Taken from a website off Google, as per ushe.

Co(s)mic Justice: Cruelty and Comeuppance in Dumb and Dumber To

I went into the theater showing Dumb and Dumber To with no small amount of trepidation. Reviews from trusted sources have been universally unkind, mostly building their reactions around the claim that the movie spends most of its running time recycling old gags. Considering that The Hangover 2 remains one of the worst in-theater experiences I’ve ever had, and that the Farrelly Brothers haven’t had a true hit or comic gem in years, and neither has Jim Carrey, and Jeff Daniels, as great an actor as he is, doesn’t really go in for quality control in many of his projects, I was expecting this to be a phoned-in wet fart of a movie, where at least three quarters of the people responsible for the laughs are cashing in on nostalgia.

I have to remember to thank those reviewers, because they lowered my expectations enough for something like Dumb and Dumber To to actually exceed them. To be fair, the movie still is a wet fart- “wet fart” is perhaps the best possible combination of words to describe this movie- but it’s a wet fart filled with gusto and determination, squeezed out by professional flatulents who really know their work. I’m going to stop using the phrase “wet fart” now. Okay, now. But whatever it was- and I’m willing to admit it could have been the presence of my kid cousins, who are both boys on the cusp of middle school and thus the movie’s ideal audience- I was pleasantly surprised by Dumb and Dumber To.

Which isn’t to say the movie is a comic masterpiece on par with the original- it’s not. Some of the gags are a bit more cartoony than anything the universe of the original would allow- for example, there’s a bit where Harry and Lloyd bathe in outflow from a nuclear plant, and then we see them driving at night, and they’re both glowing green, and there’s no mention of this afterwards, which really calls into question how much we’re supposed to be invested in the various medical problems that crop up later in the movie. There’s nothing as “real” as the moment in the original where it looks like Harry really gets shot. And there are some re-used gags, though they’re not nearly as frequent as the reviews would have you believe. Or maybe they are and I just forgot about their inclusion in the original. The story is basically the same idea of “dimwits get involved in a complex criminal enterprise that is far beyond their powers of understanding,” but that’s a storyline that goes back to the Marx Brothers, and I see no reason to not repeat it here. But on the whole, the script stands on its own, and works as a self-contained story about two dimwits trying to reunite with an estranged daughter so one of them can get a kidney transplant. And it’s entirely build around the principle of comedic payback, which I feel has been one of the Farrelly Brothers’ primary obsessions throughout their moviemaking career.

Comedic payback, which is a pretty intuitive concept- turn on a Tom & Jerry or Roadrunner cartoon and you’ll get a thousand instances. It’s funny when Wile E. Coyote paints a solid wall to look like a tunnel, funnier when the Roadrunner runs through the painting like it actually is a tunnel, and funniest when the coyote tries to follow and runs into a solid wall. Likewise, most of the best setpieces in Dumb and Dumber To are predicated upon an act of cruelty that comes back to bite the person behind it in the face. In fact, one could argue that the entire film is a gag along those lines. There’s a tightness to this screenplay that wasn’t in the original film, where outside of a few throwaway bits, every scene leads logically to the next one, and the reveals at the very end of the movie are based on character traits and backgrounds that we learned in the first act. There’s also an abundance of visual and verbal gags that suggest the Farrelly Brothers worked on the screenplay for quite some time.

And then there’s the Farrelly Brothers’ other major obsession, body humor that verges on body horror. It’s a perfect little encapsulation of their universe when Harry is mistaken for a reclusive super-genius and asked to judge a youth science competition. One of the entrants describes a waste-free society, where all material is re-used with no environmental consequences. “But where does the extra poop go?” Harry asks. That’s basically the side of life the Farrelly Brothers are always asking their audience to confront- if Lloyd pretends to be catatonic for 20 years, who disposes of his waste? If an old lady sees two doofuses break into her nursing home, what is she going to try to get out of them? It’s also what makes the super-cartoony bits feel out of place: there are no filmmakers more likely to show you the ugly side of life and let you know that it’s real. Physical and mental misfits abound in the margins movies- in this one, a bit role is given to a person with Down’s Syndrome, and Lloyd nearly gets into a fight with a paraplegic- but they never use them as the butt of their jokes, just silent commentaries on the sort of reality that mainstream movies rarely ask audiences to confront.

At its heart (and it does have one), Dumb and Dumber and its sequel are both about the types of friendships we have when we’re about ten years old, when friendship consists of elaborate pranks, stupid inside jokes, “games” that are often little more than opportunities to physically assault one another, and beneath it all, the knowledge that this person really likes you and will always have your back. Harry and Lloyd carry it to a grotesque extreme, and stay in the mode well into their fifties, but there’s an essential sweetness there that keeps this particular cinematic wet fart nice and warm in your pants.


Legend of Korra: “Reunion”

That screencap is semi-important. I used it as the article image first because it’s cute, second because the little bit of business between Pabu, Naga, and Korra at the episode’s beginning is a great example of how The Legend of Korra manages to keep things moving on an episode-by-episode basis. The first two seasons of the show occasionally made the strategic error of treating the whole season like a 6.5-hour movie, without any regard for the pacing in the episode itself. From Season 3 onward, there’s been a definite effort to begin each episode with something funny and lighthearted, and gradually move on to more serious business.

For a season that’s dealt with some pretty dark stuff, though, “Reunion” was a beam of light, a silly adventure with few possible repercussions, something that brought to mind the excitement of Season 1, when we were first seeing the Avatar-verse in its post-industrial-revolution stage. There were car chases, hints at relationships, bickering, and a few great battle sequences. That these battle sequences were all in the service of the show’s least momentous goal yet, protecting the useless Earth King Wu from being kidnapped by the Earth Empire forces, even though the king barely qualifies as a figurehead- he appears to be about as popular as the Shah of Iran, and about as self-aware. But watching Korra, Asami, and Mako team up to escort him across, atop, and eventually off the side of a moving train was a fun action moment.

Slightly more significant events happen to Bolin and Varrick, who begin to redeem their past blindness towards the atrocities the Earth Empire is committing by helping some prisoners escape. Also, Varrick figures out how to create EMPs, which could come in handy in the future. Varrick is still pining for Zhu Li, and Bolin is still pretty sure he’s missing out on something fun in Republic City.

There are now six episodes left in The Legend of Korra, and I imagine they will have more of an overarching narrative than this one, which can’t really even be called a place-setting episode because all the characters are in the same place they started out, more or less. But as long as it can maintain its current level of control over the tone and buildup of individual episodes, I’ll be happily watching to the very end.

I'm not a bunny! I'm not!

The Meat Circus: Fathers, Cruelty, and Armchair Psychology

NOTE: Spoilers for the story of Psychonauts follow. Like, immediately after this paragraph. In fact, if you’ve skipped this paragraph and started with the one-line paragraph below (don’t look!), you’ve already come across a major spoiler. Then again, the game is about 10 years old, so maybe I don’t need to be so concerned about it. Consider it a testament to the story within this videogame that I am so interested in keeping it a secret.

Of course the final level of Psychonauts ends with you trying to kill your father.

Well, not really your father- just the version of him that your main character, Razputin (Raz for short), has built up in his mind- the acrobatic disciplinarian with a monomaniacal hatred of psychics (which Raz has recently discovered himself to be). And not just your father, either- you are also dealing with the childhood demons of one of your camp counselors, Oly Oleander, whose father’s occupation as a butcher of cute fluffy bunnies has haunted his psyche, and as a result, he… wants to take over the world? I’m honestly not sure, and I’ve played the game twice. Psychonauts is great at crafting characters and jokes, and far less good at plotting. Raz’s father barely figures into the game at all until the final level, which makes his introduction a little underwhelming. And then there’s the gameplay of that final level: There exists a certain subgroup of gamers for whom the words “Meat Circus” evoke a Pavlovian response of dread and controller-throwing anger, and the level is widely considered a blot on what would otherwise be a near-perfect game. But for me, even acknowledging the level’s flaws, it remains the single point where Tim Schafer and his cohorts at Double Fine Productions manage to realize the promise of their game’s premise.

One thing that often gets overlooked in pop-psychology discussions of Freud’s theories is that the 19th-century cocaine aficionado did not see the Oedipus Complex as a sickness or mental disorder, but as a normal part of human development. It was only when the process was interrupted or subverted that psychosis occurred. For truly healthy mental development, Freud believed, the child needs to resolve his feelings toward his parents, most significantly an instinctive and irrational fear of his father.

Psychonauts’s most innovative contribution to videogames was its attempt to unite character development and level design. It’s just the sort of oddball decision that Double Fine Productions would be likely to make. The game developer was created in 2000 by Tim Schafer, who had spent the last decade at LucasArts perfecting a genre of gaming that by then was nearly extinct. Schafer had worked on The Secret of Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, Full Throttle, and right before leaving, had finished Grim Fandango. To this day, if you see a list of “The Greatest Games of All Time” on a website somewhere, you’re likely to see at least three of those titles somewhere in the top 25. Also, odds are pretty good you’ve never heard of any of them, and if you’re 25 or younger, you’ve likely never played anything like them.

LucasArts primarily developed games in the Adventure genre, also known as “point-and-click” games to gamers who did not care much for that type of game. And it’s true that gameplay could be rather static, more a matter of trying every possible combination of events than actually interacting with a world or a story. The games at LucasArts were special because they went the extra mile to immerse the player in that world, and also because they had a wickedly good sense of humor, which continues to be the scarcest resource in gaming.

Alas, the genre was all but dead by the time Schafer created his own gaming studio, and one of the results of this is that the first game he made became a platformer- a genre he and most of his programmers had never worked in at all. Imagine becoming an oil painter- studying oil paintings, practicing techniques with oil paint and oil-paint-specific brushstrokes, working under a master in oil painting for years, finally saving up enough for your own studio, and then your first customer walks through the door, tells you that no one buys oil paintings anymore, hands you a hammer and chisel, and commissions a sculpture.  It’s nothing like that, but it’s the closest analogy I can think of. That’s sort of (not really) the situation Schafer and Double Fine were in when they started Psychonauts, and frankly, it shows in the controls, which never move Raz around as intuitively as you’d like them to.

The game mostly makes up for this by not requiring a great deal of responsiveness. Levels mostly involve finding objects in the environment, then finding the right place to use them- basically, Schafer and co. smuggled an adventure game into their open-world platformer. Each level of the game takes place in a character’s head, and the design of the level to some degree reflects the personality of that character. Look further into each level, and patterns start to emerge: each of the three camp counselors whose heads you enter shows off a major aspect of their personality, and in turn shows how that personality has been constructed to make up for some personal trauma- the happy-go-lucky go-go dancer has made her life a party to hide her residual guilt from a group of children who died on her watch, the hyper-logical German guy has constructed a mind of straight lines and sharp angles as a way of giving order to the senseless world that killed his parents, and both Oleander and Raz have elevated their fathers into gigantic, monstrous, forbidding figures. “Is that really what I look like in your head?” says Raz’s father when he sees the projection. “I have a lot more hair than that!”

Which brings us back to the Meat Circus, a combination of the places associated with Raz’s father (an acrobat) and Oleander’s (a butcher). After a game full of problem-solving puzzles, you are tasked with completing timed platforming sections while the fathers shout misleading hints at you. “Want to play catch?” Raz’s father will say, throwing a fireball at you, and if you try to stop it with your telekinetic powers, “you can’t actually catch them. I was testing you!” The level feels like working out parental issues- frustrating, repetitive, going over the same territory over and over only to end up falling down in the same place. While most of Psychonauts marries character development and level design, the last level combines both with gameplay.

House Hunters

House Hunters International Is Really Hunting Your Marriage

When I was a kid, my family moved towns six times before I turned 13. We settled down in Flagstaff, Arizona in 1999, and since then I have never felt the need to look at a house that is for sale, not even if it’s an open house with free pizza and cute female realtors willing to pay attention to me. This has been a problem for me in the past, when (to take a random example) my college roommate has decided to move to South Korea within the week, coincidentally right before the rent is due. But it has prevented me from ever having to walk through more than two houses pretending to be interested in “curb appeal” or “storage potential,” so overall I’d consider it a win.

What I’m trying to say is that there is no human being on Earth less well-equipped than me to watch House Hunters International, a TV show where people not looking for a house can vicariously look at houses by watching a show about two generally unpleasant people looking for a house together. But my dad and his wife have voluntarily watched this show three nights in a row, and I’ve been trying to spend more time with them, so here we are. House Hunters International (and its domestic equivalent, House Hunters) pretends to be about a couple trying to find a house that fits a budget (which in theory is nonnegotiable) and the desires of each partner (which in theory is highly negotiable). In reality it is a show about the politics of the marriage, and the show’s main appeal lies in speculating about the circumstances thereof.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, so here’s a brief description of the show: House Hunters International begins by introducing us to a couple who is from the US and moving to a different country, generally because of a job. The couple is always heterosexual* and upper-middle to upper class, and is white about 83% of the time. If any of the couples have children, they are kept offscreen. The two people who comprise the couple will each state what they are looking for in a house, and whether it’s editing or casting, these wish lists will always conflict in some fundamental way. Then they will look at their first house. The husband will like it, the wife will hate it. Then there’s a commercial break. When the show comes back on, a 30-second recap will explain that the husband liked the house, but the wife hated it. Then they will look at a second house, which the wife will like but the husband will hate**. Another commercial break. Another 30-second recap, explaining that the husband prefers the first house while the wife prefers the second house. Then a third house, which will just be completely wrong for the couple (it’s over their budget, it’s too big/small, it’s in the wrong part of town- something fundamental). Then a final commercial break, followed by another 30-second recap re-stating all the positions, followed by the couple making their decision, followed by a look at what the house looks like after they’ve moved in.
*actually, I may have seen an episode with a gay couple once. But the class rule is ironclad- you never see a family trying to choose which public housing facility to move into.
**it’s not always in this order- sometimes, it’s the wife who loves the first house, while the husband hates it. But the polarization is always there.

So that’s the show. Probably the most pertinent detail is that, no matter how far into the show you go, the whole thing can always be recapped in 30 seconds. It’s the sort of show that becomes background noise even if you’re actively trying to watch it, and I’m used to sitting through it reading my copy of The Economist while my dad and his wife watch, but what got me more interested than usual was the recent three-day repetition, during which I noticed that every single comment directed at the screen was about the couple looking for a house, rather than the houses that are ostensibly the main attraction for a large amount of the audience.

Because make no mistake, there are people who love to look at houses. Two of them produced me, strangely enough. And the stated appeal of House Hunters International is that the show allows you to sample the exotic real estate markets of foreign countries, briefly imagining yourself living in the Swiss Alps or a Pacific atoll or Paris, but in an actual location that was presumably for sale 6-8 months ago. But the way the show frames its narrative, as a power struggle between two people (who, again, are in a stable marriage/partnership) with fundamentally incompatible ideas about the ideal way to live, draws our attention to the people who, if this really was the lifestyle porn it’s marketed as, would be little more than ciphers for the viewer’s own desires.

One thing that seems to characterize almost all the people who appear on House Hunters International is a conspicuous lack of intimacy. The couples often want separate closets, separate bathrooms, and a “personal space” for each member of the partnership. Often couples with no apparent plans to have kids really want two bedrooms, which invites questions about the sleeping arrangements. By far the funniest symptom of this incompatibility are the filler shots that show the couples walking to each new house. In every shot, the couple are holding hands; in every shot, it looks like their hands have been filled with Novocaine and stapled together. Most of the time, I find myself wondering what these people are doing in the same marriage, when they clearly want a single apartment that happens to be adjacent to someone who will occasionally have sex with them. At one point in the most recent show, a disagreement arose between husband and wife about the second apartment, which the wife hugely liked, but which was missing some key element that the husband absolutely wanted to have. Her response:”Maybe you could make it work some kind of way?”

This seems to be what most of  the interactions in House Hunters International boil down to: I want this, so you’re just going to have to deal with it.  It is the most shockingly jaundiced view of marriage one can find on a reality TV show that does not begin with the words “Real Housewives.” Whatever tension there is to be found this show mostly resides in discovering how the marital politics will play out. Who will give in? Who will refuse to compromise? Will they eventually agree to take the house that fits neither of their plans, content in the knowledge that at least they’re wrecking the other person’s life too?

The biggest question I take away from the show, though, isn’t “what are these people doing married to each other?” but rather “what do these people think marriage is for?” Few of them are planning to have kids. Most of them seem to view the house as a piece of property to be carved up equally between them. There seems to be little passion or even companionship existing between them, and they generally seem to have different ideas about the way they would ideally like to live. Haveethey ever looked at their own marriage? Have they ever questioned what they’re doing in it? Are they going to be questioning it in seven years?

The strangest thing, to me, is that they only look at three houses, a necessary limitation that improves the TV experience while failing to adequately represent the realities of a house hunt. When my parents searched for a permanent house for our family through 1999 and 2000, they went to dozens of houses, never agreeing in the affirmative on one. Eventually there were a handful of houses my Mom liked, and a handful of houses my Dad liked, and each one represented a completely different lifestyle, a completely different vision of how the family would operate. They would be divorced within three years.

I brought up the “three houses” thing with my dad, who as I’ve mentioned watches the show, and he explained something I should have realized before: obviously the people don’t only look at three houses- they probably don’t even start filming until the couple has already bought a house, then reverse-engineer the whole thing by having the couple go through two other houses they’ve already rejected for various reasons, and have them recreate the experience on-camera. As with most reality TV, the narrative is heavily predetermined, and the couple’s perceptions of the house hunt they’ve already finished likely color their own impressions. So we’re not seeing a dysfunctional couple so much as we’re seeing inadvertent couples’ therapy, the new houseowners recreating their experience, and by doing so establishing a narrative that they (and we at home) can go back to in order to make sense of the whole thing.

It also helps the last part of the show, where the couple discusses the houses, make more sense. It was always shocking to me how fast one person gave in, how immediately two people who had been at loggerheads for the whole episode suddenly fell into accord with one another. Is this what a healthy marriage looks like? I wondered. Turns out, it probably isn’t. But it might be what these people need their marriage to look like in order for it to make sense to themselves.

The show always ends with an underwhelming postmortem where the couple describes the changes they have made to the house and how much the whole thing ended up costing- the sort of thing you might nod politely at if you somehow got shanghaied into attending a social event at this incubator of marital sadness, but nothing that any audience seeking actual entertainment should ever have to sit through. There are plenty of other problems with House Hunters International- the people tend to come across as the vanguard of a wave of international Ugly American gentrification, frequently pricing their budgets at the standard corporate housing rate ($2000/month) and being frustrated by how small everything is. They are ridiculously self-centered and frequently underinformed about the most basic aspects of the country they will be living in, and treat their own ignorance with a breezy arrogant unconcern. And yet nothing in the show makes me as queasy as the way they treat each other.

Jake's Grave

Veterans’ Day

When I write something on this blog, it’s usually because I think I have a fresh take on a subject, some kind of insight that I can share with the world (or more accurately, put down on a blog I haven’t told anyone about and then get frustrated when no one seems to notice it). This has made it difficult to write about my own life during the last few years, because it seems to be dominated by the sudden, unexpected deaths of people I care about. And once again, I’m left with feelings and issues I have no real way of approaching in my writing.

When my cousin Jake died earlier this year, I didn’t write about it because there didn’t seem to be a way of writing about it without trivializing it. There still doesn’t seem to be a way to do that. If there’s a way to capture the things I witnessed in the days and weeks following his death, I’m glad doing so is beyond my ability. I still don’t want to think about it, even though, as per usual, it didn’t seem to affect me that much on the surface. I don’t know why. I miss Jake terribly, but I’ve never felt like crying- I just become sad in a small, private way.

It feels weird and bad to put it this way, but Jake was important because he showed me that other people struggled with the same things I did. When I was growing up, I would raise my voice without realizing it, occasionally shouting in class or at a friend’s when I meant to talk in a normal voice. My voice would increase in volume and pitch if I got excited, and I had this weird compulsion to finish jokes- even at the point where it became clear that my joke was ill-timed, unwelcome, or badly received, I would need to force it through to the finish. And, well, I don’t mean to speak ill of the dead- I don’t think I am, because it was a huge relief to me- but as Jake was growing up, I noticed that he tended to do the same things. And when I realized that, suddenly something that seemed to be a deep-seated personal flaw was a characteristic I shared with a person I loved. Maybe it was something genetic, maybe it was because our fathers had a lot in common personality-wise, but it strangely validated me knowing that I had a cousin who acted like me, who probably talked out of turn in school and was capable of getting so excited his voice would rise to a shout without his knowing it. It’s funny how family can make us feel more like ourselves simply by being there.

He grew up in fits and starts, surging near the end. He always needed to have someone talking or something to do, and would invariably get on someone’s nerves every time he was in a crowded car. He always greeted me in the same way, shaking my hand and then hugging me with his free arm while still holding on to my hand. He could have been an artist, and chose to be a soldier. He served well and died too soon. His death was cruel, unfair, justifying nothing and proving less. His nieces likely will only remember bits and pieces of him- this impossibly tall, improbably cherubic-looking presence from their earliest days. I will try to describe him to any children I may have, and I won’t be able to give them the first idea of him. And the thing that has been is what shall be, and that which is done is which shall be done, and the same end arrives for all things under the sun. But he was here. He was here. He was here.

Last Days of Disco

The Last Days of Disco and the Burden of Weightlessness

Of all the authors whose style has been described as “inimitable,” P.G. Wodehouse has to be one of the names to arise most frequently. This is a bit strange, since Wodehouse was not a hugely original voice like, say, Samuel Beckett, nor do you get the sense, reading him, that every sentence is packed with more thought than you have managed to summon up in your life so far, like you might with James Joyce. Quite the opposite, in fact: Wodehouse’s plots are assembly-line farce, emerging with enviable ease at about the speed he typed them, which was quite fast: anecdotes abound of him buying his paper by the roll rather than by the sheet, because it took more time for him to change out pages than it did for him to fill them with words. I currently have 3 of my 10 or so Wodehouse books on my shelf, grabbing one at random and flipping to it at random, I come across the following passage:

“When I was a piefaced lad of some twelve summers, doing my stretch at Malvern House, Bramley-on-Sea, the private school conducted by the Rev. Aubrey Upjohn, I remember hearing the Rev. Aubrey give the late Sir Philip Sidney a big build-up because, when wounded at the battle of somewhere and offered a quick one by a companion in arms, he told the chap who was setting them up to leave him out of that round and slip his spot to a nearby stretcher-case, whose need was greater than his. This spirit of selfless sacrifice, said the Rev. Aubrey, was what he would like to see in you boys – particularly you, Wooster, and how many times have I told you not to gape at me in that half-witted way? Close your mouth, boy, and sit up.”

This is how it goes, for pages and pages, sounding more or less the same whether in dialogue or prose. Wodehouse’s eternal setting was the late Edwardian era, among the families of the very rich and very bored, at the moment before World War I would tear their world up by the roots. Most writers of my time and socioeconomic background have tried to imitate Wodehouse’s style, sensing perhaps that they, too, are living at an absurd level of wealth and privilege (on a global scale, at least) and believing that, as with the Edwardians in 1914, an under-foreseen catastrophe is around the corner. And yet none of us (I include myself) have come close to creating a modern-day version of the standard Wodehouse story. For some I was convinced it was because there doesn’t seem to be a way of translating the breezy effortlessness of his prose into anything modern. And to some degree Wodehouse is writing in a voice that it is beyond our ability to recreate. But these days I think it’s a matter of talent more than time- it’s extremely difficult to make stories as effortless as Wodehouse’s appear to be, and that’s what separates him from the “Great Authors” of English- for all their greatness, all the vast distances of time and space they attempt to span, all the answerless questions they grapple with, we can see them sweat. Meanwhile, the Wodehouses of the world emerge for a garden-stroll, impeccably dressed and free of all perspiration.

I bring up Wodehouse at such great length because of all modern-day artists, the one who seems to be most frequently compared to him is Whit Stillman, whose films achieve a sort of breezy charm that seems to transport the viewer into the trivial troubles of the young, rich, and disaffected. Only they’re not effortless at all: Stillman’s only made four films in 25 years, in part because his writing process for the films is so intensive, and his shooting process so precise. He’s writing a TV show, The Cosmopolitans, for Amazon right now, and while I love the pilot, I’m a bit skeptical that the whole thing’s going to come off, because I don’t see Stillman managing to write thirteen hours of dialogue every year and keep his usual standards.

But anyway, I keep digressing from the main point, and I can already tell this is going to be one of my more Shandyish blog posts (digressing again!) so I’m just going to discuss the film of Stillman’s I recently watched, The Last Days of Disco. There was a whole lot of stuff I wanted to tie in with the first paragraph, about how the film’s setting (New York in “the very early 80s,” according to a title card) precipitates not only the end of the disco era, but the end of a more personal era for these characters: the end of their youth, the last time they’ll ever be able to be worried about the trivial things they worry about. Characters worry about getting into clubs, not being seen in clubs, being seen by managers who have told them not to come back into clubs, not talking with cute boys or girls at clubs, talking with the wrong cute boys or girls at clubs, being seen or not being seen talking or not talking to the right or wrong boys or girls at or outside clubs… you get the point.

And of course things are ending all the time, and youth is no exception, and youths of all generations are always going to associate the endings that occur in tandem with the end of their own youth to be particularly significant, in some way, and a lot of them will watch Whit Stillman films and be overcome with the sense of possibility, the excitement of banal lives, and the melancholy that it’s all going to end sooner than anyone realizes. They might also remember that they felt the same way watching Rushmore.

Every time I watch one of Stillman’s movies (still have to see Barcelona and Damsels in Distress), I’m overcome in that way once again, and I marvel again about how lightweight it all seems. Reasonably speaking, this shouldn’t stick with me longer than the average romantic comedy. But it’s so much harder to make, and maybe that makes it stick longer?–But it doesn’t feel harder to consume; there’s nothing about it that seems particularly important or weighty or difficult; in many ways it’s the sort of movie you put on when you don’t want to think too much. Only here’s the difference: boilerplate romantic comedies will let you shut your brain off for an hour or so. A Whit Stillman film makes you want to turn your brain back on to fully enjoy the movie. It’s breezy and ephemeral, but it’s the type of ephemerality you can return to forever, and the breeziness is the same wind you always feel when you first realize it’s starting to become spring again.

NOT amused

Legend of Korra: “Battle of Zaofu”

Entertainment in 2014 rarely relies on surprise. The culture at large is so conversant in storytelling conventions that it becomes difficult to create an actual surprise, and any enjoyment that derives purely from surprise is generally considered fleeting. Watching older classic movies like Psycho, which depends heavily on twists, has revealed that these movies are great because of everything that surrounds the twists- in Psycho‘s case, the creeping buildup of paranoia, the sublime Bernard Herrmann score, and of course the application of Alfred Hitchcock’s formal ingenuity to a pulpy thriller story.

But when I watch an episode of TV like “The Battle for Zaofu,” I sometimes wonder how much longer I’m going to be able to enjoy stories when I know exactly where they’re going. The answer is “at least one more episode of The Legend of Korra,” because this is a wonderful episode of television, once again proving that series creators Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko have masterful command of fantasy conventions. “The Battle for Zaofu” combines the narratives found in kung-fu movies from Kill Bill to the Karate Kid with the second-act fall found at the end of The Empire Strikes Back or The Two Towers (book version). It’s the point where Han Solo gets frozen in carbonite, Frodo gets put into a coma by a spider, The Bride gets buried underground, and Ralph Macchio gets his ass kicked by Billy Zabka before meeting Mr. Miyagi.

The difference between most of those moments and this one, however, is that Korra has not put herself in this position through strategic error- for one of the first times in the Nickelodeon series, she’s acting like a mature and patient Avatar, trying to solve conflicts with diplomacy and only using her fists as a last resort. Unfortunately, in another first for the character, Korra’s fighting ability is her biggest liability, and Kuvira drops her like a sack of rocks. Actually, the closest parallel here is probably with The Dark Knight Rises, where Batman goes after Bane and gets his back snapped.

The fact that I keep needing to bring up parallels with other excellent examples of this story reveals how The Legend of Korra‘s greatest asset is also its greatest liability. DiMartino and Konietzko are able to build worlds and craft narratives that stand up next to the true masters of the cinematic form. Unfortunately, their works seem to be unable to escape those comparisons, and we leave The Legend of Korra thinking not about the show itself, but all the sources from which it draws inspiration.