Film and Television

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It surprises me to look back on my last post, my joyful boasting about my favorite new appliance and my wishful thinking of summer soon to come, and to find that among my list of most looked forward to items I did not list Mad Men.  I have a shameful confession to make: I forgot!

I could pine away with mournful excuses, but instead I’ll simply say that I’m human. Perhaps like Don Draper, who is super humanly human. Fortunately it was all over Facebook and everything else, so I set it up to record along with everything else.

And wow, what to say.  I’ve long enjoyed reading the A.V. Club’s write-ups of the shows I keep up with. Their write-up of the Mad Men opener is a bit broken up, as it apparently was based upon a preview reel and then expanded, but it offers some food for thought. Of course you don’t have to stop there.  Write-ups and reviews of shows abound on the internet these days. You can’t throw a rock without hitting a TV blogger on some parts of the internet anymore.

the Inferno

An accurate representation of how I myself read important Italian poets on the beach… but with less cool voice overs.

There are, it seems, two interesting recurring themes this episode:  the opening lines of Dante’s Inferno, which goes, “Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray from the straight road and awoke to find myself alone in a dark wood….”  Despite my deep and abiding love of Italians (and especially Italian women), I’ve never read Dante, so I don’t have much insight except to wonder if quoting from Inferno is perhaps a little heavy handed.  And if Mad Men started off in season one with a man (Don Draper) straying from life’s path midway… well then where the hell are we now?  He strayed back onto the “right” path for some time, and then of course right back off of it… and we’re still only midway?  Life is not like a commercial it seems:  it’s fucking long, and we’re back where we started.

Kinda.

I like the point that I read (and I forget where) that certain characters have morphed into each other.  Pete into Don.  Peggy (also) into Don.  Don into Roger.  Roger into Burt.  They even added in an obsequious new character (played by James Wolk), and I’m guessing he’s going to morph into Harry Crane… because, hey fuck it.

The other theme that kept coming up was Chopin.  Particularly this piece. I’m not the biggest classical music nerd in the world, but I do enjoy some Chopin. (And if you are a non-initiate then I’d point you to the succinct and wonderful Pianist soundtrack for a nice sampling.)

So there are clearly some heavy meditations upon death… though I would suggest that really it’s much more about happiness.  Success, status, beauty.  They make us happy until they don’t.  That really has been Matt Weiner’s milieu through this whole show, and goddamn is he good at it.  The start to this season seems no different.  The AV Club’s write-up kept suggesting that the show started by meditating and confronting its own past.  That doesn’t seem unreasonable to me.

But I wonder of what’s to come.  I love the last season, with it’s disjointed plots and themes… episodes that focused solely on single characters.  We’ve got less than two seasons left to go, and I wonder where Matt Weiner and company are taking us. I don’t expect this season to play out like last season, but I sure hope it doesn’t echo too much of other seasons past.

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Generally speaking, I’m a fan of routines.  Regular, predictable events and actions that string days together easily and seamlessly.  They empower the imagination in an inverse sort of way: I can easily imagine, for example, what my next Monday will look like.

Perhaps that thought is a little disturbing: the looming specter of the Monday next.  But really, it’s only a negative if your days are negative.  Do your days routinely suck?  Then maybe you should make some changes.  Most of my days are good, or at the least, they definitely aren’t bad.  So I’ve few complaints.

That imagined visage of a comfortable, routine day is seldom as warm as when displaced.  I get this when I go on long vacations.  At a certain point I get homesick and long to return.  And I’ve felt a little bit of that in a strange way lately.  Moving, house shopping, packing, unpacking, and constantly working on the house have me so displaced from my usual self that I’ve been longing for some normality.  I can’t stand living out of boxes.  The other night, as I was crashing, I felt an aching desire to thumb through one of my books before I fell asleep, but the book was buried in any one of a dozen boxes.  What is the point of owning books if you don’t return to them on occasion to remember their treasures?

Still, though, I’ve managed to weird myself out a little.  One habit that I never wanted to become a habit is television.  If there’s one form of background noise that I positively can’t stand it’s television.  Whenever I’m at a parent’s house, the television is incessantly blaring.  At my father’s it’s always on in the background.  At my mother’s, she and her husband are interminably glued to it.  Either way, I hate it.  I never wanted to be a “tv person.”

But one of the most annoying things about my move was that I got behind on my shows.  “My shows” see there I said it.  I’m deliberate about what I watch, and I always DVR it so that I  can skip the commercials.  But still.  I feel that I’ve become a shade of my parents in this way.

Now this isn’t a new concern of mine, but what surprised me about the temporary interruption was the realization of how important these shows are to my relaxation.  I mean, they’ve really become my decompression routine.  When I get home from an eleven hour day at the office (or even a nine hour day), I queue up one of my shows and chill out.

Partly this is good.  I’m glad I’ve found an outlet.  But at the same time, I don’t like the feeling that television is necessary.  I’d like to think that I could cancel my cable subscription at any time and with few regrets.

So this is a goal for me to work on this summer.  I want some new routines.  Routines that feel a little more active.  It’s going to be tough.  Trueblood just started back up, as did Top Chef, and Louis CK’s new show starts soon.  Oh, and did we mention Entourage?  Oh and MadMen will be here before you know it.

You see what I mean?  You see!  It’s an endless spiral.

I’m hoping to get some major unpacking done this week, and once those things are settled, we need to focus on some new routines.  Even if they’re old ones revived.

Oh, but I am still planning a fitting Treme wrap-up post here.  Both Treme and the Tudors just wrapped up.  All I really have to say about the Tudors is “Henry VIII with a conscience” sounds more like a thought experiment than basis for a tv show, but the writers made it work.  Recommended.

Treme, now.  I’ve been thinking about Treme.  And you should be watching it.  I feel guilty even calling what David Simon does “tv” anymore.  It’s just so damned good.

But more on that later.

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So, I should say first, that you should probably go see it.  It’s pretty.  Tim Burton is good at pretty things.  But I hated it.  And that’s what I keep telling people when it comes up.  Hated it.

The movie delights the visual senses in every frame.  Even in the film’s beginning, before we descend into Underland, as they call it.  It’s amazing.  Every fabric begs to be stroked, each flower begs to be smelled, each ray of light begs one to pierce the veil and step onto the screen.  There were so many frames where I wish I could have paused the film to soak it all in.  The rich synthesis of color and imagery is truly one of Burton’s best.  The film is sexy.

And the cast:  bravo!  It really was cast perfectly.  Depp’s Hatter enchants, Bonham Carter’s Red Queen enthralls, and who wouldn’t want to follow Mia Wasikowska into the rabbit hole?  Even the voice acting was spot on.  I was expecting a little more from Alan Rickman, to be honest, but it could have just been that all his lines sucked.  And I want to be clear that playing these characters was no easy feat.  Consider Bonham Carter’s Red Queen.  Who doesn’t remember the queen from the Disney classic, with her her grim, absolute sentencing:  “Off with her head!”  Bonham Carter did not attempt to out-bellow the classic character that we all know.  Her performance was more subdued and emphasized the queen’s puerile brattishness.

So we had a lot of good things on the table.

But the story… oh the filthy story.  Looking back over Tim Burton’s films, I realize that storytelling was never his strongest suit.  His best films follow an earlier work, be it play or novel, as closely as they can.  I think that Sleepy Hollow compares with Alice best.  It’s been awhile since I’ve seen it, but I remember the scenario being similar:  amazing cast, amazing visuals, complete afterthought of a story.

But this story is one I hold rather dear.  The fact is very simple:  The last thing Alice in Wonderland ever needed was a plot.  In fact, its lack of plot is if not part of the point, then at least tangential to it.  Carroll’s classic was an episodic narrative game.  Its puzzles and logical inversions engage the reader, just as they engage the book’s hapless protagonist.  While some puzzles have solutions, and some are clearly playful parodies of cultural realities, so many of them are simply beautiful nonsense.  Attempting to corral these episodes and sew them into a good old fashioned three act structure is a vulgar insult to one of the few books in history that has always, since its inception, been in print.

The only saving grace that I can find with the film is that Burton loves his Alice just as much as Carroll loved his.  This, I think, is the one thing that makes me hesitate from condemning the movie as outright shit.  (I think a lot of people will like the movie.)  And while, I’m fine with Tim Burton bringing his very own, very special Alice back into this world, I can’t help but feel that it’s our Wonderland.  A grown up Alice lost in the strange, beautiful, and utterly non-sequitur Wonderland might make an interesting film indeed.

But Burton instead brought us into an echo of that familiar world.  And while it might have sprung to life as a most beautiful verisimilitude, it is as hollow as the bluescreen that most of the damn thing was filmed on.

Like I said, you should probably go see it.  But seriously:  fuck that movie.  I hated it.

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Gonna try and make some more posts later, but thought I would upload this now.

Here is a whole heeping load of Lost theorycraft.  Lots of neat ideas that I haven’t considered.  Then again, I’m not getting paid by a magazine to sit around and research possible relevant mythology.

A couple of this guy’s ideas, though, are pretty interesting.  What if Jacob was searching for a candidate to replace Smokey?  Interesting.  What if Dogen knew that Smokey can’t harm the candidates and vice versa when he sent Sayid after him (or even the suggestion of this idea to begin with)?  Very interesting.  It goes on.

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I seriously cannot wait for Lost to start tonight.  I’m used to catching up on it on DVD, which means that I’ve digested each season whole hog.  I’m somewhat trepedatious about watching it one episode per week.  Once I get into a season of Lost, I become a total junky for it.  And man did I love last season.

Here is a link that I randomly found providing a select list of books that appear in the show.  I’ve read stuff by most of these authors, but none of these specifically (I think I tried to read Valis once, ug…).  Maybe I’ll read through some of these to hold me over between weekly episodes.

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I didn’t realize that Sanjuro meant “thirtysomething”.  That’s probably because the last time that I watched Yojimbo I wasn’t a thirtysomething, or maybe I was only thirty.  It’s been a little while.

I had some time off today, convalescing, and I realized while lounging magnificently on the couch that there are a number of Criterion Collection movies on my Netflix Instant.  The morning was spent learning that old French movies make no sense.  But the afternoon was for an old favorite:  Yojimbo.

(I feel somewhat compelled to point out the irony that while I own this on DVD, it takes Netflix to get me to watch it.  Go figure…)

There’s really not enough that can be said about this film.  Kurosawa and Mifune’s movie of a taciturn ronin turned vigilante stands the test of time with each viewing.  I could spend pages writing about Mifune’s brilliant acting or Kurusawa’s artful eye, but watching the film today I was caught up in the aspects of the film’s vigilanteism.

The two most telling characters in the film are the coffin maker and the innkeeper.  One profits from the town’s violence (the coffin maker), while the other loses.  Sanjuro allies himself with the innkeeper, but at first the innkeeper wants nothing to do with him.  Violence begets violence and all that.  The tipping point comes when Sanjuro rescues the young couple from the grips of one of the crime lords, winning the innkeeper’s undying respect.

And this is what gets me.  Neither of the neutral parties have a vested interest in the town being razed.   “This many bodies, they don’t bother with coffins,” the coffin maker moans (more or less).  And yet the innkeeper gets behind it.  He has lost his business’s livelihood as well (at least for now), but Sanjuro is a hero to him.

This I love.  This infatuation with vigilanteism.  It could easily be said that this theme that I’m riffing on is of justice, but I think the subtext is a little more subtle than that (and sublime!).

It just seems such an American infatuation to me, so I guess it strikes me so much seeing it in a foreign film.  And not just seeing it, but seeing an archetype born so full, beautiful, and fully formed.  (This film will always be remade, and yet the original will always stand.)

When I saw Michael C Hall, of Dexter fame, in San Diego last summer, he told this little anecdote that went like this:

“So we recently sold Dexter in about a dozen countries, and so I’ve been trekking across Europe for the last several months promoting it.  And there’s this thing that I noticed.  I tell people that the show is about a serial killer.  And people kind of say, ‘Oh…’  But then I say that, well he’s a serial killer that only kills other killers.  And Americans always respond with, ‘Oh, okay.  Alright.’  But in Europe they just kind of look at me and say, ‘…yeah, but he’s still killing people.'”

It makes me wonder, I guess.  Are the Japanese as infatuated with this as we are?  I’m a little behind on my Japanese and Asian cinema these days, so I’m not really sure.

I think what’s so remarkable about the character of the innkeeper is how his attitude so captures the inevitable attitude of the audience.  Yes destruction has been wrought, but justice has been done and those who have paid have been the deserving.  What I think nails it is Mifune’s performance.  He never really seems entirely approving of his actions.  His hand almost seems forced, as if there is a duty to be done and he simply has been chosen to carry it out.  I could remind viewers of Mifune’s introduction in the film:  a wandering ronin at a crossroads casts a stick into the air, following in whatever direction it lands.  Sanjuro is but a fatalistic instrument.  The wily innkeeper, though, he gets to throw up the thumbs up or thumbs down.  It would be a completely different film without him.

Anyway.

That’s enough film critique for now.  I am now convinced that as a “thirtysomething” I should adopt Sanjuro as an occasional nickname.  Perhaps if I run into any wily innkeepers they will give me a discounted rate out of deference to such a great film.

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