Gennady Gladkov, whose works provided the soundtrack to a variety of movies, series, and animated works, died in Moscow last month at the age of 88. Among the many projects scored by the Russian composer was the 1978 film An Ordinary Miracle, directed by Mark Zakharov and based on the 1954 play by Evgeny Schwartz. A compelling allegory on the nature of creativity and its relationship to human connection, the Mosfilm movie is also a thoughtful meditation on the nature of human relating. At a time when division between people feels so sharp, its examination of connection, as much as power, offer powerful food for thought.
Gladkov’s unique melding of pop-Baroque-romantic sounds underscores the work’s meta-theatricalism, but in no way does that lessen its impact or dilute the sincerity 0f its core. The use of the Bear archetype, with its pungent Jungian and mythological ties, brought to mind obvious opera (Siegfried) and theatre (The Winter’s Tale) references but also examples from popular culture. “Wake Up Call“, an episode from the third season of American television series Northern Exposure (aired on CBS in 1992), written by John Falsey, Joshua Brand, and Diane Frolov. The episode depicts Alaska-based pilot Maggie O’Connell (Janine Turner) meeting a mysterious man in the woods (Andreas Wisniewski) near the start of spring. The man is gentle, handsome, handy; he catches fish with his bare hands. Is he Prince Charming come to life? Maggie accepts his invitation to visit his abode, a decorated cave, complete with candles and dinnerware. Spring begins to blossom; Maggie’s new flame vanishes, or rather, doesn’t, or rather… because he’s a bear, probably, though he could also be imagined; the writers quite intelligently don’t answer this conundrum. Rather than framing the premise in a patronizing manner (“Poor woman, she’s so desperate for a man she fantasizes about a wild animal…”) Maggie, and by extension the audience, is left to make individual conclusions. Such anthropomorphism isn’t necessarily cutesy or whimsical either; that categorizing crumbles against the very real framework of death (Maggie’s past romantic partners have all died tragically). The bear-man could be a coping mechanism, or he could indeed be real, or he could have a connection with First Nations mythologies (also suggested) – he could be everything, or something, or nothing. Again, viewers are trusted to decide: maybe it was real, maybe it wasn’t. Maybe imagination is every bit as powerful as reality.
This is the idea which largely powers An Ordinary Miracle. The act of imagining things and people into a real, lived plane of existence is symbolized by a young man, simply called the Bear (Aleksandr Abdulov) who, created and controlled by his writer-creator (Oleg Yankovsky), was turned into a human, and will revert to his original state upon kissing the one person he truly loves, the Princess (Yevgeniya Simonova). The narrative includes some very pointed critiques of power and the ways in which it is wielded (no small thing in Soviet culture) while simultaneously teasing out the ways in which power, love, responsibility, expectation, and free will intersect. Within its premise is the possibility of violence toward female partners and the beast’s eventual demise. Men as “wild beasts” is hardly a new idea, and as such the responsibility of “taming” is assumed to be the responsibility of female partners, again following cliched notions of gender and heteronormative romance. Such clichés are upended, as Maggie’s “Bear” is already pretty domesticated himself (he makes her dinner in his fancy cave) and the Bear in Zakharov’s film seems too gentle and wide-eyed to ever want to inflict harm on his beloved. (Corrupt politicians are a whole other story.) The Princess certainly acts the part of caretaker, even as she dons men’s clothes to disguise herself and engineer an escape, at one point wielding a sword and even deceiving her beloved.
Miracle brought to mind other cinema works with pseudo-anthropomorphic elements, including the 1987 film Moonstruck. Lorna Castorini (Cher) is asked by her fiance Johnny Cammareri (Vincent Gardenia) to facilitate a truce with his brother Ronny (Nicholas Cage), who cut his hand in an accident years before and has sworn off love as a result. Following their introduction in the sweaty basement of his bakery (trial by fire indeed) the one-handed “beast” sits with Loretta in his pin-tidy apartment and begrudgingly admits he enjoys the steak she made him before sharing details of his almost-marriage. “That woman didn’t leave you okay,” Lorna observes pointedly, “you can’t see what you are, and I see everything. You’re a wolf (… ) You’re scared to death of what the wolf will do if you make that mistake again.” Ronny angrily retorts that on the day of his intended marriage, Johnny “made me look the wrong way and I cut off my hand; he could make you look the wrong way and you could lose your whole head!” Later on, as the two walk home after a poignant night at the opera, he tells Loretta, “You call me a wolf, you run to the wolf in me – that don’t make you no lamb. You’re gonna marry my brother; why you wanna sell your life short?”
Writer John Patrick Shanley’s screenplay, The Bride and the Wolf, had floated around for years before director Norman Jewison took it on. The idea of men as essentially beasts is, as noted earlier, not new; the fairytale of Little Red Riding Hood has existed at least since the 17th century, although earlier versions exist in classical Greece and Rome, as well as East Asia, North Africa, and Scandinavia. Its various adaptations into music, TV, animation, games, a musical, and indeed pornography underline the story’s enduring appeal. There is something of the mythology at work in An Ordinary Miracle and Moonstruck, and Northern Exposure too– but something beyond it: gentle if insistent; hopeful if sad; fantastical if recognizably human. The works are less concerned with the rites of passage from childhood to adulthood and more concerned with the real challenges of relating – less about ‘taming’ than acknowledging the perceived importance of conformity within socio-cultural ties. The beasts here are not obvious, and they are not clichés, or even archetypes; they are human. Bear is delicate, thoughtful, scared; Ronny is a plain-spoken, music-loving neat-freak; Maggie is insecure and nursing a broken heart; Loretta is skittish and fearful, as much a creation of her Italian upbringing as The Bear is of The Wizard. Aware of with their own feelings and controlled by perceived limitations and heavy expectations within their respective words, they remain, for a time, locked in patterns of behaviour and reaction – until granted permission (of sorts) to exercise a self-determination that leads to a risky if richer path. Each film uses the form of the fairytale to disrupt expectations around that form, and that includes the respective happy endings, which would not have occurred without discord, loss, heated exchanges and grim silences. Robbing such tales of their uncomfortable moments robs them of their emotional weight.
In exercising imagination thusly we have to ask that the exercise includes such difficulties, because life often presents them unbidden. Horror, as it turns out, comes in many forms. The Wizard says to the Bear, “Men of wisdom rise to the sky and plunge into hell out of love for the truth; what have you done out of love for a woman?” to which the Bear responds (to Gladkov’s keen scoring), “I gave her up.” “Once in your lifetime there comes a day when the impossible is possible,” The Wizard says, admonishing no one but himself. “You missed your chance. I won’t help you anymore.” Pema Chödrön writes in The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times(Shambhala, 2002) that “(o)nly when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others.” An Ordinary Miracle might have easily not had any miracle at all, ordinary or otherwise, without the counterpoint of tragedy – vulnerability, loss, risk, the possibility of change itself – ever-ready and perched at the door. There may or may not a rougher nature to bears, wolves, and brides, but it’s up to us as audiences (readers, viewers; humans) to decide on the danger they present, and to engage, to show up, and share that ” wild” side ourselves – to dare to fall in the snow, to be shot, to die, to live; to look at the moon, to climb in bed with the beast. Vulnerability is an inherent part of creativity. The Wizard stands alone amidst fire at the close of An Ordinary Miracle for a reason; he knows they are explosive partners.
Standing outside of Schwartz’s narrative, Gladkov’s music is a genuine “miracle” within Miracle. Touchingly sentimental one moment, cutting and dark the next, his style is a roadmap of character, emotion, memory, magic. A light in deepest darkness, Gladkov was an outstanding talent and will be missed. As the dark cold of winter cocoons much of the Northern Hemisphere, I recommend a pot of hot brandied tea, a viewing, and quiet moments away from the chatter of technology. Spring, when it does come, may look very different; until then, we can imagine.
At the Villa Verdi in October 2017. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without written permission.
Update 30 October 2023: Since posting this two weeks ago, it’s come to my attention that there is, in some quarters, a very incorrect takeaway. To be clear: I am not stopping my classical coverage – I am simply broadening my scope as a writer. Classical coverage will continue parallel to other cultural pursuits. FYI.
Time off is a very good thing. Much as there’s a certain joy in the stability of habit and structure, there’s just as much happiness in the temporary absence of those things, and the varied responsibilities accompanying them.
Having spent the last week reading, cooking, reconnecting with friends, grading student papers, and staring out the window at a red-purple-gold forest, I realized that my computer-time the last few months has been very taken up with other people – this is not a bad thing, but it can be exhausting. “Writer” – the thing in my online biographies, the title that perhaps most closely captures who and what I am; what have I written lately that’s matched that in any satisfying way? Hand-written scribbles outlining various ideas for opera libretti notwithstanding, what have I done, or not done, or not had the energy to do, until, unless…?
Space, that elastic thing Bachelard wrote of; time, that other (highly) elastic thing Borges (and Arendt, and many others) turned over many times; I’ve had lots of both this last week. That allowance provided an important reacquaintance with a beloved old television program; watching something I enjoyed thirty (!) years ago served as a good reminder of my early writerly instincts, and of the importance of having space and time as a basis for authentic creative expression. I don’t know if Northern Exposure is responsible for a kind of reawakening of the spirit (yet) but I do feel closer to a kind of artist-self (dare I write that) than I have in ages.
I’ll be writing more about the show and its continuing influence in a new category which will be appearing at my website soon. Non-Classical Writing will be for all the work that doesn’t hew to the classical/opera area to which this site owes its principle existence. There are already examples of that work in the Essays section. (Those things will be moved accordingly.) I love that classical world, but I love lots of other cultural things also. I don’t want to be confined to writing about only one area (as some of you may have already guessed from last summer’s post about the Faust myth and The Boys) – it feels limiting, especially to someone (me) who started out wanting to be a screenwriter, with loads of loopy ideas and interests. I’ve found the only way to keep my joy as a writer these days is to exercise a natural and longstanding cultural curiosity.
There are occasions when a work of art can have such an immense effect that one sees it everywhere, in everything – if not as a whole, then in pieces, like tiny pinpricks at consciousness. One starts to rethink habits, mundanities, high art and fun diversions, all at once; I can’t say if that conceptual stickiness is a measure of some “greatness” or not. What might have an impact at one point in time may not hit the same at another, and as I’ve written before, the c-word is context. As I glance at my almond chocolate bar, take a sip of tea, and look out the window at the rain, recalling so very many carefree July holidays of past times, thoughts turn back and forth (and back) to temptation, choice, bargaining, compromise, consequence… how very close they feel, in news and politics, as much as in art and culture, as much as in love and life and the living of it. Some months ago I watched the Oscar-winning 1981 film Mephisto about a German actor in Nazi-era Germany who makes a morally reprehensible bargain in order to climb to the top of the arts ladder. It may be a testament to director István Szabó’s cinematic mastery (he won an Oscar for it, after all), or simply the reality of heavy outside factors (war, recession, pandemic), or just spooky timing (I watched it on Walpurgisnacht, quite by accident) – whatever the reason, Mephisto has stayed, sitting on the brain, a fuzzy cat on a warm stove, refusing to budge and making its presence known through every hair and whisker.
The story’s roots have had a pervasive influence across various cultural forms, underpinned by the relentless human drive for success (validation, applause, acclaim, some form of assurance) which exists in forever atonal tension with more humble pursuits. Functional equilibrium is often a fast dance of negotiation performed in a mostly (or more precisely, presumed) moral vacuum. This “dance” has resonance in an age when so much of what we see, hear, taste, experience, order, and use has such a huge and mostly silent labour force behind it. There is a measure of Faustian bargaining behind the anodyne gestures of modern life – tapping the app, subscribing to the service, letting the thermostat decide, asking Siri or Alexa. The cha-cha dance of negotiation is easy if we don’t see who’s playing in the band, or have to stop and consider the details – footing becomes less steady once we do have that knowledge and awareness (maybe), but momentum continues apace, empathy being, of course, the most expensive thing to be careful not to lose footing over; the fall would be too expensive, too distracting, we’d lose our timing and a place on the dancefloor. In 1965-66 Hannah Arendt examined the ideas of morality, conscience, judgement, and the role of divinity in “Some Questions Of Moral Philosophy” (subsequently published as part of Responsibility and Judgement, Schocken Books, 2003), noting that “ours is the first generation since the rise of Christianity in the West in which the masses, and not only a small elite, no longer believe in “future states” […] and who therefore are committed (it would seem) to think of conscience as an organ that will react without hope for reward and without fear of punishment. Whether people still believe that this conscience is informed by some divine voice is, to say the very least, open to doubt.” (p. 89; Schocken Books/Random House Canada edition) The gaping void created by such doubt points at a yearning for meaning, or even simple connection – for attention to be directed purposefully.
The story of Faust speaks to this longing. The doctor who longed for youth and riches, who sold his soul to the demon Mephistopheles in exchange for earthly pleasure, has a deep resonance with the vagaries of culture (socio-economic as much as artistic), and with the ways culture (in all its forms) is accessed, experienced, understood, and accepted – or not. The present is empty, says the Faust myth; the future is murky; history is forgotten – what matters is how well one plays the game. History, however, is uncomfortably near, more visceral than at any other point in history, unfolding live on our television screens and computer monitors and TikToks and Twitter feeds. How much we choose to engage, or ignore, is individual, a negotiation as near as filling the online cart, tapping an App for a ride, hitting “subscribe” on a TV screen. It’s all so easy, which makes forgetting the deals we made for such conveniences and comforts even easier. Examining the history of Faust is useful for not only appreciating the myth’s sticky qualities in many artists’ minds (it isn’t just me) but for seeing the ways in which its profound and profane elements interact with the spiritual, even nihilistic void which characterizes much of modern life.
Pre-Faust figures are contained within Judeo-Christian storytelling (Simon Magus (d. 65 AD), who tried to buy the power to relay the Holy Spirit from the Christian Apostles John and Peter; St. Cyprian (d. 258 AD) and his dealings with demons) as well as in morality plays popular through the 14th through 16th centuries, the latter exactly paralleling the time of German magician, astrologer, and alchemist Johann Georg Faust himself, a suspicious figure who apparently had the ability to conjure dark forces – and to stir social unrest in the process. The myth around Faust’s life and work began in 1587 with the publication of The Historia von D. Johann Fausten by German printer Johann Spies, which in turn led to English playwright Christopher Marlowe penning The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus in 1592. Spies’ original version was edited and ultimately re-published, and read by a great many across Europe. Printing, as I like to remind my first-year media students, was a very big deal, firing up imaginations, emotions, mental investment, and spiritual fervour. Amongst those keen readers was a young Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) whose influential reworking of the story went on to be published in two parts, its second posthumously, in 1808 and 1832, respectively, and the rest, as they say, is history – except that it isn’t. Generations of writers have since been thusly inspired, perhaps most famously Thomas Mann (1875-1955) whose Doktor Faustus: Das Leben des deutschen Tonsetzers Adrian Leverkühn, erzählt von einem Freunde (“Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn, Told by a Friend”), published in 1947, is a hauntingly brilliant integration of mythology, culture, politics, and personal response to the horrors of the Second World War. Other writers including Oscar Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1890), C.S. Lewis (The Screwtape Letters, 1942), Mikhail Bulgakov (The Master and Margarita, 1967) and John Banville (Mefisto, 1986), to name just a few, have taken the original tale (be it Spies’, Marlowe’s, Goethe’s, or some combination) as a basis from which to explores themes relating to spiritual void, to compromise and cost, to cultivation of the soul amidst ever-unfolding developments in technology, science, medicine, and mechanics. Such developments have served to intensify the myth’s durability, even as they continue to power creative imaginations.
Thus have classical composers also been duly inspired: Berlioz’s La damnation de Faust (1846); Schumann’s Szenen Aus Goethes Faust (1844-53); Liszt’s Faust Symphony (1854); Gounod’s Faust (1859); Boito’s Mefistofele (1867) – these are all arguably the most famous opera/classical versions. Many more exist (Spohr, 1813; Radziwill, 1835; Hervé, 1869; Boulanger, 1913; Busoni, 1924; Prokofiev, 1941-42; Schnittke -cantata 1984-5, opera 1993; Fénelon, 2003-2004; Dusapin, 2006 – a partial list) and are explored in Music In Goethe’s Faust, edited by Lorraine Byrne Bodley (Boydell and Brewer, 2017). An captivating (and certainly, covid-era useful) blend of music and theatre is L’Histoire du soldat (“A Soldier’s Tale”), Stravinsky’s 1918 work which takes the Faustian elements of a Russian folk story and brings them alive in a zesty chamber format. The work has enjoy a diverse recording and performance history (including a 2018 release narrated by Roger Waters), with the tale of the soldier making a deal with, and then outwitting (maybe) the devil at his own game. On film, 1971’s The Mephisto Waltz (based on the 1969 novel of the same name by Fred Mustard Stewart) is arguably the best example of the fusion of Faustian mythology, classical music, and schlocky occult horror, with various forms of bargaining and the temptation of great artistry used as central plotting devices. Unsurprisingly, Faustian mythology has also made its way into the world of comics (Marvel specifically), with Mephisto taking his demonic place in 1968 among a varied cast of characters, and positioned by Stan Lee and (writer) and John Buscema (artist), rather suitably, as one of Spider-Man’s chief adversaries. Marvel-Mephisto went on to get the Hollywood treatment, first in 2007’s Ghost Rider (played by Peter Fonda) and its 2011 sequel, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (played by Ciaran Hinds), taking one of many pleasing guises as befits his devilish roots. The story has predictably influenced the world of popular music too, and in the early 1990s, became a theatrical element in U2’s mammoth ZOO-TV tour. Bono took Szabó’s film as inspiration for an onstage persona in the band’s European stadium dates, with the white-faced, platform-heeled character of “MacPhisto” cleverly milking and mocking the celebrity-worship that comes with rock and roll superstardom. The uneasy relationship with fame, creativity, and success (and the associated compromises and costs) bubbled up in Bono’s later lyrics, including 2004’s “Vertigo”, which references the biblical story of Satan tempting Jesus in the desert: “All of this can be yours,” he whispers, “just give me what I want, and no one gets hurt.”
Such variance across cultural formats and media testify to the myth’s durability, as the lines between art, faith, entertainment, and politics grow ever more blurred in the 21st century. The Faust Legend: From Marlowe and Goethe to Contemporary Drama and Film, by Sara Munson Deats (Cambridge University Press, 2019) examines various Fausts through the ages. Deats writes in the Prologue that “the Faust legend has served throughout the years as a kind of Rorschach test, in which the narrative assumes different shapes depending on the perspective of the author who adapts it and the customs and values of the period in which it is written, with the meaning of the legend shifting to reflect the zeitgeist of a given era or place. Thus the Faust avatar’s desideratum – the goal for which the hero sells his soul – often reflects the values of a specific society, even as the character of the Devil evolves to represent a particular culture’s concept of evil.” Munson Deats includes analyses of various cinematic adaptations, notably F.W. Murnau’s visually sumptuous 1926 version, in which the characters and their respective worlds are depicted as simultaneously alluring and terrifying. That contradiction hits precisely where it matters, because it connects directly with the dark heart of Szabó’s vision of Mephisto. Based on the 1936 novel of the same name by Klaus Mann (1906-1949) which was itself inspired by Mann’s brother-in-law, actor and purported Nazi collaborator Gustaf Gründgens, the film explores the path of provincial actor Hendrik Höfgen (Klaus Maria Brandauer), who becomes celebrated through performing the role of Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust in Berlin of the 1930s, to the acclaim of ever-growing Nazi audiences; ultimately he becomes General Manager of the Prussian State Theatre. It is a haunting, brilliant work that speaks directly to our age in seductive whispers – until the final scene, that is, where Hendrik caught in a ‘crossfire’ of spotlights in a stadium, the eerie centre of attention, as shrieks of “Schauspieler!” are hurled at him – a horrendous twisting of Goethe’s conclusion which portrays a vital form of divine grace. Whither grace? Who cares? It’s too late. As film critic Roger Ebert noted in a 2008 review, “there are many insults, but the most wounding is simply the word “actor”” – it is withering, terrifying, aimed with chilling precision. Evil, as the design, cinematography and Szabó’s careful directorial approach imply, is not a cliched, easily identified thing, but, as Arendt might say, banal– if entertaining, charming, well-spoken, well-dressed, a point made repeatedly throughout its 2.5-hour running time. Hendrik’s narcissism has, in the world Szabó paints, been been costumed in the lofty robes of a celebrated artistry, one which thrives in a self-contained vacuum of continual approval and unquestioning worship. There is no right or wrong in this comfortable vacuum – there can’t be – there is only the next performance, only the next work, on and off the stage – whether for the general public; the art-loving General (Rolf Hoppe); Hendrik’s wife (Krystyna Janda); his lover (Karin Boyd), whose outsider status as a mixed-race woman allows for a biting perspective on his world, one he doesn’t see the need to take seriously until he is faced with the reality that his love of such a vacuum has robbed him of his authentic self, his artististry, and ultimately his true exercise of free will. “The uniforms are deliberately fetishistic,” Ebert continues, “to wear them is to subjugate yourself to the system that designed them.”
This observation has come to mind every time I see a promotion for Prime Video series The Boys, a show filled with every assortment of colourful costume, almost all uniformly (I write this ironically and not) indicating subjugation to a very specific system (inner and outer), ultimately playing to a company culture in which the imaginary and the real inevitably blur. Based on the aughties comic of the same name by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson, the Emmy-nominated program takes the vividly binary world of the saviour trope and presents it in a million shades of grey, with some tremendously sticky, messy splashes of red splattered across the glass of innumerable shiny buildings (including Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall, home of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra). Broadcast via Amazon’s streaming platform since 2019, the third season of The Boys recently concluded and further explored the intersections of ethics, self, success, curation, image, popularity, celebrity, community, and stealth corporate culture. Playing with the superhero idiom and its immense influence across popular culture opens the door to clever, sometimes brutal portrayals of said elements, with many bizarre gags Dali himself might have applauded. (i.e. the infamous Season 3 Episode 1 penis scene). No character in the ensemble emerges as noble – not the supposed heroes (who are damaged), not the supposed good guys (who are even more damaged), not well-meaning parents (who are almost wholly abusive), not even (yikes) the children. There is a quiet question as to whether any of them are truly redeemable, and the answer, rather wisely on the part of the writers and showrunner Eric Kripke, is left to viewers. But in true Faustian fashion, the show presents those big and small pacts in the most seductive manner possible in modern life: with ease and the promise of minimum effort. If you want this, of course you can have it, but it will cost you, and you will leave your soul at the door – and what’s more, everyonewill cheer (as the season finale clearly showed – the banality of evil indeed). Vividly muscular superhero costumes; perfect hair; shiny white teeth – terrible loss; exploding/melting body parts (heads, genitalia); outlandish scenarios (boat speeds into nasty whale) – every element paints an unremittingly bleak world populated with single-minded entities operating within their own bubbles; Hendrik Höfgen would surely recognize all of it.
But again: where is the grace? Whither the price of those bargains? Who cares? The largely nihilistic world of The Boys is a natural extension of Faustian mythology and clearly embodied within the series’ chief characters, Billy Butcher (Karl Urban) and Homelander (Antony Starr). Writing about Mephisto at The Calvert Journal in 2018, Carmen Gray noted the film shows how self-deception is an integral part of fascism’s incremental seductiveness” – an observation applicable to these characters and their wildly different window dressings, if strikingly similar yearnings to fill respective inner voids. The eponymous boys are presented as variants of an archetypal Everyman, which echoes the series’ initial presentation as a sort of modern-day morality play, albeit one with heaping mounds of swear words, sticky bodily fluids, flying fists, and smirking bravado; they’re us, but they are, but they’re not… but. Every man (being) here is “supe” (superhuman, that is) as lines over the most recent season continue to blur allegiances and sympathies. In press interviews leading up to the season launch in June, Urban remarked on the journey of his character: “Are you willing to become the monster to defeat the monster? And if you are, what is the cost of that?” Such inner debate is fraught with mythological connection and underlined via the dualistic qualities which manifest in a cancer diagnosis being the ultimate price for a Faustian knowledge/ability Butcher was never meant to possess. Such duality carries over as much in the scenes with the quasi-hero Homelander, as to those with Super-Everyman good guy(ish) Hughie (Jack Quaid), and also to the scenes involving the show’s vigilante crew, which includes Frenchie (Tomer Capone), Kimiko (Karen Fukuhara), and Mother’s Milk (Laz Alonso). Even if the blanket of moral absolutism is made soggy with running torrents of grey muck (with those sticky red splashes – surely a real-life Mephistophelian deal for the cast, that), there remains a kernel of truth once the superhero storms settle: these are damaged people desperately seeking some form of meaningful connection (divine/earthy; superhuman/normal human). Though the world of The Boys strongly hints that such a connection may never manifest, there is a tiny hope, glimmering like blood on shards of glass. As the Angels say at the close of Goethe’s Faust, “He who strives on and lives to strive / Can earn redemption still.”
Deats writes in the Epilogue for The Faust Legend that “(h)ow we resolve the temptation to make our own personal pact with the Devil will define our identity” – something she suggests is the real significance of the myth. I would go one step further: how one lives with the consequences of that pact, and how much awareness one brings to the ways in which such pacts affect others, is what really matters, and what might possibly lead to some form of grace. As to what “defines” identity, those definitions change, and have to; what was unthinkable to someone in peacetime suddenly becomes normal, even ordinary, in war. But how much can (should) one choose to live in a complete vacuum, and for how long? How many pacts must be made – to live comfortably, creatively, productively, with dignity and purpose and clarity, with compassion and contemplation, cultivating some form of meaningful connection, extending some form of tenuous trust? How many apps to tap? How many subscriptions to buy? How many more times will I lose my footing in this dance? Hannah Arendt wrote in the aforementioned 1965-66 essay (published as part of Responsibility and Judgement) that “If you are at odds with your self it is as though you were forced to live and have daily intercourse with your own enemy. No one can want that.” (p. 91) As I type on my Mac, sipping semi-warm tea, nibbling at chocolate from far away, an overhead fan whirring on full power, gazing at the robins pecking at the delicate green patches of a boxy lawn… who am I to disagree? Accepting the terms of pacts required for daily living is difficult, but I persevere, trying to ignore the nattily-dressed figure in the corner who is ordering, subscribing, filling the cart, dimming the lights, sipping wine, and smirking. It looks like me, and maybe, just maybe, it is.
Top image: Mephisto (Emil Jannings) with young Faust (Gosta Ekman) in F.W. Murnau’s 1926 cinematic adaptation.
Lately I’ve been re-discovering the joys of television. I don’t mean sitting listlessly, mindlessly, drooling in front of the goggle-box; I mean sitting down to focus on something with good writing, good acting, meaningful themes and contemporary resonance. It also has to be a ripping good yarn.
Almost Human only came to my attention through the mass advertising campaign that welcomed its arrival on the telly in November. Its birth was delayed by some strange TV scheduling voodoo, but it came nonetheless. My initial interest was only lukewarm, to be honest. Sci-fi isn’t really my thing.
I wasn’t able to sit down and actually watch an episode until late December. “Hooked” is probably too mild a description of my consequent reaction, and it’s galling to realize the show still stands in constant danger of cancellation. It’s one of the smartest, most contemporary things to air on mainstream TV in ages. I don’t like crime programs generally, but Almost Human feels like a thing apart, providing its viewers with a very timely take on where we are now, as a society, in our relationship to and with technology, and by extension, each other. Though it takes place in 2048, the world of Almost Human is very much a world we recognize, what with the pull-and-pinch screens used everywhere, the gleaming, smooth machines people seem to carry, the sense of anywhere, anytime-access, for pretty much anything or anyone. The program seamlessly blends various facets of technology we take for granted (interactivity, connectivity, community) and spits them back in new, challenging ways that aren’t ever predictable or cliched, but rather, thought-provoking, occasionally troubling, but always illuminating.
Along with the completely cool tech-and-computer gadgetry, a big part of Almost Human‘s appeal lies in the chemistry of its leads, Karl Urban (as traumatized cop John Kennix) and Michael Ealy (as John’s partner, an outdated artificial intelligence model named Dorian). The two share a unique blend of humor, trust, angst, and innate knowingness that reaches past the immediate backstories of their respective characters; theirs is a chemistry recalling some of the great pairings of the recent and not-so-recent cultural past: Laurel and Hardy, Redford and Newman, Davis and Sarandon, Downey and Law. Urban himself says the “touchstone“for the John/Dorian relationship is the 1988 film Midnight Run, with Robert DeNiro and Charles Grodin: “There were two characters who were thrown into a situation that neither of them wanted to be in, but through the course of that movie, they learned to depend on each other and ultimately form a bond — but they still got under each other’s skin.”
Not merely two beautiful men acting out a high-tech premise, Urban and Ealy share a beguilingly human bond that is compelling and frequently very touching. Come for the robotics, the show seems to whisper, stay for the humanity.
Indeed, the show’s focus on this humanity, that lies quietly beneath the high-gloss exterior, is what elevates Almost Human from the realm of the curious and into that of brilliance. It helps that the “boss” of the operation is played by the great Lili Taylor, who also shares a wonderful chemistry with the pair. There’s an especially enjoyable frisson between her character and Urban’s, an undercurrent of respect and attraction, mixed with an enjoyable frankness and honesty. These two genuinely like each other. It’s good seeing an older woman in a position of power, not portrayed as some desperate cougar or unfeeling hard-ass, but rather, as hard-working, frequently conflicted figure who inspires great loyalty from her (almost entirely male) team, without resorting to tiresome cliches. It’s good to see Taylor’s Maldonado on mainstream TV; I want to see not only more of her, but more like her.
And, though Urban’s character is the human (his synthetic leg notwithstanding), the viewer’s empathy frequently shifts to his robotic partner. This is just as much the result of good acting as it is strong writing. Ealy’s characterization is a fascinating mix of warmth and reserve, of easy knowing and child-like awe; he is omniscient and yet awkward, close to indestructible and yet utterly vulnerable. Ealy captures these contradictions with ease and a touching gentleness. We see ourselves in Dorian, even as we identify with the John, the traumatized human trying to make sense of it, and his relationship to (and with) it. John and Dorian are two pieces of a more deep and complex whole, one that seeks to define who and what we are, as humans, in the twenty-first century. No small order, but certainly a good one –and a grand ambition — for a modern TV show.
Blending with the high-tech, sci-fi elements are classical themes and literary allusions. Last Monday’s episode had echoes of “Ozymandias”, “Kubla Khan”, Blade Runner, Stephen King’s The Two Towers, Greek mythology, and of course, Frankenstein. The nature of relationship to one’s creation is, of course, an obvious theme for a program whose entire premise is based on human/synthetic interactions. But newer episodes are probing this theme more deeply, asking questions about what it means to have awareness, to be creative, to grow up –and what it means to relate to another being, and if we can accept the price of an ever-shifting identity in an ever-shifting world, and integrate that experience with those around us who might be enduring the same thing. The latest episode also featured some fascinating allusions to post-modern feminism in the form of Gina Carano’s super-vicious assassin-robot. I keep thinking about the fact “Danica,” near the start of the episode, chose the sexy female body (after being stuck with a featureless male one), that delighted gleam in her eye as she spotted the voluptuous figure under a white canopy and later admired herself in a mirror, “wearing” the figure, as if trying on a new, perfectly-fitting dress. Robots too, it seems, have the capacity to equate sex and power, and the desire to feel the connection between the two within their own corporeal realities. “Danica” wanted to feel sexy inside, in a way that matched her power in the outside world. It was an utterly fascinating scene, one that points (again) to some very smart writing. (Bravo, Graham Roland.)
People still think of smart television as being, by and large, the bastion of HBO and AMC (and perhaps Netflix too)… but that’s changing. Let’s hope Almost Human turns the tide here, and doesn’t suffer the same fate as Firefly, another beloved FOX show cancelled too soon. If online blogs, boards, and Tumblr are any indication, there is a wild forest of dedication that’s as deep as it is wide for this program. Hey TV executives: some of us want the entrancing mish-mash of literary-come-sci-fi brilliance that mixes old and new, human and synthetic, feeling and moving, sexy and nerdy, entertaining and smart. It’s perfect. Keep going. The other side of the Wall is waiting; let’s dip a toe in — synthetic or not — and see where we go from here.
It’s an old adage but it’s true: when you can’t cry, you have to laugh.
The last few weeks have brought a myriad of mixed feelings and reactions at being back in Canada. Joy, because of proximity to things fuzzy and familiar, relief at being near an ill family member, and sadness at being away from a place I feel at home in. There have also been liberal dollops of self-pity, confusion, and a keenly gnawing restlessness. Questions surrounding worth, direction, relationships with artistry, family, and community, and a larger, more silent quest for meaning amidst the madness. Dear Mid-Life Crisis, you’re early by a decade.
The best part of these days have been the nights -and no, not because I’ve developed a taste for seedy bars or taken on a profession involving garment-shedding (yet). The Daily Show and The Colbert Report have become the colorful, leaping Castor and Pollux of my moping, grey-hued psyche. Watching the Emmy Awards lastnight, I was struck by the role the programs, and in a larger sense, comedy itself, has played in my life the last few years. If it’s true that laughing at the devil makes him flee, it’s equally true that humor puts pain (be it physical, emotional, spiritual, or all three) into the Magic Bullet of human experience; laughter gets mixed up with all those other very un-fun ingredients, resulting in a gooey concoction called Hilariously Tolerable, also known as Smiling Feels Good, also known as I-Can’t-Go-On; I’ll-Go-On, a phrase Sam Beckett knew a thing or two about.
Once upon a time I loved physical, old-timey comedy with a sharp edge of commentary. As a teenager, I had stacks of VHS tapes of Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers, and later, Lenny Bruce and George Carlin. I was an avid watcher of Conan O’Brien in his first incarnation on NBC, and I used to howl away many a late night as he brought out Heavy Metal Inappropriate Guy, the Masturbating Bear, and Andy’s Little Sister Stacy (a young Amy Poehler, who made such an impression that to this day I can’t look at her without remember how she looked with braces, spitting out “I love you!” to an awkward, creeped-out Conan). I also adored the Saturday Night Live era of Wayne’s World, Sprockets, and Tales of Ribaldry. Weekend Update With Dennis Miller was my first real introduction to the world of timely-commentary-meets-comedy.
Having turned into a verifiable newshound over the last few years, my taste for newsy comedy has grown, but I’ve never quite abandoned my long-standing love of the absurd, either. I didn’t pay much mind to The Daily Show or The Colbert Report until I was forced to face the the steaming pile of ugly adulthood presents. Suddenly, jokes about stuff on the news made a whole lot more sense. After 9/11 especially, this kind of humor became a necessity for me -and, I suspect for many like me. Nothing made sense except comedy.
Watching the Emmys lastnight, I realized just how aware the TDS & TCR teams are of their collective role: to make us pie-eyed schleps smile. That is no small task. At the end of everyone’s crappy/annoying/busy (or wondrous/lovely/easy-peasy) day, we want to turn on the telly and see someone make funny about all the bad stuff in the world and in their every day lives. There’s a relief in that -a kind of tonic to the bad forces at work, the stuff you and I feel we can’t control -that someone is there to say, yes, it sucks, but here, we’re going to give you a side of Marshmallow Fluff with your soft graham crackers. Stuff like wars, political corruption, media incompetence on a macro level, and cancer, chemotherapy, and confusion on a micro one (if there’s such a thing as those first two even existing in micro terms) gets shrunk down to bite-sized pieces. We want it. We like it. We want more.
So I believe Jon Stewart when he says (insists) that his role is, first and foremost, to make people laugh. It’s hard. The world’s a pretty crappy place. We all know that. But it’s heartening to know that he and Stephen Colbert make it just a bit brighter for some of us four night a week. Things frequently don’t make sense in life, but if there’s one thing I consistently take away from these programs, it’s that there’s a joy at work in the world, one that feeds on not putting anything in place, but in finding the right angles to point at the chaos and shriek, THIS IS NUTS, funny faces in place, absurd narrative in play. To The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, I say: thank you x a billion, and, I owe you each a large tray of cookies. Marshmallow Fluff on top, if you really want it.
One of the happiest memories of my time in New York City involves attending a taping of The Colbert Report last week.
Getting a ticket was sheer luck; attending was (and I know how corny this sounds) utter magic. The staff is fantastically helpful, the crew is genuinely friendly, and the host is utterly unpretentious. Mr. Colbert came out, all smiles, high-fived those of us lucky enough to be seated in the front row, and addressed a few audience questions. I kept putting my hand up, and just when I thought he might turn away (there was, after all, a show to tape), he turned to me. No, I wasn’t nervous. i was curious.
There was something utterly unique about connecting with someone so famous about something so … utterly unto itself. Even with the popularity (and acclaim) of the films, those who love Lord Of The Rings feel like members of an exclusive bar where there are drinks like The Suffering Balrog and The Middle Earth Tripper, and we can rhythm off the ingredients and technique with healthy dollops of ease and delight.
The work’s tangle of characters, histories, and storylines, combined with powerful mythological underpinnings and strange-but-familiar tone renders its appeal very specific and beloved. Many will have seen the films; few will have read the book(s); those of us who’ve done both still sometimes have to refer to charts detailing relationships and bloodlines and maps outlining key locations. Why go to all this trouble? Because it’s a tale that touches the heart, while being hugely relateable: ordinary person doing something extraordinary -and failing, but for the grace of those who care and want the best. It’s epic, it’s intimate, it’s timely and timeless, it asks a lot but returns even more.
And so it was, Mr. Colbert answered my question with much grace and reverence, which heightened when he (quickly) realized he was in the presence of a fellow fan. Little did I know there was a timely segment referencing Lord Of The Rings on that night’s show.
Rings character Faramir said the following, when he was given the chance of owning the One Ring, and I think, intoday’s climate of political adversity, international suffering, and religious hatred, it has a particular resonance:
I would not take this thing, if it lay by the highway. Not were Minas Tirith falling in ruin and I alone could save her, so, using the weapon of the Dark Lord for her good and my glory. No, I do not wish for such triumphs, Frodo, son of Drogo.
Thinking back to Stephen Colbert quoting these lines to me feels like a kind of lesson, and warning; when it would be most easy to give in to ego, to sadness, to self-pity and fantastical escapism… don’t. It’s not the right thing to do. It’s more noble to go the hard (if honest) route. It’s more authentic, too.
Thanks for the reminder, Stephen. Next time we’ll have to talk about hobbits, orcs, elves and goblins. For now, I’m going to memorize those lines. Oh, and I want one of those figurines.