Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Serial: The Podcast

Have you guys been listening to Serial? It's this amazing, multi-part, true-crime radio show told -- you guessed it -- serially over a handful of weeks. It's so addictive and fantastic: the intrigue of true crime through the patient, poignant lens of public radio, and I'm super jealous of you if you haven't started it because you get to dig in from the beginning right now.

Sarah Koenig, one of the producers of This American Life, the snob-elite's radio golden child, wanted to tell an unfolding story too big to fit into even one of those full-hour TALs (does anyone else dread those? Occasionally they're worth it, but most of the time I'd prefer three minutes of David Rakoff in the middle somewhere), so she created this show. Along with Julie Snyder, another TAL producer, Serial was born as a sanctioned TAL spinoff that capitalizes on everything we love about podcasts and episodic television.

Koenig, Ira Glass, and Julie Synder: the TAL Dream Team
SO: Serial, at least for this season, is preoccupied with true story of a high school girl who was murdered in 1999; her strangled body was found in Leakin Park, Baltimore. Her ex-boyfriend, Adnan, was convicted of first degree murder and is currently serving a life sentence. The jury heard a simple story of teenage love and jealousy and drugs and sex and hiding from strict immigrant parents. But, like all good crime dramas, there's something rotten in Leakin Park.

I'm not spoiling anything to tell you that you're not going to think Adnan did it, at least not at first. It's inevitable, the way the story unfolds -- the fact that there's a story at all -- that no listener could think this was an open and shut case, that the jury was right, that justice was served. But Serial gets you there in this crazy interesting way, and it's so compelling that I just had to come here and talk to you guys about it.

In the first episode, before revealing any details of the crime that is going to be so thoroughly combed and explored, Sarah Koenig plants this idea: when nothing interesting or notable happens on a certain day, you tend not to remember that day's details.  It's a really basic notion and one that's easily supported, at least anecdotally.  For instance: the day your grandmother died, or the day you started a new job, I bet you remember tons of specifics like where you ate lunch, what you wore, who you were with.  But two weeks ago Thursday -- what did you eat for lunch? Who did you call on the phone? Probably harder to say, even if it's more recent. Likewise -- so the unspoken analogy goes --  you'd probably remember what you wore to kill someone, but if you don't remember what you were wearing on a certain day, you probably didn't kill someone. Right?

This simple theory, this implanted idea, frames the entire story so subtly and perfectly -- and "frames" is a word that comes frequently to the listener's mind as some sketchy characters point suspicious fingers at the alleged killer. This little concept sticks to the back of our minds every time the Adnan, the killer, swears "I don't know" and "I don't remember." If he doesn't remember, we conclude, he couldn't have done it! It doesn't feel like this is a novel suggestion; it feels like a simple fact we've all known and intuited forever. It feels like we came up with it on our own, this notion that Adnan's inability to fill in certain details of his alibi is proof not of his guilt, but of his innocence. This uncomplicated little conceit changes the entire way we listeners approach the story and weigh the evidence.

This idea is so powerful, in fact, that I almost wrote "alleged" killer above.  (I literally did write it and then deleted it and then decided to leave it crossed-out because I think it proves my point of how inside my head this show is.) Of course, Adnan is not an "alleged" murderer; he's a convicted murderer whose appeals were denied. But I -- even me, a Lawyer Who Should Know Better -- instinctively wrote "alleged" because he feels alleged. His conviction feels wrong. It feels so hard like he's not guilty. Because if he were guilty, wouldn't he know exactly what he'd been doing on the day his ex-girlfriend was strangled?

Please understand that this isn't the only confusing, conflicting evidence that brings doubt to your mind about Adnan's conviction.  And please understand even more that Sarah Koenig brings the reliable, detail-seeking, journalistic integrity found on TAL to this show, too, and I'm not suggesting she doesn't. Koenig exposes and discusses evidence that the prosecution and the jury relied on to convict Adnan. She explains countervailing theories and calls attention to pieces of Adnan's story that don't match up with physical evidence and parts of the story he can't explain. She talks a lot on the show about her doubts and balance and truth-seeking.

Did somebody say "cold case?"
But she does it against the backdrop of this idea she planted in the first minutes of the first episode -- this whole concept that the less you remember about a day, the greater the chance is that you didn't do something notable or memorable or traumatizing or life-changing like, say, killing someone that day. Contrary to how the rewards and disparagement of the justice system are meted out, Koenig's court rewards lack of information, lack of detail, lack of knowledge as proof of innocence. And she does it by simply stating something you've probably never thought about but that suddenly seems obvious: you remember the details of memorable days more than other days.

I am not criticizing Koening for doing this. In fact, I respect the hell out of it. I think she and Serial are brilliant and subtle and beautiful. I think the structure of the show, especially the first episodes' little lede, is as important and persuasive as the evidence and the interviews and the commentary themselves. TAL has made its reputation not as a news source or a fact-finder or exposer an entertainer (though it is often those things), but as a storyteller. And that's what Serial does so perfectly: telling this story in a way that feels unbiased but, from its first moments, is already getting you to believe what they want you to believe.

I'm obsessed with Serial. I'm obsessed with its art of persuasion. And, I truly believe that Sarah Koening knows more about this case than any person ever will; she has all the evidence and all the transcripts and all the benefits of hindsight, and she also has what the rest of us don't: her own ability to judge the character of every person she's spoken to with that basic, journalistic gut-instinct. She has an exhaustively-researched theory of this case, a je ne sais quoi intuition about liars and victims, and I wholeheartedly believe that she should absolutely portray this story in a way that best accommodates that theory. Even Koening's doubts -- which she explains and discusses honestly and openly, and which let her stand in for us, the listener, and ask questions on our behalf and guide our answers -- genuinely make us trust her opinions even more. She executes this whole story arc just exquisitely, and it's a joy to listen to it unfold as much for her craftsmanship as for the juicy criminal topic.

So, please go listen to Serial. Binge it. Soak it up. But pay attention in those first, naive, innocent moments to Koenig's appeal to your common sense about remembering details, and try to notice how it shapes your view of the case going forward. It's smart and it's clever, and with subtleties like that, Koenig could get away with murder.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Taylor Swift Haterz Gonna Hate

It started when I was watching this totally adorable, unashamed, one-shot (!!) video lip-sync by this Kentucky fraternity to Taylor Swift's "Shake it Off," that peppy, catchy anthem of late summer you've no doubt been blaring with your windows up for the last few weeks. In watching that video, the internets somehow led me to this super nasty Jezebel article titled "Taylor Swift's New Video Is a Cringe-Worty Mess."  Yeah.

So I read it, and it made me really sad. And it made me especially sad because watching Taylor Swift's video had made me really, really happy. The video features Taylor trying -- and adorably failing -- at a variety of dance forms, from ballet to hip hop to break dancing to cheerleading to interpretive dance. It's a pretty simple, silly little video, whose point rests in it's contrasts: Taylor sings "I never miss a beat. I'm lightning on my feet," against a backdrop of her falling and failing over and over again. It's a sweet, self-deprecating video that ends by embracing a whole bunch of bad dancers having a great time doing their bad dances. The point of the video, to me, is: you can't make fun of me because I'm making fun of myself.


Simple, right? Harmless? Apparently not.  Jezebel attacks Taylor on all kinds of privilege levels -- the video is racially insensitive ("[Taylor crawls] through a bridge of brown and black women’s butts. *surprised Taylor Swift face*") -- and gets after her for having the nerve to release this upbeat video when people are dying in the world. Jezebel writes:
While President Obama was hosting live stream to discuss the protest and gross police conduct in Ferguson, Missouri surrounding the death of Michael Brown, Swift decided to release her new video with her own live stream. . . .Problem is this week is rife with crappy real news that is a stark contrast to her simple pop song.
Dear Jezebel: WHAT? Your scathing, petty critique boils down to how DARE a pop star release a pop video during a week when real news happens? Seriously? If I agree with you, does that mean I'm not allowed to listen to anything with a repetitive chorus until ISIS is eliminated? If you agree with yourself, doesn't that mean your paid journalists should be covering Michael Brown and not writing a SCENE BY SCENE critique of the new Taylor Swift video?? WITH FIVE SCREEN SHOTS AND TWO EMBEDDED VIDEOS???

Even the commenters on the Jezebel article raised objections. Here are just two comments (taken out of order) on the article:

It's not the wrong attitude! Not every public figure has to weigh in on every public tragedy! You guys would be so mad if she had something to say about Michael Brown!!

Y'all, I love this video. I didn't feel the need to defend that position until I read this Jezebel article, but I have to say: I'm not much older than Taylor, and I'm frequently sent into horrible multi-day spirals of self-doubt and insecurity over a sideways glance or a recollection of some dumb drunk thing I did. Taylor, who has spent her most awkward formative years having her professional and personal life examined and skewered by less-talented strangers the world over, has made a cheery, fun, light, pop video mocking herself and celebrating the idea that sometimes you just have to weather the criticism, shrug your shoulders, accept your limitations, and dance your own dance. That's a great message, and a nearly impossible thing to do as a young (famous) woman, and I respect the hell out of her for it.

I like Jezebel, I do. I'm a feminist and someone who tries to be thoughtful and discerning and aware in world that has a lot of work to do on patriarchy and privilege. But OMG, guys, you wrote a thought piece hating on a skinny white pop star for being too skinny and too white and too pop-y. What about Taylor Swift, who by all accounts is a strong, self-made, talented woman, who writes and performs her own songs, who has grown up in the public eye and somehow miraculously avoided addiction and young marriage and sex scandals and a MAN, doesn't speak to feminism? Why is she your enemy, Jezebel? Why do you speak with such ridiculous middle school disdain for Taylor Swift when everyone who works at your magazine would skin themselves alive if it would make a new pair of sandals for Regina Spektor?  (Is it because of the Orange is the New Black theme song? If it is just tell me because I totally get it that song is brilliant.YOU'VE GOT TIIIII-IIII-IIIIME!)

Where was I going? Oh yeah: listen. I get there's this horrible thing called white privilege that nobody more perfectly personifies than peppy, preppy, pretty, tiny, rich, blonde little Taylor Swift in her Audrey Hepburn flats. But the universe of white privilege can't fall entirely on Taylor Swift's shoulders. This article is so catty that it's obvious the author straight up just hates her for who she is, not for what she's doing in this video or probably ever. And isn't hating someone for who they are and not what they do kind of, like, the whole problem?

I want to reach out to Taylor and tell her her video made a bad day better, made me smile every time I watched it, made me infinitely happy, and made me love her. But, she's okay. She already knows that the haterz gonna hate hate hate hate hate.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Say it Like Sorkin: The Newsroom, the Decline of America, and How We Can Save It

Have you guys been watching The Newsroom? It's all kinds of great, delicious, too-fast, too-eloquent, preachy, inspiring, retro-Sorkin-flexing-all-his-best-Sorkin-muscles television. And yes, it's cheesy in the way that Sorkin is always sorta lovably cheesy (hell the show's credits are something straight out of Seventh Heaven  -- or the 1995 Breaking Bad parody).  But maybe a little bit of unabashed sincerity, backed by some hard numbers and some prickly wit, is what our ironic-hipster-too-cool generation secretly wants?

Watch this short clip from the opening scene of the pilot so you can get roused and furious and discouraged and heartened and bitter and proud and terrified like I am. And also watch it so you can understand the rest of the piece because it's, like, the subject of the blog right now. (If you can't watch it, GQ published the text of the script [with annotations by Sorkin, who literally conducts it like an aria] here.)


You watched the clip? Okay, good. After that outburst, Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) goes on to figurehead (if not spearhead) a renegade news show founded on the crazy notion of reporting un-sensationalized facts and well-reasoned opinions. He encounters the kind of blowback you'd expect: ratings pillaged by Nancy Grace, undue influence by financial friends of the network's conservative owner (the politically incongruous Jane Fonda, HBO's version of the Alec Baldwin/Jack Donaghy mix-up), losing valuable time reporting on rumors when his show insists on getting multiple factual sources. But there he is, launching this morally sound, easy-to-support fight for truth.

Lest I oversimplify, Newsroom has a bunch of interesting, complicating components. For one, it's set in the recent past, so it tackles news that's real and memorable and moving, benefited always by the dramatic irony of hindsight (i.e., we know that it's a mistake to undermine the importance of the BP oil spill; we know that Gabrielle Giffords is not dead.) But maybe bigger is that it's main character McAvoy, unlike Democrat Jed Bartlett, is a Republican.

Of course, like Bartlett, McAvoy is at his core a relatable, reasoned moderate (he wrestles through much of the show with being labeled a RINO, and worse). But, I think it's important that where Bartlett was a populist, Catholic Democrat, McAvoy is a libertarian, because his Republican leanings give him a unique platform to comment on the ascent of the Tea Party.

You see, McAvoy, like many of us (more of us than you think, I think), is a logical, lifelong Republican who finds himself suddenly a member of a party that is divorced from -- and devoid of -- facts. The first season progresses alongside the rise of the Tea Party and bears witness to the ways in which its members increasingly hijack the label "Republican" (a subject I wrote about here with considerably less eloquence and fewer rousing Thomas Newman scores). And because Sorkin's characters are second only to the Gilmore Girls in pace, pith and pop-culture, I'll let them explain it for themselves. Here's McAvoy describing the devolution of the Tea Party from middle-American grassroots movement to just another co-opted rich propaganda machine:

And here's a controversial, unabashed, no-minced-words clip from the finale of the first season:

I don't agree with the label "American Taliban," because frankly I think that's sensationalist and shock-value-y and unwarranted.  But I agree so very wholeheartedly that its disturbing and destructive to be part of a society that has stopped valuing facts.  It's disheartening to live in a place where pundits have their heads in their sand and their fingers in their ears and the supposed information disseminators, the gatekeepers, the truth-tellers, the fact-policers, the newsmen have stopped calling them on it.  If we're not holding each other accountable for partial answers and half-truths, and if we're willing to accept reactionary, unresearched platitudes and cliches as debate ground, McAvoy's right: we're not the country we thought we were. 

But we could be. It hurts and it sucks that McAvoy is right, but it's also really important that he's right.  And not to oversell Sorkin (as I am wont to do), but that opening speech, that little piece of not-so-fiction, is one of the most important, distressing, startlingly optimistic statements I've heard on politics or this country or our future in a long time. At least Newsroom is asking the question: when did we get to a point that we don't want to hear anyone who disagrees with us? When did we get to a point that we'd all made up our minds before we even turned on the channel? How do we get back to trying to find the truth?  How do we start listening and being open to having our minds changed? How do we get back to believing facts?

In the world of the show, this speech started a revolution. After saying that, McAvoy couldn't go back to the status quo; after hearing it, his staff didn't want to. Can't we embrace some of Sorkin's prescripted eloquence and pretend like it happened in real life? Can't we take some inspiration from the fictional McAvoy and his unfortunately fictional revolution and appropriate it into our own lives and votes and demands? Can't we stop putting up with this?

Let's disagree on tough issues, but let's agree on facts. And science. And numbers. And proof.  Let's be moral and confident enough to change our minds when we're wrong, and let's be graceful and trusting enough to forgive and welcome others whose minds get changed.  Let's demand better information, fewer filters, less commentary and fluff.  Let's demand real news and let's see what happens.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Binging is the New Black

On Valentine's Day this year, my husband and I went out to a lovely romantic dinner at a posh new farm-to-table restaurant, listened to a seasoned jazz band, strolled through the park in our stylish winter coats, met friends for an artisan cocktail at a nearby gastropub, and ended the night with strawberries and champagne on our balcony, watching the lights of the city.

Just kidding. We watched 10 hours of House of Cards. 

That's all we did. Literally, for two days.  We watched House of Cards in our pajamas punctuated only by short, bitter bathroom breaks ("I'm seriously only pausing this for 45 seconds so you'd better finish!") and a rotating parade of of paper-plated leftovers. 

Why, you ask, were we so slovenly and pathetic and hermit-like? Because House of Cards is a Netflix original series, and Netflix in all its modern sensibility knows exactly what the kids want: all of the things at once. So, instead of releasing House of Cards weekly, piecemeal, like network and cable and pay channels do, they released the entire second season all at once, on Friday, February 14.  And at my house, we bought in and hunkered down.

Binging on TV shows is not reserved to shows that are released this way; for many years Netflix and other streaming channels have enabled the unpopular and obsessive among us to waste huge chunks of nights and weekends devouring entire seasons of shows to the detriment of our friends and our jobs and our hygiene. Portlandia (a show I have binge-watched) knowingly satarized our penchant for the binge a few years ago, when Fred and Carrie lose their jobs (and minds) over Battlestar Galactica.

But Netflix is the first distributor to really sanction this method of watching, to encourage and enable our terrible TV orgies.  A ritual that used to feel new and kinda naughty is now the intended way to watch.  What does that mean for how we absorb and process and relate to our favorite shows?

Since HBO's The Sopranos (a little show about opera singers in the 2000s, you've probably never heard of it), television has rapidly become America's best and favorite medium. (It's not hard to name ten television shows better than every Best Picture Winner of the last decade.)  And the renaissance of television seemed not only revolutionary, but also to reflect well on American culture. No longer were we satisfied with 22-minute blocks of repetitive, solvable, cookie-cutter controversies imagined within the limits of a sound stage, nor were we sated with two-hour cinema visits filled with car crashes and road trips and forgettable types and tropes.  We wanted depth, we wanted breadth, we wanted deeply-troubled, intricate characters with flaws and flesh and inner struggles, we wanted real, immersive worlds for them to live in populated with ensemble casts and moral ambiguity.  And we wanted to watch and care about them for years -- years! -- and see them grow and change and evolve as more than just villians-with-hearts-of-gold, but as real people do.

When it was just The Sopranos it was one thing.  But then it was Six Feet Under, then it was Lost, then Weeds, then Dexter and Mad Men and Friday Night Lights.  Then people started going back and figuring out about The Wire. Then everyone got a box set of The West Wing and no one left their dorm for a week. Then it was Breaking Bad and all hell broke loose: jobs lost, relationships soured, health neglected; not since actual meth has anything set back American twenty-somethings like the five epic, unstoppable seasons of Breaking Bad. 

Even in Breaking Bad's wake (aka rehab), we still have a cavalcade of new vices: Boardwalk Empire, True Blood, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones (I watched all three seasons in three weeks) True Detective (watched one season in three days), Homeland, House of Cards, and maybe my favorite, Orange is the New Black.

Wow, that was just a list of TV shows. I got carried away.  Anyway, the point is: the sheer magnitude of quality television hours is both insurmountable and endlessly addictive.  We've turned an art form that should have been so good for our hyped-up little internet brains -- shows are long, so they can build slowly and epically, like a novel, and reward attention-paying and nuance-noting and comprehension and recollection -- and exploded it with our entitled, Veruca Salt-y case of the gimmie-gimmies.  We want the second season, and we want it now!

It can't be good for us, all of this binging; that's why it's called "binging," an inherently reckless bloated, term.  And I'm not even talking the detrimental physical effects like lost sleep, or, as the Wall Street Journal discussed, the sorrow of the post-binge hangover.  Rather, I'm talking about how our way of watching might hurt our ability to actually connect with the shows themselves.  Are we capable of watching 10 hours of television and really absorbing it?  I'll tell you: people make comments about scenes from House of Cards that I don't remember, even though my eyes were glued to the television for days.  While close-proximity watching may tie together plotlines and references to some degree, there's also a tipping point at which your brain is oversaturated with Underwood, deadened by his drawl and desensitized to some of the should-be-shocking revelations.  To be good, television needs cliffhangers, it needs worry and wonder and speculation, it needs its audience to go to that truly engaged, imaginative place where we fill in the future of the characters in our minds. Without that space, that break, that breather, we don't connect with it the same way.  Watching too much, too soon, is a spoiler in its own right. (See also: Stop Binge-Watching TV, at Slate.)

So how do we stop television from being such a race to the finish?  It requires a quality we never needed before when it came to innocent television: self control. Like everything else in the easy-access landscape, we can't even trust ourselves around TV anymore. (And Netflix, like some Libertarian drug dealer, absolutely refuses to save us from ourselves.)  So, next month when the entire second season of Orange is the New Black premieres, I'm going to try really hard to slow down, to digest it, enjoy isolated episodes for what they are, drag it out over more than a few days or weeks.  But I can't promise anything, so be patient when you don't hear from me -- bloodshot and blinking into the strange summer sun -- until June 10th.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Stop the Science Snobbery: What We Can All Learn from "Cosmos"

Science people are snobs.

And we love being snobs.  I say "we," because while I have no real education in the meat and math and chemistry of the stuff, I'm a science groupie.  Oh, just in that dumb, surface way that all artsy intellectuals think they are -- listening to our Radio Lab, watching our MythBusters, reading our Brief History of Time on the bus* to look smart and whatnot.  But I love sorta-sciency books and podcasts and shows and at the end of a long day, I seek them out as a break from the other side of my brain.

Science guys get such a hadron for this collider.
Case in point: I went to see Particle Fever a few weeks ago, a documentary about the large hadron collider in Switzerland.  DON'T STOP READING THIS YOU GUYS I PROMISE THAT'S THE MOST BORING SENTENCE IN THIS POST.  Anyway, it was largely over my head but still pretty awesome because the filmmakers did this crazy good job of getting the audience super invested in the really difficult, hard-to-understand, infinitesimal, particle-physics stakes at issue in the search for the Higgs boson particle.  I mean, like, really invested.  Like the end of Rudy invested.  And I loved it.

But when I left, I started to think about how there were like three people in the theater to see Particle Fever, and Noah playing next door made $43 million dollars its opening weekend.  This doesn't surprise anybody, right?  But why doesn't it?  Because we science-y types -- and by that again I just mean the type of nerd who pays for a weekend ticket to Particle Fever -- get off on being exclusive.  We revel in being snobs.  The three of us in the theater exchanged these deeply knowing, disdainful nods that perfectly communicated: we're better than those mushy Bible-blockbuster-goers who came to the movies for a cheap thrill; my brain is going to WORK here!

Click the image see a bigger version or click here to go to the movie's website so you can check out the disclaimer at the top. I don't recall a little move called Weird Science having any damn disclaimers!
Here's the problem: there are a lot of really serious, really important social debates going on right now about science. And a lot of the time, it's Congress who's debating the issues and making really significant, really devastating laws to regulate science and to control funding and testing and experimenting and curing and inventing and discovering. And all of the people who should be out there fighting for science in the populous, who should be out on the streets handing out --I don't know, dinosaurs or stem cells or something -- are too busy being self-congratulatory, patronizing elitists to share what they know.  Science and its fans (me included) relish belonging to a smart little club of a like-minded minority.  The problem is, if we stay this way, we'll always be the minority.

Look where science got Jesse! Okay bad example.
Because you know who doesn't have a problem spreading messages and reaching out to all kinds of people, not least the downtrodden and uneducated and tired and poor and huddled masses?  Religion, that's who. And this post is not about bashing religion or critiquing religion or about religion at all; it's saying that people who feel passionately about science, people who understand that science is this huge, beautiful, miraculous adventure, people who want other people to know about evolution and volcanoes and disease pathways and comets and fossils and the universe, could take a lesson from the "come on in, we'll take you" attitude of religion. We could be nicer, and we could be more open, and we could be less hostile and more explanatory, and we could try to get to learnin' some more peoples about science, y'all.

The great thing for me is that this little thought-piece doesn't have to end with some vague call to action because someone is already implementing this precise philosophy. The new Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, is this magnificent, universally (OMG PUN HAH!) engaging television show.  It's a sort of sequel/follow-up to Carl Sagan's Cosmos: A Personal Voyage of the 1980s, and is written in part by Sagan's widow, Ann Druyan, and his mentee and general badass, Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Cosmos is so wonderful because it's so accessible: it has great graphics, this great The Magic School Bus-style plot, and it simplifies and clarifies difficult concepts without ever condescending or compromising on the science.  It's wonderfully unapologetic, too -- there's no "some people believe that the Earth is only 6,000 years old," no kowtowing to myth or lore or "Intelligent Design" or other made-up bits of psuedo-science.  It's just Earth, just facts, just what we've learned about our world.  It's not belligerent with this information, either, but friendly and captivating, and Neil deGrasse Tyson's voice makes you feel like you're drowning in a velvet-lined pool filled with melted butter and you don't even care because it's delicious!

I will confess that even though I'm obsessed with Cosmos, it took me a little while to get past my pathetic, hipster-y protective instinct about Neil. My first reaction was to pout: "How cute that you like Cosmos; I really prefer his early stuff." Or, "You've never heard of Star Talk? You don't even know him!"  And that's exactly the wrong reaction.  I should have been thrilled people know Neil, thrilled that Neil is achieving such deserved but bizarre, elusive pop-culture fame, thrilled that he's sharing information and making people think.

So: watch Cosmos.  Be more like Neil (I wish).  Those of you who have more knowledge and degrees and credentials than I do: open yourself up to sharing what you like about stars or chimps or fossils or quarks or cells or freakonomics or psychosis or the Mesozoic or the Galapagos or whatever.  You never know who's listening. 

*  I've never ridden a bus.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Woody Allen Redux: The Blame Game

I started my Woody Allen piece last week with a tie-in about Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose shocking overdose on the same day of Dylan Farrow's harrowing (Farrowing?) NY Times' piece caused me to ponder just how much the private lives of our favorite artists should affect how we feel about their art and legacy.  

PSH in Doubt
In writing my blog, though, I may have missed  a more obvious connection between the late Mr. Hoffman and the scandalous Woody Allen: doubt. Doubt is the name of John Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer-Prize-winning play and movie, the latter of which starred Hoffman as a priest accused of molesting a young boy.  The gimmick of the show is that the audience never finds out for sure whether Hoffman touched the kid -- Hoffman's Father Flynn is personable and likeable and believable, but also lonely and, of course, a member of a profession long notorious for such crimes.  You want so badly to believe sweet, good-humored, doting, kind Father Flynn could never do such a thing, but the whole time, there's part of you that feels a gnawing...doubt.

Doubt -- this word, this concept, more than anything, has permeated discussions about the renewed sexual abuse allegations leveled at Woody Allen.  My post last week on the subject incited a raging hot debate on my Facebook page, not so much about the questions my piece posed (how to reconcile deploring a person with adoring his films), but rather about how we wrestle with our doubt, and to whom we give the benefit of it.  The question that erupted from all this was: when accusations are made and evidence is sparse, who gets our presumptions and who gets our blame and who gets our belief?

Since this lengthy, impassioned, worthwhile debate happened on Facebook, and not in this blog's comments, I wanted to share some of it here. The first side boiled down, crudely, to "Team We'll Never Know," a contingent of who-are-we-to-say-what-happened film fans who think dredging up a decades-old he-said/she-said is pointless at best unfair to Allen at worst. Their centerpiece is this Daily Beast article, written by Robert Weide who produced and directed PBS's two-part Woody Allen: a Documentary. I'll be the first to acknowledge that Weide's article is persuasive, well-written, and grounded in personal anecdotes and observations of Woody himself -- which is more than I or many of the heated commenters on the internet can boast. Weide's article argues that amid a nasty divorce and a bitter, brutal custody battle, a scorned Mia Farrow "planted" the molestation idea in her daughter's head. In this narrative, Dylan Farrow is still a victim, but a gullible, susceptible, naive victim of a crazy, manipulative mother.

"Team We'll Never Know" argues that in the absence of evidence -- a conviction, a confession -- there's just no way to confirm the truth or who's telling it, and in that big chasm of uncertainty we can all still love Woody Allen because hey, who knows, right? What this side misunderstands, though, is that implicit in the "not so fast, we don't know" analysis is a presumption, a choice, that favors Woody Allen, that favors the accused.

That's why the opposing side is not "Team Dylan," it's "Team Why is That Your Reaction?" The crux of their argument is touched on in this piece, but nowhere better said than by my old friend and a great writer, Matt Sailor, who wrote:
 . . . .The point that you [prior Team Woody commenter] don't address, in the interest of blaming some larger imaginary media conspiracy, is that a woman has publicly shared her story of abuse and rape at the hands of her former guardian, and you're choosing to side with the abuser. Why? Why is that your reaction? Why is the word of Weide, a man who, as much as he claims to be objective, has spent months of his life studying Allen's work and very much has a vested interest in the continued celebration of Allen as an autuer...why is that man's word more credible? Why? Why are the considerable jumps to conclusions and logical acrobatics that he does more persuasive than a woman's simple story: I was abused? 
I mean, that's it, right? That's what the uncertainty breaks down into, isn't it?  So, why? Literally, why is that our reaction? Well, the foundation seems to be that our society holds up this "presumption of innocence," doctrine, dating to Blackstone and before, where we've long subscribed to the notion that it's better for 10 guilty men to go free than one innocent man to suffer.  But, this article, which is hotly written and somewhat meandering, turns that doctrine on its head (in a social way, not a legal way): what happens if we re-frame exactly whom we're presuming to be innocent? The article posits: in a he-said/she-said like this, isn't presuming Allen is innocent necessarily presuming that Dylan is lying? Where there's no proof, why does the accused deserve our presumption over the abused?
Mia Farrow in Purple Rose of Cairo

It may all bring us back to this question: are we selective in our condemnation of people we like? In the absence of proof, do we project guilt and innocence onto parties as it is convenient for us? Based on liking them, or identifying with them, or their gender, or our privilege issues, or it fitting into a narrative that makes us comfortable? Or the fact that we want to watch their damn movies? If we presume Dylan Farrow is lying, isn't it easier for us to avoid the whole sad, confusing, inconvenient questions I posed in my first piece? If she's a liar, can't we all watch Annie Hall again?! How great is that?

. . . But if Dylan is lying, then isn't Mia Farrow lying, and what if we want to watch Purple Rose of Cairo (an Allen film starring Mia as an abused wife, hah.)? Do we have to boycott Farrow's movies if she's the liar? Can anyone on any team ever watch Hannah and Her Sisters ever again ever?

You guys, did Allen molest his daughter? I don't know. But I do believe that the way we hold that question in our heads, the things we (secretly, involuntarily, innocently, invisibly) weigh when we consider it, the priorities and presumptions we dole out when we decide for ourselves, say something about who we we are, and what type of mistakes we're willing to make.

"If my films make one more person miserable, I'll feel I've done my job." -- Woody Allen