Dear Television, Masters of Sex, Week 5 Loofbourow_DTV_Masters_MG_Orig

Sex and the Slightly Unreliable Narrator

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Dear TV,

I’D HOPED Masters of Sex would resist following Mad Men down the sepia brick road to the land of overburdened flashbacks, and so far so good; five episodes in, it seems to have a comparatively sane relationship to its past. So far we’ve met Mr. Johnson and the original Mrs. Masters. Mather Zickel’s George Johnson supplied some much-needed texture and edge to Caplan’s likable Virginia Johnson (while demonstrating the need for that edge — the episode ends with her boss and ex-husband discussing her sexual magic while she waits, bedraggled and exhausted, at a bus stop. It’s an interesting counterpoint to Draper’s conversation with Betty’s therapist). Masters’s mother has been flawed, likable, and an obvious source of pain to her son. And oh, a live mother! Can we take a moment to rejoice that she’s alive, and not another fictional mother sacrificed to the god Help-I-Need-A-Motivation-For-This-Character? I hope we see more of her.

Here’s what’s working about these two figures from the past: their explanatory power is limited. Last time we talked about this show I made the case that it was refreshingly immune to Freudian narratives, and I mostly stand by that. Masters’s sleepwalking is certainly a symptom of emotional disturbance, but the cause is crystal clear by the end of the episode: he sees his mother’s late-in-life agency as a betrayal of his young self. There’s a sharply literal bent to the show’s portrayal of his childhood. I’ve toyed with the idea that Masters has a low sperm count through sheer force of will (mastery, if you like), but some commenters over at the AV Club speculated, pretty convincingly, that the knickers story more than accounts for Masters’s current infertility. Wear your boyhood shorts well into adolescence and the damage to your testicles will be as great as the damage to your psyche. No psychoanalytic metaphors here; Masters was almost literally castrated by his father.

Except he wasn’t! Libby got pregnant.

There’s resilience in the Masters gene pool, in other words, and this bothers William, who wishes his mother would have bounced back earlier or not at all. Getting Libby pregnant means the damage incurred in childhood was less irreversible than he thought. Nothing could be less romantic than the Masters’s efforts at conception. The part of us that longs for some acknowledgment of romance or chemistry, for confirmation of the myth that context contributes more to conception than the sheer facts of biology, is a little crushed when Masters’s clinical techniques actually work. They simply weren’t supposed to. We’re waiting for Libby to exit the show but she keeps reappearing, perceptive, gentle, pregnant. Less of a victimized drip than we (narratively) want her to be.

This show takes a lot of pleasure in exploring how fertility intersects with control, and it loves punning on Masters’s struggle with mastery — mastery of the self, of circumstances, of a career path, of the study, of Johnson. At first glance, this is a story about an obstetrician whose academic interest is in recreational sex — a man for whom fertility has been a lifelong pretext, the concept closest to what he really wants to study professionally but orthogonal to it. This seemed, when the show began, like a case of cruel irony: the infertile fertility expert! But it seems, in retrospect, that Masters’s fictive sterility was a source of relief to him. Masters didn’t want children, and his efforts at misdirection (Libby is sterile, not he!) were meant to perpetuate their childless state. This is only just becoming clear, four episodes after we learned about their difficulties. The real irony is that he was too good a fertility expert: his technique worked.

What we’re starting to see on the show, in other words, are hints of unreliable narration that force you to look backward at what seemed like stable ground. Ethan Haas’s assessment in the pilot was that Masters didn’t want to admit to a low sperm count because, well, masculinity. At this juncture, knowing what we know, it seems likely that Masters only wanted children because they completed Scully’s portrait of the family man. If he couldn’t conceive due to infertility (and why not make it his wife’s!), his immaculate professional credentials couldn’t be damaged by their absence.

This is an efficient show: most scenes achieve multiple narrative ends. That little flashback scene turns out to be about Scully’s closeted psychology too, of course: his concerns about Masters being labeled a pervert seemed like sensible advice, but turn out to be pure projection. (There’s Freud, sneaking back in through the window!) Scully sees the younger man as a version of himself, and prescribes him exactly the same course. Be yourself underground, he says, and keep up the perfect façade that will forestall questions. We may think we’re seeing the attitudes of an era, but we later discover that our sources (Ethan, Scully) were flawed readers of the circumstances we trusted them to describe.

It’s a testament to Masters of Sex that even the flashback contains the seeds of both Scully and Masters’s stories. Now, it may easily be that Scully’s advice was good, and that Masters has the preoccupations about masculinity Haas attributes to him, and that his reasons for concealing his low sperm count from Libby are as archaic as Haas thinks they are, but I doubt it. Masters so obviously houses his ego elsewhere.

The miscarriage is a test of Masters’s affective investments. It drives home our lack of access to Masters’s real feelings about Libby (and hers). Up to this point he’s been so calculating, cruel, and thoughtless that it’s genuinely difficult to imagine him charming her, or either of them falling in love. It’s a bizarre marriage, and we find eventually that its peculiarity stems from Masters’s own sense of it as performance/checked box. If Donald Draper married Betty to fulfill the American Dream in all its hopeful Aryan poetry, Masters sees the American Dream as an invisibility cape he’ll need to fulfill his professional mission. Don starts crooked and wants above all to be seen as legitimate, as belonging; Masters starts with legitimacy in order to go accrue enough respectability to go to a “cathouse” and remain pure. Both men basically want to disappear, but their relation to social contagion is quite different. (If Draper joined the study, Masters’s and Johnson’s work would have been done much sooner.)

What’s enjoyable about the show, in other words, is that it seems to be doing one quite conventional thing while also doing another. Masters’s interactions with Libby expose the pitfalls of the “mother of my children” logic that saw women in the 50s as angelic creatures and helpmeets. It’s almost impossible to regard such a person sexually. No wonder he finds it unthinkable to watch Libby masturbate; the angelic wife is incompatible with arousal or desire.

This is a familiar story about the period, and it makes for compelling fiction, but it’s not right here. Masters’ problems only appear to be the problems of the 50s Everyman. He isn’t a man of his time, he’s three standard deviations out from the thing Don Draper badly wanted to be. In that sense, these are both stories of men in Dream drag. Even his marital dysfunction is only apparently conventional.

Still, his feelings about the pregnancy and the miscarriage are outside his conscious control, and the sleepwalking is meant, I think, to show the limits of Masters’s self-mastery. His emotional discipline in the name of science is getting some jagged edges.

So what about Johnson? The trouble is that there’s so little to say about Johnson. Her problems with her kids don’t quite land. Her expressions of wry regret and her conflicted take on motherhood are interesting, but we don’t know why she feels about it the way she does. Will we meet her mother, I wonder? I look forward to learning what she does care about, beyond wanting to be involved in the study. It’s been suggested that Johnson is becoming a manic pixie dream girl. I don’t think she is — yet. But things are drifting in that direction; her origins so far are obscure, her wisdom innate, her background only marginally relevant. George Johnson is a little too starry-eyed about his ex-wife, and it’s a missed opportunity. We could have learned about her childhood, her flaws, her first marriage. So far, Johnson has been our only source for explanations of her background, her decisions, and her past. The only outside information we’ve gotten about her has concerned her sexual prowess. That’s a problem. In a show where every narrator has turned out to be a little unreliable, I hope she does too, otherwise the balance is going lopsided. We’d better see Johnson make some serious mistakes.

Sincerely (OR NOT),

Lili

¤


20 Minutes into the Future, Week 4 outcasts

One Season Wonders: “Outcasts” and “Terra Nova”

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by Jonathan Alexander

ONE OF THE PLEASURES of TV these days is the Netflixable delight of watching entire seasons in a weekend. You might have to wait till the series is done to binge properly, but the bingeing is sometimes worth the wait. And the complexity of the long TV narrative is better appreciated, in many cases, by viewing seasons in large chunks, allowing you to trace more finely the development of story and character arcs. Battlestar Galactica makes more sense, for instance, if you see it in toto. Sort of. In some cases, with shows cancelled after only one or two seasons, you have the opportunity to catch some pretty decent television, complete albeit truncated, in only a couple of evenings — or evening, if you’re ambitious, as we tend to be in my household.

While Sherryl is away this week, she offered me the chance to share some thoughts on SF TV, and I couldn’t resist writing about two of my favorite “one season wonders,” shows cut off after just one season. Both are currently available on Netflix, and they can hold you over while you wait for next week’s episode of whatnot. Curiously, the shows — Fox’s Terra Nova and the BBC’s Outcasts, both from 2011 — are surprisingly similar. They are largely about attempts to establish human colonies that will survive post-apocalyptic earth. And both are also lessons in the pleasures of narrative cut off before resolution.

Outcasts is a BBC One show that aired in the US on BBC America and ran for eight episodes. A “president” (played by Liam Cunningham), his chief of security (Hermoine Norris), and his hired gun (Daniel Mays) lead a group of colonists on Carpathia, an earth-like planet previously scouted out for human habitation as folks flee an Earth devastated (in a hazy backstory) by nuclear fallout and ecological disaster. Outcasts is ambitious in its mixing of numerous SF tropes, pulling deliriously from the “mega-text” of science fiction. We have an adventure story of gun-toting settlers on an alien planet; characters’ pasts periodically erupt to complicate the plot; political subterfuge (often with none of the subtlety suggested by subterfuge) threatens internal security; the humans themselves are divided into two groups, the born humans and the genetically engineered “advanced cultivators” (ACs) designed to explore environments potentially hostile to people and somehow outcast from the normal humans’ settlement; and the threat of alien life lurks constantly in the background, finally coming to the fore in the final episodes. Indeed, one of the more interesting elements of Outcasts is the Stansilaw Lem-like alien race, hinted at and never really fully seen but sometimes manifesting as images from the settlers’ past lives. Very Solaris.

SF TV geeks will appreciate the appearance of Jamie Bamber in the first episode. (Spoiler alert: he doesn’t survive that first episode.) And in a neat twist on the old US SF trope of making the bad guys sound British, the main villain is played by an American, a slick character with an American accent who rabble rouses the settlers with rhetorics of religious ideology and the need to protect Forthaven’s “soil.” Very American indeed.

Critics generally panned the series, and my husband frequently shouted at the television, mocking characters’ stupidity; there are some pretty obnoxious plot inconsistencies. But I must admit being pulled into the show’s moodiness. To be sure, Outcasts is a heady mix of lots of SF stuff, and it takes itself pretty seriously. But it’s well acted, if slow, and the mysterious aliens tease us all along, particularly when the settlers find a cache of hominid-like bones, buried in what looks like a family unit. Pretty cool, if heterosexist. And it’s fun as an American to watch a British TV show about the perils of colonization vilify the politics of colonization through an American actor and character. What a funhouse of crazy mirrors.

If you’re feeling really ambitious in one weekend, you might spend one day watching Outcasts (it’s only eight hours of viewing) and then compare it to the 13 episodes of Terra Nova, which, at 44 minutes each is a little more, but TN is faster paced. Producers Steven Spielberg and Brannon Braga, among others, had high hopes for this Fox series and poured a lot of money into it, nearly four million dollars per episode (at least according to Wikipedia). Critics were kinder to Terra Nova than to Outcasts, but TN proved perhaps a bit too expensive; InsideTV called it one of the “nine highest-rated cancelled shows“ of its season.

Like Outcasts, the story revolves around a colony fleeing environmental devastation, a future Earth choked by pollution spewing from corporate greed. Instead of looking for the exit strategy offered by terrestrial planets, our adventurers have been specially selected to travel back in time, starting over 75 million years in the past. The result is at times very Edgar Rice Burroughs as the colonists defend themselves against dinosaurs and super toxic plants, an earlier Earth become eerily alien.

We spend most of our viewing time with the Shannon family, a mixed-race (nice touch) unit consisting of a doctor wife (played by Shelley Conn), police husband (Jason O’Mara), and adolescent kids grappling with their assorted problems. The show, perhaps to catch the attention of adolescent audiences, makes time for a little teen romance with some super hot young folks. And as with Outcasts, there’s a splinter group that lives in the wilds, the “Sixers,” who seem to be in bed with corporate interests who hope to plunder the riches of prehistoric Earth for future profit.  Note for comparison: the British series is all about the dangers of colonization; the American one about corporatization. 

Again, SF fans will appreciate seeing some favorite actors reappear, this time Stephen Lang of Avatar fame, who (spoiler alert) survives the whole season as a main character, though not without some seriously close calls. This time, Lang plays a good if still military character, Nathaniel Taylor, the leader of the colony. We see a lot of him — which is good as Lang plays the role to the hilt, even with the annoying plotline of the estranged son.  

Special effects? For both shows, pretty decent. Especially the sets. Not a lot of space shots, but keep in mind that these are both, in a sense, domestic dramas, often focused on family dynamics as people try to survive the toxic environment and their toxic relationships. Indeed, what’s particularly intriguing to me about both series is their love of ordinary objects, in particular their romance of household items and interior décor. Urban loft living rooms and kitchens are transported in space and time, with place settings, cutlery, and knick-knacks by Pottery Barn. I kept wondering to myself, how did that couch get there? And where can I get that knife set?

Housewares aren’t the only carryovers from the here and now. Both series focus a lot of dramatic attention on the leaders of the colonies, Richard Tate and Nathaniel Taylor. Note the everyman-sounding names — or at least “everyman” as embodied by the white Western most likely straight but homosocially patriarchal masculinity that we are called upon to identify with, admire, or obey.  These are our heroes. To be fair, though, both characters are compromised, having to make “tough choices.” And you question their choices, just as they do. Was that killing necessary? Do those lies need to be told? Helping them with such questions, or at least carrying out their orders, the boss’s right-hand police agents take up a lot of airtime as well.  nd it’s ultimately hard not to read into these 2011 dramas a projection — both into the past and the future — of some concern with the police state, and with its seeming necessity in times of danger. After all, Tate and Taylor, despite their rhetorics of democracy, are really dictators, with whom we are asked to sympathize. After all, desperate times call for extraordinary measures, right?

I won’t give away what happens as the seasons come to a close, but I will say that both end in cliffhangers. And that’s it. If you take a chance on Outcasts and Terra Nova, you’ll have to commit yourself to the pleasure of watching an aborted series. You don’t know what will happen. You’ll never know. And you’ll have to be ok with that. There are a lot of series out there like that, as networks and media companies try their hands at different kinds of shows. The great archives of Netflix, Hulu, and Apple TV allow us the chance to sample their experiments. Perhaps this is a new kind of televisual enjoyment we can cultivate: the inconclusive narration, the unfinished arc, the never-ending cliffhanger.

Such open narratives, forever truncated into precariousness, are satisfying in that they mirror our contemporary situation so well. Such is certainly the case with Outcasts and Terra Nova, shows whose characters are as caught in precarity as the shows were themselves, wondering if they’d survive for a second season. We know the fate of the shows: too expensive, too moody — cancelled. But their characters are caught incomplete, just as we are caught in the middle of our own unfinished stories: whither our own future at a time of economic implosion, ecological disaster, political impasse, and global insecurity? No one seems to know how our story will end, so we tune into the apocalypse and enjoy the ride. 

The writers, perhaps knowing the fate of the shows, have their characters offer some comforting platitudes, even if they’re meager or hackneyed. In the final episode of Outcasts, one character, who turns out to be genetically engineered, offers hope in the belief that we can still “design ourselves,” no matter how desperate things become. And in Terra Nova, facing that desperation, the main characters trade mantras: “This is our home.” “We will survive.” “But first let’s kick some ass.” 

And they do.

¤


Uncategorized leimert park

Save The World Stage

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By Scott Doyle

“Save The World Stage” Campaign Launched
Community Rally Set for October 26

Jazz musicians like Branford Marsalis, Max Roach, Roy Hargrove, Elvin Jones, Billy Childs, Ron Carter, Kenny Burrell, Pharaoh Sanders, Horace Tapscott. And of course, co-founder Billy Higgins, the most recorded jazz drummer in history. Writers like Yusef Komunyakaa, Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka, Kevin Powell, Ruth Forman, Ishmael Reed, Toi Derricote, Al Young, The Watts Prophets. And co-founder Kamau Daàood, one of many notable alums of the legendary Watts Writers Workshop.

These are just some of the artists that have graced The World Stage over the last 30 years, and their names were a strong presence at an October 16th press conference held as the non-profit performance and educational space seeks to chart its future in a changing Leimert Park. The neighborhood, called by some the “black mecca” of Los Angeles, is almost certainly on the verge of a significant transformation following the MTA’s approval of a Leimert Park Village subway station on the new Crenshaw/LAX light rail line. Neighborhood activists had long lobbied for the stop, which until late spring appeared to be far from a done deal. But within weeks of a May press conference finally announcing funding for the station, investors had bought up two buildings on the east side of lower Degnan Boulevard, home to a cluster of black-owned businesses, most of whom have been there for over 20 years.

Operating as two LLCs and communicating with tenants through a property manager, the new owners have chosen not to renew leases, posted numerous pay or quit notices, and failed to respond to requests for a meeting. A handful of businesses are already gone. After an unsuccessful attempt to get Councilman Herb Wesson to intervene on its behalf, The World Stage has gone public with its fight. The non-profit is seeking, among other things: short-term emergency funding to forestall the possibility of imminent eviction; a meeting with the new owner to discuss his plans for the building; “cultural landmark” designation that would solidify its status as a stakeholder in the neighborhood’s redevelopment; and political and economic assistance from city and county officials to ensure the organization’s long-term viability.

The emotional press conference (which later spilled out onto the street in a spirited conversation about the neighborhood’s future) featured a number of speakers paying homage to the rich legacy of The World Stage. It is a space that is, in the words of stage manager Matt Gibson, “humble but hallowed.” Its motto affirms the Stage to be “not a space but a spirit.” Writer and performer Jerry Quickly calls it an “art church.” Artistic director Conney Williams (a guest the previous day on a segment of Warren Olney’s Which Way, LA? on KCRW) spoke of how, in the difficult months after the 1992 Rodney King verdict and the unrest that followed, The World Stage provided a critical haven for “fellowship and healing.” Executive director Dwight Trible highlighted the thousands of young people who have passed through the drum, vocal and writing workshops offered at little or no cost; as well as the thrice-weekly jam sessions giving aspiring local musicians of all ages and abilities a chance to cut their teeth.

But the afternoon was not simply an exercise in nostalgia. Damien Goodmon of the Crenshaw Subway Coalition insisted that the huge investment in the Crenshaw line, which he characterized as the largest public works project South LA has ever seen, must translate into economic development that truly empowers the local community, and not the kind targeted mainly at tourists. The gathering attracted nearly 40 attendees, a number of whom stepped forward with ideas for putting the organization on more solid footing, and with offers of help. KPFK music director Maggie LePique presented a $1000 check from Doors drummer John Densmore, a long-time admirer of Billy Higgins. World Stage board president Adé Brown is hoping to raise $25,000 to stabilize operations in the coming months. Supporters are encouraged to donate via a PayPal button on the group’s website.

save the world stageA somewhat paradoxical challenge facing The World Stage is that, while it is well known within the black community and has a national and even international reputation amongst jazz aficionados, in many ways it flies below the radar in Los Angeles. Leimert Park itself, set just far enough off the main thoroughfares of Martin Luther King Jr. and Crenshaw Boulevards that you can easily miss it if you’re not looking for it, has its own visibility problem. Happily, this weekend offers a couple of excellent opportunities to discover (or rediscover) this vibrant and diverse neighborhood.

On Saturday, October 26th at 1pm, The World Stage invites the public to its performance space on 4344 Degnan Boulevard. Against the backdrop of its Saturday Jazz Workshop there will be a community rally with speakers and poets and the latest information about The World Stage’s campaign to remain in Leimert Park. Then hang around to check out the rest of lower Degnan, including Eso Won Books across the street.

And on Sunday, October 27th from 3pm – 8pm is the Leimert Part Art Walk, which will feature art exhibits, live music, and food vendors. As a special attraction, the historic Vision Theatre (currently being renovated under the purview of the Department of Cultural Affairs) will be opened up for an exhibit curated by Ben Caldwell of the multi-media art and training center Kaos Network.


Dear Television, Horror, Week 4 Hitch

Ambivalent about Horror

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Dear Television,

TO LOVE HORROR is to love genre. As Annie’s piece on abjection and Phil’s on “Hellmouth” (new meme, anymore?) have both pointed out, discussions of horror very often lead to categorization. Whether in defining the psychoanalytical underpinnings of horror’s affective range or in noting the types of tropes that converge in horror narratives, the genre is one that repeatedly calls for its analysts to return to form.

In part it’s because horror is, as Annie via Kristeva has pointed out, seems so bent on complicating, and often undoing, form. The difficulty then is how to talk about (analyze, define, describe, categorize!) horror without taming it, or reducing it to a theory of socialization. If horror is what wants to challenge categorization or containment, then any discussion of it ought to take that messiness into account.

I am ambivalent about horror.

By this, I don’t mean that I’m uncertain about whether I like or do not like it, or even if it works or does not work for me in particular. (I do like it, and it does work. The ambivalence is partly why it works, which contributes to why I like it.) My ambivalence stems from the fact that I often don’t trust myself both in watching it and talking about it. When I saw The Ring at age 13, I thought the little Dreamworks boy casting his rod into a pool of water was generating the eponymous rippling ring. That, dear reader, is paranoid reading. I’m so quickly startled that it’s often unclear to me whether something is or isn’t Horror. For instance, is Bringing Up Baby a terrifying story? Yes, but I’m not frightened watching it. Is It’s A Wonderful Life scary? Um, sort of! B-horror flicks take it to another level, where you’re never really sure what Frankensteinian assemblage of caricatured tropes you’ll be met with.

Horror is a boundary-defying genre that invades other genres. It’s sort of like melodrama in that way, and indeed it’s often difficult to note where melodrama stops and horror begins. Like melodrama, horror might be better described as a mode than a genre, especially since even within the category of horror, we have the slasher, the psychological thriller, the Gothic, the paranormal, and oh my goodness this list needs to be updated. American Horror Story wants to gross you out, and it often does so via depictions of contorted or mangled bodies. Sleepy Hollow takes many liberties updating Washington Irving’s story, but it is ultimately dependent on the Gothic form (as is Buffy).

As a viewer, you might be absolutely okay with some kinds of horror, while unable to stomach others. (A friend can’t watch this season of American Horror Story because of the snakes. To use his words, “They don’t have any legs. What the fuck? When I see a snake, I’m like ‘come back when you have legs and then we can talk.’ Ugh, the way they move is so repulsive.” Which works well with Annie’s discussion on the abject, since the logic here is that snakes are something of an animal outlier.) But the thing about horror is that, even if you find gross-out flicks “gratuitous” or distasteful (oh so many food metaphors!), the very concept of horror almost obviates that criticism. What happens to the accusation of “gratuitous” when applied to a form that, by definition, seek push and reorganize boundaries? It’s exactly what seems excessive that makes horror so deliciously ambivalent, as well as so difficult to dismiss. And who knows what gets snuck in or communicated in — to use Phil’s metaphor — those messy wads of repulsion.

Gross-out films are one thing, whereas if you’re a television show hoping to get renewed or trying to maintain syndication, pride in putting off your viewers only works in that you still have them. I adore horror films because, as much as they unnerve me, the experience of being forced to sit through one is the closest I get to pure glee. But films end, even if the experience of watching them shows itself as one of discomfort, disappointment, or regret early on. Besides season two of American Horror Story, I’ve never been able to keep up with a horror television show that sustains any kind of season-long narrative arc.

Anthologies have often been my gateway to culture. They’re a way of introducing and explaining the form of something new to the viewer. When that something makes you uneasy, the security of anthologization can really help put you at ease, as a guarantee that you can do this because you’ve done it before. Growing up, I watched a lot of Goosebumps and Are You Afraid of the Dark? (and read the book series, cf. Fear Street!), two shows that smartly contained distinct plots to single episodes. One could dip in and out, and mysteries were always solved by the end of each half-hour (except when they, y’know, weren’t because of those anonymous third-person camera perspectives that loomed right before the end-credits). These shows were catered to children, sure, but isn’t part of what horror attempts to do is to return you — with the support of psychoanalysis — to a childlike state? Horror, for me, makes the world anew. The uncanny turns what I thought was familiar strange again. It’s largely what I look for in storytelling, period.

These are less the reasons why I watch American Horror Story, which is actually the closest thing television has brought me to my other beloved genre: musical theater (sorry, Smash). And all those who have seen Little Shop of Horrors know musical theater really isn’t that far of a stretch from the uncanny, while horror certainly finds a friend in the campy. Broadway and horror, so wildly and aggressively performative, aren’t all that different in structure. When both ultimately follow form, there results some satisfying pay-off or pathos. The whole out-of-this-world-real-life-in-drag element of both makes them particularly amenable to one another (musical episode of Buffy or Jessica Lange’s dance numbers in American Horror Story, anyone? Also Coven features Patti LuPone. I repeat: Coven features NATIONAL TREASURE PATTI LUPONE). But the classic musical theater world is certain, whereas classic horror depends upon a kind of ontological uncertainty—a world that, no matter how weighted with stylized tropes, can always turn strange or surprise the viewer. So when you mix the too together in something like Tromeo and Juliet (which is based on a story that we really, really thought we knew by now), you’re surprised and, in this case, fairly grossed out. It’s unsettling, but that’s where the magic happens. Break a leg, Kathy-Bates-a-la-Misery style.

Why do kids tell each other ghost stories before they go to bed? It’s not to put them to sleep, but to play off the atmosphere of being in the dark, preferably outdoors in some wooded area. If a story can make one’s very immediate environment uncanny (cf. How I felt walking out of my first viewing of The Fly), I’d call that a success. The truly horrific is what threatens to approach life, filtering through our consciousness, and manifesting as our nightmares. Someone might tell Ryan Murphy that horror doesn’t need to happen in an asylum, nor does it always have to involve literal sexual assault. Horror most often happens where one least expects it say, in the home.

Sometimes I watch Alfred Hitchcock Presents when falling asleep. Netflix and Hulu both have the first four seasons (each contain 30+ episodes), and for someone who’s lost count of how many times she’s watched Cary Grant duck in and out of washrooms in North by Northwest, this is a true gift. The thing is, though, that while many of the episodes are eerie and haunted, they’re not frightening per se and they’re definitely not interested in causing the viewer to throw up. Alfred Hitchcock Presents — with its isolated episodes (perfect bedtime stories!) — is almost calming. It uses the ingredients of Gothic horror to continually witty ends, and it’s both comforting and fascinating to see such narrative tropes maneuvered by an auteur such as Hitchcock.

Alfred Hitchcock Presents is also compelling in that you have a respected director of film thrillers transported to the realm of television, and if anyone wants to see how the mediums diverge, Hitchcock seems like an ideal case study. Beyond being a true formalist, Hitchcock knew how to brand. The episodes might have been contained as though short films, but they were very explicitly made for television (in the intros and outros that couch each episode, Hitchcock often makes fun of interjecting commercials). The narratives in AHS follow the suspenseful moods of Gothic horror, but Hitchcock’s introductions mean we never take this mood in complete earnest. Hitchcock’s visage is always there first, pointing at the insideness of the narrative that his very presence bookends. We’re always saved by Alfred Hitchcock: Narrator at the end, and often we rely on him to give the punch line of the episode. I’ve also lost count of how many slapstick moments occur throughout the seasons.

In the world of televisual horror, Alfred Hitchcock Presents is my safe space. But then again, I didn’t live through the Cold War — my paranoia is not that that shadowed the atmosphere of suspense in Hitchcock’s work. Though that’s another gift that older horror pop culture gives us: it allows us to practice imagination and empathy, becoming attentive and vulnerable to the even the uncomfortable and invasive presence of other bodies.

Good evening,

Jane

¤


The China Blog shanghai_1907

Jogging the Memory

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By James Carter

With Fall Break relieving me from teaching for a few days, I recently spent a week in Shanghai researching a new book that uses the events of a single day at the local horse-races to explore a variety of questions about China’s 20th-century history. I’m interested in that particular place at that particular time (late in 1941) in part because I like projects that draw attention to how porous seemingly basic boundaries separating cultural groups and periods can be. Shanghai spent a century (1843-1943) subdivided into Chinese-run districts and two foreign-run enclaves, a French Concession and an International Settlement, which were all interconnected even though each was governed differently. The racetrack, for example, was in the International Settlement, which was usually dominated by British interests, but people from all parts of the city and of all nationalities came to bet on the ponies.

Why is 1941 special? Because when writing about Chinese history, 1937 — when Japan invaded North China, occupied many coastal cities, and carried out the brutal Rape of Nanjing — is usually regarded as the start of “the war.” Yet, in Shanghai, while the Japanese took over the Chinese-run parts of the city that year, most Western nations remained neutral in the Pacific theater until December 1941, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Hong Kong, Singapore, and other centers of Western power in Asia. In the foreign concessions, life went on more or less as usual after 1937, at least for a while. The race that interests me would be the last “championship” one run before Japan took over the International Settlement, but the 20,000 people who went to bet on the horses did not know that: for them, the drama of the day focused on the rivalry between top stables, not geopolitics.

Long-dead horses and jockeys, though, weren’t the only racers on my mind during this trip, as it came just five weeks before I was set to run my first marathon back home. That meant I wanted to log not just time in the archives but also some miles — ideally a lot of them, even if doing so would require breathing air much smoggier than what I am used to in Philadelphia.

Undaunted by PM 2.5 warnings (nothing Beijingers would fear, mind you), encouraged by jetlag, I set out early most mornings on the pedestrian walkway that runs 1.5 miles along the banks of the Huangpu River. The view was spectacular as the sun came up through the skyscrapers of Pudong, illuminating now-clichéd architectural contrasts: to the West, China’s past (the 19th- and 20th-century buildings of the Bund); across the river to the East, its future (the towering glass skyscrapers, including the world’s second-tallest, nearing completion).

So compelling is the view that it makes the clichés easy to accept at face value. Even the clock on the Customs House, hammering out “The East is Red” (Mao Zedong’s personal anthem) for the tourists seated at Starbucks or Subway, seems contrived to reinforce ironic observations that oversimplify just how it is that, Kipling notwithstanding, East and West meet in Shanghai.

Fortunately, a handful of virtual running companions complicated and illuminated the interactions between China and the West over the past several centuries. Podcasts have long been one of my favorite information sources, and listening to them makes commutes and runs both productive and entertaining. For those with an interest in China, the sources are many. Three reliable standards helped me pass the miles and at the same time situate my research, so I left Shanghai with both a productive research trip and about 30 miles under my belt. I’d recommend all three without reservation for anyone interested in deepening their understanding of China.

The most provocative of my choices was Carla Nappi’s interview with Oxford historian Henrietta Harrison, talking about her recent book, The Missionary’s Curse. Harrison is one of the leading voices in the field, and this book deftly undermines many of the clichés that make the Bund waterfront so appealing. She writes here about Shanxi, traditionally regarded as one of China’s poorest, most isolated provinces. Running past the European icons of Shanghai’s gilded age, like HSBC, AIA, and the Peace Hotel, it was easy to think that relations between China and Europe were best observed here. What could show this blending better than the Chinese-style roof atop the Art Deco Bank of China, for instance? Yet Harrison’s study — subtitled Tales from a Chinese Catholic Village — demonstrates that the mutual influence of Chinese and Western institutions and ideas has gone on for longer, at a much subtler and grassroots level, than is evident in the Art Deco monuments along the Bund.

Just as much as Harrison’s scholarship, this interview showcased the fine work being done in the New Books in East Asian Studies series. Nappi, an accomplished historian in her own right (author of The Monkey and the Inkpot: Natural History and Its Transformations in Early Modern China), posts interviews every week or two and shows a remarkable familiarity with her subjects, as well as an engaging interview style. Most interviews run more than an hour, allowing for in-depth and detailed discussions of recent books on China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. The New Books Network also has counterparts of other sub-areas, including History, Critical Theory, Philosophy, and dozens more. If you want a book review mobile and thorough, this is a site for you.

Nappi’s interviews feel like joining two very smart people for a cup of tea (and at least one recent interview actually was done over tea, though more commonly they take place over Skype). No less smart, Kaiser Kuo and Jeremy Goldkorn’s Sinica Podcast is more like gathering for a pint (or two) with the most well-informed expats in China. Readers with more interest in news stories than academic debates might find this the best place to start. Sinica — now archived at the Asia Society’s ChinaFile site — bills itself as a weekly discussion of current events in China, yet that is only part of its portfolio. Kaiser and Jeremy (forgive the familiarity, but the podcast frowns on pretension in all its forms) gather together journalists, authors, academics, and businesspeople, either based in Beijing or passing through. Top China-based journalists, including The Economist’s Gady Epstein, The New York Times’ Ed Wong (and in back episodes, Mary Kay Magistad of PRI and Evan Osnos of The New Yorker, both now relocated to the USA) are regular guests, making the podcast a source of insight and reportage, not just rehashing of yesterday’s headlines.

Keeping with the Sino-Western theme, the installment I listened to during one morning’s run featured author and diver Steven Schwankert, whose new book Poseidon details the story of HMS Poseidon, a British submarine that was lost in 1931, but secretly salvaged in 1972 by the Chinese navy. Schwankert’s insights on China and the West, like Harrison’s, complicate what we think we know. For me, the idea that a British submarine could be salvaged in the 1970s without any British knowledge whatsoever was surprising. Just as surprising was the fact that the submarine’s fate was revealed not through espionage or high-level diplomacy, but through the pages of a Chinese popular magazine that Schwankert came across while searching for information about the sub’s location for a possible dive: no such dive was possible, since the vessel was raised from the bottom 40 years ago!

Last up was the China History Podcast, which businessman Laszlo Montgomery has researched, produced, and presented for nearly four years. Its somewhat haphazard approach to several millennia of China’s history make for entertaining and unpredictable — but always responsible — glimpses into China’s past. My accompaniment on the Bund adhered to the theme of the week, detailing the life of Hong Kong shipping magnate Y.K. Pao, who counted Ronald Reagan, Deng Xiaoping, and other leaders — West and East — among his friends.

So, about five hours of running between the clichés of Shanghai’s waterfront provided not just fine views, but also fresh understanding of the current state of scholarship and writing about China’s relationship with the West. I also renewed my appreciation for the range of new sources, and new formats, available for today’s China watchers, and deeply grateful to the people who provide these (free!) services, strictly as volunteers. And of course there are lots more podcasts too: one recent addition is The China Hang-up, from the Economic Observer, that follows the Sinica model, taking on current issues in a group discussion format, with call-ins! Podcasts have now matured to the point that there is a “new generation” to challenge the establishment.”

Laszlo Montgomery, Carla Nappi, Jeremy Goldkorn, and Kaiser Kuo — as well as their guests — are crossing another boundary that has never been as solid as some would believe. The lines separating journalism, scholarship, punditry, and analysis are blurred on the Internet as never before. While some fret (with cause) about the degradation of standards that accompany the rise of citizen-journalism and open-source scholarship, the voices on these podcasts show that quality analysis and entertainment is now available on a scale never before seen.


Dear Television, Horror, Week 4 Maicak_Sleepy

Greetings from Hellmouth, U.S.A.

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Dear Television,

THE THING ABOUT American Horror Story is not just its insanity or its abjection or its politics or its provocations — it’s how much of it there is!  As such, the list becomes a common feature of essays about the show, including our own. We don’t write about the monsters; we write about the diversity of monsters. We don’t write about a scenery chewing performance; we write about a veritable feeding frenzy of actresses. We don’t react to occasional preposterous twists; we have trouble keeping track of them. I’ve written about how the anthology format allows AHS to get away with this over-stuffed approach by providing an artificially constrained space in which Ryan Murphy can, sometimes literally, shoot his entire wad. Can this subplot about gay ghost baby adoption sustain itself? Is this dance sequence a little too much? Will audiences seriously watch Dylan McDermott try to act for this long? Who cares, we’re all gonna die!

Annie, you wrote beautifully about how the show sustains the possibility of being both misogynist and feminist, glorious and grotesque, and I think a lot of the reason this is possible is structural. But, even if the one-and-done seasons of AHS enable a kind of creative abandon on the part of Ryan Murphy, it doesn’t solve the problem of how to feasibly get every abject thing in Murph’s mind onto a show in a way that makes any coherent narrative sense at all. Sure these guys want to wedge alien abductions, Boston marriages, The Thorn Birds, ghost hunting, sadistic sexual torture, and sexy priests all into a season of television, but how? I don’t think, to this extent, we can overestimate the importance of place on this show. The way Ryan Murphy gets around it is by opening up a Hellmouth.

I’m speaking, of course, about Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Professionally, Buffy is a Vampire Slayer. But, if that were your job, presumably you’d have to travel a lot — like an insurance salesman or a corporate downsizer or a stinking academic. But Buffy’s in high school. What’s unique and fun and resonant about the series as a horror series — that it’s both a supernatural adventure show and a humane, funny look at what it’s like to be an ordinary teenager—is forfeited if Buffy is a jet-setter. The action, in other words, has to commute to Sunnydale: the Hellmouth. Sunnydale, CA, it turns out, is an ancient zone that attracts supernatural phenomena like a magnet. A kind of portal or blurry in-between space, it just so happens that, by living in Sunnydale, Buffy has access, not just to vampires, but demons, lizard creatures, nefarious mid-90s computer programs, all manner of zany horror. What the hospital is for ER or the law firm is to The Good Wife, the Hellmouth is to Buffy. It curates and transports the drama, allowing a broad-ranging adventure series to settle down in a particular place.

This is obviously not a trope that’s specific to Buffy — from the Indian burial ground in Poltergeist, to Dana’s apartment building in Ghostbusters, and even the cabin in Whedon’s Cabin in the Woods — but it is a trope that Buffy owned and transformed on TV. As Jane will write tomorrow, Alfred Hitchcock Presents maintained a diversity of spooky experiences by anthologizing episodes and moving locales week to week. Mulder and Scully had some conveniently located cases, but they also had to travel all over the country to track down their X-Files.The cases on Fringe only seem to string together because of the common thread of Bishop’s research.

Ryan Murphy has, for three seasons now, utilized something like a Hellmouth device as a contrivance to let all the crazy he wants congregate in one location. The “Murder House” of the first season was a veritable American history lesson of horror, containing a legion of new and notorious villains. Not just a haunted house in the traditional sense, it turned out that the Murder House was a kind of garbage dump of evil, a machine for the manufacture of the Antichrist. The asylum functioned in a similar way in the second season, and now, despite perhaps a slightly more tightly plotted story, New Orleans is Murphy’s newest Hellmouth, complete with all the native murderous history and walking dead he could ever have stuffed into a California home. (It’s tempting to describe the gallery of pervy monsters on True Blood in this way, with Bon Temps as a kind of Hellmouth, but part of the brilliance of that show’s premise is precisely that Bon Temps is not exceptional. The whole world is a Hellmouth, it turns out, and everyone just has to deal with it locally.)

But there are other ways of describing what Murphy does. Indeed, to some extent, you could say that the series picks a bunch of threads and then figures out where they all converge or vice versa, thus producing a kind of organic Hellmouth. Type grunge suicide, antichrist, Tennessee Williams, Black Dahlia, and psychotic abortionist into the search parameters on your Zillow real estate app and, voila, Murder House, California! But the series on the air right now with the most totally sincere and straightforward debt to the Hellmouth School of Horror Series Design is Fox’s hot nonsense Sleepy Hollow.

I have to confess here that I love this show like I love the music of Ke$ha. I understand its mixture of insanity and self-awareness, I love that its eccentricities don’t seem entirely affected, I respect its willingness to do stupid things in the service of potential brilliance, I love the way it plays with the tropes of its medium, and I’m really into all the campy apocalyptic energy.  In fact, it doesn’t seem like a stretch to say that, after he’s mortally wounded in the Revolutionary War, ensorcelled, frozen for several centuries, and then reawakened in 2013 to fight the Headless Horseman, our hero Ichabod Crane, like Ke$ha after a night in the club, wakes up in the morning feeling like P. Diddy.

Sleepy Hollow’s got a classic buddy-cop center — stolen, note for note, from both Cumberbatch’s Sherlock and its American cousin Elementary — a dash of National Treasure/Da Vinci Code historical occultism, and it’s host, even in just these first few episodes, to a really inventive array of supernatural baddies from the hilariously Rambo’d Headless Horseman to an actually, genuinely scary eyeless Sandman. What makes the show so much a part of this Buffy lineage, though, is the nominal plot.  Without going too far into the faux-serious whirligig of this premise, Crane wakes up in Sleepy Hollow because the horseman whose head he removed in the Revolutionary War was actually, via a spunky mash-up between Christian eschatology and nineteenth-century American literature, one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. So, of course, a sexy coven of witches — are there any unsexy covens anymore? — hid the severed head in Sleepy Hollow, thus forestalling the apocalypse. Crane wakes up because for some reason the Horseman has retraced his steps to figure out where he last saw his cranium, and he’s locked and loaded for a fight with a misappropriated literary character. Seriously, trust me, it’s great.

In any case, this sets up Sleepy Hollow, NY as a kind of apocalyptic Hellmouth. There are four horsemen constantly trying to manifest themselves, and, though they occasionally strap on machine guns and show up in person, they work largely by proxy. So Crane (played with irresistible dash by Tom Mison) and his partner (a much-better-than-she-needs-to-be Nicole Beharie) team up each week to neutralize threats that run the gamut from possessed psychiatrists, modern day Hessian soldiers, and sleep demons, to all sorts of other colonial-era junk. Everything that appears is the result, however flimsily sourced, of the fact that, somewhere in Sleepy Hollow, there lies the key to the apocalypse. Like all Hellmouths, there’s a logic to this place, but it’s by no means a logical place. All we need is a tentative reason for it to exist, and then we can sit back and let it randomly generate episodic devilry.

Because the Hellmouth concept allows a show to forego elaborate explanations about causality, it frees up these shows to work at different levels.  In other words, this strong mythological center let’s a series not have to worry too much about mythology. The grave mistake of Lost, in this regard, was setting up the explanation of its own Hellmouth as something that audiences might expect or look forward to. Some magic boxes should stay closed. American Horror Story takes advantage of this dynamic by building narratives about America’s political present. Race relations, the abortion debate, LGBTQ issues, and even, in an alternately too-tidy and too-leering way, rape culture. In the grand tradition of horror before it, AHS necessarily works as cultural commentary. What Murphy’s Hellmouths cough up are the ghosts of America’s stalemated culture wars, and, thanks to Annie, we all know what they look like.

Sleepy Hollow for its part seems content, for now, to revel in lightly toying with its generic forebears, but it certainly has the potential to engage in some wackadoodle critique of its own. It’s by no means as ambitious as American Horror Story in its cultural politics, but it both embodies and speaks back to the kind of revisionist-nostalgic obsession with American history that defines the current political moment. Indeed, a few episodes in, we see a flashback revealing that Ichabod Crane organized the Boston Tea Party as a diversion so that he could steal a supernatural MacGuffin that unleashes the forces of the underworld…or whatever. But the other thing we realize is that this is only the second most ridiculous, delusional, and fantastical appropriation of the Boston Tea Party American culture has produced recently. Sometimes the Hellmouth opens, and we fall right in.

There’s a place downtown where the freaks all come around,
It’s a hole in the wall, it’s a dirty free-for-all,

Phil.

¤

Dear Television, Horror, Week 4 AHS

The Exquisite Repulsion of “American Horror Story”: An Essay on Abjection

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Dear Television,

An African-American albino. A 200 year old woman who looks 45. A vagina that destroys all that enters it. A MINOTAUR. This is the stuff of abjection, and American Horror Story: Coven is overflowing with it.

You hear that word — abject — and think of something done horribly, wretchedly. In Coven’s premiere, the Supreme Witch, Fiona (Jessica Lange) tells her daughter, Cordelia (Sarah Paulson) that her running of the witch academy has been an “abject failure”; ten minutes later, the tour guide of Madame Lalaurie’s home calls it a site of “abject horror.” It connotes a depth of something we don’t usually reach.

But I want to talk about a slightly different connotation to see if we can get to why American Horror Story treads the knife-edge between feminism and misogyny — and why so many of us can’t stop watching it.

¤

Abjection is more than just a depth of experience: it’s a theory of grossness, of confusion, of what we must reject in order to live. Stick with me here. The theory of abjection is most famously pronounced in the work of Julia Kristeva, who, in Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, theorized the role of the abject in the building of both society and the psyche. Abjection includes that which is dirty — feces, decay, etc. — but also that which crosses borders and confuses. The Judaic Tribes of the Hebrew Bible created laws concerning what was and wasn’t abject so that they wouldn’t die out: people naturally wanted to do things like have sex with their wives when the wives were on their periods, but when you’re living in the desert, as these Judaic Tribes were, you just can’t get yourself clean enough. Accessing the abject would be to risk disease and, ultimately, death.

So what do you do? You make a woman’s menstrual cycle into something dirty and shameful — and write laws (still on the biblical books) that send that woman to a hut while menstruating. Eating pork was made abject because pigs were likely to pass along diseases — and kill off the tribe. Incest was made abject because sleeping with your family members would result in genetically deformed children — and eventually kill off the tribe. Homosexuality was made abject, because if you didn’t have sex that could make babies, you’d kill off the tribe. By labeling certain things as gross, the tribe — and society — was able to survive.

For Kristeva, the abject applies to that which makes one retch, but it is also, on a deeper level, “what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite.” These things disrupt the Symbolic, meaning they disrupt the way that language works: if you see something that looks like a tree, you expect it to be a tree. That’s how order works, how we get through everyday without going crazy. A thing is what its sign — and the way our culture understands that sign — says it should be.

But the abject messes with that: you see the muscular, shirtless chest of a man and you think “man.” But then you look up and see the head of an ox, and you think “animal.”  Even if we have a name for it in our symbolic (“minotaur”) it’s still compromising order. Men behave one way; animals behave another — what can you expect from this thing?

The minotaur is a pretty straightforward example, but society also rejects things that are much more subtly confusing: the androgynous, the confusingly mixed-race. Even if you, yourself, think that you’re okay with these sorts of ambiguities, you can recognize that society isn’t, as manifest in everything from the census form to the development of slurs used to denigrate and separate that sort of ambiguity as dangerous, unacceptable, not me.

Historically, the abject – refuse, corpses, blood – is what must be pushed aside, rejected, and labeled as Other in order to live. Literally: reject this stuff or you die. Modernity has made bacteria much less of a problem, but the deep fear and distrust of the abject remains. Rejecting the abject becomes a means of shoring up identity: by clearly labeling what I am not, I receive a clear understanding of what I am. By rejecting gender ambiguity, you solidify your own lack of gender ambiguity…. or so the psychological process goes.

But it’s never that simple. The abject is at once an object of fascination and of repugnance. It draws in as it repels, seduces as it disgusts. It “fascinates desire,” but must, ultimately, be rejected. We want to see a corpse, not because we’re weird, but because a body should mean life — and here it doesn’t. It confuses meaning, sure, but that’s gross and engrossing. So in order to make sure that no one will succumb to the temptation of hanging out with corpses, you’ve got to label corpses, and people who are fascinated by them, as disgusting and weird.

Thus the abject is thoroughly shadowed with shame. Trespass into the abject must not only be a societal violation, but a moral one as well. Desire for the chaotic, the border-breaking, the Other, is constructed as an offense to God or common morality. To be clear, there’s nothing about the abject that is a priori immoral: things, people, objects become abject through complex psychological processes. Some of this is bound up in the physical — I’m sure an evolutionary biologist could explain to you why feces smell “bad” to us — but a lot of it is ideological and, as such, erases its traces. Transgender people aren’t gross; they’re confusing to our conservative symbolic order and therefore constructed as abject, unnatural. We cloak confusion in the language of repulsion.

Visual art provides the perfect opportunity to feed the attraction to the abject while simultaneously satisfying the need to reject it. As film theorist Barbara Creed explains, you willingly go to a horror film to get “the shit scared out of you” — just think about that wording. The abject is explored right in front of you, but it’s distanced enough that you don’t have to fear being absorbed by it. It’s voyeurism, only you’re looking at the abject.

The main horror genres are all magnifications of the abject: the vampire movie is all about gender ambiguity and drinking blood; the zombie movie is about the animated corpse; the “meat” movie (Creed’s perfect word, not mine) is about humans who eat humans (Night of the Living Dead, The Hills Have Eyes). Over the course of the film, you also get to watch as abjection is vanquished, usually by the protagonist, with whom we, as audience members, subconsciously align ourselves. In so doing, we vanquish abjection, leaving the theater secure in the knowledge that we are not them.

¤

Over the last two seasons, AHS has revelled in the abject. Sex with ghosts, stillborn babies, a housekeeper who looks one way for men and another for women, a nun possessed by the devil, sadist Nazi doctors, mutilated yet still living bodies, alien impregnations — and that’s just the first two seasons. The show has “an uncanny ability to provoke pure disgust,” according to Molly Lambert. “How many other shows can boast that they make viewers need to throw up?”

Some of these storylines, especially the focus on the Nazis and the Nuns, highlight recurring abject fascinations. We return to stories of Nazis and corrupt church officials, at least in part, because they’re so compellingly contradictory — the doctor who destroys; the steward of God who punishes. That contradiction — that confusion — is what makes us return to them again and again, but it’s also incredibly reassuring. By labeling even the relatively recent history as abject, we distance it from ourselves. They were this way; we are not.

Coven has two main focuses of abjection: slavery and the monstrous feminine. In the first ten minutes, we see abominations of human flesh, the work of the sadistic Madame Lalaurie (Kathy Bates). She turns one human body inside out; on another, she places the head of a beast. So far, so abject. But she’s able to do these things because of the primary abjection of racism: if you label an entire race as part animal, part man, part savage, part civilized, if you label that race as abject, then society will sanction the enslavement and othering of that race.

In this way, racism — and slavery — becomes moral. But Lalaurie took that compunction too far. In her desire to explore the abject, she herself became abject, which is why a mob stormed her house and, at least according to the narrative of Coven, hung her entire family. As for Lalaurie, she became an embodiment of abjection: the corpse that breathes and never ages. It’s no coincidence that all who cross her path once she emerges from the ground, nearly 200 years later, remark on the putrid smell.

¤

Women have long been a source of abjection: they’re the keepers of the menstrual blood; they’re selfish with their babies, trying to keep them from entering into subjectivity, always trying to get them to stay and hang out in the pre-symbolic, pre-language, forever bound to their doting mothers. In tales of abjection, the abject feminine manifests as the sprawling abyss — the mother who threatens to consume, to castrate, to make others into the gaping hole that is their lack. Creed points to examples of this all-consuming feminine in Alien, but I always think of the massive vagina dentata of Star Wars (the sarlacc — thanks, Google Image Search), so eager to consume Luke, Han, and Chewbacca, the very embodiments of righteous masculinity. In Coven, that’s Zoe (Taissa Farmiga), who may look meek and non-threatening on the surface — just like a doting mother would! — but whose inner void (re: murderous vagina) threatens to consume not just your penis, but your entire life.

But the abject feminine doesn’t have to be represented as a lack or void. Per Freud, the fear of that lack is manifested in a substitute fetish object — usually some sort of substitute phallus — that distracts you from her lack. Medusa is the example par excellence, the powerful, potentially castrating female with her glorious penis-like hair. But witches also take this role: there’s a reason we draw them with pointy hats and protuberant noses.

The witches in Coven don’t wear black hats. They have normal, frankly beautiful noses. But they are castrating bitches, that’s for sure. Fiona destroys or incapacitates all men who stand in her way. Cordelia has a husband of some sort, but the narrative suggests that she’s also bad at her witchy job. The only man who lives at the school has his tongue cut out; Madison (Emma Roberts) avenges the men who gang-raped her by flipping their bus…with her finger. When a man questions Queenie’s (Gabourey Sidibe) authority and insults her, she effectively submerges his arm in hot oil. Two men kill crocodiles with big pistols; Misty (Lily Rabe) has the crocodiles eat them. Patriarchal authority figures who attempt to interfere — such as the policemen who visit in episode two — have their memories and, as such, the potential to wield any sort of power, wiped clean. And don’t get me started on the Frankenstein man Madison and Zoe make out of dismembered body parts.

The witches are dangerous — they’re abject — because they threaten order. But it’s a very specific sort of order, namely, patriarchal order. To be a bitch, to practice “bitchcraft,” is a particular demonstration of female power, at once magnetic and repulsive. Just think of how we wield that word: as a means of policing behavior (“God, stop being such a bitch”). But “bitch” can also be recuperated and celebrated; to declare oneself a “bad bitch,” for example, is to revel in and acknowledge the transgression of behavioral norms. A bitch like Fiona — single, independent, powerful — is so threatening (and/or attractive) because she’s seemingly dismissed the role patriarchy has set forth for her.

¤

In almost all forms of art, the monstrous feminine must be vanquished. She sticks around for awhile, letting us gaze upon and be fascinated by her, but her death is an absolute necessity if patriarchal order is to be restored. But things aren’t so simple in American Horror Story. It offers the basic abject pleasures of the horror genre, but it refuses to cooperate with the processes that call for the ultimate rejection of those pleasures. It screws with the processes that sustain the symbolic order — with the “Law of the Father,” as Jacques Lacan would put it, with patriarchy.

It’s easy to see why Ryan Murphy — an openly gay man whose work has been systematically denigrated by Hollywood — would be invested in this project, and would collaborate with middle-aged women who have been similarly thrust aside. In fact, Murphy’s oeuvre could be viewed as a sustained muddling of the lines that divide good and bad, high and low, queer and straight, campy and sincere, quality and pulp. As Willa Paskin points out, amidst the vaunted, masculine anti-heros of the so-called “third golden age,” AHS is an amalgamation of “undervalued genres, often dismissed as pulp” — horror flicks, women’s pictures, soaps, camp. But it looks great — the opening sequence alone is a study in aesthetic complexity — and boasts the same qualities that typify “quality” television (the auteurist showrunner; expensive production values; Hollywood actors; narrative complexity).

American Horror Story disregards hierarchies. It signifies as one thing and is another. It is, in other words, abject as hell. Which is precisely why it inspires the reactions it does: it’s addictive yet embarrassing; you love and hate it, can’t decide if it’s sympathetic or predatory, misogynistic or feminist. Fiona is a shameless ball-buster, but she’s also terrified by her own aging body, beholden to societal understandings of what “beauty” and “vitality” look like. Even as the “Supreme,” her power only extends so far: she can decimate men, but she can’t decimate patriarchal ideology. Those sorts of nuanced contradictions function as AHS’s narrative engine: it feeds on them, explores and explodes them.

In other texts and societal interactions, abjection is deployed as a tool of clarity — a way to delineate, to categorize, to shore up identity and classification, to de-abjectify the self. American Horror Story does the opposite: abjection begets abjection. You watch, and you might know that you’re not a witch, but you don’t know much else, either about the world or what you’re watching. It’s an exquisitely repulsive, wholly addictive place to be.

Yours in liminality,

ahp

¤


20 Minutes into the Future, Week 3 Identity

Men Behaving Badly: White Masculinity in Science Fiction Television

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TELEVISION IS A PLACE where we work through our cultural anxieties and project idealized versions of our selves. Even if no one really believed that Father Knows Best, it was comforting to imagine a benevolent patriarchal authority. As male series leads became more complex, viewers nonetheless inevitably sympathized with protagonists, seeing the good heart beneath the gruff surface of characters like All in the Family’s Archie Bunker. The recent era of “quality tv” has tested the limits of our belief in righteous masculine authority, compelling us to identify with compromised figures such as Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey, and Walter White. Such male anti-heroes are championed despite acts of violence and morally compromised decisions, it seems, because they espouse a love of family that they claim as their only motivation. Recent (semi)-ironic performances of grief over the death of Walter White, for example, suggest how much we still want to believe that father really does know best, even though Vince Gilligan did all anyone could do to show us how Walt destroyed rather than protected his family, and did so solely to feed his own ego. So why do we continue to love male protagonists no matter what they do?

None of the heroes of current sf television could properly be described as anti-heroes in this mode, but male protagonists dominate even in ensemble shows. Agent Coulson is definitely “the dad” for Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D and this week he really did know best in trusting that one of his wayward children/agents didn’t go rogue as everyone else believed. It remains to be seen how much this series will continue to privilege traditional masculine agency, but I’m encouraged by the ongoing hints of an arc about a sinister side to Coulson’s return from the dead, and also by the fact that they avoided criminalizing their one African American character, guest star, Pascale Armand as a former agent Akela Amador. All the same, I’d like to see greater casting diversity on the show for characters who get to stick around – instead of be sent to institutions at the end of the episode, a fate Amador shares with J. August Richards’s Mike Peterson from the pilot episode. (As an aside, it was nice to see that the episode was directed by Roxann Dawson, known to sf fans as B’Elanna Torres on Star Trek: Voyager).  Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D is ambivalent about membership in a military organization, a discomfort that seems to be expressed largely through humor at the expense of Agent Ward, the most conventional character. I hope we’ll see the return of more of Whedon’s anti-establishment sensibilities as the series progresses, perhaps even a rejection of the patriarchal and hierarchal values of S.H.I.E.L.D, along the lines of Buffy’s reversal of the hierarchy between herself and the Watcher’s Council in season five of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Arrow explores a similar discomfort with the premises of its character, inherited from the comic book, expressed in tension about the gap between Oliver’s identity as a rich CEO and his role defending the poor as the vigilante. The series is promising in its focus on economic crimes and this season’s emphasis on The Glades, the impoverished neighborhood destroyed at the end of last season. This week Oliver faces off against Sebastian Blood, played by Kevin Alejandro of Southland fame: Blood is an Alderman speaking, he says, for the 99% who are forgotten by the city’s powerful, for the former residents of The Glades now without homes or workplaces. He challenges Oliver, in the guise of billionaire CEO of Queen Industries, to do more than pay lip service to the problems of the poor, and Blood capitalizes on Oliver’s absence from a charity event. Yet viewers know that Oliver fails to attend not because he doesn’t really care about the poor, as Blood claims, but because he is stopping criminals China White and Bronze Tiger from hijacking a FEMA truck of narcotics on its way to the hospital serving The Glades population. Arrow thus worries me in its representation of heroic white masculinity: like the fan reading of anti-heroes such as Walter White, Oliver is merely “misunderstood.” In his role as CEO, which he tellingly refers to as his “secret identity” while his crime-fighting alter-ego is his “real” one, Queen appears indifferent to those hurt by his family, but viewers know he really fights on the side of the poor. Yet, although the poor of The Glades feature frequently in Arrow as symbol, the only character from this socio-economic group to get any screen time is white Roy Harper, who it seems will give up his own vigilante activities.

Oliver in his role as masked hero, then, remains the only voice of the disenfranchised, unjustly criticized by the Latino Blood (who, I suspect, will be revealed to have a selfish agenda in later episodes, if the character returns), and fighting against further exploitation of the poor by Asian China White, played by Kelly Hu, and African American Bronze Tiger, played by Michael Jai White. The series seems to acknowledge the problems of its focus on heroic white masculinity in an argument between Oliver and his crime-fighting companions, computer-expert Felicity Smoak (Emily Bett Richards) and former bodyguard John Diggle (David Ramsey). Oliver insists that they all need new “secret identities” as part of Queen Industries to facilitate their real work as crime fighters. Felicity vociferously objects to her demotion from the IT department to Oliver’s personal secretary, but he demurs that he has many reasons as CEO to speak to his secretary but not enough pretexts to consult IT. John merely wryly observes that he, too, has a less-than-heroic “secret” identity as Oliver’s “black driver.” Arrow thus recognizes the pitfalls of a show organized around a white, male, affluent lead speaking on behalf of the disenfranchised, but doesn’t know how to solve this problem. The fact that the other “secret identities” are defined in response to Oliver’s dominant one as CEO embodies the hierarchies they see but do not transcend.

Revolution is more promising in its gender politics because both Rachel and Charlie remain as central to the plot as male leads Miles and Aaron, and it was particularly encouraging this week that Rachel saves herself rather than requires rescue by Miles (and even more, last week she saved him, albeit with help). I’m all-the-more impressed by these strong female characters given the notoriety of creator Eric Kripke’s previous series, Supernatural, famed for killing its female characters at an unprecedented rate. Indeed, Supernatural’s misogyny is so blatant that actor Misha Collins, who plays recurring character Castiel, has criticized it.  Revolution refrains from calling women bitches as frequently and so far the body count has been fairly gender balanced. One of this season’s ongoing story arcs, however, involves the redemption of last year’s main antagonist, Sebastian Monroe (David Lyons), who is poised to take on the beloved anti-hero mantle with his talk of family. Monroe rescues Charlie from that ever-potent patriarchal threat of rape in the most recent episode – she does get her own shots in, and needs help only because she is drugged, but still – and thus the show’s gender politics remain uncertain. And while its casting is not quite as concerning as Arrow’s, it still loses points for killing off the sheriff played by Native actor Adam Beach without even trying to develop the role.

Perhaps the most intriguing show to think about in this framework is Sleepy Hollow. It is a show I continue to enjoy but also the one whose conservative reinvention of American imperialism as innocent – more, as on the side of God – is deeply troubling. The conclusion I’ve reached is that the series’ appeal has everything to do with the charisma of Tom Mison’s Ichabod Crane, whose charming British accent is especially charming in this week’s episode, about the lost Roanoke colony, which requires him to speak Middle English. Mison’s Crane is a skilled fighter, keen analyst, and powerful orator. In short, he is nothing at all like Washington Irving’s Crane, who was a timid schoolteacher, excessively concerned with superstition, who longed for but never got the girl. Crane was already reinvented as a more heroic figure in Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow (1999), where he was played by Johnny Depp, although that Crane remains in the 18th century. Television’s reinvention of Crane from mild-mannered victim to dashing hero whose personal appeal makes Sleepy Hollow worth watching suggests that we still have a long way to go, baby, when it comes to our desire for charismatic patriarchal authority. Will our desire to sympathize with the male hero compel us to forgive the sins of American history as much as we forgive those of Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey, or Walter White?

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The China Blog image2

Abandoned Theme Parks

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By Tong Lam

Since the 1990s, the Chinese government has begun to try to boost the domestic economy by encouraging citizens to spend more on non-essential items. As part of this initiative to forge a consumer society, the Saturday-Sunday two-day weekend was introduced in 1995. By the end of the decade, the government even began to rearrange weekends around major public holidays such as the Lunar New Year festival, Labor Day in May, and National Day in October so that weeklong holidays, commonly known as Golden Weeks, were created.

However, China’s rising middle class was still relatively small in the 1990s, and urban citizens did not have the resources to travel abroad. Even domestic tourism was often confined to travels within one’s own region. At the same time, after decades of living in a closed socialist economy, the Chinese desire for foreign things and experiences was stronger than ever before. Amusement parks featuring foreign cultures and buildings emerged as popular places for members of the middle class to go to spend their newly acquired wealth and increased leisure time.

In spite of the growing demand for theme-based entertainment, many attractions failed due to overdevelopment and overinvestment — itself a characteristic of capitalism. For example, investors once planned to build the largest amusement park in Asia, which was to be called “The Wonderland” and located on the outskirts of Beijing.

Since the Asian Financial Crisis in the late 1990s, the Wonderland theme park near Beijing has been a roadside landmark for China’s overheated theme park industry. The theme park was “discovered” by social media a few years ago and became a popular local attraction for young and adventurous tourists, both locals and those from far away. It has since been demolished.

Because of the Asian Financial Crisis of the late 1990s, however, as well as land disputes between the developer and the local villagers, the park was never completed.  When the by then abandoned theme park was demolished in early 2013, the haunting, unfinished castle and other skeletal buildings stood as monuments of China’s first major encounter with global financial crises in the post-socialist era.

Meanwhile, even though many well-heeled Chinese consumers now flock to major foreign countries to shop, the appetite for theme-based entertainment among China’s steadily expanding middle class remains strong. In recent years, the theme park industry has become even more competitive. In addition to theme parks showcasing foreign cultures, there are also amusement venues that make use of characters and settings tied to ancient Chinese folklore, martial art fiction, video games, and so on.  In addition, the Disney Resort in Shanghai is set to open in 2015. Not surprisingly, the fast changing theme park scene has driven out many older, smaller theme park establishments left over from the previous era. The abandoned but once popular theme park at the edge of Chengdu in Sichuan Province is one such story.

A defunct but once highly popular theme park in Chengdu, Sichuan Province. As in many other major Chinese cities, the theme park industry in Chengdu has exploded in recent years with new venues opening almost every year.

Indeed, not unlike the newest theme parks, the ruins of old or unfinished theme parks also open an illuminating window onto China’s changing consumer desires, real estate market, and tourism trends.

Recommending readings:

Tong Lam. Abandoned Futures: A Journey to the Posthuman World. (Carpet Bombing Culture, 2013)

Bianca Bosker. Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China. (University of Hawaii Press, 2013)—recently reviewed in the LARB here.


Dear Television, The New Sitcom, Week 3 Maciak_sitcomimage

The Good Bros of Fox

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Dear Television,

HEY, REMEMBER WHEN Fox Tuesdays were the next best hope for a full-on televisual Ladies Night? An evening of television created by female showrunners and structured around Zooey Deschanel and Mindy Kaling? Fox had harvested the fruit of a decade of Tina Fey pioneering and invited us all to sip upon the delicious, feminist Liz Lemon-ade! In fact, that was part of the reason why this very blog chose to write a weekly column about New Girl and The Mindy Project last fall (a column you may or may not recall that we dropped like a hotcake midseason in order to spend time with Lena Dunham in Patrick Wilson’s brownstone).

As it turned out, New Girl was maddeningly inconsistent, and The Mindy Project’s unembarrassed embrace of the lurid wealth that enables but goes unmentioned in most sitcoms began to feel unseemly. But, more than that, neither show was really paying off on that whole Ladies Night thing. In fact, the reason to watch each week was more often determined by Nick, Schmidt, or Morgan than it was by Jess or Mindy. Ladies Night had been infiltrated by wacky dudes, and Fox noticed. So, this year, Fox plugged Tuesdays with Dads — a comedy that reminds us how much more racist and misogynist things sound when human people say them instead of cartoons — and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, a promising new show about a man-child police detective. (And, for what it’s worth, it’s widely assumed that Dads will likely be replaced midseason by the recently resurrected John Mulaney Show, which is about a dude named John Mulaney.)

Jane, you’re very right to point out the man-childishness of this block, and Lili, your treatise on the new — questionable — sincerity of these shows is really right on. There is an evolution going on here, and I think an intermediary step that we ought to talk about is The Bro. Last year I wrote a post about Schmidt and Mindy that attempted, with all the requisite rigor of a PhD in English, a theory of the douche-bag. Schmidt was a d-bag, so was Danny Castellano, and so too, I suggested, was Mindy — trying too hard for the wrong things. There was pathos in the struggle, but the shows were essentially ballads of the unrepentant tool.

At the root of the d-bag discussion was likability. Why was Schmidt a relatable heel while Mindy pushed her audience away? It’s obviously a gendered distinction, but it wasn’t until this week that I think I realized the fine grain of it. For women on TV, the archetypal d-bag is the Mean Girl. Shallow, catty, Machiavellian — you’re either a glamorous jerk like Olivia Pope or a low-rent, dastardly one like the kind Allison Janney now plays (perfectly) on Mom. Once a female character becomes a d-bag, there’s nowhere to land but Regina George. Either the mean girl repents and becomes human again, or she remains a villain. (Hopefully, we’ll be able to write a little later this season about The Good Wife’s Alicia Florrick, the primary example of a female character who’s been able to exist betwixt and between these poles, and, not incidentally, the protagonist of the best show on television. Come at me!)

For men, of course, there’s the archetypal Sleaze — a role with which Schmidt has always flirted and that was portrayed last week on Mindy by the evil Glenn Howerton. But men also have a second option that I’m not sure yet exists archetypally for women on television. It’s softer, it’s kinder, it’s d-baggy and cocky but also still somehow redemptive. I’m speaking, of course, of the Bro. And, in the absence of an idea of what to do with Jess or Mindy, Fox Tuesday night has become the Frat House of the television landscape.

What I’ll call, for these purposes, “The Good Bro,” is an archetype that is related to, maybe even evolved from, the man-child. (It should be understood that Dads, a topic we’ve avoided like the plague, is Fox’s repository of “Bad Bros” — a kind of release valve that allows all the virtuous bro-ing down that occurs throughout the rest of the schedule.) Where the man-child is insecure in his masculinity, the good bro is secure; where the man-child is stunted in his development, the good bro is confidently developed; where the man-child is immature to the point of disability, the good bro is functional, even successful; and where the man-child is searching, the good bro operates based on a strict ethical code. What they both share, however, is the sincerity of which Lili speaks. The good bro, as opposed to the sleaze, holds nothing back. Masculine, friendly, sensitive to women, only rhetorically misogynist, possessed of a Str8 Bro-style obsession with homosexual desire, and, above all, committed to a kind of unfiltered truth-telling, the Good Bro is now the dominant feature of Fox’s Tuesday night.

Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg’s character on Brooklyn Nine-Nine) is the very model of a modern good bro. He’s almost psychotically confident, obsessed with asserting his masculinity by winning a date with a female detective, but even more obsessed with winning the best friendship of his tough-as-nails gay captain, played by Andre Braugher. Peralta is presented as a typical loose cannon, but, rather than be distracted by liquor and women like many sleazier loose cannons past, Peralta’s wildness is manifest in zany, fratty, ultimately inclusive antics. He tazes cantaloupes, he competes in fire extinguisher-propelled office chair races, and he wears a brightly colored Speedo to work as a prank on the captain. He is, in other words, confident enough in his competence to treat his job like a joke and secure enough in his sexuality to play around at its boundaries.

Schmidt is the primary bro on New Girl, but, especially in the light of his recent duplicity, he is emphatically a bad bro. Nick Miller, while disqualified from true good bro-ness, at the very least embraces the aesthetic of the good bro. And, to this extent, he provides a counter-weight to Schmidt’s sleaze. He’s a slob and a drinker, a Chicago Bears fan and a hacky-sacker. Until last week, he’s been emotionally unavailable in a particularly gendered way, and, earlier in the series, he fell in deep, platonic love with Jess’s boyfriend Fancyman. Again, even though Nick is atypical, he embodies the key good bro qualities of faithfulness, dudeliness, and a healthily flexible sexual imagination.

The Mindy Project is the third part of this Bro-ly Trinity, and it features one of the clearest conversations about the State of the American Bro yet going. In fact, in a recent episode, this conversation becomes explicit. Danny (Chris Messina) is threatened by the appearance of a new doctor, the charming, ex-frat boy Peter Prentiss (Adam Pally). Danny complains to Jeremy that Prentiss, “calls everyone boss or chief or little buddy,” to which Jeremy replies that he had assumed the two would get along, being both of them “American dudes.” Jeremy has rightly picked up the fact that Prentiss is the living ideal of fraternal intimacy. Danny then articulates what he believes to be a fundamental difference between the two men: “We’re nothing like each other, ok? He wears cargo shorts, I wear slacks. He surfs, I fear the ocean out of respect.” Danny identifies with a kind of stoic, conservative, working-class masculinity whereas Prentiss is a classic frat guy: scrubbily privileged and entitled. But, as their actions eventually reveal, the differences between Danny and Prentiss are really just internecine squabbles between Good Bros. As macho OB/GYNs, they are representatives of fraternity and maternity in equal measure, and, when Mindy needs them, they’ll be there to help.

Prentiss is the Good Bro par excellence. He speaks in the language of the frat (“I’ve been on the other side of this a lot — dumping chicks.”; “I would chop you down on sight.”) but he also demonstrates an almost preternatural sensitivity with the practice’s patients. He talks constantly about the “chicks” he’s dating, but he also keeps trying to touch Danny’s “junk.” His swaggering masculinity is not an act, but it occupies equal real estate with his ethical and professional goodness. Nowhere is this more clearly materialized than when he helps empower Mindy to get over her breakup, wiping her tears away with a g-string. Earlier in the episode, he tells a pregnant patient, “I’m kidding, but I’m also being really serious.” It’s the fundamental contradiction of the Good Bro. His lightness co-exists with, even enables, his substance.

But all of this is less about a particular assertion of masculinity than it is about a likability gap. New Girl and Mindy Project were initially faulted for having protagonists who were, respectively, too twee and too mean. In order to counteract this, the Good Bro emerged on these shows because if the Good Bro is anything, he’s likable. His contradictions exist because he’s a character pitched to what networks perceive to be the priorities of both male and female viewers simultaneously. The Good Bro is a good-time party guy, masculine/feminine subject, a figure viewers can have in common. He’s also the lynch-pin of the kind of hang-out style show to which all three series aspire (needless to say, Joey Tribiani is as Good a Bro as it is possible to be). He’s invited you into his fraternity. It only seems strange because it used to be a sorority.

On SIGHT,

Phil.

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