For a long time now, there’s been in our culture this obsession with the idea that verisimilitude is the highest aim of art, that painting and music and literature and drama ought to be defined by an absolute and uncompromising realism that ostensibly reflects the supposedly raw and gritty reality of our human experience. And that cultural attitude is, I think, the product of the way we perceive the world around us. Because in the end, we’ve all got pretty strict and absolute conceptions of what “reality” really is – whatever our beliefs, we all base our worldviews on our deeply held beliefs of what is and isn’t possible, of what is and isn’t real, of what is and isn’t true. And we seem to think that every aspect of our lives (including art) has to conform to those. So we see in art this hyperrealist aesthetic. And we see in comedy shows like Arrested Development, The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Modern Family that embody that aesthetic – “mockumentary” sitcoms that depict fictive characters and situations in the style of a documentary, all in an attempt to achieve a level of realism.
Community, though, isn’t so committed to realism. It isn’t shackled to any strict conception of what is and isn’t real. And that’s why it rejects the mockumentary format and embraces more conventional comedic and narrative structures. Really, Community has at its core an older sort of comedic aesthetic: it’s pretty much a traditional four-wall sitcom, with no voiceovers or interviews or joke cuts. Now of course that’s not to say that it’s not formally innovative – even within its traditional structure, it finds inventive ways to tell complex stories and push the boundaries of its form. But ultimately, Community is defined by a very real formal conservatism. And that, I think, represents something of a conscious repudiation of both the mockumentary form itself and the broader attitudes toward reality that it embodies.
But “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking” is different. Decidedly so. When Jeff, Britta, Annie, Troy, and Shirley go to visit Pierce in the hospital, Abed documents it all with handheld cameras, quick-cut editing, zooms, character interviews, montages, and voiceover – and Community essentially becomes a mockumentary. And the mockumentary aesthetic utterly transforms the show – the situations are more mundane, the pace more languid, the characters more subdued. And everything’s grounded in an inexorable, immutable, absolute reality. So as Pierce exacts his psychological vengeance on the study group, it’s all defined by an intense realism, a sort of stark dramatic verisimilitude that we’ve not seen before in Community – and there’s nothing bizarre or outlandish or wacky or madcap about any of it. Yes, “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking” is hilariously funny and brilliantly clever, as Community always is. But above all else, it’s raw and uncompromising and hyperrealistic. Really, it’s the perfect mockumentary. And it’s everything our culture seems to think that art ought to be.
But it’s not Community.
Community is, I think, all about the idea that reality’s not absolute, that there are emotional truths that transcend our notions of what is and isn’t real. Because ultimately, we can’t have any certainty in those notions – we can’t trust the impressions of our fallible senses, and we can’t grasp a vast and inscrutable cosmos with our limited rational consciousness. Really, we can’t truly know the world in which we find ourselves. But we can know our experiences of that world – that is to say, our emotions. In a very real way, our emotions are all we have: they’re genuine, they’re real, they’re ours, all in a way that absolutely nothing else is. And if we embrace them and the experiences and relationships from which we derive them, maybe we can perceive the more fundamental truths of a more real reality. That, I think, is the very serious and philosophically complex point at Community’s thematic core. That’s why it eschews the formal structures of artistic hyperrealism. That’s why it forgoes the mundane in favor of intense emotion and bizarre situations. And that’s why its physical reality is malleable, but its emotional reality isn’t.Because in the end, Community isn’t about reflecting physical reality – it’s about embracing emotional reality.
So “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking,” with all its uncompromising realism, is something of a departure from all that. Now, a lot viewers and critics think that it’s not. They think that it’s basically just another one of Community’s genre homages – that it is to mockumentaries what “Modern Warfare” is to action films or “Epidemiology” is to zombie movies. But I disagree. “Modern Warfare” and “Epidemiology” (and episodes like “Contemporary American Poultry,” “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas,” and “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons”) do represent experiments in genre, but their forms aren’t fundamentally incongruous with Community’s core ideas about reality and emotion; quite the contrary, they manifest those ideas by juxtaposing intensely real emotional stories with plots that are decidedly outré. “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking,” though, is defined by a form that is thoroughly at odds with Community’s thematic and philosophical whole. Because the mockumentary format isn’t just shaky camerawork, fast cuts, interviews, and voiceover – it’s the expression of a whole set of ontological, epistemological, and phenomenological assumptions that reflect a very specific way of looking at the world. As I say, we all have strict conceptions of what’s real and what’s possible, and the mockumentary form (like so much of what we consider art) is all about reflecting and reinforcing those. It’s all about defining human experience in terms of an absolute, incontrovertible physical reality. Really, it’s all about realism. And that realism devalues emotional experience, subjugating our internal emotional truths to external standards of what is and isn’t real and, in so doing, reducing human emotion to something ultimately inconsequential and essentially meaningless.
When Community becomes a mockumentary for an episode, then, it’s not experimenting with genre in a way that underscores its central themes – it’s adopting a philosophical worldview that’s inherently opposed to its own. And that’s why “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking” feels so different from most other Community episodes (well, to me, anyway). There’s just something about it, really, something inarticulable. It’s not as warm, I guess. It’s not as sincere. In a way, it’s just not as emotionally real. That’s not to say that it’s not a brilliant episode – it’s masterfully written and acted, and it’s hilariously funny. And it’s definitely not to say that it’s devoid of genuine feeling – the story is an intensely emotional one that profoundly affects every member of the study group. But it is to say that that feeling is limited. Whatever sort of real emotion lies at the core of the episode, it’s framed within a context of an intensely crushing realism, and it’s all fundamentally limited. The tone, the beats, the story itself – every last aspect of “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking” serves to heighten the sense of incontrovertible physical reality, as well to underscore the idea that nothing, absolutely NOTHING, can transcend that reality. Because within the mockumentary framework embraced by “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking,” that’s all there is – an oppressively finite world, bounded by an objective standard of possibility and bereft of the capacity for anything else, for anything more. There is no transcendence. There is no sublime. So emotion – and, really, the whole of the experiential reality of subjective consciousness – is, in the end, pretty worthless, because it has no real power. And though it obviously still exists as a part of our human experience, it’s meaningless and banal in the worst way possible. And that’s why all of Jeff, Britta, Abed, Annie, Troy, Shirley, and Pierce’s ostensibly very real emotional epiphanies in “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking” just feel kind of empty and lifeless – within the context of the views embodied and reflected by the mockumentary form, they are.
But as always with Community, all this has a point, and whatever divergence there is between “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking” and the rest of Community’s corpus certainly isn’t an accident. “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking” doesn’t really stand in diametrical formal and philosophical opposition to pretty much every episode of Community that’s come before it - in a lot of ways, it’s a decidedly compendious recapitulation of the show’s central themes, a sort of encapsulation of everything that Community has always stood for. Because in a sense, “Intermediate Documentary Filmmaking” is something of a negative mission statement, an ironic piece that shows us what Community is by showing us what it’s not. Community’s just not Arrested Development or The Office or Parks and Recreation or Modern Family. On an essential level, it’s not a mockumentary, and it CAN’T be a mockumentary. Because in the end, it’s not about perceiving some raw and gritty reality through some sort of hyperrealist aesthetic lens. Rather, it’s about so much more – it’s about emotion and experience and transcendence and truth. And in a very real way, it’s meant, I think, to help us to unshackle our consciousnesses so that we might discover the more fundamental truths of a more real reality, to allow us to free ourselves so that we might, for at least a moment, embrace that which is truly and inestimably valuable in our lives
And isn’t that really the highest aim of art?
It’s remarkable how little real importance we give to our relationships. Yes, we might see them as something desirable, something that makes life better and easier and more pleasant. But we don’t really think that they’re essential or meaningful in any innate or absolute sense, do we? Actually, we seem fairly intent on isolating ourselves from them - from our absolute faith in the power of reason to our postmodern cultural conceptions of what it means to be cool, pretty much every framework we use to perceive our world seems somehow designed to create a profound emotional distance between us and everyone else. We are, after all, part of an intellectual and social tradition that’s all about isolation and emotional distance: autonomy is the aim of our philosophy; individualism is the foundation of our national consciousness; self-reliance is the highest of our cultural values. Really, independence is our collective ne plus ultra. We think of ourselves as discrete, isolated, essentially autonomous individuals. We define our interpersonal relations in terms of some Hobbesian conception of mutual advantage. And we believe that in the end, we don’t really NEEDother people.
But of course we do need other people. We really need them. On a very basic and practical level, even the most mundane tasks of our quotidian existences in a society depend on a network of countless other people - without other people, we can’t eat, we can’t sleep, we can’t work, we can’t live. But because that sort of interdependence is just a calculation of mutual advantage, most of us are fine with it, even though it’s a pretty serious affront to the concept of our absolute autonomy. No, our real problem is with a different sort of interdependence - emotional interdependence. We’re afraid of emotional interdependence. We’re terrified of it. Because when we feel like we NEED someone in a real and fundamental way, that person has power over us. We’re vulnerable to them. And if we’re defined (as we so often seem to think we are) by a sort of Nietzchean wille zur macht, there’s a very real ontological danger to that. That, I think, is why we’re generally obsessed with autonomy and individualism and self-reliance - we think that to give up power is to lose ourselves.
That fear of emotional interdependence is something that’s been thematically central to Community since, well, the beginning - Jeff’s entire arc throughout the first forty or so episodes has, I think, been largely predicated on the perennial struggle between his instinctive dread of vulnerability and the increasingly real and meaningful nature of his emotional connection to the study group. And “Early 21st Century Romanticism” is something of a microcosm - and culmination - of all that.
I’ve read a lot of comments from a lot of people on the interweb(s) talking about the fact that “Early 21st Century Romanticism” once again sees Jeff (1) separate himself from the study group, (2) learn through that separation how much really loves the study group, and (3) return to the study group. Now, of course it’s true that this is a plot structure that Community’s used before - just look at episodes like “Introduction to Statistics” or “Accounting For Lawyers.” So the claim that all this has happened before is, in itself, not exactly false. But most of the commentators make further claims about this structural repetition - qualitative claims. They think that it betrays of a kind of lack of imagination, or that it makes the characters and stories feel unrealistic, or that it just seems cloying or stupid (or something). Basically, they think that ANY recapitulation of plot elements or structures is a prioriemblematic of bad writing.
But that’s an astonishingly ridiculous idea, isn’t it? I mean, if we accept that any structural repetition is bad writing, our inevitable conclusion would have to be that pretty much EVERY story EVER told in the course of human history is utter shit, right? Because in the end, all of our stories (well, the best ones, at least) are just the same structures, repeated again and again and again. We’ve got this innate sense of what a story should be, an eminently complex and beautifully simple pattern that’s indelibly impressed on our human consciousness - departure and return, descent and ascent, death and resurrection. Our entire storytelling tradition is founded on that pattern. That’s why our heroes have to eschew the familiar and the common, plumb the depths of the unknown, and reenter the world with something NEW. And that’s why, in “Early 21st Century Romanticism” (and in a lot of other episodes) Jeff has to leave Britta, Abed, Annie, Troy, Shirley, and Pierce, venture into the darkness of (a kind of) isolation, and return to the study group with a meaningful sense of how much he loves this family he’s formed. In the end, plonger au fond de l’inconnu pour trouver du nouveau is the journey of every hero, of Gilgamesh, of Achilles, of Odysseus, of Dante – and of Jeff Winger.
But even more than all of that, this cyclic pattern of separation from and return to the study group has a very real thematic purpose within the context of the development of Jeff as a character, because it has at its core that crippling fear of emotional interdependence that’s so very fundamental to Jeff’s conception of himself. Jeff has always been something of a paragon of autonomy, the archetype of the independent man who just doesn’t need anybody else – he’s cool, he’s detached, he’s self-sufficient, he’s unfettered by the bonds of his passions. Really, he just doesn’t care. And though he’s changed and developed over the course of two years at Greendale, he’s always reverted back to that default position, always emotionally isolated himself from everyone around him. Because ultimately, he’s afraid. He’s deeply, deeply afraid, afraid of being hurt, afraid of losing himself. After all, all our relationships are fundamentally based on vulnerability – on laying our hearts bare and placing them at the mercy of another person, all without any real certainty as to the consequences – and vulnerability, it seems to us, inevitably engenders emotional pain. And moreover, we’ve got this conception of our selves as ontologically grounded in a sort of wille zur macht that equates yielding power to another with essentially denying our very being. So in the end, it’s just a lot easier to be detached, to be free from the possibility of emotional pain and invulnerable to existential crisis. That’s why Jeff, even as he slips unknowingly into a very real and emotionally intense relationship with his study group, perpetually clings to his perceived autonomy. And that’s why, time and time again, he abandons Britta, Abed, Annie, Troy, Shirley, and Pierce in favor of the isolation and ostensible autonomy that he finds so emotionally and existentially secure.
In “Early 21st Century Romanticism,” then, a fight over the Barenaked Ladies turns into yet another seemingly irreparable rift in the group. Jeff once again forswears the relationship he’s formed with the study group, and he once again recognizes les défauts de son âme and ultimately returns, a prodigal son, to his Greendale family. But this time it’s different. This time, his ἀναγνώρισις and περιπέτεια don’t result from the group needing him or begging him to come home again; rather, they result from the group NOT needing him and NOT begging him to come back. Britta, Abed, Annie, Troy, Shirley, and Pierce have their own shit going down at the dance, and they kind of just forget (temporarily, at least) about Jeff. And really, that’s what changes things. That’s what elicits from Jeff a more meaningful kind of recognition and a more categorical kind of reversal. Indeed, in the new and more absolute kind of emotional isolation he’s created for himself, Jeff finally ascertains the profound philosophical truth that had previously eluded the grasp of his autonomy-obsessed consciousness – namely, that the self in isolation is no self at all. In the end, Community seems to say, it’s only through a community that true meaning can be derived. It’s only through others that we can find ourselves. And it’s only through caring for others and being cared for in return that we can truly realize our best selves. Yes, emotional interdependence is scary, and it does engender uncertainty and pain. But we need it. We desperately, desperately need it. Without it, we’ve got nothing – we’re fundamentally alienated from our selves and from our experiences, and in that sort of alienation lay true ontological doubt and phenomenological emptiness. When Jeff tells Britta, Abed, Annie, Troy, Shirley, and Pierce that he truly does love them, then, he’s not really subjecting himself up to any existential angst or emotional distress. Instead, he’s finally embracing the world of perfect community, and all the meaningful self-discovery and limitless experiential possibility contained therein.
And that, Community suggests, is what we all have to do. Because in the end, we can’t think of ourselves as discrete, isolated, essentially autonomous individuals. We can’t define our interpersonal relations in terms of some Hobbesian conception of mutual advantage. And we can’t believe for a second that we don’t really need other people. We do need other people. We really need them, and not just in a superficial, practical sense. We need them in order to think and to feel and, in a very real way, even to exist. Autonomy and individualism and self-reliance are just chimeras. In them there lies no ontological certainty, no phenomenological richness - just shadows and emptiness and the burdensome fear of the multiplicity of other minds. It is, Community suggests, only in our relationships with others that we can find truly valuable experience. It’s only as a member of a community that we can ever hope to know ourselves. Really, it’s only from emotional interdependence that we can derive the profound and lofty meaning. So as Jeff realizes, we can’t really think of our relationships as mere conveniences characterized by a basic sort of extraneousness - we have to trust in them and embrace them and love them with every fibre of our beings.
Open your heart: that is the golden string to which every heart vibrates; that is the maxim wherein lies genuine philosophical and emotional truth.
Why do we like to play games? Why do we enjoy creating arbitrary sets of rules to govern pointless activity in fabricated situations? It’s pretty easy to say that games are just base outlets for our evolutionary competitiveness or transient, meaningless, and even pathetic means of escapism. It’s pretty easy to deride the idea that we can derive any real value or meaning from seemingly trivial pursuits (pun unintended). And it’s pretty easy to say that games are just arbitrary and pointless, inane and childish. Because, on the surface, they are. Games seem to be non-productive. They seem to be frivolous. And sometimes, they even seem to be deleterious. But still, we love them. We love football and basketball and chess and card games and Monopoly and Mario Kart. Really, our love for games is an aspect of humanity that’s as old as civilization itself – ancient Egyptians played senet more than five millennia ago. Really, games are an ancient and fundamental aspect of our shared human experience that transcends geographic barriers, socio-economic circumstances, and cultural and religious affiliations. On at least some level, we all like games. And we all derive some sort of nebulous satisfaction from playing them.
“Advanced Dungeons and Dragons” is an amazing episode for a lot of reasons. It’s masterfully written and brilliantly acted. It’s fantastically clever and hilariously funny. It’s an extraordinarily, ingeniously inventive homage to fantasy films that manages to make a bunch of people sitting around a table truly and magnificently epic. And most of all, it’s got at its core (as Community always does) a sense of sincerity and genuine emotion that grounds the characters’ experiences. “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons” is a formal, aesthetic, comedic and emotional masterpiece. That might sound more than a little hyperbolic, but it’s not. Just watch it. It really is all those things.
But it’s also a lot more. “Advanced Dungeons and Dragons” is, I think, a complex examination of the idea that games can have very real and profound meaningful value and even act as something of a microcosm of the human experience. When Jeff suspects that Fat Neil might be so depressed that he’s considering suicide, he and the study group (sans Pierce mais avec Chang) hatch a scheme (they invite Neil to a game of Dungeons and Dragons to try to lift him out of his dark night of the soul) that seems to rely on some fundamental assumptions about Dungeons and Dragons in particular and games in general: that a game doesn’t need to be grounded in any sort of genuine emotional reality; that a game in itself is pretty much meaningless; and that games (especially role-playing games) are essentially escapist at best. For them, this game is just meant to be a sort of contrivance, and their involvement in it an artificial means of palliating Neil’s fragile psychological state. Basically, the study group approach their game with Neil from a decidedly detached albeit well-meaning standpoint – they have no sense that the game itself can have any meaning, no real commitment to the idea that it can be real.
So at first, the game is hollow and contrived and decidedly awkward. And what’s more, it’s completely ineffective – Neil feels more uncomfortable than anything else. Yes, it’s clear that Jeff, Britta, Abed, Annie, Troy, Shirley, and Chang are doing this to help him, that they want to give Neil the chance “to feel like a winner for a change,” and that that’s an amazingly kind thing for these people to try do for someone who could barely even be called their casual acquaintance (though for Jeff I suppose there’s an element of guilt involved, too). But it’s also clear that none of them are actually involved in the game, not in any real way – no one (except for Abed) even has any idea how to play, and their feigned enthusiasm is incredibly sweet but decidedly forced. And really, that’s just not what Neil needs. He doesn’t need to be indulged. He doesn’t need to be pitied. And he definitely doesn’t need some ersatz triumph or nugatory escapism.
What he really needs is catharsis. But that’s an extraordinarily vague concept, isn’t it? The word itself is derived from καθαίρειν, which literally means ‘to cleanse,’ so on a most basic level, catharsis is something of a cleansing. In the Poetics, Aristotle characterizes that as the purgation of the destructively controlling influence of emotion from our rational consciousness through the ability of tragedy as a dramatic form to incite emotion in us. And in modern popular usage, catharsis is generally associated with activities that provide an outlet for our negative impulses and, in turn, cleanse us of them. Freud, though, sees catharsis in a different way – not as the purgation of some negative aspect of our selves but as the chance to embrace and experience previously neglected emotions. In the Freudian sense, then, catharsis is the release we achieve through intense emotional experience that allows us to vent otherwise un-vented feelings and, in so doing, cleanse ourselves of the existential doubt of emotional repression.
That, I think, is the kind of catharsis that Fat Neil truly needs – and it’s the kind of catharsis that Community seems to suggest has the most real and meaningful value. Because, as Community has shown us again and again and again, our emotions are ultimately all we’ve got. Our senses are fallible. Our rational consciousness is limited. We can never really know with absolute certainty what is and isn’t real. All that we can know are our experiences and impressions of the world as we perceive it – namely and most saliently, our emotions. Our emotions, whether they’re positive or negative, are, in the end, all we’ve really got. So when we deny those emotions (for whatever reason), Community seems to say, we’re denying our own selfhood, denying, in a very real sense, that we even exist – an invariably and undeniably destructive thing to do. And that’s what Neil has done. That’s why he’s dangerously unsure of himself. That’s why he feels so fundamentally isolated from the world around him. That’s why he’s depressed to the point of suicide. So Neil desperately needs catharsis – he needs a crucible of emotional experience in which he can be wholly cleansed of all that ontological uncertainty, an opportunity to reengage with his emotions, both positive and negative, in an intense way.
But how can he experience that catharsis? How can any of us achieve real emotional release? Community suggests that maybe we can find it in something we often perceive as frivolous and essentially worthless: games. Games, Community seems to say, aren’t really silly or banal or worthless – they’re cathartic. By creating a sort of secondary reality, they amplify experience and magnify emotion. And by allowing us to experience genuine emotion more intense than pretty much any we experience in the course of our quotidian existences, they reinforce our connection to the emotional reality that lies at the core of our very selves in the same way that drama and music and all the arts do. That’s why we love games, why we need games. And that’s why Neil needs this game of Dungeons and Dragons.
But Neil definitely can’t find any catharsis in the study group’s empty (albeit genuinely nice) contrivance. How could he? How could he find any real, intense emotion in a game in which no one is actually invested? To be a meaningfully cathartic experience, Community seems to say, a game has to in some sense be real, and the players have to be committed to its reality. And what ultimately makes the study group’s game of Dungeons and Dragons real isn’t Jeff’s or Britta’s or Troy’s feigned enthusiasm – it’s Pierce, and all his hostility and loneliness and pain. When he discovers that he’s been excluded and decides to focus all his anger and fear on destroying the study group’s game, he’s insufferably mean and hurtful and just terrible – he hurls insults at Fat Neil, he antagonizes the entire group, he tries to win just to spite everybody. But he is engaged in an honest way – and that’s what makes the game real. Really, it’s because of Pierce that Jeff, Britta, Abed, Annie, Troy, Shirley, and Neil commit to the reality of Dungeons and Dragons and to the idea that the game has meaning. It’s because of Pierce that, when Neil rolls a nineteen, the group cheer as loudly as if some magical amulet really had been smashed and some evil force really had been defeated. And it’s because of Pierce that Neil is ultimately able to experience the intensely strong feelings that purge from his psyche the inevitably destructive darkness of emotional repression.
What imbues the game with its tremendous (even life-saving) meaning, then, is the fact that the group accept the idea that it can have meaning – it becomes a genuine emotional experience for them only when they’ve committed themselves to it with genuine emotion. So in a sense, games, Community seems to say, can be profoundly meaningful and supremely valuable not only insofar as they’re cathartic but also insofar as they’re something of a microcosm of the broader human condition. A game can only have real meaning if embrace it with immediacy and sincerity – and our lives can only have real meaning if we embrace the emotions we derive from our experiences and our relationships with that same immediacy and sincerity. Because in the end, those emotions, Community suggests, are truly real in a way that nothing else is. They’re our experiential anchors in a sea of existential uncertainty, and if we’re to have any level of meaningful agency – if we’re to exist in any real way – we have to accept them and embrace them and love them in every aspect of our lives.
Games help us to do that. And that’s why, for all their supposed frivolousness and banality and inanity, they’re such an immutably and fundamentally important part of our human experience.
On the surface, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan appears relatively simple. It’s a film of (mostly) archetypal characters and stark symbolism, with a script full of clichéd horror shock tactics and conventional ‘backstage drama’ tropes. For the most part, it just seems straightforward, obvious, simple. But that’s not to say that Black Swan really is that simple. And it’s definitely not to say that it’s not a stunningly good film, a work of art that’s simultaneously vibrantly lurid and elegantly sophisticated, overwhelmingly intense and wonderfully graceful, agonizingly horrifying and exquisitely beautiful.
The world of Black Swan is one of mirrors and doubles and sharply defined blacks and whites – it’s a world of duality. And it’s duality that dominates and destroys its protagonist, New York ballerina Nina Sayers. She lives a child’s life of cloistered, virginal innocence, infantilized by a domineering mother, surrounded by stuffed animals in her pink bedroom, and defined by a frigid purity manifested in her stiff (albeit perfect) technique as a dancer. But she wants, she needs to break free of that to be able to perform the dual role of Odette/Odile in Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. She needs to embody both the fragile beauty of the white swan and the darkly seductive sexuality of the black swan.
Ay, there’s the rub. Nina is fundamentally divorced from any semblance of a darker, sexually uninhibited side of herself – we see that in the piteous vulnerability of Natalie Portman’s performance, and in the intensely exaggerated sound editing that makes cracking toes and snipping scissors almost painfully visceral, underscoring Nina’s psychological alienation from her fleshly existence. Really, this is a woman afraid of not just her sexuality but even her physicality, a woman who batters, bruises, cracks and scratches herself for the sake of art, a woman defined (and ultimately destroyed) by the conflict between physical imperfection and artistic perfection – the conflict of the corporeal and incorporeal.
Ballet as an art form is really the embodiment of that conflict. It disciplines and punishes the body for the sake of art. It subjugates the corporeal to a fundamentally incorporeal concept. Really, it uses the physical to transcend the physical. And in a sense, that dichotomy is germane not just to ballet but to art as a whole: art (well, the best art, anyway) is, I think, and inherently philosophically dualist means of attempting to realize metaphysical ideals through material means. When Aronofsky makes artistic perfection the object of Nina’s obsession, then, he’s not just using the concept itself as a sort ofhamartia for his tragic heroine – he’s making all its ontological nuance the centerpiece of this painfully visceral story of a woman at war with her own body.
So in the end, Nina’s quest to achieve artistic perfection by attempting to discover the Swan Queen’s duality in herself isn’t as much a journey of growth as it is a spiraling descent into madness. Really, how could it not be? To dance Odette/Odile, she has to eschew her inhibitions and embrace her physicality. But to let go in any meaningful way represents a betrayal of the very soul of the art that so completely defines her – it represents the emergence of that which (to put it in Freud’s terms) “should have remained hidden.” And that’s why Nina’s haunted by doppelgangers. That’s why she’s driven to self-abusive behavior. And that’s why the boundaries between reality and the hallucinations of her damaged psyche are blurred and ultimately obliterated.
And for the viewer, that’s a truly disturbing experience. Nina scratches her skin. She repeatedly forces herself to vomit. At one point, she peels the skin off her finger. And ultimately, she literally (and grotesquely) metamorphoses into a swan, even sprouting feathers from her flesh. And the subjectivity with which Aronofsky depicts all this makes the lurid Grand Guignol of Nina’s crumbling psyche intensely real and profoundly unsettling – the camera identifies its point of view with Nina’s, so the viewer, like Nina herself, has no meaningful conception of what’s real and what’s not. But this isn’t just horror for the sake of horror. Rather, it serves to reflect that conflict between the corporeal and incorporeal that’s at the center of both the artist’s experience in particular and the human experience in general. If we completely subjugate our physical realities to metaphysical ideals, what’s real and what’s not? How can we live meaningfully if we see ourselves as entities with dual aspects? By showing us Nina’s psychological disintegration in the face of the competing demands of her art, Aronofsky seems to suggest that we can’t. And what’s more, he uses the tropes of the horror genre (shock reveals, stalking camera angles, etc.) to make his conclusion seem inevitable and inescapable.
But while there’s a horrific ugliness to Nina’s fall that underscores what Aronofsky seems to think is the ultimate impossibility of reconciling our physical selves with our conceptions of those selves as partly metaphysical beings, there’s a stunning beauty to it as well. As Nina dances at the start of the film, her white tutu strikingly juxtaposed with the black background, there’s an exquisite loveliness to the scene’s delicacy and simplicity. And as she dances Odette’s final scenes in Act IV of Swan Lake, the whirling camera and Tchaikovsky’s sublime music create an ecstatic aesthetic experience for the viewer that’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen before in film. Really, for all its horror, Black Swan is, above all else, beautiful. And perhaps that suggests that while the pursuit of artistic perfection might be destructive, it’s nonetheless supremely noble – perhaps it indicates that while we can’t reconcile physical realities with metaphysical ideals, the attempt is still a fundamentally important part of our humanity.
For all its philosophy, though, the true soul of Black Swan is Natalie Portman. Now, I’ve got to admit, I’ve always regarded Portman as an actress with some derision. But honestly, her performance in Black Swan is one of the most spectacular I have ever seen – touchingly fragile but also intensely powerful. There’s an innocent immaturity to her Nina, as well an extraordinarily moving vulnerability that imbues her tragically passionate obsession with an unbearably poignant pathos. In one particularly magnificent scene, Nina locks herself in a bathroom stall and calls her mother to tell her that she’s been cast to dance the role of the Swan Queen, and with one line (“He picked me, Mommy!”) Portman effortlessly embodies her character and masterfully evinces all her innocence and childishness – as well as her fierce commitment to her art. But perhaps what’s most remarkable about Portman’s performance is that in it, artist becomes indistinguishable from art. Really, Portman becomes Nina: with her painfully skeletal frame and decidedly more than passable dancing skills, Portman accomplishes what only the best actors do – she makes us forget that she’s acting.
But in spite of Black Swan’s thematic complexity, Aronofsky’s direction, and Portman’s performance, I’m not really sure why I love the film so much. Do I love it for all the qualities I’ve enumerated above? Did I love it for itself? Or do I love it because I’m associating it with the indescribable genius of Tchaikovsky’s music? In the two weeks since I’ve seen the film, I’ve found myself rediscovering Swan Lake and being enchanted and intoxicated by its sublimely transcendent beauty all over again – only now, it’s tied to Black Swan in my mind. The scenes from the film that have stuck most firmly in my mind are the scenes that featured Tchaikovsky most prominently, and I’ve even found myself associating with Black Swan pieces from the ballet actually not included in it. So I suppose this is something of a disclaimer. Because even though I’ve just spent more than one thousand words describing why Black Swan is a great film, I can’t really say with any certainty why I’m so fond of it. Do I love it for its filmic quality and philosophical complexity, or do I love it for its inclusion of some of the most perfect music ever composed? Do I love it for Aronofsky and Portman, or do I just love it for Tchaikovsky?
I’m not really sure. But I am sure of one thing: Aronofsky has created an exquisitely lovely and rewardingly (if not obviously) complex film, a striking and unsettling amalgamation of ethereal beauty and visceral horror. Really, Black Swan isn’t just good or even great. Black Swan is perfect. Well, it’s close, anyway.
This is what people do, right? The old year has slipped away, now just another thread in the vast tapestry of history, we face the promise and fear of future things unknown - it’s nice to indulge in a bit of nostalgia, isn’t it? It’s nice to look back, to take stock of what we’ve experienced and how we’ve grown, to categorize everything we’ve seen and heard and watched and loved in the past year. Because, when you think about it, the coming of a new year represents something slightly unsettling: uncertainty. We’re not certain and we never can be certain of what triumphs, what defeats, what losses, what gains, what pleasures, or what pains the future will bring. Now of course the dawning of 1 January is not fundamentally any different from the dawning of any other day – the turning of the year is, in fact, a pretty arbitrary distinction. But still, New Year’s represents for us the fear and possibility that plays such a prominent but generally ignored role in our lives, and it’s an opportunity for us to acknowledge and face and embrace the dual-faceted nature of uncertainty. So as we stand upon the brink of a new year, it’s helpful to look back, to take stock, and to categorize, all in the hope that we can somehow hang on in the new year to all that we loved in the old = the hope that the past is not truly gone or lost, but can be retained in some way.
And how better to do that than with that time-honored staple of New Year’s – the top 10 list? I’ve been meaning to make this list for a while now, focusing on the year in culture. But it’s been hard, you know? How do you distill a year of culture into such a limited number of primary, representative elements? Well, I actually don’t think you can, at least not in any meaningfully objective way. And I definitely don’t think I can make any sort of “best of 2010” sort of list, because, in the end, there’s just way too much shit that’s gone down this year that I simply have not paid any attention to. Really, when it comes down to it, the only way I’d feel comfortable saying “these things represent the best of culture in 2010” is if I were some sort of cultural critic paid to watch every TV show, listen to every new album, read every new book, see every new play, and attend every new concert - since I’m not, I really just can’t offer any meaningful objective assessment of the past year. What I can do, however, is list what 15 things (yes, 15, I couldn’t not include any of them) represented meaningful intellectual, emotional, and aesthetic experiences for me personally in 2010. So that’s what I’ll do. The 15 things on this list – which are drawn from the worlds of television and art and theatre and music and literature – didn’t necessarily occur or originate in 2010 (though a lot of them did), but each of them was, in some way, significant for me in the past year. So even though we’re already more than a week into 2011, just indulge me as I cling to 2010 for a little bit longer.
15. Michael Wood’s Documentaries
Michael Wood has been making historical documentaries for the BBC since the early 1980s, but I only first discovered his work in 2010. And honestly, he’s is amazing. He studied Anglo-Saxon history at Oxford. He speaks like seven languages. In his documentaries, he’s broken down the Trojan War, the life of Shakespeare, all of Western Art, and the entire country of India for the masses. He’s from Manchester but doesn’t have the slightest hint of a Mancunian accent. And he looks very good reading archaeological publications by candlelight. He is the ultimate intellectual badass. Watch his documentaries.
14. Mad Men
I can’t believe I didn’t discover this show before 2010. My god, it’s fantastic. The acting, the writing, the meticulously designed sets and costumes – everything comes together to immerse the viewer in the world of the show and create a dramatic and aesthetic experience like I’ve honestly never seen before on television. The 1960s of Mad Men is not the clichéd 1960s of so many shows; it’s an intensely real depiction of the era. But Mad Men isn’t just about life amidst the cultural and social change of the 1960s – really, it’s about identity. How do we know ourselves? How do we define ourselves in a society that’s constantly seeking to define us? How can we know what we truly want when we are constantly being told what we want? Can we reconcile the disparity between who we are and who we want to be? Those questions, I think, are at the heart of what Mad Men seeks to explore. And it’s the show’s nuanced and intelligent discussion of those issues that makes it so intellectually rewarding. So Mad Men, then, engages us emotionally, aesthetically, and intellectually – it’s the complete artistic experience. And Season 4 epitomized that: from the central question of “who is Don Draper?” to the brilliant acting and writing of such dramatically and aesthetically masterful episodes as “The Suitcase” (which I think is one of the most exquisitely perfect hours of television ever produced), it honestly represented Mad Men at its very best.
13. The Short Stories of Nikolai Gogol
What little recognition Gogol is given usually goes to his most famous work, Dead Souls. But his short stories are utterly brilliant. Really, they’re at once funny and somber, realistic and surreal, humanist and misanthropic, virtuosic and unpretentious – stories like “The Overcoat” and “Nevsky Prospekt” are literature at its very best. What I love most about Gogol’s short stories (at least the ones I’ve read so far), though, is their immediacy. Gogol’s best stories don’t seem to have been crafted with any overarching literary tradition in mind, and they definitely don’t conform to any sort of preconceived artistic or even rational basis – instead, they represent something profoundly real and unconstrained by the shackles of literary or logical propriety. They’re genuine, not contrived. They’re immediate, not detached. They represent an artistic sensibility that’s been incredibly rare in the Western world since Shakespeare, an artistic sensibility that is fundamentally personal (and by personal I mean idiosyncratic, the product of a person not a tradition) and, thus, fundamentally original in a way that few works of literature in the Early Modern, Modern, and Post-Modern eras have been. That immediacy is something that I think is essential for all great art (and something that I think defines the #1 item on this list), so finding it in Gogol’s short stories this past year was an absolute revelation.
12. David Attenborough’s Nature Documentaries
British naturalist filmmaker David Attenborough is awesome. His documentaries – like Life, which aired on the Discovery Channel this past spring – strike a masterful balance of the sublimely beautiful and horrifyingly violent, showing us that while nature is sometimes unpleasant, it’s nonetheless supremely real, and fundamentally true to itself – if truth is beauty, and beauty truth, there surely is no higher art than the natural (yes, I’m purposely misquoting Keats here, because I’m saying pretty much the exact opposite of what he was in “Ode on a Grecian Urn”). They allow us to experience the emotion and drama that’s a part of not just the human experience but the experience of all life, of every sentient creature. And in the end, they’re just awesome. Really, seeing an ibex effortlessly scale a sheer cliff or watching the stunningly beautiful courtship ritual of the western grebe is just a truly amazing, indescribable experience – it just makes you happy to be alive, happy to exist in this glorious, impossible, beautiful, incomprehensible world of ours.
11. Wreckorder - Fran Healy
It is absolutely criminal how little recognition Fran Healy gets. His band Travis played an arguably more influential role in creating the modern rock and indie scenes than anyone else – but no one acknowledges it. And he has written some of the best songs of the past two decades (just listen to “Funny Thing,” “Luv,” “As You Are,” “Slideshow,” or “Why Does It Always Rain On Me”) – but no one really knows them. So neither the obscurity nor the brilliance of Wreckorder, the solo debut album Healy released in October, was surprising to me. Really, from the seemingly simple but harmonically complex upbeat pop of “Buttercups” and “Anything” to the melancholic folk of “Rocking Chair” to the syncopated rhythms and brilliant vocals of “Sing Me to Sleep” (which features Neko Case), Wreckorder is just a fantastic musical experience. For me, though, the album’s best track is “As It Comes,” a song whose relatively simple harmonic and melodic structure are elevated by a fantastic backing track (featuring an absolutely perfect bass line from Paul McCartney, which creates a beautiful counterpoint with the vocals while still reinforcing the song’s rhythm) that gives this story of an elderly couple a sort of blackly humorous tone. Now I admit, I didn’t really know Fran Healy’s music too well until I saw him concert in October 2009 and again in August 2010, but honestly, the man is a musical icon, and, with music as good as this, it’s a real pity that so few people are listening.
10. Francois Truffaut’s Les 400 Coups
This film is an intensely personal story about the pain of adolescence, and its every aspect serves to underscore that central theme: the harsh black and white cinematography, the intense realism of the filmic style, Truffaut’s directorial juxtaposition of fluid motion with restrictive stasis, the detached performance of Jean-Pierre Léaud as Antoine, the screenplay laden with elements of youthful social disaffection and sexual awakening – all emphasize the very real angst of coming of age. But honestly, that’s not why I love this film so much. What I think it really remarkable about this film is its sheer beauty. From the film’s opening shots of Paris through the windows of a moving car to its iconic final zoom to freeze-frame shot of Antoine on the beach, Truffaut’s elegant and nuanced direction transforms the child protagonist’s visceral pain into an ecstatic aesthetic experience for the viewer. And that’s really what elevates Les 400 Coups. That’s what makes it such a truly incredible, artful film. So even though Truffaut’s masterpiece turned 51 years old in 2010, its intensely personal thematic core and its exquisite formal beauty most definitely represented a significant artistic experience for me when I saw it for the first time this past year.
9. Night Train - Keane
Most people have an absolute disdain for Keane and everything they represent. I don’t. I honestly think that Keane are the best band making music today. It’s true, they are decidedly mainstream. Their lyrics are (I admit) a little trite. They haven’t got any sort of hipster credibility. They’re not even remotely alt. But their music is some of the best out there today, and their 2010 EP Night Train is the perfect example of that. “Back in Time” is a complex track that presents variations on an established theme, turning a relatively simple harmonic progression into a truly brilliant piece of music. The crisp guitar textures and masterfully performed falsetto passages of “Clear Skies” elevate the an interesting (if relatively basic) musical structure. And “Your Love” uses 80’s synths not just to flesh out the absolutely gorgeous melody but to manifest the lyrics’ sense of elegiac longing. Now, Night Train isn’t a cohesive album; it’s not meant to be. But it is a collection of some fantastic songs that represent everything I love about Keane. Because, for me, music isn’t about atmosphere or alt cred or even rhythms or lyrics or any of the things that most seem to think are the fundamental constituents of good music - it’s about structure and technique, notes and chords, melody and harmony, performance and execution. And I think Keane embodies that sort of music more completely than anybody else. They’re my favorite band. And I’m not ashamed to say it.
8. David Tennant in Hamlet
This is honestly one of the most riveting, compelling performances I have ever seen by any actor in any role. Tennant’s physical and manic performance in this Royal Shakespeare Company production (which was staged in 2008 but aired on PBS in April 2010) masterfully and captivatingly evinces Hamlet’s anger, pain, doubt, and madness. And Tennant never gets lost in the poetry – he gives even the most familiar passages an air of improvisation and reality. Really, his Hamlet is just profoundly real in a way that most Hamlets aren’t. And his thematic interpretation of Hamlet is pretty much the manifestation of the way I’ve always interpreted the character in the play’s text – as a man who desperately desires some measure of agency and wants simply to act in some meaningful way, but is constrained by his doubt and crippled by his uncertainty, even to the point of madness. Of course, there were things about this production of which I wasn’t too fond – like the security camera conceit, or the exclusion of my favorite lines from the play (“since no man, of / aught he leaves, knows what is’t / to leave betimes, let be”). But, on the whole, this is, for me, the definitive Hamlet. And experiencing it was a definite cultural highlight of 2010. I only wish I could’ve seen it performed live.
7. Anna Netrebko in La Traviata
I’ve been pretty much in love with Anna Netrebko since I first heard her 2003 debut album Opera Arias. It’s true, her technique isn’t always exactly what you’d expect from an international opera star. But her stage presence is remarkable, and her timbre is the richest, most beautiful I have ever heard from any singer. In a very real way, she represents the absolute pinnacle of what opera really is: the union of theatre and music, the artistic marriage of sight and sound, the complete aesthetic experience. And her performance as Violetta in this 2005 Salzburg Festival production of La Traviata (my favorite Verdi opera, and one of my favorite operas in general) is the synthesis of all those elements that make her such a fantastic opera singer: she owns the role of Verdi’s doomed courtesan both musically and dramatically, embodying the character’s vitality and sexiness in a way that so many sopranos simply haven’t. Take the Act I finale, for instance: Netrebko’s phrasing is nuanced and absolutely perfect; her breath control is magnificent; her acting is fantastic; and even though she doesn’t go for the coloratura passages, her vocal performance is rich and fluid and powerful and vulnerable and beautiful and, I think, utterly unparalleled. So even though this production of La Traviata is already five years old, how could experiencing the brilliant performance of my favorite opera singer in my favorite opera for the first time not be a musical highlight of 2010 for me?
6. Mt. Desolation
I’ve got to say, I don’t generally like today’s country music scene. From Keith Urban to Taylor Swift to Carrie Underwood, it all seems to me like pop just disguised as something else. What’s great about country music – real country music – is how truly real, how spontaneous, how genuine it is. Really, it’s American folk music. And that folk sensibility is something that I think has been mostly lost. So it’s absolutely fantastic (and ironic) that British band Mt. Desolation has attempted to re-embrace that fundamentally American country tradition of Bill Monroe and Hank Williams and Patsy Cline with their eponymous debut album, which was released in October 2010. Really, songs like “Departure,” “The Midnight Ghost,” and (hidden track) “Halo of Fireflies” embody that spontaneous, unpretentious country aesthetic – from the traditional melodic and harmonic structures to the wholly acoustic instrumentation to the vocal styles to the decidedly rough production values, this is real American country music. But what makes Mt. Desolation an even more remarkable album is its combination of imitation and originality, of tradition and innovation. Yes, Mt. Desolation embrace the structures and techniques of classic American country, but they bring a unique (and complex) musical sensibility to these traditional forms. That’s why their songs feel both old and new, both familiar and exciting, both carefully crafted and exhilaratingly raw. And that’s why, in spite of general feelings towards country music, Mt. Desolation was my favorite album of 2010.
5. The Photography of Robert Doisneau
Robert Doisneau was a technical genius – his photographs are some of the most brilliantly composed I’ve seen from any photographer. But, honestly, that’s not the main reason that I love his photography. For me, the true brilliance of Doisneau’s work lies in its expression of a profound love for life and the sense that, by capturing the spontaneous miracle of every instant, we can somehow grant to even the most fleeting moments a sort of artistic permanence. That, I think, is the soul of photography - the recognition of the immeasurable art and beauty of each transient moment. And we see that in “Le baiser de l’hôtel de ville,” we see that in “Paris la nuit,” we see that in “Coiffeuses au soleil,” we see that in “La pluie d’été.” Doisneau said that ”there are days when simply seeing feels like happiness itself…you feel so rich, the elation seems almost excessive and you want to share it.” And that encapsulates what I love about his work (and photography in general). And that’s why, when I first encountered his work in 2010, he pretty much instantly became my new favorite photographer.
4. Friday Night Lights
I’d never really felt too much of an inclination to watch this show before I decided to give it a try on Netflix just before Christmas. I don’t know why, I guess I though it looked banal and formulaic and essentially vacuous. But I couldn’t have been more wrong. In a lot of ways, this show reminds me of Mad Men: from its masterful writing and brilliant acting to its meticulous recreation world of small-town Texas, Friday Night Lights is a similarly immersive and moving dramatic experience for the viewer. And how can you argue with its premise? There is, I think, a certain drama to football that you can’t find in any other sport, and Friday Night Lights encapsulates that masterfully. Where this show really excels, though (and where, I think, it’s even superior to Mad Men) is in its incredible emotional richness. Really, Friday Night Lights seems to understand all the tragedy and victory, sorrow and joy, pain and pleasure, hate and love of our human experience, and that’s why there’s a sort of exaggerated realism to its characters and situations, an intensely real emotional reality that makes it a profoundly emotionally rewarding experience in a way that few other shows are. So really, Friday Night Lights is not some formulaic drama or banal teen soap opera – it’s a truly great TV show, and a really fantastic dramatic and emotional experience.
3. Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal
“And when the Lamb had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour.” It’s from that passage from the book of Revelation that The Seventh Seal gets its title, and it’s that “silence in heaven” – the silence of God – that lies at the film’s heart. How can we put our faith in a God who refuses to show himself to us in any meaningful way in our lives? What place is there for God in an existence defined by the certainty of death? How could we possibly make sense of death and all the ugliness of the human experience without God? Really, those are the questions that this fundamentally mediaeval (when I say mediaeval, I don’t just mean in terms of its setting or characters – I mean truly mediaeval, in terms of its iconography, its dialogue, its concerns) filmic allegory seeks to address. And Bergman treats that essentially philosophical thematic core with an artistic sensibility of astounding nuance, depth, and beauty: from the high-contrast black and white cinematography, to the cryptic and multi-layered dialogue, to such carefully composed, iconic, and haunting images as the chess match between Death and Antonius Block, the flagellant procession, and the chillingly beautiful totentanz (dance of death) of the film’s final frames, every aspect of The Seventh Seal is both a philosophical component of the film’s allegory and an aesthetic element of its incredible artistry. And the scene with the milk and strawberries is, I think, one of the most exquisitely perfect scenes ever recorded on film: when Antonius Block shares with Jof and Mia a sort of communion of fresh milk and wild strawberries, it’s both an allegorical representation of the possibility of reconciling the difficulties of religious faith with the ugliest realities of the human experience and a scene of stunning complexity, delicacy, grace, and beauty. Really, I think that The Seventh Seal is the best film of all time. And though it originally came out in 1957, its timeless allegory and transcendent beauty were just as fantastic a cinematic experience for me when I first saw it in 2010 as I imagine they would’ve been 53 years ago.
2. LOST Series Finale - “The End” (Spoilers)
LOST, I think, was always about the question of whether or not all the pain and loss that the castaways experience on the island (and we as humans experience in our own lives) can ever have any sort of meaning, of whether or not our suffering can be redeemed. And “The End” didn’t answer that question with science or faith or any aspect of LOST’s vast mythology – it answered it with the assertion that human relationships, not some ineffable good, imbue suffering with lofty meaning. So, really, “The End” re-contextualized of all of LOST, reframing virtually every aspect of the show up to that point and establishing a cohesive worldview for the show in a way that no other ending could have: it gave the complex mythology a thematic purpose, representing both the culmination of not only the characters’ experiences on the island but also our own experiences with the series, and our own realization, along with the characters, that the only true sources of meaning in a strange, harsh, inscrutable world are the relationships that our experiences in that world allow us to form. And “The End” did all of that with stunning formal beauty - from the poignant recollection scenes to Jack’s heart-breaking yet uplifting death (which I think is the most poetic and beautiful death scene ever set on film), the acting, writing, direction, and music made the LOST series a finale a truly rewarding emotional and aesthetic experience. Really, it cemented LOST’s place in my mind as a work of truly great art, whose mind-boggling complexity serves to illuminate a truth that is both beautifully simple and eminently profound - as the most fundamental truths ultimately are.
If you’ve even taken a cursory glance at the rest of this blog, this one should be obvious. Community is masterfully written. It’s brilliantly acted. It’s clever, it’s warm, it’s hilariously funny. And it’s prodigiously intelligent. Really, at its core, Community is making a very serious and philosophically complex point: that there are some things that transcend reality. Our senses are fallible, our reason is limited, and we can’t truly know the world in which we find ourselves, not in any absolute way. But we can know our experiences, our relationships, and our very selves. And, Community seems to say, if we embrace those – and if we embrace the profound emotional truth that we can only find in other people, in a community – maybe we can perceive more fundamental truths, discern a more real reality, live a more meaningful existence. That, I think, is what Community is really about. And that’s why we get episodes like Contemporary American Poultry or Modern Warfare or Epidemiology or Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas - these intensely real emotional stories juxtaposed with absurdly outlandish situations manifest the idea that our internal truths are more meaningful and more real than the ‘truths’ of any external standard. And no other show on television could even approach such a complex philosophical topic, let alone express it so artfully and so hilariously. Community’s whole, though, is greater than the sum of all of its intellectual, dramatic, and aesthetic parts. With its brilliantly talented ensemble cast and writing that deftly balances character development with some pretty bizarre scenarios, effortlessly combines prodigious intellect - its culturally hyper-literate pop-culture referencing, its deft meta-commentary, its fantastically clever writing, and its thoughtful examinations of fundamental problems of the human experience - with genuine heart in a way that I have never seen before on television or, honestly, in any medium. It’s an intellectual, emotional, and aesthetic experience like no other. And that’s why I don’t just think it’s the best TV show ever – I think it’s truly great art.
I haven’t been too fond of the weather lately - it’s been bitterly cold, windy, and generally awful. But today was PERFECT Christmas weather: (relatively) warm, with big snowflakes drifting slowly to the ground, the air absolutely still and unbroken, and only the chirping of birds disturbing the otherwise absolute silence. Today was honestly the kind of day that makes me love winter.
Dan Harmon called me "quite the insightful viewer/blogger" -
I can’t even express how happy that made me. The man is a genius. And honestly, it’s such an amazing privilege for me to have to opportunity to write about such a brilliant and artful show.
We’re SO sure about SO much, aren’t we? It’s astonishing, really. We’re sure that the sun shines because of the nuclear fusion of hydrogen into helium at its core, that chlorophyll makes leaves green, and that there’s no such thing as unicorns. We’re sure that God is who we think he is, that we’ll go to hell if we don’t go to church every sunday, and that hamsters don’t have immortal souls. We’re sure that plastic menus are lame, that the 7 and 7 is a high school girls’ drink, and that you should NEVER put ice in an aged scotch. Really, we’re all sure, on at least some level, that science or religion or some cultural paradigm of what it means to be cool can tell us pretty much everything there is to know about the vast cosmos in which we find ourselves. Because whether it’s an absolute faith in the inductive (and, as Hume shows us, subsequently unreliable) conclusions of the scientific method or an absolute faith in the idiosyncrasies of some religious creed or an absolute faith in just how objectively awesome we think we are, we’ve all got some decidedly strict conception of the world and of the human experience. We’ve all got some rigid framework that (ostensibly) illuminates our otherwise inscrutable existence. And we hold fast to those conceptions and those frameworks with every ounce of our intellectual strength, constantly believing that the vast expanse of reality truly is entirely contained therein.
But are there more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies? A lot of people seem to think that “Mixology Certification” is a sort of “very special episode” about the dangers of alcohol and all that – and I suppose that view isn’t entirely unfounded, at least in a superficial sense. But “Mixology Certification” isn’t REALLY about alcohol at all; rather, it’s about knowledge. Really, I think, it’s a philosophical examination of the problem of knowledge, and whether we actually can know quite as much about life and about the world as we all think we do.
When the study group find out that it’s Troy’s 21st birthday and decide to go to a bar to celebrate, the entire experience becomes an intense sort of bildung for Troy, and he has to figure out what it really is to be mature, what it really is to be a man (or woman). Is it submitting our consciousness to some strict scientific or religious or cultural worldview? Is it knowing that there’s no such thing as unicorns, or that hamsters don’t have immortal souls, or that plastic menus are lame? Jeff and Britta think that it is, and Troy thinks that they’re the shit. So he’s convinced that he HAS to know the coolest bars and the coolest drinks, that he HAS to conceive of how he ought to think and how he ought to act in terms of some overarching framework. Troy’s always been defined by a such a sincere wonder at life and the world and everything that exists therein – his subjective consciousness, unburdened by any pedantic obsession with making manipular attempts to construct or realize an objective reality, is open to anything and everything, existing in perfect harmony with an infinite unknown. Really, his is a truly open mind, a mind for which there’s no certainty but rather infinite possibility, no crushing weltschermz but rather boundless astonishment. But he’s 21 years old, now. He thinks that that sort of epistemological and phenomenological openness is childish, and that he has to eschew it in favor of an absolute subordination to an external standard of what is and isn’t real, what is and isn’t true. That, he thinks, is what it is to be mature. That’s what it is to be a man. And he bases all his ideas about life and about the world on that belief.
And that’s the doxa to which we all cling, isn’t it? We all think that it’s foolish and childish and stupid to be really, truly, sincerely open. To be genuinely open, after all, is to eschew all the philosophical assumptions that underlie virtually every aspect of every day of our quotidian existences. It’s to forgo all our preconceived notions about the world and about the human experience, all our conceptions of reality and all our frameworks for perceiving it. Because when you think about it, we can’t have any real certainty in any of those conceptions or frameworks. Reality’s certainly not (necessarily) what we perceive with our senses, as Descartes shows us. And Kant shows us that the noumenal reality is essentially out of the reach of our phenomenal consciousness. Our senses are fallible. Our rational consciousness is limited. In the end, reality in itself is fundamentally unknowable to us. We can adopt sets of assumptions – our conceptions of reality, from faith in science to faith in god to faith in being awesome – that make looking at and talking about an ultimately unknowable world a bit easier, but, really, we can have no accurate knowledge of what exists in the world in which we find ourselves. All we can ever truly know is our own selves and our own experiences of our world. Really, when you think about it, that’s it. We can’t know whether or not what we perceive exists as we perceive it, but, still, we perceive it. Our experiences of the world might be inaccurate, but they are fundamentally real in a way that nothing else is. In the end, they’re all we have. So on a very fundamental level, we’re the masters of our own universes – we’re essentially limitless persons in a limitless cosmos, infinite beings at one with an infinite unknown. We can exist in an absolute epistemological darkness and be absolutely fine with that.
But for some reason, we desperately, desperately want to illuminate that darkness. Our self-awareness creates in us this belief that we occupy a crushingly bounded place in the context of a boundless cosmos, and we just can’t stand that. That’s the curse of our humanity, what Emerson called the unhandsomest part of our condition – we seem to have some primordial conception of ourselves as finite individuals in an infinite world, and we HATE that. So we hate the infinite. We hate the darkness. We hate the unknown. And we seem to think that by trying to define the infinite and describe the darkness and categorize the unknown, maybe we can know them, understand them, destroy them. So we create and adopt these frameworks for perceiving reality, frameworks that ostensibly delineate what is and isn’t real, what is and isn’t true. And we pretend that there is no unknown, that our reality as bounded as we think we are. Science tells us that everything is limited by the constraints of physical possibility. Religion tells us that everything is limited by divine omnipotence. Society tells us that everything is limited by an arbitrarily complex set of socio-cultural standards. And we listen. We listen with rapt attention, and we’re totally convinced that unicorns really aren’t real, that hamsters really don’t have immortal souls, and that plastic menus really are lame. Basically, we limit ourselves. We bound the first-person ontology of our subjective consciousnesses with a crushingly finite third-person ontology that shackles our boundless internal reality with external chains.
And that’s exactly what Jeff and Britta do, exactly what Troy thinks he HAS to do. They define everything about themselves in terms of some baseless and capricious paradigm of coolness. They think that they know everything, from which bar is the best, to which drinks are the lamest, to whether or not the Hurt Locker would be good recast as a radio play. And they dispense advice and argue passionately about anything and everything with a sort of ersatz authority that makes them pretty insufferable (though, to be fair, pretty awesome, as well). They’re shallow and petty and pedantic. They know nothing about life or about the world, and they don’t even know that they know nothing about life or the world. Basically, they’re the worst. But there’s also a deeper component to their issues, an ontological and phenomenological alienation that creates for them an intense sort of existential angst. Because really, by forgoing the first-person ontology of their subjective consciousnesses in favor of the third-person ontology of arbitrary cultural standards, they’re fundamentally isolating themselves from everything in the world that really matters – most saliently, their experiences and even their selves. In a very real way, they’re denying their very selfhood, denying that they even exist. That’s why they’re defined by such ontological doubt and phenomenological vacuity – they don’t have anything real or meaningful on which to rely, so they have to grasp futilely at the illusory shadows of external, objective certainty.
And that’s why their trip the Ballroom descends into a bout of bickering and self-loathing and general unpleasantness. And for Troy, that’s the best sort of bildung possible, because it is for him an elucidation of what it truly is to be mature, what it truly is to be a man. It’s not, ultimately, knowing that there’s no such thing as unicorns or that hamsters don’t have immortal souls or that plastic menus are lame. It’s not really knowing anything. Instead, it’s simply knowing that we know nothing. That’s the founding claim of Western thought, and, as Troy realizes, it’s the pinnacle of human wisdom. Jeff and Britta aren’t just as dumb as Troy – they’re dumber, because they simply can’t accept that profound and lofty truth. We can never have any real certainty in anything we perceive with our senses, nor can we really be sure of the capabilities of our reason. We can’t rely on science or religion or any social idea of coolness to offer us any absolute knowledge of our world or our existence. All we have is ourselves and our experiences, and all we can really do is wonder at the vast unknown. There is no certainty, no impossibility – there’s only us and the empyrean sky above our heads.
So who’s to say that the sun shines because of the nuclear fusion of hydrogen into helium at its core or that chlorophyll makes leaves green or that there’s no such thing as unicorns? Who’s to say that that God is who we think he is or that we’ll go to hell if we don’t go to church every sunday or that hamsters don’t have immortal souls? Who’s to say that plastic menus are lame or that the 7 and 7 is a high school girls’ drink or that you shouldn’t put ice in an aged scotch? No one, I think. As Wittgenstein says, wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen. There’s an entire world out there beyond the reach of our intellectual grasp, and to pretend that we can speak about it or think about it in any real or meaningful way is just to delude ourselves. Yes, our conceptions of reality and our frameworks for perceiving the world are an important and even necessary part of our human experience – they are, after all, the foundation of pretty much every aspect of our quotidian existences, and on a practical level, we’d be utterly lost without them. But they can never truly illuminate the darkness. They can never reveal to us any absolute truth. And they can NEVER give us any meaningful certainty. And to forget that, Community seems to say, is to be truly ignorant. We’re boundless creatures in a boundless cosmos, and we’re capable of limitless phenomenological power. We can attain infinity’s lofty heights; we can reach its olympian peaks.
We just have to remember that ancient and eternal wisdom, that profound and simple truth - that we know nothing.