Saturday, November 28, 2009
I’ll have more soon, but briefly, because it’s Thanksgiving weekend: I am thankful for unprecedented access to just about every film anyone could want. Also for family and friends. But mostly for art.
Precious: Based on the Memoir Going Rogue by Sarah Palin was not the only film I saw this week, just the only one that has undue Oscar chances. (Well, not completely undue, because I will happily hop aboard the Best Actress and Supporting Actress trains for Gabby Sidibe and Mo’Nique—Hell, give Sherri Shepherd something, too, just for making a silent stare hilarious.)
But Claire Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum is probably the best film I’ve seen all year, and good luck topping it. That makes two Denis films under my belt, and both are the peaks of their respective years. About a makeshift family living in a suburban Parisian tenement, 35 Shots of Rum is small, mysterious, magical, detailed, delirious, and way more complicated than it seems. This is cinema.
Today, at a packed arthouse matinee, The Road. No, John Hillcoat is no Cormac McCarthy. Get over it, critics. I submit that the responsibility of a director to live up to his source’s author is nil, and John Hillcoat has created a gripping, horrifying, cleansing picture in his own right. Like the novel, it’s a series of parables, here anchored by the stunning work of Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee. It's an imperfect film, but all the best ones are. As divergences from the novel go, the infant roasting on an open fire is out—ditto the apple orchard—and occasional events are transposed, often to powerful effect. Wait till you see the colonial mansion. But it’s my job to critique what was on the screen, not what was in the book, and I heartily recommend what I saw.
I’ll review 35 Shots of Rum and The Road soon. I’m weirdly exhausted—I blame The Road, quite a wringer. But I wanted to express some gratitude first, heartily endorsing two Oscar bait alternatives. Happy weekend!
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Friday, November 27, 2009
It’s hard out here for shameless Oscar bait. On the one hand, they’re capably made, handsome (or sexy-messy) productions with talented performers. On the other, they’re slight flicks that couldn’t argue their way out of a box and probably voted for Palin. Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (and with no regard for grammar, might I add) is such a film, more multidimensional than I expected but ultimately trifling.
By the fifteen minute mark, Precious is knocked unconscious by her mother, a segue to a flashback in which we discover Precious was raped by her father. She comes to when Mama dumps a bucket of water on her head, but the dragon has fire too, and the verbal assault is relentless. Building to the moment where Mama says she should have aborted Precious, spewing bile like Aaron in the noose in Titus Andronicus, we close as Precious is beaten one last time, in case we weren’t paying attention. If, like me, you thought Precious would be emotional torture porn for the arthouse set (with a little physical torture porn thrown in for good measure), the first act starts digging.
But it turns out, Precious is much more surprising than that. True, almost everything that could plausibly go wrong for Precious does, but the movie doesn’t revel in the mud quite so much as you might think, the opening scenes notwithstanding. You probably know the gist—that Precious is a poor, overweight girl who has been abused by her parents and who escapes into fantasy. While the fantasy sequences aren’t especially imaginative, they do what they’re supposed to do: they take us away from the misery for a brief vacation, and it’s here where we learn star Gabby Sidibe has a lot more up her sleeve than a scowl and a saunter.
Mo’Nique may be the revelation, though, with a menace backed up by jaw-dropping ferocity that becomes something else entirely by the end of her story. Unfortunately, director Lee Daniels and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher waste their impressive cast by merely filming this impossible catharsis with nothing on their minds. There’s something in there about pushing yourself and persevering against all odds, but it’s nothing new, and worse, it’s basically an inspirational card. To that end, where exactly is the inspiration in letting the hero become a damsel waiting for her knight in a white, shining, social worker’s uniform? Precious makes exactly two active decisions to better her life, and while it's certainly not the character's fault, it's also not especially uplifting or, for that matter, cinematic.
Precious does wallow in its despair, and it also deftly rises above that trap. What separates Precious from traditional Oscar bait (like Doubt or The Reader) is that Precious doesn’t even pretend to have anything on its mind, just milquetoast liberalism like the other Best Pictures. It’s an entirely visceral affair, and that’s a shame, because even with all that progress, Precious is just a more provocative Lifetime movie with its sights set on Sundance. Like its protagonist, Precious could be so much more with some schooling.
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Friday, November 20, 2009
I'm envious of all those compiling Best of the Decade lists instead of waiting for at least the final month of the 2000s. So instead of posting my takes on the best television, films, music, and books of the decade yet, I decided to come up with a smaller topic as an appetizer. And you may want to check this out before Youtube removes these clips due to perceived rights violations.
I assume you've figured it out. These are my ten favorite (diegetic) musical sequences, but I didn't try to be exhaustive. I scanned the list of movies I'd seen from the decade and whatever came to mind made my initial list. Boring boring blah. Honorable mentions!
Ordered by happenstance, without Youtubage:
"Man of Constant Sorrow" - O Brother, Where Art Thou?
"Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In" - The 40 Year-Old Virgin
"All These Things That I've Done" - Southland Tales
"Teacher's Pet" - School of Rock
"El Tango de Roxanne" - Moulin Rouge
"Lose Yourself" - 8 Mile
"The Times, They are A-Changing" - Watchmen title sequence
In a perfect world, I could have found clips for those, but on the bright side, I do have video for the top ten. So, without further ado, my ten favorite musical sequences from 2000s film.
10. "Ballad of a Thin Man" by Stephen Malkmus & the Million Dollar Bashers - I'm Not There
It's difficult to single out a song from I'm Not There. I could have easily chosen the title credits set to "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again," or "I Want You" as Heath Dylan and Charlotte Baez fall in love, or "Goin' to Acapulco" for the full, bizarre glory of Jim James, or either of the Christian Bale performances. But at the moment, I give the edge to the dreamy, satirical, hilarious anthemic centerpiece, as Cate Blanchett's Dylan finally unleashes his anger upon his reactionary audience of protest listeners and misguided critics.
9. "Friday's Child" by Them - Sauvage Innocence
This is probably a cheat, because, try as I might, I haven't seen the movie. Such is small-town life. Nevertheless, the above clip has enchanted me since I first came across it searching for something, anything, about Philippe Garrel's movie industry movie.
8. "Llorando" by Rebekah del Rio - Mulholland Dr.
What is there to say? One of Lynch's most entrancing sequences is the entirety of Club Silenco, building to the cover of Roy Orbison's "Crying" that profoundly moves Betty.
7. "I've Seen it All" by Bjork feat. Thom Yorke - Dancer in the Dark
Early enough in Dancer in the Dark that the film is still impressively moving rather than infuriatingly bunk, "I've Seen it All" is a beautiful, devastating cri de coeur. It's maybe the last time Selma is even momentarily happy, and its exuberance is matched only by its despair. And, to me, it's the musical sequence that jibes best with the mood and style of the rest of the film, a fairly lo-fi affair.
6. "All That Jazz" by Catherine Zeta-Jones - Chicago
The showstopping opening number is, sadly, the peak of the film, and Catherine Zeta-Jones the runaway talent.
5. "Do U Remember" by Marly Marl - Kings & Queen
Mathieu Amalric is incredible throughout, and here we are treated to his therapy dance skills in one of the many magnetic moments of the film.
4. "The Locomotion" by Little Eva - Inland Empire
Sorry about the length, but the forty second clip that features the song in isolation misses the point. It's the sudden lapse in reality or consciousness (or whatever) that launches this sequence to the top, and just as quickly, it's gone. We're left feeling strange and uneasy, putty in David Lynch's demonic hands, but rapt nonetheless.
3. "Falling Slowly" by Glen Hansard & Marketa Irglova - Once
I couldn't find the actual scene, but Fox Searchlight was kind enough to post this "music video," which at least features part of the scene where Guy introduces Girl to his song.
2. "Tiny Dancer" by Elton John - Almost Famous
It pains me, but I couldn't put this at the top, and here's why: they altered the track. For a film about the worship of artists and their music, I can't believe Cameron Crowe and company cut up the song in such a pivotal scene just so the chorus arrives a little quicker. Now, it's still an excellent sequence, hence its position here, but Almost Famous is full of such greatness, and I almost chose the final montage to "Tangerine." Ultimately, though, I had to go with the sweet reunion, "Tiny Dancer," edited or not.
1. "This Time Tomorrow" by the Kinks - Regular Lovers
One of my favorite film scenes period, this is a masterful achievement. First, it's a creative and invigorating time-jump, as we move from 1968 to '69, as denoted by the building number. Then there's the slow-build, accelerating celebration of the sequence, as the lackadaisical revolutionaries join the party one by one. Then of course there's the song itself, wondering about the future with imaginative optimism. The scene is pure magic, a vibrant example of the power of cinema. And it always makes me smile.
So what did I forget? What are your favorite musical sequences from the 2000s?
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Thursday, November 12, 2009
With all this Sons of Anarchy hype, I can’t help but reevaluate my perceptions, and while I’ve found some exaggerations, I also have a stronger argument. Yes, Sons of Anarchy is brilliantly plotted. But by focusing on narrative and performance, television critics are missing the forest, the point of all that plot and character and the very purpose of the artwork: thesis.
For background, I think any expression is art in the purest sense, which is to say everything from a table to a smile, even a rock as an expression of physical forces and time, and especially a pet rock as an expression of marijuana. Therefore, the thrust of any criticism should revolve around what was expressed—not what was happening in the story but what the point of it was—and how well.
Take—you guessed it!—Sons of Anarchy. Mo Ryan says this week’s episode “packs an emotional intensity” she hasn’t felt since Battlestar. Alan Sepinwall says it’s “as engrossing, as funny, and as moving” as Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Friday Night Lights. I agree with both of them, well, except for the comparisons to better shows. But these are emotional responses, whether a television show made me laugh or cry or think or moved me. Emotional reaction is the opposite of critical thinking. (Not that I'm accusing either of my favorite critics of bad criticism; both had other insights into the series in the linked reviews.)
Criticism should strive for a certain objectivity, accepting of course that absolute objectivity is impossible. That is, criticism ought to examine what a work is saying, explicitly and implicitly, how the artists are saying it, and how strong the argument is. Not that every piece of art is persuasive, but every expression necessarily expresses something, and it’s the critic’s job to see how well it’s expressed.
Ranking or comparing art, meanwhile, is often subjective, which distances the act from criticism. So when a television writer says Sons of Anarchy is on par with Mad Men, it’s certainly not a critical statement. About the most you can take from that critically is that the shows are roughly equally successful.
So, assuming art is an expression and its goal is a strong argument, then thesis ought to be the fundamental element. Everything else, however strong individually, contributes to the thesis of the work.
On television, it’s more complicated, because an episode of Mad Men may have a strong unifying thesis that fits into the wider season thesis that in turn contributes to a grander series thesis. Thesis. On the other hand, heavily serialized episodes may have less internal cohesion, instead supporting a wider argument by the season or series.
I argued a couple days ago that Sons of Anarchy, which has little to do with a subject brought up in the title and a pivotal quote of the series—it’s not like I pushed the subject of anarchy onto this show—prioritizes plot over thesis, a characteristic of pulp. Whereas Mad Men is universally relevant because its narrative brilliance parlays into grand statements on America: the American dream of self-made men is a myth; the relative composure and prosperity of America broke forever in the ‘60s, when truth, happily, took precedence; finding that truth is a valuable, but impossible, pursuit. This is obviously a simplification, but you get the idea.
Both Sons of Anarchy and Mad Men feature engrossing plots. But to what ends?
Sons of Anarchy is not quite so thematically bankrupt as I represented. In fact, I'm ever more convinced the anarchy theme, as I suggested, really is used ironically as a hollow slogan to criticize the type of political dummies that invoke radical ideas without fully understanding them, just like the American flags in every scene, and just like the book John Teller wrote, which Jax describes this week as “half angry manifesto, half [motorcycle club] love letter.” It sure doesn’t sound like the writers are presenting SAMCRO’s political ideology as well-reasoned or laudable, much less coherent.
I also maintain my position that the primacy of family as a societal unit is the series’ strongest theme, and again, this week’s episode hangs on that very idea. But is there any comparison between Sons’ occasional thematic arguments and Mad Men’s core critiques? For that matter, consider Breaking Bad, a show as plot-driven as Sons of Anarchy but with a healthy fixation on the disparity between legal and ethical transgression (and while we're at it, compare Bryan Cranston's complexity with Charlie Hunnam's posturing). Sons of Anarchy, entertaining as it is, cannot compete with television’s best dramas, at least not until it examines its purpose. Entertainment is easy.
My point in all of this (and, unbeknownst to me, much of my writing for the past month) is that thesis, the single most important aspect of an artwork, is too often ignored by television critics. Nobody talks about what The Office is saying any more, or how muddled its worldview has become, just that it’s very funny. Mad Men gets the appropriate analysis, but not one review of "Shut the Door. Have a Seat" I saw mentioned the American Revolution, despite Roger’s “join or die” quip and what I saw as the overriding allegory for the turning point of the '60s. Thesis deserves a defender.
Sons of Anarchy is compelling television. I’m just not convinced it knows what to say.
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Wednesday, November 11, 2009
I’ve seen the Mad Men Season 3 finale four times. Since Sunday. Drama series don’t often deliver this much joy. Like everyone else, I’m eager for the next episode, but we have to wait the better part of a year. No reason to delay senseless, premature, irresponsible speculation.
We left on Monday, December 16, 1963. For many reasons—Betty’s six-week stay in Reno, the early days of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, the immediate ramifications of the PPL deal—I hope and expect we won’t skip too far ahead. With that in mind, the Beatles played on Ed Sullivan three weeks in February of 1964.
On the 9th, the Beatles debuted to record ratings, playing “All My Loving,” “Till There Was You,” “She Loves You,” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” which was the number one song on American charts. Two weeks later they played “Twist and Shout,” which dovetails nicely with Season 2’s opening music, Chubby Checker’s “Let’s Twist Again.” Is it wishful thinking to hope for a Mad Men episode with Beatles music?
The Beatles’ arrival in America should occur right around the time Betty returns from Reno. I doubt Matthew Weiner enjoys being a slave to the time, forced to pick up in early ’64, but it doesn’t look like he has much choice. Why put Betty with a Rockefeller aide if we’re ignoring Goldwater and the changing course of the Republican party?
The general thrust of Mad Men places the assassination of JFK as the turning point. Just before, Don came out to Betty, finally admitting all the lies underneath his perfect façade. Just after, Betty ended their marriage for good, pursuing a divorce. Like America, Don had been coasting on his appearance and demeanor of being master of his domain, but finally, he’s coming to terms with the contradictions underneath. For that matter, so is Betty, who had long endured inner turmoil with a shocking grace. The Drapers and America have sacrificed their unity and composure for truth, putting off happiness, however superficial, until it’s founded on something real. I doubt Don and Betty will reconcile, because America has only become more niche in the years since.
The question, then, is how to keep Betty Draper involved? Matthew Weiner could certainly take this opportunity to end her story, or at least demote January Jones to a guest star. But I hope they get creative. Betty Draper is the second lead, and her story is only beginning. Same with Sal. I doubt he can just up and join the ranks of SCDP, but his story is important. Maybe they can give him a year off and bring him on board for Season 5, but it’d be a shame to lose Bryan Batt.
As for Sterling Cooper, I wonder what happens. Does the sale go through? Does Sterling Cooper fold in the wake of their lost accounts? Do McCann-Erickson renege on their deal with PPL? I think the most likely scenario is for Sterling Cooper to permanently close its doors. I predict the Sterling Cooper roster will wind up in tertiary roles. After all, Gray’s hiring, at least in creative. Maybe the finally maturing Paul winds up working for the enemy, or Kurt and Smitty. I don’t have high hopes to see unflappable Ken or our favorite secretaries again, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Joan already had plans to poach the dependable ones like Hildy and Allison down the line when SCDP expands.
Since speculation hangs on the realistic establishment of SCDP, I’m shooting blind. I have no idea how long they intend to work out of that room in the Pierre, but it sounded like it would be headquarters for a few months at least. They have a fair amount of accounts, too, but how long until they have the need to hire more employees, much less move into a real, ‘live office, is beyond me.
But I can’t see us saying goodbye to Betty Draper yet, and the door is certainly open for Sal to show up someday. Given Sterling Cooper's fine work on the Nixon campaign in 1960, maybe Betty and Henry Francis bring the Rockefeller campaign to Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, assuming, of course, there's no bad blood simmering between Don and Henry.
On the bright side, Joan is back full-time and on top of the world. She paid lip service to Greg’s eventual disappointment (I assume because he didn’t want her to have to work, and he’s enlisting for that very reason), but working for a new ad agency has to pay even less than returning to Sterling Cooper would have, right? Oh well. By the end of the year, thanks to the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, Johnson will deploy Greg to Vietnam, assuming Greg can finally go through with a career.
Meanwhile, I expect some fun clashes between Jane Siegel Sterling and Joan Harris, not to mention Trudy Campbell and Peggy Olson, sharing a desk with her one-time baby-daddy. Have I mentioned how perfect Alison Brie has been as Trudy this season? I’m also thrilled Betty seems to be staying in Ossining. It means Francine, Carlton, and Helen Bishop may show up once in a while, on top of Carla, whom we don’t get to see nearly enough. That closing shot of Carla sitting down with the kids as Daddy’s working and Mommy’s floating away illustrates not much has really changed for Sally and Bobby. Carla and TV will always be there.
1964’s an eventful year, major threads being the Republican party, escalation of Vietnam, and the civil rights movement, with the ratification of the 24th Amendment, the Civil Rights Act, anti-segregation protests, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Nobel Peace Prize, and Malcolm X’s split from the Nation of Islam. I don’t know how they plan to tackle that with a bright white cast, but maybe SCDP sincerely wants to appeal to “the Negro market,” as they told Pete. What do you think?
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Tuesday, November 10, 2009
There’s a lot of enthusiastic praise bandied about regarding Shakespearean biker pulp Sons of Anarchy these days. Television prophets Alan Sepinwall and Mo Ryan say it’s in the Mad Men echelon of television drama, and everyone agrees Sons has shades of The Shield, The Sopranos, Deadwood, and The Wire. Sorry, guys, but I’m slamming on the brakes. Sons of Anarchy is a riveting western crime pulp with exactly one outstanding performance to its name and only occasional relevance.
Let’s get my elitism out of the way: I find nothing appealing about the white trash biker subculture, and it’s much easier for me to dislike these murderous pricks than it is for me to summarily dismiss the Soprano crime organization or the Barksdales. Maybe it’s the tattoos, maybe it’s the utter idiocy compared to other television criminals, maybe it’s the leather and denim. Personally, I’m blaming all that greasy hair.
Nevertheless, by the end of the pilot, I was invested. A lot of the credit lies with Katey Sagal’s titanic performance as den mother Gemma, a lioness if there ever was one. With an even stronger story arc in Season 2 (on top of decreased competition from the sidelined women of Mad Men and the hiatus-stricken In Treatment), I hope Sagal receives her Emmy due. Still further, I found the quiet, slow storytelling mature, the Shakespearean influences intriguing, and the politics fascinating.
But soon enough, I saw all those Hamlet parallels and political overtones for what they were. Creator Kurt Sutter isn’t challenging the concept of democracy (as you might expect by the show’s title), and he’s not commenting on timeless narratives. He’s simply incorporating them into the show’s architecture, like all those American flags strewn about the sets like it's campaign season. Easy Rider it ain't.
You see, Sons of Anarchy, by the end of its first season, is a plot-driven juggernaut. Hamlet’s just there to help guide the story. With a rift in the club, democratic voting has taken on increased importance lately, and more significant than the fact that these outlaws abide by majority rule is who sides with whom. Something's rotten in SAMCRO, but the politics are just there for the plot.
Toward the end of Season 1, Jax finds this Emma Goldman quote scrawled on concrete: “Anarchism stands for the liberation of the human mind from the dominion of religion, the liberation of the human body from the dominion of property, liberation from the shackles and restraint of government. It stands for social order based on the free grouping of individuals.” I’m not sure what a serious discussion of anarchy is doing on this show, what with its love of strict club rules, but the Sons of Anarchy themselves have never so much as mentioned what the “Anarchy” on their jackets stands for. As someone philosophically sympathetic (but just sympathetic, mind you) to anarchy, I look at the Sons and see a bunch of squabbling tea partiers with no coherent ideology. Maybe that’s the point.
Now, before I get strung up for my well-documented elitism, allow me to staunchly declare my critical guideline: the only goal of art is to be true to itself. There is nothing wrong with Sons of Anarchy being a biker pulp (and if I may interject, until Mad Men amped up its energy a few weeks ago, Sons was the most riveting drama on television). But let’s stop pretending Sons of Anarchy has some literary equivalence to The Sopranos or Deadwood.
I mentioned that Sons has one anchor performance, and it’s Sagal. But Ron Perlman as the Claudius, or, perhaps more accurately, the Avon Barksdale, has been tremendous lately, battling his age, his past mistakes, and his disloyal step-son, our antihero Jax Teller. As Jax, Charlie Hunnam has a tall order, but his kinder, gentler biker (still an impulsive, macho numbskull) is unconvincing. Hunnam can barely modulate his performance while keeping his native accent in line, though at least part of my contempt for him is meant for the character, smart enough to look beyond the second but not smart enough to look beyond the minute. The rest of the gang are capable, especially Kim Coates as trigger-happy Tig and Mark Boone, Jr. as the voice of reason Bobby. And Dayton Callie as Sheriff Unser is always a delight.
Originality is overrated, but Sons of Anarchy boils down to a collection of HBO plots mixed with some Godfather. The freshest storylines follow the calamity of so long life: cancer, crippling arthritis, menopause, domestic strife, and a dark, downhill future. But, since the comparisons are out there, consider: has there ever been anything on television like Mad Men, or Breaking Bad, or The Shield?
I said art need only be true to itself. I stand by that. But comparing Sons of Anarchy to Mad Men pits a plot-driven pulp against a classical cultural critique. Mad Men is also quite compelling, and like Sons of Anarchy, it’s built a believable universe of motivated parties moving in and out of the storyline in fascinating ways. But on Sons of Anarchy, narrative brilliance is the end, where on Mad Men, it’s the means. Sons of Anarchy is sporadically transcendent, achieving gut-punching relevance in the moments of brutal honesty. Mad Men is universal at every moment in its challenge of the American dream. When they're at their peaks, Sons of Anarchy is great entertainment, but Mad Men is great art.
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Monday, November 9, 2009
Spoilers for Mad Men Season 3.
“Shut the Door. Have a Seat” is Mad Men’s closing remarks on 1963. In this story of independence—personally, professionally, and culturally—the effect of Kennedy’s assassination is to propel America into the volatile, dynamic, progressive time we think of as the ‘60s. And if it wasn’t clear from the rest of the season, the old ways are dead. America is achieving western cultural hegemony.
1963 has been a humbling year for top-of-the-world Don Draper, and finally, at last, he is faced with apparently immovable objects. Roger (“You’re not good at relationships because you don’t value them”) and Sally (“You say things and you don’t mean them. And you can’t just do that.”) cut to the bone, and Don’s never faced such criticism. Pete demands acknowledgment, Roger needs greasing, Peggy takes a heartfelt appeal—“I will spend the rest of my life trying to hire you” was more moving than anything Don’s ever said to Betty—and, after all of Don’s grieving for their marriage, Betty remains out of reach. She’s already moved on, and she needs to make her own mistakes.
Because so many characters held festering resentment toward Don for his failure to recognize their efforts, the episode played with a motif of children expressing disappointment in their parents. In addition to Don’s approval of Pete, Peggy, and Roger, there’s that scene in the Draper living room, Norman Rockwell in all respects except one. Don also gets to play the child, disappointed first by Connie, then by Bert, and lashing out at both. He even takes his perceptions of Betty’s infidelity to mean he’s not good enough for her.
All this paternal drama is fitting, since revolution is Oedipal rebellion writ large. Sterling Cooper is sticking it to the Brits, and they’ve even coopted Lane Pryce, whose motives include a newfound appreciation of the New World but also a feeling of not being properly recognized by his parent company. Despite all the work he’s done to increase profitability, PPL wanted to send him to India. Merrily, Pryce gets the last word: "Very good. Happy Christmas!"
Turns out, the sun does set on the British empire. The season is sprinkled with relics of empires past and aggressively violent historical landmarks, from Sally’s nighttime book The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to Pryce’s suit of armor, from the self-immolation of a Buddhist monk to the televised assassination of a presidential assassin. Joan even napalms Bert’s broken ant-farm, which, by the way, was colonizing another office. PPL exploiting Sterling Cooper like a colonial throwback is the corporate mirror of Don's treatment of his employees this year, an unfeeling, preoccupied, negative reinforcement. Eventually, children rebel.
So the skeleton of Sterling Cooper severs ties and declares independence. Just as post-Kennedy America is about to reassess what America means, specifically with regards to its taglines of equality and democracy, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce has some adjustment ahead, some reconstruction. Fortunately, Pete’s there to keep them looking forward: “Aeronautics, teenagers, the Negro market.” He’s more forward-thinking than they realize. Who needs Kurt and Smitty when Pete has predicted what’s to come of the decade?
Since you brought it up, I hope we don’t skip too much time, not just because 1964 is full of significant moments for America, but also because the rebuilding and rebranding of the newfangled Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce is the most interesting part. Who wants to jump ahead to when they’re already established? Given the show has never fully cut Duck loose, I expect we’ll learn what’s to come of Paul and Ken and Ken's haircut, and I hope they manage to check back in with Sal. Maybe he can have some drinks at the Stonewall Inn in the summer of ’69.
“Shut the Door. Have a Seat” is an excellent, psychologically expressive retelling of the American Revolution with plenty of romance (after-hours intrigue, an elegant if cramped new headquarters) and a tinge of despair (the one battle Don lost is Betty). But more importantly, it filters a season of frustration, of approaching doom, with the American dream. It helps that the employees of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce are quite a moneyed bunch, but their new adventure is why America was called the Land of Opportunity. There’s plenty simmering beneath the surface, especially with Betty’s lateral rather than forward progress, not to mention the coming seismic societal shifts, but look on the bright side. America is trying to live up to its name. It's time for Don Draper to follow suit.
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Sunday, November 8, 2009
As you know, it’s Mad Men night. And aside from Katey Sagal’s work as Gemma on Sons of Anarchy, the ten or more best drama actors on television right now are taking a bow for a bit. So I’m riddled with anticipation about tonight’s finale. I’ll have some potentially lucid thoughts tomorrow, about the finale and the season, but for now, to get it out, some thoughts, questions, and predictions.
We’re probably jumping into December, pushing toward Christmas, if not beyond (“The Grown-Ups” jumped the usual three weeks before, rather than during, the episode). I assume Suzanne will be dealt with, but I can’t help but feel like her story is at a natural end with respect to the Whitman-Drapers. If she resurfaces, I hope it’s just to settle once and for all her relationship with Don. After all, her brother has Don’s card if the writers need to bring her back next year.
Connie Hilton is presumably the heftier hanging chad. I expect a complete business shake-up, not all at once, but so many pieces are in place, I wouldn’t be surprised. Pete’s likely going to Gray, where Sal could very well end up. Sterling Cooper’s for sale, and we know quite a few wealthy prospective buyers: Alice Cooper, Bert’s sister, whom we haven’t heard from lately but who would potentially help wrest back independence for Sterling Cooper; Ho-Ho the jai alai wannabe magnate; Annabelle, Roger’s old flame looking for a way back into his life; and Connie Hilton. Meanwhile, Peggy’s relationship with Duck could conceivably become professional as well as romantic, although based on her reaction to JFK, I assume she’s staying at Sterling Cooper and closing that door for good.
If PPL does manage to sell Sterling Cooper tonight, and it’s been on the market for a few months now, what happens to Lane? Jared Harris has been indispensable, but then, that’s what I thought about Bryan Batt and Christina Hendricks. Speaking of whom, the writers have laid out quite the case for why Joan can’t just up and return to secretarial work at either Sterling Cooper or Gray. I’m stumped; unless Roger reaches out to her romantically and for some reason she accepts, I don’t see how she stays tethered to Madison avenue. That doesn’t mean the show will stop following her. After all, they handle Betty especially well. But they must know we miss Joan’s queen bee status. I hope to see her on top of the world again someday.
On the other hand, I’m afraid they might drop Sal. I’m notoriously wrong and gullible when it comes to writing out actors, so don’t worry. But it seems like this series in particular is confident and brave enough to axe our favorite budding director just on the verge of his self-actualization. If you catch my meaning. Still, they dropped the ball if we don’t see at least one conversation between Sal and Kitty regarding the issue of his sexuality.
It’s unfortunate—emotionally, not critically—that Elisabeth Moss and Christina Hendricks have been sidelined this season. (Though, again, they’re just paving the way for Katey Sagal to get her Emmy due.) In fairness, Trudy had a welcome spotlight this season, and at the very least, the love for the women of Sterling Cooper has spread, giving us some excellent scenes with Kitty Romano, Jane Siegel Sterling, Roger’s mother, and even a scene last week held up entirely by supporting characters Mona and Margaret. Regarding Joan and Peggy, I hope to see the women of Sterling Cooper return to titan status next year.
Which, finally, brings us to Betty. It astounds me that there are people out there who despise Betty and/or January Jones, because I find her work mesmerizing. Of all the story arcs on Mad Men, Betty’s growth from the pilot to “I don’t love you any more” has, for me, been the most elevating. Her letter to Henry Frances wrecked me: “And I have thoughts.” Her journey is almost entirely under the surface, in scenes alone or with tertiary characters, in letters or layered conversations veiled by a genteel plausible deniability. She’s so alone, and finally, finally, she’s finding the virtues there.
As for tonight, there are so many outcomes for her. She officially shacks up with Henry Frances, or she doesn’t but heightens the affair, or she ends it and stays with Don, or maybe she severs ties with all her suitors. I hope to see Betty’s independence grow, Sopranos parallels be damned. Maybe Don can finally, truly earn her love, and maybe there can be a healthy future there after all.
See you in a few hours!
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Saturday, November 7, 2009
I wasn’t sure, amid the much lauded Season 3, if I would ever be able to look at Friday Night Lights with the hope and love I had for Season 1. I saw the vast improvement, the big-picture triumphs, but I couldn't overlook the logic holes in the uneven narrative. It seemed the series was permanently sullied in my mind. I was wrong. Reinvention has made Season 4 not only a worthy rival to Season 1 but a potential upset.
With the expansion to East Dillon, the series has cleverly forced its narrative to return to its thematic roots. At the end of the day, this is an exploration of community, and with two schools in the spotlight, the series is picking at some classist and racial themes to complement its steady eye on hope, perseverance, and family. A roster of new characters are added to the credits, and the writers are wisely weaving their tapestry slowly, developing the community piece by piece. The storytelling recalls Steinbeck, not least for the old West chivalry on display and the bootstraps optimism lining every setback.
The new characters, all East Dillonites, are the most interesting lot since we first met Street and Tyra and the rest: Vince, an athletic kid whose criminal past forced him into football as a program to stave off Juvie; Becky, the bubbly, babbling free spirit; Stan, the unfiltered motormouth new assistant coach; Luke, the super-polite, super-hot star running back redistricted right onto Coach Taylor’s team; and Jess, whom we don’t know much about save her relative poverty and budding relationship with Landry.
“East of Dillon,” the season premiere, is a stirring work of beauty with a peak that hasn’t been seen since “State.” But it’s weighed down by a couple relatively brief subplots involving the untethered ex-Panthers, Riggins and Saracen, as well as a mustache-twirling villain turn by JD McCoy. “After the Fall” doesn’t reach the highs of the premiere, but it’s much more consistent. And it ropes Riggins into the new, improved Friday Night Lights world naturally and more permanently, with Riggins shacking up with a single mom and her daughter, like a weird retelling of a Civil War (or in this case college) deserter being sheltered by womenfolk in need of protection. I’ll be surprised if these three don’t develop into a surrogate family, learning from each other and succeeding together.
The greater story follows East Dillon’s less-than-underdog football team, and Kyle Chandler remains intensely charismatic as the weary Coach Taylor. Meanwhile, Connie Britton as Tami Taylor is having a ball in her private little war with Joe McCoy. Her coin toss and her booster club interruption are fist-pumping acts of genius.
Steinbeck’s the primary literary influence, but Friday Night Lights knows its way around an allusion. The show has always had shades of The Odyssey, on top of Julie’s expository Moby Dick monologue in the pilot, but here, Riggins’ professor invokes the epic poem and suddenly it’s shadowing every scene. Riggins returns to Dillon, soon to learn you can’t go home again. Matt’s adrift, too, and his fate is at the mercy of a cold professor and a strange local artist. And movingly, at half-time in the Lions’ first game, the locker room is a battlefield, injured warriors crumpled on the floor as brave and as stoic as they can manage.
It’s difficult to say if this is the shape of things to come, but these two episodes have set the stage for quite the comeback. Go lions!
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Thursday, November 5, 2009
Showtime, you are so close to being a real network. Yes, you’ve been around for years and you’ve had heaps of acclaim for your original series, but come on. Nothing you’ve done has been on par with the best of HBO, AMC, FX or the broadcast networks. Even Syfy has Battlestar Galactica to its name. But Showtime, victory is within your grasp.
I’ve walked away from every season of every Showtime series I’ve seen (or episodes in the cases of the, let’s not sugar-coat it, bad shows) finding them all less than the sum of their parts.
Nobody expects artistic brilliance from your lighter soaps. We’re talking your Tudors, your Secret Diary of a Call Girl, and your unfortunate, loathsome Californication. They get by on their looks, and let’s be honest: most of them are pretty fun (again, I’m excluding Californication, whose modern Mary Sue is a Don Juan superhumanly capable of seducing anyone, not to mention an unrecognized Shakespeare, but he’s wrapped in a cloak of “edgy” self-destruction so you don’t think he’s too perfect. And if you don’t like it, well fuck you!), and there’s certainly a place for shallow entertainment.
But waiting in the wings are a handful of smart, capable series just dying to compete artistically with the rest of television. Unfortunately, none of them—not Dexter or Weeds, not Jackie or Tara—have much to say about anything.
Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. United States of Tara is the closest thing to brilliance on Showtime, with reliable funny and a healthy, consistent interest in family, motherhood, coming of age, and middle America. But, a season in, what does Tara have to say about these subjects? We’re at the precipice, my dears. Jump off.
Tara’s sister-in-arms Nurse Jackie comes close, too. Jackie’s pilot promised a series focusing on a self-destructive nurse, yes, but also an exploration of Christian themes: judgment, sin, redemption, sainthood, and most of all, apocalypticism. Unfortunately, those themes only surfaced periodically in the coming season, and even then, they’re simple motif. It’s as if the mere invocation of a Big Idea is enough for Showtime.
At least that’s what I thought at first. The Showtime brand, in addition to its commitment to progressive politics and provocative moral quagmires, has an apparent knack for creating the illusion of depth (and often, an illusion of comedy), even with its lighter fare, but none of its series is thematically rewarding. Where Showtime succeeds brilliantly is its focus on character. Dexter, Weeds, Nurse Jackie, United States of Tara, even Secret Diary of a Call Girl and Californication are character studies. No matter how inane or contrived their narratives become, you can always count on fascinating reactions by Jackie or Nancy Botwin and equally mesmerizing performances. Edie Falco ought to have a lock on next year’s lead comedy actress Emmy—that is, unless Toni Collette scores another win.
The problem with character study is when character is the only success of the show, which I’d argue is true for most of the Showtime series. Place any of them next to Breaking Bad and you see in sharp relief how well Breaking Bad handles its pulp narrative of escalating obstacles and increasingly heavy conscience while never losing sight of its questionable, self-destructive antihero Walter White. Breaking Bad is not a grand comment on the world, but it rigorously engages with its themes (especially the disparity between legal and moral sin) in ways that Nurse Jackie or Dexter do not.
But you’re close, Showtime. Dexter and Weeds have pulled off season arcs akin to Breaking Bad Season 2 in their early years, and Jackie and Tara have interesting thematic cards in their back pockets. We like your characters. Now show us why their stories matter.
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Tuesday, November 3, 2009
JFK what now? Spoilers for “The Grown-Ups” to follow.
All the critical hubbub revolves around what Matthew Weiner said about not wanting to go to the JFK well because it’s overdone. Add to this the inauspicious exits of certain writers, Weiner’s name on every script but one this year, and the irrevocable departures of fan favorite characters from the hallowed grounds of Sterling-Cooper, and you’ve got a paranoid, Glenn Beckian narrative of Weiner’s hubris finally crippling him and resulting in a shambles of a season. Only, “The Grown Ups” ties it all together, revealing that this season, Mad Men’s stab at 1963, is all about the Kennedy assassination, the moment America awoke from its fantasies.
I’ll save the broader thoughts for next week, when Season 3 comes to a close (hopefully around Christmas). For now, the Kennedy assassination.
As “The Grown Ups” brings into gross relief, the Kennedy assassination is not a cultural touchstone like the crash of United 1 or the 1960 election. It’s one of those moments like September 11 that actually interrupts life and maybe even changes it a little. As detractors note, the episode becomes about a bunch of people watching television. That’s precisely the point: television, photoreal video transmitted right into your living room, makes it harder and harder to buy into the myth of the American dream. How's that for topical?
But it’s the Oswald assassination that really seals the deal, finally forcing Betty and Pete into perhaps fateful decisions. I think this is what’s going unnoticed by those disappointed by “The Grown Ups,” as Weiner’s novel approach gives Oswald the dramatic heft. Pete says it perfectly. “Why even have a trial?” With Oswald, and with America, and with Mad Men Season 3, there is no justice.
Don’t we all feel as helpless and frustrated as Carla and Margaret regarding Sal’s firing? Even though we knew Joan was leaving early into the season premiere, did any of us imagine we’d get this little Christina Hendricks action? Apparently (and in Sal’s case, abruptly) writing off these fan favorites is the television version of assassination. Based on the consistent references to them and the promo reel—comprised entirely of old clips—addressing both Joan and Sal, as well as Connie, Suzanne, and a number of other season threads, I feel confident that we’re not going to be left hanging next week. At least, we’ll understand what life is going to be like for the Mad men and women over the coming hiatus.
As for Pete and Betty, I think only Pete’s course is clear. He’s preparing to take his clients to Gray, to work with Duck. Betty, on the other hand, is a fickle creature. I don’t think she wants Henry Francis, but I do think she believes what she says in yet another bravado performance: “I don’t love you anymore.” I think she wants options, freedom, and she’s not going to find it leaving one high-powered businessman for another, especially under such salacious circumstances. I mean, with a baby at home? What will the neighbors say? I suspect what the Oswald assassination shook loose is really a desire for more independence, possibly a separation, but not another marriage, and I hope Season 4 does see Betty lean a bit more feminist, what with her Bryn Mawr roots and her reading The Group a few weeks back.
With Roger and Joan, though they were barely on speaking terms in the aftermath of Jane, their rapport is like that of old friends. But it’s clear that Roger is falling for her all over again. I wonder if she’ll wait until Greg gets shot up in ‘Nam before leaving him or if Joan and Roger are destined to wander in and out of each other’s lives forever.
“The Grown Ups” was another riveting episode in a string of greatness that began in “The Fog.” In light of the ever-cracking American mythology, I am both excited and worried to see what happens next week. But I’m finally sure of one thing: I desperately want to see Mad Men take on every year of the decade. 1964 marks the Beatles in America, the Civil Rights Act, and the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Kennedy was just the beginning.
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Today, Criterion released Wings of Desire, which earned Wim Wenders the Best Director prize at Cannes and remains one of his best-loved works. As a card-carrying Berlinophile, Wings of Desire has long tempted me, but last month, I finally discovered this enriching celebration of life.
I spent most of October watching ‘90s sketch great The State, repeating with commentaries, and viewing the bonus features. But a few remarkable films snuck through. Polanski’s Death and the Maiden is a typically engrossing look at power and gender, with a roaring performance by Sigourney Weaver pitted against a pipsqueak Ben Kingsley. Lisandro Alonso’s Los muertos stretches the boundaries between spare and empty, but its fluid camera and natural soundscape are nevertheless indelible. For Halloween, I finally beheld George A. Romero’s zombie original Night of the Living Dead, which was stunning in several respects, not least its cynicism.
But the best movie I saw last month was Wings of Desire.
Wings of Desire is astonishing in scope, afforded by its wandering storytelling. In short, it’s about everything. Told from the perspective of ancient angels, walking Berlin, watching, never interfering, the film is a winding road through the human experience. While Wings of Desire operates partly as an ode to Berlin—fetishizing the Victory Column, blaming the Wall, hailing the Fersehturm, lingering in the library, lamenting the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche—like other great city paeans (My Winnipeg and Of Time and the City spring to mind), its genuine intimacy becomes universal, appealing to anyone similarly attached to any city.
But it’s about far more than Berlin. Most of the film is told in black-and-white, with brief, tempting flashes of color. One angel grows frustrated with his role, yearning to experience life. As suddenly as he sheds his wings, we are thrust into a vibrant world of color, and because the vast majority of the film has acclimated us to black-and-white, the otherwise unimpressive vistas spring to life with all sorts of new wonders. Like the angel, we rediscover the beauty of the world.
Wenders wisely avoids anthropomorphizing the angels more than is necessary, lending them an ethereal distance that may prove too alienating for impatient viewers. For example, the angels speak in cryptic, poetic verses, more thoughts than sentences, and their tasks include following the town’s residents and reporting on the world. But they’re never just humans with wings the way some alien movies feature men with antennae. Naturally, there’s no strong narrative until we are deep within the film’s meandering, timeless river of vignettes. Instead, Wenders’ gliding camera seamlessly sweeps from one scene to the next as the angels monitor humanity.
But the angels are merely a hook, a conceit to allow an exploration of what it is to be human. Wings of Desire is about everything: young love, a gripping suicide, BMW window-shopping, research at the library, handwritten diary excerpts, a down-and-out circus, some essential hot dogs, a handful of Nick Cave concerts, a ruinous wall, and Peter Falk ambling in and out of the story while in town shooting a movie.
It ends, thanks to poor budgeting and/or divine intervention, perfectly: To be continued. Wenders meant it as a promise, but isn’t that the definitive statement on the human experience? Through it all, come wars or walls, our story will be continued.
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Monday, November 2, 2009
The problems with The Office of late amount to a lack of purpose, transforming a show that was once a riveting, moving work of loneliness and ennui into a show that exists for no reason other than to see what happens to its characters next. But every now and then, we get an episode like “Koi Pond,” that for all its little faults, was actually about something.
As it happens, this was another classic loneliness piece, with Andy and Michael the primary protagonists. For the pioneer of awkward comedy, it’s been a long time since we’ve beheld anything as realistically cringe-inducing as Michael’s confession about not having five friends for his cell phone plan. And like the best of Michael's uncomfortable revelations, he's blissfully unaware of just how painful his admissions are.
Meanwhile, Andy’s busy unloading on Pam: “I’m so sick of being single.” Sure, it’s on-the-nose, and I am a staunch believer that people rarely say what they mean, but it’s earned by the lengthy, sad role-playing just prior. Andy’s so aloof that he admits to comparison-shopping birthing classes and apparently kisses Pam’s stomach several times.
A contributing factor to the decline of The Office is the relative success of the characters, but in “Koi Pond,” the writers managed to once again undermine Jim’s career advancement. Even before his role in the koi pond fiasco comes out, he is incapable of asserting authority over his subordinates. Further, Pam is apparently one of the lowest salesmen of the quarter, and Meredith’s so lonely she’s sleeping with terrorists.
“Koi Pond” was a nice throwback to the good, old days of The Office when life for everyone from Michael on down to Toby was sustained disappointment, and if there was hope, it was in the little things, like a rooftop vending machine dinner with Pam. It’s just one episode from a season that errs on the side of broad, but I’ll gladly take it.
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