Archive for September, 2009

Mad Men 3.7, Seven Twenty Three

I never posted about episode six, because I didn’t really have anything to say about its grand guignol stylings. Just in case anyone forgot that this show comes from the Sopranos stable of writers . . .

In this episode: Don lands Hilton, forcing him to finally sign a contract at Sterling Cooper; Betty buys new furniture, helps the Junior League’s conservation efforts, and reconnects with Henry Francis; Peggy, after receiving a brutal tongue lashing from Don, rejects Duck’s business advances but not his romantic ones.

This week the show is back to being economical. As the brief recap above suggests, we’re only really following three characters in this episode, and the editing highlights this by giving us glances at each character as they’ll appear in a later part of the episode. Don, Betty, and Peggy each push at their boundaries, only to have those boundaries assert themselves forcefully. What follows is some off-kilter, self-destructive behavior by each of the leads. Mad Men has always played on the gap between our fantasies of freedom, power, and success (which advertising props up) and humdrum conformity; never has it been so insistent on the dominance of the latter. Historically minded prognosticators anxiously await the changes of the sixties to show up in the characters, but I’m beginning to think they won’t make it, none of them.

Don takes Dick Whitman out for one last spin, after facing pressure from both work and home about that contract, but bringing back Dick means bringing back the Whitman family’s toxic influence, and Don gets grifted by some hitchhikers.

Betty finds a reason to get back in contact with Henry Francis, the man who lustfully touched her pregnant belly a few episodes back, but decorum and the town’s watchful eyes prevent anything else from occurring. Instead of vaulting ahead into liberation, Betty goes backward in time by purchasing a victorian-style fainting couch. While this piece of furniture invites her to indulge her fantasies, it also ruins her living room for social events–do you think she’ll ever have the Junior League over again? If her decorator is right about the hearth (she says people gather around one even if there isn’t a fire), placing a piece of furniture in front of it seems like a turn inward.

Lastly, Peggy pursues the rumored Hilton contract, but runs into Don at a bad time. His blunt enforcement of the glass ceiling sends her into the waiting Duck’s arms. She’s still not ready to accept the offer to join Grey’s, but she ends up sleeping with the decidedly older man who can be so direct about his desire. Maybe this will prove to be a good thing, what with Duck being more mature and capable in the bedroom, but it could easily turn into a professional disaster. Plus, I mean, it’s Duck. ewwww. He’s still not drinking, but he says he loves the taste of liquor on Peggy’s breath. Ick.

Unless something drastic happens in the next few episodes, this seems like an Endgame of sorts. When a humbled Don is finally coerced into signing a contract, it becomes hard to imagine we’ll get the imaginative exits and the appealing glimpses Dick Whitman provided. But, for now, it’s a real pleasure to watch Don squirm, and to see nearly every character–Bert, Suzanne, the grifters, Betty–call Don out on being just like everybody else, a man living in quiet desperation.

A Terrible Pun about HBO’s Bored to Death which ultimately says more about me than it does the show

New York. Jason Schwartzman. Jonathan Ames. Detective Fiction. Young Marble Giants. I love all of these things. How, then, am I supposed to objectively assess Bored to Death (HBO, Sundays at 9:30), which combines all of them? Continue reading ‘A Terrible Pun about HBO’s Bored to Death which ultimately says more about me than it does the show’

Fringe 2.1, “A New Day in the Old Town”

In this episode: Olivia returns from WTC, but she’s missing her memory of the event; a clone assassin puts Olivia in the hospital; agent Amy Jessup stumbles onto Fringe division; Broyles defends Fringe in congressional hearings; Walter makes custard; we say goodbye to Charlie, at least for now.

For science fiction, Fringe sure feels real to me. Even though it’s a show about weird, fantastic phenomena, Fringe flavors that stuff for our current cultural moment.  Bioterrorism, bad drugs, animal experimentation, super-soldiers? These things all scare me in real life! A massive corporation with shadowy aims? We’ve got plenty of those, too. Instead of injecting strangeness into our humdrum world, Fringe finds the strangeness within and amplifies it.

Even the central premise of the show–that a slightly more sophisticated parallel universe exists, aiming to prey upon our own–reminds me of contemporary mediated life. I spend most of my time in front of fiction: reading novels and comics, watching tv, or putting in a movie. The weight of these fantasy worlds weighs upon my sense of reality. I’m seduced and threatened by these images. Sometimes it feels like the fantasy world is at war with mundane reality, and I’m in danger of giving myself over completely to it. Ostensibly, Fringe is about science run amok, but it’s also about our fantasies taking control and becoming flesh.

So part of the thrill of the show is that, despite becoming more familiar with the threat, our characters also seem to be succumbing to it. This week a soldier from that parallel universe, who (with the help of a device) can shape its body into the forms of its victims, attempts to kill Agent Dunham. It fails, but claims and replaces Charlie in the process. But Charlie’s not the only victim. All of our characters have been warped by their encounters with fringe science. Olivia has had her brain tampered with, numerous times, in a quest to develop a warring faction to the invaders. Walter’s experiments from decades earlier have created an addled man; his questionable moral choices from that period continue to haunt him. Broyles has gotten in bed (literally) with Nina Sharp, head of Massive Dynamic, a persistent source of their case files. Lastly, Peter and Broyles collaborate to save the Fringe division by giving up the cloning tech to the military, in effect putting our world on a similarly dubious path.

Stuff I couldn’t mold into coherence:

  • This episode throws in a few more scraps about the organization attacking our heroes. The clone soldier communicates with his superiors using a typewriter and a carefully positioned mirror. We understand that these communication hubs have been set up all over the place, but that they’re infrequently used.
  • Agent Amy Jessup mainly served to introduce new viewers to the way the show works, but Fringe is clearly not done with her yet. She seems like an intensive reader (Shakespeare and The Bible), which is already proving valuable. I’m kind of surprised I didn’t think of Revelation before her discovery of . . .well, let’s call it the new Pattern. But I doubt she’s long for this world.
  • Charlie’s gone . . . for now. Not only do we have the prospect of this clone Charlie wreaking havoc, but actor Kirk Acevedo can also return as the Charlie from another dimension.
  • What are we supposed to make of the enemy’s consistent repurposing of warehouses, storage units, and other industrial detritus?
  • Once again the show effortlessly shuttles between Boston and New York. This is the first tv show whose setting could accurately be described as “the megalopolis”.
  • I loved it when a member of the congressional committee referred to the Fringe Division’s “old X-designation”

Make ‘Em Laugh: Bulges, Babies, and Bastards

When we last left Parks and Recreation (8:30, NBC), it was a promising but struggling comedy. Now it’s a powerhouse–probably the funniest thing I saw tonight, and the most daring. This week Leslie Knope holds a marriage ceremony for two penguins at the Pawnee Zoo–two gay penguins. If Knope is bemused and seduced by the support she’s developed in Pawnee’s burgeoning gay community, she’s perplexed by the rage it’s provoked amongst wingnuts. Both sides of the argument come off as “wacky”–but while the gays holding “Knope” signs appear harmless and naive, the conservatives manifest as malicious and aloof. Leslie’s decision to move the penguins to Iowa, where gay marriage is legal, pains me. At first glance this seemed like the show was washing its hands of the issue. That may still be the case, but Leslie’s decision deepens the central tragedy of her character. She’s a caring person who lacks common sense, eloquence, and could stand to grow a backbone as well.

The Office returned tonight with an episode that could probably match any other for awkwardness. Michael feels left out of the office gossip. When he finally discovers some fresh information (that Stanley’s having an affair), he gleefully spreads it around the office without concern for the consequences. When Jim brings Michael to his senses, Michael begins to spread false rumors in an effort to invalidate all of them. Of course, some of his false rumors turn out to be true, while others cause characters to reconsider their life choices. Pam really is having a baby, she admits, and Andy begins to wonder if he is gay. We’ve spent a lot of time with these characters, so this episode served as a nice reminder that we don’t really know them that well. I would never have picked Stanley as the cheating sort, but I can’t exactly say that it’s unlike him or out of character, either. All I know about Stanley is that he likes his crossword and he likes free pretzel day. This episode also made me think, for the first time in a while, about the cameramen and the documentary they’re creating. Even if Michael had succeeded in covering up Stanley’s affair, the information was still recorded. While I’m not sure The Office is ever going to address its central conceit again, the documentary frame is always there, bursting with suggestion.

I’m not sold on Community yet, and I think it offered the least amount of pure humor. But then, it had the most stage business to get through, introducing eight characters and setting up their motivations and weaknesses. Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) is a lawyer caught practising without a degree–his college degree. So he’s forced to enroll at Greendale Community College with a motley crew of fellow fuckups. When Jeff gets the hots for Britta (Gillian Jacobs), a fellow Spanish student, he forms a study group. There’s a lot of plusses here. McHale knows his way around a line, Jacobs makes me a little weak in the knees, the cast is refreshingly multicultural, and the setting is worthy of tackling. Unlike Glee, another bouyant comedy, I’m not at all worried about losing track of some of the cast here. One caveat–what will they do at the end of the semester? What will they do when characters  should be earning their degrees?

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is probably the most inventive comedy currently on the air. They’ve got an excess of ideas delivered in rapid-fire manner. Sometimes the plot elements collapse, but the results are occasionally sublime. Tonight’s episode was particularly anticonfluential. Frank’s plan to capitalize on the troubled housing market never really went anywhere interesting, and Dee seems unusually out-of-touch while trying to be a surrogate mother. As usual, Charlie comes to the comedy rescue, sputtering and muttering all the way. His attempts to grapple with a lawyer are bravura performances. With so many ideas, though, we don’t get to see some scenes we’d probably enjoy. Don’t you want to see Charlie fight a duel?

AAP, Pt. 5

p. 33–sixteen ways of looking at an apple. In one sense, these apples help explain Asterios’ orderly aesthetic. There may be many ways of looking at an apple (many more than he would probably entertain) but its the grid that’s important to Asterios Polyp–it allows him to sort and classify them, fulfilling one of the modern world’s central imperatives.

Let’s not forget about what’s being depicted here, either. Sure, Apples are probably the most common still-life subjects, but they’re also biblical symbols of knowledge–particularly the kind of self-knowledge which leads to shame.

p. 34 “What if reality (as perceived) were simply an extension of the self? Wouldn’t that color the way each individual experiences the world?” The key word is color, as in the color schemes that dominate the book, and allow us to sift through and Organize the perceptions of the main characters.

This page depicts students walking through Cornell’s campus, each rendered in a different style. Counting the dog, there’s fifteen figures here–making Asterios Polyp the unnamed sixteenth?

The original question, about perception of reality merely being an extension of self, is a familiar strand of western philosophy. Begin with a discrete individual, then build a world around that individual’s perceptions. While many traditional philosophers concern themselves with determining what’s really real, what’s “out there” and can be confirmed outside of perception, the question posed here isn’t concerned with the nature of reality–it’s concerned with the nature of communication.

Modernism and postmodernism did their part to undermine the assumption that we begin with an individual. Sociology and Anthropology argue for the social construction of reality–what happens, and our perceptions of it, are shaped by mutually agreed upon, constantly shifting rules. Simultaneously, art began to buck some of those agreed-upon rules with some force, overthrowing the kinds of styles that we normally thought of as mimetic, and putting the goal of mimesis in jeopardy. Meanwhile, students of language and culture argued that the mean we assign to certain words and symbols is arbitrary–culture is refracted through difference.

Those intellectual events precipitated a global identity crisis. How do we define ourselves, and what do race, gender, nationality, sexuality, dress, class, age, and fitness say about ourselves to others? Take a look at these images: are we a bundle of nerves, our profiles, our musculature, our fashion choices? More to Ignazio’s point, how can we hope to avoid loneliness when we lose sight of common ground?

p. 35 Mazzucchelli makes this intellectual lineage more explicit with his examples here. Three humans whose features are delineated with heavy linework are able to strike up a conversation; two forelorn figures, whose bodies blend in with their surroundings, collapse in their chairs; two women if different backgrounds find common ground (visually represented with the blue floor) by using words that have gone beyond their origins to stand for “hello” everywhere.

p. 36 Asterios strides like a colossus above his students, composed almost entirely of cylindrical forms–note that his head, however, is still a narrow hatchet. You can tell he’s a forceful teacher–he’s converted half of the class to his way of seeing things. Of course, remember that what we’re seeing as (at least in good part) Asterio’s perception of how other people perceive themselves–the truth is more complicated.

p. 37 Six panels of Asterios dressing down his students in studio. In these examples he proves to be blunt and vulgar, although he does manage to get his point across. His manner of speaking is not a mere stylish affectation; as he tells one student, “anything that’s not functional becomes decorative.”

All six panels link together to provide a bird’s-eye view of the studio, a practice nicked from cartoonists like Frank King. This choice draws my attention to the cubicle walls and imbues the static scene with the illusion of movement and passage of time.

p. 38 Asterios is drinking a Bushmiller, a nod to the cartoonist who created Nancy. Lotta’s nickname for Asterio, ” ‘Sterio,” draws us back into his obsession with duality (stereo).

p. 39 Asterio is propositioned by a student, appearing in a deep pink. We get a cut scene in which Asterio becomes Odysseus, tied to the mast. Having been warned of the sirens, Odysseus instructed his men to stuff their ears to avoid falling into their grasp. He, however, kept his ears open so he could experience their song without falling prey.

Whether he’s actually sleeping with these students is a little up for grabs–I’m thinking no, even though the trope of the womanizing professor is certainly in play. As he slips into their control, the panels slip away from his construction of reality: the borders collapse, his rigid speech balloons go wobbly, and the background warms and warps. What’s more important is that we come to see his relationships with other women as a challenge and threat to his carefully refined perceptions of himself and the world. They’re sirens because they’re capable of assaulting his organized sense of place in the world. He listens because of his thirst of knowledge.

p. 40 Some more- and less- fantastical images of Asterios sleeping around. The contrast between the first and third panels is what makes me feel certain that he isn’t sleeping with these students, just entertaining their crushes. I feel certain the first panel is an homage to some artwork I haven’t yet located. In the lower left corner, we see Lotta dismissing Asterios’ bedroom efforts as “awright” while putting her combat boots back on, a “has-bian” no more.

p. 41 A preview of the coming drama with Hana–a panel split in half by their perceptual biases.

The Jay Leno Show-what did we learn?

The Jay Leno Show is one of the most compelling dramas on the fall schedule. It chronicles the attempted comeback of a successful talk show host (Jay Leno, playing a fictional version of himself). But the stakes are higher than they were in late night–he’ll have to appeal to a younger audience and rejigger the talk show format. He promises the ratings won’t sink in the second half hour, which would be fatal to late night news across the country. Will he succeed? Will his show be competitive with the other networks’ reruns? NBC executives may be asking themselves the same thing about this show. In a move possibly inspired by HBO’s In TreatmentThe Jay Leno Show will air five nights a week. But will viewers get behind such a heavily serialized show, one that requires them to hang on its lead actor’s every nuance?

Despite the slightly derivative premise, the first episode holds some promise. Leno does not get off to a good start. Our protagonist struggles through his monologue and farms out early segments to outside talent. Instead of boasting new, fresh ideas, his Leno show appears to be a carbon copy of his old Tonight Show. He steals mercilessly from other comics, other shows: his first joke rips off Letterman’s first at his CBS Late Show, his “talk” with President Obama is an awkwardly unfunny version of what we’ve seen from so many other shows. He makes many self-deprecating jokes about the show’s steep odds for success, which only make him appear more desperate. His first guest, a fellow comedian who made drastically different life choices (played with gravitas by Jerry Seinfeld), jokes about undermining Jay with a 9 pm talk show, and compares him to Lance Armstrong and Brett Favre (men who let their need for attention overwhelm their careers and destroy their dignity).

But then Leno turns out to be right about something, pretty much by accident. Leno lucks into a buzzworthy guest–none other than Kanye West (played by, of course, Kanye West). West gives a riveting cameo performance as a childlike artist who’s made a very public mistake, yet doesn’t know how to express contrition. Leno imbues his character with significant complexity and heft by twisting the knife, asking West what his dead mother would think of his recent behavior. In a clever twist, this embarrassing moment mirrors the embarrassment West delivered to singer Taylor Swift the night before at an award show. For a brief moment, the show’s promise is fulfilled.

And then Jay proceeds to read typographical errors on tv, for minutes on end, sinking once more into the morass.

Like Don Draper or Tony Soprano, Jay Leno is dynamic character who harbors secret passions and burning ambitions under a false exterior, and must constantly battle his demons in order to survive. But the demons ask, can he survive without them? With a rotating cast of supporting characters, The Jay Leno show will always have plenty of material. But will it be able to transcend its repetitive premise?

Gossip Girl 3.1, “Reversals of Fortune”

In this episode: Serena swings back into town, daddy issues intact; Blair & Chuck play games to spice up their relationship, just like an old married couple; Dan’s uncomfortable telling Vanessa about how awesome being rich is; Vanessa’s new beau has a secret birth certificate and a burning desire . . . to meet Rufus; Nate starts seeing Brie Buckley–but will this relationship end up hurting her?

Gossip Girl, how I’ve missed you! Things got a little shaky in the middle of last season, but you’re back, and I’m back, and I need you. I’ve never been more envious of your setting and the lifestyle you depict. I love your 6-Act episode structure–it’s like getting a whole episode of plot, and then a bonus section. I love your naked display of wealth. I love your commercials for fixing “inadequate or not enough lashes.” And I love Serena Van der Woodsen, a character who’s of our time, but is also worthy of Antonioni. It’s not just that Blake Lively resembles Monica Vitti, star of L’Avventura and L’Eclisse. Her character also displays the same weariness of the modern world, and embarks on similar searches for meaning. Am I reaching here? Okay, I am reaching, but you should try it–it’s fun.

On this more than maybe any other show, the status quo is the enemy. This war against the status quo creates interesting tugs between and within the multiple generations depicted on the show. Before we can even be introduced to the new order of things, we’re seeing it undermined. Lily and Rufus have combined their families, but Lily’s still away, Dan’s still protective of Serena in a way that doesn’t quite feel brotherly, and Serena is being pulled in multiple directions. Plus, their family is not quite complete . . . yet. Blair and Chuck are together, but they enjoy playing games that put their relationship in jeopardy–in Serena’s words, they’ve gone “from Jane Austen to Anais Nin.”  And Nate’s trying to navigate his way to adulthood, if his family will let him.

That said, tonight’s episode wasn’t quite firing on all cylinders. It contained little of the divine screwball communication breakdowns that mark the show’s high points. And I’m worried that Nate’s been banished to his own little island of plot. But marvel at how they handle the last two acts! In Act V we see false resolutions–Nate and Brie agree to a secret relationship, and Serena admits to Carter why she’s acting out–both sealed with kisses. This being Gossip Girl, there’s zero chance Nate and Brie will be able to keep this thing under wraps–the pleasure comes from finding out how. Nate’s grandfather gets the ball rolling, making an ominous phone call about damaging the Buckleys. Similarly, Carter is able to stabilize Serena, but we know that Dan and Blair both still think he’s bad news, and that Serena isn’t ready to give up on contacting her dad. Then we’re thrown a false complication–it seems like Chuck might be cheating on Blair for real.

Act VI quickly dispatches the false complication, and throws in some additional real problems. After one episode, there are several plot threads all up in the air, all promising to explode at some point. And we haven’t even started college yet!

Here’s the breakdown:

Will Serena finally reach her dear old dad? Will she continue to have a secret relationship with Carter? Can Dan adjust to his newfound wealth? How much of the Good Life will Rufus be able to stand? How and when will Jenny get her comeuppance? What’s Scott up to? How will Vanessa deal with his deception? How will Nate’s grandfather expose the secret relationship with Brie? Will Brie be able to fix things up with her family?

That’s a lot of plot to chew. Add these important meta-questions:

Will GG be able to continue toeing the line between displaying luxury and rubbing our faces in it during an extended recession? College is the graveyard for many a high-school-themed show–will GG be different? How will the show navigate the third-year bug of new writers and recycled plots?

Can one show balance all of this? I doubt it, but I want to find out.

Mad Men 3.5, “The Fog”

In this episode: Betty gives birth to a baby, but there are nightmarish complications; Don discusses failure and fatherhood with a prison guard; Sally acts up in school; Sally’s teacher calls Don; Duck hatches a scheme to bring Pete and Peggy over to Grey, an S-C rival; Pete’s idea for “integrated” advertising receives mostly negative reviews; Peggy asks for a raise.

Now that’s more like it.  “The Fog” is the most compelling episode we’ve seen this season.  Every once in a while, Mad Men achieves a liquid state of being that transforms the show’s building blocks into something ineffable and fascinating.  Would we tire of the show’s unceasing ambiguity and its on-the-nose dialogue without that dreamlike wonder?  I know I would.  Most of this episode exists in that liquid state, particularly the middle sequence in which we cut between Betty, doped up and hallucinating, and Don, waiting and ruminating.

You don’t need a dream dictionary to decipher Betty’s garden-variety imagination.  In one dream, she takes a caterpillar in her hand and crushes it; in the other, she finds her dad, mopping blood in her kitchen, as her mother tells her to keep her mouth shut, and dabs a bloody handkerchief on Medgar Evers’ head.

Now the crushed caterpillar is probably a premonition that Betty’s going to have trouble loving baby Eugene, but it also reminds me that Betty’s been in a state of chrysalis for two-and-a-half seasons now.  We keep expecting her to blossom into Friedanesque independence, but Betty has instead engaged in abortive strikes at freedom, such as her one-night stand at the end of last season.

The other dream connects women’s lib to the civil rights movement.  Before his death, Gene commented on Sally’s intelligence, indicating she could do “something else” with her life.  Now, after Gene’s death, Sally has been absorbed with the news coverage of the Evers murder.  Betty’s mother and father remind her to keep quiet and know her place, connecting Betty’s desire for something more with the death of Evers.

It’s not the symbolism that impresses–it’s the way these dreams begin to infect the surrounding bits and pieces of the show.  Conspiracy theorists have already launched the idea that Dennis Hobart, the man sitting with Don in the waiting room, is a figment of Don’s imagination.  I don’t think there’s much evidence of this, but I understand why people might feel that way. If it were an ordinary scene, Don’s interactions with Dennis Hobart, prison guard, would grate.  Every line is a cryptic references to Dick Whitman, Don’s promises to be a better husband, and his guilt over mistakes. But when they’re couched in this moment of surreality, where “time has stopped” according to Don’s watch, those ordinary observations suggest something else, that has yet to be said. It’s wonderful to watch Don slip in and out of personas when he speaks with complete strangers–the acting gift that keeps on giving.

Elsewhere, the logic of dreams is pervasive, crashing right up against reality. Duck magically reappears, drinking . . . coffee and wearing a turtleneck, offering jobs to Pete and Peggy at his new company, the more successful Grey’s.* Duck tells them both exactly what they want to hear about themselves–whoever said this guy was bad at advertising. Pete’s too offended, but Peggy gives the thought some serious consideration. Meanwhile, Pete, for the first time in a while, really loses himself in an idea. He pitches “integrated” advertising to Admiral TV, which responds negatively, leading to an S-C management beatdown. But Lane picks up on the worth of Pete’s ideas, and proposes pushing them elsewhere.

* again, the mood of those scenes with Betty has colored these interactions to such a degree that some wonder if Duck really does have a job there.

Some other observations

  • Loved the awkward conversation between Pete and Hollis, the black elevator operator. It echoes back to Don’s conversation with the black waiter in the very first episode of the series, and manages to illustrate the huge gap between Pete and Don, as well as the changing relationships between blacks and whites. Of course, Pete does display his ignorance of what’s going on in the country, but not his ignorance of Hollis, who he does correctly ID as a baseball fan.
  • Lane Pryce is proving to be a pretty enjoyable character. At times he can threaten to be a one-dimensional budget-hawk, but he appreciates Don’s suggestion to get free office supplies from S-C clients, and recognize’s the quality of Pete’s push for profits. He’s also aware that “there’s something going on,” RE: race, which you can’t say about Roger or Bert.
  • Don’s sequence with the prison guard flushes out all the Draper hobbyhorses: new beginnings, parental guilt, imprisonment. “Everybody in pinstripes” indeed. Don is attempting to be more responsible, but that also feels like a trap. In one dream, Betty heads for the hospital exit, only to end up in her own kitchen. And Peggy continues her slow-motion escape to Manhattan, but can’t get a raise or leave the company without hurting Pete. And let’s not forget about Sal, whose escapade with the bellhop in Baltimore keeps threatening to be exposed (this time through Pryce’s examination of hotel room tips).
  • I don’t really care too much whether Don decides to sleep with Sally’s teacher–after all these affairs, I’m a little jaded, I guess. But it does seem like the graceful Suzanne Farrell is a proponent of more sympathetic teaching methods than her predecessors–consider the contrast between her response to Sally’s bullying, and the way that Betty disciplines her own children.

When I don’t love a movie

Some of you know that I’m trying to improve my film fluency, with the help of my local library. I’m 1/3 of the way through the Criterion Collection right now, and I hope to reach the halfway point before 2010. Just about every movie I’ve seen so far has something striking about it, but I’d be lying if I said they were all classics. This makes film-screening feel like an obligation at times.

So when I do have a reputed classic in my hands, I get pretty excited. Yesterday it was time for Ugetsu, Kenji Mizoguchi’s calling card to Western audiences. This film, which couches three intertwined allegories in medieval Japan, regularly lands on critic top ten lists. But I was disappointed.

The film features many breathtaking set-pieces: a river journey through fog, supernatural outbursts, and superbly blended dissolves. But it failed to bowl me over. Or maybe I should say I failed it.

Let’s assume I’m in the wrong*, because that’s the most logical explanation. But there are so many different ways I could be wrong! Let’s take a look at the possibilities.

*This is one of my Rules To Live By. Sadly, I can’t recommend it to anyone else, because I am, after all, In the Wrong.

1. I don’t know enough about Japan. This applies to both medieval Japan and the 1953 vintage. It’s undoubtedly true that I’m lacking some crucial pieces of information (here are just some of the Japanese things I know I don’t know: feudalism, traditional gender relations, the occupation experience post-WWII, ghost stories). The film would definitely be more colorful if I could discern these shades. But I’m pretty sure that the critics in Venice, who awarded the film a Silver Lion, probably lacked most of these contextual clues as well. What did they see that I can’t?

A similar problem might be my inability to understand Japanese language, body language, facial expressions, and acting styles–something that may inhibit my appreciation to a much larger degree than it does with films from Europe. Apparently the two leads in Ugetsu are putting in all-time great performances, but I couldn’t tell. But I like plenty of other Japanese films and performances, so I doubt this is the problem.

2. The film’s influence is so widespread that its innovations are impossible to recognize. I get the impression, from Phillip Lopate’s accompanying essay, that Mizoguchi could not possibly be more of an auteur–he convinced his crew to move a house in order to improve a shot’s composition. Again, I could see this being the case, but the things I recognize as commonplace in the film–intersecting plots, some of the spoilery details of the ghost story, some flamboyant shooting–seem to have been around in film much earlier.* And again, let me stress, I think several scenes are classic. But the whole doesn’t hang together very well for me.

*There’s always the possibility, given my incomplete knowledge of film history, that there’s some convergent evolution going on here–Japanese filmmakers coming up with the same innovations celebrated in European and American film, without the benefit of having seen those other films, but I would have to know a whole lot more about international distribution to be sure. My guess is that films got to Japan pretty early, but even if they didn’t, they certainly would be around by occupation. My second guess is that Japanese film didn’t really hit foreign shores until films like this. So some of the initial praise could be of the racist “we didn’t know they could do this” variety.

3. I haven’t learned yet how to get the most out of watching a film. Just like football statisticians and announcers, I bet professional movie watchers, critics and cinemaniacs, have developed perceptual strategies to help them mine a film for information. It often takes me several viewings to really understand a film. I have a hard time explaining why I love the films I do, which makes me a pretty muddled cineaste. It’s weird to say I don’t like this film yet because it’s too early for me to like it, but that may be the case.

Of course, if I accept this line of thinking, what keeps me from applying it to every movie I don’t love? Maybe I just need to give Gigli some more time, a few more viewings, and then it will seem like a genuine cinematic achievement!

4. There’s no accounting for taste, and mine just doesn’t mesh perfectly with the film canon. This has the air of Occam’s Razor about it. Without dipping into Kant, Bourdieu, or Carl Wilson, I have to believe that the effort of accounting for taste is important, even if it is Quixotic. The journey provides.

With some reservations, I’m going to have to choose option #3. I’m sure I’ll return to this issue in a later post. For now, though, I’d like to hear from you. What goes through your head when you find yourself on the opposite side of overwhelming critical opinion?

How do you watch football on TV?

American Football, of course. The college season has already begun, and the NFL is following close behind. I feel unprepared. My fandom and viewing skills have atrophied while in grad school. This is due to a variety of factors, namely that I felt like I didn’t have enough time to watch football, and I couldn’t watch my team, The Redskins, while living in Iowa.

But things are different now. For one, I’m not in grad school anymore; I’m unemployed. I have all the time in the world. Plus, I have decided, after another off-season full of Dan Snyder’s shenanigans, that I am renouncing Redskins fandom until he stops being the owner.*

*This could be a long time, although we’re inching closer to a crazed assassin scenario.

So anyway, I’ll be watching football again, as a liberated fan, and I need some tips. Not tips on who’s the Team to Watch, but tips on watching teams. What do you do with your eyes and brain as you watch a football game? Do you take it in as gestalt? Do you prioritize watching certain players, certain positions? Or is it simply a matter of keeping your eye on the ball? It just seems like there’s so much information in each play, too much to really process. Basketball seems barely manageable, but football has more than twice as many players to follow!

1. On broadcasts, you can’t really see downfield. Doesn’t this drive you crazy? How do you deal with the missing information? I think I tend to undervalue the contributions of receivers/cornerbacks because I only see bits and pieces of their struggle.

2. How do statisticians keep track of football? I understand what items they record and why, but how to they maximize their efficiency? How do they manage their focus?

3. I feel like I don’t have a very good understanding of O-Line and D-Line, even though they’re right in front of me on the screen. I blame this, again, on paying too much attention to the guy with the ball. At what point do you switch focus from one element of the game to another?

4. What do the O- and D-Line players do after the play goes deep downfield? Are they basically standing around? Are they following, huffing and puffing, in case there’s a fumble recovered by the defense?

5. What kinds of trends do you look for in the early parts of a game? When I watch college basketball, I like to keep track of points in the paint, because they seem like a more reliable indicator of future success.


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September 2009