Talking Movies

June 23, 2019

Any Other Business: XXXIII

What is one to do with thoughts that are far too long for Twitter but not nearly long enough for a proper blog post? Why round them up and turn them into a thirty-third portmanteau post on matters of course!

Ancient Aliens: I don’t want to believe

I had the misfortune recently to come across a paean to Erich Von Daniken on the History Channel, a special of their disgraceful Ancient Aliens series. Erich von Daniken, author of Chariots of the Gods?, was, probably tongue-in-cheek, used by Roland Emmerich as an adviser on his preposterous 10,000 BC. His patented pig-swill has popped up in everything from Battlestar Galactica to Stargate to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to Prometheus. And as it doesn’t seem to show any signs of going away it can’t be treated as the joke it is anymore, it’s become harmful. The memorable verdict of the court psychologist looking into Erich von Daniken’s mental status after his epic embezzlement had got him jailed was that the man was a pathological liar and his book was a marvel of nonsense. It is a marvel of nonsense. It should be obvious to anyone who reads it why. There are some very clever Biblical reinterpretations like Lot’s wife being got by the flash of an atom bomb, but there’s the rub. Everything that the ancient aliens do on earth is from the technology of von Daniken’s time. They dress like the Apollo astronauts. They set off atom bombs. But, Erich, we barely made it to the moon at that level of technology, if these bozos travelled here from a far-off galaxy which we can’t detect why did they apparently travel dressed in vintage couture? Could it be that because von Daniken lacked the imagination or understanding for futurism that his aliens only had the available resources of 1968? Odd that they don’t have the internet, or wi-fi, or cell-phones, or quantum devices. Odd that humanity has developed so much since that book was written, and yet people are still, and perhaps increasingly, under its spell; which has the stupefying message that humanity cannot advance without alien assistance.

Worth waiting for? Probably, not.

When you play the game of thrones, you watch or you win: Part II

Previously I compared the reaction to Game of Thrones’ finale to the eerily similar meltdown everyone had in 2010 at LOST. I’d like to tease out the perils of serialisation. I remember reading a piece about LOST which suggested the flashbacks gave just enough of a narrative hit, of a story told within an episode, to keep those plebeians who watch network shows coming back for more; despite the frustrations of a never-ending story that flailed around for 6 years, and ultimately revealed it was always insoluble. I also think of an episode of Boardwalk Empire, where the episode ended with Nucky looking at his footsteps on the carpet, and it occurred to me the episode could have ended at any point in the previous ten minutes and it would have made no difference. But it was bad of me to think that, because there is an almost secular theology at work – the virtue of pointlessness. A story that gets wrapped up in an episode?! That’s for muck savages! The sort of NASCAR-attending mouth-breathing trailer trash who’ve kept NCIS on air since 2003. No, sophisticates only watch serialised shows, where nothing ever gets wrapped up in an episode. They are above needing a narrative hit; they are doing their penance thru endless pointless episodes for their reward in the future of a grand finale that makes it all worthwhile. I think that in serialised television, if there’s no episode by episode hit of story begun and concluded then the stakes get dangerously high that the end of the show must provide the meaning that makes all the perennially delayed narrative gratification worth it. And when everything is in service of a grand ending, there never is a grand ending. People howled at the end of The Sopranos, LOST, Game of Thrones: How many times can this three card trick be played before people get wise to it? It may not even be possible to play that trick, even if you have the ending up your sleeve. Smallville’s ending was clearly something they could’ve done at any point for the preceding number of years because it was an ending that made sense but was totally disconnected from anything immediately leading up to it. LOST and The OC ended with cutesy call back to the pilot imagery which pleased only other TV writers. [LOST writer Brian K Vaughan’s pointless Y: The Last Man ended with an image he said he knew from the beginning, the problem being it was literally an image, and the comic could have ended years earlier with it.] How I Met Your Mother stuck to the original ending, not realising that too much time had gone by with the story under its own impulses to bolt that ending on without enraging everyone. It’s a Kierkegaardean paradox: stick with your original ending and ignore the life the story took on of its own volition, or do not stick with your original ending and do not ignore the life the story took on of its own volition – you will regret it either way. When I think of shows that ended well, they tend to be network or basic cable: Buffy ended with a Mission Accomplished, Angel ended with a screw you cliffhanger and a quip, Veronica Mars ended with a bittersweet exit into uncertainty, Justified ended with a character moment after an episode that wrapped up its plot surprisingly early. Their Whedon X-Files model in common? Every episode a story, every season a bigger story – complete.

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October 5, 2012

Liberal Arts

Josh Radnor (aka Ted from How I Met Your Mother) writes, directs, and stars in a romantic comedy about a disappointed thirtysomething intoxicated anew by the college lifestyle.

Radnor plays Jesse, working in NYC as a college admissions officer; a deeply unfulfilling job. He jumps at the chance to escape back to his alma mater, a liberal arts college in Ohio, to celebrate the retirement of his mentor Hoberg (Richard Jenkins). However, other protégés of Hoberg arrive for the shindig, and their improv drama student daughter Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen) makes an immediate impression on Jesse. Not least because her effervescence, thoughtfulness and wit are favourably contrasted with his ice maiden English lecturer Fairfield (Allison Janney). Jesse and Zibby begin to correspond as she shares her intellectual discoveries with him and he begins to wake up from his jobsworth stupor. Jesse returns to Ohio to see Zibby but should Jesse really be looking for a more age appropriate girlfriend, like cute bookseller and Carla Gugino lookalike Ana (Elizabeth Reaser)?

Liberal Arts at times feels like Radnor looked at Manhattan disapprovingly and decided to write a wiser version of the 17 year old Mariel Hemingway character and an ethical version of the 42 year old Woody Allen character. There is a deliriously funny silent scene where the tortured Jesse uses mathematics to convince himself that a relationship with Zibby would be okay. Allen is an obvious reference point; this being the second film in two years that Radnor has written, directed and starred in. This is a cottage industry to get behind though as this is far warmer and wittier than his higher profile HIMYM co-star Jason Segel’s magnum opus Forgetting Sarah Marshall. And that’s despite a fantastically cold supporting turn by Allison Janney; channelling CSI’s Lady Heather as an aloof sexually dominant sage who teaches Jesse some hard lessons.

Radnor fills his film with hilarious sequences. The letters between Jesse and Zibby recall 84 Charing Cross Road and are both charming and very funny; as when Jesse notices that opera does make passersby look prettier. There is a sensational lengthy fight between Jesse and Zibby over a trashy vampire novel that is obviously the Twilight series (Lunar Moon?!), and an unlikely actor makes a simply spectacular cameo as an enigmatic student feeding Jesse Zen wisdom. This is also a film of great heart. Jenkins’ heartfelt regrets at retiring are compassionately treated, and Radnor as well as being a likeable sparring partner for the sparkling Olsen volunteers himself as a mentor for a brilliant but depressed student (John Magaro); during which story thread there is a dismissal of what is surely Infinite Jest that would warm Bret Easton Ellis’ heart.

To Rome with Love confirmed Allen’s rediscovery of his comic talent, but with Liberal Arts Radnor could very well have announced himself as the heir apparent.

4/5

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