Thursday, November 28, 2013

Chaleur bleue

Blue is the Warmest Color is the film directed by Abellatif Kechiche, based on the graphic novel of the same name by Julie Maroh. I saw it last night at the State theater in Ann Arbor and was basically completely enthralled by it. While it has some questionable moments that may be style choices, overall it was an amazing portrayal of a rather simple story that many (if not all) viewers have gone through: the process of self-discovery and sexual awakening.

The main stylistic aspect of the film is the use of constant close-ups. Most of the time, the camera focus is mere inches from the actors' faces. I think Kechiche went in that direction because of the extreme intimacy of the story, but also because most of the action that you really want to see is happening on those faces. Adèle (played by Adèle Exarchopoulos) and Emma (Léa Seydoux) reveal vast amounts of their thought processes simply with their eyes and the quirks of their lips. Nothing could be more revelatory than watching Adèle's eyes after her unsatisfying sexual encounter with a man. No dialogue or action could fill that moment better than the emptiness and longing in her gaze and Kechiche was smart enough to use that. Being so close to the actors makes it easier for the audience to both empathize and sympathize with their situations, since we've all been there; all faced those moments of passion, confusion, frustration, loss, bliss, and contentment. This is a technique that was used with the idea that the audience would be an active participant in the events on the screen, whether they know it or not.

It's fortunate, as well, that Kechiche found the actors that he did, as this movie is completely driven by their performances. Exarchopoulos and Seydoux are magnetic, although I'll give the edge to Exarchopoulos, as the film's version of the story is more Adèle's tale than Emma's. Again, the story is relatively simple and the movie runs for over three hours. But there were only two moments in that span of time that I felt like we could move on and that only lightly. Otherwise, I was pretty much enraptured with events and constantly wanting to see what would happen next even when I knew what was coming. Again, I think what helped was the seeming familiarity of much of what was taking place on the screen. Having been in the moment when I was dumped or having had to tell someone that I was no longer interested, I could watch those emotions play out on their faces with the feeling that what I was seeing was real and not just a performance. I'd been there. I knew those feelings and they were occurring as if I was watching a friend go through it and not just an actor hitting her cue.

What makes it even more extraordinary is that Exarchopoulos is only 20 years old with a pretty thin body of work. Kechiche has to get some credit for extracting that performance from his two leads, but it apparently came at some cost, as both cast and crew objected to the extremely long hours that he required on set and both actors said that they would no longer work with him. Was it worth the pain and frustration for both of them to receive the Palm d'Or at Cannes, in addition to the director, for the first time ever? That's up to them to decide, but it's certainly a demonstration of just how heavily the film relies upon their excellent work. What makes Adèle stand out is the constant passion emerging from her. While Emma is the older character and plays her cards a little closer to the vest vis-a-vis her feelings, Adèle is on constant display all the time, even when she desperately tries to contain it later in the film. In that way, she plays a late-teens girl perfectly. But even later, as she matures, her intensity doesn't lessen and the love, confusion, and agony she feels blares from the screen. I'm not a huge fan of French cinema, as I find it relatively self-indulgent in a lot of ways (i.e. the director has a fetish that he's playing out, regardless of audience expectations or the needs of the story) but one thing that tends to emerge in most French films is passion and this film has that at every step.

No moment makes that more obvious than the scene in the park, shortly after the two have met. The sexual and personal tension present is enormous, as Adèle so obviously desires this woman and wants to fulfill this inner question that's been nagging at her for some time. Meanwhile, Emma, still a little cagey, wants to respond but is restrained by her natural reluctance and the fact that she's currently involved with someone else. And, yet again, we've all been there so this moment feels not only perfectly natural but like a reliving of moments in the past. That's great storytelling.

Interestingly, the story for the film is an extremely stripped-down version of that of the graphic novel. The latter is a kind of re-telling, in that Emma begins to read the diary of her partner, Clementine, after the latter has died. The events described by the diary are far more jarring and tragic than what happens in the film and, indeed, Maroh has said that she considers the film to be "another version... of the same story." Maroh also objected to the blue elephant in the room: the sex. The film is rated NC-17 in the US, which isn't surprising given the starkly different attitudes toward sex in American and French cultures. Consequently, you have American reviewers agog about the film itself, for the most part, but also cringing in true, Puritanical fashion over the lengthy scenes of two women making love. But Maroh also objected, comparing the scenes to porn and suggesting that the gay community in France found them "ridiculous" but later suggesting that it was a personal stance and that she would be interested to see how other women reacted.

Clearly, if you're making a film about sexual awakening and modern, sexual relationships, you're going to have sex on the screen, full stop. And, granted, hetero male here so watching two gorgeous women on screen, clearly enjoying themselves, is far from the worst way I could be spending my time. OTOH, one of my two questionable moments as an audience member was during one of those scenes because it was so lengthy (10 minutes.) Again, a movie about passion needs passion in it and the latter is an emotion best savored for as long as possible. I think this film does that. I just remember drifting a bit during that scene and thinking that it could have been curtailed just a bit given how much emotion and evidence of same had already been built up. It occurred to me at a couple other moments during the film that Hechiche might be a bit more pointed in his exposure of the audience to the story's overarching sexuality when he showed Adèle asleep or otherwise lying on her bed with her ass directly toward the camera. It's an open question whether this was an attempt at titillation or a constant reminder about the type of awakening taking place. In those respects, I can see where Maroh's comparison to porn comes from: it's seemingly gratuitous because it's not providing anything that the story needs that hasn't already been given. Or is it?

However, sex is also an expression of intimacy and part of the film's underpinning is not only the awakening of the desire to fulfill that intimacy in Adèle, but also how she shifts that into an essential part of her relationship with Emma. Despite viscerally objecting to her high school classmates' suspicion of her as a lesbian and being as guarded with her feelings and body as many other teen girls, she later takes to posing repeatedly for Emma's paintings, which will be publicly displayed and likely sold to other people. That's part of Adèle engaging herself to fulfill what her partner needs on a creative level and also her blossoming into someone that treats the human form and its physical activities as part of the natural world (i.e. very unAmerican.)

Unfortunately for her, that engagement also opens the door to a source of friction in their relationship, in that Adèle's feeling of fulfillment in simply being with Emma conflicts with the latter's more creative nature. Adèle only writes for herself and only in her diary but she has clearly shared this writing with Emma, who insists that it declares potential for Adèle to do something more. Her insistence is perceived as a slight and it creates a rift in their relationship because one has found fulfillment and the other is constantly striving for more and tends to lose respect for those around her that don't. I've been there. I've exposed people to that kind of remonstration and it had the predictable results, which is yet another point upon which I was really able to identify with this film. One opens oneself only to receive the barbs. Which is better: the turbulence of truth or the placidity of the illusion? Is it an illusion to simply be happy with what you have or is it an example of two people not truly in touch with each other?

The other slightly off moment was during the scene where Adèle has prepared a party for Emma's first show. There is a classic black-and-white film flickering by on a screen in the background, which uses brilliant juxtaposition for moments when Adèle's frustration and jealousy work in concert with the surprise and dismay of the nameless actress on the screen. But this scene was rather lengthy for what it conveyed, as well, and after a few minutes of driving home the negative impressions that Adèle was getting, I felt the urge to move on to something new. But those are two isolated moments in a 180-minute film that many people may not even notice. I do because I'm the damndest critic.

Of course, in a story of of self-discovery, you're almost naturally going to have hiccups. That's part of the process. There's an interesting moment where Adèle is striving to contain her emotions while on the job as a schoolteacher for very young children that you realize that this is still a somewhat-child teaching other children and it makes you realize just how traumatic her current circumstances are, as she went from confusion and feelings of isolation to bliss and then back to confusion and isolation. That's a difficult circumstance for anyone, but even moreso for one who can't rely on friends or family to understand her emotional problems if she feels that she can't reveal their source. The film does an excellent job of portraying the fact that, despite French society's more relaxed attitudes toward sex, its relationship with homosexuality is as complicated as that of many others.

Clearly, I loved it. It's one of the best films I've seen in many, many years and completely in spite of the story being so outwardly simple. I can't recommend it enough.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Questions from the past

Going to be looking for work again soon, as the current employer apparently doesn't want to make it a permanent thing. Temping is the closest I've come to the experience of being a pro in my life. I've never partaken of one's services, although I've been approached. But working for a temp agency must be akin to being pimped, since the majority of the money you make goes to someone else and they have no real interest in your success or progression or even whether you do the job poorly. It's like wage slavery, but even further from a worthwhile living.

It got me to thinkin', though. I spent some time a few months back with a friend I hadn't seen in many years. I met him shortly after I graduated from Michigan and he was still a student at the time. Back then, I was still running RPGs (Nerd moment: Role-playing games aka Dungeons and Dragons, but not), most of which I designed myself, because it let me experiment with story and character and gave me an outlet for the acting gland, since I wasn't part of a regular theater group at that point. As the GM ("Gamemaster"), you have to play all the characters that the other players are interacting with, so it takes a bit of creativity and mental agility, both of which I used to have considerable amounts of. Anyway, there were 5 regular players in this group and me. My friend, Todd, was one of them.

Todd graduated from Michigan with a degree in accounting. Like many in the early 90s, he promptly went into programming, which he had been doing a fair amount of on the side, and has been a very successful programmer for many years now. He and his wife, Carolyn (an accountant for a car dealership chain in Canada) have a massive house on a lake out in Onsted and Todd works from home 4 days a week and is otherwise surrounded by house, cars, boat, side business of karting, and a trio of miniature Dobermans

Another member of that group was Adoni, who is currently a tenured professor of classics at Ohio State with multiple published volumes under his belt. He was hired by OSU with the mandate of building their classics department into something of renown and has done an admirable job of it from all the sources I've seen. He lives in Columbus with his wife, Carolina (also tenured at OSU), her son and their daughter.

Third was Greg, a successful architect in Ann Arbor (he was finishing his master's while we were haunting bars for a couple years) who lives in town with his wife, Terri, their two children, and a rambling red brick house.

Gamer #4 was Wendy. Unlike the rest, I knew Wendy while I was actually in school and we had stayed together after I graduated and I'd become pretty close with her sizable family (she has five siblings.) Wendy finished her undergrad, wobbled around for a year, and then returned to school for a master's in library science. She eventually became head librarian at the Texas Wesleyan School of Law and acquired a J. D. in the process.

Last was Kevin, Wendy's brother-in-law, who was married to Wendy's sister, Michelle, and had two kids with her while climbing to an executive position at a New Orleans chemical and plastics firm.

I remember stopping to think about all of that while hanging out with Todd because it kind of surprised me that the respective lifepaths of those 5 and I had gone in such different directions. All of them achieved model success in most or all of the measures that people use to assess modern life: money, career, family, property. Out of the whole group, the only one who hadn't succeeded in those respects was the leader: me.

So, I started to wonder: What was it that separated me from all of them? Ambition? Work ethic? Inherent talent? There's little doubt that all of them were talented in some way, if not multiple ways, and Adoni is easily the most intelligent person I've ever met in my life. I think I shared the ambition and work ethic that they displayed in trying to keep an independent comic studio running for years and then building a political party from the ground up and chairing it for some time; all of that while holding down a full-time job. I like to think that both of those require some degree of talent and, yet, all of them had found success and here I was, two steps removed from a drifter.

Was it bad choices? Clearly, venturing into the creative field and the political field outside of the major players could easily be seen as dead ends from the moment they've begun. And I had been married with a house at one point, but neither of them particularly resonated with me, as it were, and I abandoned them both while also walking away from the secure job that I'd had for years primarily because I had to pay the damn mortgage. Does staying in a dead marriage and a house you can't afford alone count as success?

So, after 43 years, I basically have nothing to show for it in the conventional estimations of society. Granted, my path hasn't been very conventional but that makes me very, very far from unique. Interestingly, shortly thereafter I got back together with another friend, Jeff, whom I'd seen briefly only twice in the past decade and who had been my partner in the comic studio. I spent a day over the weekend of the 4th of July with him and his family and it was easily the best day I'd had in years. Jeff and I finally had a chance to sit down and talk at length and I mentioned this comparison that I had been mulling over and he said a funny thing: "You know, I respect you more than anyone else I know. You've spent your life doing things that you're passionate about, no matter the material cost or sometimes the personal cost. I don't know anyone else like that."

I'm still not sure how to take that. Jeff is one of the few people in the world that I implicitly trust but I look back at the last decade and realize that I haven't done anything with passion for the vast majority of it. Indeed, my sole societal accomplishment, my marriage, failed because of a lack of passion, mostly on my part. I had tons of it for the studio, which failed, and the party, which failed, and I used to be a determined writer, which has yet to produce anything but failure. He reminded me of the time I drove to his home in White Lake from Ann Arbor in an ice storm because "it was Tuesday and that was the day we said we'd work." I suppose I'd still do that today if I thought I'd have someone at the end of that drive to welcome me in and pursue a dream with me.

I finished a book recently, Stay Awhile and Listen, which is about the development of Condor Studios, which developed the game, Diablo, in partnership with Blizzard (Yes, I know. It always comes back to games. Maybe that's why I never get anywhere...) The company had emerged in the early 90s, right around the time we were building the comic studio, and reading this account of it was so emotionally familiar it was almost painful. They talked about not thinking about money or success or pretty much anything else except making the coolest game they could come up with. They were doing it all with ad hoc approaches and technology and code that they were dreaming up on the spot because the video game industry was still in its infancy and no one was telling them that they couldn't. They didn't think of the conventional idea of success, either (except as much as they'd like to be able to pay the bills while still making games.) They had ambition, work ethic, and talent. That was us, 20+ years ago. That was me when things still seemed like they held promise, no matter how long I or we had to search for it.

That all went away as people moved into real life, as it were. Except me. I'm still here on the fringes and wondering how the so-called leader of so many things fell behind everyone else.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Gravitas. Not quite.

I went to see Gravity today and, for once, didn't feel ripped off by doing the whole 3-D, IMAX, extravapalooza. Multiple sources had insisted on this approach for the full effect and I'm glad to say that they were right. The immersion created by the enhanced formats made what is already a solid film more of a visual experience, which I believe was the intention of director, Alfonso Cuaròn; best known as the creator of the brilliant Children of Men. The basic premise of the film is that an accident has taken place in orbit around the Earth and George Clooney and Sandra Bullock are the unfortunate recipients of the results which makes both staying alive and figuring out how to get back down from 230 miles above the surface quite the pair of challenges.

Good things first: the visuals are amazing, which you kind of hope for in a film like this. The vistas of the planet and the stars and horizon shots can leave you sitting there in awe no matter what else is happening. It's the kind of thing you'd normally expect to see in a more typical IMAX film, generally on the order of National Geographic programming. I could have spent a lot more time just watching the lights of Cairo and the Nile Valley go past the camera and there are moments where that kind of thing happens. I think Cuaròn did an excellent job in transitioning between moments of intensive action and dead, ominous silence, which is the normal condition of outer space. Since this is intended to be a contemporary film, there are no science fiction elements added and the activity of humans in space is reminiscent of one of my favorite Ridley Scott films, Alien. This is work. It's scientific and industrial and often the most important piece of equipment is a power ratchet.

The pace is tense. Even during the "quiet" moments, the awareness that the characters are in the most lethal environment known to humanity is everpresent. Scientific principles of the film's title are at the forefront of what occurs and it's obvious that great care was taken to convey that detail. This is a film about what could actually happen and no amount of reconfiguring the main deflector dish will fix it. Both Clooney and Bullock help this sense of pace by generally reacting in a genuine fashion to their extraordinary circumstances. Clooney's role is the old-hand space veteran and you never doubt that. Bullock is the rookie brought up to make specific alterations to the Hubble Space Telescope and she tends to panic over the environment far more than the veteran, as you'd expect.

OTOH, I don't think Cuaròn was able to get all that you might expect out of these two excellent actors because of one main problem: the story is pretty thin. There's an accident in space and these two have to figure out how to get out of it. That's it. Most people tend to believe that novels make films. In other words, you have a story that has x amount of depth to it and the film will absorb all of that depth, turning half the 60K words into visuals and the other half into dialogue and action. Of course, film history is filled with examples of how a 2-hour film can't possibly convey the complexity of the novel that it's based upon. The issue with Gravity is that its central premise wouldn't even be that compelling of a short story because there simply isn't enough depth to it. It's a very linear equation and there aren't too many ways to explore the personal dynamics of the characters involved because the movie isn't about them so much as it is about the event. If you're OK with that, then it's all good. But I'm normally swayed by story, not how much eye candy you can show me, and Gravity largely doesn't have it.

What it does have at certain points seems either contrived or tacked on. Bullock's character's personal history becomes a primary motivator at a certain point and that was interesting as she struggles with issues that have nothing to do with her current circumstances. But when she comes through that, her newly-resolute attitude and decision to make everything work struck me as very, very Hollywood and not really convincing. Of course, the very limited amount of dialogue in the script outside of official announcements or panicked gasps certainly doesn't help with this and I think Cuaròn was aware of these collective weaknesses and wisely kept the film to a fairly brisk 91 minutes. You can barely get children's movies that are that short these days.

For those of you among the science-inclined, you should have no trouble with suspension of disbelief for the vast majority of the film... except for one key moment which is unfortunately huge in the story and the two characters' presence in it (when momentum is arrested, it stays that way unless other forces are active...) Even my relatively shallow knowledge of astrophysics could pick that out, but sometimes you need to make a story work and Cuaròn did very little papering over such that most viewers should be fine with events as they happen.

So, is it a classic of Oscarian proportions? Eh. No. It was good and, as noted, it's an accomplishment for me to say that I didn't mind throwing down the extra cash to see it in as visually-enhanced a manner as possible. But I also wouldn't say it was "Absolutely cannot miss!" in stature. I saw it mostly because I'm a fan of the director and Clooney and the rave reviews were enough to push me into the theater and, certainly, it will be far more impressive on a 3-story screen than it will even on your 60" plasma, but it ain't like escaping an event horizon.

Monday, September 23, 2013


So I've had two books sitting on my shelf for a while that I finally got around to reading in the past couple weeks. Both are by authors I hold in pretty high regard: Neal Stephenson and William Gibson. Both came out of the "cyberpunk" movement, Gibson with the seminal Neuromancer and Stephenson with Snow Crash. Both have since moved on.

Stephenson's book is called Anathem. He finished it a couple years ago (he's since written another called Reamde, which I haven't read yet) and it was a high concept story about communication (how language changes), knowledge and its conveyance (how it affects society and the perceptions both of those who have it and those who don't), and world-realization (particle theory about conjoined but different universes and how observation makes them split.) Most of his books have been like that. He's always thinking in a very large manner. The trick is that he does that with characters that are still human, with a pace that keeps you turning the pages (albeit occasionally bogged down in theory), and with some memorable turns of phrase. He's had problems with endings before, in that his grandiose ideas resist being succinctly ended, but I think he pulled it off well in this one.

Gibson's is called Pattern Recognition. It's been out for a decade and many critics regard it as his finest work (he's written two more, Spook Country and Zero History, which I also have yet to get to.) It's explicitly about modern society and how technology and advertising tends to shift cultural tides before people are even aware that they're in the water. It's told in Gibson's hyper-cynical and bleak tone, but his writing, unlike Stephenson's, isn't about conveying a grand idea(s) so much as it is a slow presentation of said ideas while every sentence becomes an expression unto itself. His writing is the closest I've ever seen to the idea of "lyrical." The story is an exercise in description of the environs surrounding his characters and how they interact with them and how they interact with the emotions generated by them.

They're (obviously) very different approaches and, as much as I am forever indebted to Gibson for blowing my mind in 1984 with Case, Molly, and Wintermute, I've come to appreciate Stephenson's style more; likely because I'm another one of those "grand idea" guys, but also possibly because I don't see myself ever being able to accomplish the type of rhythm that Gibson pulls off. Have I tried? Occasionally. But that kind of texture seems to be the province of writers superior to me. Is it because most of what I turn out is generally crap? Quite possible.

On that note, I was out with the trivia team last week and the guy running the session was playing some solid music. One track was Tom Waits' Goin' Out West and it got me into listening to Bone Machine again over the past few days. Hearing Earth Died Screaming for the first time in a few years dovetailed nicely with a neo-concept I've had in my head for a while and I put down the first few hundred words of it but, as with all things that I start, I'm not quite sure it will be worth the effort of finishing (i.e. it's all crap.) I think it lacks both the grand idea and the textural lyricism. At this point, it's safe to wonder whether I'll finish anything simply because I'll hold it to a standard that I may never be able to achieve.

Why did I wait so long to read these two books by two of my favorite authors? I'd like to say that's just how things turn out sometimes, but I've read many, many other books in the intervening years. Is it because I didn't want to be confronted again with work that I can't even approach, much less match? That certainly wasn't foremost on my mind, but it would make me into a typical Gibson character...

Monday, September 2, 2013

The art of letters

I'm a technological enthusiast. While not as quite as much a gadget-freak as my friend, Chris (who quickly obtains the latest phone/tablet/computer or other such enhancement to something he frequently already owns), I'm fond of moving forward, as it were. One of the ways we've all moved forward is in forms of communication, such as the one I'm using here. The US Postal Service, once the envy of the world, is now crumbling under this change. Who needs to write letters when one can email or text or blog or Skype or Vine or Tweet or whatever other method will emerge in the coming years? (Yes, olfactory communication (aka Smell-o-vision) is still on the minds of some people...)

I'm well into a novel at the moment by one of my favorite writers, Neal Stephenson. He actually published it a few years ago and I've had it sitting in my "to read" pile until last week. It's a very complex tale about communication, language, knowledge, and the roots of ideas and how they're transmitted. At one point, the lead character inquires if there will be some way to send a letter while they're traveling. His companion asks if he's writing "to a girl" and he admits that he is. When he stammers about what he should say, since their travel is taking him away from the woman in question, he's told that he shouldn't bother with the detail of what he's doing and where he's going. Instead, he should just tell her what he feels for her. Even in the fairly advanced setting of the novel, these people are in a situation where he's actually going to have to write a letter with a pen and a pad of paper. But that is, of course, the best way to pursue the advice that he's been given.

Modern communications can be dismissed easily. It takes seconds to text and, if one receives it, a response takes seconds, as well. Communication is constant and therefore ephemeral. While it's certainly more convenient and can carry its own level of intensity because it's everpresent and easily conducted, I think it tends to lose the gravitas that a handwritten letter once held because the latter could easily take hours to write and then days or weeks or even months to reach its destination. The effort in comparison to the modern 2-minute Gmail experience is different by multiple orders of magnitude. When one sat down to convey a message of importance, to let someone separated by miles or oceans know one's most heartfelt thoughts, it had to be conveyed with a certain level of ferocity and elaboration. Ideas had to be spelled out at length, both as a way to convey the feeling and to demonstrate its intensity. No emoticons or icons or hashtags could be used to elaborate upon (or cover up) the emotions involved. Only words.

Did she know that a certain scent reminded you of her and that moment put a twist into your gut until it passed? If not, you'd have to spell it out (quite literally) and she would only know weeks from now, when that moment was distant (until it happened again.) Did she know that you watched the sunset because it brought forth a memory of the sun shining through her hair as she looked back at you with an affection that you didn't know existed in the world to that point? You'd have to tell her and hope that perhaps she remembered the same moment. That world wasn't captured in rapid-fire moments of thumb-typed affirmations that soon get lost in the flurry of other signals, real and imagined. It had to be crafted over time and longed for with an energy that could either keep one moving through the days or make them agony until that separation was ended.

I'm not trying to say that the proliferation of communication and its ease have made relationships less passionate or that modern forms can't be used to convey those same ideas. But there's a difference. My friend, Leca, mentioned a text to me a few months ago that she'd gotten from her (now) husband, Kevin. It mentioned that she had looked especially beautiful that morning as she'd left for work. A mutual friend of ours had an immediate reaction: "Awwww. He's trying to get some." Maybe that's true or maybe he was being absolutely genuine with this thoughts. But if one had to set pen to paper and wait even just days for a response, would it be interpreted so casually or would it carry the weight of those supposedly more "genuine" impressions?

Of course, every time I try to think about writing something like that, my words veer into the archaic and Shakespearean, which makes it sound even less "genuine" than a simple text. The other advantage of this change in communication habits and styles is that my handwriting is god-awful, so I'm not sure anyone that I wrote to with a pen would be able to read it, outdated language or no. But I wonder if those ideas and gestures aren't being muted by the constant stream of contact we currently swim in and if it behooves us to take more time with matters that used to require strength simply to write down.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

AMC: Explosive, yet limp

Two of AMC's regular series have returned within the past 24 hours: the electric Breaking Bad and the surprisingly mundane Hell on Wheels. [I shouldn't have to say this but: OMG! SPOILERS BELOW!]

The latter continues to befuddle me, as its writers continue to seem to be every bit as lost in the wilderness as Bohannon (Anson Mount) was in the opening of the new season. Not only did this season essentially begin with a complete reboot of the camp that bears the show's name, thus creating a gulf between the new season and much of what had gone before, in complete contradiction of what has been the hallmark of modern TV (i.e. you have to watch from the beginning to really "get it"), but said reboot carried with it the same middling performances and hardly exciting "plot twists" that have dogged the series since its beginning.

Most concerning is the appearance of Jennifer Ferrin as Louise Ellison, intrepid reporter. Firstly, it's clear that Ferrin has arrived to replace Dominique McElligott, who was killed off at the end of last season in a rather stilted attempt at a "shock ending". She's also playing the role of the "assertive woman", which HoW has had a distinct lack of other than occasional outbursts by Eva (Robin McLeavy.) But the role is so obvious that it detracts from Ferrin's presence as anything other than a device. It's as if the new showrunner, John Shiban, told his writers: "Create somebody that 21st century women can identify with!" (murmuring from the writers' room) "Aha! The new Lois Lane paradign! Perfect!" (silence) "What? It works for Superman!" Yeah, see, because it's always a good idea to base your characters on archetypes created to modernize an extremely limited concept like Superman that has never and will never translate well to any medium other than comics (and not even very well in that one.) Ellison, as a character, seems completely out of place because, well, she is. Most newspapers of that era didn't employ journalists looking to tell the "true story of the West" or much of anything else. They were scandal rags that concerned themselves solely with local news and local politics, except on the East Coast, where they engaged in national politics and always with a pretty significant slant to one side or the other. Furthermore, no newspaper would have sent a woman to a railroad camp. They would have found some aspiring (male) novelist to create fanciful tales for a few weeks that would snare readers interested in fiction and that would be the end of it. She makes no sense from an historical viewpoint and, even given creative license, she makes no sense from a dramatic standpoint, either, because she's too obvious. If you're going to present your semi-ethical characters with dilemmas that even raise the hairs on their necks, the last thing you need is to emphasize that subtlety (which then kinds of loses its nature) with the acerbic reporter pointing out that "frontier justice" is a complete misnomer. No shit, lady. We kinda got that from the director's endless shots of Anson Mount's grim-yet-determined face.

In addition to that, the rest of the cast has returned still doing the same old, not really interesting things as before. Durant (Colm Meaney) is paying off politicians in his dastardly attempt to reclaim the railroad. Ferguson (Common) is still feeling like Bohannon's hired hand and constantly asserting that he isn't. Ruth (Kasha Kropinski) is still the moral center of a camp named after Hell by being the only "godly" person there. And on and on. Why am I still watching? I can't say for certain. I think it's mostly because I like gritty Westerns and this aspires to be that and also because this period of history in that section of the country is OVERFLOWING with story potential, almost none of which the show has effectively mined since its inception. Of course, most of said material has to be propelled by interesting characters and very few of those on the show (Eva, most notably) have been that. When the plots stop being transparent and the actors stop speaking in platitudes, perhaps we'll get somewhere. But as long as this is Gunsmoke with a little dirt on it, we really won't. I thought the departure of the Gayton brothers as showrunners would improve things and this event was probably part of the reason for the semi-reboot, but that transformation was second verse, same as the first.

Contrast this, of course, with the return of The Heisenberg Show and it looks even worse. The second half of season 5 promises to be some of the most explosive (perhaps literally...) material in the show's history and that's saying a lot, because they have to wrap up more depth and complexity in 8 episodes than you can find in most of AMC's other offerings combined. The premiere did not disappoint. We all expected Hank to dive back into the case and probably could have even predicted their confrontation in his garage (which was an excellent scene; Dean Norris deserves great credit for his performance there) but combining that with the return of Walt's cancer and the actual fulfillment of his promise to Skyler to step away from the business sets up some interesting paths as we walk toward the M60 stashed in Future Walt's trunk.

And, as usual, almost nothing in the show's repertoire is better than watching Jesse (Aaron Paul) wrestle with the consequences, internal and external, of his past actions.  As much as Walt is on the road to self-destruction (if he can get to the end before the cancer does), based on the bad things he's done in the past, Jesse is in lockstep beside him mostly because of the good things he's doing now in an effort to assuage his own guilt. Paul's performance, as he subtly winces every time Walt puts a fatherly hand on his arm to give him the "Just forget it all!" advice, is the best of the show, by far. My one slightly down note about the first episode was the scene with Saul (Bob Odenkirk) who is unfortunately in the situation where the usual shyster routine doesn't fit the circumstances, so he doesn't have as much material to work with. OTOH, it has to be said for those of us in the Detroit area, that despite the tragic circumstances of Drew Sharp's death in the show, I can't hide the little smile I get every time they refer to killing someone of that name... Also, who could possibly not appreciate one of the trademark BB musical montages set to Primus? Killer.

If Hell on Wheels had even one character as interesting as Walt or Jesse or Hank or Saul, there would be something to build on. Shiban says that the show is going to be "about work; about the building of the railroad" and that's great, as long as you're willing to do it with real characters and not the artificial constructs like Ellison. Breaking Bad, meanwhile, has me waiting with bated breath like no show since The Wire.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Welcome to the rest of the world

In the midst of job hunting again, I came across a listing for an NGO in California that is nominally led by a good friend of mine. They're looking for someone to handle the financial end of their operation and, while finance and fundraising are not my most preferred activities, I'd certainly feel a lot better about doing so for an activist organization than for yet another property owner. So I pinged my friend and asked if they'd be OK with me doing the job remotely, as I'm not currently compelled to go back to Cali. He said: "It's no problem doing it remotely, but I have to tell you, the board is pretty set on hiring a person of color."


The first thought that comes to mind, since I'm kind of eager to be employed again, is that it's frustrating as hell to immediately be discounted simply because of who I am. They haven't looked at a resume or even seen my name and already I am persona non grata. The second thought that comes to mind is: Welcome to what many non-white people encounter every day! Irritating as it is, it's almost impossible to remain so because there are probably 10 other jobs for which I would be ushered right to the top of the list, while someone who didn't share my skin color or gender would not be.

(H/T jabarkas for reminding me of this.)

Now, one competing thought is that the progressive political world is one that needs more people, not less. One of the defining characteristics of that world, in general, is inclusiveness. Anyone that wants to assist in reforming society or pushing forward an agenda that helps everyone, not just the rich, is going to be welcome there, regardless of color, sex, creed, whathaveyou. And not just welcome, but NEEDED. Gotta keep up with the Tea Party somehow, right? (Ignorance is always easier than reason.) On the other hand, it's also that world that should be at the forefront of demonstrating that people who aren't white can also be at the helm. It's that world that should be actively promoting the idea that non-white people are just as capable of performing any task asked of them. How does one do so? By counter-balancing the inherent racial attitude of society by creating accelerated opportunity. In other words, intentionally choosing people of color (and/or women.)

There is, of course, room for argument that doing so is inherently a racist act. I would be justified in the eyes of some by claiming: "I was encouraged not to apply simply because I'm white!" And that's true. As I said, the board was already slanted against me without even having seen my name. But there's a rather poignant example from the book, Freakonomics, on just how much impact actually seeing my name would have had. Those with "black-sounding" names frequently get less, or less positive, attention than those with "white-sounding" names. (And you don't get much more white-sounding than my full name.) I've seen evidence of this, first-hand, as well.

I just left a job on the south side of Taylor, the population of which is predominantly black. The company I worked for is fairly ruthless about rent collection and I had to review my delinquency reports with another long-time manager in an adjoining property to ensure that I was toeing the company line. Now, this woman is white and had been working in Taylor for at least 20 years. Every single time we came across a "black-sounding" name, like "Tawnisha", she would pretend to struggle over its pronunciation and then shake her head and grumble at the idea that someone would actually have that name, as opposed to something like "Judy". I always followed her faux struggles with a quick enunciation of the name in question ("Taw-NEE-sha."), which she responded to with a roll of her eyes. Accompanying that mild cultural resistance was a rather pronounced difference in attitude when it came to interpreting just why the rent wasn't paid. White names had reasons. Black names had excuses or lies.

So, in my personal circumstances, I'm disappointed that I wouldn't be given the opportunity. I like the sound of the job. It fits my principles. It's something I am motivated to do. I want the job. But there are many more people who may be as capable of and are as motivated to do the job as I would be who haven't had opportunities before this one and I think that's probably the more positive result for society, overall. Frustrating, especially while unemployed, but understandable.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Painted Veil

I first saw this film a few months after its release. It came up as a recommendation on Netflix, probably because I'd displayed a passion for historical pieces. What arrived on the disc was an historical piece with far more passion than I'd expected and it's a film that has sat with me ever since. It's one of those that I have to avoid when looking for something to watch for a few minutes over a meal because I know I'll sit there to the end. Sometimes I do, anyway.

I've never read the Somerset Maughm novel that it's based upon nor have I seen the two earlier film adaptations. I suppose that engaging any of those might be interesting, simply to see how other actors and writers have approached it. But I have such an identification with the 2006 version that I feel certain that I'd be disappointed with any other depiction at this point.

First and foremost, it's the performance of the two leads, Naomi Watts and Edward Norton, that makes the film go. As it is essentially focused on the peaks and valleys of their relationship (and like the surrounding karst, there are many), that seems only natural. But both of them carry the film with such intensity that it seems to border on a recorded play. Everything in the film smolders when they're on the screen, whether with anguish or lust, heartache or fear. Norton, as the austere and emotionally stunted Walter Fane, creates an image so distant and spiteful that it's difficult to actually sympathize with his reaction to being cuckolded. When the revelation is made some distance into the story that he's actually fond of children and chooses to spend most of his time caring for them, the audience is every bit as surprised as his then-estranged wife.

Watts, as Kitty, displays her own dichotomy, as well, given that her character is far more emotionally and sexually experienced than her husband, but perhaps just as easily adrift in her own fantasy world about the way things "ought to be." Having been the life of her own little social circle in London, she enters the circle of the real world when she takes up with her lover (Liev Schreiber) and believes that this far more suitable man will disrupt his own life to perfect hers. This time it's Walter's turn to be the more experienced one as he laughs at her disillusionment before the two of them proceed into the hinterlands of China.

It's that setting which plays the third role in the film, as the foreign culture, the sub-tropical location, and the stark class and racial struggles and differences create the crucible that expands the story beyond that of yet another infidelity tale. Walter's delicate dance between age-old spiritual customs, the realities of the then-still-recent science of bacteriology, and the nationalist politics amidst competing warlords create a story that would be interesting to follow as a documentary but which is presented here with the greater urgency generated by his personal conflict. By the same token, Kitty is also forced to come face-to-face, quite literally, with both "the other half" and the conditions they inhabit, often based on class, but in this case also starkly tied to race (in true British Imperial fashion.) Her submergence of the playgirl lifestyle, so obvious to everyone around her, in order to work in an orphanage run by nuns, is a demonstration of a personal transformation. Her doing so even as Walter reminds her that the inherent religious imperialism practiced by those nuns (and their mother superior, played by Diana Rigg, currently of Game of Thrones' Olenna Redwyne fame) is at least partially responsible for the resistance of the local population to their very presence is a demonstration of just how fine the lines can be when trying to compress one's personal philosophies into the shapes requested or even needed by society. This in itself is a replication of the struggle that the two leads have: how to get their disparate personalities and worldviews to function for the betterment of both of them. As Rigg states to Kitty at one point: "When you have duty and passion, then you have grace within you."

There's a certain languid intensity that permeates the film's every corner, even when Watts and Norton aren't the focus. The touches on various historical elements - the opium culture and its notorious British past; the ferocity of and terror created by a disease like cholera; the implacability of the warlords in the face of a "Nationalist" rule that is best defined as "only within the eyesight of the ruler" - all create a texture rich enough to generate 2 or three films, but which is properly contained here to give as complete a story as possible and let the audience pursue it afterward in their own thoughts as they may. The film stays with you because of that texture and the infused passion. What encourages that is the phenomenally moody and ethereal score composed by Alexandre Desplat:

That simple 5-note phrase has so much depth that it's almost an emotional appeal unto itself. One could get lost in the story hidden behind that music even without having seen the film. There aren't many soundtracks that I listen to without the movie playing. This is one of them.

Of course, it has to be said here that the class struggles and the history are perhaps more poignant to me than most. Societal transformation and the emergence into a new cultural paradigm both within and without China during the period that the film is set is the "writ large", as it were, of the two leads' personal anguish. But what also comes to my mind is that I first saw this film while going through a period in my own marriage that was very similar. My (now) ex-wife and I were on very different pages in the manual of life and of mindsets that were quite similar to Walter and Kitty, respectively. I remember when the credits first started rolling and both of us were silent for quite some time, digesting not only what we'd seen but how emblematic it was of what we were living at that time. One would think that that's another reason, perhaps the primary one, of why the film has stuck with me over the years. But I never think about that time when I see it these days, as the film stands on its own as a rather under-appreciated production of a remarkable story about life, death, and the emotional path that ties them together.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Writing sonnets to Vivaldi this time

Nulla in Mundo Pax Sincera, to be specific. Why is it that this works best with baroque composers? Don't ask me. I just spew here. Following on the heels of the Bard, perhaps. Once again, just trying to exercise the form and not have it come out as complete doggerel. Remember now, class. The rhythm is like a heartbeat: ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum...


A spark alit with thine emergent word
Of int'rest piqued and thoughts aloft to try
Intent and energy were borne and heard
And no moment to stop and question why
The past pursued with seeming earnest zeal
Our present heralded by growing fire
No thought as to whether this may be real
A future left in visions of desire
Claims of anticipation 'til we meet
The days suffused in dreams of further light
A message ling'ring flash a peal so sweet
The truth a cloud a trick of fading light
Now to the yoke of mem'ry flames are lashed
Plunged into darkness soaring hopes are dashed


Monday, June 10, 2013

They already know everything because you let them

Edward Snowden is now being heralded by no less than Daniel Ellsberg. Snowden, of course, exposed the rampant NSA spying program and fled to China in order to escape what will surely be energetic attempts at retribution by the US government. The program is being labeled an attempt at "security". The question that no one is asking is: Security from what?

A "war on terror" is deliberately left wide open to be pursued in any direction. Nameless, stateless; it could be anyone and anywhere and, most importantly, it could be us. The first time government of, by, and for the people was mentioned was the last time it existed. Now the only question is why.

Why would the government be so obsessed with controlling its citizenry? Because people left with no other choices tend to revolt. Revolt would be bad for those in power, not least because it disturbs their carefully crafted image of the land of opportunity/greatest nation in the world/(insert pathetic slogan here.) It's been less than a couple weeks since the last time I was attacked for rejecting the benefits afforded me by being part "of this great nation." People believe this stuff, even when the evidence of rampant inequality, perhaps the highest in the history of said nation, is everywhere. If much of the population is doomed to work low-wage jobs for the rest of their existence, with little prospect of change, what hope do they have other than violence? If the highly educated segment of the population is largely demoralized because that education has been devalued if it doesn't produce instant profits, what message might they deliver to people actually willing to read their books, view their art, and listen to their speeches? Is it hope? Is it opportunity? Or is it "don't bother following me here"?

A populace without choices is a populace without hope. No hope means nihilism. Nihilism means violence. Thus, the control. That control is already so effective that much of the population, urged on by wealthy and compliant media sources, screams for more whenever a violent event occurs. After the Boston Marathon bombing, some of the first responses were complaints about the government not knowing enough and/or acting quickly enough. The only way to know that much and act that fast is with the type of program that Snowden revealed. It's a howl of outrage, not that two men took such actions, but that the government wasn't hovering over them to stop those actions. It's easy to do when it's "crazy Muslims" aka NOT ME. I don't have anything to hide! I don't have anything to answer for! They shouldn't be spying on me! Just the bad people! It's NOT ME!

But it is you.

Just like animals in a very pretty and comfortable enclosure at the zoo, it is you. If you're lucky, you have food and a nice place to stay and despite the fact that you walk the same boring path and look at the same boring plants every day, it's easy to not think about how your entire world is 50 square yards. Until perhaps you lose that nice job of being looked at by the tourists. Or you lose that good food. Or that enclosure isn't so comfortable anymore. And then you realize that they have been watching you, guiding you, controlling you... because, at its root, they're afraid of you.

They're afraid because they know that if enough animals in the zoo that are less equal than others decide to band together and resist the controls, revolt against the keepers, and abandon the enclosures, they might be in trouble. Without doubt, their profit margins would be in trouble and that is, in the end, the most important thing to any member of Congress and any president elected in the past 150 years, at least.

So, should people be outraged about the NSA program? Sure, I guess. It's just one more symptom of how the system is maintained. But what they should really be outraged about is not that the system of control was exposed, but that it exists in the first place. The NSA program is one element of a massive problem that is summed up in one simple phrase: rule by the rich. As long as that exists, you might as well relax and perform for the watchers. Nothing you do will matter until that changes. And, incidentally, if 1/10 of the outrage currently being spewed about the spying were directed at the massive economic and environmental problems in this country, things might actually start to change.

The Man's got a surefire system
An economic prison!
Ya gotta get out!
Ya gotta get out!


One note before anything: While I understand it for production reasons, it did seem pretty harsh to already remove Richard Madden and Michelle Fairley's names from the credits. OTOH, dead is dead, right?

Similarly to last season, quite a bit of episode 10 was aftermath. Last season it was the Blackwater. This season it was the Red Wedding (Side note: Our trivia team's name last week was "It's a nice day for a Red Wedding." The first time the host mentioned the scores, she said our name and followed it with: "No, it's not. You guys are jerks!")

Of course, some aftermaths are more equal than others. High praise to D&D for including this scene, as it's one of the more grisly reminders of what happened at the Twins and is mentioned in passing in the books, but it is one of the images that will tend to stick with the fans. However, the consequence of writing an episode after as momentous an occasion as the Red Wedding while being the season finale is that theme tends to get left behind. While earlier episodes may have been established around a central perception (of mine, if not the writers'), the finale is usually about wrapping things up until next season and that's where this one resides, as well.

Some moments aren't as crucial. I'm not sure that Lord Frey's little soliloquy and brief exchange with Bolton was worthwhile, for example. It's all well and good to hear once again of Walder Frey's spiteful nature and disdain for the people above him in the hierarchy, but we've been there. There's absolutely no need to remind the fans of what he is. It was a convenient way for Bolton to reveal his elevation to Warden of the North (except that Tywin already did that) and also reveals that the "boy" torturing Theon is, of course, his bastard, Ramsay Snow.

It's with Theon and a couple others that we do have some sense of theme, as the finale marks the transition for a few characters from one stance to another. We've seen all of them growing (or degenerating) in one fashion or another, but this episode marks a turning point for people like Theon and Arya as they finally step toward their new lives.

Theon, for example, assumes his new guise of Reek (and, yes, non-readers, that's what all the "rhymes with meek" stuff was about.) It's unfortunate that it's done this way because, in the books, his reintroduction comes in a very different and much more interesting fashion but, once again, the change in medium makes that a bit too difficult to pull off.

Thankfully, some of the best scenes are easy to pull off. All they need are Charles Dance, Peter Dinklage, Lena Headey, Conleth Hill, and Jack Gleeson. The meeting of the small council was, like the Frey/Bolton scene, a bit more affirmation that Tywin is the man running the show, but did so in a far more entertaining fashion. All you had to do was watch Varys' face as Joffrey accused his grandfather of cowardice during Robert's Rebellion. Priceless. Of course, the key to the scene is Tywin staring holes through the king. Watching Dance play his role with some real emotion in mentioning that the service he did the family was not killing Tyrion at birth was another high moment. And Sophie Turner doing several minutes worth of emoting with just a single woeful glance in the follow-up to that moment was brilliant. I think it's one of her best moments on the show.

OTOH, the scene with Balon and Asha/ Yara was... odd. While Balon certainly would have had a different relationship with his daughter and likely alter his normally implacable attitude to feel like he would have to convince her of a path of action, it came off roughly. Balon isn't much of a character in the books, so further development isn't all bad. You can't be as much of an ass to your designated second and purported heir (even in the patriarchal Westeros and, especially, Iron Islands) as you are to the son you disdain as a fool. Of course, Asha/Yara's path of action is a departure from the books, as well, and is obviously a way to keep Gemma Whelan on screen for the next season, as her character disappears for all of Storm of Swords. It will be interesting to see how they wrap that story around with the return of Euron and if, for that matter, the latter will be arriving next season or the one after.

Also, for as momentous as you think they would be, given their adherence to a huge leg of the story, the scenes with Bran were very anti-climactic. There was very little meat on them and they were essentially just Bran repeating "I have to go north." over and over. While they did take the opportunity to emphasize the depths of Walder Frey's crime (I'm willing to take anyone's bet that the latter survives GRRM's story) and provide the bridge (almost literally) between Sam and Gilly returning and Bran and Co. finally entering the real north, they still seem largely incidental. There basically are no scenes left for Bran in Storm, so next season is going to have to contain a lot of material from Dance (since Bran doesn't appear at all in Feast, which is the first half of Dance...)

Obviously, the timeline is about to get seriously tortured. It isn't enough that the show has to invent ways to keep people on-screen while they bridge the gap between appearances. It's also that GRRM had to split one book into two. In many ways, he's already covered this ground in attempting to keep timelines together. But we're now talking about 3 whole seasons of the show showing Bran doing pretty much nothing but traveling through the north. Certainly there are momentous events coming up (Coldhands, etc.) but it's going to be tough to stretch things that far and they may be in the situation they found themselves in season 1, in that they had to add material to an already massive story to fill out their time.

Thankfully, the finale was also about great performances, even in single moments. I've already mentioned Sophie Turner's look of pain, but I could go on at length about yet another brilliant scene between brother and sister, Tyrion and Cersei. The chemistry between those two roles and those two actors never fails to satisfy. Likewse, the anguish on Rose Leslie's face as Jon lays out the facts of life is genuinely heartbreaking. It was, of course, the worst lovers' quarrel since Lorena Bobbitt, but even fans of Kit Harrington had to appreciate Ygritte's pain.

Liam Cunningham also comes in for some credit, as he's playing the Davos role better than GRRM writes him. It's a very sympathetic role, for both character and audience, in the first place but I appreciate it now after watching much more than I ever did in reading the books. Likewise, I think John Bradley has nailed the role of Sam better than most could have expected, given his light experience. I remember finally feeling some appreciation for Sam upon his return to Castle Black and assumption of the role of educated leader, since he'd been to the wall (heh) and back. Bradley did that masterfully.

Finally, sticking to that light theme of transition, we had the character who does the most of it in this stretch of the books, Arya. It's difficult to talk about Arya's transformation without engaging in too many spoilers, as her story really takes off at this point. I had been relatively indifferent to her storyline for much of the time until the latter half of Swords, but her incredible focus from this point forward, amazingly exemplified by the bone-chilling stare of Maisie Williams over the coin and through the famous words "Valar morghulis", was thrilling to read and should be equally so to watch.

And, just as in the show, this scene needs no words:

And, after all that raving, it has to be said that the final moment, the "Mhysa" scene for which the episode was named, kinda fell flat. It's all well and good to show the Dragon Queen truly loved by her subjects but, like the Walder Frey scene, we've been there already. After all the powerful performances and change and intrigue, to end with the fairly sappy celebration outside Yunkai was a bit of a letdown. It's certainly not what I'm going to carry with me for the next 10 months while waiting for the show's return. Can't win'em all. (Has to be said: As soon as they started voicing the word "mhysa", all I could think about was: "Meesa ridiculous racial stereotype!")

Lines of the night (there were many):

"Everyone is mine to torment." - Except, you know, grandfather...

"Monsters are dangerous and just now kings are dying like flies." - And uncle.

"I'm all for cheating. This is war." - Tyrion, remaining the pragmatist. Must be easy when you know that your enemies will surely execute you if they win, if not for the crimes of your family, but for simply being you.

"Explain to me why it is more noble to kill 10, 000 men in battle than a dozen at dinner." - Here is Tywin's self-justification at its finest. This and some conversation about Robb's various mistakes have me putting together a post about GoT, ethics, and Machiavelli which I'll have up in the next day or two.

"Noooo... Pork sausage. You think I'm some kind of savage."
"My mother taught me not to throw stones at cripples. But my father taught me to aim for their head!" - While I'm mildly underwhelmed by Iwan Rheon's portrayal of Ramsay (not vicious enough), he does have solid comedic timing.

"Big words. No clothes. What would you have done?" - Srsly.

"He used to drink from sundown to sun-up, visit three brothels a night, and gamble away his father's money. Now it's just the drinking." - I really wish we could see more of Varys, but the Spider is who he is.

"It's not easy being drunk all the time. Everyone would do it if it were easy." - Truth.

"There's nothing worse than a late-blooming philosopher." - Also truth. Better to have perspective before you slaughter people in our ethical world (again, next post.)

"Why you doing this?" "Because it's right. And because I'm a slow learner." - Liam Cunningham knocking it out of the park and with the inside joke yet. All that said, it'd be nice to see Gendry disappear at this point, since his storyline logically concluded right here. That's not to say that Joe Dempsie isn't great fun to watch.

"You see, Ser Davos? You've been saved by that fire god you like to mock."- Friends in the strangest places...

Friday, June 7, 2013

The riddle of Scott

Ridley Scott was once one of my favorite directors and he's still a pretty respected name in the industry, but largely for films I consider to be nowhere near his peak. Like John Carpenter, Scott is one of those directors whom I feel lost his way somewhere along the course of his career. If one defines success as making a ton of money, he still does that and does it better than ever before. If one defines success as making memorable films, one of his most lauded, Gladiator, appeared well past the point where I had abandoned his efforts as far less than his earlier achievements. In fact, Gladiator won him the only Academy Awards that he currently holds (of course, James Cameron swept the Oscars for the execrable Titanic...) What disturbs me about most of Scott's material, post-Thelma and Louise, is his placement of spectacle over story. When explosions and hundreds of extras are a replacement for solid writing and intriguing plot, you have what Scott has largely become and what Hollywood tends to be in love with: Big Summer Blockbusters!!!... that, of course, reside in one's memory for only about a week until the next Big Summer Blockbuster!!!

His early films, on the other hand, hold a place in the audience's memory because of the enormous attention to detail that was taken and the often gripping performances by the cast whom were given miles of story and nuance to work with. The Duellists is a fine example and Scott's first major film. The plot itself seems simplistic: Gabriel Feraud (Harvey Keitel), a dedicated duellist in Napoleon's army takes offense to Armand d'Hubert's (Keith Carradine) attempt to arrest him for his activity and, of course, challenges him to exactly that proscribed activity: a duel. When they're unable to complete the first encounter, Feraud makes it his life's mission to salvage his honor by finishing a duel with d'Hubert. The essential crux of the story is that Feraud and d'Hubert's personal contest is framed against the ongoing political situation in France. In fact, their series of duels is shaped by the success and final disastrous failure of the Napoleonic regime, including being on opposite sides of the Loyalist/Bonapartist divide upon the general's return from Elba. It's a story about personal ambition as one small part of a nationalist ambition; a drilled down focus, as it were, on the life and culture of the times in the officer corps.

Indeed, the film is most often hailed for its remarkable attention to detail in costumes, hairstyles, and fencing styles. It's that detail, that sensation, that atmosphere that tends to define Scott's early works when it was clear that he was determined to give the whole broad picture, even as he was focusing on the small interactions between characters. Focus in the pacing sense is also mirrored by the cinematography, as he demonstrates what would become a Scott trademark, in showing regular action from a distance and a tendency toward broad establishment shots that help set the mood of the scene. For a film based around the idea of personal combat, the action is genuinely secondary to what is motivating the characters; most notably d'Hubert, who wants nothing to do with the entire concept and yet is inevitably drawn into it by a variety of circumstances. On the one hand, I do think it deserved the Best Debut prize at Cannes. OTOH, it does carry that veneer of angst that colored many films of the mid- to late-70s.

His next notable work, however, was an example of a filmmaker and a studio defiantly stepping away from the order of the day and producing a film that stands out as one of the finer examples of science fiction filmmaking in the modern era. This was 1979, 2 years after the emergence of Star Wars. The proliferation of laser blasters and outer space explosions had spread to every corner of the film world, including James Bond. But not here. In Alien, Scott not only presented a less hyperkinetic situation, but he did so with characters that were industrial workers in an industrial world. No one was weighed down by prophecy or besotted by privilege. These were normal people doing a normal job who just happened to run across extraordinary circumstances. Furthermore, the story didn't start and stop with the unusual situation. Their interactions were about payment shares, command issues, ship security, the food, and everything one might normally discuss in an ore trawler heading back to Earth. And, again, the attention to detail is part of what makes the story work. They acknowledge the actual science of space travel by the very tagline of the film ("In space, no one can hear you scream.") Much time is taken showing the descent to the moon to answer the distress call and the difficult conditions on that moon. Again, the broad establishment shot of the descent gives the viewer time to appreciate the magnitude of the undertaking and how it's being engaged as much as the broad shot of the interior of the alien craft allows the impact of the moment and the age of the ship itself to become noticeable to the audience. In both cases, Jerry Goldsmith's score is brilliant, as well.

Notice how Scott doesn't end the action while he pulls back. There is no orchestral crash and a camera freeze. He just lets the continuing motion of the crew crawling into the chamber and the echoes and the brief, static-shrouded comments on the radio set the tone. In other words, he lets the scene play. It's wonderfully moody stuff which is exactly what the moment calls for and which would probably be hammed into irrelevance by many other directors, desperate for a "Wow!" moment. Scott, at the time, let the story tell the tale. Just as important, he let the undercurrents of the plot (the fact that Weyland-Yutani was willing to sacrifice them all and Ash (Ian Holm) was their tool to ensure it) appear without added emphasis. The audience was allowed to absorb the lines on Mother's screen and the actors' reactions without encouragement. Likewise, even in the charged moments where characters like Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) are frantic or yelling, he doesn't let that energy overwhelm the pacing. It's a restraint that is emblematic of his direction in those earlier years and which, sadly, was later lost.

What followed was a film that Scott has declared his "most complete and personal" and is one that I think is the finest science fiction film ever made and one of the best, regardless of genre... with a caveat.

Blade Runner, based on Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? broke ground in many ways. Once again, it strayed from the prevailing SF model of the time, with the armadas and the armor and the lasers. Instead, it went back to a Dashiell Hammett-model of noir and used a plot of unusual thematic complexity, not only for SF of the time, but for Hollywood in general. It also, as originally cut, spent a lot of time allowing the audience to simply absorb the visuals presented to them. As film is a visual medium, one would think this would be natural, but it's rarely the case in major cinema that what is presented on screen can go unaccompanied by someone yakking about this or that element of the plot and/or the characters' reactions to what is happening right in front of them. Have an exciting car chase? Don't forget to interrupt it every 15 seconds to show the hero yelling "Oh my God!" when something else blows up. There was none of that here. We're shown vistas of Los Angeles, the towers of the elite, and the alleyways of the downtrodden, including where those who form the foundation of the elite's wealth also live. Statements are made about the future and about now, all by only what appears on the screen (along with, of course, Vangelis' brilliant score.) And here comes the caveat...

Because the version I'm speaking of is the so-called "Director's cut" as originally presented in the early 90s. Scott originally shot the film without Deckard's (Harrison Ford) voiceover, with Deckard's dreams about the unicorn, and without the tacked on Hollywood ending where he and Rachael (Sean Young) drive off into the test audience-pleasing sunset. Instead, the original cut ends with Deckard picking up the origami unicorn in the elevator and remembering Gaff (Edward James Olmos) shouting "It's too bad she won't live! But, then again, who does?!" Just that moment leaves open the essential questions that the film asks (and which Scott lets it ask) about creation, humanity, life, and perspective. Warner Bros., in its inimitable wisdom, distorted the theatrical release because it was afraid that audiences wouldn't understand those questions, but that's precisely the point: people aren't supposed to understand them because understanding implies answering and some questions aren't meant to be answered. They're intended to be posed and left to each individual to answer in their own way. Scott let those questions be posed and the studio butchered that process. Thankfully, the directors' cut release later ameliorated this to a certain degree and there are now seven different cuts of the film, happily released by Warner Bros. to cloud the issue even further. Hooray for Hollywood.

This clip is a great example of Scott's restraint, in which Deckard callously reveals to Rachael that her existence is a lie. She digests that while he transitions from thinking of her as an object to a person that has feelings (something he often lacks and the source of the popular theory that Deckard is so good at "retiring" replicants because he actually is one.) The camera is very patient, watching the changes come over them, and not changing pace even as the facts are revealed.

This trio of films marks the high water period for me in Scott's career. The attention to story, detail, pacing, and atmosphere are brilliant examples of filmmaking. There is an argument to be made that working with good material often produces good films. In the case of The Duellists, the inspiration was a Joseph Conrad short story, The Duel, in the same manner as Blade Runner. But Alien was an original screenplay; certainly a good one, but lacking a foundation in the "higher" medium of literature. Granted, he also benefited from such things as the artistic inspiration of H. R. Giger in Alien and that of Syd Mead in Blade Runner but it was the use of those visuals to tell a complete story in both cases that shows the hand of Scott most prominently. Indeed, later in his career, his films are still celebrated for their impressive visuals and set design. They're just used to enhance the spectacle, rather than the story.

Following that trio, Scott perhaps saw a route by which he could be deemed more successful (none of the three was a major hit; Alien doing the best) and began to conform to more Hollywood-like expectations with films like Legend and Black Rain. The latter film especially begins to show signs of formula in the, by then, tried and true Dirty Harry style. But they were also only moderate successes at the box office (at best) and he really didn't hit his stride, fame-wise, until the release of Thelma and Louise.

This was Scott's last truly daring excursion in topic matter as the film took on the subject of gender politics in a rather (ahem) direct fashion. It was reviled for that by some audiences (because, you know, there ain't no justice for you if you're male (and, even better, white) in this world) but became an instant hit because of not only the controversy, but the powerful performance of the two female leads, Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis. In contrast to the aforementioned moody pacing, Thelma and Louise was a very bright and very aggressive story that Scott told in a rather hasty fashion. While it still falls into some degree of formulaic approach as a Hollywood "buddy" film, the fact that he was willing to be that aggressive on what remains a touchy topic for the hierarchy, as well as end it in a very non-Hollywood but story-justified manner makes it the last really good film that he has completed. One other element of the film is telling in Scott's career: for as fast as the story is, he takes over two hours to tell it. This became an issue in many of his later films.

The decade of the 90s produced nothing of any particular merit for Scott but what became his most famous film emerged in 2000 in the form of Gladiator.

Gladiator is Scott's most-heralded film and is almost universally loved except for those of us who bemoan the lack of actual storytelling in favor of explosions (Why are there explosions in ancient warfare? Hey, watch it and try to suss that out for yourself if you have three hours to spare.) This is the primary example of what became Scott's trademark for the past decade: glitz over substance. He had a wonderful cast (Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Reed, Richard Harris) and a wealth of background to work from. I'm an acknowledged fan of Roman history and there are great stories to be told (and retold) and you can do it without inventing anything to go along with them. This holds true in non-fiction, as well. Want to read about the Gallic Wars? Read the book by the man who conducted them. Scott decided to take a fictionalized scenario, add historical trappings to it, and then proceed, which is all well and good. But the fact is that the story itself is completely linear and asks almost no questions about its own or our modern circumstances and can't even be used to draw parallels to modern culture. It's a cipher, used mostly to show off Crowe's talent and employ hundreds of extras (real and CGI) to create a spectacle. It unintentionally draws an object lesson about itself and the old "bread and circuses" aphorism, in which modern audiences will swallow anything completely thoughtless as long as you have big battle scenes.

But that in itself is almost a betrayal of Scott's earlier and respected tendency for detail because much of the battle scenes don't even make any sense. Unlike The Duellists, the costuming is largely wrong. No one used siege engines in a field battle. No one sane conducts a full cavalry charge through dense forest ("Hey! Your horse just tripped on that root... and you're dead.") Roman infantry tactics are completely ignored in favor of Hollywood-style single combat (among thousands of figures.) At the same time, the original script called for the gladiators to promote various products from the floor of the arena - which is what actually happened, in the same manner as former NFL stars boosting beer or razor blades during games - but Scott rejected the idea because he thought audiences would find it hard to believe. So, catapults and explosions are believable enough, but stuff that actually happened is beyond the pale. Check. This is where story (even HIstory) gets abandoned to make a bigger splash on the screen. This is where a director's previous work, now highly respected and immortalized for its subtexts and meanings, gets abandoned so millions can be made with tigers and trapdoors. In many ways, Gladiator is remarkably similar to The Duellists, in that it's about the driving obsession of one man indexed against the larger politics proceeding around him. The problem is that the later film utterly lacks the dramatic depth of the previous one, no matter how good the lead actor was and is. Furthermore, Scott took almost three hours to tell a story that could have been done in half that time. I was not entertained.

Scott also began to trend in an odd direction for a filmmaker who earlier seemed to favor projects that questioned cultural tendencies in that his work post 9/11 began to be almost a series of cheerleading escapades for US foreign policy, like Black Hawk Down, Body of Lies, and, most notably in a cultural sense, Kingdom of Heaven.

Once again, we see the travails of a lone hero in the midst of political and military activity that largely revolves around his Joseph Campbell moment, which is fine. It's bog-standard, but fine. The problem here is that, unlike Gladiator, where Scott shied away from the history to keep his story sound (the prerogative of any creative storyteller), in Kingdom he simply ignored it. What makes it even worse is that he employed a far lesser talent to try to carry the central role. If you're going to abandon history to tell your story, at least make sure you have an actor capable of telling it. Orlando Bloom is not that actor, even while surrounded by an otherwise excellent cast (Vera Green, Edward Norton, Ghassan Massoud, Jeremy Irons, Liam Neeson.) Furthermore, if you're going to take advantage of that cast's talents, you're better off doing it in your previously heralded moments of patient cinematography, rather than following the standard Hollywood route of quick cuts between mass actions, interspersed with your lead's anxious relaying of just how the battle is proceeding, which we've already seen in the five previous cuts.

Incidentally, I realize that not everyone is as interested in historical veracity as I am and, as noted, I certainly acknowledge the right of people adapting history to take liberties with it to make a story flow better (While Commodus did fight in the arena, he didn't die in it, but was instead strangled in his bath; that really would have let the air out of that scene.) But there are limits to all things. The city of Jerusalem is arrayed on a number of hills. That's part of why the city emerged as a trade and, later, cultural and religious center. It didn't sprout like a lone cactus as the only feature on the frying pan of the Negev as depicted in Kingdom. But, of course, a flat, open plain is the best way to show medieval trebuchets bashing through walls like a modern howitzer would, right? Except that said devices were never that powerful and both modern howitzers and medieval trebuchets hurl objects in a parabolic arc, so neither would function in the way the action is shown in the film. But that's OK because EXPLOSIONS! And, in direct contrast to The Duellists, the fencing techniques in the film weren't actually developed for another four hundred years.

But most damning (heh) of all is the fact that, in the end, there's no there there when it comes to the story. The film would have been far more interesting (and been carried better by its lead) if it had been about Ed Norton's role as Baldwin IV, the leper king. Instead, we got Balian, the common bastard blacksmith (he was actually one of the most powerful nobles in the Crusader kingdoms) becoming a hero for the ages and requiring a level of suspension of disbelief akin to what's required to believe in Genesis. There was no foundation to support that disbelief and, yet, Scott blamed the mediocre reception of the film on the fact that the studio had hacked it down to an hour-and-a-half adventure tale when he wanted to tell a three-and-a-half hour historical epic with the same flawed story. I've seen the director's cut. It does not rescue the film.

American Gangster has a similar problem. Here you have Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington. With those two actors, you should be able to work some real magic, right? Your basic plot is the gritty 70s (Mr. Tarantino to the white scriptwriters' phone!) and one of the most audacious drug rings ever known, in which kilos of heroin were allegedly shipped in the coffins of American soldiers coming back from Vietnam. I'd give a couple fingers to have the chance to write that story. But what comes out of it? Glitz, flash, and almost nothing else. We get a lot of scenes of Washington parading around Manhattan and Crowe doing the stereotypical 70s-broken-marriage-while-Serpico thing... but it's been done. There's no meat there. The film promises much and delivers little other than a sterling performance by Ruby Dee in a very small role. Scott spends as little time considering his characters' reactions to their respective ethical and organizational crises as he does in Black Rain, because it's simply more exciting to follow the action film formula.

Now I'm not even sure he's following any formula. I sacrificed two hours of my life to watch Prometheus because it showed up on HBO the other day. I knew it was awful. I'd been told it was awful. But I did it, anyway, because I'm still hoping for a return-to-Jesus moment even though I long since should have given up hope. It was, of course, awful. He utterly wasted the talents of people like Charlize Theron, Idriss Elba, and Guy Pearce (most people I've spoken to didn't even know he was in the film) and attempted to tell four different stories at once and told none of them decently. Once again, he blamed it on the fact that his original cut was too long for wide release, but one can only make that excuse so many times before people will begin asking why you're allowed to helm the production. I agree that the first compliment given to him for The Duellists 36 years ago remains true today: it was a pretty film. But pretty only gets you so far and eventually, it shows its age. So has Scott, unfortunately. I'm going to go watch Blade Runner for the hundredth time now.

Next: David Fincher.