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An LG&M Podcast: Game of Thrones, “Winter Is Coming,” though not soon enough

[ 29 ] July 9, 2013 |

Steven Attewell and I decided that we didn’t want to wait until next February to continue talking about Game of Thrones, and so we decided to start over. Here’s our take on “Winter Is Coming,” the serie’s inaugural episode. I’m including links to the works I referenced and will have Steven do the same.

Works SEK discusses:

Works Attewell discusses (warning, all of these posts contain spoilers for all five books):

Video:

Audio:

Archives:

Mad Men: Who’s “In Care Of” what now?

[ 45 ] July 8, 2013 |

(This is obviously one of my visual rhetoric posts, all of which can be found here.)

In my first post on “In Care Of,” I discussed the importance of the logic of the “Oh Really” sequence to the episode; in the second, I not only proved that cowboy hats aren’t the new lasers, but also that Matthew Weiner is dedicated to creating pain by any means necessary, including undermining the importance of structural elements like the “Oh Really” sequence. In other words, my first two posts were about how Weiner creates tension via the visuals and sustains it by undermining the visuals that created it via the narrative. Most television shows — and most television writers — have a particular set of visual and narrative crutches they break out when they need to rouse their viewers. For example, Joss Whedon favors hackneyed speeches undermined by immediate circumstances:

BUFFY: No, it doesn’t stop! It never stops! Do you — do you think I chose to be like this? You have any idea how lonely it is? How dangerous? I would love to be upstairs, watching TV or gossiping about boys or — God, even studying! But I have to save the world. Again.

Or:

LOKI: Enough! You are, all of you are beneath me! I am a god, you dull creature, and I will not be bullied by —

(HULK flattens LOKI by SMASH)

Whenever one of Whedon’s characters starts to speechify like William Wallace pontificating about the theoretical possibility of Scottish independence, that character’s likely to find his or her authority undermined either by their own words or someone else’s actions.* Whedon telegraphs it to a man who proceeds to semaphore it at your face. Which is why Mad Men continues to make for compelling television: Weiner and his writers are clearly aware of how they’re manipulating us and, like a great boxer, always slug us where we’re not expecting. Especially when they’ve established those expectations in a particular episode. In the last scene of this one, he combines the “Oh Really” sequence with its content-dependent and confessional opposite. To wit:

He opens with this long shot of the Draper/Whitman family. They’re all clearly staring up at something, and because of the extremely high angle, seem to be dominated by whatever that something is. Establishing that something’s doing the dominating before actually showing it on screen has two effects: the first is to rouse our curiosity; the second, to remind us of what’s become obvious by now, i.e. that this family’s been burdened by an unknown and unspoken something for quite some time. Of course Don knows what it is, but to Sally, in particular, there’s just been this horrible presence that’s tainted her father’s relationships with everyone. She has no idea what it is, but this shot’s telling you here it is. But before cutting to this looming presence, Weiner thinks we need a refresher on how close this family is at the moment:

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We may contain multitudes, but there are limits

[ 146 ] July 5, 2013 |

In the comments of one of Other Scott’s recent posts, the tired discussion about whether we’re contractually obligated to agree with each other arose. We’re not. Nor are we obligated to write about whatever your pet issue happens to be. I say this because I don’t know what the other bloggers here think about the George Zimmerman case and I don’t particularly care to write about it. But if I did care and were I to write about it, I might write something like this:

the political melodrama should also not be allowed to obscure the reality of this trial: it is about the death of an unarmed 17-year-old, who was not a felon, who was on a neighborhood run to get Skittles, and whose life has been extinguished. Given that the young man was unarmed and that he inflicted very superficial injuries on his adversary during their scuffle, Zimmerman’s claim that he was in fear for his life has to be taken with a grain of salt, to say the least.

But never something like this:

In the Trayvon Martin case, the media withheld details of the crime that were damaging to Trayvon in order to protect him and indict Zimmerman—that the mainly white community he had entered at night had been the target of a rash of recent break-ins and burglaries by young African -American men; that the hoodie Trayvon was wore was a uniform for burglars; and that Trayvon had been suspended from school after burglary tools were discovered on his person along with unaccounted-for jewelry. At the same time, the press flooded the airwaves and front pages with sentimental photos of Trayvon as an innocent adolescent, while withholding others of the six-foot-two, 17-year-old who beat the smaller Zimmerman to the ground, smashing his head on the concrete and causing him to scream repeatedly for his life before he fired his gun in self-defense.

Especially not the part in bold. Even if I somehow did, I’d be sure not to publish another article on the same site on the same day in which I wrote that Martin “inflicted very superficial injuries on his adversary during their scuffle, [meaning] Zimmerman’s claim that he was in fear for his life has to be taken with a grain of salt[.]”

Then again, I’m not David Horowitz.

“What will become of the children?” Why, they’ll be raped and murdered, of course.

[ 312 ] July 1, 2013 |

Law & Order: Special Victims Unit ranks among the worst shows on television. Not because of the acting — though the fact that Richard Belzer’s been going through John Munch’s motions since 1993 has been obvious for about a decade now — but because it’s all exploitation all the time. Its bias is clearly liberal, but cruelly so, in that it manifests itself in the bodies of its victims: children, women, immigrants, non-whites, gays, lesbians, etc. But that only makes it worse, because I suspect that conservatives secretly love the show because it combines the victimization of marginal peoples with the systemic incompetence of the New York state police force and legal system. The world of L&O:SVU is one in which white men frequently get away with doing terrible things to people conservatives don’t consider people.

Which isn’t to say that I don’t also watch it. When it’s on — and it’s always on — I can’t stop myself. It’s that terrible. Last night, for example, I watched an episode in which Big Boi was eaten by a pack of hyenas and Detective Stabler was shot trying to stop a man with a monkey in a basketball. Because as we all know monkeys in basketballs are clearly within the purview of the Special Victims Unit. But you need not watch any particular episode to understand its horribleness, because it’s right there in the Riefenstahlian opening credits. To the images!

This is New York City, where all the American crime happens. This helicopter shot shows you how many people are in it and, therefore, how much crime is likely to happen. Which is a lot. Or would be were it not for:

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“Write right from the left to the right as you see it spelled here.”

[ 51 ] June 29, 2013 |

Given that I’m moving back to Louisiana, it only seems fair that I pass its literacy test before being granted the right to vote. Unfortunately, it seems I’m illiterate:

1. Draw a line around the number or letter of this sentence.

How does one draw a line around something? I thought lines were those infinitely extendable things with no curvature. How I am supposed to draw a line around the number of this sentence? I have an idea!

Wait — that’s three lines. Fuck. Maybe I should try to draw it around the letter of this sentence? Not that I know what that’d be. Do they mean “the” letter of the question or “the” letter of “this sentence.” Given that both the question and “this sentence” have more than one letter, I’m not exactly sure what they’re asking me to do. Maybe this?

Granted that’s nine lines now, but they’re now “around” both “the” “letter” and “the” number and “the” word “number” in the question as well as the words “this sentence.” I may not be right but I can hardly be wrong. Moving on:

22. Place a cross over the tenth letter in this line, a line under the first space in this sentence, and circle around the last the in the second line of this sentence.

I got a little confused over whether they meant the first space in this sentence or “this sentence,” but I made up for it:

They didn’t ask me to draw Bad Ass Jesus struggling to get off the cross, but they didn’t not ask me to either. I’m sure they’ll appreciate it. What’s next?

29. Write every other word in this first line and print every third word in same line, (original type smaller and first line ended at comma) but capitalize the fifth word that you write.

That’s it — I’m fucking illiterate. I don’t even know what the difference between “writing” and “printing” is. You win Louisiana! I won’t be casting any votes that matter anyway. Just once I’d love to live in a state where they do.

 

Mad Men: Disappointment “In Care Of” Convention

[ 13 ] June 27, 2013 |

In my previous post on “In Care Of,” I defined an “Oh Really” sequence as as structure of escalating exchanges that requires no dialogue to be understood. What I didn’t say — but which should make perfect sense in retrospect — is that such sequences are most often found in the saloons of classic American Westerns. Just consider what would happen to that scene if you put Don in a ridiculously large cowboy hat:

Don didn’t need to take off his hat to inform us of impending violence: the structure of the shots and reverse shots is so familiar that the context of the scene matters more than the content. Two men being filmed in this manner in a “saloon” inevitably leads to fisticuffs and gun play. The logic of the escalation is “drunkenly disproportionate” even if neither of the parties involved is actually drunk. Because we know how this scene ends, Weiner need not actually show Don striking the minister. But we want him to. The tension mounts but Weiner provides no release — instead he relies on our familiarity with this sequence to cut to a flashback, because he knows we’ll only be momentarily confused. He effectively holds that tension in abeyance throughout the flashback, but instead of relieving it by cutting back to the scene at the bar like we want him to, he suspends it in perpetuity by moving the narrative a few hours forward in time:

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Obama enlists [indistinct] black woman to win in 2014 by [indistinct]

[ 50 ] June 27, 2013 |

Glenn Reynolds:

Rachel Jeantel made it sound like Travon Martin profiled George Zimmerman… or… what is a “creepy ass cracker”? Somebody ask Paula Deen.

But here’s the key: Obama and the Democrats would actually prefer an acquittal here. That’s because the whole point of the ginned-up Zimmerman affair was to inflame racial sentiment to boost black turnout in 2012. With any luck, they can turn an acquittal into another racial rallying cry, which will help in 2014. It’s not about Zimmerman; he’s just one of those eggs you have to break to make an Obama omelet.

I only mentioned her relative articulateness because as I was trying to eat breakfast, the defense was arguing that, on tape, Jeantel said a voice “coulda” or “could of” or “could’ve” been Martin, whereas in court she’s insisting she said “could hear” — which it should be noted she made clear later in the tape. The defense just doesn’t want to play that part.

So according to Reynolds, Jeantel is a mumbling Obama plant who listened to her friend die and was then, presumably, instructed by representatives of the highest office in the land — if not Obama himself! — to recount the story in an [indistinct] way that ensures an acquittal. When I write about the paranoid mindset of contemporary conservatism, this is exactly the sort of “logic” I mean: an old white man complaining that he can’t understand a young black person is part of Obama’s plan.

This is an acceptable argument in mainstream conservative thought at the moment. I’m [indistinct] with [indistinct] at this [indistinct].

Mad Men: “In Care Of” What? Oh Really?

[ 14 ] June 24, 2013 |

The season finale of Mad Men, “In Care Of,” contains an inordinate number of what I call “Oh Really?” reverse shots. They typically don’t involve dialogue — and the episode will end with one that doesn’t — but at the beginning of the episode it does. It’s also odd because it substitutes a flashback for an “Oh Really?” escalation, but I’m getting ahead of myself. When representatives from the Sheraton Royal Hawaiian arrive at whatever the name of the firm is at this point — because not knowing the firm is part of the point at this point — Don Draper isn’t in the office. You may remember the Royal Hawaiian from the season premier, and if you do, you can probably anticipate Don’s whereabouts. Here he is at the Royal Hawaiian:

That’s the opening shot of Draper at the Royal Hawaiian’s bar. Note the quality of the light: there are two on screen sources — the lamp to Don’s left and the Tiki fixture to his right — and a noticeable off-screen, but still diegetic light illuminating the painting from above. The lighting is high-key, that is, the back and fill lights complement the key light in a way that creates low contrast between brighter and darker areas. (I write “complement” because there are many ways the effect of high-key lighting can be produced: all manners of angles and intensities come into play.) Of the previous episode, “The Quality of Mercy,” I noted that Don’s shadows were eating at his face because the back and fill lights weren’t providing it illumination. Even though his back is turned in the shot above, were Don to turn around his face would be plenty covered by the back light. All of which is only to say that the light is natural and gentle in this scene at the Royal Hawaiian bar. Which is significant given that when the Royal Hawaiian representatives arrive in New York, Don’s not available to greet them because he’s here:

At this point, I hope you don’t need me to point out the structural similarities between these two shots. There are many ways to shoot a man at a bar — I know, I know — but to shoot the same man regarding relations with the same corporation in such a similar manner invites comparison. Whereas the scene at the Royal Hawaiian is lit in a high-key, this is clearly lit in the low-key that’s characterized Don’s relation to alcohol the past three episodes. (Just look at the poor man pouring vodka.) The low-key lighting allows the diegetic lights sources — the illuminated bar and the television set — to provide the majority of the illumination. Meaning there isn’t much of any because Don’s in a darker place. Remember the “dark wood” that Don read about Dante awakening in while at the Royal Hawaiian? Clearly Don hadn’t actually reached it yet. At the brightly lit bar he interacted with an American icon — the serviceman on shore leave — and never went home that night because, as I noted in my post on “The Doorway,” he’d abandoned his wife to give another woman away in marriage. But all that happened in a luminous Hawaiian past.

Now when Hawaii comes mid-day calling in New York, Don’s in a bar that hasn’t seen sunlight since the first time Nixon ran for President. And when another American icon — the itinerant evangelical preacher — starts talking about brotherhood at the bar, Don’s so rattled it’s almost as if he can recognize the structural similarities with the scene from “The Doorway.” The young serviceman with whom he shared a moment of brotherhood — false though it may be on Don’s part — has been replaced by a preacher who’s selling his idea of a brotherhood to strangers at a bar. The idea likely offends Don both as a man and as an ad man: the quality of the preacher’s salesmanship is so shoddy Don can’t help but interrupt his pitch. (He’ll react to the falseness of this “witnessing” with an encore of his own later in the episode. But more on that tomorrow.) When the preacher asks his profession, he replies “Keeping out of other people’s business,” which isn’t exactly the best description of someone who works in advertising. That’s likely why the preacher’s response, “You’re not doing a very good job of it,” stings Don more than it should. It’s little wonder he’s annoyed when the preacher approaches. Here’s how the scene actually proceeds:

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The Dark Knight Returns and The Zack Snyder School of Literal Filmmaking

[ 62 ] June 23, 2013 |

Not wanting to spend the entirety of my life figuring out how to put the entirety of my life into boxes and move it across the country, I decided to watch the animated adaptation of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Directed by Jay Olivia and released in two parts in 2012 and 2013, it belongs to the Zack Snyder School of Literal Filmmaking, in which the idea is to replicate particularly stirring comic panels on the big screen by unwittingly mangling the elements that make them stirring.

Consider Snyder’s adaptation of Watchmen. We don’t even need to venture past the opening credits to see where the film misses the point. But before we do that, I should note that I’m not complaining generally about a lack of faithfulness in adaptation. Comics and film are different media and ought to be treated as such. I don’t mind if changes are made that alter the narrative in an interesting fashion. But Snyder preaches fidelity as his ethos, so taken at his word, deviations from the comic in his films aren’t “interesting alterations” so much as the “necessary accommodations” of adapting any medium into another. These changes are being made by a lover of the source material who would never be unfaithful to the “spirit” of the original. For what it’s worth, I think Snyder’s dead honest about his commitment to accurately representing both individual panels and the “spirit” of the original work on screen — he simply happens to be terrible at doing so. Back to the opening minutes of Watchmen, in which Rorschach’s investigating the Comedian’s murder. Both the novel and the film begin with a close-up of the Comedian’s iconic image before pulling back to the skyscraper window from which it fell.

Book:

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Quick question about moving companies

[ 115 ] June 21, 2013 |

How does one go about finding a reputable moving company? Because I feel like a freshmen trying to do academic research for the first time: I don’t know what reviews are authoritative, which companies are scams, how to differentiate between parties vigorously sqabbling over online reviews, etc. If you’re not comfortable leaving feedback in the comments, you can send it scotterickaufman (at) gmail (dot) com. I thank any and all in advance for whatever advice you provide.

“Mhysa”: an LG&M Game of Thrones podcast with Steve Attewell and a Vacationing Jew

[ 65 ] June 21, 2013 |

Due to some foreseen circumstances — my quarter just ended — it took a little longer than usual to produce this podcast. But produced it has been! Enjoy!

You can listen to the above podcast here.

Our very civilized discussion of the premiere (S03E01).

Fancy-talking about “Dark Wings, Dark Words” (S03E02).

Here we are blathering on about “Walk of Punishment” (S03E03).

Don’t watch — because you can’t — us discuss “And Now His Watch Has Ended” (S03E04).

The rudely interrupted first half of our discussion of “Kissed by Fire” (S03E05).

The second half of our discussion of religion in “Kissed by Fire” (S03E05).

In which we discuss “The Climb” sans spoilers (S03E06).

“The Climb” with spoilers (S03E06).

“Second Sons.” We has them (S03E08).

Belatedly, “The Bear and the Maiden Fair” (S03E07).

You’re all invited to an epic performance of “The Rains of Castamere” (S03E09).

Mad Men: Fencing with shadows over “The Quality of Mercy”

[ 47 ] June 20, 2013 |

I keep on reading that the title of this season’s penultimate Mad Men episode, “The Quality of Mercy,” is “a phrase from Shakespeare” without any explanation as to what its significance might be. Todd’s the exception, but his account of the play muddies his most pressing insight: one only appeals to the quality of mercy when dealing with people who don’t deserve it because one wants it from that very same person. It exists only as a rhetorical tactic. But it doesn’t work quite that way anymore. For contemporary audiences the quality of mercy is something granted through extra-textual means — the play’s antisemitism retroactively grants it to Shylock — which is another way of saying that characters exist in history and shouldn’t be judged by their actions in the moment so much as their reputation over the not-so-longue durée. This excuses nothing:

Shylock behaves like a stock Jew because Shakespeare didn’t think his character worth elevating. The same can’t be said of Don Draper in a season in which his status as an unknown quantity’s been highlighted by the presence of fellow professional liar Bob Benson. Or can it? The last two episodes have seen him turn against his wife (Megan) and his protege (Peggy) for reasons that aren’t entirely clear but clearly aren’t merciful. And yet the arrival of Benson mingles with his failing marriage and office foibles in a manner that makes him seem deserving of the mercy Shylock wanted to refuse Antonio. That mercy would’ve denied Shylock his “pound of flesh.” Care to guess who we are in this analogy?

That’s correct: we’re Shylock demanding a pound of Draper’s flesh and we’re the contemporary audience extending him mercy because we know that Shylock’s been misunderstood by history. Which is about where we stand at this point in the series: Draper’s a tragic figure made all the more tragic by the decisions he’s making. He’s an unforgivable human being widely recognized as a product of his circumstances. He’s the man everyone envies until they see his substance is little more than strategically placed shadows — particularly in this episode. But before I comment on that I should note how this episode begins:

With Draper in the fetal position. I’m not going to go all Freudian on you because I don’t do that anymore. What’s more significant than any Freudian overtones is that this is the first time in this episode that one side of Draper’s face is hidden from the camera. That Phil Abraham went with an overhead shot in order to accomplish that is a telling oddity: we don’t normally see shots from this perspective outside of the opening credits. Make of that what you will. What I find significant is that the opening shot of the episode 1) informs us that Don’s wounded and 2) suggests that he’s hiding his wound by hiding his face. I know this isn’t actually true — you can’t hide psychological scars behind turned heads or well-positioned shadows — but consider how the rest of the episode is shot. Here’s Don pouring orange juice:

Abraham’s clearly taking advantage of the “natural” light streaming in the set’s windows — it’s most likely a key light — but it’s all coming from frame-right.  If you imagine Jon Hamm’s standing in the center of a clock facing 12 o’clock, it appears as if there’s a key light with a diffuser of some sort around 9 o’clock. If there weren’t a diffuser of some sort the contrast would be harsher and it would look more noir — but the shot’s not that flat, as we can see light gently reflecting off the cupboards behind him. What’s missing is some sort of fill light at 2 o’clock to illuminate Hamm’s face. Why’s it missing? Because Abraham wanted him to look “shady” without seeming Manichean. That’s why the diffuser’s significant: it prevents the contrast from being harsh and turning Draper into an anti-heroic image of stock-noir. The conflict in most noir films being, of course, that Humphrey Bogart’s trying to apply his black-and-white code of right and wrong to a grey world. Draper’s conflict, of course, is that he has no code to apply to an increasingly colorful world, so it stands to reason that Abraham wouldn’t shoot him so harshly. Especially when he’s pouring orange juice. But what about when he’s pouring vodka into the orange juice?

Nope. That’s the same key light. Hamm’s just turned around so now the other side of his face is shaded. Not completely, though, because as noted there’s some light reflecting off the cupboards that’s preventing the entirety of the left side of his face from being in darkness. There’s clearly something wrong with him in these shots: it’s not that Draper’s drinking in the morning, but that he’s hiding drinking in the morning. Even the functional alcoholic occasionally needs a day off to drink inappropriately — not that I speak from experience. But that’s clearly what’s happening here: more of the same only slightly different. But it doesn’t get any better as the scene progresses:

As soon as he turns around he may as well not have: he’s not bathed in the radiance of the same missing fill light. Maybe it’ll improve once he stops celebrating Screwdriver Appreciation Day and shows up for work?

It’s dogging him. I know shadows can’t actually dog people and that it’s all about strategically placed lights but if I didn’t know any better I’d say this shadow was dogging him. Because rhetorically it is. In terms of its effect on the audience this shadow has been plastered to a side of his face since the moment he woke up in the fetal position trying to hide it from the camera in that overhead shot. It dissipates some in the meeting in which he “saves” Peggy by attributing her idea to the dear and recently departed:

It’s not nearly so extreme here, which makes sense, because Draper’s in his element. If the producers are manifesting his demons as shadows, it’s understandable that they’d be less prominent in the one place Draper still feels somewhat comfortable. But the lighting’s still working against Hamm: there’s a fill light illuminating most of him, but it seems more designed to highlight the drawings of Peggy’s Rosemary’s Baby-inspired children’s aspirin ad. He’s catching the light incidentally and Draper’s not a character often filmed in reflected glory. But here he is. I don’t have any inside knowledge about why he keeps his head canted throughout this scene, but I can say that the effect echoes the shadowing from earlier in the episode. He’s fighting the lights to spite his face here, and I don’t think that’s unintentional. Especially not considering his conversation after the meeting:

And this one’s the give-away. This shot shouts the director’s intent loud as subtitles: he’s determined to create shadows on Hamm’s face even if it requires off-lighting it very brightly. That glare on the right side of his head is the unfortunate side-effect of burying the rest of his face beneath shadow in what is, otherwise, a very bright room. I’m not sure what the thematic function of this shadow is — I’m wary of explanations of characters that rely too heavily on how they’re being presented by individual directors — but there has to be one. I mean:

There has to be one. It’s extremely difficult to create that sort of contrast — diffused or otherwise — in such well-lit spaces. I’d praise the dedicated crew responsible for creating this effect if I knew what their names were, because they deserve praise for creating this impression of a Don dogged by something. I could be glib and say it’s history generally, or his personal history, or his night with Betty, or his non-nights with Megan, but I’d rather let the show tell me which of those is bothering him. Apparently it’s the latter:

Whatever his problem is, the visual structure of the episode is relating it back to Megan. He ends this episode as he began it: in the fetal position sleeping with Megan’s significant absence.

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