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On The Crown, Lupin, And Nothingness
The languorously paced four seasons of The Crown, and the frenetic half season of Lupin, when watched side-by-side, led to visual over-stimulation, but also heightened each other's themes.
It is by chance that I ended up watching The Crown, the most expensive Netflix show ($260 million, as of 2020), and Lupin, the most popular Netflix show (70 million in the first 4 weeks) cheek-by-cheek. The four languorously paced seasons of The Crown finished as I bled through the first season of Lupin over three days. The Crown, following the British Royalty from the crowning of Queen Elizabeth to Princess Diana’s betrothal, and Lupin, a Parisian, spiritual companion of Sherlock Holmes with an emotional core, are both curious creatures whose features are only heightened by watching them side-by-side.
It’s an ecstatic double-bill—the first clashing the Neoclassical Buckingham Palace with working class neighborhoods and coal towns, and the latter clashing the Neoclassical French Louvre, and the pretense of transparency with glass with Brutalism’s communal sense of grey concrete. The former obsessed with stretching time to give a sense of languor in empire, while the latter is obsessed with snapping time to give a sense of riot and intrigue in post-colonial France (There is a wonderful scene about outwitting a racist owner of Congolese Diamonds). My dreams became leaky time zones—these characters, along with Safdar Hashmi, the communist playwright whose biography I am reading, the dying homosexuals in the AIDS drama It’s A Sin, and the precocious parents in Allegra Goodman’s short story, worried about the college application of their son, all became one tinny faluda in my head at night. (I still have nightmares that I wrote my Harvard application essay about urinating on my brother, except I actually did that. I didn’t get in.)
This happens when my mind is overstimulated, the most extreme of which was during my first year at the Mumbai Film Festival in 2019, where I would watch and write about 3-4 films a day. My nights were technicolour nightmares of American motels, Russian warscapes, old, loud, and loving Marathi families and god knows what else. It sounds wonderful, but some nights were a bit much. I take refuge in Kyle Chyka’s wonderful piece about nothingness that begins with the line, “In 2019, I developed a habit of indulging in nothingness.”
One of the most profound conclusions of that article was that the nothingness we crave—Marie Kondo, minimalism, Spring cleaning—is as much a respite from the chaos, as it is regenerative for the chaos. We meditate not only because it gives us peace of mind, but also because it enables us to then emerge out of that nothingness and get back and work the long, shifty hours in front of stale light emanated from laptops and phones and pads. It’s a kind of nothingness that fortifies us for the everythingness this sensual world demands.
Mid-way through the article, he makes a very curious (and questionable) claim.
“It’s as if we want to get rid of everything in advance, including our expectations, so that we won’t have anything left to lose.”
I was a bit struck by this sentence because I have been thinking about it for a while now. I don’t think, given the structures we exist within, that it is possible to forgo expectations, yet there’s something in that sentence that gives a glimpse of an alternative world.
While researching India’s contributions to the world for a work assignment, I came across Padma Shri Michel Danino’s lectures at IIT Kanpur about the Indian Civilization. One of them was about Ethics and Values in which he, of course, discusses the Bhagwat Gita. The warrior Arjuna has developed cold feet on the battlefield, staring at his enemies, whom he must, by duty, demolish. That these enemies are his own cousins is cause for conflict. That victory will entail bloodshed of kindred ones makes him question the desire for victory. (And it is true that while in the end he does win, all his sons end up massacred, leaving Arjuna to wonder what the joy of a victory actually is?) His charioteer Krishna advises him to merely act according to one’s Dharma, an elusive moral code, and not worry about the fruits of one’s actions. Karam karo, phal ki chinta mat karo. As a child I used to think this is bull-shit because what would be the intention of doing something for nothing. (Reminds me of the episode in Friends when Joey convinces Phoebe that there is truly no act in this world that is selfless. Even charity gives joy. If it weren’t joy-giving then why would the charitable part with their wealth?) It’s not that I don’t think this idea is bull-shit anymore. It’s just that I now prefer theorizing bull-shit, seeing the possibilities within it, before dismissing it.
Danino in his lectures frames this moment very uniquely. He notes that it is essentially about having a will to succeed, along with an equanimity in the face of success or failure. The world we live in—capitalist, industrious, the hustle-bustle economy—has constructed human beings such that we are intellectually unable to differentiate the will to succeed from success itself. The line of questioning would be — if I am going to fail, why should I want to do it? It is a very fair question, but it is also the apotheosis of capitalism—to do only to succeed. Which is why we give up on things we are not good at, which is why even in recreation we seek profits, and which is why this year I stopped numbering the books I read. Reading is an act which is designed to give me pleasure and I did not want it to entirely succumb to the spiral of more-more-more. I want to read because I want to read, not because I should want to read. Merely wanting to read is the end here. That I finished reading, picked up vocabulary, quotations, etc. should be immaterial. This begs the big question: is an alternative world possible, where our will to succeed is divorced from the success itself? Where wanting to succeed is an end in and of itself?
This duality is shown best in The Crown, where Queen Elizabeth wants to be pertinent, consequential, but she cannot and she knows this, because the crown is only a symbolic position. Their importance comes from wanting to be important. This want is exemplified in the conditions in which they live—palaces, stables, cushy stone houses next to lonely cliffs, Renaissance paintings, staff to do menial jobs like removing your socks—designed to give a pretense of importance; that they can now spend their time actually thinking about important things, instead of putting their mind to mundane tasks. The reality, of course, is that they don’t actually get to spend their time putting their mind to anything important.
But we see here what happens when one is solely defined by one’s want to be important, and not by actually one’s importance. One is reduced to only a symbol, an ornamentation. (There’s a wonderful moment in season 1 when the Queen, then a child, is being educated and is told that there is efficiency, and there is elegance. The parliament is efficiency, and the crown is elegance, each looking to the other for what it lacks.)
This would tie back to my argument against Chyka who noted a contemporary desire for people wanting to give up expectations altogether. It would assume contentment with merely being a symbol. But no one in this world is happy merely being a symbol, even if that means having someone employed just to take your socks, and being surrounded by beauty. The sting of inconsequence hurts everyone. Everyone wants to be something, be remembered, be cherished.
This also explains why The Crown must be this meditative in its treatment. Minutes are spent on a well-composed frame of silhouettes. It is the small details—like the Queen dusting off a stray thread off the shoulder of her attendant who is pinning a flower to her lapel, or the small mouse that scurries across the background in the palace. For one, it gives a sense of these characters who lull their lives in this fraying luxury, but are, to put it bluntly, undeserving of it, and not working for it. They are born into the gilded shackles. The dynamism is always an outsider—the man who breaks into Buckingham, the polio ridden photographer who sleeps up and down the town, Margaret Thatcher who removes her clip-on earrings from one ear before pressing the telephone to it, Princess Diana skating through the corridors to Duran Duran. Being in the palace is having the time and the conditions to pursue whatever you want but being unable to do so anyways. The result is a sickening, glamorous slowness, like perfumed rot.
Show Don’t Tell
But another function of this slowness is that it creates a sense of place, populated by personalities and not characters. I cannot possibly describe Queen Elizabeth (played by Claire Foy in the first two seasons, and Olivia Colman in the latter two seasons ) without re-thinking an adjective I use because I can think of scenes where she might have contradicted that label. It’s so grotesquely human, you almost feel for her, despite her being who she is—totemic of privilege and heading an empire that has left a trail of blood across the globe. As a viewer I sneered at the inconsequence of empire in the 21st Century, yet sympathetic to the Queen’s plight for being both victim and victor of this institution.
This capacity to create humans who elude adjectives is such an integral part of creating relatable characters—to embody contradiction as a character trait. One of the ways to do it, is to show-don’t-tell, an adage most writers, understandably, take to their heart and their craft.
It’s not just an aesthetic consideration, it gives the humans the space to be slippery, and evasive, lending them the life-like quality of living. If you tell-don’t-show, you explain and not unravel characters, creating a flat, determined category instead.
But more than anything else, The Crown was an important viewing experience for me. It had a meditativeness to it that I craved since I had started watching almost all of YouTube in 2x speed. It’s so easy to want to do the same for this show, given Netflix allows speeding, but yet I didn’t. Much like I didn’t when watching the 20-25 minute videos of Kiryeong, a Korean in Japan going about her life—sweet potato chocolates, strawberry milk, black coffee, cream donuts, ice, vegetables, dinner. Or her small vacations to Kamakura, the seaside Japanese town with its rhubarb and cardamom jam, the Oslo Instagram filter built into its blue sky, and her ASMR stirring of iced lattes in a remodeled old Japanese house. It’s all so mundane, and yet demands so much of me. The slowness here is not an ornament, but it’s the essence of the work. Form as function. By speeding it up I would be morphing its very desire to slow down a fast life. (Kiryeong’s desire for Kamakura was to see the blue stretch of endless sea, something she’s deprived of in Tokyo. I get this—at one point in 2018 I hadn’t seen the sea, which I was always surrounded by in Dubai, Chennai, Mumbai, and Berkeley, in 8 months, and the first thing I did when I shifted to Bhubaneshwar for work was to take the bus to the coastal town of Puri one hot afternoon and amidst the tyre burnings and the hot sand and the cloying moisture, I finally made it. It was a painful afternoon, but I could smell the salty air finally.)
This greed to want to bung in as much knowledge into time, coupled with the frustration with people who speak slowly made me speed up the videos on YouTube. This creates an odd unease with life which is lived in 1x, howmuchever we want it otherwise. This 2x mode flattens every viewing experience into a learning experience, and not an immersive one. The Crown, by being so slow, but yet so immersive as to not want to 2x it, must thus be celebrated, as a victory against the attention deficit economy.
While The Crown was busy deconstructing a world we have known only through headlines, Lupin was constructing a world so sinister and yet so respectable. It introduces us to Assane Diop (played by Omar Sy) like a headline would—a Senegalese immigrant to Paris attempting a heist at the Louvre—and then through flashbacks pads the motives, and builds support for him. The past in Lupin is an origin story, and so the future holds promise. In The Crown the past is a nostalgic burden, which is why the future here is coloured with existential angst. Watching these two side-by-side I kept thinking how it is so dangerous to get your sole sense of identity from your past. Because the past moves into the present, and time flips its arbitrary allegiance. But if our mind is stuck in the past, as our body ages into the present, the result is anachronism, resentment, and eventually violence. The Crown sees the past as a guide, and Lupin sees the past as a trampoline to spring forth from. It gives impetus, but not identity, at least not entirely.
Structurally Lupin is weak. It begins with a generic set-up, before it swerves into its brilliance. It ends on a cliff-hanger where nothing feels sorted, an incompleteness. (Against The Crown where each episode is quite stand-alone where the issue is set up, confronted, and provided narrative catharsis in its hour-long run-time) It is Netflix’s experiment with attention, because for Lupin, this wasn’t a “season”, but one half of a season, the other half dropping in a few months.
The one episode a week format, still followed by a few shows, gave way to the wholesale dropping of a season, which seems more the norm, given how Netflix is considered synonymous with the word “binge”, a gluttony for entertainment. What this did was it created a density in the conversation around the show. If an episode would drop every week, the conversation would come back to Game Of Thrones or A Suitable Boy, once every week. If it dropped like a weighty Christmas gift, all at once, the conversation would be concentrated to that one week when it dropped, and dovetail into oblivion. Dropping Lupin in two halves, I think, is Netflix’s ploy to find a middle-ground— to create consistent conversation around a show, while also being open to the capacity for a binge. It makes sense from Netflix’s point of view—with these trends, and numbers showing up on their annual reports. But gosh, at what cost. Was the battered, incision in the viewing experience worth it? Not for me.
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