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Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been?

The second episode of the second season of Angel may not be entirely perfect, but it’s reallyreally beautiful; visually, musically, thematically.  As if there weren’t enough backstory dragging behind a 240 year-old vampire, this episode loops a single thread of his shameful past from the present through a lyrically assembled series of events that localize crucial choices, filmic allusions and shame-based behaviours to a personal emotional disaster frozen fifty years in his past.  It does this without the jarring, unpredictable, blinding flashes and ear-splitting noises that make most of the episodes in this series remarkably difficult to watch — even though I know that these interstitial transition story-devices mark the inevitable approach of Jasmine, two seasons down the vampire’s steeply-uphill path to redemption.

I suspect the 8 minutes trimmed for time, and moments removed to appease Standards & Practices might make this episode still more sublimely satisfying than the produced version already is, but putting them back wouldn’t alter the look that comes over Angel’s face at the very end of the episode as he gazes kinda-lovingly around the lobby of the haunted, insecurity-riddled hell of an old hotel he’s just liberated from the fascinating/abhorrent paranoia demon.  It’s a legible look of homecoming that foreshadows Malcolm Reynolds’ first, enraptured visual study of Serenity, at the end of Out Of Gas, my favorite episode of Firefly (also written by the same remarkable guy).

Tim Minear’s fine-toothed commentary doesn’t go much out of its way to itemize each of the chewy allusions he wrote into this episode, beyond the mention of Chinatown.  I noticed/imagined quotes from a host of hotel-based horror/noirs; The Shining, Barton Fink, Psycho with fond nods to Rebel Without A Cause, The Defiant Ones, Ox-Bow Incident, Pinky, Advise and Consent, and possibly The Manchurian Candidate, with strong tonal resonance with Bad Day at Black Rock and Shock Corridor — but then, the content and the context of this episode is steeped in still-topical issues that bleed from most episodes of The Twilight Zone; prejudice, self-interest served at cost to others, alienation, mob violence, lethal secrets, insupportable shame and manipulated insecurity — it’s as though Tim Minear were Serling’s unsung son.  Temporal variations in our collective sociocultural attitudes toward racism, homosexuality, miscegenation, communism, lynching, scapegoating, crowdsourcing, and bullet-headed stupidity play tacitly, deep in the viewer’s imagination without crowning The Present Day with bullshit awards for enlightened, progressive platitudes (except for one unfortunate line that Minear explicitly regrets).  It’s an amazingly tidy, nonlinear, meandering, complex and contradictory, yet beautifully-managed, profoundly-disturbing episode.  HUACpaTooie!

In the interest of candor, I might as well report that I find Angel (one of my favorite television series) a real chore to watch because of the

  1. aforementioned, blinding and deafening interstitial transition thing,
  2. mumbled/whispered dialogue alongside BIG musical score and (industry-standard bogus) violent sound effects,
  3. the increasing prominence of the Cordelia Chase character,
  4. 80% of the Pylea excursion,
  5. most things involving Connor,
  6. and the mercifully-rare instances of crossover in which the hit&miss chemistry of Geller/Boreanaz usually leads me to gag on the smarm.

But it’s worth it because these shows are almost always about something real and pending that deserves to be re-evaluated regularly.  And Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been?  is certainly one of the best of them, right up there with The Monsters are Due on Maple Street.  And there’s Billy, Skip and the indescribably delicious Alexa Davalos.

24DEC2011:

Jasmine’s the personification of the internet, the singular server of an ever-widening social network, the adversary of oldschool privacy, free will, and both the highest ideal and the ugliest dreads of humanity.  The interstital transitions persist more intermittently after Jasmine’s vanquished (in the Whedonverse, where death isn’t necessarily terminal).  Jasmine’s termination may have been instrumental in the liberation of Illyria, lest two monumentally-powerful higher largely-female powers converge on Earth kinda simultaneously to vastly overshadow the vampire from whose name the show derived its title.

Given the vicissitudes of unexpected preganacy (in season four), network anti-seriality notes and series cancellation, Mutant Enemy ground the standalone form of season five to an incredibly satisfying halt.  Perhaps its a little more accurate to say they modified the course of a streaking killer-asteroid into a stable orbit.

12 Dec 11 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | 1 Comment

Restless

At the end of season four of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the BigBad has been vanquished and The Initiative is not only broken but obliterated, scattered and denied as though it had never happened beneath the plausible deniablility of “scorched earth” and governmental scoffing.  The season-long arc has climaxed in episode twenty-one, which leaves Restless as an aftermath of summing and evaluating the work the show had done — for four years.  And it’s written in ancient iambic Sumerian, Buffy Summerian, that is; swimmin’ pools, movie stars…

It’s an anthology of dreams of the four principle characters who joined together (even more completely than of-yore) to defeat the BigBad by invoking the soul of the power of the slayer, which just happens to annoy the hell out of the entire tradition of slayers, which manifests in each of their four more-or-less fragmentary dreams to threaten their waking lives for having the temerity to flout the chain-of-command (slayer tradition) by going directly to the source that’s personified in the original slayer, a solitary misanthrope, the victim of frightened old men.

And the writer’s/director’s commentary for that episode reflects his intentional, insistent break with tradition to write an hour of only-vaguely-linear, subtexual exposition about the sandbox in which four characters met to create a television show; the writer’s sandbox.

Buffy’s success as a programming victory for an insignificant market reached more people than were targeted in an age-appropriate demographic by breaking with tradition, remixing staid conventions and going directly to the source of the power that unites writers and audiences; by making something new from stuff that had already been done to death.  And Restless departs from the customary path that defines the rise and fall of television shows.  It specifically and particularly defies its own traditions by (among other things) previously portraying Spike in The Yoko Factor as the maniplative influence of network/studio executive notes and messageboard remarks from fans.  Everybody meddles, well-wishers, censors, sponsors, fans…even artists meddle with their own work.

Call it classic or cheesy television, if you must.  I’ll just describe it as art.  Like fashions, cultish devotion and popcultural references, obsession with novelties wax and wane, but Mutant Enemy produces work that continues to delight me as I age, finding rich new layers of meaningful content embedded in each successive assay; not unlike Casablanca — it never seems to get stale.  I don’t see Dollhouse in the same light, but it’s loaded with ideas that deserve (and will receive) plenty of additional scrutiny.

Restless is a remarkably transparent statement about nourishing the writer/artist/content-creator by flouting the interests of significant others by engaging with the source of pleasure in writing stuff people will eventually come to realize they need because it keeps the saga alive in the souls of the writers/artists/content-creators who refuse to work on their knees, pandering to past success; pandering to pandering.  It also does that for the audience.

I believe that the factor that killed the Beatles was their unqualified success, the overwhelming public adoration for what they’d already made together acted as a profound deterrent to whatever hadn’t happened yet.  It wasn’t/isn’t Yoko, but public inertia; popular yearning for more-of-the-same that kills artists (by rewarding copyists and meddlers).

The most singularly valuable thing I’ve leaned while following the blog of The Ad Contrarian came from a guy named Guy who said that discovery and invention are very different processes; that academics invent categories, classifications, comparisons and contrasts, while fortunate and talented scientists and artists discover things that really can’t be vivisected without significant loss.  And the death of social media happens when reputation acts as an impediment to stepping out of character and discovering something new.

23 Jan 10 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Comments Off on Restless

Soulless

Rhymes with “solace” as the antimatter reboot episode of Angel 4.11 in which Angelus is tactically invoked to replace Angel for the specific purpose of putting an end to The Beast (that blotted out the sun and would probably devour Cleveland).  And that’s quite enough about that.

I’d like to take this opportunity to bitch about Connor and Cordelia.  The two of them are written in a way that makes this fourth season a very difficult passage to the series final year.  I’ve now seen Vincent Kartheiser in only two roles, but both of the characters he’s portrayed are disgustingly ambiguous.  In Mad Men, Kartheiser’s acknowledged talents elicit moments of tremendous sympathy that rise high above my accustomed contempt for his character’s slippery, self-serving values and tendency toward treasonous toadying…but Pete’s been there since the beginning of that series; integral to its success.  In Angel, Connor is a climactic insert, an add-on, an appendix that never seems to go away, adding a bottomless suck-hole of selfpity, sexual perversity and quasi-religious fixated venom that borders on insanity.

Mutant Enemy’s fondness for Charisma Carpenter has never seemed less justifed than in the course of this season of Angel, in which Cordelia’s everpresent influence thwarts everything I enjoyed in the show.  As a foil, Cordelia was invaluable, but as a scold and a pillar of reason, she’s utterly superflous…and I say these things about the characters who were written by the most admirable brand I know.  Cordelia and Connor stink, while Kartheiser’s brilliant portrayal of a crap-hole sings with an actor’s sensitive and intelligent choices, the character just sucks ass.  The thing is that I blame the writers for driving an incredibly complex, multiseason plot-arc through the incestuous liaison between Connor and Cordelia that’s foreshadowed by Angel’s implausible fixation on the wellbeing of his dearly beloved but mostly-evil son.

Sidebar:  I’ve known admirable individuals who marry admirable individuals and reproduce in order to become horrid parents who make contemptible choices, persistently, whenever they’re obliged to choose between sane behavior and actions that might possibly infringe upon the wellbeing of their little ones.  These choices extend to barring the use of profanity within fifty yards of their kids, smoking most anything, the display of affection between unmarried adults…It’s the kind of drastically-altered, hypocrital mindset that murders longstanding friendships, and results in horrid kids who sometimes become admirable individuals, especially if they estrange themselves from their parents early.

Angel leans quite deeply in that revolting direction.  He prevents Cordelia from joining in the search for The Beast stating that she’s far too precious to him to risk her life and safety needlessly, then he tells Fred to get a move on (as though Fred were labelled BEASTFODDER).  The wizards at Mutant Enemy pointedly drew the distinction between Fred and Cordelia to highlight Angel’s Cordelia-related compulsion that would require several more episodes of tedious semi-credible explanation, but the special place for Connor and Cordelia in Angel’s theoretical heart casts piles of unloving disregard on every other character for a very long time…and that’s why season 4 seems a great deal longer than all of the others.   The moment in Orpheus when Angel rescues a small dog from the path of an oncoming car in the 1920s reminds me of the Shatner-meets-Collins temporal paradox that’s pivotal in The City at the Edge of Forever.  Just sayin’.  Thirteen bucks to download nearly 29 hours of Star Trek season one from iTunes.  Such a deal!  I ought to be able to check the ostensible parallel/quote/homage and make a report in about 48 hours.

Paraphrasing Angel:  The purpose of a champion is to behave as though the world were a better place, and thereby set an example for the rest of us.  When Angel behaves like a parent/knave, his show might as well be Ozzie and Harriet.  And I’ve better things to do than that.

A little more bitching:  Interstital transitions are very unlike act breaks.  They don’t adhere to the narrative structure that makes their occurence predictable.  An abrupt change of scene or timeframe on Angel is often accompanied by instantaneous flashes of lightning and attendant bursts of thunder.  These instantaneous overstimulations of the audience sensory instrumentality contrast markedly with several mumbling actors and signature dark cinematography and really piss me off.  They’re all so unpredictable, painfully bright and disconcerting that they also serve as foreshadowing intimations of the arrivial of Jasmine, who, as Skip explains, in Inside Out, is the all-powerful unknown force that’s been nudging, manipulating and influencing important events since long before the start of season one.  I love Skip.  I loathe Jasmine’s bargain that equates world peace with theocratic world domination — and I also loathe blinding interstitial transitions, even when they’re deeply integrated, innovative and intentional enhancements of story.  They fucking HURT.

There are a couple of notable parallels that won’t bear up under serious scrutiny, but I’d be remiss in failing to mention Jasmine’s blatant and subtle resemblance(s) to Oprah, beauty queens and Michelle Obama.  I think that in the moment of her ascension to First Lady, the media reduced our collective perception of her intelligence and personal dynamism by 75%, and has been feeding the world a steady diet of her private sleeve-lengths, child-rearing advice and bits of traditional role debris.  It’s as though media artisans are tirelessly revising Michelle Obama’s breathtaking native identity into the mandatory First Lady’s graven image that generates adoringly-favorable global impressions far more like Oprah’s, Elizabeth II’s, or June Cleaver’s than Hillary’s.  If so, we’re too dumb to pity.

Gwen Raiden is introduced in Ground State (4.02).  Portrayed by the remarkably attractive and adept Alexa Davalos, Gwen appears twice in a couple of later episodes in the middle of that season and never shows up again.  Why?  Rogue didn’t have some of the finest writers in the television industry fabricating snappy banter for her to deliver, though the nature of her superpower made Gwen Raiden almost exactly as incapable of physical intimacy as the X-Men character, Rogue.  Mutant Enemy failed to service the Raiden character adequately, yet they made her emotional isolation chamber infinitely more empathically recognizable in fragments of three episodes than the X-Men franchise managed in three excessively expensive films to make Rogue matter, meaningful, memorable.  See Players for the soul of a spin-off pilot that unfortunately didn’t extend the domain of the slayers beyond Players.

Their commentaries indicate that Mutant Enemy was constantly formulating work-arounds for practical, financial and logistical difficulties, many of which were imposed by their dinky networks or the studio.  I’ve always suspected that the season arcs were exquisitely designed to tell the audience more about the obstacles besetting the production process than all the cumulative speculation in print by academics, fans and critics.  Whistler was replaced by Doyle.  Corruption was replaced by Lonely Hearts.  Angel almost never tasted of human blood, but would have done so in Corruption…it’s the notes and meddling of network and studio executives that lead me to speculate that an angel in theatrical production is a soulless wad-of-money with legs that makes a television show like Angel possible.  The trick of turning angels into  Angel involves making the best possible compromise with hosts of variable-sized demons.  Most production companies don’t entertain by itemizing the cost (in souls) of creating products that give solace.

Some day the final departure of the Groosalug from Angel will make even more poignant sense than Mark Lutz’ last line — if I can grab somebody who knows more than I do (about the Sandy Grushow relationship with Mutant Enemy) by the lapels and torture them until they confirm/contextualize my irrational suspicions regarding Firefly, Buffy and Angel.  No, probably not an opportunity I’ll ever have (to learn a thing or two).

And that passage of The Teddybear’s Picnic that introduces a caged Angelus as the teaser closes in Soulless really should have been overdubbed by a superb vocalist with perfect pitch, to contrast with Angel’s off-key, arhythmic Manilow covers; Anthony Stewart Head, maybe:  Audience notices the markedly-improved voice with surprised satisfaction, then recognizes the singer and with keen curiousity attributes a wealth of deceitful talents to Angelus that make him a more formidable antagonist than Angel.  That’s the note that prompted this post.  Show the viewer someone new, don’t just always tell us.

11 Jan 10 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | 1 Comment