Canadian Hustle

In Orphan Black, those cop armpit holsters that are half the uniform of on-screen detectives and PIs are impossibly unintuitive. For Sarah, the master imposter (she's even pretending to be a good imposter), the hardest parts of being a cop are the lingo and the mess of straps and snaps that's supposed to carry her gun. The rest she teaches herself in a day.

That classic scene of the stern police chief returning the unruly cop's badge and gun with a hefty clomp induces not a righteous broadening of possibility for her, but panic. "Hey, uh, gimme a couple minutes," she says, and escapes to the bathroom, where she struggles with the holster. "You want help with that?" a uniformed policewoman mocks. "Yeah, you mind?" She thought impersonating a dead detective would make her life easier, but it just makes it more frenetic. ~~Her~~ reinstatement leads not to an invigorating helicopter pan, but to a low, cramped shot in the bathroom.

The more her life resembles Frank Ocean's line "three lives balanced on my head like steak knives," the more fun the show and the more masterly Tatiana Maslany. At one point Sarah asks for a big favor from her most repressed clone sisters, Alison: to impersonate Sarah in front of Sarah's daughter. Maslany has to play Sarah badly enough that she still seems like Alison. Exiting high-wire this thespian caper, Sarah's foster brother remarks "aren't you full of surprises--you passed." Alison succeeded at impersonating Sarah by doing something Sarah would never do: She thanks Sarah's daughter's foster mother for being such a good parent.

She's pleased by the inconsistency, and the boyfriend of Beth, the detective Sarah is impersonating, is turned on. "It's like you're an entirely different person, lately"--this is just the kind of laugh the show goes for--for which she apologizes. "No," he says, "most of it I like." Of course, this only holds up if she remains mysteriously new. She can't actually reveal that she is who she is (if indeed she is). When they first meet and he's full of suspicious questions, she kisses him, which leads to anywhere but the truth. This confusion of clones (a murder of crows and a confusion of clones) has a way of literalizing the divided subject. Using sex to distract from (mis)recognition is an entirely believable scenario, but in this case, she's trying to keep him from seeing that she is in fact someone else. The difference between literal and metaphoric seems so flimsy that I used italics.

For Sarah, work isn't about time or elbow grease, but performance. She becomes a detective not by learning skills, but genres. And she's a good detective because she doesn't know the genre well enough to really involve herself in the police procedural cliches that surround her. She's an observer hoarding insight. Her partner is grave and full of tough love, in that way that partners are. The other investigators on the case put together a psych profile made of childhood abuse and religiosity, as psych profiles are. While not untrue, watching Sarah-as-Beth watch these proceedings renders them futile and ridiculous. The police also assume that they're trying to catch a man. Only Sarah knows who they're really trying to catch, another clone.

While True Detective tries to deepen the genre by playing it as dark and serious as possible, Orphan Black tries to show the trying. Sarah's troubles know no end, but her flailing only took this turn to acting when she tried once and for all to absolve herself from work. At first blush, she's only stealing her doppleganger's identity to get some cash. To escape. And she insists to her foster brother, Felix, that her interest is entirely instrumental, that she's not curious. Liquidating Beth's identity for money turns out to be the most intimate relation of all. As if coming home, Beth takes off her heels and drops her purse before she jumps in front of a train. Sarah takes the purse and leaves the heels behind, but Beth left a whole closet of shoes to fill.

Who is pretending to be who just gets crazier and riskier. By episode 6, Sarah is pretending to be Alison interrogating Alison's husband, and Alison is pretending to her house full of neighborhood potluckers that she doesn't have her husband in the basement. ("Where's your husband?" "I told you, he's tied up.") Alison and Sarah switch which Alison they're playing. Both Vic (Sarah's criminal ex) and Paul (Beth's boyfriend/stalker) show up. As the parenthetical threatens to break out, the rooms of Alison's house reveal their dangerous porousness, and different genres and stories nearly smash into each other, the episode becomes a sitcom.

And so does the show. To take its seriousness seriously would be total boredom. It's not Scandal, whose ridiculousness is inseperable from the fact that it (and its many atomic monologues) is bigger, bolder, and more riveting than life. Orphan Black's intermittent charm, like Sarah, is in its half-assed commitment to genre. It couldn't be bothered to craft a decent plot or execute it with a nonobvious twist. The fun is putting Maslany into crises of competing narratives to act her way out of.

30 January 2014

The End of the Record

A "friend" on facebook posted a link to "21 'Ghost World' Quotes That Defined Your Adolescence," which looked choc full of a tiresome, so-over-it sense of cool. In other words, its brand of preemptively bored cynicism was too familiar. I was over it. The only way way out of this arrogant metaboredom was to watch it.

It wasn't until a scene of impasse, when Enid is actually exhausted by her distaste for everything, that I felt released from the trap. She's packing to move in with her best friend (although at this point they aren't even friends in scare quotes, just housemates). Is she packing or unpacking? She begins pulling old stuffed animals out of a box, and finds and old record--presumably from the record collecting man who, after they slept together and she "thought out loud" that she might move in with him, has been desperately calling her, hoping her errant speech meant something. He's one possibility. The LP is a terribly cute song about being cute, a song about becoming a thing to have a thing:

Buy me something special

Buy me something rare

So I'll be special and I'll be rare with a smile and a ribbon in my hair

To be a girl they notice

Takes more than a fancy dress

So I'll be special and I'll be rare

I'll be something beyond compare

I'll be noticed because I'll wear a smile and a ribbon in my hair

She dumps all of the toys from the box. Beyond being an old record, the music itself is from a music box, with its endemic distortion. She holds up the t-shirt for her future job--what will pay the rent for her best friend's apartment. It's orange with green text: "Computer Station." Her glare moves from the shirt to the record player. There's nothing that isn't off. The record she's playing doesn't so much reach the end as come up against it. She sits on the bed, not even sighing.

Enid's life is so concerned with aesthetics that not even intentional ugliness really fits and the only positive aesthetic she can claim is obscurity. Her dream is "going off to some random place, and disappearing." She likes the record collector, Seymore, because his obsessions are too arcane to really judge. She goes out one day with green hair and wearing a biker jacket, and a zine shop employee judges her for trying to be punk. "Didn't they tell you? Punk rock is over." "It's not like I'm some modern punk, dickhead, it's obviously a 1977 original punk rock look." When Seymore was younger ("your age") he became obsessed with the "original" racist artwork of the fried chicken chain restaurant at which he's been working for the past 19 years. He kept it all in a three-ring binder.

Enid's friendship with her best friend in high school, Rebecca, falls apart, but not for a particularly dramatic reason. Rebecca becomes more and more invested in consuming ostensibly tasteful things, and Enid is bored by this. Her objection isn't ideological, though effectively it is. She just finds Rebecca's taste in things gross. "I just can't imagine spending money on plastic cups." "They're quality stuff." In Rebecca's apartment (which by the way is a disgustingly monotonous red and white, like a diner oilcloth, or a jar of strawberry jam): "I gotta show you this, it's really cool." Rebecca folds an ironing board down from the wall. "Isn't it great?"

Sometimes, Enid's disgust with consumption is about eating. "You know who I ran into at the bagel place?" her dad asks, spreading a bagel with cream cheese and jam, bringing the jam in awkward globs from the jar. He ran into an ex of his, which is not "horrible," as she suggests, but more like his bagel. "Mmm," he keeps mumbling, "this is really good." All she can say is "jesus."

The movie came out in 2001, two years before I graduated from High School, and it has captured, if not necessarily my graduation itself (though it's true that banal speeches enthusiastically clapped for were in abundance), then the experience of every High School assembly I ever attended. It has the self-congratulatory dance performances, the senseless, cliched speeches, the bewildering buzz of mass excitement. The graduation scene captures the survival strategy I wished I was witty enough to employ: ridicule. Of course, ridicule requires a friend to make eye contact with across the stadium (as Enid and Rebecca do) or whisper to in the next seat. Some form of togetherness, whether with the crowd or not, is necessary. As I once put it, voice trembling in front of the class, "to survive, one must interact." Otherwise, one is left in an echo chamber: the gym with its cheers and mic feedback, and one's thoughts begetting more thoughts. I remember leaving exhausted, with nowhere for the exhaustion to become exhaustion.

It's in just this state that the movie almost ends for Enid. Her friendship with Rebecca was how she kept the world from getting to her and how she kept herself from getting to her, and that's gone. Her flirtation with obscurity (Seymore) ends up being far too demanding. It's no longer an escape. Her room at her dad's house is mostly packed up, and half-full of the ex he was so pleased to run into. There seems to be nowhere to go and no one to be.

The movie resolves the impasse with a fantasy. She actually does go "to some random place." There's an old man who has been erroneously waiting for an out-of-service bus for years, and she sees him finally catch the bus. So she catches the same one. Rather than figure out what she "wants," she imagines a way to obscure herself, to inhabit an unknown that she can't yet write off.

The movie itself is a supplement to its narrative of failed or incomplete self-actualization. Throughout all of this she keeps a sketch journal, documenting her life and fantasies with comics. There's not much talk of her journal; it's simply what she does. It's an innocent, ambitionless habit, and for exactly this reason it's an identity. The movie was first a comic book. In a way, Enid is a success from the start.

23 January 2014

Geeky Boys

Art Imitating Art

Just about every sci-fi or fantasy action sequence reminds me of playing with legos. Not putting them together, but pretending that the things I built were swooping around. It's really hard to watch Gandalf casting spheres of light without imagining a 6-year-old making fwoosh sounds. CGI is the perfect medium to realize such childhood fantasies of attraction, repulsion, and color. These must've come from watching older special effects, the sounds of which one emulates with an incidental spray of spittle.


Over the course of a few late nights I played through X-Com. All the guns are pump-action, reloaded with a hand running along the barrel. The sniper rifles telescope outward before firing. The more powerful the weapon, the higher the volume of stuff shooting out of it.

For those nights my dreams were troubled by unsolvable puzzles. Not really puzzles, just making slightly different moves, none of which solved whatever it was I had to solve. I woke tense, as if late for something. Someone I know watches Too Cute as a lullaby, turning her dreams into a different kind of treading water.

The Most Obvious

He starts talking about what "we" once had, once did, about "reaching" once more "to make known the unknown." And there you are: a rocket blasting off.


The geek trio in Buffy become villains because they can't think of anything better to do. Buffy's off doing thankless labour that Sunnydale's very existence depends upon, and they play all day. Living at all is an effort for depressed Season 6 Buffy. The trio do what they enjoy, and they get a room full of cash. What they enjoy isn't enough, though. They need someone to harass, and ultimately, some people to dominate to give their lives meaning. If only Silicon Valley startups understood themselves this well.

22 January 2014

The Literal Life

Michael says the latest Sherlock "felt like the internet seeping into our telly screens," because it tried to satisfy the desires of obsessive fans. That sort of fan who catalogues the progression of Star Fleet uniforms. Nothing sounds more tedious than to "track Clarissa’s steps through Westminster and Mayfair" (Mrs. Dalloway). But I am by no means immune to this impulse; isn't tedium just what one is after? The production of this kind of certainty is accomplished through a string of certainties. One is absolved from doubt. Points on a map are not the kind of idealization subject to disappointment.

I have a habit, much like twitching a leg, of googling trivia from novels. As if reading the wikipedia page on places and historical events will enrich the story. I don't know what I'm after. Banal factoids to relate at lapses in conversation?

Probably the stupidest was when, reading The Flamethrowers, I decided to google the Italian lake district. Because apparently, seeing panoramas of a place that was just described in prose is interesting. I rarely remember much from these forays into what could be considered knowledge. Despite being inspired by a phrase in a book, they aren't connected to anything, so why would I remember them? This kind of nonresearch is like building a house out of closets without doors. These are not investigations. Details about cheese maggots, extinct flightless birds, and heraldry will not coalesce on a cork board into the identity of the murderer.

If interest is about connectivity, wikipediaing shit is-- counterintuitively--radically uninteresting. Information that has already been integrated into a system of knowledge, lines of inquiry that are not excitingly poised, but rather cul-de-sacs. The air conditioner kicks on, and there I am in bed, awash in white noise and cross-sectional diagrams of a sperm whale's spermaceti.

16 January 2014

About The Weather

I keep telling everyone that I'm not used to the weather here: warm and then suddenly windy. I went out the door one day and someone sunbathing on the front lawn said "a beanie? It's pretty warm, man." Later that day I passed through a cemetary where gusts kicked up swirling leaves, as if the weather had intervened to supply the appropriate tone. Two picnickers were sitting on the windiest side of a tree, both facing its source, looking disappointingly unmiserable. I donned my hat, zipped up my sweater, and felt cinematic, ranging around the partitions of a chintzy neoclassical mausoleum while little waves whipped up on the square pools. I'm certain I didn't look cinematic. I'm not sure I've ever looked sillier. A friend once imitated the way I wrinkle my nose. I was shocked. I had no idea disgust translated so easily onto my face. At the same time, it's comforting to someone who most of the time looks stoned.

My comment that the weather is inconsistent here has become very consistent. The last person I repeated it to immediately lost interest in conversing. People catch on very quickly to one's parrot aspect. One of the people in this house saw a fruit fly and said "and so it begins." Whenever someone new came into the kitchen, he said it again, so that by the time he'd made breakfast, he had said "and so it begins" four times. It just kept beginning.

There was a very long line at the post office, and the man near the front of it kept making jokes about it. Nobody laughed. These paragraphs are taking the form of a monologue you don't want to encourage by responding to. But these kind of monologues don't ask for response. Is it a kind of encounter, or is it just "and so it begins"?

I've woken up to repeating noises twice in two days. The first was when it was still dark. I thought it was someone knocking at the door, but it kept going. I wasn't sure it was even audible, but I couldn't resist holding my breath to listen for it. When I listened I could hear it, underneath the city's white noise, a distinct thump thump thump thump, then lost. If I couldn't hear it, I felt it as a threat, like a monster around a corner.

Does one bring this up? I told the one who says "and so it begins" that I thought I heard someone knocking at the door the previous night, at three in the morning. (Untrue: I had no idea what time it was, because I didn't want to traverse the room to look at my phone.) But I didn't elaborate, I just said "I don't actually think somebody was. I probably just woke up from a dream, or something." I spent about three hours of that day thinking about asking someone else if they heard a strange noise. Was it ridiculous that I even humored the idea the noise resided anywhere but in my experience, or was it ridiculous that I couldn't ask?

The next morning it was chainsaws, which have a personality. Unable to see what was being sawed, it was just the rhythms of uncertain little revs like a dog yapping, and long, angry whines. I stared up at the ceiling, waiting for another VRRRR and then sighing with annoyance when it came. I kept thinking "and so it begins."

14 January 2014

Assorted Frozen Thoughts

There's a whole gag about the snowman having/lacking a bigger/smaller carrot nose. Carrots are the reindeer's favorite snack, and the reindeer keeps giving the carrot to the snowman and then almost biting it off. The chomping becomes play becomes affection. Affection: the power to give, take away, and to withhold taking away.

As Anna fantasizes about the possibility of a romance, she jumps around the castle posing in front of paintings. There's something self-critical in presenting the desire for True Love as a kind of self-induced puppetry, as if these aren't just paintings she's imitating, but previous Disney movies. Rather than a universal destiny, Anna's fantasy is based on specific images bound up in history. The love she very quickly falls into turns out to be not just false but treacherous--a man out not to steal her heart but her kingdom.

Disney is suddenly proud of their slapstick beginnings? Maybe this started back in Tangled, which I haven't seen. Their logo has become a nostalgia-drenched animation of Mickey Mouse gyrating his pelvis side to side. The main feature was introduced by a five minute Mickey short that starts in black and white and then bursts out of the on-screen screen into 3-D color. It has all the sadism of Looney Toons, but the bottom of the scenario is literal: a pitchfork gets rammed into the cat's ass. Repeatedly. Outside the screen, Mickey figures out how to flip the frames of the animation back and forth yet the cat persists through all his beatings, so that he sustains the abuse multiple times. Watching Mickey watch himself repeat all his aggression is like watching someone watch porn. Disney seems to be trying to reframe their past as quaint and noble.

Odd that "letting go" means dressing more sexily in private, as if the only thing Elsa had to hide was sexuality. (After the movie someone started singing "I'm So Excited," which might've stood in for Elsa's solo "Let It Go" in a pinch.) The sexual coming-of-age tale seems like a good reading (she has a power that is thought to be dangerous, is triggered by strong emotions and physical touch, and that everyone rushes to control or exploit), but predictably, I found myself reading Elsa's conundrum as depression. The coronation party is exciting for Anna, and nerve-wracking work for Elsa, who has so much to hide. "Make one wrong move and everyone will know," she sings. The fear that if you misstep, you'll freeze the room and everyone in it is a perfect metaphor for how the depressed approach social situations. Surely not just me? But for Elsa it's not arrogant to think she has such a drastically deadening effect on people; she does in fact have the power to freeze them solid.

Elsa flees to a frozen mountain, builds a whole gleaming palace out of ice.

Disney movies need a neatly tied up ending, and promoting free-floating love as a solution to the problem of emotion isn't too bad. Of course, love is defined quite specifically as "putting someone else's needs before your own." The story in which the princess is saved by a knight in shining armor (in Frozen, "a valiant, pungent reindeer king") is derailed; instead, the princess saves herself by saving her sister by sacrificing herself.

Where the depression metaphor stopped working for me was when Elsa learns that Anna is dying because she accidentally froze her heart. This apparently changes things, because Elsa's freezing storm of anger and self-loathing abates. Since when is guilt therapeutically effective?

Elsa and Anna bond over the smell of chocolate (their emphasis). Really, writers, you couldn't come up with anything less cliched than Women Love Chocolate?

12 January 2014

Boring Now

I could write. I could wind bag about how the dinosaur apocalypse is the sublime. I could haul in some food metaphors. I could recount my dreams. I could laugh at the "Vegan" label on a package of sugar. I could, but it would be boring. Directly opposite me is a poster everyone who lives here has probably forgotten about. Its eyes look at me (and everyone else). Hong Kong is Watching. Why? I'm boring.

James Franco thinks selfies are expressions of the self. He's not diabolical, like Beyonce saying how hard she's worked to break down the mediation between her and us, or Britney and her "most personal album ever :)" Selfies carry this current of boredom with the titilation of intimacy. At a near enough distance, the magical becomes mundane, which is kind of magical. It's a transition that somehow never gets old.

Car trips are one of those times boredom sidles up and gets cozy. I sat in the back seat from Ashland to Oakland (300 miles, but maybe just a swapping of trees). Another passenger, who wisely slept through most of the trip, asked me if I slept. I didn't know. I gazed out the window, I closed my eyes, and somehow five hours went by. There is a kind of spacing out, contemplative yet almost a waking dream, that can only happen on a fast moving vehicle. It feels thick enough that it seems impossible that time is passing at all; it seems we'll never get there. Arrival is a ripoff and a relief.

All of that syurpy consciousness can be bypassed by conversation, or more easily with recorded voices. We listened to Radio Lab. Well, two listened, one slept, and I drifted in and out of listening while it drifted in and out of audibility. If spacing has an enemy, it's irritability, and Radio Lab refused to allow the mundane to enter. That irritated me. For Radio Lab, mundanity is the bogeyman--to be feared when present, but especially when it's not. It has to be cast out preemptively by coloring anything remotely unentertaining with attempts at humor. And when any fact seemed too esoteric, the host faked surprise. The garlic worked, in a way--I was thrown from the mundane to the aggressive fidelity of irritation, that little insect.

Radio Lab's antidote to the mundane isn't irritation, but, like TED talks, wonder. The host has a bumpkin persona, carries "wow" on the tip of his tongue. The show is threaded together by his flights of thematic fancy, which are calculatedly far-fetched. A recent court case involving international treaty leads back to the founding fathers and their "visionary document." He's always asking the audience to bear with him.

Why the success of this feeling of benign wonder? My Facebook news feed is cluttered with Upworthy, the purveyor of a more particular form of wowing, the feel good news story. It's not so much that the their stories are worthy of upping, but that they're to make us feel up.

Up is the story of a jaded, stagnating old man opening himself up to wonder again. Literally being uplifted from the ground to the sky. It's not a new thing for him; he's nostalgic about his childhood lust for adventure. It was--improbably--the shared dream of he and who became his wife, which, once married, they kept putting off. It was only once his wife was dead, once it became impossible, that he became amenable to trying again. The flakey historical analogue that comes to mind is that the fordist dream of a better life has proved bankrupt, but we're still grieving. So the Internet will save us. 3D printers will "democratize physical space," because anything connected to the Internet democratizes. We will believe in infinite potential, as we were once "brave" enough to in our youth. (This sense that we've given up on Great Things is what the Interstellar trailer runs on. (It also sounds like Matthew McConaughey longing for an erection.)

Utopianism now comes in the form of "hacking," crowning the individual of privilege with transformative power. I asked a guy whose computer desk has a collection of buzz-word sticky notes--"Open Source," "Activism," "Sustainability," "Cloud"--what a "hacker space" is. A place where people go to code? "No," he said, "clothes, food, philosophy, everything, man." I didn't know what to say to this, and my gaze drifted to the paisley pillows on the couch. Had I traveled not to Oakland, but to the 1960s?

I suppose we all have a bauble to deal with boredom, and that's what this is.

2 January 2014