My Kid is an Honor Roll Student, or, Midnight Special

midnightspecial

I did find him!

Midnight Special, the latest film from writer/director Jeff Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter) left me contemplating my favorite quote from the already legendary first season of True Detective, in which Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle contemplates aloud “The hubris it must take to yank a soul out of non-existence into this meat, and to force a life into this thresher.”

Midnight Special deals in a similar sentiment, exploring the disparity between the limitless, untarnished potential of a child and the quarantined, defined, segregated world they’re birthed into. The movie follows Roy (Michael Shannon) and Lucas (Joel Egderton) as they traverse the American southeast with Roy’s son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) whose supernatural gifts have them on the run from a cult, the FBI, the NSA and your garden variety law enforcement.

It’s small scale science fiction, less spaceships and lasers than boarded-up windows and police scanners, but it deals with sprawling, massive themes.

How massive? Alton is the personification of all of human potential. He’s the living embodiment of the unending possibility each human life contains before it’s brought into the world and boxed in by qualifications and categories. Roy isn’t just whisking his son away from the military and the intelligence community and religious institutions, he’s whisking him away from being tagged and numbered and sent off on an assembly line of a life. He’s prolonging as best he can the amount of time between the limitless possibilities every parent hopes their child will have and the railroad tracks the world can seem so intent on settling us onto.

With Midnight Special, Jeff Nichols offers a feature film length contemplation of the selfishness and selflessness of having a kid. There are tense and thrilling moments, excellent acting and a fantastic score that will really open up your subwoofer, but underneath all of that there is a difficult conversation about what it means to bring a life into the world we live in. It’s a complicated, many-faceted conversation to have in your own head, much less on the big screen, but Midnight Special grapples with the philosophy and the contradictions of it all admirably, all under the guise of a tense fugitive thriller.

The Man, or, True Detective Season Two

Just a couple of happy campers.

Just a couple of happy campers.

True Detective’s second season was built on the Shakespearian adage “all the world’s a stage.” Its four protagonists were assigned a part to play long before we the audience ever met them, a role that they can never embody, an impossible ideal of masculinity that dares to be aspired to.

The Man.

True Detective Season Two holds up the myth of masculinity that so often drives the behavior of the modern man and in no uncertain terms shouts “this is not working.”

It’s hardly clearer than when Colin Farrell’s Ray Velcoro visits his father. Troubled over his difficult relationship with his own son, Ray sits beside his old man, who stews in regret and vice, before the televised black and white alter of Kirk Douglas hocking the masculine Hollywood nonsense that has two generations contorted into impossible poses as they desperately try to fit into a fictional mold they can never match.

Ray’s life becomes defined by a moment in which he pursues vengeance that isn’t his to have, but no person, no culture, no natural law would dare deny him. He commits a sin that knocks his entire existence off course because that is the character he is meant to play. He does what his father would have done, what a Kirk Douglas character would have done, what he is instilling in his son should be done. He does what The Man would do and his entire existence is derailed for it.

Everybody Loves Raymond

Everybody Loves Raymond

Yet despite seeping through generation after broken generation The Man somehow remains undeniable. Paul Woodrugh doggedly clings to the ideal at the expense of his own personal happiness and mental health. He possesses no shortage of evidence that The Man is not a character he can ever be happy portraying and yet he chases the myth like a greyhound after a lure, perpetually behind, sprinting just to keep up. It’s telling that Woodrugh seems most at ease in the moments he is least burdened by having to act his societal part: guns blazing, fighting for his life. Staying alive while outnumbered and outgunned proves a far more possible task for Woodrugh than becoming The Man he thinks he’s supposed to be.

Frank Semyon chases a similar lure, some nebulous, undefined state of achievement that’s only concrete characteristic seems to be that it is consistently beyond his current circumstances. Time and time again Frank has the opportunity to leave well enough alone and settle into a comfortable role, but settling is not what The Man does. The Man does not lie down, he presses on, The Man ascends via whatever cobbled-together means he can concoct.

Womanhood provides Ani Bezzerides no sanctuary from the toxicity of The Man. Her life is spent playing the character that could have saved her from a bleak childhood trauma. She lives every moment as if the next could see her brought back in time to relive the pivotal moment of her girlhood because what happened to her as a child would never have happened to The Man.

One way or another all four characters learn that the role they’re aspiring to does not work. The Man is not a person. The Man is not a human being. The Man is a fiction, a two-dimensional character unattainable beyond the eye of a camera. The Man doesn’t live a complete life. The Man is not fulfilled. The Man is not secure. The Man is make-believe.

The waning moments of True Detective’s season finale are quiet and hopeful. The Man has taken its toll, but there’s an understanding arrived upon. An understanding that The Man is an old way, a fading religion from a dying age, and in the season’s final moments there is the spark of potential for something new.

Though the imminent protagonists of True Detective’s presumed third season likely won’t get the memo.

 

Food For Thought, or, Spoilers: The More You Know

Holy crap! Game of Thrones am I right?

That’s all I have to say. You know what I’m talking about. Maybe not specifically, but if you watch Game of Thrones then the above statement clicked with you and we can share the zeitgeist’s collective “holy crap” as peers. The connection has effectively been made, like a blatantly obvious handshake. But more importantly, if you don’t watch Game of Thrones, or you aren’t up to date yet, the above statement didn’t ruin anything for you, aside from the fact that a thing happened.

No spoilers.

Remember that time he was driving his truck on an icy road trying to get home in time for Christmas and then he got in an accident but came back as a snow man to look over his wife and son? Spoilers.

Remember that time Jon Snow was driving his truck on an icy road trying to get home in time for Christmas and then he got in an accident and died but came back as a snow man to look over his wife and son? Spoilers.

How easy it was to walk that fine line between sharing in the excitement of a crazy twist and not being a dick! And yet, on a healthy portion of Monday mornings after HBO’s hit family dramedy airs, my various social media feeds inevitably include remarks from people I met once at a party in college who’ve had massive plot points ruined for them by someone else’s status or tweet.

While I personally have never encountered spoilers on my own social media pages, we can’t all surround ourselves with the rag tag band of heroes that comprise the group of people I’ve conned into being my friends. (I’m the Chandler).

So it’s time we had a talk, gang.

Look, I get it. When I stumble across something awesome I want to scream it from on high like a valiant herald of the shape of things to come. Do you have any idea how many people had to hear me repeatedly exclaim “dude, True Detective” with both hands in the air? I bet you don’t. It was that many.

Remember that time these to rascals were on again off again for like eleven freaking years in that stupid bar? SPOILERS!

Remember that time Cole thought he and Woody were on a break and then he slept with someone else? SPOILERS!

I’m all for spreading the good word and turning people on to cool things so that we can all enjoy them. Expressing something’s quality is an offering. But delineating something’s specific plot points potentially robs someone of the experience of stumbling into it on their own.

Why do we watch stories unfold if not to experience, in some small way, that which we can never experience in real life? Spoilers deprive viewers of those experiences and by and large replace any organic emotion a scene might evoke with a bitter, frothing rage.

Remember the first season of Game of Thrones? Remember your reaction? Pretty crazy right? I couldn’t tell you, because I had it spoiled for me when I was halfway through the book.

Is specifically reiterating an exciting plot point and potentially ruining it for the folks who are dumb enough to follow you really worth the dozen likes you probably won’t get?

I’ve heard there are folks out there who enjoy spoilers. More power to you. But you can take a break from breeding hogs that eat live human beings in your barn maze and Google them for yourselves.

Remember that time Hurley turned out to be a goddamn witch? SPOILERZ!!!

Remember that time Hurley turned out to be a goddamn witch? SPOILERZ!!!

Luckily there’s already a device that exists to solve the tug of war between cultural discourse and spoilers.

Spoiler alert.

Two words. That’s all it takes to be free of blame, gang.

So next Sunday evening, take a second to think before you send off that all caps tweet about who Don Draper incested with at the Governor’s wedding.

End P.S.A.

Epilogue

This one time I intentionally spoiled M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village in my AIM buddy profile. It was hilarious. Alternatively, this other time someone spoiled the Season 6 premiere of 24 for me and I hooked them to a car battery and dragged them through the streets in reverse. Not as funny. But justice nonetheless.

 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:

1. Should there be an agreed upon amount of time after which it should be considered safe to talk about specific plot points from spoiler-heavy television shows?

2. Do you care about spoilers, or can you enjoy something just as much knowing what is going to happen in advance like a sociopath?

3. If you find an old gypsy woman who has fallen victim to a hit-and-run and she tells you with her last breath when and how you’re going to die in excruciating detail is that a spoiler? Asking for a friend.

 

 

Step Aside Nerds, or, True Detective is the Future

Guess what? No spoilers ahead! How do you like them apples? Feel free to have seen absolutely none of True Detective and have absolutely nothing about True Detective spoiled for you. Except the protagonists’ names. Sorry.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the films and shows that first really clicked with me as a young(er) adult. The movies I watched in high school that opened my mind to just how much a movie could achieve. I suspect everyone has a list of entertainment that meets that criteria, and I suspect a lot of our lists have a lot of the same things on them. Entertainment that raises the bar for entertainment, or morphs it entirely. Things that capture the zeitgeist in such a way as to constantly appear on a towering, sometimes pretentious, pedestal above the uninitiated.

When I was in high school many of my peers put the works of Quentin Tarantino and Darren Aronofsky on that pedestal. When I was in college it seemed perpetually occupied by The Wire. For me that first work that blew the lid off of what I knew movies to be was No Country for Old Men.

There isn’t a right answer, to be certain, but there are definitely movies and shows that seem to hold that place for people more than others, and I suspect there is a new member of that pantheon.

LOGO ATTACK

LOGO ATTACK

If I were in high school today I suspect the hushed discussions during geometry class would be exclusively about True Detective.

The eight-part HBO mini-series, which now seems poised to be the first season in an anthology series that changes stories and characters year to year, ended last night after stirring up no small amount of discussion and speculation for the past two months. And rightfully so.

True Detective perpetually presented new ideas or reframed old ones. It’s very much a study of tradition cinematic masculinity, yet it tilts the concept just enough to the left to allow for an honest examination of that masculinity’s associated tropes and pitfalls. Similarly it’s very much a cop drama and yet its ambitious storytelling sensibilities differentiate it entirely from the likes of Law & Order and other traditional procedurals.

For all the familiar ground it treads in terms of detectives and investigation the nuance in True Detective is unlike anything else. Whether it’s a gaze into space, a tracking shot or mumbled existentialism the show never remained complaisant in its titular genre.

Just a couple of bros, broing out bro style.

Just a couple of bros, broing out bro style.

And why would it have?

True Detective was set up as a mini-series. Eight episodes. In and out. A story to tell from beginning to end within a predetermined span of time. It could pace itself accordingly, dulling out questions and answers at its own pace rather than having to worry about retaining momentum for an inestimable number of future episodes in an unknown number of future seasons.

Part of what makes True Detective so fantastic is that it’s self-contained.

Season one of True Detective is over in every sense of the word. The characters are done. The story is done. It was all extremely finite and all the more precious for it.

Here’s hoping the entertainment industry takes notice.

Are you excited for Captain America: The Winter Soldier? Did you see the first Captain America? What about the seven other films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Did you read any of the graphic novels? Do you keep up with the comic?

What about The Walking Dead? Do you keep up with that comic? Are you caught up on Season Four? What about All-Out War? Have you played the video game yet? Are you read for the spin-off?

True Detective is eight hour-long episodes of television.

That’s it.

Two dreamboats coming up.

Two dreamboats coming up.

Sure it was influenced by various texts you could check out for your own curiosity, but when you have watched the first eight episodes of True Detective, you have watched True Detective. There are no tie-ins, there is no source material, there is just a single, stand-alone story about Rust Cohle and Marty Hart, two characters we’ve never seen before and will never see again.

True Detective is the antithesis of geek-culture’s mythology-heavy stronghold on entertainment. And I love it for that.

If True Detective is the piece of fiction that heightens my kids perception of what film and art are capable of I’ll be thrilled for them. And appalled that my kids are watching such wildly inappropriate television.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:

Is there a television show or movie that changed the way you view entertainment?

Is it the 1999 romp Deep Blue Sea?

Why not?