Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Arrested Development

There are two general types of allegories: closed ones, like George Orwell's "Animal Farm" and Arthur Miller's "The Crucible," whose meanings are static and fixed, and more open-ended ones, which suggest a spectrum of over-lapping interpretations; one of the more extreme cases of the latter is Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1963), in which the waves of bird attacks that punctuate the narrative at once invite and confound interpretation by their very lack of any logical explanation. Roland Barthes' famous statement "The death of the author is the birth of the reader" seems particularly apt when discussing Arrested Development (2003-06) as its ostensible auteur, series creator Mitchell Hurwitz, played less of a hands-on role in his creation than Orwell, Miller and Hitchcock did theirs. If the name "George Bluth" suggests "George Bush," the scandal that sends George, Sr./Jeffrey Tambor to jail in the pilot episode recalls the Enron story. Given the length of the series (53 episodes), a close reading of the text is far outside the scope of this essay; instead of persuing one overarching thesis, I'd like to explore it from several different angles, using the various characters as jumping off points: the model home, the show's primary location and central metaphor, it's as important to the series' meaning as any of the characters (an emblem of the show's metaphyiscal doubts); Buster/Tony Hale, the baby (critique of the family); and George-Michael/Michael Cera and Maeby/Alia Shawkat, who represent opposite ends of the spectrum of adolescent behavior (crisis of parenting).

It's My Illusion

The model home is so rich as a metaphor it's hardly surprising Atom Egoyan got there first with The Adjuster (1991), but in both the series and the film it takes on slightly different meanings in relation to the story. In Egoyan's film, the characters bought their home for next to nothing when the developer went broke, while here the Bluth company is unable to go forward with building more homes when the SEC freezes their assets--it's literally an arrested development. In the series, the empty land surrounding the model home on all sides takes on an added signifigance, recalling the deserts of Iraq where George, Sr. built houses for Saddam Hussein.

What the model home represents is an artifice, a mask. With the model home, what the Bluth company is selling is an image of family living (when Michael/Justin Bateman decides to spend an evening at home reading, he finds that the Bluths doesn't own any real books), and the family is at pains to present themselves in a certain way. Michael's siblings, Lindsay/Portia de Rossi and Gob/Will Arnett are ostensibly independent adults, but in the first episode it's revealed that the only thing keeping Lindsay's anti-circumcision charity afloat are "donations" from the Bluth company, who also payed for Gob's latest illusion. Gob's full name, George Oscar Bluth, suggests George Walker Bush, who likewise failed miserably in his career as a businessman, and after building the exterior of a second model home with nothing inside, Gob--president of the Bluth Company in name only--raises a "Mission Accomplished" banner. In this metaphysical universe where only appearances matter, the US goes to war based on faulty intelligence ("These are balls") and the final measure of the company's strength is what Jim Kramer says on CNBC, an all-knowing narrator/Ron Howard becomes necessary to ground the viewer in an objective reality.

Indeed, for all of the show's metaphysical doubt, truth is ultimately ontological, which places the series in opposition to Cartesian thought and its separation of body and mind. Although others may adopt masks to intentionally decieve us, it's not as if their true face disappears. Here Lindsay's husband, Tobias Fünke/David Cross, is in denial about being gay even though it's obvious to everyone else--except perhaps Lindsay, who decieves herself into thinking their marriage still has a shot, and Maeby who is after all his young daughter--because of Tobias' heavily innuendo-laden manner of speech ("Even if it means taking a chubby, I will suck it up"). At one point, Michael suggests Tobias tape himself for a day so he can hear himself objectively. When the narrator tells us that "This would be the happiest moment of George Michael's life," (1) this seems like the sort of knowledge no one could have access to as it presumes absolute certainty of both his past and his future, but the freeze frame on his expression finds objective evidence to support this statement in George-Michael's face.

Families With Low Self-Esteem

Another metaphor is the loose seal that bites off the hand of Michael's younger brother, Buster, when he goes swimming in the ocean--an act of rebellion against his mother, Lucille/Jessica Walter, who's always forbidden it. Like the seal, who was raised in captivity and is unable fend for himself in the wild, Buster, Gob and Lindsay lack the confidence to take care of themselves because their parents never supported them. Buster in particular is torn between two father-figures: George, Sr. and Uncle Oscar/Tambor, George, Sr.'s identical twin and Buster's biological father. As a child Buster was told there was a family ban on playing sports, so when Lucille signs up her adopted Korean son, Annyong/Justin Lee, for soccer practice, Buster pays a visit to George, Sr. in prison. There George, Sr. finally reveals the truth to him that he wasn't allowed to play soccer because he was a "turd" on the field. "You couldn't run, you couldn't kick. You were just a turd out there." During one of Annyong's games, the ball is kicked in Buster's direction and, after being taunted by several children, Buster has his moment of victory, kicking the ball down the field while knocking over anyone in his way, finally scoring a goal. It's then that he notices Oscar cheering him on and realizes that Oscar is the only man who's ever supported him.

The ocean symbolizes both the freedom Lucille has denied Buster and the danger she wants to protect him from. It's clear however that what she's doing to Buster is just as harmful; before he's wounded Lucille prays to God to get him out of the army, whose recruitment slogan "Army of One" suggests independence and self-reliance, and when the lifeguard calls out "Loose seal!" Buster thinks he's saying "Lucille." The loss of his hand makes Buster even more dependent on his mother than before, yet instead of taking care of him, she's embarrassed by his deformity. When it comes time for the annual Mother-Boy pagent, which Lucille and Buster have participated in for over twenty years, she recruits George-Michael in his place, which horrifies Michael because she's doing the same thing to his son that she did to Buster. Determined to "do something about that kid's self-esteem," Michael gives George-Michael a job at the family banana stand, which we learn is the only profitable part of the Bluth empire--a testament to hard work and humility which the rest of the family lacks (when Lindsay applies for a job at a clothing store, she goes in cognito).

Les Cousins dangereuse

Although we learn nothing about Michael's late wife, her death is a significant part of his backstory and helps us to understand his approach to parenting. If Michael is almost single-mindedly focussed on his son, Lindsay and Tobias are too wrapped up in their own problems to pay proper attention to their daughter--imagine Tokyo Story (1953) in reverse. Lindsay justifies her lack of parenting by chastizing Michael his over-parenting, which does have a ring of truth to it; he plans various activities, like bike rides and driving lessons, and even enrolls George-Michael in an exclusive private school without even consulting him. Conversely, animated graphs illustrate how Maeby has more time to herself when her parents are getting along than when they're fighting, which provides her motivation for keeping them together.

In "Civilization and its Discontents," Freud writes that children with strict parents are less rebellious because they're more afraid of losing their parents' love than children with permissive parents, so for George-Michael even to be attracted to his cousin Maeby is just as bad as acting on it because God, the father, knows what you're thinking, and as we saw above, even thoughts the characters hide from themselves have an objective presence. (When Lucille Austero/Liza Minnelli asks Buster if he's ready to show her off to God and the world, he responds that he's not worried about his father (2).) Indeed, when George-Michael does kiss Maeby, the floor of the model home suddenly sinks, as if the characters are being sucked into the depths of hell. A moment later, Gob (his name suggesting the book of Job) walks in on them and says "Dad's going to be crushed." Gob is of course referring to George, Sr. who he's hidden in the basement, but George-Michael doesn't know this ("You don't have to tell him!"). So afraid is George-Michael of displeasing his father that, when he's assigned to write something critical about Michael for school, he has to get Maeby to do his homework for him. And as if he didn't feel guilty enough about cheating, Michael overhears him presenting his paper to the class. Michael's interpretation of this is that the teacher/Andy Richter is turning his son against him, and makes threats against him echoing his own father's muffin poisonings in the late 1970's. When George-Michael discovers this he finally has something to criticize his father for. "You don't respect me. How can I respect you?"


I don't watch a lot of TV but Arrested Development has captured my interest like no other show has and it deserves the kind of serious attention given to great films, although its length makes it impossible to do the series justice in a short essay. Here I've just scratched the surface of what this show is saying about family, and the compulsive cross-referrencing of current events (always loose and approximate rather than a static one-to-one gloss) make it endlessly suggestive. I wouldn't hesistate to include it in the same company as Olivier Assayas' demonlover (2002), Jia Zhang-ke's The World (2004) and Edward Yang's Yi Yi (2000) as one of the most resonant portraits of life in the early 21st century we have--on film or television.

1. To put this line in the context of the specific episode, the Bluth family is putting on a charity fundraiser where guests pay to spend a night in jail, and George Michael learns that he's sharing a cell with Maeby.
2. On a literal level, this line is an allusion to the Orange Country Living Classics pagent which the family participates in every year, with George, Sr. and Buster recreating "The Birth of Adam."

Friday, August 3, 2007

Artists and Models

Although he hasn't much of a reputation in North America, Frank Tashlin was a particular favorite of the Cahier du Cinema critics, especially Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette, who went on to become the directors of the Nouvelle vague, and in his film The Dreamers (2003), Bernardo Bertolucci acknowledged his debt to Tashlin--most apparent in Bertolucci's second feature, Partner (1968)--in a scene where Michael Pitt takes Eva Green to a screening of The Girl Can't Help It (1956) at the Cinémathèque Français. My own impression after seeing five of his films--Artists and Models (1955), The Girl Can't Help It, Hollywood or Bust (1956), Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957) and The Disorderly Orderly (1964)--is that he's a minor figure who some how made at least two major films. If Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? is singular enough that one senses Tashlin's presence behind the camera in almost every scene, with the cast putting their talents in the service of a unified vision rather than trying to steal the spotlight for themselves, Artists and Models is all over the place, a vehicle for its wildly eclectic cast, which includes Jerry Lewis, Shirley MacLaine, Dorothy Malone and Dean Martin, that runs the gammit from pop culture satire to broad slapstick to honoring the conventions of a romantic comedy to parodying them to musical numbers that are appropriately eclectic, alternating between fantasy numbers (in which the characters suddenly burst into song and dance) and show business numbers (in which the characters perform for an onscreen audience).

What's most Tashlinesque about the film is its satire of consumerism and pop culture, which thematically bears a certain resemblance to Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls (1995). Rick Todd/Martin is a serious painter and Eugene Fullstack/Lewis dreams of writing a children's book, but to make money they're reduced to painting billboards for cigarette companies. For the sake of argument let's assume that art is Truth and Beauty; the billboard is a garish eyesore that attempts to make something unhealthy and unattractive seem appealing. And it's no secret that the vast majority of new smokers are kids well below the legal age. But to survive, one has to compromise. When Eugene gets them both fired they don't even have enough money to eat, and the landlady is on their case about the rent. Her idea of a "real artist" is one who pays the rent early. Of course she's referring to Abby Parker/Malone, a commercial artist employed by a comic book publisher--another insidious and unsavory product that targets children--who moves into the apartment above Rick and Eugene's. But when her publisher, Mr. Murdock/Eddie Mayehoff, pressures her to turn up the gore in her Bat Lady comics, Abby refuses to budge and quits.

As in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, where the title character/Tony Randall becomes a tabloid sensation when a Hollywood starlet, Rita Marlowe/Jayne Mansfield, plants a phoney story about them to make her boyfriend jealous, television and comic books represent a modern day correlative to Plato's cave, and the "slightly retarded" Eugene isn't the only one apt to confuse appearances for reality. Thinking Abby is a high artist and that she might be able to help Rick with his career, Eugene decides to introduce himself to the new neighbors despite the landlady's warnings to stay away. At that moment however, Abby's roommate, Bessie Sparrowbrush/MacLaine, is posing for her as the Bat Lady (Eugene's favorite super-hero), and when she answers the door dressed like Irma Vep, Eugene--who has a childlike mentality--believes that the Bat Lady is real. Later, after Abby quits the comic and Rick swoops in to sell an idea to Mr. Murdock for a gory comic book based on things Eugene shouts in his sleep (and conveniently forgets upon waking), he's on the town celebrating his newfound wealth when he sees Eugene on a TV in a shop window denouncing comic books' negative influence, and Rick pleads for him to stop as if Eugene could hear him. This confusion of reality and representation reaches its natural end when the rocket formula in Rick's comic book turns out to be half of a real rocket formula being developed by the U.S. government and the Soviets send a Hungarian spy, Sonia/Eva Gabor, to Rick's apartment to sex the other half out of him.

Although Tashlin is some times referred to as Lewis' mentor, based on the three of their collaborations I've seen so far, from this film to Hollywood or Bust but especially in The Disorderly Orderly, Lewis gradually emerges as the driving creative force behind the films with Tashlin reduced to a director-for-hire. Here this tendency is apparent only in two sequences built around Lewis' slapstick routines, one with Eugene running up and down the same flight of stairs and the other immediately after in a chiropractor's office, where the punchline is their own excessiveness. Hollywood or Bust is an overly familiar road movie, lacking both the satirical elements of this film as well as Malone and MacLaine, that's not even recognizable as a film by Tashlin apart from the opening sequence where Martin pays thanks to moviegoers around the world, an otherwise sly dig at television that's marred by Lewis' desperately unfunny caricature of a Chinese person. The Disorderly Orderly doesn't even have Martin, and what qualifies for the plot is merely a clothesline on which to hang Lewis' slapstick.

Although Artists and Models rarely comes up in discussions of great Hollywood musicals, perhaps because Martin and Lewis were known primarily as a comedy team (even though Martin himself is better known as a crooner than an actor or comedian), its musical numbers account for a large part of the film's formal and thematic interest. The title song first appears over the opening credits, set to a series of shots of female models in static poses; it establishes the gaze of the male artist on the female model only to subvert it later on when Eugene poses for Abby. The first proper musical number, "When You Pretend," happens as early as the second scene to establish Eugene's childlike mentality. This number, and the subsequent "You Look So Familiar" and "The Lucky Song," clearly belong to the fantasy musical tradition outlined above, although that dichotomy becomes complicated with "Innamorata" where the music is explained by the presence of a small radio, though Rick's talents as a singer are justified only by Martin's cool persona rather than anything in his character (when Abby asks who the singer is, Bessie replies "He's the one who had that hit with 'That's Amore!'"--very Tashlinesque). The same applies to when Eugene and Rick perform the title song together at the Artists and Models Ball, the film's only pure show business number (even though it could be said to incorporate elements of a fantasy number--for instance, when Eugene paints off the canvas and onto the air. In the very final scene where all four leads run on stage and reprise "When You Pretend," the sense of euphoria the moment contains stems from seeing the characters escaping into artifice, which is solidified when the camera pans away to a toy church and then back to the four leads who are now, inexplicably, dressed for a wedding (they seem as surprised by the transformation as we are).

Despite the curious intimations of a homosexual relationship between Rick and Eugene early on (the latter does the cooking, and when the former threatens to leave he uses the word "divorce"), the story essentially boils down to a four-person romantic comedy with two diametrically opposed heterosexual couples; the same schema can be seen in the more recent Down With Love (2003), where the sexiness of the 'A' couple and the neurosis of the 'B' couple are both exaggerated to the point of parody. Both films seem to be taking their cues from Aristotle's Poetics, which makes the distinction between stories about greater than average men and stories about below average men, giving us both for the price of one. And as in that film, where Catcher Block/Ewan McGregor is a consummate ladies' man who meets his match in Barbara Novak/Renée Zellweger, here it's implied Rick left his hometown because he didn't want to marry a girl he knocked up, though he's transformed by his love for Abby, finding the courage to stand up to Mr. Murdock, who himself lacks the courage to stand-up to his wife (never seen) though some how has multiple mistresses. The film equates promiscuity among men with a lack of integrity. Late in the film, a model/Anita Eckberg observes of the new Rick: "Now when I pose for you, you just draw my picture." The 'B' romance between Eugene and Bessie is less complicated since she thinks their union is cosmically preordained, even though Eugene is in love with the Bat Lady, and the film bears out her metaphysic. When Sonia, dressed as the Bat Lady, lures Eugene to her hideout, he finds her a disappointment after Bessie whose kiss literally causes the toes of his shoes to pop open (a metaphor for premature ejaculation?).

Whether or not one considers Tashlin an auteur, Artists and Models is a major film by any standard, and its special qualities would be unimaginable without the four leads. I've said relatively little about Malone and MacLaine so far, even though their characters provided the inspiration for Rivette's Céline et Julie vont en bateau (1974), one of my all-time favorites. I've only seen Malone in two other films, Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep (1946) and Douglas Sirk's Written on the Wind (1956); here she gives a performance as far removed from those two as one would imagine possible and pulls it off beautifully. What Marylee Hadley shares with Abby however is their sexual frustration, except here it's more a matter of choice--and both performances are a world apart from the cool elegance of her character in Hawks' film. If Malone seems somewhat over-shadowed here it's only because her performance is relatively restrained, while MacLaine on the other hand is completely unrestrained. I've had a thing for her ever since I saw Vincente Minnelli's Some Came Running (1958), where she stole every single scene she was in (I mean, really, what does Dave Hirsch/Frank Sinatra see in that blonde chick anyway?), and here she's every bit as lovable. Forget Marlene Dietrich, forget Marilyn Monroe--Shirley MacLaine is my kind of sex symbol.