Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Process Writing

           Writing reviews is hard. Writing good reviews is harder. This class has been both a thrill and a challenge as I’ve learned how to cover and effectively review a whole plethora of mediums. Out of all the mediums we have covered, I felt most comfortable writing about theater and movies.  I have been deeply involved in theater and musical theater from a very young age and have a solid background in stage production. Because of my experiences and knowledge of this type of performance art, I could write my reviews of shows like Les Miserables, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) [Revised], and Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure from a place of authority.  I knew what I was talking about and could present a legitimate critique to my readers.
I felt similarly about the movies I reviewed, Django Unchained and The Queen of Versailles.  Here at Kalamazoo College I have taken several film and film theory courses that have prepared me to speak intelligently about movies. I have also been exposed to movies my entire life and have developed a pretty clear idea of what kinds of films I consider to be “good” and why.  It was incredibly interesting for me to read the works of former New Yorker film critic, Pauline Kael and learn how she approached film reviewing.  I really appreciate that she sought to talk about movies the way real movie watchers talk about them upon leaving the theater. I think this kind of mentality can be helpful when reviewing mediums across the board. 
Book reviewing proved to be a struggle for me.  I had trouble deciding what elements I should include in my reviews of Afterglow and The Submission and what elements I should omit. Since both books we read had received substantial acclaim, I also found myself being swayed by the opinions of The New York Times or The New Yorker before I’d even finished reading the books. Interestingly enough, I didn’t have the same experience when reviewing Django Unchained, which I knew had been nominated for several Oscars before I viewed it.  I think, in part, this was because I didn’t feel as comfortable reviewing books as I did movies, so I relied more on other people’s opinions. Aside from books, I also had trouble reviewing the Academy Awards ceremony because, again, I wasn’t sure exactly what I should or could focus on.  Also, the fact that the Oscars had a divided audience- both the physical in-house audience as well as the television audience- also tripped me up. I wasn’t sure how to navigate this division and wasn’t even entirely sure that the show did or could accommodate both audiences.  
         In general, I think one of the biggest challenges of this course and of writing reviews as a whole is that I’m not always prepared or confident enough to make a bold stance and run with it. I found this to be particularly true with my final assignment; my critical essay on AMC’s Breaking Bad. I seemed to have competing opinions within my own head and found so much evidence to back up both arguments about the series, that I had trouble deciding what I really believed and why. It’s also scary and unnerving to put myself out there and make a statement, especially because Breaking Bad is a television show that so many people feel passionately about and also because my piece can be read by a larger audience than our (forgiving) journalism class.  
         As I move forward, I want to continue building my confidence as a writer and continue developing my voice. The exposure I received in Arts Journalism to so many different types of reviewing, however, has definitely helped to build that confidence and has helped me see that I can, in fact, maintain a position of authority about a large variety of subjects, even if I’m not necessarily an expert in every field I am reviewing.  This class helped solidify my passion for this type of writing and I am looking forward to doing more of it in the future.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Breaking Bad: A Critical Essay

“This is a story about a man who transforms himself from Mr. Chips into Scarface,” producer Vince Gilligan told Sony Television executives in 2005 when he pitched his idea for the new AMC melodrama, Breaking Bad.
This one-liner turned out to be a clincher, and it remains as poignant a description as any of Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston), the cancer-stricken high school chemistry teacher who, ostensibly to pay for treatment and to support his family, begins to manufacture the most pure, most coveted methamphetamine in all of Albuquerque, NM.

But what unfolds in the five season series—the final part of which will resume this July—is far more complex than one man’s transformation from a protagonist to an antagonist. Breaking Bad reflects the human face of the recent economic downturn and reveals the increasing social class inequality in the U.S.

When the series first aired in 2008, the U.S. economic recession was just reaching its peak. As the year ended, over 2.6 million people were left jobless—the most in six decades, according to CNN—and those who did manage to hold onto jobs were often overqualified or undercompensated for their work. Walter’s bleak financial situation and unfulfilling career resonated with the harsh realities of everyday life of people across the country. 

The only thing more deflated than the U.S. dollar or job market in 2008 was national morale, which was captured by best-selling author Fareed Zakaria in his book The Post American World and later by Thomas Friedman in his bestseller, That Used to be Us. 

The country was reaching what a former editor of The Christian Science Monitor, John Hughes, described as a “tipping point in America’s mood.” Perched precariously on a ledge of uncertainty—an uncertainty that was only heightened by the two very different presidential contenders, John McCain and Barack Obama—Americans were searching for a way out. 

So was Walter White. Throw in malignant lung cancer, a pregnant wife, and a son with cerebral palsy, and suddenly Walt’s decision to reject cancer treatment doesn’t seem so radical. In fact, his choice to devote his remaining time and resources to providing for his family is actually quite understandable.

But somewhere between lying to his wife, Skyler (played by Anna Gunn), outsmarting a Mexican drug kingpin named Tuco (played by Raymond Cruz), and cooking up batches of 99.1 percent pure crystal with his sidekick and former student, Jesse (played by Aaron Paul), Walt’s motives change. Around season three, he stops cooking meth to support his family and continues cooking for himself.

As the show presses on, Walt moves deeper into the Scarface stage. With a swell of self-importance, he lets a young woman overdose after she’s gotten in his way. With a hint of arrogance, he poisons a child to regain Jesse’s loyalty. By the end of season four, having successfully murdered the leader of an international drug cartel, Walt has risen to the top of the methamphetamine food chain. 

Curiously, viewer ratings skyrocketed to an all-time high as Walter breaks to his “baddest” point yet.  Breaking Bad’s fourth season finale drew in a whopping 2.9 million viewers and was ranked the most engaging series on television by Nielsen, a Los Angeles based data analysis company.

Fascination with Walt’s transformation from geeky suburban dad to ruthless drug lord reflects, in part, the increasing inability of Americans to cross social and class boundaries. A plot that reverses the usual social equation of lower class Americans struggling to make it is intriguing. Instead, the storyline in Breaking Bad hinges on a middle class man’s ability to earn street cred with Albuquerque’s working class Latino population. It is far afield from the typical rags to riches story.  

Walt’s relatively comfortable lifestyle—which initially includes a steady job, a home with a pool, and two cars, despite the occasional financial pinch—is thrown into sharp juxtaposition to the lifestyles of the people he encounters on a regular basis when trying to move his product. In order to effectively conduct business, Walter shaves his head, changes his wardrobe, and learns the drug-market lingo, which, more often than not, is one of violence.  

Walter’s commitment to this new line of work means he’ll do what it takes to succeed—even if that means crossing moral or ethical lines. 

When confronted with the dilemma of killing or letting go a threatening thug in the second episode of season 1, Walter scribbles down a panicked ethical calculus: Con: “MURDER IS WRONG.” Pro: “He’ll kill your entire family if you let him go.” It’s not hard to see why Walt strangles Krazy-8 with a bicycle lock just two hours into the show.

In keeping with this new, tougher image, Walt later refuses to accept financial assistance for his chemotherapy bills from well-to-do family friends, despite his inability to pay. Instead, he opts to double his meth output, which simultaneously boosts his entrepreneurial pride and drug dealer status. He has become the number one crystal distributor in the city. Walter White has successfully and unabashedly written his own American Dream story. 

“How much is enough?” Skyler asks her husband midway through season five. She has taken Walt to a storage warehouse to see the stacks of money he has made in the last few months. Skyler isn’t asking for a number, she’s asking, when will it all end? 

It is a question many middle-class Americans, too, have asked repeatedly over the last decade as the economy groans under the weight of a wealth disparity gap between the nation’s rich and poor, which continues to grow more pronounced.

Breaking Bad’s popularity is not only based on the acting—which is stellar—and the compelling storyline of Walt’s transformation, it also reflects the economic conditions in the U.S. today. In a country where the scope of financial inequality has itself become unethical, it is unfair to judge Walt too harshly on grounds of morality.

In Defense of Pauline Kael (Revised)

Pauline Kael rarely saw a movie twice. She disliked American icon Charlie Chaplin, deemed award-winning director Steven Spielberg a waste of potential, and once scoffed that Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music was “the single most repressive influence on artistic freedom in movies.”

Yet The New Yorker’s former chief film critic had unabashed voice, taste, and dedication to her medium and to her readers, which shone through in her work during her 23 years on the magazine’s staff (1968 – 1991). Her love for movies meant she asked a lot from them and she held screenwriters, producers, actors, and viewers alike to high standards. Through unapologetic reviews and a willingness to speak her mind, Kael redefined film criticism of the 20th century and set the bar for the modern-day industry.  

One of Kael’s most distinctive and controversial features in her reviews was her voice.  Snarky and urgent, unrestrained and authoritative, Kael was adept at writing both conversationally and critically about films, similar to the way people really talk about them upon leaving the theater.  She never forgot that her readers were real people and real movie lovers who wanted to know if a film was worth their time and money.

“Star Wars is like getting a box of Cracker Jack which is all prizes,” she wrote in 1977 of the film.  “It’s enjoyable on its own terms, but it’s exhausting, too: like taking a pack of kids to the circus.”  Kael provided a collected voice of reason among the excited screams of fans calling Star Wars the film of the year. 

Her linguistic mannerisms, quirks, and devices earned her credibility and a reputation among her readers.  She was known for frequently using rather abstract or subjective words to describe films— such as, “whorey,” “mythic,” and “trashy,”—but always offered concrete examples from the movie to contextualize her assertions.

For example, in her review of My Left Foot, Kael clearly paints and recounts a scene between a son and his dying father before declaring it “mythic.” By showing the scene before telling about it, Kael allows readers to draw their own conclusions before offering her opinion.

Yet Kael’s professional successes do not escape critique. Her stubbornness sometimes got her in trouble, such as when she refused to acknowledge her factually false representation of the outdoor sequence in the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  Her affinity for particularly gory and violent films, as well as for movies with hot sex or bizarre alien scenes is also irksome. She tended to give priority to such movies and sequences, even when they did not necessarily merit the attention.  

Kael is not afraid of being wrong or of addressing issues that make readers uncomfortable, however.  As writer Ken Tucker says in his essay, “A Gift for Effrontery,” this sort of critical independence is increasingly rare and is really what makes Pauline Kael sound like Pauline Kael.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

What's the Real Cost of Writing for Free?

In the wake of all the hoopla this week surrounding Nate Thayer - the journalist who refused to give The Atlantic permission to republish his work without compensation- Gawker posted an article that addresses the real cost of writing for free.

It's an interesting read, especially considering that many of us will do (or have already done) some freelance work.

What do you guys think- is their harm in working for free? What about unpaid internships or internships for "college credit" only? Do you think it's okay that young journalists sometimes have to put in their time with certain publications before officially getting put on the pay role? Where is the line between doing a little free freelance work and being exploited?

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Submission Review

At the center of Amy Waldman’s beautiful novel, The Submission, lies a dilemma—a dilemma so haunting, so ironic, and so painstakingly plausible that it blurs the line between what actually happened in the fallout of the September 11 terrorist attacks and the stuff of fiction. Waldman’s first book is written with grace and guts, and accomplishes the feat of being factually fictitious, yet accurate in all the details that matter most.

Waldman, a former reporter for the New York Times, sets her story in 2003— though her book was written just before the 2011 Park51 ground zero Islamic Community Center debate and published shortly after. The author stokes a political fire by projecting what would happen if a New York jury in charge of selecting a 9/11 memorial were to choose, from among hundreds of anonymous submissions, a structural design that is created by a Muslim-American architect named Mohammed Khan. 
What she imagines is a chaos that is all too familiar: the families of victims are aghast, the media descends, the Muslims defend, and the bigwigs try to compromise.

The author serves as a mediator between all parties involved. She fluidly moves from a local Bangladeshi grocery store in Brooklyn, to the ritzy martini bars of Midtown, to a quiet Chappaqua home of a widow and her two young children, as if the author, too, were leading readers down a path of stones meant to guide the lost home. 

Yet Waldman proves that home is not so easy to find, particularly for Muslim-Americans, such as “Mo,” and other minority immigrants.  She raises and grapples with relevant, pressing questions such as, What does it mean to be American? Who is the real enemy? And, how does a wounded nation heal and move forward?  Her answers to these questions reveal the complex interconnectedness of politics, religion, and emotion.  

They also reveal an aggravatingly neat and clichéd ending in which the “Other” is defeated. Such tidy conclusions are irksome in a novel, but were it a work of non-fiction they could be sadly appropriate. Paired with seemingly shallow statements such as, “The problem with Islam is Islam,” which are sprinkled throughout the text, the ending actually offers a critique: the problem with Islam isn’t Islam. The problem with Islam is how it is perceived in the U.S. 

Amy Waldman’s The Submission is a multi-layered, thought provoking piece of literary architecture. It is a must read in a post 9/11 world.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Critical Essay Response

For my final project, I've decided to nix the Oscars Re-visited idea and will instead write a critical essay about AMC's television series "Breaking Bad." Specifically, I am interested in analyzing the main character, Walter White, and evaluating whether his position as both the protagonist and the antagonist reflect the economic and political climates of the United States from 2008 to the present.

I want to ask and potentially answer the questions, Why is Walter White relatable? Why do I root for him/When do I stop rooting for him? Where is the line between good and evil or can it even be determined? How have the political and economic climates shifted since the show's debut and what do they have to do with how I relate to Walter White?

To help get the evaluation process started, I've done a little research. One article I came across in The Atlantic, written by Scott Meslow, posited Walter White as a man who already "broke bad" before the series even started. "In chemistry terms, cancer was merely the catalyst for Walter's transformation: all the elements that have since turned him into a monster were already in place," Meslow stated.

I'm not entirely sure I agree.

I'm not convinced that the Walter White we meet in Season 1 is as "bad" as Meslow makes him out to be. In fact, his visible un-badness is what makes him a relatable, reliable, (even mundane) protagonist. He is a middle American in middle America. His "goodness" makes him familiar.

While Walter does change over the course of the series, I believe the change is gradual- and intentionally so on the part of the producer, Vince Gilligan. If Walter were to transform from relatable protagonist to morally questionable antagonist too quickly, he'd lose his audience.

As Walter White is played, he is still relatable even in Season 5. His actions are still (somewhat) forgivable. He still seems morally ambiguous. There's still hope for him to come back to the "good" side.

This is one point I hope to explore more in my own critical essay. I want to look closely at the moments when Walter's transformation is really solidified (or if it ever is).  It's important to ask why/how/when the boundaries between good and bad are crossed and how they are relative and situational.