Friday, February 27, 2009

Notes On Blogging Aesthetics XVIII

I think it’s kind of boring to lead you into all of the details right away, because then you know what’s going to happen and the scene where it comes off is no good. But it can start with a perfectly good scene and then go back later and explain the story.
--Howard Hawks

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Happy Endings

I'm a bit behind on this, but wanted to call your attention to this post by friend of all things Bubblegum and film blogger extraordinaire Jonathan Lapper. Jonathan had blogged earlier about the problematic situation in which the Slumdog cast and producers found themselves, and it's nice to see that things seem to be ending happily for all involved. I have yet to see Slumdog Millionaire-- it opens in Cineville this Friday, so I'm hoping to catch it next week-- but whether or not I end up liking the film, I share Jonathan's admiration for the attempts by Danny Boyle and the producers to do the right thing.

This Is, I Promise, My Absolute Last Post On This Subject

Comics writer/pop culture blogger Mark Evanier notes that the Academy has now posted the "In Memoriam" montage on YouTube, finally allowing us to see what the remarkably misguided show producers and director ignored with their hyperactive, performance-obsessed camera. It's actually a lovely short film, and Queen Latifah's voice works beautifully over the images (as several critics have noted, they should have just had her pre-record the track over the film in the first place, thus sparing us the confusing split between remembrance and live performance). As Evanier points out, it's not perfect:

Patrick McGoohan was in some pretty good movies and George Carlin was in more than you might think...but neither was included. Nor was Eartha Kitt. Nor was composer Neal Hefti. Nor were Harvey Korman, Earle Hagen, Mel Ferrer, Alexander Courage, John Phillip Law, Irving Brecher, George Furth, Beverly Garland or Guy McElwaine.

True, true-- but we do get Manny Farber and Jules Dassin and Claude Berri and Kon Ichikawa, none of whom are "obvious" choices or household names, but all of whom are deserving (to say nothing of Charles Joffe, former producer and manager of Woody Allen, whose work helped bring to fruition the most important voice in '70s American film comedy, and John Michael Hayes, ace screenwriter for Alfred Hitchcock). And for me it's always a pleasure to see clips of Cyd Charisse and Evelyn Keyes.

So kudos to the Academy for trying to rectify their error, and "boo" to show producers Bill Condon and Laurence Mark for their blind adherence to stage show aesthetics. Then again, given how ruthlessly he reduced the great George Cukor down to a cheap punchline in Gods and Monsters, I can't be too surprised that Condon could be so insensitive about Hollywood's great past.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

I Can't Stop Watching This

This video was linked at Oliver Willis's site last night, and watched it three times in a row, laughing uproariously. I've been sending the link to friends, and finally decided I should post it here.

I was talking to someone yesterday about how the action spectacle seems to have absorbed a lot of the musical's old audience: the choreography of Angelina Jolie flipping over a subway car seems more attractive to modern audiences than watching Cyd Charisse's leg slip down Astaire's shoulder (alas). The mashup above seems to confirm that overlap, but also acts as the musical's revenge: by cleverly cutting on movement and color, it suggests that within every po-faced sci-fi spectacular lies a desire to simply dance.

You Know...It Is Possible To Take Fandom Too Far

I saw an ad for "Spider-Man Eau de Toilette" while reading a Marvel comic today.

The tag line read, "With Great Power Comes...Great Fragrances!" Uh-huh.

As Janeane Garafalo says in The Truth About Cats And Dogs, "You can love your pets...Just don't love your pets."

Spectator Sports

Just a follow-up on one of my pet peeves from Sunday's Oscar ceremony: the excellent sports columnist King Kaufman shares my annoyance, and makes a clever link to sports coverage.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Screening Room

"I don't know what it feels like at home," Danny Boyle gushed onstage as he picked up his directing Oscar last night, "but here in the theater [this show] looks wonderful."

Well, Danny, I was watching at home, so I can tell you-- on TV, it looked awful.

In saying this, I'm not knocking any of the winners, or lodging a protest that a favorite didn't take home an award. Richard Jenkins and Robert Downey, Jr. aside, I had no dogs in any of these hunts. I happily congratulate Kate Winslet for winning this year's "Color of Money" award, given to the wonderful performer who wins an career-honoring Oscar for a film no one really cares about; I thought Sean Penn gave a very gracious and thoughtful speech; I liked Danny Boyle's Tigger reference; and while it was difficult to watch, there was something moving about seeing Heath Ledger's family accept his posthumous award.

No, my complaints aren't with the winners, but with the show itself, and specifically how the show failed to recognize the screen on which it was broadcast.

There was a big article in the Sunday Times in which the show's production designer, David Rockwell, spoke of his desire to "redefine the show’s DNA,” a process the paper said might "recapture the show’s nightclubby, Champagne-popping, convivial, communal roots." This echoed an earlier piece in the Times, where show producers Bill Condon and Laurence Mark explained, "“Once upon a time, if I’m not mistaken, it was a party...We’d like to bring back a little bit of party flavor.” In what might have been an ominous foreshadowing, Rockwell described the show as "community theater on amazing steroids."

Reading the article last week, and Rockwell's plans to craft "immersive environments," I kept thinking, "They do know they're crafting a show for television, right?" Everything Rockwell, Condon and Mark talked about suggested that it would be a really exciting experience for the folks in the room (and Boyle's comments seem to suggest they succeeded in thrilling that audience), but that the viewers at home would almost be an afterthought.

After an incredibly dragging, close-to-four-hour show, that hunch turned out to be correct. The lowered, close-to-the-audience stage allowed for some fun initial moments, but eventually felt too shallow, too spread out at either end, and too cramped at the bottom: it was sometimes difficult to see figures in long shot, and the screens in the background were too far away (and hence too small to see on TV). That wide expanse of stage ironically looked cramped on TV because the produers insisted on filling it with stagy props and set-pieces for presenters to incorporate into their routine. The smushed rows of performers made it harder to do reaction shots and close-ups, which further took me out of the experience. Having a jazz band off to the side might have sounded cool in the theater, but the distance from the performers onstage meant that cues were missed and technical snafus occasionally drowned out introductions (also, what's the point of having a snazzy-looking, neon-lit band if they're so crammed to the side that the TV audience can barely see them?).

All this came to a head during the "In Memoriam" section, which came at a very late 11:30 or so. In theory, the idea of the lovely Queen Latifah singing a song over clips of those movie folk who passed away last year is a good one. In practice, it really didn't work. In part that's because having a performer onstage means we're distracted from the clips (which are, after all, the point of the segment), as the camera spent an inordinate amount of time on Latifah before sloooowly zooming into the flat screens that dotted the stage (which meant the divine Cyd Charisse got shafted: you could barely see her, and by the time the camera reached her screen, the clip had changed). In part it's because the broad width of the stage means it took the cameras longer to move around and capture the multiple screens showing clips one after the next. But that multiple screens notion is the heart of the problem: it took clips meant to honor a life and fractured them into Tetris pieces, transforming one of the more contemplative moments in this smarmy, self-aggrandizing ceremony into an exhausting exercise in toggling. It was actually kind of offensive: instead of honoring the dead, it was a "gee whiz! Look at our set!" moment that completely flattened any emotional impact it might have had.

None of this means there weren't nice moments in the show. Hugh Jackman was a smashing host: funny, talented, charming and smooth, he entered the stage with a great deal of good humor and seemed to really love being the MC. His opening song with Anne Hathaway was a delight (and kudos to Hathaway for being a good sport, and singing surprisingly well). There wasn't nearly enough of Jackman-- why have such an appealing host if you're barely going to have him onstage?-- but when he was there he was quite enjoyable. Steve Martin and Tina Fey were predictably terrific. Many of the other presenters were duds (if I never see Sarah Jessica Parker again, I will be a very happy man, and if Daniel Craig's pained smile was any indication as he stood next to her, he agrees), but I did enjoy the actor ensembles that gave out the performing awards; particularly when they had a personal connection to the actor (as with Robert De Niro and Sean Penn), their tributes were touching and insightful, and more interesting than just reading names on a card (a shame they didn't extend this idea to the non-movie-star awards). The almost pedagogical structure of the show (moving from pre- to post-production of an imaginary film) was a welcome experiment, even if its slow pace meant it was ultimately a failed one. And some of the musical numbers were cute (seeing Beyonce is never a bad thing).

But those musical numbers also suggest the central problem: that Condon, et. al., were staging a Broadway show, instead of a TV show about the movies. I love Broadway very, very much, and Jackman's two numbers definitely hit my musical geek spot. But after awhile, it felt a little much, and more than a little out of place. I never thought I'd say this, but I started missing the montages, the self-congratulatory clip shows, the dull mini-docs about technical awards: not because those moments are great, but because they let us see stuff about movies (when they did a brilliant montage of political film clips towards the end, as the lead-in to Best Picture, it was a cool drink after a long desert walk, and it really gave me a new appreciation for what skillful editors can do with that form).

As the Times pieces suggested, the Oscars are a strange melange of media: a live show, broadcast on TV, about the movies. Generations of producers have grappled with those gaps and contradictions, and in doing so have offered us some deliciously strange moments.

But good or bad, those moments were generally structured around the recognition that they were pitching the show to two audiences: those in the theater, and those at home. By fetishizing the immediacy of the staging space, and further fetishizing the song-and-dance aspects of their talent (Rockwell happily admitted he's a child of theater, not the movies), this year's Oscars lost that balance (what, to paraphrase Fitzgerald, we might call the whole equation of the awards show). In a weird way, our connection to the immediacy of that space can only come through a mediation provided by the camera and the screen-- like the movies themselves, their "authenticity" works only through a gauze of artificiality. Minus that, we're on the outside of the temple with our faces pressed up against the stained glass: the gods inside might be beautiful, but what's the point of the ceremony if they won't let us in to worship them?

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Mashing The Nerd Paradigm

The titular setting of Joss Whedon's new show, Dollhouse, sports a layout that feels both modern and traditional-- it's a sleek set of concentric circles, polished wood and gleaming metal that's enveloped in shadow, and lit from above and the side by halogen-like panels that glow like Japanese lanterns (this Asian influence can also be seen in the neon-lit night-club that our heroine, Echo, dances in during the pre-credits sequence: its lovely pink pillars and lampposts look like something out of manga). As Echo walks in front of them in the screen shot to the left, they almost look like out-of-order Tetris pieces, fragments that can be re-ordered depending on the specific game one is playing.

In that sense, they offer a clue to the overall design of the show (whose constantly shifting narrative parts and tones ask the viewer to take a more interactive stance) and the generally mixed critical response Dollhouse has thus far received (a response that seems to be one part the actual show, one part memories and opinions-- good and bad-- of past Whedon shows, and one part get-the-knives-out hipster disdain, because the current conventional wisdom seems to be that only 30 Rock gets the free pass for its flaws).

These responses have ranged from the "hang in there and keep trying" uncertainty of Ken Tucker to the dismay of Whedon fan/inveterate Kathy Griffin booster James Wolcott to the hilariously overwrought vitriol of The Washington Post's Tom Shales, who seems to be gunning for his colleague George Will's bow-tie in the fuddy-duddy sweepstakes (h/t to blog pal Bill Bob for pointing this one out):

If "Dollhouse," a pretentious and risible jumble premiering tonight on that most quixotic of national networks, were a piece of music, it would have to be some sort of funky-junky, hip-hop, rinky-tinky, ragtime madrigal.

If that sounds like a mish-mash of mumbo jumbo, good, because so is the show.

Shales later sniffs, "Whedon, who directed the pilot, certainly dressed it up stylishly, but I'll take simple coherence over fancy-pants trappings any day. After all, this is television, not an art-house cinema in Greenwich Village."

Buried in the steaming dung-pile of Shales' anti-intellectualism is an interesting point about the show's fractured visual and narrative approach: he's not incorrect to call it a "mish-mash," but the question is, is that a good or a bad thing?

(I'm reminded of the famous story Roger Ebert has told many times about a woman calling him at his Sun-Times office 35 years ago and asking him what he thought of Bergman's Cries and Whispers. "I thought it was the best film of the year," Ebert told her, eliciting from the woman this wonderful response: "Oh, thanks! That doesn't sound like anything we'd want to see").

To put it another way: rather than thinking about Dollhouse as a "mish-mash," maybe it's better to read it as a mashup, a form of television that allows us to rethink artistic personality for a digital age? Shales even alludes to the musical definition of mashup in his description, with its explicit reference to hip-hop sampling, but chooses not to think through the implications of his insight (he's like the Chauncey Gardiner of TV critics).

Questions of memory and identity are built into Dollhouse's very concept. Echo (Eliza Dushku) first appears in the pre-credits sequence as a scared and hopped-up young woman (think Faith in her Season One appearance on Angel), and Dushku's line readings seem off, melodramatic, over-the-top; for a moment, it really made me appreciate how well Sarah Michelle Gellar anchored seven years of Buffy, and I wondered if maybe Dushku functioned better as a supporting actress. Echo is promised a mysterious "clean slate" by Olivia Williams' wonderfully oily Ms. DeWitt, and we flash-foward into her new life as a "doll," a marketable commodity rented out for various fantasies (or what DeWitt euphemistically refers to as "appointments"), and here seen seducing a man in a night-club. Dushku seems much more comfortable in the part from here on out, as if it took a different kind of role to bring her confidence back (the "doll" a lovely meta-vehicle for an actress). She flirts with the man and then skips out into the daylight (her transition from the dark club to the sunshine mediated by those neon pillars I mentioned earlier), where a van picks her up and returns her to the corporation. Her mind is wiped, and she becomes the blank vehicle for her next assignment, which turns out to be a hostage crisis.

All of this happens in the first ten minutes of the show, and I've only described about half the action. That's a lot to absorb, particularly given Whedon's almost New Wavish editing patterns, which are full of sharp breaks and ellipses (as even Shales had to note, the show looks fantastic, and is the clear beneficiary of both a larger Fox budget and Whedon's recent forays into cinema). Dollhouse had a famously difficult gestation (which has no doubt shaped some of the more gossipy responses to the show), and what aired last Friday was actually the show's second pilot. Reports suggested that Fox wanted something that more clearly outlined the show's direction and offered viewers clearer introduction and exposition (some of the best clips from last year's initial teaser were missing from last week's episode, but I hope they're repurposed for future eps).

They got that-- by the end of the first hour, we've been introduced to many of the major players and the overall concept-- but this is still a much denser visual and narrative weave than Buffy or Angel, which slowly built their mythologies on relatively linear mission statements ("Cheerleader Saves The World/High School Is Hell" and "Dark Knight Detective/Redemption Is Hell," respectively). Dollhouse feels a lot more like Whedon's last Fox show, Firefly, where we were dropped in medias res into a strange new world, and given a lot of puzzle pieces without a clear initial sense of the picture they formed.

Echo's abusive past; the psychotic drive of Tahmoh Penikett's government agent; the strained idealism of Harry Lennix's Dollhouse operative; and the opaquely sinister charm of Olivia Williams: all of this is thrown out at us and teased as something deeper and even more bizarre than what we've already seen (the shadows are narrative, then, as well as visual). There's a fascinating rhythm between long shot (often used as eerie punctuation, as when we see the doll beds from overhead) and tight close-up or medium shot: the wider view offers quick views of dense and fascinating spaces, while the close-up takes away our ability to see the space around the characters, enhances the sense of disorientation and claustrophobia that Echo feels.

Along with that, few of the performers here come to us as blank slates: the characters are both hemmed in and freed up by the personas of the people playing them. Dushku shot to cult fame as roughneck Slayer Faith on Buffy, and Dollhouse has a lot of fun both confirming and reconfiguring the image that role established. Tahmoh Penikett can still be seen on the final episodes of Battlestar Galactica immediately following Dollhouse, and its hard not to read some of Helo's intensity into Agent Paul Bremer. Most fascinating is Olivia Williams' DeWitt, whose controlling menace seems like such an inversion of the persona established in films like Rushmore and Miss Austen Regrets-- she's the steel fist in the lace glove, and all the more chilling for it.

Whedon knows all that, and also knows that the most notable past on the show is his; this is really the first time he's come to a new show with heightened expectations (and the possibility of not living up to them). To his credit, he seems to want to stretch into some new areas while maintaining familiar themes (the difficulty of self-knowledge, the paradoxes of desire, the idea of redemption as a process rather than a place). The "clean slate" concept lets Whedon run a fascinating mixture of ongoing arc/stand-alone anthology style show, and one of the vertiginous pleasures of Dollhouse for me was the rack-focus like movement between the immediate events of the episode (such as the hostage crisis) and what they meant for Echo's coming to self-awareness: the trick of the show only works if you remind yourself that everything we're seeing is a set-up, a role she is playing, and not a fully "authentic" character.

That role-playing was one of the points Ken Tucker pointed to as problematic (how can we invest in the character, he asked, if the character is always changing), but I find it thrilling. I think the challenge it poses is a fascinating one, because rather than taking us completely out of the narrative, it leaves us suspended: we don't have the investment we might in, say, Buffy, but there is an investment there. It's just that it comes to us in a deconstructive way, asking us to care about the characters while simultaneously reminding us that all TV is a set-up, a Wizard of Oz-like magic trick.

I find this more complex take on style and character heartening, not least because it seems to be forcing Whedon out of his usual love affair with the Nerd Paradigm. An example of this appears in every Whedon show, most famously the character of Willow Rosenberg (who was clearly Whedon's Mary Sue). Later iterations include such characters as Angel's Fred and Firefly's Kaylee, and their common traits include intense intelligence, social awkwardness, and a secret strength that ends up idealizing their dorkiness. It's a paradigm that has functioned as wish fulfillment for both Whedon's writing staff and a wide swath of his audience; but what initially feels like a fun break with stereotypes just ends up creating a new set of them along different prejudicial lines, as what once felt like a broad a textured set of characters has sometimes ended up feeling boiled down to more singular definitions of "heroism," definitions which end up pandering to their audience in depressingly familiar ways.

Examples of the Nerd Paradigm pop up in Dollhouse, too, and one of them is even played by Angel's Amy Acker. But where Willow or the odious Tom Lenk would be framed as heroic, the geeks here feel menacing, imbricated into the corruption of the Dollhouse with everyone else (Fran Kranz is quite wonderful as the 'house's resident genius-- he can seem by turns charming and arrogant, just a few steps away from complete psychosis). The scars on Amy Acker's face speak to something more textured, mysterious and damaging at the heart of the paradigm, at once sympathetic and a bit alienating. Like the set (and the show) they live on, these nerds are an uncertain mixture of different tropes, a series of concentric circles whose overlaps and fissures I look forward to exploring over the next twelve weeks.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Wednesday Mope Rock Post

It's wet and cold out there today, which makes Cineville feel even more like a Morrissey song than usual. But it provides the perfect impetus for posting another Smiths video!

Not that one really needs an excuse...

My Requisite 2009 Oscar Post

In case any of you were wondering, I thought I'd post my thoughts/predictions on this year's Academy Awards, and the Very Important race for Best Picture.

The Reader: Meh. Didn't see it, but I have the book on my shelf, and read about a third of it eight years ago, on a beach in South Florida.

The Curious Case of Forrest Gump Benjamin Button: Couldn't be bothered to see it, especially after I heard about that ridiculous ending. A shame, though-- F. Scott Fitzgerald deserves a great screen adaptation. Maybe Scorsese to do The Love of the Last Tycoon?

Slumdog Millionaire: I'd love to see it! I haven't seen it yet.

Milk: I'd love to see it, if my local one-screen theater would finally bring it in, instead of extending the run of Paul Blart: Mall Cop, which is currently in its second (no-doubt-record-breaking) week in our fair burg.

Frost/Nixon: I've seen this one! And I liked it. More on that in another post.

And with that, I've put as much thought into the nominees as the Academy apparently did this year. I will only add that I am hoping against hope for a Richard Jenkins upset in the Best Actor category; that I will dutifully applaud when Heath Ledger's fine performance in The Dark Knight wins the Supporting Actor award, even though in my heart of hearts I think Robert Downey, Jr.'s work in Tropic Thunder was more impressive (and a lot more fun); and that I feel no investment at all in Mickey Rourke's comeback, unless it leads to the tantalizing possibility of Diner 2 (I'm serious). Oh, I also think Hugh Jackman will make a fine host, and I plan to use Jerry Lewis's Hersholt Award segment as my bathroom break (if they were giving it to Frank Tashlin, that would be a different matter).

Any thoughts/predictions/hopes/fears about this Sunday's ceremony?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Notes of Serendipity

My ears have been toggling this evening between headphones plugged into my I-pod, and listening to Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations episode about Chicago. I had the I-pod on "shuffle," and one of the songs that came up was Youth Group's "Forever Young", immortalized as the graduation song on the late and deeply lamented The O.C.. As the song's jangly guitars reached their second verse, I thought I heard a weird echo effect; I looked up and saw the above ad playing on my TV. Its jingle? Youth Group's "Forever Young" (although it sounds like a different version).

Tuesday Morning Bad Movie Club: Battlefield Earth

The other day I realized it had been awhile since I'd posted one of these, so why not welcome this recurring feature back with the trailer to one of the worst movies ever made?

Monday, February 16, 2009

Disciplined But Not Economical

I spent part of last night re-reading Thomas Schatz's The Genius Of The System, a lovely book that I used a lot in graduate school but hadn't looked at in a couple of years. Almost on a whim, I grabbed it off my office shelf late Friday afternoon and took it home, and aside from curiosity, I can't really tell you why. I am teaching Grand Hotel in a few weeks, and I suppose subconsciously I might have thought it'd be useful to re-read Schatz's very helpful anecdotes about the making of that film; I've been thinking a lot about F. Scott Fitzgerald lately, and it's from Fitzgerald's The Love of the Last Tycoon that Schatz pulls his key quote on the "whole equation of pictures" that the studio system solved in the 1930s; and it's always nice to go back to an academic book that's so well-written, at once dense in historical detail and a breezy pleasure to read.

"Breezy pleasure" might be the key here-- I can offer pragmatic or pedagogical reasons for snagging the book the other day, but none of those holds the whole equation of my desire. There's no logical reason, in other words, for my gesture; there's only a logic of pleasure, a cinephiliac need to re-enter a text I already knew. I did so not to solve a problem, but just because. It was the sections on Irving Thalberg that I was most drawn to in re-reading, and one phrase describing his working methods particularly jumped out at me: Schatz calls MGM's methodology in the early 1930s "a logic of excess, a calculated extravagance":

In fact, by the early 1930s, Thalberg's system was in many ways less efficient and systematic than any other studio's. But Thalberg was convinced his strategy would pay off in the long run-- quite literally, in terms of long-running releases--so long as he controlled the entire process.

This is a well-known reading of Thalberg and MGM in the 1930s, and yet its implications still feel untapped. What is a "logic of excess"? What does it look like? In cinematic terms, it looks like the still above, from Grand Hotel, that balance of art and capital, narrative economy and visual glamour that made up the two halves of Fitzgerald's metaphoric math problem. But beyond cinema, as a working method for cinema studies-- a space that often prides itself on its social realist minimalism-- what might it mean to craft a "logic of excess," to find in that paradox not a riddle to be scorned, but an engine of creativity?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Holy Frack

I can't believe there are only five episodes left.

A few weeks ago, I mentioned how good Battlestar Galactica's final-season premiere was, and since then, the show has only gotten stronger, moving with the grace and assurance of a prima ballerina towards its final (and no doubt devastating) denouement. This has almost always been one of television's strongest shows (a weak third season aside), but right now I think it's better than it has ever been: its current balance of action and character development, narrative momentum and time-stopping visual punctuation, mythic arc and touching aside, suggests a creative team at the height of its powers.

It's hard to write about the last four weeks without offering plot spoilers (which I certainly don't want to do), so let me just say that these final episodes offer both a return to core principles--a reaffirmation of the very textured investments we have in the show's primary characters--as well as some fascinating and infuriating (but in a good way) new twists that raise as many questions as they answer.

That sense of back-and-forth between change and tradition was at the heart of Friday's episode, "No Exit," whose title speaks to both the uncertainty of any kind of narrative closure for the program, and the larger existential models so much good sci-fi has worked within. After the last two weeks of action-packed twists, Friday's episode felt like a kind of expositional breather, a narrative and thematic frame with which to order and make sense of the disparate events of the last four episodes. It presented a good deal of back-story on the Cylons and also provided context and future directions to the quorum questions that previous episodes had raised.

At the same time, it used these exposition-heavy moments as illuminations of character. We learned a lot about the twisted family dynamic between Cylons Ellen and John; there was a very nice scene between Lee and Roslin that worked both as drama and comedic relief (and a reminder of the nice chemistry between Mary McDonnell and Jamie Bamber, who has really come into his own this season); there were several nice Tyrell-Adama moments; and there was the way that Anders' storytelling offered a lesson in visual narrative: even as he's relaying what seems like crucial information for understanding the series, we are constantly drawn, not to what he is saying, but to the reaction shots of the various folks surrounding his bed (especially Starbuck).

It's in these scenes that the show encapsulates its core question: do we pay attention to the past, the present or the future-- and what happens if we fixate on one at the expense of the other? This question is further enhanced by a reworked opening-- which tied together recreated scenes from the original series and shots from the new series' third season--and by the way that simple cuts took us from the present action about the Galactica back to the events occurring eighteen months earlier on the Cylon base-ship; everything flows so easily that it's easy to lose track of where you are in time, to feel a subtle narrative and spatial vertigo.

So much to think about, and I haven't even mentioned how well the show is juggling the rhetorics of different media, skillfully interweaving cinematic detail, theatrical monologues and the tempos of televisual, serialized narrative. Battlestar Galactica is a show that demands close attention and re-vewing; indeed, it's hard to imagine it existing without DVD and Hulu, without new methods of technological delivery that encourage this kind of critical burrowing. Writing of "the age of mechanical reproduction," Walter Benjamin prophesied an era where cinematic technology would create a "distracted" viewer and break the quasi-religious "aura" of art. But doesn't a show like Battlestar (as well as such DVD-friendly work as Buffy, Lost and The Wire) reverse this progression? Technology here leads not to the constantly darting distracted view, but to a contemplation of vast visual and narrative clues, and the literal ability to freeze (frieze?) the space.

Fashion Don't's

The essential Black Snob has the dirt on the hissy fits some designers are having over Michelle Obama.

For some reason, I keep hearing Carrie Bradshaw's voice when I read those designers' remarks. Who knew her overworked sense of "woe is me" entitlement had real-life models?

Friday, February 13, 2009

Just A Reminder...

Happy Dollhouse day, everyone!

Feel free to talk about the show in the comments section if you like; I might be late to the conversation, as I don't know if I'll be able to catch it when it airs. I might have to catch up-- as with all TV these days (sigh)-- via Hulu.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Tastes Like Chicken

Aaand here's why I don't support PETA.

(h/t to The Field Negro).

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Cover Me #8: New Semester

In Dreams...

In Tuesday's dream, I'm in a small, dark club watching Paul Westerberg cover Billy Bragg's "There Is Power In A Union." Everything is pitch black, except for Mr. Westerberg, who is captured in a spotlight, wearing a purple collared shirt and small, round shades. It's a nice cover-- he even attempts to imitate Bragg's Cockney accent, and does a surprisingly adept job at it. The dream ends before anyone can applaud.

In last night's dream, I'm on the set of The Cosby Show. Claire, Sondra and Vanessa are in the kitchen, and Claire mentions some technique of critical writing to her younger daughter. Older daughter Sondra (who is taking plates out of the dishwasher) asks, "Oh, where did you get that?" Claire gives her a stern stare. "It was in the Pennsylvania Review," she says, conveying annoyance in that wonderful way only Phylisha Rashad can.

Sondra gives as good as she gets, sending back a withering stare and saying (in a voice dripping with condescension), "Well, I don't think I'm going to write reviews, so why don't you just tell me what it said?"

Monday, February 9, 2009


There's been a very interesting discussion over at Glenn Kenny's blog for the past week. It's centered on the work of Joe Swanberg, but really uses that work to explore larger arguments about aesthetics, realism, reception and other issues central to what we in this business of academic show might call "cinema studies."

I have not seen Swanberg's films, so I can't weigh in one way or another on their merits, but I wanted to pull this quote from the comments section of one post, because it nicely examines a key question that I encounter a lot in class discussion: why the fascination with 'realism' in the first place?:

My feeling has always been that real is in the eye of the beholder. I often feel much critical analysis gets bogged down in different people arguing whether a movie captures truth. As an editor, I am constantly aware that anything I watch is manipulated to get a certain reaction even if it doesn't seem like it was. I always feel movies are the reflection of mostly the director's (but also writers, actors, editors, cinematographers) sensibilities. Whether that actually reflects one perceives to be realistic is what each individual brings to it.


In one of his 80s-era Moviegoing Companions, the great Roger Ebert described Citizen Kane as the "most inexhaustible American film ever made." Well, with all due respect to both the Pulitzer-winning critic and Orson Welles, I have to disagree: I think it's The Godfather.

I've said this before, but every time I come across The Godfather on TV, I am immediately transfixed, and have to watch the rest of it unspool. This is true no matter where I come in, no matter that I've seen the movie probably a dozen times, no matter that I've taught it at least half-a-dozen times, no matter that I own the thing on DVD. It's The Godfather, and nothing is as gripping as an eerily still Al Pacino.

It's a film that rewards constant re-viewing, not only in its larger narrative and thematic progressions, but more crucially in its tiny visual touches: I always notce something new. It was on tonight when I got home, and this time I noticed just how blonde Diane Keaton's hair is in those final, chilling scenes with Michael, how the sun bounces off it when she walks into the room, and how it dims as she retreats back into the shadows. I could talk about her perfectly coiffed shininess as a metaphor for her innocence, as a constrast with Michael's pitch-black do, as an ironic recreation of the female screen legends of the day, and that would all be true; but really it fascinates me for more inexplicable, more ineffable reasons. I can't articulate why; I can only watch.

How about you all? Are there movies that you absolutely have to stop and watch when you stumble across them? And what do you notice after multiple viewings?

Lava Leer

Oh, my.

Set to open the Grammys last night, U2 released the video for their new single "Get On Your Boots" this past Friday. I wrote about the song here, and everything I wrote about it still stands-- in fact, the more I hear the song, the more excited I get for the release of the band's new album on March 3. The video, though, is something else.

I'm not sure what the something else is, but the larger problem is that the band doesn't seem to know, either. There's a haphazard, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink quality to the vid's space, a clusterfuck of jammed objects, neon colors and a striking band performance that tries mightly to cut through the clutter. Good lord, there's even a Vegas-like neon blue roller coaster that cuts around Bono's head like a demented metal firefly. Meanwhile, Easter Island-like statuary and gigantic Halloween skulls disappear and reappear in the background, along with images of city streets, and exploding volcanos, as giant-sized women in military uniforms roam around the space, keeping a stern eye on the band jamming below.

It is, to put it succinctly, a mess. Not an uninteresting mess (its bizarre melding of science fiction, religiosity and kitsch is at times eerily gripping), but one whose end result is less a surreal, Constructivist clash of shape and color and idea than a splatter of spaghetti against a stucco wall-- sure it's striking, maybe even beautiful, but someone still has to clean it up. I'm all for the band returning to its 90s period of visual excess and rock sensuality (I think the minimalist path they've pursued for the last decade has run its course), but videos like "Even Better Than The Real Thing," "Last Night On Earth" and "Lemon" (to name just three) had a real organization to their excess, a pattern to their madness that matched the songs' balance of raw energy and pop smarts.

Alex Courtes' video for "Get On Your Boots" feels like nothing so much as a James Bond credits sequence on both acid and steroids: it's big, muscular, in your face and completely tripped out. Especially with that kick of the drum at the top of the song, I can see the piece acting as the interstice between Daniel Craig smashing a car off the road in a pre-credits sequence, and M giving him his assignment in London following the credits. Bono and the Edge did, in fact, write the theme song for Goldeneye (the credits of which used crumbling Leninist statues and female soldiers in a manner very reminiscent of this video, although Daniel Klienman's work for that film was far more arranged and elegant); a year later, Larry Mullen, Jr. and Adam Clayton technofied the theme for Tom Cruise's first Mission: Impossible. Maybe then, this is a return to that moment? If so, let's hope their aim is a little better next time-- get on your boots, sure, but don't shoot yourself in the foot.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Bat Out Of Hell

I knew there was a reason I switched to Superman on the comics syllabus this semester...

Sorry for the delay in posting. I really did have big plans to finally catch up on some of the posts that have been rattling around in my brain during this busy first week of teaching. There were film reviews, music pieces, a lengthy meditation on superheroes that would hopefully let me finally get some thoughts down about this past year's spate of adventure films. It was all right there, just waiting to pour forth from my forehead...

And then the bat flew into my living room.

OK, technically I don't know it was a bat-- it could've been a very large bird. All I know is that, around 9 or 9:30 last night (time became blurry in the midst of panic) I heard a rustle in my kitchen, and suddenly a big black something flew into my living room, doing quick circles around the light.

I, of course, screamed and ran into the kitchen to hide (no superhero, I). Calls to my unit's safety and security team couldn't get through because of lack of cell reception (damn snow!). It felt like an hour, but was probably about four or five minutes later when I popped my head into the room-- and the creature was gone.

I looked around the house, broom in hand, for a good half-hour to see where the bugger might have gone. He had disappeared. I think. Anyway, I didn't see it. I sent an email to my very nice rental property manager, who very quickly emailed back contact information for the unit's best control team. Calls have been made, emails sent, and (knock on wood, keyboard or internet pixel) all things willing, this should all be taken care of tomorrow-- critters gone (if they are still around), holes (wherever they might be) plugged up. I hope.

And then, normal work, blogging and other aspects of life can continue. Unless, of course, Robin cares to follow his mentor into the house.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Best And The Brightest

Old Man Potter is back with 'advice' for the Obama administration. And Joe the Plumber now appears, appropriately enough, to be a GOP advisor.

Oh, guys. In the words of those great poets, Motley Crue, don't go away mad, just go away.

(h/t's to Talking Points Memo and Andrew Sullivan).

Monday, February 2, 2009

First Day Of Classes In Cineville

Hail Marys

So, it turns out Santonio Holmes wasn't the only one pulling out a game in the final seconds last night.

After a month of episodes that seemed more and more manic and less and less inspired, The Office popped up post-Super Bowl with their best episode in quite some time. From the pitch-perfect slapstick of the pre-credits "fire drill" to the delicious mixture of pathos and humor at Michael's warehouse "roast" to that final, heart-in-the-throat hug between Pam and Jim, The Office somehow managed the neat trick of using the stunt scheduling of that post-game slot to expunge the bad feelings of the last three weeks, and reaffirm its place as TV's best romantic comedy.

I knew we were in for a good time from the moment Dwight smiled menacingly at the camera, then got a blowtorch out of his desk. Deciding that PowerPoint was a "boring" way to teach fire safety, he staged a real-time exercise by locking all the doors and methodically setting the room on fire, then watching gleefully as his panicked co-workers knocked one another out to escape (it's a sign of how well-written this episode was that this primarily physical scene still revealed so much about everyone's character: Jim does his best to get out without causing harm, Michael wants to help but botches everything, and Kevin goes straight for the snack machine).

That sense of running in circles around a locked room acts a nice metaphor for the rut the show has found itself in since returning from the Christmas break. There have been some funny moments here and there the last month, but it generally felt like the writers were content to sacrifice the texture and tone they'd so painstakingly established in the first four years in exchange for obvious jokes; the cast found themselves reduced to mean-spirited cartoons instead of the three-dimensional characters they'd been in past seasons.

So, when Dwight was called (repeatedly) on the carpet for his inappropriate actions, it seemed like a mea culpa from the writers for the slapdash narratives of the last three weeks. "I'm worried, Dwight," Michael says in the car ride home after one of these meetings, and although Steve Carrell spins the line with his usual deadpan skill, the rest of the episode felt like an attempt to return the workplace to a state of calm and sanity.

There were so many nice little touches in this episode: the hilarious "star cameos" that were cleverly seen only on a computer screen (a nice commentary on both the hokey way these guest appearances always stand "outside" the rest of the narrative, and an acknowledgment that we so rarely watch TV on an actual television these days); the inappropriate rimshot from Michael when Meredith mentions how he hit her with his car last year; Darryl's asking if Michael recognized one of his warehouse workers; Andy singing "Stayin' Alive" in perfect falsetto; and the way the Pam and Jim plot line snuck up through all the goofiness.

That last bit might be the most important: in the midst of all the craziness in the last several episodes, Pam and Jim's relationship almost felt forgotten (and when it did appear it felt strained or stupid, as in their face-off over the office furniture). It's hard to craft a real relationship when the writing seems determined to prevent any real humanity from coming through. But tonight, "PB&J" once again felt funny, vibrant, sad, uncertain, and ultimately affirmed. Pam's monologue in the hallway to Jim wasn't just a sweet moment of ooky love, but also a reminder of the warmth and real feeling that The Office can do so well.

Of course, this was followed by Andy overhearing Pam's declarations to the camera, misunderstanding them (a priceless, blurry shot of Ed Helms in the background, throwing his papers in the air in frustration, was the perfectly dry counterpoint to Pam's sentimentality in the foreground), and then ranting to the camera about the differences between film criticism and food criticism. But that's The Office's sweet spot, that strange place where the sublime and the ridiculous dance in perfectly awkward harmony.

Pigskin Dreams

Oh, if only it were true...

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Stupor Bowls

Classes start tomorrow, today has been a flurry of preparation, and I therefore missed the entireity of this year's Super Bowl. But I am happy for the Steelers, who, as AFC Central leaders always feel like the proxy Browns in these matches.

Mainly, as I turn on the post-game and wait for the hour-long Office to debut, I am struck by the presence of Matt Millen on NBC's announcer/analyst crew. Yes, that Matt Millen. Isn't this kind of like having Alan Smithee anchor your Oscar coverage?