The Witcher and Star Wars IX; tempora cum causis (10)

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With the release on the same day (Dec. 20th 2019) of both the Netflix adaptation of The Witcher and the final installation of the new Star Wars trilogy, The Rise of Skywalker, this week we got an object lesson on how cultural criticism works on a mass scale. Before we dive in to either of these, I want again to invoke Jia Tolentino’s analysis of social media as a commercially driven organ, designed to privilege negative or otherwise emotionally provocative content. In Trick Mirror, Tolentino writes that over time, personal lives transforming into public assets via social media meant that “social incentives — to be liked, to be seen — were becoming economic ones” (2019: 6). She goes on: “Twitter, for all its discursive promise, was where everyone tweeted complaints at airlines and bitched about articles that had been commissioned to make people bitch” (2019: 7-8). Looking at the internet as an exercise of performativity (one that extends and magnifies the natural human performativity of the offline world), Tolentino writes that “the internet is defined by a built-in performance incentive” (2019: 8). In How to Do Nothing, Jenny Odell (2019: 18) discusses social media too, drawing in the remarks of Franco Berardi: 

“Berardi, contrasting modern-day Italy with the political agitations of the 1970s, says the regime he inhabits ‘is not founded on the repression of dissent; nor does it rest on the enforcement of silence. On the contrary, it relies on the proliferation of chatter, the irrelevance of opinion and discourse, and on making thought, dissent, and critique banal and ridiculous.’ Instances of censorship, he says, ‘are rather marginal when compared to what is essentially an immense informational overload and an actual siege of attention, combined with the occupation of the sources of information by the head of the company.’ [Berardi 2011: 35] It is this financially incentivized proliferation of chatter, and the utter speed at which waves of hysteria now happen online, that has so deeply horrified me and offended my senses and cognition as a human who dwells in human, bodily time.”

The commercial incentive of online interaction is what particularly disturbs Odell; the communities and networks of social media are one thing, the design of such platforms to fulfill a capitalist purpose is another. Odell continues (2019: 60):

“Our aimless and desperate expressions of these platforms don’t do much for us, but they are hugely lucrative for advertisers and social media companies, since what drives the machine is not the content of information but the rate of engagement. Meanwhile, media companies continue churning out deliberately incendiary takes, and we’re so quicky outraged by their headlines that we can’t even consider the option of not reading and sharing them.”

All of this has a bearing on what happened this week. When Netflix dropped The Witcher last Friday, it was met with some noteworthy and negative reviews. Darren Franich and Kristen Baldwin’s “Netflix’s The Witcher is nakedly terrible: Review” (Entertainment Weekly) gave the series an F grade, with a 0/100 on Metacritic. These reviewers immediately, and justifiably, came under fire themselves given that they admitted that they did not watch the series in its entirety. Reponse to The Witcher has been divided: critics hate it, the public loves it. So is The Witcher any good? One of the barriers here is the general distaste for “genre” pieces. Some might avoid science fiction, fantasy, or romance just because it is labled so. Ursula K. Le Guin took on this problem in her essay, “Genre: a word only a Frenchman could love” (reprinted in Words are My Matter, 2019: 10):

“So we have accepted a hierarchy of fictional types, with ‘literary fiction,’ not defined, but consisting almost exclusively of realism, at the top. All other kinds of fiction, the ‘genres,’ are either listed in rapidly descending order of inferiority or simply tossed into a garbage heap at the bottom. This judgemental system, like all arbitrary hierarchies, promotes ignorance and arrogance. It has seriously deranged the teaching and criticism of fiction for decades, by short-circuiting useful critical description, comparison, and assessment. It condones imbecilities on the order of ‘If it’s science fiction it can’t be good, if it’s good it can’t be science fiction.'” 

In the preface to her (critically acclaimedThe Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin had already drawn attention to the fact that science fiction, like any literature, is about its present, not the future (1969/1999: xvi):

“All fiction is metaphor. Science fiction is metaphor. What sets it apart from older forms of fiction seems to be its use of new metaphors, drawn from certain great dominants of our contemporary life — science, all the sciences, and technology, and the relativistic and the historical outlook, among them. Space travel is one of those metaphors; so is an alternative society, an alternative biology; the future is another. The future, in fiction, is a metaphor.”

The Witcher is not actually “about” magic and monsters; it’s about the relationship between storytelling and reality (Jaskier’s song vs. Geralt’s action), about the pain of isolation (Yennefer), about trying to live your life despite tempestuous circumstances (Geralt); it’s about assembling strange families, when biological ones fail (Geralt, Yennefer, Ciri). Assigning an F to The Witcher because it successfully engages with its own genre, one which you, the reviewer, do not know or care enough about to situate the object of your critique within, removes the rich layers of cultural entanglement which may make such a show worthwhile to a viewer like me. Le Guin continues (2019: 10): “If you don’t know what kind of book you’re reading and it’s not the kind you’re used to, you probably need to learn how to read it. You need to learn the genre.”

I’m not coming at this from a neutral perspective, since I voraciously played and replayed, and loved Witcher 3. But is Netflix’s The Witcher “objectively bad”? No, it’s not. It has haunting performances from Anya Chalotra (Yennefer) and Henry Cavill (Geralt) is perfection. The fight scenes are incredible. And it’s beautiful to look at. Yes, they say “destiny” too many times. But, look, it’s a romp!

On to Star Wars, then. Since we kept up our tradition of seeing the newest Star Wars on Christmas eve, I was aware of an enormous amount of critical disappointment and fan anger regarding the latest installment before I saw the film itself. You know what? It was fine. Yes, it had a very fast pace, and it wasn’t seamless with the trilogy’s own self-mythologizing. The Star Wars universe is full of holes because of the method of its composition; to some extent the writing, and overwriting (if you think that’s what J.J. is doing) resembles the process of story development in the oral tradition of the Greek epic canon, and in its reception. Consider Odysseus in the Iliad vs. Odysseus in the Odyssey vs. Odysseus in Sophocles’ Ajax. Indeed, the empty spaces projected by Star Wars are part of its charm: it’s a perfect landscape for imaginative rethinking, whether in the form of fan fiction, fan art, or roleplaying games like Edge of The Empire. That Star Wars captures the modern imagination so strongly is somewhat ironically reflected in the strength of the vitriol against it (and in the fan art. Peruse #reylo only if you dare).

All of this might be fine if it really were so simple. The emotional economy of the internet has a role to play here, but in this case we end up in a different place than we did with The Witcher. Anthony Breznican of Vanity Fair recorded J.J. Abrams’ public response to the backlash against TROS :

“After a screening at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on Friday, I [=Breznican] asked Abrams what he would say to those who are unhappy. Are they not getting something? Is there a problem in the fandom? ‘No, I would say that they’re right,’ he answered quickly. ‘The people who love it more than anything are also right.’ The director had just returned from a global tour with the film, where he also fielded questions about that mixed reaction. ‘I was asked just seven hours ago in another country, ‘So how do you go about pleasing everyone?’ I was like’ What…?’ Not to say that that’s what anyone should try to do anyway, but how would one go about it? Especially with Star Wars.’ With a series like this, spanning more than four decades, nearly a dozen films, several TV shows, and countless novels, comics, and video games, the fanbase is so far-reaching that discord may be inevitable. ‘We knew starting this that any decision we made — a design decision, a musical decision, a narrative decision — would please someone and infuriate someone else,’ Abrams said. ‘And they’re all right.'”

You can see how the viewers’ response to Star Wars might be taken as a reflection of contemporary political and cultural life in the US. In the New York Times, Annalee Newitz affirmed Le Guin’s view that cultural artefacts, sci-fi or not, are reflective of the society which produces and consumes them:

Star Wars became a new national mythos; it rebooted America’s revolutionary origin story and liberty-or-death values using the tropes of science fiction. Now, however, the movies no longer strike the same chord. Just as America’s political system is falling into disarray again, our cultural mythmaking machine is faltering as well.”

How and why we critique Star Wars may well reflect some deeper truth about the times we live in, but there’s another dark side to all this (get it?). To some extent the divided criticism is irrevelant, given that TROS earned an enormous amount of money. Indeed, the controversy only helped bring in the dollars (not to mention all the baby yodas hiding under the xmas trees this year). We entrusted our storytelling to a capitalist behemoth, and it’s disconcerting that cultural criticism has no impact on its forward march. Some have suggested that the F rating which Entertainment Weekly gave The Witcher was motivated by a desire to get more eyeballs (and more $) by artificially stirring up controversy. Given that the internet runs on divisiveness and ire (these are our social currencies), that might have been an economically shrewd move. But was it good cultural criticism?

On Adam Driver.

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Earlier this week I went to an independent cinema in Boston in the rain to see a matinee screening of Marriage Story, even though it’s on Netflix and I could have watched it from my couch. I’m glad I did. I really adore going to the movies on my own, especially if there’s hardly anyone else with me in the screening. And giving my attention to only one point of focus feels meditative. As the entire internet knows by now, I am very fond of Adam Driver. I’ve seen an embarrassing number of his films. (But not Silence (2016), because, and I’m sorry to say this, I just can’t deal with Andrew Garfield. Also, I didn’t see Lincoln (2012), in which he has a minor (yet acclaimed) role, because, god, who has the time. And I passed on Midnight Special (2016).) As I was watching Marriage Story, I was thinking about how I would rank my favourite Adam Driver performances, as though ranking an actor’s performances is something I should be doing, or even be thinking about doing. I don’t know if I can really give a numerical value to this, but here’s what I’ve got:

  • Girls (2012-2017). A number of recent profiles have been unable to resist the fact that a character in Girls (“Jessa”, played by Jemima Kirke) once said of Adam Driver’s character (“Adam Sackler”): “He does sort of look like the original man” (New Yorker, Oct. 21st; The Washington Post, Dec. 6th; The Observer, Dec. 8th). Even though Driver was nominated for an Oscar recently (for BlacKkKlansman, 2018), part of me still thinks his earlier work in Girls is the best because he seems at ease in this role, and the outcome of that ease is a performance which is naturalistic and, quite frankly, funny. In general, Driver’s performances can be characterized as tensile: while calm, he always seems on the edge of a fit of rage. This was true long before Kylo Ren. And in Girls it was much more nuanced. For me, Driver is at his best in season 3 of Girls, where his story arc takes him into the theatre; “Adam Sackler” plays Bronterre O’Brien Price in a Broadway production of George Bernard Shaw’s “Major Barbara.” Driver has a theatre company and stage background, which explains why he gravitates towards narratives about the theatre, and thrives (imho) in those roles (see: Marriage Story). Writers like to write about writing, actors like to act about acting. Television allows actors to really inhabit a role: character can be developed more slowly and deliberately; there’s time – and space – for more emotional depth. So even though there are so many great Adam Driver films, I still think of Girls as some of his best work.

    Girls s3 e09
    “Don’t only text me ‘CAR CRASH!'” “Girls” s3 e09
  • Marriage Story (2019). First of all, I reject this film’s thesis, namely that Los Angeles is a vapid cultural wasteland (as pointed out, and also rejected, by Ira Madison III this week on Keep It). I loved LA. Anyway, Marriage Story might well be Adam Driver’s best performance to date. Driver does best, I think, when he can be reactive — his trademark intensity and tensility structures his performance most clearly in the silences. Highlights of this film: the claustrophobia of the legal proceedings, particularly that one scene with Alan Alda; the knife scene (!); and, of course, Driver singing “Being Alive” from Steven Sondheim’s Company (1970). Adam Driver actually sings more often than you might think. In Hungry Hearts (2014), he sings in Italian; he infamously contributes to a song in Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), alongside Justin Timberlake and Oscar Isaac; and he sings as the character “Art the Artist” in two very remarkable episodes of Bob’s Burgers (“The Bleakening,” Parts 1 + 2, in season 8).

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  • Paterson (2016). This quiet, contemplative film is a good watch if you feel like indulging in long, lingering close-ups of Adam Driver’s interesting face. Adam Driver plays a bus driver (get it?) whose name is Paterson and who lives in Paterson, NJ. He’s married to the most beautiful and cutest woman alive, a character played by Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani, who paints everything black and white, and has a precocious dog named Marvin. The film is an imaginative reception of William Carlos Williams’ Paterson, and dramatizes Williams’ conception of a poetic continuum of mind and matter, extending between human consciousness and the mundanities of daily life. Driver plays his role tranquilly, passively. (Again, that trademark tensility works best in profound, deliberate silences.) The interplay between this character’s poesis and his observations of daily life play out through a series of coincidences and minor dramas which break through the cyclical rhythm of his bus route. Some really wonderful and memorable performances by Barry Shabaka Henley, William Jackson Harper, and Chasten Harmon. Honestly, I love this one.

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  • The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (2019). OH BOY, what a hot mess. This Terry Gilliam film had an extremely troubled production, and it shows. The plot is bonkers, a lot of the dialogue is nonsense, the characters are underdeveloped (the female characters especially so), and, as A. O. Scott wrote in the NY Times: “the romanticism has a creepy side.” Plus, it’s long! This film attempts in a rather ham-fisted way to entangle itself with and enact the themes of Cervantes; Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, and its entanglement with William Carlos Williams, is a much more subtle and successful version of this. But if you can make it through this weird (and, overall, basically bad) thing, there is some really lush cinematography and glamour…

    The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (2019).
    Adam Driver as Toby and Olga Kurylenko as Jacqui in “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” (2019)
  • Star Wars (2015, 2017; 2019). It’s interesting. I think Adam Driver plays the role of Kylo Ren well, but Driver’s overexposed association with this character has the effect of flattening out his perceived range. Put another way, those who know Driver principally as the villain in this Disney merch fest will (with some cause) think that all he can do is stomp around and have “hissy fits.” But, listen, I think he does good things with the role. Yes, I audibly gasped when he took off that helmet in The Force Awakens (2015). That “You need a teacher” line is unfortunate. And I don’t know why he had to be wearing such high waisted trousers in The Last Jedi (2017). He has a uniquely hunched physicality that makes his fight choreography very interesting to watch. What troubles me most, I suppose, is the oversimplicity of Kylo Ren’s character. (Honestly, there is no “there” there for much of Star Wars.) While his struggle with “dark” and “light” is asserted by the films, the received image of Kylo Ren in pop culture is of an angry young man who violently rejects the limits placed upon him by his social context. In 2019, we have a lot of angry young men who use violence to reject limits. In the context of his broader filmography, Adam Driver’s portrayal of anger is actually quite nuanced; elsewhere his performances of rage contain a self-awareness which acknowledges and indeed urges that anger must be resolved and exorcised somehow. There’s an interesting scene of rather violent rage between Jemima Kirke (who plays “Jessa”) and Adam Driver in season 5 of Girls: it’s intense, it’s absurd. But its intense absurdity is precisely the frame of critique which is needed when depicting acts of anger — there must be some mechanism of judgement that presents a means of resolution. In Kylo Ren’s case, we’ll find out soon how his anger is resolved. But in the meantime, I wonder, as others have, about presenting young male anger as a piece of merchandise. Star Wars reified Driver’s place in the modern canon, but he’s been busy doing other work in order to insist that there’s more to him than this. 

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  • There are also some nice small roles and appearances. As a dog lover, I find this short W Magazine interview where Adam Driver talks about his dog, Moose, extremely charming; in the background to that video, there is a woman extremely losing her shit, which I also find very sweet. Driver plays a small but noticeable role as a fuckboi in Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha (2012), starring the extremely charismatic Greta Gerwig. The next year, Driver sweetly played “love interest” to the force of nature, Mia Wasikowska, in Tracks (2013); there’s a very sad scene in this film involving dogs, btw, so watch out. While he won his Oscar nomination for BlacKkKlansman (2018), and he does give a very subtle performance in it, I wouldn’t actually say it’s his best (that is often the way with Oscars, isn’t it?). I reject the thesis regarding millennials in Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young (2014), but he plays this odious part fairly well (the stand-out scene to me in that film is when Naomi Watts, high on Ayahuasca, mistakes Adam Driver for Ben Stiller — that moment is so poignant and intimate). 

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  • With the good, there’s the not so good. We’ve already talked about The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (2019). Logan Lucky (2017), which put Adam Driver alongside Daniel Craig (doing an accent even before Knives Out) and Channing Tatum, should have been more of a romp but the whole thing fell flat, and he has a rather underwhelming presence. I wanted to like Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die (2019), but I didn’t — it lacked subtlety and the sharpness of parody; plus, I know that Tilda Swinton basically is a real life alien (spoiler alert) but she has apparently learned nothing about appropriating Asian culture. I watched The Report (2019) a few days ago and I’ve already forgotten about it: not only it is it forgettable, it lacks the high drama of its genre, and, more worryingly, presents certain politicians in the guise of heroes (again: lacking subtlety). I think I did watch This Is Where I Leave You (2014) but, again, I remember nothing about it, and it’s just about what you would expect given the genre — although I think there are broad comedies of this type which have more heart.