Monday, June 16, 2014

True Detective: This could get pretty silly, but somehow it didn't seem to matter.

I see him always in a lonely street, in lonely rooms, puzzled but never quite defeated. — Raymond Chandler

Yeah! I finally saw True Detective after spending months having to stick my fingers in my ears and sing every time other people brought it up. I had to wait until it came out on iTunes. I loved it. Some other people who brought it up have taste I admire, including a guy I'll call "a cousin of mine" as that has an appropriately back in the Bayou sound about it, especially as we aren't actually cousins but both love Bourbon so you might say we have a spiritual relationship.

I knew I was going to like it as soon as I saw that Emily Nussbaum did not. Nothing against Nussbaum, I rather like some of her stuff. She's anti-male to be sure, but so is everybody these days and it's too much to expect a writer like Nussbaum to rise above her culture. And that is why I knew I'd like it—because it runs against the culture. Perhaps you'd like to be able to like it too? Let me show you how.

The key to liking this series is in, as it is in most things in life, expectations management. Luckily art comes equipped with a built-in expectations management tool called genre. Once you know what the genre is, you know what to expect. 

Here is the genre of True Detective as explained by its greatest masters:
They were apt to be hard men, and what they did, whether they were called police officers, private detectives or newspaper men, was hard, dangerous work. It was work they could always get. There was always plenty of it lying around. There still is. Undoubtedly the stories about them had a fantastic element. Such things happened, but not so rapidly, not to so closeknit a group of people, nor within so narrow frame of logic. This was inevitable because the demand was for constant action; if you stopped to think you were lost. When in doubt have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand. This could get pretty silly, but somehow it didn't seem to matter. A writer who is afraid to overreach himself is as useless as a general who is afraid to be wrong.
Raymond Chandler

Undoubtedly the stories about them had a fantastic element

Do you remember all the repressed memory bullshit from the 1980s? I have this memory that one of many false accusations involved a day care centre where the kids and the false experts who interrogated them constructed fantastic tales about sex abuse combined with satanism. I'm scared actually Google that out of fear that 14 government agencies will instantly open files on me. I'm pretty sure it happened though. Not the crimes, they were invented, but the accusations (and the lives ruined by these false accusations).

But the point you have to grasp is that crimes themselves are not meant to be realistic. They made this shit up. Here's the clue you need: True Detective was a magazine that specialized in taking real stories and retelling them in a lurid fashion such that they ended up resembling urban mythology. The magazine went out of business in 1995! Guess what year the action for the TV show begins? Really. Think that is significant? If you do, that makes you smarter than Emily Nussbaum.

This is a fantastic story. When you are watching a fantastic story, you aren't troubled by questions such as: "Can you really get super powers by being bit by a radioactive spider?" "Could a nuclear explosion really free a giant monster capable of destroying Tokyo?" or "I get that someone might suddenly burst into song like that but where did the orchestral accompanying her come from?"

Santa Monica

Even today, municipal politics are apt to be corrupt but they are nothing like they once were. Exactly how corrupt city governments used to be is an open question, and I believe contemporary historians have deflated most of the legends somewhat. That said, there were cities where racketeers controlled politics, unions, illegal drugs, booze, prostitution and gambling. Montreal was like, Havana was like that, Chicago is still like that. With the exception of Chicago, that era is over now.

The realities of these cities quickly got swept aside by hard-boiled writers in favour of a romantic landscape in which five kinds of people operated:

  • Immensely corrupt political leaders
  • Organized crime bosses
  • Respectable people who knew things were bad but resisted rocking the boat to protect their interests
  • Ugly monsters who had nasty habits ranging from ice picking people in the base of the skull to molesting children who got away with it because of the combined apathy of the above three groups.  
  • Deeply flawed but romantic male detectives who couldn't let go of a case until some sort of justice was achieved.

For Raymond Chandler, the corrupt city was Santa Monica, which he called Bay City (which is a little like "disguising" New York City by calling it "the big apple"; Chandler didn't intend to fool anybody). For the first True Detective, the jurisdiction is Louisiana. The really obvious place to have set the story would have been New Orleans but that would have meant facing certain inescapable facts about actual corrupt Louisiana politics that no one in the entertainment business wants to countenance, so it got moved out into the bayous.

If you go looking for this Louisiana, you aren't going to find it. To make my point, let me point out another fantastic element of the story that, so far as I have been able to ascertain, didn't bother any of the critics. I know serious intellectuals who write for the New Yorker aren't long on religious literacy but how many Evangelical schools have you seen called "Queen of Angels"? The Queen of the Angels is Mary, as in The Blessed Virgin Mary, the Queen of the Rosary, the woman who has nine million Catholic schools named after her and very few Evangelical ones.

For purposes of fiction this doesn't matter. This is a fantastic world and with fantasy comes certain moral allowances that would be repugnant in real life. It seems perfectly reasonable that the classic western should end with two guys having a gun duel. If you saw that in real life you'd be screaming for someone to stop it. This is part of the contract that writers in the genre makes with their audience.

Phillip Marlowe teams up with Moose Malloy

This is male fiction and male fiction trades in misfits who are called, for purposes of romanticizing them, loners. Men spend a lot of time conforming and resenting that. When we think of rebelling, we think about embracing certain kinds of misfits. Every guy imagines being the one who was fired for insubordination like Phillip Marlowe was as opposed to being the guy who went along to get along, which is what we actually are.

Keep that in mind as you see our two protagonists characters develop. One of them is going to be the Marlowe guy, a man with a ridiculously narrow life focus and a ridiculously narrow set of life skills to go with that. Further, those skills will be developed to a ridiculous degree, in real life, a man who grew up alone in Alaska with nothing to do but look at the stars would be a little slow. Because the genre is what it is, we accept that he has a brain that works on certain sorts of problems the way Wyatt Earp's brain and body worked on pulling a gun.

This man, as indicated by the quote at the top, is always lonely, always single. Despite being a loner and rather odd, he is highly attractive to women; again, this is not the way things work out for odd loners in real life.

The other is going to be the Moose Malloy type who is capable of being a good man only he is just too damned unfocused to get around to it so he maybe drinks, maybe screws around, maybe goofs of, maybe does all the above while time passes him by. He does, however, have a strong attachment to one woman whom he inevitably loses.

And they team up temporarily. It has to be temporarily because that's what male friendships are like; they are temporary bonds formed as men work through the big transitions of their lives.

A closeknit group of hard men within a narrow frame of logic

Chandler is right: the thing that makes all true fiction fantastic is that too many things have to happen in a time frame that is too tight and to a group that is too small. It's extremely unlikely that a single robbery, rape, murder or jewel heist  is going to end up tying together corrupt politicians, crime bosses, religious leaders, respectable middle class people along with unsolved cases that went unsolved because no one ever cared but that is pretty much what always happens to the Continental OP, Phillip Marlowe and, in True Detective, Rust and Marty.

And then there is sex. If you have a man and a woman meet professionally, then you have to have a sexual thing between them according to the rules of the genre. It can be resolved by them having sex, not having sex, getting very close and either having or deciding it would be better not but, either way, then regretting it for the rest of their lives. These things, as Chandler says, really do happen sometimes in real life; the problem with true fiction is that they have to happen every time.

The second Phillip Marlowe meets the Sternwood sisters, you know he has to have some sort of sexual conflict with both of them. But the encounter, whether it is actual sex or something else, will not and cannot be satisfactory. The genre also demands that.

As a consequence, as soon as some sort of emotional connection begins to develop between Rust (as played by Matthew McConaughey meets his partner's wife Maggie, as played by Michelle Monaghan, we expect one of the above-listed scenarios. There doesn't to be an emotional connection. They could never meet. They could meet and hate each other. But if they meet and there is some sort of emotional connection then there has to be a sexual thing between them. The genre demands it.

They were apt to be hard men

Yes, it's a story about men and relationships between men. I'm not sure why that is such an obstacle for Emily Nussbaum. I can see it not having any appeal for her. I rarely watch professional lacrosse myself. That said, I don't feel the need to morally condemn professional lacrosse the way Emily needs to tear into True Detective. Especially when I see the kind of thing she does like:
“The Fall” (which is available on Netflix) has even more conventional nudity than “True Detective.” It, too, tells a story about a team of detectives hunting for a rapist-murderer obsessed with symbolism. It features pervy stalker shots, along with sick-making imagery of female corpses, in bondage, photographed as keepsakes. Some critics called the show “misogynistic torture porn”: by turning viewers on, they point out, it takes a rapist’s-eye view. But this imagery has a sharp purpose. The show reveals the murderer immediately, forcing us to see the world through his eyes. Then, episode by episode, it tears that identification apart. Just like Rust Cohle, “The Fall”’s rapist has an elaborate pseudo-intellectual lingo, full of Nietzsche quotes and talk of primal impulses. But an icy female cop, played by Gillian Anderson, sees through him—and, in the finale, she shreds his pretensions with one smart speech.
Of course that would be completely different because ... well, because it ends with a woman cutting down the man. Go ahead. Just try to imagine Emily Nussbaum praising a movie with the same plot line only with the male and female characters reversed. More importantly, though, try to imagine anyone, male or female, enjoying a movie like that.

The genre is about men just as Thelma and Louise is about women. Remember all those good men in that movie? Remember the man who shreds Louise's pretensions in one smart speech? Me neither for the simple reason that they belong in another movie. Nussbaum is doing something like the hockey fan who hates lacrosse because the players use those sticks with baskets to pass a ball instead of hockey sticks and puck.

(By the way, I love the hypocrisy of Nussbaum saying, "Some critics called the show “misogynistic torture porn”: by turning viewers on, they point out, it takes a rapist’s-eye view. But this imagery has a sharp purpose. The show reveals the murderer immediately, forcing us to see the world through his eyes." That must explain why TV shows and movies that do this are so incredibly popular with women! The imagery has a sharp purpose alright and attaching a genital plethysmograph would only tell us something we already know.)

The demand was for constant action

This point is obvious enough that I don't have to explain most of it but I should say something about talking. Homer's greatest innovation was to treat speech as action. That is to say, what matters is not what a person says but how he says it. This is hugely different from most much modern fiction where what is said is the most important thing as this tells us what sort of character they are. If one of Jeffrey Eugenides characters starts to talk, you can be sure that they will spill out the content of their psyche. Those contents may come out as a tumbled mess because their psyche is a tumbled mess but it still is the contents of their brain.

In noir, a character talks as a kind of action. They are always, always, always performing a role. And the point of the role is to get the other person to respond. If you're a woman, you might not like this much. Take, for example, the scene where Maggie confronts Marty about his long absences from the home and Marty goes through this soliloquy about being like the Coyote who has run off the cliff and he thinks he'll be fine so long as he doesn't look down and Maggie responds by giving him sex.  You might think he is describing a man barely in control of himself but that is really the role he is playing. Likewise, when Rust talks about the mind being like "a locked room", you might thing he is trying to tell us how understand the human psyche but, again, he is just setting forth the rules that govern his role.

(Within two episodes, I found myself copying Rust's way of phrasing sentences.)

To think otherwise is to imagine you are making a deep and important point when you observe that court jesters state blunt truths but protect themselves by making everything seem a joke. That's not a description of the psychology of the jester but of his role. A jester who didn't do that would cease to be a jester.


Transgressive behaviour is boring

This is especially true of criminals. They are slow, irrational and damaged people who act the way you'd expect such people to act. Their stories don't have arc. They tend to be, man arrested for sexual indecency gets out of jail and is free for two months before he is arrested for indecency again. It takes two months because most acts of indecency go unreported; he was probably back at it within two days. Take your crime: break and enter, prostitution, use and sale of illegal drugs, criminals fall right back into the old patterns. It's not what they want to do but it's the only thing they know how to do.

To make the story interesting, you need interesting non-criminal characters to mix up with them. And here we return to the top because the interesting character is going to be a man who is a misfit. Misfits aren't transgressive. They don't want to tear the system down; they just want to find a place a little outside of it for themselves.

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