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.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Slow realizations

If you think about it, anyone who hasn't read the books could have seen this coming. After all, what have all your book-readin' friends been raving about for the past decade? "George R. R. Martin is a favorite character killer! No one is safe!" And through three seasons, who has actually died? Ned, Robert, Drogo, Viserys, Renly. That's about it and it's a stretch to consider the latter three fan favorites. Meanwhile, the last two episodes' material with Robb have basically been a series of (ahem) pregnant pauses. You could feel something building up, given the borderline insane plans to treat with Walder Frey and then stroll off to lay siege to Casterly Rock. It's that slow realization of dramatic change that forms the real basis for this episode, as that reaction happens again and again as people discover that what they most hoped for has been dashed and what they most feared has been realized. This is Westeros (and Essos) and welcome to it.

Scene after scene is built upon or highlighted by the expressions on various characters' faces as their inner thoughts, that crucial element that is so important to the books and yet is absent from the show by nature of the medium, tell them something that they should have known but are still utterly shocked by. One of the best is in the first few moments, when Catelyn stares holes through Robb as now- now! -he comes to her for advice. You can see her searching him for an agenda, for what it might mean for their damaged relationship, for what it might mean in his entreaties to Lord Frey. There are extreme hopes and fears there and there is no one that is immune to them.

Jorah Mormont feels it when Daario first covers Dany's hand to move it across the map. The realization is there, but he quickly tries to dismiss it in the name of duty as he reaffirms his and Ser Barristan's role in this whole escapade. Later, when he and Grey Worm narrowly escape with their lives and Dany asks after only Daario, his world caves in and those attempts at dismissal are long gone.

Arya feels it when she realizes that everything the Hound is telling her is true. She is afraid and it is altering her behavior, protest notwithstanding. But those fears don't come to fruition until she has to watch her brother's wolf get slaughtered and then suddenly discover that the man she hates, the murderer of her friend, is the only one who can protect her from the madhouse that the Twins has become.

Again and again: Gilly discovering that the man who rescued her knows about an entirely different world... The Hound realizing just how grim and dedicated this tiny woman is when she clocks the farmer to keep him alive... Osha's resigned disgust at hearing her little charges spit back the old wives' (Nans'?) tales about the evil Wildlings... Edmure discovering that at least one daughter of Walder Frey is pretty hot... Ygritte's anguished dismay as she watches her lover leave her behind, a traitor to her people... The creepy discomfort on Talisa's face as she watches tradition take Edmure and his new bride up the stairs and violate the intimacy of their first physical moments. This episode was a study of faces, a study of expression, and most of it, at its root, was about fear.

Fear is everything here. Jon fears what the Wildlings will do and how he'll feel responsible for letting them do it. Ygritte fears that her suspicions about Jon are real and how she'll still want to let him fulfill them. Arya fears missing out on finally reuniting with her family, even though she knows that she's forever changed and may never feel the same about them while she's driven by vengeance. Jorah fears Daario's betrayal inside Yunkai as that's what Jorah, an opportunist of the first order, would probably do. But even moreso, he fears having to confront his own realization that Dany is lost to him as a lover and Daario is the walking proof. And nothing was more obvious than the trepidation that Robb and everyone in his party were swimming in from the moment they set foot in the Twins. The first bars of the Rains of Castamere only served to bring that home to Catelyn before the knives started falling.

On the technical side, I think most of it came off pretty well. The fight in Yunkai was a pretty basdass scene, even if the editing and choreography were a little clunky. It's difficult to coordinate that many people in a dance of death that's supposed to look natural, but there were one too many "And... action!" moments to really feel like any of them actually had a knowledge of their weapons and how to use them.

As for the famed Red Wedding, I was kind of up and down through the whole thing. I liked that they included the bread and salt bit, but I thought they could have taken a few seconds to clarify just what it was. Seeing them all eating in the Frey hall probably wasn't enough for show watchers to realize just how big a violation Frey's betrayal was, not just in the political sense, but in the cultural and spiritual senses, as well. I thought it was excellent direction, however, to incorporate that incredibly tender scene between Talisa and Robb, discussing the naming of their future child, only to have everything literally torn apart a few moments later. The stabbing of Talisa's womb was a bit of a shock to me and something I didn't expect. On the other hand, the slaying of Grey Wind was much tamer than I expected and certainly less so than presented in the book. Acknowledging that it was still a pretty heart-wrenching scene watching a defenseless animal get cut down leads to the common sense understanding that, even on nights like this, HBO is only willing to go so far (and it's probably a good thing.)

Also, for as much as I've already seen people raving about Michelle Fairley's performance, I thought she kind of let the air out of the room in her final confrontation with Lord Frey. It's certainly very tough to convey that kind of anguish and desperation and rage, but I just wasn't sold, unfortunately. Of course, the logistics once again let them down, in that Catelyn's moment is supposed to be surrounded by the chaos still taking place in the feast hall, with combat and slaughter and screams and turmoil encircling her as she attempts to bargain with the lives of others. When you have a constrained budget, you can't do the kind of scene that the original depicts and which the event deserves. In the same way that the Hand's tournament was a letdown for lack of an audience, the wedding scene was a bit underwhelming for lack of victims (quantity, if not quality.) But them's the breaks.

Have to say that the credits without music was a very nice touch.

Lines of the night:

Honestly not that many, since most of the delivery tonight was written on the faces of the actors and not needing the script writers to help them perform it.

"Show them how it feels to lose what they love." - Check.

"Your king says he betrayed me for love. I say he betrayed me for firm tits and a nice fit. And I can understand that. At his age, I would have broken fifty vows to get into that without a second thought." - Blunt man, Walder Frey...

"The wine will flow red." - ...but not without his fair measure of subtlety.

"A man cannot make love to property." - Here's a segue right into a dom/sub discussion and... Nevermind.

"You know all that from staring at marks on paper. You're like... a wizard." The greatest moment of Sam's young life.

"I know a real killer. He'd kill you with his little finger."
"That him?"
"Good." - No one is more pragmatic than the Hound. Forever my favorite character.

"You're very kind. It'll get you killed." - I say again...

"We can drink some blood while we wait. I don't need much." - Osha getting a jab in.

"Someday, I'm gonna put a sword through your eye and out the back of your skull." - But that might leave him faceless.

"The gods love to reward a fool." - The Blackfish, wiser than he knows, because the fool wasn't Edmure.

And, finally, a short note about Bran. This was, interestingly enough, the best Bran scene in quite a while and it was completely overshadowed by the wedding. But finally demonstrating the expansion of his abilities and the heartfelt departure of Osha and Rickon was some excellent material for a storyline that's basically been running in place all season. There is, of course, only one more episode to go so I'll be interested to see how they wrap it up for the year.