on life support going into the 2000’s with the end of Seinfeld and the beginning of the erosion of the traditional family sitcom. But numerous advances were made in the early part of the decade, none more important than the British version of The Office, “which began the trend of mockumentary sitcom that reflected and parodied reality TV” (Nussbaum 2) In essence, even though the show was scripted, it maintained the free-wheeling nature of the documentary, seeming to be improvised and photographed in a fly-on-the-wall style. Other sitcoms, like Arrested Development, were influential in deconstructing the traditional nature of sitcoms (single camera, long story arcs), and shows like Sex and the City began to speak with a certain complexity about the characters, defining them as three dimensional, as opposed to previous sitcoms, which occasionally focused too heavily on single character traits (Nussbaum).

Indeed, Party Down reflected many of these trends. The show was a single camera sitcom, shot in handheld and digital, much in the same manner as Arrested Development. Though it never reached the complexity and intertextuality of the aforementioned show, the characters were provided with story arcs – all of the characters have projects that they are working on, and their failures and successes provide many of the running gags for the series. “The characters were never boiled down to a single trait” (Shore).  For example, Kyle, who begins the series as the token pretty boy, stars in a base-jumping movie that’s supposed to be his big break, but the film is eventually titled Jumping Boy and released direct-to-DVD in Asia. Similarly, Ron, the team leader, is working to create a Souper Crackers franchise, which is an all-you-can eat buffet restaurant. He manages to get the restaurant at the end of season 1, but by season 2, it has failed, and he’s back on the Party Down team as a team member. There are also broader story arcs – the romance between Henry and Casey, the friendly rivalry between Roman and Kyle – which further flesh out the show and its characters. This is important, because Enbom notes that the show started as a more freewheeling enterprise, perhaps one where different actors would be in place as the caterers every week (Pastorek 4). But by keeping a roster of characters and managing several different story arcs in addition to the main, party-related story of each episode, the show solidifies itself as a modern comedy, with multidimensional characters and situations that contributed to each week’s jokes. The show created comedy out of both the situations and the characters, something that could not be achieved if it had been a week-to-week jokey sitcom (Umstead and Spangler 1).

An interesting point is raised by Schwartz, who analyzes the prevalence of the workplace comedy as representative of shifting trends in American life. He says, “Early TV focused on the family because that was where Americans largely focused their lives, he said. And in those days, sitcoms for the most part provided a sincere, loving look at the American family. Popular portrayals of the office skipped the sincere stage Television went where the American family was going” (Schwartz 1). In short, the workplace comedy is not so much a new form of sitcom as it is a reframing of traditional family sitcoms, where the family consists of coworkers, bosses, and customers. The achievements of life are negotiated in the office context, suggesting that the workplace is where life is truly lived in modern society.

Party Down is certainly reflexive of these trends as well. The family created here is the family of Party Down Catering, with its ineffectual father Ron and mother figure Constance (Lydia, to some extent, in the second season), and the children, played by the other members of the team. If there weren’t romance involved, we could say that Henry and Casey are brother and sister types, and Roman and Kyle are the wacky siblings. This is not outright said on the program at any point, but certainly implied. Havrilesky notes that “The dilemma of the day job — do I keep myself afloat with this meaningless toil, or do I follow my dreams to bankruptcy and beyond? — looms ever present here. The characters not only struggle with their own choices, but also confront the specter of other people’s success (or failure) on a daily basis.” (Havrilesky 1). This drama, as the characters attempt to navigate the world of Hollywood, creates the family unit. Everyone struggles with their personal problems, but they also ask themselves about the wiseness of their current choices, and are bonded to the fellow members of the team by these choices. Only Constance manages to escape the family unit by the end of the series, marrying into money despite loving the team (Pastorek). Furthermore, the workplace comedies of the 21st century rarely leave the office, and Party Down is no exception. The show takes place almost entirely at the parties the team caters – there are less than five scenes in the entire 20 episodes that take place away from the parties. By only providing work relationships for the viewing audience, this furthers the notion that the modern family is negotiated in the workplace context.

The notion of the workplace as the family unit also helps to explain the presence of the actors in the show. Enbom noted that his calling card for the show was “not a lot of money, but unlimited creativity” (Pastorek 6). Because the show was produced on such a small budget and was largely free from network interference, it was able to get a large list of stars to appear, famous and not.  It’s also reflexive of a larger trend in 21st century comedy; the troupe of actors who moves from project to project. Although there was not a set troupe of actors from another project that came to Party Down, many of the people who appeared on the show had worked together in other contexts (Benson). Rob Thomas, one of the cocreators, was responsible for Veronica Mars, and several actors from that show (Kristin Bell, Ryan Kwanten) make appearances. Judd Apatow is mentioned several times, another source of actors for the show (cocreator Paul Rudd, Martin Starr, Adam Scott, Lizzy Caplan, and Jane Lynch). Similarly, the mid 90’s comedy troupe The State had several appearances, including Ken Marino as Ron and Joe Lo Truglio as one of Ron’s friends. The show was directed by several members of the cast, and one of the main directors was Fred Savage, of The Wonder Years fame, who took an early interest in the show and helped produce it.  Famous actors pop up now and then, in what was called “favors” by Rob Thomas (J.K. Simmons, Joey Lauren Adams, Megan Mullaly)  (Pastorek). And various other bit players from TV make appearances as well – Andre Royo, from The Wire, appears as a Hollywood player in one episode.

In short, the modern comedic landscape is self-regenerating, where the same actors work with the same directors and writers over and over, and different comedic products are produced (Shore). This is not necessarily a new trend – we can trace comedic teams far back into television and cinema history. But rarely has the stable of actors been as large as this, and rarely has it appeared with this frequency. The family unit that Schwartz describes could be an apt metaphor for the current Hollywood comedy itself. Look at The Office, which recently began a huge run of guest stars as its main star, Steve Carell, exited the show. Ryan notes that one of the side benefits to this method of casting is an “easy, unforced chemistry between the writers and stars” (Ryan).

By continually appearing in each other’s projects, it becomes easier for these performers and writers to craft characters and form long stories. Indeed, Pastorek notes that the early days of the show were characterized by experimentation, but within four episodes, the general outlines and plots for the show had been established (Pastorek 2). Perhaps this could be indicative of new models of Hollywood distribution, where the quicker something is put out, the better (perhaps this is why the show had such a rushed production schedule – 4 days of shooting per episode, and usually a budget of under $250,000 for the entire episode). The rapid fire nature of the program, the family environment it fosters between the actors, the large stable of talent and the contextualization as both a workplace comedy and a sitcom position Party Down as one of the preeminent television comedies of the past decade.

Party Down And Hollywood

Party Down’s initial story premise seems to be clichéd and overdone – a group of struggling artists attempting to make it in Hollywood.  As noted by Havrilesky, “The driving force of the show is: Should you make your creative destiny into a religion? Or should you give in to the suspicions that you have no talent and should just hang it all up right now and stop kidding yourself?” (Havrilesky). Indeed, the characters on the program seem to constantly ask what their place in the Hollywood system is – at one point, after the failure of his base-jumping movie, Kyle asks Roman if he’s going to make it, and Roman hesitates for several moments before saying yes, suggesting that although the characters constantly hold out hope for the big break, the odds of it actually happening are slim to none. In creating the show, Rob Thomas said, “If The Office is a show about people who have really given themselves over to the rat race, let’s do a show about people who’ve chased the dream for far too long” (Pastorek 1).

The question of when to give up becomes an important one on the show – because Henry, the main character, has given up on his dream of acting, many of the characters ask him what led to his decision, and when he knew it was time to move on. His answer is his appearance in the “Where Are They Now?” box in an issue of TV Guide, for his long-ago appearance in a famous beer ad with the slogan “Are we having fun yet?” This is perhaps the show’s most literal manifestation of the greed and horror of Hollywood, and an indicator that even if the caterers work hard and catch their break, there is still the possibility that they will end in failure. The looming possibility of this failure, then, becomes the underlying subtext for the entire series – certainly not an original concept, but one that works for a show primarily set in the Hollywood system.  

Where the show differs from typical examinations of this lifestyle is its attention to detail and its focus on these specific characters. The catering lifestyle is one that claims many young actors, and indeed, most of the cast of the show had some experience with catering large parties. As noted by Lizzy Caplan, who plays Casey on the show, “ I remember catering a premiere, and it was horrible. People don’t pay attention to you when you’re the caterer. They don’t even look at you. They just ask for things and take things, and you’re walking around rubbing shoulders with these actors, like, “No, no, no, it should be me, and it will be me in a year, and then all you assholes will feel so bad about not paying attention to me.” (Pastorek 3). The show focuses with laser precision on this cast of characters and perfectly captures their angst and loathing. They frequently get Shored and drunk on the job, take long breaks to get involved in various adventures (including an orgy and a switch with a famous rock star in one episode), and generally don’t care much about the work they are doing. But they remain intensely jealous of the people who they are catering for, even when they treat the caterers like garbage, because their clients represent he lifestyle they wish they had.

The power structure of the haves and have-nots becomes an important undercurrent for the series, but what’s interesting is that the stars they cater to are just as nervous, self-loathing and neurotic as the caterers.  This suggests that although Hollywood can make your dreams come true, it also eats the people it works to make famous, and the price of fame can be just as high as the price of working a dead-end job and waiting for your break.  As Havrilesky notes, “Rather than helpful advice, what the aspiring actors, comedians and writers on staff get is discouragement, again and again — from their agents, from their parents, from their boyfriends and girlfriends, and from each other”  (Havrilesky). The subtext of the show is the implication that this cycle will continue with the actors as long as they struggle to make it, but it also paints a realistic portrait of what the struggle for fame consists of, something that few other Hollywood-themed shows in the 21st century sought to do. The shared misery of being in Hollywood is perfectly manifested  - although the characters long for fame and fortune, perhaps their current situation makes the struggle easier, and makes the crap that they take from the Hollywood types easier to swallow, because they know the possibility remains that they will eventually be in those shoes. As one of Roman’s rivals states in an episode where Party Down caters a script selling party, “It was so much more fun when it was just us in that crappy apartment, writing together. 

The show also represents the new production cycles, which are common in the digital Hollywood age. As mentioned before, the show was filmed with a cast that largely knew each other, but it was also shot in a guerrilla style similar to independent films (Pastorek 1-5). The shoot was usually 4 days, often taking place at cast member’s homes. The food was never replaced during the shoot, meaning actors frequently had to eat stale hors d’ouevres. No one had a trailer – the cast frequently had to prepare and do makeup in the bedrooms of the houses they were shooting in. And the cast was not bound to the show – indeed, at the end of the first season, Jane Lynch had to leave because of her contractual commitments to Glee, and the show brought in Megan Mullaly to replace her. This fast production schedule made it easier for the show to be topical and relevant, and allowed for more guest stars to make their way into the show, giving them chances to flex their comedic chops.

It also comments on the show itself – the rushed production schedule was in direct contrast to the work schedule on regular sitcoms, suggesting that this led to more creative input and less studio interference during production. In an ironic move, the only note passed down from the network was a need for more sex – one episode takes place at an orgy and another at an adult video awards celebration, where copious female nudity populates the margins. This is an extremely stereotypical note for executives to pass down, and the show doesn’t comment on it, but it certainly represents a tear in the show’s fabric, the presence of an element that does not necessarily jibe with the feel of the program. But it also represents the necessity of being a team player in the Hollywood system – if the show had not included these elements, it might have been cancelled even sooner, or not received as much funding from the network. It also raises questions of how much a show is controlled by its creators, and how much of it is outside influence on the part of executives. A television show is a complicated negotiation, and it’s interesting to see how Party Down finds a balance between studio dictation and personal independence. 


Party Down and Fan Culture

In Convergence Culture, Henry Jenkins writes that media has moved toward the participatory, and the consumer becomes the producer, creating the media he or she wants (Jenkins 3). This certainly works as an analysis of how Party Down came into being – a group of artists who wanted to say something about the medium they are utilizing and a culture that may be unsung. But Jenkins also crafts an expert analysis of fan culture in the modern era, which can be utilized for this series. Jenkins notes that fan culture challenges status quo consumerism. Fans use primary texts (in this case, show episodes and DVD releases) in order to construct cultures from the text, both by rereading them and repurposing them to their own needs (Jenkins 177). The fans are building areas to have fun in the context of the shows, and continuing the stories via fan fiction. Jenkins goes on to identify five aspects of fan culture, which can be useful as a model for examining Party Down in relation to this convergence and fan culture. These five characterizations are as follows:


1.     Appropriation – A person appropriates in their own life a particular text, work, and practice relating to their fan object. Often these objects are reinterpreted in their own life. 

  1. Participation – There is an openness for people to participate at all levels within the community. They are so inspired by it they write music, create events, etc. 
  2. Emotional Investment – People become really invested in this object, topics, etc. It is something they are really into and something they want to talk about. 
  3. Collective Intelligence (rather than the expert paradigm) – There is room for everyone to have something to say and contribute to the collective understanding of the group. Collective intelligence doesn’t need credentials, degrees, etc.; experiences and insights are beneficial to the community and conversation.
  4. “Virtual” Community – These are communities that are not necessarily built around face-to-face meetings. Some of these people know each other and some are unknown, but more often than not these groups will have times to meet face to face (Jenkins).

 

Appropriation manifests itself in the response of Hollywood types to the program. Lizzy Caplan mentions being on the set of Children’s Hospital, which is run by many of Party Down’s cast members, and how they lamented on the demise of the show, because it so accurately reflected the Hollywood that they had lived in (Pastorek 9). As mentioned before, many of the cast and crew of the show had worked in catering and odd jobs before they became famous, so the show could be seen as a manifestation of their past struggles, a fictional interpretation of what they saw to be the problems inherent in trying to break into Hollywood.

Participation can be seen at the fansite level. The Facebook fan page for Party Down currently has 80,897 members, and the wall has numerous posts encouraging fans to recommend the show to others, posts to fan fictions about the characters, and recommendations for other shows in the same vein. On the first page alone, user Jodie Irvine writes about catching reruns on ABC2 in Australia, Nathan Rolf suggests Children’s Hospital for its inclusion of many cast members, and Piero Roco writes, “Bought S1 DVD tonight. So good. Terrific, smart commentary. Cool outakes. Next release of S1 on DVD, more gag reel please!” (Facebook). There is even a small movement on the page for the release of an mp3 of “My Struggle,” an unintentionally anti-Semitic song sung by Kyle’s band at a wedding party, along with requests for more songs from the band. This fan culture is partially the creation of the show, and partially the desire for fans to continue the show after its cancellation. Many people on fan pages speculate about what happens to characters after the conclusion, and the fanfics are a manifestation of this desire. The show cannot continue in the traditional sense, but in convergence culture, fans can reappropriate the show’s materials and use them to craft their own scenarios for the characters.

Emotional investment can also be tied to this fansite culture. The fans begin to view these characters as real people, who make decisions of their own free will and continue their lives when the camera isn’t looking. Indeed, many of the fanfics can be attributed to this investment. For example, the crucial relationship in the series was between Henry and Casey, who began as a couple that had casual sex, then became a romantic couple, then split up for months, then came back together for work, and then negotiated their romantic feelings and work demeanors for the remainder of the series. As noted before, this relationship inspires most of the fan fiction of the show, but it also shows how fan fiction is limited by the show’s framework. The fanfic “It’s a Tangled Rat’s Nest,” by RaspBerryStars, has the slogan “For Henry, being with Casey is his only option” (FanFictionNet). This not only suggests that there’s enough emotional investment and backstory for the characters to inspire other, post-cancellation stories, but that although the fans have some say in their own fanfics, there’s a certain amount of changing of the basic plot that they can and can’t do. In this case, the relationship between Henry and Casey, which remained hazy at the end of the series, can be completed in the fanfic realm, but only if it follows the rules of the relationship established in the previous 20 episodes.

The cancellation of the show also led to the depiction of emotional investment – on numerous fan sites and message boards, the fans decried the network for not giving the show more of a change, and lamented the fact that the show’s plots would never be fully resolved.  As noted by Paul Rudd, “Our reviews were strong. The die-hard fans of the show felt like it was their show. That’s cool. We all took pride in that, I think” (Pastorek 8). No matter what the eventual fate of Party Down ends up being, the show has an established audience that connected withthe characters, and a devoted base which keeps the show alive online. For that, the show can be said to have strong emotional ties.

Collective intelligence comes into play in regards to the show itself. One of the great advantages of the Internet is the proliferation of information about television shows and media forms. Indeed, via Wikipedia, IMDB, and Facebook, one could learn almost everything there is to know about Party Down, from the initial idea of the show to its eventual production and cancellation. Fan sites note cross references to other shows and other roles the actors have played – Kristin Bell, who played Veronica Mars on the show of the same name, appears as the evil head of Valhalla Catering, Party Down’s closest rival, and several lines of dialogue in the series come directly from Mars (Benson). The creators are allowed to speak on behalf of their program, as noted in Pastorek’s extensive chronicling of the series. And ultimately, all of the information is collected by various sites and made available to the public, creating Jenkins’ “sum total of information held individually by members of a knowledge community” (Jenkins 322). The Internet has made it possible for the Party Down fan community to flourish, and also made it possible for all the information about the show to be compiled in several centralized hubs. This collective intelligence is important, because although it can lead to reductive readings of history, it also makes sure that these texts are filed and given their importance, so they are not lost to history.

Finally, we return to the idea of the virtual community, which has been discussed previously but deserves mentioning again.  The virtual culture creates “affinity spaces” where people both engage more actively and learn more from popular culture topics than they do from textbooks (Gee via Jenkins 186). Although we cannot necessarily say that Party Down is a show that teaches useful skills, we can say that it’s a show which provides a worldwide view of a very narrow culture, Indeed, the aforementioned Facebook post discussed the show airing from Australia, which suggests the reach of the show is global via the Internet. The Internet also provides access to the show and all of its intertextual materials, so a person could learn extensively about the show even if they do not live in America. Baltierra notes that “Shows amass a cult like following through the release of DVD’s and syndication via cable or the Internet.” A show like Party Down might not have survived long if it hadn’t immediately been released on DVD at the conclusion of its first season, where fans could devour the episodes several at a time and multiple times, then discuss them on Internet message boards (Baltierra 11).

The show continues to survive moreso in the message board forums than on fansites like those inspired by Harry Potter or Middle Earth, but the community exists just the same – a group of people contributing to the knowledge of the show, and continuing its story and supporting its cast as they move into future endeavors. Ultimately, fan culture manifests itself in a variety of ways, and Party Down represents a very narrowly focused audience, one that appreciates different comedic forms and keeps shows alive even after their cancellation, all on the worldwide Internet community. Fan culture develops in interesting and exciting ways, and looking at Party Down as a microcosm of these cultures helps us to understand why it proliferates.


Party Down – What’s Important?

Shore says, “If Arrested Development was the king of television comedy, Party Down was the heir apparent” (Shore). Party Down was certainly the culmination of a decade of television comedy. It refined the styles, which had been present in several sitcoms up to that point. It was reflexive both about the nature of TV comedy and the Hollywood business, which both the characters and the show itself were involved in. In its cancellation and fan culture, it shows how a cancelled show no longer has to be the end, as it can be rewatched, dissected, and recontextualized for audiences for years to come.

But ultimately, the importance of Party Down is what came next. Sitcoms like Louie and Community have begun to play with self -reference and breaking the boundaries of what traditional sitcoms can be. Digital convergence has placed all of the episodes of the show online, and heralded a still developing trend of television shows finding second lives on Netflix. Networks, in their wisdom, are still cancelling shows before they’ve been given a chance to grow, but shows are also being allowed to grow even when the ratings are down, such as Community. And Party Down helped to continue the trend of a stable of comedic actors working together and making products that comment on themselves and the industry at large. Party Down is not the most unique show to exist, but it personifies many of the trends of sitcoms that became popular in the past decade, and it should be regarded as important, not just because of its cultural impact, but because of its humorous look at the business we so often take for granted.

Best song ever.