Wednesday, September 30, 2009


a contrapuntal essay (in this case it just means rambling, and I'm saving my focus for things other than reorganizing a blog entry).

Sometimes I think Dexter is a sick parody of a the conventional "cop who plays by his own rules to get the bad guys" show. There are a lot of fictional police officers who are willing to violate rights, break the law, or use violence to get the bad guys (usually with the support of the audience). The first two seasons of Dexter even feature James Doaks, an aggressive, angry, occasionally violent police officer willing to skirt the law for justice. But Dexter Morgan makes sure you're never confused: while he has a "code," he's not interested in justice. He's a psychopath that doesn't feel things and is compelled to kill.

And sometimes I think Dexter is a sick parody of "just war" thinking, of the thinking that seeks military solutions to problems. At the end of season one, Dexter speculates how horrified everybody around him would be if they knew he is a serial killer. But then he fantasizes: maybe they wouldn't be horrified. Dexter uses violence to punish bad people; maybe if people knew what he did, they'd thank him. In his fantasy, he walks past cheering onlookers, thanking him for keeping them safe, as red, white, and blue confetti falls around him.

I don't really see Dexter as a parody. The show does, however, connect the righteous violence that audiences find appealing with a horrifying, psychopathic violence that should repulse an audience.

In season three, Dexter becomes a sick parody of tranquil domesticity. Dexter protects his girlfriend Rita's daughter from a threatening man: he goes to the man's home and kills him. On his way, Rita had called to tell him they were out of milk. As Dexter drags the man's corpse into the man's kitchen, Dexter remembers Rita's call: he checks the man's fridge, and takes that milk to Rita. In the next episode, he can't quite get a marriage proposal right; he finally succeeds when he borrows the words of a deranged killer.

At least since The Sopranos, television is capable of making an audience "root" for a morally disgusting protagonist. Dexter, I think, plays with what it knows the audience must feel: we're compelled to side with a narrator protagonist no matter how awful he may be. When Rita becomes pregnant, Dexter is anxious: he's afraid to commit to fatherhood, since he's afraid the child will be like him, and afraid he'll be a terrible father. Dexter's sister calls him a fool: he'll be a great father, she says. Rita obviously wants Dexter to commit to fatherhood. And we the audience, familiar with such television situations, may generally think Dexter should commit. He's ambivalent, hesitating, not sure. And you know what? He's right. He's the voice of reason. He's a psychopath incapable of most human emotion that is compelled to kill people. He is probably going to hurt Rita's whole family, and he should run away from committing to them. Eventually, of course, he does end up committing to the family. In general, I think Dexter plays with the conventions of the television protagonist and the audience's sympathies. We're asked to feel emotions for Rita and her children, to see some warmth in Dexter's relationship with them. But surely we must know that Rita and the children would be utterly horrified, devastated, permanently damaged, if they knew the truth about Dexter's murderous activities. The whole relationship is something of a facade that, but Dexter is the only one that knows it's a sham, a phony, a farce. We watch (and perhaps care for) a family, we become aware of their emotional lives, and yet we know who Dexter really is, and know the family doesn't know that, and know that they would be crushed beyond words if they did know the truth.

It goes further. "All in the Family," the season three episode when Dexter proposes to Rita, features the theme of role playing. From beginning to the end, Dexter's narration explores the ways he and others act out an expected role. This episode resonates with season one, when Dexter recounts Harry's lessons for "passing" as normal. He's supposed to fake it. He doesn't know real emotions, he can't actually connect with other human beings, so he's supposed to fake it. He's got to play a role. And in the final scene, when Dexter proposes and talks about how sometimes you end up playing "the role of a lifetime," I can't help but wondering if he's expressing a larger ambivalence about domestic life (an ambivalence not limited to psychopaths). Some people may feel like Dexter: that domestic life requires roles, that family expectations demand certain performed behavior, and sometimes that behavior is not authentic. It feels phony, fake. The domestic role is performed.

The show works at all sorts of levels.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Fall TV! Fall TV!

There are two shows that I am utterly thrilled with this fall. Thrilled.

Community. If you had told me that Joel McHale, Chevy Chase, and John Oliver were starring in a sitcom about college, you would have to say nothing more: I'd be in. Nothing this fall has made me laugh out loud more than the pilot of Community.

Glee. The show is just pure fun. It's light, amusing, and people often break into song and dance!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Golden Gophers' Home Opener

Oh, to be a 21 year old U of M student today: it's a day long party in the whole neighborhood around TCF Stadium.

My dad and I went to the Golden Gophers' first game in their new on-campus stadium. We at at Stub and Herb's beforehand, then got to enjoy a beautiful stadium with an energized crowd. Bud Grant was even there (he got a loud cheer: is there a more revered figure in Minnesota sports?). When night settled in, and we were watching a college football game outdoors under the lights, life was good.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Gratuitous Link

Justin Goodman's "Animal Dissection: Cutting Kids' Heartstrings" in Common Dreams

Sunday, September 6, 2009

I'm going to say what needs to be said:

The '80s version of The Twilight Zone was better than the original series. I said it.

On Narcissistic Paranoia

There is a Subway in my neighborhood that is selling footlong Veggie Delite subs for four dollars each. $4.00 each!

There is only one explanation. Subway is trying to personally bait me into eating a veggie sub every day. Nothing else makes sense.

Cruelty-free shoes (2)

For non-leather dress shoes, a good brand is State Street, available at Payless. They look sharp, and they're pretty comfortable.

Friday, September 4, 2009

On the Frame of "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"

In literature, a frame story tends to serve some function. Sometimes it provides ambiguity, distrust, or distance from the central narrative (as in James’ The Turn of the Screw, or Conrad’s Heart of Darkness). Sometimes the frame story contains thematic reflections or commentary on the central narrative (as in Shelley’s Frankenstein, or again, as in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness). Generally a frame story isn’t there just for the sake of it: it serves an aesthetic or thematic function.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button contains a frame story of a woman reading a diary to her dying mother, as her dying mother fills in details. I found the frame relatively pointless: all it did was add unnecessary length to a film that was already too long. The narrative would have worked just fine without this frame.  And if the frame appeared only at the beginning and end of the film, it would be a pretty inoffensive structure. But this frame constantly intrudes on the central narrative. The frequent interruptions add little or nothing to the narrative itself: they merely break it up.

I can see one possible purpose to the constantly intruding frame story. There are many things that don’t work in the film, and some things that do. One thing I like about the film is the defamiliarization. In many ways, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button shares stories of change and loss that are common in human experience. However, the conceit of the reverse-aging man defamiliarizes this experience, offers us a way to look at it anew. Perhaps the frame story, offering us a familiar image of change and loss, both adds to the defamiliarization of the central narrative and reminds us that, alas, the troubles of Mr. Button and his loved ones are truly universal.

I don't think this is quite enough to justify such frequent intrusions, however.  The frame just didn't offer enough, broke up the narrative, and made the film far too long.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

a small hope for peace

Not long ago, I viewed the commercial popularity of the Peace Sign as a symptom of apathetic consumerism: most Americans don't like our current wars, but all we're really doing about it is shopping.

But tonight while walking my dog, I passed over a sidewalk where children had been coloring with chalk. Somebody had drawn a peace sign. And I realized that over the past summer, I've seen children wearing the peace sign, pointing out the peace sign, celebrating the peace sign. And somehow, it's given me a little hope. If children are growing up with enthusiasm for a symbol of peace, perhaps some children are growing up in an environment where peace is celebrated. Perhaps there are children who are soaking in values of peace, forming ideas about peace.

When I see children coloring a peace sign on a sidewalk, I feel a small hope for peace.