Saturday, September 3, 2016

Watching The Detectives

a post from 2 years ago
...
A couple of years after I watched Pulp Fiction I read Bell Hooks's impressive critique of the movie where she lambasts Tarantino for his inappropriate appropriation of black culture. Hooks's criticism of Pulp Fiction is angry but entirely logical and smart so when I watched Pulp Fiction again I was prepared to like the movie a lot less. I didn't. When I watched it again I saw that although Hooks's critique works on one level the movie was still a contemporary masterpiece and it was a very interesting experience watching the film from 2 opposing critical perspectives in my own head. This is the Scott Fitzgerald trick of holding two different ideas in your mind at the same time. 
...
I had a similar experience with HBO's True Detective. Before I watched an episode of the show I read Emily Nussbaum's take down of it in the New Yorker magazine. It's a long, pointed review that you can read here, but for me the most important section is this: 

...but, after years of watching “Boardwalk Empire,” “Ray Donovan,” “House of Lies,” and so on, I’ve turned prickly, and tired of trying to be, in the novelist Gillian Flynn’s useful phrase, the Cool Girl: a good sport when something smells like macho nonsense. And, frankly, “True Detective” reeks of the stuff. The series, for all its good looks and its movie-star charisma, isn’t just using dorm-room deep talk as a come-on: it has fallen for its own sales pitch. To state the obvious: while the male detectives of “True Detective” are avenging women and children, and bro-bonding over “crazy pussy,” every live woman they meet is paper-thin. Wives and sluts and daughters—none with any interior life. Instead of an ensemble, “True Detective” has just two characters, the family-man adulterer Marty, who seems like a real and flawed person (and a reasonably interesting asshole, in Harrelson’s strong performance), and Rust, who is a macho fantasy straight out of Carlos Castaneda. A sinewy weirdo with a tragic past, Rust delivers arias of philosophy, a mash-up of Nietzsche, Lovecraft, and the nihilist horror writer Thomas Ligotti. At first, this buddy pairing seems like a funky dialectic: when Rust rants, Marty rolls his eyes. But, six episodes in, I’ve come to suspect that the show is dead serious about this dude. Rust is a heretic with a heart of gold. He’s our fetish object—the cop who keeps digging when everyone ignores the truth, the action hero who rescues children in the midst of violent chaos, the outsider with painful secrets and harsh truths and nice arms. McConaughey gives an exciting performance (in Grantland, Andy Greenwald aptly called him “a rubber band wrapped tight around a razor blade”), but his rap is premium baloney. And everyone around these cops, male or female, is a dark-drama cliché, from the coked-up dealers and the sinister preachers to that curvy corpse in her antlers. “True Detective” has some tangy dialogue (“You are the Michael Jordan of being a son of a bitch”) and it can whip up an ominous atmosphere, rippling with hints of psychedelia, but these strengths finally dissipate, because it’s so solipsistically focussed on the phony duet. Meanwhile, Marty’s wife, Maggie—played by Michelle Monaghan, she is the only prominent female character on the show—is an utter nothing-burger, all fuming prettiness with zero insides. Stand her next to any other betrayed wife on television—Mellie, on “Scandal”; or Alicia, on “The Good Wife”; or Cersei, on “Game of Thrones”; or even Claire, on “House of Cards”—and Maggie’s an outline, too.

These are all good points and largely unassailable. Furthermore, I am not a fan of satanic conspiracy movies or of child abduction/torture books and movies (I hated Girl With A Dragon Tattoo) and I really hate it when the child abduction is connected to a, yawn, satanic conspiracy. (The exceptions here being Ben Wheatley's Kill List and the original Wicker Man.) So you'd have thought I would have despised True Detective on every conceivable level...
...
And yet...I didn't. I loved it. True Detective S1 is a work of high art. The temporal dissonance of the pilot episode was bold and visionary, the dialogue throughout the season was witty, sophisticated and completely authentic (yes skeptical New Yorker readers working class people do in fact talk about big ideas and philosophical concepts), and the Louisiana imagery of the entire season was extraordinary. Nussbaum's point about the female characters is worth saying but a little misplaced because that's not what the show is about, the show is about men - 2 men in particular attempting to cope with a world with no moral centre. The show reminded me of the Thomas Pynchon short story Entropy also set in Louisiana: in both the Pynchon and True Detective we get characters who know that entropy will always win - the universe will end in disorder and nothingness, but here and now in the present we can attempt to impose a little bit of local order on a sea of chaos. We're not holding up a middle finger to God, there is no God and there is no justice, what there is is a little temporary rectangle of order in a bleak rule-less world. The cops in True Detective are existential characters in search of meaning on a planet that has no meaning, but they find an answer in the very quest itself. Yes there's a little Ligotti and Lovecraft in the show (there's not really any Nietzsche) but actually the philosopher who best unravels the characters' journey is Alasdair MacIntyre. You haven't read him have you Emily? Admit it you haven't read Ligotti either. As MacIntyre explains in After Virtue "the man who does what he ought moves steadily towards his fate and his death. It is defeat and not victory that lies at the end. To understand this is itself a virtue, indeed it is the necessary part of courage."
...
Philosophically and visually True Detective is rich and when you add in the extraordinary acting from Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughay and the music from The Handsome Family and T Bone Burnett you get a show that's ambitious, bold and exciting. I watched True Detective the way I rewatched Pulp Fiction with my critical faculties intact and with my antennae up. I watched with 2 different emotions in my brain (emotions is the right word here - remember what Hume said about reason being the slave of the passions). Although I cd see some of Nussbaum's POV ultimately I was much more convinced by the story telling of Nic Pizzolatto - the writer - and ‎Cary Fukunaga - the director. TV programmes aren't supposed to mirror the world, or improve us, or make us better, they're supposed to delight the senses and make the mind think and entertain. The characters delighted my senses and (although I don't think this is entirely necessary) I believed in them because I grew up with people exactly that. It's absurdly condescending to assume that everyone outside of Manhattan is an idiot who dare not attempt to formulate existential questions. 

Unlike Emily Nussbaum I do not find Scandal & The Good Wife and House of Cards to be entertaining. These shows will fade into oblivion and not be remembered or watched 10 years from now. Remember when Frasier was the number 1 comedy in America? That vanishing act is what is going to happen to The Good Wife and Scandal. Those are the true nothing burgers. Nussbaum entirely misses the point of True Detective - this is not a show about families or spunky white collar female professionals or whatever floats her boat; this is a show about maleness and perhaps only men (and maybe Camille Paglia) can truly appreciate the forensic unpacking of its two male leads. True Detective S1 is as good as TV gets and if you can't see that you're just not trying hard enough.