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Cultural Gutter: A Halting Fire

My time has come. Another Frolic Afield over at the Cultural Gutter. A Halting Fire takes a look at the first season of Halt and Catch Fire, a show with subject matter — the micro-computing revolution of the early 1980s — near and dear to my heart. It’s also about the unwillingness of so many modern television shows to commit to an emotion other than a sort of listless misery.

One thought on “Cultural Gutter: A Halting Fire”

  1. Dear all. I’m replying to this under TC’s comments, cuz it’s a bit of an epic, and I’m not sure if it wouldn’t be out of place on Cultural Gutter. If it’s fitting, I might post a tiny comment on C.G. to link back to this. Let me know.

    Needless to say, I loved this. I’ve not even watched the show in question, and I’m now uncertain whether to ever try or not. Gosh, the idea of anything that would invoke the memories of putting together my first 8086 from bits left over from upgrades, corporate surplus and junk shops, with the smell of rosin solder flux, hot tea and Benson & Hedges in the air, and either “Songs About Fucking” or “Heavenly vs. Satan” on the stereo, I’m an easy lay for. As you said, it’s fascinating to find my lifetime now falling under the aegis of ‘period drama’, and before we get started, I should say that I’m dying for the show that will make the early-to-late-90’s look as fun and breezy and hopeful as I actually remember them being.

    Of course, it’s never going to happen is it? One of the factors that has just about finished off any enthusiasm I have for contemprary popular culture is the way that absolutely everything has to be mired in fooled-you-that-time cheap-shot takedowns.

    I’m bothered about hubristic angst and ennui being used as simulacra for actual humanity and actual character development, and, rich as this may sound from someone who still ranks ‘Songs about Fucking’ and ‘Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables’ amongst their favoutite albums, I’m bothered about the sneering cynicism, which is coming to be less and less healthy skepticism, or the guilty schadenfreude of watching the wealthy and powerful being brought low, and more and more like an actual hectoring polemic about how hope is childish and self-delusional and how you shouldn’t even bother getting out of bed in a morning. I’m even more bothered about the people who are actually being suckered into believeing that this ghastly, cynical application of ‘darkness’ and hopelessness is in some way evidence of social realism or ‘depth’. It seems to me that’s it’s the opposite. Example: Ian Buruma wrote that Bunraku is fun to watch, even though everyone’s plans fail and everyone dies, because it’s a purposefully proletarian guilty pleasure. It’s the aspirational middle-classes who are constantly being poisoned, tricked into suicide pacts or left as penniless beggars and whores; we know that we’re not supposed to feel good about enjoying the spectacle. But what passes for ‘Character Drama’ now actually attempts to couple its cynical abuse of its characters together with some concept of social justice (a phrase that’s threatening to outstay its misinterpreted welcome in Bad Media Theory any time soon.) Look! The decadent ’80’s go-getters are getting their deserts! Ooh, I know, let’s do a plot where the homophobic alpha-male strawman one gets the results of his HIV test on the Very Day his company goes public! Poignancy!

    It’s not poignancy. It’s straight-out abusive behaviour, cynical writers treating their characters with the same petulant cruelty as Old Testament Jehovah treats his creation or a spoiled brats treats his log-suffering toys.

    And that’s only one of the things that grates on me. Another one is my utter incomprehension about where in the name of goodness all this stuff comes from. That’s a serious question which I’d love to hear an answer about. I know absolutely nothing about comic books, but when I read about stuff like this show, I’m reminded of the impact that “The Dark Knight” made on release, all about ‘we get the heroes we deserve’ and ‘are we worth saving? Do we deserve a saviour?’. Are we still playing that record? Really? Now. I’d count ‘The Sandbaggers’ as just about my favourite TV series ever, I loves me some Dostoyevsky and Joy Division, but what I take from all of that stuff is the idea that there’s something to be learned, or a social good to be obtained. Even ‘warrior with a broken heart’ classics like ‘Dirty Harry’ or ‘Zaitoichi’ at least hint at the possibility of a redemptive outsome. I can’t even bother to invest myself in anything where I can guess from the outset that everyone’s going to turn into a duplicitous bastard, rape scene fodder or a cheap-stunt suicide. Especially when I’m being told that anything else is pabulum and denial, or else that I’m an anorak fanboy who prefers ‘monsters and spectacle’ to ‘real’ character development.

    “Raskolnikov believes that he can commit just one act of unforgivable evil in the knowledge that great good will come of it, only to discover that it’s much more complicated than that” is a scenario for character development. “Here’s this character that you love, and now we’re going to show you that he’s just as compromised and reactionary as the villains he fights” is not. Neither is “here are some charcaters we’ll make you like, and then stomp them into the muck just to prove how well’ard and nihilistic and hip we are”. Is it, in fact, the logical end-point of a pop culture that won’t dare to commit to anything in case it goes out of style and you have to come up with a smart-alec answer when someone asks “oh, you’re not still into THAT, are you?”.

    To paraphrase Anton Lavey, I don’t mind being lied to and exploited, as long as it’s on my terms and I’m aware of what kind of power exchange scenario I’m getting myself into. I’ll watch any number of smirking photo-journalsists getting snuffled up by cannibals, unlimited quantites of scumbag muggers learning that payback is a motherfucker, and as much Sylvia Kristel or Tani Naomi as you happen to have, and yes, I am very aware of the race, class and gender politics that I’m dealing with. Hell, that stuff was a big part of why I studied race, class and gender politics in the first place. What I mind is being manipulated and coerced without my consent, or sold something vile and cynical under the cloak of it being good for me, or ‘proper drama’, or ‘challenging’.

    “Little by little, every one of us turns into the thing they hate the most” and “the only unapologetically good times we ever had were when we were too young and naive to enjoy them”? Got those albums, thank you very much. Don’t need warmed-over versions. Especially not on TV. Especially not when they’re squandering the potential of really great stories and really interesting characters. And especially not now.

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