The Autumning Empire

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12 Facebook Quizzes You’ll Never, Ever Take

NarcissusBefore the dawn of the written word, ancient Greeks told the tale of the self-besotted Narcissus, eternally gazing upon the reflection of his sweet and comely visage. But imagine what Narcissus could have done with Facebook. Or Buzz Feed. Or Quiz Bone. Then, oh then, might his sweet and beguiling likeness have been reflected back into his own hypnotic eyes by every computer screen and website upon our ever shrinking planet. For when we look into the the abyss of the ubiquitous Facebook Quiz, we see reflected back our inner most natures, our selves, and our souls. Which character from Harry Potter are you? Which Beatle? Or Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader? The list is as endless as Narcissus’s own self love. But as the man from the Underground famously once said: there are some things which a man is afraid to admit… even to himself. With that in mind, The Autumning Empire is both proud and afraid to present 12 Facebook Quizzes that neither you nor Narcissus will ever, ever take. So don’t look too closely into that river of pop culture; you never know where you might fall!

12. Which David Brooks New York Times Op Ed Article Are You?


How about the one that’s poorly written and cites absolutely no facts to support its dominant culture bias? You know. That one.

11. Which STD Are You?

Aw man! I was really hoping for chlamydia! But instead I got non-gonococcal urethritis. Can I take that quiz again?

10. Which State Representative From South Dakota Are You?

Wait. There’s more than one Dakota?

9. Which Shakespeare “Problem Play” Are You?

I’m sorry! Do you have a problem with All’s Well That Ends Well?

8. Which Lame-Ass, Middle Of The Road Liberal Excuse For Barack Obama Are You?

I was shooting for, “He inherited a big mess,” but instead I got, “The job of the president is very, very hard.”

7. Which Broken New Year’s Resolution Are You?

Wait, is it February already? God, I am such a loser. Jesus.

Pol Pot6. Which Genocidal Dictator Are You?

Not happy with Pol Pot, huh? Who did you want? Hitler? Oh my god, you did want Hitler, didn’t you? That is just…I’m sorry. I really have to go back to my cubicle. Now.

5. Which Whit Stillman Movie Are You?

Ok. Who’s Whit Stillman?

4. Which Terrible Johnny Depp Performance Are You?johnny_depp__willy_wonka_by_nyuxd94-d4xrep0

How dare you? How dare you? Johnny Depp is an amazing actor! You’re just jealous ’cause he’s hot!

3. Which Joe Biden Article from “The Onion” Are You?

Ah, how about the one where he’s washing the car? I vaguely remember that being less un-funny than the others.

2. Which Edward Albee Play Dwelling In Well Deserved Obscurity Are You?

Did he write anything besides The Zoo Story and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Oh. Right. Seascape. Yeah.

1. Which Woody Allen Movie Are You?

Dude, nobody took my Woody Allen quiz! How come? What’s wrong with Woody Allen? Seriously. Am I missing something?


David Berkson

February 10, 2014

 Don’t forget to “like” The Autumning Empire on Facebook. You can contact David Berkson at, or @DavidBerkson on Twitter.



The 85th Academy Awards® will air live on Oscar® Sunday, February 24, 2013.Wow! The 2014 Oscar nominees have just been announced, and nobody is more excited than The Autumning Empire!

But how can we express our excitement, especially through social media where our opinions are so highly valued and so thoroughly masticated, swallowed, and digested? Never fear! The Autumning Empire is here with your very own Academy Award Social Media Mad Lib! Simply cut and paste the Mad Lib below, insert the appropriate parts of speech and numbers into those parenthetical sections, and presto! You have an opinion! Better hurry, though! You wouldn’t want to be bested by your “friends” now, would you? There’s lots of “nominees,” “but” “only” “one” “winner”!

2014 Social Media Oscar Mad Lib!



But what’s up with (ROBERT REDFORD)? Why’d they (VERB) him? That Academy! Every time they just (VERB) him and (VERB) him and (VERB) him! He was so good in “Barefoot in the Park”! I’m sure he was just as good in (THAT FILM I KEEP MEANING TO SEE BUT NEVER WILL). Oh well! Just goes to show you that the Oscars (ADVERB) get it (ADJECTIVE)!



David Berkson

January 16, 2014

 Don’t forget to “like” The Autumning Empire on Facebook. You can contact David Berkson at, or @DavidBerkson on Twitter.

Breaking Bad’s Big Lesson For 2013

imagesThis was supposed to be a list. You know, one of those pop culture end-of-year lists. I had planned on calling it, “Five Most Important Things That Breaking Bad taught us in 2013.” It seemed apt. 2013’s end may signify any number of cultural milestones, but it’s an understatement to say the that final season of AMC’s Breaking Bad is one of the most important.

But I didn’t get far with my list. Well, that’s not exactly true. I got really far with just one item. Don’t get me wrong; Breaking Bad will continue to teach us many things beyond the year 2013. But as I tried to piece together what is unique about this program’s remarkable five-year run, the most important item on my list became the only thing. Here then is the top one thing that Breaking Bad taught us in 2013.

1. Sentimentality Corrupts Great Art

Breaking Bad excelled in many areas. But it also avoided lots of unnecessary mistakes. Narrative fiction has a host of pernicious traps that lie in wait for all who dare the journey. And the most pervasive of these traps, the one that snares the most wily and intrepid of storytellers, is the ancient snare of sentimentality.

I don’t want to go too far here. Art and sentimentality are not mutually exclusive. There’s nothing wrong with the two of them getting in bed for an occasional drunken fling. But the minute they start shacking up, or god forbid getting engaged or even married, it’s a sure fire sign of disaster. Yeah, I know. Dickens and Capra were masters of sentimentality. But these were not men; they were sorcerers tampering with a dark, seductive magic that most of us just can’t handle.

vince-gilliganVince Gilligan instinctively understands this truth. With Breaking Bad, he and his team created a world where viewers became deeply and emotionally involved without ever having to feel…well, dirty. Breaking Bad never cheats. Walter White, Jesse Pinkman, Skyler, and Hank  all come off as real people, people we feel that we know. And we care about them, in spite – or perhaps because – of their deep and tragic failures.

Those of us who enjoyed and endured the last appearance of Matt Smith on Doctor Who know how important it is for an actor’s departure or series’ end to come with a sense of closure. But what does this mean, and how is that sense of completion achieved? Usually by indulging in our culture’s favorite pastime: looking backward. Unfortunately, the past’s seductive landscape is mired in the sweet and enveloping quicksand of sentimentality. Remember when? Remember how?  Wasn’t that funny? Wasn’t that great? Wasn’t that – oh, damn it all to hell, I promised myself that I just wouldn’t cry!

The fact that Breaking Bad avoided this quicksand tells us everything we need to know. After lying to, exploiting, and all but destroying his family for an Empire of Meth, a broken Walter White speaks with his wife Skyler one last time. Like the swan songing protagonists before him, Walt attempts to answer the question: what did this journey mean? But he’s cut off by his wife, whose interjection triggers this painful, quiet exchange:

Skyler:  If I have to hear…one more time…that you did this for the family-

Walt:  I did it for me. I liked it.  I was good at it. And I was really…I was alive.

In fifty-nine seconds and twenty-eight words, Walter White gives his wife and viewers what we’ve been dying to hear for five whole seasons: the whole truth and nothing but.

What does Walter White receive in exchange for his frankness? The hope that his wife might not go to prison. A few precious seconds visiting his daughter’s crib side. And one last, secret look from afar at his bitterly estranged son. Throughout the series’ run, I found just about every scene between Walts senior and junior all but unbearable to watch. Perhaps it’s because I’m a dad myself, but I found something deeply unsettling and tragic in this father’s betrayal of his son. Even Walt’s relationship with Jesse, his all but adopted son, played out with greater fairness and equity. At some point every boy must watch his greatest idol fall, and we saw it happen at its most poignant and wrenching.

breakingbad514Walter White’s final farewell to his family leaves the viewers with a host of unanswered questions. Does Skyler forgive him? Do we forgive him? Can we forgive him? Do we want to forgive him? Are we even in a position to forgive, since time and again we freely handed over our sympathies this manipulator, liar, and murderer? Once upon a time, this game was played with the sly and cunning mastery of Alfred Hitchcock; Breaking Bad took it one step further by mapping out the suspense over a five year period.

The Walt and Skyler farewell is but one of countless similar exchanges seen over the series’ run. Virtually every deeply emotional, heartfelt moment is punctuated with at least one asterisk. As a result, our own emotional responses to the scene may or may not mirror those of the on-screen characters. We are therefore required to make our own decisions about how to respond. This makes for volatile, painful viewing. If the creators of the show aren’t telling me how to feel, then I’m sort of on my own, then, aren’t I? By demanding that we examine our loyalties and feelings, Breaking Bad held the mirror up to nature, and in so doing, avoided the dark arts and sweet seductions of sentimentality’s lure.

Art, at its best, provokes doubt. Sentimentality, at its worst, demands belief. This demand is firm and unconditional; you must believe, you will believe, and believe it right now. Believe that fairies are real. Believe that true love conquers all. Believe that if you just try your best, you can make it here in America. And if you don’t believe? If you decide to get all cocky and bow out? Go ahead. Do it. Protest the manipulation. But you’ll come off like an awful spoilsport, won’t you? No one gets thanked at a rained out picnic. And if it’s hard for you to believe? Hey, don’t worry. There’s an arsenal of weapons just waiting to bludgeon you into willing and passive submission. The swelling orchestra. The tearful close up. The supremely accomplished actor like Tom Hanks, who is so well practiced at giving your heartstrings that firm and encouraging tug. Come on! It’s just a movie. Or a TV show. Or a song. Why over intellectualize it? Why intellectualize it at all? Can’t you just sit back, relax, and enjoy it?

Breaking Bad’s steadfast, disciplined refusal to go this route made it one of the most emotionally complicated narratives I’ve experienced in a very breaking_bad_walter_white-540x303long time. The show was not cold. Indeed, it’s hard for me to think of any story that surpasses Breaking Bad in its invitation to gut wrenching empathy and an all but impossible compassion.  The program was never lazy, and led its viewers by example. More importantly, it respected us by refusing to dictate what we should believe or feel. That’s more than you can say for most TV shows and movies. Strange. We’d never let a parent or partner tell us what to feel , yet we’re perfectly comfortable putting that responsibility in the hands of complete strangers, and paying them handsomely for the privilege.

Look, I cried at the end of E.T. right along with the rest of you, so I’m sorry if this tirade makes me sound like a heartless bastard. But history tends to be pretty tough on cultures that are addicted to sentiment. And if the first thirteen years predicts anything about the next eighty-seven, then 21st century America is in for a brutal beating at the angry hands of history. We can only hope that Breaking Bad will be counted in the great and final tally. Then, historians of the future can look backwards and say, “For one five year moment, the Autumning Empire held up the mirror, took a hard look, and just once had the courage to say: ‘This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.’”

David Berkson

December 30, 2013

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Smaller On The Inside: Steven Moffat And The Incredible Shrinking Whoniverse


I’m pitching a script idea for Doctor Who. This mind-bending tale will be the first full episode starring Peter Capaldi’s newly minted 12th Doctor. Episode One has him kidnapping Doctor Who’s head writer/show runner Steven Moffat from the BBC, and bringing him back to ancient Greece, where the two men meet Aristotle. There, the great philosopher and author of Poetics teaches Steven Moffat how to construct a plot.

Blink_(Doctor_Who)Stay with me now, because it doesn’t stop there: get ready for the paradoxical, timey wimey twist. Unfortunately, the trip to antiquity leaves Doctor Who‘s head writer un-persuaded. Apparently, Steven Moffat isn’t impressed by the idea that a character’s actions should be logical, and follow naturally from the actions that precede them. And so the Doctor – in a desperate bid to save his own creative master (and indeed, himself) – travels forward to the BBC studios of 2007. And that’s where Steven Moffat meets a younger version of…himself. Forty-five seconds of light-hearted comic relief ensue as the two of them realize: “Whoa! This is really happening!” Then Moffat 07 shows Moffat 13 some of the best Doctor Who episodes ever written: “The Empty Child,” “The Doctor Dances,” “The Girl in the Fireplace,” and of course “Blink.” It’s a poignant moment. After all, Moffat is (or was) the author of all of these wonderful stories. But before this episode swells to its paradoxical, sentimental climax, the Doctor forces both Moffats to do the same thing I had the misfortune of doing last night: watch the worst Doctor Who Christmas special ever made. “The Time of the Doctor.” God bless us. Everyone.

14609“But wait!” you may reasonably interject. “The worst ever? How is that possible? Haven’t we already seen the worst Doctor Who Christmas special? Wasn’t that ‘Voyage of the Damned’? Or was it ‘Runaway Bride’? Or maybe it was that very special Doctor Who ‘Christmas Carol.’” Ah Jesus, why pick favorites? Aren’t all Doctor Who Christmas specials terrible?* Doesn’t each inhabit its own special Whoniverse of never ending awfulness? Why not be generous? After all, it’s the holiday season.

But no. No no no no no no no. This is different. And it’s bad. Very bad. “The Time of the Doctor” is awful in ways that the others just can’t match. See, it’s not only that the show’s content is exceptionally poor. No, what is so deeply troubling about this story – if you can even call this thing a story – is that it seems to be not an aberration, but a new standard, an ominous harbinger of the terrible stuff to come.

Many years ago, in the middle of viewing an unforgivably bad film, my date turned to me and said, “Some movies you forget after you see them. This is a movie that you forget while you’re watching it.” So it is with “The Time of the Doctor.” I pity the professional TV critic whose job it is to write plot summaries scotch taped to opinion. It’s telling that in this case, many reviewers didn’t even bother with the plot. Tim Martin of The Telegraph simply threw up his hands, and tried instead to figure out what the hell the Doctor Who people were thinking:

I imagine Steven Moffat and co frantically entering text into a huge and messy Word document marked “Later”. Every time a narrative lapse gets handwaved away, every time an episode thunks to a halt with its story strands waggling, every time the Gordian plot-knot gets sonic-screwdrivered into submission for the 60-minute limit, the writers just tap the remnants into Later. What’s the deal with the creepy brain-wiping creatures known as The Silence? Later. The name of the Doctor? Later. The Catholic Church as intergalactic paramilitaries? Later. The 13-regeneration limit hanging over the series since the Sixties? Yup, stick it in Later.

A writer’s job is to tell a story. Once upon a time, Steven Moffat did this brilliantly. It’s hard to imagine Aristotle finding fault with any of the aforementioned ground breaking Moffat episodes. Indeed, the world’s first drama critic probably would have delighted in these dark and imaginative morality tales; Aristotle would have suspended disbelief.

But lowering the “threshold of acceptability” does not mean throwing it out altogether. Yet this is precisely what Moffat did when he crossed his own threshold from an occasional Doctor Who scriptwriter to the man in charge of the show. Moffat’s deal with the devil appears to have been made on the installment plan: “The Eleventh Hour” – Matt Smith’s first full episode as the 11th Doctor – is a beautiful piece of writing. But the seed of perdition had already been sewn: the so-called  “Crack in the Universe,” the first of Moffat’s incomprehensible story arcs, eventually severed disbelief’s suspension cords, and brought the whole thing crashing to the ground with an overhyped, sickening thud.

And then came the Murder of the Doctor. And the Impossible Girl. And the endless barrage of mind bending paradoxes that turned the rule of the Blue Box completely upside down. For all of its bells and whistles, a typical Doctor Who episode is now smaller on the inside than it is on the out.

Nowhere is this more depressingly clear than in “The Time of the Doctor.” Moffat appears to have abandoned the bloated ambition of his doctor-who-giftsoverarching story lines – which on some level, you have to sort of admire for their Gen X brand of Dickensian hubris. In their place he’s put a checklist. Weeping Angels? Check. Daleks? Check. Small spark of sexual tension with slender twenty-something companion that won’t ever go anywhere? Check. Because Steven Moffat’s not just the Doctor Who head writer and show runner. He’s the driving force behind a multi-million dollar entertainment juggernaut. And the business of show business is business. You don’t believe me? Check out the presents under my family Christmas tree: Doctor Who t-shirts. Doctor Who key chains. Doctor Who 50th anniversary encyclopedia retrospective 270 page book things. Doctor Who Christmas ornaments. Man, no wonder these guys are so big on Christmas specials; what better time to push all that profitable promotional merchandise? I guess taking charge of a business means you itemize, prioritize, and list, list, list – even when it comes to the sacred art of story making.

Don’t get me wrong. I like BBC One as much as the next guy, and if I’m doing my part to keep them afloat, who am I to feel guilty? But the sun must eventually set on the Whovian Empire, and that day may come sooner than we think. Every show has its worst episode. But this one should – and could – have been better. Come on! Didn’t Matt Smith deserve a better send off? And to the man’s credit, he all but saved the sinking ship with his heartfelt, odd ball, son-of-Crispin-Glover antics that have made him so beloved of fans and newcomers alike. “Matt Smith – he is astonishing!” cried the 7th Doctor, Sylvester McCoy. “His face has so much experience in it, and his performance is just excellent in how you feel how ancient he is.”** Too bad Moffat couldn’t give Smith a better script when he said his bon voyage.


So goodbye Doctor Eleven. Hello Doctor Twelve. Is it just me, or is the midnight hour for this franchise beginning to feel a little bit ominous? Peter Capaldi has all the talent, humor, skill, and gravitas to make this Doctor work. Too bad that Moffat doesn’t appear to share that confidence. Capaldi’s first appearance felt…well, a little frenzied. A quick fix it to be discarded in that ever growing “Later” file. Perhaps Moffat has finally become lost in the Byzantine labyrinth he’s been constructing since 2010.

Peter-Capaldi-Doctor-Who-Time-of-the-DoctorThe most telling line of dialogue in this special comes from Capaldi himself: “Just one question. Do you know how to fly this thing?” This is literally the Doctor referring to his TARDIS, but it might as well be Steven Moffat inquiring about the overall direction of the show. Jesus Christ, does anyone know how to fly this thing anymore? If not, we can only hope that the TARDIS crash lands in Greece, 335 BCE. There, while the Doctor repairs his time machine, Aristotle can repair Steven Moffat by teaching him what he used to know so well: how to write a good story. If and when that happens, perhaps Moffat can tend to that ever hemorrhaging and ever shrinking Whoniverse by finally closing up the crack.

David Berkson

December 27, 2013

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*Oh, alright. Most are terrible. A friend pointed out to me that “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe,” is not in fact terrible, and after a another look, I’m inclined to agree that it is indeed quite charming. But does one good deed justify a legion of atrocities? You be the judge.

**Kistler, Alan. Doctor Who: A History. Guilford, Connecticut. Lyons Press, 2013.

Peter Pan In The Land of Genocide: A Tale of Three Doctors

the-9th-10th-11th-doctorsTime is relative, especially when it comes to pop culture, and most especially when it comes to fiction. Even the most timeless classic bears the unmistakable imprint of its age. Sure, Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H* is set in Korea, but it’s really about Vietnam. You don’t need to be a student of film or history to know Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby wasn’t made during the decade in which it’s set. Even William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar tells us far more about Elizabethan succession anxiety than the fall of the Roman Republic.

And so it is with Doctor Who. For half a century, the popular BBC series has given us hundreds of episodes in which its eponymous hero transcends the very the laws of time itself. But here’s the rub: none of those episodes, not one of them, can share in the Doctor’s vast and mighty power. Ironically, each story is trapped in its own fixed place in time –  a mirror of its age, a slave to the decade, and sometimes the year, in which it was made. Call it Time And Relative Dimension In Culture. In the end, that big blue box and its long-suffering pilot are time’s servants, not its masters.

So what exactly are we talking about? Hairstyles? Special effects? Not so special effects? Fezzes and bowties and big knitted scarves?  Well, sure, I guess we could talk about that. But Doctor Who deserves a closer look. Once considered a cult classic, the franchise’s 50th Anniversary Special now holds the Guinness world record for the largest audience of a simulcast TV drama. No longer a rarified artifact of geek culture, Doctor Who is now mainstream, the abstract and not so brief chronicle of our time.

HartnellWhen talking about Doctor Who, we’re actually looking at two distinct cultural phenomena. The first began as a BBC series in 1963, and ended 26 years later in 1989. The second Who phenomena* is a  J.J. Abrams era reboot (or in this case, regeneration) that began in 2005, and now grips both sides of the Atlantic. What does the new Who look like? Whenever a franchise gets recycled, its producers come a courtin’ with this solemn oath: we’re gonna take this thing in a whole new direction, AND be totally respectful of the series’ past. The results are sometimes ridiculous and unfortunate. (Like Disney’s The Lone Ranger.)  But back in 2005, Doctor Who’s executive producer/head writer Russell T. Davies actually kept his promise.  Armed with a creative team steeped in Whovian mythology, Davies kept many of the original show’s trademarks: the sonic screwdriver, the mechanical Daleks, the original soundtrack, and the beloved, squeaky TARDIS.

Number 9But the ninth incarnation of the series’ Doctor was something fans hadn’t exactly seen before. The froofy costumes and avuncular mad scientist affects were stripped away. In their place stood Christopher Eccleston, a well-known and respected film actor with a long, impressive resume. If anyone would take this show in a new direction, it would be its newly regenerated protagonist.

He was a sober figure. “… (Eccleston) has a very serious screen image,” said Davies. “There’s a lot of fun and humour in his portrayal, but of course when the Doctor is angry or passionate we get that other side of Christopher, which has helped make him one of Britain’s finest actors.”

In some ways, the 9th Doctor took the character in a direction that wasn’t new, but very, very old. Fans listening carefully could hear the faint patrician echo of Doctors One and Three. The 9th Doctor is a man of grim determination. His occasional flashes of humor barely mask the grimace of a formidable, sometimes heartless adversary. “Have pity!” cries his arch enemy, an imprisoned Dalek. “Why should I?” answers the Doctor, torturing his prisoner by process of electrocution, “You never did.” Eccleston’s is a Doctor of war, the last of his race, a scarred and lonely soldier whose square, singular focus on the present is understandable when we hear his apocalyptic vision of past and future:

You think it’ll last forever. People and cars and concrete. But it won’t. One day it’s all gone. Even the sky. My planet’s gone. It’s dead. It burned like the Earth. It’s just rocks and dust. Before its time.

The 9th Doctor, then, is a man of the time and culture that spawned him. In January of 2005 – the only year Eccleston played the Doctor – George W. Bush took the oath for his second term as President of the United States. Three months later, British Prime Minister Tony Blair got sworn in for term number three. There’s a long list of men and women responsible for the bloody, pointless war in Iraq, and Bush and Blair sit right on top. One month and two days later after Blair was sworn in, bombs ripped through London’s public transportation system, leaving 52 people dead, and many more injured. Blair blamed Islamic extremists for the act, and – sounding an awful lot like Doctor Number Nine – vowed: “We will not be intimidated.”

Everybody Lives

The 9th Doctor has many moments of warmth and compassion. But even then, his message is clear: things are as they must be. When his companion, Rose Tyler, manipulates the Doctor to take her back in time so she can prevent her father’s death, the Time Lord chastises her: “My entire planet died, my whole family. Do you think it never occurred to me to go back and save them?” His acts of heroism live in the shadow of tragedy’s looming inevitability. After saving a relatively small group of Londoners during the 1941 Blitz, he cries in a fit of messianic triumph: “Everybody lives, Rose! Just this once! Everybody lives!” It’s the 9th Doctor’s finest hour, yet he can’t help but remind us that it probably won’t happen again.

Public and critical reception for this darker Doctor were, for the most part, positive, and the series was renewed for another season. But Eccleston stepped down. For all he brought to the role, Doctor Who just wasn’t his gig. His successor was quickly announced: a thirty-four year old Scottish actor named David Tennant. Tennant had followed the show since childhood, and seemed remarkably eager for the challenge. But following Eccleston’s act appears to have been a daunting prospect. “…there’s an awful lot to live up to here. I know everyone loved Chris, and so did I, but hopefully I won’t disappoint people.”

tennantHe needn’t have worried. A 2012 poll conducted by Entertainment Weekly would later show David Tennant to be the most popular Doctor of all time. But our past was his future, and even the show’s creative team found it necessary to prove Tennant man enough for the job. In fact, Tennant’s first appearance has him wondering aloud what “sort of man” he is. His final answer comes with an Eastwoodesque sneer, as he sends an enemy plunging to death: “No second chances. I’m that sort of a man.”

What makes the 10th the most popular Doctor ever? Internet theories are far-flung and ubiquitous, but I think that it boils down to this: fans are generous with Tennant because he’s so generous with them. If you want to see a man in love with his job, watch some 10th Doctor episodes, especially the earlier ones. Here was a Doctor who reached out to his allies, his adversaries, and his audiences. Even if this Doctor isn’t your favorite, Tennant’s sheer charisma and joie de vivre are pretty tough to resist.

But charm has its price, and the fee for Tennant’s was exacted on the surprisingly early occasion of his fifth appearance as the Doctor. In “School Reunion,” he joins forces with old companions Sarah Jane Smith and the robot dog, K-9. It is a fond and sentimental backward look at classic Doctor Who episodes, especially those from the vintage Tom Baker years. Warm and fuzzy would become a hallmark of Tennant’s Doctor. Try to imagine Chirstopher Eccleston picking Elisabeth Selden off the ground, beaming “My Sarah Jane!” as the music swells to a heart warming climax.

K9And that’s where the trouble begins. Not all of Eccleston’s episodes are great – or even good – but like their hero, most focus on a reasonably self-contained plot line. Not so with Tennant. The stories, the Doctor, and the actor who plays him become increasingly sentimental, self-absorbed, and above all: self-referential. Three seasons of the 10th Doctor feel less like a coherent story arc, and more like the uncovering of treasured family knick-knacks. “Hey look! The Cybermen! Why don’t we bring them back? The Sontarans? Aw, man! They were awesome! Why don’t we do one episode – or two, or three, or four – about them? That’d be cool!” Tennant’s tenure, then, is Doctor Who’s post-modern era, unceasingly asking the burning question of our age: remember when?

By the time Tennant was replaced by Matt Smith in 2010, Doctor Who’s course was set to forward into the past. New executive producer/head writer Stephen Moffat accelerated the pace: a 10th Doctor episode pays tribute to the memories of several seasons or episodes past; the 11th Doctor episodes get sentimental over events that took place a mere five minutes ago.

But when you’re watching an 11th Doctor episode, it’s kind of hard to figure out what exactly did happen five minutes ago. I realize that Steven Moffat’s taken quite a beating for his rambling, incoherent story arcs, but so far that just hasn’t stopped him. Jesus Christ, what the hell are we to make of some of these episodes? If the 10th Doctor’s all about the sentimental journey, then an 11th Doctor story such as “The Pandorica Opens” is a horribly botched magic trick, an Escher copy gone wrong, an awesome late night brainstorm that got filmed before anyone bothered to script it.

PandoricaCall me old fashioned, but science fiction does not give you license to make up a bunch of random rules as you go along, and then break them whenever it’s convenient. That’s not science fiction, it’s bad fiction, and Steven Moffat ought to know better. This man is the author of “The Empty Child,” “The Doctor Dances,” and “Blink,” justly hailed as some of the best Doctor Who episodes ever made. “Blink” in particular is a textbook example of sci fi at its best. It begins by establishing a rigidly defined set of rules, then insisting that its characters play by all of them. The result is a taut, suspenseful tale in which the Doctor (not even the episode’s protagonist) has limited power to assist the people most in need of his help. It seems incredible that this script was penned by the same guy who gave us “The Big Bang,” “The Impossible Astronaut,” and the eminently unforgivable “Let’s Kill Hitler.” But perhaps that crack in the universe is a metaphor for Moffat’s bifurcated creative psyche.

But there’s plenty of blame to go around. The hands of Russell T. Davies are also steeped in the blood of bad fiction. His overweening 10th Doctor space operas like “The Last of the Time Lords,” “The Stolen Earth,” “Journey’s End,” and “The End of Time,” sorely test the patience of any reasonable viewer in search of a story that makes one ounce of logical sense.

Davies and Moffat are smart, imaginative men. Why have they written so many bad scripts? The answer lies in the much hyped, much watched 50th anniversary special. Like most Doctor Who episodes, “Day of the Doctor” is a mixed bag. Fans of David Tennant and the quirky, unpredictable Matt Smith can’t help but smile at the sight of these two eager hams finally sharing the screen. It’s a wonderful reminder of what these men bring to the show that Eccleston never could: pure love for the role and the series. Let’s be thankful that Eccleston passed on the chance to appear on the special: he would have been an awful drag and a dour old chaperone. Science fiction does not have the right to be bad, but it does have the right to fun, and even – occasionally – silly.

Day of the DoctorAnd David Tennant? Matt Smith? Those guys are silly. Really silly. “Why are you pointing your screwdrivers like that?” cries John Hurt’s so called ‘War Doctor.’ “They’re scientific instruments, not water pistols!” And indeed, Doctors 10 and 11 are just a couple of boys, aren’t they? A pair of lads having fun, intergalactic Peter Pans who whisk their doe-eyed Wendy companions from one Never-Never Land to the next, clinging to the TARDIS as a fountain of youth in the hope that they’ll never grow up.

Is that a bad thing? I don’t know. Probably not. The youthful impishness is what draws us to the 10th and 11th Doctors. But perhaps we should be troubled. Nostalgia – such a mainstay of current pop culture – is rooted in the fear of growing older. The same is true of Doctor Who’s incomprehensible storylines. It’s not just that they’re terrible, it’s the way in which they’re terrible. Here’s the basic formula:

  1. Some awful catastrophe threatens to bring about the end of an important character/the planet/the human race/the entire universe.
  2. The catastrophe almost occurs. In many cases, it does occur. Either way, all is lost.
  3. A miracle saves the day, preventing, or even – and this is what happens with far greater frequency in later episodes – reversing the catastrophe. No rational explanation; it just simply happens. No major character dies (unless it is the end of the season and time to replace an actor).

So it is for “Day of The Doctor.” Fans are finally brought to scene of the Time War, the battle that destroyed the Doctor’s home planet, Gallifrey. It is the site of the genocide that deeply haunted the Doctor Number Nine. And so, when we’re finally brought there, to the tragic moment of irrevocable loss, we discover…

…that it never happened. The war? The genocide? Oops! My bad. We just thought that it did. According to Wikipedia, the episode’s three Doctors: “freeze the planet in time within a secondary/pocket universe.” Then, through another act of intergalactic magic, the doctors explain that they’re going to forget that they’ve ever done this (so that all the previous episodes still make sense). You got that? They’ll remember the genocide, but we’ll all know that it never really happened.

Now again, I hate to sound old fashioned, but why choose to tell a story about genocide if you aren’t prepared to deal with it? It’s one thing to miraculously bring one or two characters back to life through a little bit of sci-fi magic. But genocide? Really? Whatever, man. I guess it’s just a TV show. Just goes to show that we’ve come a long way since 2005. With far fewer troops in Iraq** and Afghanistan, the trans-Atlantic mainstream is no longer pre-occupied with global politics, or – more importantly – the First World’s responsibility for how they play out. The Gallifrean genocide myth was created at a time when it was impossible for anyone to ignore the realities of war. Now, if you have the luxury of being able to indulge a binge on Netflix, it is entirely possible to ignore those realities.  But the folks at Doctor Who have been stuck with a genocide narrative that audiences now don’t want to hear. Better to just pretend that it never even happened. This is where nostalgia and deux ex machina endings work together: they encourage us to selectively remember the past, and anesthetize us to the horrors of the present.


But as of Christmas, 2013, there’s going to be a new Doctor in town. It’s impossible to predict with any certainty what kind of change the 12th Doctor will bring, but one thing’s for sure: Peter Capaldi’s no Peter Pan. Moffat has insisted that the fifty-five year old character actor is the only man he considered for the part of the 12th Doctor. Indeed, Moffat seems ready to take the show in a completely different direction, promising fans that “now it’s time for the old beast to snarl.”

Really? Wow! Who’s he going to snarl at? And why? I guess we’ll know soon enough. And like most Doctor Who fans, I’m willing to sit through just about anything. But if I have any hope for the 12th Time Lord, it’s this: that somewhere in his voice we hear a little bit of the old snarl from 2005.  Escapism is great, but this series, in its best moments, has shown us that we can do better. Maybe Doctor Who is finally ready to liberate itself from this fixed point in time, and start telling us truths we might not want to hear.

David Berkson

December 18, 2013

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* The two series were bridged by a 1996 TV film starring Paul McGann as the 8th Doctor. 

** There are currently no British troops in Iraq.

The Krypton Code of Silence: What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About 9/11

Man of SteelIf you’ve noticed a disturbing trend in summer action films, you’re definitely not alone. Earlier this month on Vulture, Kyle Buchanan wrote a piece that finally gives voice to our moral misgivings by asking: “Is It Possible to Make a Hollywood Blockbuster Without Evoking 9/11? ”

Using Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel as his point of departure, Buchanan indicts all our summer action fests, writing, “Hollywood feels the need to out-9/11 itself. It’s lazy, it’s cheap, it’s deadening, and it needs to stop.”

American movies have been serving up generous helpings of mass carnage since Gone With the Wind. What’s new is a calcifying indifference to the human cost of violence. Buchanan cites cineplex orgies such Transformers: Dark of the Moon, The Avengers, World War Z, and Star Trek: Into Darkness. But he saves his most blistering attack for Man of Steel:

(Superman) seems mostly unfazed by the people of Metropolis who are surely collateral damage to his big battle; Man of Steel 2similarly, director Zack Snyder seems to have waved it off. There is no acknowledgement that all of the buildings that are being destroyed might have people in them. It’s a bloodless massacre of concrete, 9/11 imagery erased of its most haunting factor: the loss of life.

Glen Weldon, author of Superman: The Unauthorized Biography, goes further, calling the film’s “intentional” referencing of 9/11 as “evil” and “sick.” These strong and convincing charges are made on the latest installment of NPR’s podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour. I’m a huge fan of this show; it’s the only podcast I listen to every week. And I’m an even bigger fan of Weldon: he’s one of the few pop culture critics out there who’ll rip into the moral core of a movie or TV show without getting self righteous. But as I continued to listen to the conversation, I realized that something wasn’t sitting right. For some reason, I had a feeling that an important part of the equation was being left out or ignored.

Spiderman 2After a while, I figured out what it was. A little later in the podcast, Man of Steel is pejoratively compared to two other superhero films that were made a few years back. Chris Klimek, a guest on the Pop Culture Happy Hour panel,  recalls two extraordinary moments of ordinary heroism dramatized in Spiderman 2 and The Dark Knight, respectively. Each film has a moment when at least one non-super hero character steps up in the face of danger and chooses to do the right thing. With no super powers or gadgets to protect them, these ordinary crowd members stand up and show us that we, too, can be heroes. What makes these cinematic moments so special is that they have “nothing to do with Batman” or Spiderman, but are, as Klimek puts it, a way of saying to the audience: “Hooray for us.”

I’m not sure if this is what he was going for, but by citing these two films, Klimek takes the 9/11 theory and turns it upside down. Sam Rami’s Spiderman 2 was released in 2004, three years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight hit the theatres is 2008. Both films are much closer to 9/11 than this summer’s Man of Steel. If what we’re seeing on our screens today is the movie industry’s response to 9/11, then why has it taken Hollywood so long?

The answer is: it hasn’t. If you want to see Hollywood’s real response to 9/11, look to those earlier superhero films from the mid-2000s. To get a sense of how the attack initially impacted us, let’s look at the speech Bill Clinton made to the Democratic National Convention in 2004, while Spiderman 2 was playing in theatres:

Americans long to be united. After 9/11, we all just wanted to be one nation. Not a single American on September the Clinton12th, 2001, cared who won the next presidential election. All we wanted to do was to be one country, strong in the fight against terror, helping to heal those who were wounded and the families of those who lost their loved ones, reaching out to the rest of the world so we could meet these new challenges and go on with our democratic way of life.

That’s not to say that in the days, months, and immediate years after 9/11, contempt for human life was completely absent from the world of American pop culture. (Anyone remember 24?) But the beauty of those earlier superhero movies is that they offered us something else: hope.  It’s the real life heroism of 9/11’s first responders – the firefighters, the policemen, and the medics – that Rami and Nolan paid tribute to in their mythical metropolitan chaos. It is saying a lot that a film as grim and nihilistic as The Dark Knight could give us even one of those moments – one that Klimeck remembers as earning audience applause when it first played in theaters.

So if films from the mid-2000s represent Hollywood’s response to 9/11, then what are we to make of today’s blood free genocidal building smashing action porn? Bill Clinton’s 2004 speech gives us another clue:

(President George W. Bush) had an amazing opportunity to bring the country together under his slogan of compassionate conservatism and to unite the world in the struggle against terror. Instead, he and his congressional allies made a very different choice. They chose to use that moment of unity to try to push the country too far to the right and to walk away from our allies… (by) attacking Iraq…

Oh right. Iraq. Afghanistan. Those would be Washington’s response to 9/11. Buchanan hits the bull’s eye in his use of the term “collateral damage.” It is a well worn phrase employed by our military, the world’s largest, when referring to civilian casualties when we are the aggressors. Man of Steel and films of its ilk may think that they are about 9/11, and their use of its iconography must surely be intentional. But what the summer blockbusters of the 2010s truly represent are America’s  numbness to a perpetual state of war.

“There is no acknowledgement that all of the buildings that are being destroyed might have people in them.” Kind of sounds like the American public. After all, Zack Snyder isn’t just a Hollywood director. He’s a United States citizen. That means he’s had over a decade’s worth of practice at ignoring the human cost of war.  The combined financial cost of both Iraq and Afghanistan  will run anywhere between 4 and 6 trillion dollars. As for collateral damage in Iraq, estimates range from 113,185 to 123,900 civilian deaths since 2003. For Afghanistan, the number is somewhere between 16,725 to 19,013 since the war began 13 years ago in 2001.

Oh, well.Seems like yesterday’s news, doesn’t it? With the U.S. reducing its military presence in both countries, Americans list foreign policy at the bottom of their list of concerns. How can our summer blockbusters reflect two wars that everyone wants to forget?

By helping us to forget them. By erasing the blood from the moral equation of violence. Battles don’t kill people; they just smash a lot of buildings and blow things up. Ten years ago, it was possible to believe that truth, justice, and the American Way were all members of  the same happy family. Today, a majority of Americans believe that the Iraq war was a mistake. What is the Obama administration’s most ambitious foreign policy goal? Hunting down the man who exposed its secret spy program. Complain if you want to, but most Americans support our in his quest to track down Edward Snowden and put the criminal behind bars.

And so, once again, when Buchanan writes about our alter egos, he reflects a hidden and deeply troubling truth that plagues our national character:

“Only one bittersweet nod to our post-9/11 outlook remains: Action heroes used to prevent disasters, but now…

…they can only avenge them.”



David Berkson

June 25, 2013

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Justin Bieber


200px-Anne_FrankJustin Bieber belongs to a class of celebrity that my friend Rob calls, “low hanging fruit.” If it’s an easy target that ye seek, then Justin Bieber is your man. Tacky, stupid, superficial, and marginally talented at best, Bieber makes old school embarrassments like The Backstreet Boys look like the presidents on Mt. Rushmore. Recently, the tween idol made his bull’s eye even bigger when he graced the Anne Frank House not merely with his presence, but his signature in the museum’s guest book.  Anne Frank’s indomitable spirit, which has transcended the horrors of death and even the Holocaust, so moved Mr. Bieber, that he was  compelled to write:

 Truly inspiring to be able to come here. Anne was a great girl. Hopefully she would have been a belieber.

Congratulations, John Lennon: history officially forgives you for saying “we’re more popular than Jesus.” And thanks to Justin, we can now truly comprehend the horror of the Holocaust, and realize, finally, what might have been. If only. By imprisoning Anne in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, the Nazis ended not only her life, but the possibility that she might realize the fullest height of human potential by becoming a Bieber disciple.

Whatever. Like I said: low hanging fruit. Bieber is a huge and easy target, and probably not worth the time. Then again, my middle school students who have heard at least one of Justin’s songs far outnumber those who’ve read Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl. Perhaps this fruit tree needs a little more shaking.

The advent of the Justin Bieber and Anne Frank (isn’t it weird saying those names in the same sentence?) event reminded me of an equally bizarre moment on NPR’s Fresh Air on December 17, 2012. Three days after twenty-six people were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, Terry Gross began the program by saying:

Today is our first broadcast since learning about the shootings in Newtown. Our thoughts are with everyone in that community. 

 My guest today is Barbara Streisand.

StreisandOops. Oh well, what are you gonna do? Bump Streisand? Besides, how could anybody have predicted this tragedy when the interview was taped? What, are we not supposed to have fun any more? By allowing these tragedies to reduce our appetites for entertainment and leisure, we’re playing right into the hands of the murderers.

Terry Gross is a thoughtful and intelligent public figure, whereas Justin Bieber…isn’t. But like it or not, both of them missed the big picture by putting the spectacle of entertainment on equal footing with humanity’s insatiable appetite for death and cruelty.

For some reason, this Fresh Air moment haunted me when I learned of the Boston Marathon bombing. Yet another national tragedy left me outraged, but not in the way I expected. Let’s go back to the wording of that Fresh Air intro. “Our thoughts are with everyone in that community.” Months later it came back to me on the Monday of the Boston bombing as I, like everyone else, rushed to social media to find out what was happening and, more importantly, give voice to my outrage and grief. Here’s a small sample of what the America had to say:

Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Boston.

Everyone at “Anderson Live” extends their thoughts and prayers to all affected by today’s tragedy at the Boston Marathon.

Thoughts & prayers for sisters & brothers in Boston.

Our thoughts and prayers go out to all involved in the Boston bombings.

I read and heard that phrase more times than I could count: thoughts and prayers thoughts and prayers thoughts and prayers. I played it over and over like a skip on a vinyl LP. Thoughts and prayers thoughts and prayers thoughts and prayers. Finally, I experienced the unthinkable: anger, not at the bomber, but at the grievers.

I’m not talking about the victims or their grieving loved ones. I mean people like me: long distance bystanders, members of the shocked public, numbed into impotence and horror. Thoughts and prayers thoughts and prayers thoughts and prayers. Is that all we have to offer? Thoughts and prayers? Don’t get me wrong: I do my fair share of thinking and praying. (Although, to be honest, I do a lot more of the former than the latter.)

But all of these thoughts and prayers make me wonder: why are they reserved only for the victims of atrocities from which we are removed? Why is the American public not compelled to think or pray for victims of bombings that we pay for with our own tax dollars?  The United States bombed and killed five people and injured seven more in a drone strike to South Waziristan on Wednesday, just two days after the Boston bombing. Did you read about it in the paper? Did you hear about it on the news? Did Anderson Cooper send his thoughts and prayers thoughts and prayers thoughts and prayers to the victims of those bombing attacks?

I suppose we can justify those bombings as the “war on terror.” Perhaps we can comfort ourselves by the fact that our tax dollars are killing people that President Obama and the CIA have labeled as “enemies” – even though none of the dead or injured received a trial proving their guilt. After all, how many thoughts and prayers can one person muster? I gotta save my compassion for the next tragedy – I’m sorry, tragedy on American soil that’s carried out by someone not wearing a uniform so I can hop on Facebook or Twitter and send out my thoughts and prayers thoughts and prayers thoughts and prayers when I’m shocked by humanity’s barbarous cruelty.

Give a man a uniform (or a remote control bomber) and suddenly “insanity” and “senseless killings” are transformed into “foreign policy” and “collateral damage.” I know it’s a tough pill to swallow, but those killed by American drones (estimates range from 1,998 to 3,316) in the past nine years are just as dead as the victims in Aurora, Sandy Hook, and Boston. The only justification for withholding compassion for victims on foreign soil is to adopt our government’s rationale for the bombings: these people are our enemies, and therefore deserve to be killed. Huh. I wonder if that’s the rationale that the bomber or bombers used when planning those killings in Boston.

Thoughts and prayers and other useless gestures: they are the last refuge of an impotent public obsessed with tragedies beyond our control. Those paid for by our tax dollars are taken care of by government secrecy and (for the most part) a compliant media. Soviet era Eastern block countries suppressed embarrassing news altogether; in America, we just shove it onto page 7.

What does all of this have to do with Justin Bieber and Anne Frank? Only this: it’s all part of the same collective cognitive dissonance.  21st century Americans have no sense of our own place in the now that makes up our unfolding history. Justin Bieber trumps Anne Frank. Barbara Streisand trumps Sandy Hook. Thoughts and prayers trump meaningful reflection and action to end the violence that we pay for.

This blog has a modest readership at best, but if for some reason you are a survivor or a bereaved loved one of Boston, Sandy Hook, Aurora, or any of the like tragedies springing from our country like hydra heads, I’d like to say this: I am sorry, so incredibly sorry for your losses. I wish that I could bring your loved ones or your good health back. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, that you or yours did to deserve this, and I can only imagine what courage you must be summoning at this very moment. And even though we’ve never met, I pledge my thoughts, prayers, and actions to make our world a place where violence is not welcome. The perpetrators and enablers of private and public massacre are united by a common belief: that all life is equal, but some lives are more equal than others.

How much difference can I make? I’m not really sure, but I am willing to try.  To be honest, sometimes this blog, and my own forays into social media, give me an inflated sense of my own historical importance. Call it imperial hubris. When it comes to fruit, maybe Justin Bieber’s hanging just a little bit higher than we thought.

But we all hang with him.

David Berkson

April 17, 2013

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Les Critiques Misérables: The Tears, The Book, and The Backlash

Les Miz BackgroundThe Revenge of the Blogosphere

“Last night I went to a showing of Les Misérables,” writes blogger Matt Walsh. “And when I say ‘went to’ I mean ‘hogtied and dragged at gun point by my wife, her sister and her mom’.” Walsh then summarizes Hollywood’s 2012 adaptation of the London/Broadway musical:

You don’t need to buy the soundtrack. I’ll sum up every song in the movie. Here you go: “I’m so lonely, I’m so alone, look at me my life is hard, I’m alone, I’m on my own, there’s this empty chair here, it’s empty because I’m alone, I’m lonely, all this bad stuff has happened to me because of my inexcusably stupid life choices, I’m alone, I feel so alone, on my own, on my own, on my own, did I mention I’m on my oooooowwwwwn?”

I guess that means he didn’t like it. And unlike the film’s characters, he’s not alone. A student of mine named Annabel, fed up with all the Les Miz hype, shared Walsh’s blog on Facebook with the following herald: “World, I give you someone who hates Les Miz more than I.” The responses to his blog and her share were immediate and enthusiastic: “I’m alone in a world of Les Miz lovers so I’m glad I’ve found someone else.”

Of all the possible targets for backlash, Les Miz is by far the backlashiest. The Sweeping Love Story. The Historical Drama. The Based-On-A-Novel Pedigree of Respectability. The Obvious Bait for the Oscars. The fact that it’s kind of European. There are so many pretty costumes. There are so many pretty actors magnificently endowed (for the most part) with pretty voices.  And above all, the film is ubiquitous; the hype for Les Miz is just about everywhere. Omigod, you have see it. And you have to like it. In fact, you have to love Les Miz, lest the film and its disciples pursue you like Javert right down to the sewer’s bottom as you scramble in vain for escape.

Put David Denby into the mix, and suddenly your backlash has the dubious hue of respectability. Here’s a critic who wasn’t even assigned to review Les Miz; Anthony Lane, The New Yorker’s other film critic, was given the task instead. But Denby’s is a voice that will not be silenced. The blogs of Denby and Walsh have pently in common, only Walsh is a much better writer. To be honest with you, there’s something kind of unsettling about reading Denby’s  There’s Still Hope for People Who Love Les MisIt’s sort of like coming downstairs and finding your uncle, the middle aged college professor, nursing a mean old hangover while he’s paddling around in his bathrobe shouting out at anyone who will listen about everything wrong with the world:

This movie is not just bad…it’s terrible…

 (Hugh) Jackman doesn’t sing, he brays.

The music is juvenile stuff—tonic-dominant, without harmonic richness or surprise.

 I was doubly embarrassed because all around me, in a very large theatre, people were sitting rapt, awed, absolutely silent, only to burst into applause after some of the numbers, and I couldn’t help wondering what in the world had happened to the taste of my countrymen—the Americans (Americans!) who created and loved almost all the greatest musicals ever made.

Wow. I guess people who love Les Miz must be really stupid, huh? Whereas Walsh’s manifesto is pure  Lester Bangs vitriol, Denby takes it upon himself to educate his ignorant readers of the finer distinctions between high culture and low, fine cinema and poor, good taste and bad. “I want to render a public service,” he begins in an apparent attempt at irony. But by the piece’s end, it is clear that the critic means business:

…our great musicals were something miraculous. They were a blessed artifice devoted to pleasure, to ease and movement, exultation in the human body, jokes and happy times, the giddiness of high hopes.

Gee, Uncle Dave, I guess things were a lot better back in your day. Denby’s public service is recommending a bunch classic American musicals (Top Hat, Singin’ in the Rain, An American in Paris, etc.) as a cure for those of us who were dumb enough to be moved by Les Miz’s transparent sentimentality. Call me crazy, but I’ll bet Denby’s blog didn’t generate a run on Gene Kelly musicals at Netflix.

The Critic’s Curse

Oscar Wilde once warned us: “Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.” And truth be told, I shouldn’t be so hard on Denby. Anyone who’s had the misfortune of spending more than five minutes with me at a party can probably tell you the moment he wished I was dead. “What do you mean you didn’t like (Forrest Gump, Shakespeare in Love, Dead Poets Society, Whatever)? Can’t you just sit back and enjoy it? Do you have get all analytical and think about everything? Aren’t movies supposed to be fun? They’re not? Oh Jesus, fine then, have your opinion, but for god’s sake, keep it to yourself, because I like this movie!”

Sorry. And I get it. I really do. The “I have a right to like this” response is especially intense when part of the package is music. Stacy Wolf writes in The Washington Post:

There’s a deep well of nostalgia for “Les Miz,” especially among women who came of age when it was on Broadway or on tour — even though it doesn’t reflect our feminist politics. Music is powerful when it’s connected to childhood; it reminds us of where we were in our lives when we first heard it. “Les Miz” feeds our hunger for familiarity in the present as well. The music is seductive because it’s repetitive, making us feel as if we know the songs, even if it’s our first time watching.

Of all Les Miz’s reviews, Wolf’s is the best. “Les Misérables should have feminists up inJackman & H arms,” she writes. “But I can’t help it: I love Les Miz.” She then proceeds to point out what should have been painfully obvious all along: women barely drive the plot. They live – and often give up – their lives for their men, their children, or both. Their roles are always subordinate, never primary. Rather than act, they merely “emote, propelling others to action.”

Yet unlike David Denby, Wolf never lectures us, or chastises. “Looking at culture through a feminist lens doesn’t mean that you don’t have fun or sing along. It means that you can also see what’s missing or what’s politically troubling.” For all her unflattering commentary, Wolf implicitly understands a little known cultural maxim: the critic who mistakes himself for a missionary is miserably doomed to fail. I’ll try to remember that the next time I go to a party.

Now Is The Time For Your Tears

But when it comes to a mega cultural event like Les Miz, passions prove hard to temper. I understand why Annabel and her posse feel so alone: the vast majority of my students love this piece. And when they talk with me, it seems pretty clear that they want me to love it, too. That’s why I simply can’t bring myself to tell them the truth: I find Les Miz phenomenon extremely troubling. It’s not so much the film itself, but the public’s response, which always begins with a confession that everyone makes after telling you they’ve just seen the movie.

“I cried.”

Almost without fail that is what leads.  I cried. Students, relatives, friends, and colleagues, they all tell me the same story. I cried, I cried, and I cried.

And, for the record: so did I. Lots of sad things happen in this story, so crying seems like a normal, healthy response. At least it was for me. But I’ve also cried during lots of other films like To Kill a Mockingbird and It’s a Wonderful Life. Yet in all the conversations I’ve had with people about both of these movies, I’ve never talked about my tears. I’ve never heard anybody else talk about theirs, either. No, the usual conversations center around what happened in the movie: the story, the performances, or a particularly exciting scene. That’s not to say that these things don’t get discussed with Les Miz, but they’re never the first to be mentioned. The first thing is always: I cried.

What’s going on here? Why is this movie different? Why does Les Misérables make you focus on the intensity of your own emotional response?

The answer is simple: that’s what the film is about. Your emotions. Not emotions in the general or the abstract, but your emotions, yours personally, the ones that you privately feel. Because in this case, it is all about you. The costumes, the sets, and especially the story’s historical context – these are all bait to get you hooked in on the movie’s real subject: You. Me. Us. We – and our capacity to feel, to hurt, to suffer. So don’t feel bad if you’re in the omigodIcried club, because you fundamentally get this film in a way that the likes of Denby never, ever will. Les Miserables understands your sufferings. It suffers with you. It embraces your suffering, and wants you to suffer more, and cry as you suffer together.

hathaway criesWhat is the cause of your suffering? A-a-ah, don’t go there! Shhhh. Les Miz doesn’t care about that. It doesn’t even care why its own characters suffer. Poverty and injustice are certainly part of the plot, but in this film they quickly recede to the background and prove to be little more than a MacGuffin (Hitchcock’s term for the thing that sets the plot in motion, but is ultimately of little importance). Hurry up and get to Fantine so she can just start singing and cry. Quick, get those strappingly handsome political activists up in arms so we can be inspired by their awesome, youthful commitment to whatever it is that they’re awesomely and youthfuly committed to. And for God’s sake, closeups! Get me closeups! More and more closeups so I can see the pores, the tears, the sweat, and every angsty crease of the sweet and indomitable pain. Let the space between the actor and me evaporate, let all else cease to exist, so there may only be us in our beautiful new bonded struggle. I am Fantine. I am Valjean. I am Éponine. My suffering is her suffering. Her song is my song. Our tears are one.

Les Misérables Buy The Book. 

Ok, wait. Isn’t all art manipulative? Aren’t we supposed to identify with a film’s or a book’s protagonists? Sure we are. So perhaps we can say that there’s nothing wrong with this spectacle of mega personal identification. That it’s ok to become lost in a cathartic world of escape that is uniquely and entirely personal. Yes, I think we can say that. Until we read Victor Hugo’s preface to his 1862 novel Les Misérables, and realize that once upon a time all of this was supposed to be about something a little bit bigger:

So long as there shall exist, by virtue of law and custom, decrees of damnation pronounced by society, artificially creating hells Death of Fantine
amid the civilization of earth, and adding the element of human fate to divine destiny; so long as the three great problems of the century—the degradation of man through pauperism, the corruption of woman through hunger, the crippling of children through lack of light—are unsolved; so long as social asphyxia is possible in any part of the world;—in other words, and with a still wider significance, so long as ignorance and poverty exist on earth, books of the nature of
Les Misérables cannot fail to be of use.

Unless we all fail to make use of them. Whatever praises the Schonberg/Kretzmer musical adaptation has earned – and its strengths are certainly legit – no one can credibly argue that its current cinematic incarnation shows any real concern with pauperism or hunger, the plight of children or social asphyxia, and certainly not ignorance or poverty. The production budget for Les Miserables was $61 million. And even though it’s currently in fourth place at the box office (Texas Chainsaw 3D is now at the top) Les Miz is well on its way towards doubling its initial investment with a box office take of over $104 million.

That’s an awful lot of money. I mean, sure, it’s a lot less than Avatar (#1 box office earner of all time) or The Avengers (#3) or even Transformers: Dark of the Moon which is – would you believe it – the fifth highest grossing movie in the history of the world, coming in at $1,123.7 million (beating out Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Pt. 2 and The Dark Night Rises). I guess next to those behemoths, $103 million seems like a paltry little art house sum.

HugoStill, a hundred million’s nothing to sneeze at. And besides, the Transformers franchise is nothing but pure fantasy; it has no conscience to betray. Les Misérables is a different matter. Its creator Victor Hugo was an important political activist and infamous provocateur. His 1830 play Hernani was so ahead of its time that during the course of its two-month run fistfights routinely broke out in the theatre. After Napoleon III’s coup d’état, Hugo went into exile on the island of Guernsey for almost 20 years, where he wrote, among other works, Les Misérables. His commitment to social equality was clearly spelled out in his last will and testament, a five-sentence document that reads:

Je donne cinquante mille francs aux pauvres. Je veux être enterré dans leur corbillard. Je refuse l’oraison de toutes les Eglises. Je demande une prière à toutes les âmes. Je crois en Dieu.

Translated into English: “I give 50,000 francs to the poor. I wish to be carried to the cemetery in their hearse. I refuse the prayers of the churches. I ask for a prayer for all souls. I believe in God.”

Victor Hugo died in 1885, one hundred years before the musical adaptation of his masterwork Les Miserables premiered in London; 2 million people attended his funeral. Were he alive today, against what forms of social asphyxia, ignorance, and poverty might he turn the power of his pen? Perhaps he would write about infant mortality. In the world 6.9 million children under the age of 5 died in 2011. That’s 19,000 children dead per day of  entirely preventable diseases.

Or maybe the creator of prisoner 24601 might turn an eye to the United States, which has the highest incarceration rates of any country in the world. These rates are hardly equitable. Young black men make up a disproportionate number of  our prisoners: in 2008, 37% of America’s black men between the ages of 18-34 were behind bars. What’s more, it is clear that many American prisoners of all races are not guilty of the crimes for which they serve. As of today 301 people have been exonerated through DNA testing; 18 had been awaiting execution on death row. Those exonerations came at great cost; according the Innocence Project,“These people served an average of 13 years in prison before exoneration and release.”

Be honest. Did any of these issues cross your mind when you watched Les Miz? Or were you like me: crying with Hugh Jackman and getting carried away with the music, the spectacle, and the power of your own emotions. Besides, what do you expect from a blockbuster movie? It’s not a documentary; it’s entertainment. And of course it made millions of dollars. That’s what Hollywood movies are supposed to do. I don’t want to pay $10 to see some movie and think about infant mortality or how many people are locked up in American prisons. And it’s not that I don’t care. I do care, really, really I do. But those people, you know, the people who are dying or in prison or whatever, those people aren’t me. Fantine is. And Jean Valjean. And Éponine. I identify with them. And the other people? The ones out there, outside of my darkened world of crying? They’re not really a part of my life. They’re just…well, they’re different. They’re the Unfortunates. The Outsiders. Les Misérables.

Bad criticism seeks to inspire personal shame at our gauche and abominable taste. Great critics like Victor Hugo seek to inspire collective shame so society can get off its ass and make the world better . The tragedy of inequality is in our failure to act against it. Is it absurd to expect Broadway or Hollywood to bring about fundamental social change? Perhaps. After all, the business of show business is business. Or, as Lily Tomlin used to say, they don’t call it “show art.”

Besides, the fault is not with Hollywood. That hundred million dollars is our money. We spent it on Les Miz. And Transformers. And The Hobbit. And hundreds of other forms of escapist fare while children die and the innocent rot in prison. Victor Hugo never intended for Les Misérables (or Les Miz) to distract us from these inequities. His work was to be of use.

Well? There’s no reason why we can’t use it. Interested in working to end world hunger? Donate to UNICEF now. Does it bother you that taxpayer dollars are incarcerating people for crimes they did not commit? Make a contribution to The Innocence Project. These are admittedly small steps, but to my mind they honor Hugo’s legacy far more our drops of sweet cinematic tears. If Les Misérables does nothing else, it shows with stunning clarity and power the urgent need to work for justice and social equity. Because in the end, Jean Valjean’s compassion and generosity know no bounds. Through his relationships with Fantine, Cossette, Marius, and finally even Javert, he learns that the world is a place where we are never truly alone. He  and the rest of us have an obligation to society, and his tireless work on its behalf is transformative, even redemptive. Les Misérables was never meant to distract us from our social ills, but wake us up so we could fight them. If we rise to Hugo’s challenge, then we may still cry. But our tears might now mean something different.

If not? Well then, rest assured that when it comes to Les Miz….

…it’s really still all about you.

David Berkson

January 8, 2013

 Don’t forget to “like” The Autumning Empire on Facebook. You can contact David Berkson at, or @DavidBerkson on Twitter.

Always feel free to post a comment and get a discussion going. Keep your remarks civil, but don’t feel bashful about starting a vigorous and healthy debate.




19 New Year’s Resolutions from The Autumning Empire

2013 TwoAccording to Business News Daily, as many as 88% of our New Year’s resolutions from last year have already been broken. Why? Unrealistic goals. Successful self-improvement relies upon setting before us that which is attainable. With that in mind, The Autumning Empire presents nineteen New Year’s Resolutions for the year 2013. They’re simple, practical, and above all, obtainable. So come on, 2013! Give us your best shot. We’ve got you licked before you even got started. Wait, you already got started? Well then…

 This Year, I Resolve To

  1. Lose 107 pounds in one month.
  2. Copyright and patent the letter “J”; levy a surcharge upon every person who uses it in writing or in speech.
  3. Try to remember the kind of September when life was young, and oh so mellow.
  4. Before the next hurricane hits, build an arc and fill it with animals – two of every kind.
  5. Write an wildly popular, crowd pleasing musical based on James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.
  6. Take the time to actually read James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.
  7. Whoa, now that I’m actually trying to read this book, it looks really hard. Maybe I’ll just make a musical out of Finian’s Rainbow instead.
  8. Wait…Finian’s Rainbow already is a musical? God damn it!
  9. Fashion a magnificent golden toilet seat with studs of rubies, diamonds, and pearl.
  10. Go to the gym religiously for the next four days, then stop for the rest of the year.
  11. Make more scenes at the dinner table. It’s how my folks brought me up; for my kids, it’s the least I can do.
  12. Read political columnists who share my point of view, then post their opinions on Facebook.
  13. Minimize my carbon footprint by making a human sacrifice of all my second cousins once removed. If it’s people who create climate change, then let’s just nip this sucker in the bud.
  14. I cannot fucking believe that Finian’s Rainbow is already a musical. When did they do that?
  15. Make lists. Tons and tons of lists. It’s always worked before. Why shouldn’t it work this year?
  16. Every time I procrastinate, tell myself how important it is to “slow down” and “take care of myself.”
  17. Follow every rule set down in the Book of Leviticus. Especially the parts about stoning my neighbors. Because if it’s there in the Bible, then you can’t go to jail. Right?
  18. Clean out the garage. No, just kidding. No fucking way, man. No. Fucking. Way.
  19. Gain 115 pounds back by the end of March.

Questions? Excellent. Let’s put our noses to that collective grindstone, America. Happy New Year, from The Autumning Empire.

David Berkson

January 1, 2013

Don’t forget to “like” The Autumning Empire on Facebook. You can contact David Berkson at, or @DavidBerkson on Twitter.

Always feel free to post a comment and get a discussion going. Keep your remarks civil, but don’t feel bashful about starting a vigorous and healthy debate.



Oscar Mania! Your Own Facebook Madlib For The 2013 Academy Awards!


oscarsHere at The Autumning Empire we just love The Oscars – and we know we’re not alone! The stars, the styles, the suspense, and the bulimia: all converge upon a magical night in which the hopes and dreams of a chosen few are fulfilled by Oscar’s magic wand, whilst the remaining losers are forced to grind their sparkling teeth into the grimace of good sportsmanship as they choke back the bitter vitriol of humiliating public defeat. So if you’re like us (and we know you are!) you can’t wait for January 10 when this year’s nominees will be announced. And if you’re exactly like us, you’ll want to head right on over to Facebook, Twitter, Bebo, Flickr, MySpace or Friendster the minute those nominees are announced so you can tell the waiting world exactly what you think about them!

But you’d better be ready, and you’d better act fast. When it comes to social media, the buzz of the day is the blink of an eye. That’s why we at The Autumning Empire have provided you with our very own Oscar Madlib Facebook Post! Who knows? You might have something else to do on January 10. Like work.  But with The Autuming Empire’s help, real life’s inconveniences become minor obstacles to be overcome with a flick and a click to your keyboard. So read, copy, and fill in the blanks so that your social media posting can make you…a winner!

My Personal Oscar Facebook Posting


Interjection! I can’t  verb it!  Number between 5 and 29 Oscar nominations! UnknownWay to go name of overrated, uplifting box office behemoth with just enough intellectual stimulation to make educated bourgeois audience members feel like their time was well spent and that everyone knew was going to get nominated! This is definitely established director who takes just enough risks, but not too many ‘s best! Of course, it’ll have adjective  noun from  other overrated box office behemoth ! I don’t know about you, but I’m definitely keeping my body part s verb ending in “ed” !

And hey! Way to go  European person with grey hair  for getting a shot at Best Supporting  trained performing animal you might see in a circus . I’ve been  verb ending in “ing”  gender specific pronoun for years!


CroweI have one complaint and one complaint only: why’d they nominate Russell Crowe ? Oh well, I guess if anyone deserves an 
obscure form of medieval punishment , it’s him. One thing’s for sure, come February 24, I’ll be sitting down with my  group of people you secretly detest  and watching the 85th Annual  ceremony program that arbitrarily confers awards upon film using no coherent standards or criteria ! Ok, Oscar! Let the countdown begin!

David Berkson

December 30, 2012

Don’t forget to “like” The Autumning Empire on Facebook. You can contact David Berkson at, or @DavidBerkson on Twitter.

Always feel free to post a comment and get a discussion going. Keep your remarks civil, but don’t feel bashful about starting a vigorous and healthy debate.

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