Playing Vids, quarterlife, In Treatment

In the process of preparing my lecture on videogames, I have been watching lots of videos of people playing games. These would make for an interesting study, I think, as a form of digital folk culture. They combine boastful, look-ma-no-hands virtuosity with the lo-fi authenticity and Vaudevillian exhibitionism of the YouTube aesthetic. They have certainly been enabled by the developments in gaming interfaces that make play more than just a matter of moving a joystick and hitting buttons, the same developments that are turning on the casual gamers who have been so important in driving up the industry's profits.

Gamers would seem to make these videos to satisfy various passions. The player who records his or her mastery of the expert level on Rock Band wants glory and posterity. One can imagine the fierce pride of the parents of the eight year-old sensations who shred out on Guitar Hero 2 and stomp in perfect rhythm playing Dance Dance Revolution. The angry players of Halo and its sequels are all over the tubes, screaming at their screens, validating the rage of anyone who ever got so invested in their own play.

In a related vein, there are the funniest-home-video qualities of flailing Wii Sports players whacking their imaginary tennis balls and rolling their virtual strikes and spares. And then there are the snapshot mementos of friends who gathered to sing along to American Idol Karaoke and to watch Grandma and Grandpa Wii boxing (searching YouTube for old and Wii turns up more than you can handle). We can picture ourselves twenty years on turning wistfully to these documents of the late oughts, laughing at the crummy Wii graphics no less than the overstuffed sectionals and 4X3 televisions and longing to play again.


Will we be watching quarterlife on NBC? You betcha. Although we have been "tuning in" online since the start, occasionally satisfied but more often kind of disappointed by the show (the best satisfaction comes in what will be the fourth TV episode, when the Angela Chase character hooks up with the Brian Krakow character--those who understand will understand), the question remains of how the show will look and feel as a weekly, hour-long NBC drama rather than a snack-sized web video series. I think it will play better as a TV show, and that it was supposed to be a TV show all along--that the internet was a gimmick for this show from the start. But the first few episodes are a rough beginning for the series and it might take a few months for it to find a good direction. I don't know that NBC will afford it that kind of patience.


In Treatment continues to impress, especially in its ability to shift so quickly from boring me to being captivating entertainment. I'm also impressed that every episode changes the show's look in some very subtle way, by giving us a new hairstyle or camera angle. If I get around to it I will make to framegrabs to illustrate what I mean. Last night's episode with Laura and Paul was intense at the end. The show has set up a fantastic pair of alternatives for these main characters: go for it, which would be wrong, or part ways, which would, in a way, be wronger. That's the kind of soapy plotting I was hoping for. Now HBO has a YouTube channel where they are streaming episodes, but only the first few for now.


If I Were An American Idol Judge

If I were an American Idol judge, my thing would be feeling and expressing the emotions of the song. I would be the one to say, when you sing “Groovy Kind of Love” it should sound sweet and groovy and when you sing “Happy Together” it should sound at once hopeful and a bit desperate. I should have a sense that you know and care what the lyrics are about. That’s why my first choice for guest judge would be Liza Minnelli. These kids need to be storytellers, not just belters and cuties. The best Idols of seasons past IMO—Ruben, Clay, Kimberly Locke, Fantasia, Taylor, Elliott, and Melinda—were the ones who could sell a song as an expression of their own passion. This is what makes a singer great more than pipes or panache. But these judges don’t seem to be paying attention to it. (My favorites this week, fwiw, were David for the boys, and Alexandréa for the girls.)


Elsewheres, The Watcher sez In Treatment is the best show on television right now. There ought to be a chart somewhere in the tubes showing which show each critic thinks is the best on TV right now.

I once would have said that Friday Night Lights is the best show on television, and now it's fighting for its life as NBC tries to find a network to share it with. I sort of don't care any more if it lives or dies.

Torontoist visits Hogtown's rep cinemas, many of them favorite places of mine from years past including Cinematheque Ontario, to see how they're faring in this digital age.

And next week I am teaching a subject I want to know more about: videogames. The readings I assigned are from Steven Poole's Trigger Happy, an excellent book available in its entirety for free at that link (we are reading chapters 2 and 8).


Guilty Pleasures

I have a contribution to In Media Res today for its week on guilty pleasures. I'm generally against guilty pleasures--I prefer to skip the guilt and go straight for the pleasure. I thought at first that I might write about Miley Cyrus/Hannah Montana and try to explain why liking her doesn't make me feel guilty, although I sense that some people would think it should (because of my age and gender for starters). But then I decided that that's sort of weaseling out and settled on something that actually does make me feel guilty, which you can read about if you click on over.


Reasons I voted for Barack Obama in today's Wisconsin primary election

I was undecided until 12:30 a.m. this morning, when I couldn't sleep (side effect of cold medicine, I think) and somehow made up my mind. Some of these are not the proper reasons to go for or against a candidate, but when the difference is between two good people whose platforms are similar, you end up with such things.

10. Clinton’s campaign is using some questionable tactics, e.g., in relation to Obama's drug use and the Florida delegates.

9. I prefer if my love for Bill Clinton remains in the realm of nostalgia. If he is back in the White House, I might lose that love.

8. Rory Gilmore is covering the Obama campaign, and it still pleases me to think of her.

7. Obama plays basketball and poker and watches TV shows I like.

6. Obama was always against the Iraq War.

5. I get a bad taste from the idea that our first woman president would have risen to fame and power on the coattails of her husband, a former president. (At the same time, I am pissed about the sexism, at varying levels of subtlety and offensiveness, directed at Clinton; Obama has benefited from this but it would be wrong to hold it against him.)

4. I think the convention might get nasty and I want Obama to have as many delegates as possible because I trust Clinton and her people less in this scenario.

3. I liked Dreams From My Father as a piece of writing, as a story, and as an informative account of what it’s like to have a multiethnic identity. I like the idea of a president who can write the kind of thing I would want to read. (I haven’t read anything of Hillary’s. Sorry!)

2. A president gets to be on television a lot, and Obama is fun to watch on television, like here where he dances with Ellen.

1. Barack Obama is your new bicycle.


Shrinking In Treatment

We know that real dope dealers watch The Wire and that real mobsters watch The Sopranos, but do they blog about it? Some real-life shrinks who watch In Treatment do at the group psychiatry blog Shrink Rap. If you drew a Venn diagram of things that interest me about In Treatment and things that interest the shrinks, the overlapping portion would be rather slight. They are watching to see how the show represents therapy and the therapist. They watch in part as backseat drivers, offering diagnoses and clinical descriptions (e.g., Alex is narcissistic, Sophie’s environment is hostile). Maybe they fantasize about nudging Paul out of his comfy chair to offer their own counsel to his patients. The Shrink Rap bloggers also consider mental health concerns that the show raises and opine about the correct treatment of them--especially when it comes to ethical issues around patient-therapist attraction and a child's confession that requires a therapist to report, in violation of the patient's confidence, what has been learned in session. As for me, I care about the characters as characters rather than as models of patients or therapists (the shrinks do too, to be fair), the narrative form, the mise en scene, the shooting style, and the novelty of programming a prime-time prestige drama in daily installments, soap-style.

I have been wondering as I read the recaps, all written by one blogger called Dinah, if mental health professionals would have the same general expectations of the show’s therapy that I have. I thought I could tell from the first episode that In Treatment wasn't going for a very realistic portrayal, though I have never been in therapy myself. The sessions are shorter than the length of an episode, less than 25 minutes. Characters get up and walk around during their sessions and go to the bathroom. The space, in Paul's home, looks more like a living room than an office, and is cluttered with tchotchkes that reveal to us all sorts of things about the therapist’s interests and personality. Patients pay Paul in cash at the end of a session (he seems to find this vaguely disconcerting, and the metaphor they’re going for here would seem to be prostitution). They speak in speeches and seldom vocalize pauses or search for the right word. It’s theatrical rather than naturalistic. I’m learning to like this about it. I have learned from media representations of higher education to expect movies and TV to get the very basic things of any profession wrong and not to care too much about it.

Sometimes Dinah’s posts are more like recaps than analyses, and they read like notes taken during a real session. Reading these, I wonder if the show offers a way for a therapist viewer to feel moral judgment and personal affection in a way that might not feel right in reality. Dinah writes of the first Paul-Gina episode,

"Gina talks about how angry Paul was with her when he stopped coming 10 years ago, how he was so angry he didn't come to her husband's funeral. She talks about how Paul had accused her of interfering with his practice. Gina is retired. She's trying to write a novel. Go for it Gina! No wonder I like this show."

You can follow Dinah’s emotions cresting and crashing as the episode moves toward closure:

"I take it back, it's not a heated session, it's a Hostile session. I'm tense just watching these two people. 'You are not being helpful,' Paul says.

'What role have you assigned me?' Gina screams.

This is....therapy? supervision? oy. Gina tells him how hard it's all been on her, how confusing it is."

That “oy” is so awesome! (This isn’t just my Jewishness talking.) In those two short letters, oy conveys both frustration with the show—for failing to make Gina into either a supervisor or a therapist—and with the characters for being so unable to straighten things out properly.

Along the same lines, sometimes the tone is more irritated, and I wonder if watching an irritating patient in fictional therapy allows a therapist to get out some feelings that they might prefer not to feel about real patients: that some people are just boring, stupid, annoying, etc.

Sometimes I’m not sure why the Shrink Rappers keep watching a show they don’t seem to like all that much. Dinah keeps saying that watching gives her anxiety (well, what she says is that she needs Xanax). Sometimes watching is too much like work, not enough like leisure (“I want to go home. Oh, I am home.”) Even as they are hoping for realistic therapy, they get nit-picky about the details in a way that strikes me more as frustrated than fascinated (just what kind of therapist is Paul?). But every so often they make clear what interests them: the show is what a Freudian might call a wish fulfillment, a representation of therapy that is dramatic and eventful, where issues are really problems and the therapist is sage and empathetic. Dinah wonders if her fellow bloggers have ever had a patient come on to them as Laura comes on to Paul, and although she would want to avoid that as a professional, she clearly also has pangs of longing, of what-if, of wanting to be desired so badly that someone would transgress the boundary. Dinah makes this pretty clear in her first recap, when we learn of Laura’s attraction:

"'Laura, I'm your therapist, the parameters and limitations are established and ethically defined and not an option.' Go for it Therapist Paul."

Paul is something of an ideal to which Dinah aspires, a Hollywood shrink with looks and charisma and a charming accent who can pull off jeans with a blazer and never loses his cool or forgets what he was going to say (in therapy, anyway).

"He's a better shrink than I am any day, oh and that faint brogue to top it all off. When can I tell him my secrets?"

And then there is the pleasure of recognition.

"'It's 10 of and you probably have to turn on your cell phone now,' Sophie says to Paul. She asks Paul about his relationship with his daughter, she must call him at 10 of the hour. My real-life daughter and I laugh, I because I turn on my cell phone at 10 of the hour, my daughter because 'I always call you on the hour because that's when you answer.' Why aren't we on TV?"

I guess they get some things right.

And yes, I intend to keep blogging about this show. I have come to love it after my initial hostility. And I went searching for clips on YouTube of the Israeli original, to find that the wave machine, sailboats, and music were all there. My Hebrew's not good enough to tell you much more than that, unfortch.



In Treatment is like Warhol, kinda sorta

In many of Andy Warhol's films, which I have heard knowledgeable people refer to as "duration exercises," the camera is still and the shot lasts until the film runs out. Some of these movies are really boring to many viewers. Hoberman said of Empire that it's the rare film that doesn't need to be seen to be appreciated. It's never clear to me whether Warhol intended for his films to be viewed as people usually watch movies in a theater or whether they were meant to be backdrops to parties at the factory or components in multimedia performances of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. But when I watched many Warhol films in the late 1990s, it was in an atmosphere of reverential cinephile attentiveness, in a class on avant-garde cinema and a UW Cinematheque screening series, and one learns from watching such movies in such conditions how to reorient your attention. Part of what is so interesting about Warhol in any medium is how he encourages you to notice yourself as a spectator (whether this was his intention or not). When you're watching half an hour or not much happening in a hotel room with bad lighting and noisy sound, you start to notice all sorts of things about the cinematic image, conditions of the cinematic experience, conventions of performance, etc.

I'm starting to find a similar thing happening with In Treatment (previously), the HBO show that is trying so hard to be dramatic while constraining its expressive potential in a number of ways. Whenever artists adopt rigorous constraints, like shooting a scene in a single shot or avoiding certain harmonic or rhythmic patterns, they are after ways of making a narrow format work for them. Good artists make these constraints into opportunities. I'm not sure the In Treatment crew is rising to this level yet, but the show is giving me the chance to reflect on the possibilities inherent in rejecting certain conventions of audiovisual storytelling.

In particular, In Treatment is helping me pay attention to visual details. In a typical half hour of dramatic television, a character might appear in a number of scenes, each with its own costumes, lighting setups, moods, musical accompaniments. Since each ep of In Treatment is only one scene, it focuses my attention on only one look for each character. In last night's episode (the 6th overall), Laura is attired for her work as a doctor, in a white coat over scrubs and white copolymer rubber clogs. In contrast to her harried and unkempt look in the first episode, she is well made-up and her hair is done right. Her large, perfect teeth gleam when she smiles. By contrast, Paul, the shrink, is in drab dark colors. The lines on his face and the watery hue of his eyes become familiar after so many closeups. Other aspects of the mise en scene call to me. There are a bunch of videotapes on his shelf and I want to crouch closer to the set to read their spines. These are the things that boredom will do to a TV viewer. I am deliberately not making meaning of these details, because I don't think they necessarily convey much aside from their own reality. Maybe after more time they will announce their significance to me. So far, all I get is, she's a doctor, he's her shrink. Oh, and they're in love but professionalism (his) is keeping them apart, so far.

I liked this episode best of all the ones so far because Paul is finally a character rather than a listener. We are starting to care as much about his hopes and fears as we do about the patients'. When he is speaking in an extended metaphor about scuba diving and the bends, and Laura smiles like she already knows what he's going to say but intends to let him finish because she likes to look at him go through his explanation, because she loves him and admires him and feels an affinity with him because they both like to dive, there is a subtlety and complexity to the characterization--we can begin to hope that he will leave his wife for this patient even as we think that might be a terrible idea. It's a soapy storyline, and I hope they really go for it.

Much of the episode was still pretentious, talky, and repetitive. But I'm pretty sure that buried in all the objectionable elements of In Treatment is an interesting show. I'm eager to see the next Laura episode on Monday, at least to see if her teeth will still gleam and if Paul will still look at her in that way that says he can't tell her how he really feels. Despite its experimental or distinctive appeals, that is, I hope it will ultimately succeed as conventional serialized TV drama.