Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Prejudice Against Pride

A review of Pride and Prejudice.

There is no writer of whom I am aware whose appeal is so specifically gender-specific as Jane Austen. Austen's work is enduringly popular among women to a surprising extent: in the past few years, we have seen a new adaptation of Pride and Prejudice become a big box-office hit, as have The Jane Austen Book Club and Becoming Jane. Two genre mash-ups of Austen's work, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, have sold quite nicely. Austen's pop cultural cache has never been greater. But the cliche about Austen, of course, is that women adore her and men are indifferent at best. As a man, I decided to crack open Pride and Prejudice (minus the zombies) to see what all the fuss is about.

My expectations for the experience were average. Austen is definitely part of The Canon, but I am somewhat familiar with her oeuvre and didn't expect to be dazzled. My expectations were about correct. I concluded that the gender split in Austen's readership makes sense, and that the book doesn't really have much to say to men, aside from men who are interested in understanding women better. I don't feel that the book was a waste of time, but I would like to go over a few things that P&P is not.

For one thing, it's not social criticism. This is often claimed in conjunction with Austen's works, but my impression was that Austen isn't even remotely critical of her society, and certainly isn't interested in changing it. It's true that certain characters are pointed out as being windbags, idiots and hypocrites, but none of these types is specific to any particular society and pointing such things out is not criticism on its own. It's observation. Indeed, P&P is well-observed, in that it does a pretty good job in setting the scene and in its characterization, but nothing about Georgian English society is challenged. Austen's female characters go on to lives of (presumed) marital bliss without ever seeming to consider any alternatives. Such was no doubt the extent of the political and social constraints on women of the time, but it doesn't earn her credit as a forward thinker. And while Austen clearly posits that women should be treated with more respect, Austen's imagination is not very expansive on this count. She doesn't seem to realize that women who have no legal standing or identity apart from their eventual husbands aren't going to simply earn respect, because respect in this context is synonymous with power, which is a theme in which Austen has little interest. Ultimately, her books studiously avoid politics, which is advantageous in some ways (as I'll get to in a while) but a book like P&P, that avoids politics, can't help but leave its most significant point of social criticism undefined. Austen's writing contains a suggestion of social criticism, not the real thing. Contrast this with another woman writer from the next century, Edith Wharton, who wrote a book about similar subject matter with The House of Mirth. Lily Bart, like Lizzie Bennet, is a smart and independent young woman who wants to get married, and preferably to a handsome and wealthy man. Both women are alluring and witty in a way that most of their male suitors don't appreciate. But where Bennet's story is one of success, Lily's is one of failure. Both more or less play by the rules of their societies, but Lily's careful observance of said rules makes her downfall inevitable. That's because the rules aren't impartial guideposts to how to operate in society so much as they are malevolent guard stations to keep people like her out. What's more, Lily has other choices and realizes she can settle for a man she loves and appreciates her (but is penniless), as well as a man who has wealth and loves her, but whose status as a potential divorcee makes him off-limits according to The Code. Wharton's criticism of Old New York society is harsher but also more nuanced, and she depicts her Gilded Era world of ballrooms and houses in the Hamptons as a dark and brutal shadowland, one where reputations and lives are always on the line, unless you're One Of Them.

Needless to say, Austen isn't on the same level as a social critic. But when you get down to it, P&P isn't particularly interesting as a piece of literature in general. Her dialogue--often praised--comes off as self-conscious and forced. Thematically, there simply isn't much going on here. Austen's interests are in love, social conventions, and interfamily dynamics, and P&P doesn't really go very deep into those themes. What is love? Austen might know or she might not know, but it's not in the book. And Austen's book (and the films I've seen based on her books) are remarkably incurious about the world outside of her English hamlets. She seems uninterested in, say, the problem of evil, or man's war with nature. There is little desire here to understand why things are the way they are, or even to understand how they are outside of her world. I usually don't think it's fair to penalize art for what it doesn't try to do, but for someone with as lofty a reputation as Austen, it seems a fair question to ask what it is that she does that's worthwhile.

And, indeed, I think there's definitely something to these books, though I don't know how much of it was intended by Austen herself. I think a lot of it has to do with the state of gender politics at this point in our history, and that also accounts for Austen's recent resurgence onto the American scene. In essence, I see Austen as offering something different from the decades-long gender politics slugfest between feminism and femininity. This is something of which most men are not really aware, but gender politics are pervasive for women to such an absurd extent that even the most basic acts of humanhood (such as eating) essentially become political acts. Thanks to society and the media, women are continually bombarded by contradictory messages about nearly everything. Indeed, MSM magazines often point out that women are less happy now than they were in the 1960s, and right-wingers will sometimes blame feminism for the problem. In reality, though, I suspect that this decline in happiness is due to being in the middle of an unending battle for the Eternal Soul for Womanhood, one in which people can accidentally fight for both sides at once. In some ways, just going back to the '60s might seem appealing for some. But to take one of the more egregious examples from recent years, let's discuss weight. Many of the media's messages toward women--such as the commercials for Dove soap and the not-entirely-benign guidance of Oprah--insist that women should feel comfortable with their weight. But right after the Dove commercial might come another commercial about soap that stars a Calista Flockhart type. And right after Oprah might come a syndicated rerun of "The King of Queens". One doesn't have to look far to see the contradictions and, if one happens to be a woman, it isn't hard to be confused starting at an early age. Indeed, one wonders if all this body image stuff helps at all. Why is it necessary that everyone feel good about their appearance in the first place? After all, there is nobody in the world that is so ugly that they cannot find a single person in the rest of the world to date. Attractiveness runs on a scale, and pairings usually involve lateral evenness on that scale. In other words, we live in a world where ones hook up with ones and tens hook up with tens, for the most part. That leaves the ones with fewer options but it doesn't leave them without options, necessarily. But for Oprah to say that would be inconceivable--like most of society, she is wholly on board with self-esteem nonsense whose sole goal seems to be to keep people from forming a realistic self-conception and therefore to continually lie to themselves, because the lie makes them think they feel better than the truth. In actuality, though, the truth isn't ever really submerged, and what Oprah and her ilk do is to give her followers false hope that prevents them from being able to enjoy what they have fully. Ultimately, one is either attractive or not, but whether one determines that they need to feel good about it or not is wholly controllable. Oprah and her pals desperately do not want women to feel good about who they really are, but rather that they feel good about who they want to be. And this is where the problem begins.

In essence, Oprah--like those Dove ads--wants something from women. She wants women to consume her show and its accoutrements, to start with. But doing that requires her to manipulate natural anxieties about, among other things, how one looks. Oprah is a salesperson whose pitch is some sort of murky self-development. But it's not really an exploration of self so much as an exploration of an idealized self. She sells a lifestyle, which is fine. But saying that you should love your weight is a truly expert manipulation of the feminist-vs-feminine battle, one which is "feminist" in that it says that women shouldn't just accept their lot and other peoples' preconceptions, but which is also feminine in insisting that women need to be cute, all the while blaming the victim who happens to feel bad about her weight. Neatly done.

So much for Oprah/Dove. Criticism of Oprah is pretty tiresome at this time, and the truth is that I don't think she's evil or even necessarily a malign influence on women all the time. She gets large numbers of people to read great books, which is assuredly a good thing. And I don't think she's really a cynical manipulator deep down. But she is, like most women, confounded and confused by these complex demands that society places on women, and is trying to sort them out in her own way. I don't find this reprehensible, though she should take more care in her advice generally. My point, though, is that the feminist/feminism thing is real and unresolved. A lot of people like to think that feminism's battles are over, and indeed the legal ones are. But the social ones are not, and I think a great deal of the problem here is mass media and television in particular, which presents a world in which every woman is hot (or completely pathetic). It is interesting to note that the West isn't completely following us on this--just compare the attractiveness of the leads of the US Office TV series with its predecessor from the UK. Doughy romantic leads on a primetime sitcom is hard to imagine on these shores (though I do believe, despite his weight, that Ricky Gervais is much more classically handsome than Steve Carell. Go figure.) Watching lots of TV, as David Foster Wallace noted in his essay on the subject some years ago, invariably scrambles your social expectations, especially in terms of your patience, relationships with others, and physical expectations of other people. But this grand struggle isn't just confined to the superficial--attitudes toward dating and sex (How soon? How far? etc.); emotional vulnerability and transparency in general (and in particular instances, such as in the workplace); and marriage and family versus a career are all areas in which the conflict is manifested in fairly obvious ways. And, usually, the end result is a no-win scenario.

So, getting back to the damn point of this essay, what does Jane Austen offer women in our present social context? Quite a bit, actually. Austen doesn't want anything from her readers. She wasn't steeped in our current politics and her political naivete is essential to her continued success. Her stories involve smart and strong young women who are actors, not objects, in their respective stories, and more often than not they wind up saving the day and ending up with a handsome dude. In her universe, feminism (well, protofeminism) and femininity are not opposed qualities--they're complementary and, what's more, they are holistically coupled in a coherent worldview. The current media wants women to think a certain way in order to sell them stuff, basically, but Austen isn't interested in doing that. She presents a view of womanhood that isn't either-or but both-and with respect to the feminist/feminine conflict, a worldview that includes elements of both. Her appeal is, therefore, necessarily gendered, because the problem she solves for her modern female readers is not one that modern men have, though it is worth noting that men might soon have their own gender politics crises to deal with, if the "Men's Health" culture continues to grow in influence. As with the portion of the media that deals with women, much of their conception of maleness is built around conspicuous consumption--gym memberships, cigars, Beamers and watches, basically--and if it recalls any older literature as a balancing tactic, it will undoubtedly be something entirely different from Jane Austen. But one only hopes that future men and women will at some point be able to bond over shared impossible expectations and maybe, perhaps, finally agree to confound them.

All this being said, while I think that Austen presents serious deficiencies as a writer, I think that what she provides is helpful. The idea that women (or anyone, for that matter) can spend hours with someone (via a book) who doesn't want to sell them something--i.e. someone who would flatter, scare, or brainwash them to that effect--is rare enough in today's culture, and terribly valuable. Austen provides a space for women to drop the endless gender politics and delivers the goods, both in terms of storytelling and moral/ethical instruction--to them in an efficient and unbiased manner. Austen understood women, and this is ultimately why her work is still around despite its sloppiness. She's not unlike someone like Ernest Hemingway in this regard, whose work is uneven even at its best (A Farewell To Arms oscillates between brilliant and awful fairly rapidly) but fundamentally gets men and will be around forever because of it. And while I have serious problems with both authors' points of view, it's nice to know that their books won't be going anywhere.

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Brilliance of Sunny

Television in the 1990s was something of a barren wasteland. There were some innovative shows, like My So-Called Life and Twin Peaks, and some well-executed and long-running programs like Homicide, Seinfeld and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, but the dials were mostly crammed with the likes of Tim Allen's relentless mugging and the Olsen twins. The finest artistic achievement on television of the decade (and the irony of that line is fully appreciated) was a little program called Beavis and Butt-head. The show was popular and permeated the public consciousness, and for my money there hasn't been a work of satire so profound and fully realized in my lifetime. Admittedly, few people who watched the show probably saw anything more than a dumb comedy, but the show's depiction of American youth and culture was frequently brutal and searing: B&B were complete morons who couldn't do anything--aside from watching MTV or farting, basically. Most episodes explored their disconnect from adults, peers, strangers, as well as both older and younger kids. That the show was so popular amongst the very people it was parodying just seemed to lend it more credibility as a portrait of the vaunted Gen-Xers.

I frequently think of Beavis when I watch the current program It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia. The show has recently entered it's fifth season and has seemingly lost little steam in the process of putting out so much television. A direct comparison between the two shows isn't exactly fair, but Sunny seems a good companion piece for the old MTV chestnut. In fact, Sunny often feels like a continuation of Beavis, only with five Beavises instead of one. Beavises that might have aged but that never really grew up, Beavises that might live in the world but have no real idea how it works and no real desire to figure it out. They're self-obsessed to an extreme extent.

Like Beavis, Sunny isn't really supposed to be taken at face value. Its characters are caricatures, nth degree extrapolations of real trends in American society. The show's hyperbolic characters often lead to over-the-top action and plot developments, as well as gags that frequently skirt the boundaries of good taste in many ways. Sunny often falls well on the funny side of the line, though sometimes it goes too far: a season four episode featuring a urinal waterboarding went just a bit too far, though it was almost redeemed by having one of the characters walk in and nonchalantly take a piss right next to said torturing. Some people will no doubt be turned off by the scatological nature of some of the humor, and while I can understand that I think it's wrongheaded. I have always been of the opinion that nothing should be off-limits when it comes to comedy, though I do think that, say, meanspiritedness about the handicapped is inherently unfunny. Sunny deploys its humor in a clever way (in fact, the right way) that most people in the comedy game tend to forget these days: humor is frequently an attempt to resolve an underlying tension, and the Sunny crew usually understands this. However, many other comedy writers seem to think that it's the tension itself that's funny, which is wrong. It is, as I once heard someone explain, the difference between American Pie and Scary Movie: the former is funny because having the dad walk in on the kid making it with a pie introduces tension, which is resolved humorously by having the dad being basically nonplussed by the situation. The latter is not funny because it's the equivalent of having the kid and the pie, but no dad. Sunny understands what so much "comedy" does not, and while it's just as daring as, say, Tom Green was back in the day, it uses that boldness to tell funny storylines (unlike Mr. Green).

More and more, it's beginning to seem like "cringe" comedy is becoming something of a mainstream option. Admittedly, some can do it well. Ricky Gervais has made a career out of it, and he's quite good at it. And even Judd Apatow manages to make his raunch mostly palatable. But when we're talking about the likes of the Wayans it becomes clear that a lot of people have missed the point, just like decades of guitarists after Jimi Hendrix, who emulated the style but couldn't come close to the music. The truth is that, despite most peoples' inherent squeamishness, most people will go along with scatology if it actually results in real laughs, if it's handled properly. If you're dealing with scatological humor, you can't forget the second part of the term. The craftsmen over at It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia understand that.

The common knock against the show is its unevenness, or perhaps that the characters don't develop. I'm not sure that either one is correct or relevant. I do think that the characters of Mac and Frank, for example, have developed immensely over the course of the show. It's the most consistenly funny show on television and, quite possibly, one that will withstand the test of time. Very little of its humor is topical--the narcissism of "The Gang" almost forbids going out of their little universe. Sunny might well be the best TV comedy of the decade, with no exaggeration.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Homicide: Life on the Street and the Modern Man

Even though it ran for the better part of a decade on a major network and sucked up all the critical acclaim in the world, Homicide: Life on the Street is likely to be perpetually overshadowed by its "cousin" series, the much-loved The Wire. And this is fitting. Much of the latter seasons of Homicide feels like a sort of rough draft of things that would be revisited, with much more depth, in The Wire. The Baltimore setting, the presence of David Simon, and quite a few of the details and focus on police procedure are things the shows have in common, but The Wire utilized the sort of serialized storytelling that television affords in a novel way--and that can be taken in both senses of the word. The Wire managed to create a sprawling but disciplined and tightly plotted crime saga that continually kept integrating new dimensions of reality into itself, and it was a show that could legitimately be called art while still being accessible, captivating, and funny. This doesn't get at the the political (though rarely topical) tropes of the series, which shows an entrenched power structure that is motivated purely by retention of that power, and the pathos of the individual stories, which had the sort of dramatic force not usually found on T.V., even on HBO.

But rarely doesn't mean never, and Homicide provided one of the most vivid realizations of personal tragedy and downfall ever on television through the lens of its protagonist, Tim Bayliss. And, in its own way, Homicide used the television serial format in a novel way, too, by showing an individual's deterioration over time, organically. The Wire tackled a lot of issues and had both an epic and personal focus, but one show can't explore everything. Homicide explored some interesting territory with respect to modernity and came to some interesting conclusions.

Homicide went on the air in 1993, and by the time it had ended it had gone through several distinct phases. The first phase included the first two seasons, as well as parts of the third. In the early years, Homicide stayed true to its source material: Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets by, who else, David Simon. The show went for a gritty, almost documentary feel, depicting the life of a murder cop as draining, difficult, repetitive, but important and thankless. The show was always supposed to be an ensemble, especially during the early years, but some characters captured fans' imaginations. Tim Bayliss, as played by Kyle Secor, was probably not one of them. During the early years he came off as a fairly bland presence in the squadroom. The show's real breakout character was Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher), the intense and prickly black detective who felt, more than anyone else, his motivation as "speaking for the dead," as he put it. The show began with Bayliss's entry to the squad and, much like The Shield, introduced us almost immediately to the event that would come to haunt him for the rest of the show: in Bayliss's case, it was the Adena Watson killing. We also learned that Bayliss was repelled by kink of any sort--while investigating a murder in the S&M community, he angrily insisted that "sex is love," which prompted Pembleton to launch into one of the show's defining speeches, about the importance of knowing one's dark side, and that one couldn't see into the killer's mind without it. Even during that episode Bayliss's facade begins to crack--we last see him in a red-light district, in a leather jacket, and while he declines the various entreaties with disgust it is clear that he has a fascination with the seamy and the morbid, albeit one that is very suppressed.

The early seasons of Homicide are great--there's never been anything else like them on television--but it soon became clear that there wasn't a long-running show to be found in the source material. From Season 3 onward, the show became more of a standard police procedural, albeit an extremely smart one that still treated the political and psychological aspects of the job with their appropriate gravitas. What did not abate was the Bayliss storyline. Bayliss continued to be preoccupied with the Watson case. In Season 3, Bayliss rapidly enters into a sexual liaison with a barely-known woman that involves some moderate kink--despite some initial hesitancy. More significantly, he is manipulated into attending an art exhibit for convicts when the woman uses the Watson killing to get him to go along, as part of the way for him to explore his dark side. With Bayliss, sex and violence are always intimately connected--his breakup with Emma leads to him attempting a robbery, in this case (and the breakup was based, in part, on his own distaste for kink). It is important to remember that Bayliss's quest is one that is fundamentally based on a desire for justice, and that he goes down these roads out of a desire to be better at solving murders and making things right. During a Season 4 episode, Bayliss checks in on Adena's mother, and finds that she's actually done a better job of handling the murder than he has. She is confused and upset by this realization. The show tried to explain Bayliss's Adena Watson obsession in the following season by revealing that Bayliss had been sexually abused as a child, which was a little too pat and was rarely mentioned later. Still, while he is certainly motivated by a desire to good, Bayliss's moral compass begins to take ever larger beatings as the show goes on.

In the final seasons of the show, Bayliss continues along the same track of sex, violence and moral degredation. He conducts an affair with a coworker and begins to experiment with bisexuality. It isn't so much his sexual orientation that is relevant here, so much as his ever-increasing promiscuity. In the last season he is more or less outed as bisexual. Presumably because he is searching for a way to rebuild his ailing moral compass--not to mention having had a near-death experience--he becomes a practicing Buddhist, which he abandons after shooting a man to death. It was an odd and unpopular choice for the show to make Bayliss undergo such a sudden shift, but in retrospect it makes sense that Bayliss would have tried to find something to cling to while everything he valued began to slip away, and the nonviolence of Buddhism jives with Bayliss's own sympathies. Nevertheless, it just doesn't work. By the time the "Internet Killer" shows up and gets off on a technicality, Bayliss is already prepared to take matters into his own hands.

Note that this is all gradual--Bayliss's story takes place over years, in fits and starts. In other words, just like real life does. There are plenty of episodes where Bayliss is just Bayliss--an eager, smart, compassionate detective. But over the show we see him change in ways that respect his character. The final episode is something of a masterpiece of television: Bayliss's inability to realize the flaws inherent in all human systems causes him to pay a dear price and, since his compassion is not balanced by morality, prudence or even good old-fashioned squeamishness, he can't stop himself from killing the killer. Many fans found the finale unsatisfying, and the demand was sufficient to create a rather bad series finale that nevertheless had a few solid moments. But those who paid attention knew what happened--Bayliss's violence toward a state's attorney for screwing up the case, his discussion with John Munch (Richard Belzer), who he had long suspected of commiting a crime similar to the one he's contemplating, and later Bayliss's abject apology to the attorney in question. By that time there wasn't anything to be angry about. The conversation with Munch is really fascinating, both because of what's said and what's unsaid. Bayliss tries to probe Munch, to figure out if he could live with killing a guilty man. Munch most likely did it once and, if so, he doesn't seem to have let it bother him one bit. Bayliss, however, is not cut from the same cloth, and it winds up bothering him quite a bit--the scene where he confesses to his now-retired partner Frank almost makes the jumbled and implausible mess of the TV movie worth it.

So much for the struggles of Tim Bayliss. What makes it all resonant is how Bayliss's struggle is the struggle that we must all of us go through in the world today. We live in a world in which pain and suffering is more immediate to us than ever before. It's not just a homeless person on the side of the road any more--generations ago, the sorts of genocides, brutality, corruption, and so forth that have always gone on--and probably always will--were simply unknown unless you lived in the areas affected by those specific crises. Even in America, there are lots of people who get an unfair shake, and it seems almost inhuman not to care. Of course, it seems also foolhardy to sentence oneself to a life of misery because the world is the world, a la Bayliss. One solution--one that seemingly a lot of Homicide's characters use, is to keep it all at a distance. This, however, requires a deadening of the self that tends to have rather serious consequences that are much more broadly felt--for example, hardly any of the detectives on the show had relationships or really even friends. The one character on Homicide who was able to have something resembling a real relationship was Frank Pembleton, and in Simon's book his secret was in being able to respond to killings with empathy, as opposed to grief. It's a tricky thing to pull off, but considering how so many of these questions have yet to be addressed by society it seems like as good an idea as any.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Virtues of Star Trek

Jason and Ed over at The House Next Door discuss the Star Trek phenomenon. Both self-admittedly come at it from a non-fan perspective and analyze all the original cast movies, and their conclusions are distinctly negative. In essence, they boil down to the following:
  • The appeal of the films is inseparable from nostalgia
  • The films don't distinguish themselves as art or in their technique
  • The films often include laughable situations (indeed, this is true)
I largely agree with these points, though I do think that judging the whole phenomenon by the original cast films isn't the best idea. The Motion Picture is really abysmal, The Final Frontier is really bad (though it is a legitimate so-bad-it's-good movie) and the rest are good. The complaint about The Search For Spock as being just a retcon is entirely fair, but dismissing it for that reason seems silly--the question is how well the film works overall, and I'd say that it actually works, though it is a little cheesy. And Wrath of Khan, The Voyage Home, and The Undiscovered Country are all awesome.

In any event, I think that when analyzing something along the lines of Star Trek, one can easily attribute the success of The Original Series to 1960s optimism about the future and romanticism about the space race. But what to make of the enduring popularity of the series? Clearly, the appeal cuts a little deeper if it's survived for such a long time. After all, there's not enough nostalgia for a new Space:1999 movie, and the reimagined Battlestar Galactica was a complete departure from its predecessor series, which really was most of the things that Ed and Jason impute to Star Trek.

My sense of things is that what appeals about the series is a certain sort of optimism about the future and its characters that few shows and films (and especially few sci-fi shows and films) actually possess. I think that accounts for a lot of its enduring success, especially in the 1990s, when Star Trek was a huge business. It is true that it no doubt helped to basically have a monopoly on televised science fiction during the 90s, and that a recognizable commercial brand was able to do things that wouldn't otherwise have been done at that point in time. Sure, part of the reason it succeeded was that it was there and it filled a niche, and that's why Star Trek: The Next Generation was as popular as it was, but that show not only gave us some plainly good heroes to root for, but often the bad guys weren't really all that bad, just misunderstood. Even the Borg, ultimately, were vulnerable (though doing that was something of a mistake, in my estimation).

I tend to think that The Next Generation is sort of a model of successful television. Truthfully, a lot of it is banal or even bad, but it often presented interesting stories and mysteries, and did a good job of balancing the humanism and idealism with the demands of a weekly show. While the show often featured incomprehensible technobabble it managed to present compelling and interesting mysteries, and though plot-driven it often did feel character-propelled. It more or less stayed true to the original series' ideas while moving more into a mainstream direction (in a good way), and the show even managed to be occasionally moving. Episodes like "The Inner Light" and the show's finale brought a hefty dose of earned emotional resonance.

I think that Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was definitely the franchise's high point. It did push the winning formula quite a bit: it was on a station instead of a ship, characters wouldn't always act out of the noblest, disinterested motives, and the show often fixated on the messy internal politics of a fairly small region of space rather than seeking out new life forms and new civilizations. A lot of fans then (and still now) dismiss it as boring, but this is usually a sign that the person in question watched a few early episodes and said forget it. There is no defending the early seasons of the show, though the first 2-3 seasons of all the Trek spinoffs are generally bad, no doubt having to do with the security of being able to spend a lot of time on exposition before actually having characters do something. Truth is, though, that during its last four seasons the show was consistently excellent. This happened to coincide with the arrival of TNG's Worf on the show, who added the show's missing element. The later seasons of DS9 brought a cold war that turned hot, characters having to make difficult moral decisions and sacrifices, and more than a few tough deaths. But it wasn't boring and the storytelling was fast, intense, and surprising. DS9 pushed the limits of Roddenberry's vision but didn't exceed them--in fact, the characters' actions validated the humanistic approach that the shows and films had always took, even if it sometimes took people a while to come around. And it dealt with the religion and poltics of Bajor in an often penetrating and insightful way. This is still pretty rare to see on television.

Now, admittedly, with Voyager there began to show signs of decay. The show displayed quite a bit of complacency and a lack of imagination. The new races we met weren't as cool as the old ones, plotlines felt familiar, plot devices like time travel were overused. There were certainly watchable Voyager episodes--even some good ones--but the show rarely went for broke and decided to play it safe, figuring that the Star Trek name would be enough to keep it afloat. This proved to be rather wrongheaded. I can't really speak to Enterprise, of which I've seen few episodes, though I suspect it failed because of the same familiar storylines and a lack of guiding vision. These things were also evident in some of the Next Generation-era movies: Generations was a logic-ignoring baton-changer that wasn't quite as epic or compelling as it needed to be. Insurrection didn't fare much better, and it more resembled The Voyage Home, only the humor was unintentional. And the less said about Nemesis, the better, though at least its heart was in the right place.

All in all, what has characterized Star Trek over the past few years has been a lack of real ambition to move the series forward--such as both TNG and DS9 had, in different ways--and a lack of understanding as to why people tune in to watch these shows in the first place. Optimism is appealing, but well-constructed stories are essential. With another Star Trek film coming out it will be interesting to see how J.J. Abrams decides to deal with these deficiencies. I predict that the film will be a success (nostalgia + lots of action will go a long way), and if it is successful enough we might well see another show: the Era of Obama seems well suited to Star Trek's message of gentle humanism and optimism. I will follow Star Trek's example and remain, for the moment, optimistic about the possibilities.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Reflections on Television Shows I've Watched, At Season's End

  1. Kings -- Kings is effectively dead. Not only is it not getting a second season, but its timeslot got changed before being suspended 'till the Summer in favor of Law & Order repeats, which seems a little redundant. I must confess that I'm generally positively inclined toward the show, though I think that it doesn't quite hit its potential. There are things to like: both the King and David are solid and developed characters, both of whom are called by destiny and constantly troubled by finding a balance between piety and worldliness. Both actors do a solid job in these roles, and Ian McShane predictably owns the show as the King. The show is a modern retelling of the Biblical story of David and King Saul, and it is pretty impressive for a network show: there are moments of visual and verbal poetry, compelling visions of courtly life that mesh naturally with modern tabloid culture. The show's basic problem is that hardly any characters aside from King Silas and David are three-dimensional. The crown prince is a sulking, vindictive bisexual whose motivations, aside from a will to power, aren't entirely clear. He's so unpredictable that he's actually rather predictable. I don't need a character to be kind and likeable to be compelling, but I do need the sense that there's more than meets the eye, that this is a real person. There are flashes of that at times but only that. The character of the princess, Melissa, is more appealing but also underdeveloped. The Queen--whom I immediately recognized from various Star Trek incarnations as Susanna Thompson, one of the Borg Queens--fares much better. It is hinted that she is well aware of her husband's infidelity, and it makes one wonder whether she condones it or is trying to use Silas for her own purposes. I like this sort of dynamic. The rest of the actors--Silas's brother in law, David's family--make little impression, with the exception of the recurring characters of two palace guards, who usually add some levity, and recurring star Bryan Cox, who is predictably awesome as a deposed king.

    Honestly, it's a generally entertaining show and a clever one at times. On a story level, in terms of production values, as an allegory and a retelling and in terms of acting it's solid to spectacular. But a lot of the characters simply fall flat. It is regrettable that it hasn't broken out, because it is intriguing, though perhaps mostly to classicists.

  2. Terminator--The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Sarah Connor follows in the tradition of many female-centric shows--recently Buffy and Dollhouse--whose protagonists are less interesting than the supporting characters. On TSCC, the robots are the most fascinating characters, especially Summer Glau's protective android Cameron, Garret Dillahunt's evil Cromartie and subsequently as the childlike John Henry, and former Garbage frontwoman Shirley Manson as an ambiguous, shapeshifting Terminator. But the presence of so many robots cannot help but make one wonder about whether the series has begun to groan under its own weight. Even watching this show requires a pretty hefty suspension of disbelief--in fact, with each installment, the Terminator franchise becomes more ridiculous. It kinda made sense with the first film, which insisted that Skynet had a limited time travel ability, but the more terminators that go back, the less limited it seems. After three movies (with a fourth dropping soon) and now a television series, one wonders why Skynet doesn't just send a second Arnold to kill Sarah Connor when she was a kid. Or to kill her grandfather. Who knows. Why is Skynet so linear?

    So, there's the obvious flaw in the logic. But Sarah Connor shouldn't necessarily be punished for this situation--in fact, it often displays more creativity and energy than the franchise has seen since the original film. There are basically three types of TSCC episodes: the first is like the episode in which Toby from The West Wing (Richard Schiff, of course), is interrogated by our heroes. The show does a good job of looking at the possibilities of time travel, and the notion that one of the characters came back from an alternate future is rather novel and intresting. The second type of Sarah Connor episode is more like the episode in which John Connor tries to escape a terminator by fleeing to Mexico, which is all told by overlapping flashbacks (a la Boomtown). Not original, but quite well-executed and with a number of grace notes. And the third type is basically a placeholder--one in which we get some nominal plot advancement to keep us watching, while spending a lot of not terribly revelatory time with the characters holed out in their apartment. The show actually has a fairly even distribution of episodes across all three categories, but the fundamental problem with the show is that it lacks ambition. Well, not exactly--it has some ambition, and its story arcs for this season were generally pretty interesting and distinctive. But the creative team seems to be quite content with the intermittent pacing when they could easily have added a whole bunch more story to this season. The show stands out rather often, but it could be a lot better, and I don't see that desire to make it as good as possible. That frustrates me a little.

    So, what do I like about this show? I was rather enamored of the early season episode where Cameron was malfunctioning and, in an attempt to avoid being killed by John, tried to manipulate him by saying, "I love you." Genius stuff. I wound up liking the gruff and intense performances of Brian Austin Green as Uncle Derek and Stephanie Jacobsen as Jessie, both future visitors with differing motives. I even liked, after a fashion, Thomas Dekker's performance as John Connor, whose character really does grow over the season into the man he needs to be. The future submarine episodes were great. The show, especially during the tail end of this season, often churned out some really great stuff. And the series finale escalated the franchise's stakes even further: in the original movie, John Connor sent his own father, Kyle Reese, back in time in order to save her from the terminator and, incidentally, to conceive himself. In the second film, we learn that the terminator sent back by Skynet winds up being the basis for Skynet to be built. In this show, Connor finds out after he jumps to the future that he hasn't become a huge resistance figure, and that it's presumably up to him to become that hero without the benefit of going through judgment day, etc. It's a pretty cool twist that once again subverts expectations about causality and the linearality of time, and while I don't think it rises to the level of philosophy it is thoughtful and interesting. I do hope the show gets another season.

  3. Dollhouse--It started out shaky, but Dollhouse has become a really compelling series. It doesn't really hurt that ostensible star Eliza Dushku isn't really that great an actress, because there are plenty of other great characters on the periphery. The show is basically about a subterranean lair known as the Dollhouse, which features customizable, programmable human beings to be used in whatever fashion they're needed. I've just watched the episode in which the escaped "active", Alpha, is revealed. I kind of saw the twist coming, but the truth is that it still worked really well for me. It's a very plot-driven show, but the plotting is very good, and the possibilities of what an active can do are well explored. As it turns out, sex is not the only thing that a programmable person is useful for--we've seen, among others, actives being used as a vehicle for reincarnation, as a mole hunter, and, touchingly, as a dead wife for Patton Oswalt, who might well be the only wholly sympathetic character ever to appear on the show.

    I do think the show suffers from the lack of any real heroes, at least in terms of its commercial prospects. People generally like to know who the good guys and bad guys are, even if they're not purely good or purely bad. Dollhouse doesn't play that. Even the ostensible hero, an FBI Agent played by Battlestar's Tahmoh Penikett, is hardly a likeable and heroic figure. Actually, Penikett is probably the show's weak link--he's a fine actor (and was one of relatively few reasons to keep watching BSG after the long decline began) but his character desperately needs dimension. Why the obsession with the Dollhouse? Is it a singleminded pursuit of justice? Is he in love with Echo? Is he just nuts? These things have been alternately suggested.

    I must admit that this show really isn't like anything on television. None of the characters are even remotely morally pure, some are sympathetic but all are corrupt. Just like the show's conceit of the Dollhouse, which is a real gray area that ponders about the extent to which someone can be a willing slave. It's a very daring and frequently excellent show, but I think that most people watch shows that have likeable and identifiable characters in them largely out of a sense of egocentrism. I do not--The Rules of Attraction is one of my favorite movies--but I don't sense that most people are the same. I do think that Dollhouse is an incredibly good show, and I sure hope it comes back.

  4. Battlestar Galactica--Last and almost certainly least amongst the dramas. BSG was a show I once enjoyed a great deal, until it got too serious and started to believe that it was a serious show with Something. To. Say. Ugh. I will admit that the finale more or less worked as an ending for the show--the big stuff was tied up (albeit mostly preposterously), the retconning of the show as an anti-tech statement was complete, Caprica was ready to go, and the 1/4 or so of the original audience that kept watching got their sendoff. I honestly wish I'd stopped after the New Caprica arc ended. Alas.

    Look, I don't require shows to be philosophical treatises, but if you're going to bring on the big themes, at least show that you have the goods. Honestly, if the show's explorations of religion had gone beyond, "Religion is important to people and affects what they do", I'd give the show credit. Honestly, though, the religious stuff never ascended above what was previously done on Babylon 5 or Ron Moore's own Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. If the show ever had as penetrating an episode on religion as DS9's "In The Hands Of The Prophets", I'd have been impressed. But no, the show mistook seriousness for insight. Honestly, in almost every respect Deep Space Nine was a much beter show, and certainly a more entertaining and human show. I'm guessing that DS9 will age better than BSG.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Falling star

The life and death of Battlestar Galactica.

Tonight sees the end to Battlestar Galactica, a show that has received a gratuituous amount of critical praise--at least, for a show set in the realm of science fiction. Usually, sci-fi shows are dismissed by critics, no doubt due to a reaction against shows considered "nerdy" but as nerdy might not still be the sort of epithet that it once was, BSG (as everyone calls it) has managed to gain some breakout success, and has helped put the Sci-Fi (or, as it will soon annoyingly be called, Syfy) Channel on the map. If ever a show has trumpeted being referred to as the best show on television more than Galactica has, I don't know what it could be.

In fact, the fulsome praise directed at Battlestar Galactica requires something of a pushback. BSG is not the current generation's equivalent of Star Trek. In fact, it is doubtful that the show will stand the test of time in any sense. Galactica has its merits, which have propelled it farther than anyone could expect a basic cable remake of an awful 1970s Star Wars knockoff to go. But, especially in its later seasons, it has proven to be much less than the sum of its parts, getting in over its head exploring weighty themes and abandoning the engagingly pulpy-but-brainy style that made it as popular as it is. In fact, during its run, the show has become more listless, cyclical and self-indulgent than The Sopranos was at its worst, though Sopranos was never nearly as dull.

Battlestar Galactica sprung to life from a miniseries that debuted in 2002. Its premise was simple and compelling--humans have been essentially eradicated from existence. Only a 50,000-odd set of survivors, in a ragtag space fleet commanded by Bill Adama (Edward James Olmos), has survived and is trying to find the mythical human colony of Earth. The miniseries had its weaknesses, as virtually every character scene fell flat--the conversation between Adama and his estranged son, Apollo (Jamie Bamber) felt very TV, too earnest and stagy to pass for real life conversation. The interaction between Apollo and his dead brother's ex-fiancee and ace pilot Starbuck (Katee Sackhoff) felt roughly the same--lacking in verisimilitude. But there was good stuff, too: Galactica combined some jaw-dropping special effects with some interesting ideas, and the themes introduced in the miniseries were initially explored in the series: how do people continue on after such profound loss? Does Earth really exist? If cylons look like humans, can they be stopped? What level of free will do they have? The series examined other themes as well, in particular the extent to which religious beliefs affect one's actions, tensions between the military and civilian government, and, that old sci-fi mainstay, what does it mean to be human?

Those early seasons were quite strong. Most of the time, the show managed to keep a few plot threads going at once: there was Helo trying to survive on the bombed-out planet of Caprica, Sharon trying to figure out whether she was a cylon or not (which she is, and which we all know), as well as the story of the week on Galactica. The show was characterized from the start by a rather grim tone, with a rather palpable feeling of doom, but there were little touches of humor and humanity here and there: fans generally rooted for communications officer Dualla and presidential aide Billy to hook up, self-absorbed Dr. Baltar (James Callis) quickly became a scene-stealer and often got the funniest lines, and during one episode we found out that Adama is actually one sentimental motherfrakker (frak being the series' greatest contribution to the English language) who can't leave Starbuck to die after a crash because he can't bear to lose the last connection he has to his dead son, and neither can his living son (who also has a thing for her). The show quickly took on something of a feminist hue--which was quite welcome, considering how testerone-ridden the material could have been--with the women being the tough and uncompromising leaders and the guys generally being the weepy, conscientious ones. And the show managed to build to a genuinely shocking season finale where a clue to Earth leads all hell to break loose, Adama gets shot (by Sharon), people are stranded on a planet abandoned (save for cylons) and the alcoholic Colonel Tigh (Michael Hogan), one of the show's greatest creations, is left in command. This led to the show's second season, its best and most assured--the first half was arc-heavy and propulsive, leading to a three-episode run where the crew encounters another human ship, only to find out that it is commanded by a cold and arrogant officer who bucks no criticism and causes a dangerous standoff. The Pegasus episodes were among the show's best, and did a surprisingly thorough job of showing the unintended consequences of the end point of the worldview of George W. Bush, one overly focused on payback and "doing whatever needs to be done", including torture, to get back at the cylons. Admiral Cain (Michelle Forbes) is an embodiment of this sort of mindset, and the show treats her rather harshly. Under her, Pegasus turns into an amoral hellhole full of testosterone-charged officers bragging about raping and torturing their female cylon prisoner, the ends always justify the means and decent people are too afraid to fight back. But the show puts its message pretty starkly: it is not enough to survive, one must be worthy of survival. If ever there was a message that needed to be sent, and a time it needed to be sent, it was these episodes at that point in time.

Unfortunately, the show's other takes on contemporary issues have tended to be lacking. One episode focused on the abortion issue without saying anything of real-world importance. Ditto political corruption and the Iraq War. The vaunted "New Caprica" story arc from the show's third season, in which our heroes are taken prisoner after settling on a new planet, tiptoes around provocation on subjects like suicide bombing and violent insurrection without actually being provocative. Unlike the original, old Star Trek which often tended to be nakedly allegorical about the social issues of the 1960's, Battlestar Galactica often cops out of commenting on contemporary issues by taking what I'll call the Crash two-step, which is to introduce weighty issues but not to develop them with any sophistication, such that viewers feel that they've engaged with an issue without actually being challenged by it. The aforementioned issues have been "Crashed" by the show, but it is difficult to think of particularly potent political observations outside of the Pegasus episodes. To be honest, these attempts never really felt like a con game so much as a sense that the writers were in over their heads, and one could indulge them for a time, as the show was really, really entertaining. But the notion of exploring real-life issues at all went out the window with season three, when the show fixated on different (and less vital) themes like identity and prophecy. These were the bad times.

After a while, the show became bloated and self-indulgent. New Caprica exeunt, the crew plodded through space without much in terms of things to do or narrative momentum. Instead of being under constant threat from cylon attack the Galactica went about its business generally free of danger--and the cylon absence was noticed. The third season was when things started to go off the rails: the show decided to examine the innards of cylon society, to delve deeper into the religious mumbo jumbo, to obsess about the Apollo-Starbuck relationship, and to focus on a number of one-off storylines that were almost immediately dropped. One could be charitable and say that the show was trying to fill out some of the empty spaces in its universe, though it was more likely a bid to get more viewers on board by shying away from the series' arcs in order to make the show more accessible to non-fans. The attempt was unsuccessful in both interpretations. Ultimately, though, the show lost its electricity, so to speak, and certain other flaws came to light at this time. Why was every episode, regardless of what happens, shot at a breakneck, breathless pace? Why do we have to hear about the five final cylons every episode as though it's the most important secret in the world, despite nobody caring about it before? And, finally, can't someone on this damn ship crack a smile? The self-conscious darkness of the show became overpowering, as mirthless characters went about their duties while the show plodded along, hints about Earth casually strewn about the storyline with nothing approaching a crescendo in the show's main story arc. The crowning glory was spending three episodes on Baltar's trial, which could easily have been handled in one. Yes, come for the cylon dogfights, stay for objections from the defense counsel. And these were some of the better season three episodes. Any other show would have been cancelled.

And the show's forth season--less dull than the third, at least--has gone to great lengths to try to convince the relatively few people still watching that they should never have bothered in the first place. Wacky twists are now routinely introduced to the show in order to set up an ending that seems to be something less than the sort of grand finale that the miniseries suggested. We find out, randomly, that the child of one of the cylon characters isn't his child, but is actually fully human, because his late human wife cheated on him. This was done to make the only other half-human child the only one in existence in order to set up the kidnapping plot around which, incredibly, the show seems set to use as its swan song. Cheap, insulting, and silly, but the bad writing doesn't stop there. Boozy Tigh is reunited with boozy wife Ellen, both of whom are actually cylons, and she gets miffed to find that her husband--who thought she was dead for years--has impregnated another cylon. This coming from a character primarily defined by her infidelity. Pot, meet kettle. After spending the better part of two seasons being bombarded about who the final cylons were, we're effectively told that there is no difference between cylons and humans. Nicely done, we say, as we rub our rugburned knees. Baltar, the man who nearly managed to get the human race wiped out, is able to extract guns from Adama to enhance his own power, and the old man decides that giving more power to the least trustworthy character in the show is a good idea. Evidently the Galactica is commanded by an idiot, though Adama performed nearly as dumb a move earlier in the season by giving a command to an unstable and perhaps reborn (and suspected cylon) Starbuck to find Earth. That subplot ends with a mutiny and a character losing his leg, and yet there are no consequences for either action. And Adama decides it's a good idea to keep known cylons like Tigh on the crew before and after the mutiny. This is to say nothing of the fact that humans can jump through space faster than light but use corded phones, and the amount of references to Shakespeare and Dylan, among others. Oh, I could go on and on (they just abandoned the cylon detector? No questions asked?), but I suspect the point is made. The show has been retconning like mad in hopes of trying to make it seem like the show went right from day one, when it clearly isn't so. Inconvenient little factoids like the ones found here are enought to prove the point, though because Ron Moore enjoys talking about the show, there are little nuggets like this one, from the early days of the show:
Human-like Cylons are better from a creative standpoint because the backstory
now is that the Colonials created the Cylons. The Cylons went off and developed
on their own... and then they came back in this new form.
As one can see, this was the original concept of the human cylons--that the mechanical cylons had created human models. This was also hinted at during the miniseries, when Leoben the cylon ponders whether God took souls out of humans and put them into cylons. Here's what I think happened:
  1. The plan was that mechanical cylons--or some sort of cylon authority figure, like a queen--created the humanoid cylons.
  2. The episode "Downloaded" showed humanoid cylons in the cylon society, but since only seven of them had been revealed--and Moore didn't want to reveal any more at that time.
  3. Because with all those cylons around there would have had to be a few of the unseen models, there had to be an explanation of why the others weren't present.
  4. Hence, the mysterious "final five", but what's so special about them? Why are they excluded? And why don't the other cylons know about them? I don't know what Moore's original plan for Earth was (I suspect there was none), but I suspect Moore decided at some point that the final five were from Earth. Why not tie the revelations together?
  5. And this led to the idea that the final five were not only not created by the cylons, but that they created the other humanoid cylons.
It's ridiculous. The final five rescued five cylons from Earth but created seven new ones? Why not save seven more? And why only five? What's so special about these five? Perhaps the finale will answer these questions. Perhaps not. But it suggests a stunning lack of vision for a show that only lasted four years, and it is not atypical for the details of the show. Obviously, Moore should have explored the most interesting avenues of the story (though in later seasons he clearly didn't) but it's become clear that the show is a cruel joke on the few people who still bother to tune in, as for all the mythology Moore developed and for all the stringing along he did, there was precious little there.

Now, this might be excessive criticism for a television show. I mean, you wouldn't rip CSI: New York or American Idol a new one in this sort of manner. But I think BSG deserves it for a few reasons. Number one, because the show claimed to be something more than usual television from the start. Number two, because the show has received much critical acclaim. Number three, because it is still a fanboy staple and, as much of this culture is predicated around mainstream acceptance of things like comic books and sci-fi movies it has become a cause celebre among these types, and I do not begrudge them that. I like a lot of the stuff they do. Ultimately, though, BSG has become something far less than the sum of its parts--it is a rather dour and pretentious show whose writers don't have the chops to do justice to their themes of religion, war and suffering, and its stylistic and tonal sensibilities (more is more!) that became progressively more mockable as the series went on (Adama's painting scene in the series' penultimate episode was literally funny, in much the same way as Nic Cage's overly intense "HOW'D IT GET BURNED?!" moment from The Wicker Man was). What we have here, simply, is a show that provided some decent genre entertainment (and occasionally a bit more) for a while before taking itself way too seriously and becoming more of a catalogue of the pet interests of Ron Moore than a coherent series.

So it is with some ambivalence that I say goodbye to Battlestar Galactica, with an appreciation for the show's superior early years but tempered by the idea that it's long since been time. One hopes that, in time, the show's early years--which for my money are still solid entertainment--get the recognition they deserve, while the later years are justly condemned as tainted by overreach and self-indulgence. That is how I will remember them, to be sure.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Burn After Reading, the Coen Brothers, and comedy

I recently rewatched Burn After Reading, a film that I saw when it was in theaters and only moderately liked. I have watched every Coen Brothers film at least twice (with the exceptions of Raising Arizona and Intolerable Cruelty, which I was so unimpressed with that I didn't even bother). The Coens' intricate craftsmanship requires multiple viewings, and at several points I have found myself turning around on the Coens' films after a second viewing--it wasn't until the second viewing until The Big Lebowski clicked. Burn improved a bit on the second viewing--I laughed more, and I appreciated the jabs at D.C. society, which were certainly sharp and well-aimed. However, my overall feeling was the same: the movie was a little lazy and should have been much funnier.

This got me to thinking about the Coens in general. They are two of the best filmmakers around, without a doubt, and they have a formidable catalog that contains the likes of Blood Simple, Miller's Crossing, and Fargo, not to mention No Country for Old Men and The Man Who Wasn't There. I realize that Barton Fink is more polarizing, but I tend to think it's a genius movie that is mostly a character study, done in a particularly meta way that doesn't really lend itself to easy explanation. But all those films are "serious" films, in the sense that they are primarily dramatic, though all are laced with dark humor and funny dialogue. Indeed, it occurred to me that the Coens generally succeed when attempting drama though they fail when they try to do comedy. Their comedy catalog contains little to love: Intolerable Cruelty, The Hudsucker Proxy, Raising Arizona (which some people adore but I never really cared for), The Ladykillers (which most people didn't care for and I actually liked) and now Burn After Reading. In fact, the only triumphs that I can see are The Big Lebowski and, to a lesser degree, O Brother, Where Art Thou, and there are some trends to be noted here. Cruelty, Ladykillers and Burn all felt like lazy pieces of filmmaking--at best, uninspired films that have their moments. Ladykillers has more than a few good moments but I am not sure it works as a film. Hudsucker, on the other hand, tried much too hard and wasn't too funny either. So it was a sort of counterreaction to the prevailing trend among Coen comedies. Brother succeeds, though its success owes much to its ramshackle energy and driving soundtrack and not to its overstuffed plot and overdone Homer references. Subplots involving Robert Johnson and a bipolar bankrobber barely register as the movie is too busy and has too much going on. It works, but the pacing could have been better, which is rare indeed to say about a Coens film.

Lebowski, on the other hand, is a triumph, and one of their very best. The Coens managed to include one of their typically overstuffed plots, but the plot is countered by the lethargic energy of The Dude, as played by Jeff Bridges. Bridges is the major reason why the story works: the plot unfolds around him, but he only barely understands it (like us) and he is reluctantly pulled along with it. It doesn't hurt that Bridges puts in one of the all-time great film performances, and it is seriously a thing of beauty. But Bridges is balanced by the Coens going all out in their usual plotting and dialogue tricks. The film never feels like it is just going through the motions, and the comedy is never left on the table. Ultimately, though, it isn't the plot that is funny so much as the characters, the dialogue (which is infinitely quotable) and the individual scenes.

So, on a fundamental level, I think it makes some sense to say that the Coen Brothers are simply better at doing drama than they are doing comedy. This isn't to say they aren't funny, but that they don't excel at telling funny stories, as Intolerable Cruelty will inform you, again and again, if you were to watch it, which I don't recommend. In Lebowski they manage to make the most of it by downplaying the impossibly complex story and focus on making the scenes, characters, and dialogue as funny as possible, but the humor is in the approach and not in the story. One could simply have cast different actors, trimmed out some of the dialogue, and tweaked the scenes and the film could worked just as easily as a drama. Now, I wouldn't like that one bit because I happen to think that Lebowski is near perfect, but I don't think it's an unfair thing to say.

I suppose this is another way of saying that Lebowski is basically just a drama with comedy sprinkled on top, which is fine by me since the comedy is so good. But it illustrates the lack of versatility of the Coens' approach. In retrospect, it makes sense that Burn wouldn't really work as a comedy, as the Coens have yet to demonstrate that they can master the rhythms of the comedic feature film. They've pretty much mastered drama at this point, and the critique that they're nothing but recyclers of old movies seems to have passed into obvlivion following the nonstop parade of awesomeness of No Country for Old Men, clearly a career watermark that showed that they could tackle someone else's source material and adapt it compellingly to the screen. Not that I'm going to stop watching their comedies, and I'm hoping for a No Country-level comedy from them at some point. At this point, though, they have yet to deliver one.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Five Best (And Worst) Modern Political Movies

As a political nerd in my other life, as well as a big movie fan, it is only natural that I should want to hit both of my sweet spots at once. In other endeavors this might not be advisable, but it is complicated in this instance by a simple truth: most political movies suck. They really do. They are often made by people who don't really know anything about politics and wind up saying either ridiculous, banal or just wrong things with their writing; or by informed political observers who have something to say and do a decent job of saying it. The latter is a really small group.

Therefore, I have decided to write a list of my top and bottom five political movies. My considerations are subjective, but I have judged them by the following metrics: knowledge of how politics works, knowledge of the political structure, having insights into either of the above, and generally the quality of the filmmaking. And it's biased--very, very biased. But hopefully interesting. Here goes nothing.

The Bottom Five

5. 24

Forgive me while I completely destroy the primary justification for this article right off the bat. Hey, man, what's happening here? This article is about political movies, not action-adventure TV shows, right?

This is true, but I think it works. For one thing, this show nakedly aspires to be the equivalent of a Hollywood action movie. The rhythms are the same, the paucity of the writing, the ridiculousness of the show are straight from cerebellum-shrinking Hollywood thrillers. And 24, despite what you might believe, is actually the most political show on television. Obviously there are actors who play political characters, and the political process is (incorrectly) displayed. For one thing, the president isn't going to know who Jack Bauer is. He (or she) isn't going to have a clue who Jack Bauer is because that destroys plausible deniability if you have Jack running around engaging in covert actions and doing illegal things. This isn't too hard to ascertain, unless you're a Hollywood producer like Joel Surnow who hasn't likely read a single book about the subject.

Then there's the little matter of this show being an unabashed brief for right-wing security policies. The show, despite its ridiculousness, is taken seriously by a lot of people who then believe that we have to let Jack Bauer torture and eavesdrop to his heart's content. Never mind that torture doesn't work, and that in The Dark Side numerous federal agents seem to have more success with noncoersive methods. The show presents a brief for the Bush security state that doesn't acknowledge its excesses and treats every character who objects as either an ignoramus or a traitor. This show is a revolting piece of bile that has wended its way into government policy (see the aforementioned The Dark Side) and even into Supreme Court briefs. Luckily, its ratings have declined. Hopefully the age of Obama will see the end of this particular brand of "patriotism".

4. The Contender

The Contender is a weightless and implausible film that seems to grasp nothing about politics, but it thinks it grasps the mechanics of political power exactly. To be fair, the film is not entirely lacking in grace notes: the performance of Jeff Bridges as a practical and realistic president is a triumph, and the character is well-written. Additionally, the movie actually bothers to give its characters party designations, which is a pet peeve of mine. If you're making a movie about politics, just give the party affiliations, okay? Not doing so seems to smack of not wanting to alienate potential audience members, but I tend to think that most Republicans are going to be able to handle a movie with some Democratic characters.

But the movie has so many problems. First, Joan Allen's vice presidential nominee is so ridiculous and implausible a character that the movie simply doesn't work. The reality of this country is such that Atheists simply cannot win public office, and this is regrettable, but Allen portrays one in the film. Additionally, she used to be a Republican Atheist, which is even less realistic--why not go whole hog and have Bridges's president be pro-life, the Republicans can be environmentally friendly, and Mormons can be 45% of the country and solid Democrats to boot? In a political movie, overlooking these details is inexcusable. And, in addition, she has evidently run in tons of elections with a major scandal story hanging over her head but it has never come out. And she's politically tone deaf enough to refuse to dispense with a silly fraud story when she's about to become vice president and possibly even president? I've heard people complain that the character of President Bartlet on The West Wing is too idealistic to exist in real life--I disagree, because I think we just elected him. But the idea that someone combining insufferable self-righteousness with such poor political instincts and such an odd life story would be elected out of the middle of the Heartland stretches belief. Allen's character is absurd. Others fare better--Gary Oldman's Republican antagonist seems about right, if a little colorless and too self-consciously evil. Christian Slater, surprisingly, does a good job as a Democrat who goes along with Oldman's schemes to derail a prospective vice president of his own party. And that's Sam Elliott as Bridges's chief of staff, so you have no complaints there.

Still, the movie's poor writing doesn't end with the Allen character. There's the character played by William L. Petersen, for example. He's the Jerry Brown-ish Governor of Virginia and a Democratic heavyweight who hopes to get the V.P. appointment. To this end (spoilers!), he stages a Chappaquiddick-like disaster in which he gets to play hero and to try to save a life. It is later discovered that the (deceased) victim was a soldier of fortune who had an run an advertisement in a soldier of fortune magazine. (Okay, they're mercenaries. Screw the PC term.) Petersen is presented as a sharp and ruthless politician, so why would he do something stupid like this, when even a cursory investigation would easily have discovered the arrangement? There's a technical term for when smart characters do dumb things: it's called "bad writing" and you have perhaps heard of it.

But the most offensive thing about the movie is its recycling of insipid Clinton-era Democratic Party talking points. Allen is supposed to be commended for refusing to dignify questions about her private life with a response, but consider if the movie had turned out differently: let's say that Petersen got away with his stunt temporarily and Allen's nomination went down due to unanswered allegations of personal impropriety. Then let's say that Bridges nominates Petersen for VP. And then the news about Peterson's impropriety breaks, and Oldman successfully runs for president against a party minus a standard-bearer that has seen two VP picks go down for personal improprieties. At the end of the day, Allen will have her principles despite being seen as a slut, while the Republicans would be ascendant and Oldman's corruption would lead to a worse United States. And virtually all of this would be the fault of the idealist. The Contender earns its raspberries for framing politics as a battle between idealists and cynics, between holy martyrs and contemptible villains; for too many poorly written characters; for not realizing that politics is the art of the possible; and generally for not engaging in any sort of sustained argument of any sort that doesn't make the movie sag under the weight of trying to valorize Bill Clinton's behavior with respect to Monicagate. Case closed.

3. The Sum Of All Fears

Both of my lists feature a Tom Clancy novel turned into a book. The Sum Of All Fears might or might not count as a "political" movie, but it features an actor playing a president, as well as other actors playing various cabinet secretaries and political officials, so I'll count it. It's not as much of a stretch as X-Men 3: X-Men United, which has to be on some sort of worst of list somewhere, though just not here.

It's pretty difficult to mount a defense of TSOAF. The book, as I recall, was decent though very long. The movie changes one critical element of the book: the book featured a terror plot by Arab terrorists after a successful resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. The movie, made after 9/11 and hoping to avoid getting smacked around by groups like CAIR decided that it would be better to make the villains neo-Nazis. So we go from the gritty minutiae of intelligence politics in Clear and Present Danger to Batman villains in TSOAF? Hell, yes! The point of the book was that even acts of peace can have deadly blowback if some extremists don't accept them. But the movie doesn't get there--neutered, it flounders in trying to maintain even basic credibility, and largely fails at that. It actually manages to become more farfetched than Patriot Games, with its royals in the government and silly revenge-driven IRA plot.

This is all to say nothing of casting vacuous nothing Ben Affleck as a super-smart CIA analyst. Was Tara Reid unavailable? Affleck simply doesn't have the chops to play an agency braniac, and while Morgan Freeman is as compelling as always the film doesn't hold with bad writing on one side and a weak protagonist on the other. As this is a pretty reviled movie I'll refrain from piling on further, but the scene where the Russian and American presidents clash over text messaging is insane. I suppose that the Facebook servers must have been vaporized in the blast.

All in all, this might have been an interesting film with a different leading man and an unneutered script. The makings are there. However, this movie comes to exemplify suck, and is the only Clancy novel so far to be better than the movie version.

2. Lions for Lambs

What is art? The presence of this phrase at the beginning of a review usually indicates a dire review to come, and this is no exception. Still, mocking this piece of rancid social commentary seems a bit too much like shooting fish in a barrel. It got terrible reviews and bombed at the box office, further cementing Robert Redford's irrelevance while continuing in the tradition of studio political films that are "thoughtful" rather than thoughtful. The difference is important. Thoughtful films present you with facts and argumentation and ask for you to consider things differently. "Thoughtful" films (i.e. propaganda) tell you how it is. One type of movie asks you to use your brain and the other asks the opposite. Simple.

LfL (rather an ungainly acronym) is a failure partly because it is propaganda, but partly also because it doesn't really raise any interesting new points about the issues it purports to cover (making it as timely as yesterday's newspaper), and partly because the whole thing is rather poorly dramatized. Rather than feeling like a superior episode of The West Wing--which is probably the best the film could have hoped for--it winds up feeling more like watching a bad Law & Order rerun where you vaguely remember the headline from which the episode was ripped. LfL winds up being a series of not particularly exciting conversations that will bore those who don't follow the issues and will bore those that do, though for different reasons, and fans of strong story and characters are bound to be disappointed as well. The film is almost downright Randian in its characterization: noble martyrs, disgusting sellout villains, and a few in the middle who make their choices. The Wire it ain't.

So this brings us back to the question: what is art? On some level, a little bit of indirectness is essential to art. After all, if you could just say what you mean, why write a novel about it, or make a movie about it? Lions for Lambs commits the unforgivable sin of telling us everything, rather than presenting us with, well, art. This is regrettable but not unforseeable.

1. Absolute Power

This Clint Eastwood film has one of the all-time killer openings in movies: Gene Hackman's president engages in some rough sex that turns deadly while being watched by Eastwood himself, playing the film's protagonist, a jewel thief who accidentally witnesses a murder at the behest of the president. The sequence is compelling, and it is reminiscent of another sequence in Robert Altman's The Player in which the protagonist watches another character talking to him on a cell phone. It's a comment about the voyeurism of movies, just as the scene from Power.

Would that the rest of the movie were as subtle or clever. After this scene, the movie gives into rightist paranoia about the Clinton Administration. It's easy to forget, but that fat Arkansan nearly drove the righties nuts without doing anything at all, up until the point where Republican members of congress speculated about strike forces coming to steal their guns (and yes, that is a reference to Helen Chenoweth's black helicopters) and it was common for conservatives to speculate on whether the Clintons regularly had people whacked (Jim LeBoutlier, among others). These stories were generally picked up by the mainstream media and voters, depressingly, voted in Republicans year after year. I don't understand why such fanciful narratives took hold, as it wasn't too hard to find things to not make a person like Bill Clinton.

So, while the movie looks like it's going to deliver some sort of pronouncement on the Clinton years it turns out to be a pretty standard-issue "thriller" that doesn't really prove too exciting or unusual. It's all standard cop-vs-crook stuff you've seen a million times, and the finale (does E.G. Marshall get away with killing the president?) compounds the idiocy. It's the worst kind of political movie: a superficial stock genre film with a political backdrop that doesn't really have anything that isn't banal to say. It's a formula that has proven sadly durable: see, for example, Syriana.

The Top Five

As much as I wanted to include 25th Hour in this list, I simply could not justify it as it is not really a political film. It is a movie that virtually embodies September 11th, but it doesn't really talk about the political implications of that day and tries more to get at what people were feeling and thinking at the time. I do think it's one of a very short list of things that tell anything about 9/11 (Springsteen's The Rising being another), but it steers clear of politics, which is atypical for a Spike Lee film (or joint, as it were). I couldn't put it on the list, but it is nonetheless valuable for understanding this age. And since we're talking about modern movies, I suppose that Mr. Smith Goes To Washington and Advise and Consent are out of the running, though Smith is definitely worth your time, and Consent is pretty good as well, though a little stagy. Anyway, that's all I've got to babble out. With no further ado...

5. Primary Colors

A wonderful movie that ought to be absorbed by historians trying to understand Bill Clinton. Here he is, presented in all his glory--at once a huckster and a man who cares about people, a man who loves his wife but loves screwing anything within his sights, a man who can make you optimistic and cynical nearly at the same time. He is certainly a character, and the film is illuminating, well-written and well-acted. And I say this all as someone who is not much of a Clinton fan. As a liberal Democrat I can appreciate what he did for the country and for liberalism--i.e. make it less toxic--while still believing that he compromised too much and didn't really secure a good deal for his supporters. And his inability to take responsibility for his actions, coupled with his symbiotic relationship with his malefactors, would eventually lead to a presidency that disappointed in many ways in reforming much of anything, though after George W. Bush his responsible stewardship of the nation is looking awfully good.

This is the rare movie that offers a penetrating analysis of its subject, all the while making good observations about the nature of politics these days. It understands how the game works and

4. Wag The Dog

There are movies with strong premises that sound promising and don't deliver. Wag The Dog actually does deliver on its simple premise of depicting a totally media-made war whose sole purpose is to hide a president's indiscretion, but the timing of its release--right after the Lewinsky scandal and President Clinton's subsequent bombing of Iraq--meant that it wouldn't be recognized for its more penetrating insights. In fact, it shouldn't be too surprising that the media would be impressed with perhaps the most banal observation in the entire movie considering their incisive handling of the abuses of the Bush Administration--of course political leaders launch military action after domestic setbacks. Margaret Thatcher had her little war in the Falkland Islands, Reagan had his Grenada invasion, and Ehud Olmert had his little Gaza war right before removing his rancid presence from the political scene. Military action allows a leader to be seen by a weary public as strong and resolute, distracting the people from whatever corruption/failed policies/secret arms deals they are focusing on and putting that attention back on the great and glorious game of warmaking. And it always works, except for when it doesn't.

It works in Wag The Dog thanks largely to Dustin Hoffman's performance as a Hollywood studio head who agrees to help Robert De Niro's political fixer create a war. Dog has quite a few weak elements--as a film, it's rather flawed. By the time Woody Harrelson's mentally retarded war hero enters the stage the film has long since abandoned an attempt to be anything other than low comedy. But during its first two acts the David Mamet-penned script manages to get in quite a few interesting and highly debatable ideas: first, that being able to control the media--and more importantly the news cycle--is key to convincing the public to adopt a course of action. Secondly, the movie argues that the media will never be skeptical about war stories, as they are simply too good for business and too easy to report. Third, the movie argues that the media is no longer in the business of actually breaking news but rather of rebreaking it, and that circulating a clip of a young girl running across a bridge dodging gunfire can quickly become a viral news staple (and keep in mind that this movie predated YouTube by a number of years). Fourth, the media is more concerned with the presentation of news rather than the content of said news--a snappy song about defending American borders matters more than a reasoned argument from an opposing presidential candidate. All of this adds up to an argument that the media's influence over politics is in presenting a series of images and sounds--which is what they have effectively reduced politics to--and selling that content in a way that helps them out the most.

Now, I don't agree with all of the ideas in the film--I tend to think that the newscycle-centric approach to politics doesn't always work, and one need only look at the success of Barack Obama to conclude that. But Wag The Dog is a sharp piece of media and political criticism, and its cynicism and lack of answers make it all the more compelling a piece of polemic.

3. Clear and Present Danger

Tom Clancy's books almost invariably make better movies. That's not necessarily a slight on Mr. Clancy, who is a talented storyteller who knows the military and, to a lesser extent, politics (though he definitely knows national security politics). Clancy, though, isn't a disciplined writer (this is a way of saying that his books are too fucking long and that he needs to trim them down to under 1000 pages) and he's not a great prose stylist. But the films based on The Hunt For Red October, Patriot Games, and Clear and Present Danger are all worthwhile entertainments, and the latter is quite a bit more, while the middle entry is a weak film whose plausibility is weak. (The Ben Affleck vehicle The Sum Of All Fears is described above.)

Clear and Present Danger is the strongest of all of them, and it is precisely because it is simply so plausible. Most movies have plots that require suspension of disbelief, but Danger does not. The story is actually pretty simple: the president's friend is murdered in conjunction with a drug deal. The president--in a way so as to ensure plausible deniability--signals that he wants to escalate the war on drugs. This is done by putting a CIA-fronted group of commandos on the ground in Colombia, with orders to basically gum up the works in drug country.

The movie is so brilliant because it captures what America has done wrong in foreign policy for the past few decades. The American onslaught is calculated in order to have the least political cost, and the halfheartedness of the effort means that it is rolled back as soon as it is convenient. The mechanics of governmental decisionmaking are well rendered here, the lack of concern for illegality and the comfort with realpolitik are reminiscent of the Cold War but still present today, the insulation between decisionmakers and the results of those decisions is a timeless theme that is, if anything, even more relevant after G. W. Bush, and the historic use of the CIA to conduct foreign policy on the cheap--and the disastrous results--are exactly in keeping with the history of United States policy over the past fifty years. Clear and Present Danger is ostensibly about the drug war, but it's really about what happens when politicians aren't willing to commit to victory when lives are on the line and the disastrous consequences that occurs. Something to think about when pondering how our last president ignored advice to send several hundred thousand soldiers to Iraq because doing so would be politically inconvenient.

2. Munich

Munich was nominated for Best Picture at the 2005 Oscars, and yet it feels strangely underrated. It features several note-perfect performances, including from Eric Bana as the leader of a strike team meant to exact vengeance for the Munich massacre, Daniel Craig as a fanatical driver whose devotion to the cause never waivers, and Mathieu Amalric as a French intelligence broker who might be working both sides, and Geoffrey Rush as Bana's hot-tempered case officer. It also features Steven Spielberg working with one of the best scripts he's ever directed, at the height of his visual and storytelling powers. So many masterful touches, like the contrast between the stark, black-and-white photography of the Munich incident itself to the final scene, in which a bewildered Bana stands on a playground in the middle of a New York City dominated by gray, are so subtle that you only notice them the second or third time through.

Honestly? It's a masterpiece for a director whose career is replete with them. I'm not a huge Spielberg fan but I can appreciate the artistry. Munich is a crowning moment. It's hard to imagine anyone else making the movie so alive and gripping, and yet Spielberg suppresses his usual triumphalism (of the sort that ruined Minority Report) in exchange for something that feels far more authentic and complicated. Munich isn't completely impartial, but it isn't agitprop in any sense. The movie's argumentation can be compared most easily to GoodFellas: the first half of the movie is tense, colorful, and a little exciting. The team seems to be driven by a firm moral calculus--they're just out for justice, plain and simple--even to the point of risking a mission in order to save a little girl. For the first half of the movie, we identify with our heroes and it all seems right and fun. But the second half turns everything around--dead targets are replaced with ever more bloodthirsty extremists. The lines don't seem clear cut anymore. The team gets hunted and members start dying, one by one. Bana's character winds up unable to live with the things he's done, and flees his country to move to New York. Bana, unlike his Palestinian counterpart that he briefly encounters in the film, comes to believe that it isn't worth it to sacrifice everything for one's home.

This dynamic--home vs. sacrifice and sin--is an interesting one, equally as applicable to Israel as it is to America. There are a significant number of people in this country who believe that survival is paramount and anything that stops attacks on sovereign American soil is justified. There are people--a lot, frankly--that simply saw the Iraq War as vengeance on the Middle East after September 11. These people are mad, and we shouldn't hesitate to say so. But the movie ties into Iraq far more clearly than that: sometimes vengeance is disguised as necessary sacrifice, and sometimes the whole endeavour is predicated upon lies told to us by high-ranking officials. The mission turns out to be counterproductive and hollow, and Bana winds up feeling lost and used at the end of it. But, still, Geoffrey Rush's character's point about trimming one's fingernails has some logic to it as well--you can't just not respond to attacks. Munich doesn't try to keep things simple. This is part of why it is so underrated--it is probably the most substantial movie of ideas this decade.

1. Spartan

Of course Number 1 has to be a film you've never heard of, correct? Well, I can't help it. Spartan is probably the most knowing film about American politics made during the past decade, and the fact that nobody saw this 2004 gem doesn't change the fact that it fundamentally understands the tradeoffs of the post-9/11 national security state, and communicates them in a particularly compelling way. Spartan also succeeds as a masterpiece of misdirection, which unveils a pretty significant twist more than halfway through but stays tonally consistent, and it has the usual Mamet mysteries but doesn't try too hard to be a mindfuck (a la Spanish Prisoner). Instead, it merely unfolds its story gracefully. Basically (and here's a spoiler alert), the president's daughter is kidnapped, and special agent Val Kilmer is put in charge of getting her back. The chase is abandoned when the daughter evidently turns up dead and drowned, only to be confronted with a key piece of evidence that suggests that the story isn't that tidy, that the girl might still be alive, and that there might be quite a bit more rot in the machinery than he could ever have figured possible.

This is another David Mamet film, and it's quite a good one: it's anchored by an impressive leading performance by Kilmer, who is as charismatic and energetic as he's ever been, and he manages the famously difficult Mametian dialogue without a hitch. The film is mesmerizing and even dreamlike at times--throughout the first hour, the story unfolds naturally and deliberately. We learn what we need to without being spoon-fed, while preserving quite a bit of mystery for later on. There has been some complaints about the climax, which it has been alleged was a little too expected. I tend to agree, though the movie advances some key insights that any thinking person ought to agree with at this point. The film alleges, fundamentally, that the war on terror and the expansion of presidential powers will lead to abuses of those powers, and that preserving that power might even go so far as to break society's deepest bonds, in this case, the bond of family. It's a pretty simple message: power corrupts. It's actually a pretty conservative message in the philosophical sense, which should not be surprising as David Mamet is conservative. But it's one that today's so-called conservatives simply do not understand, blinded as they were (and are) by partisanship and hero worship of mediocrities. Nevertheless, the notion of a corrupt federal government--which rationalizes itself with talk of protecting the country but in reality is merely interested in cementing and expanding its own power--is exactly what wound up happening in the Bush Administration. What is really noteworthy is that Mamet made this movie in 2004, when Bush was still popular and winning his reelection battle, and many of his worst screwups had never come to light. It's no wonder the movie bombed--it told a truth that people didn't want to hear. But now that time has passed it ought to be reconsidered for the prowess of the filmmaking, as well as the potency and timeliness of its message, whose simplicity and power ought to be absorbed before the next time the government tries to lurch toward power.