My New favorite TV Writer/Producer: Wendy West (DEXTER)

Media, Writing
Dexter

Dexter showcases the talents of my new favorite writer/producer, Wendy West.

West knows how to push my thematic buttons. My TV tastes favor stories of the human condition. Think of David Milch’s heroes coping with alcoholism as a stand-in for human emptiness and alienation. Think Andy Sipowicz in NYPD Blue, or Calamity Jane in Deadwood.

 

Dexter lends itself a priori to such themes. Serial killers are addicts, after all. Plus, other Dexter writers had worked the addiction angle before West began working for the show in Season Four.

But Wendy West goes for the thematic (ahem) jugular. Her writing strikes the optimal balance between methodical structure and dramatic authenticity. For instance, she returns to a single trope, over and over, giving variations of it in each of her five episodes: in each script, she contrasts Dexter to a second killer, deftly marking out the boundaries of Dexter’s values and aspirations as he kills the other killer.

  • Season 4, Episode 4, “Dex Takes a Holiday
    • the killer:  Zoey Kruger (police officer, killed her husband and daughter)
  • Season 5, Episode 6, “Everything Is Illumenated” [sic]
    •  the victim/killer:  Lumen Pierce
  • Season 6, Episode 7, “Nebraska”
    • the killer:  Brian Moser, “the Ice Truck Killer”
  • Season 7, Episode 4, “Run”
    • the killer:  Ray Speltzer (forces victims to run through his torture maze)
  • Season 8, Episode 8, “Are We There yet?”
    • the killer:  young psychopath-in-training, Zach Hamilton

In the most darkly hilarious episode of Season Six, “Nebraska,” West has Dexter’s addiction talk to him in the form of his dead brother, Brian, a serial killer whom Dexter was forced to kill in Season One.

In this road-story plot, Brian is ravenous for junk food. In each scene he tries to persuade Dexter to kill freely–i.e., to dispense with Dexter’s code of only killing serial killers—all the while scarfing drippy, convenience store nachos and falling-apart, Dairy Queen cheese burgers. The motel side table strewn with the burger’s detritus is not only a sight gag (more than anything, ghosts miss eating), but also a way of reifying the character, and in turn dramatizing the power of Dexter’s addiction.

Later in the episode, rather than rushing to kill Jonah Mitchell, Dexter insists on working to verify Jonah’s guilt. This annoys brother Brian:

“Ugh, your code, again…”

“The code is more than that.  It’s kept me safe.  It’s given me a life–“

 “–A life that’s a big fat lie.”

Remember, this is Dexter’s addiction talking. If Brian can persuade Dexter that his life is “a big fat lie”–that his family relationships are merely a front to hide a serial killer in plain sight–then darkness wins.

But Dexter wants a real life, wants love and to be loved. This is the force of Dexter’s burgeoning humanity struggling against his addiction.  Dexter is a psychopath. Psychopaths are incapable of emotion. For Dexter to be the best serial killer he can be, he needs to be fearless, unattached, uncaring of those individuals he’s manipulating to be his camouflage.

What makes Dexter a tragic figure is he wants the lie to be real. He wants to be honest with his friends and family. He wants to be worthy of the trust he has falsely cultivated.

This is Dexter wanting his own undoing. Were any family or friend to know the truth, they would not only shrink back in fear. They would turn him in to the authorities. Plus, because Dexter truly cares for his friends and family, he is vulnerable to his enemies using them as leverage against him.

In the end Dexter spares Jonah, and Brian vanishes. West gives Dexter a closing monologue. He wonders “if darkness is defined by light. If so, darkness can’t exist on its own. There must, by definition, be light somewhere, waiting to be found.” Translated:  Dexter’s “Dark Passenger” (the nickname he’s given to his addiction) has a companion of its own–the light. Perhaps Dexter is not simply a monster. Perhaps he can nurture the light in him to overtake the darkness.

This is brilliant thematic writing. We so want Dexter to succeed.

The tragedy is that’s the same as wanting Kryptonite for Superman.

Beautiful New Business Cardholders

Entrepreneurship

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For all the mind-numbing busywork of starting a new business, certain tasks come with real  emotional rewards.  That’s certainly the case in choosing this new business card holder.  Like practically every other piece of start-up research, this one took time and shoe leather.  After visiting four physical shops and nearly two dozen Etsy stores, I finally settled on this handsome handcrafted wooden piece.

What clinched it for me was the manufacturer, Inelastic Goods, is a one-man operation based right here in Madison.  Steve, the creator of the line, delivered the item himself, eager to show me six or seven different models.  I jumped at the chance to buy two additional cardholders at a discount.

I’m keeping the white oak for myself and have bought two of the darker wenge wood models for gifts.  The wenge wood model is striking in the contrast of two dark planes sandwiching a lighter maple side piece.  The white oak does the opposite, playing up the continuous grain and color, as if the box were carved from a single block of wood.

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All models come with a magnetic closure that clicks shut oh so satisfyingly.  I catch myself playing with it constantly.  Plus, beyond the visual delight of the hand-finished hardwoods, Steve’s execution of the clean, minimalist design is unparalleled.  Each piece feels stunningly smooth in the hand, the joinery, edges, and curves so silky and organic.

By day, Steve works as an engineer for the state of Wisconsin.  On his own time he exercises his entrepreneurial spirit, refining his craft, streamlining his processes and tools, with the aim of not only perfecting the product, but boosting productivity.  His woodshop has become so efficient, he’s recently made good on a private order of sixty business cardholders to a private individual.

Head over to Steve’s Etsy shop for a look at the different models:

https://www.etsy.com/shop/InelasticGoods?ref=l2-shopheader-name

In Defense of Miyazaki: Thoughts on WHISPER OF THE HEART

Media, Writing

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I used to pooh-pooh the films of Hayao Miyazaki.  Back then I’d acknowledge them as technically brilliant, or that they were true achievements of cinematic vision.  But I used to feel they were soft, over-optimistic, naive, or lacking the grit and edge of realism.  By contrast, my touchstone for anime has always been Mamoru Oshii, of Ghost in the Shell fame.  Oshii says of Miyazaki, “His worlds have become just too nostalgic”, and, “[I]t is joyful, it’s eye candy and it is a pleasure to watch his movies, of course.  But . . . people don’t die [in his scenes of military battle, for example], so they are nice to watch but there is no realism”.

I’m usually right there chiming in with the naysayers about Miyazaki films (Howl’s Moving Castle, Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, Nausicaa…), that Miyazaki is the Disney of anime (or at least the Steven Spielberg, with all the predictably happy endings).  To begin with, I’m much more partial to anime stories of psychoanalytic self-loathing.  Filling out my Top 10 list are the self-hating anti-heroes of Neon Genesis Evangalion, Trigun, Cowboy Bebop, Ghost in the Shell II:  Innocence, and Barefoot Gen.

But all the while there have been exceptions to my rule.  I’ve fallen in love with anime that most Oshii fans would call sappy or sentimental, mushy or maudlin:  Fruits Basket, FLCL, Castle of Cagliostro, Please Save My Earth, Macross (Super Dimensional Fortress Macross),  Escaflowne, and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time.  Some of these can be explained as “not inconsistent” by way of them being mad-cap, slapstick comedy, like Castle of Cagliostro, FLCL, and perhaps Macross.   But how do I explain all the dew-eyed idealism?

Am I going soft?  No, that can’t be it, not with apocalypse and earth-under-attack plots figuring so largely in all of them.  And it’s absolutely not the case that I’m merely lowering my standards of intellectual and conceptual challenge; I value these works so highly that I no longer talk about my “Top 10”, I now always name my Top 15 when discussing my favorites of all time.  So how does an otherwise orthodox Oshii fan like myself remain consistent and still keep The Girl Who Leapt Through Time on his Top List?

Although the film Whisper of the Heart does not make my Top 15, briefly discussing it here could go far in answering these questions.  Written by Miyazaki and produced at his Studio Ghibli, Whisper of the Heart (WOTH) features all the schmaltz of a Miyazaki film:  child protagonists and first love, idealism and nostalgia.  (The film recasts the musical juggernaut of nostalgia “Country Roads” into Japanese, changing the title phrase to “Concrete Roads” for the setting of suburban Tokyo.)  But unlike Miyazaki’s more famous films, WOTH is not a romanticized coming-of-age fantasy in which the protagonist must save the world.  Its hero is merely an adolescent suburban girl trying to find herself, while reacting to the attentions of her first suitor.

What might seem fantastic is the uber-traditional nature of her search for identity–especially in a time (1995) of white-hot digital media and ever more sophisticated sci-fi visions coming out of Tokyo near the end of the millennium.  Our girl hero is seemingly transported back to a more traditional time not by a time machine, but by her love of reading fiction (in actual books!) and by falling in love with a boy rooted in tradition by his folk music family and his craftsman aspirations.  (He’s apprenticing to be a violin maker.)  In other words, our hero’s search for identity takes place in the realm of the arts.

Sure, the film ends with the boy declaring his love for the girl.  But what really matters–the more important conflict–is the girl’s decision to become a writer.  It’s true that, in the closing sequence, our hero’s love interest takes her to see his secret Tokyo sunrise and not only declares his love for her from the proverbial mountaintop, but he also proposes marriage.

Sappy enough?  Yes, but only for a moment.  In the next instant you realize two critical things:  a) that these kids are only fourteen years old, and, b) that the boy is shipping off to Italy for ten years that very afternoon.  The marriage proposal in the final sequence has a stuck-on feel.  It seems to come from out of the blue.  And one realizes this is pointedly artificial.  While romantic stories commonly end in marriage, this one ends with a marriage proposal, only.  It’s sweet and optimistic.  But it’s not marriage.  What’s next (off-stage) is that the boy will immediately leave for Italy, to stay for ten years.  So one has to wonder about this premature engagement;  a lot will happen in ten years.  And this is the point:  while love and marriage may still be fantasies for this particular hero, what her heart is whispering to her is a realism common to all the anime in my Top 15.  This is not the story of the birth of young love, but, rather, another story entirely:  the birth of the artist.