Foxcatcher Grabs You

When you first start wrestling in high school, if indeed you start wrestling at all, one of the first concepts you learn is sparring. You and a wrestler of comparable size circle, take turns practicing basic moves. When the other wrestler is practicing a move, you need to provide resistance- need to give him some idea of whether his form will hold under pressure- but you need to let up enough to let him complete it. If there’s something wrong with his form, you need to let him know by escaping or reversing the move, so he sees the effect his mistakes have. You practically never speak to indicate these problems, or even to determine whose turn it is- one of you goes, the other follows. Eventually you reach an understanding.

Sparring is important to wrestling because it introduces a fundamental truth of the sport: the most important signals you receive are the ones you feel. Wrestlers express themselves through body language, and the greatest achievement of Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher is how it understands this, and makes its audience understand it. An early scene between Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, as brothers Mark and David Schultz, shows the two sparring for about two minutes, and tells us everything we need to know about both characters without any dialogue. Tatum is brutal, relentless, punishing his opponent’s neck with blows, driving him backwards, trying to overwhelm him with physical superiority. Ruffalo takes the punishment and uses his opponent’s aggression against him. It’s not a trick so much as a refusal to be cowed by outward displays of dominance. It almost goes without saying that Ruffalo is the older brother.

The physical acting displayed by both actors is astonishing in its craftsmanship. Both get the movement of wrestlers right, the simian lope to which they default when they hit the mat, the way they’ll occasionally go through the motions of a double-leg takedown when walking across an area with sufficient space, the way that when talking with fellow wrestlers, they will emphasize their points by touching them on the shoulders, neck, and arms, like a more intimate version of gesturing. They capture the shared physical vocabulary that all serious wrestlers pick up from going through the same motions thousands of times. In my four years of high school wrestling, I went to one summer wrestling camp. Campers spent nine hours a day working out. After three days, I was falling out of bed because my body kept trying to do double-leg takedowns while I was asleep. People who are serious about the sport go to several such camps every year.

Foxcatcher has a lot of Big Important Movie window-dressing about values and America and capitalism, and if you follow it scene to scene, you’ll find a tidy little film about how the poison pill of American exceptionalism finds fertile soil in an unhinged mind insulated by untold privilege. And that movie’s there, and it’s sure to garner polite applause from all the right audiences, many of whom will draw special attention to the care with which Miller shoots natural landscapes. But what really stood out to me, as a moviegoer and former wrestler, was how the film pays attention to touch, to the physicality of its characters. None of them are particularly eloquent, but the way Tatum and Ruffalo are able to communicate pain, anger, love, and despair through their physical interactions bespeaks a deeper fraternal bond than language can satisfy.

Placed opposite them in the movie’s scheme is Steve Carrell’s John DuPont, silently desperate for such a bond and forever kept apart from one. Carrell plays Dupont as an alien to his own skin, walled off from normal human relationships by his money and upbringing, approaching people as though he doesn’t quite know what to do with them. As an actor whose characters often have silent undercurrents of neediness, Carrell was a brilliant choice for the role. Here, the undercurrents are so strong that you can feel the other characters preemptively pulling away, which of course makes DuPont even more desperate. It’s not all squirm, either, as some genuine comedy arises from DuPont’s remoteness. “Stop calling me ‘sir.’ I consider you my friend, and all my friends call me Eagle or Golden Eagle… or John.” A line like that positively begs for Steve Carrell to read it, and the actor adopts body language that contrasts with the brothers’ physicality: the stillness, the consistent upward tilt of his head, the way he regards everyone as though he is looking at them from a great distance. He seems barely capable of conceiving of personal relationships, and when he learns that someone “can’t be bought,” says “huh,” as though he is being introduced to a new but largely untroubling concept.

A great deal of the movie’s middle part involves Carrell trying to insinuate himself into the wrestling world, by funding a team and naming himself the coach (his assistants do all the work, unless his mother stops by to watch), and later by wrestling himself, in an event that may or may not be staged for his benefit (and which he may or may not realize is staged for his benefit). As he continues to talk about leading men and instilling them with values, we begin to feel more and more sorry for him: here is a man who wants to be self-reliant, but never had that luxury because he was given every other one from birth. He wants to instill values, but seems to have gotten his own from a vague sense of discontent filtered through patriotic pabulum. The film’s developing action hinges on the character’s own awareness of his real state, and as it went on, I found myself increasingly wondering about the lawyers, manservants, and groundskeepers that manage every aspect of DuPont’s life: have they identified with their boss so much that his desires have become their own? Or do they realize that it’s a good job working for the richest family in America, and go along with whatever will allow them to keep it?

The movie’s final scenes are at once its bid for importance and an admission of its ephemerality. There’s a scene set at an early UFC-style cage match that tries to convince us that the movie is a commentary on America’s obsession with athletics, with winning, with “values” that always remain flexible enough to be universally palatable (and thus no values at all). And then there’s the black screen with white text, telling us what happened to all the characters. It’s a disastrous bit of playing to audience expectations, and feels like both parts were brought in from a much worse movie. Better to leave with the image of Carrell sitting alone in a room, watching himself on a video that he commissioned, a modern Midas so encrusted in gold and privilege that he can’t ever reach out and touch anything.


Birdman: An Arthouse Blockbuster

There’s some debate about how much to reveal in a film review, but most people would agree that the first shot is fair game for discussion- you’re not ruining anything the audience won’t find out in the  first seconds of the film. And yet I don’t think I’ll reveal the first shot of Birdman. It’s the sort of image that deserves to appear unbidden before the audience’s eyes, surreal and beautiful and begging for explanation. That image represents the promise of Birdman, or as its full title reads: Birdman; or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance. That the second part of that title never really seems to apply to the film represents the limit of that promise.

Birdman is a film made on the far edge of moviemaking talent: director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu has proved himself with hyper-kinetic dramas like Amores Perros and Babel, and has surrounded himself with skilled collaborators. Emmanuel Lubezki, fresh off his Oscar win for Gravity, leapfrogs that film’s technical accomplishments with a camera that doesn’t appear to make a single cut during most of the film’s running time. The percussive, kinetic score by Antonio Sanchez is still pounding in my head three days later. And Iñárritu gets world-class performances from a murderer’s row of actors, especially Michael Keaton and Emma Stone, neither of whom had ever shown the stuff they get to show here. So if you want to see the best of what cinema in 2014 has to offer, Birdman is a no-brainer. Go see it now.

Just remember that the movie is a bit of a no-brainer in other ways. Thinking back on the film, I can’t remember a single meaningful thing it has to say about its ostensible subject- or anything else, really. Characters seethe and shout and pace back and forth, communicating the anguish and ecstasy of their art so well that you can’t help but believe it to be genuine, but I’m left a bit confused about why I’m hearing it. What does Stone and Keaton’s conversation about the comparative brevity of human existence (memorably illustrated by a roll of toilet paper) have to do with Norton and Stone’s conversation about their personal demons, or what either conversation has to do with Keaton and Amy Ryan’s conversation about his legacy (Ryan plays his ex-wife. Like I said, amazing cast). It’s all a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing, and it’s clever of the film to winkingly crib that bit of Shakespeare, but it only makes it clearer that cleverness is about all this film has going for it. It’s this year’s version of The Artist, a handsomely-mounted tribute to itself. It’s final effect on the audience reveals the title to be a downright misnomer: there is no unexpected virtue to this film’s ignorance, which is the one thing that holds it back from greatness.

That sounds negative, but I don’t think of Birdman as a disappointment, as I found the skill with which it was made to be worth the price of admission alone. The play-within-a-play hinging on one of my favorite Raymond Carver short stories was just a bonus. I almost feel like Iñárritu has revealed a new type of film to me: the arthouse blockbuster. Like any blockbuster, it’s more concerned with spectacle than ideas, but the spectacle is almost entirely located in those aspects of filmmaking more typically appreciated by the arthouse crowd: subtle acting choices, innovative camera work, intricate screenplays. While I’d be surprised if Birdman remained one of the best films I see this year, all those elements are enough to place it near the top of the pile- for now. But even if it’s supplanted by more substantial films, it will likely remain the perfect thing to pop in the DVD player on a rainy day when I’m feeling lazy and want to see some truly excellent mise-en-scène.

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.