Monday, August 10, 2015

Love, happiness, and the beautiful lie of UnREAL

There was a directorial move that happened over and over in the first season of UnREAL, Lifetime's excellent new series about the behind-the-scenes workings of a Bachelor-esque reality show called Everlasting.  A scene would start with a tight shot of a moment between members of Everlasting's cast, and just as it starts to feel like a genuine point of connection, the camera peels back to show the artifice behind it all.  Just beyond that real moment is an array of lights, cameras, and crew; all peering intently, trying to figure out how they can warp this scene into something that will provide the most entertaining television.

Every character has to remind themselves and the people around them that they're crafting a show, with almost every episode featuring some variation of the line "none of this is real anyway."  But is it quite so simple?  Sure, there's manufactured drama and contrived scenarios galore in UnREAL and Everlasting.  Yet there are real stories unfolding too.  A mentally ill woman desperately trying to cling to her job and her sanity at the same time, a repressed woman coming to terms with her sexuality, a rich playboy seeking redemption.  Therein lies the magnificent tension of the show, the way that reality tends to bleed all over "reality."

UnREAL is a deeply cynical show.  It offers a glimpse at the top-down process of a group of ruthless, ratings-minded people packaging up the myth of True Love to an American audience that will eat it up.  They've gotten to a point where they can predict how the public will react to every event, coming up with preset rules to follow: "sluts get cut," black women never win, the suitor that all of these women are competing for has to be likable.  In last Monday's season finale, executive producer Chet thinks he's come up with an incredible idea -- having bad girl Britney come back in the final round after an early exit at the beginning of the season -- only to be reminded that the show has done the very same thing three previous times.  Everlasting is programmed to a tee, but sold under the illusion that it's getting bigger and better and fresher.

The producers of Everlasting are the means by which the show is able to concoct the best possible results.  And the contestants are merely their playthings -- twist them up and watch them go.  But the level of gamesmanship goes beyond that.  Everybody is producing everybody.  As a result, there is plotting to the show in the truest sense.  Many of the best moments come from the complex web of deceit the writers spin: a character manipulating another character into manipulating another character; or somebody thinking they know the game somebody else is playing, only for that person to be playing a second game.  Lies, both big and small, are being sold everywhere.

And perhaps the biggest lie of all is the idea that any of these people can find happiness and fulfillment, either professionally or romantically.  If that's the goal, then they're searching in the wrong place.  After all, some of these women are looking for love in front of a camera, and the audience on the other side watches with hope that somebody will find it too.  One of the most brilliant aspects of the season finale is that even Quinn and Rachel start to buy into the lies they sell, mistakenly thinking that they've found something real in Chet and Adam, respectively.  You may not be able to find love in a hopeless place, but UnREAL deftly fools everyone into believing they can.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

On Paper Towns and years of being a John Green fan

Back in my senior year of high school my English teacher, in an effort to learn more about what students read outside of the requirements for class, gave us an assignment to come in the next day with one of our favorite books in order to present it to the rest of the class.  I had just recently finished reading Looking For Alaska, the Printz Award-winning debut novel from John Green, and to say it had an effect on me would be a massive understatement.  Starting from my early childhood and continuing into my teenage years, I was a voracious reader, and nothing had come close to hypnotizing and shattering me in the same way this did.  Every new piece of art tends to be "life-changing" when you're that young, but it really felt like I was a different person after reading Alaska.  (It turns out I only became a more obnoxious person.  Months later, I would just write "How will we ever get out of this labyrinth of suffering?" in 95% of my classmates' yearbooks at the end of the school year.)

The only thing I wanted to do was talk about Looking For Alaska and the genius who created it with anybody who would listen, so this simple English assignment felt like a godsend to me.  At this point, nobody in my class had heard of John Green, so they just listened with mild interest as I breathlessly spewed factoids about Green's writing.  My enthusiasm was, however, enough to make my highly critical teacher give it a shot.  (She liked it just fine.)

Now, I wasn't exactly early on the John Green train.  By the time I had gotten around to discovering Looking for Alaska in 2009/2010, it had already been almost five years old, and Green had amassed a sizable online following via vlogbrothers, a Youtube channel he started with his brother Hank in 2007.  Still, he was not yet the man who would later appear on the Time 100 list, and judging from the blank stares I got when I talked about Alaska in my AP English class, his reach hadn't quite stretched to my peers.  So John Green still felt like my own special thing.  I couldn't get enough of his work, moving on to An Abundance of Katherines, then Paper Towns, and Will Grayson, Will Grayson.  I even devoured Let It Snow, the charming Christmas story he co-wrote with Maureen Johnson and Lauren Myracle.  Despite being a slow reader, I could always finish his books in a few sittings, because I was so rapt by his style and characters.  I didn't just enjoy reading his novels, I wanted to live inside of them.

Weirdly enough, I didn't even find out about vlogbrothers until a few months after my newfound John Green obsession.  When I was re-reading Looking For Alaska, I saw a link to the YouTube channel in the About the Author portion near the back of the book, and was confused but intrigued (and completionist) enough to check it out.  Discovering vlogbrothers felt like having my love of John Green busted wide open.  My favorite author had a video series with his brother, and they had built a whole community of fans called Nerdfighters, built around the values of charity and empathy and passion.  Over the course of a few weeks over summer break, I poured through the hundreds of materials in the vlogbrothers backlog, addicted to these funny, entertaining, and sincere little videos.  And of course, the idea of Nerdfighteria appealed to me.  Here was this group of people all around the world with similar interests and worldviews, people who wouldn't listen with only minimal attention as somebody spewed factoids about John Green and his books.  I participated in Nerdfighter forums, followed along with the annual Project For Awesome charity event, and felt like being a Nerdfighter was truly a part of my identity.

Eventually, I outgrew the community.  I just couldn't maintain the level of earnestness and passion that seems to be at the core of Nerdfighteria, as much as I respect it.  It seemed like all of the people who were in the first few generations of the community grew out of it a little too, replaced by a generation who was about the same age we were when we first started following John Green.  That level of fandom seemed best suited for teens, a demographic I was slowly aging out of.  And truthfully, the community was growing too big and unwieldy to feel a part of in the same way that I did in the first few years. My relationship with Nerdfighteria had become detached and complicated, but at least my feelings about Green and his work remained pure.

That is, until the Fault in Our Stars craze began.  I pre-ordered and loved the book when I read it, and in the coming weeks after that, it seemed very clear that this was the tipping point for John Green.  It received rave reviews from prestigious publications, selling like gangbusters, and making waves that reverberated way beyond the diehards.  Anybody still under the illusion that this story would their personal little possession would be convinced otherwise by the hit movie that followed the very next year.  While I loved the film, I also recognized it as the moment the idea of John Green split in two.  There was the John Green that I knew inside and out, and there was the John Green that people only knew through the massive phenomenon of the Fault movie.  Those in the latter category might not even know who Green himself is, only the general brand that he represents.

Naturally, with widespread popularity comes a whole cadre of haters.  They existed before Green's breakout success, but a whole new breed seemed to crop up about two years ago.  It's fine to be critical of the guy's work, but lately it seems like people find his entire existence offensive.  Accustations have been made that he's a soulless business-minded pest and a creep who preys on teenage girls, and I just find that baffling.  It's hard to go anywhere on the internet and read an article about something John Green-related without seeing a bilious pile-on in the comments section, which makes me so sad.  So in a way, this burgeoning fame has made me a fiercer defender of Green, if only because I feel it to be necessary.  How can anybody view him as anything other than a kind and charitable dude?

But just as well, John Green's celebrity has caused me to feel a little alienated too.  He has so many fans that I feel like I have to share my once boundless enthusiasm with more and more people.  So I get smaller and smaller portions of him.  It's fine that people like him, but it's come at the expense of his work feeling like something that's personal and intimate to me.  Sure, that makes me a little selfish, but I can't help the way I feel.

Perhaps the best way to describe my disconnect with Green is with an anecdote.  I was at dinner with my best friend recently and at a certain point, I pulled out my cell phone to check something.  When I did that, she noticed the case on my phone and asked me what it was from.  The case in question is filled references from The Fault in Our Stars.  I bought it for a few reasons: I think it looks cool; DFTBA records, the online store owned by John and Hank Green, makes it so that the fans and friends who create the products they sell make most of the profit; and I like to show support for John Green even if I'm not as invested in his fandom as I was when I was younger.  I told her what book/film it was from and a quick look that said "Really?" flashed across her face, before she mentioned that she saw the movie and liked it.  She then pinpointed the big "Okay? Okay." clouds in the middle and said "I remember that part."  And that was it.  I wanted to explain away that "Really?," to tell her about how deep my connection to the book and John Green runs, to let her know that I've honestly never even liked the "Okay? Okay." moment that much.  But to so many people, that's what The Fault in Our Stars is, so I just kind of let it go.  It's moments like this that make me feel a little bit of distance from Green and his work, almost as a way of protecting myself.

Still, there are things that make me feel connected to John Green in the way that I used to be.  Strange as it may seem, the primary source is a video series on an offshoot YouTube channel where he plays the soccer video game FIFA.  The results of each match are fairly repetitive, and John is a terrible FIFA player, but there's something that I find soothing and wildly entertaining about them.  He just tells stories and answers questions and creates a whole fictional universe for the team he's playing with and I love it so much.  Most of my college experience was miserable and stressful, but The Miracle of Swindon Town helped get me through those tough times.  Waiting for a new video to pop up at 10:00 am every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday was something of a centering force for me.  But most importantly, it's such a niche series that only a small portion of Nerdfighteria follows it, so it's easy to get that nostalgic rush of feeling like you're apart of something tight-knit and special.

Mostly, though, I find myself mourning the days when my feelings about John Green were pure and unsullied by both his fame and my aging.  That's something that has especially been swirling around my brain in these months prior to the release of the film adaptation of Paper Towns.  With any book that you enjoy, it's always scary for it to be translated into a film.  Some of your favorite parts may be altered, portions could get cut out entirely, your mental image of the characters will forever be changed to the actors who portray them in the movie.  But with your favorite books, there's an even bigger chunk that gets taken away.  Nothing can be as special as your first time experiencing a piece of art.  The release of The Fault in Our Stars, enjoyable as it was, irrevocably changed my relationship with the book.  Was I really ready to go through that again, only a year later?

So I just couldn't manage to get all that excited about the Paper Towns movie.  I tend to stay away from trailers, so I never saw more than a few seconds of previews for the film, but the little of what I saw and heard didn't do much to assuage my fears.  Luckily, I enjoyed the actual finished product quite a bit.  In a way, it's the exact thing I needed at this point in my life of being a John Green fan.  Much like I was grieving the end of my youth via my changing relationship with Green, this film is about saying goodbye to your youth by embracing the empathy and understanding that comes with adulthood.

But before it can do that, Paper Towns captures all of the small and specific things that can make being a teen so wonderful, and the best moments are the lived-in scenes of characters being friends and hanging out.  That's keeping in spirit with Green's writing -- he's always been better at character and vibe than plot.  There's a plot in Paper Towns, to be sure -- guy loves girl, girl disappears, road trip ensues -- but it's all just an excuse for some hilarious and poignant interactions between the main characters.

Each member of the ensemble has a way of revealing themselves to be more than what the world would usually assume them to be.  In fact, it's the main theme of the film, that nobody is an archetype, that they're full of colors and stripes and smudges that make them three dimensional individuals.  Radar and Angela would just be the sidekick black couple without anything consequential to do in any other film, but the movie carves out two significant scenes where they're allowed to have their own story that in no way serves Q's narrative.  People box Lacey into the role of the beautiful blond bombshell, but she's also smart, kind, and caring; and she desperately wants that side of herself to be recognized.  Ben, who seems like the overly confident clown at first...well, he's mostly just that.

If there's a major flaw in the Paper Towns, then, it's the one character it somewhat fails in that regard: Margo.  The entire point of the film is Q coming to terms with the fact that he spent all of these years failing to acknowledge Margo's personhood, which he finally does in the climax of the film.  Over time, I've really grown to love the ending of the book, but the movie doesn't manage to stick the landing in the same way.  We're handed this message that Margo is her own person, not just a mystery for Q to solve, but we never get a sense of who that person is or why we should care.  So instead of feeling like the revelation it does in the book, the ending just feels like a lecture.  Part of that is due to the constraints of turning a 345 page book into a 100 minute film, which was always going to result in a flattening of Margo's interior, but the conclusion is just as undone by the tweaks made in the circumstances under which Q finds Margo.  In the book, their reunion feels much sadder -- the gang finds her living in a dilapidated old barn, dirty and alone, and you really get a sense of how selfish she is for running away without considering the consequences.  You gain a much better understanding of who she is when it stands in stark contrast with Q's rose-tinted romanticizing.  Compare that to the serene nothingness of the moment in the film, and the latter feels much less effective.

Nonetheless, there are more than enough enjoyable moments to outweigh a few minor quibbles.  During the night of pranks sequence that opens the film, I felt like I had been transported back to high school, when I read that section of the book for the first time and was amazed that a novel could have such an energizing, rollicking start.  I was reminded of my favorite lines -- "The Rhode Island of penises," "Your friendship with Margo sleeps with the fishes," etc. -- many of which I had forgotten I loved so much.  A great adaptation can stand on its own.  A good adaptation just has to be comforting, by presenting you with things you already know you like.  Paper Towns is only a good adaptation, but I'm completely at peace with that.  We're now two out of two with good adaptations of John Green books -- us fans should consider ourselves lucky.

Which brings us back to where we started.  With the success of The Fault in Our Stars and Paper Towns (albeit a softer-than-expected opening from the latter), and John Green's star continuing to rise, Looking For Alaska is next in line to be adapted.  And even though I'm pretty positive on these last two adaptations, I desperately don't want a Looking For Alaska film to happen.  Fault and Towns are good, but I need Alaska to be perfect, and if it's going to be anything less than that I don't want it at all.  The Fault in Our Stars being made into a film felt like such an inevitability that I was quickly able to tell myself, "Okay, the world can have this one and only this one."  When Paper Towns rolled around, I rationalized that it's not my favorite Green novel, so I could deal with an adaptation that might not live up to the source material.  But Looking For Alaska is just too personal to me.  I can't deal with a single piece of miscasting, any tweaked themes, or the movie becoming such a success that the perception of the story gets reduced and simplified.

The worst part is that the best possible version of a movie was waved in front of our faces and then snatched away.  At one point, Sarah Polley was attached to write and direct the film, and for the first time I felt okay with the idea of it existing.  Polley is on the shortlist of my favorite directors working right now, and her brilliant trio of films Away From Her, Take This Waltz, and Stories We Tell show a talent for empathy, emotional nuance, and micro moments.  She's one of the few filmmakers who could make what I define as a great adaptation of the material.  I wouldn't even mind her changing the story, because I know her alterations would be different and thoughtful.  While I don't know anything concrete, I suspect she was planning to do just that, and the pushback she received is what caused her to quietly leave the project.  All I know is we'll never see Sarah Polley's version of Looking For Alaska, and that seems like such a major injustice.

There are some fans of the Harry Potter books out there who have never seen any of the movies, and for a while I couldn't wrap my head around that.  But now that I have all of these books that are so close to my heart being made into films, I can understand the reasoning.  Lately, I've toyed around with the idea of just not seeing Looking For Alaska when it comes out, because it's the only way to ensure that I preserve my strongest tie to John Green and his work.  But at the end of the day, I know I'm going to see it.  Because no matter how much older I get, how much more famous he becomes, or how much we both change, I'll always be a fan.