the quality of mercy

While in Iraq, I managed to catch up with the whole run of the American version of The Office on DVD, including pirate copies of the first several episodes of the fourth season. But I wasn’t able to think of exactly what I wanted to say about it until I saw Bryan Bertino’s stark chiller The Strangers.

Liv Tyler and Felicity‘s Scott Speedman play a couple whose relationship appears to be foundering as they return home from a friend’s wedding. The whole first act of the film calmly observes their struggling, faltering attempts to hold things together after a failed romantic gesture, but Bertino’s smart enough to know that his audience knows a horror movie is coming, and the quiet, efficient character development, mostly taking place in a remote house in the woods, only serves to demonstrate the insulation of the characters, coccooned as they are in their own issues, and therefore to ratchet up our expectations of trouble to come. And we are hardly disappointed — when two women and a hulking man, all appointed in creepy masks, show up and start harassing the main characters, Bertino takes the same methodical, observational approach to the building freakiness.

Nothing in this film is new, exactly — as other critics have noted, everything from the fraudulent “inspired by true events” title card to the creepy masks to the magic disappearing/re-appearing villains comes from earlier horror classics. But Bertino is such a careful and respectful student of these conventions that he manages to reclaim what was and remains fundamentally terrifying in the slasher film. Apart from one Scooby-Doo moment where the guy implausibly leaves the girl alone in the house, there are no groaners in this film; our heroes nearly always take the next rational step, and the chills come from the way the predators effectively cut off each path to safety just as we (and the heroes) think of it. This happens so methodically and so consistently that there’s never a point at which we’re able to think (as I did, for example, while watching Saw), “Well, I would have done that differently.”

The film is as undeniable and overpowering as a patiently-constructed argument, which is exactly what it is. The Strangers, unlike many slasher films, takes the philosophical implications of its premise seriously, stripping away the two primary comforts that usually soften the impact of the onscreen violence: some insight into the motivations of the stalkers (however Freudian and implausible), and the “victorious virgin” principle that was gently parodied in Scream. Many horror films include a large enough cast of dispensable victims that we can reasonably hope for one of them, usually the “nice girl,” to escape. Sometimes the nice girl even develops enough strength to take on the villain directly. (Men are rarely so lucky, nice or not.) But The Strangers robs us of this hope pretty early by having the bad guys outnumber the good guys.

Suspense about the ultimate outcome is not really Bertino’s objective here. When, about halfway through the film, a friend and possible savior shows up at the house at the exact moment that our heroes have holed themselves up in one of the rooms with a shotgun, ready to blast the next sonofabitch to come through the door… well, it’s not exactly surprising what follows. But the moment is effective, shocking, and actually sad. Speedman and Tyler’s distraught reactions are genuine, and Bertino allows them time for their grief, and then for the collapse of the hope the shotgun had seemed to provide, and then for ineffectual rage. He seems more interested in the human reaction to hopelessness than in a nonstop barrage of violence or even terror, but of course hopelessness is at the root of the horror film. It’s why the victorious black man of Night of the Living Dead (that film’s version of the victorious virgin) has to die meaninglessly at the end, and why even comic horror villains like Freddy Krueger can never quite be defeated. Anything is tolerable if ultimate victory seems possible, and no suffering, no matter how small, seems remotely bearable if it cannot be finally overcome or in some way surpassed. This is the whole human drama in a nutshell, and Bertino, to his credit, has zeroed in on the fundamental problem of the horror film and dispensed with nearly everything else.

But ultimately, almost all modern narrative art struggles with this question of hopelessness. Having created an aesthetic standard based on stringent truthfulness, most intelligent artists find themselves incapable of offering a vision of the universe as in any way balanced or just. Those who try (M. Night Shyamalan comes to mind) seem to retreat into fantasy, simple-minded allegory, or buffoonery in order to avoid confronting the falsehoods implicit in their scenarios. Yet those who strike the single, silencing note of hopelessness seem to miss the other side of things, the vast portion of life which is comic, joyful, peaceful, graced with nobility or sublimity, or simply mundane. Like dark matter in the universe, the good or the neutral in life may by far outweigh the unbearable, yet it remains invisible and hard to reckon properly. Our pain, by contrast, blazes with light, and it’s easy to forget to look for anything else.

I resisted watching the American version of The Office for a long time, partly because I wasn’t convinced that Steve Carrell could be subtle and naturalistic enough to carry off the character-driven humor the show thrives on (I was wrong), and partly because I couldn’t imagine an American show going to the dark places the British original did. Fear of unemployment, failure, and poverty has hung over English culture like an oily industrial fog since the ’70s, and even the passing of Thatcherism did not entirely disperse the noxious cloud. Americans have many of the same fears (dating from the free-market free-fall of the same era), but the American myth is so strong that for the most part it is still impossible to address those fears directly in a mainstream context. Optimism, warranted or not, is an integral part of American public life, and it was hard for me to imagine an American show (at least, one not on HBO) ending on the kind of note that the second series of the British Office did.

The first episode, and really the first season, of the American show followed the original pretty closely in tone, and Michael Scott was often genuinely nasty. One scene borrowed directly from the original series, in which Michael pretends to fire Pam for “stealing Post-It notes,” is every bit as painful the second time around. Todd Packer, the American counterpart to obnoxious salesman Chris Finch, is more crude than cruel, which removes one fang from the show’s bite, but many of the same issues (downsizing, career stagnation) are addressed, albeit more gently.

But I mark the American show’s departure from the British original around the middle of the second season, when, in the episode “The Client,” Michael Scott suddenly veers sharply away from David Brent, perpetual loser. Although Michael is as erratic as ever, the episode reveals that in the right environment Michael is actually an effective networker and salesman. This solves one of the major structural flaws of the original series — how did this baboon ever get promoted to management? — by making Michael a victim of the Peter Principle (employees tend to be promoted further and further until they reach a job which exceeds their competence). But this revelation, logical as it is, changes our relationship with the character — suddenly he’s a whole lot more like a traditional protagonist. This Michael, while he doesn’t violate the character we’ve come to know previously, fundamentally transforms him. Sympathetic, funny, even capable, it’s no wonder he gets laid at the end.

Later episodes further sand the edges off Michael. In “Valentine’s Day,” he endangers his and Jan’s jobs, but manages to save them later. In “Business School,” he is genuinely moved by Pam’s mediocre art and in turn moves her by buying a painting of their office building. In “Branch Closing,” the show resurrects the employment insecurity probed by the British series, but where David Brent quickly sells out his branch for a promotion, returning to save the office only when he fails the physical for the new job, Michael heroically, if stupidly, decides to camp out in front of the Dunder-Mifflin CFO’s house in the hopes of changing his mind about closing the Scranton branch. Indeed, throughout the course of the show Michael shows that his devotion to his branch is not merely a pose — the branch really is the center of his life, the object of a misguided but sincere and passionate love.

Michael’s rehabilitation is accompanied, in the series, by a slow abandonment of the rational checks on his behavior, most notably by Jan Levinson. Jan starts out in Season 1 as the voice of normality, coming in every now and then to deliver doses of common sense to Michael’s otherwise reality-proof view of things. Unlike Jim, Pam, and Stanley, she’s powerful enough to be heard, although Michael is quite good at immediately forgetting both her criticisms and her helpful advice. But the off-and-on affair between the two, which at first appears to be one of those regrettable office encounters which one party mistakes for something serious, transforms the character of Jan, cracking open her professional shell to reveal the nut inside. This is funny, but it also leaves us without the external link to reality that she initially provided. Meanwhile Jim and Pam stop being office drones, gain some (admittedly thwartable) ambition, and find love, changing them from voices of discontent to voices of mild amusement at Michael’s antics. Gradually, the show and its characters warp to Michael’s puzzlingly irresistible point of view, and by the end of the third season the women in the office are rallying behind Michael to help him with his horrifying relationship with Jan, while Darryl from the warehouse gives an impressive speech to keep Michael from throwing himself off the roof in “Safety Training.” They show a kind of loyalty to their addled but vulnerable boss that you can’t imagine venal David Brent inspiring, ever.

So which show is more “real”? The American The Office is still a fine examination of economic anxiety — and it arguably makes a better case for the irrelevance of the entire Dunder-Mifflin operation in the electronic age. It’s still full of the awkwardness and social ineptitude that made the original such a squirmy pleasure, and despite Gervais and Merchant’s steadfast assertions that the only really unsympathetic character on their show was Chris Finch, it’s the American version that manages to inject some sweetness into the lead, making him a little more rounded and human. But at the same time, once it does so, the show begins to spiral off into fantasy. Michael becomes more sympathetic than David Brent, but also less believable, because the whole motor for the show is Michael’s inappropriate behavior. If the inappropriateness comes less and less from greed and pride, then it has to come more and more from sheer stupidity. (Or as Carrell put it to NPR’s Terry Gross, “He’s not chauvinist, he’s not racist, he’s not homophobic — he just doesn’t get it. And it’s a completely separate issue — he doesn’t know how to deal with people.”) Michael becomes a kind of slick, suit-wearing Homer Simpson, touching off ever more outlandish plots by his cosmic, comic misunderstanding of reality. That’s funny, too — maybe more laugh-out-loud funny than David’s mean-spirited desperation — but it’s not terribly relatable. Carrell and the writers keep things complicated, and Michael’s not an unremitting boob, but what started as a sharp character study in incompetence and insecurity gradually blew up to cartoon proportions, and even if that cartoon is a better person than the original, it’s hard not to feel a little cheated by the change.

It’s hard to fault writers for having sympathy for their characters — for wanting to make them more moral, or at least cut them a break in life. And it’s hard for me to believe that the ruthlessness of a film like The Strangers, elegant and irrefutable as it is, paints a full picture of human reality. But what’s the balance?

I’ve been catching up on HBO’s excellent, now completed, The Wire. So far I’m through the fourth season; the fifth doesn’t come out on DVD for another two months, and is not available for download through iTunes or Amazon, so I’m operating at a bit of a handicap. The fifth season might tilt things one way or the other. But so far, the show’s writers have kept an admirable balance between their love for their characters, which is obvious and sincere, and the need to keep things real and not let those characters off the hook. Despite the occasional remarks on the DVD commentaries by David Simon and others that McNulty, Daniels and crew don’t believe they can change things on the street, and are merely interested in the intellectual and egotistical satisfaction of solving a case, periodic muted glints of idealism flash out. “Bunny” Colvin, in particular, although he refuses to articulate any grand vision of change, nonetheless stubbornly presses forward with a certain desperate hopefulness about human nature that garners small rewards in both his bold experiment with decriminalization and his work in the schools. Roland Pryzbylewski is a disaster as a cop but finds a way to do good as a teacher. The show’s most famous and well-loved character, Omar Little, obviously holds to certain moralities that might almost be called quaint, while many of the other gangsters find their own lines in the sand, develop their own admirable qualities. Bodie Broadus turns a moral corner and begins to reject the anarchy of the street, and though he’s gunned down for it, one can still sense a human victory there. Stringer Bell longs for legitimacy as a businessman and shrewd economic thinker, and seems on the cusp of achieving it, though he can’t quite escape the consequences of his past actions. Wee-Bey Brice figures out, from his prison cell, how to release his son from the burden of trying to become a street soldier.

The Wire is remarkable not only for its detailed miniatures of the daily routines of dealers, cops, teachers, and pols, but for its ability to manage this kind of navigation between the saucer-eyed political idealism of The West Wing and the cynical rejectionism of shows like K Street and Tanner ’88. In feature films, the balance is often struck by giving us a whole lot of steely-eyed realism, redeemed at the end by some small glimpse of human goodness or value. The pinnacle of this kind of thing, of course, is It’s a Wonderful Life, which spends close to two hours showing us how frustrating, sad, and pointless our lives often are, before allowing us redemption in a rather negative form: think how much worse our sufferings could be, if good people weren’t around to mitigate them! But television is actually better positioned to give us a really rounded, detailed picture of human morality and a really accurate assessment of our opportunities for hope, because television, like life, is experienced over time, not all at once. A film has two or three hours to makes its points and be done, but a show like The Wire can seem to take one position, only to complicate that position or fully reverse it later.

When it’s done badly, this can result in inconsistency of character and can irritate viewers past returning. But when it’s done with sensitivity to the nature ebb and flow of fortune in human life, it can be quite appealing. So when, for example, the first season of The Wire ends in defeat for law and order and private humiliation for many of our main characters, we may feel disappointed, but we also feel a certain thrill — here’s a show that’s not afraid to show the real consequences of, for example, being a “loose cannon,” and the real failures of the “war on drugs.” But in the second season, the members of the Detail are able to nose their way back into a worthwhile investigation and emerge victorious, nigh invincible. (Meanwhile, on the other hand, the union dockhands suffer their own cruel disappointments.) The third season shows McNulty unable to bend to Daniels’ command, and he deliberately busts himself down to a patrol car. But the fourth season allows him to clean himself up, find a certain domestic happiness, and finally rejoin the Major Crimes Unit — though not without losing a young gangster and informant he’d come to like. And on and on I’m sure it will go in the fifth and final season, reversals of fortune being the norm in life and on The Wire — the writers show mercy and compassion for their characters, but by God they earn it. And at the same time, the compassion and humaneness of the writing allows us to assimilate the hard lessons of tactical failure, moral corruption, and the sheer shortfall of strength and energy to do the right thing.

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