The Cable Guy: a swansong for privacy

Imagine it’s 1996. The Iraq War is a thing of the distant past and you’ll never have to hear the name George Bush again. Leonardo DiCaprio is still twenty years away from his Oscar. Will Smith is still the name of a character played by Will Smith in the Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Tom Cruise is yet to star in Magnolia as the charismatic leader of a cult convinced by his own meaningless affirmations, let alone become that man in real life.

Now imagine it’s not just 1996, but you’re Jim Carrey. Everybody loves you. You are dumb, and dumber. You shot to fame as Ace Ventura by literally talking out of your arse. Your troubled birth from a prosthetic rhino’s vagina has already made an indelible impression on a nine year old British kid called Alex Christofi. You have just been offered Hollywood’s first ever $20 million paycheque.

The character is not a detective, nor a cop, nor a lawyer, nor a salaryman in possession of a cursed Viking demon mask. He is the ’90s equivalent of a broadband installation professional. He is clingy and enthusiastic about karaoke.

This year in history, you are the most wanted man in Hollywood. You can pick any part in any film you want. And of all the films you are offered, you choose The Cable Guy.

But you say yes on two conditions:

1. We turn this screwball comedy into a parable of the slide of consumer capitalism into basic privacy violations, which the public will come to tolerate as a kind of devil’s handjob in return for the promise of free content, little realising that content itself will soon be devalued and we will acclimatise and come to require less and less reimbursement for the exact same privacy violations.

2. I get to speak with a lisp.

Ben Stiller directed the film, and has a cameo as a guy who murdered his identical twin (also played by Ben Stiller). Matthew Broderick plays the straight man so well you could almost forget he is in it, even though he is technically the main character. It’s like watching the word ‘normcore’ assume human form – he doesn’t quite seem like a real person, more like a set of pillows and clothes arranged in a bed to trick your parents when you run away from home. The supporting cast includes a recycled extra from Waterworld called Jack Black and the smuggest film debut ever from an actor calling himself Owen Wilson, who is later quasi-sexually abused with a hand dryer.

Despite the cast, the film scores exactly 6.0/10 on IMDB, making it one of the few films in the history of cinema that is, by popular vote, neither good enough nor bad enough to be worth watching. On its release, the New York Times said The Cable Guy ‘offers the shocking sight of a volatile comic talent in free fall.’ It went further, to say that ‘there’s no fun in watching Carrey covering his face with chicken skin.’ However, Newsweek hit the nail on the head, if only accidentally, when it called Carrey’s character ‘a demonic and omnipotent Dennis the Menace.’

Because we have a word for what Carrey’s character is now. He either wants to be your best friend or your worst enemy. He hides behind pseudonyms. He quotes people without attribution, he thinks women are something you buy and, crucially, he is obsessed with what people in the 90s quaintly called ‘the information superhighway’. The cable guy is the world’s first troll.

Here’s what Carrey says when he’s standing on a giant satellite dish for those who prefer their visual metaphors to hurt: ‘Soon every American home will integrate their television, phone and computer. You’ll be able to visit the Louvre on one channel, or watch female mud wrestling on another. You can do your shopping at home, or play Mortal Kombat with a friend from Vietnam. There’s no end to the possibilities!’ Here is a man clinging to a utopian ideal of keeping multiple tabs open so that he can convince himself he’s not really watching porn because he’s also, simultaneously, looking up museum opening times. It’s that sort of insight that makes this film a pre-Matrix Oracle. He even points out that ‘free cable is the ultimate aphrodisiac,’ or as we would put it nowadays, Netflix and chill.

But let’s say it all gets a bit much and you want out. Well, that’s not really how this whole thing works. The cable guy insinuates himself with your girlfriend and your family home; he makes secret recordings of you; he hacks your office network and gets you fired; he makes every car alarm in the car park go off; he holds compromising pictures of you in flagrante delicto; he has you arrested for receiving stolen goods that he put in your flat. And you know what? He doesn’t even work for the cable company.

What did you do to deserve this? You’re just Matthew Broderick the pillow boy. But you let the free content cross your threshold, and now a troll is fucking all your shit up.

This is the gift they have given us, a swansong from the last days of privacy, Judd Apatow, Ben Stiller, Jim Carrey and Matthew Broderick, some of the finest political commentators of their generation. Their message is this: any technology is only as trustworthy as the creepiest person who knows how to use it. As the troll himself points out, ‘The trouble with real life is, there’s no danger music.’

This piece was originally read at The Wrong Quarterly‘s event, ‘Remarks on Unremarkable Films of the 90s’, alongside Will Eaves, Heidi O’Loughlan, Nell Frizzell, May-Lan Tan and Ned Beauman.

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The Pixar Guide to Wellbeing

On its release in America, Inside Out had the biggest opening weekend for any original film in box office history, sailing easily past Avatar’s $77m to an incredible $91m. It’s already Pixar’s eighth consecutive film to have taken over $500m worldwide, and we’ve only just had the opening weekend here in the UK, where it took £7.35m. If some were beginning to worry that the studio had gone the way of Disney, following five years of prequels, sequels and the critically mixed reception to their fairy tale, Brave, this new film has proven that Pixar is still capable of the funny, surprising and layered storytelling that made its name. But the secret ingredient of this film’s success? Sadness.

Inside Out follows 11-year-old Riley and the five emotions – joy, fear, anger, disgust and sadness – that live in the control room of her head. When Riley’s family moves away from her childhood home in Minnesota to San Francisco, she loses sight of the core memories that tell her who she is, prompting Joy and Sadness to go on a journey deep into her mind to get them back. The topography grates: having to catch the Train of Thought home because Honesty Island has crumbled sounds like the worst allegory since Pilgrim’s Progress, if you think about it too hard. But as Ed Catmull, Pixar’s co-founder and president, wrote in his book Creativity Inc., ‘If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better,’ and in the hands of Pixar’s story artists, the landscape of Riley’s mind becomes the battleground for a new way of looking at wellbeing.

It’s one of Pixar’s funniest films, the jokes coming thick and fast throughout the film (‘There’s inductive reasoning, there’s déjà vu, there’s language processing, there’s déjà vu, there’s critical thinking, there’s déjà vu…’). Perhaps the best gag is watching the maintenance workers hoover up long term memories like phone numbers (‘We don’t need these! They’re in her phone’), leaving only the names of a couple of US presidents and the ditty to a chewing gum advert.

Riley’s main problems – growing up, and moving away from her childhood home – are identical to those of Pixar’s first feature film, Toy Story. In the latter, Andy’s fear and distress is played out by the toys, the whole story enacting the kind of imaginary play we might expect to see in a child’s psychological evaluation, with Woody and Buzz vying as male role models (the implication being that the family is downsizing following a divorce). When Inside Out treats the same topic, the adventure is the emotional journey itself: will Joy reign over Riley’s head once again?

Up to now, Joy has called the shots in Riley’s mental HQ, and she keeps life on track by being relentlessly positive, looking for the bright side in everything and telling the others to ‘think positive’. When Sadness starts to intrude on the controls, Joy’s response is to draw a chalk circle on the ground and tell her to stand inside it. But when things go really wrong for Riley, it’s not because Sadness has taken the helm and won’t let go. Instead, the colour drains out of the console, and it stops responding to any of the emotions. As sufferers of depression attest, the problem is not overwhelming feeling but the inability to feel.

Inside Out SadnessThis is where Sadness comes in. When we get a glimpse into Riley’s mother’s head at the dinner table, we can see her own Sadness is in charge of operations, and that’s why, even though yellow Joy is generally in charge of Riley’s HQ, she has Sadness’s blue hair and aura. Perhaps worried that Riley might take after her, Riley’s mother wants her to be a ‘happy girl’, but as things go from bad to worse, the pressure to be happy begins to seem like the real problem. Indeed, recent studies by social psychologist Dr Brock Bastian and others confirm that negativity is often our most useful companion when times are tough – it helps us anticipate problems, find solutions and empathise with others when things are going badly. It’s not negative emotions that are bad for us, but the suppression of them, especially when they are healthy, functional responses to difficult situations.

Pixar have never shied away from presenting everything that life can throw at you. Perhaps the most famous example is in the montage of Carl and Ellie’s life together at the start of Up, which, taken alone, stands as perhaps the greatest short film of all time, not just for its miracle of condensation, but for the emotional impact of their childlessness, which has reduced audiences of all ages to tears. (Careful viewers may even spot scenes from this sequence in the great bowling-ball alleys of Riley’s long term memory.) Equally, on the death of Riley’s imaginary friend, who sacrifices himself to save Joy, the cinema erupted with the sound of children crying, which is just as well because I think a number of the adults were sniffing too. The whole audience left the cinema elated.

In this latest film, Pixar are not just putting us through the mill. They’re showing us that, somewhat paradoxically, the way to be really happy is to experience a whole range of emotions. When Riley is born, there is only Joy, standing in front of a laughter button, but as Riley grows older, she is joined by Anger, Disgust, Fear and Sadness. When life gets really tough, Sadness is not the antagonist she first appears, but the unsung hero. That’s the real lesson: Joy might be fun to hang around, but wellbeing is a team effort.

Article first published by Prospect Magazine

The End of Serial

The final episode of Serial is out, marking the end of a series that has single-handedly revived the podcast as a cutting-edge medium, with over 20m downloads. For the past two months, the world has been gripped by the case of Adnan Syed, who was convicted in 1999 for the murder of his high-school sweetheart, Hae Min Lee, in Baltimore County. The show has been produced by This American Life, a weekly staple at NPR which has told a self-contained story in an hour, presented for the past twenty years by Ira Glass, who has also been involved in Serial. BBC Radio 4 Extra has just picked it up for broadcast in the UK. However, it has gained its huge following primarily through word of mouth.

Over the past two months, I have heard countless versions of the following conversation:

“Have you been listening to Serial?”

The listener tends to look baffled at this point, as if they have been asked whether they eavesdrop on their breakfast.

“Serial with an S.”

Oh, like serial killer.”

The way that the show’s producer and narrator Sarah Koenig tells it, the idea was to tell one story over a number of episodes, unpacking it gradually and building up a detailed picture of each aspect of the story. “We’ll follow the plot and characters wherever they take us and we won’t know what happens at the end of the story until we get there, not long before you get there with us,” she said on the Serial website. But it’s certainly not the only meaning that the word ‘serial’ evokes, and although the producers were keen to emphasise responsible reporting, true crime has an uneasy relationship with its subjects, profiting from and publicising a crime while simultaneously claiming to stand apart from it as a neutral investigator of truth. As the podcast gained in popularity, online speculation proliferated on sites like Slate and Reddit, of the kind one might expect of a fictional series like True Detective, with some listeners trying to contact the people involved against their wishes.

Koenig has found herself reporting details of the private lives of those relevant to the case (“I’ve had to ask about teenagers’ sex lives – where, how often, with whom?—about notes they passed in class, their drug habits, their relationships with their parents”), and although she has occasionally expressed discomfort with this role, there is a real public interest, because each episode has explored the very real possibility that Adnan is innocent. It turns out that several pieces of the prosecution’s evidence are incoherent and Adnan’s lawyer didn’t use his best alibi (which is significant enough that the Maryland court of special appeals has now shown an interest).

In later episodes, Koenig has been receiving new information from people following the podcasts – people who say they knew what Adnan’s alleged accomplice, Jay, was really like, or that there wasn’t a phone booth where the prosecution claims Adnan made a call. It turns out that there was, in fact, a phone booth there, which raises questions about who might have been calling in, and what their own motivations are. Perhaps the podcast is the best way to call for further witnesses; perhaps it is an open invitation for third parties to manipulate the case by offering false evidence.

Koenig herself has been remarkably restrained. As she points out in the first episode, “I’m not a detective or a private investigator. I’m not even a crime reporter.” She doesn’t presume innocence, as one does in a court case, nor, crucially, does she presume guilt as we do in cop shows, because of the inevitability of their resolution. She found out about the case a year ago from Rabia Chaudry, a lawyer who knows Adnan, and, agreeing with her that the prosecutor’s case had some important inconsistencies, has investigated every piece of evidence with an attitude of cool agnosticism. Koenig has obsessed over its minutiae, spending longer than many lawyers or prosecutors could afford to spend on a seemingly shut case in the quest for a piece of evidence that would reveal what really happened on the day of the murder. But she has also kept a relentless focus on the problems with trusting witness accounts, the difficulty of remembering and accounting for one’s time, the fallibility of any apparent proof, reinventing rules of true crime that have remained largely unchallenged since Truman Capote.

Adnan has now requested a DNA test, which for some reason was never taken by prosecutors at the time of trial, and agreed to participate in Koenig’s series, which does seem to suggest that there’s a chance he may be acquitted. Perhaps having one’s life framed as entertainment, sponsored by MailChimp, Audible, Squarespace and Trunk Club, is the price that the innocent have to pay to interest the world in an old case.

It will be interesting to see what Koenig and her team pick for their second Serial. It could be another murder case, but it doesn’t have to be: it could be a missing person; a lost artefact; a purported art forgery. Her listeners have been fascinated by the case, but not because its details were especially grisly or salacious – rather, it is a testament to her storytelling ability, to have introduced complexity into the story so gradually, guiding the reader through the evidence with so many twists which overturn our assumptions and keep us guessing. (Or, as Adnan puts it to Koenig in a rare loss of composure, after she asks him about stealing money from his mosque as a teenager, “You go from my saviour to my executioner just, like… flip flop, flip flop, like Mitt Romney.”)

The next series will engage a ready-made audience of millions, and whether she likes it or not, that will have a bearing on the lives of her subjects. They are real lives, and that is why we have been gripped, why the stakes are higher, why it’s so important to be responsible. “We don’t know yet what the story will be,” she said in her call for donations, “but whatever it is, we’ll make it good.”

p.s. Any lovers of the Serial theme by Nick Thorburn should check out fafu’s mashup with Notorious BIG on Soundcloud.