Tuesday, January 14, 2014

This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things

Like many a cartoon American male (actual photo!), I've been drawn (heh), more or less against my will, into watching Downton Abbey. Of course, I don't like to think my initial aversion is so comical as all that: the show basically encourages the viewer to empathize with the idle lives of a bunch of repressed, inbred, aristocratic motherfuckers. Yes, there are real struggles with class and status presented on the show, sometimes with a shred of cleverness and sometimes more as a scrubbed and kind-hearted anachronism, but on the whole, these mostly are just props to steer the characters, highborn and low, toward soap-operatic plots. (God help me, I think Maureen Dowd has just the right take on it, which has got to happen about as often as a hit shows airs on PBS. Downton Abbey as Gone with the Wind? Yowch!) My own opinion of the show is that when the omnipresent reality of ruin is better presented--in the war or in the workhouses, say--then it is more compelling than when it's just a drama of manners of these surprisingly egalitarian-minded overlords. [And sure, I agree the individual characters are well-enough conceived so that I care what happens to them, and that the costume is great, and that most of the (gulp) casting and acting is a whole lot better than the actual writing deserves.] But the ultimate case for Downton Abbey is the one that the show itself makes again and again. It is, well, Downton Abbey itself. The message is that even though change happens, nice things are worth having because they are nice things.

Granted, this is an insufferably English view of nice things (and it's one that I've seen often enough in British novels to pick right up on), but it's a hell of a step up from the "glory and conquest" view of nationalism (er, not to say the self-styled empire lacked that either). The motif of Downton is preservation, and the principle conflict in the show is one of sustainability. It's made of idealized rustic green estates that are topped off with a comfortable grandeur, one which imagines that all of its elaborate gimcracks and mannered conventions--livery, variegated flatware, gravelled walking paths, riding and hunting, all the forelock-tuggings and "m'lords"--hell, the nobility and the smiling peasants themselves--all are explicitly useful, that there's a good reason the chairs are a set distance from the table and you that you should pull up the right claret from the cellars, just like there's a good reason to rotate crops and to pass on the right. Downton Abbey imagines that the land and its customary adornments are things worth holding on to, that they are essential parts in a long-ago optimized machine which needs to produce nothing but itself. Of all the apologia for aristocracy, conservation of nice things is the only one that I have found not to be laughable on its face. The family is allowed to inhabit the manor because the estate is worth having, not because the family is.

Downton Abbey, in other words, is a community that is valued as such. The community needs to be complicit in the concentration of its wealth, to support the estate. It's an enabling fiction of a community, and I don't forgive that. It's built on the backs of those kindly-seeming laborers, on net ancestral plunder, and on a system that allows one entitled and unproductive class to drain its resources from others. The antebellum American south copied the model consciously, and it was a horrorshow. (Meanwhile, the somewhat more communitarian settlement of the colonies to the north set up some of our nation's enduring conflicts.) The recent pretense to democratize American greenspace only got us the suburbs, a boring, shoddy clapboard fiction built on consumption instead of conservation. The people's revolutions of last century--though you have to appreciate the generations of effort it took to get outside the thought box--often earned central parties and widespread repression. It's a real conflict of the human animal, and it sucks that we can't seem to have nice things without massive inequality railing along with it. Authoritarianism, stifling of individual expression, and a devolution to oligarchy seems to be part and parcel with any of them.

One novel I recall very fondly is Gypsies by Robert Charles Wilson. This author uses science fiction constructs to flesh out and deliver some sock-you-in-the-eye humanist themes. In this one, a family of young people possesses the power to step between alternate realities--some are better than others--but only, as the painfully delivered climax reveals, worlds which they are capable to conceive. We are limited, he says, all of society is limited by our collective imaginations. It's Candide with a quantum-mechanical kludge, that only keeps 99% of the cynicism. It's a nice empirical shortcut to allow a writer: some societies do evolve to be more sustainable, beautiful, and happy, and it would be nice if we could somehow sample for them with better tools than history, theory, and propaganda. The problem is that I wouldn't believe anybody who told you that any one of them is as good as it can be, or that this is the way it must be. Anyone who spews that is romanticizing some nonexistent ideal (as they do on DA), or else is using you. I've been a technical guy all my life, and I place a great value on evidence, consistent thinking, and proper weighting, which certainly applies to something as grand and important as culture. As I get older, however, I understand that we need to cultivate imagination every bit as much. If we don't let ourselves dream better, then we also fail.


David Marlow said...


I thought this was an interesting interview and well timed.

(Perfect post title, by the way.)

Keifus said...

Yeah, I don't know if a costume drama really warrants going off into goggle-eyed political territory, but they kind of bring it on themselves, acknowledging the classism, and then mostly soft-pedaling it.

But hey, what do I know. I think(seriously, kind of) that one of the most pitch-perfect cinematic discussion of class ever was Trading Places.

David Marlow said...

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I love the show because whether you're an Earl or a Kitchen Maid:
1. You know exactly what time you have to go to bed (because);
2. You know exactly what time you have to get up;
3. You know exactly what you're going to wear (because);
4. You know exactly what you have to do.

In this crazy racket we call day-by-day existence, that's 99% of the battle won right there.

Inkberrow said...

"Downton Abbey" is indeed first and foremost a soap opera. The old "bad things happening to good people" dramatic ploy, e.g., (say Anna's rape) is just as familiar to fans of "Coronation Street"...or "General Hospital".

It's sumptuously produced and well-acted, as you note, and I for one enjoy watching it every week, despite the sometimes tiresome egalitarian set-pieces. Branson the Mick makes my ass hurt.

The man behind the show, Fellowes, is as you may know also the writer of "Gosford Park", and for "Downton" he draws unabashedly on that template, with some "Upstairs, Downstairs" tossed in.

Keifus said...

Branson the Mick... see that's just what I'm talking about! How much better would it be if, when Duchess Crumblesnatch drawls at Tom, "Did you know Lady Powderfource very well back in Ireland?" he sinks into a deep grumbling brogue as the lights dim and the camera zooms on him, grinning toothily and compulsively flicking his historically inaccurate Zippo: "Oh aye. I knew 'er."

Or if instead he decides to go full aristocrat layabout with all the fervor he once had as a revolutionary: cards, shooting, brandy, endless accent work. Going to be more English than the English. He takes to beating Mrs. Hughes about the ears with his new walking stick whenever he sees her. "Now see here, you conniving Scottish harpy!" Eventually he shows up hanging in his own bedchamber from an improvised noose made of strung-together spats and cummerbunds, something about the feckin' inferior Yorkies scrawled on his note.

Because that would be television!

Keifus said...

Oh, how I would resent the dressing gong in that world, swit, whichever side of it I was on.

David Marlow said...

Full disclosure: The last several Sundays that included Sunday Night Football, I opted for watching reruns on PBS. In fact, on one particular Sunday, my affiliate showed *Downton* from 6pm to 11pm. All from season 3.

Cumberbatch and Freeman: best Holmes/Watson ever?

Nice to know I'm not the only one with an eclectic tv schedule this evening. (Note to self: Test batteries in remote.)

Keifus said...

I was having a similar conversation a few months ago, and it goes sort of like this. Sherlock Holmes was always a nutjob, and he only becomes more of one as you get away from Doyle's pulpy rational-hero stuff, and import a more modern understanding of character. He's weird, low on empathy, and no one will argue that he needs a Watson as a complement, the face of the duo that connects to humanity.

But it's harder to make the friendship convincing when Holmes is this far on the sociopathy scale.* Watson has got to have something to offer, and not just to be useful, there has to be something that Sherlock actually likes in him. Yes he validates Sherlock's ego, but he's not a fanboy. Even though he pushes his loyalty to the limit, it's a loyalty that Watson actually earns--you feel that Cumberbatch's Sherlock was genuinely impressed with how Watson cut through the Gordian knot of the pill-popping problem. And for Watson to put up with all of Holmes' shit, to let the death and violence roll over him, he's got to have some measure of disaffection himself. Arguably, they humanize each other.

So that's a lot of unusual balance to pack in there, especially to the Watson character, and Freeman makes it look like he's not even trying. He turns Bilbo Baggins into a hero while you hardly notice too (gotta write that other post!), and I think he may just be pretty great at this.

* I liked Robert Downey's and Jude Law's Holmes and Watson, even if I thought the films were leaden with all the slo-mo shots and Victorian squalor. But while he was frenetic and brilliant, RDJ was otherwise plenty likeable, fun to be around if you could take it.

Inkberrow said...

Downey was fine, but I thought Jude Law was miscast. And while "Sherlock" is consciously ultramodern, the Downey/Law films trudge down boring, well-trod sci-fi/fantasy/actioner paths.

In the original stories, anyway, Watson is important because he's the chronicler, because he's courageous, loyal, and reliably and helpfully resourceful in his own way. Holmes respects him, and I agree with you they're having Cumberbatch treat him like he's a petulant stooge. Good actors well-cast, though.

Keifus said...

I understood that poor Watson kind of devolved over the many screen iterations into something of a sidekick. (Although not always--I remember Not A Clueto be pretty entertaining.) So maybe then call this a reversion to form? Man, it's been many long years since I read any of the original stories.

[In the first paragraph I should have written "no one will disagree," not "no one will argue."]

David Marlow said...

Back in college in the early '90s, a few of us were obsessed with Jeremy Brett. (Not to be confused with the "Jeremy" who spoke in class today.)

Keifus said...

That sad year of the Vodka Wolfensteins (okay, I like that one, Ink), when I not unrelatedly rounded up my only 4.0 semester, we'd gather every week to watch Saturday Night Live for some reason. (I had to kind of push myself into the more customary debauchery later. It actually seems a less clear decision now than it did then.)

I saw the new Sherlock episode last night (I DVRed it, couldn't stay up Sunday), and the half-hour special they had afterwards. Here are the actors and writers saying they had more or less that explicit model going in, which makes me feel a whole lot less clever.

Weird, confusing episode overall, but the part of how he survived the fall was made entertaining. I'm glad they made the least-implausible version like a stage illusion. People tend to forget to notice how many accomplices are in on those things.

David Marlow said...

Considering movie/TV timeframes, the British notion of a stiff upper lip even when it comes to outdoing Americans every time, and (here's the tricky part) that Guy "Limey" Ritchie is first and foremost a photographer more than a filmmaker, when it comes to a Downey/Law comparison, I can't decide who's stealing from whom.

(You guys already know this but excellent analysis, very enjoyable, thanks, etc.)

Inkberrow said...

My favorite is still Basil Rathbone (with Nigel Bruce). "The Seven Percent Solution" is an outlier worth mentioning.

Cumberbatch is a major talent who can carry his show almost regardless. I hope they don't keep making him into an ineffable superhero, though.

Keifus said...

(Thank god we're here.)