Thursday, May 19, 2011

House has not (yet) left the building

Earlier this week, Lisa Edelstein who plays Cuddy on House announced that she wouldn't be returning for the eighth season. Cuddy was a redemptive figure, a sane counterbalance to her ex-boyfriend's raging immaturity. Never one to roll over and die, she was constructed to effectively parry House's genius for manipulation.

Edelstein's decision will upset those fans who have invested much emotion in 'Huddy' (the hurl-inducing label they stuck to the characters' union). While their repetitious on-screen clashes could have stirred a paralyzed patient into reaching for the remote, it was the seesaw sexual tension that lent the show its distinctive unpredictability. For, let's be honest: House otherwise gives off the impression of running on auto-pilot. From citing one exotic disease per season on every episode as a kind of in-joke for fans, right down to patients displaying some gory new symptom in time for the next commercial break, the viewer is trained to respond to certain stimuli. A slightly overused trick, it cannot always create a deeper connection to the show. It affects me far more to see such a strongly relatable character go.

Given how much buzz non-diegetic developments generate on the Internet, it will be tough to maintain the veil of fiction and handle Edelstein's departure with grace. We may be certain that there will be no contrived episode of idealistic blathering or suicide; but ending the seventh season without a cliffhanger, without breaking the fourth wall while knowing that Cuddy is gone forever, will take some delicate engineering.

Usually when a pivotal character quits, it is in everyone's interests to wrap up the series, a case in point being That 70s Show, which jumped the shark right about now during its own run. The enormously successful Two and a Half Men might yet survive beyond a season or two, if That 70s Show alumnus Ashton Kutcher can exploit the furore in Charlie Sheen's wake and take the show in a different direction, although Kutcher has too much money riding on him and this may be a case of trying to salvage a seat cushion from a car wreck.

But House is a little more complex than most shows. The lead character's personality has undergone so little transformation over the seasons, he would fit within the narrative conventions of a sitcom. Indeed the first few seasons of House could be read as a 'dramedy'; its subsequent generic evolution unintentionally mirrors Friends, a purported comedy that ultimately morphed into a full-blown soap opera -- and this depends on your taste -- complete with unlikeable leads.

I am only half-joking. It goes without saying, however, House has a lot more strands to work with. The philosophical possibilities are limitless when your protagonist is an amoral genius. Like a President entering his final year in office, the writers should go all out and tackle all kinds of taboo material, thereby reclaiming the show's early reputation as brilliantly non-conformist.

As it stands, the show is a watered down, emasculated version of what it used to be. I know I would have stopped watching House long ago had it not been for the presence of the irrepressible Hugh Laurie. Ted Danson's Becker (from the eponymous show) is not a patch on Laurie's interpretation of the irascible genius trope. Laurie himself is a genius and yet -- going by his interviews and other performances -- nothing like the character he portrays, which makes his skill appear all the more impressive. Outside of America the Englishman is best known for his comedic talent. He was marvelous as the clueless Bertie Wooster in Jeeves and Wooster; hilariously creepy when singing from a pedophile photographer's point-of-view and surreal as a man lodging a complaint with the police on the skit show, A Bit of Fry & Laurie.

House is Laurie and Laurie is House. Every other character on that show could be replaced and House would still be watchable, however unwatchable House got. Seven seasons have produced some extraordinarily moving moments, several mediocre episodes but no rank bad ones. The show's fans continue to impose high expectations. End it well -- not like Lost, thank you -- and the suicides and divorces will be forgiven.

How might the writers resolve the big questions? From a narrative standpoint, in the time left I would like to see House hook up with the prodigal wild child, Remy Hadley aka Thirteen. It's the only permutation left that makes any sense. The chemistry is apparent and it is smoking. Apart from the obvious tension and competition it would provoke between House and Eric Foreman, his perennial second-in-command (not to be confused with the protagonist on That 70s Show) who was once involved with Thirteen, there's something compellingly tragic about a gifted diagnostician falling for a beautiful young woman with Huntington's disease, and knowing that try as he might to save her, he will for once not get to play god. It would also be entirely in line with his character, for House is nothing if not twisted.

Who knows: having to chase an independent, high-functioning (yet emotionally dysfunctional) woman whose affection he cannot take for granted might even make a man of House.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Farce at its finest

This one's arguably the most brilliant set piece that the (often overrated) Daily Show has put out. It's a zinger; political farce at its finest, the finish positively heretical.

Aasif Mandvi's comic timing is exquisite. He throws in a few crucial pauses while delivering the best line I have ever heard on the show: "As one gentleman told me while standing in the... smoldering remains of what was once his village... You can't get hummus... without mashing some chickpeas."

Mandvi makes this sound like hip-hop.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Photography as imperialism

I took this recently in Austin, from close to the bus-stop on Guadalupe and 21st. Walking along the pavement and sipping on bubble tea, I'd caught sight of people pointing at the sky; I looked up and was confronted by a thing of beauty.

Mechanically I retrieved my iPhone from my pocket and shot it, like a deer. The sun eventually dipped. The radiance that lit up this spectacle faded like a decomposing carcass and I walked away.

There are many interesting details about the photo of course, new bits that you spot every time, dots I had not connected when gazing upward. The camera frames the image very differently from the eye. For instance I didn't notice until I looked at the photo that the ridiculously named Darque Tan salon crouched directly below the cloud, or that Dobie Center (which leans in this photograph like the Tower of Pisa) has a faintly reptilian look to it. I can spot faces in the clouds even.

Over the past decade I have grown more conscious of my need to track personal and family history. My phone has especially influenced the way I collect memories. The one I own currently -- a fourth generation smartphone -- is a powerful device that among other things allows me to manipulate my impressions by storing the image in full color or black-and-white: choices governed by aesthetic reasons linked purely to form. I have never owned a camera and I don't expect I ever will. This device is a functional replacement.

I used not to be interested in recording images. For years I subscribed to the mistaken belief that looking at old photographs held out only the promise of passive pleasure; consequently I didn't care enough to learn to operate my father's old Canon SLR. I still mistrust photographs inasmuch as I am skeptical of the power of words to sufficiently pin down one's thought process.

Conversely, part of my ambivalence towards these media may stem from the awareness that even though the technology is more or less widely available in most countries around the world, the act of shooting pictures is, like writing, a project of imperialism, of capture and dominance over the subject.

For Robert Browning, art was imperialistic. Perhaps I suffer from a case of faux-white man's guilt, although growing up as a teenager in Bombay and goggling at crisp images of foreignness in National Geographic, I wasn't sophisticated enough to know that far from capturing the authenticity of experience, the pictures exoticized the poor and the mundane through the use of elements like elegant fonts and glossy paper. It's funny in hindsight to acknowledge that to my impressionable mind, the quality of paper connoted an overly simple sense of what America itself meant to me: clean, fresh-smelling and a place far more welcoming of immigrants than it truly is.

Resistance to photography's imperialistic nature is powerfully sustained by knowing that uprooted from their context, images can never duplicate reality. Our realities register as intangible, fleeting fragments on the medium of our mind. McLuhan's words apply here: the medium cannot be rendered distinct from message.

All photography is political. But as is usually the case with these things, intent counts for a lot. Memory, when documented as accurately as possible, contributes to the resistance by reaffirming our humanity.

Despite its technological limitations and capacity to perpetuate larger imperialistic ideas, video works better than the photograph as a receptacle of memories when it contains both moving images and audio supplemented by language. The combination of multiple elements may overpower the resistance to imperialism, and yet somehow bring us closer to our ultimate goal: to capture a slice of all that is real in our life.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Myth and Osama bin Laden

Before the Pentagon released footage culled from a video that was reportedly recovered from Osama bin Laden’s foxhole on the night of his killing, few in the Western world outside of the CIA would have cared to envision the Al Qaeda chief in any kind of personal circumstance. Did he, for instance, prefer any particular brand of toothpaste? Did he like to pick his nose? Was he or was he not a neat freak? How was he in bed?

The most intriguing of the silent documentary clips being aired features a tired-looking bin Laden in a ski-cap, wrapped in a dark shawl instead of the messianic golden robes we were accustomed to seeing in his savvy propaganda releases, the instantly recognizable beard streaked by an unfamiliar gray. Apparently – and we are denied any further explanatory context for this hypothesis – bin Laden liked watching news coverage of himself on Arab television.

Just as it did in the days after Saddam Hussein’s capture, the American broadcast media have sought to unify under the banner of patriotism. It has lately taken to making the point that in addition to being the most hunted man in the world, a mass murderer and all-around fiend, bin Laden was also a narcissist; a man given to dyeing his beard and seeking to project a fake virility in the video messages he recorded for his supporters, a man who got off on the knowledge that he could stop the world press by sending an audio tape to any obscurely local radio station.

Yet, far from confirming bin Laden’s reputation as a murderous megalomaniac, the Pentagon video I cite humanizes him in ways that make me – personally speaking -- uncomfortable. It almost portrays bin Laden as a mere curmudgeon, a misanthropic recluse looking back sentimentally on ‘better’ days, if that is what one calls blowing up planes and warships, and murdering thousands of innocent civilians in the name of some incoherent political project to reshape the world order. The footage makes him look ill and weak from disease, and not unlike my own grandfather whose final days were marked by a courageous battle against both Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

You could also turn this argument around and say, narcissism when coupled with power is a far more dangerous beast. If self-reflexive images were sufficient indicators of megalomania, then we need look no further than 82 pictures from the night of the 2008 Presidential election that the Obama White House itself later posted on Flickr. Shorn of its positive context, the image of Obama watching the drama of his accession unfold on television is nothing if not symbolic of grotesque self-love.

How might history, with its distancing perspective, judge this episode? Bin Laden may be dead but it seems inevitable Western culture must relinquish its grasp on the world’s imagination within the next century and begin to decline; and with that, history will change course.

Bin Laden’s legend was burnished by his having evaded detection for nearly a decade. In some ways he was an anachronism, more fit for the Crusades than hyperreal warfare; a throwback to Hannibal, the Carthinagian military leader who fought Rome, or Boadicea, the queen who led her tribe into battle against the forces of Emperor Nero, and other ruthless rebel leaders like these from millennia past when it was far more acceptable to kill non-combatants. And yet, in other ways, he was as invested in the notion of the modern as the most astute propagandist.

Albert Camus predicted that future historians would have two things to say of the modern man – that he fornicated and read the papers. Even if that were to prove true, I like to think they would be prepared to make an exception and say something insightful about complex characters like Osama bin Laden.

Theirs is not an easy job, however. Scholars will need to sift through all the disinformation spread by both sides over a period of three decades before they can address the question, who was bin Laden, really? It is fascinating to think that in this age of information surplus, we might never learn the answer.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Why the SlutWalk is an exercise in stupidity

Social media have facilitated the growth of a disparate bunch of imagined communities, some more hedonistic than idealistic, yet rarely have I seen anything as misguided or incoherent on the scale of SlutWalk, a recently created Facebook movement that has caught on in North America.

The idea for the event arose after a Canadian police officer, Michael Sanguinetti, made a controversial observation to a group of students at York University. It is evident that Sanguinetti was not speaking for the law when he said, "I've been told I'm not supposed to say this – however, women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized." He was not threatening anyone with arrest; he was not foolish enough to advocate moral policing. It is probably fair to say that his stance was more grounded in paternalistic rhetoric, which sometimes carries undertones of superciliousness.

If a woman's father disapproved of what she wore (whether out of orthodoxy or concern for her safety), it is safe to presume that she would ignore those views as outdated; she would argue a little but soon give up on the resident dinosaur. It is ironic then, that a cop -- an authority figure of similar standing who was, in this case, acting as a concerned elder -- should elicit such an overreaction for what was essentially a well-intentioned if ill-framed piece of advice.

The most significant problem with Sanguinetti's statement is that he was establishing an inaccurate causal link. Not dressing like a slut is no guarantee that a woman will escape victimization. To be victimized is to have one's power taken away by force. No woman ever ought to feel threatened on account of what she chooses to wear. Daring fashion sense is no provocation for any kind of misbehavior.

'Misbehavior' can range from cat-calling to rape. Sometimes the framing can be ambiguous. For instance flirting involves judgment, and knowing when to withdraw. At the other end of the spectrum, seducing someone -- male or female -- through suggestive sexual behavior, engaging in consensual intercourse and then claiming it was rape is the act of an emotionally unstable individual, a crime of victimization in its own right. Such subtleties need usually be applied, however, only to the fraction of exceptions. Like porn, misbehavior is generally easy to identify if harder to define.

To its credit, the SlutWalk march seeks to reiterate the patently obvious -- but, in a recent case, shockingly overlooked -- idea that the law should not discriminate between molesters on the basis of what a victim was wearing.

Here's the thing: the protest would have been better served had it been called 'What not to wear: Wear what you like!' But of course, that wouldn't have generated any controversy at all. And a movement that can't make headlines is hardly worth the name.

The inclusion of the word 'slut' in SlutWalk pushes either inadvertently or on purpose for a re-evaluation of that derogatory epithet. This is, then, no longer about rape and righteous indignation. Reduced to the level of the sensational, the debate generates larger ripples of cause and consequence; there are also unavoidable evolutionary implications that SlutWalk is not equipped to handle.

For instance, society labels promiscuous women as 'slutty' and sexually successful men as 'studs', but contrary to the popular opinion that this discrepancy in naming is unfair, I argue that it makes perfect sense at least in the context of straight people.

This much is true: as the physically stronger sex, men are capable of posing a greater threat of violence. Several studies agree that in Western and Westernized societies, sexual harassment is more often perpetrated by men on women -- a conclusion which could be extended with some justification to every country. But the majority comprises of law-abiding citizens. Women, particularly those in the West, wield the power to say no to sexual contact at every level of interaction. So long as that is respected, social order is maintained. Even if in theory, sexual choice resides equally with both men and women and is exercised after paying due attention to one's relative attractiveness, women in urban American cities are still likely to refuse a sexual encounter more often than a man. This puts their gender in a position of control.

Mate selection is a complex process. Nature tasks women with carrying babies in their womb and men with spreading their seed as widely as possible to maximize chances of survival. Family becomes an efficient mechanism for collective growth. Monogamy within marriage is of course a form of socially sanctioned hypocrisy, albeit one that serves a useful purpose: in the interests of raising a child the libido must be selectively repressed, which is one of the reasons why women must be picky about the father.

The most attractive people of either sex naturally exert the greatest power over the selection of a mate. But to put it crassly, the average heterosexual, college-educated American woman would probably have to project lesser effort -- lesser sexual energy, lesser charisma -- to get a man to sleep with her, than the average heterosexual American man must, in order to bed a woman. Both men and women seek optimal, "high-value" partners with whom they might set up a family; it just happens that high-value men are subconsciously driven by their natural instincts to conduct sexual relations with a greater number of females of "inferior social value" than women do, with "low-grade" men.

Simply put, the average man finds it harder to get laid, so any male who can manage it consistently is considered high-value, while high-value women are viewed by society as having achieved nothing out of the ordinary through promiscuous behavior, and worthy of censure for having chosen to postpone the responsibility of nurturing a child within the structured environment of a family.

As far as nature is concerned the matter transcends morality. Too many 'sluts' can threaten the future of the species by eventually settling for ‘nice guy’ beta-males and producing ‘weaker’ babies later in life, just as in-breeding and incest could potentially multiply genetic defects. That's right: if you really want to rake up controversy, try setting up a walk to promote incestuous behavior. Sluts are a lame demographic in comparison.

Jokes apart, this is not to say that women should be denied sexual freedom; this freedom will, however, be purchased inexorably at the price of social disapproval.

Such disapproval must not be countered by yelling at the top of one's lungs that being a slut is acceptable. That distracts from the real aim of these protests -- which is to dissociate 'rape' from 'what a woman is wearing' -- and sows confusion. Including the word 'slut' in the title is not the most intelligent way to market the purported revolution. A tactic less subversive than silly, and attention-seeking in intent, it will fail to move this intensely puritanical system, just as a child will (hopefully) discover it cannot get its way by throwing a tantrum in a supermarket aisle simply because it was denied a bar of chocolate.

The SlutWalk does epitomize the valid point that women are free to express themselves in any manner of their choosing. Organizing a campaign like this is one of many ways to help women internalize the feeling that they are not to blame for rape. It also serves to remind society that patronizing judgments are not acceptable and will not go unchallenged.

But SlutWalk is not a race meant to anoint the least-judgmental amongst us as winner. Disagreeing with its coding does not mean I respect women any less. If anything, I fear SlutWalk's premise is faulty, and must instead focus on resonating with the widest possible audience.

The term 'slut' is loaded with connotations of selfish, id-driven opportunism and as such carries far less gravitas than other words re-appropriated through various civil rights movements. It cannot be reclaimed via some cheap gimmick.

To achieve that kind of institutional change will require something more substantial than attaching disruptive labels to a peace rally.