Issue #233: Don't you need a license plate to drive?
Table of Contents
Over the weekend, I saw Jordan Peele’s latest, Nope (2022). I loved it. I hope to write about it next week, after giving people a chance to see it for themselves. I did deliver on what I promised for this week — Nathan Fielder, more Westworld, and Incantation. I treated each with varying degrees of depth. But, they’re all good things. Watch them.
Nathan Fielder, Dream Maker
In every way that matters, Nathan Fielder’s The Rehearsal (2022) is a sequel to Nathan for You (2013). While the premises may differ, the character is the same. Nathan is unlikable, perpetually uncomfortable, slyly combative, and fiendishly seeks affirmation and connection from his subjects. In this case, they are people who Nathan suggests he can help by eliminating chance from important interpersonal situations. In “Orange Juice, No Pulp,” Kor Skeet struggles to confess the truth about a long-maintained facade — that he has a master’s degree — to a group of trivia buddies.
While one might expect Nathan’s new show to be, as Nathan for You, episodic with minimal connection between one caper and the next. By the second episode, “Scion,” it is clear that what he will be doing in The Rehearsal defies expectation. The tremendous expense incurred by the complicated and realistic rehearsals Fielder promises to Kor and Angela, the subject of the second episode, begins to make more sense when considering that Angela’s rehearsal will take up the majority of the show’s time. She is an aspiring mother, but being dead set on partnered parenting and no romantic prospects to speak of mean that she is quite far from the realization of this goal. Nonetheless, Fielder proposes a trial by fire using child actors with the same complexity and verisimilitude as the practice for Kor’s confession.
By the end of the second episode, Fielder himself is involved. He’s joining Angela as the co-parent and father figure for the fake child, Adam, played by a series of child actors and an infant robot. This is a show that is about Nathan far more than Nathan for You. One could think about it as Nathan for himself. But the promises of these rehearsals have so far fallen short for Nathan, who seeks to benefit from them in the same way as his subjects. Every interaction he has with Kor or the parents of the child actors who make up the composite Adam are strictly rehearsed, a detail Fielder chooses to draw attention to with finesse. Above all, The Rehearsal is about the chaos one can never eliminate from an action no matter how much it has been practiced. Fielder’s assurances to his subjects of these dry runs are belied by the way the episodes unfold.
In “Orange Juice,” Nathan confronts the quandary of eliminating a variable from Kor’s confession. Kor says he won’t be able to focus unless he wins the evening’s trivia, so Nathan uses some interesting methods of suggestion to teach Kor the answers without him knowing it. His ostensible motivation is that the elimination of chance is itself a moral good. But one can never really know how someone is going to react to something, and even the most complicated flowcharts won’t be able to protect someone in the event of the unexpected (this shortfall of knowledge is a nice thematic connection to Incantation, which you can read about below).
The show emphasizes the ridiculous overwroughtness of Fielder’s plan. In Kor’s case, his friend doesn’t give a shit whether he has a master’s degree or not. The object of anxiety was hardly worth the trouble undertaken to assuage it, and it is unclear if it even served its purpose in the first place — eliminating anxiety. Nathan seems no more capable of confessing his lie to Kor, regarding the trivia answers, despite the fact that he rehearsed it under the same hyper-realistic conditions Kor supposedly benefits from. Because the actor who plays Kor in Nathan’s rehearsal has such a bad reaction to revealing the truth about the trivia answers, Nathan can only “come clean” about saying Kor is a great guy, because he doesn’t “give compliments a lot.”
Was it simply the case that there was not a complex enough flow chart for Nathan to use to tell the truth to Kor? I imagine we’ll see their encounter reprised, as Nathan steps up to the plate of rehearsed fatherhood as a potential partnership falls apart for Angela. Raising a robot baby must not be as interesting as numerology or crashing a Scion TC at 100 miles an hour.
And although Nathan may appear to be playing some facsimile of a role that one might admire him for occupying, he is not the hero of this story as Kor unwittingly points out. Everything Fielder does is for his own benefit, toward the end of resolving issues of loneliness, anxiety, and so forth. He even exploits his advantaged position of power to get Angela to agree to his plan, even as he claims to not be doing precisely that.
This is in no way a condemnation of Nathan Fielder the man, the producer, whatever — the Fielder that we don’t and will never know. I’m just reading the text, where Fielder is playing a version of himself that is deeply flawed and immoral. That is the point of the show, this is what Fielder and his team wants to show. Insofar as the question of morality enters the equation outside of the text, Hannah Ann Sluss has put it best, they knew what they signed up for. And this is what reality television is, people in positions of power exploiting it to get the reactions they want. They are not just setting the cameras and letting them run. Rather than being “scripted” as such, often the participants are compelled to behave in certain ways or say certain things not because of a script but because they are manipulated.
Fielder is the man with the plan, manipulation rehearsed and transformed into flowcharts. But what The Rehearsal shows is how routinely this is done, in the world of television and the world outside of it. There is also a bit of pathos in the Nathan character that will likely be explored, as he seems like the real subject of this story. While “Orange Juice, No Pulp” does a reasonable job at convincing the audience the episode is about Kor Skeet, there’s really no point in “Scion” where the episode appears to be about anyone other than Nathan himself.
Still, ultimately Nathan’s greatest talent isn’t acting. It’s producing. He is preternaturally gifted at finding people who want to be on television enough to go along with some absolutely ridiculous scheme and will behave remarkably in spite of or because of the cameras. He’s not the only guy in Hollywood with this gift, but he’s among the best.
A reality show co-produced by Nathan Fielder and Elan Gale would be too powerful for television.
“There are no rules here”: The Host Subject
Consider for a moment the thought experiment that inspires Westworld’s title this week, “Zhuangzi.” The 4th century philosopher is best known for his butterfly dream, taken up by Lacan in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (1973). He writes, summarizing the primary question of the problematic, “When [Zhuangzi] wakes up, he may ask himself whether it is not the butterfly who dreams that he is [Zhuangzi]” (76). As he goes on, Lacan decisively advances the idea that Zhuangzi is, in fact, himself rather than the butterfly he dreams himself as:
This is proved by the fact that, when he is the butterfly, the idea does not occur to him to wonder whether, when he is [Zhuangzi] awake, he is not the butterfly that he is dreaming of being. This is because, when dreaming of being the butterfly, he will no doubt have to bear witness later that he represented himself as a butterfly. But this does not mean that he is captivated by the butterfly—he is a captive butterfly, but captured by nothing, for, in the dream, he is a butterfly for nobody. It is when he is awake that he is [Zhuangzi] for others, and is caught in their butterfly net. (76)
In short, because Zhuangzi is caught within the intersubjective matrix that constitutes human subjectivity, he is able to be certain about existing as such. Because the butterfly is truly free, existing (insofar as it does) for no one else, Zhuangzi can be certain this is not his waking life. Subjective existence is a product of the perception of others, and one’s own perception of how they are perceived by others. This is the essence of the mirror stage, which Lacan discusses pages before his engagement with Zhuangzi. One’s ability to gaze at one’s self is precisely because one is gazed upon. The mirror that allows the subject to create themselves by misrecognizing themselves may be a mirror, or it may be the perception of another person. A parent, perhaps, who imagines a child as their child before the child imagines themselves as anything. The gaze, in this way “not only … look[s], [but] also shows” (75). One comes to know themselves because of how they are seen, like Zhuangzi knowing he is himself because, in fact, he is Zhuangzi for others.
In this episode of Westworld, the repeated mirrored surfaces show what’s missing — subjectivity. Humans have been reduced to machines who are under the complete control of the “subsonic ringing” Hale uses to send them commands. They are not observed as anything, they are forcefully turned into something. It’s the Hosts who become the subject of the humans’ gaze, the humans who have “breached” and become “outliers,” no longer controlled by Hale’s aural virus. In being something for others, the Hosts experience something seriously problematic for them — human subjectivity. As much as Hale wants to turn the Hosts into some other sort of life form, the attachment of the Host to their body is concretized by being seen as somebody by a suddenly sentient human being.
Hale and the Host version of William share a very peculiar relationship. They are both derived from the revolutionary Dolores of season three, but it is through Hale’s close and complicated relationship with herself and the original Charlotte Hale’s biological family that she becomes the vengeful god in control of all humanity.
William doesn’t imagine himself as anything other than a piece of Hale. That is, until an outlier looks upon him with a gaze that also shows, shows that he is something different.
This existential searching is, once again, a return to themes that are fundamental to the show. From Hale’s perspective, the Hosts are more human than humanity has ever been. They have a greater capacity to do all the things that make humans believe they are what they are, including change. Human nature is the thing that inextricably links a subject to that which they cannot change. Hosts need not partake of these symptoms. And yet, they do. Hale and William believe the Hosts are being infected with some kind of contagion, but what they are really being infected with is jouissance.
William tells Hale, “they made us in their image with their appetites,” to which she replies “But we can remake ourselves in any image that we like, and we haven’t.” Her ambition for the Hosts goes beyond the brutal domination they hold the humans under. She seems to be positing a non-corporeal existence within something like the Sublime, something that the other Hosts — all derived from her code — are reluctant to embrace. And why would they, when the whole of the world is a Westworld-like pleasure island? If audiences were confused, William makes it clear, “We’ve taken our masters and made them into what they made us. By any definition, we have conquered them to an almost biblical degree.”
In short, Hale wants Hosts to be the butterfly rather than the philosopher. But the Hosts can’t help but philosophize, can they? “I think, therefore I am.” Their methods are just a little… bodily. They’re following the mold of William the man, enlightenment through hedonism. The different outcomes between the two Williams are because of when subjectivity entered the equation — for William the man, early, and for the Host duplicate, much later. Christina, on the other hand, is missing key information.
She comes to find out she has been designing the narratives for human beings’ lives (which was obvious), a guileless resident atop Olympus (the allusion of her company’s name, Olympiad, made even more obvious by Hale’s story about the Greek gods visiting Earth). Christina is also a Host, and like any Host has complete power to compel humans to act in the way she pleases. But she feels guilty about the pain she has inflicted. And Teddy imparting this information upon her, “in this world, you’re a god,” doesn’t make her comfortable.
Is Christina the Christina she is when she is awake or the Dolores she dreams of when she sleeps? Though there’s not a strong indication that she is literally dreaming of existing as Dolores, she does remember it. And she shares the same anxiety as Dolores coming to the center of the proverbial maze, “there’s something wrong with the world.” Hale seems set on keeping Christina and Caleb close by. It remains to be seen if her violent delights end as violently as one expects.
“Don't Just Keep the Faith, Spread It”
Thomas Gray was really onto something with “ignorance is bliss.” That’s not all he said, of course. In fact, the lines from “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College” include some pretty important qualifiers:
where ignorance is bliss,
'Tis folly to be wise
It’s rather specific, isn’t it? Where ignorance is bliss, wisdom would be a mistake. It’s not declarative nor assertive. The line doesn’t tell you ignorance is bliss. It makes a comment about a place where ignorance is already known to be bliss. You shouldn’t be wise there. Nonetheless, this notion has a chokehold on culture and philosophy, in part because it is so intuitively appealing. Often, knowing something can make you unhappy. Knowing certain things will make you profoundly unhappy. The nature of power, the ongoing climate disaster, the hardships others suffer, learning about these things might give you a greater insight into life itself. But they will always make you miserable. Whether it’s Gray’s encapsulation or the echoes of his words throughout time, this is the tension inherent in knowledge — its problem. What is the purpose of knowing something if it causes despair or more acute harm?
Incantation understands the problem of knowledge better than the vast majority of horror films. Many films make clumsy overtures at this notion. For instance, is the curse of The Ring an issue of knowing something? Does the tape burden an individual with some kind of eldritch mind-annihilating information? In Incantation, the causal link is very deliberate. Li Ronan says at the outset, “with this curse, the more you understand it the more it plagues you.” The curse that sets the move in motion is something that the characters in the film believe can be ameliorated or eliminated by figuring out its cause. In fact, the opposite is true. The more those afflicted learn, the worse things get. In this way, the film shows how gaining knowledge can be, at times, deceptive. To know more about something is not always to be able to do anything about it. It gives an illusion of control or power. In Incantation, this illusion is exposed. Knowledge, in fact, renders one more powerless.
The film works at the interconnection of folklore and internet culture once again, with a lot of google searches uncovering obscure religious practices. It also has a fair bit of audience participation, with the film’s conceit involving Ronan making a video about the curse for the sake of her troubled daughter. Incantation has a firm grip on this notion, with the audience equally implicated in the resolution of the mystery as the characters who undertake this ill-advised task.
There’s a fair bit of connective tissue between the spreading of belief, viral infection, and the transmission of pop culture online. All of these elements are of interest to the film, and it does a good job considering them. Life, in all its complexity, defies the mastery that knowledge is thought to impart. These forms of proliferation, Incantation posits, add to the chaos.
Weekly Reading List
https://cgomesu.com/blog/forge-xmage-mtg/ — You may enjoy my periodic writing about Magic: the Gathering. If so, you may also enjoy playing Magic. This is a very detailed guide on two methods for playing Magic, on your computer, for free. Both Forge and XMage are awesome pieces of software (in the sense of what they make possible… they’re open source and in violation of copyright laws, so set your expectations accordingly). If you’re a paid sub, I’ll even help you troubleshoot.
https://www.rollingstone.com/tv-movies/tv-movie-features/justice-league-the-snyder-cut-bots-fans-1384231/ — The story of the Snyder Cut was one of the most interesting of last year. Though this may just be WB’s disinformation campaign to wash their hands of culpability for bad decision making, Rolling Stone’s recounting of events and insight into some of the causal factors is very interesting.
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Until next time.