I used to be bad, but now I'm good
Subjects discussed: Blogging (the hobby), Game of Thrones, social media (the identity), TÁR, Pinegrove, video game OSTs
“Blogging” is not yet an entry in some future compendium of long forgotten millennial ephemera, though it’s hard to take any purported resurgence very seriously. Even august publications latching onto the newsletter trend refuse to call it what it is; “let me figure it out” rarely works when asking editors to give you an assignment, or asking readers to treat you as an authority, but it’s the whole point of quickly dumping your thoughts into the CMS and hitting publish before doubt or dithering sets in. For the last year I’ve been enmeshed in writing projects that take weeks or months or even years at a time, so let me tell you about the near physical pleasure I felt upon whipping up my most recent newsletter, the first in over a year, in about an hour and sending it out like it didn’t even matter, which it didn’t.
On the other hand is a downside I’m always thinking about: The folksy and pompous elevation of my regular life into something extraordinary, for you to know and care about. The downfall of the ‘00s bloggers whose journaling I consumed in college was a presumption that a readers would find their personal details de facto fascinating, for example the invocation of the royal we were I to say something as factual as: “We’ve been watching Game of Thrones.” Well, who is we? Why is it interesting you’re watching Game of Thrones? Why am I even reading this? I’m overthinking it by half but I want the blog to resist declarative smugness about my day-to-day particulars being oh-so interesting; I have no capacity to channel the force of will required for windswept personal essays built on the belief that I, alone, am the genius with the thoughts and feelings worth taking seriously. Instead, I hit publish with a modest proposal: Please, sir. Please, hear me out. Please, spare an ounce of time for a distracted man staving off deadlines and to-do lists.
So, that said: We’ve been watching Game of Thrones. Second time for me, first time for my fiancée Jen. Jen has the best taste of anyone I know, and generally abhors nerd shit for the obvious reasons, so coaxing her into savoring the world of Westeros feels like an all-around win for the losers. Not that the most popular HBO show ever needs another adherent, but revisiting it has been a reminder of why it thrilled the first time around. Absent the bad ju-ju of the final season’s perceived letdowns, and given the ability to follow through on all the teases and connections in a compact viewing schedule, Game of Thrones is restored as one of the best shows of all-time. Maybe the best ensemble show ever, in terms of narrative diversity: so many types of characters, with so many worldviews and moral stances, are Up To Some Shit at any given moment, and thinking about why gives you more inroads into the breadth of the human experience than most serious dramas, even if it takes place in a world with dragons and zombies and blue-mouthed warlocks.
And sure, art doesn’t have to do anything, and in particular I don’t have any expectations for a television show beyond “do I want to keep going with this,” but it’s impressive how there are no ideological or temperamental duplicates across the character roster, how seamlessly they integrate new faces into the broader drama, how Chekhov’s Gun is always fired. We’re at my mom’s in Chicago for Thanksgiving, and in a quiet moment I picked up the first of George R.R. Martin’s novels off my old bedroom shelf. One thing I forgot about is how the show’s White Walkers were renamed from the book, where they’re called The Others — an obvious no-no given the villains of Lost, which had just concluded the year before Game of Thrones debuted. There’s a show that never fired Chekhov’s Gun, which we gave up on not long after revisiting the first few seasons, just as I predicted.
Season 2, where we’re now, is the formal introduction of Stannis Baratheon, one of the would-be kings vying for the Iron Throne. Stannis is a hard man with a bad haircut, a joyless executor concerned only with the rightness of things, whose fanaticism is encouraged by the witch Melisandre, one of the show’s only explicitly magical characters. Because the Iron Throne’s rightful claimant is such a grim, tense weirdo propped up by this suspiciously sexy foreigner, the show does a fairly good job of suggesting he won’t — or at least shouldn’t — end up on top, when this civil war is done and settled. But like everyone else, Stannis and Melisandre have a worldview worth taking seriously, even as it’s couched in casual fratricide and mystic mumbo-jumbo — especially since the audience for this worldview is often Davos Seaworth, the closest thing to a normal guy the show has, the most reasonable and least entitled character we’ve met so far.
“A good act does not wash out the bad, nor a bad act the good,” Stannis tells Davos midway through the season, during one of those dialogue-heavy two-handers the show would tilt away from, in its increasingly hurried later years. “A man is good, or he is evil," Melisandre tells Davos a few scenes later, right before she’s about to commit an act of what surely cannot be “good”: birthing a shadow demon to cross enemy borders and brutally assassinate Stannis’s brother, Renly. But there’s a surprising contrast in their demeanor. Stannis is grim and sober when he explains this more nuanced perspective, suggesting a man who’s weighed and internalized every bad act he’s done. And Melisandre, a self-declared Good Person, is uncharacteristically airy as she lectures Davos, clearly unbothered about the evil shit she’s about to carry out. Davos is a little stunned by the freedom of her outlook, but listening to Stannis reminds him why he’s chosen to follow what to us seems like a pitiless zealot. Maybe Stannis actually does have the proper personality to be king, the show suggests here, compared with psychotic Joffrey, brash Robb, indulgent Renly, and misanthropic Balon. Poor Ned Stark did support Stannis’ claim, not solely out of obligation or duty but also because Stannis was, he pointed out, a commander — someone conditioned to make tough but necessary decisions.
This 1-2 dissertation on the nature of man once again made me think about Twitter, and in particular how people use it to casually compete for the Good Person Award, weighing in on every little thing with no real impact besides announcing, to anyone who’ll hear, that they’ve divined the right and good stance on any particular issue. It’s not about left or right, as no political valence has a monopoly on self-righteousness. Maybe it’s the flicker of fear we all carry about whether our choices are correct, whether we’ve arrived at the right destination. It’s very difficult to feel meaningfully tethered to the surge of all there is to care about, but here is a way to establish a small dominion within an increasingly cruel world by announcing how we’d do things, were everybody to share our point of view. Most likely it’s just posting, the 10 seconds of conscious thought before yeeting into the void, but I wonder.
At worst you could say it’s naive inflexibility about the true way of things, an insistence on Good and Evil that only flatters the one insisting. Without getting into it I’m no believer in “cancel culture,” but sometimes you’ll see a party in the wrong offer what could very well be a sincere explanation for their behavior, only to be met with a resounding and dismissive “no.” Shame is no great inhibitor of people’s desire to move through life, so it’s not surprising when the unforgiven decide to take their chances with the market. My unscientific wager is that more people around the world think like Stannis, but the selective common ground of social media lends itself to the fanaticism of the Melisandres. Most meaningfully and terrifyingly, we’re seeing this in online right-wing spaces whipping themselves up into a frenzy about “grooming,” and hormone blockers, and drag shows, and the specter of pedophilia lurking around each corner, when every single piece of rational evidence points to something different — but then you weigh that against the registered Republicans who said they were put off by the howling anti-trans rhetoric. I was terrified about the midterms, but that was one spark of something hopey-changey: that after years of escalating violence, a plurality of Americans announced they don’t actually want to live their lives at a paranoid fever pitch about the lives of others. For now, I hope.
Speaking of which, it was a surprise to find that TÁR offered nothing as atrocious as a “take” on cancel culture (spoilers, I suppose, but I’ll be gentle), save for that hamfisted Julliard sequence where the queer POC woke scold both fails to make inroads against Lydia Tar’s advocacy for the canon and calls her a bitch. Over the last few years American media has waged an intractable debate about every single particular of cancellation, so maybe I should’ve anticipated that advance viewers would make too much of how Todd Field presents and judges our fictional protagonist’s transgressions. In fact, I thought he played the issue so remarkably down-the-line that a perfect litmus test is created for the audience, a means of gauging the viewer’s real-life politics through their interpretation of what happens to Lydia. (And now that I think about it, maybe my irritation at the Julliard sequence seeming too on the nose was by design, meant to cajole my reactionary tendencies into revealing themselves… perhaps… who can say…) I’ve talked to people who think she’s portrayed as a monster, period, and deserves no sympathy as her social and professional exiling plays out during the film. Then you have someone like Richard Brody, who savaged the movie on grounds it sympathized too much with Lydia, presenting her as a victim of the woke scolds and self-interested elites of high society.
The movie is careful enough that you can also read a version of events where she did nothing especially wrong but still woefully misplayed her hand through some combination of ego and exceptionalism, where just an inch more decency at any given step would’ve led to a better outcome — maybe she acknowledges one of Krista’s emails, or gives her wife a head’s up about the scandal, or promotes her assistant. It’s not that she’s a Bad Person but that she makes a series of bad decisions leading to worse outcomes, and once a version of a story comes out, nobody with a reputation is willing to untangle the potential intricacies. (“But trust me, my former student who I was sleeping with and later killed herself was legitimately crazy!” Lydia might rightfully insist, but good luck with that one.)
Crucially, we never actually see whatever she did to Krista, allowing us to imagine something very bad or something not great but certainly not CAREER-RUINING (whisper voice or is it, and am I out of touch?), which is essentially what plays out with every cancel-worthy scandal where the reported allegations are just vague enough. I’m thinking of the Pinegrove debacle, where one reaction I saw repeatedly in the aftermath of the various reporting was: “Wait, I don’t want to be cruel, but is that it?” And if you’re on Lydia’s side, which is perfectly understandable given one’s inclination to root for the magnificent and charismatic Cate Blanchett (and the fact that — get this — movies depict fictional events concerning characters whose actions we might not approve of in real life, but enjoy watching unfold on screen), “Wait, I don’t want to be cruel, but is that it?” could be where you land.
And Lydia is perhaps cancelled only because she alienates herself from all potential allies; it’s easy to see an alternate timeline where, buttressed by the presence of her promoted assistant and devoted wife and supporters in the orchestra, she successfully doubles down, insists she’s done nothing wrong, and lives to see the completion of her Mahler cycle. It’s truly stupid to wonder “what if” in a movie — “what if the thing I’m reviewing was something else entirely, that I’d like more” is the worst strain of modern criticism — but TÁR is so plausibly ripped from reality that I can’t help but map out hypotheticals of all the way something like this might unfold in real life. To me, what’s more interesting about the movie is how Field sidesteps the cancel culture debate to give an accounting of the emotional demands of genius. Lydia climbs to this position through sheer will and savvy politicking, but she loses the ability to see other people as anything but chess pieces to be maneuvered in service of her vision. The loss of her assistant’s attentiveness, and her wife’s allegiance, and the young cellist’s intimated flirtations, is profoundly unsettling — yet it’s only the ascension of Elliot Kaplan (Mark Strong), amateur conductor and former sycophant, that throws her into a violent rage. Of everyone else who abandons her, he’s the one with nothing to offer without her patronage, and so how dare he thrive without her?
But shame and decency don’t prevent Elliot from taking the stage, and trying to have his moment. This is what makes social media such a frustrating and demoralizing place: evidence, in the form of hundreds and thousands and millions of posts, that other people are living their life without your input, completely free of your standards for how they should behave or think. I say frustrating and demoralizing because the loci of hatred and stubbornness encountered by skimming any topic that rises above a niche concern can lead you (or at least me) to some bleak conclusions about the nature of man, but on the other hand it’s a way of broadening one’s strictured perspective. If so many other people, some of them intelligent and reasonable in their own right, see something different than you, then what’s the use of sticking to your personal dogma? We’re not totally masochistic, for submitting our attentions to the hell of other people, and if Twitter continues to coarsen and fall off I’ll miss losing the entry point so many other worlds I never would have encountered on my own.
The final act of TÁR is, I think, redemptive: Freed from the stuffy standards of polite society, and lowered far below the station she’s used to, Lydia reclaims her original love of music in Southeast Asia. Some critics have suggested the ending is humiliating and/or racist, as this once-great conductor is forced to ply her trade before a bunch of Asian gamers. But her willingness to play in these conditions, and the camera’s slow crawl across the happy cosplayers watching her conduct the Monster Hunter score (compared with the relatively faceless crowd at the New Yorker Festival), suggests liberation from her expectations, and a democratizing of the form she loves so much. In America, her work is accompanied by dozens of overlapping contexts and associations; halfway across the world, it’s just about the music, and the joy of experiencing it in a communal setting without judgment.
It’s easy to laugh at, but video game scores are probably the most widely enjoyed classical recordings in the world; every day, millions of people who know nothing about Mahler or Elgar or any of the figures venerated by Lydia and her kind play games like Elden Ring and Final Fantasy and The Legend of Zelda, and experience the internal emotions stirred up by a talented orchestra. The composers for those games likely had more rarefied aspirations, as students of their craft, before they found a way to share their passion with an audience they could have never anticipated or imagined. But what they’ve done is given regular people a means to be inspired by something you can’t put a name to, just as Lydia couldn’t when she sat in her childhood bedroom watching videos of Leonard Bernstein. She did many bad things, but here she inches toward the good, and the validity of that journey is definitely something you can’t easily appraise on social media.