Monday, August 24, 2015

Fare Thee Well, Jon Stewart

            Earlier this month, on August 6th, 2015, at 11pm EST, Jon Stewart aired his final episode as host of The Daily Show.  I had wanted to write something about this sooner, but honestly, I found I needed time to collect myself before doing so.  It hasn’t really sunk in.  Not yet.  There have been breaks in the show before, for various reasons and lengths of time.  Right now, it feels like just another summer break between seasons.  Maybe it won’t hit me until I tune in next month and see Trevor’s face where Jon’s is supposed to be.  And maybe even then, I won’t really feel it.  Maybe, like with the end of college, or with Chipper Jones’ retirement from baseball, I will slowly adapt to the new reality, sinking into its new sensations, aware at a deep, personal level that something has shifted, and that both I and the world around me are no longer the same. 

            And something is certainly different.  For 11 years, since right before the 2004 election, The Daily Show With Jon Stewart has been a single phrase in my mind, all capitals, words that should never be spoken separately from one another.  His crazy antics, increasingly elaborate penis jokes, and passionate pleas for more sanity in our crazed world have been as indelible and as constant a presence in my life as baseball, or summer road trips, or new weekly manga chapters.  True, I would stray from time to time- both the vagaries of student life and the demands of adjusting to the post-college world meant long stretches where the show was inaccessible, or when I just never had enough time.  Yet time and again I was drawn back, as water is drawn back into sea following the wave that cast it out.  When home, or whenever I had stable internet and a half-hour to kill, nothing made the time pass like sitting in front of either the TV or my laptop to soak the day’s news through the healing lens of comedy. 

            Even though it had been an irregular ritual for much of my life, the practice became all the more precious to me once we learned earlier this year that Jon would be hanging up his chair for good.  Whereas before I would often skip parts of the episodes I found boring, or interviews with guests I had no interest in, now every single show became something to be cherished and treasured.  But it’s always like this.  It rarely hits us how much we value something until after we lose it, or learn with certainty that we will lose it in short order. 

            That Jon Stewart helmed the show for 16 years in an era where “longevity” in television (and internet) celebrity is becoming a highly relative term is impressive enough.  What’s truly amazing is how he, by the end, was consistently ranked as one of the most-trusted sources of news in the country, beating out a variety of other, more “serious” journalistic networks.  He became a voice for the discontented in our society, the real silent majority, all those angered and frustrated to seemingly no end by the (in his own terms) varying degrees of bullshit that permeate human societies.  And not just discontent in general- few would argue against me saying that he was very much a voice for liberal discontent, in a world where Fox News and the wretched Tea Party seem ubiquitous, where the only voices heard loudly are the angry, reactionary, fearful ones.  And only he managed to gain a real following doing this.  MSNBC is a niche organization, and hardly considered a top-tier one in terms of its reporting.  Bill Maher has his audience, but he always had too sharp an edge, and more often than not came across as someone looking to score crass points for a joke that someone trying to make an earnest argument.  So why Jon Stewart? 

            I think there are a few reasons for this.  Comedy itself, when done well, is probably the best tool we have for fully processing our world, the safest way for us to hold a mirror up to our worst selves.  It’s the spoonful of sugar that helps us take the bitter medicine needed to creating a better, more wholesome world.  It can be a safe zone, where tragic or heartbreaking topics, or extremely sensitive or divisive ones, can be contemplated in as close to their entirety as we can get in this life.  So the fact that Jon Stewart was a talented comic gave him (as indeed it gives all comics) an ability to reach people faster and more deeply than most forms of “serious,” “objective” journalism. 

            His own abilities, of course, are only part of the story.  Jon Stewart also had a truly phenomenal staff behind him.  He himself has a wonderful instinct for humor and a razor-sharp mind, sure, but anyone in the business will tell you that, as far as keeping a whole show going for years on end, you need much more than the skill and zeal of one person.  You need the right mix of other artists, comics, producers, etc. working with you to hone every setup and every punchline, to reign in your excesses and supplement your strengths.  The final episode, where we got to reacquaint ourselves with every single correspondent that had ever appeared on the show, was a powerful testament to just how well the show gathered and cultivated great comedic minds, in many cases launching careers that have become as successful and influential as Stewart’s.  If anything, the finale was more of a celebration of the institution of the show than of Jon Stewart the person.    

            That was clearly how Jon wanted it, and that leads me to what, in my opinion, is the biggest reason that we all came to love him so much- Jon Stewart never put himself first.  He is a showman, obviously, and would do whatever he thought would get the biggest laugh or reaction from us, no matter how silly.  But it was never about him.  There is an earnest, genuine humility to what he does, and try as he might to cover it up with jokes, or fake bravado when taking on the gremlins of Fox News, it always shone through.  Regular viewers aside, anyone who watched more than a handful of his shows knew this.  Jon Stewart was always open with the fact that he considered himself extremely lucky to be where he was, that he never took one minute of his air time (or our viewership, support, and adulation) for granted. 

            His own constant self-effacing was proof enough of this, and the icing on the cake was watching him squirm endlessly when cornered on-air by Stephen Colbert during the finale, forced to accept the very genuine and heartfelt thanks of all the people he’d touched over the years.  More than that, while other outlets like Fox News clearly made a big deal out of his viewership, and often claimed that he was nothing more than a mouthpiece for extreme liberal rage (as if that’s a bad thing?), he himself never made any pretensions that he could move mountains, or that cracking jokes would solve all the problems on which he tried to shed some light.  He freaking dedicated an entire episode during his final week to skewering any notion that he made even the slightest difference in the world, essentially waving away his years behind the desk as time wasted laughing at dick jokes.   

            But, as all of us who loved watching him work know, that’s not really true.  Watching him was never time wasted, and he has made in a difference in the world, even if it’s only in small ways.  No, comedy can’t make ISIS go away, or make Putin grow a conscience, or make Tea Partyers grow brains.  While it may help us process complex issues, it certainly doesn’t guarantee that we will find a solution, and in most cases solving real problems isn’t a laughing matter at all.  There have been a number of criticisms leveled at Jon Stewart (and not just from Fox “Bullshit Mountain” News) that more or less say the following; that he had a chance to use his immense reach and influence to create a more reflective liberalism, that he could have been truly balanced in digging down into the shit on all sides of our political and social discourse, and that by never really challenging liberals the way he did conservatives (although the idea that he didn’t is a highly subjective one), his career ultimately ended as an opportunity wasted.  One writer even claimed that he had a "responsibility" to so do, that his duty was to create a new reflectiveness in American political discourse. 

            This misses the point of the show, and the point of what Jon Stewart was trying to do.  You can, of course, criticize how he ran the show, or argue he could have mixed criticism of conservatives with more criticism of liberals, and then he definitely favored one side over the other.  Fair enough.  But to claim that he somehow had a singular power and/or responsibility to rebuild civil society within American media is to both place a mantel on his shoulders that he never once claimed to have (and certainly did not want) and to take the lazy, excuse-ridden way out.  The United States is a pretty fucked-up place right now, and changing that requires active work from everyone. 

            One man could never reshape or fix all of this.  And while many individuals have taken it upon themselves to try, Jon Stewart was never one of them.   He is just as much as product of the times as we are, and he sought to make the best of it.  And in the end, as with all things, none of the political bullshit matters.  Jon Stewart made us laugh, and he made us want to engage more with the larger world around us.  He showed us true humility, and he showed us how to be passionate and active and intelligent while still always being aware of our own limits. 

            So now, over a decade in time having passed me by, I look back on what was.  I remember the many voices- his jittery, minion-esque Bush II laugh, the groucho cawing he used for Dick Cheney, and of course, his truly brilliant parodies of Glenn Beck’s awful, awful program.  With President Obama’s Presidency coming to a close, I think of Stewart’s first joke about him, way back when he first joined the Senate and even then was being treated as the liberal savior of the world.  I’ll never forget my sense of smug, hipster superiority when I could legitimately claim that, while the rest of my high school lost its collective shit when The Colbert Report first started, I had been watching (and loving) Stephen Colbert and his blessed God Machine years before any of those little cretins had ever heard of him.  Same goes for John Oliver, who had been a mainstay on the show long before he split for HBO to make fantastic videos about LGBT discrimination and related topics.  Another regular favorite of mine- Lewis Black, now literally become Anger embodied.  While all the correspondents were fun to watch, the most poignant correspondent’s moment for me was when Michael Che attempted to find the one place on Earth where a black man could feel safe (spoiler alert, there still isn’t). 

            I remember all of this- I will always remember it- and although I feel very, very sad, I am immensely grateful.  Maybe Jon Stewart didn’t change the world.  But he sure made us want to.  Millions and millions and millions of us.  And he enabled us to go our ways armed with the greatest weapons in the world- clever wit and raucous laughter. 

            Thank you Jon.  May God bless and keep you, and may you grace us with your presence again soon.  In the meantime, enjoy that drink.  You’ve earned it. 

-Noah Franc 

Friday, August 14, 2015

Review: Inside Out

Inside Out (2015): Written by Pete Doctor, Meg LeFauve, and Josh Cooley, directed by Pete Doctor and Ronnie del Carmen.  Starring: Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Richard Kind, Kaitlyn Dias, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan, and, of course, John Ratzenberger.  Running Time: 94 minutes. 

Rating: 4/4

            I suppose I should start this with a weeping confession that I, too, had joined the ranks of heartbroken masses convinced that Pixar’s glory days, at least for now, were behind it.  Both the noticeable drop of quality in their works following Up and Toy Story 3 and the announcement that the coming years would mostly just bring a slew of unneeded and unasked-for sequels to earlier, greater works seemed to be unmistakable signs that the great animation powerhouse that rose to challenge Disney in the late 90’s was finally succumbing itself to Disney Syndrome, willing to sit back for a while and just rest on its laurels, yet still somehow roping in every Academy Award for animated movies simply through being the lone nominated film any of the voters bothered to see that year. 

            While that would, generally speaking, be true, I always found the hand-wringing over the “Fall of the House of Pixar” to be a bit overdramatic.  Sure, it looked like Pixar was drifting away from the focus of powerfully-written “original” ideas that became its hallmark in the 90’s and 2000’s, but it’s important to remember just how impossibly spoiled we were for a while there.  As fantastic as the run of Ratatouille, Monsters Inc., The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, Up, and the Toy Story franchise was, no studio can keep up a streak like that indefinitely.  So some uncertain times for the animation giant were always somewhere in the cards.  Nonetheless, it is indeed an immense relief to see that, even if the 2010’s end up being less definitive and revolutionary for American animation than the 2000’s were, Pixar is still capable of providing us with films like Inside Out, tales of immense and invaluable artistic integrity and beauty. 

            The twist this time around is that, while we do have a nominal human as a protagonist- a 11-year-old girl named Riley- the real characters of the story are Riley’s five core emotions, each represented as their own figure and personality, vying for control over how Riley interprets and responds to the world around her.  The details of how the movie visualizes something so ethereal is astounding to watch.  A central control panel is used to put ideas into words and actions, many of them provided by literal trains of thought that pop in and out of existence.  Experiences that become new memories roll down a shoot as a glowing, glass ball, and most of them are then shipped out while Riley sleeps to long-term memory.  Special ones, designated “core memories” that shape key aspects of Riley’s personality, are assigned a special storage rack of their own inside the central room where the core emotions reside.  They each, in turn, are the basis of each of Riley’s Islands of Personality.  At the beginning of the movie, she has five, although we eventually learn that the number of such islands one can have is not by any means fixed.  The emotions themselves are hypnotizing to look at, seemingly composed of endless tiny glowing light particles.  

            Each of the five voices cast are perfect fits for their respective emotions- there is the ebullient Joy (Amy Poehler), morose Sadness (Phyllis Smith), sneering Disgust (Mindy Kaling), over-wrought Fear (Bill Hader), and, my favorite of the bunch, Lewis “Smoking-Out-Of-His-Ears” Black as livid Anger.  While Disgust, Fear, and Anger get some of the movie’s better gags, the narrative heavy hitters are Joy and Sadness.  In a fitting parallel to the travails and growth of Riley as a whole person, each of the emotions is still learning their proper function as well.  Joy tries way too hard to run the show, seeking to shunt away Sadness and keep her from touching any of Riley’s memories, ESPECIALLY the now very precious ones from Minnesota (when one of the emotions directly touches a memory, especially a core one, they seem to “color” it with their essence, meaning that that emotion will be the one Riley will primarily feel whenever she recalls it). 

            However, Joy’s efforts to push away Sadness and keep Riley constantly happy grow increasingly impossible to manage, where the loud, cacophonous dissonance of Riley’s new circumstances seem to bring one problem after another.  Each bad or uncomfortable experience leaves Joy and the others befuddled about how to respond, until after one particularly bad incident results in Joy and Sadness are launched out of headquarters and into the endless shelves of Long-Term Memory.   

            Now, with only Anger, Disgust, and Fear at the helm, Riley starts to head down a very self-destructive path, one that breaks apart the core aspects of her personality we spent the first part of the film becoming familiar with.  Literally unable to feel either joy or sadness, and effectively falling into depression as a result, Riley is literally losing her entire sense of self.  Thus, Joy and Sadness have to put aside their differences and find their way back in time.  They even eventually get some help from Riley’s old imaginary friend, Bing Bong, who had been toiling away for years in Long-Term Memory, forgotten.  And along the way, each is forced to learn a bit more about their proper role in maintaining Riley’s sense of being.  

            Much has made of the “accuracy” with which Inside Out depicts the various interior workings of the conscious and subconscious mind, but I feel it bears remembering that, for all our advances in technological studies, the mind still remains a realm where both individual and broader cultural perspective matters immensely- the “Five Central Emotions” concept used here is just one interpretation of many in terms of how the mind operates, one that is not accepted globally.  There may come a time when future neuro-scientists look back at this movie as hilariously backwards and quant.   

            That said, how this movie depicts the literal machinations of the mind is ultimately far less important than what it has to say about life in general, and about the trials of growing up and learning to see the world through fuller, more mature, and more emotionally complex eyes.  Fittingly, it is a journey each of the emotions need just as much as Riley as a whole does.  At long last, we have a wonderfully made family film that lots of people are going to see that actively avoids simple answers for the problems of self and growth that it presents.  One of the core messages of the film is so simple, yet so forgotten by many, that it’s practically revolutionary- sometimes, you just need to feel sad for a bit to make happiness seem all the sweeter. 

            As with most Pixar works, Inside Out not only gets the core of visual and written storytelling right, it is also stuffed to the gills with lavish side details that fill out the film wonderfully.  A sequence where Joy, Sadness, and Bing Bong experience the stranger, more abstract mental states stands out as being some of the most creative and interesting animation we’ve yet seen in a CGI work.  Also, on the occasions where we jump out of Riley’s head and into the minds of other people, note how the control panels and emotions of each mind are arranged.  Note which emotions seem to occupy center stage (Joy in Riley’s case, but not so in others) and which ones are more to the side, suggesting which emotional states dominate the daily life of the individual concerned.  Also note that, while the 5 emotions seem to have the same form in every mind, within each person they all display some aspect of the real person’s physical appearance, regardless of whether or not said aspect fits to an emotion’s apparent “gender.” 

            While the whole movie is filled with great laugh moments, the character that provides the most consistently is easily Lewis Black as Anger, which deserves its own gold trophy for Perfect Casting.  Another favorite moment of mine happens towards the end.  I won’t spoil it, but will say that, speaking from personal experience, it perfectly encapsulates a large part of what being a hormone-ridden teenage boy feels like. 

            The movie has already been out for a while, so you have all heard the hype, but like with my other favorite film of the year, Mad Max: Fury Road, Inside Out earns every word of praise spoken in its honor and more.  If you missed it in theaters, make sure to treat yourself to the DVD the minute it comes out. 

-Noah Franc