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Chronicle

The “found footage” metaphor is a handy conceit for an entertainment industry that’s rarely held accountable for all manner of groundlessnesses.  In this film, the subjective camera perspective makes admirable sense right up to the last act.  An abused kid intends to document (and maybe even pre-empt) assaults on his person by his violent father and several contemptuous peers by means  of the video-camcorder he acquires (somehow).

What might have been a moderately-interesting treatise on the power of inexpensive video to provide public evidence of privately covert abusive behavior becomes a different film when the three central characters, fast friends, encounter an anomalous and enigmatic piece of flobotnam that transforms this potentially-controversial Constitutional rights video chronicle into a salable superhero origins movie.

Power conferred by the enigmatic anomaly goes directly to the head of the largely-sympathetic camera operator, one of three suddenly-telekinetic prodigies, who becomes the film’s sole antagonist. It’s the fat middle of the film that permits deliciously-interesting relationships to develop (in lieu of tedious exposition about pseudo-scientific stuff that doesn’t particularly matter).  That fat middle opens a fascinating window on the rapidly-developing drama, humor and pathos that bind and divide the central characters, with the aid of a ubiquitous video camera.

The telekinetic conceit greatly reduces the shaky handheld-camera distraction common to similar films.  It’s also the engaging fat middle of this film that distracts the viewer from the violation of the “found footage” metaphor, when nobody bothers running the video camera during the pyrotechnic climaxes in the last act of the film.  (When we viewers care about the people portrayed, we don’t care at all about the fabricated metaphors.)

Chronicle  is a chameleon in that it seemed to be one kind of film until it clearly wasn’t quite what it seemed, at any given point in its running time.  The only thing it continued to be was surprisingly fascinating, despite my expectations.

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23 Oct 13 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Leave a comment

Van Helsing

When I stumbled into this film this morning, I’d no expectation that it would turn out to be a masterpiece of heuristic storytelling in which the fragments of three cornerstones of gothic horror would be fused into a fascinatingly singular adventure.  Rooted in humor, homage and critique, Van Helsing swept me off my feet again this evening.  Stephen Sommers!

12JUL2013, while watching the DVD with commentary, Sommers recites the keenly human question that opened the crypt of the narrative:  “What would you do with three gorgeous women for four hundred years?”  The film coalesced the instant that question was asked in the mind of its author — obviously, one would fuck like crazy, and the issue of that answer would require the unholy talents of the one-and-only Herr Doktor Viktor von Frankenstein to awaken the undead army of Dracula’s unborn monstrosities to create the way of the future — which doesn’t account for Dracula’s history, but Sommers does so with unqualified genius.  In my estimation, ladies and gentlemen, this here Van Helsing is one hell of a brilliant, visual-adrenaline movie and (just like Casablanca) an endlessly-rewatchable film.  “Three cornerstones of gothic horror”, was a shameful underestimate.

02 Jul 13 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Leave a comment

Prometheus

I used a little trick to get through repeated viewings of this interesting, enigmatic film that lacks a single sympathetic character.

I decided that mankind is the ultimate weapon of mass destruction (the thing that the Weyland-Yutani Corporation [the funding source in previous films] will eventually settle for).  The highminded quests of the various factions in Prometheus;

  • the resolution of permanent philosophical questions,
  • answering an ancient alien astronaut R.S.V.P.,
  • homecoming,
  • The Fountain of Youth,
  • a paycheck…

all come to nothing as various species of predatory abominations take the human cast apart.  What remains of them, at the end of the film, is the unforeseen task of preserving humanity or of dangling a few really-cool threads for at least one additional sequel (or 8).

My reading of the intent of this film is as darkly abhorrent as the hidden malevolence in Lilo & Stitch, cheapening life, concluding that mankind is genetically engineered to degrade and terror-form every mudball it infests, because that’s what we do.  Perhaps my read is perturbed by the apocalyptic Mayan prediction that coincided with the week of my NetFlix rental, or media reports of manmade climate change resulting in the current crop of “SuperStorms” or guys going postal on schoolkids with assault rifles or something else that’s equally unthinkably disspiriting.

The real trick is not minding.

How Prometheus resonates with films that were made in the era between it and Alien interests me.  The Matrix and Terminator machineries (among others) take parallel toxic threads of despair-with-mankind and weave them into a reasonably-coherent tapestry that mirrors the dark and self-alienating visions embedded in Prometheus and in the evening news.

Paraphrasing Lean’s T.E. Lawrence;

Where is it written we’re assholes!? and made in the image of assholes?

Just shut up and look around, stupid.

But then, I think every film Ridley’s ever made has something of vital interest to say about xenophobia — because we so eagerly do unto others whatever we abominate whenever it’s done unto us.

27 Dec 12 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Leave a comment

The Cabin in the Woods

I very much enjoyed the peculiar mix of heart-racing terror intersperced with loads of cerebral gut-wrenching humor that alternates with splatterings of sexual abandon as the slender thread of a very-big picture supports the frame of reference that gradually becomes the gallows rope that justifies and earns the clarity with which I viewed watchers watching watchers watching ever larger frames of reference implode in patented Mutant Enemy staples (blood, conscience, innocence, carelessness, sacrifice, irreverance, responsibility and worth) whose complex interactions result in unlimited cascades of mayhem.  Amy Acker, Tom Lenk, Richard Jenkins, Bradley Whitford and Whatheff Uck?

This film is tremendous fun.  Parody, schmarody.

Second pass; 20SEP2012 — On the other hand, WarGames is still a lot more satisfyingly enjoyable, with stronger parallels to defective automated schemes.

“Strange game.

The only way to win is not to play.”

19 Sep 12 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Leave a comment

Source Code

This is an excellent film that’s designed to engage the viewer in the complete disorientation of the protagonist.  It presents the audience with a completely disorienting sequence of detailed events for a nominal 8 minutes, while the hero (and the viewer) struggle to make sense of what the hell is  happening.  Then the 8 minute interval ends in a wildly-disorienting round of orders, desperate requests for grounding information, and disorienting explanations that circumvent and sidestep the protagonist’s getting a fucking grip, and the original 8 minute sequence recommences.  And it goes on like that, with the hero (and viewer) ferreting sense out of the welter of circular and linear junk that transpires in the gradual revelation of an enormously-important mission in which the life or death of the central characters is secondary.

In spite of, or because of, the massive barrage of confusion, this film is wonderfully riveting as it progresses; not unlike a movie company shooting and re-performing and reshoting an 8 minute set piece, with choices and discoveries and improvizations and errors and consultations and no fourth wall.  And it moves like an anvil dropped from a speeding helicopter; but it’s less predictable.

Frost, Denoff, and Rutledge lust after the same pathetic objective, internet celebrity; quantum geocentric catholicism: Galileo’s Epistle to the Corinthians (And one member suffer any thing, all the members suffer with it…) or They get paid, We get paid because We’re all in this together.  Yahoos, heelots, and most billionaires are on the same incorrect and unheroic page in the universal playbook; Number One.

Spectacular speculative fiction created expressly for film.

19 Jul 12 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Leave a comment

John Carter

comes very very close to being insanely great, but then, I became a Burroughs freak at something like 12 years of age, 50 years ago.  It lasts.  Dipping into this film was inevitable for me, so I paid very little attention to who stepped up to make it.

Kitsch, Collins, Dafoe, Church, Hinds, West, Cranston, Schwimmer?, Favreau, and Malik.  I knew Tim Riggins had enormous chops, and Lynn Collins’ delivered a Quality of Mercy soliloquy as Portia that absolutely blew me away, and I have tremendous, amply-justified faith in Andrew Stanton — but I wasn’t expecting tons of celebrated talent submerged in tiny, even miniscule, roles.  The credits are littered with easter eggs, marking trails that lead in two dozen directions, trails I fully intend to follow.  Jewels from many crowns converged to make this one deceptively deep.

The Wire reminded us all to “follow the money”.  I’m glad I’ve learned, since Firefly, to follow the people.

Don’t get me wrong.  The plot of this film isn’t just bizarre, it’s Burroughs-bizarre.  That’s like Africa-hot.  Stuff happens because of speeches I failed to understand, action abounds for reasons that remain unclear, and I’ll have WAY too much time (to pore over subtitles and commentary, reread the novels, and pick over the bones of this remarkable film) while waiting for the next one in the series.  (It is fervently hoped!)

Cheese?  You bet!  Must have more!

27JUL2012 — Third pass.  I bought a 720p copy from iTunes because the full-boat refused to download to my Windows machine, and it’s $5 cheaper.  So here’s why I’m glad I made the purchase:

Beans.  The first item is beans!”  It’s an oversized, emphatic delivery that didn’t make much sense on the first couple of passes, but what if the journey to Mars is a beanstalk and Captain Jack Carter is Jack!  That would be an interesting transnarrative bridge into the realm of allusion that just sets my imagination tingling.  Hey!  Maybe there’s more going on in this story than a shitload of humor, action, plot twists, character development, scenic splendor, poetry, mythos, worldbuilding and buttkicking special effects.  Maybe there’s also a bottomless well of story-wonder into which one can endlessly dip.

Also, it’s clear that Carter’s fruitless search for the fabulous Spider Mine of Gold isn’t just common knowedge in them thar parts, it’s a source of infinite mirth for the local dickheads…but The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Deadwood led me to believe that a down-on-his-luck prospector’s very last idiotic choice would be to flap his jaws with regard to the location and value of his objective of quixotic quest, so how do the dickheads know so much?  Chatty therns?! or perhaps this first first film is an emergent kind of hybrid longform-blockbuster that invites the viewer to view it repeatedly, raising more questions than one film can answer  —  so it really ought not to be approached as though it were bristling with self-contained answers and explanations, but far more like an immensely-enjoyable pilot episode than a season’s-worth of deconstructible puzzle-fragments in a single box.  And Carter ends the grocery transaction by tossing a tinyl brick of refined gold (with an engraved spiderlike emblem) onto the shopkeeper’s counter; not ore or a nugget — but there’s really no time for anybody to think, “What the Fuck!” because the humor, action, plot twists, character devolopment, exposition, and all that other stuff I mentioned a moment ago) just keeps right on happening at a wonderfully-satisfying pace.  So therns are powerful, manipulative parasites, but are they lawyers, priests or derivatives traders?

“Populations rise, societies divide, wars spread, and all the while a neglected planet slowly fades.”   Why doesn’t that sound like “big, dumb fun”?  Dejah Q.

Colonel Powell of the 7th Cavalry in 1867 isn’t Captain Powell of the CSA, and he clearly isn’t Carter’s friend&fellow prospector, but I don’t mind.  The liberties this film takes with the details of the novel(s) aren’t cheap, exploitative nor careless.  I’m confident they matter.  Paraphrasing Powell, who’s attempting to recruit Carter into the 7th, “Folks are being attacked in their homes by Apaches!”.  It’s an interesting irony that Sherman invented Total War (waged against entire, noncombatant populations [and Virginia Carter’s family]) on his way through Georgia before Custer brought that terrorist stratagem agains the red people of Earth.  Carter, the war-weary cavalry officer responds by saying (in paraphrase), “Fuck you all.”  On the other hand, new departures from the literary identity of Carter simply enrich and deepen the novel’s central character, who says:

“I do not believe that I am made of the stuff which constitutes heroes, because, in all of the hundreds of instances that my voluntary acts have placed me face to face with death, I cannot recall a single one where any alternative step to that I took occured to me until many hours later.  My mind is evidently so constitued that I am subconsciously forced into the path of duty without the recourse to tiresome mental processes.  However that may be, I have never regretted that cowardice is not optional with me.”

The darker, torn, more-contemplative, even Hamlet-like Carter who appears in the film has fought his way (and lost his family) to a wonderfully-bitter, adult realization of grudgingly-obstinate pacifism, in spite of his reflexive impulses to answer heroically the immediate call of duty.  He’s more interesting and four-dimensional than Burroughs’ original character, and far more likely to say something cynical, like, “Stupid are the brave”, before bounding off reflexively to do the right thing without regard to tiresome mental processes.  Same guy, better darknesses, deeper pain.  And just when you expect the reversals to end in a cavalcade of trumpet fanfares, ticker tape and fluff; they don’t.  Stuff dovetails, gathers and ramps the resonance UP!

There are also historical allusions to The Battle of Five Forks and Carter’s nearly turning the tide of battle that resulted in the award of The Southern Cross for conspicuous gallantry…and stuff like that.  And Jack kills a nine foot Thark with a single blow.  And althugh Carter’s inert physical body is revealed to be back in a cave on Earth, the Ninth Ray medallion telegraphed a copy of him? to Barsoom in form of an emale.  Obviously, I don’t object to (my own) ridiculously-tortured interpretations, so long as they result in MORE of this exceptionally-delicious cheese.  And don’t forget, there’s dip.

Subtitles help with grasping exposition in the relatively-rare instances when knowing exactly why what-the-hell’s-happening actually matters, unlike one hell of a lot of movies (in which sound effects and score are ruinously-louder than dialogue).  Here, most of the humor and pith is VISUAL!

I no longer like this film (which, much like Casablanca, isn’t getting any older/staler with each successive pass, just richer and more flavorful, and more intriguing).  I love it!

13 Jul 12 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Leave a comment

The Grey

It’s a well-told tale of an enormous blank, white sheet on which several very-dark souls try to say their piece.

The cosmoloogy of this film is explained by the narrator at the very beginning as he writes and reads a letter he’s writing to a loved one who’ll never receive it.  It’s a tale of a handful of evil (lone wolf) men exiled to the frozen north; a tale told by their defective protector, who’s only sure of one thing, that he belongs in the company of discards, omegas and rejects.  His narration is like a suicide note, written in blood, on a rest-stop bathroom mirror by a soulsick guy in transit, who truly belongs exactly nowhere.

And the airplane that’s meant to transport John Ottway (and his similarly-impaired companions) “home”, crashes in the middle of an enormous page of absolute tabula rasa, where the crash, the storm, the cold and the pack of pretty-darned-plausible CGI wolves reduce the size of his company until the film concludes in the final confrontation of Ottway and the alpha wolf in a gentlemanly contest of champions — to which Ottway brings a fistfull of tiny broken bottles, electrical tape, and a woefully-inadequate hunting knife.

This is a story that’s mostly-told.  It’s told very well, within the confines of the mythology it fabricates, leaving Ottway plenty of time to repeatedly consult the suicide letter that reminds the viewer of the warm&loving side of the mirror from which Ottway’s personal choices (and pathological predispositions) divorce him.

But it’s a told tale (and possibly also a tall tale) that felt the usual Hollywood-conventional need of multiple camera angles, inserted music, and a wealth of spoken words to tie the viewer into the precariously-suspended lives and deaths of several men whose almost-constant companions are a pack of enormous wolves who make Ottway & Co. seem profoundly-insignificant snacks in their BigBad (hu)manly badass bravado, by comparison.

I think it would have been a more effective film if it were shot through the eyes of the hometown team, from the points of view of the natural (CGI) predators.  STILL, it is, nonetheless, an effective, engaging, suspenseful adventure that I’m glad Sam turned me on to.

As a NetFlix rental disc, all the special features are completely unavailable, because it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there and a movie executive’s got to make a buck somehow (ScottFree and Inferno); disappointing.  When the wolves aren’t at the door, I might actually buy myself a copy of this one.  Easily 80% of the film incorporates effective elements that worked very well in Jaws, The Flight of the Phoenix, ConAir…it’s only in the very last reel that the relentless, ubiquitous menace of The Pack abates for several minutes while the unrepentant “lone wolf” humans focus the viewer’s attention on more important things than their sociopathic survival; like family, relationships, theology and various bits of wholly-unrelated bullshit.

This film reminds me of Joss Whedon’s assessment of Air Force One because I spent 117 minutes watching a character study in which there is no recognizable change in any of the characters.

What do I have to do today to make it a good day to die?  It was an excellent question when it was posed in Little Big Man 42 years ago.  Still is.

 

Second pass, 09JUL2012:  In 1908, Jack London published To Build A Fire, a short story that built Yukon cold, and newbie hubris into a classic tale of human stupidity witnessed by a dog.  There was no pressing need for wolves.  The Grey probably needed them.

The film doesn’t quite work as a realistic portrait of seven survivors of an Alaskan plane crash because significant details get in the way of a literal reading; Ottway is attacked early, but arterial blood spurting in heart-pulses from his right lower thigh requires only a wrapping bandage to permit instantaneous healing that lets him take the lead in a desperate march from the wreck through the snow to the relative safety of the trees the very next morning.  Later, there will be desperate floundering in a river from which Ottway emerges in dry clothes.  A desperate 30foot leap off a cliff into a treetop with the aid of a tether made of knotted rags, rope and clothes while The Pack waits at the base of the tree for Talget, and not at the edge of the cliff.  Diaz spits blood, as though he might have been more seriously damaged, during his attack, than he let on.  Maybe that’s meant to make his decision to resign from the trek and life more plausible.  I don’t think it did.  Burke just quits breathing.  Henrick drowns.  Hernandez and Flannery pissed them off and straggled.  Wolves just raised the stakes, most of the guys died of their own ignorance.  As would I; not to throw stones.

It doesn’t really work as a fable, either.  The alpha’s eyes are lime-colored.  The charcoal gray of his coat makes an awkward comparison with the deep steely blue of Ottway’s eyes — unless the title of the film pertains to the uncertainty of the survors’ survival; the life&death struggle in a gray area involving Ottway’s belated exhortation for God to prove His existence by intervening in behalf of a suicidal widower whose father once proclaimed the virtue of NOT going gentle into that good night.  No.  That also stinks.  There’s zero uncertainty in my mind concerning Ottway’s survival of the final confrontation with the alpha.  Seven pairs of  outraged, shining eyes glared back at the five remaining crash survivors on the second night.  That Ottway stole all the way home is an ironic tribute to Hollywood bullshit.  That it was the wrong home is actually pretty damned interesting.

 

07 Jul 12 Posted by | Uncategorized | | 9 Comments

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

I had low expectations, based on previous disappointments in this franchise.

This one turned out to be a good deal more than a reasonably-plausible, remarkably coherent, intelligent origin story.

It’s also wondefully satisfying as a dovetailing, standalone emotional rollercoaster that peaks in an ecstatic declaration of independence;

the single word, “NO!“, spoken by a chimp (played passionately and believably by the incredible Andy Serkis).

 

On the second pass, this film’s cleverer turns (quotes, overt and implicit references) do stand up to closer scrutiny.  There are also goofy elements that absolutely don’t stand up.

When the viewer has already experienced the emotional tempest that makes this film go, the second viewing reveals unfortunate (wishful thinking) peculiarities:

  1. Star research scientists don’t get to fixate for 5-6 years on failed projects.  They get terminated.
  2. All apes don’t brachiate.
  3. References to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and to astronauts lost on a failed Icarus mission to Mars may set up still more sequels, but they ring pretty false and pointless in the close confines of this one.

There’s another level of peculiarity on which this film operates.  The human lead, played by James Franco, isn’t the protagonist.  About 24 minutes into the film, he’s shown to be a turncoat whose inability to experience the narrative from the real hero’s perspective makes him completely unreliable.  In fact, all of the humans in this piece exhibit disturbing flaws, ineptitudes and vices based in self-serving attitudes, myopias and blindnesses; greed, carelessness, cruelty, stupidity, drunkenness, lust, rage, sloth, general dickishness and complacency.  Non-human primates are presented as shockingly cooperative, self-sacrificing for the greater good and dedicated to the proposition that all of us are created equal, except for the really, really stupid ones;  humans.  That’s an intriguing proposition made more fascinating by virtue of the fact that much pivotal information is delived in this movie verbally by people whose interest in elocution is obviously negligible.

On your second pass, try turning on the necessary evil of subtitles.  They’re no ALZ113, but they help shortcircuit wishful thinking.

 

28 Jun 12 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Leave a comment

Infinity starred its first-time director, whose mother wrote the screenplay.  The film is composed of a number of engaging anecdotes concerning the early life and first marriage of Richard Feynman, the celebrated physicist, teacher and mensch.  It’s an intelligent, sensitive and heavily-edited film that feels like a string of elaborate in-jokes that meander around immensely-important subjects concerning life, learning and (nuclear) death — but it doesn’t provide a valuable sense of the quirky, hyper-intelligent, conflicted and paradoxical protagonist, Richard Feynman, a paragon of curiosity and a beacon of lifelong education with an aptitude for lethal humor.  Evidence suggests that one has to look elsewhere for that unique sensibility by doing a lot of additional homework before finding the personal satisfactions that seem to be locked in this film; satisfactions shared by the Brodericks.

This is my first encounter with a commentary delivered by mother and son; frequently-overlapping conversations with constant deference by only one of them to the other — it’s like watching Charlie Rose interview practically anybody; frustrating as a mother.

28 Mar 12 Posted by | Uncategorized | | 2 Comments

Anonymous versus Contagion

Anonymous is a significant setback to the Oxfordian cause of persuading anybody that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, wrote exactly everything we’ve been stupidly misled to attribute to William Shakespeare.  It does this simply by being an amazingly confusing movie in which adjacent cinematic events take place at both ends of a 40year period early and late in the reign of Elizabeth I, involving young and old actors (who are meant to resemble one another), their significant others, and enemies in an ingeniously-woven conspiracy narrative that lost my attention a few minutes before the expository disclosures that make 90 minutes of interminable and bewildering tedium entirely worth my while — well, almost worth my while.  What if William Cecil had told Edward de Vere (rather than Robert Cecil) what he’d had in mind all along?  How does an anonymous playwright coax properly-nuanced line readings from his untalented front’s tin-eared, illiterate actors?

While I was still interested in the convoluted story line, it occured to me that the Oxfordian premise smells like it’s driven by an elitist agenda; that a lowly, uneducated, plebian actor shouldn’t have written the most important body of work in the Engllsh language.  That stuff must have been written by a brilliant, forgotten aristocrat.  And that’s the arrogant notion that yanked me out of a movie that’s primarily dedicated to an incredibly trivial pursuit; ornery academics putting an uppity Shakespeare back in his proper place, academic obscurity.

Wikipedia, I’ve since learned, lists a few dozen discrepencies that make the license Anonymous takes with fact smell significantly worse than I thought it smelled while I was watching the movie.

On the other hand, Contagion is the terrifying story of havoc wrought on the global population by a new, profoundly-lethal viral disease.  Every bit as potentially-confusing as Anonymous, this film whips the viewer’s attention (and an excellent ensemble cast) from Minneapolis to China, Atlanta, London, San Francisco…freely, wantonly and ruthlessly tracking initially-boggling threads of several disturbing tales that may/may-not justify the investment of engaged interest in a remarkably-bumpy ride on a hyperlinked magic carpet.  I think it works well enough to justify repeated flights to re-explore a dozen suspenseful threads, not the least-memorable of which involves Elliott Gould’s delivery of a fairly brilliant line, “Blogging isn’t writing.  It’s graffiti with punctuation.”  And “Great stories are rarely true.”

Both films would benefit greatly from a commentary track (or 6) providing the kind of insider-insight that permits the audience to evaluate and discriminate the efficacy of filmmaker intent versus execution.  Neither of the NetFlix rental discs I’ve got include “special features”, which raises an interesting irony regarding MRC-style (Media Rights Capital) restrictions and the unavoidable disclaimer that precedes the delivery of content in this medium;

“Whatever the idiots who made this junk may say in their stupid interviews and their masturbatory commentaries, you can’t hold responsible us faceless corporations that own this valuable intellectual property.  Because we say so!” 

Yet in order to gain access to that worthlessly-creative  infra-junk, I’ll have to pay the IP’s owners for my very own personal copy (of the BLUE-RAY disc and the appropriate unnecessary and obsoleting hardware they seem also to be hawking) in order to listen to the idiots’ valueless blithering.  I believe that kind of penurious, mercenary, unscrupulous thinking is at least the square of irony, and ought to have a special name (that’s briefer and more precisely specific than FUCK. YOU!) highlighting irresponsible, money-grubbing, misanthropic, misattributing corporate anonymity.

After the second pass through Contagion:

  • Deadwood was about second-chance strangers coming together to initiate the natural coalescence/formation of a rudimentary and rapidly-evolving community/culture, out west.
  • John Adams was about imperfect people breaking away, en masse and cohesively, from England to try forming a more-perfect union back east, where second-chance strangers are made.
  • Dancing with Wolves was about an alienated individual finding belonging in a doomed community, in spite of his practical comfort with the habitual isolation he found indistinguishable from solitude.
  • Contagion is about the natural process governing the Articles of Disintegration into chaos with the aid of a panic-accelerant called virtual social media and a viral catalyst that requires physical contact.

Just a bit of tasty junk I plan to think about; related, cyclic, self-destructive, and prone to endless repetition.

From the middle of the second pass through Anonymous:

Although this movie’s less confusing the second time around, it has a pair of dual, opposed resonant kinks.  The one I’d like to applaud involves the belief that entertainments can teach, inspire, foment all manner of cohesion and action in an audience.  The other one still stinks of flattering aristocratic unreason.

11 Mar 12 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

Cheyenne Autumn

In 1964, Warner Brothers released John Ford’s last epic western, which cost four million dollars to make.  It was a crappy movie that didn’t break even.  It ran two and a half hours in the final theatrical cut, and improved when a comedic island of nonsense was removed from the middle.  ARCH is a little too understated a description of performances that drive socially-relevant points home with heavy expository hammers as ethnic caricatures trudge stoically through Ford’s emblematic mid-space of human history and his stars articulate plotpoints in the foreground, and geologic time looks on these mortal eccentricities from far beyond our focus and nearly every frame.

A movie about the 1500 mile return journey in 1878 of fewer than 300 Northern Cheyenne Indians to their ancestral homeland in Montana from their year-long internment in Oklahoma starred Sal Mineo, Dolores Del Rio, Victory Jory, Ricardo Montalban and Gilbert Roland, as the primary Indian representatives.  Monument Valley, on the border of Utah and Arizona, stands in for Oklahoma.  Richard Widmark and Caroll Baker head a cast of compassionate, ineffectual white people whose indecisive ambivalences result in the gradual near-extermination (by cavalry, inclement weather and illness) of a whole lot of pseudoCheyenne in the forms of Navahos, Mexicans, Italians and Whatnots.  No Cheyenne, and none of the Navaho extras speak.  They’re scenery, but what kinds of subversive, postmodern things might Ford-subsidized Navaho have to say if they were allowed to speak?

When Dull Knife and Little Wolf speak to one another in their native tongue, Montalban’s and Roland’s words aren’t subtitled in English, because the filmmaker didn’t give a screaming shit what those characters actually thought.  And sometimes the speak English to one another, for reasons that don’t make much sense unless those central characters are simply shallow plot devices that nudge the story along, kinda like scenery.

Cheyenne Autumn is a very odd kind of apology for Ford to have made approaching the end of a long career laden with extremely-familiar, creaking stereotypes forged in 4.5 dozen successful, self-serving American films about cavalry, cowboys and Indians.  It’s a movie about the destruction of people beneath the wheel of an oblivious political machine controlled by people so remote that the stifled anguish in our foreground is inaudible to anyone who isn’t present, yet the pseudoCheyenne representatives remaing largely impenetrable masks of stoic resignation, even to the attentive audience that paid to see this story unfold.  It might as well be a tale of Irish Nazis following crazy-lethal orders as a revisionist western set in OklaUtah.

John Ford made history.  John Ford also made history stupid.

Our modern tendency to repeat mistakes previously made whenever The People square off against The Wealth would be more predictable and less disaster-prone without the screen of self-congratulating obfuscation John Ford dropped between us and the American Indian.

The inevitability of Manifest Destiny and the inevitable offshoring of American jobs are not separate processes.  People unite to protect Life and Liberty, but the protection of Property requires a draft that’s organized by people with jeopardized property.

13 Jan 12 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Leave a comment

Margin Call

This is the film that pardons real vampires.  Skip it.

09 Jan 12 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Leave a comment

Spartacus: Gods of the Arena

The second season of this series is a prequel for the first season.  It’s another masterpiece of complex character embroidery that serves to provide contextual backstory.  Every central character relates to every other along multistranded threads of interaction that are riddled with bizarre combinations of loyalty, devotion, conspiracy and betrayal.  I’d like very much to cruise this series again; marathoning the second season again before plunging directly into the first.  This show is brilliant!  but I have a couple of problems with it:

Just as the relationships between principle (and secondary and tertiary…) characters are multilayered and complex, so too the relationship between spoken language and visual information is fascinating:

  1. Every physical conflict is photographed from multiple-angles, and edited into a bewildering hodgepodge of milisecond glimpses that are (apparently) intended to goose-up the viewer’s excited appreciation of innovative, amplified and hyper-real ACTION, which, after all, is the primary draw/appeal of this show — just as Fred&Ginger dance routines were signature tentposts that masterfully integrated and magnetized audience attention to the narratives in their films.  I find the postproduction manipulation of action scenes in this Spartacus deal profoundly intrusive and a counterproductive, destructive distraction from the seamless integration of months of conditioning, hours of rehearsal, and admirable dedication of skilled performers to realize each choreographed illusion of hyper-violence.  From the beginning, Fred said, If the camera moves, I won’t!  I like his decision that effectively countered the then-revolutionary Busby Berkeley approach to camera operation by insisting on long takes shot from a stationary position, no dramatic/spectacular overheads, and realistic transitions in profoundly-integrated narrative context that drives theatrical audience attention purely in the service of story.  Leni, Busby, Dektor and MTV have kinda-sorta taken a crap on all that.
  2. The exception to Point 1 appears in the final episode of Season 2, when in Bitter Ends, the characteristic editing style leans toward significantly longer snippets of action that permit the viewer a much better idea of what the fuck’s going on, who’s doing what to whom for what foreshadowed reason, and reaction-shots from outside the ring of violence are regarded (at long last) as far less important to storytelling cohesion than the coherent images of photographed violence.  Why?
  3. Subtitles distract, but I find them a necessary evil.  Actors with a wide variety of British accents swiftly delivering elevated dialogue (that often lacks personal pronouns, drops objects and subjects from sentences and dwells in a realm of peculiar syntax) make the use of subtitles indispensibly mandatory, for me.  I think big American money must insists that aristocratic Nazis and Romans be played with classy British accents, social dregs are Cockney, heroes kinda Nebraska-ish…always.  Check it out.  Diona sounds like Oakland, Lecretia’s meso-sophisticated Sydney, Gaia’s upperclass Swinging London from the 60s — to my ear.  I think it’s a subtle Hollywood manipulation that’s been operating so effectively for decades that we barely notice it.
  4. The larger vision of the Roman Republic revealed in this series presents the viewer with an elaborated awareness of the lower strata of a vast social pyramid (slaves, gladiators, lanistas, minor officials, and gangsters) and glimpses of absolute assholes who dwell in slightly higher castes in the social order, without ever showing us the major assholes (for contrast) in the seats of power in the city of Rome, itself.  We constantly sense their pervasive influence, but are not permitted a bird’s-eye view of the structure of the Republic, except through the myopic, rhetorical fantasies, convoluted conspiracies, and vague aspirations of their (contemptible) tools, the very characters we come to know and/or hate as the episodes unfold.  And the percieved differences between heroic and villainous characters (and their actions) are so microscopically minute that they’re practically immeasurable.  Forget your moral compass?  No sweat, you probably won’t need it.
  5. Perhaps the most uncomplicated relationship in all of this wonderful mess is that between Lucretia and her husband; an almost-unflagging devotion that makes them totally cool with rape, murder, dismemberment and all manner of mayhem visited on anybody other than the two of them.  But how/why that singular bond became remarkably exceptional isn’t remotely clear.

In spite of these objections to presentation and big-picture context, I continue to find this show entertaining and instructive as all-get-out.

25 Sep 11 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Leave a comment

THOR

Well, that was just ENORMOUSLY enjoyable!

21 Sep 11 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Leave a comment

OneHour Photo

Mark Romanek holds Harry Truman accountable for photofinishing Japan, as though World War Two were a race/war.  It’s an uncommonly visual film that opens as disconcertingly as did All The President’s Men.

The heavenly order of SlaveMart is maintained by specialized angels in cerulean vests, whose mission is to serve our better natures, while being judgmentally-scrutinized from above by Bill, the multiple-monitored, big-pictured SlaveMart manager, whose inescapeable omniscience is almost entirely powerless before the unexpectable threat posed by Sigh Perish to Bill’s only begotten daughter, on whom Sigh zooms in.  Psych!  Feint!  Gambit!

By invoking Evangelion (the 60foot-tall, darkly-winged Angel/agent of Retribution against bad guys); and by transforming Robin Williams’ look to resemble Truman, at whiles; and by framing the Yorkin family as a pillar of apparent nuclear-familial piety riddled with broken promises on the eve of their semi-private, emotional implosion; and by depositing bad Will (Hunting) Yorkin in the hotel room of Maya Burson; and by carefully or serendipitously orchestrating dozens of similar, powerfully-disturbing snapshots, Romanek makes OneHour Photo a deeply compassionate exercise in modernAmerican (and global and universal) regret.  He even provides Truman, by means of Sigh’s expository allusion to a deeply-nightmarish backstory, an excuse for the unforgivable decision to execute an unthinkable plan to destroy the nuclear family as only he can (and Truman did).

Most of the action in this exceptionally-interesting film takes place after the final act, as people who’ve been exposed to it think and talk (some may even radiate) about it; Shanley-style Doubt.

17 Sep 11 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Leave a comment

The Dawn Patrol (1938)

This is a propaganda film that manages in 103 minutes to convey tremendous amounts of fast-paced, coherent, stirring information about comradeship, the joys of insubordination, the lethally-lonely duplicity of command, vengence, despair and sacrifice.  Those are themes one would cynically expect of a 1938 American film designed to support Allied spiritual preparation for the Second World War by celebrating the exploits of gallant, flying heroes of The War To End All Wars…but somehow this film also manages to weave a powerful, cogent, fundamental, explicit and universally-appropriate antiwar statement from all of the cliches its primary themes employ.  Go figure.  No, really.  Don’t miss this one.

Errol Flynn, Basil Rathbone, David Niven, Donald Crisp, Melville Cooper and Barry Fitzgerald lead an ensemble cast of players in this remake (of a 1930 adaptation of a Saunders short story, The Flight Commander) that successfully spins its themes with remarkable efficiency in the first several acts, and culminates in utterly wordless action in an illustrative masterpiece of unequivocal, purely-visual “narrative” exposition.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Dawn_Patrol_(1938_film)

31 Aug 11 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Leave a comment

Friday Night Lights — End

It isn’t every television series that’s afforded the opportunity to ripen, mature and end gracefully in an honorable act of thematic and theatrical sepuku.  Most aren’t produced, and many are abortively cancelled.  Friday Night Lights managed its termination nicely.  It’s interesting that both commentaries on the final DVD disk for the fifth and final season are delivered by producers who happen to be relentless stammerers; “uh.  uh.  y’know…the uh, uh reason for this — y’know thing is almost self-evident.  It’s that y’know uh uh uh…” and listening to them yammer is unbelievably annoying.  On the other hand, several interesting points about the show were made, generally anecdotally.

Lead actor Kyle Chandler’s part (as Coach Taylor) in a given scene (according to the commentator) was beautifully written to provide the actor with wonderfully poetic and philosophical talking points that were intended to be delivered verbatim at an extended crucial moment.  And the actor spoke privately with the writer/producer asking for permission to slough the words in order to ddliver the information nonverbally.  They tried the actor’s approach, and printed it because the nonverbal approach was significantly better than the scripted, wordy alternative version.

The point I’d like to make here is that the television medium is loaded with powerful, influential verbal-communicators.  It’s the platform that celebrates writers (whose scripts are customarily regarded as inviolable) because showrunners, producers and writers are the creative power in television — unlike cinema, in which money and directors generally rule supreme, and writers are valued like toilet paper.

I have a number of qualms and misgivings about the 3cameras-constantly-shooting scheme of Friday Night Lights.  This “performance-based” storytelling design requires camera operators to work handheld, and insists that operators “find the action” in the scene.  Despite my skepticism, every season of this show has delivered moments of intense emotional tension and release that make it difficult to argue against an innovative design that has worked admirably.  Nonetheless, I’ve never enjoyed looking at the unfocused backs of actors’ heads, the jiggle, the interminable seconds that pass as the camera moves past posts, lampshades and irrelevant objects before “finding” the face of the person who’s been speaking all along.  After four years, I ought to have known that this show was never really about football, and the ways they photograph/edit games illustrates constantly how little the sport matters in this context. 

Perhaps someday somebody else will noticed that every important problem in every season invariably revolved around the choices and eccentricities of female characters in a layered, overlapping subtly-misogynist show ostensibly devoted to the primarily-male enterprise of Texas high school football.

I think television writers have a tendency to hammer home their points in words, rather than trusting actors and directors to stress necessary connections for their not-particularly-perceptive audience.  It’s a point that’s made in the commentaries for season one of Treme, that standard network approach to televised storytelling is significantly more didactic and on-the-nose than the ways Simon says it, and the cast of Treme appreciates the respect both they and the audience are accorded.

One last point gleaned while watching Robin Hood; the prince of thieves last night.  It’s that the physical action and stunts are recognizably, ridiculously improbable/impossible…and despite the obvious intention to make Kevin Costner appear to be wonderfully deft, they can’t give him a fraction of the charismatic virulence of Errol Flynn, who generally lacked the gravitas of Russel Crowe.  The most  (perhaps only) delicious line in the Costner version was that nobility isn’t a birthright, it’s what you do with what you’re given. And television’s artistic nobility depends on a small minority of gifted writers who trust their audiences and the actors who play to them more than they trust blather, network executive notes and the forces that counsel scaled-back ambition. 

Actors are louder than verbs.  Arrested Development‘s narrator is measurably louder than its dialogue.  Maybe that’s a meaningful observation, Maeby not — but the place where experienced and admirable practitioners of the various and sundry skills necessary to successful crossmedia production of radio, cinema, gaming, comics, literature and televison entertainment talk to one another is damned hard to find.  If it ever does appear, I’ll happily shut up and listen as they debate the theoretical and practical parameters of telling/showing stories across platforms.  I suspect those platforms aren’t as fluidly interoperable as transmedia evangelists theorize.  And that the obvious proprietary barriers that prevent Wonder Woman from joining the Avengers (transnarrative collaboration) also throw phantom blocks at transmedia narrative — as though corporations that own IP simply can’t own cultural archetypes, and that actors who move from role to role are the realest adversaries of transnational media conglomerates.

I think Star Wars is an excellent model of oldschool transmedia (merchandising) narrative, perhaps Arab Spring is a better model of the new one in which an unexpected audience rises to participate in the production as though the membranes separating news from fiction from means from will from commodities from people were old habits in need of change.  What if unsubstantiated rumors of revolution fomented hopes that resulted in a North African snowball?  What if the most powerful human force on Earth were inadvertantly unleashed by evolving technology’s crossing an unanticipated threshold of instantaneous global communication?  What if that force were the normally-adversarial/contradictory will of The People for whom cohesive, coherent action becomes possible through interactive communication?  What if FDR and Churchill broadcast better shows than Hitler — remember to consult Nielsen — no don’t.

A few nuggets of coincidence from Vince Gilligan; dated one day later than the junk I wrote above:

 http://nymag.com/daily/entertainment/2011/05/vince_gilligan_showrunner_tran.html

Were there particular things that Carter taught you?
Well, I became a better writer, and things that he taught all of us that I still carry with me are: Show your story, don’t tell it. Try not to depend too much on dialogue. Try to remember that it’s very much a visual medium and that sometimes more can be said with a look between characters than a whole spate of words. I also learned how to tell a story economically. If they’d shot the first draft of my first script for The X-Files, it would have cost 20 or 30 million dollars! So, all the tools that I have in my toolbox now, I got them on The X-Files.

What show do you wish you had created?
The Twilight Zone, and I wish Rod Serling hadn’t died so young. That’s a man I truly would love to have met. He was the first showrunner whose name the country at large actually knew.

How much do you care about what fans think?
I care greatly. We wouldn’t have a show if not for the viewers. But having said that, I don’t think that equates with a need on my part to constantly check in with what the fans are saying. I hear about it anecdotally at best. Because on the Internet, you get what are often, I think, unrealistic responses — you get the highs and the lows; the people who love something enough to type something into their computer about it, and you get the people that hate it, but you don’t get the great vast middle. So, it’s an interesting gauge, but not necessarily an accurate one.

Can fans ruin shows?
I don’t think fans are capable of ruining anything. I think only the showrunner and their writers and actors are capable of that. If a showrunner logs on to the Internet and a fan’s telling them to add a lovable robot to his or her ensemble, they’ve only got themselves to blame if they take that kind of advice.

…and in the same series of New York Magazine interviews with showrunners:

ONE THING I’D CHANGE ABOUT NETWORK TV

 Mike Schur:
Episodes would vary in length from week to week.

I’m not sad that there are commercials, but every episode of our show has to be exactly 21 minutes and 17 seconds long. It’s unlikely that the optimal length of every episode of our show is exactly 21 minutes and 17 seconds.

 Carter Bays:
No more notes from the networks.

Oh God, please don’t let me be the only one who says “No more notes.” If that’s the case … ha ha, just kidding, guys. I’m not Spartacus. I’m just some gladiator. Hail, Caesar!

 Vince Gilligan:
Take more risks and assume the audience will go along.

 Dan Harmon:
In a world where everyone can watch anything all the time, and where we spend all this money making lots of shitty pilots, why don’t we have special website events where all the pilots are aired and people vote for their favorites? Make this populist medium genuinely populist.

Shonda Rhimes:
The wonderful Mad Men, in its first four seasons, has made as many episodes as we made in seasons one and two of Grey’s Anatomy. After twelve episodes, I’m tired, the crew is tired, everyone is tired. The break of a few months that cable shows get would be amazing.

Jason Katims:
Thirteen-episode cycles twice a year would also allow the writers to write all their scripts before shooting starts. It would raise the level of storytelling, you’d have more time to prep, and that would make the show less expensive to produce. And you should be allowed to say “Jesus” and “goddamn.” How offensive is it? I guess it is. I guess I don’t understand it all.

Graham Yost:
More patience.

Don’t be so quick to cancel shows.

Kurt Sutter:
Stop making decisions based on research data, and hire development executives with degrees in art, literature, and theater instead of marketing, business, and law. If people followed those two rules, TV would be a fuckload better.

Here’s a little Roseanne Barr-based razor-edged (holy crap, this is almost exactly what I was asking for!) bonus:

http://nymag.com/arts/tv/upfronts/2011/roseanne-barr-2011-5/

15 May 11 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | 1 Comment

Transnarrative Media

I’ve just spent an hour or two with Herbie Hancock:  Possibilities.  I selected the film from a load of badly-suggested movies that NetFlix figured I’d love (based on my enjoyment of Ken Burns’ Jazz, Ninja Scroll and No Direction Home — a really odd extrapolation).  I did love it, in spite of my expectations.   (Have I even seen Ninja Scroll?  I sure don’t remember liking it.)

I loved the beginning because a famous jazz musician confessed to himself that he was tired of making recordings for the familiar expectations of people who buy them; that making the same creative decisions he’d made countless times before was getting profoundly dull.  I think it wasn’t Yoko who killed The Beatles (’twas expectations of their fans).

So Herbie Hancock set out to bridge a lot of gaps in the usual scheme of expectable collaborations by playing individually with Christina Aguilera, Sting, Paul Simon, Annie Lenox, Brian Eno, John Mayer, Wayne Shorter, Joss Stone…because nothing much (apart from inertia) prevented him from doing so.

I loved the middle because stuff I never knew about Herbie Hancock’s interaction with Miles Davis got talked about; that Miles paid his collaborators to practice on stage, exploring unknown aspects of their personal and collective musicianship to see what together might be made of moments when remarkably competent players exceed their competencies in an environment of suspended judgmental resourcefulness, focused on the primacy of radical innovation.

And I loved the end that brought me back to something I read through earlier today:

http://bhorowitz.com/2010/04/28/why-we-prefer-founding-ceos/

which leads me to see a single narrative throughline crisscrossing the qualitative/categorical gaps that separate technology startups from feature films from musical collaborations from blogs, fiction and autobiographies: 

Media are environmental gaps between A and B.  Whether hostile to or facilitative of communication (between A and B) is only a matter of degree, but the ability/inability to connect competent practitioners of one discipline with another can be determined only by building bridges, recognizing story-commonalities on both sides of the gap and overcoming inertia.

I really like the comments that reply to the AndreessenHorowitz post because they emphasise the difference between hired-gun-CEOs and people whose self-assigned mission is to realize possibilities.  And I find it amazing how similar are the post’s itemized characteristics of exemplary founders and admirable artists:

  • Comprehensive knowledge
  • Moral authority
  • Total commitment to the long-term

I also got off on the music.  Check it out.  Stories are people too.

Eleven months later:

I just realized that I forgot to specify any meaning to the term Transnarrative Media.  It’s threads of meaningful and valuable sense that run through stories owned by competing entities, and reveal themselves clearly to those of us who regard storytellers as brands, even if some of us are clearly delusional.

01 May 10 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Comments Off on Transnarrative Media

Life

The first season opens on the release of the central character, an LA detective whose been brutalized in a maximum-security prison for twelve years.  Define anticlimax.  The quirky Rumplestiltskin thing that Damian Lewis achieves for all eleven episodes of this initial season works to varying degrees because of the presence of Damian Lewis and a remarkably interesting cast of collaborators surrounding the character he portrays.   Robin Wiegert, Adam Arkin, Michael Cudlitz, Garrett Dillahunt, Christina Hendricks and Titus Welliver (Deadwood, Band of Brothers, Firefly, NYPD Blue, and Adam fucking Arkin!).

The episodic (standalone) felony investigations gradually include fragments of information about the ancient homicide case that kept him locked away in prison until his persistent defense attorney, a very attractive woman, eventually secured and brought forward excuplatory DNA evidence that resulted in

  • his release from prison,
  • his acceptance of an undisclosed and enviable cash award for wrongful imprisonment, and
  • the restoration of his job as a metropolitan detective. 

It didn’t guarantee that his senior partner, Sarah Shahi (as Det. Dani Reese), would be one of the most beautiful women presently working in television.  That’s just a riveting and marketable coincidence.  It’s also a deeply contrived assortment of circumstances that kept my teeth on edge.

And there are peculiar technical stupidities that crop up from time to time, like;  at one point in an early episode the prime suspect and lone survivor of a car wreck is seated in an interrogation room wearing a butterfly bandage over his right eye, except when it’s over his left eye, as though somebody flipped the negative in coverage and nobody respected the audience enough to think it really mattered.  Ultimately, it doesn’t.

The premise and synopsis of this show depend upon the semi-plausible idea that Charlie Crews, the central character, has undergone a radical transformation within the walls of his imprisonment that lead him now to caper with the rigid corners of duly-authorized police procedure in ways that reflect dry humor and perfect knowledge of the wily criminal mentality, making him a kind of supercop with a really-interesting mind. 

The thing is that relatively few members of the audience are expected to be sufficiently steeped in genuine police procedure to spontaneously recognize Charlie’s deviations from SOP, so one or more of his onscreen compatriots is obliged to raise an eyebrow or otherwise object to the zany antics of a knife-slinging, Bentley-driving, zen-platitude spouting oddball LA homicide detective who lives in an unfurnished stately mansion on several acres of orange groves with hot’n hotter California babes constantly on tap.  Return with us now the the thrilling days yesteryear, as The Lone Ranger, and Magnum, P.I. ride again.  Because who the hell remembers?

Getting to know, really-really like, and root for Charlie Cruz and Dani Ruiz in the course of nine standalone episodes is probably supposed to prepare the viewer for the wealth of juicy revelations about the case that originally imprisoned him, arc-tic revelations that gradually begin to intrude on the graceful pace of his weekly felony solutions.  It doesn’t quite work because the unfolding of this involuted, damaged character takes too long to unfurl with drizzled-in elements of old evidence from twelve years earlier, while the hidden personality of the central character very rarely appears beneath the various layers of pseudo-comic subterfuge:  “I’m a good cop, a master-criminal, a man on a mission to solve an old crime and I’m also quite enlightened, except with regard to technical advancements like cellphones with cameras and the mysteries of Instant Messaging — stuff that happened while I was in stir..”.  Welcome to dis-appointment television, and farewell.

Note to folks who produce DVDs:  Five egos in a tiny viewing room is not a good idea.

21 Apr 10 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Comments Off on Life

Spartacus: Blood and Sand

Barbaric satisfactions!

I’ve just reached the end of Episode 13, Kill Them All.  It isn’t called that coincidentally.  Episode 12 concludes with those fateful words, and the season of WAY over-the-top violence (with more than a little sex in it) and frequent paroxysms of difficult, sidelong, elevated speeches comes to an abrupt stop.  One pants in anticipation of the second season.

On the other hand, Andy Whitfield’s summation oration lights his face oddly from below.  The camera, which is also low, finds Berchtesgaden darknesses on Whitfield’s upper lip.  His rousing Bravheart oratory kinda stinks of Roman corpses that litter the central square of the villa and foul the bold and hopeful words with rivers of elite Roman blood.  St. Crispin’s Day, it ain’t.  Also, I don’t imagine Andy Whitfield was hired for his uncanny resemblance to Laurence Olivier’s acumen with the written word: 

“Dude doesn’t look totally ridiculous in a loincloth, so yeah.  Lex Barker, Jr.  Yeah, that’ll work.”

It worked fine!  Unfortunately, most of the BigBads that drove this season probably died.  Chief among these was the almost-credible John Hannah, as Batiatus (formerly Peter Ustinov as Bat Eye At Us), the ambitious, plotting, conscienceless weasle almost-absolutely-positively-certainly died.  Lucy Lawless as Lucretia definitely took Crixus’ blade in the foetus, but she was still twitching when credits rolled…so…?  And there absolutely was no shortage of deeply nasty people this season to get in the way of the run-up to the (to be continued) inevitable slave revolt, next season (and maybe a couple of seasons after that).  See, Spartacus (1960) wound up weaving his army up and down the length of the Italian peninsula as though they were lunch-hour customers at a preChristian Taco Bell.

However it gets where it’s surely going it’s going to be fascinating television. 

I came to the series solely because of Steve DeKnight, the creator, and nobody who spent years writing at Mutant Enemy takes bloodshedding lightly, so WAY over-the-top violence (the cardinal signature of this rendering of the story) won’t go gently into that good DeKnight.  Even utterly-righteous violence leads to dire consequences for heroes, or I’ve been misreading a lot of amazing writers for a long, long time.  (Entirely possible.)

And on yet another hand.  Henry Jenkins, today, called Twitter-attention to an interview here:

http://www.boingboing.net/2010/04/16/reducing-the-worlds.html

The discussion of his evolving perception of the myth of media violence is pretty cool.  I’d just like to add the notion that most media violence is packed with amplified bullshit, and that systemic violence tends to go largely unnoticed.  Systems that fail to meet the needs of the people (who subscribe to and support those systems) exhibit deeply embedded flaws in particularly interesting television shows like Breaking Bad, Deadwood (where we watch those infrastructural systems grow from nothing to institutions in the course of several months) and pretty much every show that David Simon’s ever touched.

It’s bound to be months before I tie into Treme, but the stuff I’ve read suggests that Hurricane Katrina wasn’t the problem that devastated New Orleans.  Criminal systemic failures did kill, displace, and brutalize people.  And the acts of violence visited on the inhabitants of that city will (if I’ve read the intent of the creative force behind the production correctly) show through even to the dimmest of us; acculturated to see criminal behavior as confined to certain strata of our society.  Guns and anonymous decisions made deep in the safety of corrupt institutionalized infrastructures don’t kill people, people do. Actually, bullshit kills people.

Systemic violence and technological innovations that reduce personal options are aspects of the same thing.  It’s not a popular subject, but needs considerable attention.   That’s why I wish Professor Jenkins had elaborated on his description of things that suck (the life out of people/culture) because many of them are directly attributable to systemic, bureaucratic, ideational quagmires; beta slop that needs field testing.  And there’s no better time to be a corrupt politican (or firmware developer) than the moment when the press provides less-credible criticism of our institutional systems than fictional drama.

Interesting that I’ve been watching television for 50 years and yet I’d never seen a castrated man crucified until Spartacus: Blood and Sand.  Sure, that’s an awful thing, but what’s even worse is the institutional repression that blunts the shock of violence people do to people.  In that context, media violence is far from mythic.  It amplifies the bonebreaking sound of a slayer’s punch (that never lands) and refuses to show the stump of a severed dick.  That’s downright bizarre.

“But what about the children?!” 

Just when a kid needs and deserves an honest clue in order to make informed choices about (you name it), some asshole farts that moronic question as a justification for bullshitting.  No wonder people who risk their lives to preserve our ways of life believe we can’t handle the truth.

I really liked John Hannah’s work in Rebus, and yet Ustinov played BatEyeAtUs more interestingly than Hannah’s BattyAtus.  The differences between these two recitations of the Spartacus story are numerous, but I think the essential differences are localized in Batiatus.  John plays him like a grasping, malicious, tolerated, minor Wall Street criminal.  Peter’s portrait (of Judas) bats-his-eyes-at and flatters Real Power.  Both portrayals present a man who goes-along-to-get-along.  John plays a tragic, rigid paranoid, Peter plays a flexible coward.

Given that historians and storytellers lie, each of us is obligated to play the role of Batiatus.  More decently.  What redeming quality resides in your Batiatus that punches through the web of lies and 41st Century agendas fashioned by future historians?  I wrote goofy sentences.  I’m obligated to do better.

17 Apr 10 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Comments Off on Spartacus: Blood and Sand

Lie to Me

I spent the past two evenings streaming the first season of this series via NetFlix, and valuing the experience.

The pilot episode introduces principle characters and simultaneously begs a little  for the suspension of audience skepticism as Tim Roth divines truth from the universe of facial expressions, mannerisms and body language of all things human, deducing implications and preventing ruinous consequences at superhuman speeds.

The first eleven episodes held my attention, although unexplained flaws in the superior inferential skills of the protagonist(s) tended toward redundancy in standalone episodes that linked together on the slender threads of recurrent behaviors exhibited by regular characters.  Episodes twelve and thirteen amply justified the tedium of slogging through familiar situations in episodes two through ten.  The promise of longform storytelling started paying off in Blinded and Sacrifice.  And my appetite for season two was expertly whetted by neatly set up callbacks to earlier episodes by the end of season one.

There is one bizarre inconsistency that centers on Agent Dupree. He’s a short, black FBI agent who swiftly becomes the boyfriend of Ms Tores, a regular high-secondary character.  Dupree makes recurrent appearances throughout the season, as another short, black FBI agent becomes a regular character.   I think the second guy wears mottonchops with moustache and goatee, but he’s practically indistinguishable from Dupree, who ends the season, hospitalized in a coma.

This show also tends to open segments with painfully blinding flashes of light that remind me of the interstitial transitions Angel (presumably) used to replicate  for the audience the experience of Cordelia’s agonizing visions.  It’s that class of unscrupulous manipulations that put me completely off LOST, initially: 

  • Auditory and visual f-bombs,
  • multiple-camera-angles that obfuscate,
  • didactic scores that signal viewer=puppet…

damned familiar devices need serious rethinking, just like the empty claims of aspiring to the “complete immersion” of the audience in the mise-en-scene.  That stuff is counterintuitive nonsense that degrades the bond of trust that must unite the storyteller with the audience in order to share the journey to the far end of the episode, season or run. 

Showrunners who depend on flash and boom to get a physiological start from an audience are like MBAs and CEOs who confuse short-term gains into honest profit.  It’s one of the surest earmarks of employees, surgery with cattleprod. 

A storyteller with a boss tends to become a meddle-manager of cattle.

08 Apr 10 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Comments Off on Lie to Me

Breaking Bad

A middle-aged, middle-class man is diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer.  The terrifyingly inconvenient prospect of his imminent death forces him to evaluate the utility of his resources in order to provide adequate wealth for the family that will survive him.  The over-qualified high school chemistry teacher knows that his health and life insurance aren’t up to the task of compensating for his inevitable loss as a bread winner, so he decides to break with his own personal tradition of law-abiding, civilized behavior by becomming a manufacturer of an illegal chemical, crystal meth.  The product he creates is uncommonly pure, distinctive and sought-after by the market, the market’s regulators, television critics and by fascinated audiences.  (I’m a member of that last group.)

The process of his evolution from loser to entrepreneur beautifully illustrates the story of capitalism, a contraband/unfashionable class of tale Grant McCracken laments here:

http://cultureby.com/2010/03/the-mystery-of-capitalism.html

The protagonist of Breaking Bad, Walter White, builds a superior mousetrap.  People want it.  The rapid introduction of Walter White into the complicated workings of fundamental capitalism make for fascinating television as he learns enough to survive the challenges of distribution, competition, personnel management, regulatory agencies…and loses his grip on his personal life while navigating through an increasingly complex tempest of lies, deceits and questionable/abominable ethical choices.  Not the least agonizing of these lessons is that Walter White’s wonderful product creates avid customers (partners, competition and colleagues) he can never ever trust.  That implication is the hallmark of insanely-intelligent storytelling; Vince Gilligan’s values demand a 300hour cruise, along with Milch, Whedon, Simon, Burns, Chase, Sorkin — oh, how I long to add Noxon to this archipelago of creative sphincters.

Maybe it’s possible to tell a fascinating story about an abstract economic idea like capitalism.  I don’t think stories work that way.  It seems to me that stories are always about people.  Even when the tale centers on an animal (The Call of the Wild, White Fang, The Black Stallion…), the lure of the yarn is the (human) intelligence that guides the actions of characters (and resonates with human audiences).  Does the world population of literate white whales explain the fact that Moby Dick still sells?

While Breaking Bad illustrates many fundamental principles of capitalism, the story is utterly rooted in the forces that move people to action.  Stories exist at the heart of social media because people create and recite them.  People pay attention to them.  And people are the active/attractive elements in stories of/by/for and about people.

I think of stories as the nuclear bond at the crux of social media that grow by being taken and spread regardless of compensation.

I think of money as the practical (not philosophical or theoretical) opposite of stories.  Money’s power (for good or ill) increases as it is accumulated/concentrated.

I think of stories about money as fascinatingly oxymoronic, and the current expectation that money should be exchanged when stories are told is just cosmically ironic.

The creation of stories is a necessary function of culture:   The cultural organism excretes an unlimited stream of narratives (through assholes we call writers and story-architects).  That certain segments of our population claim the right to exact payment for particular streams of cultural excrement seems, to me, shockingly presumptuous, especially when the protestors are armies of lawyers representing men at the tippy-top of a handful of pyramids  that comprise horizontally-and-vertically-integrated transnational media cartel(s); two entirely different sets of assholes, lawyers and moguls, from which socially-interesting excrement almost never spews.  I suspect that social media (story) and commerce (money) are practically antithetical, pulling in opposite directions (and sometimes spinning in parallel), and too-rarely do they collide as expected.  And Hollywood is obssessed with the art of bottled lightning.

The next day:

I’m picking up Season 3 via an iTunes “season pass”, and watched the newly-released third episode I.F.T. last night.  I’d probably have missed the significance of the title were it not for the accompanying Inside Breaking Bad download that highlights the meaningfulness of the episode’s title, which is probably an abbreviation of Skyler’s powerful, pivotal confessional statement, “I fucked Ted”.

I say probably, because  Anna Gunn’s actual pronouncement was probably censored to hush the naughty word in her sentence to a whisper.  So I’m not entirely certain whether Skyler mirrored Walter’s confession, “I make meth” with her own reference to a permanent and ongoing, parallel secret life that isn’t safely locked away in the past tense.

“I make meth” and “I fuck Ted” are significantly different statements from “I made meth” and “I fucked Ted” in context of the disastrous implosion of their marriage.  But the (probable) influence of lawyers and moguls leads me to surmise that my uncertainty over “fuck/fucked” will have to sort itself out in the course of the continuing story, so these three paragraphs amount to nothing more than a footnote of protest.

Eight days out (from I.F.T):

It mattered a lot whether Skyler confessed to a lone indiscretion or an ongoing romantic catastrophe for their marriage.  She confessed to iniquity to fix an inequity with Walter, whose resolve to go straight is perfectly illustrated (and perfectly thwarted) in the last few frames of the very next episode, Green Light.  One or the other of them might make an exception and forgive the other’s past and pardonable error in judgment, but all hope of change is negated as these married antagonists are drawn inexorablycloser together by the power of that which they each hold sacred, and against the dictates of common sense, self preservation and conscience while Jesse and Hank are doing exactly that very same thing.  (Hanks is The Bomb in Albuquerque and a tiny fish out of water in the bigger pond of El Paso.)

Whoever muted one naughty word in Skyler’s fateful confession will doubtless remain anonymous, and while that important decision does a disservice (that matters) to every member of the audience, it really doesn’t matter at all.  It just calls attention to the hypocritical stupidity that makes this show so powerful; systemic failures on showcased display, highlighting warts and all.

18 July 2012.  Last night I saw the first episode of season five, in which we learn that:

1.   Ted ain’t dead!

2.  Jesse’s contribution to planning the ultimate Heisenburglary is uncharacteristically brilliant, adopted, implemented, executed, and BEHOLD!  It leads to a whole new dimension of uncertainty represented by a fabled mountain of Fring wealth.

3.  Mike will graciously accept on-faith The Infallible Wisdom of Walter when pigs fly, Ted keeps his word, Skyler forgives Walter, and less is more.

4.  If Breaking Bad isn’t the best show on television (and it doesn’t have to be), it’s nonetheless, absolutely riveting,

Now that I’ve marathoned 7 seasons of Star Trek:  Voyager, and 6.5 of Star Trek: The Next Generation, I can say without equivocation that the advantages provided by appointment television (to audiences and culture) are relatively negligible.  They exacerbate the negative effects of uncertainty in cliffhangers, hiatuses, syndications, cancellations, pregnancies, firings, beard growth…while convening phase-locked watchers for the benefit of sponsors hawking crap in carts the industry puts in front of the engines-of-creation that actually draw attention.  Once upon a time, my goddaughter defended her beloved TNG when I told her that I loved the show, except for the irritating frequency of all the goddamned commercials.  Twenty years ago, we couldn’t have content without commercial interruption.  Since then, it has become more difficult to recognize the box canyon into which we’ve been hearded-up, headed in, rolled up, driven in…Rawhide!  Rawhide!  Rawhide!

Wipe that foam off your mouth!

05 Apr 10 Posted by | Uncategorized | | 6 Comments

Without Love

For some reason, NetFlix has automatically rejected my review of this 1945 Tracy/Hepburn film, so I’m dropping my impressions here:

This film is brilliantly overloaded with proven box office talent.  Barry plays and Stewart screenplays (customized for Hepburn) bring fascinating questions about open marriage and platonic love from dusty tomes of philosophy and biting literary references to life in the presence of organic modern music and deeply gifted actors.  But it doesn’t actually work quite as well as Holiday nor The Philadelphia Story, largely because of the numerous characters and complicated subplots that pull attention in various directions that (don’t really matter much and ) magically resolve in exactly the kind of family-friendly tenderness, optimistic passion and genuine warmth that was telegraphed before the start of principle photography.

Curiously, this film is overburdened with long moments of sparkling wit, extended periods of profoundly meaningful silence, sophisticated charm, deeply adult ideas about companionship, and frequent bursts of comedic brilliance.

It ought to have been the (re)launching platform for a half-dozen amazing post-war careers; and it was, but the film also stands as a testament to all failed attempts to bottle lightning.  Sometimes the best ingredients result in flat champagne or fireflies. 

This film is a remarkably interesting and engaging disappointment that begs for your careful analysis.

17 Mar 10 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Comments Off on Without Love

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit

This 1956 Fox film addresses uniformity in postwar, 1950s, middle class American family life strangely.  It touches on the suit.  It presents aspects of the inner workings of a couple of nuclear families.  It centers around the headquarters of a thriving television network (in TechniColor and CinemaScope).  It does these things without actually saying much of anything about them.  Conformity?

The cardinal device employed concerns three American women, the wife of the protagonist, the wife and daughter of the protagonist’s CEO.  Each of these women is glimpsed in surprisingly ugly profiles as bitter, intractable, demanding and fundamentally infantile…yet each is duly worshipped for reasons that aren’t remotely explained in the film.

James Monaco’s commentary track led me to think about other things that only tangentially relate to this odd little big-budget pointless film.  He mentioned that ABC was a latecomer to the 50s television industry.  Competing with NBC and CBS which were prosperous radio-broadcasting networks based in New York.  West Coast-based ABC’s problems with funding resulted in alliances with Disney and Warner Brothers Studios.  The liaison between the upstart television broadcaster and movie studios resulted in a philosophical production rivalry.  Live entertainment from New York’s wealth of theatrical and radio talent was vastly more expensive than recorded television produced in keeping with the Hollywood tradition of archival presentation/representation of entertainment designed to control access by the audience.

The more cost-effective model won, and the East Coast television broadcast industry moved west, modelling itself after ABC.  The decline of live television, conventional radio shows, even Broadway theatrical presentation owe their loss of audience-attention to the success of ABC and the resurgence of Hollywood studio power as the West Coast system converted its sucess in cinema archives to archival television broadcasting.

The natural evolution of complex, serial, longform narrative was likewise retarded by the preeminent emergence of the ABC model of television production because weekly, self-contained 30 or 60minute episodes were deemed more salable (to network affiliates [in syndicated, non-consecutive representation]than treating programs as wholes).  And the revolutionary countermeasures employed by Hollywood to overcome the threat of East Coast television (CinemaScope, stereophonic sound and TechniColor) were likewise deemed by the studios to be less cost effective than constraints imposed by utilization of the existing television medium (4:3 aspect ratio, monaural sound and grayscale).  Rather than continuing competition with the innovative opportunities potentiated by the television medium for the attention of audiences, studios simply muted the importance of color television, stereo sound and widescreen presentation until that stuff enhanced the value of products owned and controlled by studios.

And that’s why The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, a TechniColor CinemaScope film in stereo was created in 1956 to draw audiences into theaters yet hasn’t seen much broadcast time until the advent of DVDs when audiences can witness top-flight actors meandering through a pointless story.  It wasn’t about storytelling, but specifically designed to present viewers with an ultimatum that denigrated televison in favor of the more engaging medium of cinema.  The studios succeeded, not by revolutionizing film production, but by causing television to conform to the will of movie moguls who duly came to own the intellectual properties that fuel both cinema and television.  The engine of these changes in the 60 years of television’s ubiquitous popularity is cost-effective production coupled with addictive storytelling that collects eyeballs and glues butts to seats while starving culture of value and meaning. 

That mercenary agenda has very little interest in the cultural significance of useful, innovative, meaningful storytelling.  It’s about making money.  Avatar, The Hurt Locker, Heroes and LOST are prime examples of studio products that don’t rely on dynamic storytelling to garner audience attention to meaningful stories.  They’re the result of ABCs success in subverting two forms of media that might have taught us much more about our world than Edward R. Murrow feared would serve the interests of the captains of mainstream media.  Murrow was right.  We’ve been wronged.

Nothing I’ve said here is substantiated by research.  It’s purely speculative opinion.

13 Mar 10 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Comments Off on The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit

The Man in The White Suit

This 1951 Ealing comedy is a perfect film that’s perfectly executed.  It invents a perfect synthetic fabric and populates the narrative with characters whose imperfections polymerize into the antithesis of the putative aspirations of industry, labor and the common man; criminally empty platitudes about development and progress.

The creation of an incredibly strong fabric that repels dirt, never wears out and practically can’t be cut sounds like the ultimate invention of the textile industry, but results in ever-widening circles of absolute and perfect panic as the people in the film who represent capital, labor and customers come to see this product as the  terminating element in their practice of business-as-usual.  Squabbling, pomposity, the vapid adherance to ridiculous rules…the flaws in people, traditional practices and mercantile relationships of producers and customers are used as gags to punctuate and illustrate the inutility of perfection in a world governed by absolute fools.

While the creation of this perfect product consumes the first half of the film, the inability of the characters to recognize value in its creator foreshadows the eventual discovery as generous people of vision and penetrating foresight grace the entire presentation with conspicuousness of their absence.  A cinematic environment filled with subtle and blatant class-intimidation, stupidity and pathological self-interest perfectly contrast and clash with the altruistic character whose sole intent is to realize the dream product.  And the intricate processes by means of which that perfectly-motivated individual achieves the ideal he’s dreamed about are expressed (primarily in pantomime) in this perfect film in perfect gags and situations that procede at a pace that’s uncommonly rapid in the entire body of conventional (slow-developing) British films.

I always object to the industry use of multiple camera-angles in storytelling, which leads me to believe that this perfect story might have been told even more remarkably by giving Sidney Stratton (Alec Guinnes) a constant (small canine) companion to represent a coherent audience-point-of-view throughout the film.  And fluctuations in volume levels (usually involving softspoken women and an incredibly loud, pedantic score) are always disturbing.  BUT these inherent flaws in the continuing evolution of 20th Century filmmaking are practically ubiquitous, and don’t significantly detract from the profound enjoyment of a perfect film.

13 Mar 10 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Comments Off on The Man in The White Suit

Desk Set

Here’s a 1957 movie about the digital revolution.  It stars Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn as a couple of accomplished bachelors whose lives have been dedicated to seemingly-dissimilar pursuits.  She’s the primary research librarian for a television network located at 30 Rockefeller Center in New York, and he’s the creator of an early mainframe computer…that’s apparently intended to take over her job.  The story revolves around the implicit fear that office automation would inevitably displace millions of people from their places of employment, replaced by terribly efficent and cost-effective machines.

It’s interesting that a half-century has passed and so very little has changed.  Business continues to run on the variability, complexity and adaptability of people while longing for the simplicity, reliability and consistency of comparatively inexpensive mechanical intelligence.  Offshoring, outsourcing and various methodologies of devaluing the contribution of loyal people to commerce seems to be intrinsic to the pursuit of doing prudent business.  Unfortunately, the sterility injected into the souls of working people by this paired search for efficiency and extirpation of humanity from business has the lingering side effect of limiting the degree and quality of engagement with our jobs. 

Ultimately, the movie resolves in the belated revelation that the computer was always intended to extend the power and scope of the research librarians, it was never meant to replace them.  It’s still the inability of computer experts to explain the intent of their dreams and the traditional inhumanity of employers that justly fuel the (irrational) fears of people who work for a living.

It deserves mention that the DVD commentary for this film could not be much more irrelevant to the plot, themes and the almost-completely invisible competence of the actors.  I’m going to watch it again with the sound turned off just to see Tracy animate his character in pantomime: 

“Never let them catch you acting.”

Although he’s a bit of an ugly fuck, he’s kind of a joy to watch.

05 Mar 10 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Comments Off on Desk Set

Bombs

In the first 30 minutes of The Hurt Locker, stuff that’s never explained begins to happen.  A wheel falls off a wagon, an engaging, dynamic squad-leader dies and isn’t mourned before we meet his replacement (who reminded me of the closeted-loony played by Martin Sheen in Apocalypse, Now).  All of that’s okay for a film with a great, and justly deserved, reputation.  Oops.

Early confusion is par-for-the-course, for any earnest audience, so I prepared to knuckle-down and get into the rhythym of the action.  But Sgt. James, the new squad leader, begins his first day by blowing off the ‘bot, donning the blast-suit and strolling down to the unexamined lethal contraption by the mosque.  And apparently purposefully obscuring the view of his two heavily armed protectors by tossing a smoke grenade in his wake.  Why?

That’s the point at which my confidence in the filmmakers was severely shaken.  They never won it back with

  • multiple jiggling cameras,
  • familiar faces in tiny cameo roles, and, most importantly,
  • the absolute failure to show me just one coherent story. 

I loved the complex confusion that’s intrinsic in Generation Kill last week, and eventually found plenty of episodic, character-driven storytelling to like in Danger UXB, but Hurt Locker‘s attempt to “challenge the medium” by creating cinematic profiles of three individuals at war simply missed the boat on which documentary filmmakers learn to be adequate storytellers.

The film is more suspenseful early rather than late, and the longer it lasts the less the squad’s relationship to one another makes cohesive sense, and the kicker at the end of the film translates into a curse that resonates with some (unfamiliar) guy’s quote that “War Is a Drug”

Oh.  So Sergeant William James (like President Harrison Ford in Air Force One) is the tough and enigmatic hero who survives an incredible ordeal —  to emerge from the terrible crucible, pretty much, exactly as he went in.  Enigmatic heroes are a dodge.  Don’t ask.  Whether 1800 kilogram bombs are dropped deep into London from 10,000 feet or whipped together at Iraqi roadsides, there’s something profoundly cowardly about the randomness of the victimization and a complementary intrinsic nobility in the people who disarm them.  (Don’t EVEN ask about any similar intrinsic nobility of terrorists and Nazis.  Let them make their own little movies.)  

Apparently it’s possible to elevate “the most dangerous job on Earth” into a pointless movie about nothing in particular and garner awards and nominations and be flooded with offers to create more narrative vacuums.  I tend to suspect that the unexplained, counterintuitive smokescreen isn’t what’s wrong with The Hurt Locker, it’s symptomatic of a defective industry.

Even if the apolitical, fictionalized account of one embedded writer’s experience of EOD life in Iraq in 2004 is absolutely true-to-life, random story elements that don’t resolve kill interest in revisiting highly-reputed careers, theaters and maybe even  wars, just or otherwise.

27 Feb 10 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 | , , | 2 Comments

Ironic

I guess it’s just one of life’s little ironies that an actor bearing a phenomenal resemblance to Anthony Stewart Head makes his singular appearance in Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd about 38 minutes into the film.  Moments after Todd’s tonsorial contest with Pirelli concludes, the actor I’m talking about congratulates the victor with a couple of lines that indicate the inquisitive gentleman fully intends to become one of Todd’s regular customers.

This moment is oddly ironic simply because Anthony Stewart Head’s appearance is

  1. uncredited, and
  2. Head (unless I’m entirely mistaken) was probably the most accomplished professional singer who ever came near the set (exluding coaches and extras).

The one-and-only special feature on the DVD, I just cruised through, makes much of the good fortune and pluck surrounding Tim Burton’s, Helena Bonham Carter’s, Johnny Depp’s and Richard D. Zanuck’s very first musical, ever.  There’s even mention of Burton’s disinterest in the theatrical form of the muscial; Carter’s longstanding passion for the play; and Depp’s having come to Hollywood originally, not as an actor, but as a musician (who never sang)…and yet…movie-magic doesn’t translate this rendition of Sweeney Todd into a hands-down masterpiece of dark cinematic genius.  It’s a fine, engaging, very-visual and well-acted movie that’s 70% singing with reasonably good vocal performances by people who are famously marketed for doing other things.   They classed it up with Alan Rickman, yet gave him very little to do.

I’m probably making strident note of a subtle aftertaste of commerical arrogance that drips like running riulvets of blood from this remarkably entertaining film that might have been something                              ? more rewarding? inspiring? influential?…supm brilliant

It was really very good, just more like Alien Resurrection than Amelie; they were last night.  I gotta say that an esteemed auteur’s name on the cover says very little about end-product-value, nor is an auteur’s interaction with collaborators central to promotion.  Maybe it should be.  And what might a filmmaker learn from a film of audiences watching her film?

A summary Rickmanism:

“You can act truthfully or you can lie. You can reveal things about yourself or you can hide.

Therefore, the audience recognises something about themselves or they don’t —

You hope they don’t leave the theatre thinking ‘that was nice…now where’s the cab?'”

“[Head] was originally to have a role in Sweeney Todd, as a ballad soloist and one of Todd’s murder victims, but, due to the ailing of Johnny Depp’s daughter, the schedule became tight and Head’s character, as well as the characters of 13 other actors, were dropped from the film. Instead, Head made a short cameo appearance as a character who asks whether Sweeney Todd has an establishment of his own. — Wikipedia

That’s my tale of Weenie Todd; hotdog box office appeal, but don’t question the ingredients.

09 Jan 10 Posted by | Uncategorized | | 1 Comment

GunnFire

The commentary track of Lullaby (Angel 3.09) is provided by Tim Minear, who co-wrote and directed the episode, and Mere Smith,  writer and script coordinator.  It’s the funniest and most insightful 43 minutes of focussed conversation since Lem Dobbs and Steven Soderbergh argued their way through The Limey. 

Lullaby is a pivotal episode in the development of the saga that brings a final end to Darla and introduces Connor, but Minear and Smith somehow manage to kill (one another and me) in the course of a stand-up/sit-down, microscopic leer behind the scenes of the making of M.E. product.  (I really believe that Darla became the soul of the franchise [and Connor was the stake in its heart]).  Plymouth Cock landed on Darla in a way that permitted her backstory to drop dimensional shadow on the whole whore of American history.  Mutant Enemy barely utilized that exquisitely beautiful teaching aid.

Late in the lively frivolity, derisive mention is made of That Old Gang of Mine (3.03) in which Gunn’s loyalties are divided between his old crew and his new one, while black characters perpetrate violent acts of indiscrimate racial intolerance against a local minority population (of dangerous and harmless demons).  I mentioned the rarity of media insight into black racism in an earlier post on Lakeview Terrace, which leads me to marvel at Tim Minear’s (and Mutant Enemy’s) courage in exploring that special brand of darkness that doesn’t seem to win awards or even lift many eyebrows.  (District 9 tried to go there too, but it overdosed on Stupid and Brutal before it succumbed to Moronic.)

I wonder that a white guy from Whittier (Nixon Country — 43.2% white, 1.2% black, 1.3% Indian in 2000) even took a sympathetic shot at addressing the black experience, let alone an intriguingly clear, equivocal one.  Apart from the unambiguously negative regard with which Tim remarked on That Old Gang of Mine, I’d really like to know how it was meant to fit in the M.E. product line, and how it failed to make the more satisfying statement he obviously intended.

The purpose of this post, however, is to mention a kind of alternative interpretive overlay in which I see significant similarities between Charles Gunn and Malcolm Reynolds. 

Gunn’s pickup truck is introduced in War Zone (1.20), bristling with a stake-throwing, bed-mounted machine gun, and Reaver-style Wash-stickers, strongly resembling “the boat”, late in the BigDamnMovie.  I see another similarity in the gradual raising of Gunn from the heartbroken leader of a streetgang (“muscle”) to the stature of a diplomat in the struggle against overpowering and nearly-immortal sanctioned corruption…which (to my mind [vampire/empire]) resembles the evolution of Malcolm Reynolds from the ungenteel son of an independent rancher to heroic soldier, outlaw, bearer of bad news for the established Allied government, and (ultimately) a leader and diplomat in a subsequent war for interplanetary independence.  I even wonder whether J. August Richards was eyeballed to play the role that was given to Nathan Fillion.  No telling, but there’s room for speculation.

One of many latent conflicts deeply embedded in Firefly is the distinct possibility that slavery and indentured servitude remained to be explored in later episodes/seasons, foreshadowed by Badger’s inspection of the teeth of a woman as Mal enters Badger’s office all the way back in the pilot episode, and Badger’s insistence, in that scene, on the importance of his elevated place (above Reynolds) in the wider social hierarchy in which a businessman on a border planet like Persephone ranks significantly higher than the captain of a Ford F-100.  I think the poignancy of a black Capt. Reynolds, veteran of a war of independence against a culture dependent upon the institution of slavery, would have provided the writers additional leverage in telling tales of biting contemporary relevance by means of the microscope of American history and the telescope of speculative, character-driven fiction.  Tag Glory, buzz Ali, circle The Hurricane and honor The Killer Angels by citing George Pickett’s parable of a gentlemen’s club from the point of view of someone who would not or could not belong to a society that would love to have him as a member; choice/no-choice; states’ rights versus federal obligation (to obliterate slavery).  We just can’t seem to put that pesky slavery thing to bed.

Sexual and racial imperfections in the American character were masterfully massaged in the course of the first two series, and what’s coming from the brand I most admire (Mutant Enemy) remains to be seen repeatedly and reinterpreted to death…the overdue death of obscene and obsolete institutions.

Can entertainment production companies teach, change unquestioned practices?  Can television teach?  Where’s Murrow?

07 Jan 10 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | 2 Comments

Blue Hands

In Sanctuary (Angel 1.19) Detectives Lockley and Kendrick converse casually but meaningfully while investigating one of Faith’s innumerable crime scenes.  They talk about pithy junk before Kendrick challenges Lockley’s faith in ooga-booga-stuff with unassailable, empirical and logical reason by nailing her with a topical X-Files reference, which Lockley corrects by undercutting Kendrick’s faith in his generally cocky cop-hipness.  Whatever.  The most remarkable aspect of this interaction is that all of the plainclothed and uniformed cops trooping around the room are sporting blue(-gloved) hands in an episode that aired 02May00, which is just about 28 months before the BlueHands guys made their first appearance on Firefly.

Sanctuary was written by Tim Minear and Joss Whedon, who must have noticed the striking visual peculiariarity of the viagra/TidyBowl-mitts-effect and  simply incorporated that unsettling visual event into the repertoir of the disturbingly bureaucratic and lethal Blue Hands duo, like an ace-in-the-hole.  The other intriguing similarity resides in the Firefly episode, Safe, in which some stress is placed on the irony of the episode-title in that nobody we care about (not even two very rich generations of Tams) is remotely free of danger — and just as Angel confidently comforts Faith in the certainty that no harm can befall her in the comfort of the sanctuary his ultra-low-profile fortress will afford, a heavily-armed Council of Watchers taskforce descends like nightmare terrorists into her morbid gloom and attempts to put the boot to the big damned hero-vampire, rogue slayer and most anybody dumb enough to be caught in Angel’s subtextual asylum.

I’m not saying that any of these casual observations are important or terribly meaningful, but they’re nothing less than noteworthy, either.

29 Dec 09 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | 2 Comments

I’ve Got You Under My Skin

I’ve always said that Angel 1.14 is my favorite episode in that series, citing the fine narrative devices that lead the viewer to the deeper reveal beyond the dear old hackneyed.  I don’t remember noticing previously that The Prodigal episode (that directly follows my permanent favorite)  drops our titular protagonist into the eternal Oedipal soup in the very same position that Ryan occupies in the preceding hour.  Angelus’ consternation arrives with Darla’s incontestible observation, to blight the hellish victory he’s made of his liberated future on the bodies of his parents and the blameless faith of his murdered sister.

I’ve always thought that  I’ve Got you Under My Skin speaks with uncommon brilliance, through the horror of an Ethros demon, of the writer’s void.  It also opens the cover on a study on the properties of bullying.  The thing is that The Prodigal ends by refreshing the infinite uncertainty of the challenged, writerly point of view, and expressing it in the wordless revelation of tragic futility or divine humilation that plays across Liam’s face.  A transposed and augmented echo that’s approximately as indescribably cool as the last chord in A Day in the Life.

There’s an allegorical warning there, lurking in the darkness.  It’s probably meant to caution those who aspire to be either vampires or writers; not so much to dissuade anyone, as to fairly present the first, unpublicized sacrifice that marks the turf where a person died and a writer arose it its place.  Great stories sometimes appear long before we’re ready to appreciate them whole. 

“Let’s get to work”, is an unremarkable phrase that ends the series’ final episode as aptly and succinctly as it punctuates the first.  It’s a phrase that goes entirely unnoticed on the first pass through the show, yet stands out like a hitchhiker’s swollen thumb sticks out from beneath the tires of the bus, whenever the story’s retold, with the shocking inevitability of half-forgotten prophecy.

28 Dec 09 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | 1 Comment

Choices

I’m just sitting here ruminating about Episode 19 of Season 3 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer  in an exploratory kind of way.  Thinking that Faith is a fairly obvious name for a character that may also extend a metaphor made popular by J. Michael Straczynski in Babylon 5.  That

  • faith and reason are your shoes, you’ll get farther with both.

There are two slayers in Sunnydale, despite prophecy and tradition and common sense which dictate there can be only one     at a time…on. the. entire. planet.  And Faith (Id) is a trifle unbalanced, perceiving the gift of her slayer powers as unqualified license to satisfy all of her amoral appetites, spurn all personal responsibility for her independent actions, and deny the importance of untoward consequences that flow naturally and logically from the free exercise of those powers.  It’s all 5×5 to terminate vampires, but the moment she exterminates one measly human, a scrutinizing circle of social condemnation converges on her judgment and her capacity for reason…which leads her into the ridiculous happy arms of affable, fatherly evil.  Faith in The Unknown versus rationally-deduced knowledge of empirical fact; there’s probably a wildly-successful televison show or 50, somewhere in that dogfight.

Two slayers in Sunnydale should lead one to the natural conclusion that Buffy, is probably the story’s repository of reason.  Um, no.  Regroup. (Return with us now to Dopplegangland, where ultra-inhibited Willow meets her evil alternative-self, who’s surprisingly attractive, amoral, and kinda gay [Foreshadow much?]) I’m thinking it’s gotta be Willow because this episode coincides with the (shockingly-arbitrary) natural order of high school seniors choosing which college (destiny) toward which they’ll embark for the following season(s).  Willow’s option-identity is exactly opposite Faith’s with regard to offers from Oxford, Harvard, MIT…while the more-amoral slayer (who dropped out of high school long ago) is presented with a decidedly limited number of far-less-illustrious options (that might involve hopping a freight out of town).  And this episode’s entitled, Choices.  But Willow’s abduction by the forces of mayoral evil (during the theft of the box of bat-spiders) forces the Slayity (Scoobies — I just prefer to call them the Slayity) to choose between rescuing Willow from torture and death or to thwart the mayor’s plans for the box.  Oz wordlessly casts the deciding vote.  No choice.

I’m going with the college-choice thingy, for now.   So if Buffy isn’t the Fort Knox of Reason, I’ve just got to conclude she’s always been the dynamic balance between two terms of an inspired contradiction; the primary target of terrifying evil…who just happens to be a champion evil-ass-kicker.  Buffy’s always been the pivotal oxymoron, the neo-iconic contradiction to the hackneyed stereotype of cheerleader victimization, damsel in distress, virgin/whore…and stuff, taking back the knight for refund (and maybe a delicious cookie — I just love the way she delivers that line, as though this show were Sesame Street and she’s a precocious 3year-old).  So Faith and Willow represent a cardinal opposition of faith and reason that encompases a rare confrontation between the two of them in the mayor’s office when (to my ear it’s entirely clear that) Willow’s the master of her destiny, while Faith is a leaf on the wind of fatal circumstance.  “Tough life?  Boo-hoo.” (Do better!)    ♫Willow, weep for M.E.♪  (Superego much?)

But, while faith, reason and balance work just fine as a nifty, patented triunity of Goddessnessness ness, Cordelia presents an interesting problem in the narrow confines of my tidy little uberchick-community.  In Earshot, she’s the only person who speaks her disgustingly-human mind without restraint, shame, edit or euphemism…and Buffy’s new telepathic ability makes Buffy (Ego) a psychological leper in her tightly-knit knot of hypocrites, who uniformly flee her company — except for Cordelia, who seems never to have met an unpleasant thought she didn’t express immediately, which calls directly back to Out of Mind, Out of Sight; to the soliloquy in which she candidly expresses her preference for being an isolated, ignored and unknown star at the gooey center of popular attention, offering up a fascinatingly paradoxical perspective on the universal human condition of agonizing isolation with relatively-acceptable options.  By the way, she’ll become that solitary star more literally, a few seasons later.  Ripper Giles is a living validation of the hope of redemption, while Angelus and Spike are unliving examples of that hopey principle.  Anyanka and Amy also, kinda.  And Wesley will shortly justify some small extension of our charity, because, well, what the Hecate.

So, for now, I’m dropping Cordelia into the Goddess pot of tetrunity, positing faith and reason as opposites to the fist of secrets (Buffy) and the slap of streaming insults (Cordelia), as the four-part manifestation of  Joss Whedon’s philosophy of human ecology/psychology/entomolgy.  And that makes Xander…?  Joss!, the Jimmy Olson of The Daily Hellmouth, the erratic/spurious chronicler and life-restoring resident fuck-up whose attentions and affections wobble from one cardinal female character to the next (serially and in peculiar combinations), forming a kind of eternal pyramid that’s mystically resistant to network cancellation, which Willow chooses to maintain in Sunnydale.  Nice Choices.  Cookie!

In the best of Cartesian worlds, Faith and Willow define a locus of points on the X-axis; Buffy and Cordelia are on the Y; while Zander/Joss lends canny and inane perspective from the semi-illiterary Z. 

I stink, therefore I am.  3D!

26 Dec 09 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | 1 Comment

Slaying Alias

The pilot episode of Alias presents a styilish whirlwind of information that shoots out at the audience like a torrent of unrelenting Cool from a gilded firehose.  It isn’t recognizably boring or flawed…until about 55 minutes into the episode, when Sydney Bristow races down a staircase in a public building with semi-automatic pistols blazing from her fists as she shoots the hinges off a fire door, then kicks the door down without breaking stride, while craftily and resourcefully continuing to elude her heavily-armed pursuers.  Bullshit!

There are a couple of glaring flaws in the scenario I just described: 

Doors leading into stairwells open into stairwells  (since the Triangle Shirtwaiste Factory Fire of 1911).  Kicking down a door from the stairwell side — even if the hinges were magically removed or shot away — could not permit you to pass fluidly through to the floor below.  The door would have to fall into the stairwell side of the opening.  (Disbelievers should consult the Uniform Building Code, or explore a stairwell door in any office building).  The absurdity of Sydney’s solution to the door problem completely prevented me from wanting to give a crap about the stylishly presented whirlwind of information (largely exposition) spewing from the Alias firehose.  More-or-less unfortunately, the bulk of Season 1 awaits me this Christmas holiday weekend before I can send the DVDs back to NetFlix.  Alias watching is taxing.  Lots of television and movies isn’t Show Business at all, it’s Tell Business.

The other flaw, apart from the door problem (that would have gummed up Sydney’s fast-paced, fluid escape from her pursuers), is that hinges on a closed firedoor don’t sit flush on the surface of the frame to be shot away (like a corral gate), they’re recessed into the reveal at the hinge-side of the frame; so a handheld disintegrator pistol from some episode of Star Trek might eliminate all three hinges swiftly, but the configuration of the frame (its stops) would still prevent the door from falling in the desired direction.  I stumbled over a stupid trick that prioritized storytelling style over substance.  I don’t want to look more closely for subtler cheats.  Alias is slimy-slick and interesting, but taxing.

Alias, on the strength of this otherwise insignificant moment in the pilot episode, doesn’t bother to earn the respect that’s absolutely necessary for this audience-member to bother following its rapid-fire permutations of narrative.  Buffy does.

Xander, in an episode I just passed through (The Wish, I think), at one point bars the entry of a mob of Xander-loving girls through the paired opening to the school library.  He pushes a heavy card-catalogue-desk up against both doors.  Moments later, Giles pulls open the active door from the corridor side, and enters the library.  It’s a tactical error in barricade-maunfacture that Xander makes quite frequently.  And it’s exactly the kind of pointless, swashbuckling actionism that underscores comedic flaws in his intermittenly-manly yet deeply heroic and intolerant character.  These flaws in Xander’s self-image naturally flow into his final confrontation with Jack O’Toole near the end of The Zeppo, when Xander’s (not particularly manly) capacity for self-sacrifice undercuts the dead bully’s lust for self-preservation (ironic).  Cowed, O’Toole defuses the bomb.  Xander leaves the boiler room triumphant.  O’Toole mutters a promise to make Xander’s life a living hell, as Oz, in the form of a werewolf, bursts into the boiler room to re-kill and devour O’Toole, which explains why Oz is “oddly full” the next day when Xander offers him snackfood.  Tidy.  Earned.  Fascinating attention to cohesive storytelling detail.

Doors, by the way, are far more wonderfully interesting machines than you probably think they are.  I’ll ramble on in this post for a while, but if the stuff I’m writing here leads you to explore any door of your choosing in minute detail (or two) I’m very happy to have been of some small service to you.

Joss sometimes speaks (in interviews and commentaries) of the inflence of True Believers on their social environments.  These scraps of information serve to shed particles of light on his use of True Believers as a force for ungood in Mutant Enemy stories, but gradually hypotheses form.  The Eliminati in Bad Girls are, for example, sword-wielding vampire warriors whose numbers decrease prodigiously because of their true belief in a bigbad pile of excrement who somehow inspires their unswerving alliegence, while barely lifting a finger.   I wish Joss would take the time necessary to define his use of industry terms more clearly; moments, beat, moves, earn, undercut…there are lots of them that don’t necessarily yield useful information when other people use or explain them.

Seemingly-heroic acts of terrible violence are perpetrated by dedicated followers of vengeance, mock-rebellion, nonsense, the whims of unprincipled leaders…these True Believers don’t get much respect from Whedon, who has them break store windows, sacrifice civilians, kill, mame, loot and destroy…usually under the cover of darkeness, various forms of flobotnam or simply out of deranged and misguided values.  These seeming-heroic acts of violence seem to fit into my view of his perspective on various forms of cowardice — unlike Angel’s surprising confession to Buffy in Amends that the demon within him is an insignificant threat to civilization compared to the weak and cowardly man he was even before the demon possessed him.  Human frailty, imperfection, and deep aspects of universal human character drive these stories.  Flobotnam is smoke that mirrors window-dressing.  Sometimes a window is a mirror that unites the viewer (rather than separating us from) the enactment of fantasy on the other side of it; quite often, when the fantasy is produced by Mutant Enemy.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer isn’t as good as it gets.  I mean, for example, that the “play-all” (episodes) option on Alias DVDs is vastly superior to the Buffy format (which requires lots of cursor movement and/or remote-control clicking and interminable waiting between episodes for the annoying bits of redundancy and loudness, to which I objected in the previous blogpost).  But the good stuff (narrative content) that flows from Buffy episodes is vastly more valuable to me personally than the stuff that flows from Alias, LOST, Fringe and Heroes, because it’s about stuff that interests me in the real world.  The other shows dwell on moral particulars that only exist in their own storyworlds.  Buffy’s writers use the embarassingly manifold flobotinous devices (of mystical instrumentality, incantation and possession) unabashedly to tell informative tales about real people’s real problems. 

Most fantastic television builds fanciful stories about apocryphal science (Fringe) or covert operations (Alias) or a bizarre array of contradictions that were never properly explored on Gilligan’s Island (LOST) about entertaining problems people don’t have — see Heroes for an endless litany of choices you’ll never have to make;

  • if I slip back in time to save my mother’s life, will I step on more history-changing butterflies than if I save my girlfriend’s life? or 
  • is confessing my invulnerability to yet another guy who can fly an aspect of my dysfunctional and marginalized identity? or
  • when does Heroes exceed the velocity of entertaining fun to become instructvely meaningful? 

It never, ever will.  That’s not its purpose.  It’s about commerce, like other forms of utilitarian pornography that don’t bother to earn the permanent respect of any audience by teaching us anything useful. 

Whedon’s fancies (in terms appropriate to David Milch) are meaningful and applicable to Murrow’s observation that television can teach.  For all the Byzantine complexities of the shows I’ve mentioned, and dozens of others, the lessons are rich in information about stylish presentation, the limits of fantasy in audience-engagement, mirth, manipulation and crafty storytelling, but Buffy’s my chosen channel of engagement with entertainment.  It’s less concerned with its smoke&mirrors than with helping me make sense of the real world:  And yet it strives a good deal harder than most television to preserve several coherent layers of narrative consistency internally, within its constructs; so that the doors of perception swing meaningfully, as though a rare respect for the expertise of below-the-line crew (and other Ordinary Americans [like the national and global audience]) were just as important to ethical storyelling as the inevitable high-profile showrunning bullshit. 

Whedon’s fanciful ideas about reality are instructive, as are those of David Milch  (e.g., the functional utility of the Miranda Warning, as practiced or taught by Bill Clark).

I’ve hours of the first season of Alias to wade through before I sleep again.  One of us will slay the other.  I plan on playing computer solitaire while cruising through the DVDs, so I’ll probably have nothing more to say about Alias…I hope not.

25 Dec 09 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | 1 Comment

Coraline

I found a lot to like last night in the iTunes rental of a very photogenic movie that reminded me of Buffy Summers taking up residence a the lip of another hellmouth.  A plucky, prickly, idiosyncratic,  female hero contradicts my sixty years of Dudly DoRight programming.  I like that kind of a lot; but upon reflection, this morning I’ve begun to see a certain resemblance in Coraline to the desperate American themes that flowed out of 9/11.

Coraline Jones’ dissatisfaction with intractable governance by her modern, negligent, (and wired) distracted parents leads her to explore a new domain in which more-attractive alternatives eventually reveal themselves to be an incontestible evil presence that threatens the security of her homeland.

Maybe I’m responding to the film with ingrained male chauvenist resentment for the subordination of maleness in a story that features three females in positions of preeminent power, and maybe it doesn’t matter.   The most intriguing consideration is that the source of evil in this movie receives no particle of sympathy, which reminds me of our president’s near-simultaneous Nobel acceptance speech in which the presence of absolute evil in the world justifies the inevitablity of war.  It’s a point of view that negates for me the attractive platitudes about hope and change that raised a contradiction into preeminent prominence.

I really liked the film, but I find the reality nauseating.

Not long ago, I mentioned an interest in learning more about India’s struggle for independence from Britain.  Unfortunately, I NetFlixed Lord Mountbatten:  The Last Viceroy as a DVD tele-remedy for my woeful ignorance.  It’s one tough slog for several reasons. 

Everybody speaks English in this 6hour presentation.  Nobody speaks American, and the various characterizations of famous and notorious personages weigh in with interminable passages of important exposition that’s more or less incomprehensible, while millions of Hindus and Muslims are busily wreaking profoundly irrational vengeance against one another and kicking the crap out of Sikhs.  The entire native populations of India come off as relative nutbags as the representatives of Britain appear to be ingenious, resourceful and steadfastly rational.  This is not the story I need to learn anything about the release from colonial bondage of a people engaged in the successful search for freedom (from the box of intellectual property confusion).  It’s, instead, the ideosyncratic tale of a landscape of victims, as far as the eye can see, and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is even worse, although the Le Carre interview in TTSS‘s special features is deeply and remarkably insightful with regard to the conscientous consequences of maintaining imperial dominion.

“Ideosyncratic” isn’t spelled correctly, but it says precisely what I mean; that an ideational agenda (supporting the benevolence of despotism) underlies the quirky and more-or-less entertaining recitation of docu/fantasy events that compose the theme of all three stories.  The idea at the root of that common agenda is that incarnate evil exists and must be violently opposed.

In Coraline, that evil is an older, desperately-loving and empty version of Coraline Jones.  In The Last Viceroy it’s an undefined age-old history of religious intolerance.  In Tinker…it’s duplicitous indifference in the imploding-vacuum consciences of our best&brightest undercover patriots.  But in all three stories, the villain is an interesting and familiar two-dimensional stereotype whose point-of-view is underrepresented, except as a terrible force that thwarts the good guys.  The good guys ultimately win, and the benevolent, confusing despotism of copyright law prevails.

Max comes closer than anything I’ve read or seen to a sympathetic demonstration the rationale of evil incarnate; self-interested opportunism.  That’s good enough, for now.

11 Dec 09 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | 1 Comment

Narrative Perplexity

I’ve spent the past couple of days of this long Thanksgiving weekend streaming Heroes, courtesy of NetFlix.  The remainder of the afternoon will be whiled away with Volume 5, but there are a couple of things I’d like to mention before making the final drive toward the last several hours of plot reversals, adrenal effusions and bizarre surprises.

Richard Stallman’s paraphrasing of Stewart Brand’s pronouncement (that “…information wants to be free…”) starts with this:

On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.

–Brand

and goes here:

I believe that all generally useful information should be free. By ‘free’ I am not referring to price, but rather to the freedom to copy the information and to adapt it to one’s own uses… When information is generally useful, redistributing it makes humanity wealthier no matter who is distributing and no matter who is receiving.

–Stallman

The Brand proposition attributes intent to data that people value, while the Stallman revision restates the original premise as a personal committment to people.  The difference is enormous, and Heroes manifests that disparity in the form of a contradiction.  (Many contradictions strike a precisely negotiated balance between extreme terms in continuum.)

Heroes is a television show that was born in the midst of media-industry transition from old-school TV to new.  It led a captive audience through a first season of exciting revelations concerning fictional characters that were designed to resemble our friends, our families, ourselves.  It did this by cleverly withholding thematic information selectively while supplying visceral thrills, moral questions and an intimations of overarching mystery, season after season…without ever actually satisfying the audience hunger to know why Heroes exists as a compelling, fictional metaphor for ordinary human existence.  And ultimately, it doesn’t.  As the seasons roll on and on, the thimblesful of insight into the human predicament afforded by this television show don’t adequately feed the appetite of the information-hungry audience it created.

Ordinary people are elevated in the fourth season to places of importance that rival the super-able stars of the show.  These ordinary people,  like Annie the anal roommate become grist for the mill of Heroes plot lines and kill themselves, are incinerated, disemboweled or are otherwise sacrificed to the penurious dispensation of truly-useful information that’s held tight to the bosoms of writers, while the audience’ attention turns elsewhere.

The barrage of visceral thrills, intriguing moral and intellectual issues, character studies and evolutions…don’t justify waiting around for four years for the persistent denial of service to the fascination that turned us on to Heroes in the first place.  What happens when several ordinary people discover special abilities in themselves?  Eventually the layers of perplexity surrounding a television show that asks that question loses its impatient audience to less ambitious questions…because Heroes doesn’t provide much information that’s particularly useful to (ordinary) people, let alone us real folks who aren’t een remotely ordinary. 

 Heroes hasn’t changed my life, and I don’t feel any wealthier, but do I find myself resenting its persistent refusal to service the premise that brought me to Heroes in the first place.  There’s a point at which narrative complexity gets lost in narrative perplexity.  Each of the seasons I’ve explored this weekend reaches that crisis by episode 5, when the Previously…On Heroes presents a ridiculously labyrinthine montage of memorable mysteries that always leads me to snort derisively at my stupidity in watching a show that promises to resolve straw-man mysteries it fabricates without ever resolving dick that’s truly meaningful beyond the fanciful confines of the show.  Heroes is about Heroes.  It’s bearing on real life is negligible compared to the investment of time and attention required to find it valuable weekly over several seasons, given that I’m having trouble staying interested in the course of a four-day weekend.

Jason Mittell’s landmark essay on Narrative Complexity needs rereading; the write environment DVD (featuring Joss Whedon and hosted by Jeffrey Berman) arrived in the mail yesterday, along with the Whedon/Jones Dr. Horrible prequel comic; Tim Minear on Breaking the Story and Joss’ remarks in The Master at Play…these things offer greater promise of deeper satisfactions between now and Monday than the balance of  Heroes episodes remaining before me in Volume 5 of Season 4; a perplexing numbering system, too.

“My favorite procrastination is working on the sequel of the work I haven’t finished.”

— Joss Whedon to Jeffery Berman for The Write Environment

http://thewriteenvironment.blogspot.com/

28 Nov 09 Posted by | Uncategorized | | 1 Comment

A Matter of Life and Death

I’ve been cruising The Archers’ films because they’ve slipped way under my radar forever.  A Matter of Life and Death is a remarkable film on every level, but I’ll touch on only a few of the points that strike me as unusually clever, after making this single reference to the astonishing ability of these filmmakers to build even the simplest premise into a deeply moving, visceral experience that’s worlds of complexity apart from, yet very like I Know Where I’m Going!

The film opens in the midst of the cosmos with narration that gradually turns our attention to night on Earth, driving us slowly into a story that begins from an objective vantage very high over the English Channel and glides us into the belly of a severely wounded WWII British bomber; panning past the vacant cockpit as David Niven’s voice cheerily explains his dire situation to someone pleasantly female at the other end of his radio connection.  Eventually Niven, the pilot, makes his appearance visual, wearily slouched beside the body of his dead friend, Bob, as he draws the noose of this very tense tale taut around the neck of these first few minutes, with technicolor flames licking boldly past new windows blown in the fuselage while he’s facing the tail of the plane.  Then he jumps through a port in the floor of the burning aircraft, into the foggy night from an indeterminate altitude, prefering to drown, not fry.  No parachute.  Terse.  Abrupt.  Laconic.  Poetic and cool!

All through this opening sequence, Niven varies his tone around the theme which his variations circle like giddy vultures in a kind of intoxicating gallows-cockiness, as he falls in love with the American girl who’s sharing his very last words.  I found myself thrilling to the realization that the pilot was flying blind on autopilot, having lost his battle to save Bob’s life, he strikes up a final conversation with the nearest airfield, and gently passes a message for is mother into the shell-like ear of a real nice girl, before hurling himself into the abyss. 

The kicker is that he survives the fall, meets the girl on her way home from work, and that still leaves unspoiled about 80 minutes of this darkly beautiful and deeply enthralling film.

Ian Christie’s commentary is informative and reverent, pointing to the Archers’ intent to soothe tattered British-American relations at war’s end by putting the Empire on show-trial for crimes against the races of the world, with no less formidable an American prosecutor than the fearsome and fiery Raymond Massey demanding the life of this aviator, who stands in for the British Empire, but then, so does his plane.

Christie mentions the initial critical disfavor for the inappropriate denunciation of Britain that’s neatly articulated in the climactic scenes of this so-called “dated” film.  I’m amazed at the eloquent intelligence that an utterly (self)righteous American levels at England, as every scathing accusation he hurls fits post-1945 America at least as well as it fits Imperial Britain since the Battle of Cadiz, and even more especially well since 9/11.

Apart from (or in addition to) the bittersweet political irony, A Matter of Life and Death magically found its way into my gut and squeezed before it twisted; very much in keeping with the powerful emotional experience I found in I Know Where I’m Going!  Black Narcissus and Peeping Tom…not so much, but there’s plenty more of Powell and Pressburger, so I too know where I’m going; straight to Helen Mirren (40 gorgeous years ago), Colonel Blimp and Canterbury.  

FoE4 is a good deal glitchier than I’d ever imagined it would be — podcasts next week, if the good lord’s willing and the creek don’t rise.  Like I said, glitchy.

19 Nov 09 Posted by | Uncategorized | | 2 Comments

A Boil to Lance

I spent the end of last week with two of Lance Weiler’s films, The Last Broadcast and Head Trauma.  No spoilers, nor plot-recitation here, but I’ve been thinking about a couple of points of reference in two transmedia horror-mysteries made with the very-direct involvement of a pillar of the transmedia community.

At the heart of both films, a deeply buried injustice leads to two different approaches to telling a mystery story: 

In The Last Broadcast, a character named David Lee is making a film about a multiple-murder involving the two hosts of a cheesy, cable-access television show called Fact or Fiction.  Lee’s process of telling the story frames a succession of concentric frames around the story-within-a-story-within-a-story…and each of those frames is distorted by the dissonant agendas of each of the successive, objective storytellers who’s controlling the frame of the story-telling.  The most obvious of these agendas belongs to the unseen team of prosecutors who hire a disinterested video editor who they charge to bolster their case with a rhetorical video argument that hangs responsibility for the murders on the defendant of their flimsy, circumstantial case. 

But (almost) each of the several storytellers interviewed in the course of David Lee’s documentary filters, edits, and distorts information to redefine and scramble the pilosophical opposition of fact and fiction.  It’s a fascinating film on numerous levels, some of which exceed the confines of internal narrative by leaching into the processes of making a digital film, distributing it independently and outside the parameters defined by conventional practice, and exhibiting at Cannes.  Go define “success”.

Head Trauma elevates guilt to the status of a central character, whose crucial influence throughout the film leads to a very Weiler-y notion (as the story ends with the protagonist’s next-door-neighbor drawing images in his bedroom that suggest that) the connections between people may be more substantial, valid and influential than we’re inclined to attribute to reality; more important than stuff that fits in our philosophies, Horatio.  The viewer’s imagination lingers on the possibility that Julian’s friendship with George just might demonstrate the faith that no man is an island of isolation, that responsibility for an old injustice is most mysteriously shared.

I wouldn’t dare to deem these metaphysical themes beyond the reach of a filmmaker whose defiance of convention, established practices and teams of influential naysayers has already made history.  Whether Julian Thompson shows up as a sequel-character in another of  Weiler’s films matters a whole lot less than that Lance is making films that boil furiously beneath the surface, depict in narrative cinema and in cinematic practice the minority belief that the processes of making connections between people are significantly more important than the product.

12 Nov 09 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | 1 Comment

State of Play

Every character appearing in this 6episode BBC television series is a traitor.  And the greater the interval each character spends on screen is the rough index of exactly how complete, complex and intricate is the betrayal of  each one’s nexus of conflicted faiths.

One interesting and inevitable difference between the series and the movie resides in the difference between 127 minutes and slightly more than 300, but the television version is vastly more sophisticated and interesting because it questions practically everything in which the audience places its confidence, including the blameless innocence of the television audience that relishes celebrity scandal, corruption in high office, and juicy stories that betoken the fall of comercialized journalism into the valley of the shadow of Internet.

Both stories center on the strenuous intelligence efforts of crusading journalists to dig ever deeper through layers of misleading lies while ferretting out Absolute Truth.  The American version keeps the protagonists (mostly Russel Crowe) reasonably pristine and admirable as he fearlessly plunges into the corrupting fusion of Big Business with Big Government that’s localized, crystalized and focused on a personal story to which he’s intimately tied through friendship, personal history and covetous, romantic aspiration — Big Media’s also complicit, by the way.

The American version whitewashes the protagonist for an NC17 audience that doesn’t really need to know about the British version of Cal McCaffery’s realized erotic liaison with his former best friend’s wife and the innumerable instances in which he lies to practically everybody with whom he comes in contact (recording conversations, bluffing to achieve advantage, betraying every confidence and in the process resigning himself from a personal life) while chasing the tail of a really Big Story, as though they don’t always shoot the messenger, because they always do.

All of the people in the British version are versions of Dominic Foy, deceitful, comedic tool and moderately-competent intermediary for deceitful Higher Powers.  The public face of decency, particularly in Foy, is always a dubious cover for the increasingly obvious treacheries that teem beneath his twitchy exterior.  The transparencies of Dominic’s various poses make him the comic foil pushed by the crusading journalists, and pulled by the various aformentioned Higher Powers, to spill every last bit of his guts with a ridiculous reluctance that’s drawn out through the length of the series, and culminates in a pathetic symphony of bathos in which we clearly see ourselves.  The thing is that everyone else who appears in the series goes through the very same process of being compelled by external forces to spill the truths of their chosen melange of indiscretions.  That even applies to Sonia Baker, whose single, deliberate act of conscience results in her suicide/murder that gets the whole gigantic wrecking-ball started.

The tale of the unravelling of John Simm’s Cal McCaffery takes upwards of 300 minutes to tell, but it procedes with a dark and ominous inevitablility that dwarfs the crises of conscience illustrated by Russel Crowe.

The state of the art of double-dealing is exquisitely rendered in the longform version of State of Play (which concludes without a conspicuous, resounding thunderclap of private resolution), although I very much enjoyed the movie version that offers a shred of hope of redemption for a world that’s now run by…(wait for it, Dominic)…my everloving peers.

07 Nov 09 Posted by | Uncategorized | | 1 Comment

That Minbari Woman

Maybe it’s just a mirage of parallels, but I do see subtle similarities in the shape and scope and a couple of details that align That Hamilton Woman with the first four seasons of Babylon 5.

I inserted the film in my NetFlix queue to round-out the flow of disks in the mail and also to provide an overdue peek at Leigh and Olivier working together, apart from Fire Over England,  so I’d no expectation of Lord Nelson’s arrival at Naples as master of the Agamemnon, coincidentally, the name of John Sheridan’s command when he won The Battle of the Line at the end of the Earth-Minbari War.

According to the film, Nelson’s military career came to resemble that of a diplomat as the admiral’s predictions regarding Napoleon’s intent (global domination) were eventually recognized by the admiralty and Parliament as prescient.  The commentarian describes That Hamilton Woman as an overlooked jewel of an underfunded film largely because it was rushed into production to help draw America onto the side of the British in the run-up to World War II, so Nelson resembles Churchill in Korda’s film…and to my mind Sheridan resembles both of them as relatively ordinary military men coping with extra-ordinary diplomatic circumstances.  And Delenn and Lady Hamilton share divided loyalties, rising (or falling) from their comparatively straight and narrow paths to merge in the popular imagination with fascinating places in history.  And both of them were metamorphic changelings.

I don’t know that Joe Straczyinski would validate any of these allusions as his influences, but That Hamilton Woman is a remarkably interesting “propaganda” film in which instances of surprisingly astute visual imagery (shot in a rush on a shoestring — that really doesn’t show) bring history to life in the form of an allegory that remixes elements of mythstory brilliantly to serve contemporary audiences, and it probably always will — so long as we keep making dictators and people to oppose them.

The final episode of Season 4 is 90% pipe-laying and 50% bewilderment, but despite the confounding limitations of budget and seasonal continuity, Straczynski’s The Deconstruction of Falling Stars is a good deal more than a thrilling segment, it ties up more of the loosest ends of a 4year series than I imagined possible, while dropping the second shoe on the pedal and accelerating into a fifth season like an 11th hour stay of execution that requires the condemned to be exhumed.

Needless to say I’m looking forward to the arrival of the fifth season and to the several feature-length television films that round out the saga of this universe in which Nelson, Churchill, Hitler, Napoleon and Agamemnon all make interesting cameo appearances.  Maybe they’re all just a mirage of parallels, and then-again maybe there’s something constant in the human condition that makes Norman Corwin’s question intermittently answerable.

“What have we learned?”

I wonder if somewhere in America there’s a Truman’s Column in Hiroshima Square.  I hope it’s a rhetorical question.

04 Oct 09 Posted by | Uncategorized | | 3 Comments

Possession and Duplicity

These are two contemporary films that pull in opposite directions: 

Duplicity is the complex, convoluted love story of a couple of awful shits reduced (by choice) to finding themselves so entirely unloveable that the only other person capable of fashioning a life together with them is an utterly untrustworthy mirrorimage of the covert-operations scumball each of them has become.

Possession brings together two young, jaded, malcontented, 2002 academics whose mutual interest in an illicit 19th Century liaison takes them from their stale complacency to the gradual discovery of an incandescent obsession that exceeds the tight, repressed, Victorian focus of their common interest into the bold adventure of shaking off their respective dreads and making a life together.

I disliked everybody in Duplicity (with the sole exception of the character portrayed by Tom Wilkinson) from start to finish.  That’s despite the fact that I admire the Gilroys tremendously for their ability to tell enormously complicated stories.

Neil Labute’s individual sensibilitites were far less evident to me in Lakeview Terrace, but his Possession commentary radiates a very deliberate, oldschool austerity that dwelt on the stillness of camera, emphasis on the actors’ conception of character, and the creation of a film bent on physical authenticity that leaves the audience knowing more about the narrative than the characters who lived it.

The difference between these two films is most evident as each concludes; with the comparatively staid academics utterly reborn and revitalized, and the shits beginning to realize how completely they got screwed. 

By the end of Possesson, Paltrow and Eckhard have exemplified and demonstrated a remarkable range of human imperfections, many of them unspoken, compassionate projections that replicate for the audience the process scholars (and audiences) employ in transforming negative capability into positively meaningful elements of universal, experiental art.

Roberts and Owen, conversely, bring a few persuasive speeches through to the end of their story that’s barely about the power of  their deeply disguised affections for one another, and mostly dedicated to the multiple whining engines of glorified self-interest that actually drive the film.  Duplicity adheres to The Great Man Theory of Everything if greatness is measured in degrees of harm.

These two films find the fork in The Conversation like a surveillance camera that eventually moves to follow action.  I prefer the choices Labute made that seem to be more conscious of the mental and emotional life of an audience scenting story than the Gilroy approach in Duplicity which was quilted from swatches of various timeframes to deliver an icy vision of people inclined to freezer-burn.  Not that the excellent performances needed thawing, it’s the original what-if premise that’s simply unbearably cold.

Years ago, I caught the first five minutes of the first episode of Babylon 5.  The gala, ambassadorial setting nearly made me puke.  Now, because of Henry Jenkins’ interview with J. Michael Straczynski, I’m taking another look, and impatiently awaiting NetFlix’ delivery of the remainder of Season 3.  It still isn’t much to look at, but the story is infinitely more engaging, complex and fascinating than a peek at the pilot betokened.

23 Sep 09 Posted by | Uncategorized | | 1 Comment

Random Harvest

This is an amAzingly moving film.  It’s built on ideas that groan beneath the incredibly awkward weight of

  • battle-induced amnesia,
  • lives that reboot in fugue-states, and
  • utterly unbelievably convenient conversations and coincidences that bear no relation anything other than plot devices. 

Despite these fatal flaws (and hosts of extremely idiosyncratic characters who advance the story one or two ticks and promptly disappear) this movie really rocks with relentless pace as it lunges through innumerble series of powerful emotional states…to leave me on one ear.

Greer Garson and Ronald Colman were exceptionally adept at spoken English, but far more importantly, each of them brought an invisible and tenacious grip to the clunky material that inflected their lines precisely to render completely authentic moments in synchronous concert.    They impart affective english that communicates spin to the bone.  This film is a wonderful, profoundly engaging testament to movie stars and radiant acting.

I have a quibble.  Colman’s shell-shocked amnesiac character appears a few moments into the film.  In light of more recent films I’ve seen lately, I wish he’d played Smith as though he were a consummate gentleman slowly recovering his lifelong composure from the inexpressible monster he’d discovered in himself at war.  Smith is played, instead, as the victim of external forces beyond his control and not as the author and audience of inescapable actions witnessed and perpetrated in the ungentlemanly theater of war. 

It’s a slight, but significant difference that would lend weight to the unintended violence he metes out to the women who will penetrate the fog of him later and repeatedly throughout the breadth of the film.  His fuzzy impressions of inestimable damage he’s done to those he’s loved are precisely correct, and the distance he preserves from everyone is neatly cloaked in the guise of an elegant, capable, kindly English gentleman.  Jekkyl/Hyde sans fantasy bullshit.

The film is laden with rich and insightful opportunities for Colman to have made the beast more recognizable within the scope of his character.  Lydia’s bad penny remark at the homecoming breakfast table, delivered exactly one hour into the film, is an ideal opportunity for Colman to have demonstrated the kind of rapier-like sardonic wit for which British intellectual aristocrats are very justly infamous.  Her self-interested, arrogant ignorance of the toll exacted of war veterans makes this moment eminently suited to the complex demonstration of Charles’ merely physical resemblance to the man who went to war and the enormity of experiential difference between the original and the returning prodigal.  Still, it’s only a quibble.

Kitty’s profound maturation is performed by an actress I don’t yet recognize, but the strained plausibility of her transformation from adolescent to knowing woman is remarkably exemplary of that self-same wonderful grasp of material exhibited by the leads.  The entire tale hinges on underspoken communications, like kilted Paula in her music hall dressing room exuberently inching her chair (and her super-abundance of LIFE) closer to the damaged Smith while flying past emotional stops that range across vast continuua.  It’s an unbelievably satisfying adventure, just watching these actors work far beyond the confinements of a groan-inducing, yet fascinating script. 

I enjoyed the daylights out of this one!

Don’t google Susan Peters if your heart is even a little bit brittle.  She’ll wreck you.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Susan_Peters

05 Sep 09 Posted by | Uncategorized | | 2 Comments

Lakeview Terrace

It’s an OrdinaryAmerican movie (as opposed to a CostumedSuperHero movie) that provides compelling evidence that With Great Power and vested responsibility comes ample, sanctioned opportunity to totally Fuck. You. UP!  

Both kinds of the mythic figures we celebrate in films deserve a great deal of thought and scrutiny, particularly OrdinaryAmericans, who are at least as whimsical and fabricated as ConstumedSuperHeroes.  There are no Ordinary Americans.  We’re all peculiar, idiosyncratic and constitutionally disinclined to unanimity; from person to person and from one moment to the next we’re eminently disagreeable, even with ourselves.

Samuel L. Jackson’s centerpiece character flipflops absolutely brilliantly between several sets of solid, plausible, whole identities; veteran top-cop, over-the-top-cop, martinet dad, neighborhood Watchman, maniac, wronged mastercriminal, self-fulfilling prophecy and utterly irRegular Guy.  Someone should jack up the whole Academy while calling the Nice Police to make a polite, euphemistic report to the commissioner on the state of the art of empowering creeps and making them.

Black racism has never received the kind of attention it’s always deserved, and this film goes exactly there with amazingly layered grace, gyroscopic equilibrium and a taste for relentless shock that makes it a singularly interesting monster-movie about worst-nightmares that live right next door (to one another).  An incredibly slow reveal of the matter/anti-matter spike in the punch.

Neither Training Day nor Hancock spent any effort in tilling the treasury of dark and abominable emotional explosives that Lakeview Terrace thoroughly ploughs.  And it does so with a delicate sensitivity that Pacific Heights never found.  (Specific Whites was a more eloquent name for that part of my home town.)

Abel Turner is an iconic monster whose deeply disciplined, compartmentalized life has been gradually and willfully, heroically pulled back from the brink of a disaster (he helped create)…until THEY move in, and the tidy compartment-dividers evaporate as polarized stuff in this guy’s several lives (that should never ever mix) is finally brought together under deceptively-high pressure with living wires and ancient resentments.  When Abel falls, he indicts his brother, while staring us dead in our collective face. 

A Slight Digression:  Compartmentalized psychic activity tumbles out of the special features of Top Gun.  It’s a way of visualizing the diversified competencies of elite Naval aviators, who tend to be renaissance men whose mortality and talents are designed so they don’t overlap.  So Spielberg opens War of the Worlds by installing Maverick at the controls of a shipyard crane, seemingly illustrating a top gun’s fall from grace into the world of middle-aged failures.  That association yanked my attention right out of the later film by telling me that Spielberg is far removed from my reality in which crane operators are the pay/responsibility pinnacle of industrial production, everywhere in the world except Hollywood.  The cocky Cruise-control that Maverick exhibited twenty years ago has been replaced by a motorhead flake whose failed marriage, doomed kids and total control of his crane-cockpit is deeply Hollywood Surreal.  It still strikes as a dumb fixation in the minds of the Spielberg entourage, but the MaverickToRay=failure illustration put an abrupt end to my confidence in the film scant minutes into the movie, which made it extremely easy to see, thereafter, that the war of the worlds was waged between human generations and the Martians were just for sex appeal.  If I’d been Ray, Robbie would have been dead by the middle of the first reel, and Rachel was on the bubble.  These thoughts about War of the Worlds came up while I read a cool interpretive treatment of that film at mstrmnd.com.  Ending this digression now by pointing to the Martian tripods as though they carried cameras that targeted cameras. 

I streamed Lakeview Terrace, so I’m looking forward to the strong possibility of a commentary track to guide my further adventures in branded entertainment.  Not much credibility in studio logos, my brands are the names of writers, a few directors, and a limited number of onscreen interpreters of the ideas embedded in scripts:  Gilroy, Dobbs, Whedon, Scott, Tykwer, Jackson, Hoffman…guys (I’m sorry to see what certainly appears to be gender-bias in me) like that.

THREE DAYS LATER:  The DVD’s commentary track brings the director and lead actress forward to connect a few dots, like; Lakeview Terrace is the location in the San Fernando Valley where Rodney King played piñata for white, L.A. cops whose racebased, abusive brutality ignited black community violence (mostly against itself). 

That “seeing is believing” is a stupid motto is driven home early in the film, when Abel notices unfamiliar people moving into the vacated home next to his.  The black couple is slightly unusual in that the woman is considerably younger than her mate which probably raises the Turner hackles just as much as his powerlessness to screen the people who have just become his neighbors.  AND Able’s inital perception is soon proven to be deeply incorrect (not unlike eyewitness testimony) as his continuous scrutiny of the moving-in process reveals that the hired hand, a young, white man, is accompanied by his wife and her immaculately dressed father, which modifies the application of The Golden Rule to these newcomers, for both Abel and for the audience.  The shifting sands of context amplify the tension of making sense of details in the first few minutes of the film.

This introduction makes the very subtle point that Rodney King was not the world’s most sympathetic innocent brutalized by power-crazed maniacs for doing exactly nothing.  The film procedes to make the points that appearances can decieve the “objective” viewer, objectivity is mostly a self-delusion, preconceptions condition perceptual processes to an extent that can render them profoundly influential, subjective, ruinous.  These points apply to newsreel footage, eyewitness reportage and townhall meetings.

The success of this fascinating motion picture rests squarely on the mercurial talents of Samuel L. Jackson to confuse the preconceptions of his audience.  The deleted scenes lost valuable information concerning the careers of the married couple, which actually serves to humanize them by connecting the husband to an ostensibly altruistic corporation (not unlike Google) which firmly belives that newage retail corporations and mom&pop cornerstores can cohabit like friendly next-door neighbors.  The wife is trapped in an abusive relationship with her white, male philandering boss…a detail that sets the template for Abel’s confessional backstory in the friendly, neighborhood bar.  Adversarial differences in class, race and outlook come forward in the confessional scene.  They are not met with empathy, just that infinitely meaningless catchall abracadabra …”Whatever!”

The commentary and deleted scenes indicate that Will Smith, under other circumstances, might have taken Jackson’s role for himself.  Smith’s production company held the rights to the script — which was subjected to revision all the way to theatrical release.  Will Smith, Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson — I think Abel Turner was best-presented by the guy who took the role.  I also think the the film’s director and all of the secondary characters were significantly less in contact with the heart of the material than the actor who made it a revelatory and revolutionary advance in the further adventures of our national inability to get along with one another.

What might the Mattsons, the black&white couple, have done to deflect the point of Able Turner’s wrath?  Who might have prevented Iago from fabricating lethal conflict?  Why is the IMDb audience, reflected in several reviews, down on the end of Lakeview Terrace simply because of an irresolute ending?  I mean, that’s what Americans do, we move on to other topics without resolving anything, as though seeing were believing, as though problems go away the moment we stop watching them.  Abel’s irrational resentment is better explained than Iago’s vendetta against Othello.  These guys are not as rare as an optimistic view of humankind supposes, and films like Lakeview Terrace simply introduce the notion that catastrophic irrational resentment in the perfect, customized situation is lurking in every one of us in a nation that presumptuously thinks of itself as heroically “post-racist”.  Maybe we’re all just cameras, targeting one another; mirroring whatever.

http://www.salon.com/news/1998/03/13news.html/

and

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rodney_King

and

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lakeview_Terrace

19 Aug 09 Posted by | Uncategorized | | 2 Comments

Hancock

I think the authors of the script, Ngo and Gilligan, constructed an incredibly insightful blueprinted metaphor for the antithetical repulsion-continuum of Love/Power that was roundly overlooked by the folks who made the movie.  Charlize Theron, it seems to me, was the only above-the-line contributor who brought to the project a genuine sense of what the movie was doing in a picture dedicated to the annoying signature of Peter Berg, aka, CAPTAIN JIGGLE(cam).  I always like Will Smith.

The central conflict running deep in the film is the range of emotional and behavioral artifacts that accompany singular power versus those that come with intimacy.  Flowing from that deep and fundamental, antagonistic conversation are all the intricate subtextural elements that result in a film that opens with an hour-long view into the nihilistic existence of a pointless, alienated, derelict superhero whose loneliness in the second hour is redeemed by the discovery of his forgotten, immortal counterpoint.  The dynamic 180° switch is achieved with admirable wtf-abruptness, but the reveal of the supercouple filled my head with questions that remained unresolved while the film raced on at a new blistering pace to reach its own conclusion.  Sequel?

Remarks in the DVD’s special-features disk suggest that the interpersonal conflict of this immortal couple are now (and have always been) permanent, but nothing in the dialogue highlights irreconcilable differences, apart from Mary’s allegation that she is the more powerful of the two of them.  I think she believes that statement to be true because she chose to abandon her mate in Miami in 1928, while he (like a discarded puppy) eventually found his circuitous way back to her side.  I find that intimation fascinating because it goes to the heart of the intrapersonal polarity of proximal-intimate-vulnerability contrasted with remote-anonymous-immortality&singular power; not unlike superheroic blackburied Captains of Industry (moms&dads) who barely know their kids.

Oddly, there are previews on the special features disk for The International and Lakeview Terrace.  Having seen and enjoyed the former, I’ve queued the latter to find out whether Lakeview Terrace does a better job of treating intersexual race and the abuse of power.  Tom Tykwer’s made films I enjoy tremendously, and Handjobcock (like Dolores Claiborne) reaches deep into forbidden regions below the belt where it juggles our cultural balls and fumbles them slightly short of the goal that’s even (or FAR) more important than the particular story about which they’re told.  I lay responsibility for those fumbles on Taylor Hackford and Peter Berg.

In Hancock, Mary explains their immortal identities to amnesiac-John, “We’re gods, angels…now they call us superheroes…”.  I misunderstood her reading as,  “We’re God’s angels…”.  Without a copy of the script to make better sense of her vitally-important expository statement from written punctuation, I caught the theatrical release about six months ago and went with the second, theological reference.

 That’s exactly the kind of  confusion that’s directly attributable to the director/editor.  I went off on an utterly unnecessary tangent (involving Dogma, The Prophecy, Constantine, Devil’s Advocate…) because Peter Berg authorized an under-punctuated reading of God’s angels/gods…angels…Friday Night Lights is thrilling to me for reasons that sidestep the Peter Berg signature; Dekter-cam on steroids, sloppy diction, minced edits.  Hancock interrupts a ($91.10) liquor store hold-up in the second half of the film.  The bullet that penetrates his newly-vulnerable torso is whisked past by the camera in a way that confuses the reason for his registered consternation and the anatomical location of the wound, and an important moment that’s far more central to the story than Berg’s excessively-energetic camera moves.

Berg gravitates into material that fascinates me, but I think the projects he’s involved in suffer from his involvement in them.  He’s like John Hancock in the first half of the film.  It’s a tossup whether he’ll save the beached whale or scuttle the lovely ship.  Less Peter Berg PR is better.

Later:  Demeter is mentioned as one of Mary’s historic avatars.  It strikes me as almost self-evident that when Hancock is reintroduced in a custom-fitted black superhero suit, with caution-yellow piping and an eagle outline on the back…that Mary really should (as John’s bonded antitheses) get into the downtown knockdown-dragout with him in a classic, white, flowing ensemble.  They dressed her in black.  Red is the name of Hancock’s mortal antagonist, which suggests Jason Bateman’s motif really ought to be green (sustainable, life-promoting, freshly optimistic, yadada yadada yawn.)  Nobody in the audience needs a degree in classical literature to dress this movie’s most central characters in keeping with unsubtle mythological schemes, but while the filmmakers went to interesting extremes to think through (invisible) stuff like intricate decor-detail in the homes of the heroes, they kinda overlooked a few disturbing things.  Like Mary’s son, Aaron, practically disappears about 75% of the way into the film.  I’m not saying I missed him, but the offspring of  the divine EarthMother prototype and a quixotic, idealistic new-age public relations dynamo might have had SOME kind of mythic part to play in resolving his mother’s emotional dilemma.  Okay, maybe he wasn’t the product of immaculate conception…I’m just saying they made her an iconic soccer mom, then flushed her (son of man and god) kid down the cutting room toilet.  Mess with powerful archetypes, make a film with prescient vision.  Ya know?  You betcha! 

(I hope this Sarah Palin allusion makes sense to absolutely nobody real soon.)

Ngo’s idea is said to have spent years kicking around in development.  I think it could and should have been brought to the screen in a form that would have been infinitely more satisfying, especially to Dykstra.

Correction:  This is my fifth pass through the film, and I always forget that Mary is Aaron’s stepmother.  That invalidating fact smells like a duct taped patch that simply won’t stay glued.  I’m hopelessly stuck on the story they didn’t tell.  The film they made highlights sublime self-sacrifice and finds remarkable virtue in running away from love, like taking pride in your Monday morning commute back into the mouth hell…that puts bread on the table and the kids in boarding school.  It could also have been a whole lot worse.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hancock_(film)

If Redd Foxx made a catchphrase out of the threat to put one man’s head up another man’s ass, that would explain the choice to play the Sanford and Son theme through the moment when Hancock makes it happen.  If not, it’s a vaguely funny musical quote that’s mostly deeply sappy.

15 Aug 09 Posted by | Uncategorized | | 2 Comments

Niggles

Like a bad tooth or an unhealed wound, my attention tends to poke and prod absentmindedly at matters of minimal importance, like:

I disagree with a central dispute that eventually figures prominently in Finding Forrester, that “further” and “farther” are two similar terms that are used incorrectly by the antagonists in that film.  In the past couple of days I’ve read blogs and articles in which people used the expression,  “a step further”.  The intended, contextual meaning of the sentence doesn’t change much, but relative measures of distance or degree don’t inspire confidence in the speaker when the metaphors used are more reliant on corrupted common usage than on common sense.

Split infinitives are as ungrammatical as incorrectly-identified compound predicate nominatives that result in goofy sentences, like; The cops were ordered to brutally arrest Martha and I, but they released her and never Mirandized I.

“In the interest of brevity, it will be sufficent to say that…” has been abbreviated to, “Suffice to say”, which is the illegitimate cousin of, “That said…”, which usually stands in for a longer phrase, like, on the other hand, or any familiar expression that lends contrast to the author’s shifting tracks of contextual perspective in paragraphs readers attempt to follow.  (I know I’m probably far guiltier of confusing the crap out of readers than most people, but not for want of constantly striving to be succinct, transparent, precise and specific, while constrained by the interests of brevity.)

Early in Fog City Mavericks, Peter Coyote says that San Francisco is a city of seven square miles.  It’s actually forty-nine square miles, in a squarish shape that’s about seven miles on each of four sides.  I very much enjoyed the film, but stupid errors (that escape editorial notice all the way to the final cut) early in a presentation cast persistent suspicion on all subsequent declarations.  So I wonder whether there’s much truth in his fascinating statement that twenty-four frames per second is the standard on which cinema operates because Eadweard Muybridge experimented with twenty-four still cameras to prove that a horse can run without touching the ground.  ¹  (Ed’s Wikipedia page is open in another tab [because I hadn’t a ghost of a chance of spelling his name correctly without help] and I might as well check for the validity of the 24fps declaration of institutional rut-ocracy.)

I’ve generally stopped commenting at the blog of The Ad Contrarian.  I think his responses are limited to advertising industry professionals, but that may be the incorrect impression of my bruised ego.  The nearest I’ve come to a direct response from him came a few days ago when, in celebrating the blog’s second anniversary, he (among several other things) mentioned the annoying tendency of squids and ferrets to crop up in his blog-comments.  Squids, he explained, are anonymous sociopaths who say rude and obscene, irrelevant things.  Ferrets just snarl the threads of his blog posts by trumpeting some goofy alternative agenda, sans evidence, sans sense.  I’m a ferret because I’m neither an advertising industry professional nor (intentionally) a psychotic malevolence, although I do tend to blither.

The comment I made pertained to his post about his having visited the DeYoung Museum for the disappointing, current Tut exhibition.  Having (tacitly) appreciated his disrespect for the marketing scheme that stalled and herded too many jam-packed visitors through the claustrophobia-inducing venue and also barraged them with merchandizing opportunities…I understood his contempt for the team that will guage the success of their marketing scheme on the basis of profit rather than the enhancement of the customer-perceived value of the exhibition to (repeat) visitors.  And, in the interest of brevity, my comment neglected to mention my gratitude for his insight (where there’s smoke, there’s either fire or an important person’s butt), pinpointing instead the utter absence of his suggestions for improvement of the visitor experience that might result in recurrent visits by high-yield clientele, like him.  (I’ve learned that the high-yield, heavy-user market segment is the neglected conceptual target of his blog and hovers at the heart of every blog post — at least, theoretically).  I also tried to squeeze into my comment my personal distaste for branding practices (that seem to flock customers into a deeply-wrongheaded barnyard metaphor) and alluded to striking similarities between King Tut’s afterlife-roadshow and the seemingly-unending Michael Jackson funerary hysteria that might be the prelude to the birth of a dead-celebrities-traveling-exhibition industry.  The estates of celebrated artists, politicians and assorted media luminaries already live after them.  An afterlife exhibition industry might profoundly influence the career decisions of our living cultural icons, whose actual legacies might just impact culture constructively. The Final Cut concerns itself with life-cosmetics.  I think the redemptive, transformative power of our mortality to alter life is assiduously undercontemplated, but infinitely potentiated.  Is today a good day to die?  No wonder Little Big Man is still one of my favorite movies.  The question it asks, repeatedly and pointedly, remains perfectly relevant.

The shameful, disgraceful and disgusting aspects of marketing schemes that exploit the popular impulse to pay respect to Tut or Jackson or Lincoln don’t begin to invalidate the sincerity, the mystery, the power of that impulse.  And ferrets who see farther than the contemptuous tone of a blog post to ask for more insight from advertising industry professionals enroute to proposing the creation of a new industry that synthesizes the best aspects (as defined by high-minded contrarians) of showbusiness, mortuary science and the study of contemporary culture are probably more valuable ferrets than The Ad Contrarian’s pejorative label (for hunters) suggests.  Pardon me while I congratulate myself excessively.

Explaining this junk at Bob Hoffman’s blog seems likely to result in his erasure all of my previous comments — something he did recently to someone who disagreed with his post of a couple of weeks ago.

Like a bad tooth or an unhealed wound, these niggles need mention for exorcism.

¹ (Something Wiki this way comes)

In 1872, former Governor of California, Leland Stanford, a businessman and racehorse owner, had taken a position on a popularly-debated question of the day: whether all four of a horse’s hooves left the ground at the same time during a gallop. Stanford sided with this assertion, called “unsupported transit”, and took it upon himself to prove it scientifically. (Though legend also includes a wager of up to $25,000, there is no evidence of this.) Stanford sought out Muybridge and hired him to settle the question.  

To prove Stanford’s claim, Muybridge developed a scheme for instantaneous motion picture capture. Muybridge’s technology involved chemical formulas for photographic processing and an electrical trigger created by the chief engineer for the Southern Pacific Railroad, John D. Isaacs.

In 1877, Muybridge settled Stanford’s question with a single photographic negative showing Stanford’s racehorse Occident airborne in the midst of a gallop. This negative was lost, but it survives through woodcuts made at the time.

By 1878, spurred on by Stanford to expand the experiment, Muybridge had successfully photographed a horse in fast motion using a series of twenty-four cameras. The first experience successfully took place on June 11 with the press present. Muybridge used a series of 12 stereoscopic cameras, 21 inches apart to cover the 20 feet taken by one horse stride, taking pictures at one thousandth of a second. The cameras were arranged parallel to the track, with trip-wires attached to each camera shutter triggered by the horse’s hooves.

This series of photos, taken at what is now Stanford University or in Sacramento (there is some dispute as to the actual location), is called The Horse in Motion, and shows that the hooves do all leave the ground — although not with the legs fully extended forward and back, as contemporary illustrators tended to imagine, but rather at the moment when all the hooves are tucked under the horse as it switches from “pulling” from the front legs to “pushing” from the back legs.

Wikipedia sheds a little light on several interesting Muybridge-related ideas, but the 24fps tradition (the frame rate for talkies, not silent films) isn’t one of them.  Wikipedia led me to a fascinating Kevin Brownlow web-article that casts plenty of doubt on the scripted statements made in Peter Coyote’s narration.  Ed died in 1904, and the standard frame rate for making (and projecting) motion pictures evidently varied from 16-46fps.  I think Peter Coyote was given  an unbalanced load of cool-sounding nonsense and inspiring information to read.  I bought his credible delivery, and greatly enjoyed the film…but I wonder how deep those pockets of nonsense run.

http://www.cinemaweb.com/silentfilm/bookshelf/18_kb_2.htm

25 Jul 09 Posted by | Uncategorized | | 4 Comments

The Reader

It’s an odd film that repeatedly makes the point that what we do (or fail to do) in the course of our tiny lives, is infinitely more important (to something unnamed) than how we feel, what we say, and how we rationalize our insignificance in the awful sweep of our miniscule lives.  It makes this statement by opening the film exactly one scene before the movie ends and leaps between moments non-linearly that range from 1958 to 1995, with terribly imporant references to events that took place before the film begins and some that aren’t yet concluded (the NeoCon inspection of soul of Sonia Sotomayor, for one ongoing contemporary example).

That societies delude themselves with the belief that morality rules behavior is central to the contradiction that laws are far more responsible (officially) for the shape of a civilization, and that more-narrowly defined laws identify morally superior civilizations.  Thus, Hanna Schmitz and the other five guards allowed their three hundred prisoners to perish in the locked church that caught fire and burned in the midst of an allied bombing attack BECAUSE it was illegal for SS guards to release prisoners from confinement.  But that’s not the argument anybody presented to prevent the other five guards from being sentenced for complicity to murder, nor did anybody mention the broad legal brush used in Hitler’s Germany to generally absolve the German population of responsibility for life and death in thousands of camps nor Hannah Schmitz’ late-breaking sole indictment for three hundred particular murders.  We were only following (her) orders. Legal Justice isn’t only blind, it’s also deaf, smells bad, it’s unfeeling, and it is profoundly stupid.

There is a wry cynicism running through the film that allows the five guards to claim that Schmitz drafted the incineration report, which every one of them signed…and Hannah was, perhaps, the only closeted illiterate who ever wrote a detailed report in the whole of human history; more ashamed to confess her illiteracy than her legally sanctioned multiple-murder.  The only heroic aspect of this piece is the character flaw of suicidal self-interest, which is aggrandized beyond all recognition:  Moral SNAFU.  Gezundheidt!

Born in 1922, she joined the SS in 1933.  Michael Berg looked the same to me in 1958 (at 15) as in 1966.  Hannah’s obssessive/compulsive behavior  is understated everywhere in the film, and acts as the unspoken reason for her inability to unlock the doors of the church allowing chaotic prisoners to flee a nice, orderly fire.

These are oddly unbalanced inconsistencies in the way the story is told, that culminate in the righteous indignation of the sole surviving prisoner-survivor of the church fire, whose contempt for Michal Berg is just as unjust and misapplied as the immoral innocence/ignorance that abounded in Nazi Germany.  But the most unsupportable personal failure belongs to Michael Berg whose inability to tell the truth condemned Hannah to spend her final twenty years in prison.  He complied with a lie that cost the life of the first woman he’d ever loved.  I have no idea why he’d do that, but the cynical tone of the film states unimplicitly that the things we do and fail to do (like forgive) are infinitely more consequential than how we claim to feel about them.

This movie can’t have it both ways.  I respect the people who made it, and abhor the taste it leaves in my heart; justifying scapegoating, reconciled to apathy, comfortable with injustice, and content to paint the laws of human nature with the broadest of cynical brushes.

Soldier’s Girl and Johnny Got His Gun address these very same issues far more directly, and both films tear the audience to bits with far less pointless abandon.   War Made Easy, The International, Lord of War and Fog City Mavericks have taught me, belatedly, that humanity is the primary target of war on anything.  Modern warfare is increasingly waged on civilian populations.  Compliance with abhorent orders (and laws) and the banal procedures of abominable business-as-usual is personal self-abomination.   I already knew those things.

The Reader is a well-made film that raises ineffectualism and the vacuum left by atrophied humanity to new heights of artistic accomplishment in our collective worship of despair.  It meant to address war criminality from the perspective of the children of war criminals; children who come to recognize their parents’ sociopathology.  It doesn’t do that well enough.  The resulting film strikes a compromise between good and evil that arrived in theaters at a most propitious time to complement our renewed bewilderment at ongoing atrocities committed in the name of freedom, security and apple pie.

What would I do if three hundred women were burning alive in a church?  What would I do if the woman I’d loved were about to be burned for obeying an unjust law?  What would I do if license to waterboard suspects gave me free rein to terrorize terrorists?

Better!

25JUL09 — Second thoughts:

The Reader is largely a film about the dire consequences of failure to follow conscience.  It’s a study of the causes and results of inaction more frequently than is evident in a couple of viewings.  It’s a film that keeps growing on me; conversely,  A Time To Kill goes straight to the diametrically-opposite place, highlighting conscience over law, with several carefully-constructed windows of insight into various kinds of legal-system-cheats; NAACP prejudice, politically-motivated prosecutor conspiracy with Mississippi zeitgeist (and no 1996 spotlight on media-manipulation in the pre-911/post-OJ showtrial platform).  A Time To Kill is also overloaded with a ton of Hollywood cheats; an enormous cast of really-pretty actors, muttering, visual delights and carefully censored violence combined with incredibly-clunky stereotypes and powerful afterthrobs of feel-good confidence in a system that only works to perpetuate the glory of Hollywood endings.  It’s an extremely well-designed, subtly-didactic, propaganda film that is far less interesting to think back upon than was The Reader.

16 Jul 09 Posted by | Uncategorized | | 2 Comments

Woh Play

There’s a powerful point of resolution that comes late in Dead Again that dropped my jaw and drew from me the heartfelt and totally appropriate exclamation, “Whoa!”  You’ll know the climax I’m talking about if and when you see the film.  The urge to discuss this film to death, though extremely tempting, would be sinful.  It’s sufficient to say that the exclamation I made took my thoughts in a new direction — to a form of theatrical presentation with which I’m utterly unfamiliar; the Noh play.

Wikipedia hasn’t been particularly helpful to me in knitting conjectural threads together, but my sense of wonderful resonanace persists in the performances of a largely classically-trained British cast in interpreting and rendering an obviously-traditional American noir (reboot), set in LA, re-envisioned via the magnifying glass of a deeply alien theatrical culture.  The result is downright stunning. 

Branagh’s commentary illuminates in-jokes, conceits and allusions to previous noir practitioners; Welles, Hitchcock, Wilder…but failed to mention Preston Sturges, whose Unfaithfully Yours it nearly mirrors in a number of interesting particulars.  Neither does he mention the reincarnation of the Strauss mansion in the form of St. Audrey’s, nor the prevalence of music in driving action forward as though Dead Again were a curious kind of musical horror/noir/romance with veins of brutal and subtle humor that curdle the blood while delighting the mind.  The anklet in Double Indemnity.  Authentic LA geography.  Andy Garcia, Robin Williams, Campbell Scott stealing scenes in two-bit parts from some of the most-accomplished yespian transplants who ever learned to talk like ‘mericans with the aid of a dialect coach and tapes.  Vertical bars on the gate to melody, and the muffled screams of disharmony link Bird to Agincourt and Lush Life to To Be…or not.  It’s the moments rather than the moves that matter, and this film brings a ton of fascinating moments, choices and visual mapestry to moments from before it and since, sealed with the curse of a (writer’s block) kiss.  Woh!

Charles Laughton’s direction of Night of the Hunter brings Robert Mitchum’s left and right hands together in the rapidly-escalating Dead Again narrative in the form of two gloves that seem to be intent on delivering Emma Thompson from the mystery-resolution revealed through the mesmerizing grip of a kindly benevolence  whose BBC remake of The Epic That Never Was echoes in the immensity of Dead Again‘s transAtlantic and transcontinental, interdisciplinary remix of LA noir splendor-bending.  It’s a moment in which the viewer comes THIS CLOSE to losing all hope of a satisfying denouement.

This film is a far more remarkably adventurous achievement than The Lady in the Lake, specifically because it successfully integrates (with uncommon clarity) a vastly wider spectrum of human entertainment-experience(s) into a 107minute romp through challenging material that results in a film that’s bent on delighting and astonishing an audience that yawns at special effects,  yet cannot anticipate where Dead Again‘s headed.  I suspect it will bear up under repeated scrutinies in the same way that Chandler reads and re-reads; fruitfully, every time.  Toland collaborated with Welles in making a film that Welles didn’t know was impossible to make without breaking a number of rules (with which Welles was unfamiliar).  Toland came for the impossible eggs and stayed on to rewrite the rulebook.

I wish the dolly-camera 360° oner had culminated (in Emma’s hypnotic regression scene) by climbing through her left cornea in the same way that Sturges stepped into Rex Harrison’s retinal reality in Unfaithfully YoursDead Again (1991) is a fascinating film that I look eagerly forward to studying a third time while engaging with the second commentary.  I suspect this film was profoundly influential in inspiring and greenlighting a wealth of derivative productions (most of which I missed) like The Sixth Sense and Raines, along with the fifth and sixth seasons of Angel.  It’s another shining example of the stuff we’re calling New Media; synergizing entertainments founded on gigantic nuggets of cultural wealth that litter the paths-not-traveled-by in literature, theater, cinema and television.  If Branagh undertook Chandler, I’d wear bells.

Woh!

The second commentary intensifies my sense of loss for the many missing elements that would have made the theatrical release of this film a significantly crappier movie.  I ran through a number of IMDb reviews, noticing that many people hated or loved the film largely because of Branagh or Tompson, and that apart from that kind of preconception/bias, the remaining pans revolved around the expectation of a noir — which this film absolutely is and yet very often isn’t.  The film that was planned, shot and edited mercilessly into the final cut were three very different movies.  The commentaries note the sites of beautifully edited stumps where interesting sidebars and backstory limbs formerly hung, which puts Scott Frank high on my list of screenwriters whose work I’m going to explore gleefully.

07 Jun 09 Posted by | Uncategorized | | 2 Comments

Dark Passage

It’s a better film than Lady in the Lake that presents a far less convoluted plot and utilizes first-person camera quite a bit more effectively.  Although there is no commentary on the DVD I saw last night, the behind-the-scenes featurette narrator described the “first-person camera” technique with that term, which really does convey enough information to make “ontogenic” comparatively obsolete.

Delmer Daves’ treatment of his storyline is significantly less pedantic and literal (fundamentalist) than Montgomery’s, and Dark Passage (according to the featurette narrator) benefited greatly from the use of a much smaller camera.  Bogart’s role as Vincent Parry is made instantly more sympathetic by means of Parry’s spoken-to-nobody narrative, a trait that’s later explained in the film as a habit he picked up in prison.  Whether talking to himself (and to the audience) or to an on-screen character (in the familiar voice of Humphrey Bogart — like radio-cinematography) this device crystalizes and differenitiates several of the viewer’s Bogart-expectations from the viewpoint of this  story’s specific protagonist.  We not only see the world through Parry’s eyes, we also hear his thoughts, and that’s a vitally important literary dimension stripped from the reductive Montgomery cinematic variation of (a very literary) The Lady in the Lake.

Now that I have a couple of mainstream Hollywood experiments in first-person camera to compare with one another, the first, most obvious stumbling block in both films is the choice of the white, male protagonist as the one-and-only empathic POV from which each story is shot.  I have absolutely no problem gazing into the deliciously classy mystery known as Lauren Bacall, but I’d actually much prefer to see this story shown from the perspective of Irene Jansen, Bacall’s character.

Hanging out for the past several years at erotic photographic websites and forums, I’ve come to the conclusion that the women photographed are used primarily as projections screens for familiar male erotic/romantic fantasies.   The moment in The Matrix when the hot, openly-inviting blonde in the hot red party dress arrests Neo’s attention electrifies the first-person presence with an empathic lightning bolt, but its a device that operates on the locker-room level of conversation, like smalltalk between guys.  “Did you see the sash on that one?!”  How it feels to be a beautiful woman in public space composed largely of eyeballs, urges, contempt and lurid imaginations locked upon your every gesture — seems like a universe of fascinating stories Hollywood hasn’t bothered to tell, empathically nor otherwise.

The most fascinating aspect of Sex in the City, for me, was the long-desired opportunity to sense  mundane reality from the perspective of four attractive women, who converse with unprecedented candor.  The show never quite managed to provide the intimate glimpse I wanted from the high-heeled moccasins of an unqualified sexual-attention-target, but Dark Passage didn’t even try.  I wish it had.  Ultimately, the primary strength of the film resides in superior casting.  Bogart and Bacall do very fine work (that inevitably pales by comparison with To Have and Have Not), but the first half of the film belongs to Tom D’Andrea as the cab driver, who hands the film off to his exact-opposite;  Agnes Moorhead’s toweringly bitchy performance as the incredible Madge,  the unopened lock within which sits the riddle that drives the action and the heart of the film.

Casting 1946/7 San Francisco as the backdrop also works wonders for me, in that LA locations are less resonant (for me) in the noirs of the very same era, and the recognizable/articulated LA intersections don’t drip with the same desire to physically contextualize Ft. Point, Hyde Street, Powell & Market…, and the theoretical seven hills between the Ferry Building and Ocean Beach that Sam, the cabdriver, alludes to in the story he relates to Parry in the midst of the formation of an amazingly strong empathetic bond between two strangers, a theme that’s repeated throughout the film, and contrasted with relentless interrogations.

While Daves’ camera treatment of Parry is vastly more lyric and sympathetic than Montgomery’s take on Chandler’s material, it’s worthy of note that the corpse of Parry’s closest friend, George Fellsinger, is photographed in coverage from a point far beneath the floor (that’s magically turned to glass) in another yet alternative camera technique (extremely steep angles [that invariably tell their very own stories]) I’ve been longing for decades to see employed by innovative filmmakers and photographers.
http://somecamerunning.typepad.com/.a/6a00e5523026f58834011278d6f8ad28a4-800wi
  The visually sympathetic treatment of the fugitive protagonist is counterpointed by the battery of grueling, relentless, spontaneous interrogations that intensify the identification of the audience with Parry, while the forces that move the women in the film seem permanently condemned to be utterly mysterious; Miss Jansen’s wealth and idealism are superficially explained, but Madge Rapf’s psychotic persistence (and fall) bleeds unexplained madness through every frame of a film that traces Parry’s dogged determination to reveal the truth about his wife’s murder, while leaving a trail of dead people that terminates in Peru in one of the Hollywood’s strangest (and yet most spiritually satisfying) “resolutions”  to a murder mystery, ever.   Dark Passage is one very peculiar film.

I liked it a lot, largely because, as the featurette narrator says, there are fascinating secondary characters everywhere you look in a film that makes a good deal more emotional sense than The Lady in the Lake, and also did very little business at the box office.  Go figure.

Just as Focus is a film about (antiSemitic) intolerance that derives from the personnel manager’s story (that starts and ends early) in Gentleman’s Agreement, I like attempting (and failing) to reframe these classic films from the alternative perspectives of other characters locked forever in place in these narratives.   Madge’s motivations are probably beyond my comprehension, but Irene Jansen’s feel like they belong to somebody I already know.  The nearest thing to an example of the tree I’m barking up is evident in StopLoss, a film in which male comradeship is exquisitely characterized by a female director (Kimberly Pierce) with, unprecedented sensitivity and empathic eloquence.  Also, go figure.

29 Apr 09 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | 2 Comments

NYT Review of LitL

Published: January 24, 1947

 

Having seen “Lady in the Lake” yesterday at the Capitol, this corner now can confirm what the advertisements have been saying all along. The picture is definitely different and affords one a fresh and interesting perspective on a murder mystery. YOU do get into the story and see things pretty much the way the protagonist, Phillip Marlowe, does, but YOU don’t have to suffer the bruises he does. Of course, YOU don’t get a chance to put your arms around Audrey Totter either. After all, the movie makers, for all their ingenuity, can go just so far in the quest for realism.

As the star and director, Robert Montgomery permits the camera to do most of his “acting,” the result being that his image is only observed when it can naturally be reflected through a mirror. And, since the story is a first person affair, the camera on occasion observes the detective seated at a desk relating his tortuous and exciting adventures in locating the missing Mrs. Chrystal Kingsby.

In making the camera an active participant, rather than an off-side reporter, Mr. Montgomery has, however, failed to exploit the full possibilities suggested by this unusual technique. For after a few minutes of seeing a hand reaching toward a door knob, or lighting a cigarette or lifting a glass, or a door moving toward you as though it might come right out of the screen the novelty begins to wear thin. Still, Mr. Montgomery has hit upon a manner for using the camera which most likely will lead to more arresting pictorial effects in the future.

Since Raymond Chandler provided the story and Steve Fisher wrote the screen play, one can rest assured that the plot isn’t lacking in complications, romantic and otherwise. Marlowe, naturally, has a weakness for a pretty client and runs into plenty of trouble with the police and assorted strangers the deeper his investigation goes. Clues sprout and evaporate, or end up as blind leads, until the spectator is nicely but firmly confused. This bewilderment doesn’t extend so much to the identity of the lady found in the lake as it does to how Marlowe will go about solving the mystery.

Mr. Montgomery has the least acting to do, but his scenes are played with ease and conviction. His Phillip Marlowe is somewhat more cynical and sneering—a characterization which is developed more by the tone of his voice than anything else—than the previous conceptions of the detective we got from Dick Powell in “Murder, My Sweet” and Humphrey Bogart in “The Big Sleep.” You can take your choice of the three and still be happy. Audrey Totter, who is blonde and fetching, gets her first really important role in this picture and handles herself most credibly. Lloyd Nolan, Jayne Meadows and Leon Ames do very well by supporting roles, which permit them to develop sizable characterizations.
LADY IN THE LAKE, based on the novel by Raymond Chandler; screen play by Steve Fisher; directed by Robert Montgomery; produced by George Haight for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Philip Marlowe . . . . . Robert Montgomery
Adrienne Fromsett . . . . . Audrey Totter
Lieutenant DeGarmot . . . . . Lloyd Nolan
Captain Kane . . . . . Tom Tully
Derace Kingsby . . . . . Leon Ames
Mildred Havelend . . . . . Jayne Meadows
Chris Lavery . . . . . Dick Simmons
Eugene Grayson . . . . . Morris Ankrum
Receptionist . . . . . Lila Leeds
Artist . . . . . William Roberts
Mrs. Grayson . . . . . Kathleen Lockhart
Chrystal Kingsby . . . . . Ellay Mort

In heated conversation wth the guys from Heroes, David Thorburn indicated that the entertainment industry failed for twenty years to tell stories effectively in that medium, and not until the middle/late 60s did they get it halfway right.  I worship at Professor Thorburn’s temple, but the statue devoted to Kojak just puts me uptight.

Montgomery tried to project the subjective experience of reading a compelling novel (that was cobbled together from earlier short stories) onto The Big Screen in an age when movie cameras were as tiny and agile as Robbie the Robot.  Montgomery also smooshed a lot of the bitter, irrascible, curmudgeonly Raymond Chandler into his largely-unpleasant, unheroic portrayal of Phillip Marlow.  And prevented the (medium-BigDraw) star of the movie, himself, from appearing (more than momentarily) onscreen.  In retrospect, the film describes  a lot like a recipe for disaster.

It was a very bold, upstream, mainstream industrial experiment that failed for several reasons; none of them definitive.  If (for the past 20, 40, 60 years) filmmakers had worked assiduously at sidestepping Montgomery’s errors in filming ontogenic/subjective camera studies, maybe the challenges facing transmedia storytellers would be significantly different.  Maybe not.

Whether and how this movie or novel relates to the titular reference embedded in Arthurian legend remains to be seen, but I confess a certain affection for the notion that Marlowe’s powers of observation liken him to Merlin, his obsolete idealism puts me in mind of Arthur, and the contradiction of an intermittently sleazy boyscout kind of smells like Lancelot.  There’s also an attractive allusion in The Lady In/Of the Lake to the continuing, unresolved determination whether the sword or the pen is the more mighty Promethean instrument.  I tend to lean toward the camera, but each tool is essentially a technical implement wielded by creative imagination in various media, so they’re fundamentally one (and the same) means to the end of profoundly effective communication.

24 Apr 09 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | 3 Comments