Talking Movies

July 20, 2018

Any Other Business: Part XVII

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 seventeenth portmanteau post on television of course!

 

Sorry seems to be the hardest word for Facebook

I had been thinking about commenting on Facebook’s current TV spots on British television, and then Channel 4’s Dispatches came along and disquietingly lifted the lid on the people who work for Facebook but don’t work for Facebook in Dublin. Ah, the joy of outsourcing. It’s always someone else’s fault that the high standards Facebook expects are not being upheld. Not that we’re ever told what those high standards are precisely. And nothing bad that happens is ever wrong, certainly never criminal, it’s always, well, let’s listen to the TV spot Facebook is using in Britain to try and reassure people that Brexit may have been the result of Facebook but not to worry, soon your newsfeed will be full of only cute kittens again – take it away maestro, “We didn’t come here for click-bait, spam, fake news, and data misuse. That’s not okay.” Well, that is profound. I guess if Mark Zuckerberg, whose non-apology apology to Congress came in for some stick hereabouts previously, can go so far as to admit that enabling Brexit and Trump was ‘not okay’ then we can all meet him half-way and forgive him for letting it happen, and evading responsibility. The best way to protect your privacy is not to change settings on Facebook it’s to not use social media at all. And if Facebook is really intended just to ‘connect people’ rather than say data-mine the f*** out of the world’s population for psychometrics in the service of personalised advertising then there’s one really simple way to prove it. Change it to Facebook.org

xkcd by Randall Munroe, where would our collective sanity be without it?

 

I can’t believe it’s not The Unit

I can’t remember the last time I had such a double-take reaction to a TV show as watching SEAL Team. The adventures of a band of brothers in the American military who fly about the world causing mayhem, when not dealing with domestic dramas at home. This simply was a remake of David Mamet’s The Unit, they even hired Mr Grey (Michael Irby) from The Unit to play their ‘been there done that’ character putting the hopefuls thru their paces before they can ascend to the godlike status of a Tier 1 Operator. There were touches that distinguished it from Mamet’s creation to be sure, but mostly that was a layer of SJW-babble; centred around the character of Alona Tal’s English PhD student and would-be girlfriend of would-be Tier 1 Operator Max Thieriot; and it was never entirely clear whether this was being satirical of SJW-babble or just thinking it needed to be there to represent America as it is right now. But mostly this was The Unit, with different actors, led by David Boreanaz taking over the Dennis Haysbert role. And then creator Benjamin Cavell, late of Justified, threw the mother of all structural spit-balls at the viewer. The characters just upped and left to Afghanistan for deployment, a regular occurrence, but one brought forward on this occasion because of the complete destruction of their predecessors Seal Team Echo. All the domestic dramas at home gone, apart from two Skype scenes in six episodes so far of this investigative arc into who ordered the hit on Echo which has replaced the mission by mission of the earlier standalone American episodes whose only arc was Thieriot’s training to join the team. I’m not sure I was prepared for such formalist experimentation on CBS.

“That’s some editing”

Editing the punch-lines out of jokes first annoyed me a few years ago when Willem Dafoe was voicing the Birdseye Bear. A peerless advert saw him set the scene for a romantic dinner for his hapless owner, only to be told to hop it as the no longer frozen food arrived at the impeccably mood-music’d and mood-light’d table. The bear turned straight to camera to register his astonishment, and was then found sitting outside the house muttering “There’s gratitude for ya!” But then the advert started to get edited more and more severely, and the punch-line was thrown out. Who does that? What buffoon makes these decisions? Let’s edit for time, and throw away the jokes that are the point of the seconds we’ve kept that are now pointless. James Corden’s current advert has been cut to the point of sheer gibberish. The three encounters with three fly-by-night mechanic brothers, who bore a passing resemblance to Donald Trump, and left Corden sad and depressed entering Vegas with bugger all money after their antics and then elated when he left with loadsamoney have been reduced to a decontextualised idiotic mishmash. What exactly was the purpose of this editing?

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April 30, 2018

On Urbanity

Prefacing my attack on Legion last month I noted decorum was important, and that urbanity was important as a stylistic and aesthetic goal, and noted one could stretch to call it an ethical goal too.

What then is urbanity? When I was writing for the University Observer I used to think our house style was aiming for the droll elegance of the New Yorker.  I’m not sure anybody else did. I’m not sure I would even have been able to pin down where I got that notion of the New Yorker from, possibly a refracted Dorothy Parker vibe from the Gilmore Girls. Having recently, deliriously enjoyed James Thurber’s The Years with Ross I think that I wasn’t far off in my peculiar sense of the magazine’s house style. Although it may have been just Thurber himself rather than the New Yorker writers en masse in possession of that style. Certainly the current New Yorker writers are en masse in possession of a house style, and the deployment of it by Gladwell, Gopnik & Co can be maddening in its repetition.

The New Yorker film reviews these days mostly overshoot urbanity and instead sound jaded, and snobbish. Richard Brody’s review of Ready Player One is a recent particular lowlight. Brody seems to have the shakiest of grasps on the commercial realities of movie-making, and indeed how movies are remembered by non-critics. His notion that a blockbuster themed around 1980s nostalgia should chuck The Shining for Jim Jarmusch’s oeuvre is tragicomic; once you stop laughing in astonishment, you realise he’s serious, and then need to lie down. But how should one write film reviews? I went from writing a movie column for the University Observer titled ‘Fergal’s Guide to Misanthropy’ to reviewing for InDublin. In thrall at the time to Hunter S Thompson I wrote reviews in a style that I would now never countenance. Hunter S Thompson is a great stylist, but he is not urbane.

It doesn’t matter that Hunter S Thompson is not urbane, because he is Hunter S Thompson. But it matters a great deal when people who are not Hunter S Thompson are neither urbane nor Thompsonian despite their best efforts. And those best efforts usually betray fierce labour as they attempt to do the Gonzo style without being the man who was Gonzo. As I wrote more and more film reviews for InDublin I began to appreciate that reinventing the wheel with snark and wildness each time was not sustainable. So, as I have recounted before, I turned to an earlier mentor, Michael Dwyer. I pored over his 300 review in an effort to understand how it worked, and especially how he could write so many reviews with such apparent ease; given their clarity and simplicity. I adopted my interpretation of his technique as my model.

Initially though the interpolated technique was all structural. It was only over time and ever more reviews for Dublinks.com and Talking Movies that the mature style revealed itself; borrowing a structure from Michael Dwyer had seamlessly led to an Augustan style. Films were reviewed without hyperbole over their strengths or hysteria over their weaknesses. As a result they could be reviewed with astonishing speed; my review of Prometheus took 26 minutes from first keystroke to published post. It wasn’t vitriolic, like so many reviews, it maintained an even keel. But it had taken 5 years to get to the point where that review could be penned in 26 minutes. What one looks for in urbanity is the appearance of effortlessness concealing much effort; the sprezzatura of Castiglione so promulgated by WB Yeats as the ideal of lyric poetry. Which brings us back to James Thurber…

Thurber’s droll story ‘The Bear Who Let It Alone’ concerns a bear that gets too fond of honey mead at the local bar:

He would reel home at night, kick over the umbrella stand, knock down the bridge lamps, and ram his elbows through the windows. Then he would collapse on the floor and lie there until he went to sleep. His wife was greatly distressed and his children were very frightened.

But our hero sees the error of his ways. He becomes a teetotaller, and a physical fitness freak, and boastful of how the two are connected:

To demonstrate this, he would stand on his head and on his hands and he would turn cartwheels in the house, kicking over the umbrella stand, knocking down the bridge lamps, and ramming his elbows through the windows. Then he would lie down on the floor, tired by his healthful exercise, and go to sleep. His wife was greatly distressed and his children were very frightened.

The simplicity of the gag makes you feel like you always knew it just after you first read it, and of course belies what must have been careful paring and paring by Thurber to get it just right. That is the key. It appears effortless; elegant, graceful, simple; and it took much effort to make it appear so. Thurber was in a contract with himself as much as the reader not to let go of the piece until he’d finely chiselled it to perfection and then polished it to remove all trace of the chisel marks. And it’s that determination to do oneself and others justice that I argue can move urbanity from aesthetics to ethics. To write urbanely is to do more, to be beneficent.

PG Wodehouse once wrote “The man who can go into a patch of rough alone, with the knowledge that only God is watching him, and play his ball where it lies, is the man who will serve you faithfully and well”. One might advance a similar notion when it comes to urbanity. Consider Mark Zuckerberg’s painfully laboured non-apology apology for the Cambridge Analytica flap:

“I’ve been working to understand exactly what happened and how to make sure this doesn’t happen again. The good news is that the most important actions to prevent this from happening again today we have already taken years ago. But we also made mistakes, there’s more to do, and we need to step up and do it”

A billionaire, surrounded by expensive lawyers and media consultants, who can take five days (which I like to imagine were spent brainstorming on a luxury houseboat moored in the dead centre of Lake Tahoe), to write and/or approve something as inelegant as that italicised sentence… Well, I opine, in identical manner to the man who cheats at golf, a man capable of writing like that is capable of anything.

John McGahern is the endpoint of the notion of urbanity as an ethical goal. His description of fictional Leitrim farmer (and, as Graham Price persuasively has it, dandy) Jamesie sitting in Ruttledge’s passenger seat on their way to the market I have characterised in my Irish University Review article ‘Competing Philosophies in That They May Face the Rising Sun’ as a Stoic benediction: “He praised where he could, but most people were allowed their space without praise or blame in a gesture of hands that assigned his life and theirs to their own parts in this inexhaustible journey”. That may be the ideal of urbanity I wish for in journalism. How it got muddled together with Thurber’s New Yorker drollness in my head is a puzzler, but there it is. Socrates said that nobody would willingly commit evil. An evil-doer is in possession of imperfect information. Nobody sets out to write badly, paint badly, compose badly, or to direct a bad film. In reviewing one should try to nudge where possible, and always offer solutions when identifying problems. One should only eviscerate if something is positively harmful, and even then try to do it with a light touch. A bad review done with urbanity is a judo flip. Identify what is obnoxious, and, if possible; and it is surprisingly often possible; see how the work can be read against itself, so that it is condemned out of its own mouth.

November 13, 2015

Steve Jobs

The Social Network screenwriter Aaron Sorkin returns to the well of abrasive tech innovators for an unconventional biopic of Apple main-man Steve Jobs.

Steve-Jobs

We first encounter Jobs (Michael Fassbender) backstage at the launch of the Macintosh in 1984, pushing Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) to do the impossible: fix a glitch within 40 minutes so that during the demo Jobs can make the computer say a cheerful ‘Hello’ to accentuate its friendly design. Meanwhile marketing maven Joanna Hoffmann (Kate Winslet) is trying to contain another potential PR disaster, as backstage also lurks Jobs’ ex-girlfriend Chrisanne Brennan (Katherine Waterston) and their daughter Lisa (Makenzie Moss); who Jobs refuses to acknowledge despite all evidence to the contrary. Throw in Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) also jumping into the fray to beg Jobs to acknowledge the work of the Apple 2 team and it’s little wonder Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels) feels the need to descend from Olympus to make sure that Jobs is calm enough to wow the audience. And that’s just the first of three product launches…

The unusual structure of Sorkin’s adaptation of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs works tremendously well, even if its central conceit is mischievously acknowledged in-camera on the third go-round, “It’s like 5 minutes before every product launch everyone gets drunk in a bar and decides to tell me how they really feel about me.” We watch the same characters recur, arguing about the same things in different guises, and the cumulative effect is akin to a super-sizing of Sorkin’s most theatrical television episodes; like The Newsroom season 3 episode about ethics. Danny Boyle has spoken of not wanting to get in the way of Sorkin’s script, but his shooting in different formats for each act emphasises the passage of time and really makes us feel, as much as Mia Hansen-Love’s Eden, that we are watching a life unfold.

Watching a life unfold entails a great deal of sadness, a feeling of squandered potential and missed opportunities hangs over the third act as much as triumphant themes of resurrection and redemption. (Which also features an amazing unintentional [?] meta-moment where Fassbender critiques 39 images of a shark, as if searching for a secret self-portrait.) Boyle and Sorkin mesh in a way that makes them a more obvious fit than Sorkin and Fincher. There is a fundamental optimism to both as artists that when combined with Fassbender’s irrepressible warmth makes Jobs very different to Jesse Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg. Jobs says horrible things, but the Woz will always have a free pass, and Sorkin’s Zuckerberg would never proffer the quasi-apology quasi-motivator “I’m poorly made.” Steve Jobs, despite being filled with cruel zingers, is ultimately summed up by Daniel Pemberton score: rudimentary digital beats that evolve into something rousing and deeply human.

Startling footage from the late 1960s shows Arthur C Clarke describing the world we live in today. Sorkin puts both sides of the case regarding Jobs’ importance in achieving that vision, but Boyle and Sorkin have achieved something great themselves.

5/5

November 20, 2010

6 Tags on The Social Network

1. Fincher

Despite not featuring serial killers or ultra-violence Fincher has made a film that is very much ‘A David Fincher Film’ rather than ‘An Aaron Sorkin Film’, even though Sorkin makes his traditional cameo. Fincher inserts the obligatory show-off CGI enhanced tracking shot, this time across the West Coast night-club, alongside the customary downbeat colour scheme, and creates a constant unnerving tension that wasn’t expected from this particular material.

2. Reznor

The soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is superb. The rumbling processed beats underneath Sean Parker’s first meeting with Mark and Eduardo are very like the Dust Brothers’ music for Fight Club and serve a slightly different purpose. Yes, they power the film along, but are also quite unsettling. You can rock along to Tyler Durden’s counter-cultural mischief, to a point, but Mark’s actions are always suspicious.

3. Loneliness

The ending is somewhere between The Godfather: Part II and an unhappy Fight Club. In a way Sean Parker is the Tyler Durden of this tale but in the end Mark doesn’t get rid of him to choose Erica Albright instead, a la Tyler and Marla. He’s left clicking refresh repeatedly, all powerful, but all alone; like Michael Corleone haunted by ghosts at the end of Part II.

4. Sorkin

Studio 60’s incredibly vicious break-up fight between Matt and Harriet informs the whole movie; not least because it starts with an equally emotionally raw scene, which sets the prevailing tone for proceedings. There is witty repartee and articulate gags but Sorkin cannot practise his usual optimism when writing a character who isn’t a flawed person so much as a failed person. Mark is all head, and no heart.

5. Henley Regatta

The Henley Regatta sequence is very weird. The colour scheme has been so much Fincher speciale up to this point that the explosion into the bright colour of the summery outdoors is quite a shock. Then Reznor and Ross do a truly strange version of Grieg while Fincher shoots out of focus, edits so rapidly as to be Dadaist, and generally makes a traditional event very odd.

6. The Girl with a Golden Future

Rooney Mara is luminous. She only has three scenes but she’s gifted such wonderfully articulate and devastating dialogue by Sorkin that she conveys achingly the human damage that can be wreaked by the internet’s destructive powers when used against people by their supposed friends. For my money I think she’s far better casting for the part of Lisbeth Salander than her Swedish counterpart…

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