Wednesday, January 28, 2009
Remember when that pregnant man went on Oprah? And then he got pregnant again? Except, he's sexually a woman, so it wasn't really that shocking? But it was too late, and a shark retaliated by making a baby out of her own DNA, no man required? Well the battle for which species mastered life is over. The victor? A 5 mm-long jellyfish.
This jellyfish species literally rejuvenates from sex? Life is so cruel!
Friends know that I have long been an out-and-proud immortality-seeker. Where everyone else takes the pansy route of "I wouldn't want to see everyone I love die," I console myself with thoughts of exploring the entire universe along with my robot lover Paolo. He's Brazilian; it's complicated.
Now we have a species that, essentially, is immortal! Scientists are still uncertain of the facts (i.e. how many times they can rejuvenate), but the path ahead is pretty clear to me. First, we must prepare to defend ourselves against these jellyfish overlords--for they just rose to the top of the food chain as unkillable enemies, like the ghosts in Pirates of the Caribbean or cylons before Galactica blew up the hub. Our preparations should involve as much environmental damage as we can muster. Oh good, we're ahead of the curve.
Second, we must isolate the genes that allow for cell transdifferentiation, the mechanism by which these jellyscum rejuvenate. I volunteer to be a test recipient of these genes. What's the worst that could happen? I could grow tentacles covered in cnidoblasts, voluntarily fluoresce, and look really sweet when I swim? Uh, yes please.
The goal is clear: we must find a way for man to achieve immortality. Dr. Frankenstein was close, but he failed because he had emotional attachments to, like, everyone in Germany. At least, that's what I got out of it.
Not everyone will have to be immortal, of course, and I imagine this will prompt as many religious suicide pacts as willing immortals, thus balancing the effects. But it must be an option for those of us seeking that fountain of youth. Let me put it in terms we can all get behind: figure out how to make humans immortal (tentacles or no), and slap a hefty price tag on the operation. We'll be out of this recession in no time.
After the first wave of the revolution takes place, society will have to ask itself if we want a fallible man-terrorist like Barack Obama as our president, or do we want an invincible jellygod like me? That's what I thought.
When I'm president of the known universe, my first order will be to appoint Sarah Palin my jester. I'm pretty sure Tina Fey and I will become bffs, and we'll probably take off in our spaceship to tour the solar system, leaving the running of Earth to mortals like you. I will be a benevolent but assertive god, a cross between Dr. Manhattan and Ozymandias, so no worries: Watchmen ends happily.
So, you see, we have to take immortality from these jellyfish. It's our manifest destiny. We've spread across as much space as we have on this planet, and soon we'll spread further. It's time to spread through time.
I feel like Prometheus trying to steal fire from the gods. How'd that story end?
I'm neither religious nor superstitious, and Greek boogieman tales are not remotely threatening. I ain't afraid of no ghosts. On the other hand, I loves me some science. So get on that for me, scientists. The revolution awaits.
For our closing prayer, please join me in a song on your way out:
"Let's dance in style, let's dance for a while,
Heaven can wait, we're only watching the skies,
Hoping for the best, but expecting the worst,
Are you going to drop the bomb or not?
"Let us die young or let us live forever,
We don't have the power but we never say never,
Sitting in a sandpit, life is a short trip,
Music's for the sad man.
"Can you imagine when this race is run,
Turning up our faces into the sun,
Praising our leaders getting in tune
Music's played by the mad man.
"Forever young, I want to be forever young...."
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Sunday, January 25, 2009
Tonight's SAG Awards proved that the most boring awards season can still be fun, and even a little surprising.
In television comedy, 30 Rock won the trifecta, earning stars Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin that much more momentum. Unless The Office is significantly better than 30 Rock this year, and I'm talking major critical buzz because simply being good isn't good enough, then there's no stopping the 30 Rock train at least until next year's Emmys. Which is fine by me. Now that they've won so much, and Fey has to bring multiple speeches to each ceremony, supporting players like Tracy Morgan at the Golden Globes and Jane Krakowski here get some spotlight. Morgan especially killed, as he did on the red carpet at the SAG Awards, claiming feverishly that James Earl Jones is his biological father.
Over in drama, Mad Men somehow lost Best Actor and Best Actress, which is manifestly ludicrous. I enjoy Sally Field on Brothers and Sisters and Hugh Laurie on House (though this is by far House's most annoying season), but they are simply not in the same class as Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss. This has a lot to do with directing, editing, and writing of course--it's not Field's fault that she's on a soap, nor Laurie's that he's on a procedural--and both actors are tremendously charismatic, but Hamm and Moss (and January Jones and Christina Hendricks, etc.) regularly display a depth unseen elsewhere on the small screen. This is largely why Mad Men received the Best Ensemble award, the most well-deserved of the night, but it would have been nice to see professional actors rewarding Hamm and Moss individually for their unparalleled authenticity.
John Adams swept the miniseries awards, scoring an Actor (the SAG trophy) each for leads Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney. While well-deserved, it's my opinion that Laura Dern needs more trophies.
Halfway through, James Earl Jones received the Lifetime Achievement Award, delivering a lovely speech in that trademark basso capped by a little tribute to Paul Newman. "Somebody down here likes you." Talk about class.
Kate Winslet won the first film award of the evening, apparently stunned when her name was announced as the Best Supporting Actress. This ought to be a tremendous boon to her Oscar chances, although there she will face SAG's Best Actress of the year, Meryl Streep for Doubt. Apart from the hilarious scene between John Krasinski and Amy Poehler, presenting a TV Drama award, Streep's acceptance speech was the best moment of the night. First she rails that awards mean nothing, to oddly thunderous applause at an awards ceremony. Then she laughs that she didn't even buy a dress for the occasion, revealing her slacks instead. She follows up with a stream of consciousness on the great year for actresses and the communal victory for women and the misnomer Best Actress. Finally she calms down and individually praises her cast members and writer-director John Patrick Shanley with precise gratitude, compliments both natural and deeply felt. No wonder she's the Queen of Hollywood. That's when she debunks the myth of the "best actress" and her own oft-declared title, "greatest living actress." Lovely as Winslet is, and though I prefer Hathaway's performance, I am now rooting for Streep to win the Oscar.
Meanwhile, Heath Ledger won Best Supporting Actor, continuing his streak as the biggest lock of the year. Gary Oldman accepted with a brief but touching speech, and Ledger received a solemn but congratulatory standing ovation. Then, following Streep's rapturous acceptance, Sean Penn wins Best Actor and much less gracefully attempts righteousness. He assails the Best Actor notion, calls out Oscar prognosticators, and says that the Best Actor nominees know something we don't, which is that awards don't matter and they all learn from each other. I'm phrasing it poorly, but it wasn't all that coherent to begin with. Besides, he's holding Rourke's trophy, and if not Rourke, Jenkins or Langella. The low point of the night followed the high.
And finally, somewhat unexpectedly, Slumdog Millionaire won Best Ensemble. During the presentation of clips, it sounded like there was most applause for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and then during the nominee announcement, Milk seemed to be ahead. But no, the SAG deemed the mostly unknown cast of Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire the best ensemble of the year. The cast who accepted were genuinely grateful, and in a display of further class, Freida Pinto listed the names of the child actors who could not be there.
On the heels of last night's PGA Awards victory, Slumdog Millionaire is untouchable going into the Oscars. I can't say I'm thrilled about this, but like the Queen said, awards don't mean anything anyway.
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Saturday, January 24, 2009
Enough harping on movies that don't deserve so much attention. So the Oscar nominations proved lamentably usual. What's new? It's the Age of Obama! I'm legally mandated to convey only hope and inspiration. So let's talk about the movies that enraptured us heart and soul, the movies that enveloped us in their universes, the movies that--dare I say it? Yes, because irony is now dead--changed us.
No place to start like the beginning, eh?
My first landmark was a Disney film--nay, not a Disney film, but the Disney film: The Lion King. Perhaps my gay 9 year-old self telepathically connected with Elton John's music (or more likely, JTT in lion form, which still makes me feel weird), but for some reason, I took to this animal kingdom story much stronger than I had to previous Disney movies. In 1994, the animals were the primary draw: lions and a hornbill and a meerkat and, best of all, a baboon! In 2009, I understand more clearly why the movie works so well. First, the plot is lifted from Hamlet, the cliched but uncontested title for the greatest work in the English language (I am both underqualified and unwilling to challenge this assertion, but welcome other viewpoints). Setting aside its arty philosophical ponderings, the Hamlet story is one of royal court intrigue, murder and betrayal and ghosts. How could you not love all that? Getting back to The Lion King, this was a shockingly well-directed work. I've pointed many times to the expert opening sequence, one of the best in all cinema (that I've seen, of course). Look at what we're shown and when, and how the momentum of the entire jungle builds into Simba, propelling him through the rest of the story. Not to mention the bravura wildebeest stampede, the tender "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?" montage, or the emotional centerpiece of the work, Mufasa's ghost. Besides, the movie's funny, beautiful, and sing-along. You could do much worse than The Lion King, especially if you stick to Best Picture winners, but then I said I was going to stop talking about the Oscars.
The rest of that decade would be spent the same as most young movie-watchers, a steady drip of Spielberg, Hitchcock, and selected other mainstream, mostly middlebrow hits. But not until The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring had I been as possessed by a film as I was by The Lion King. We walked into the theater based solely on the trailers, my parents and I, having no idea what to expect. Three hours later, I was more than a convert--I was ordained. No movie had so completely surrounded and involved me before. Tolkien and Jackson establish a complicated universe built on a history of civilizations that envelops you, propelling you on a tour of Middle-Earth. A week or so later, I received the books for Christmas, devouring them shortly thereafter. The next two years are a drunken haze; nothing shined quite so bright as the Lord of the Rings trilogy. With a few years distance, I still haven't found a better film from 2002 or 2003 than The Two Towers and The Return of the King, respectively. But the one that enraptured me most faces heavy competition--2001 was a rich year for film.
My freshman year of college, bisected by the arrival of the once and future King of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, introduced me to an expected medley of contemporary auteurs, from Christopher Guest to Darren Aronofsky. My horizons were expanding, but like many teenagers, I was still unaware of how much I didn't know. The following Fall, Mulholland Dr. floated around campus like a meme--I can chart the word-of-mouth trail that led it to me. Watching it alone, late at night, and on my computer may have been the perfect inaugural encounter with David Lynch. Less so for my roommate, whom I must have woken up with my repeated gasps of fright (I still can't handle the creature by the dumpster, although that has a lot to do with the easy, manipulative soundtrack roar). But never had I been so delighted to be so terrified, so haunted, and most of all, so thoroughly perplexed by what I had experienced. For this was no mere movie, but a riddle, a game that demands participation. And for some reason, I offered myself entirely to it. The next night, I watched it again, this time with friends who turned out to be more frustrated by Lynch's disorienting riddle than I. Silly me, I even boasted that I understood it mostly--which I remembered was a complete lie I convinced myself of. We all agreed by the time we entered Club Silencio that understanding it on first viewing would be a titanic feat. I have since become enamored of Lynch's filmography as a whole, but especially with his most recent venture Inland Empire, which, despite my incomprehension, I take to be his magnum opus. But Mulholland Dr.--with its gripping noir mood, hazy sense of mystery, bizarre side-stories, and a laundry list of clues that amount to an even larger realization of our limitations--changed me. In a way, I've been chasing that feeling ever since, desperately searching for my next fix of mental masochism. I had grown as a movie-watcher--not to say that Lynch-loathers aren't as progressed, but that I had discovered something about myself--and I have since thrown myself into film, traditional narrative or not.
Of course, Mulholland Dr. was merely Part 1 of my Sophomore Year of Life-Changing Movies. Part 2 came the next semester. By this time, I was unabashedly using college as an excuse to watch as many movies as I could, printing out and checking off best-of lists with glee. One night, I programmed a lovely marathon for myself: Rashomon, Duck Soup, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Looking back, what a phenomenal night. The final title is the key here, but let's take a moment to acknowledge the journey. My first encounter with Kurosawa is still my favorite, a gorgeous philosophical melodrama, followed by my first encounter with the Marx brothers. At bat: a nearly three-hour western starring one of my then-least favorite stars (which had less to do with his performances than his direction of the overrated Million Dollar Baby). And I was harboring an anti-western prejudice for some still unknown reason. Needless to say, the odds were stacked against Leone.
By the time Tuco stopped in freeze-frame, post-shootout, with a New Wave-esque title calling him "The Ugly," I was sold. As with Fellowship, here was an entire universe that swept me up and took me on an adventure. The picaresque story allowed me to experience several, infinitely fascinating western locations, from a bombed out town to a small pueblo to a Spanish mission to the out-of-the-way gun shop Tuco robs. I had so much fun experiencing Leone's world, an Old West not bound by historical accuracy so much as coolness, that I was disappointed when the movie ended after two hours and forty minutes. I had found a spiritual brother, someone who seemed to share my imagination. My unbounded love for The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, which is now my comfort movie, opened me to westerns, although only recently did I realize that my infatuation had more to do with the cool, mythical West of spaghetti westerns than the western genre as a whole. Unfortunately, Leone only made five, although I am working my way through Corbucci's filmography as well.
My next two years were spent filling in gaps. I embarked on a summer-long Criterion binge, dove into Orson Welles and Ingmar Bergman, tried out Woody Allen and Jean-Luc Godard and Jules Dassin and Carl Theodor Dreyer. During this time, I first saw several of my all-time favorites, including Persona and every movie Orson Welles cut. While these were exceptional films, none of them struck me in the same way as Mulholland Dr. or The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, perhaps because I watched so many masterpieces so close together. The peaks didn't stand out as much.
Then came Last Year at Marienbad, almost exactly a year ago, a controlled journey through branches of the timeline that may have never come to be. I had just completed my primary Bergman marathon (supplemented sporadically since), and read a brief snippet on Ebert's website about the Resnais classic, possibly for a Great Movies essay or a re-posted review for a revival in Chicago (how fitting that I can't quite recall). It sounded like it was up my alley, but I was unprepared for just how much I would adore Marienbad. The floating camera, geometric compositions, baroque architecture, haunting fugue, and hypothetical, self-reflexive narrative preyed on the part of my mind that Lynch massages, absorbing me in a film unlike any other, including Mulholland Dr. and Altman's similarly dreamy 3 Women. No, Resnais' dreamscape enchanted me for weeks. The architectural refrain that opens the film (describing the empty corridors and such) stuck with me, haunting me along with the pounding organ. I was astonished by the artful transition from the dark lounge to the girl's bright room. I admired the film's blatant dismissal of reliable elements like time and space, its refusal to adhere to the rules. Tarantino and Lost have nothing on Marienbad, the most appropriate depiction of memory and dream I've seen.
That was around the time I saw a flood of greats like Sunrise, The Rules of the Game, and Andrei Rublev. But despite these classics, my next (and most recent) game-changer would be El Topo a month after Marienbad. Alejandro Jodorowsky's western works perfectly for me. First, like spaghetti westerns, it ignores historical accuracy in favor of coolness, so instead of ranchers and saloon girls, Jodorowsky's world is inhabited by gunslingers and bandits. But unlike those spaghetti westerns, Jodorowsky imbues El Topo with a range of allegorical elements, lending it a post-Christian mythical weight that may not have anything meaningful to say apart from its status as a post-Christian myth. Actually, I think El Topo has plenty to say, false dichotomies be damned. And while the second tale cannot possibly achieve the transcendence of the first, lengthier quest for knowledge and glory, the work as a whole is a stunning meditation that distracts you with its inspired, lo-fi camerawork and gunplay that actually leads to violent deaths, as opposed to Leone's clinical, one-shot-and-you're-dead approach.
Sure I've seen other masterworks--Raiders of the Lost Ark, Chimes at Midnight, George Washington, Inland Empire, and Werckmeister Harmonies are a few favorites--but no movies have inspired me like these. The Lion King; The Fellowship of the Ring; Mulholland Dr.; The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly; Last Year at Marienbad; and El Topo--these films own property in my brain. These are the movies that made me ask, "How have I not seen this until now?" (which is the film equivalent of "Where have you been all my life?"). Two of them created universes I want to visit, two of them are intense riddles that expanded my concept of what film can do, one's an animated children's movie, and one's a college course unto itself. These are not my six favorite movies, but for certain reasons, some of which are outside of the movies themselves, they each, in their ways, woke me up. I guess you could say the shared factor is that they each evoke wonder and awe, but I imagine other films have provoked similar responses without enchanting me like these.
What are the movies that enraptured you? More importantly, what about those films enchanted you so? I can describe why a movie works and what I love about these films, but I'm having trouble conveying the shared traits of these movies that changed me, apart from the effects themselves.
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Posted by Brandon Nowalk at 8:08 PM
Friday, January 23, 2009
Spoilers for tonight's episode (Season 4, Episode 12) after the jump.
Building on last week's momentous philosophical ponderings--in the absence of an external threat, a people will fracture, finding enemies in each other; faced with the a bleak future after years of depending on a fantasy, some will pick themselves up again, and others will turn to nihilism--"A Disquiet Follows My Soul" patiently prepares us for the inevitable insurrection.
Just because most of the principals hit a brick wall last week doesn't mean life came to a halt in the fleet. So we open with one of those day-in-the-life, morning routine montages, which is actually a beautiful setup for our later discovery of Bill's medicine (more on that below).
But while Bill's trying to reassert the status quo--a little too late, judging by the rest of the episode--everyone else is reassessing their priorities (i.e. inciting riot). For Gaeta, this means fomenting anti-cylon violence. Relatedly, even if he had two good legs, Starbuck would destroy Gaeta. ("In case you're wondering, I will definitely hit a cripple." I look forward to that scene.) This is a woman who has been haunted by her mother, her daughter (sorta) and now herself. I don't think little old Gaeta's going to intimidate her.
Zarek's taken his rebellion public too, only his was more legitimate, at least in the beginning. By turning the cylon alliance into a states rights issue, he won public support for his democratic rebellion. Of course, this demonstrates the need for an oversight court--something to check the legislature. But in absence of such an entity, Adama violated democracy once again "for the greater good." Bluff-blackmailing Zarek gave Adama an interesting and appropriately dirty way out of the scenario without quelling the rebellion entirely.
Next week apparently sees the Gaeta-led mutiny, attempted cylon purge, and bullets in CIC. Accordingly, "A Disquiet Follows My Soul" was more of a bridge between the post-Earth fallout and the mutiny proper, so it came off a bit less focused than usual. With writing and performances this good, just checking in on all the characters provides a solid episode--it just wasn't a standout. Then again, it would be impossible to continue the string of one-ups the show has been on.
So let's check in on the characters:
Saul is somehow the most well-adjusted Final Fiver. Which stands to reason, given the man's history of survival and determination, but is all the more astonishing having seen his coping strategies last year of alternately abusing and sleeping with his cylon prisoner. It'd be weird to see ravishing, youthful Number Six doting on old, grizzled Saul if Tricia Helfer weren't so believable. As much as I'm blown away by Michael Hogan, Helfer has been a revelation since the miniseries.
No sign of Tory today, or Anders (apart from the frightening converse of "Collaborators" glimpsed in the previews for next week), but Tyrol sure got a nice spotlight. Finding out he was't Nicky's father was the big surprise of the night. I had my money on Baltar--simply because, who hasn't he banged, though also because she got pregnant on New Caprica while he was a man in power--but Hot Dog was a better choice. If for no other reason than the only thing I remember about his character is that he had an STD a while back. Sure hope that Cylon blood keeps Tyrol clean (and I sure hope that whiny Cally had some constant itching down below), but that reminds me: Tyrol and Hot Dog are going to raise Nicky together? Between this and the Gaeta-Hoshi smooch in the webisodes (sidenote: Hoshi can do better), Ronald D. Moore is sticking by his promise that homosexuality is alive and well in Battlestar.
The other big news with Tyrol came in his first lines of the episode, representing the Base Star. In his podcast, Moore mentioned that they had intended Tyrol to go live on the Base Star following the Earth debacle, but held off on it. Apparently, they're not holding off too long. Moore also confirmed that last week's "Sometimes a Great Notion" was Lucy Lawless' final episode. I'm disappointed that such a significant character seemingly wrote herself out of the grand design (by choosing to live out her days on Earth), but at least we got a few more episodes with Three since her boxing.
Baltar's cult is stronger and more gender-balanced than ever! Hearing his slow, methodical, almost hypnotic (and isn't that the point?) preaching on the radio or intercom always enhances an episode. He's also leading a mutiny, only his is against God. I wonder what Head Six would have to say about this blatant defiance of God's will. Still, I think I like short-haired Gaius better than long-haired Gaius, perhaps because his narcissistic Jesus thing is less overt.
Which brings us to the aforementioned stalled leaders. As much as I enjoyed them last week, their post-jog conversation here was my favorite scene of theirs this year. Edward James Olmos rocked the "We need you" speech, sweetly appealing to her sense of responsibility, and in case you haven't noticed, I rarely compliment Olmos' performance to the degree most do. And then Mary McDonnell countered with a terribly moving, "Maybe, just maybe, I've earned the right to live a little before I die. Haven't I?" These two always make me sympathize with poor decisions. I still think they're clearly neglecting their responsibilities in the biggest crisis the fleet has seen since the Caprica apocalypse, but you can't not feel for them in moments like this.
I would mention their final romantic dalliance, except there's nothing really to say. I'm glad it's happening, but really, people, you've got a society to run. More importantly, Bill is on medicine, and he's not spilling to Roslin or Tigh. The latter even mentions that Bill "looks like hell." Is he the dying leader? And can't the dying leader simply be dying, and not dead, for the prophecy to be true (if it even has to be--there's no reason the show can't go against the prophecy, especially in light of Earth's fate)?
(UPDATE: Mo Ryan's interview with Ronald D. Moore about "A Disquiet Follows My Soul," Moore's directorial debut, confirms that Adama takes pain pills, but "it's not a sign of something deeper." So Adama is not the dying leader, if there is to be one.)
Next week: the revolution begins. I hope for Gaeta's sake he has an escape pod stashed away.
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Thursday, January 22, 2009
Instead of whining about the Oscar snubs--or whining about them in another form anyway--I have compiled a list of alternative Oscar nominations made up entirely of snubbed candidates. Several searing performances were rightly honored by Oscar this morning, but I have set those aside in favor of spreading the love. Long-time fans (aka my three friends) should expect my annual Brandon Movie Awards soon--they're undergoing renovations still. For now, feast on my 2009 Oscar alternatives.
Unfortunately, I still have yet to see I've Loved You So Long; The Reader; Synecdoche, New York; and Waltz with Bashir. Also, for extra entertainment, I've starred the winners of my alternative Oscar categories.
Best Supporting Actress:
Catherine Deneuve - A Christmas Tale
Laura Dern - Recount
*Rosemarie DeWitt - Rachel Getting Married
Isamar Gonzales - Chop Shop
Ann Savage - My Winnipeg
Savage was an obvious pick for me, essentially the only star in my favorite film of the year. As long as we're giving out posthumous awards, I think Savage, whose specter haunts the entire Oedipal story, deserves consideration. Of course--BMA spoiler alert--Rosemarie DeWitt gave my favorite film performance of the year, but again, I'm a Mad Men fanboy like no other, so take that with a grain of salt. (My favorite performance, film or otherwise? January Jones.) Dern's Katherine Harris has not been given its due either, and I'm at a loss as to why. It's a political impression--which should be an awards magnet--that is authentic while hilariously entertaining. Dern's Harris is both batshit crazy and a believable woman caught up in an event she clearly doesn't comprehend beyond its implications for herself. Rounding out the category, Gonzales' scenes in Chop Shop feel like a documentary, and Catherine Deneuve's ill matriarch braces herself for her fate despite an onslaught of resurgent familial trials.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, scoring 13 nominations, ties for the second-most Oscar nominations in history. This means nothing, of course, but doesn't that just seem off? Tying this Academy-beloved film into this post, Tilda Swinton deserves consideration for her performance in Button.
Best Supporting Actor:
Mathieu Amalric - A Christmas Tale
Ralph Fiennes - In Bruges
James Franco - Pineapple Express
Bill Irwin - Rachel Getting Married
*Eddie Marsan - Happy-Go-Lucky
Jean-Paul Roussillon - A Christmas Tale
Marsan leads the pack as Eddie the thoroughly Leigh-esque driving instructor, and ought to be Ledger's prime competition. Ralph Fiennes scored some buzz for The Duchess and The Reader, but his turn as a foul-mouthed criminal in In Bruges wins. I couldn't pick between the two nominations for A Christmas Tale, so I expanded the category to six slots. Amalric is so fun to watch, particularly as the crazy uncle, Desplechin's mainstay, and Roussillon as the patriarch is the glue that holds the film and family together. You believe he's grandpa to the kids sitting on his lap, husband to the woman who calmly reveals her disease, father to the kids who show up after midnight. Bill Irwin plays another father deserving of awards attention, this one less composed but trying his damnedest. His character gets a broad range of scenes, but the most searing is when he silently grapples with past trauma, sitting on the couch physically unable to speak. Finally, I couldn't cut the Golden Globe-nominated James Franco, with a performance sweeter than Sally Hawkins' Poppy.
Best Lead Actress:
Rebecca Hall - Vicky Cristina Barcelona
*Sally Hawkins - Happy-Go-Lucky
Maria Onetto - The Headless Woman
Michelle Williams - Wendy and Lucy
Kate Winslet - Revolutionary Road
Again, ignoring the best lead female performance of the year is one of the day's biggest Oscar flubs. Hawkins adeptly pulled off a challenging role by making it look easy, and thanks to her, Poppy is not only endlessly watchable but fascinating. Maria Onetto also gave a performance of the year as a vaguely troubled (though ultimately contentedly resigned) rich wife, but The Headless Woman still lacks American distribution, and we all know the Oscars' Foreign-Language Film category is in serious need of reform. Michelle Williams is almost the only character in Wendy and Lucy, captivating us not with show-stopping Acting! but with helpless stuck-edness. I'm not sure Rebecca Hall qualifies as a lead--I'm not sure there is a lead character in Vicky Cristina Barcelona--but she undergoes the biggest arc, and is our primary guide. And Winslet is almost always deserving, but I haven't seen The Reader, so I picked her performance as a dreaming homemaker stricken with '50s ennui.
Best Lead Actor:
*Colin Farrell - In Bruges
Brendan Gleeson - In Bruges
Alejandro Polanco - Chop Shop
Michael Shannon - Shotgun Stories
Michael Sheen - Frost/Nixon
Artur Steranko - Four Nights with Anna
Rather than pick between the best duo of the year, the In Bruges boys, I'd cut Michael Sheen. But in the interests of this fake awards show, I'm recognizing Sheen for his subtle, necessarily overshadowed work as David Frost. Sheen realizes a character that is written as a rookie hero archetype instead of a human being. But Farrell and Gleeson dominate the category for me, Gleeson with his older, more curious tourist and Farrell with his anxious, impatient need to distract himself from his guilt. Farrell's Globes win was one of the highlights--how strange for the year's Globes to outshine the Oscars (though I suppose I should wait on that proclamation until after the ceremony)--and I wish he at least had a shot at the biggie. Alejandro Polanco will break your heart as a street urchin preparing to realize his dream to get out of the slums. Shannon scored a Supporting nomination for Revolutionary Road, but Shotgun saw his more complicated performance, that of the leader of a clan of brothers squaring off with rival half-brothers in the wake of their father's death. And Artur Steranko, like Michelle Williams in Wendy and Lucy, is usually the only character on screen, mesmerizing us with his silent, hypnotic work as a lonely, victimized unrequited lover.
I could go on, but I'll save something for the official BMAs. What about you? What were your biggest Oscar snubs?
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Forest Whitaker and Sid Ganis presented the Oscar nominations this morning. Shall we?
Best Supporting Actress:
Amy Adams - Doubt
Penelope Cruz - Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Viola Davis - Doubt
Taraji P. Henson - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Marisa Tomei - The Wrestler
Forgetting Rosemarie DeWitt (Rachel Getting Married) is the biggest Oscar crime of the day. Oh, and Kate Winslet's absence was shocking--at first (foreshadowing). Amy Adams getting through proves the Academy loved Doubt. I suppose I'm rooting for Penelope Cruz. I wonder who the frontrunner is at this point.
Best Supporting Actor:
Josh Brolin - Milk
Robert Downey, Jr. - Tropic Thunder
Philip Seymour Hoffman - Doubt
Heath Ledger - The Dark Knight
Michael Shannon - Revolutionary Road
Michael Shannon has to be the surprise of the year. He was pretty outstanding in Revolutionary Road, but obviously he stands no chance against Heath Ledger. And Robert Downey, Jr. got a nomination, which makes up for many Oscar crimes.
Best Lead Actress:
Anne Hathaway - Rachel Getting Married
Angelina Jolie - Changeling
Melissa Leo - Frozen River
Meryl Streep - Doubt
Kate Winslet - The Reader
Apparently Oscar voters ignored Winslet's campaign for Supporting Actress for The Reader and Lead for Revolutionary Road. I wonder how close it was. Also, Sally Hawkins' snub is unbelievable. That was one of the best lead performances of the year. I hope Anne Hathaway wins to spice things up--and also to piss off all the Rachel haters. Then again, I wouldn't hold a win against Winslet, who is probably my favorite contemporary actress.
Best Lead Actor:
Richard Jenkins - The Visitor
Frank Langella - Frost/Nixon
Sean Penn - Milk
Brad Pitt - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Mickey Rourke - The Wrestler
Nothing all that surprising here. I hope Rourke wins.
Danny Boyle - Slumdog Millionaire
Stephen Daldry - The Reader
David Fincher - The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Ron Howard - Frost/Nixon
Gus Van Sant - Milk
No Christopher Nolan--that was a bit of a shock for me. Instead, the Academy picked The Reader, time and again, for that fifth slot. On the bright side--Gran Torino was justly passed over for Best Actor, Director, and Picture. Oops, spoiler alert.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Like I said, they chose The Reader over The Dark Knight when it came down to it. The rest are the usual suspects. Again, a middling, decent list of movies but nothing outstanding or original.
Best Original Screenplay:
Frozen River - Courtney Hunt
Happy-Go-Lucky - Mike Leigh
In Bruges - Martin McDonagh
Milk - Dustin Lance Black
WALL-E - Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon & Pete Docter
Frozen River must have some passionate support. I wouldn't pick it over scripts like Vicky Cristina Barcelona or Rachel Getting Married, but at least they nominated In Bruges, which is the nomination I'm pinning my Oscar happiness on. That and Hathaway for Best Actress. Also the nomination for WALL-E surprised me, although it obviously has colossal support.
Best Adapted Screenplay:
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - Eric Roth and Robin Swicord
Doubt - John Patrick Shanley
Frost/Nixon - Peter Morgan
The Reader - David Hare
Slumdog Millionaire - Simon Beaufoy
I'm bored. And these scripts are overrated.
Changeling - Tom Stern
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - Claudio Miranda
The Dark Knight - Wally Pfister
The Reader - Roger Deakins & Chris Menges
Slumdog Millionaire - Anthony Dod Mantle
I'm surprised Changeling got through, but better that than Gran Torino, I suppose.
Click here for the complete list of nominations. Trust me, there's nothing exciting in there, apart from a couple of nominations for Wanted. Encounters at the End of the World got through for Best Documentary, but it faces the solid but lesser Man on Wire. So am I alone here, or are these nominations mostly underwhelming? Which nominations did you love or hate?
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Sunday, January 18, 2009
As we close a chapter of American history, hopefully (there's that word again) to start fresh on January 20, we will undoubtedly see a change (there's that word again) in our cultural works. It's too soon to speculate how, with pilot season still months away, but something we can do is look back over the past 8 years and analyze the important television of the W. Bush administration.
By "important television," I don't mean to be elitist. I'm simply referring to artful works, shows that espouse a nuanced worldview, series that reflect our culture. It would be meaningless to examine television series that don't have anything to say. In other words, sorry Private Practice fans.
The politics of the past eight to ten years have forged a culture of distrust in our authority figures and institutions. We could go back further, to Watergate or Hoover or the "Compromise" of 1876 or the slavery era, but the past decade has been a tragicomic litany of political sins that has directly caused American deaths and falling confidence in the fairy tale of the American Dream. Lewinskygate turned the White House into a reality show, the election of 2000 assaulted republican principles, and the poorly-planned Iraq occupation continues to lose lives. The early days of Iraq were a reality show, too: we nicknamed Iraq's government officials Chemical Ali and Baghdad Bob, for crying out loud. That's hardly indicative of a serious examination.
Those are just the big three, but anyone even remotely engaged with the world could make a top-1o list of reasons why we don't, and shouldn't, trust our elected officials based on the past decade. Not surprisingly, modern television reflects this disillusionment.
The War in Iraq: A Very Special Episode
I'm not here to rant, but rather to assert that the Iraq War is the most direct influence on American television in recent years. I'll limit my analysis to more artful works, but it may benefit us to list even the less coherent shows that have addressed the War:
In Season 6, Scrubs hired Zach Braff's friend Michael Weston to do an arc as Private Dancer (not his Flashdance superhero name, nor his porn name), a wounded Iraq veteran. His first episode, "His Story IV," was told from Dr. Kelso's viewpoint. The hospital staff reacted to the veteran by breaking into strict political camps. The best part? Elliott getting aroused by Keith being a Republican. The worst? The resolution saw the staff uniting in their hatred of Kelso. Make of that what you will--I think the idea is that a group of people needs an Other to unite despite internal differences--but I found the story wanting. Relatedly, Grey's Anatomy recently hired Kevin McKidd to play a military doctor who just returned from Iraq.
Lost features one of the most diverse casts on television, and possibly the only Iraqi. An Iraqi hero, no less--Sayid may be my favorite protagonist these days. A significant source of conflict in the first season was Sawyer's xenophobia toward Sayid, but any political interests of the Lost writers have given way to more philosophical pursuits by now.
Weeds sent Uncle Andy off to boot camp, and while characters have occasionally railed against Bush or the political issue of the day, the series is more focused on domestic problems. Brothers and Sisters also contributed to our armed forces, sending youngest child and screw-up Justin off to war. He returned in a wheelchair, but the distress was mostly psychological and still manifests two years later. Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip had prominent arcs featuring a soldier from Afghanistan. Even The Real World cast a veteran one year.
Note: I don't watch The West Wing, Brotherhood, South Park, The Simpsons, Boston Legal, Commander-in-Chief, or Rome, but I am under the impression these shows (and many others) have also addressed Bush-era politics.
Clearly, the War in Iraq has influenced countless series that would otherwise stay out of politics (Scrubs, Lost), or series that regularly address political issues albeit with a heavy hand (Weeds, Brothers and Sisters). I hesitate to group Friday Night Lights here because, especially in its first season, it was artistically strong, a powerful portrait of community. But FNL, too, tangentially addresses the War in Iraq, with Matt Saracen's father an American soldier currently serving abroad. Of course, being FNL, his return was a subplot focused not on politics but family.
The Ends Justify the Means: Prosecuting the War on Terror
"Mackey's not a cop; he's Al Capone with a badge."
Perhaps the show most synonymous with the Bush Administration, despite not being particularly interested in commenting on the world, is 24, which premiered in November 2001, during the aftermath of the anthrax scare and the beginning of the War in Afghanistan. Notably, 24 was created by Joel Surnow, who also created Fox News' response to The Daily Show, the aborted (poor phrasing?) Half Hour New Hour. Of course, 24 is not an ideological soapbox--like I said, it's more interested in plot than commentary. Surnow likes to defend 24's political neutrality with David Palmer, a black regular who became the show's morally straight Democratic president.
But our present political disillusionment is not bound by party lines either. Palmer's campaign was mired in corruption, and his successors have sullied the office to varying degrees, most notably President Charles Logan in Season 5. Still, 24's headlines come from its liberal use of torture, as Jack Bauer's determination knows few bounds. Call me (and Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, etc.) crazy, but habeas corpus is an inalienable right derived from our inherent liberty. Tell that to Jack Bauer, and expect broken bones.
Despite sharper allegorical series (Battlestar Galactica), 24 is the most direct reflection of the tactics of the Bush Administration on television. CIA black sites, tales of Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and even the Valerie Plame scandal regularly remind the American people that things they'd rather not think about are happening in the name of security. Is it okay to let Jack Bauer (and others like him) defend us?
Vic Mackey, renegade LA cop on The Shield, is a spiritual brother to Jack Bauer, but The Shield confronts us in ways 24 never would, perhaps attributable to its home on cable. Where Jack Bauer is glorified, Vic Mackey is dehumanized, regularly portrayed as an animal, much like Tony Soprano. It follows that Mackey doesn't even have the scruples of Bauer. This is Machiavelli incarnate, and anything goes in the name of justice. The only problem is that justice sought in an extralegal manner violates the very idea of justice. Not that that's prevented any extralegal prosecutions at Guantanamo.
The Shield doesn't just ask questions. Vic Mackey, however redeemable--and redemption is a subject for you to decide--is a criminal. The true heroes of the series for me have always been Dutch and Claudette, whom I believe the writers created to establish a dichotomy with Vic and the Strike Team. Dutch and Claudette uphold democratic and moral standards, and they'd rather let ten guilty people go free than lock up one innocent person, even if that person is guilty of several other crimes.
Have we ever had television renegades entrusted to protect us as compelling as Jack Bauer and Vic Mackey? These guys have so captured the cultural consciousness that Kiefer Sutherland and Michael Chiklis have each won the Emmy for Best Actor. It's no surprise we're suddenly interested in operating outside the law. 24 and The Shield, which premiered in March 2002, are two of the earliest series demonstrably influenced by the War on Terror.
The Godfather: Tony Soprano and the Culture of Cynicism
"Let's join up, go kill some fucking terrorists."
"It's more noble than watching these jack-off fantasies on TV of how we're kicking their ass."
The Sopranos predates the Bush Administration, but it is directly responsible for the golden age of television drama, as most critics refer to the modern era, as contemporary dramas mimic the series' violence, serialization, and thematic depth and darkness. Season 3 began shortly after Bush took office, and over half of the series aired during the War on Terror. In fact, the title sequence changed for Season 4, removing a shot of the World Trade Center. These latter seasons are the most politically engaged.
For the first four years of the Bush Administration, the Emmy for Best Drama went to The West Wing, about an impossible, intellectual superman as president. The West Wing was Aaron Sorkin's fantasy White House (although Sorkin left the series shortly after the War in Iraq began), with highly educated people in charge who look at every issue from every angle, and they always do the right thing. Also, they speak like ads for Merriam-Webster's. But that fifth year, the Emmy was stolen by The Sopranos. Emmy turned cynical, and it hasn't looked back: Lost, 24, The Sopranos again, and Mad Men, each varying degrees of twisted, dark, iconoclastic, and pessimistic toward human nature, took the Emmy in the years since 2004.
The Sopranos made the world safe for darkness. At its core, the series was an existential examination of family, whether the biological or professional Sopranos. Along the way, creator David Chase exposed the fraud of the American Dream. As in Mario Puzo's The Godfather, the world of The Sopranos sees people in power as corrupt. What almighty force corrupts? Money. Chase is fond of bragging that his show is the first to assert that America is run on money and greed. I recall a lottery season of Roseanne, but when it comes to depth, Chase is right on the money, as they say.
Greed, of course, is one of the seven deadly sins, an eternal corrupting force not specifically limited to the past ten years of American disillusionment. Concordantly, the past ten years have seen their fair share of greed in politics: a spoils system of Iraqi contracts, most prominently with Halliburton, the rise and fall of Enron, and of course the present financial crisis, generated by each of the various actors thinking they could get something for nothing.
The Sopranos directly comments on the War on Terror in its final season, with AJ overcome by feelings of anxiety stemming from terrorism (much like Americans in the '50s who were unable to cope with the threat of sudden nuclear attack). The finale puts terrorism in the spotlight as Tony grows paranoid about some Arab associates of Christopher who may or may not be terrorists, and Agent Harris gradually contributes to rising fears of some eventual cataclysm. Of course, no cataclysm occurs--discounting a smash cut to black--which is Chase's way of addressing the xenophobic paranoia rampant in post-2001 America. The other obvious point is one addressed by The Wire and The Shield, there regarding neglect of the inner cities. In what way is the Sopranos' business not terrorism?
In connecting the two, Chase suggests that domestic corruption may be just as dangerous and pressing as foreign terrorism, if not more so. It's important to note that these parallels came about only during the final seasons, with the series firmly set during the Bush administration. During this time, The Sopranos' worldview, which captivated popular masses and critical elites, places blame on those contributing to corruption in institutions of authority, including politicians so blindly focused on an external threat that they ignore the real internal danger.
It's not TV, it's the Bush Administration
"All those mopes in bracelets, and not one of them named Osama."
In recent years, HBO made a name for itself as a haven for quality entertainment, scoring the most Emmy nominations each year of the Bush administration. Signature series followed the leads of The Sopranos and Oz, the network's first original drama, incorporating serialization, broad casts, taboo subjects, and elite production values. Beginning in June 2001, Six Feet Under regularly conveyed liberal viewpoints ("Support our troops? What a bunch of bullshit. Why don't you try driving something that doesn't require so much gas, for starters, if you're so fucking concerned."), but is politically inconsequential compared with other HBO fare.
From its profane start in March 2004, Deadwood has been a series deeply interested in exploring American politics. The premise sees hardline lawman Sheriff Seth Bullock set out for lawless Indian territory of Deadwood, beyond the reach of American legal limitations. As the series progresses, the town's social leaders conspire to keep the Dakotas independent, and accordingly more beneficial for shadier practices, and later fight in favor of annexation, but only in ways where they retain their status as business elites. The emphasis here is on the formation of government, exposing a deep-rooted oligarchy that institutes democracy to maintain a rigidly classist society. They even have a puppet mayor in spineless EB Farnum, exhibiting obvious parallels to the Bush administration and its love of the spoils system. (Speaking of which, how is Harriet Miers these days?)
Deadwood examines further the vulgar, hypocritical faces of American politics, but I'm more fresh on The Wire, which premiered in June of 2002. The first episode introduces a running subplot that the FBI has consolidated its resources to battle terrorism and corruption, leaving the lowly Baltimore PD to mediate the drug war, regardless of the fact that drugs kill more Americans than terrorists. The series as a whole is a provocative argument against "the system," or the entrenched institutionalization of American politics, business, and education, that confronts its audience with how little power they have to enact reform. Change is necessary, but impossible on the scale required; the best one can do is get out safely.
The Wire responds to the Bush Administration with iconoclasm, regularly assaulting the sacred cows of unfettered capitalism and the War on Terror. Capitalism is indeed a primary target of the series (as one of several institutions perhaps in need of reform), which chronicles the lives ruined by adhering more to our economic policy (including the black markets forced by prohibition of drugs) than compassionate social policy. The Wire approaches the War on Terror more obliquely. One episode, in which a series of superficial arrests becomes a photo op, is called "Mission Accomplished." The final season concerns a serial killer who preys on the homeless, only the story is fabricated by a cop. The higher up the ladder the truth goes, the bigger the cover-up becomes until everyone in a leadership position is promoted because of a lie. Here Simon is criticizing several aspects of the Bush Administration--not just the Iraq War which apparently had no true, public raison d'etre--and their dogged flouting of transparency.
A bastion of Emmy-winning movies and miniseries, HBO has not limited its political commentary to its dramas. Most recently, Simon and Burns produced Generation Kill, based on Rolling Stone reporter Evan Wright's time embedded with a misused battalion of elite marines. Despite the radical title, the series encapsulates the institutional failures of the Bush administration with a mostly even hand. A picaresque road movie, chapter after chapter demonstrates that those in the best position to assess the climate in Iraq are not those responsible for the decisions, and attempts to correct this are viewed as disloyal threats and met with bureaucratic resentment. During the War in Afghanistan, HBO premiered Band of Brothers, which celebrates the courage of soldiers, but reminds us of the inherent savagery of war. And during the 2004 presidential campaigns, when national attention turned to the issue of gay marriage, Angels in America proved a compassionate response to the negative Rove machine that ultimately won reelection for the incumbent Bush.
The John Adams miniseries, in exploring the founding father's life, exposes both his Enlightenment democratic philosophy, a depth of thinking scarcely seen among today's politicians, and his presidential mistakes, not least of which were the Alien and Sedition Acts. Adams' passive-aggressive attack on his dissenters was an affront to democracy, revealing an extreme mistrust of foreigners and antipathy for truly free speech, particularly resonant in light of the Bush era's ultranationalistic politics. Meanwhile, the television movie Recount sharply exposes the structural nuances that permitted a president to be decided rather than elected, ultimately enticing the audience, with the hindsight of two presidential administrations, to consider the necessity of direct election.
Comedy Night Done Left
"Just because I think gay dudes should be allowed to adopt kids and we should all have hybrid cars doesn't mean I don't love America."
Political comedy has been around since before Swift, before Dante, and before Aristophanes. In television, just when the traditional sitcom grew stale--though outliers certainly existed--the single-camera comedy grew in popularity (critically, anyway), and innovation in format lended itself to a resurgent creativity. In other words, while it's difficult to name many multi-camera sitcoms with effective social commentary, single-camera shows regularly engage in some of the sharpest satire on television.
Critical favorite Arrested Development--incidentally, my own pick for the best television series--is among the foremost television satires of modern times. Its premise targets the idle upper class, the pilot establishing a series aimed at Enron-type scandals, but in practice the series shifts its focus to the Bush Administration, taking on issues from gun control to displays of the 10 Commandments on public grounds. The photo of Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam Hussein in the '80s appears in a cutaway, the Bluths regularly bring out their Mission Accomplished banner (once with GOB even mimicking the president's landing in front of it), and even effigies of Bush crop up eventually. The War in Iraq becomes a prime subplot, actually, with Lucille bullied into signing Buster up for the army, and then Buster being forced to go despite several disabilities. Gob's Wife participates in the Abu Ghraib scandal. Protests are confined to free speech zones. The Patriot Act is used as an omnipotent source of power for the government. Saddam's body-doubles, fake WMD, and a subplot that visually mirrors the capture of Saddam all figure into the grand scheme. On top of this, the series ridicules the religious right, particularly in Season 2 when the Veals gain prominence (not coincidentally in the same year the religious right significantly affected the election), and Season 3 features a Church and State Fair wherein one character, chased by cops, takes the popemobile instead of a hummer because the popemobile is bulletproof. Of course, Arrested Development laughs at useless liberal causes as well (memorably in Hands Off Our Penises, Lindsay's anti-circumcision movement), but it's never as vicious as when it's mocking the follies of the Bush Administration.
30 Rock has taken up Arrested Development's mantle, and however kooky its plots grow, it always has time for some commentary. My favorite might be the passing of a bill to legalize recreational whale torture submitted by Trent Lott and Arlen Specter. In the highly acclaimed second season, Liz reports a suspicious neighbor only to discover, after he's already been tortured by federal agents, that he's just preparing to be a contestant on The Amazing Race. Later, Jack tries to help a poor Little League team, but when his guidance doesn't help, he blames it on Tracy and replaces him in one of the strangest Iraq War allegories I've seen. They even pull down a statue (of Jefferson Davis, their ballpark's namesake) in reference to the notorious Saddam statue in Baghdad. In the season finale, Jack is promoted (out of the blue, might I add) to the Bush Administration as the Department of Homeland Security Director for Crisis and Weather Management, and learns how dire the situation in Washington is. Everything is mismanaged, everybody pretends that all's well, and getting out is nearly impossible--Jack's escape plan is to revive the Pentagon's prototype gay-bomb, which he says will be "offensive to both the red states and the gayer blue states." These are just a few references to the Bush Administration, but 30 Rock has made a sport of hazing them.
Interestingly, The Office, one of the Bush Administration's principal comedies, in both critical and popular approval, has had little to no political or social commentary. Instead, it balances its wacky hijinks with human drama. The only times the series remotely gets into social issues are when Michael is faced with situations he has no clue how to deal with, such as an employee's homosexuality or the second episode's diversity workshop.
However, cable darlings It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and The Sarah Silverman Program (I'm using "darling" loosely) pick up the slack. I'm not particularly fresh on either show, but I have seen all their episodes. Sunny devotes one to Charlie's hyperpatriotism, another to the gang's corrupt campaign for public office, and another to the gang's jihad against a new local Israeli business-owner. While these episodes are not explicit responses to Bush, their existence seems unlikely without the ultranationalism of his administration (well the campaign episode could have happened with or without Bush). Silverman is, in my opinion, funniest when it's political--I can take the vulgarity as long as its dressing sharp satire--and occasionally battles social issues. Recently, an episode concerned Sarah's quest to kill Osama bin Laden, which leads to a series of false alarms--bearded Arab men she runs over. The second season finale saw Sarah marry her dog in a perverse stand for gay rights. These two filthy cable comedies are as spotty with their political focus as they are with their jokes, but they are clearly part of the television political conversation.
Of course, the most notable comedy shows of the day are The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and spinoff The Colbert Report. I've limited my survey to narrative fiction, but The Daily Show is a pioneer of biting political comedy on television, and many of its correspondents have appeared on Arrested Development and The Office.
Brave New World: Cable Dramas
"We cannot sacrifice our democracy just because the president makes a bad decision."
Perhaps the biggest change in television-watching habits of the past 8 years is increased time-shifting thanks to technologies like DVR and TiVo. Accordingly, network ratings are on a downward trend. Event television is mostly extinct, with a few exceptions like the Super Bowl. Cable has picked up some of the viewers abandoning the broadcast networks, and as cable series gain recognition--critical acclaim for cable series has been around for a while, but Emmy finally honored non-HBO cable drama in 2008, recognizing Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Damages--more cable networks are exploring their own narrative fiction series in a re-branding craze.
Mad Men is widely recognized as the heir to The Sopranos, though beyond creator Matthew Weiner's relationship with the HBO titan (and Mad Men's status as a philosophically engaged drama), similarities are mostly irrelevant. But Mad Men does represent a voice in the cultural political conversation, although its commentary is rarely overt. One of the series arcs follows the failure of the old, traditional ad men to understand the increasing emphasis on youth culture. In Season 1, this storyline peaks during the election of 1960, with our protagonists supporting Nixon, underestimating the American people's attraction to young liberalism. Throughout, the series' throwbacks to casual misogyny, racism, homophobia, and antisemitism present a deft satire of those attitudes asserting themselves in the political arena today. But the premise--"We're selling the American Dream"--is the most direct political reference. The American Dream is a fairy tale, packaged and sold on Mad Men, but a fantasy to those of us in 2009 with little faith in the integrity of our leadership, institutions, and values.
The Shield's younger brother Rescue Me established FX as a cable outlet with a commitment to gritty, provocative fare that is now echoed in Damages, The Riches, and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Rescue Me opens in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks--protagonist Tommy Gavin was one of the firefighters at Ground Zero, and his cousin Jimmy Keefe died there, though his ghost occasionally appears to Tommy. The sight of New York's skyline absent the twin towers also serves to unite the house at the end of Season 3, when several characters consider leaving. Rescue Me is deeply political--a memorable episode of Season 2 features a calm listing of racial slurs and Tommy Gavin's rant against political correctness, a tribute to Archie Bunker no doubt--but its thematic focus is masculinity. Without getting into the pop psychology of President Bush as seen in W and Rolling Stone, the concept of masculinity is changing. As Rescue Me explores metrosexuality, the diminishing importance of men, and the strong, silent archetype, President Bush habitually engages in traditionally manly activities, attempting to evoke a cowboy archetype through his Texan folksiness, manual labor, and--a characteristic that affects political decision-making--stubborn determination.
The series that best represents the Bush era, however, is Battlestar Galactica, not only in reflecting and responding to the War on Terror, but constantly evoking America under the Bush Administration. The premiere features a nation surprised by an attack, and the series follows their struggle for survival, balancing liberty with security. Laura Roslin suddenly becomes the president, rising from Secretary of Education--a reference to Bush's 2000 platform--to lead humanity. Season 1 features as a prime source of conflict the struggle between military and civilian leadership, culminating in a coup that overthrows democracy in the name of security.
Such parallels only increase scope as the series continues. Abortion is outlawed, labor unions are nearly disbanded, and secret military missions occur with no civilian oversight because the president desperately avoids transparency. Hostages are tortured--with a sci-fi version of waterboarding, in one of the series' darkest hours--and summarily executed; prisoners on Galactica (and Guantanamo) have no rights. And religion controls the political sphere, President Roslin devout in her faith, risking lives on her visions. At the end of Season 2, when Roslin runs for reelection against her current Vice President, Gaius Baltar, she is handily ahead until Baltar transforms the election by focusing on a wedge issue, mirroring the 2004 election narrative. The people elect Baltar--after an attempt to steal the election is uncovered--only to receive their biggest setback to date: occupation by the cylons who attacked them in the first place. The series, tracking under 50,000 people--all that remains of humanity--uses all these issues to challenge the central idea of sacrificing freedom for the greater good. While the series offers few answers to its political questions, Battlestar argues that it's better to die in a liberal democracy than live under a restricted one; every sacrifice of freedom in the name of security leads not to greater security but further limits to freedom. This is the essence of Season 3's climatic monologue, delivered by Lee Adama on the witness stand, demanding a supposed civilization to live up to its values of freedom and forgiveness. Justice, very nearly overthrown by a decidedly illiberal trial, is barely upheld.
For all its action and intrigue, Battlestar Galactica remains the most politically important series on television, a constant artful commentary on Bush's America that has taken us from the War in Iraq to the inauguration of a new president. If Roslin is Bush's analogue, Lee Adama is Obama's, entering the political sphere out of nowhere, serving a single term in the Senate, and rising to the rank of interim president. The future, no doubt, lies with his legitimate election. Remember, it's Lee's political career-beginning courtroom monologue that ended the reign of pragmatic military-enforced government in favor of true, liberal democracy. Surprisingly, though, Battlestar refuses to condemn President Bush or Roslin; the opposite is more often true, forcing us to sympathize with positions we would otherwise detest. Remarkable is the drama that can argue effectively in favor of banning abortion in the 21st century.
Looking back further, television during Clinton also leaned left, though Will and Grace, The Practice, and Friends challenged conservatism in society more than its entrenchment in political institutions. The West Wing demonstrated a liberal's fantasy White House, but was remarkably adept at exploring both sides of an issue. Under Clinton, television series engaged less in political commentary. Whereas a significant portion of shows under Bush referenced the Iraq War, the election of 2000, or at least a cynical view of American mythology, few fictional narrative series under Clinton incorporated Lewinskygate, Whitewater or his impeachment.
The above is merely a broad summary of the responses of politically engaged series to the Bush Administration, along with very shallow analysis. I intend to follow up with a more comparative post in the future (topic 1: television's political campaigns), but simply finishing this before Jan. 20 was a feat worthy of Hercules. So at least another installment will follow, but maybe not for some time. By then, we may have a decent idea of what Obama television looks like. My guess? More reality shows.
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Friday, January 16, 2009
What a great day for television. Matthew Weiner is going to be running Mad Men for at least two more seasons, and Battlestar Galactica returns! Spoilers for the (mid) season premiere of Battlestar after the jump.
Let's start with the obvious: Ellen Tigh is the final cylon!
I'm thrilled with this decision for a few reasons: 1) Ellen Tigh has always been one of my favorite characters in an ensemble of many favorites. 2) Kate Vernon is not only going to be back, but presumably fairly central to the story for the rest of the season. 3) She was one of the earliest prime suspects back in Season 1, and Baltar saw her report and kept silent! And mostly, 4) Saul and Ellen have this mythic/tragic relationship unrivaled on the televisions (if they can do interwebs, I can do this); even Bill and Laura don't touch the grandness of the Tighs' arc.
But what killed me was when she said they would be reborn together. There's another Ellen out there! And Saul's going to find her! (I assume. I have killed people for even mentioning this season to me for fear of spoilers.) Of course, it could be that by the time he killed the reborn Ellen on New Caprica, the mechanism for rebirthing the Final Fivers had been rendered useless, but I'll assume Ronald D. Moore and company have a more interesting storyline for the recovery of Ellen.
Now that that's out of the way, I feel obligated to mention that Moore was wrong. Many of us have suspected Ellen as the final cylon. It's like when JK Rowling said nobody had come close to guessing the events of the final Harry Potter book, when in reality, almost every story beat had been extrapolated by fans.
(UPDATE sidenote: Reading Mo Ryan's interview with Ronald D. Moore on why Ellen was the final cylon, he mentions the nature of their relationship incorporating "guilt and blame and memory and responsibility." All of a sudden, like Tyrol flashing to his past life, I remembered Alain Resnais' Hiroshima mon amour, also about the site of a nuclear holocaust, a beautifully tragic exploration of those very themes. If you haven't seen it, definitely check it out.)
In other news, this series continues to astound me with its brilliance. Throughout the episode, we heard "What does it mean?" and "What's the point?" These are the ultimate questions of any art. It asks us to examine the meaning of a smaller work in the hopes of learning something about the world at large. (Synecdoche-ish, no?)
For the first quarter of the episode, characters were still reacting to the discovery that ended "Revelations." Mostly silent, they just wandered around trying to cope, trying to determine the meaning of Earth. Kara's story encapsulates their confusion: confronted with another Kara in another raptor, long-dead, she has no clue what's going on. Even Leoben flees from her side. And now she's left with a series of questions, as they all are. What does it all mean?
Battlestar remains an impressive commentary on the world. First, a lovely parting shot to our dear, departing president: When Apollo's not sure how to spin the tragic truth of Earth, Dee tells him to be honest with his constituents and tell them the reality of the situation. How refreshing for a president to treat a citizenry with candor.
But more importantly, this is the story of humanity. As soon as the people have no purpose, they collapse in depression. Fights break out, officers are strewn about the hallways, others go looking for answers only to find dead ends, and saddest of all, Dee rids herself of existential angst once and for all. Weirdly--perhaps due to many months distance from the characters--I had no problem with the rekindling between Dee and Apollo, and the post-date glow actually had me rooting for them. Just like how "The Ties That Bind" made me sympathize with Cally, here I felt for Dee.
Following the thread of human history, notice how society resorts to internal violence now that the external threat is gone. In essence, humanity has lost two motivations--finding Earth and defeating the cylons--so I completely understand the ensuing implosion. Next week promises further internal rebellion, fomented by Tom Zarek, whom I'm excited to see.
Lee's speech is also packed with brilliance. He's right: they're no longer slaves to Pythia. Think about the role predestination has had in their lives. Now that the fantasy of Earth is gone, they have hope for independent thought and freedom of choice. Or do they? I wouldn't be surprised to see that this is all part of the plan. Freud had a theory that history is cyclical because we're all programmed (by history, by our elders, by society) to follow the same grooves, to react similarly to the same stimuli. Lee says they're free to be who they want to be. I want to believe him, but there's more evidence that they're still living the grand scheme.
Now for the favorites: Just go ahead and give Mary McDonnell the Nobel Prize for her work in, let's say, Economics. James Callis and Michael Hogan can have one too. Actually, my favorite scenes and performances here came from the supporting players. Apart from the Tigh/Ellen scene, and the startlingly powerful inaugural flashback of Tyrol on Earth, my favorite scene was Tigh's discussion with D'Anna. I hope she changes her mind about Earth or we follow her story there, because Lucy Lawless owns her scenes, especially since she returned in "The Hub."
It struck me how important the history of the series is for this final season. All the characters have been through to bring them here can be felt in their performances. Every conversation is loaded with history. Not coincidentally, the series as a whole is a charting of history, and this episode specifically, in its archaeological investigations, explores the history of Earth.
As you may have inferred, I loved the episode, despite my continual complaints about minor things like strange (read: melodramatic) dialogue choices and the excessive (though perfectly appropriate for this particular story) self-pity on display here.
We're left with so many questions. What happened with Kara's raptor in the maelstrom? Could she have died, like the Final Five in the Earth Holocaust, only to be reborn with the same memories? Similarly, could Baltar have died in the Caprica Holocaust, only to be reborn with the same memories? Is there a thirteenth cylon a la the thirteenth colony (I just realized how similar those words are)? If there's a new Ellen, where is she? Who's the dying leader? Will things end happily for anyone on this show?
Now I have some questions for you. Where do we go from here? And what does it all mean?
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