Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Post-Modern American Horror Story: Part I

Since the end of Breaking Bad, I have been without hope for television. That Vince Gilligan epic was, without any doubt in my mind, the greatest thing to happen to television ever. Once it was over, I was naturally saddened by the possibility that I would never see its equal again. Still, you can find good TV on the screen today and American Horror Story is an interesting show that has piqued my interest for a number of different reasons.

So far, only six episodes in, neither the story nor the writing is anywhere near the caliber of what I saw in Breaking Bad, but that will be the last comparison between the two. Just as you can sit down and enjoy a good book without comparing it to the Bible or Shakespeare, I will try to do with all future TV shows and Breaking Bad. Nevertheless, there are several themes in this show that make it stand out and certainly make it worth watching.

Can We Believe in Ghosts Now?

American Horror Story revives the concept of a ghost story in 21st century America and does it better than I have seen any film or franchise do previously. It appears difficult to pull off a ghost story today, when religious faith has seemingly declined and people are apparently much more interested in material aspects of their lives rather than ghosts.

In the 1970s, the US was not exactly a bulwark of faith but there was enough residual spirituality and, in particular, Catholicism present in society to make the Exorcist a moving tale for a large number of people. They may not have believed wholeheartedly in all the strictures of whatever religion that they professed but they believed in the Devil.

But do enough people believe in such things anymore to make a ghost story viable in the world of entertainment, especially when the program turns its attention directly to the Book of Revelations and the Anti-Christ after just a few episodes? It turns out that the answer is yes if you adapt the ghosts and the Devil to fit modern tastes.

Mental Problems Are for Ghosts, Too

The story is centered around a psychiatrist and his family, which is threatened with division like so many other families in this country. There are many predictable ways in which this family resembles other American families. The threats to its unity are also recognizable for the most part.

However, this television show is striking because the ghosts that plague the family are not simply good or evil. They have mental problems. They suffer from depression and memories blocked by trauma. They see therapists and even take anti-depressants.

The Other Side Looks A Lot Like This Side

The most striking aspects of the show all have to do with the way that modern American culture is reflected. However, all shows naturally do this, except perhaps for those that try to depict prior periods of history.

American Horror Story stands out, in particular, because even its ghosts are much like the rest of us. They are married, they are gay, they are bereaved, they take prescription drugs, they go to the beach and they even have sex occasionally. Most notably, they seem just as confused as the rest of us living souls about what life and death mean.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Hiatus Explained

It has been a long time since I have posted. There are a few reasons for this hiatus.

I could say that I have been really busy. Since I last posted in March, I have jumped through all the hoops to get into nursing school, acquired a full-ride scholarship, completed 17 college credits and another nine credits in the first semester of the program. All, this time I have trained as a CNA and begun working 30-40 hours every weekend (Friday –Saturday) so that I could go to school full-time during the week. I also have four kids that need a certain amount of monitoring and intervention.

I also could say that I lost interest. Looking at blogs, most seem like pretty lame versions of Whitman’s barbaric yawp. Go back inside, I could say to most bloggers. No one wants to hear it. You’re boring. I had to include myself in that crowd of uninspiring bloggers. Really, who cares what supposedly sublime thoughts I may have about the latest Pope or a movie that I watched?

I have been a little more than depressed as well. I have been going through a divorce, against my will, which was finalized in June. Stubborn as I am, I refused to give up and am still in the process of mending fences with my now ex-wife. It is a day-to-day struggle which saps my strength and devastates my ego.

Furthermore, I had been living as a full-time content writer for a couple years, up until I began working a as CNA in August. The work was nerve-wracking because I had to write 5,000 words minimum every day just to get by. In addition, I rarely knew when I would have work and could not find enough time to do so. In short, I was a nervous wreck.

Work Relief

Finding full-time work as a CNA was an incredible relief. The work is very hard and there are regular periods of high-pressure. Nevertheless, it was pure joy to know that I had work every week. I also liked committing to 12 and 16-hour shifts and being simply absorbed by the job for virtually an entire day. There were no more questions about whether I would have work or not. And it was pleasant to see how my work was helping people. That was not something that I could feel while writing Internet content.

This may be the final post or it may be the first in a renewed series.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

We Are Really Post-John Paul II Now

As I watched the introduction of Pope Francis to the world, I realized that we were really past John Paul II for the first time. As an on-again, off-again Catholic, I felt a lot of things as I watched the unexpected changing of the popes through the last month. None of it was the juvenile bullshit that amateur atheists spout about one scandal or another. Even if I became a fervent hedonist and atheist, I would still admire the Church as something ancient and beautiful. Its roots extend deep into the historical subsoil and I do not resent that there is bad mixed in with the good. Its history is much more beautiful than the atomized and hopelessly immoral landscape ahead of us that many modern intellectuals seem to be so eagerly contemplating.

This realization about John Paul II was not much more than nostalgia transforming into something else. Memory becoming history. As long as Benedict was pope, there was a connection to John Paul II and the world that he came from. Maybe I was realizing, once again, the growing distance between the world that I grew up in and the new world of post 9/11 America.

The terrorist attacks on September 11th had a similar effect on me. When the Soviet Union ended in 1991, that should have meant the end of the Cold War but, in my mind and perhaps in the minds of many others, the former defining division of the world that existed between US and USSR still served as a reference point. As my peers and I drifted dreamily through the 90s, going to college when it was still economically imaginable but letting credit cards creep almost unnoticed into our lives, our philosophical grounding was still in the Cold War era. We happily considered new avenues of thought and contemplated the end of history as all nations merged into one, happy semi-capitalistic orgy of materialism and non-aggression.

After September 11th, I realized that my world was forever changed. My eyes were opened to the fact that we were not all going to be so happy. The America that I had always been so proud of let me down when it invaded Iraq without provocation. The dirty deal between Bush, Obama and the bankers in 2008 and 2009 opened my eyes even more, to the point where I felt I was suffering that possibly mythical torture system in which your eyes were propped open with toothpicks. I didn’t want to see anymore.

The death of John Paul II had a similar effect. I watched the beautiful, unforgettable funeral more than once but was moved primarily by the realization that another remnant of that old world was gone. At the time, I didn’t know how to put the experience adequately into words. Watching Pope Francis emerge from the Vatican, I realized that memory was becoming history. With Benedict as Pope, it was easy to remember his predecessor and, from there, recall that nearly forgotten world of my youth.

As Pope Francis is quoted in the press and government drones circle over Americans, though, I am moved by loss and by the repeated recognition that childhood is over. Whenever I see the new pope, John Paul II and the world in which I grew up become a little more ossified. It becomes harder to recall what erroneously seemed to be a simpler time.

Another step into the future leaves the past farther behind. I suspect a similar but attenuated emotion will manifest itself when Benedict finally expires in his cloister. Memory becomes history. A young man turns 40. We are really post-John Paul II now.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Compliance: It's Easy to Cross That Line Now

I suggested to my soon-to-be ex-wife (long story) that we watch Compliance on Netflix because I had read somewhere that it was infuriating. I thought that was an interesting way to describe a film. Reading the blurb that Netflix supplies, I learned that it was inspired by true events about a fast-food manager who was convinced by a prank call to detain, interrogate and ultimately humiliate one of her teenage employees.

I assumed that it was based on the same psychological principles developed by Dr. Philip Zimbardo in the 1960s after he conducted the famous Stanford Prison Experiment. This psychiatrist discovered that people willingly engaged in oppressive and authoritarian behavior when told to do so. He also discovered that others were unexpectedly willing to endure this treatment.

The Plot of Compliance

The story is simple and the film is not an action thriller. The majority of the film takes place in a storeroom in the back of a fast-food restaurant.

A middle-aged manager in a fast-food restaurant is frustrated with the irresponsibility of her mostly teenage staff. She receives a phone call from a man who identifies himself as a police officer. He lets Sandra, the manager, know that one of her young employees, a particularly annoying little blond, is wanted for a theft that occurred just an hour before in the restaurant. The voice on the phone asks this frumpy, portly woman to help him by detaining the girl in her office until police officers arrive.

Once Sandra and Becky, the teenager, are in the room, the man on the phone begins to ask for more help. The police are delayed. Will Sandra initiate the interrogation?

Sandra is willing to do so. She is, in fact, willing to do much more with some help from other employees and her fiancé. By the end of the film, Becky has been assaulted and raped by people with no previous criminal records. As it turns out, the man on the phone was an impostor. Soon the detainers are being detained for unlawful arrest, assault and more.


My wife had to be convinced to continue watching, even long before any of the really difficult-to-believe events occurred. She could not imagine agreeing even to be detained. She could not imagine that the dowdy little manager would agree to do so. By the time the fiancé was showing up to take a turn watching the girl, she was completely disappointed with the movie and unable to suspend disbelief.

Me: I’m Totally Buying It

She continued watching because we had nothing better to do and because I kept telling her it was believable. There were segments which I thought were exaggerated. Eventually, after the manager’s fiancé spanks Becky, the man portraying himself as a police officer convinces the girl to repay the man for her bad behavior with oral sex. I assumed that this was tossed in by the screenwriters to stir the pot and get some attention by way of scandal, if not for any other quality in the film.

The characters seemed believable. Later, reading the Netflix commentaries of people who had apparently not read about the underlying incidents, I saw how people found it impossible to believe that the manger would do what she did. That part of the movie I had no trouble believing.

Women Like Sandra

There is a certain species of woman in this country just like Sandra. She is not educated but neither is she uneducated. She may have “some college”, as they say on job applications or she may just have graduated from high school.

However, there is one thing that unites this group of women. They have been saved by authority. They typically work for large corporations. These economic bastions have given these women positions of moderate authority over the peons whom they dread resembling.

In exchange for their obeisance to rules and regulations, they receive a moderate income and the opportunity to advance a short distance up the corporate food chain. Along the way they will acquire associate degrees in accounting or business. They are worshippers of power. The police are to be obeyed mindlessly. People like school principals and teachers are unquestioned pillars of society. What is important for Sandra is maintaining the fabric of the society into which she has woven herself.

Sandra’s philosophy is revealed when Becky protests her innocence. She simply says, “Then why am I on the phone with the police?”

Why, Becky, Why?

My wife also found Becky hard to believe. When Sandra is guided through a strip search over the phone, my wife kept reiterating that she would never have agreed to that and would have refused or simply walked out. I was not so shocked. Having taught high school recently, I could believe it.

Thirty years ago, few if any girls would have submitted to such treatment. I am not suggesting that women 30 years ago were blushing virgins who would never take off their clothes. Young girls today, though, are much more used to the objectification of their bodies. They sext boys while in class and blithely accept that their boyfriends are looking at porn.

It was not her willingness to sacrifice her rights that distinguishes Becky from girls of generations past. The Stanford Prison experiment showed that this tendency is always in us. Instead, she stands out for her willingness to disrobe in front of strangers.

The abolition of the taboos surrounding sex will make it easier and easier for people to take advantage of girls like Becky for generations to come. While she was probably disturbed at being asked to perform oral sex, I doubt that she felt the same level of revulsion that most women once felt at such a suggestion. It was this revulsion, not their personal sense of rights or honor, that kept women safer in previous times. After all, there is nothing wrong with oral sex between consenting strangers, so the incident in the back room of that fast-food restaurant only required Becky to cross one little line.
The Truth

Even I was shocked to read about the incident after the movie and discover that everything, even the rape, was real. I was simultaneously disappointed and pleased that my speculations about the degeneration of morals in modern society were supported.

Compliance is not a great movie. If you have Netflix and are already paying for the streaming service, it might be worth 90 minutes of your time. It is, at least, revealing and it does not have Keanu Reeves in it.