April 28, 2020

The beautiful and tragic world of “Tales from the Loop”

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 6:10 pm by chavisory

When I was in creative writing class in high school, whenever we were stumped for a writing prompt or idea, we would be sent to Chris Van Allsburg’s book, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, a picture book composed of haunting and richly detailed, but disconnected, pencil drawings.

Even before I knew that the new sci-fi series on Amazon Prime, Tales from the Loop, was actually based on a different series of paintings (those of Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag, with whom I was not familiar before), it reminded me of what it would feel like if somebody had created something like a coherent narrative encompassing all of the images of Van Allsburg’s book.

Tales from the Loop tells the interwoven stories of several families who live in a town, never named, above an underground experimental facility working with advanced, quasi-metaphysical technology, and the repercussions on all of their lives of their interaction with the cast-off detritus of the research station. Episodes can be understood as standalone stories, and there’s an obvious comparison to be made to shows like the Twilight Zone or the Outer Limits (which many of the more negative reviews have accused it of being a rip-off of), but what it feels more like to me is if Ray Bradbury and Stephen King teamed up to write Lake Woebegone Days, with the emotional tenor of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

Others have called it a “gentler” take on sci-fi, and while that’s not quite right, either, it does do something I haven’t quite seen before, which is to plunge us into a world of strange and advanced technology, and then not engage with or explicate the theoretical science of it almost at all, in favor of dedicating the storytelling almost entirely to the emotional fallout of characters’ decision-making about it. The result is often anything but gentle, though it is relentlessly humanistic and emotionally immediate.

One aspect of the storytelling I particularly appreciated is that there is no sense whatsoever, at any point, that anything has to work out right in the end.

Because the thing is, that is not actually a rule in the real world. Things can be fucked up and stay fucked up, beyond the end of an episode, or a season, or forever. Things can go wrong that can never truly be made right.

Even much grimmer and darker shows like the Walking Dead maintain a sense, which ebbs and flows like a tide, that eventually, inevitably, something has to go right for these characters. But this show just has none of that, a lack which allows it to maintain an outrageous degree of suspense for a show so emotionally- and character-driven, and occasionally makes it one of the most terrifying and devastating things I’ve ever seen on television. But the terror comes not from threats posed by disruptive technology or supernatural, external evil or civilization-ending catastrophe, but just from the small and selfish ways in which humans fail each other.

And that’s not to say that nothing good or beautiful ever happens in this story; it does. But every time it does, it’s the consequence of a character proactively, and sometimes painfully, choosing right. Nothing ever feels inevitable about it, and for that, it’s all the more wondrous.

Most of the characters find themselves in trouble not only when they fumble around with mysterious technology they don’t understand (although definitely that, too), but when they attempt to use that technology as a shortcut or escape hatch from being honest with each other or themselves. The thesis of the show isn’t anti-technology, but things go badly when characters try to use technology to evade the fundamental problems of being human. When they manage to make things better for each other is when they face their own deepest hearts and vulnerabilities.

March 26, 2020

On the surreal experience of reading an out-of-date Smithsonian magazine in November of 2019

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 4:47 pm by chavisory

Every year for Christmas, for years and years, my grandmother gave me a subscription to Smithsonian Magazine rather than a more conventional present, and being a nerd with very little storage space, I appreciated this.

Being a nerd who also doesn’t have a lot of spare time, this gift also accumulated into quite the backlog of unread issues.

The last several months I’ve been attempting to commit to taking more mental downtime for myself, and also working on getting through my stack of unread Smithsonians, and so often while I’m cooking or waiting for water to boil, I’ll just choose one at random.

And that is how I came to be reading one night, standing in my kitchen, about NASA’s Journey to Mars project, whose first test flight would launch an unmanned capsule called the Orion beyond the moon and back, in the year 2018.

And for a second, it felt very seriously as if I had fallen through a wormhole or slipped into some kind of alternate timeline, or fallen asleep for too long and woken up in an unfamiliar future.

Because I remembered nothing, no media coverage or publicity whatsoever, about a test flight of an impending mission to Mars having been flown in the year 2018.

I checked the date on the cover: May of 2016.

So as late as the spring of 2016, we were roughly on track to be executing an eventually manned mission to Mars, in the foreseeable future.

It felt kind of like reading a sci-fi novel written decades ago, about all the stuff that was supposed to have been invented or accomplished by the year in which you’re currently reading the novel and laughing because that’s not what happened, only more unnerving and much less funny.

I wondered if it had still happened. Or whether NASA had had its budgets for things like this slashed, positions eliminated, development of the necessary science set back by decades?

Surely, if it had happened, it would have been bigger news? We’d all be talking about this, right?

Then again, maybe not. Given the situation.

Or maybe it was delayed not by budget cuts or political meddling, but just by normal engineering problems, and in the face of everything else, that was just never going to make the news and the whole thing slipped quietly out of collective consciousness, waiting for a better time.

The last couple of years virtually everyone I know has been walking around with this sense that time is broken. Too much is happening too fast to keep up with. We’re dealing with assimilating a volume of information basically unprecedented in human history, ecological events of inhuman proportion occurring on human timescales. We don’t know what day it is. We don’t know what happened this morning as opposed to last week. It feels like time is fractured, like something has gone very badly wrong on a fundamental level, but we could never prove it, only keep telling each other, “No, it didn’t used to be like this.”

Holding that magazine felt like holding hard evidence. Like having found a newspaper clipping from in alternate future.

Like a light left on, shining under the door back to the right one.

I wonder if that future is still there somehow.

If we could still get back.

*

(I did actually look up what’s going on right now with the Journey to Mars project, and while it’s not quite on schedule as laid out in the 2016 article, it is still progressing! In the summer of 2019, a second successful test of the Orion capsule’s Launch Abort system was completed, with the next milestone being to return astronauts to the moon!

“In effect, NASA successfully demonstrated that the Orion spacecraft’s LAS can outrun a rocket and pull its astronaut crew to safety in case something goes wrong during launch. As Kirasich indicated, the test is another milestone in the agency’s preparation for returning to the Moon and making the ‘Journey to Mars.'”)

March 6, 2020

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , at 1:16 pm by chavisory

There’s been a dynamic this primary season, and this is adapted from a Facebook post that I made yesterday minutes before Elizabeth Warren had officially announced the end of her campaign, but it’s something I feel the need to say something about.

And I don’t have numbers or statistics to throw out here, this is my personal, anecdotal experience; however, it has been …rather notable to me.

Throughout this long primary campaign, and especially in the last couple of days, I have heard, repeatedly, from various people and from only slightly different groups of people, that Elizabeth Warren supporters needed to drop our vote for her and support Bernie if we wanted a real progressive candidate, or to drop our vote for her and vote Biden if we really wanted to win in the general election, but either way, to “stop splitting the vote.”

I have never, not once, not one single time, heard a Warren supporter or campaign volunteer arguing that supporters of any other candidate had any kind of an obligation to drop support for their candidate and get behind ours instead for whatever reason we said.

And that’s not why I decided to support her in the first place, but God, did I appreciate it.

I think that there is something that people making these arguments about our obligation to fall in line for a candidate do not maybe understand, which is just how much girls like me hear stuff like this, and just how tired we are of it.

Like, however many times growing up you think I got told that my duty was to just go along with what somebody else wanted of me, that I needed to stop being inconvenient and make things easier on other people, that I just needed to understand that other people didn’t think like me, that I needed to be “realistic” and not fight for what I really wanted… multiply it by about ten.

No, really. However often you think it was, it was more.

(And, incidentally, if you were or are a person doing this? You have never been the only one. Other people were, and are, doing it, too. I was getting this everywhere. If you thought you were the first person ever to tell a stubborn little girl some hard “truths” about how the world worked, that it would never change for people like me? Guess what. You weren’t. You’re not. You’re just one more. In all likelihood, you are not some brave truth-teller in that girl’s life. You’re just a bully.

I want you to know that.)

I am completely immune to it, in terms of my decision-making. I have been hearing it for so long, you don’t even understand.

But it hasn’t stopped making me so. angry. And it will not make me view your candidate in a more favorable light.

Elizabeth Warren suspended her campaign this week. I am sad. I am disappointed. But I was never not ready for this news, I was never not thinking about how I would vote and who I’d support if she didn’t win the nomination. “Loving Elizabeth Warren means planning for America to break your heart,” as Monica Hesse put it in the Washington Post. Because, again, there is almost nothing I’m more used to than the fact that what is obvious to me is not what’s obvious to most people. That’s the water I’ve been breathing since the day I was born.

There is nothing I need to be told again less than “You have to understand that most people aren’t like you, Emily.”

I know. Trust me, I know.

And I can handle that, I can handle losing honestly, if that’s what happened. If it was just that too many people disagreed with me about who the strongest and most prepared candidate was, and not that they fell victim to some sneering, defeatist, self-fulfilling prophecy about how she could never win anyway, so why bother trying?

If that’s what it was, I’m not sure I can handle it.

Bernie Sanders is most likely my second choice. I never even took my Birdie sticker off of my laptop after the 2016 primaries, because I was not embarrassed of having supported Bernie or the reasons why I did. I am not going to have be sold very hard on voting for him again. But I am going to do so on the strength of his long Senate service, of his being right about the Iraq war when a lot of other basically decent people were wrong, on the trust that constituents from his home state testify to having in his integrity, and what I hear is a really, really good disability policy.

It will not be because of anyone who told me I needed to give up and fall in line because they said so.

January 15, 2020

Institutionalization and Daryl Hannah and autistic people like me

Posted in Marginalization, Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 6:20 pm by chavisory

[This post is slightly expanded from a recent Facebook comment]

A friend posted this article about Daryl Hannah this week, which is a few years old, and which I enjoyed very much despite the totally melodramatic and unnecessarily stigmatizing headline (which she probably had no role in choosing).

And though the fact of Hannah’s autism, and the fact that autistic people can and do succeed at counter-intuitive, high-visibility careers like acting, is old news by now (and Sense8 has sadly reached the end of its run), I think it’s especially worth drawing attention to one aspect of the article, because it bears on an issue that is still very much under discussion in the autism community.

In particular, the childhood history Hannah relates really highlights how the gulf between autistic people whose parents and professionals say need to be in institutions because of the severity of their autism, and those of us who they say are “mildly affected” and just can’t understand, is just not what they assume it is.

Daryl Hannah is someone who could well have been institutionalized, had her parents believed the doctors who recommended it. And then anything that happened to her there, any deterioration of her condition, any given set of skills or knowledge she failed to acquire as a result of institutionalization, would have been used as evidence that she belonged there and not as evidence of injury by institutionalization. She’s probably right that she’d still be there today.

And today, she’d be being held up as an example of someone whose condition was so severe, whose daily living skills and ability to exercise autonomy was so lacking, that it was clearly understandable to institutionalize her, rather than someone who’s so outrageously successful her autism obviously can’t be that serious. Or that even if she is, she shouldn’t talk about it or use that label for herself because it takes attention away from autistic people with more intensive support needs.

When really the only difference is in the kind of chances she was given.

I know I’ve quoted my high school math teacher before, who said “A lot of times kids will ask me, ‘When am I going to use this?’ And the answer is, ‘Probably never.’ But if you don’t learn it, you definitely won’t.”

Someone never genuinely given a chance to live and grow in their own community, never will.

Daryl Hannah narrowly avoided institutionalization. And for all that some factions of parents and autism professionals will say that this isn’t really about autistic people like me or Daryl Hannah, for as different as they say I am from autistic people who they insist really do need to live in institutions, frankly, if it could’ve happened to Daryl Hannah, it could’ve happened to me.

I don’t think somebody else’s kid really does belong in an institution because their support needs really are greater than Daryl Hannah’s, or mine. I think they deserve to live in their communities as much as she or I do.

I think the rest of us would be as fortunate to have a chance to know them and have them in our lives as much as we are for the pleasure of having Daryl Hannah’s art in the world instead of having her locked in an institution while we’re told why she really belongs there.

August 16, 2019

Betrayed on Sesame Street

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 2:37 pm by chavisory

I wrote this story down intending it to be part of a different post entirely, about a particular set of musical experiences. I didn’t really want to be telling it for this, but here we are.

A few years ago, shortly after Sesame Street came under fire from the autistic community for its participation in Autism Speaks’ annual Light It Up Blue campaign, I was one of many people, invited through various organizations, to give feedback on development of the “See Amazing” web materials, centered on the character of a 4-year-old autistic girl.

I didn’t have any illusions that our feedback would all be incorporated or that the end result would be everything we wanted, but it was a chance worth taking that some of it would be, that we could affect on a really basic level what American children learn about autism.

And what might be some of the earliest representation of themselves that autistic children ever see.

I got very busy, and when the campaign was finally released to the public, amid a flurry of mixed reviews from the autistic and parent communities, I just didn’t have the bandwidth to engage with any of it. But some of the criticism was confusing to me based on the initial materials I’d seen, which had been deeply imperfect, but also far from being anywhere as offensive as many mainstream depictions of autistic children or characters. There were fallacies that I hoped would’ve been corrected; there were places where I hoped the focus or language would be shifted, but for a curriculum set aimed at preschool-aged children, it had had a lot of good potential. Of course different people can have sincerely different reactions to the same thing, but it made me wonder whether the final product had somehow gotten much worse than it had started.

I was too afraid to find out.

Spring of 2017 came and, once again during a week when I just didn’t have spoons to spare, the announcement that Julia would become a real muppet, and not only a web character, and another wave of commentary that I didn’t feel I could usefully engage with until I had my own opinion of the results. But I hadn’t watched any of it. I just didn’t have it in me. Although assertions like “obviously they didn’t talk to autistic adults” made me furious, as I knew that they had. I didn’t know what the impact of our contributions had been, or if it had been disregarded entirely.

Finally one morning I knew it was past time that I caught up with Julia, and clicked on a video, of Abby Cadabby and Julia singing the Sesame Street theme song together. It started with Julia alone with her bunny, humming to herself, before Abby joins her. I assumed I knew how the skit would go. Abby would join in and sing along, Julia would keep humming, and they’d finish the song together, each in her own way. Cute. Mostly harmless.

But then after Abby sang a line, Julia started singing, too, and my jaw hit the floor.

I couldn’t figure out how they’d come up with it; I had never told anyone about this yet. I had never seen this portrayed or described anywhere.

Julia’s echolalia worked just like mine.

And the message wasn’t “See? She can be included too, even though she has autism!” She just was. It was that her echolalia was just like mine, and it was just …okay.

I have seen a lot of autistic characters portrayed in media. I’ve felt genuine kinship with some of them.

And I had never, ever seen that.

And yes, the portrayal of the character and the way her story was told was imperfect in many ways, but that mattered, and it was something I wanted four-year-old autistic kids, and four-year-old non-autistic kids, and their parents and families, to see

That the way we do things can actually just be allowed to be okay.

I went back to the notes that I’d submitted to see if I could figure out if I’d said anything that could have caused this, but I hadn’t really. It was extreme serendipity, or something someone else had suggested, or that the alchemy of all of our input together had made such an extrapolation or leap of understanding possible, I guess.

Research even showed that exposure to the program measurably increased parental feelings of competence, acceptance, and hope for their autistic children’s potential to be included in the their communities.

And it made what happened next all the more a betrayal of our input and good faith.

This week ASAN announced the end of its partnership with Sesame Street and the “See Amazing” program, after the show leadership declined to reverse course from its decision to use Julia to advertise Autism Speaks’ 100 Days kit, notoriously full of stigma against autistic children and poor-quality information.

A friend asked whether any of us are truly surprised by this development, and the answer, I guess, is no, not really. But it still hurts, like so many things that happen to us again and again and again and yet still hurt, every time. Like so many things that you see and hear when you’re an autistic person at all engaged with a popular media that presumes people like you aren’t watching or listening.

But God, there was so much reason to hope this time.

I really think Sesame Street owes the autistic community, and every family for whom Julia’s inclusion had been a positive development, an explanation for this.

April 14, 2019

Discovering the Disintegration Loops: Read the comments

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , at 3:02 pm by chavisory

We’ve been dealing with a big data entry project at work and so I’ve been doing a lot of podcast listening while I slog through it. A recent Radiolab episode contained a short feature on this piece, and I was so smitten I went and looked it up and found the whole thing.

In a break from standard Internet survival protocol, I really think everyone kind of owes it to themselves to go read all the comments on the YouTube link, but by some serendipitous happenstance of comment ranking, these were the first two, in this order, when I first went to listen to the entire piece.

distintegration loop comments

Anyway, I feel like this is probably one of those pieces of music that finds people when they need it to find them. So if that’s you today, well, I hope it did.

January 11, 2019

Lessons learned watching The Neverending Story alone in a bar on a night in October

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 11:06 pm by chavisory

Not long ago, I watched the Neverending Story alone in a bar.

A friend and I had planned to meet up for a drink after we both got out of rehearsal, but she wound up having to attend to a work-related emergency at the last minute, and so I had some time to sit and write over a cocktail until she got back. An amount of time which turned out to be the length of the Neverending Story, which the bartender had turned on the television above the bar.

Though still fairly early in the evening, it was already noisy enough that the closed captions were on.

I had loved the movie as a kid. We had a bootlegged VHS copy a babysitter had left behind, to which a prior owner with a deaf child had somehow added homemade captions using label tape. But I think I hadn’t actually seen it since college, when the Tate Student Center movie theater at UGA had one night held a $2.00 midnight showing.

A couple of friends and I went. I didn’t expect the showing to be sold out—I don’t think I’d ever really known the movie was a cult classic and not just some obscure curiosity due to my only experience of it having been a glitchy secondhand VHS and not having had much in common with the pop culture tastes of kids my age when I was growing up—but there wasn’t an empty seat in the theater.

And then they couldn’t get the projector to work.

An hour went by while they tried.

No one left. No one.

Probably they were hoping that we would eventually give up and go home and they’d get the projector serviced later and reschedule the date. But no one moved. We were there to see the Neverending Story, damn it, and we were going to see it.

Two hours went by. Up on screen, we occasionally saw flashes of hope in the form of the computer desktop, screensavers, and glimpses of the SETI search program that evidently the booth’s computer had running in the background, but no movie. Eventually people started acting out scenes down in front of the screen, Rocky Horror style. This was 2002 or so, so it wasn’t even like people had smart phones to amuse ourselves. Everyone. just. waited. It was probably the most astonishing demonstration of group solidarity I had ever seen at that point in my life.

The projector was finally induced to work. It was around 2:00 in the morning. I actually don’t remember clearly, but I’m sure cheers went up.

What I do remember with almost painful clarity was the dawning realization of how different the movie was from my childhood memory of it. I know I’m by far not the only person who has this experience; I’ve had this conversation with multiple age-peers since then, but it was truly shocking. The writing was awkward and goofy. The low-budget special effects were awful; the story trajectory didn’t really hang together. The whole thing came off as laughably, vaguely amateur. It was jarring.

A younger friend who saw it recently for the first time said “I feel like I hallucinated that whole thing,” and I said that was probably the correct thing to feel.

Fast forward to one night this past October. I’m writing alone, waiting for a friend, having a Jack and Coke by candlelight, when the Neverending Story comes on the bar television. It’s now been a longer time since I last saw it in college than it had been then since I’d seen it as a kid.

And maybe it was that I was very exhausted and a little bit drunk by then. It had been a long couple weeks of rehearsal and maybe I was just hungry for some fluffy escapist fantasy. Maybe this bar is actually slightly imbued with magical qualities, a position I don’t become less convinced of with time.

Maybe it’s that in the intervening years I’ve become much more able to see and hear with an uncritical heart again (and that’s another, longer, story).

But somehow it was every bit the most beautiful movie in the world that I remembered. I kept waiting for its faults to show themselves, and watched with astonishment equal to that I felt sitting in the UGA student center theater 16 years ago as they didn’t. It looked entirely and luminously like the movie it was meant to be.

I also thought I remembered the movie’s thesis. I didn’t. Or at least, I remembered the one that’s made explicit throughout the movie, that children’s imagination and creativity are necessary to the sustenance of the world.

But I realized it had another one, implied but never articulated, like a secret flip-side to that one, undiscoverable without being on the other side of a certain amount of life experience.

On this night, in the week after Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, an outcome which we’d thought we were powerless to prevent and then for weeks came to believe that maybe we could, that maybe the revelations of one person ultimately could, only to find that they would not. After weeks and weeks and months and months of ongoing horrors emanating from the White House, which in so many ways we hoped we could alter but could not, not because we didn’t care or try but because really, they were out of our hands, I felt for Atreyu like I never had before, who actually looked like the child he was to me for the first time. Who tried so hard and yet did not prevent the collapse of Fantasia under the power of the Nothing. How he blamed himself for failing, when really, he alone could never have defeated it.

The reason why it happened wasn’t because he failed, and it wasn’t his fault for trying and failing.

And that even in failure, his effort and loss weren’t wasted; the fact of his being willing to try wasn’t pointless.

For he actually brought Bastian all the way to the Empress, without even knowing.

We won’t always be able to win everything we imagine. A significant percentage of the time, in fact, we probably won’t.

We still have to be willing to try.

October 21, 2018

The lost children of the X-Files

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , at 7:40 pm by chavisory

I meant to write this post months ago but in truth I’ve been thinking about it this whole time. (Note: This post should be considered to contain massive spoilers, mainly for seasons 5, 9, 10, and 11.)

I tended to give season 11 of the X-Files higher marks than most other viewers I knew. I found the episodes high-quality, the characterizations of an older Mulder and Scully believable and the chemistry between them still undeniable. Although the author of this post managed to capture in one line, more concisely than anything else I’ve read, why I felt the revival failed to ever quite find its footing in a very changed political climate “when power refuses to go through the motions of concealing its most brutal machinations,” I found the standalone episodes as strong and often stronger than in the original series, and in general felt season 11 struggled less than season 10. But there is one regard in which the season 11 finale left me feeling betrayed and hollow and I’m still struggling a little with it.

And my complaint isn’t with the decision to leave Scully (miraculously) pregnant (again) with a child that she knows for sure is hers and Mulder’s. That is only theirs, together, not the consequence of any experiment or alien intervention, indisputably and without any suspicion otherwise.

Unlike a lot of other fans, I wasn’t particularly turned off by the decision to characterize Jackson as not a very nice or good person, either. I think that choice could’ve provided a lot of opportunity for interesting character development and tension, if Jackson weren’t going to be so terribly shortchanged by the story in virtually every other regard.

It’s that the way the finale dispatched with Jackson was not only abrupt and callous, but illuminated certain troubling trends throughout the series.

Inter-relatedly, I found it a grave mistake and a baffling one on virtually everyone’s part to take at face value CSM’s claim that he was Jackson’s true father. CSM has never been a reliable narrator. Even when telling the truth, he is always seeking his own self-aggrandizement. DNA TESTING EXISTS. There is no reason for Skinner to just believe him because he says this. There is no reason for Scully to just believe this because Skinner says CSM told him so. Scully knows more about reproductive biology than Skinner does and would seek independent verification of this assertion, unless she were to decide, understandably, that she’d rather not know, and in that case, that’s an emotional arc I would wish to see. That Carter himself has apparently decided CSM’s claim to be true, within the dreadfully constrained storytelling time he had available this season, put his characters in the indefensible position of acting not only out of character but out of all consideration for their own history and everything that both they and we know.

It’s a betrayal of too much.

But then, Chris Carter himself has notably not always been a reliable narrator with regard to the truth of his own creations. And that may seem a remarkably arrogant statement from a fan, but consider the span of time during which Carter swore up, down, and sideways that Mulder and Scully would never be together romantically.

beyond the sea

[Yeah, this looks like an entirely normal professional interaction between two people who have worked together for a low single-digit number of months, but sure. Okay.]

Much of the background trajectory of this story has involved Mulder and Scully both devastatingly and relentlessly losing their entire families, beginning with the inciting incident of the whole story arc in the abduction of Samantha. Over the ensuing 25 years, we’re witness to the near-complete decimation of both characters’ families (with the exception of Scully having two living brothers, though I’m not left with the impression that she has much of a relationship left with either of them. Charlie she describes as estranged from the family, and her relationship with Bill seems strained at best the last time we hear from him) and it feels right to me that, at the end of it all, they have this chance to start again. To have a family entirely their own again.

And yet.

On one hand, I appreciate Chris Carter’s determination that the X-Files not turn into a domestic drama, that that was not the kind of show he was interested in making or most of us in watching.

On the other, this story is strewn with abandoned and forgotten children and it doesn’t entirely sit right.

I’m largely leaving aside children who were centrally involved in “monster of the week” cases to draw attention to those who seem to have been created entirely for the sake of advancing the mythology, but little to no further thought given to them as people or even as characters.

1. The Samantha and Kurt* clones. There were a lot of them. And in contrast to Jeremiah Smith’s assertion that they were nothing but drones, we see several of their adult iterations in multiple episodes (“Colony,” “End Game,” “Memento Mori”), and they act not only with consciousness and agency, but with conscience.

(There’s a small detail in “Herrenvolk” which touched me when I caught it while rewatching, which is that somebody, at the house where the cloned worker children live, somebody has—again, despite Jeremiah Smith’s characterization of them as drones without language—bothered to paint labels on objects around the house. The doorbell has clumsily been labeled “bell” in white paint with an arrow. Somebody is or was around who thinks at least slightly more of them than Smith portrays to Mulder.)

herrenvolk2

2. What about the other experimental hybrid children of Emily’s generation? The children, technically, of Penny Northern and the other women abducted and subjected to the same experiments as Scully. Did they all sicken and die in toddlerhood the way Emily did? Maybe, but… the nature of Emily’s illness was bizarre and dangerous in a way that threatened to attract a lot of attention. Is the horrible truth that most or all of them wound up back in the clutches of the Syndicate and the hybridization experiment, the fate that Scully allowed Emily to die to save her from?

3. Where’s Gibson?

I can buy that Gibson’s resentment of Scully’s ultimate failure to protect him might’ve been too much for him. But it has never felt okay that a kid who Scully cared so much about basically fell off the face of the earth to her.

(Edited to add: I got reminded that in the season 9 finale, it turned out that Mulder had been in hiding with Gibson in the Southwest during most of that year, and as both Mulder and Scully go underground, Reyes and Doggett promise to try to keep him safe. But…Reyes apparently shortly wound up in the employ of the CSM. And Doggett…we don’t really hear from again. So my concern for Gibson’s fate being dropped as an issue remains pretty much intact.)

And then there are parallels it’s nearly impossible not to draw between the way that Scully’s dialogue treats Emily and Jackson. That more than once, the children Scully is most apt to describe as “not meant to be” are her own. Who she fights for relentlessly, until the moment she doesn’t, with remarkably similar words.

Although I find myself more sympathetic now for Scully’s decision at the end of “Emily” than I was when the episode first aired. It’s not just that saving Emily would likely be difficult and painful, or that she would always require complicated medical care in order to keep alive. It was that, every moment she remained alive, especially if Scully failed in seeking custody, she risked recapture by the Syndicate and subjugation to God knows what.

Is it the same with Jackson, at the end? That she says these nearly indefensible words not in order to write him off but in an attempt to protect him from further torment? Is this the only way she knows how?

*

It’s hard to reconcile the person who so recently agonized over the autopsies of two children only a couple episodes ago (“Familiar”), one of whom was named Emily (which, if that choice wasn’t calculated to remind us right then of Scully’s other doomed child, was literally the dumbest character naming oversight I have ever seen) with the one who is so ready to give Jackson up as dead and get over him after learning, supposedly, that he was an experiment and not Mulder’s. After 17 years of pining. After the monologue we heard her give to Jackson in “Ghouli.”

It doesn’t add up.

Only, if it were intended to be true to Scully’s character and not simply that Chris Carter needed both Emily and Jackson out of the story, then I begin to see why CSM would even remotely think that upon learning Jackson was his and not Mulder’s, that Scully would go with him and not Mulder.

And I want to be sympathetic that Chris Carter was working with an extremely constrained amount of screen time in these last two seasons, but it still feels like a deeply discordant conclusion for a character who has always, always, been on the side of the vulnerable and especially on the side of threatened children in this story, even when she’s failed.

For a show so thematically occupied with what kind of a future we’re making, it seems to consider the trail of children it’s created remarkably narratively disposable. And I don’t actually believe that is Scully’s belief with regard to Jackson, but the words she’s given to speak make it unsettling close to being indistinguishable from it.

*

The only way I can manage to justify that dialogue is as an attempt by Scully to pre-empt her own grief for a child who she always knew, in the end, she’d never be able to keep. Who she’d already lost twice and mourned as dead once. That she’s just moments ago, “lost” more figuratively in terms of what she thought she knew about his very existence.

That at that moment, she just couldn’t let herself go through it again.

Or that what she’s trying to justify to Mulder is to let Jackson go because he desperately doesn’t want to or can’t cope with being found. (She would, after all, know very shortly or even perhaps already does that Jackson survives.) The Cigarette-Smoking Man is dead, but who else may not be or may still be in pursuit of what Jackson represents is still, in this moment, unknown.

I don’t know about anyone else, but personally, I find support for this interpretation in looking at her face rather than listening to her words in the final scene of “My Struggle IV.”

my struggle iv pic

This isn’t a loss to which she’s reconciled. She knows that this isn’t a happy ending. I don’t believe she believes her own words. These are not people at peace with Jackson’s loss here.

But I don’t believe in my heart that Chris Carter actually did any of that emotional calculus, as opposed to simply needing to exit from the story yet another kid that he doesn’t actually know what to do with. This is not any variety of a resolution as it seems we’re expected to accept; it’s a continuation of the very same ongoing tragedy.

 

*Digressive footnote: Where and who, by the way, is or was the original Kurt Crawford? I realize this is not an issue integral to the story or a “plot hole,” it’s just information we don’t have, but I’ve always wondered. One of the other children of Syndicate members taken with Samantha? Just another abductee like Max Fennig or the women of the MUFON group? We see a lot of him for someone whose very essence of character remains a complete cipher, and he’s a weird, weird foil in that regard to Samantha, whose existence and therefore absence was so very central to the character formation of Fox Mulder and the motivating force for his entire quest. We do see the real Samantha Mulder, if only in flashback and eventually in spirit; we have a sense of who she was, if not her point of view. We never see the real Kurt Crawford. He exists in the narrative not even in flashback but only as an echo, and yet he’s pervasive in it. I’m not sure that’s the case for any other character, and it places him among the very weirdest ghosts in the X-Files to me.

June 9, 2018

Review of HBO’s “Fahrenheit 451”

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , at 9:57 pm by chavisory

This post should be considered to contain significant spoilers for book, movie, and play versions of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

I reread Fahrenheit 451 last year in the fall, trying in some small way to refresh the sense of courage and urgency of living life in the world that I got from the book when it had first become one of my favorites when I was barely a teenager. It felt important to do as the prospects of very real and not only literary authoritarianism seemed to draw ever closer.

I wondered whether what made it feel so important in my memory held up. It did, and in some surprisingly chilling ways and not only the ones I thought I remembered. So obviously I greeted the announcement earlier this year of HBO’s forthcoming film production of Fahrenheit 451 with a mixture of delight and trepidation.

fahrenheit 451

I wasn’t disappointed by my reread, and I wasn’t disappointed by the newly released movie, though I will say at the outset that the movie departs in some significant ways from the plot of the novel. But on the whole I found it a worthy and important adaptation of the story for our present, and I hazard to say that I think Ray Bradbury would be pleased with it.

Clarisse is the character probably furthest from her characterization in the book, and I enjoyed her adaptation a lot, though it was not what I anticipated at all. She’s both more active in the story and more dangerous than in the book, more morally compromised but better adapted to the world she actually inhabits. She is not the somewhat naïve idealist of the book, but the movie preserves something essentially tender about her and the way that it draws Montag.

It also struck me later that the Clarisse we see in the movie is a character who could plausibly be the future of the Clarisse we know from the novel, after she and her family abruptly disappear from the story. Montag hears a rumor that she may’ve been struck by a car and killed, but we never truly know what happens to her. An earlier stage production has Montag finding her again among the book people, which is also where she winds up, older, in the movie, having long-since lost her parents as a teenager.

The ubiquitous household assistant Yuxie, reminiscent not only of our present-day electronic companions Siri and Alexa but also 2001: A Space Odyssey’s traitorous Hal, serves as an alarmingly timely minor nemesis as I watched the movie during a week in which we first learned of an Echo Dot secretly recording a private conversation without prompting and e-mailing it to a random third party from among its owner’s contacts. It brings to mind the characterizations of Totalitarianism by writers like Hannah Arendt and Timothy Snyder as “not an all-powerful state, but the erasure of the difference between private and public life.” It isn’t simply that an oppressive government is constantly surveilling all we do or say; it’s that there is no such thing as a private citizen anymore. Everyone is living out their lives on computer screens in full view of all of their neighbors, all the time, driven by the exhortation to “Stay Vivid,” and the offending screens aren’t simply wall to wall installations in every home, but are literally projected across the public square.

“Could he have the Omnis? Stay Vivid to find out,” a disembodied newscaster intones as Montag is pursued by the fire department. All of reality has become a reality show.

I actually laughed out loud at the irony of Beatty’s order “Keep looking for that Omnis!” The Natives are a society utterly reliant on the “Nine,” an amorphous and completely pervasive information stream like a hybrid between our present incarnation of the internet and the Cloud, and yet the authorities don’t conceive that the Omnis may not be a discrete, tangible object.

It’s almost as if the thing they fear the most is the only threat they can imagine. (In the film version of Guy Montag’s world, not only books but virtually all analog media is banned.)

Something the movie does a great deal of that I was glad for is that even where entire characters, tropes, or plot points are omitted or radically altered, a kind of sense memory of the source material is evoked. So while the crime scene horror of the Mechanical Hound is replaced by a device used as summary punishment that obliterates a victim’s fingerprints, Beatty at one point says to Montag, “You’re still the same dog I raised, barking at someone else’s command.” Clifford’s barn of books recalls an image that occurs only in Montag’s own fantasies late in the novel. The book-memorizing collective isn’t a band of railroad-traveling hobos as they are in the novel, but we get a lovely little scene of Clarisse teaching Montag to play the harmonica. The seashell in-ear radios aren’t a thing in the film (the invasive nature of technology in this world having advanced far beyond earbuds), but the climax turns on Montag’s theft of a tiny radio transponder that fulfills the story trajectory in a slightly different manner. It’s a pattern that suffuses the film with a sense of deep respect and affection for Bradbury’s original text, and made me feel like I was seeing an alternate refraction of the story rather than a betrayal of the spirit of the book.

Probably the omission that I regretted the most was that of Faber, although to an extent, the functions of his paranoia and desperate optimism are preserved in Clarisse in this version of the story.

I’m still struggling with how I feel about a scene, not present in the book, in which the book people test Montag’s commitment by demanding he kill a hooded captive who they say is a captured fellow fireman. He’s stopped the instant before he does it in a tableau inescapably resonant of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac, but clearly recalls the moment only slightly later when he does actually kill a former colleague, although this time in actual self-preservation. Days later I’m still not sure how I feel about it, and I’m not totally sure we’re supposed to be, rather than asking some difficult questions about how far we would be willing to go in pursuit of what we believe, versus when the lengths to which we’re willing to go become betrayal of that which we claim to defend, and under what circumstances those actions may be justified.

The original book-burners of this story, after all, as Beatty relates, were trying to protect safety and happiness for all. When they determined they had a right to impose their versions of those goals at any and all costs, including the emotional autonomy of fellow citizens, they became the psychic violence they claimed to abhor. The regime of censorship wasn’t ushered in by predictable bad guys, but by people with good intentions, claiming to act on behalf of the vulnerable.

I feel remiss not to delve more deeply into Michael B. Jordan’s acting, but the truth is that he disappears so completely into a relatable, melancholy execution of Guy Montag, who is not the natural-born social media hero he sometimes pretends to be even to himself, but an understated, haunted everyman often making clumsy decisions about whether he can remain complicit with what he’s finding out about the world, that I’m not quite sure what else to say. If you enjoyed him in Black Panther, this role is definitely a demonstration of his emotional versatility. He also served as an executive producer on the film and I’m excited to see what kind of material he might take on next.

March 30, 2018

Things I never knew I desperately needed there to be a movie about until now

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , at 9:49 am by chavisory

This is just a short list of things that have been blowing my mind lately.  I cannot believe we never learned about some of this stuff in school…

1. The fascinating life of King Michael of Norway.

2. In a Twitter conversation about ASL and The Shape of Water, I learned there were secret/underground Deaf clubs in the 1960’s.

3. The heavily female workforce of the early days of Atari.  (Well, I can believe we never learned this in school.)

4. The completely bonkers story of the making of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks.  (And this, I guess, though I did take a history of Rock and Roll class in college.)

5. Lost submarines considered to be “Still On Patrol.”

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