Weeds and Philosophy
Pop Aesthetics and Grotesque Beauty
I watched all 8 seasons of Weeds on Netflix, and re-watched the first two seasons today, as I did my laundry, shopping and cooking, to grab the screenshots that follow and to refresh my memory for this article. The obvious angle to take on this show in relation to philosophy is to consider the ethics of marijuana dealing and production, but since marijuana has been partially legalized, it seems that it is as appropriate to question the ethics of the marijuana industry as questioning the tobacco or the alcohol industries. As I reviewed the footage, the more pressing point of discussion was aesthetics, or the beauty of many of the shots, backgrounds, small details in the furnishings and props, and in the bodies and faces of the lead and supporting actors. The philosophical question here is if when ethics are put aside, the images in the series can be considered works of art that capture the modern take on beauty. Can beauty be grotesque? Are slimmer bodies more beautiful? Why are some animated cartoons included, but no attempt is made at intricately painting backgrounds under credits?
The premise of the show is that a single mother, Nancy Botwin, played by Mary-Louise Parker, decides to sustain her standard of living with her recently deceased engineer husband, by selling marijuana. One of the reasons this show lasted for eight seasons is that the creator, Jenji Kohan (a Jewish female series creator, an unusual combination in Hollywood and one in part due to the success of the other members of her family), varied the plotline with shocking developments and changes in the characters’ lives, as they go from selling to growing to regional distribution to working with the Cartel. The details of the possibilities of the pot trade are pretty well researched, or at least nothing stands out as clearly in contrast with reported news or FBI drug statistics.
The opening credits seem to be the best starting point in a discussion of aesthetics. First, the credits roll to innovative musical variations on the same lyrics, “and they are all made out of ticky-tacky and they are all just the same…”, with French, rap, raspy and soft voices, classical arrangements, and various other styles of music to accompany the words. Then, there is the care that is taken with the images playing behind the credits, which is more intricate than most series I’ve seen, and I have seen more than most. Here are a couple of these, one from the first season, and one from the last:
Season 8, Episode 12, Minute 1
Without the animation of houses appearing one-by-one on the map, the first of these looks like a simply unfinished Google satellite map, but with the animation, the music, and the illustrated design in the cover-like shot before it, it gains an attractive aesthetic quality. The second image is a more direct attempt to integrate art into the credits. As the intro song plays, a cartoonist draws the story that played out across the first seven seasons with a marker, as if doing a storyboard. The cartoons could be featured in the Sunday comics section if they were colored in, and when the shot fast-forwards across a series of them, they also give a sense that the creator wanted to create beautiful images in a place that could’ve been white space.
Clearly if this series continued as a cartoon, or as a series of map shots, it would not have been the hit that it was. The most beautiful and attractive component in this series is in the casting, as the majority of actors were clearly chosen for their sex-appeal, and their consistent ability to look symmetric, well-proportioned, and otherwise flawlessly beautiful from all angles. Here is a screenshot of the lead, Parker. She wore less revealing clothing in the first season, and she lost some weight and started wearing only clothing that is stylish, revealing and appealing, starting in Season 2.
Season 2, Episode 6, 26 minutes
In this series, Parker always keeps her eyes large, blinks seductively, and tosses or flirts with her hair. She competes in features-flawlessness with most of the teenage actors on the show, as there isn’t a single bump on her skin, and it’s hard to imagine how she can have a more standardized beautiful form. She is thin enough to be agile and to not have a double-chin, or even fat around the nose, but she has the curves that could not have been any larger or smaller without losing some of their appeal. She does not look like some of the thinner or blonder models and actresses, but something about her animated flirtation and her combined features manages to aesthetically mesmerize observers.
Season 2, Episode 8, Minute 22
There are two supporting actors, who were clearly cast for their looks. Justin Kirk is perfectly slim, and has a great hairline at the start of the series, but ages and disintegrates somewhat over the eight long years. As Justin fades, the weight of male sex-appeal shifts onto Botwin’s son, Silas, played by Hunter Parrish. In the last seasons, he even plays a model. He fits the part of a southern-California surfer-pot-head very nicely, exemplified by his dirty-blond hair, mixed lean-muscular physique, and shaved upper body. His beauty his magnified by the string of girlfriends that he engages in intercourse, which is not as graphic as in Queer as Folk, but includes images of breasts, naked buttocks, and pretty realistic sexual positioning and movements. One girlfriend that particularly sparked my interest is Mary-Kate Olsen, who in 2008, when she played this part, was recovering from the death that January of her friend, Heath Ledger, of a drug overdose. Mary-Kate retired from acting in 2012, partially because her net-worth is $150 million, and who could realistically spend that much money in a lifetime?
Season 3, Episode 7, Minute 11
Here, she is at the peak of her aesthetic appeal. She was being accused of being anorexic around this time, but ideals of female beauty today favor young girls who are near 100 pounds, otherwise the camera can magnify even a face that is slightly too round, or eyes that could be larger if the cheeks were thinner. The first season of Weeds focuses on Elizabeth Ann Perkins’ fat child, as the mother poisons her child with laxatives, making her defecate in class. When Botwin goes to buy pastries with marijuana in them, she speaks with the athletic-looking woman called, the Candyman, who insists that to work with her and to use the munchies-inducing marijuana, Botwin has to exercise more, asking if those that Botwin is selling to are, “fatty McFat fats.” While some of the characters struggle with weight issues, these are frequently used in jokes, and most of the driving actors are in nearly perfect shape. So the final message of the show is that beauty sells. Because Olsen plays a religious fanatic, she wears sweaters and pants that cover most of her form across the episodes that she appears in. The shot above draws attention to a few similar features between Parrish and Olsen: dirty-blond or highlighted and colored hair, similar jaw and facial shape, even similar shoulder-to-shoulder length, and hand and eye sizes. Perhaps, this particular shot is the most appealing out of the string because the two actors are particularly symmetrical with each-other in it. Also, it is clear that beauty in paired couples can be either magnified or destroyed by a match or a mismatch. Parrish looks just as beautiful with black or red haired girlfriends, but the clash frequently creates humor or tension, as opposed to in this matchup, where it echoes a tranquil sense of aesthetic harmony.
There are two aesthetic categories that grab attention in this series: symmetrical and pop standard beauty of form, and a grotesque artsy beauty. The latter is assisted by special effects, and eye-catching props that are beautiful in the same way Bosch paintings are. Classical art also frequently splits into these two categories, as some paintings are of perfectly proportioned or gloriously clothed and powerfully represented aristocracy, and then scenes of dramatic carnage or destruction (both abstract and realistic), also simplified as beauty of form and beauty of action. While the grotesque typically does not attract the viewer’s lust, it does awaken the viewer, and draw attention to the artistically complex images. Here is a moment when shots are fired through the walls of a house, and one of these shots breaks a cup standing on the table. Just before this moment, the hostess asks Botwin to be respectful, saying, “This is a house of peace.” After the shots stop, Botwin asks if they should call the police, and the hostess replies, “Please, that probably was the police.” But, in this particular screenshot, between the Chinese finely painted plate, and the various small objects on this table, it is all clearly positioned to be an animated work of art, and not merely a violent shot. Many other series use dark lighting and do not pay attention to the color balance and object weight in each of the shots, but here the rules of artistic composition are followed, so that one can draw similarities to a classical painting of a bowl of fruit or flowers. Of course, exploding a bowl of fruits, or otherwise taking the details further, instead of using a plain-colored cup, could have been a much more aesthetically satisfying shot.
Season 1, Episode 5, 11 minutes
In the following image, two toes have been bitten off by a dog from Justin Kirk’s foot.
Season 2, Episode 7, Minute 3
At this moment of the episode, the character exclaims, “That bitch ate my toes.” Zooming into this shot, the graphics are not very realistic or three-dimensional. The small specks of blood at the front of the toes also do not honestly portray the profuse bleeding that would be happening on all sides of the stubs. Also, the toes around the two missing toes have not even been scratched by the mad dog. But, this is an aesthetically striking image because of the sinister black soot around the foot, and the vigorously contorted muscles that intensify the moment. This is a very strange violent incident, and the unrealistic depiction of the injury turns it into art, as opposed to just a case of bad luck. Another element here is the strange piece of something goldish-beige on top of the foot and at its side, which makes the scene strange and detracts attention away from the unrealistic toe-truncation.
This next shot is one example of rough-handling and beatings that occur steadily in most of the episodes in the show. Here Botwin is led through an underground tunnel between Mexico and the US. Since it is a tunnel, the lighting is darker than in most of the episodes, and this detracts from the aesthetics of the actors’ forms and features, as well as from the background, which might be deliberately abstracted because it is a simple set without many background details.
Season 4, Episode 6, Minute 4
This last shot is another example of grotesque beauty. The series is full of shocking sexual and violent events, including cybersex with a 15 year old deaf girl, and Botwin’s younger son writing, “gangster rap about killing everyone.” And, here is a shot where Botwin manages to keep her eyes wide open, and her head and facial features beautifully positioned, as blood is dropping around her face. The blood spatter is once again unrealistic, but at least the blood looks like it moved downwards. The scene has a powerful grotesque beauty because it is layered with the well-orchestrated and accompanying details, from the finely painted streaks of blood, to the soft color of the sheets, to the petrified and paralyzed stare, and to the clustered, and yet somehow soft and attractive, hair styling.
The aesthetics in Weeds is a great example of a mix of pop standard physical beauty and grotesque artistically beautiful design, positioning, animation, and special effects. There are several elements here that film students should take note of as they decide what they think is beautiful, and how they want to paint the canvasses of their own cinematographic moving pictures.
Anna Faktorovich is the Director and Founder of the Anaphora Literary Press. She taught college English for three years before focusing entirely on publishing. She has a PhD in English Literature. She published two scholarly books: Rebellion as Genre in the Novels of Scott, Dickens and Stevenson (McFarland, 2013) and The Formulas of Popular Fiction: Elements of Fantasy, Science Fiction, Romance, Religious and Mystery Novels (McFarland, 2014). She completed two other scholarly books: Gender Bias in Mystery and Romance Novel Publishing: Mimicking Masculinity and Femininity and Wendell Berry’s New Agrarianism and Beyond, for which she received a Kentucky Historical Society fellowship. She also published two poetry collections Improvisational Arguments (Fomite Press, 2011) and Battle for Athens (Anaphora, 2012). She recently finished her first historical novel, The Romances of George Sand (Forthcoming: 9/12/2014). Anaphora Website: http://anaphoraliterary.com. Connect with Anna: Facebook: anna.faktorovich; Twitter: AnnaFaktorovich
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