Thursday, February 28, 2013

The House Our Flesh is Heir To

Part of the reason I got so worked up about the whole BITTER PILL thing yesterday is that I've been watching this show called HOUSE OF CARDS, which is available exclusively on Netflix and the Interthefts. And even though (Spoiler Alert!) it's only a fictional account of how Kevin Spacey murdered Ernest Hemingway as part of his quest to ascend to the Vice Presidency of the United States of America, I nonetheless get the sense that the machinations the show describes are based in fact; and I've been getting more and more depressed watching special interests pour money into Washington in order to ensure that the rich and powerful get more so, while the rest of us are repeatedly thrown under the bus.

It took me long enough to calm down after yesterday's rant-fest, though, so instead I want to focus on a more technical aspect of the show: the Asides.

In HOUSE OF CARDS, our wicked-awful-but-still-entrancing protagonist Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, has a habit of turning and speaking directly to the camera -- to us, the viewers.

While it is generally considered bad form to intentionally "break the fourth wall" -- yanking an audience out of the narrative moment -- there are nonetheless a great many exceptions in the history of drama. Shakespeare did it. Woody Allen did it. And, perhaps more importantly, Ferris Bueller did it.

There are two situations in which this sort of thing can be acceptable, if done sparingly and well.

First, when the spoken asides provide insight into the story that would otherwise be unavailable. In this case, Underwood's asides often serve to highlight a story point that is important to his overall, Machiavellian quest for the White House.

But there is also a second, much more interesting situation, and that is when the character's asides create a Gap of Insight between what the character seems to believe in that moment, and what we as the audience know to be true. For example, when Underwood vehemently asserts that his relational difficulties with women are having no emotional impact on him whatsoever, we as the audience can see from his actions and behaviors that this is not the case.

This position of audience-privilege does two things for us. 

First, it puts us in a place of power. We feel that since we are more knowledgeable than Underwood in this matter, then we have a bit of an edge over him. This intrigues me, since the whole premise of the show is to explore the machinations of power in our government. By personally, intimately engaging us in that power-struggle dynamic, the writers of the show have attained to a sort of self-reflexivity that perhaps is not as possible within the shorter forms of film or stage play.

Secondly, though, it allows us to take a step back from the truly horrible things that Frank is doing, and to see his human weakness... his vulnerable core that he works so hard to hide with his voracious lust for power. We begin to understand how Washington, with all its evil oppression of the weak by the strong, is actually just the natural outworking of the sort of fears and insecurities to which our flesh is heir (as Shakespeare might put it, if he were more concerned with grammar).

I guess what I'm trying to get at here is that while our natural inclination when faced with the sort of injustice described in that BITTER PILL article is to get angry, or to slip down deeper into our own fear; the more appropriate response should perhaps be a great sadness -- a racking sense of what is lost because of how we, too, are made.

While anger may be a necessary impetus to the action required to enact change, that action must always be done in the only spirit that has a chance of allowing us to surmount our otherwise insurmountable natural inclinations: Love, Love, and more Love.

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