Thursday, September 13, 2012

Of Parks & Recreation's Sweetness

When I was thirteen, my English teacher incurred the wrath of my class by daring to discuss the theories on comedy of a scholar - possibly T.G.A. Nelson? - who posited that all humour is based on humiliation, on the way a comedic situation asserts the superiority of the person laughing, at the expense of someone else. We laugh, he said (she said), because we’re mostly relieved at not being the person in the comical situation; laughter asserts our dominance, and makes us feel better about ourselves. I think we were studying Brecht’s ‘Caucasian Chalk Circle’ at the time, and my teacher tied this theory of comedy in to Brecht’s determination not to give his audiences the satisfaction of the catharsis of comedy: in other words, he ensured that by underlining the artifice of the play we’re watching, he deprives the audience of that satisfying sense of relief and superiority that comedy can bring, and reminds us of the inherent awfulness of the world, of which we are part.

This is all a rather roundabout way of prefacing a critique of Parks & Recreation, the beloved NBC sitcom - beloved not just by my friends and basically all decent people, but also, to an extent, by me. I enjoy the show, and yet I’m constantly left hungry by it, feeling somewhat dissatisfied, as if there have been missed opportunities for the programme to strike harder, and be more bold. In many senses, the programme is bold, and strong: formally, it goes beyond traditional sitcom material by having a likable protagonist generally succeeding in her endeavours, and it furthermore surrounds her quite brilliantly by a cast of believable characters in the fictional but perfectly realised small town of Pawnee. The show also innovates in the narrative threads running through it, since it has a running story backing up each episode’s occurrences, so that we’re watching as much for the conclusion of the storyline as for the jokes - F.R.I.E.N.D.S did this somewhat with the Ross & Rachel thing, and The Office mastered it brilliantly with the love affair between Tim and Dawn, against the rise and fall of David Brent.

Very briefly, for people who don’t know what I’m harping on about: Parks & Recreation tells the story of Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), a small-town official in the Parks & Recreation department of the municipality of Pawnee. Over the course of the programme, she strives to get a horrible pit in the town converted into a beautiful park, put on a summer fair, and rise through the ranks of the town to become City Councillor. In the last season of the show, her campaign to be elected Councillor, pitting her as the plucky David to the rich boy Goliath of Bobby Newport (played by Paul Rudd), formed the essential narrative of the programme. Surrounded by her misfit but adorable acolytes as a kind of ragged campaign team, Leslie does her best to ensure that she, who loves her town so well and has served it passionately for years, will be its political representative. The season culminates in the election for City Councillor. Spoiler: she wins. 

Catching up on the final episodes of the season in the last few days - perhaps reminded to do so in the wake of Poehler’s divorce from Will Arnett - I’ve been, as I said above, somehow disappointed by the programme. I think it stems from the failure of the show to adhere to the Humiliation Rules of comedy, as briefly discussed above. Essentially, from the end of season 2 onwards, Leslie Knope ceased to be presented as a clucking do-gooder who serially ballses everything up, and began to be shown as, in fact, ruthlessly competent and able. While this is interesting in itself - and makes P&R unique in offering a strong, bold female role model - it basically removes conflict from the programme, strips it of the edge, the nastiness perhaps, that would make it properly great. The show is still very funny; it has great gag writers and an incredibly talented cast - but it has come to be lacking in any sort of bite.

The show originated as a kind of version of The [American] Office, with Knope playing the Michael Scott role - i.e. the adorable, underqualified buffoon of a little department. The American version of the Office had already, in my view, dulled the edges of the English Office by failing to make the central character dislikable enough: in the British version, the comedy arises, amongst other things, from David Brent’s pretending to like his colleagues, and wanting to be loved by them, when in truth he is so callous and rapacious that he would not hesitate for a moment to betray them for his own profit. What made the English Office so great was the fundamental despair behind these characters’ lives: the petty niggles of the office, the mundane jobs and stupid nights out, all punctuating the misery of these people in their day-to-day existence. Tim, the central character in the first season, is a borderline tragic character because his trajectory mirrors that of David Brent, as he fools himself that the best thing to do is stay on in this grotesque company that he loathes: the comedy resonates because each laugh is matched by its own tragic equivalent, like a dark shadow in a mirror.

Parks & Recreation does not have anything like this: we know, oh how we know because it is constantly spelled out, that everything is going to turn out OK, better than OK, awesome, wonderful, for Leslie and her joyous troupe of hangers-on. Leslie doesn’t hate Pawnee as someone might hate a small-minded, dull town (hello Slough), but loves it; her colleagues don’t resent working for her, they love it, and they love her. It’s like watching an episode of Fawlty Towers in which Basil Fawlty manages to apologise to the Germans for mocking them with his funny walk, thanks to the tireless help of the adoring Polly and Sybil and Manuel, who rallied round and took time out from their weekend off, to help him mend the situation, because at heart he’s lovable and they want to see him succeed. In another episode, Basil adorably gets the wrong wall put in at the hotel, which creates a problem for customers and nearly destroys the building - but it doesn’t last long because Mr O’Reilly the builder is winningly convinced to come round and sort the wall out, and Sybil forgives Basil for his slip-up, because she loves him so much.

Comedy requires an edge; it needs bite, it needs, I’m afraid to say, an undercurrent of nastiness, a sense that the comedy arises from something other than love and goodness. Without this dark silhouette behind each gesture, informing each character, the comedy is simply a basket of kittens: enjoyable and lovely, but otherwise comforting the audience into a cute and cuddly - and fallacious in the catharsis it provides - sense that everything is right in the world, and good will win out.

I contrast this programme with other shows I love more - with Party Down, for instance, which shares a cast member with Parks & Recreation, Adam Scott. In Party Down, Scott plays a character who has fallen from a great height, and who is so disillusioned with his lot and his life that he can only seek solace in a fully sexual relationship with another cynical soul, played by Lizzy Caplan. Their sexual, romantic chemistry forms the backbone of the show. In Parks & Recreation, Scott also plays someone who has fallen from a great height, and is now reduced to being a small-time official in a little town - except that he comes to love his existence, and his chaste relationship with Leslie becomes a main storyline.

Chaste. Parks & Recreation never fully gives us a sense of the sexuality of its characters; it is made up of cute declarations and sweet pairings: I miss the sense I had in Party Down that Adam Scott wants to tear Casey’s clothes off. Sex, like comedy, is there to distract us from misery and ward off the sense of our own mortality. In Parks & Recreation, people are always making out or winkingly touching each other’s arses, like schoolchildren. In Community, a show I think I prefer to Parks & Recreation, there exists a real sense of sexuality, of a rejection of the cute and adorable in favour of the real, the honest: the revelation at the end of the first season that Jeff has been having sex with Britta, registers the show in a real, adult world where the characters surprise the audience by not adhering to expected patterns. In Community, the characters are thrown together and gradually bond and come to appreciate each other, but there is always an underlying irritation - something that suggests the fragility of their ties, the sense that it could all implode; there is always something grating slightly under the surface of the friendships; a
tension. The tension is sexual between certain characters, social between others, where much is made of race, class, education, etc.

Parks & Recreation had all of these things, at one point, and then abandoned them: Ron Swanson, the character who stands for everything that Leslie is against, for conservative, anti-government America, who is furthermore shown to have a hilariously zesty sexual rapport with his former wife, gradually gets co-opted into the all-for-one narrative. Guess what comes to be revealed under his grouchy exterior? Guess also what lies under the cynical exterior of April, the teenage office assistant? Or under the flippant exterior of Tom Haverford, the ne’er-do-well middle manager? Make that a full round of hearts of gold, barman. I think the reason I've enjoyed the appearance in this season of Kathryn Hahn, playing the campaign manager for Leslie's opponent, is that she provided a heartening sense of menace: she is a confident, brash woman who doesn't hesitate to go in for the kill. She basically has contempt for her own candidate and for Leslie, feels herself to be above the petty politics, and enjoys toying with these people she considers to be her intellectual inferiors. She is also brazenly sexual, as witnessed by her forthright advances to Chris (Rob Lowe) in the penultimate episode. In having the incredible genius that is Kathryn Hahn play the  dastardly mirror image of Adam Scott - uncommitted, not passionate, self-interested, vituperative - the show somehow injected some oomph into proceedings. But the underlying tone of the show remains the same slightly dispiriting embrace of cute goodness.

Did I mention I enjoy the show? I still love the programme; it’s vibrant, charming, well-acted and written, ambitious and intelligent; but I find it more and more to be lacking in the sort of tension, the driving impulse of some kind of melancholy or ennui, the bite of nastiness that might reveal true character in some of its protagonists, that would raise it to true greatness.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Once Upon A Time In Anatolia

Every now and then something comes along that is so undeniably great, that is moreover so rightly convinced of its own greatness, so certain of its glittering brilliance in every regard, that no-one has any option but to kneel down in its path and salute it. You might consider the opening notes of Pet Sounds, for instance, in which Brian Wilson clearly stakes a claim to be considered as one of the greats: the light, melancholy notes leading up to the big boom of drums, followed by the great choral surge of the refrain 'wouldn't it be nice': there is nothing hesitant or shy or small here. Or you might think of the look in Roger Federer's eyes during his great run of victories at Wimbledon - he was unassailable, fully committed to his performance, and certain of his dominance.

Once Upon A Time In Anatolia, the latest film by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, is similarly assured: from the first wondrous opening shots, the spectator knows that s/he is in the presence of something truly good, that will be unquestionably powerful and right. In the opening pre-credits scene, the camera pans forward to a dusty roadside garage, dimly lit at night in the Turkish countryside somewhere; it steals up to the building and gradually focuses in on a little room through a grimy window, revealing three men sitting down, playing cards; one of the men eventually rises and comes to look out through the window, and the camera, still positioned there, picks out his lined grey face and wild eyes in close-up before pulling back once more to show him standing at the window from a further distance. In a second shot, he comes outside to feed a dog tethered to a post, and a lorry passes on the road in front of the garage. Credits.

The credits imply that some sort of action prefiguring the rest of the narrative has taken place. The subsequent shots -which are when the true greatness of the film is made clear -reveal that an investigation is taking place, as policemen, a prosecutor and a doctor try to find the location of a buried corpse. The first shot after the credits is a long distance vista of a hilly countryside at night, into which gradually some light steals, and moves along with further light in its wake; at a distance you think it might be a train, but it is revealed to be a line of cars, whose headlights illuminate the countryside around them, and who come to a halt near the point of filming. Using the light from the headlights, still, Ceylan films the policemen, the doctor and the prosecutor asking whether this spot is the location of the body. With them is a criminal, uncertain where he buried the cadaver. After a long scene in Ceylan's unblinking camera, in the yellow light of cars against a dusky backdrop of fields, the men set off once again, and the next shot is of five men in a small car: a chief policeman, his second in command, the prosecutor, the doctor, and the criminal. The four officials distract themselves from the case by talking about buffalo yoghurt and its availability in their neighbourhood, in a revealing, gently amusing conversation which points their characters to perfection, while the camera pans ever so slowly from the front of the car to reveal the wild, exhausted, beautiful face of the criminal, silently sitting in the penumbra of the back seat, in total quiet and misery.

In these five shots, which have lasted maybe twenty or twenty-five minutes, Ceylan shows of what he is capable. We perceive that he wants things and characters to reveal themselves slowly, without artifice; that his grasp of character places people as small players in a wide world that has no certainties for them to clutch onto; that his tale is at once funny and deeply sad and troubling, and that while it is a story based in a real world with real causes and consequences to its actions, Ceylan's modus operandi is the fable. In his delicate, brilliantly conceived microcosm of society (the policeman, the prosecutor, the doctor, the criminal), Ceylan owes a clear debt to Chekhov, but he tells his fable in a manner of his own, somewhere between wry, absurd, kitchen-sink and macabre. We also see from these opening shots the sheer beauty of his composition: this is a gorgeously cinematic film which consistently produces gasp-inducing frames of great beauty.

The investigation is now afoot, and to say more about the plot (which is as engrossing as any thriller) or the interactions between its chief actors (which are beautifully observed, and which show the character of the players in revealing glimpses into their lives) would be to spoil the many rich delights of this great human tapestry. The chief thread running through the work, though, is essentially to do with the problem of perception: in an ongoing, fascinating discussion between the doctor (the voice of logic and reason) and the prosecutor (the voice of doubt), we see Ceylan attempting to figure out ways in which to comprehend the mysteries of our world. The film asks whether there can be answers to everything, whether we can truly know or understand each other.

In the midst of this - and remember that this is a very male film, in a male society - a scene occurs in which kindness and beauty, in the figure of a young girl bringing drinks and food to the men at night, disarm everyone and remind the men of the power of loveliness in the world. Filming the girl's beautiful face in the light of her oil lamp against the thick night, and the silent, enraptured men in close-up, bathed in that light also as they accept the food in wonder, Ceylan manages a scene of perfect, sublime grace.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Thoughts on Whitney Houston

The community of dying in the modern era: no flowers laid outside hospital gates, but status updates and Youtube links, as together we commemorate the dead. Whitney Houston dying brought the usual raft of videos, remixes and R.I.P hashtags, but also as with other celebrity deaths a cathartic, almost joyful chance to reexamine someone, their life and their career. With Whitney Houston, it felt like even more of a release because we who grew up in the 90s had had to adjust very quickly to the need to dislike her, to dismiss what we had previously loved: that big, barnstorming voice and the easy, accessible melodies she had sung.

If you were aged between 8 and 14 in 1992, you or your sister owned the Bodyguard soundtrack, and you or your sister (OK, you - you don't even have a sister; let's just own up to it) listened to it all the time. Its songs were slow-danced to at parties and you made your parents play it in the car. It was great. (Sidenote: it actually wasn't great; it was OK and she sang the hell out of it. More on this later)

What then happened was that you, your sister, your brother - everyone, we all of us got older, and then Nirvana happened, and thus began the dark years when everyone was forced to pretend they didn't like pop music. It lasted for a decade or so. I remember very well how in those years I had to cast away the previous love of Whitney Houston, and pretend to like - er, the Crash Test Dummies? Soundgarden? I bought a Rage Against The Machine album and tried so hard to like it, it nearly killed me. All the while, in all of us, each and every one of Whitney's words, and every vocal inflection and grating melisma, lay dormant - slumbering throughout, as the 90s gave way to the Strokes and the White Stripes and a bunch of musicians who injected pop into their guitars. Youtube arrived, and we secretly rewatched How Will I Know.

Meanwhile, Whitney Houston herself existed, still. We were all vaguely aware of her continuing progress through the Bobby Brown years, the comeback albums, the TV interviews. She was terrible throughout the 90s, releasing a more 'urban' album in 1998 that had some decent songs on it (Heartbreak Hotel, My Love Is Your Love) but that felt like a misstep: Whitney wasn't beats, she wasn't R'n'B; she was big, glossy roof-raisers! In a rush to adapt, she had gone against her earlier bubblegum instincts.

Later, blessed with Pitchfork and Popjustice's kind permission to enjoy pop music once more, we all revisited the early years. I relistened to Saving All My Love For You, one of her cheap ballady contrivances from the 80s that had been on a mixtape my cousin made for us when I was six: it's pretty bog-standard, apart from Whitney singing the shit out of it. We all started playing I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me) at parties. Look at the video again: Whitney smiles in it! She, along with Cyndi Lauper et al, was the last generation of artists to be 'having fun' in videos, before Soul Asylum came along to ruin everything.

Now comes the reevaluation of a career, and with the joyful opportunities to play once more the life-enhancing pop bouncers, comes the need to be honest in our assessments. Whitney Houston had a singular talent, which was to have a strong, clear singing voice of rare range and power. She was also extremely beautiful. She also had clever pop producers, helping her to make some good upbeat numbers and toss out the cheaply instrumented ballads that sold so well (listen to Didn't We Almost Have It All again: it's so, so horrible). What Whitney Houston didn't have, and this is important, is soul. Her lack of soul is what helped her be so successful. Her fellow chartbusters of the 80s, Michael Jackson and Madonna, had no soul either. (Prince had soul, but he started to stumble around the 90s, and never recovered his dominion) It's not necessarily a negative thing: Elvis Presley had no soul whereas, say, Roy Orbison did. I still love Presley's surface-deep pop songs, even as I love the fuller expression of Roy Orbison's music.

Where it became confusing with Whitney Houston was that she was ostensibly borrowing soul leanings - from her mother, Cissy Houston, her cousin, Dionne Warwick, and her godmother, Aretha Franklin. But what Whitney Houston did - much as Elvis did with the country-blues-rock he stole - was to take the form of the music (the inflections borrowed from gospel, the key-changes, the torch song stylings, the vocal gymnastics, some of the rhythm), rid it of its soulfulness, tidy it up, and re-present it in a pop context. This is what provided her with such clean vocals, such neat lines and such accessible singing: there was by and large no guts, no disquieting lack of self-belief, no conflict in her, to give the songs weight and her performances the ring of authenticity. The closest that she approaches earthiness is in Saving All My Loving ("cos toNIGHT-uh, is the NIGHT-uh, when I'm feeling a-a-a-a-alRIGHT-uh!") and I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me), in the "don't-you-wanna-dance-say-you-wanna-dance" breakdown. But these moments are kind of soul-by-numbers; it feels like she's done it because it needs to be there, so hey-ho, she added it on.

The lack of soul doesn't matter: her vocal performances are great, and those 80s dance songs are great. But the lack of soul does mean that she cannot be considered amongst the greats. Her lack of soul also ruined her later career: because she had presented us with someone so pristine, so self-assured, we didn't believe how low and vulnerable she actually became in the wake of her marriage to Bobby Brown and the drug addiction it brought with it. It also meant that she was unable to keep making that sort of crisp music, because the character no longer existed.

So what do we have? We've got a beautiful, vocally blessed young woman who crossed cultures and defied odds to have her videos shown on MTV in the 80s alongside macho rock music; a woman who sang brilliantly on two great pop hits full of fun and musical abandon; someone who then stepped it up a notch with one song (you know the one) that was sung so perfectly - from the acappella opening 45 seconds to the crescendo full of light touches and vocal swoops throughout the song, leading to the blisteringly loud and storming last verse - that she could never live up to it again. We've then got the woman who came afterwards, whose sadness and despair invalidated the previously straightforward persona we thought we knew, and which made it difficult for her to record as her guise was now broken. So let's, without dishonesty, remember the first one, in all her squeaky-clean, determinedly fun, professionally emotional beauty.