Wednesday, April 28, 2010
I was at Ebertfest on my laptop this weekend when I stumbled upon a panel with a provocative no-brainer: Do film students really need to know much about classic films? One surferish upstart naysaid before backpedaling on his much and appreciated learnedness, but most of the panel consisted of grayhairs who know well the value of history, film or otherwise.
David Bordwell, god of film academics, wisely observed that film study depends on your specific purposes; some people may not need to know much about classics. The surferish lad, I regret to say, failed to mount much of a case against learning film history. He cited the ole hypothetical new director whose head is too full of Ford and Bergman to cultivate his own style, but film history suggests the opposite is more often true, riddled as it is with the unremarkable clichés of unstudied directors. As another panelist noted, Wes and Paul Thomas Anderson are such distinct voices not because they’ve not studied film history. Precisely the opposite.
You gather where I stand on this. Film is life. Anyone who’s endured such backward times as the American 2000s knows the necessity of studying the past. Artistically, I can’t know for sure, but I suspect knowledge has never made me less creative. My reading buddy Harold Bloom would agree that if you aspire to converse with Welles and Tarkovsky, you damn sure better do all you can to communicate on their level. The more film I see, the more I retrospectively feel unqualified to talk about it.
But the panel plucked some counterexamples in the form of non-Western directors with little access: Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Ousmane Sembene. Shocked as I am to learn Hou Hsiao-Hsien is (or was) unfamiliar with much film history, as he’s clearly a Paul Schrader transcendentalist, I’m aware there is no such thing as an exception that proves the rule. Convergent evolution is certainly plausible. It’s just that the smart money lies elsewhere. Deliberately eschewing the great film archive to which we in the West have tremendous access is like a governor rejecting federal funds.
They spoke often of the canon, as if there were The Canon. Of this mythical beast, one fact is certain among the panel: it is increasingly expansive. Which sort of confounds me. Roger Ebert's Great Movies aside—and even that hall of fame is barely 300 alcoves deep—all the Top 50s and 100s and 1000s inhabit fixed walls. Sight/Sound, the AFI, even the Google of film lists, the They Shoot Pictures Don't They 1000, feature revolving not lifetime membership. I wish there were a panel dedicated to film canons.
The panelists were asked to construct a two-film canon that everyone interested in film must see. My harbor is still in sight, but my two-film canon would be Contempt and Inland Empire: formal and blurry, historical and contemporary, narrative and dream, two inexplicably tragic goddesses and two grand statements on the power and purpose of film. Embarrassingly they’re both postmodern works, but I can’t help myself. Some days I think postmodernism is inherently better, whatever that means, than other styles.
So I stand at one extreme: cinephiles and art lovers and film students ought to see as much of the classics as possible, a lifetime albatross. And a very pretty one at that. We can never see it all, so selectivity matters, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't increase our erudition forever. What say you? And what would compose your two-film canon?
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Sunday, April 25, 2010
Heading into the final stretch of the television year, it's a nice time to take stock of seasons so far. This way, there will be no surprises when it comes Emmy time and I'm not rooting for your favorite comedy. Besides, I haven't had a chance to discuss a few of these shows here yet, so surprises may await.
10. How I Met Your Mother
The balance is tipping, but this show has bounced back from worse, and maybe it’s just the awfully random scheduling by CBS. “Say Cheese” is a recent highlight, but the show needs another quickly, and preferably one consistent with the series’ characterization and history. The season's been struggling since contrivance drove Barney and Robin apart, but final arcs tend to lift all boats.
9. Cougar Town
The best hangout show on the air thanks to its warm and witty characters and reliably hilarious gags. It had a point when it was about women coping with aging, but then it became an ensemble relationship comedy and lost much of its thematic down. For comforting entertainment, though, Cougar Town is king.
8. The Sarah Silverman Program
Alternately vulgar and profane, with a side of disgusting. The Steve-Brian stories rarely amount to anything interesting, and the Laura-Jay stories are fine, but Sarah Silverman the character is so colossally idiotic that the season has been a riot just following her. Whether acting in a children's show or playing town censor, her stories are always elegantly trenchant, and the show's hilarious subversive quality culminates in the one-two punch of a pedophile rip and a Holocaust parody called "Wowschwitz."
Snappy, sweet, and referential (albeit off-puttingly weighted toward ‘80s culture), it’s become a super-efficient joke factory these past few months. The meshed cast are funny, especially Alison Brie, and the writers comfortably assign them work within their ranges. But if it weren’t for The Office, Community would be the funniest show on the air with no point. The group’s co-maturation is a start, though.
6. Modern Family
Dependably funny, slightly sappy, and a mite inconsistent, but with an ensemble so large and enjoyable, episodes fly by in a flurry of laughs. The only real problem is a want for depth. The cast and writers are clearly up to the challenge. Time to come through with a message less trite than “family makes life worth living.”
5. Party Down
The Veronica Mars cousin (joined so far this year by Michael Kostroff aka Mr. Pope and Steve Guttenberg aka Mr. Goodwood—you’re welcome) is appropriately both witty and an effective downer, but its points of sadness are even and formidable. The slapstick’s subsiding, the better to slam us into reality, and the spotlight on the cater-waiters’ Hollywood dreams is gratifyingly brighter. Three episodes in (1, 2, and 5, btw), this season is shaping up sharp.
4. United States of Tara
An absorbing mystery anchored by a powerhouse new alter centers this season, the loom upon which each of the regulars find themselves in fun, new roles. Enough cannot be said about the best cast on Showtime, consistently matched by story depths both wacky and wrenching.
Mad Men meets James Bond in this uproarious workplace comedy posing as a Cold War spy spoof. Sorry, Chuck, but Archer not only has funnier (and more graphic) antics but more investing relationships. And there’s not a weak link in the cast, a sexually dysfunctional Arrested Development Trojan horse.
2. 30 Rock
Critics keep jumping ship; good riddance says I. Our strongest postmodern sitcom is as funny and alienating as ever, if a hair less awesome than its ripe spinoff BitchHunter. Anarchy governs the plot, style, and tone, but the flighty, prickly shell cloaks a sophisticated look at television imitating life imitating television.
1. Parks and Recreation
The best blend of political satire and romantic comedy on television. When last we left Pawnee, Andy and April graced the cover of the summer catalog. Now we have just four more weeks of Ron’s mustache, Jerry jokes, and Leslie Knope until summer.
Absent are The Big Bang Theory which I gave up on months ago, The Office which aired maybe its best episode of the season this week, Glee which is fun and funny while contrived and brainless, and Nurse Jackie which is a great drama trapped in a Showtime show which is almost as bad as being stuck in an ABC dramedy. I also excluded the fall season of The Thick of It since my goal was to cover the spring shows; suffice it to say The Thick of It is a strong contender for the crown.
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Wednesday, April 21, 2010
Kick-Ass wants to be a dynamic superhero drama about kids standing up for justice, but it also wants to be a moral satire on the superhero urge and nonintervention without realizing its twin quests are at cross purposes. People often talk about turning off their brains to watch movies, but I think it’s more common to turn off your conscience. Kick-Ass opens with a suicide joke. The audience roared. Way to kick off your moral crusade, Kick-Ass.
The problem with colorful comic movie Kick-Ass is that director Matthew Vaughn invites us to cheer on his saga of violence with one hand and indicts us for it with the other. The film is momentarily somewhat moving when our Peter Parker-voiced protagonist, a Hollywood nerd played by underwear model Aaron Johnson, finds himself as his crime-fighting alter ego Kick-Ass in a fight outside a diner where the customers watch from the windows. Kick-Ass stands up for justice while a crowd of bystanders watch. It’s reprehensible, and the film actually calls them out for that human tendency to enjoy violence without stepping in, recalling countless fights that attract crowds who do nothing but watch.
The film also purports to show, like Watchmen, the reckless dangers of wanting to be a superhero, and Kick-Ass never shies from demonstrating the deadly consequences of Kick-Ass’ chosen nighttime hobby. It also pays lip service to addressing vigilante justice, just in time for the film to exonerate and celebrate its costumed crusaders for their triumphant revenge schemes.
In a later scene, the film makes overtures toward calling out us the audience for watching violence on film. Despite the spaghetti western music and attempts at witty banter, Kick-Ass is no Inglourious Basterds. There’s no authentic inquiry into voyeurism or violence on film; if there were, the film certainly throws it all out for its climactic Matrix-derived fight sequence. It’s no accident that the good guys launch their assault by taking advantage of a good Samaritan gesture, completely kicking their righteousness to the curb. Vaughn’s spectacular violence, including a taser to the face, a guy getting microwaved to death, and a guy getting crushed in a car, is designed to be entertaining. The moral questions are thrown in to smarten it up, but instead it just muddles the impact.
Consider also the homophobic elements. I wouldn’t say the film is actively anti-gay, but it does depict the adolescent aversion to homosexuality with gleeful verisimilitude. On the one hand, the film isn’t endorsing those views; it’s just representing how real kids actually act. On the other, it’s scoring jokes and good-will off it. Kick-Ass wants to be a moral spin on the superhero genre, but it’s not so principled that it can’t simultaneously exhibit those qualities it finds so detestable.
Beyond those few moments of serious moral inquiry—among them a hit-and-run that hits home and multiple elements of people with the power to prevent violence who do nothing—Kick-Ass is your basic origin story, and it’s a little too dependent on coincidence. There’s a romantic subplot, a secret identity element, the establishment of a villain, etc. In fact, much of this film has been done before and better, like the mob boss villain, the guy versus a hallway of thugs, the tragic hero death, and the sequel setup, and the final shot, among others, is a laughable cliché. What Kick-Ass brings to the superhero film is swearing, which is refreshing considering how real people swear in times of rage.
The most striking new element is that one of the heroes is an 11 year-old named Hit-Girl. And Hit-Girl likes to swear. And she wants a butterfly knife for her birthday, ya cunts. (Which reminds me: almost every scene is ultimately a joke on the juxtaposition of seemingly normal people, conversations, and events against this heightened backdrop of superviolence. Eventually, it gets old.) The thing about Hit-Girl is that much of her intended entertainment value is akin to those talking baby commercials or dogs walking on their hind legs, since her every other line ends in an unprintable expression. And the film certainly cashes in on Hit-Girl’s violence, maybe not promoting it but not disapproving either. However, she’s also kind of empowering. Her fight scenes are more heightened than the others, and she’s a tiny, vulnerable human being who has striven to become pretty self-sufficient. It’s the American dream, kids.
Matthew Vaughn employs an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach to the action sequences in Kick-Ass, including strobe, comic animation, first-person shooter, night-vision, speed up and slow down, and more soundtrack changes than you can count. But since this film was made for young, straight boys, complete with a teacher striptease fantasy, POV shots of Kick-Ass caressing his love interest, and, indeed, a masturbation montage, you might say the juvenile style is appropriate. I say it’s a compromise, and Kick-Ass self-destructively bends to the will of popular entertainment instead of standing up for its ostensible principles.
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Saturday, April 17, 2010
More and more I appreciate the few iconoclasts who aren’t gaga for Ebert. It just seems like the furthest anyone in the film community will go is to say that while he’s not always all that deep an intellect, he’s also an untouchable treasure. Which is fine as far as it goes, but he and I have rather divergent views on how to engage with the world (though we often arrive at the same places).
I fear I’m getting into ad hominem territory, but Ebert is arguably an emotional/intuitive critic who responds more to feeling than reason. Now, the man is obviously and well-documentedly interested in numerous subjects and rarely turns off his brain to take something in. And he’s staunchly reasonable when it comes to politics and religion which are the same thing. But he’s also waxed grand on the subject of indefinable elevation, and among his favorite filmmakers are Werner Herzog (who is quite a feely man himself, and one who says films are beyond the reasonable mind).
Yesterday, Ebert again addressed his controversial position on video games with a blog post entitled, “Video games can never be art.” In it Ebert confesses, “I remain convinced that in principle, video games cannot be art.” Well, good, as long as he said it twice.
But let’s stop being polite and start getting real. I gather Ebert has three reasons video games are not art, sloppily argued but, hey, Pulitzer. Oh, and full disclosure: I have played with a Wii once and for five minutes, I’m barely competent enough for the early levels of Super Mario 3, and Werner Herzog is also one of my favorite contemporary filmmakers (along with the Coen brothers, David Lynch, Claire Denis, and Bela Tarr aka the disciples of Antonioni/Tarkovsky).
Ebert’s primary argument against video games as art is the winning component. The fact that you can win at chess and video games and not at “Kubla Khan” or Moby Dick means video games have more in common with games than art (cleverly shifting the focus from aesthetics to taxonomy). In video games, winning means completing your objectives, just as in a movie the protagonist completes his or hers. The real difference is that in games you are the protagonist, and in the classical arts you observe the protagonist. Okay, so we don’t have agency in second-person films like Dark Passage or Blast of Silence like we do in a video game. But what happens the day some great Borgesian thinker constructs a puzzle film where the audience chooses what to do at certain points? Good luck convincing me there’s not some postmodern brilliance to be gleaned/imbued there, and better luck then finding the line between that and video games.
On further inspection, what of the winning component? Caprica just concluded its first half-season, much of which centered on a virtual world (like an Internet in three-dimensions that you navigate via an avatar) with one especially tempting section called New Cap City. If you die there, you’re banned for life, the danger becoming an extra enticement, but nobody knows the point of New Cap City. Some think it’s to collect as much guns or money as you can, others think the point is to figure out the point. Get it? It’s life. Life is art. Or a game, anyway. But one with no declared objective and therefore one without what we think of as winning. Is such a game art? It seems to me the designer (and here we get metaphysical, and again I think of Borges) has constructed a work with at least as much philosophy and expression as you’d find in the Great Works.
Back to the Man from Urbana. Ebert again resorts to his usual defense that nobody can offer the video game to sit alongside the great paintings, films, poems, etc. Okay. I’m hardly the man to say otherwise. All this really means is that video games are young, the grammar is still being invented, and perhaps no video games are yet great art.
Ay, there’s the rub. Ebert’s argument is traditionalist, with only great art worthy of being called art at all and he the arbiter atop his throne at the Salon. I’m a rationalist who prefers to build arguments on a solid foundation of considered theory. The exclusivity attached to the honorific “art” has always offended me; it’s the liberal in me. Inasmuch as the medium is the message, if Citizen Kane is art, so is The Hottie and the Nottie. Even if you despise McLuhan, it doesn’t change the fact that The Hottie and the Nottie, like Citizen Kane, was presented by its director as a film, a work of creative expression. The difference is between great art and bad art, degree not kind. Not all art is successful, but by Ebert’s standards, art must be successful, because he reserves the title for only the crème de la crème.
Which conflicts with his own definition, a spin on the Platonic notion of art imitating nature: “My notion is that [art] grows better the more it improves or alters nature through an passage through what we might call the artist's soul, or vision. Countless artists have drawn countless nudes. They are all working from nature. Some of there paintings are masterpieces, most are very bad indeed. How do we tell the difference? We know. It is a matter, yes, of taste.” Blanket sic.
Does that mean art can be good to great, but not mediocre? But what about art that fails to improve nature by filtering it through a worldview? Is that no long art? More likely, it’s just bad art. But don’t try arguing with Ebert. He knows. It’s taste, after all, which you can’t argue with, because he’s been criticizing art for decades and get off his damn lawn already!
I’m not bothered by Ebert’s position so much as his utter failure to defend it rationally. He admits that his declaration that Cormac McCarthy makes art and Nicholas Sparks doesn’t is subjective. He then parenthetically attacks the taste of anyone who says otherwise, which kind of misses the point of subjectivity. It would be more persuasive, and—fancy that—open for debate, to point out Sparks’ numerous failings, to build a case with evidence and logic.
So are video games art? Obviously, but then, I argue that everything, or at least everything unconsumable, is art. What’s the difference between a game and a film? They’re both fully conceptualized and presented before the audience arrives, so the agency of a video game is something more like a simulation of free will than free will itself; it’s all part of the designer’s design. If the only difference is how they’re experienced, then video games must be art. Otherwise, you’re saying if I choose to watch a movie in random snippets completely out of order, that movie is not art. Your definition cannot depend on the audience.
Well, the video game designers provide a unique experience each time, like the Indiana Jones roller coaster and unlike Citizen Kane. True, but what about those silent films (e.g. Guy Maddin tours) with live accompaniment, or Jean Painleve shorts with alternate musical soundtracks? Or what about a painting that doesn't tell you where to focus or what to think about or what's the context? Like a video game, a painting is fully realized before the audience arrives and everyone has the opportunity to have the same experience with it, but they invariably won't. And if audience involvement is the problem, there goes some live theater, performance art, and architecture.
So I'm not sure if any video games are great art, but the potential is there, and I suspect plenty of others far more in the know have addressed this topic with more depth. Ebert concludes with a nice attack on gamers and suggests that the need for video games to be considered art is about validation, representative of the maturity his argument has displayed to that point. I could as easily suggest Ebert’s need to prevent video games from being called art is about validation of his own worldview. As if the rest of the Internet doesn’t do that for him.
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Wednesday, April 14, 2010
I’ve recently come into some money, a phrase that hopefully implies glamorous nocturnal misdeeds, and I’ve promptly blown it on books of all sorts generally revolving around arts criticism. Also, turns out the library has books! That you can check out for free! I know!
At the moment, I’m dividing my time among the odd article by Manny Farber from the dyspeptic, confrontational Farber on Film and two tomes that got me thinking. These are Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon, much read about but finally purchased, and Andre Bazin’s Orson Welles, a slim library volume with a forward by Truffaut and a profile by Cocteau. What’s fascinating is where Bloom and Bazin intersect.
Bloom has his problematic areas—a literal deification of Shakespeare, for one—but it’s hard not to buy what I take as his primary contribution to literary criticism, expounded upon elsewhere, that is the anxiety of influence. When you write a novel, you are participating in a conversation with Shakespeare, Dante, and Joyce, and as I understand it the anxiety of influence is a concern about that responsibility that can result in stimulating greatness or a dismissal of the idea altogether, i.e. nobody will ever be Shakespeare, so I don’t have to aim for his echelon. A corollary, to my mind, is Bloom’s assertion that the Great Works must have a strangeness, a stylistic uniqueness that sets them apart in the historical conversation. If you’re offering yourself into an epochal agora, you must distinguish yourself to get noticed by the Greats. They don't let just anyone sit at the cool table.
The Western Canon as determined by Bloom is represented by 26 authors, emanating outward from Shakespeare to range from Dante and Cervantes to Kafka and Joyce. Which brings us to Orson Welles. If ever a filmmaker displayed no anxiety of influence, it’s Welles, staging a black Macbeth in Harlem at 21 and offering history’s Greatest Film at 26. It’s clear from his inventiveness that he was not free of this anxiety but responding to it; still Welles certainly appears untroubled talking to titans. Remembering Bloom, Welles mounted adaptations of works from three of the Canon’s essentials: Shakespeare (Macbeth, Othello, Chimes at Midnight), Kafka (The Trial), and Cervantes (the never-completed Don Quixote, which Cocteau suggests lacks only a final shot of an explosion, a petite mort that never, ahem, came). Has any other filmmaker been so free of anxiety of influence?
Setting aside the Shakespeare adaptors (Olivier, Zeffirelli, Kozintsev, Kurosawa, etc.) and bearing in mind I’m only beginning a life of art, I’m not sure any auteur has more longed to converse with the Western literary Canon than Welles. Which is right. The auteur most responsible for later auteurs’ anxiety of influence ought to exhibit none himself. Moreover, Welles the Shakespeare of Cinema has not shot mere adaptations but Great ones largely due to his suppression of the anxiety of influence, e.g. Welles’ brashness in correctly excising large chunks of the Bard’s words.
Other authors in the Canon are Chaucer, Milton, Goethe, Austen, Whitman, Dickens, Tolstoy, Freud, Woolf, Beckett. Any auteurs spring to mind? Plenty have shot Austen and Dickens, but what are the greats? Certainly I’ve yet to see a great Joyce, Proust or Borges film, but again I yield that my experience is limited. I’d still love to see Jean-Luc Godard's James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake.
Murnau comes close, which is also right considering the eminence of Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. His Goethe adaptation (Faust) looked like magic to my young eyes, and I've yet to see his Moliere (Tartuffe). Kozintsev has directed some of my favorite Shakespeare adaptations, and has apparently shot a Don Quixote I know nothing about. Roman Polanski, cinema's Kafka and a lock for a representative slot from the past few decades in the Film Canon, met with some disinterest for his two Canon adaptations, Macbeth and Oliver Twist. But Welles' completed canon adaptations are Great films.
Of course, cinematic anxiety of influence ought to depend on great films, not great books. To that end, one would require The Western Film Canon with its attendant essential auteurs. There’s no shortage of such lists, naturally, but I’m not at a stage to exalt or dismiss any. Returning to Bloom is helpful: “Shakespeare and Dante are the center of the canon because they excel all other Western writers in cognitive acuity, linguistic energy, and power of invention.” Replace "linguistic" with "cinematic" and you may as well be talking about Welles.
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Tuesday, April 13, 2010
From the get-go, Date Night is not exactly what you expect, launching beneath the surprising strains of punk standard “Blitzkrieg Bop,” an only half-ironic musical choice considering the mundane lives of the Fosters are violently upended over the next ninety minutes. A mistaken identity comedy where a married couple steal a restaurant reservation, Date Night knows exactly what it is: a solid if not spectacular buddy flick where the buddies happen to be married.
Showcased weekly in The Office and 30 Rock respectively, Steve Carell and Tina Fey are preternaturally dedicated performers capable of making any absurd material believable. So while Date Night has a few slack moments and turn-on-a-dime moodswings, you always buy the Fosters as normal people (albeit with extra funny) in ridiculous circumstances. They’re joined here by an entire red carpet (dashing Mark Wahlberg, trashy James Franco, ball-buster Mila Kunis, William Fichtner, Ray Liotta, Taraji P. Henson, Mark Ruffalo, Kristen Wiig, Leighton Meester, Common—you get the picture), but the focus is kept wisely on the Fosters.
Director Shawn Levy is something of a nonentity, a handyman who shows up to point the cameras at whatever the script says that day. I haven’t seen any of his previous features (Night at the Museum, Cheaper by the Dozen), but unfortunately there is nothing distinctive about the style of Date Night: a two-shot of the stars, a crane look at puddly New York streets, and cuts on pretty much every line. The action sequences are surprisingly witty, but some directorial personality would have been nice. Instead Levy surrenders his influence to his leads and capable screenwriter Josh Klausner.
Klausner’s script pits your everyday boring married couple against both bizarre external conflicts with the mob on their tail and heartfelt internal ones as they struggle to ascertain the health of their marriage. You get the feeling the stars felt more comfortable in the lighter scenes than in the sometimes clunky emotional moments, but they power through and imbue the story with some real gravity. Klausner’s other coup is to feature multiple instances of his versatile leads adopting various fake personae, which allows the Fosters to play hipster douchebags demanding to get back into a trendy restaurant in one of the film’s funniest scenes.
In the broad strokes, Date Night plays out about how you expect, but there’s enough spin on the nitty-gritty to keep the film from falling into convention. For instance, there’s a humorous final-act play on the seduction trope that comes close to moral insight, and the film always has time to mock the phony. This thanks to the film’s message to accept who you are, just like the pleasant, diverting, little Date Night.
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Friday, April 9, 2010
Nurse Jackie and United States of Tara are back, and while the former hasn't learned much in the off-season, the latter is better than ever. See, Nurse Jackie is still just a character study with an astounding lead performance. But United States of Tara, no matter how colossal Toni Collette's work, is more than a penetrating look at its lead. It's a fully realized exploration of identity.
There's a new mystery element this year (I think), and unlike last year's investigation into the origins of Tara's DID, this one is dark while still being inviting rather than repulsive. That is, if there's really a mystery going on, which I suspect. See, the next-door neighbor killed himself, and the Gregsons are watching the place. But Tara, who's been on her meds and alter-free since last year, may know something about the neighbor's death—at least, there have been hints an alter may have been there before. Sure it's sick and definitely pitch black, but it's also intriguing and, forgive me, fun. Whereas last year the victim of the unknown darkness was someone we know, this year it's someone we don't. It's nice to have that distance.
Because United States of Tara is generally a pleasant show, even with all its derangement. This year, each member of the best cast on Showtime is exploring identity and roles in a more effective and focused revamp of last year. Marshall's experimenting with heterosexuality, but it seems like this will only lead him to definitive homosexuality. Kate's half-heartedly pursuing the corporate life while succumbing to the lure of an old soul artist played by the dynamic Viola Davis. Charmaine is getting married and moving in with Tara for some attempt at a traditional engagement, and Rosemarie Dewitt continues to brilliantly portray every irritating, narcissistic quirk of Charmaine's history in every selfish moment, as when she sings into a cucumber at the grocery store while a stranger talks with Tara. And Max is struggling to break out of the "married to a crazy lady" box to moving results.
Oh, and Tara's alters are back, but she's afraid to disclose that to her family because things have been going relatively well. When Tara finds out Buck's been using her body, she rushes into a closet to record a tearful diary entry. Three episodes in, this season has taken the best parts of an excellent debut and fine-tuned them. The show is more focused, more tonally consistent, and thankfully more interested in really diving into its themes, not just identity but the struggle between individualism and social structures (e.g. defining happiness for yourself, figuring out how you fit into groups, etc.). Season 1 wasn't too shabby, but Season 2 is shaping up to be quite the sophomore renaissance.
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Thursday, April 8, 2010
[Spoilers for Lost to episode 6.10, “Happily Ever After,” below.]
You know, after “Live Together, Die Alone,” “Flashes Before Your Eyes,” “The Constant,” "Jughead," and “Happily Ever After,” you’d think the writers would have done more with Henry Ian Cusick over the years. Unlike Ben and Juliet and Daniel and Jacob, Desmond has been around since the premiere of Season 2, only missing out on the wildly overpraised and retrospectively misleading and/or ill-conceived first year, which was more like Grey’s Tropical Island (with Guns) anyway. That’s the biggest problem with Lost: for everything it gets right, there’s even more weighing us down.
First of all, I contend the series has been, is, and always shall be hamstrung by its structure. The flashblah conceit forces Lost, a show with a larger cast than most of the HBO epics, to focus on one person per hour and the handful of people they encounter along the way. For comparison, I recently caught a Season 2 episode of Deadwood that was still introducing characters forty minutes in, and we’re talking Alma Garrett, not just any old drunk rascal. Two thirds of the show is spent catching up with all the various players and the remainder is doled out so as to best service the material. With Lost, everything’s a double-edged sword—this show is simultaneously brilliant and stupid—and the flashback structure allowed for some great surprises and takeoffs (“The Other 48 Days,” “Through the Looking Glass,” everything after that). But I’m not sure it was worth the trade, and it’s clearly counterintuitive, especially in these later, shorter seasons, to focus on one person at a time when your cast (including the relatively important supporting characters like George Minkowski and Mikhail) is pushing 50. Yet…
Then there’s the endlessly irritating habit of playing every little reveal as if it’s a universe-explaining Surprise. We all knew Desmond was “the package,” and exactly nobody was stunned Charles Widmore was on the submarine, and we still weren’t shocked that Charles Widmore was the one visiting Desmond in the hospital. But every time, Lost hides the faces, places backs toward the audience, and cranks up the string section. It’s not just cheesy; it’s grating. It's enough to make you wonder if the producers have any self-awareness at all. Yet…
It really doesn’t make sense that they play those moments like we’re a little slow, because the Lost producers depend on an astute audience. This year, for instance, they have never suggested on the show that the 2004 timeline was a result of something happening in the 2007 one, but we all suspected so, and they wanted us to. If we hadn’t, this week's reveal that the timelines are somewhat co-existing, even if one or the other is a hallucination or something, would not have been as revelatory as it was. Lost can drop just a scale of a red herring, and the producers know we’re on the scent. We’re often wrong on the big arcs, but when it comes to character interactions, it’s not a surprise to see Desmond bump into Daniel Faraday at his mother’s party where he’s already been announced as a headliner. Yet…
There's also a lot of faux-important nonsense, too often to count in the first few seasons, but it remains today. Par exemple, Daniel's journal says, "If anything goes wrong, Desmond Hume will be my constant." Anyone expecting to find out what exactly is so significant about that? Or what about coming this close to finding out what Charles Widmore's plan is in "Happily Ever After," only still to not know. The first few seasons of Lost are about getting behind one curtain only to find another, again and again. Six episodes out, Lost is still pulling these kinds of tricks. Yet...
Setting an end-date helped tremendously, because it’s clear that from the end of Season 3 on, everything has been generally planned. But before that, Lost wasn’t exactly the Lost we’ve come to know. Remember the golf course? Locke carving a cradle? Debates about where to set up camp and how to feed everyone? Seasons 1-3 could be condensed into one year without losing anything important, and what’s left would have been phenomenal. Yet…
There’s finally the pervasive problem of character behavior (and its friends sexism and homophobia). With rare exceptions—like Jin demanding answers even after being repeatedly rebuffed or distracted at the beginning of “Happily Ever After”—nobody acts, speaks, or makes decisions like real humans on Lost. Being a genre show demands even more grounding in recognizable life, for lack of a better term, and Lost fails in just about every scene. Yet…
Yet, for all its wasted potential, sometimes Lost is transcendent.
The first vision of another life and the way the universe conspires to rhyme, the flashes of a romance known and not all in the space of an instant, the chat about consciousness-altering love with a ghost yearning for death—“Happily Ever After” overflows with moments of the sublime. It’s enchanting how Eloise seems to consciously remember both timelines, and bittersweet the way Daniel recalls detonating a nuke. The way Island Charlie nods, in one time a confirmation of his final words, in another a gesture that this is really happening. And the hand. By the time Charlie put his hand on the window, everyone was thinking, “Not Penny’s Boat.” It’s the same effect as when Desmond wrote down Daniel’s instructions and Penny’s number on his hand in one year, and we knew the missing numbers when it was blank in another. Every now and then, and more often in a Desmond episode, Lost coordinates these little moments where all the mess falls away and we almost comprehend the design.
“The Constant” leaps to my mind for the quick cutting at the end of the cosmically arranged phone call, with Desmond promising to return and Penny promising to find him, culminating in an overlapped “I love you.” The original “Not Penny’s Boat” image was the most powerful to that point, and Charlie’s sacrifice remains the show’s greatest death sequence. And when we first find Desmond, and we learn that he’s not in the real world but the hatch beneath our struggling survivors, and later when we discover he and Jack had a talk at the stadium, for a moment it feels like reality is warping. I’d include the moment we discovered the flashforward device, but my surprise was tempered by having joke-guessed it at the beginning of the episode.
But as for indelible moments: the discovery of Locke’s wheelchair and the serenity of staring at the ocean, the light shining from the hatch, Charlie and Claire “eating” peanut butter, Ethan being absent from the manifest, Ana Lucia discovering Goodwin, the hatch explosion, Ben showing Sawyer the other island, Anthony Cooper pushing Locke out of an eighth-story window, Sayid shooting his mark on a golf course, the universe preventing Michael from killing himself, Jacob’s cabin, the frozen donkey wheel, the death of Jeremy Bentham, Sawyer and Juliet spending three years together, Crazy Claire “rescuing” Jin, Hurley helping Richard speak to his wife, and plenty more. Whatever its problems, Lost can be downright magical.
In “Happily Ever After,” I was personally pleased to see which characters were brought in to revolve around Desmond: Claire and Charlie, from his time on the beach, Charles and Penny Widmore, from his flashbacks, George Minkowski, Desmond's brother in time-unstuckedness in "The Constant," and Daniel and Eloise, the variable and the constant. But when he approaches the stadium, I actually was hoping Jack would be there because of the indelible power of the original stadium scene. Then again, that long shot of Desmond and Penny, two tiny objects moving toward each other in this massive array was about as perfect a metaphor as you could want.
Many of the series’ greatest moments arise from the latter day characters, some of which is due to Season 1 being a different show. More importantly, Desmond, Ben, Daniel, Jacob, Richard, and others have an advantage in being connected so closely to the mythology of the show. They’re interesting in part because they appear to be the keys to the mystery. Sun and Jin are fine, and Yunjin Kim and Daniel Dae Kim are good actors, but they’ve been dropped into the Lost story while Ben is integral to it. I don’t want to say Henry Ian Cusick is necessarily a better actor than Matthew Fox, but Desmond is a more fully conceived character whose story is more compelling, and Cusick is magnetic in every appearance. Certainly Locke is as compelling as the latecomers, and Sawyer usually is, too. But it’s valid to wonder whether Lost would have been a better show if it weren’t about Jack and Kate and Sayid, or if it were able to keep up with everyone instead of a handful of characters at a time.
Next week is a Hurley episode, and while I like the character, I find myself more than uninterested. After a week of nirvana, we’re back to one of the 815ers. Will Desmond even be in it, or Locke, or Ben, or Richard? I wanted to talk about some of the thematic content, because this season is consistently engaging on that level, but I’ll save that until we know more. Desmond has six episodes to unite the 2004 Lostaways, and we’ve been promised bloodshed and heartache. I half-hope he tries to get them all on a plane so he can crash it into an island.
“Happily Ever After” is expectedly momentous and beautifully realized, especially by Henry Ian Cusick. But more than anything, it’s achieved a bittersweet resolution: I’m really going to miss this show.
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Wednesday, April 7, 2010
[MSC Aggie Cinema presents The Shining at Rudder 302 on April 16 at 8:00 PM.]
The Shining is so full of iconic images and moments that even if you haven’t seen it before, you know some of what’s coming. There’s Jack Nicholson poking his face through the hole in a door and snarling, “Heeeeere’s Johnny.” There’s little moppet Danny riding around an empty hotel on his trike until he comes upon twin girls and an elevator spilling blood. There’s Room 237, Tony the imaginary friend, a colossal hedge maze, and the revelatory phrase, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” It’s fitting to know these images, because The Shining refers to visions of what lies ahead.
Nicholson marvelously looms over the film as struggling writer and recovering alcoholic Jack Torrance, hired to oversee a deserted hotel for its off season. He’s hoping to use that time to work on a writing project, despite the hotel’s shady history: one of his predecessors suffered a psychotic break, murdering his daughters and wife before shooting himself. Meanwhile his son Danny receives frightening premonitions of the hotel from his imaginary friend Tony, the aforementioned visions of horrible murders and a torrent of blood.
But The Shining is no mere ghost story. It’s a disturbing domestic drama about festering marital discontent, the hotel forcing the family to confront the effects of Jack’s alcoholism. Jack rattles on about the weight of his responsibilities, and he never misses a chance to profane wife Wendy. She in turn suppresses her unhappiness, Shelley Duvall’s face constantly betraying fear. And Danny retreats to his own world. At one point, Danny stumbles upon his father staring out a window, upon which Jack makes Danny sit on his lap, caresses his hair, kisses his head, and tells him how much he loves him. Danny is visibly uncomfortable the whole time, the unwitting, violated recipient of a drunk’s well-meant advances. It might be the scariest scene in the movie, Kubrick slyly illustrating that alcoholism is not some hysterical melodrama like The Lost Weekend but a horror story.
As a work of horror, The Shining is magnificent right down to the chase-through-a-haunted-house climax and the spirits that reveal themselves to each of the Torrances. Wendy is iconoclastic in her resourcefulness, and unlike the typical slasher prey, she’s willing to use her weapon. With its Resnais-influenced gliding camerawork and its Argento-inspired pattern carpets, the look of the film is unsettling even at its most mundane. The score reliably sets the mood, with a bold, blaring opening (augmented by background wailing) and a chanting finale, excitedly urging Jack on to his fate. There’s violence, and the gore is restrained, but what’s most frightening are the sudden cuts or surprise percussion. You’ll jump when Jack tears paper from his typewriter, and even the title cards grow intimidating by the end.
It doesn’t exactly make sense, certain touches deliberately contradictory in order to disorient the audience (e.g. pay attention to the carpeting in the shots where the tennis ball rolls toward Danny, and notice the timing of Danny's dislocated shoulder vis a vis Jack's sobriety), but Stanley Kubrick is infamously meticulous, and every frame of The Shining rewards attention. For instance, when we first tour the Overlook Hotel, Jack’s wife and son in tow, we move in one tracking shot from the right to the left, Kubrick subtly taking them back into the past. During the Torrance’s drive to the Overlook, I swear one of the hillside shots quotes the opening of Aguirre, the Wrath of God and its reverberating Popol Vuh score, another somewhat apocalyptic cabin fever flick anchored by a manic lead performance. And what does the film literally become outside in the hedge maze? Following in footsteps!
There’s a lot going on in The Shining, even if it’s impossible to fit all the pieces together, and while it’s spectacularly fun, it’s also intensely scary. When that final day begins, Kubrick places Shelley Duvall with her back to us and off to the side as she fends off her attacker. Every time she swings a bat, the effect is that of a first-person shooter, only The Shining is a first-person nightmare.
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No spoilers; that post anon. More pressingly, I want to talk about a problem that has plagued Lost since time immemorial: it’s all about these little romances and love triangles and tragic quadrangles and geodesic domes of naked flesh writhing with the rhythm of paradise. But for all its fifty relatively important characters and their magical, time-melting love stories, not one of them is gay.
Denotatively, that is; Jack’s pretty gay when it comes to Sarah.
Sure there was Mr. Friendly, who we’re told is gay in Season 4 during his final appearance. That’s like inventing a magical hero mentor and saying he’s gay after all the books are out. I can barely remember who Mr. Friendly is.
Meanwhile, every other character is given an epic romance, from Sawyer and Juliet’s three-year marriage in a single episode to Sun and Jin’s trajectory over six years to whoever Jack’s bangin' this week to television’s pocket romance, Desmond and Penny. Okay, but those are the main characters, you say. Well, consider Charlie and Claire, Rose and Bernard, Nikki and Paolo, Boone and Shannon (kidding, sort of), Shannon and Sayid and Nadia, and Locke and Helen, Alex and Karl, Richard and Isabella, Charles and Eloise, Daniel and Charlotte. Even Hurley and Libby came close to knocking boots, but the producers panned to a tasteful DWI.
Worse, the producers are just repeating the same love stories each episode, but we only really care about Desmond and Penny. Well, we all love Sawyer and Juliet and Rose and Bernard, but you know what I’m saying.
In short, it’s not just a problem that a series about romantic love ignores the gays; it’s a passive evil.
That wouldn’t sound so incendiary if you knew how little I value the words “good” and “evil.” But I absolutely think it’s an active immorality bred probably by sheer accident—I’m guessing the writers just never thought about it until everyone was already matched up, but that doesn’t ameliorate the homophobia of the series’ ultimate thematic statement. Hey, I’m not the one who decided to make a show about a thousand romances saving the universe. I'd have put some thought into it.
How are the gays doing beyond Lost?
Archer’s funniest episode might be “Honeypot,” where Archer has to seduce a gay Cuban rogue. There’s also the recurring Miss Ray Jilette who may have had the line of the finale with, “Girl, please. Nobody’s that gay.”
Caprica might have my favorite gay character in Sam Adama, a happily married mobster. He’s charming, intimidating, hilarious, and gay, which we learn in the second episode and see in the third. Also: hot.
Glee’s casting a quarterback to date Kurt next year. The show’s made a point of sharing the excruciating joys of growing up gay.
Modern Family manages to make fun of its queeny gays while including them in the joke, and Mitchell and Cameron are trailblazing as parents. What’s more, the writers are able to do stories that nobody else on television is doing, as when Mitchell and Cameron freak out about their daughter’s first word being “mommy.”
Mad Men comes back this summer, but last year saw some signs of unexpected frankness with Sal. Hopefully he and Kurt will crop up again this year.
Nurse Jackie let Jackie’s friend Momo go to my great disappointment, but Thor’s still around. Not sure I care. Nurse Jackie isn’t remotely as interesting as it should be, and every god-damned injury is either penis- or testicle-related. And it's pointless, too. It's not as if the medical part of the show is thematically illuminating or something.
The Sarah Silverman Program features a gay couple who are almost invariably the least interesting parts of that show. I actually really like this season, but the only reason to watch is Sarah Silverman.
United States of Tara, continues to let its freak flag fly. In a fun twist, Marshall the gay son is experimenting with heterosexuality. I think this would go down easier if Marshall had done more than kiss Jason last year (i.e. it would seem less like they’re skittish about showing gay sexuality and more artistically appropriate), but Keir Gilchrist is playing the whole story perfectly half-heartedly, which is funny and reassuring.
Right? NBC’s Thursday lineup is a strong friend of the gays even with no regular gay characters, and from what I’ve seen, Friday Night Lights will explore some gay issues in Season 4. On the other scale, for illustration: Breaking Bad, In Treatment, Justified, Rescue Me, Sons of Anarchy, Chuck, Better Off Ted, Scrubs, Cougar Town (How has Bill Lawrence never written a gay lead? So close.), Bored to Death, Party Down, How I Met Your Mother, The Big Bang Theory, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, etc. I'm not trying to attack any of those but rather illustrate how many shows don't feature homosexuality.
In addition to a handful I don't watch (Brothers and Sisters, Greek), I count six shows with gay regulars. And none of those series describes romantic love as so special it confounds the laws of physics.
Well, as long as you’re straight.
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Monday, April 5, 2010
Justified is an anachronism, and I’m not just talking about its gunslingin’ marshal. Timothy Olyphant plays a trigger-happy western throwback living about a century too late, and he’s transferred to Kentucky policing the backwoods, a setting hardly synonymous with modern. But stylistically, too, the series is more reminiscent of older cop dramas than recent landmarks. It’s like Justified hasn’t seen The Sopranos.
Olyphant is great as Raylan Givens, already betraying more complexity and subtlety than he was ever allowed as Sheriff Bullock on Deadwood. Givens is not just a stone-cold killer. He’s also a romantic lead, and a haunted son, and a damn cunning detective. But the killing is the main event, and his opening scene—Givens confronts a target at a crowded Miami hotel pool, a scene that results in his transfer back home—thrusts us elegantly into the world of Raylan Givens and his code of honor. The unifying theme is right there in the title: how do we justify violence in the name of security?
What Friday Night Lights does for small-town Texas, Justified does for eastern Kentucky, Graham Yost and his writers slowly building this believable, distinct region of Appalachia. In three episodes, we meet the local US Marshals department, the militant neo-nazis, a bluegrass band of jailbirds, and more slimy hillbillies than you can shake a stick at. Like the heft of the first season of The Shield, the continuity of Justified so far is entirely in character dynamics with almost no continuous plot.
But at the moment, Justified is weirdly content to be a sequence of standalones, casually propelling the story. Despite Givens’ history in the region, there doesn’t seem to be much of an overarching plot. It’s somewhat appropriate for this out-of-the-way country, but it also holds Justified back from really diving into its characters and universe. Walton Goggins’ towers over the pilot as an old friend of Givens, and then is heard no more. It's doubly disadvantageous; because we spend so much time with Goggins, not only are we disappointed he’s not a regular, but he steals time from the characters that are, so we’re not as invested in them. Then again, The Shield became a complicated freight train once it established its world, so there’s hope for serialization to take root in Justified.
There's also a worrisome omen of Justified trying to live up to the FX brand. In the second episode, Givens’ calm boss, played by the excellent Nick Searcy, asks about an escaped prisoner, “He didn’t rape ya, did he?” It’s meant as something of a joke, which is disturbing itself, but it doesn’t even play in-universe, and it suggests a carelessness or a faux edginess on the part of the writers. Come on, Justified, don’t be Weeds.
Justified is incredibly promising, and the pilot is strong, not just thanks to Elmore Leonard’s words but the chemistry between Olyphant and Goggins. But today’s world is a little faster-paced than perhaps Raylan Givens would like, and competition on television is heavy. Without having earned it, Justified’s a little too relaxed at the moment to be addictive.
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I know it’s foolish to debate which television drama is bestest right now, but fortune favors the foolish or whatever, and frankly, I find the praise for the current season of Breaking Bad a little out of proportion to its achievements. Yes, we’re only three episodes in, and they’ve been very good pieces of what promises to be an interesting whole. Just not quite up to the title “best.”
The heart of my discontent lies with the season's drive, slowing to a crawl like two stylish Mexicans dropping to their bellies and slugging their way through the desert. Sure, not every episode can be a season’s climax, but last year we had already seen Walt and Jesse get kidnapped right in front of Skyler’s nose, the family search for Walt leading to Hank’s shootout with Tuco, the whole episode with Walt, Jesse, Tio and Tuco stuck in the desert with some heavy duty artillery and some fine-looking Mexican food, and the fugue state plan as Jesse gets shaken down by the cops and Walt endures hospital psychiatry. You constantly felt like the jig was about to be up. This year, um…
To be fair, we’ve had some significant emotional events so far. Hints of Hank’s reckless endangerment, Skyler’s bombshell tonight in “I.F.T.” and Jesse returning to the trailer in the desert to cook. Meanwhile, we’re getting little tastes of the meth world beyond Walter’s myopic scope, with Mike showing some loyalty to Gus Fring and revelations about the cousins and Tio and their endgame.
But, frankly, these events are not nearly as compelling as Season 2’s. For starters, Hank’s abandon and Skyler’s revenge are not only plots we’ve seen a billion times but a little on the easy side. When every character on your show is a criminal, whether being actively pursued or not, it sure levels that ethical playing field. Not that the series will try to equate Skyler’s infidelity and potential culpability in either Walt’s money laundering or Ted’s underreported income with the pile of bodies on Walt’s conscience, but regardless, the high ground has been surrendered.
Breaking Bad was better last year when it streamlined the focus, sacrificing Marie's kleptomania for instance. Now we're back to that "everyone's a criminal, it's just a matter of degree" idea that is frankly too dumb for this series. Hank's Cubans prompted an intense scene in the Season 1 finale, but we're only beginning to see his violent reactions to PTSD. Ditto Skyler's involvement in the crimes of either of the men in her life. Season 3 has expanded its focus, and so far, I'm not convinced it's made the show better.
What new and exciting events we do have—Mike bugging the Whites', the Cousins showing up as Walter takes a shower, the meeting between Tio’s people and Gus—are defused. What should be driving the show instead merely haunts the surroundings and eerily foreshadows the season. Instead of four modulated flash-forwards to the pink Cyclops bear, a whole lot of time is spent on what amounts to not much of anything.
In short, this thriller has no suspense.
Some of the urgency drained out when Walter received good health news at the end of “4 Days Out,” but the next five episodes remained incredibly propulsive, especially once Walt hooked up with Gus. Then Skyler’s long goodbye at the end of Season 2 succeeded as a phenomenal game-changer. It allowed Season 2 to go out with an incredible twist unrelated to visions of eyeless pink bears, but it also established Season 3 as a show where Walt’s purpose is somewhat less engaging, i.e. trying to get his family back rather than trying to make enough money with the manufacture of methamphetamine to support them when he’s gone.
Breaking Bad has always been structurally a crime pulp, a deep one, sure, but it’s generally about a guy digging himself out of one hole and into a deeper one, with either parables or phantasmagorical southwestern accents at the opening and a cliffhanger at the ending. Remember, I’m speaking strictly structure here; all the elements of domestic drama and moral accounting and Greek tragedy are expressed through a comic book format. But Season 3 has no drive, and its protagonist no purpose.
That’s not to say it’s not still a terrific show. It is; great, even. By rights Anna Gunn ought to join Aaron Paul and Bryan Cranston in the Emmy nominations this year, and maybe Dean Norris, too. Bob Odenkirk continues to kill as sleazy Saul, and Aaron Paul is devastating in his grief. And the cinematography, music, art direction, costumes, and the other elements of style sell the series as one painstakingly dazzling downfall. But all this “best drama on television” nonsense doesn’t compute. Right now, Breaking Bad isn’t even at its best.
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Sunday, April 4, 2010
The Diet Snapple Peach Tea Product Placement Post: Brought to you by Sonic & The Criterion Collection
I have no problem with product placement, and I think the onus is on its detractors to explain what exactly is so horribly distracting. It’s such an old argument, and none of us want to be seen as corporate shills, that we just take it for granted that product placement is bad. But considering the way I brand-drop in real life, establishing my brand identity as offbeat and anti-Goliath enough to maintain my cred as an individual person in a corporatocracy, I think product placement is not just tolerable but honest and therefore necessary.
I bring this up because Alan Sepinwall found the product placement on the latest Modern Family, in which Phil’s family desperately try to get him an iPad for his birthday, “icky.” At least it’s a well-chosen insult. After all, he doesn’t claim it singlehandedly destroyed the episode. It was just a little icky.
Me, I found it entirely appropriate to Phil’s character, obvious as a case of product placement (i.e. they’re not sneaking it in, in case that matters), and, most importantly, funny. It’s the Tickle Me Elmo of a certain brand of adults in 2010. Of course Phil’s gonna want one the day they come out.
Again, I ask, what’s the big deal? If it was distracting, it sounds like a personal problem. That storyline was practically ripped from real life. It certainly wasn’t intrusive on the level of a glaring, constantly moving countdown to the next episode of V, that’s for sure. If you’re annoyed that you’re being sold to instead of being entertained, deal with it. It’s the cost of admission. And if you’re bothered that product placement artificially shapes the course of the creativity—that without an iPad deal, the writers left to their own devices could have crafted a better episode—you’d do well to study how limitations have impacted great art for centuries.
You’d also do well to learn that Modern Family had no such product placement deal with Apple. This was an entirely creative decision. Now that’s an act break.
I suspect the popular hatred for product placement is more kneejerk than anything else, and the fine people at National Geographic agree. Of course we all love it when shows have it both ways, when 30 Rock makes fun of the very need for product placement while at the same time “selling out” in order to keep producing some of the best comedy on television, or when Stephen Colbert satirizes the cooption of democracy in his Doritos-sponsored presidential campaign. But Modern Family is a classical show where those two are postmodern; an Arrested Development-style over-flattery might not have jibed with the show’s tone.
A few weeks ago, the Audible.com /Filmcast (you kids today with your alternative spelling) railed against an episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia set at and revolving around Dave & Busters. Well, one of the ‘casters did, and it occurs to me now that it was probably from last fall but I only listened to it a few weeks ago. Anyway. So what? Is it so distasteful that quality low-rated programs must stoop to selling advertisement to keep their show on the air? How utterly gauche!
According to the IKEA poll chart, we (as a species) aren’t even all that sure advertising “works” beyond introducing people to a product, if I’m not mistaken. Regardless, are you more likely to visit Dave & Busters because it’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia? Or buy Verizon because they were featured on 30 Rock? Exactly. So why the huff? Anyone?
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What a week for criticism. More the popular perception than the endeavor itself, which is standing off to one side smirking like a sonuvabitch. But one humongous observation obscures all the reporting, tweeting, and blog discussion. People don’t know what criticism is.
What’s especially weird is we engage in criticism all the time, not just in formal art reviews in print. But let’s start there, since we all recognize that. Steve Almond, some guy people know, wrote a piece in the Boston Globe about his own experience as a music “critic,” and his gradual realization that it’s all a sham, man. Slagging off a bunch of people for liking something—it’s “petty and irrelevant.” This, a few weeks after Time “critic” Richard Schickel declares criticism a waste of time. Don’t we all have better things to do?
Most have cottoned on to the fact that neither Shickel nor Almond make a habit of practicing criticism. Writing a book report in a widely distributed publication does not make one a critic, although custom bestows the title nominally. No, true criticism is evaluation. What is a piece saying, and how well is it saying it? Criticism cannot abide the ad hominem or prescriptive remarks; those, as Almond says, really are petty and irrelevant.
Criticism strives for objectivity. Whether a critic liked something is beside the point. To a critic, “good” means “successful.” Aristotle puts it nicely with the word “natural.” Art is successful when it’s true to its nature. A great work of art—and everything is art—is one that is perfectly itself. That’s why I say we practice criticism every day. Maybe it’s my 20s speaking, but aren’t we all trying to be perfectly ourselves? Don’t we recoil from arrogance and snicker about put-on personality?
Kevin Smith tweets that his film Cop Out “obviously strived for nothing more than laughs.” Assuming that’s the case—I haven’t seen the picture—the same is true of the Q/A-style joke on a popsicle stick. That does not mean the popsicle stick is in a class with Duck Soup, Mean Girls, or Clerks simply by making me laugh. Critics assess the film, not just the jokes, though plenty of people found those lacking, too.
Smith worked himself into such a state that he eventually suggested that critics should have to pay to see films they’re reviewing. His reasoning, such as it is, includes the democratization of criticism (i.e. Smith’s Twitter followers have just as much claim to their opinion as professional critics), the discrepancy between critical opinion and box office (i.e. Cop Out is his most financially successful film, despite film review aggregators ranking it among his least critically approved), and that professional criticism is laughably out of touch with what the people want.
Despite a strange invocation of Orwellian politics in the context of writers who by and large are not the top 1% bourgeoisie he paints them as, Smith gets his point across: Criticism, as he understands it, is bunk. It’s obvious to most of us that his argument is not especially strong, but I’ll bite.
1) With the caveat that many professional critics do not often practice true criticism, professional critics are likely to be more educated about film than the average amateur. Many of them have been doing this for years and have therefore seen where Smith’s Cop Out comes from and how it sits in the American comedy landscape in general and Smith's oeuvre in particular.
2) The business of criticism is not business. No critic pretends to have any influence over box office. The critic’s concern is the relative success of the art. There is, therefore, no relationship between the critical response to a film and the public’s financial response.
3) I’m not convinced the people even want Cop Out, considering its box office dropoff, and for the record, first weekend box office numbers do not correlate with anybody actually liking the picture; they haven’t even seen it when they’ve paid for tickets. Regardless, criticism is about how artistically successful a film is. This is not the only or even primary reason most people go to movies or not.
The key here is that Kevin Smith does not apparently understand criticism. It’s okay; plenty of people who call themselves “critics” don’t, either.
The problem is that Smith’s writing suggests criticism has to do with liking a film, which, in the case of Cop Out, professional critics apparently don’t while Smith’s fanbase apparently does. Wrong. Critics are not paid to bestow recommendations, though such operationalization in commercial spheres is understandable, but to analyze and evaluate. Which is to say, Smith could sit 100 of his Twitter followers—bias aside—in a theater to watch Cop Out and publish their responses, but ‘twouldn't (necessarily) be criticism. What it would be is a big win for anti-intellectualism and a perpetuation of the popular notion that film criticism is simply watching a movie and liking it or not.
More than a few credit Siskel & Ebert, thereafter known as that awkwardly timeslotted movie review show you might find on a local channel if you’re still watching after She Spies, with the diminution of criticism to giving a film a thumb up or not. I’m not especially studied in the history of film criticism, but it seems plausible to me that the popularity of Roger Ebert and his show have contributed to the dissemination of the idea of pop criticism as mere preference.
But short-form criticism is only the beginning of the discussion. Roger Ebert knows this, and it’s why his show tended to introduce ideas about a work rather than encapsulate a piece. The point is to think critically rather than react. Criticism should strive to be objective, but preference and emotional reaction are purely subjective. Nothing bothers me more than reading a review of, say, 30 Rock, and seeing a “critic” explain why a gag doesn’t work that had me in stitches. Keep your emotional reaction to yourself. Just tell me how strong it was as an episode.
We’re all critics, anyway. Quickly, play Hannibal/Clarice with me. How do we first begin to criticize? We are graded in school, based often on the accomplishment of specific criteria, we pick out clothes or TV shows or people we like, we judge all kinds of things on a daily basis. But our criticism is instinctively gut reaction, and in the absence of, frankly, arbitrary (but helpful in a rudimentary sort of way) criteria, we can resort to simple emotional response. Walking through a museum can quickly become a tour of what’s pretty. And that’s fine, as far as it goes, but a little superficial, wouldn’t you say? At some point, for some people, entertainment isn’t enough.
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Thursday, April 1, 2010
Don’t worry: more western posts are coming. I know you were anxious about that. Budd Boetticher’s the second godfather, but I still have a few more of his films to check out. In the mean time, I’ve taken in some one-offs like Jacques Tourneur’s Stranger on Horseback and Henry King’s The Gunfighter.
In one of Jim Emerson’s discussions of Shutter Island, he talked a bit about Martin Scorsese’s 4-hour 1995 doc A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American Movies, and it really fanned my excitement. Then I saw the film, which is much more than just an American Film History 102 primer, and now I have a desperate need to see all kinds of movies I still haven’t gotten to, from Busby Berkeley to Vincente Minnelli, from Duel in the Sun to The Phenix City Story. So I started with a western spree, highlights including Anthony Mann’s The Naked Spur and Winchester ’73 as well as Budd Boetticher’s Ride Lonesome. But the best movie I saw last month is The Gunfighter.
Gregory Peck plays Jimmy Ringo, the most infamous gunfighter in the West, showing up back in town as a celebrity hounded by fans and detractors alike. What’s more, it’s practically in real time, two years before High Noon, as Ringo waits in a saloon for his estranged baby mama, director Henry King playing up the haunted atmosphere and the psychological expressionism. The plot rapidly escalates with a young buck eager to prove himself against Ringo, a father with a score to settle, Ringo’s ex’s delay, and the approach of three brothers of a boy Ringo shoots in self-defense in the tense opening. Then, we wait.
Peck is magnificent (and nigh unrecognizable) playing the weariness of life as the world’s best gunfighter. He’s an immortal hero who wishes he could die in a classic story of a gift’s curse. Peck is joined by a deep cast of greats, including Mann regular Millard Mitchell as the sheriff, struggling to keep order in a town diving headfirst into excitement, and Karl Malden as bartender and old friend Mac. Each actor adeptly portrays the history of the characters, how their relationships have become what they are and how they yearn for the good, old days. From 1950, The Gunfighter is a terrific early revisionist piece.
It’s also a moody art drama, for all its exciting action and stomach-knotting suspense, and we slowly put together what happened between Jimmy Ringo and the people in his life. King is brilliantly attuned to the picture’s melancholic contemplation, often placing characters in the deep back surrounded by unused emptiness, and he knows when to throw in diagonals or high-angle shots to give the moment some kick. The Gunfighter is classically made, every shot painstakingly prepared and cut only when necessary. Along with Samuel Fuller's I Shot Jesse James, it also paves the way for a new kind of western with a skeptical take on the mythology, anticipating much of what would come in later, bigger, more ballyhooed westerns from the '50s and '60s. But the original, the unbeaten king, the legend standing silently in the back, will always be The Gunfighter.
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“I’m really trying to do nothing right now,” the middle-aged Roger Greenberg likes to tell his acquaintances. For such a high-powered town, LA tends to come off like a slacker paradise on film, layabouts floating from one midnight party to another lazy afternoon, casualizing everything sincere and intimate in order to maintain distance. Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg kind of expertly develops this slice of Lalaland life in order to explore delayed onset adulthood.
Roger Greenberg needs a kick in the pants, though, if he’s serious about changing his life for the better, and Ben Stiller is exceptional playing him as a prickly, pathetic, and self-loathing Kafka hero. We’re not at all amused by Roger’s antics, but he thinks he’s “weirdly on tonight.” Enter Greta Gerwig as his brother’s personal assistant Florence, a breezy bohemian type herself who falls for Roger somewhat inexplicably, but isn’t that how attraction works? See, Roger’s fresh out of a psychiatric hospital after a breakdown, and he could use some lessons in socialization. Florence is a bit of a doormat, but she seems to know what she’s doing. What Roger and Florence share is a dependency on psychoanalysis, as if they’re play-by-playing events as they happen.
From the setup, you might expect to learn more about Roger’s mental history, to see Florence and Roger grow with each other, and to see at least hints of redemption. Greenberg doesn’t care what you want, almost immediately sloughing any desire to behave like an adult narrative, and, like life, it stops more than it ends. It might be Noah Baumbach’s most impressively written film, not as discretely structured (or gut-bustingly funny) as Kicking and Screaming, not as overbearingly claustrophobic as The Squid and the Whale, and while its denizens are dissatisfied bourgeois postadolescents, they’re not as eyeball-puncturingly hateful as those in Margot at the Wedding.
Like its stunted protagonist, a kid from Kicking and Screaming who fell through the cracks for two more decades without anyone forcing him to grow up—Roger tells Florence, “A shrink told me once I have trouble living in the present so I linger on the past because I feel like I never really lived it in the first place”—Baumbach's script evokes real-life aimlessness and its attendant anxiety less self-consciously than many mumblecore or Whit Stillman entries. Greenberg wouldn’t have a plot if its protagonist didn’t have friends to make him do things. Ambling along a relaxed surf town with no attachments, it’s The Long Goodbye without the intrigue, The Big Lebowski before a Chinaman pees on the rug.
As a portrait of passive narcissism, Greenberg is stunning. Baumbach’s trademark non sequiturs have purpose, nearly always attempts by characters to be seen as charmingly thoughtful. For instance, at an uncomfortable party, Roger quips that “all the men out here dress like children, and all the children dress like superheroes,” promptly scanning to see if he scored any laughs. Natural light and earth tones complement the vintage hipster paraphernalia on parade, richly framing the cast of indie regulars (Chris Messina, Mark Duplass) and alt-cable actors (Brie Laron, Merritt Wever). And Baumbach regular/wife Jennifer Jason Leigh capably tells her whole story in just two or three scenelets.
Greenberg is the kind of film that sneaks up on you. At first, it was a tour of scenes from the life of a self-saboteur, alternately awkward and carefree, but never much more than a superbly realized character study. But then you feel the cumulative weight of the thing, and marvel at its nonconformity, and ponder its meanings. It quibbles with therapy culture while acquiescing that coping with modern life is actually pretty hard, it’s about the lengthening of childhood and procrastinated maturity, it exposes the inferiority complex of comparing yourself with others while suggesting nobody really has their priorities in place, it has some intriguing summary conclusions about the youngest generation that may not hold water, and it criticizes the overwhelming inundation of advice on how to live from people, magazines, whatever. The more I think about Greenberg, the more I uncover about its examination of coming of age in 2010, and it’s all couched in this slacker persona of a haphazardly assembled assortment of scenes. Plenty of minimalist faux-indies struggle to precisely capture real life. Because it know it’s imperfect, Greenberg’s free to succeed.
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