Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, or Santa Is A Jerk

Santa meets baby Rudolph in the television Christmas special. Jerk.

Santa meets baby Rudolph in the television Christmas special. Jerk.

Last night Lisa and I finally had the chance to sit together and watch Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer. It’s fun, actually, as a middle-aged adult to sit and watch a television special from one’s childhood.

Last night, however, nostalgia was overwhelmed by my ongoing dialogue with the show. Lisa kept looking at me, chuckling, finally saying, “You’re on a roll tonight,” and, “I know what you’ll be blogging about tomorrow”. Since she is always right, here I am! My dialogue concerned the portrayal not only of Santa Claus, but of pretty much every character (with the exception of Clarice, Hermie, and Yukon Cornelius) who has a relationship with Rudolph. Now, obviously, I knew how the show works. I mean, it’s kind of the whole point of the show. Considering the time it was produced, the characters react to Rudolph in ways that would have been accepted as pretty normal. How else do people respond to those who are different? In a society dominated by white supremacy, socially conformist, traditional in its social mores and practices, difference would be more than mere difference; it would be error, something freakish either to be hidden away or dismissed with ridicule to hide the fear difference stirs.

Half a century on, however, our reactions to the characters’ reactions had better be a bit less accepting. These are not adults who are trying their best to help Rudolph. On the contrary, they are verbally and physically abusive, denying him acceptance in a community of his fellows. Cast out, Rudolph leaves, where he and another self-exiled Other – Hermie, the elfin dentist – discover an island filled with “misfit” toys. Yet again, we encounter a group cast out because they were poorly manufactured. Victims of poor decisions and actions on the part of their makers, they have been denied the singular joy any toy has – to be loved by a child. Yet, we have already been told that the elves make the toys. So the train, for example, with the caboose with square wheels. A simple fix could make that toy acceptable. Rather than admit error, however, the elves exile the toy, blaming the train for their own error, covering up their culpability in what is emotional abuse.

I know all this sounds a tad overdetermined. It would be were I completely serious. This is one of those half-jesting exercises in which I’m trying to make a larger point. Not about what a bigoted jerk Santa Claus and the rest of the characters are; more that this is what happens when a story originally embedded in one time and place finds itself in a completely different time and place. Rather than a “change of heart” with honest apologies from Santa, we have a power-structure designed to repress non-conformity however it presents itself. It blames the victims of verbal and physical abuse for their treatment. It denies any culpability in systemic evil, rather seeking only interpersonal apologies for specific instances of structural abuse. Moving from 1964 to 2015, we can see the changes in interpretive strategies, reflecting changed social and cultural circumstances. For something as innocuous as a children’s animated story, the results are more amusing.

What about for reading the Bible, say, or the Constitution? Is it even possible to argue for fixed meanings for texts over large stretches of time when even half a century renders a reading of a television show far differently than “the original intent”?

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Sense8

The eight sensates, L-R: Riley, Lito, Will, Nomi, Wolfgang, Sun, Capheus

The eight sensates, L-R: Riley, Lito, Will, Nomi, Wolfgang, Sun, Capheus. Kala, a Mumbai pharmacologist is hidden behind Will

On my Facebook page was a photo of a moose on an Alaskan highway. I showed it to my wife. In unison, without looking at one another, we said, “Why did the moose cross the road?” We looked at each other, exasperated. This happens more and more frequently the longer we’re together. We will say the most random things simultaneously. I don’t know if there’s a name for this phenomenon – there probably is – but it is both enjoyable and disconcerting, to know another person so well that even random sentences are shared simultaneously.

Imagine such intimacy with someone half-way around the world, who you’ve never met, and might be a man, a woman, trans, straight, gay . . . the possibilities, and the threat of madness, are endless.

From this simple premise – psychic linking among eight persons as part of what is called a “cluster” – comes The Wachowski’s (creators of The Matrix and “V” for Victory) Netflix original series Sense8. Filled with typical Wachowski trademarks, from complex fight scenes that use wire-work; quick-cutting interposition during dialogue and action scenes that attempt multiple perspectives simultaneously without a split-screen; long expository scenes during which characters discuss everything from the plot to philosophical concepts like identity and difference, you’d know this was the Wachowskis work even if you didn’t read the credits. The first season was given mixed reviews, and there seems to be some debate online whether Netflix will continue a series as complex, subtle, maddening, and more than occasionally beautiful as Sense8. Having finished season 1 (and anticipating a second watching sometime soon), I just want to offer my own thoughts on the pros and cons.

CONS

Let me start with the biggest thing that gives me trouble, not only with Sense8, but with the Wachowski’s work in general: Rampant gnosticism. That may seem like an odd word. All I’m saying is there seems to be a tendency in their work to portray their heroes not only as persons endowed with particular gifts; these gifts make them superior to the general run of humanity, which is why the forces of the status quo work so hard to destroy them. These aren’t your ordinary revolutionaries, after all. They’re some kind of natural aberration, a genetic mutation that’s spreading. Early on, we learn through the hospitalization of one character, Nomi (a trans woman whose hospitalization and care are forced upon her by an unaccepting mother; it is probably not a coincidence that one of the Wachowski’s is a trans woman, adding an important perspective to the larger narrative) has what is described as a dangerous anomalous condition in her brain: the divisions between the hemispheres, particularly in the frontal lobe (controlling emotion, often considered the seat of “personality”), is gone. The conjoined frontal lobe leads to heightened brain activity that can threaten life and sanity.

Or so we’re told.

In fact, of course, this disappearance of the division between the brain’s hemispheres is actually a sign of superiority, a superiority that others do not understand and so must destroy. Those who share it, called “sensates”, are clustered together in groups sharing not only this odd brain development, but an ability not only to enter one another’s thoughts, but to share together experiences, have memories, know identities, and even control the actions of one another. What the sensates share is something the rest of humanity not only cannot share, but cannot really understand. This, in a nutshell, is gnosticism: the belief that a chosen few have access to secret knowledge that is vastly superior to that of the rest of us.

For the Wachowskis, the idea that heroism is rooted in fundamental humanity is alien. It can only come from difference, specifically difference that makes those who have this difference not only heroic but fundamentally better – more moral, more “human” – than the rest of us. In Homer, heroism was fully human and heroes were as flawed, usually fatally so, as the rest of us. For some reason, it seems important that to be a hero, to be a better person, is to be a different kind of person.

Intertwining eight story lines would be difficult and slow-going in the best of circumstances. It is made all the slower by the amount of time the characters spend sitting around talking about what’s going on. I found it fascinating that, at first, most of the characters seemed to accept their changing perceptions of the world, their ability to see and live through others. Only Nomi, who was told she would experience hallucinations, thought she was going mad. When she learned who was the doctor who told her these things, she accepted the reality as a matter of course.

So on the one hand you have these eight people from Seoul, Chicago, Nairobi, Berlin, Mumbai, San Francisco, Mexico City, and London/Reykjavik who seem pretty cool with this whole thing. On the other hand, they spend an inordinate amount of time talking. They share their backstories, always important; they also sit around and consider far deeper matters. Few things try the patience of people expecting an action/adventure series than all that down time in exposition.

Finally, while the general nature of the threat and its face – a multi-named “Doctor” referred to as “Whispers” who seems both to share this psychic ability yet pursues the destruction of others who have it – is clear enough. What isn’t clear enough, however – and perhaps will be made more clear if the show’s picked up for another season – is how the threat is specifically constituted. Specificity creates both plot direction as well as story-opportunity. So far what we have is a kind of generic early-21st century villain.

PROS

The premise of psychic connection is hardly new. What is new is the skill and creativity used in executing such a complex, intricate set of inter-relations. Without the use of split-screens, we are offered the opportunity for simultaneous POV shots, even whole scenes. Both the cinematography and editing demonstrate a clarity of vision and ingenious, and ingenuous, overall vision of the possibilities for film. While the mechanics of what we see is sometimes obscure, and we are offered irrelevant descriptions (with the exception of one quite funny moment when Will, one of the Sensates, is discovered by a friend kissing nothing at all), these become less and less important as we become bound to these characters, their personal and increasingly interwoven lives.

One Sensesate, Sun, an executive at her father’s large corporation, has a semi-secret life as a bare-knuckled mix-martial arts fighter. She only fights men, and as the ref tells the first opponent we meet, “The smart money’s on the skinny bitch”. At the same time Sun’s preparing for a late-night fight, it’s early morning in Nairobi and Capheus, a private coach driver, faces a gang threatening his life. He asks for help, and suddenly Sun is not only there, she is Capheus, and proceeds to beat both her ring-opponent and the gangsters threatening Capheus to a pulp. Thus Einstein’s idea that simultaneity isn’t a cosmological concept is refuted.

Early on, viewers learn there are pretty explicit sex scenes in the show. I tend to find such scenes both gratuitous and distracting. As one of the themes of the show is intimacy, and how these deep human connections create bonds deeper than love, it becomes clear that when one or another of the Sensates is in the mood, or actually having sex, the rest get pulled in. This results in one of the most beautiful, beautifully shot, mind-altering and mood-altering scenes I’ve ever seen. Nomi and her partner Neets are making love while Lito and his lover Hernando are as well. In Chicago Will is working out while in Germany Wolfgang is relaxing in a public bath. They are dragged in as well, with all of them intertwining, interweaving, making love not only to their partners, but to the other Sensates as well. It isn’t erotic, at least not in the conventional sense. It is, in fact, a celebration of human sexuality and intimacy and its infinite variety displayed all at once. The result is more than beautiful; I was crying before it was over (not least because the Wachowskis went the distance, showing two men making love with as much love and passion as two women, and a man and a woman.)

It was this scene, more than any other, that convinced me this is a show worth keeping. Not out of any prurient interest in seeing polymorphous perversity on screen. Rather it was because this scene convinced me that the Wachowskis are brilliant technical film makers, creating an enduring image of the varieties of human intimacy that surpassed our tendency to limit understanding to our personal experience.

Later in the series, as Riley (one of the Sensates) sits in the audience at the symphony hall in Reykjavik where her father is performing a Beethoven Piano Concerto, each of the Sensates in turn join Riley and through the power of the music, see their own births choreographed to the beautiful music. Like the characters, I was brought to tears by the beauty and power – yet again – not only of the whole scene, but the idea behind what we see. Not the whole “vision” thing; rather both the power of music to move us beyond the mundane as well as the mutual, interpenetrating sharing of deep memory that makes sharing lives with others something more than just figuring out how to put toilet paper on the roll.

I’m a romantic at heart. There’s plenty about love in this show. There’s also action. The characters are fully developed, with their flaws and imperfections as visible as their virtues. Episodes show how the Sensates lives overlap in multiple ways, offering each and all opportunity to help and hinder one another, to join in laughter and sorrow (in one memorable scene, Sun has her period while Lito, a Mexican action-adventure actor, begins to have an emotional breakdown unable to cope with what Sun seems to deal quite easily). The things that distract me, cause me to make faces and mumble, I am quite sure will continue. The things that make this a beautiful show, with all sorts of possibilities, can only expand, and I do so hope Netflix renews the show for at least one more season. Despite the mixed reviews, this is a show filled with both ideas and images worth exploring.

The Walking Dead

The first real zombie we see in The Walking Dead, and it's very disturbing.

The first real zombie we see in The Walking Dead, and it’s very disturbing.

I’m brand new to the series. I’ve always been a late-adopter. Whether it’s becoming a fan of the Grateful Dead six years after Jerry Garcia died, not reading any Harry Potter books until the fourth volume was released, or beginning to watch a show after it’s been on the air for several seasons, that’s just how I am. So if anything I say sounds like something others have said, please chalk it up to a beginner’s insights rather than plagiarism.

Almost immediately, I was struck by the inventiveness of the pilot. Rather than walk us through the beginnings of the plague that has created hordes of zombies, we’re plopped down in the middle of it, trying to figure it out along with the main character, Rick. After leaving the hospital and venturing toward his home, he encounters something grotesque: The head, arms and torso of a woman who nevertheless crawls along the ground, her decaying face looking at him with hunger, her hands reaching toward him. That she’s trailing her intestines, well, that’s the New Normal to which both Rick and the viewer must accustom themselves.

Without a whole lot of fanfare, we’re offered a glimpse of how this new reality works: The living are little more than food for hordes of lifeless, always-hungry walking (or crawling, or stumbling, or shuffling) corpses. It’s the ultimate indignity, really. Rather than bringing peace or an end to suffering, death now is the beginning of a horrible new existence. Who one once was no longer exists; all one becomes is Appetite. That one’s preference is the flesh of one’s former friends, loved ones, neighbors, or a random stranger makes the indignity all he greater.

As a friend wrote on Facebook, it’s a one-note show, really. Of course, most television programs can be reduced to one, simple phrase. Star Trek was originally sold as Wagon Train To The Stars, a western with ray guns, Have Gun Will Travel using a spaceship instead of a horse. A world in which simple survival is the goal of all the characters, particularly in the face of the grim horror of becoming zombie food might seem to fail after a while to hold viewers’ attention. That it has is less about the simplicity of the plot and more, I think, to how many readers can identify with the survivors. Not as vicarious selves who show us our best selves, surviving against incredible odds. We identify with them, rather, because they represent our deep fear that the world we inhabit, somehow without our knowing it (like waking up from a coma!) has changed to something unrecognizable, even dangerous. We who remember how things were are faced with the dual challenge of staying alive while holding on to traditional ways of living, notions of morality and community, and even trust in the midst of small pockets of terrified humanity simply trying to do the same things.

—–

Yearning for all the things we wanted to escape is a sign there's something wrong.

Yearning for all the things we wanted to escape is a sign there’s something wrong.

You’ve seen this kind of thing, haven’t you? A meme or post in which someone talks about “the old times” or “the good times” or how children today are spoiled, entitled brats compared to how we were raised. While some of these posts, for me at least, demonstrate a kind of blindness (if you’re complaining about how kids are raised, you might begin at home). I think, however, they also reflect a deep-seated fear, something we dare not name or confront directly. So, we get all passive-aggressive and proclaim that “When I was a child!” is preferable to the way things are now.

We all remember the culture wars, don’t we? They were all the rage in he mid- to late-1980’s. Then, Pat Buchanan spoke at the 1992 Republican National Convention and most folks realized just how frightening were the prospects of politicizing something that exists outside the ability of politics to control. In the quarter century since then, society and culture has become more open, accepting, and laid back. That this is so is easy enough to see in the way our politics has become so frightening and dysfunctional. The power-that-be are unable to control the social and cultural changes; at the very least, however, they can prevent our public institutions from reflecting those changes that seem the most challenging to our sensibilities.

All these changes, it seems, occurred without our input. It’s like the world is filled with these strange human-like creatures that don’t speak, act, or think the way we did. What’s worse, they want the rest of us to join them. Instead of the killing pace of contemporary business life, a slow, shuffling pace gets you where you need to be. Instead of relying on what once was, they all seem to reject it lock, stock, and barrel, making us little more than oddities, facing a dangerous future in which all we knew before is lost not due to amnesia but worse: because of apathy.

All our fears about the future are reflected in The Walking Dead: From living with antiquated values and skills through the fearful notion that we might well get swallowed up by the hordes that create the new normal to the terrifying notion that even death is no release because the new normal includes a way of keeping the dead alive in ways that threaten the living.

I like George Romero’s quip that The Walking Dead is a soap opera with an occasional zombie. That sums up a lot of shows these days: A soap opera with X. In Lost it was weird stuff on an island. In Sons of Anarchy it’s a criminal biker gang. In American Horror Story it’s, by turns, ghosts, monsters, demons, serial killers, witches, and freaks. The Walking Dead offers the extra frisson of showing us how those who run things actually see the world, offering those who fear the present and future a survival guide. Not for a real zombie apocalypse, but something far more terrifying: A world that rapidly antiquates so many who believe their values and ways of living were eternal and sacrosanct.

That’s why I cheer for the zombies.

The King And I (Korean TV Series)

Poster For The King & I

Poster For The King & I

With many thanks to Rev. Martin Lee, I had the great good fortune to be able to watch the Korean television series The King & I.  The series is loosely based on the life of one of the great court eunuchs of the Jusong Dynasty.  We follow young Kim Chun-Dong, left at a Buddhist Shrine by his desperate mother, discovered by a shaman-in-training just as she’s about to commit suicide, as he grows up in a Eunuch School in the Jusong capital.  He becomes friends with the boy who, through court machinations we also see, will become King SeongJong.  He shares a love for the beautiful, forthright and upright Yoon So-wha, who first becomes a concubine to the king, then becomes queen, only to be deposed and forced to commit suicide, again through court machinations.  Chun-dong, learning that So-wha has been called to the palace to become a concubine, actually castrates himself to becomes a eunuch.  Adopted by the Head of the Eunuch Department, he spends most of his time trying to protect the Queen from the inevitable.

The son to whom So-wha gives birth grows up with only dim memories of his mother.  As king, he falls under the influence of conniving eunuchs and ministers who manipulate his feelings about his dead mother, leading him to insanity, tyranny, and in the penultimate episode, the murder of Chun-dong, who has taken the name Kim Cheo-seon.  The mad king is deposed, spending his life haunted by the ghosts of those he murdered, reminding him that he could have been a great king.

Now, I went in to this knowing nothing about Korean television.  The fact that there’s a website KoreanDrama.org doesn’t surprise me, but it wasn’t that much help in terms of judging the quality of the acting, the popularity of the series, or the production values.  To my jaded American eyes, it had the look and feel of a soap opera – shot on video, the acting (especially reaction shots) stylized to the point that for some characters they could have just edited in the same reaction shot from one episode throughout the entire series, an enormous cast of characters, some of whom are more caricature than character – but there was also depth to it.

What makes this particular series stand out, at least for me, is the fact that all the characters, save three, are morally compromised in one way or another.  Not only does this create drama; it is offers, when these particular characters are in a scene, opportunities for a kind of Greek Chorus effect, allowing a moral overview of goings-on.  Of course, part of knowing nothing about Korean television is knowing nothing about Korean mores and values well enough to judge if my own reaction to particular characters is “correct” or not.  Still, the drunk Dr. Yang, the castrator Gaedochi, and most of all the Queen, Yoon So-wha, who everyone suspects is a conniving shrew but actually has not a single ounce of guile in her whole existence, each provide opportunities to reflect upon what’s going on with clarity and honesty, something sorely lacking in the rest of the characters to one degree or another.  Indeed, this is the reason for her being deposed: she cannot fathom the lengths to which people will go to manipulate others, including inciting murder.  Every one of her actions is rooted in her love for the king and desire for him to be great, up to and including voluntarily drinking the poison that kills her.

I have to admit I liked the show a great deal.  Like most soap operas it sucks you in; like most soap operas, it drags some story lines out a bit too far; like most period costume dramas, the production values are actually surprisingly good, especially the exterior set for the palace.  Most of all, all the main characters are people about whom you come to care, and for whom, at different times, you either root or shake your head.  Like most dramas dealing with conniving people, the connivers all end up at bad ends, one way or another, although some not nearly as early as they deserve.

Finally, this was an interesting, entertaining introduction to relatively current Korean popular culture (the show ran two nights a week from the summer of 2007 through the spring of 2008), as well as an interesting take on how another society views its own history.  Especially the last 18 or so episodes, during the reign of the young, mad, tyrant king, I was wondering how much of what was portrayed was rooted in the conflict between South Korea and North Korea, with the young mad king a stand-in for the recent succession of North Korean leaders whose propensity for violence and personal immorality (at least as rumored) is legendary.  In any event, I really enjoyed watching this show, and as it’s available to stream online through various sources (just Google The King & I Korean TV and follow the results that pop up), I’d encourage you to check it out, if watching entertaining television drama, in a period costume setting, from another country and culture, is your thing.

Oh, and obviously, it’s subtitled.  I think the English subtitles were done by a Korean for whom English is a second language because the dialogue was just a bit more stilted and even awkward as read than what I could hear.  Of course, perhaps the writing for Korean TV is that bad, and the actors have to make do with what they’re given!

X-Files, Season 1

David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson as their characters Fox Mulder and Dana Scully

David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson as their characters Fox Mulder and Dana Scully

My wife and I agreed without speaking to each other that we were going to spend the fall and winter going through our entire collection of The X Files on DVD.  Since we have the entire series, that will be quite a feat.  Still, it says something about us that we seemed to agree not only that we needed something “new” to watch (and neither of us have sat and watched The X Files in years), but that it would be this particular program, which we watched pretty faithfully for its entire run.  Being together so long, our brains work along the same lines.

My first impression of this now-21-year-old first season is how different the world was not that long ago.  In the pilot episode, Mulder uses a rotary slide projector instead of a Power Point.  Neither has a cell phone (which they would get in later episodes), relying on borrowed rotary-dial phones, pay phones, and phone books.  Scully has a laptop that is a museum piece.  There is little to no internet usage, let alone references, and the desktops on display in the background of office scenes are using MS-DOS rather than windows (I think in later seasons, they actually switched to using Macs and Apple products, although I might be misremembering).  The cars strike me as “old”.  There are station wagons.  Scully wears suits that have shoulder pads in them.

Lisa and I were pointing out these differences in appearance.  It was actually odd to think how many big and small changes have occurred over two decades, to the point that things we now take for granted weren’t even available as givens for props.

It is the thematic nature of the show, however, that I find even more intriguing.  As a fan of conspiracy theories – without believing any of them – I do like the way executive producer and writer Chris Carter weaves actual conspiracy theories throughout what is too often a disjointed and unclear “mythology” (I believe that is because, despite his best efforts at cohesion, that “mythology” wasn’t fully fleshed out ahead of time; contemporary programs from Lost to Breaking Bad to American Horror Story move forward either with a rough outline in place or the actual script drafts completed before shooting begins).  The show builds tension nicely and cleanly, and even knowing how things progress, it’s surprising how engaging that tension becomes.  In part that is because of the chemistry and banter of Mulder and Scully (although I agree with our younger daughter’s observation that Scully’s skepticism becomes far more difficult to accept even after a few episodes, let alone over the course of several seasons).

On the other hand, the prevalence of conspiracy mongering in our contemporary political and cultural climate renders the use of conspiracy theories as a plot device off-putting.  Not least because many of the conspiracy theories used in the program are actual things believed by real people, the show has a bit too much of a “documentary” feel.  Conspiracy mongering has become not only prevalent but pernicious, from the “Swift Boating” of John Kerry in 2004 (in which his actions during the Vietnam War were called in to question) through the years-long questioning of Pres. Obama’s provenance and loyalties going all the way back the serial conspiracies people got paid good money to propagate about the Clintons, faith in our political leaders has been undermined even among those who know better because an atmosphere of distrust – a healthy thing in a participatory democracy – has morphed in to an absolute, rather than relative, social virtue.  Alternatives always seem plausible when confronted by official narratives; far too many of those alternatives, however, have veered off in to la-la-land, from Reptilians infiltrating government to a small group of bankers actually ruling the world in secret (just a changed name from the days of that Russian forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion).

While I accept the terms of the show as it’s presented, I also recognize how it managed to push to the mainstream ideas and currents of thought that are corrosive to our polity.  This isn’t necessarily Chris Carter’s fault, or the shows fault.  All the same, it can be off-putting.

Still, it’s a fun show.  It’s especially nice to see just how young both Duchovny and Anderson were at the beginning; shots of both of them make them appear not much older than teenagers (and I don’t think Gillian Anderson was more than 22 or 23 when the show began).  And it’s also nice to know the writing and production values will improve over time, giving the show a nice, noir feel as shadow and darkness become prevalent, light more piercing (a nice metaphor that can never be overused just because it looks so good), and the characters evolve (well, Scully; Mulder remains Mulder throughout).

It should be a good fall and winter.  And, of course, the truth is out there.