Electric Ladyland: On Parker Posey

Dear Jane, Lili, and Evan,

First of all, I’d like to say that—with the exception of Jane’s outrageous suggestion that Parker Posey is somehow not hot—I’ve been thrilled, diverted, and delighted by everything that’s gone on on our blog here since I’ve been on temporary hiatus.  That said, I’ve had a bit of a hard time figuring out how to jump back into the fray.  My initial idea was that I might write a kind of early-middle review of Louie’s new season, taking note of the things I’ve noticed hurriedly watching, without writing about, the season so far.  Issues that would have come up in this post might have included: C.K.’s desire, to which he testified on The Daily Show, to “draw attention to” issues like sexual violence paired with what I see as C.K.’s own wonky thinking on such issues; the increasing incidence (particularly in the Miami episode) of C.K.’s stand-up being not-quite-as-good-as the show of which it is a part; the undercutting, in the final stand-up clip of the Miami episode, of the complex, inarticulate portrayal of male friendship by suggesting that the episode could be boiled down to gay panic; how awesome Louie’s kids are on the show, and how much weight they carry even when they are absent from an episode.  I fully intended to write all of this stuff. And then Parker Posey came on the show.

It’s a cliché to call a performance electrifying.  It’s also a cliché to call a performance devastating or earth-shattering.  What all of those clichés have in common, though, and what they have been invented to describe is a kind of performance that fundamentally alters the character of the work in which it appears.  The screen is different when this actor is in view, its basic assumptions and conventions are put into question.  The scope and composition of the work must expand, alter, accommodate in order to feature this performance. Plenty of folks have filled plenty of internet space extolling the many many many virtues of Parker Posey’s electrifying/devastating/earth-shattering performance from these past two episodes. On Vulture this week, Matt Zoller Seitz wrote one of the best short critical appreciations I’ve ever seen about anything, Sady Doyle has a great topical analysis of the second part in relation to the “manic pixie dream girl” phenomenon and the film Ruby Sparks, and Annie Clark (St. Vincent), voicing, as usual, the voice of the people, tweeted that Parker Posey should be awarded an Olympic medal for her two episode-arc. What all of these responses point to is the idea that, not only is Posey’s character Liz something new to the Louieverse, but that Liz is something almost unable to be contained by the brilliantly-drawn but familiar circles of compromised intimacy, humiliation, and self-loathing in which Louie exists.

Fittingly, then, Posey’s appearance is also the occasion for Louie’s first real experiment in serial form: the two-part episode.  Louie must adapt formally to the presence of this performance.  Louie, as we all know, is allergic to seriality.  One of the many virtues of this program is its staunch formal adherence to the self-contained episode along with its unconventional and often idiosyncratic management of traditional sitcom beats.  As is often noted, Louie is more a series of short films or vignettes featuring the same protagonist than it is a narrative program.  This constraint forces C.K., like a conceptual poet, to be constantly mindful of the conventions and constructions of the “sitcom” that might otherwise provide a creative crutch.  Viewers cannot be compelled simply by a desire to learn the outcome of a plotline a la Ross-and-Rachel.  This, paired with C.K.’s penchant for one-off guest stars and this season’s disregard for even the demands of continuity, frees Louie of the need to service characters or story-arcs. Even the elements of the series that seem to most approximate a serial narrative—Louie’s unrequited love for Pamela Adlon or even the gradual, almost imperceptible evolution of his stand-up career—feel more like looming presences than weekly dramas.  Louie’s yearning for Pamela only seemed like a plotline because that yearning had an object.  But, functionally, it would be equivalent to saying that Louie’s fear of death or sexual mortification is a story the series is telling.  Louie trafficks in meditations, not stories. This is not to say that Louie has transcended the need for serial narrative or that C.K. is some kind of visionary.  The form is unfamiliar to TV, and C.K. is extraordinarily good at his work, but he did not invent these forms.  Instead, it’s just to say that, by not really caring that much about story, C.K. is free to create a much more ambivalent, messy, and freely-associative show.

In this light, I think it’s more accurate to think of “Daddy’s Girlfriend (Parts I and II)” as a double album than an honest-to-goodness serialized narrative.  If every episode of Louie is about examining a concept rather than telling a part of a story, then this particular conceptual unit needed more than 30 minutes just as Blonde on Blonde or Bitches’ Brew required more than the length of an LP to do what they set out to do.  Usually, on Louie, the goldfish grows relative to the size of the bowl. In this situation, with this particular goldfish, Louis C.K. just needed to get a bigger bowl.

And I think there are two things that made this goldfish bigger than usual: the concept of reciprocal honesty and the actual collaboration between C.K. and Posey.  Louie, not unlike Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm, often gets into scrapes because he insists on being honest about his feelings, even if he’s not terribly careful or self-aware about them.  This was certainly true of the Dane Cook episode.  More often, though, Louie gets into scrapes because he is rendered inarticulate, shocked silent, by the honesty of others.  This was most notable in this season’s early sequence in which Louie is dumped at the diner.  Spurring from a misunderstanding, Louie is literally unable to respond once the soon-to-be ex-girlfriend starts spontaneously truth-telling about their relationship.  This kind of bumbling passivity is one of the things C.K. is best at portraying, but, over three seasons, it’s become almost reflexive, a little too easy to explode a situation by having somebody with the ammunition to do so tell Louie off.  Louie is often humiliated, he’s often brought low, he’s often made to feel cheap.

So a lot of people—especially women­—are brought onto this show to call Louie on his shit.  But rarely has this been done so lovingly, so magnetically as it was done by Posey’s Liz.  To some extent, I think we can look to last season’s Joan Rivers episode as a kind of early version of this interaction. Rivers was rough with Louie, but she treated him with an almost loving concern, a seriousness, that was so foreign to Louie he responded physically.  I think the same is true here.  Liz takes Louie seriously.  She, like we do, understands him as a redeemable person, and she seeks to teach him, to request from him, an honesty that he is ordinarily unable to muster. She demands, in other words, that he participate in a relationship rather than silently watching it self-destruct.

And while Louie remains silent for much of the second part of “Daddy’s Girlfriend” and most of the lines he utters are lines of complaint, frustration, or even genuine anger, they are true, and they are expressed in a way that is uncommon.  Almost every critical appreciation of this series notes that one of its great aspects is that, through the ugliness and awkwardness of its vignettes, Louie showcases the beauty and goodness and possibility of human existence.  Louie is an anti-social mess, but when we as the viewers can detect what’s good in him, we can see what’s good about the world.  It’s the duckling in the pocket or the crippling unwillingness to presume anything about his relationship with Pamela.  Isn’t there something lovable even here?

What’s exceptional about “Daddy’s Girlfriend,” I think, and what makes Louie offer that smile at the end of the episode, is that Liz makes Louie see himself the way we see him.  She calls him on his shit, but she stays.  She recaps his adventures—You’ve tried on a dress! You’ve saved a man’s life!—the way a viewer would. She provokes and then shows him his own courage.  The moment passes at the end—in part because Liz has reached a limit point with her own honesty—but it happens. And, though it seems that she won’t be back this season, this date seems more like a beginning than a typical catastrophic denouement.  If the ordinary thesis of Louie is that Louie can’t have nice things, C.K. has taken the space here to show what it takes to earn, to reciprocate, and to acknowledge something truly, if complicatedly, good.

Which brings us to my second point. That is, the episode has taken the form it’s taken, in part, because it had to expand to fit the size of Posey’s performance. But it’s not just her.  I agree that she should win every Emmy for her turn here, but what I think is really on display in the episode is the collaboration between Posey and C.K. Seitz points out that this is Posey’s best work, but I think it also might be Louis C.K.’s.  Posey’s episode-length monologue is so engaging because of the way she turns her eyes on and off, the way she lunges through space like an Olympic fencer, even the way her voice modulates when she lies, but it’s also so engaging because it’s written so well.  Louis C.K. is one of the best writers working in television, but the occasion of Liz has forced him to do things we’ve never seen. We’ve heard hilarious takedowns and witnessed great comic set-pieces, but we haven’t heard wit this sharp and fast and easy. “All of a sudden, my body’s accepting nutrients and within a month, I’m a healthy 15-year-old girl with a cool punky haircut.”  I’m not saying we haven’t seen Louis C.K. write with wit and fluency, but we haven’t heard this voice before.

In other words, I think the insane quality and explosiveness of Posey’s performance and the almost unbelievably good writing C.K. has done are the occasion for the length of this episode.  The relationship is so strong because the creative process that is visible in this episode is so strong in its own right.  This is, in some sense, an episode about collaboration by an artist justly famous for his auteurism—though the editing that makes this episode’s sparkling rhythms so infectious is the product of C.K.’s newfound collaboration with Susan Morse.  It’s about the joys and terrors of following someone else’s lead, and it’s also about the limits of that kind of collaboration. Louie does not step to the edge, ultimately.  But he almost doesn’t need to.  Louie already has.



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