Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Five-fingered parable

I don't know that I'd say it's essential to have an appreciation for black comedy to be able to enjoy Martin McDonagh's films, but it probably helps. Tricia will often give me a disapproving look when I bust out laughing at some morbid development in public affairs or other situation in the world. I just have a deep understanding of the level of stupidity inherent to most of humanity, so it's amusing to me when someone reaches a pinnacle moment. And that's really what The Banshees of Inisherin is all about; a few people striving to escape the dolorous inanity of the rest. Of course, it's also a parable about friendship, how a neighborhood (mal)functions, and the Irish Civil War, so you can be as high-minded as you like. But when it comes down to it, it's mostly about trying not to be a drone, or at least feeling free enough to not be identified as one.

There's no doubt that this is one of the darker of McDonagh's films, which is saying quite a bit. The moments of levity to break up the angst-ridden Pádraic (Colin Ferrell) and the brooding Colm (Brendan Gleeson) are sparse for the first act and only become more frequent because we've begun to understand our characters and their situation and not because they were specifically written that way. Layering on top of that the exasperation and loneliness of Siobhán (Kerry Condon) and the tragedy that is Dominic's (Barry Keoghan) life and there's not a whole lot to find humorous or light-hearted for some time. But then it dawns on you, just as it does with most of his works: It's the absurdity of the situation that turns out to be funny. When Siobhán rails against Pádraic being woeful about losing the friend who never treated him as an equal in the first place or when Colm bemoans the fact that he'll never be remembered as the genius from a tiny island off the coast of a nation at war, it's difficult to stop laughing at the lack of perspective on display. That kind of foolishness is also, of course, a metaphor for the Irish Civil War, one of the more inane of modern conflicts, which is setting the bar quite high, and which continues in the background of our story, with the occasional shrug of the shoulders by one of our characters and a "Hope things are going OK" acknowledgement. 

Beyond anything else, I think it's irrefutable that the cast was stellar, which is what you might expect from a solid collection of character actors given a McDonagh script to work with. Another regular aspect of his films is the very interesting and genuine characters that he summons up for each of his stories. From the world's most genial hitmen of In Bruges to the barely self-contained and bereaved mother of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, MO, it's often hard to forget the people portraying his stories. Banshees is no different. Reuniting Colin Farrell with Brendan Gleeson almost guarantees chemistry on the screen and the two of them didn't disappoint, returning to the easy connection they carried in In Bruges, albeit in a somewhat different situation. It's still Gleeson leading Farrell to the deeper meaning of life, but this time it's not an act of courtesy, but one of bitterness and, eventually, resignation. Sheila Flitton was also fantastic as Mrs. McCormick, who represented one part of the film's title, as she walked around portending death like the spirits of old. The fact that she also annoyed everyone she encountered to the point where she engendered the same level of dread as the legendary creature is just another moment of comedy hidden under layers of scorn and despair for the local neighbors. Dominic was another high point, as he presented someone to look down upon for the lowly Padráic but was one of the more heartfelt characters of the story. The moment where he professes his affection for Siobhán in his halting style and then confesses "There goes that dream." is a genuinely emotional moment in a sea of cynicism and an unwillingness to admit the depression that drives them all to their individual isolated existence. This is a neighborhood of people who often refuse to acknowledge that they're all swimming in this pond together which, again, hearkens back to the war clattering across the strait and the overall search for meaning in what is otherwise seems a rather pointless life, which is, of course, the primary complaint of Colm about his existence and his relationship with Padráic.

Banshees will probably not be an easy film to like for many people; just as many of its characters will be likewise difficult to warm up to. Overall, it lacks some of the dynamism of McDonagh's earlier work. The deeper meanings are prevalent, but not exactly pronounced and there's a great deal of time spent in the common activity of early 20th century, rural Ireland. But if you can stay with it and just appreciate the little details that create a much greater skein, I think you'll be able to appreciate the subtle cues that say far more than what's immediately obvious. Personally, I thought it was feckin' brilliant.

Saturday, November 5, 2022

Horror from the niche to the mundane

As noted before, there are many different types of horror. As one of the more flexible of modern popular genres, it's quite easy for it to be an "additional" category or subcategory of a story that would already be identified as science fiction or crime or even something that arcs toward the "literary"categorization, as Frankenstein or some works by Edgar Allan Poe now do (Nevermore!) It's with that flexibility in mind that I tried to consider the final two episodes of Guillermo del Toro's Cabinet of Curiosities. One of them worked well in a classical, albeit mundane, sensibility. The other didn't really work in any proper, constructive sense. Neither of them really turned out to be interesting.

The Viewing: I believe that director and co-writer Panos Cosmatos' intent was that you really couldn't get more 70s than what he put on the screen; from cars to cocaine. Complete with garish orange furniture, mood lighting where it wasn't needed, and a vaguely disco-riffic soundtrack, this was an attempt to depict the decade in all of its artificial glory. Of course, it felt artificial because it was, as it also lacked any of the humanistic touches which defined that era's films, but exemplified the plastic and gallons of hairspray that often defined that era's TV. I'll leave it up to you to figure out whether that was a deliberate approach for something being shown on a streaming service. But the problem I had with The Viewing was that the majority of what it depicted had neither tension nor horror. It was 40 minutes of people on a serious snorting binge while Peter Weller (most notably of RoboCop and Buckaraoo Banzai fame) told them about this cool toy he had in the back that he was going to let them be the first to see. Meanwhile, he had to expand their consciousness and "get them all on the same wavelength" with drugs because that's always a good idea in a scientific experiment. When we do finally get to something resembling a plot, we end up with what looks like an homage to the ending of Raiders of the Lost Ark (an 80s film, just by the by) and an alien/demonic force that implies some greater threat to society but which really doesn't come to any kind of natural conclusion after that. We had these stories in comics back in the day. They used to use them to fill space and didn't care if the people reading them felt cheated because they still assumed that their audience was made up exclusively of 8-year-olds. I confess to having no idea what the "story" was genuinely supposed to be about, other than the opportunity to show Paul Freeman and the departed Ronald Lacey that they're not the only ones that can have fun with disintegration. It was endless waiting for something to actually happen and then some mildly interesting moments when it finally did, but not enough to sell me on any deeper meaning.

The Murmuring: Speaking of attempted deeper meanings, we had the final episode in our series, which arced away from Cosmatos' heavily time- and culture-influenced presentation and back toward what one might consider a "classic" ghost story; akin to the aforementioned Poe and those like his creations. However, like The Viewing, this episode also contained a great deal of build-up to a payoff that was surprisingly pedestrian. With our two lead characters running away from their personal grief, it was the typical setup that found them running into the embedded past grief of an old country house. While the ornithology angle seemed to set up something that hearkened to one of the most famous works of Alfred Hitchcock or at least a deeper involvement of their field of study, the "murmurings" amounted to literal background noise in what was otherwise a routine story about a woman who's experiencing various kinds of distress with a male associate who keeps telling her that she's imagining all of it and then complaining when she doesn't appreciate his side of the story. But it's that "routine" label that causes most of the problems here because there's absolutely nothing original or unusual about anything that happens. This is a perfect example of the "seen one, you've seen them all" phenomenon. Nothing happens that isn't entirely predictable and the ending leaves the white picket fence intact, marriage saved, haunting "solved", and the birds vaguely bored onlookers to everything. This is the difference between a ghost story and a horror story. The former is generic. The latter usually has to have something that at least mildly excites the reader/viewer, even if it's as strange as a murderous orangutan with a straight razor. Now that I think of it, the color of the creature in The Viewing was orange (like everything else...)

So, yeah. That ended on a bit of a down note. Given the first six episodes, I was hoping that the last two might deliver a bit more of a punch or at least a couple moments of the unknowable that del Toro's better films have displayed. Maybe next time.

Can't miss the point. Maybe even three of them

I'm fine with message films. In our current political climate, there should probably be even more of them, despite the fact that they likely wouldn't change the minds of those who need it most. Triangle of Sadness is just such a message film. The dominant theme of the picture is that rich people aren't simply self-absorbed and largely dehumanized by their wealth, but that they're also parasites on what would be an otherwise functional society. Anyone convinced of the concept of "trickle-down economics" or "job creators" or how money defines "success" need only look at the current debacle occurring with Elon Musk and Twitter to recognize that all of those concepts are not only flawed, but usually deliberate lies to cover up the actual reality. Triangle lays this bare in very, uh, pointed terms. The problem is that it doesn't create a very good film, no matter how much the message may be needed.

Similarly to my reaction to Don't Look Up, I tend to like my political films with a bit more subtlety. When they're constantly hitting me over the head with the message, I start losing interest because I want to see more of the "real people" within the characters that are supposed to be carrying said message. The heavy-handed approach often means that the roles become less characters and more caricatures. Triangle basically tells us that rich people are all assholes. HBO's Succession tells us the same thing. But the difference is that all of the assholes in Succession are quirky people with recognizable hang-ups and idiosyncrasies. In other words, they're human, which is what makes them compelling to watch in the same way that many reality TV shows are driven by the very strange, very normal people that they present. No one in Triangle feels like a real person. From the anguish of Carl (Harris Dickinson) remonstrating about escaping gender roles with his girlfriend, Yaya (Charlbi Dean), to Clementine and Winston (Amanda Walker and Oliver Ford Davies) getting wistful about how they made their fortune in the weapons industry, no one seems real. In fact, they're so into their assigned roles that it often becomes tedious waiting for them to get through the obvious cues. There's nothing wrong with absurdist characters. Some of my all-time favorites are the creations of filmmakers like the Coen Brothers. But even over-the-top characters like Ulysses Everett McGill or The Dude have enough humanity within them to make it plausible that you might know someone a lot like them. No one in Triangle fits that mold.

Appropriately enough, the highlight of the film is the one person who not only isn't rich, compared to his passengers, but also speaks out against the people that he's supposed to be entertaining. That's Captain Thomas Smith, played by Woody Harrelson. The funniest moment of the two-and-a-half hours was hearing The Internationale blasting from his cabin loudly enough that the kitchen staff could clearly hear it while they assembled whatever decadent masterpiece was to be presented later. There's a point where irony becomes so thick that it reaches the point of humor and this was one of them; not because it wasn't just as obvious as the rest of the plot (captain of the ship full of wealthy vermin is an ardent Marxist) but because it perfectly suits Harrelson's acting style of the genial, regular guy who seethes with hatred against the people he has to be nice to. The casting, in that respect, was perfect. Given that he was the perfect choice for it, does that make it just as obvious as the rest of the film? Maybe. When we get to the island and enter the Lord of the Flies situation, we've unfortunately lost Harrelson and are returned to the obvious message: Abigail, the only one who works for a living, is also the only one that keeps society running because she knows how to do things like fish and make a fire, while the wealthy parasites can do nothing but enjoy the fruits of her labor, straight out of Das Kapital. Abigail uses this opportunity to take control of the group and not only arrogates the upper end benefits to herself, but reduces Carl to the reversal of gender roles that would seem to be a "careful what you wish for", except that he was arguing for a removal of said roles, so maybe not quite the message that was originally aimed for.

I will say that director Ruben Östlund did a solid job, creating a real sense of chaos when the boat enters a storm that is then interrupted by a puking scene that is straight out of Stand By Me. He also did an excellent job with the ending, which is left to some degree of self-interpretation by the audience, since we aren't shown exactly what happens between Abigail and Yaya, but we can see how fiercely the former is ready to cling to her newfound position against the woman whose mate she's already effectively stolen. Is this where Östlund was trying to say that there aren't really any heroes or that the vermin sitting atop the money pile aren't any worse than those scrabbling for a piece of it? Again, a mixed message in the midst of a film trying to beat you over the head with one seems questionable, although I suppose it could just be my overall dreary feeling about the whole picture that's interfering with my ability to appreciate what he was trying to do. Part of that dreariness is the length. 150 minutes was simply way too long and the counterpoint to my previous thought is that I may have thought the ending was more interesting just because I was glad that it was actually the ending. There's just not enough material here, in addition to the complete void of interesting characters outside of the captain, to justify that running time. Of course, for all of my complaints, it won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, which could just be more one more plank in my disaffection with French cinema and its devotees. Or maybe it's just because I'm a Marxist and already knew all of this.

Monday, October 31, 2022

HPL and the modernists

The next three episodes of Cabinet of Curiosities present at least one contrast. Despite Guillermo del Toro's determination to couch each of these tales in some period of the past (as with Lot 36 being set during the Gulf War, despite easily carrying the relevance of a modern-day story), the first episode of this latest trio that we watched is an extremely modernist take on a horror story, whereas the next two, by early 20th-century master, Howard Phillips Lovecraft, are purposefully placed in his contemporary period to ensure that their flavor isn't lost.

The Outside: This episode is definitely the most subtle of any of the tales we've seen so far. While the rest are rather straightforward examples of demons from beyond the veil or alien parasites, The Outside focuses more on the social trials that exist in contemporary society, with the lead character, Stacey's (Kate Micucci), beat-up, old Gremlin being the only clue to the idea that this story isn't taking place in 2022 America, as it's probably intended to be seen, given the increasingly consumerist nature of our present times. Despite its more subtle message, that Stacey is so lonely and isolated that she finds more connection with the mysterious TV host selling her new lotion (Dan Stevens) than with her devoted, practical and well-meaning husband (Martin Starr) and that she's willing to destroy her "acceptable" existence in order to be on the same level as her shallow and broken co-workers, it doesn't really end up feeling "horrific." Yes, the social message is more relevant than rats feeding off corpses and grave robbers, but it's also simply not that entertaining. Stacey is well aware of what she's getting into and pushes forward simply for the thrill of the new experience, in contrast to her old life of eating dinner alone or effectively alone in front of her husband's poker shows. But the fact that her transformation isn't painful or traumatic, but simply irritating, leaves us only mildly intrigued at what's happening, rather than disturbed at the fact that she's proceeding or that she's suffering the equivalent of a bad rash in order to do so. Contrast this with the eerieness of "The Lonesome Death of Jody Verrill" from 1982's Creepshow, where the title character (Stephen King(!)) is obviously disturbed and then terrified by what's happening to him beyond his control. Perhaps just a touch more mania on Stacey's part or a feeling of her loss of control as she does the host's bidding might have generated more response from me and left me feeling a bit more satisfied at the only mildly macabre ending. Again, I appreciated the message, but it feels like the execution was lacking.

Pickman's Model: This is one of those HPL tales that definitely engages with his "things from other dimensions" theme, but largely avoids his namesake mythos, as the title character (Crispin Glover) is a solid mix of both unwilling servant to those unnamed dark forces and eager purveyor of their shadowy entreaties. Screenwriter Lee Patterson definitely was more direct than Lovecraft in his delivery of the material, taking more opportunity to show the viewers just what it was that Pickman was presenting (and encouraging) than the more speculative presentation in the original story. Those are two different horror approaches, certainly, with the original being more of the eerie and unnerving type, while there's no mistaking what's happening in this teleplay. I usually find myself more a fan of the former, but there's something definitely more satisfying about the latter approach in this instance (perhaps the contrast with the generally insufficient sensation from the previous episode?) Ben Barnes as Will Thurber (the narrator of the original version) does a solid job of being the supremely-confident artist who loses control of the scene in both encounters with Pickman and eventually loses everything he values to the more, uh, esoteric world presented by the artist. This is essentially the same message presented by The Outside, but feels more active and overt. That, again, is a different type of horror, so different people are entitled to be more interested in the varying approaches and it's a commendation of both the series and each episode to enable that flexibility within the genre of which it's already a hallmark. I found both the music and Keith Thomas' pacing to a bit more on the mark in this one, as well.

Dreams in the Witch House: This story, OTOH, is firmly rooted in the Mythos that is most famously connected to Lovecraft, as the other dimension that lead character, Walter Gilman (Rupert Grint, of a different HP fame) visits in pursuit of his deceased sister, is the home of the famed Elder Things. Teleplay writer, Mika Watkins, and director, Catherine Hardwicke, are both careful to not hit you over the head with it, however. Walt could be connecting with any, old-fashioned other dimension of plant people that just happens to be reachable by dosing oneself with really good peyote. You have to pay attention to see the hints that they've dropped along the way to really identify the Lovecraft notions that are embodied here, which is a credit to both of them for not having simply served up the obvious to his legions of fans (myself among them.) While I think they might have missed a bit of a chance to bend a bit more in the direction of the Demon Sultan and its mysteries by instead spending a lot more time on Keziah and Brown Jenkins, it's a fair turn to take (creature horror over the unknown of the powers behind it; again, covering all the variations of the genre here) and not unwelcome. I'm still waiting for a really good story about the Flautists, but this one at least mentions them. I can't say that Grint really excels in the role, but he doesn't do it a disservice, either. Similarly, I can't say that I'm as much of a fan of this kind of creature horror, but it's hard to argue against it when thinking of classics like the Universal Horror pictures that this draws from. A bit of a polyglot presentation, but still entertaining in the end.

The last two episodes might take a couple more days to get to (playing Napoli tomorrow, followed by going to see Triangle of Sadness, that I will doubtlessly be writing about here), but should have something up on Wednesday.

Sunday, October 30, 2022

Cabinetmakers and the exercise of horror

The actual definition of "cabinetmaker" is "a skilled joiner who makes furniture or similar high-quality woodwork." That's a pretty fair definition of the creator of Netflix's new horror series, Cabinet of Curiosities, Guillermo del Toro, since he's done some pretty high quality work in recent years, including The Shape of Water. The majority of his output has been the kind of Gothic/grand guignol style that suffuses the series and which many modern fans would also refer to as "Lovecraftian"; appropo since two of HP's short stories are adapted for this series. I watched the first three episodes last night, since it is Halloween and this is about as far as I go in terms of celebrating modern American holidays, outside of watching the best Christmas movie ever made on that day every year (Bad Santa.) I think there's some worthwhile material in CoC and I'm happy to note that this kind of horror is becoming more of a regular thing and not simply the unusual exception like del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth (still probably his best film.)

Lot 36: The immediate draw to this episode was the presence of Tim Blake Nelson, always and forever a favorite since the epic O Brother, Where Art Thou? (quite possibly the Coen Brothers' best film, from a technical perspective.) Adding in the Lovecraftian elements (tentacled nightmare that can't be reasoned with and will be determined to consume the world when Eddie (Demetrius Grosse) comes to open the shop the next day) was another cool aspect. I was a bit unsure about the political angle the writers (GdT himself and Regina Corrado) were taking in making the lead character, Nick, the typical American racist and making the old man who leaves Lot 36 behind be a former Nazi. Birds of a feather, I guess? Certainly, it's valid to keep making horror stories about the fascists that are currently overrunning the American political system, but this story was set in 1991, during Bush the Elder's Gulf War. It was done so in order to give some personal motivation to Nick for why he's so outraged at society (Vietnam vet), but I'm not sure that that kind of racism needs plot support, since it's often seemingly mindless just like the creature that Nick eventually releases. The plot was also boilerplate horror (magic books discovered, leading to trapped demon discovery, leading to idiot recklessly tramping across the seal and releasing demon.) It feels like there could have been more done with Nick's character in terms of personal struggle or transformation or even just more emphasis on the greed he has for the potential payoff from the fourth book. Similarly, Emilia (Elpidia Carrillo) was left to fill the final denouement of a horror tale, descending to Nick's level to get her final petty revenge. In this respect, the whole thing turned out to be Tales from the Crypt-level, but without the stylistic high points that HBO added to the original comic stories. I liked it, but it felt like there could have been more from even just a 45-minute episode.

Graveyard Rats: When I saw some friends talking about the series on ThereWillBe.Games and saw the words "HP Lovecraft" and "rats", I thought they might be doing the The Rats in the Walls, which is one of HPL's few "standard" horror stories that don't involve otherworldly demons. It's also one of the more overtly racist works he ever completed, which is probably why they didn't use it. Instead, this episode was similar in approach, but far more direct in application. Our lead, Masson (David Hewlett), is already aware of the problem that the vermin are creating, both in his regular job as caretaker and his side job as grave robber, so we lose the "discovery" moment which is often essential to horror stories. That comes later as we discover a subterranean temple which seems totally external to the whole problem with the rats, unless we're to assume that the only way the giant mother rat was created was by the fel magic of the single-eyed, tentacled god once worshiped at said temple (WoW players will instantly draw a parallel to C'Thun, which is Blizzard's ripoff of Cthulhu; it all comes full circle!) Just like Nick in the first episode, Masson's willingness to risk the tunnels of the rats is motivated solely by the money he owes to a local criminal outfit, which felt a bit like a retread, since both of our leads were driven by identical circumstances. Masson's situation ends up being a bit more horrific, since the concept of crawling through tunnels with no way to escape anything rushing at you (like, say, a horde of rats) is a daunting concept to most people, whether they suffer from claustrophobia or not. It's also interesting to note that there were two kinds of unease mechanics employed here in the telling of the stories. Lot 36 used discovery (the unknown books, the hidden room, etc.) This episode used implacability (the inability to deal with the rats, the constant approach of the former witch, being trapped in the tunnels.) I was less impressed with this one, most likely because I've still never found a horror story about rats that's as good as Stephen King's Graveyard Shift. (While overrated as a novelist, King may be underrated as a short story writer.)

The Autopsy: Like the first episode, this was immediately a draw because of the talent on screen, with F. Murray Abraham (I don't think anyone will ever be able to duplicate his Salieri in Amadeus) and Glynn Turman (Mayor Royce in The Wire.) We went non-linear in this one, as well, seeing the strange bombing of the mine that creates the circumstances for Carl Winters (Abraham) to arrive and examine the bodies left behind. Unlike the previous two, there's a bit more of the "alien visitors" vibe here, which is still Lovecraftian (Elder Things, etc.), but a different approach from the clearly supernatural trappings of what we'd seen before. That's fine, because horror is one of the more adaptable of genres, able to pick its settings from whatever is suitable and still able to conjure the eeriness that makes a good story. However, I have to say that the pace of this one was a bit slow. The time spent searching for bodies in the woods and then the time that Winters spent examining them are great build-up exercises, but it seemed like we could have cut out a couple minutes here and there to get to the payoff which, in itself, was also kind of slow. The payoff is great, from a horrific angle, as we figure out both what the alien is, what it does, and how Winters will attempt to deal with it when his friend, Nat (Turman) discovers him. This was a horror story, not just a scare story. But it just feels like we could have gotten there a bit sooner and still had the impact required, since the development of how Winters deals with the parasite is fairly drawn out. Also, I wonder at the idea of giving Winters a terminal illness, making his choice to confine the alien more of an act of resignation than outright heroism. It seems like it makes that a less traumatic choice for the character, which is generally not what you're aiming for in a horror story. Still, writing-wise, this was definitely the best of the three, although I have to say that Lot 36 was perhaps the most interesting from a suspense and story potential angle.

Hoping to get to three more episodes (The Outside, Pickman's Model, Dreams in the Witch House) tonight and then the last two another day.

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Could watch it in my sleep

The title of this piece is perhaps counter-intuitive because most people's dreams aren't predictable. Indeed, what makes many dreams so memorable is precisely how unpredictable and bizarre they often are. They're potentially great stories, although sometimes lacking rhyme or reason (Let me be far from the first to state that Rick Veitch's Rare Bit Fiends was awful, self-indulgent crap.) House of the Dragon, in contrast, has been utterly predictable from the opening moments of the series. No one ever did anything surprising. Few enough of them did anything that one would connect with a human's often irrational and emotional reactions. Everything has been acted out precisely to form, as if we were watching a dramatization of the Westerosi encyclopedia entry of The Dance of Dragons. As I've mentioned before, that's essentially what the "novel" Fire and Blood is. But it's disappointing to see it conclude without a single deviation from expected form, to where you could recite the outcome of each scene (and its pedestrian dialogue) before it happened.

Now, I can see someone arguing that I'm complaining about the converse of what I was complaining about with regards to the finale of Rings of Power. But the problem with Rings wasn't that they stuck to form. It's that they savaged their encyclopedia (the appendices of Return of the King) for a cheap marketing trick. Theirs was a failure of approach and perhaps philosophy, rather than execution. The problem with House isn't that it was setting up for a stunt ending. It was that they weren't really interested in doing something even vaguely as innovative. Case in point is Rhaenys Targaryen. Eve Best has had the misfortune to play a non-entity for 90% of the series. Outside of one scene where she reproves the young Rhaenyra for having the temerity to think that women could make their own choices in Westeros, she's had basically nothing to do but be an add-on to whatever room she found herself standing in. She doesn't really do anything and, when she does, it's the most obvious reaction of scolding her overambitious husband or grieving the loss of her children. This all changed when she came bursting through the floor on dragonback. Suddenly, she had agency. She could make her own choices and people had to pay attention or get roasted or eaten alive. That is, of course, the prevailing theme of the series: women who lack agency, despite the intelligence and will to compete evenly with the men around them. But when she does achieve this agency, she uses the latter half of the finale to simply stand off to one side and smile knowingly at whatever Rhaenyra or others do to prepare for the coming war, almost like she could've predicted all of it because, well...

Now, you could say that part of the problem (which I've mentioned before) is that House revolves around one house (appropriately) and said house is made up of Targaryens who consider themselves to be above typical humans. Daemon certainly acts the part. In a way, it could be considered as the same problem that DC Comics has with its characters, who are superheroes first, humans second, in contrast to the far more successful and relatable Marvel heroes, who are almost always humans who just happen to be super-powered. When all you're writing about is demigods, it gets difficult to find ways for their very human readers to relate to what they're doing and how they act. But I'd argue that the Valyrians don't have to be presented as aliens among men and could, in fact, present a very human side that would not only make them into characters that people would find appealing (an Arya; a Tyrion; a Hound) but would also create genuinely interesting opportunities for the story. Aegon is the perfect example. Here's a man who is repelled by responsibility, is plagued by self-doubt, is an alcoholic, and is obviously depressed about all of that, but mostly about being dragged into the role of king. With all of this written plainly on his face, his doting mother hands the borderline suicidal king-in-waiting a dagger when they're riding to his coronation.

My immediate thought was: "Yeah, the best thing they could do here is have him wait until the crown he doesn't want is put on his head and then stand up, turn to the crowd, and slit his own throat with that pretty knife." Not only would that be his last attempt to show them his own agency and how much he's taking in order to not be forced into this thing that he fears and hates, but it would send all of their precious plans into a tailspin and force the writers to come up with a few more turns as to how they actually get to the big, impending conflict. Instead, what we got was the utterly unbelievable moment of the man who hates all the attention suddenly transforming into the king his family wants because he's given more attention by a cheering crowd. Wut? It will, of course, lead to the perfectly predictable situation of them having finally rid themselves of the king no one liked having on the throne (Viserys) because of how he wouldn't act kingly only to have yet another king no one likes because he's an alcoholic deviant who likes to watch kids claw each others' eyes out before screwing the victor. In other words, we'll just be in essentially the same situation we've been in for the first season where everyone plots behind the king's back because he either is incompetent or they assume that he is. Yawn.

Lighting up the table may have been the most exciting part of the whole episode

This is all so obvious that it's approaching tedium. I sat through a film last night (Ticket to Paradise) that was almost exactly the same: totally predictable; no character deviating from their assigned role in any way; boilerplate dialogue; and an ending that was almost too saccharine to be believed. House at least lacked the Hollywood ending, but it was still something that anyone could've seen coming from the opening credits: child dies, mother gets angry, war is initiated. There's nothing interesting here, except for a few moments of Matt Smith having to be the lone emotional outlier. The writers decided to capitalize on that for the almost baffling choking scene, which the showrunners later declared was the way they reminded the audience that Daemon was dangerous. I've reminded five-year-olds that coin flips are random, too. It's every bit as exciting.

Monday, October 24, 2022

The misunderstanding of subtlety in storytelling

Adaptations are difficult. Whenever you're translating something from its original medium to another one, you're going to lose something of it. That's why the achievement of Game of Thrones' first five seasons isn't to be overlooked, as they largely nailed the books that were intended to be "unfilmable" by their author. Sure, there were some technical issues, but the story usually came across just as it had been depicted on the page. That's a rare thing. It's even more difficult when you're trying to adapt something huge, like J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-Earth, and all of the little details that come with it. It's even more difficult when you're legally forbidden from telling the whole story that you'd like to present, as with Rings of Power, given the apparent greed of the estate that holds the rights. The other problem with adaptations is the vision of the producers/showrunners. Again, GoT comes out ahead here because Benioff and Weiss wanted to tell that story and so they did until the last couple seasons when they obviously just wanted to stop telling that story or were incapable of doing so without the guiding hand of George R. R. Martin. But it's often because people think they have a better take on said story that drives things off the rails. They're not beholden to the desires of lifelong fans of the material. They're not beholden to the history of the material. In many ways, they seem to lack respect for the material itself. They think they know better and can do it better than anyone has before. Kevin Smith has a brilliant story about this in regards to doing a Superman film. (It's perhaps the only brilliant thing Smith has done in the past 25 years...) And this may be part of the problem with the way that RoP's season ended.

Part of the marketing of the series was the Keyser Söze hook. All through the season, we were presented with little drops on various media outlets asking: "Who is Sauron?" That way, we were supposed to keep watching to see the big reveal of the Ultimate Bad Guy of the Second and Third ages. It wasn't sufficient for him to be the background malevolent force that Tolkien had created. The showrunners knew that he had come in disguise to the elves as Annatar and, just as the title states, taught them the craft of ring-making, so one of the conceits of the first season was figuring out who was going to be Annatar and how Sauron had managed to insinuate himself among our heroes. Except that there's a way to make a reveal that really works and then there's a way to just cheaply slip it in there so that some people can smack themselves on the forehead in awe while most people will just shrug their shoulders at the innocuous nature of it all. Turning a key story element into a publicity stunt is generally not the best way to approach these things if, again, respect for the material is actually part of your approach. So, yeah, spoilers to follow immediately.

Halbrand, nominal "king of the Southlands" showed up quite early in the series and actually was the most interesting of the lead characters for a while. In fact, the earliest clue to his true identity was shown on Númenor, when he demonstrated skill as a smith and a desire to join a guild. It was also an indication of his later desire to be present on the island to lead its already wayward people astray. This is where the writers think they're being subtle. "See? He's king of the Southlands aka Mordor... because he really does become king of Mordor later! See? See?" And, sure, that's all well and good if your story was written with the idea of pulling off the "big reveal." But if it was written to actually tell the tale of the Second Age, you've basically warped everyone's perception of both characters and key events in order to pull off your "big reveal." Tolkien doesn't go into extensive details (for once), but the impression he gives about the rings' creation is that Annatar remained with Celebrimbor and the elves for some time. He became familiar to them and taught the former how to craft the most important items since the Silmarils (which Amazon is contractually forbidden from using in their story.) In this case, all he does is inform an accomplished smith about the concept of alloys, as if somehow all of the metalwork in Lindon, from delicate chains to massive structures, has been done with nothing but raw iron and gold. You see how absurd this is becoming in order to pile everything about their relationship and still do the "big reveal" into a single episode?

But this is just part and parcel of how they've handled the character from the beginning. Halbrand was introduced to us floating on a raft in the middle of the Sundering Sea so that he could link up with Galadriel to do... what? Play a mind game? Learn something he somehow didn't know about her dogged pursuit of him for how many decades? Sauron is a Maia, which is the equivalent of an archangel or thereabouts in Tolkien's mythology. The Valar are one step below the creator god and the Maia are one step below the Valar. They're enormously powerful beings but this one, the greatest servant of the Valar, Morgoth, decided to float on a raft in the middle of the ocean so that his sworn opponent could have a moment of shock a couple months later? Eh? The grand scheme of Sauron to forge the rings was so that he could assume control of the mortal races and be the master of Middle-Earth. In the original works, he began that scheme by going right to Lindon and working with the foremost smith of his greatest enemies, the elves, not by traipsing around with one of them whom had never held a hammer and a bunch of humans with no connection to what he was doing. (Yet...) But, somehow, warping the story and the main villain in it to create the "big reveal" was more important than presenting the original material as it had been told.

Now, granted, adaptations are hard, right? How thrilling would it have been to keep checking back in on Celebrimbor (Charles Edwards as one of the more wooden players of a real forest of them, by the end) and his new pal, Annatar, as they figured out how to make some real bling? But that's part of the challenge of adaptation of the actual story. We went wandering off with the Harfoot so we could have hobbits and bring in one of the Istari a couple thousand years too early ("It's Radagast the Brown because he's always wearing a brown cloak? See? See?"), so we've already ventured pretty far afield from what the appendices talk about as the important events of the age. On the one hand, that could be an argument for the pseudo-character that was Halbrand. But it's also a counter-argument in favor of having some of the story stick to the original, while you get to wander around and do other cool things off the beaten path, as it were. Now one of the key elements of the entire premise of the series is reduced to a detail that takes place in a couple hours where some guy tells an immortal elf smith about the tenets of metallurgy. Thus are the master plans of an equally immortal demigod put into motion...

The key to Tolkien is the majesty and the lore. That's always been the essential hook of the story. Taken at face value, the One Ring is an invisibility trinket and that's probably what it was when Tolkien first wrote about it in The Hobbit.  But as he expanded upon what he'd created, he realized that it could be so much more than just a minor MacGuffin to get Bilbo out of a tricky spot. It was a thing of power because people believed that it was a thing of power, just like Tolkien's dear Catholicism. If Sauron is just some guy twirling a mustache in disguise, then he and the story lose a lot of the majesty that was built around them by the author and which has only been enhanced by decades of readers and fervent fans. If you want to get really nerdy about it, it's ridiculous that even Sauron's servants, from regular humans to the white-robed devotees of Morgoth, refer to him as "Sauron", which was a name given to him by the elves as an insult; a play on his actual name Mairon, "the admired", whereas Sauron means "the abhorred." But I can understand when you want to keep the casual viewers or casual fans of Middle-Earth hooked without having to explain to them that "the Great Enemy" or some other euphemism is "Sauron, the flaming eye dude" every other episode. But the commonplace use of a name that was only spoken in hushed tones in Peter Jackson's films and in the books demeans it to some degree and reduces the character to... a cheap disguise that was only used to pull off a marketing stunt. So, maybe that was the plan all along by the people who really didn't respect the material?

I don't know. One thing I do know is that, like GoT, Rings has diminished as it has gone along. When it began, it was visually resplendent and at least interesting to follow in a dramatic sense, as we got to see Middle-Earth in a very different state. But it ended with a cheap marketing trick and the polar opposite of what Tolkien's work has always been presented as: majestic. Does season 2 even have a draw at this point? Not from where I'm sitting.