The Long View 2003-04-16: Slayage

I never was into either Buffy or the West Wing, so I don't have much to add to John's comments regarding either. I do think the Matrix Reloaded didn't live up to the first Matrix, but that was a hard act to follow. It probably didn't help when Larry Wackowski exorcised his personal demons by turning into Lana. Maybe there is something for the theory of sublimation after all. Dark City, however, is one of my all-time favorite movies. The director, Alex Proyas, also helmed I, Robot, and the cult-classic The Crow. I'm not completely sure what I like so much about Dark City. I've always been into noir and art nouveau cityscapes. I might just have seen it at an impressionable time too.

I will say I always appreciated John's interest in pop culture and sci-fi. It made his personality far more interesting. The breadth of his interests always provided something to talk about.

Speaking of the West Wing, House of Cards would have been really fun to discuss with John. I always felt like the opening of House of Cards made Washington D. C. seem like the Imperial Capital it aspires to be.

Such is my isolation from popular culture, I actually thought that the last episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer would air last Tuesday. I was confirmed in this misapprehension by the equally clueless National Public Radio, which broadcast a piece that featured semioticians and media theorists with a keen interest in Buffy Studies. Forty-five minutes into the show that aired on May 13, I realized that either this was not the last episode, or the series was going to have an awfully feeble ending. Doomsday is next week. Of course.
Is the series worthy of analysis? Probably not, but here goes. Buffy marked the end of the Generation X period, or at least of Gen X as a teenage phenomenon. Buffy and her friends understood that the world is a dangerous place, but they abjured slackery. Rather, they set themselves to study necromancy and martial arts under Mr. Giles, the school librarian, in order to keep Hell from breaking loose. (Has anyone noticed how much Giles, in his Rupert the Ripper persona, resembles Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld? It's that smile.) The ethos of Buffy was not that of the Counter Culture, or punk, or hip hop, or even especially goth. Buffy and her friends don't want to be free; they just want ordinary lives. When last was that the theme of a fantasy series?
The series had aspects that have been too little praised or not blamed enough. Despite the show's reputation for popular-culture wit, what really made it work was that, every so often, it would produce a brilliant ghost story. The best, perhaps, was the Hush episode. In that one, the people of Sunnydale lose their voices; meanwhile, heart-stealing ghouls float about the town, ghouls that can be destroyed only by a scream. Generally, the writers don't seem to have done anything like the amount of research that went into Fox's Millennium series: that show used real horrors, or at least horrors that someone, somewhere, believed to be real. Buffy's enemies, in contrast, seem to have been made up from whatever the crew had to hand in the prop department. More seriously, the show had an implicit antipathy to Christianity. The writers have not done their research about that, either: the embodiment of evil in these final episodes talks like a Baptist, but wears a Roman collar.
The art of popular culture is important more for what it reports than for what it preaches, and on that basis we can take encouragement from Buffy's long campaign to keep the Hellmouth shut. If nothing else, the show did not insult the intelligence of its audience.
* * *
Leaving the youthful realism of Sunnydale, we come to the world of morbid delusion represented by The West Wing. Since the election of 2000, and even more since the Bush Administration found its footing after 911, President Josiah Bartlett in that show has been the real president for too many liberals. Every week, they could watch liberal policies challenged by reptilian Republicans, only to emerge victorious under the guidance of the Nobel Prize winning president and his whacky but devoted staff. (The dialogue is pretty snappy; it's a shame that we may hear less of it, now that two of the shows creators are leaving.)
The show preens itself on having the richest and best-educated demographics in broadcast television, at least for a fiction series. The writers do put the characters through the motions of debating real issues. The problem is that, as with applications of the philosophy of John Rawls, analyses that purport to be disinterested somehow always result in partisan conclusions. The show represents that kind of liberalism which really does not know there are serious positions other than its own.
The show's bigotry does not explain its shrinking audience, however: history does. Josiah Bartlett has remained all this time in Bill Clinton's world, where foreign affairs are a distraction from domestic issues, except when the US falls short of international norms. For better or worse, the Bush Administration has turned out to be more interesting than the Bartlett Administration. (For one thing, Bush appointed cabinet members with strong personalities, like Secretary Giles; see above.) Wednesday's conclusion of the season seems intended to remedy these deficits: on the eve of a Middle Eastern war, President Bartlett has recused himself under the 25th Amendment. In the absence of a Vice President (who resigned in an episode I missed), the Speaker of the House became Acting President. The part is played by the immensely fat John Goodman, who is no doubt the writers' image of a Republican.
To be fair, the real Speaker, Danny Hastert, is a bit on the chunky side, but then he is a former wrestling coach. In any case, I suspect the producers were not striving for verisimilitude. This is their idea of outreach.
* * *
So far, the reviews of The Matrix Reloaded I have seen are studies in measured disappointment. This was inevitable: The Matrix itself was so highly praised that simple self-respect required the critics to regard the sequel skeptically.
Perhaps because I lack a fashion sense, I never saw what all the fuss was about. Two other film fantasies about Gnostic illumination appeared at about the same time as The Matrix. One, The Thirteenth Floor, also took place in a virtual cyberworld, but it was a negligible film. The other, Dark City, was a surrealist masterpiece that the old UFA would have been proud of. If it has a cult, I have not heard of it.
This is not to say that I disliked The Matrix. I have every intention of seeing The Matrix Reloaded, too, just as soon as the DVD comes out.
Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly

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