Archive for September 14th, 2009

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?


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September 2009