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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Monday (8/26/19) 9:37pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Books:  Medical School for Everyone: Grand Rounds [audiocourse]
Movies:  Black Swan
TV:  Agent Carter (season one)

Medical School for Everyone: Grand Rounds Cases [audiocourse] by Dr. Roy Benaroch
This is the 2014 Teaching Company course that talks you through a series of cases that a doctor is likely to see in general practice.

In a way, this is a companion piece to Medical School for Everyone: Emergency Medicine.  It's a similar structure.  It's a bit like a choose-your-own-adventure: you are the physician, and here is your latest case.  How would you diagnose this patient?  What treatments would you recommend?  And eventually the course gets around to revealing what was ailing this latest person, and explains what we know about the ailment.

I'm guessing this one was written before the emergency-medicine course, because it feels like it's still hammering out details that get perfected in that other course.  The core idea is there: it's really entertaining to present these different mystery patients, and unravel how a doctor would, in each case, get to the truth.  In this case, the collection of cases is kind of an anti-House — whereas that medical drama provided many strange and quirky edge-case medical scenarios, this course basically runs down the twenty or thirty things you're likely to see in daily practice, minus the ones like "I broke my leg" that present no mysteries to the physician.

And that means that the course feels pretty listicle-y.  Yes, there are a few general principles that it accumulates over the course of these cases.  But really, it's more like "hey, here's cancer"; "hey, here's asthma"; "hey, here's anemia" and so on.  It's entertaining, but it doesn't add up to much.

The emergency-medicine course does much better at this — in that other course, each lecture comprises several cases, all designed to illustrate some particular aspect of emergency care, with the principles building on each other, lecture to lecture.

That said, this is an entertaining, informative flyby of a variety of medical problems.  It's worth checking out, but if you're only going to listen to one of these, I have to recommend emergency medicine instead.


Black Swan
This is Darren Aronofsky's 2010 psychological thriller about a ballerina straining under the pressure of the lead role in Swan Lake.

I recognize this was a good movie, but I hated it.¹

For starters: imagine you're making a sitcom.  It's an office comedy.  There's a new guy working in the office, and he's learning to get along with his coworkers.  There's a romantic interest in accounting that they have kind of a will-they-or-won't-they thing with, there's a grouchy conspiracy theorist who handles payroll, there's a time-traveling dinosaur, and then there's this one lady who keeps stealing lunches from the office break room.  Funny thing with that, the lunches —

Wait.  No.  Stop.  You said "a time-traveling dinosaur"?

Yeah, but that's a minor character.  My real focus is on this lighthearted take on the office comed—

Like, a literal dinosaur?  That's traveled across time?  That is now trying to figure out how to hold down an office job?

I mean... I haven't really thought through Gerald's *backstory* per se —

*... named "Gerald"?*

(and, scene)  You get the idea.  Now, no matter what is going on in this sitcom, no matter what message the author intends, no matter what excellent jokes are going on, I'm going to be watching this goddamn dinosaur trying to figure out its cell-phone settings.  You can't "just slip" in the dinosaur — including the dinosaur means your show is about said dinosaur.

About half an hour into Black Swan, the company director sexually assaults the protagonist.

Yes, you can offer some mealy-mouthed defense that it's "seduction".  But when you have the radically-uneven power dynamic between a ballet director and the ingénue given her first lead role, it's just not.  The context renders it impossible to offer uncoerced consent.

You can say that it's an important way to direct that actress in that situation to play more freely.  But that, to me, misunderstands directing.  You don't have to commit tax fraud to direct The Producers; you don't have to commit assault to direct Swan Lake.  Implying that you have to be all "method" about your directing, especially in a way that endangers your cast, fundamentally misunderstands both directing and the Method.

You can say that it's a realistic portrayal of what happens in ballet companies around the world all the time.

First, if this is true, then fucking burn ballet to the ground.

And second, even if it is true, even if it happens everywhere, that doesn't make it acceptable.  That doesn't make it dismissible.  That doesn't make it unimportant.

I bring up all these counterarguments not because I think my readers would justify this narrative choice in this way.  I bring them up because the movie itself seems to hint at these interpretations.  And most of all the third one: it skims past this like it's just another part of being a ballerina that she has to put up with.

And that makes it the time-traveling dinosaur.  If you put that assault in the movie, then whatever you *think* your movie is about, it's not about that any more.  It's about the assault.

And that, for me, defined the perspective I had on the rest of the movie.  This wasn't the story of a ballerina pushed to the breaking point by a punishing, demanding performance.  This was a bunch of dudes who apparently think rape is no big deal telling a story about a woman from that skewed perspective.

[spoilers territory]

So yes, of course this "frigid" character has to loosen up by going out clubbing and flirting with club dudes.  Of course there's a dream sequence where she fucks the competing ballerina.

And in the end, of course she winds up dead.  And that's a move that I should see as obviously lampshaded parallelism with Swan Lake itself; or I should see it as a Romantic statement about the sacrifices artists make to reach for their dreams.  Instead, it just makes the grim sort of sense that, of course, of course the woman dies beautifully in the end.  This is the universe where women don't win.



Another, shorter screed: I think I'm done, at least for a while, with great auteurs depicting mental illness.

Honestly what turned the corner on this for me was, of all things, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.  Someone commits suicide.  They wake up in a hospital bed.  They see their best friend there.  And their first words are an anxious apology for inconveniencing everybody.  That moment had no unreliable narration from the story, no formalist tricks, no film-school self-indulgence.  It just had a small, real moment, accurately presented.  It was a story that cared about mental illness in and of itself.  And it felt empathy for the suffering.

By now, I think I've seen enough great auteurs basically saying "oogity-boogity, lookit at how this person is kuh-RAZY!"  Especially between Requiem for a Dream and this, I've seen enough of using "I'm depicting mental illness" as an excuse to goose the audience with gore or spooky special effects or borrowed horror tropes.  I'm sick of mental illness being something you throw at the audience for shock value.

People talk about how Aronofsky's films are "great to watch exactly once, and never again".  And I think we say that thinking it's because the films are just *so* overwhelming and *so* unsettling.  But I think, too, that we don't go back to these films because there isn't really anything else *there* besides the sensory assault.  There's no reason for the story other than the gut-punch effects.  There's no understanding of mental illness beyond the usual tropes.

And so the films kind of 'minstrel' their way through mental illness, depicting the surface stereotypes, using easy jump scares, and showing no signs of even cracking a single page of research.

And let me be clear: both those films are very, very good at what they do.  Mr. Aronofsky might be the only person who's outdone Trainspotting for harrowing addiction imagery, and Black Swan is, in many ways, its equal for showing this ballerina's psyche falling apart.  It's spectacle, but it's amazing spectacle.  I just find myself tired of what little it has to say.

So, again: it was a good movie, but I hated it.


Agent Carter (season one)
This is the first season of the MCU TV series that follows Peggy Carter as she unravels a conspiracy to frame Howard Stark in the late 1940s.

I wanted to like this show so, so much.  Hayley Atwell is a treasure, and it was always clear that the cast was charismatic as hell and loved working together.  I loved the concept of exploring a barely-seen part of the MCU, and doing so from a more feminist perspective than the Chris-heavy franchise has usually done.  I was delighted at the prospect of seeing the period-drama version of an MCU show.

And let me be clear: what I got wasn't *bad*.  It was competent.  It was professional.  It had *astoundingly* high production values.  But it only had moments of greatness, and nothing about it ever felt... necessary.

Consider the main story arc.  Agent Carter discovers a vast criminal conspiracy named "Leviathan".  They've stolen a warehouse of doomsday weapons from Howard Stark, and they have Evil Plans.  Okay.  That is nearly as generic as possible for a Big Bad, but it's serviceable: you can track down your first clues, they lead you to more clues, and eventually you're fighting supervillains.

There is an obvious hitch, in that there's no clear reason Peggy Carter should be fighting this battle on her own.  The show hand-waves furiously to make those justifications.  They're hard to follow, not least because, okay, I'm watching a show called Agent Carter, I am here to watch Carter to spy/investigator/action hero stuff, so I'm not really *into* justifying why we're focused on her.  But there's a lot of earnest dialog talking us through all the loop-de-loops of logic for why an agent of the quasi-FBI is justifiably going rogue.

But this show stumbles into the usual problem that TV shows often have with their genre element.  Yes, we see that the supernatural thing here is a shadowy conspiracy obtaining Howard Stark's dangerous überweapons.  That's the "what the show is about".  But what's the "what the show is *really* about?"  What does the Big Bad represent?  Why this villain now?

It's kind of mush.

[Spoilers ahoy.]

We eventually discover that the Big Bad is, as far as I can tell, just a criminal conspiracy dreamed up by one guy — and that the one guy wanted revenge on Howard Stark, because something Howard invented killed the guy's brother.  So: we have a pretty thin motivation for our villain, no real thematic weight to any of it, and (worst of all) no connection to our heroine.

(Remember: show called Agent Carter.  Show not called Howard Stark.)

We've also got an overpowered villain, somebody with basically Kilgrave abilities, who's inventing a needlessly convoluted plan for revenge, presumably because he's... I dunno, crazy and poetically-minded.  And it's also a very creepy and unsettling ability — forcing people to commit suicide² — too creepy to fit into the aw-shucks-pulp-adventure tone of this show.

The closest the show comes to making the Leviathan arc *about* something is to connect it to the constant sexism at the SSR offices.  The SSR staff kind of ignores Agent Carter, or assumes she's there to get coffee.  They do a good job depicting the constant dismissal and denigration she has to put up with, without weakening her character.  And occasionally, this gets in the way of her pursuit of Leviathan; on a few occasions, it helps.  So: it's not something that the bad guy is *about*, but it at least sporadically connects the storyline to something more seriously thematic.³

And it leads to the best story arc through the show: the staff of the SSR slowly comes to respect Agent Carter and the work she's doing.  That's to the good.  But it also leads to a problem in characterization: to make this arc work, all of the SSR agents have to be old-ish white dudes who don't abide much by this *woman* trying to do things around here.  That's fine — structurally that's what you need for the arc to work.  The problem is that they have to have, like, eight dudes in this category, and they can't quite create variety among them.  "Ah, this is the hard-nosed WASPy guy who dismisses Agent Carter and *is slightly older*.  Well-played, show."

In fact, the only strong characters here are Peggy and Jarvis.  Now, they both do exceptional work: Hayley Atwell is a treasure, and James D'Arcy balances dry humor against approaching ridiculous pulp situations with credible somberness.  Enver Gjokaj is somehow wasted as an agent not characterized much beyond a war injury and a crush on Peggy.  The other actors from The First Avenger lack basic stage presence.  We're told that Howard Stark is apparently the most notorious womanizer of the age, and the poor fellow acts like a slightly bored attendee at an accounting convention.

The Russian psychologist shows promise — hell, I'd love to see the story of a brilliant Russian immigrant escaping from a batshit apocalypse-weapon factory and starting from scratch in golden-age-of-superheroes New York City — but then he becomes a flimsy villain, arbitrarily given whatever fortune, skill, or motivation will make the right disasters happen.

So you get a vanilla pulp story, competently presented.  There are better sets than you'd expect, better costumes than you'd expect, and better fights than you'd expect.  But the story feels like throat-clearing, like laying down "Okay, this is what the most generic version of this show is" before moving on to do something interesting.

I may yet watch season two someday.  I'm told there's a musical episode, which sounds fun in and of itself, and indicates that maybe they're venturing a little bit out from dead center. 

I do wish I'd liked this season more.


For next week: The Road to El Dorado is my next DVD.  (I've seen so many GIFs of it, I want to sit down and finally watch the movie.)  I gave up on Dark for now — instead I'm watching the Spanish heist thriller La Casa de Papel.  I'm reading some Spanish-language Marvel comics and listening to an audiocourse about botany.

_______
¹ That's kind of Mr. Aronofsky's brand, right?
² I spent a lot of time shouting at the television, "THAT'S NOT HOW HYPNOSIS WORKS."  Yes, this show also has superheroes and death-ray pulp-style future-weapons, so maybe scientific accuracy isn't their bag.  But it's a bad thing when you misrepresent psychology to the general public.
³ They sort of tell-don't-show in the closing episodes that this sexism was what made the whole solo investigation both necessary and possible; I don't think the show itself quite backs that up.

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