Wednesday, November 26, 2008


Last year was not a good year for either Jack Bauer or the creators of the Fox TV series 24. Season 6 started out with a bang (ha ha) with LA getting nuked and Jack Bauer going canibalistically, fratricidally bonkers in what this Guantanamo hating, bleeding heart liberal loving TV watcher must confess was hella entertaining television. The season couldn't live up to its early apocalyptic shark jumpery and spun out into a jumbled boring mess.

As if imaginary world was not bad enough, the creators, by this time trying to film season 7, suddenly found themselves with the dual obstacles of a writer's strike and a leading man in jail. That would be the literal jail Keifer Sutherland found himself in for, good lord I can't even remember. Drunk driving or drunk drinking or drunkenly molesting a Christmas tree...something drunken, I do believe. They also got word that the African location for season 7, where they'd already started filming, was too expensive and Fox threatened to shut them down.

Then executive producer Joel Surnow, arguably the main person responsible for 24's gently right wing, torture is groovy tone, declined to renew his contract with the show. It's possible his departure from the show had something to do with the news that A) ranking members of the military including the headmaster of West Point had visited the show specifically to request, in person, that the show either tone down the use of torture or at least show an example of torture backfiring and B) when they arrived Surnow declined to meet with them. Or maybe it was just a vast Left Wing Conspiracy!

Personally, I like to imagine Surnow throwing all his possessions in the back of his Hummer, trading in all his riches for Bearer Bonds and racing for whatever country it is conservatives threaten to move to when they lose elections. (Where is that, anyway? Saudi Arabia? China might actually provide them a comfortable mix of Darwinian capitalism mixed with the authoritarian police state they seem to venerate, but then there's the whole feeding Christians to lions thing which would totally screw up their Christmas.)

So the 24 team did what any reasonable group faced with such odds would do and pulled the plug, deciding to retool the whole season. There was, however, no reason to throw away the work already done, which also, conveniently, would provide a nice story bridge from Season 6, with Jack Bauer's empty shell of a man disappearing into the vasty nothingness, and Season 7 which will now, apparently, involve Jack Bauer on trial. So this week we got our little 2 hour mini-season, 24:Redemption.

The gist of the story, and what you need to take with you to appreciate next season, is that Jack has spent a year or more on the run through the world, ducking a Federal grand jury subpoena which, theoretically, will require him to sit in judgement for his various torture related sins. He eventually washed up at a boys school located in Sangala, Africa, run by an old Special Ops buddy. Sangala is a peaceful democracy which is about to be overthrown by a military junta from the ubiquitous land of "across the border". This junta has already been making raids into Sangala, kidnapping boys to help build their army. I think you can see where this is going.

Meanwhile back at the ranch, the US is about to inaugurate the nation's first female President. (Lest you think 24 has somehow missed the zeitgeist on this one, recall that the 24-verse has already had not one but two totally adequate black male Presidents. (Ok, well, the one was kind of inadequate, but brother suffered a stroke. Cut him some slack already.) Sangala contacts the outgoing President Daniels for help, but he declines to send aid and orders all US and embassy personnel to evacuate.

Incoming President Taylor disputes the call, but she's not in charge yet. Besides, it appears that President Daniels is holding back information which may or may not have to do with...Future President Taylor's son, who appears to be friends with an investment corporation lackey who has been helping his boss, and his boss's mysterious employer, funnel funds to...the evil across the border military junta now terrorizing Sangala. Dun dun DUUUUUN!

Jack's driving responsibility in this episode is to get this group of boys to the US embassy in "the city" to get them on the last helicopter leaving Sangala (similarities of poignant shots of US helicopters abandoning throngs of helpless citizens to their fate and Vietnam are totally intentional) while simultaneously avoiding the capture that surely awaits him at the very same embassy. Always the multitasker, that Jack. This plot gives us plenty of opportunity to see Jack the humanitarian and there are plenty of moments in his interactions with the boys in his charge that one gets to see the veriest whisper of moisture entering his usually arid eyes. It would be beyond exaggeration to call them tears, but this is as close to Jack's Iron John moment as one may ever see.

The main problem with 24:Redemption is that ultimately, there's no hiding what it actually is: a pastiche of already filmed scenes originally intended to tell a bigger story. The urgency that generally suffuses the show and makes it so darn entertaining just never materializes. Is there a chance that Jack wont get the kids to the embassy, or that he will evade capture? Not bloody likely. We know he has to come home, and there's not much chance he's going to avoid that Grand Jury, either. This is Obama-world people. Let the Truth and Reconciliation begin!

 Because we know this is a 2 hour blip, it's hard to know what, if anything, to care about as far as the story being unspooled back in the US. There's obviously a shady businessman who is up to something nefarious, and there's not much chance he's going to be unmasked by the end of the 2 hours. So, should we pay attention or assume that whatever he's up to, if it's important we'll find out in January?

It will be interesting to see how 24 transitions into this brave new world of respect for rule of law and general human decency we assume will follow from an Obama presidency. A friend of mine who is, I'd like to point out, more of a raving left wing lunatic than I am, says flatly "the world will regret the day they demanded a kinder, gentler Jack Bauer". 24:Redemption only seems to confirm this. But Kati, you ask, how can you, a card carrying liberal loving, Obama voting, torture hating fearer of right wing whack jobs, not support forcing Jack Bauer to abide by the Geneva Convention? Well, I'll tell you, I don't watch 24 to have my liberal conscience gently stroked. I watch it for the same reason I watch James Bond and Jason Bourne: they entertain me. For entertainment purposes, nothing really beats a slap angry Jack Bauer, hopped up and off the rez.

When the New Yorker article which detailed the above incident with Surnow and military personnel was published somewhere around the middle of last season, I read it with interest and not a few opinions of my own. The article certainly caused a stir, and it definitely tapped in to the anger that all of us still have about Abu Ghraib and the general sense of frustration at a government run amok. On the one hand, I think Surnow is a genuine fascist Fruit Loop and there's no arguing I don't find his politics repellent. It would be enough for the creator of any show that deals with incendiary issues to say, hey, it's entertainment, you know. The creators of House don't run around claiming Gregory House is the solution to the health care crisis, after all. But Surnow cheerfully acknowledges that he thinks torture is a totally reasonable means to an end, usually with a slightly wistful air that suggests he only regrets his Hollywood lifestyle will never give him reason to water-board someone.

But on the other hand, part of my job and honestly part of my fiber is a respect for artistic expression coupled with an absolute belief that movies and television and music do not cause behavior. I remember a long interaction I had with a patron who was hysterical over the film Heavenly Creatures. This film, she was certain, would teach children that it is OK to kill their parents. I wanted very much to suggest to her that if she was in fear from her children, she had bigger problems than this movie, and perhaps social services should get involved. At a distance it's easy to chuckle, but at the time it was truly difficult to communicate to the woman that watching this Kate Winslet movie would no more cause teens to commit matricide than watching Titanic would cause them to drown.

It's a recurring theme in our culture that that when a work of entertainment shows something we don't like to point to it and say "See, there's the problem right there". If it weren't for the Matrix and video games Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold would even now be contributing members of society instead of infamous slayers of classmates. The certainty that 24, a clock-is-ticking action show where the main character occasionally resorts to unpleasant means to get a bad guy to "TELL ME WHERE THE BOMB/MY DAUGHTER/THE CURLY FRIES I ORDERED ARE!!", was somehow part of the reason that our entire military seemed to have gone Truknutz for prisoner abuse was only made worse by how much Surnow and some of the other producers clearly relished the notion that they might be somehow influential in it as well, and wasthen reinforced by the very public military visit to the show.

With all due respect and sympathy for the headmaster at West Point, 24 was never the problem. After all, no military tribunal ever approached Aaron Sorkin and said look, Aaron, you have to back off this "gays in the military" thing. Our cadets are refusing to hand over their hair gel and some have started "bedazzling" their uniforms. 24 may have tapped in to an ugly American cultural moment, but Joel Surnow vastly overestimates his abilities if he believes he ever did more than create a work which reflected it. The real architects of that moment were always a President and Vice President who cheerfully wiped their tushies with the Geneva Convention and a politically compromised Justice Department charged with creating legal grey areas in which waterboarding and extraordinary rendition could reside.

Long before Abu Ghraib, there were news reports of Justice Department directives to find weasel room in our anti-torture provisions which, up until that moment, most Americans had not considered in desperate need of revision. As red flags go it was something like discovering a Federal budget line item for 5 billion in Christ-centered sex ed. One need not wait til little Jimmy brings home a Bible and chastity belt from kindergarten to recognize a harbinger of things to come. As devastating the news may be to the fascist Fruit Loop, it was not, nor will it ever be remembered as The Surnow Doctrine.

So where does that leave our poor beleaguered Jack, or his audience who have spent years of enjoyment watching him save the world with .0002 seconds to spare? Despite his evident flaws as a member of humanity, Joel Surnow did create a heckuvah entertaining show. Removed from politics, the key to the appeal of Jack Bauer is similar to the appeal of the castaways in Lost: how do people behave when all meaningful things are wrested from them and their backs are against the wall? Do they give up? Lash out? Or do they get very focused on the immediate task at hand? It's actually a mistake to say that 24 does not show the negetive side of torture, because we see the negetive side pretty consistently reflected in Jack Bauer's face. This is a man who has had every good thing in his life turn to ash, over and over again. He's like Job with a side arm.

While the idea of compassionate Jack, volunteering at the soup kitchen and planting tree house trees for orphings to repent for all the misdeeds that his employer requested him to do, might make for an interesting Aaron Sorkin project, it would not be the 24 we all know and love (you know you do...confess already!). While Jack Bauer deserves a nice day just as surely as the American people deserve a government that will not shame them anymore, I hope the new rulers of 24 resist the urge to gently stroke our lefty consciences. Let Jack be Jack, and let the crazy, whacked out show go on.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Twilight of the Post Ironic Vampire

Adults are often accused of forgetting what it's like to be a teenager, usually by a teenager they're trying to ground.  But it's a truth rarely acknowledged that no adult ever actually forgets.  Repress, certainly, but forget?  Does a soldier forget basic training?  We bury the memories under 50 miles of concrete, and strive for the appearance of dispassionate distance.  If we didn't, we'd stop reproducing, or end our tweener children's lives with mercy killings rather than forcing them to suffer the horror that is adolescence.

My mother once said to me that the age of twelve is the cruelest age for parents.  At 12 children begin to show real evidence of the delightful people they will become, and just when a parent begins to think, wow, look at this marvelous creature I've raised, the adolescence fairies come and steal it away.  Suddenly children don't know who, or what, they are any more.  Things in which one has always found delight suddenly become stupid. The body one never even thought about before becomes a strange, clumsy, smelly, hairy casing.  Reliable friends transform into strangers. 

When you don't know who in the hell you are, no sign from the universe, be it a cross glance from a teacher or an un-ringing phone, is insignificant.  Since rebelling against one's parents is actually a necessary part of this transformation, the very people upon whom one has always relied for guidance become useless.  Parents suggest ridiculous things like having a little perspective, but there's no such thing as perspective when you're in unmapped territory.  And just when you've embarked into this completely foreign world, your body adds a brand new element to the mix: lust.

Any period of life that is so overwrought begs to be elevated (or reduced?) to artistic interpretation through metaphor.  While I'm sure that Shakespeare would spin in his grave at the thought, for all the centuries of Romeos & Juliets, Abelards & Heloises and Cathys & Heathcliffs, the simple tale of a good girl falling ass over teakettle for a vampire is as fine a metaphor for adolescent angst as any.  

I cut my eyeteeth on vampire fandom with Joss Whedon and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Officially, I was probably too old to be so enraptured by the travails of a teenage girl with the literal weight of the world on her shoulders and her on again/off again romance with a 240 year old vampire with a soul (the off part generally coinciding with those times when his soul, due to various malevolent causes, would go missing).  

But I loved the show, still do, because it was funny and clever and incredibly well written.  It's hard to explain to any logical minded person that this show about slaying the legions of doom with stakes and wicked one liners was the most realistic show about high school ever.  But while the humor and monsters provided the leavening, the truth Buffy so universally acknowledged was that high school is hell, and the stakes really are life and death.  In a surreal underscoring of this point, when I left the Friday night showing of Twilight, NPR was broadcasting a story about Leanne Wolf, an Irish teenager who took her life after years of bullying by classmates.  So much for the anesthesia of perspective.   

The Twilight series of books and now film take this now modern classic tale of girl/vampire romance, some would say was perfected by Joss Whedon, and strips it of any ironic detachment.  This is full on romantic melodrama, which is not necessarily a bad thing.  

The director, Catherine Hardwicke, earned her reputation with a brutal unblinking look at the perils of adolescence with the film Thirteen.  Not for the faint of heart, nor, I would even say parents of teenage girls who wish to sleep again, ever, Thirteen shows the painful transformation of a quiet, Barbie playing girl (what was it my Mom said about the age of 12?) into an angry, out of control teenager experimenting with drugs, sex and petty crime, to the utter bewilderment of her mother.  In a weird way, this makes Hardwicke an obvious choice to make a film about teen angst gone to mythic proportions.  

Bella is a good, almost hyper responsible, teenager who moves to the small cloudy town of Forks, WA to live with her Dad.  The relocation is due to the fact that her sweet but flaky Mother has married a minor league baseball player and longs to follow him on the road.  Bella gets along with her parents, both of them, and even her stepfather.  She has no apparent unresolved Mommy or Daddy issues.  She's a good student and a responsible friend, making her, in Hollywood terms, practically a blank slate, ready to be writ upon.  

The writer soon appears in the form of Edward, quiet member of a soulful clan of vampires who have moved to this remote rural location to form the vampire version of a peaceful vegan commune.  They only eat animals and never kill people.  They avoid the sun not because it causes them to burst into flame, but because it causes their skin to glimmer like disco balls, which might alert the local populace to the fact that they're not really human.  In the book, this sparkling transformation sounds quite impressive but sadly, in the movie, it ends up looking like Edward had an unfortunate accident in a gay club with a glitter canon. 

Bella is drawn to quiet, brooding Edward because, well, have you seen him?  He's totally dreamy.  Edward is drawn to Bella because, apparently, to his hyper sensitive vampire senses, her pheromonal smell is overpowering to him.  To me, this idea of an irresistible scent conjures up an aromatic image of crispy bacon and cinnamon toast but, as the movie helpfully if rather drably shorthands for us, is like his own personal brand of heroin.  Who knew heroin smelled so nice?  

Although Edward finds himself unable to stay away from Bella, due a great deal to her habit of almost accidentally dying in a variety of ways which demand rescue, he can hardly bring himself to even kiss her, though he longs to, as does she.  But Edward responsibly fears that to kiss her might unleash the demon inside him, killing Bella in the process.  Edward loves Bella so much, he cannot bear to kill her, even if it meant he could turn her into his contented vampire bride.  

To practical Bella, however, being turned into Edward's contented vampire bride seems like an obvious solution to their dilemma.  After all, they could totally make out all the time then, for eternity.  Edward's dilemma is an interesting one.  He recognizes that what he loves about Bella is, in fact, her humanity (it's not clear to me if her cinnamon toast & bacon...I mean heroin...perfume would evaporate upon her turning into a vampire, but it certainly seems possible).  

The parallels to the loss of virginity seem way too obvious to mention, but they are at the heart of this are they not?  Stripped of romanticism, Edward might get to enjoy one crazed night of passion with the virgin Bella only to awake to an eternity of (now demonized?) nagging vampire wife Bella.  I'm not saying...I'm just saying.  Did I mention Stephanie Meyer, the author of the Twilight series, is Mormon?  I don't know why I just thought of that.    

My post-adolescent adult perspective finds much to be troubled by in the Twilight series, but I have to concede that Meyer has tapped in to some very elemental emotional fantasies with this series.  What woman (be honest) has not fantasized about having a man madly, irresistibly, passionately  enthralled by us.  Not even because of our looks or gifts or skills but simply because we are.  It would certainly take the pressure off.  

As much as I long to roll my eyes at Bella's compulsion to literally throw her life away to keep Edward close, I find myself remembering the time a woman I knew told me that she was considering allowing her boyfriend, whom she'd been with for only a few months, to infect her with his herpes, just to make things "easier".  If they were going to be together "forever" she couldn't imagine he'd be willing to put up with condoms and irregular sex "forever".  Considering this woman had at least two decades on Bella, I can't deny that women well beyond adolescence often consider the strangest things to be reasonable sacrifices.   

But jeez, why so serious?  Twilight was essentially and undoubtedly not made for me.  It was made for the hundreds of teen girls watching the movie with me, and even, with its vampiric action, the teen boys who came with them.  I was wracking my brain to remember what the Twilight of my own teen generation might have been.  The best I could come up with was Sixteen Candles which, while great, was hardly the Cathy and Heathcliff for a new generation.  Twilight is well directed and acted and as well written as it could be considering the source material.      

The film has a few issues which only someone who lives in the Pacific Northwest would probably care to notice.  The town of Forks, or at least its high school, has been transformed into a veritable UN of hip multicultural ethnicity.  Not so much a stretch for a Seattle high school, but perhaps startling for a town that's at least 80% genetically pale.  Of course, this Disneyesque Small World of nations only serves to emphasize the startling paleness of the marble skinned Cullen family.  In (I can't believe I'm using this term) reality, should a family of incredibly pale people wish to move someplace where it rains all the time, they probably couldn't find a better place to go unnoticed than the actual town of Forks, but Hollywood has placed them in a Benneton ad, the better to emphasize their exquisite alabaster cheekbones.

Perhaps because I was so desperate for a shock of Whedonesque irony, I did find myself laughing at the Sheriff announcing that the mysterious barefoot killers (who we all know to be evil, non vegan, vampires) have "moved south" and are "Kitsap County's problem now".  As someone who was once marooned for two years in the verdant purgatory that is Kitsap County, I could only think that two marauding vampires would still be the least of their problems, well behind payday at Toy's Topless and any week an aircraft carrier is in town.  But these are mere quibbles.  If this movie is for you, and you already know who you are, enjoy.  There will be plenty of time for adult perspective later.  


Epilogue - one of the fun things about going to a movie like this is getting to hear the teen barometer to upcoming previews.  Based on the responses I heard from the audience, it looks like  Will Smith's Seven Pounds gets rapt attention from the teens, as does trippy actioner Push.  Omen inspired The Unborn had them gasping, ew-ing and hiding their eyes, and the Wayans Brothers Dance Flick already has them rolling in the aisles.  Based on the laughter mixed with impatient snorts I think we can predict that Tom Cruise's Valkyrie is dead on arrival.  Someone needs to tell the studios that World War II is like, so over, and so is Tom Cruise.  The Nic Cage actioner Knowing, about a sheet of numbers from the past which seem to predict the future, proves that, in America at least, math sucks and no distraction from Nic's toupee is going to change that.