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Daily Reads: ‘The Americans’ and Christianity, How Scandals and Sexism Sabotaged O.J.’s Prosecutor, and More

Daily Reads: 'The Americans' and Christianity, How Scandals and Sexism Sabotaged O.J.'s Prosecutor, and More

Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.

1. The Christians, the Soviets, and the Bible: On “The Americans” and Christianity.
FX’s “The Americans” is one of the best shows on television for many, many reasons, one of which is its sensitive treatment of religion and faith with relation to Phillip and Elizabeth’s daughter Paige who discovers Christianity as a way to make sense of the world around her. Christianity Today’s Phil Christman examines “The Americans'” relationship with Christianity and how it’s handled it differently than any other show.

Around the time in which the series is set, the Christian thinker Jacques Ellul wrote about this conflict in a brilliant, neglected book called “Living Faith.” As Christian enthusiasm swept Carter and then Reagan into the White House, Ellul condemned politics itself in startlingly sweeping terms. “Politics is the acquisition of power: the means necessary for getting it, and once you have it, the means for defending yourself against the enemy and so holding on to it,” he wrote. “All the fine talk about politics as a means of establishing justice…is nothing but a smokescreen that on the one hand conceals harsh, vulgar reality, and on the other justifies the universal passion for politics…that politics is the most noble human activity, whereas it is really the most ignoble. It is, strictly speaking, the source of all the evils that plague our time,” he continued, not putting too fine a point on it. It’s hard to imagine many Christians — of any stripe — agreeing with this sentiment. And yet “The Americans” often seems to share Ellul’s dark vision of worldly politics. Repeatedly, on all sides, the characters destroy what they love, betray their own values, and violate what is best in themselves and each other in the course of merely holding onto what little power they’ve already acquired. The mere process of politics — the choosing of sides, leveraging of advantages, tallying of favors — subverts every good intention, both for the Americans and the Soviets. (Stan destroys both of the women who love him. Elizabeth almost destroys her marriage and may yet destroy her daughter. And we already know, living on this side of history, both that the Russians lose and that the arming of Afghan rebels, a key to that victory, would help lead directly to September 11.) For all that, “The Americans” isn’t a truly cynical show: there are truly admirable people on the show. They’re just bad at politics. We get our first glimpse of this conflict as early as the show’s second episode, “The Clock.” Philip and Elizabeth have a chance to bug Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger’s office, but Moscow Center has given them mere days to pull it off. The only lever they have to pull is the Weinberger’s housekeeper, a brave and principled working-class black woman named Viola. One day, as Viola’s college-age son walks between classes, a distracted, mousy-looking woman walks right into him, trampling his foot. (He apologizes to her: that’s the quality of person he is.) Of course, the woman is Elizabeth in yet another wig, and, as Philip (wearing another terrible disguise) reveals to a horrified Viola, she has injected the son with a fast-acting poison to which only Philip has the antidote. Let him plant a bug in Weinberger’s office radio, or the kid dies. So many things about this episode are gripping and horrifying — the swiftness with which it moves, the likability of the targets, and the sheer meanness of the scheme, which seems to trouble even Philip’s calloused conscience. It’s sadly believable that the people powerless enough to be turned into weapons — Viola and her son — are black, a fact that takes on additional biting resonance in the very next episode, when we learn of Elizabeth’s long-running affair with a black American revolutionary and her apparently sincere revulsion at American racism. But Viola’s strength under pressure is what makes the horror watchable, and the show’s writers directly credit that strength to her Christianity. “People who believe in God always make the worst targets,” says Philip at one point, and Viola does indeed refuse to capitulate — Philip has to nearly smother her son to death before her eyes to get the results he wants. Later in the season, she confesses everything to Weinberger, once again taking her life and her family’s lives into her own hands (and tightening the noose around Elizabeth and Philip’s necks). All in all, a well-done hour of TV — and one that depicts a Christian character in an unusually positive light. But watching “The Clock,” I didn’t expect that Philip’s words — “People who believe in God always make the worst targets” — would turn out to have haunting implications for the Jennings themselves: Paige has, over the course of the second and third seasons, become both a target and a person who believes in God.

2. The People Vs. Marcia Clark: How Scandals and Sexism Sabotaged O.J.’s Prosecutor.
“The People Vs. O.J. Simpson” has captivated the American television viewing public with its nostalgic, yet clear-eyed look of the O.J. Simpson trial and aftermath, covering the issue from all sides and focusing on the racial and gender politics of the issue. The Daily Beast’s Jen Yamato examines the latest episode of the series that focuses on the sexism faced by prosecutor Marcia Clark, played by Sarah Paulson in the series.

The Clark-focused sixth episode, scripted by D.V. DeVincentis, takes a few delicious turns of artistic license — most notably in a tipsy afterhours office flirtation between Clark and Darden, whose friendship deepens as Clark is subjected to some truly awful moments of gendered scrutiny and objectification. It also opens on a sequence that says everything about why history owes Marcia Clark some slack. The camera zooms out of her face as she sits in a courtroom, vexed. But she’s not facing down Cochran and Judge Ito; she’s in family court, battling her ex-husband. Here, as in Ito’s court, her irritation only lands her in hot water. She apologizes for the first of five times in the span of the first two minutes as one case makes her late for the other, leaving her literally apologizing across town before her workday even begins. Each “I’m sorry” burns more, adding insult upon insult. Say what you will of Clark’s efficacy trying the Simpson case, but the burden of proof wasn’t the only weight on her shoulders during that trial. She’d tried to kick off her law career defending criminals but found that prosecuting them suited her better. She worked her way up to her first high-profile murder case in 1991, sending the obsessed stalker who killed actress Rebecca Schaeffer to prison for life. By her own admission, Clark was a hungry workaholic who buried herself in her career as a distraction from the failings waiting for her at home. On June 10, 1994, she filed for divorce from her second husband, Gordon Clark, initiating a bitter battle over their two young sons. Three days later, her phone rang with a double murder in tony Brentwood that would change her life. Women still apologize all the time, just for being women who dare to even try to have it all. Imagine attempting to do it while under a microscope that’s broadcasting every glance, remark, outfit, or bad day to the world. On the show, it’s infuriating to watch Paulson as Clark, brushing off the blatant sexism that rains down on her in her work life, and immensely satisfying when she unloads a sardonic retort on the men around her. Yet the outrage builds in the bits and pieces of her own telling. “While he always spoke respectfully to the defense, referring to them as ‘Mr. Cochran’ and ‘Mr. Shapiro,’ I was usually ‘Marcia,'” Clark wrote. “I felt that I had to draw the line early and break him of the habit of condescending to me…” Monday morning quarterbacks blamed Clark’s courtroom persona for being too off-putting to jurors, but the idea never occurred to her that her appearance would be a factor against Simpson. When L.A. County District Attorney Gil Garcetti assigned her to the Simpson case, she had a track record on cases involving DNA evidence, known for working hard and putting in extra hours. But her outspokenness rankled some figures higher up the food chain. “I could see why he might worry about me,” Clark wrote. “I’m no one’s idea of a lapdog. It wasn’t that Gil couldn’t tolerate assertive women; in fact, he went out of his way to promote them. But I could see how he might look at me and think, ‘Loose cannon.'”

3. The Fascism That Rotten Tomatoes Breeds.
Rotten Tomatoes scores are an easy, but ultimately flawed metric to decide the critical community’s view of any given film, and they are often cited by the public and the media as examples of a film’s critical success. At Film School Rejects, writer and critic Danny Bowes explores the fascism that Rotten Tomatoes breeds, and how good intentions can eventually lead to abuse.

Rotten Tomatoes began with the well-intentioned but incompletely extrapolated goal of providing a quick and dirty broad strokes sense of whether a movie is well or poorly reviewed. This is known. The problem, again well-known, is that once you unravel a bit more of the initial assumption, the binary of “fresh” or “rotten” fails to take into account nuances like “it’s okay but nothing special,” which technically counts as “fresh” (see the vast majority of Oscar nominees), and “holy God it’s bad but I’ve watched it two or three times a year for the last twenty years and it’s a blast every time” (I’m sure you can think of an example) which would register as “rotten” if tough-love aesthetic criteria were applied. Experimental art pictures and cult genre movies, both of which tend to be divisive among critics, end up with lower scores despite the greater passions they elicit. In short, an RT score is not — and, I’m sure, not intended to be — an objective rating of worth. It’s the beginning of a discussion, if anything, not its end. And yet. A critic who gives the first tepid review of a film that had heretofore known only raves, or worse, to the latest installment of a popular franchise. and thus causes the RT score to drop from 100%, will be set upon by droves of screaming hellions. This is not a both-sides-are-at-fault thing either, the responsibility for reform here is squarely on people treating RT scores like a video game. Requiring other people to reflect your views back to you in order to establish their validity, especially in a field they know more than you do about, is untoward, and disrespectful. This isn’t to say film critics are perfect and never get things wrong — this is obviously not true — but that the difference between right and wrong is not a binary, it’s not simple, and it certainly isn’t an a priori truth derived solely from one opinion. The fact that the abuse over (lest we forget, imprecise if not outright meaningless) RT scores increases by orders of magnitude when the critic involved is a woman lends further weight to the idea that maybe what’s at stake isn’t a spirited discussion of the arts, or of a beloved hobby, or one’s sacred, fragile childhood, but an attempt to impose will. If it was a discussion of viewpoints, intended to persuade someone with differing views in good faith, the discourse would not consist, entirely, of commands to shut up, to go away, to yield one’s position as reviewer to someone with the accepted views. To purge the cultural conversation of any dissent. To, in microcosm, adopt fascism.

4. “Horace and Pete” Is Louis C.K.’s Take on American Melodrama.
Louis C.K.’s surprise web series “Horace and Pete” has garnered a small, but loyal fanbase of people who wake up every Saturday morning to watch a decidedly experimental, on-the-fly series about the lives of those propping up a 100-year-old bar. It’s not quite a sitcom, not quite a drama, but always an examination of American attitudes and biases. The Atlantic’s David Sims examines “Horace and Pete,” and how it’s C.K.’s take on American melodrama.

C.K. has long been a student of TV history. His near-forgotten HBO sitcom “Lucky Louie” was an attempt to revive the “Honeymooners”-style working-class shows of yesteryear with a modern, profane perspective, but it never quite worked. The crucial difference between that show and “Horace and Pete”? The latter doesn’t have a laugh track. As C.K. himself said on his site, “This show is not a ‘comedy.’ I dunno what it is. It can be funny. And also not. Both. I believe that ‘funny’ works best in its natural habitat. Right in the jungle along with ‘awful,’ ‘sad,’ ‘confusing,’ and ‘nothing.'” That said, when “Horace and Pete” does provoke laughs, they usually stem from some combination of shock horror. If the show has flaws — it’s certainly slow-moving, and the intentional abrasiveness of its characters can sometimes feel cartoonish — they deserve to be forgiven just because of the singularity of vision on display. After the first two episodes, which are long and plot-heavy, the third focuses entirely on one conversation between Horace and his ex-wife Sarah (played by Laurie Metcalf). It dives into the show’s expanding mythology, but is also a striking 45-minute analysis of the horrible mistakes people are prone to making in their personal lives, and the sympathy and scorn they deserve in equal measure. It’s a crystallization of the bitter, humanistic, sometimes infuriatingly apolitical view of society which comes out in C.K.’s standup comedy — that we’re all monsters, so maybe nobody is. But perhaps most importantly, through six episodes, the show doesn’t feel remotely beholden to the traditional demands of a studio, and it has a huge effect on the narrative. There’s no need for ad breaks, no desire to snap the story back to a status quo, and a genuine thrill to be found in having no idea what might happen next. C.K. doesn’t need to make 22 of these a year. He could make five more, or 50 — the only thing constraining him is his own creativity. On the face of it, “Horace and Pete” could herald some glorious era of independent television. More likely, it’s going to end up a wonderful, strange anomaly.

5. The Quare Fellow: On Gabriel Byrne and “Miller’s Crossing.”
Bright Wall/Dark Room is a wonderful film publication that publishes a monthly online magazine featuring film writing from all different stripes. This month is their Coen Brothers issue celebrating all sorts of writing about the filmmaking duo’s illustrious career. From an excerpt featured on RogerEbert.com, Karina Wolf examines Gabriel Byrne and “Miller’s Crossing.”

For among other things, “Miller’s Crossing” thinks about Americanness — how we fetishize origins because we are so distanced from them, how hierarchy has followed immigration patterns. There is nary a person of color in this gangland — the ethnicities we find are the subcultures of 1920s whiteness: gays, Jews, Italians and Irish, all in a lily-white tussle to the top. The Coen brothers embroider this paisley fabric of clannishness with peculiar values and peppery idioms. Rumpus, twist, flunky, daffy, dangle, stinko, rug, high hat — the pulpy words match the Coens’ aestheticizing task, but there is consequence to all the talk. The dramatic question is about ethnic and personal endurance; the methods of survival are literally cutthroat. Like the Corleone’s Irish-American consigliere Tom Hagan, Tom Reagan is Leo’s right hand and most trusted friend. You can’t fault Leo for mistaking where he stands in his confidant’s estimation. He’s an Irish-American talking to an Irishman — they’re related but inequivalent conditions. It’s a matter of culture, in which men in general and Irish men in particular speak feelings in code, and of personal psychology. “A conversation between two Irishmen is one where neither party says what he means nor means what he says but each goes away knowing exactly what was discussed.” A Dubliner attributed this line to Brendan Behan. While I can’t confirm the source, the saying matches Tom’s methods of navigating American gangland — the trouble and advantage in being misunderstood. Brooding, moody, too smart to be happy, Tom is allergic to spelling things out. It’s a reflex and a survival instinct — this immigrant advisor who maintains a poker face while figuring all the underworld angles. When Byrne first appeared as an actor, his looks might have propelled him toward the starrier parts Daniel Day-Lewis inhabited. But Byrne is not, after all, a hyper-emotional or physical actor like Day-Lewis. And since primary-colored conflicts are only a fraction of acting — a good deal more has to do with thinking and listening — Byrne’s talents found a niche. To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, the Americans and the Irish are divided by a common language. And Byrne is best deployed when his characters act according to what we might call an Irish sensibility — not cynical but irreverent, driven by an awareness of the gap between what’s spoken, what’s meant and what’s done. Liam Neeson may carry the mantle of decency — it’s hard to imagine Byrne ever swinging a righteous fist — but Byrne has a corner on the well-aimed epithet and the well-wrought shaggy dog tale. He is a marvelous actor to play tolerant regard for universal hypocrisy.

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