Game, Narrative, and Bristol Palin in 'Dancing With the Stars'

Which is she, empowered teen or soiled dove? What image does Bristol want to sell and why sell one at all?

I know that I usually just talk about video games in this blog, but I feel compelled to address Dancing With the Stars here anyway. Largely, this is due to the game-like qualities of the show, which is obviously a competition of sorts leaning more towards sport, perhaps, than the kind of games that I usually address. However, it seems to me that there are so many odd intersections of sport, performance (of several sorts, physical as well as more intellectual or emotive forms of performance), aesthetics, and even narrative that I feel that I need to unpack the odd mildly interactive experience that is the Dancing With the Stars phenomenon.

Additionally, Dancing With the Stars feels like a kind of game within a game, since what motivates its “players” seems a game only tangentially related to the competition that they are a part of. As Dancing With the Stars draws its competitors from a pool of “celebrities” (of varying qualities of fame, leaning often enough more towards a leaner form of notability than not), there seems some interest on the part of the performers in using the show as a means of playing at something else that at least resembles a game, public relations and marketing (especially of the self in this instance).

Dancing With the Stars has gathered its celebrity casts from a broad variety of occupations that require some ability to capture the attention of the public eye. Actors and actresses, models, athletes, reality television personalities, musicians, stand up comics, and even politicians have graced the stage, assumedly with some interest in being a part of a dance competition for reasons beyond merely thinking that getting a crash course in ballroom dance and then demonstrating those hastily acquired skills to millions would be a whole lot of fun.

Washed up actors seek to get their name and image back in the public consciousness, while actresses newer to the mediums of television or film might seek a kind of introduction to same. Some musical performers are promoting an album that is about to drop. I think that athletes here may be seeking to increase the possibility of more endorsements by drumming up interest in their personalities and personae. Some here simply seek redemption in the court of public opinion, a certain reality star that made an appearance last season comes to mind as does a politician from a few back, both of whom have made some effort to shake it on the dance floor to possibly humanize themselves.

This metagame shares some qualities with the “real” game of the competition itself. This is a show that requires athletic and aesthetic performance that is then evaluated by experts. Scores from the three judges matter but so too do votes from the public at large that augment those scores and determine who will be eliminated from week to week, and while it might be nice to think that voting in the show is an evaluation of the dance performances alone, it is clear that focusing on execution of a dance routine is not a sufficient strategy for winning the competition. Swirling around the performances themselves are all kinds of layers of “competition” that players in the grander game must be mindful of.

For example, the video clips that proceed a performance, showing how a competitor prepared for the dance this week alongside their professional partner, seems significant as well in determining votes from the audience. Someone who acts like a crybaby while learning a difficult dance may benefit from audience sympathy, as we witness them struggling to succeed, or may cost a competitor votes if they appear especially petulant. Now these stars don't fully control these images, as editors have arranged clips representing these bits of “backgrounding” of dance preparations and have done so with the thought of constructing a narrative of sorts about that celebrity. Nevertheless, what folks say and do during these bits have to matter to folks at home. At least, given that any number of clearly awful dancers have somehow managed to survive in the competition far longer than their actual dance acumen should allow for, seems to clearly demonstrate the truth of this idea. Working the ol' charisma muscles helps, alongside a few other tactics.

Being funny, introducing your four loving kids, or getting a little too personal with the attractive pro (when the audience knows you have a wife of 18 years) can have some ability to draw viewers in or repulse them. While edited, being aware of their performance on camera in these “personal” moments should be handled with care by the stars. Likewise, the same rules apply to the follow up “debriefing” interviews with Brooke Burke (or previously, Samantha Harris) as the competitor and pro wait for their scores. Brattiness can hurt here, humbleness or some self deprecating humor may help. Of course, the inverse is true as well. Sometimes audiences hold on to rotten dancers merely to witness the train wreck of their performance or personality on television. This may or may not aid one in the larger metagame (evidence that you can win the hearts of an adoring public that might carry over into better gigs), but it may keep that face out there that much longer, which may be equally valuable.

Again though, many qualities of the game and the fickle voting public exist independently of persona management and dance skill. Certainly, some folks have pre-established fan bases, and indeed, the professional dancers that make up the regular cast of the show have become celebrities in their own right (in many cases, this celebrity may even be greater than that possessed by the “star” that they are dancing with, or at least, may be less fleeting than that of a Bachelorette). Being paired with more popular dancers helps and that dancer's behavior is also going to effect the overall chances of receiving votes as well (Is Louie being generally sorta creepy again? Derek is pretty iconically all American, but he does get those grabby hands sometimes, doesn't he?).

Costuming (too skimpy or too prudish?), fighting through an injury, or just dancing to a particularly appropriate or popular song, all of these have the potential for swaying votes. Not all of them are manageable by the “player”, but when they are managed fairly well and a few of the right cards fall into place, you may in the long run and the metagame just score yourself a gig as spokesperson for a Weight Watchers campaign despite your lack of real dance skill.

All of which brings me to the real issue that has me thinking about narratives and metanarratives, games and metagames, image management and lucky breaks in Dancing With the Stars. Very simply put that is: Bristol Palin.

What is she doing here? Okay, that's not actually what I mean to ask, but it is definitely related.

Basically, this is a game, and I generally know why the players are here to play. This one is troubling though given the nature of the game and what motivates the player of such a game.

Bristol seems fairly unique in the history of Dancing With the Stars (which I sometimes refer to as Dancing With Someone That You May Have Heard Of At Some Point or Other), given that as lackluster as some of the shows “stars” might be, she really is a celebrity of a very different sort. All of these folks are in the public eye by choice. Bristol is the subject of a scandal, only in the public eye because she is related to someone who has some celebrity.

Now, this may, of course, answer my question about what she is doing here to some degree. Certainly, Bristol may exist as part of a larger PR machine, though I'm not clear what the take away for that machine is here. Bristol's presence is supposed to show the elder Palin's pride in her daughter, despite scandal? Or, it is supposed to promote a teen abstinence advocacy program that Bristol is being associated with heading up (though a comment from Bristol in one episode on the weirdness of being on television, since she has been serving as a receptionist recently kind of muddles the idea of clear association with such a group)? This is supposed to show that young women in Bristol's circumstance are still vital social creatures?

The message of Bristol's narrative is confusing, as is its strategic qualities, as is its end goal. In the first episode in which Bristol performed, Bristol was costumed like her mother in a jacket and skirt before revealing a red hot cha cha cha dress, replete with fringe and appropriate shimmying. This moment made me uneasy. I can't quite figure out what it is intended to signify, though it clearly does signify (there's a doubling with her mom, a sexual reveal, but what does this mean put together?). Too many weird narratives revolve around this performance that seem contradictory and a bit cruel.

Notable overall is the cultural narrative that suggests that American culture has shifted in relation to the concept of unwed mothers. Gone are the days of arguing whether Murphy Brown is a good or bad role model for wanting to embrace single motherhood and a career when a woman who became pregnant in her teens can still acceptably shake it on Dancing With the Stars. Yet, in Bristol's first two performances on the show, the musical accompaniment for her dances were ironic “jokes” at the expense of Bristol that are also especially moralizing in their tone. “Mama told me not to come / That ain't the way to have fun” was crooned throughout her first performance, while “But Mama said / You can't hurry love / No, you just have to wait” was the refrain of the second. Seriously?

Which is she, empowered teen or soiled dove? In either case, the 19-year-old has been infantilized by this perverse choice of songs.


Which really brings me to the question that I really want to ask because I assume that a 19-year-old single mother is an adult, why is Bristol herself playing this game? Awash in weird signification, I don't know how any of this plays in terms of getting votes, staying on the show, or improving her image with her audience. But what is to be gained by the game for her at all?

I get these other players and what they want, how it is to their benefit as performers, be they musical, dramatic, or political, but what image does Bristol want to sell and why sell one at all? I'm not sure that allowing production or her mother or her handlers or whoever has some interest in this game to send confused messages about who she is is useful to the cause that she has been associated with, to her mother's political career, or anything at all.

It just feels like bad play for a player that has no clear stake in the outcome of the game.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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