Talking Movies

February 23, 2019

Any Other Business: Part XXV

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

Reruns receiving runaround

I’ve previously lamented the attitude of millenials who veritably trashed a screening of Halloween in the Lighthouse with their stunning contempt for anything dating from before last Tuesday never mind anything dating from before they were born. I had a sudden realisation the other day; perhaps their attitude is born of ignorance in more ways than one – to wit, they were never exposed to anything from the past when they were children. The rise of reality TV has filled acres of airtime with witless trash in the mornings, afternoons, and evenings. (And night too sometimes). Look at the location location location of someone coming to dine in an escape to a new home abroad while flogging antiques on an Alaskan trip from a survivalist farm to the lobster pots. All those hours used to be filled with reruns. That is where as a child I soaked up the culture of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s: The Phil Silvers Show, The Twilight Zone, Rawhide, Hogan’s Heroes, Star Trek, The Man from UNCLE, The Champions, The Avengers, Land of the Giants, The Prisoner, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Bewitched, Gilligan’s Island, Batman, Get Smart, I Dream of Jeannie, The Munsters, My Favourite Martian, Lost in Space, The Addams Family, The Brady Bunch, Flipper, Mission: Impossible, The Flinstones, The Invaders, The Time Tunnel, Gentle Ben, Thunderbirds, Joe 90, Stingray, Captain Scarlet and the MysteronsThe Fugitive, Dad’s ArmyColumbo, The Incredible Hulk, Happy Days, Fawlty Towers, Some Mothers Do ‘Ave Em, The Two Ronnies, Shoestring, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, Minder, Benny Hill, Citizen Smith, Three’s Company, The Bionic Woman, Mork and Mindy, Battlestar GalacticaDiff’rent Strokes, Grizzly AdamsThe New Avengers, Doctor Who, Blake’s SevenThe Dukes of Hazzard, The Muppets, Tales of the UnexpectedWonder Woman, and later Hancock’s Half Hour, Steptoe and Son, The Prisoner, The Rockford Files, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?, SykesKojak, and Starsky and Hutch. By the contemptible logic of ‘Ugh, I wasn’t born then’ I shouldn’t have bothered watching any of those shows. But those shows informed me to a huge degree: I remained aloof from general hysteria about The X-Files because I saw Mulder and Scully investigating bizarre murders as an American reworking with less suavity and more seriousness of Steed and Mrs Peel investigating bizarre murders. And I don’t think possessing a mite of historical objectivity to avoid passing moments of total hysteria is a bad thing to absorb from TV.

What ho, Clive Exton!

Well knock me down with a feather but I’ve just discovered that Clive Exton more or less decided what I was going to read for a good chunk of the 1990s and I never even knew. It turns out this Exton chappie was not only the scribbler who adapted PG Wodehouse all by his lonesome for all 23 spiffing episodes of Jeeves & Wooster starring Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry, but before that he also was the main writer for David Suchet’s celebrated Poirot. Blimey! I mean once one knows the connections jump at one, don’t you know? The absurd moments of physical comedy with Hastings, the mischievous poking fun at Poirot’s vanity, above all the double act of the man about town who hasn’t a clue and the fussy man behind him who knows everything. You could almost view some of the funnier episodes of Hastings being a nitwit while Poirot solves everything as a dry run for Exton’s next series. And I lapped up both those shows as they ran simultaneously, without ever noticing it was the same Johnnie behind them both! Well, I mean to say, what? I might as well have taken Exton’s correspondence course on what to read for five years as just plunge in to Christie and Wodehouse as I did.

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November 16, 2011

Funny Bones

Last year, just before they handed the series over to Living, Sky 1 aired a season 1 episode of Bones instead of the expected season 6 episode, and it was stunning how drastically the show has changed over its run.

I wrote about Bones twice for the University Observer. The first time I was writing about the trend in US television of heroes that we already sympathised with being depicted as achingly alone, rather than their loneliness simply being a device to get us onboard with an unlikely hero such as The OC’s Seth Cohen. Dr Temperance Brennan, the brilliant crime-fighting forensic anthropologist, would tell her FBI partner Seeley Booth, “There’s nothing wrong with going on vacation by yourself”, and then do so frequently, when she wasn’t simply working through the weekend. Bones and House suggested that the excellence of these characters at their jobs was only possible by the sacrifice of their personal lives.

I later wrote an article dissecting Bones’ dramatic motor – the unresolved sexual tension between Dr. Temperance ‘Bones’ Brennan and FBI Special Agent Seeley Booth. Bones was not alone in using that device as a dramatic motor but it had perhaps the most obviously thwarted yet plausible of the many frustrated relationships littering the TV schedules in 2007, and one that cried out in season 1 for a symbolic Red State/Blue State reading. Towards the end of season 1 Brennan was in New Orleans identifying victims of Hurricane Katrina when she was drugged and framed for murder. Booth immediately rushed from Washington DC to rescue her only to be upbraided on arrival for his sneering attitude towards Voodoo: “I mean, you believe that Jesus rose from the dead…”, “Jesus was not a zombie! I shouldn’t have to tell you this stuff!!”

Brennan and Booth have common values and a genuine attraction that exists despite their ‘ideological’ enmity. Like Barack Obama’s famous 2004 peroration to the Democratic National Convention you can say of their partnership, “there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America – there’s the United States of America”. Neither is a mere cipher of a political position. Brennan is militantly atheistic and scientific, but supports the death penalty unreservedly and is emotionally distant as a result of being abandoned to foster-care by her fugitive criminal parents. Booth seems modelled on John Wayne’s heroic straight-shooting all-American persona, but is an unmarried father battling to see his son, who uses his FBI job as atonement for his enormous religious guilt at murdering 50 people as an army sniper. Both characters desperately need the qualities of the other in order to be effective.

Zack-and-Hodgins-Playing-under-the-pressure-zackaroni-and-hodgepodge-3852460-1024-683

The penultimate episode of season 1 managed minor miracles in tackling the occupation of Iraq with respect (if not approbation) for both points of view while being dramatically satisfying and not feeling like a complete cop-out. There was of course only so much tension that could be generated by the politico-sexual friction between the two leads. The first episode of the second season saw Brennan complain at Booth’s snippiness: “I thought we were having an interesting discussion about the War on Drugs”, “Can we please just talk about something we don’t disagree on?!” The dead silence that followed exemplified their deadlocked relationship. Little surprise then that creator Hart Hanson introduced new characters as romantic obstacles to keep the leads apart, seeming happy to relinquish to Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip the task of depicting a Blue State/Red State romance for the 2006/7 season with Aaron Sorkin’s Matt Albie and Harriet Hayes as the lovers sundered by politics and faith.

Regrettably Hanson never seemed to take up that task seriously again and season 6 confirmed a number of alarming developments in the show. Brennan used to be unconsciously anti-social – she had spent too much time in the field to remember the social niceties and her conversation suffered from an almost total ignorance of pop culture. Yet season 6 saw her presented as consciously unconsciously anti-social, if that makes sense. Despite 6 years of working with Booth she acted rudely when surely she must have learnt from his example what to say by now in nearly every circumstance. In many ways her character seemed to have regressed – the hideous attempts at jokes in particular were nothing more than horrible gurning by Emily Deschanel which was as uncomfortable to watch as it probably was to perform. This impulse towards comedy at the expense of character consistency was not an isolated incident though, but part of a trend.

The music changed over the seasons from mere background mood music to cutesy cues to indicate that everything was funny; in other words that the show itself had changed from what it originally was, a clever forensics procedural interspersed with great gags, to a modestly smart forensics sitcom with no laugh track for its constant modestly funny gags. Any doubt of this change in direction can be dispelled by noting the change in psychiatrist from Stephen Fry to John Francis Daley. Fry was cast because as a tall clever British psychiatrist he could literally look down on Booth in judgement. Daley is a young silly American psychiatrist who Booth literally just looks down on. Similarly when Zach was written out of the show at the end of season 3 he was replaced by a revolving line-up of squinterns, each of which appeared chosen for their particular comedic shtick, even if they would eventually be belatedly granted a modicum of depth. A dramatic imperative was consistently replaced by a comedic dynamic.

The decision to kill Mr Nigel-Murray at the hands of Booth’s sniper nemesis Brodsky, after a lengthy ominously scored montage which put all the characters potentially in jeopardy, was therefore terribly misjudged. The show simply cannot sustain that type of dramatic weight at this point in its development, whereas it still could when Zach was shockingly revealed as the apprentice to the cannibal serial killer Gormagon in the traumatic finale of season 3. By far the best episode of season 6 was the episode that most closely approximated season 1 – Brennan losing her grip on reality as she investigated the death of her apparent doppelganger, a brilliant socially isolated surgeon. Her tearful declaration of love for Booth and subsequent heartbroken acceptance that she had missed her chance for happiness by her reluctance to take a risk on him when he suggested it in season 5 was both incredibly dramatically satisfying and a reminder of what the show used to be.

Season 7 will largely eschew Emily Deschanel – written out for her pregnancy. Can the show survive that and will it ever square its political circle when she returns now that Booth’s romantic anger has subsided and Brennan’s imperviousness/strength balance has reached the point where they can get it together properly?

Bones season 7 begins its run on Living at 9pm tonight.

April 20, 2011

TARDIS: Time And Relative Dimensions In Smartness

Dr Who returns to our screens on Saturday so here’s my ha’penny worth on how ace writer Steven Moffat’s first season as show-runner and chief writer went.

Moffat, of course, was responsible for the best and most ingenious episodes of the first three seasons with his rousing two-part Blitz story, incredibly poignant linking of the Doctor and Madame de Pompadour over the course of her life, and the incomparable ‘Blink’ in which his terrifying villains the Weeping Angels, who can only move when you don’t look at them, made their debut. The fourth season saw a slight dip in the quality of plotting in his two-part adventure but he still created a hugely memorable character in Alex Kingston’s River Song. The news that Moffat was going to replace Davies as show-runner led, after the initial jubilation, to the fear that in stepping up to write so many more episodes a year the quality of Moffat’s work would inevitably fall. Well, it did, but only slightly. His season premiere, ‘The 11th Hour’, was an amazing episode, full of many Moffat trademarks, like the heartbreaking realisation that the Doctor came back years rather than minutes later after promising the young Amy Pond he’d return, and which triumphantly announced Matt Smith as a worthy Timelord by giving him a fantastic speech before he walked thru a hologram of his previous incarnations.

Moffat managed, without writing ‘Blink’ every week, to knock out more episodes yet still insert conceits that would make your head explode, such as Liz 10 in ‘The Beast Below’ being finally revealed as Queen Elizabeth X, and hence ‘subject to no one’; and his two-part Weeping Angels story was by turns hilarious, terrifying, upsetting, and also just dazzling in its cleverness. The fact that Moffat was still operating at such a high level though created an all new problem, which, rather than current scapegoat Matt Smith, may explain the falling ratings. Moffat’s writing is so good that it makes the rest of the writing staff look really bad. When Davies was show-runner there was a uniform level of quality that only Moffat rose above. Now that Moffat is show-runner there’s a uniform level that no one else can rise to… This means that while ‘The Lodger’ with James Corden was hilarious, you might just as easily tune into the sub-par ‘The Vampires of Venice’ or Richard Curtis’ embarrassing ‘The Doctor and Vincent’; where Curtis felt impelled to give Van Gogh a trip to the future to have Bill Nighy tell him how great he was, before Van Gogh killed himself anyway. In other words Dr Who has become incredibly hit and miss; if Moffat isn’t writing you must lower your expectations, but the casual viewer will not know that and so may easily watch half a season and pronounce it rubbish – by missing every Moffat episode.

Last year Stephen Fry, decrying the infantilising of television, instanced Dr Who as an example of something that was brilliantly written but was for children, not mature adults. Moffat’s filthy gags and general sauciness are probably no more unsuitable for children than those of Davies (while being considerably better) but Moffat avoids the cheap sentimentality that marked Davies as pandering to children. His season finale ‘The Big Bang’ was for adults as it thrillingly showed a whip-smart writer having immense fun with the non-linear narrative possibilities of time-travel, while it also showcased the quality of an old soul in a young body which had secured Matt Smith the part of the Doctor in the first place. The incredibly feel-good ending with Amy Pond remembering her imaginary friend the Raggedy Doctor and insisting that he was real, he was, but that she’d forgotten something she once knew, something that the Doctor had told her (in very carefully chosen words) about who he was and what the Tardis was; it was something old, something new, (we suddenly realise the Doctor was counting on Amy’s impending wedding triggering her memory of him), something…. borrowed, (cue a very familiar sound), something… Blue (enter the Tardis and the Doctor in a tux); exemplified how Moffat outdoes Davies by achieving wonderful emotional effects with a smidge of cleverness over pure cheesiness.

So perhaps Fry was right, Davies surely infantilised the audience if they can’t recognise that what Moffat’s doing is brilliant…

February 25, 2011

On Not Live-blogging the Oscars

“If the headline is big enough, then the story is big enough”. Events are only as important as the media deems them to be. Big Brother was a flop when it began on Channel 4 in 2000, not least because the tabloid press sneered constantly at the stupidity of the concept. When they decided to change their tunes and cheerlead for it instead, they created its audience by making it seem that who got evicted when somehow mattered. Big Brother hadn’t become any less inane; the media had merely decided that it was now important. So it was. And this is where the Oscars come in. I was driven to distraction last year by the spectacle of the Irish Times not only wasting space on Saturday simultaneously predicting the winners while sneering at how other contenders were better, but then trumpeting on their front page on the Monday that you could read their blog coverage of who did actually win. The ‘paper of record’ practically apologising for being published too early to be able to list the clowns who won the annual meat-parade infuriated me so much that I wrote a quick snippy demolition of the Oscars after the fact as a tangent to my sequence of articles on media manipulation, critical misperception and popular reception of cinematic successes. I just forgot to actually write that…

I stand by the reasons I gave for not doing a live-blog of the Oscars but I’d like to expand them and properly illuminate the most important one. There is the practical consideration. Why would an Irish media outlet, like Movies.ie who are currently trumpeting theirs, do a live-blog of the Oscars? It does not make sense for the Irish Times as opposed to the Chicago Sun-Times to live-blog the Oscars as most of their readers are asleep rather than watching TV. Automatically the live-blog becomes a stale transcript to be read the next morning. Which leads to my conceptual problem with live-blogging – it is performing live, for a writer. The meaning of performing live, which gives theatre its magic, is in its ephemeral nature. A live episode of ER carried a frisson for the American viewer then, entirely absent for the Irish viewer watching a re-run now, and wondering why people keep forgetting their lines and falling over props. A live-blog, if pure to its own conceptual ideal, would be deleted at the end of its writing. The reference to ER is intentional; it’s a scripted episode, performed live. But a live-blog is an episode improvised as the director shouts plot-points at the actors who try to respond creatively in the moment. I co-directed a comedy script the actors loved to riff on, and twenty minutes of improvisation around a forty minute show produces maybe five moments worthy of being scribbled into the script. Against those odds live-bloggers must write witty insights for post after post, minute after minute, hour after hour. I don’t believe Fry & Laurie writing together could produce something that was good live, and if they did it would be pointless keeping a transcript – writing is considered reflection, not spontaneous rambling, as Lester Bangs infamously discovered when he accepted a challenge to write a gig review live onstage…

Above all my animus towards live-blogging was that it is merely the newest way of giving the oxygen of publicity to an event that desperately needs to be ignored. The coverage by the Irish Times last year explicitly recognised that the actual winners were rarely the best the year in cinema had offered so it is too much to ask that media coverage be dialled down until it reaches the level of saturation the quality of the awards warrants? If the Oscars were a dog show, it would be Crufts. If people wanted to read a live-blog of Crufts that might be their concern, but the BBC pulled coverage of Crufts because of concerns over the cruel breeding that its awarding criteria encouraged, and the Oscars is a Crufts that most years denies entry to the most popular breed of dogs, and encourages only a tiny and unhealthy range of dogs to be bred for competition, while renegade dog-lovers both strive to keep some unfavoured breeds from extinction and supply the other unfavoured breeds beloved of the public. The Academy’s insane predilections have arguably distorted the entire medium of cinema. Walk the Line had trouble securing financing because it was a mid-budget drama. It wasn’t a blockbuster which could be sold to a mass audience, and it wasn’t a low-budget indie drama that could be sold on its Oscar nominations to a small audience, it was merely a cracking film – and that left it nowhere. The Oscars tend to squeeze serious drama into a tiny release window, downgrade the critical esteem afforded to quality mass entertainment, and encourage ‘independent’ movies to adopt a rigid set of clichés (think Sunshine Cleaning) in order to base their marketing campaigns around their Oscar nominations.

Any publicity given to the Oscars only perpetuates this destructive effect and so, as a small individual gesture, until the Oscars recognise quality blockbusters and skilful comedies, and develop a long-term memory greater than three months, this blog will only treat them annually to the healthy dose of derision they deserve. Read some more of the Academy’s greatest mistakes in Oscar Schmoscar Part II.

March 15, 2010

Oscar Schmoscar

There’s been an odd prevalence of live blogs surrounding this year’s “goddamn meat-parade” – as George C Scott so memorably described the Oscars. This blog did not do a live commentary on the Oscars for three reasons. Firstly, I rather like sleeping at night and think that many other people share this strange attitude. Secondly, I don’t believe that even Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie writing together could possibly write anything funny or insightful enough LIVE! to justify a live blog. Thirdly, the Oscars are (whisper it) (no in fact bellow it!) POINTLESS!

There are 5,777 voting members of the Academy. These individuals do not have a better idea of what makes a great film than any other 5,777 random individuals around the world. There was a reason that JFK told Ben Bradlee what he’d learned from the Bay of Pigs was this – “Don’t assume that because a man is in the army that he necessarily knows best about military strategy”. If you doubt that consider these three facts.

The Academy in its wisdom thought that Alfred Hitchcock, director of The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, Rebecca, Foreign Correspondent, Shadow of a Doubt, Rope, Strangers On a Train, Rear Window, Dial M for Murder, To Catch a Thief, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho and The Birds, was not truly exceptional enough in his field to win a Best Director Oscar.

The Academy in its wisdom thought that Ron Howard, director of The Da Vinci Code, was.

The Academy nominated both Apocalypse Now and Kramer Vs Kramer for Best Picture of 1979 and thought that the film which would have most impact on popular culture, which pushed the boundaries of film-making, and which would endure and be fondly remembered was…Kramer Vs Kramer. I love the smell of dumbness in the Kodak.

According to the Academy the best 10 films of the Zeros were Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, Chicago, The Return of the King, Million Dollar Baby, Crash, The Departed, No Country for Old Men, Slumdog Millionaire, and The Hurt Locker.

Not Memento, Moulin Rouge!, The Two Towers, Master & Commander, The Bourne Supremacy, Good Night and Good Luck, Casino Royale, Atonement, The Dark Knight and The Private Lives of Pippa Lee.

Or Amores Perros, The Fellowship of the Ring, The Rules of Attraction, X-2, Mean Girls, Brick, The Prestige, Zodiac, Hunger and Up in the Air.

We don’t need the Academy to tell us that Christoph Waltz gave a great performance in Inglourious Basterds. We don’t need the Academy’s nominations to help us tell the difference between a good blockbuster with commercial clichés and a bad Oscar-baiter with its own set of equally rigid (but more idiotic because they’re ‘edgy’) clichés (Little Miss Sunshine, I’m looking at you). Maggie Mayhem tells Bliss in Whip It “Be your own hero”. Follow her advice, trust your own instincts…

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