Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Being John Malkovich

The strange loop of Westworld

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The maze in Westworld

In last week’s issue of The New Yorker, the critic Emily Nussbaum delivers one of the most useful takes I’ve seen so far on Westworld. She opens with many of the same points that I made after the premiere—that this is really a series about storytelling, and, in particular, about the challenges of mounting an expensive prestige drama on a premium network during the golden age of television. Nussbaum describes her own ambivalence toward the show’s treatment of women and minorities, and she concludes:

This is not to say that the show is feminist in any clear or uncontradictory way—like many series of this school, it often treats male fantasy as a default setting, something that everyone can enjoy. It’s baffling why certain demographics would ever pay to visit Westworld…The American Old West is a logical fantasy only if you’re the cowboy—or if your fantasy is to be exploited or enslaved, a desire left unexplored…So female customers get scattered like raisins into the oatmeal of male action; and, while the cast is visually polyglot, the dialogue is color-blind. The result is a layer of insoluble instability, a puzzle that the viewer has to work out for herself: Is Westworld the blinkered macho fantasy, or is that Westworld? It’s a meta-cliffhanger with its own allure, leaving us only one way to find out: stay tuned for next week’s episode.

I agree with many of her reservations, especially when it comes to race, but I think that she overlooks or omits one important point: conscious or otherwise, it’s a brilliant narrative strategy to make a work of art partially about the process of its own creation, which can add a layer of depth even to its compromises and mistakes. I’ve drawn a comparison already to Mad Men, which was a show about advertising that ended up subliminally criticizing its own tactics—how it drew viewers into complex, often bleak stories using the surface allure of its sets, costumes, and attractive cast. If you want to stick with the Nolan family, half of Chris’s movies can be read as commentaries on themselves, whether it’s his stricken identification with the Joker as the master of ceremonies in The Dark Knight or his analysis of his own tricks in The Prestige. Inception is less about the construction of dreams than it is about making movies, with characters who stand in for the director, the producer, the set designer, and the audience. And perhaps the greatest cinematic example of them all is Vertigo, in which Scotty’s treatment of Madeline is inseparable from the use that Hitchcock makes of Kim Novak, as he did with so many other blonde leading ladies. In each case, we can enjoy the story on its own merits, but it gains added resonance when we think of it as a dramatization of what happened behind the scenes. It’s an approach that is uniquely forgiving of flawed masterpieces, which comment on themselves better than any critic can, until we wonder about the extent to which they’re aware of their own limitations.


And this kind of thing works best when it isn’t too literal. Movies about filmmaking are often disappointing, either because they’re too close to their subject for the allegory to resonate or because the movie within the movie seems clumsy compared to the subtlety of the larger film. It’s why Being John Malkovich is so much more beguiling a statement than the more obvious Adaptation. In television, the most unfortunate recent example is UnREAL. You’d expect that a show that was so smart about the making of a reality series would begin to refer intriguingly to itself, and it did, but not in a good way. Its second season was a disappointment, evidently because of the same factors that beset its fictional show Everlasting: interference from the network, conceptual confusion, tensions between producers on the set. It seemed strange that UnREAL, of all shows, could display such a lack of insight into its own problems, but maybe it isn’t so surprising. A good analogy needs to hold us at arm’s length, both to grant some perspective and to allow for surprising discoveries in the gaps. The ballet company in The Red Shoes and the New York Inquirer in Citizen Kane are surrogates for the movie studio, and both films become even more interesting when you realize how much the lead character is a portrait of the director. Sometimes it’s unclear how much of this is intentional, but this doesn’t hurt. So much of any work of art is out of your control that you need to find an approach that automatically converts your liabilities into assets, and you can start by conceiving a premise that encourages the viewer or reader to play along at home.

Which brings us back to Westworld. In her critique, Nussbaum writes: “Westworld [is] a come-hither drama that introduces itself as a science-fiction thriller about cyborgs who become self-aware, then reveals its true identity as what happens when an HBO drama struggles to do the same.” She implies that this is a bug, but it’s really a feature. Westworld wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if it weren’t being produced with this cast, on this network, and on this scale. We’re supposed to be impressed by the time and money that have gone into the park—they’ve spared no expense, as John Hammond might say—but it isn’t all that different from the resources that go into a big-budget drama like this. In the most recent episode, “Dissonance Theory,” the show invokes the image of the maze, as we might expect from a series by a Nolan brother: get to the center to the labyrinth, it says, and you’ve won. But it’s more like what Douglas R. Hofstadter describes in I Am a Strange Loop:

What I mean by “strange loop” is—here goes a first stab, anyway—not a physical circuit but an abstract loop in which, in the series of stages that constitute the cycling-around, there is a shift from one level of abstraction (or structure) to another, which feels like an upwards movement in a hierarchy, and yet somehow the successive “upward” shifts turn out to give rise to a closed cycle. That is, despite one’s sense of departing ever further from one’s origin, one winds up, to one’s shock, exactly where one had started out.

This neatly describes both the park and the series. And it’s only through such strange loops, as Hofstadter has long argued, that any complex system—whether it’s the human brain, a robot, or a television show—can hope to achieve full consciousness.

Adjusting The Adjustment Bureau

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Last week, my wife and I rented The Adjustment Bureau, a movie that, aside from its clunky title, seems to have a lot going for it: a cast that includes Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, and the great John Slattery; a talented screenwriter, George Nolfi, in his directorial debut; and a nifty premise, courtesy of Philip K. Dick. Apparently there’s a team of supernatural adjusters, taking the form of sinister men in hats, whose job is to make sure that the world proceeds according to “the plan,” as defined by an unseen Chairman. The adjusters make whatever changes are necessary to keep our lives on track, but encounter an unexpected problem when David Norris, a congressman running for Senate, accidentally falls in love with Elise Sellas, a dancer in New York, threatening to put both of their lives—and the future of the world, obviously—off course.

The resulting movie is reasonably enjoyable, but content to coast on the level of light fantasy, and in retrospect, it’s hard not to lament all the wasted potential. The questions the film implies but never answers are endless: Is there another adjustment bureau above the one we’ve seen, and so on ad infinitum? Can adjusters abuse the system to their own ends? Does a second team of adjusters work for Satan? Is it possible for a man like David to cleverly game the system? Why doesn’t David blame the adjustment bureau for the deaths of everyone in his family, which the bureau could have prevented? We’re told that the adjusters have trouble dealing with bodies of water—does this mean that we have more free will on boats, or small islands? Was 9/11 part of the plan? And why does the poster and tagline for The Adjustment Bureau look so much like the one for Michael Clayton?

These may seem like nitpicky questions, but part of the pleasure of speculative fiction comes from the author’s exploration of the implications of his premise. A movie like Being John Malkovich isn’t content just to show us a portal into a famous actor’s brain—it also asks what would happen if Malkovich entered his own portal, or tried to push invaders down into his subconscious. Inception didn’t just give us its characters entering a dream, or a dream within a dream, but five levels of dreams, and cheerfully exploited the paradoxes of time dilation and our notions of dreams vs. reality. And perhaps most relevantly, Minority Report, also a mainstream action movie based on a story by Philip K. Dick, began by telling us the rules of precrime, then showed us how a smart individual could subvert the system, resulting in a surprisingly satisfying mystery. These films began with a great premise and drilled deeper, while The Adjustment Bureau is content to skate along the surface.

Part of the problem is that with the film’s biggest star playing David, the movie naturally gravitates toward the love story, which is much less compelling than the workings of the bureau itself. (If Damon had signed on to play one of the adjusters instead, we might have gotten a much more intriguing film.) As it stands, the central story could have been a great first act for a more ambitious movie, but taken on its own, it’s a little thin, and also thematically unsatisfying. The Adjustment Bureau knows that it needs a hero with a grand destiny that will go unfulfilled if he doesn’t agree to the plan, so it turns David into a future President of the United States. Fine—a movie doesn’t need to be subtle. But in the process, it reduces Elise to a character who is defined entirely by the impact she has on her more important male counterpart’s life. It would have been more interesting, perhaps, to get to the end and discover that Elise, not David, was the one whose life was truly important to the balance of the universe. But that’s more ingenuity, alas, than The Adjustment Bureau seems willing to expend.

Written by nevalalee

September 6, 2011 at 8:54 am

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