Monday, June 13, 2016

The Antihero Marriage in Media of Late

Spoiler-y warnings for Gone Girl, Fates and Furies, The Americans, and House of Cards.

In the last fifteen years or so, the antihero has seen a rise in popularity. Tony Soprano and Walter White led the charge and it's more or less a standard these days. A lead protagonist has always needed a  chink in their armor, but they've typically held the moral high ground within the confines of the movie/book/series. Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) can leave a wake of dead bad guys in pursuit of rescuing his daughter in Taken despite his (very) questionable methods. Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) can cause loads of destruction but he's hell-bent on discovering the truth and holding the CIA and American government accountable for their actions and thus justified in his actions. So the hero is still very much alive. But there's just as many Dexters (Dexter, Michael C. Hall), Don Drapers (Mad Men, Jon Hamm), and Nucky Thompsons (Boardwalk Empire, Steve Buscemi) to fill out the antihero column where, ultimately, they have immoral and objectionable aspirations or methods despite often times having the audience's sympathies.

I just finished Lauren Groff's 2015 novel, Fates and Furies and it was excellent. A story of a marriage (Mathilde and Lotto) told over the course of decades. First half of the book gives Lotto's perspective and backstory and I would characterize it as moving and intimate and sweeping. The latter half is told from Mathilde's perspective and the novel turns dark and tormented and revelatory. Neither husband nor wife are pure or selfless though both love the other in their specific way. Upon completing the novel, I started to think more about the antihero-marriage.

Call it gender equality or just the natural progression of themes within popular media, but I've seen a number of examples of the antihero-marriage over the last five years. The most obvious comparison to Fates and Furies would be the 2012 novel and 2014 movie Gone Girl. In both books, both partners are equally responsible for betraying and harming the other yet find a strange, demented form of equilibrium in order to move forward in the relationship. These stories are primarily about the marriages themselves though certainly contain their fair share of crimes, manipulation, and mystery to magnify the emotional love and hate the partners have for each other.
Gone Girl's Amy and Nick Dunne
In the realm of television, FX's The Americans has a nice blending of marriage with spy work. As Russian spies living as Americans in the 1980's, Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) negotiate their needs and desires for their relationship though their spy work also and simultaneously takes center stage in terms of plot progression. This might be the one example of a couple that truly loves each other. A less optimistic version of marriage is showcased in Netflix's House of Cards which follows Frank (Kevin Spacey) and Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) in Frank's rise to the presidency. While both Frank and Claire are seen as equals throughout the first few seasons, season four specifically and especially showcases both of them as lead protagonists where their ambitions lie outside of the marriage and their partnership is based purely on political and power advancement. They know that they are at their most powerful when working together as a team, remaining together as a means to an end rather than any sort of emotional support or commitment to each others.
The Americans' Philip and Elizabeth Jennings
In many of these examples, there are fairly specific traits for the men and women. The men are primarily concerned with advancing in their careers, finding meaning and fulfillment through external means. Fates and Furies' Lotto seeks to become a meaningful playwright. House of Cards' Frank rises to the presidency and must find ways to maintain his position. In terms of their relationship, they are more prone to be guilty of inattention (Lotto) or philandering (Nick from Gone Girl). The women, conversely, are often committing the larger crimes though are sly and calculating. Gone Girl's Amy is culpable of a plethora of murders and set-ups. Fates and Furies' Mathilde has the more contorted backstory and is thus capable of more egregious offense against her partner. The Americans is perhaps the one example where both Elizabeth and Philip have equal ownership and power in terms of their roles as spies and in terms of their marriage to each other.
House of Cards' Frank and Claire Underwood
Aside from The Americans, these antihero-marriages all give fairly pessimistic views of partnerships. I think there are still examples of hero-marriages in popular media. Friday Night Lights and Parenthood quickly come to mind as prime examples though both shows have vastly different tones than the other examples. I'm interested in where the antihero-marriage goes in popular media in the future. And I'm wondering if there are many examples of the female antihero? A quick Google search results in some of the above mentioned women though I would contend that they are co-antiheroes due to their partnerships. UnReal's Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby) and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo's Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) appear to be more independent. Overall, fascinating progression, no?

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Wisdom from Robinson as portrayed in Lila

The latest in my reading is Marilynne Robinson's Lila, a third installment in a series following Gilead and Home, the former winning the Pulitzer in 2005. Many people point to Gilead as one of their favorites and for good reason. Robinson is able to capture the slowness of life, its complexities, and its struggles, while remaining committed to a deep spirituality and religiosity. She holds all of those themes in a work of fiction (could it even be done in non?) in heartbreaking and beautiful ways.

If unfamiliar, the novels revolve around a few people in a small town in Iowa named, Gilead. The plot moves along slowly though is more concerned about the inner workings and relations between the primary characters. Rev. John Ames, well into his old age, is concerned with imparting wisdom to his young son in Gilead. The Boughton family, close friends with Ames, and their family dynamic is explored in Home. And finally, Lila is told from the perspective of Lila as she first meets and marries Ames, much older than herself. In it, Lila thinks back to her upbringing as a drifter and despite being a largely uneducated woman, she thinks deeply.

Lila may come in as my favorite of the three. Something about the title character's simple yet profound take on life had a ring of familiarity despite her life situation being anything but similar to my own. She found it hard to commit to her husband, to be loved by others, to reconcile the depravity of the world with her husband's (a reverend!) belief in an all-loving God. The conversations between Lila and Rev. Ames are just perfect, giving room for doubt and questioning and graciousness for disagreement or, rather, differing perspectives.


As alluded to in the first paragraph, there are a handful of themes and ideas written about oh so beautifully. Here were a few of many of my favorites...

On being married:
"Lila had no particular notion of what the word 'married' meant, except that there was an endless, pleasant joke between them that excluded everybody else and that all the rest of them were welcome to admire" (p. 75).
On considering loved ones who are not baptized:
"Like most people who lived on earth, she [Doll] did not believe and was not baptized. None of Doane's people were among the elect, so far as she knew, except herself, if she could believe it. Maybe their lives had gone on, and some revival preacher somewhere had taken them in hand. But Doll's life ended, and no one had rested his hand on her head, and no one had said a word to her about the waters of regeneration. If there was a stone on her grave, there was no name on it" (p. 97).
And on the movies:
" least she always had a movie to think about. And when she was sitting there in the dark, sometimes, when it was crowded, with somebody's arm or knee brushing against hers, she was dreaming some strangers' dream, everybody in there dreaming one dream together. Or they were ghosts all gathered in the dark, watching the world, seeing all the scheming and the murder and having no word to say about it, weeping with the orphans and having nothing to do for them. And then the dancing and the kissing, and all of the ghosts floating there just inches from a huge, beautiful face, to see the joy rise up in it. Like sparrows watching the sun come up, all of them happy at once, no matter that the light had nothing much to do with them" (p. 208).

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Ruminations on Lauren Winner's "Wearing God"

Summer has arrived and the calendar is relatively clear. There's lots of books to read, movies/TV to watch, and music to listen to. As is always the case and rarely the reality, in efforts to more deeply process what I'm consuming, I hope to also write about a few of the highlights along the way.

A while back, I finished Lauren Winner's book Wearing God, her latest ruminations and theological wanderings couched nicely in her story-telling. In it, Winner explores the lesser explored metaphors we use for God. For example: smell, laboring woman, or laughter. For me, coming from a thoroughly Christian background and having almost always lived in one Christian bubble or another, the metaphor for God as shepherd or cornerstone or [fill in the blank] do not become less true but rather become more easily looked over.

I've long been a believer that all Truth is God's Truth. This maxim often reveals itself in pop culture, say movies, for example. The depravity of drug use in Requiem for a Dream or the joy and art of cooking in Chef. While neither of these movies contain the whole truth (what single story does?), they have elements of God's larger Truth for us as humanity and are honest to the story's individual characters. I think I've long been generous in allowing unusual and, sometimes, untested art and stories and situations speak to me. I'm comfortable with my current state of generosity though I'm still learning.

What I really enjoy about Wearing God is Winner's ability to speak very intelligently and personally to truly connecting with God through all corners of life. All of her metaphors are drawn from the Bible though she explores the grittiness of the human experience. The importance of breathing in the labor process or laughter that is proleptic of the world to come. The book has been a good reminder for me not to allow the "all Truth is God's Truth" adage to lead towards uncritical consumption but rather to see life for what it is, full of God's goodness despite our fallenness. I believe this type of perspective is like putting on 3-D glasses after only seeing in 2-D though I'm not sure of the biblical soundness of this metaphor.