The new David Foster Wallace biopic The End of the Tour gives us a peek into the writer’s real-life relationship with television. Jason Segal’s performance depicts a man agonized by guilt over his own enjoyment. The film’s focus on shame sits well enough with Wallace’s legendary, notoriously difficult novel Infinite Jest, that large book that all your smart friends talk about but never read.
Infinite Jest was about a piece of Entertainment so entertaining that it destroys the viewer’s interest in life itself. Wallace’s suffering was such that he had to produce a thousand-page postmodern opus about addiction and modern media culture before he could feel OK about the fact that he likes watching television and eating candy.
I don’t want to comment Infinite Jest itself; at this point, I should confess that I too am included in that category of friends from the first paragraph (I only made it 100 pages in). But I would like to consider what it was about television in the 1990’s that drove Wallace to write such a book. (more…)
While everyone is busy complaining about how True Detective isn’t that good anymore or how Mr. Robot is so criminally underrated, I’ve been busy with other, more humble pursuits: namely, plunging into the dark, sublime world of reality television.
In case you’re looking to join me, here’s a rundown of five of the most essential reality TV shows on right now.
“All social rules and all relations between individuals are eroded by a cash economy.” –Karl Marx
A few years ago, a New York Times column by Alessandra Stanley commented on the relationship between class consciousness and reality television. Stanley observed that the role of class was the major distinguishing factor between scripted shows and reality television. Stanley says,
“The more reality shows mimic fictional series in tone, look and format, the easier it is to see where they differ: class consciousness. Sitcoms and dramatic series drum up tension by assaulting social barriers. Most reality shows take them for granted and leave them untouched.” (more…)
When Chris Harrison unveiled his devious, coldhearted plot to pit fan-favorite heir apparent Kaitlyn against the silken-haired, unshowered villainess Britt, there were no illusions about the process. With a cruel smirk, Harrison explained:
“For the first time in Bachelorette history, we’re gonna have two bachelorettes. The 25 men on Night 1 are going to have the ultimate say about who they think would make the best wife.”
Arriving at the Sufjan Stevens show last Friday, two questions weighed on my mind. The first was a practical matter: how drunk was my Google Maps, because at the destination it gave me for Kings Theatre, instead of the grand, newly-refurbished concert hall, I found myself looking at a nondescript door between a nail salon and a wig factory. This didn’t seem right. (more…)
“My staff look amazing. I mean they really are gorgeous. Sometimes I wish they were a little more beautiful on the inside, but they look great.”
To say that reality television showcases “shitty people” for us to gawk at is, generally speaking, a misguided cliché. It presumes that normal people are not shitty in the first place, and more importantly it fails to appreciate the permeability of the boundary between self and other. (more…)
The success of 50 Shades of Grey has opened up a certain conversation, however confused and hastily politicized, about the nature and role of domination and submission in human sexuality. This topic has been explored by writers and artists for centuries, stretching back in its current form to the Marquis de Sade and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, but what’s interesting about 50 Shades in the contemporary context is the extent to which it has been received as part of the popular conversation over normative sexuality. Contrary to popular belief, 50 Shades isn’t about BDSM at all; it’s about men and women.
The conversation that 50 Shades is trying to have is thorny, and one that our contemporary pop cultural discourse seems particularly ill-suited to speak about meaningfully. The problem with the 50 Shades conversation seems to be that the book and movie are either taken too seriously (as a horrific document to misogyny and male violence) or not seriously enough (as laughable “mommy porn” or not “real BDSM”); I consider these the criticisms from feminism and fetishism, respectively. But the key here is to adopt a stance that is neither dismissive nor sanctimonious and instead to consider the phenomenon on its own terms. (more…)
Over the last few weeks, Brooklyn’s Morbid Anatomy Museum has held a series of lectures on the historical context of hysteria and the often bizarre treatment of hysterical patients. In her first talk, Asti Hustvedt, author of Medical Muses: Hysteria in Nineteenth-Century Paris, described in fascinating detail the transformation that hysteria underwent as a result of the work of revolutionary neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot.
Charcot’s innovation was in re-characterizing hysteria from an intrinsically feminine form of madness to a neurological disorder like any other, capable of affecting both men and women alike. His research at the famed Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in the late 1800’s was dedicated to studying and popularizing this new approach. Though they didn’t last long, his ideas about hysteria changed the way we thought about the human mind and gender, laying significant basis for the Freudian revolution just a few decades later.
Obviously sensing he was onto something, Charcot became known for putting on public events in which his hysterical patients would literally “perform” their symptoms for spectators. Charcot would personally select patients with the “best” symptoms to present, inducing the outrageous and shocking behavior through hypnotism and other quasi-occult practices. In this way, suffering from severe hysteria became a twisted form of celebrity.
The other night, with Hustvedt’s discussion fresh in my head, a provocative thought occurred to me. Charcot died in 1893, but his popularization of hysterical femininity as celebrity is still with us today. Inducing and performing hysterical symptoms form the basis of much of what we call “reality TV.” Nowhere is this more apparent than on ABC’s The Bachelor.
Put another way: Chris Harrison is the cultural reincarnation of Jean-Martin Charcot, and the Bachelor Mansion bears a striking similarity to the Salpêtrière, transported from nineteenth-century France to modern-day Los Angeles.
Let me explain. (more…)
The 87th’s Academy Awards is this Sunday, and we’re happy to bring you our 100% syvologistic Oscars predictions.
As we reach the tail-end of awards season, it becomes easy to play the “jaded pop-culture afficianado” card and claim that the Oscars don’t matter. (This is true, but only insofar as Nothing Matters.)
But as this year’s Selma-snub embriolment demonstrates, who gets nominated for an Oscar and who doesn’t is a condition of broad cultural relevance. Like other pompous sybmolic spectacles, the Oscars are a screen through which we talk about culture and experience while pretending to talk about entertainment.
The picks below are optimistic predictions, meaning they represent a negotiated medium between what we want to happen and what we believe will happen. They’re neither cynnical nor naïve. They’re based on the assumption that while great things don’t usually happen, sometimes OK things can happen.
So even when we’re wrong, we’re right.
Some preliminary notes:
First, this is a semi-loose ranking. I’m not really trying to nitpick about whether one particular movie was actually better than the one ranked just below it. This is more of a mid-macro level thing. Exact positions are as always debatable but broadly this is the deal.
Second, of course, I didn’t see everything last year. But I saw practically everything. The two consolation lists following the main list will give you an idea of everything else notable that I saw, and if you are so inclined, you can extrapolate from that the fact that I haven’t gotten around to seeing 22 Jump Street or Mr. Turner yet.
Lastly, I want to point out that only one-fifth of the movies below were nominated for Best Picture. Most of them haven’t gotten any awards-season attention at all. So, I hope this list does something to show that 2014 was a fairly solid year in film, despite what the various outrages and general soullessness of the awards season may have us thinking.