Come the Zombie Apocalypse: On Love, Revenge, and Standing-In

November 17, 2010

I may very well have experienced a new zenith in my professorial dignity on Monday when, comparing Bel-Imperia's attitude towards romance in The Spanish Tragedy to the TV series The Walking Dead, I found myself uttering these words:

I guess the take-home message of today's class is that, come the zombie apocalypse, love becomes a matter of standing-in, of substitution, of surrogation.

My students somehow felt it was perfectly natural for the noble Bel-Imperia to slot Horatio into his dead best friend's role as her lover immediately upon hearing of the former beloved's death.

"Doesn't that strike you as a very ... utilitarian attitude towards love?", I asked.

"No!", they replied.  "Who else would you want your lover to end up with after you died but your best friend?"

"Hmm," I said.  "So in The Walking Dead we feel perfectly sympathetic with the cop protagonist's wife taking up with his partner when she thinks her husband is either in a permanent coma or zombified?"

"No," some shot back, instantly.  "That's awful.  How could she betray him like that?  And so soon after the zombie mayhem started!!"

"But ZOMBIES have taken over the earth!," others cried.  "We all need to band together however we can! Who can blame her for seeking solace an assistance, someone to replace her husband?  She's just trying to SURVIVE."

"Well, that's how Bel-Imperia feels," I said.  "The disintegration of the system of aristocratic justice is her zombie apocalypse.  But it is still utilitarian - she is just as interested in the role to be filled as she is in who fills it.  Love becomes a tool for revenge, and both love and revenge are entirely based on structures of standing-in."


"It was better in the comic," said my students.  "The TV show totally ruined it."

Making the ice icy

I'm obsessed with Canadian reality tv show Battle of the Blades, in which (ex-)professional hockey players are taught how to figure skate with top-calibre female ice dancers or pairs skaters.  How could I not be?  I mean, look at it:

First: I defy you not to weep as you remember the tragic beauty of Gordeeva and the late lamented Grinkov.  But look how happy she is now.  Secondly: Katia and her hockey player Val went to the same Russian athletic academy as children.  It is clearly icy fate that has brought them together.  Thirdly, bear in mind that Val has only been figure skating for a month when he performs this.  A month in which all his years of accumulated confidence on the ice were abruptly crushed and then rebuilt.

I may even have used it as a way to explain defamiliarization to the students of my theatre class during our discussion of Brecht the other day.  The same class featured a preliminary analysis of this week's episode of Glee as theatricalist television (I swear to you, one of my students said, "What's Glee?".  Three of her classmates immediately responded, simultaneously and before a single beat had elapsed, "The best show EVER."  Really: they all used exactly the same phrase.  It was eerie.), an account of my brief appearance as an extra on the now-defunct Joan of Arcadia to demonstrate the anxiety that results from reversing the spectatorial gaze, and a moment in which I held up a long strip of sour fruit ribbon candy and compared it to Brecht's concept of "culinary theatre," or theatre that sells you an ephemeral experience of emotion without arousing critical distance, intellectual engagement, or the desire to change the world.  I could just hear their internal monologues: "She brought us candy, which is awesome, but then she turned it into a metaphor for Brecht, which is not.  How could she do this to us?".

Anyway, our minds soon turned to the question of Verfremdungseffekt (imprecisely translated into English as alienation or estrangement, words which have an unwarranted tinge of hostility to them, since Brecht is actually advocating for Verfremdung as a goal of socially conscious art).

"You may have heard about this in your other literature classes under the name 'defamiliarization,' which is what the Russian Formalists called it," I said to my students, all the while chewing, cow-like, on my strip of culinary theatre, "Defamiliarization is an experience of reversal and realization: when something you thought you knew (and had stopped examining closely) is made unfamiliar, and you look at it with new eyes.  The idea being that what art does is defamiliarize the world, forcing us to slow down and reconsider our assumptions and take pleasure in the overlooked."

(My colleague would later remind me of the lovely quotation from Viktor Shklovsky's 1917 essay "Art as Technique": "Habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one's wife, and the fear of war... And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony.  The technique of art is to make objects 'unfamiliar'... to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.")

"Or from Brecht's perspective, the Verfremdungseffekt forces us to recognize the ideologies that govern aspects of society that we think of as 'natural' and unchangeable.  You might think," I went on, feeling from the stoniness of their stares that perhaps I was succeeding in increasing the difficulty and length of my students' perception of Brecht, "of Battle of the Blades."

Incredulous titters.  I power through.

"Defamiliarization is a hockey player who, after decades of confidence on the ice, puts on a pair of figure skates and suddenly not only realizes the difficulty of simple skating techniques (he hasn't been this clumsy since he was four years old, and what the hell is this toepick?), but also begins to question the nature of his self-confidence, the way he has grounded his whole personality on his skating abilities, and the ideologies that undergird his celebrity, his disdain for other ice sports, his sense of masculinity, his devotion to technique and hard work and training, or the way he relates to his own body."

Oh, Georges Laraque, how I adore thee.  Be sure to watch to the part of the video in which they detail how he was injured in practice doing the most demanding trick of the routine and immediately came back to perform it again.  Also note the peculiar character of the judging is a Verfremdungseffekt: there is always at least one judge who is a former hockey player on hand to comment disbelievingly that someone who once regularly bludgeoned the #^%$ out of him is now so graceful on the ice.

The player who was eliminated after this night's show asked the host if he could say something, after it became clear he was going home.  Here's what it was, in all its defamiliarized glory:
"In Canada, we prejudge and stereotype figure-skating a lot.  And what we've learned in the last little while, or I have, is, uh, all the hard work and dedication that these people have, but it's going on in every rink across Canada.  So from all the hockey guys, we tip our hats to every kid taking this - it's an amazing sport, and we've learned a lot."

What in me is dark illumine, what is low raise and support

Netflix has finally come to Canada, albeit solely in its digital form, and dove-like it sits brooding over the vast abyss of my evening, and makest it pregnant with a new addiction.  The streaming quality, for me at least, is impeccable, the selection of films and shows not by any means exhaustive but certainly tempting (and very different from the American digital catalogue, as far as I can tell).  And tonight it brought me the complete first season of Justified, which I have been itching to get my hands on since it made a serious splash last spring.

The premise is this: Marshall Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) has a bad habit of shooting people.  They know what's coming to them.  His targets are routinely criminals, and he always puts it to them bluntly: you have a choice here, he says, resist and you will die.  Argue and you will die.  Do anything unexpected and you will die.  Submit to my will, and you'll have your life.  The choice is theirs.  But, damn 'em, they keep choosing wrong. So he loses his job in Miami and has to move back to Harlan County, Kentucky (of documentary fame), site of a coal-mining past and grifting father he has no desire to revisit.

My first thought after watching the pilot?  "Wait... so Timothy Olyphant can act?"  He is brilliant here - a model of self-deprecating subtlety.  You can see every emotion flash across his face, succeeded swiftly by the next one.  Where was this when he was Seth Bullock in Deadwood, a character so woodenly acted that you resigned yourself to viewing his strong-jawed beauty as compensation for a lack of depth?  What's more, Bullock is a character identical in every broad-stroke feature to Raylan Givens - his almost puritanical self-control (over his sexuality, his anger, his symbolic status as the law), his quiet magnetism, his conflicted devotion to the way of justice in all its murky glory.  But Olyphant plays the part completely (completely, I tell you) differently.  Bullock was interesting, but only in apposition with Al Swearengen, the Lord of Misrule, Chaos turned to the cause of Order.  Raylan, by contrast, has all the anxious care of a Jimmy Stewart mind trapped in a John Wayne persona: the lethal fist in the ethical glove.

My first thought after the second episode: this is very well written.  It still has a procedural feeling at this point - each episode ensnaring him in a different crime and its punishment - but you can feel the individuality of each secondary character, and you can sense the weight of Raylan's worries, along with his largely successful attempts to hide them.  Every scene is about big things (justice, violence, the debts of friendship and the duties of morality) and small things (how you wear a hat, how you spot a fake neo-Nazi by the way he unconsciously rubs his shaved head, as if he doesn't really remember that hair is gone).  This is the combination of detail and intellectual complexity that mediocre shows miss completely.

It is good enough to have me quoting Milton, whom I left graduate school with a profound and vehement hatred for.  But there is something distinctly Miltonic going on here, with Raylan insistence on the choice that his criminal targets retain -- a choice of theirs that conveniently relieves him of the ethical burdens of having shot them.  It is a choice that absolves him of choice.  "They drew first," he repeatedly finds himself saying, in the great dusty Western tradition, "It was justified."  But, of course, this is a word which has defensive anxiety built into its very connotations.  To be justified is not to be just.   It is to have formulated or discovered a just explanation, after the fact.

What Raylan has to do in every episode so far  is justify the ways of the gun to men.  And we have already seen these ways in terrible conflict with his other values: friendship, family, sexual attraction, his career (which demands the most justification from him: even though his job as an enforcer depends on the association between the Way of the Law and the Way of the Gun, this power, according to his bosses, should largely be exercised through restraint), and even love.

In the first episode, he tells his ex-wife about a shooting from the first five minutes of the show.  "But he pulled first," he says, casually, looking down at his beer and avoiding her face, "So I was justified."  There is a pause, and then: "But what troubles me ... is what if he hadn't?"  Raylan had given him twenty-four hours to get out of town, or he would die.  "What if he just sat there and let the clock run out?  Would I have killed him anyway? I know I wanted to.  I guess I just never thought of myself as an angry man."  His ex laughs: "Raylan: You do a good job of hiding it, and I suppose most folks don't see it, but, honestly, you're the angriest man I've ever known."  An expression flits across his face that says he didn't sneak into his ex-wife's house at midnight to receive this particular assessment of his character.

So maybe I have the wrong epic invocation.  Maybe this show demands a muse who will sing of wrath, and the countless ills it brings....