Talking Movies

April 29, 2020

Any Other Business: Part LI

As the title suggests, so forth.

“It’s mandatory advisory, but it’s not compulsory”

And we’re back to this unloved Fine Gael gibberish again. Leo Varadkar, who’d like to remind you a few more times that he’s a medical doctor, thinks the science is uncertain when it comes to masks. It is not. The Atlantic tried to disentangle the miasma of confusion and scepticism around wearing a face mask. For some baffling reason it’s being led by the WHO, one hopes not simply for political reasons to avoid agreeing with Taiwan. There are two distinct concepts here that are endlessly conflated – ingress and egress. To prevent oneself getting infected you need medical-grade PPE, but to stop oneself infecting everyone else you simply need a cotton bandanna. A cotton mask will reduce virus particles emitted from your mouth by 99%, quite obviously reducing your chances of infecting anyone. “Models show that if 80% of people wear masks that are 60% effective, easily achievable with cloth, we can get to an effective R0 of less than one. That’s enough to halt the spread of the disease”. Sure, there are other factors at play, like social distancing and demographics, but “in every region that has adopted widespread mask-wearing, case and death rates have been reduced within a few weeks”. So the science here is uncertain in the same sense that George Bush Jr used to insist the science was uncertain on global warming. But whatever, just advise people to wear masks, and then watch so many Mike Pences float about the place boasting “I’m not infected”, oblivious to the fact that you can be infected after taking a test clearing you, the virus takes days to manifest, and you can be asymptomatic.

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, Creeps in this petty pace from day to day, To the last syllable of recorded time

We are now well into the fifth week of Status Burgundy lockdown. It is clear that the ‘caretaker’ government is softening us up by leak after leak for an extension for another 2 weeks, and adding insult to injury by blaming it on our complacency over social distancing rather than their strategic blindness over nursing homes being an obvious locus for COVID-19. But given the hysteria over policing this Bank Holiday does anyone seriously think that we will not be in lockdown for the June Bank Holiday too? Come Friday, Varadkar and Harris will trot out and regretfully inform us that because we got complacent, and our lax social distancing (inexplicably) caused a spike in transmission in nursing homes, that we will have to do penance for another two weeks. When those two weeks are nearly up, they will appear again, and announce another two week extension to take the June Bank Holiday out of play, lest all our good work be undone by dispersal to the seaside, and make this seem like a moment of buoyant optimism – this is how we beat COVID-19, can’t you see it? can’t you see it? One might think simply making it mandatory that everybody wear a mask at all times might allow us out of this national house arrest of not being allowed stray further than 2km on foot. One might equally think that a government clearly rejected by the people should not be making such consequential decisions for those people, all the while calling for national unity while openly disdaining 1/4 of voters. One would apparently be wrong on both fronts.

April 26, 2020

Cultivate the Interior Life

This very day last month Andrew Ferguson proclaimed in the Atlantic that the days of self-isolation would be springtime for introverts. That hasn’t quite happened.

I suppose it shouldn’t be that much of a surprise that extroverts really just can’t stop. And they can’t stop being enabled either. After all, it was not for nothing that Ferguson invoked Susan Cain’s seminal book Quiet:

“Introversion,” Cain wrote, “is now [considered] a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology.” Her book was a catalog of the ways in which society is designed around the pleasures and benefits of the extroverted: open floor plans in the workplace, team-building exercises everywhere, office calendars that let the boss and co-workers track your every move. Our culture’s heroes on the screen or the athletic field are always extroverts, our weirdos and deviants invariably portrayed as introverts”

If you want evidence of that last point just look at how SEAL Team portrayed it as a radical and counter-intuitive choice to recruit a quiet frogman into Bravo rather than yet another blustering alpha male, in order to avoid a total echo chamber of gung-ho decision-making. And yet the show then reversed itself within episodes to reveal said quiet frogmen as, well, a devious soul willing to throw a brother under the bus to save himself. Those sneaky introverts, so quiet…

The lockdown has done away with team building nonsense, made group meetings easy to escape by faux freezing, revealed the idiocy of open plan houses and endless commuting, and its aftermath may well also do in the idiocy of open plan offices as people demand walls, doors, and their own personal easily sanitised and secured space. And yet the ongoing war on introversion (which after reading Cain’s book I realised to my regret I had been complicit in as a tutor owing to grading guidelines) has not lost a step. You would think that being ordered to stay indoors, and being thrown back on their own internal resources, people might cultivate the interior life. Not a bit of it. Everything has to be shared, everything has to be performed for an imaginary audience, everything has to be broadcast to the world. This is the true pathology: Man alone with himself – desperately turns to social media and dances a quick step with his long-suffering dog, desperate for likes.

I thought about writing some content specifically for coronavirus – the usual drivel, appropriate movies to watch, long books to read, music to listen to – and decided not to. Calvin Coolidge said National Education Week did not need his imprimatur, it could get along just fine by itself.

February 21, 2020

Any Other Business: Part XLIV

As the title suggests, so forth.

“What a shocking cheap hat!”

Deja vu, all over again. Two years on from ‘Beast from the East’, as we suffer thru a month of storms every weekend, once again if you walk into Dundrum Town Centre and mooch through Penneys or M&S you will find woolly hats and rugged scarves and thermal gloves being shovelled out at the door at knockdown prices. You will find shorts, bikinis, polo shirts, and sun-hats as the new in thing to wear. The clothes on sale in our shops have, somehow, as always, changed seasons well in advance of the actual weather. We have just had the coldest days of the winter and are expecting more of the foulest and yet the clothes offered as just in at this moment will be unwearable until June. I need an economist to explain to me how this makes sense – do people really buy their wardrobes that far in advance? – doesn’t anybody suddenly need a new scarf or a heavier hat in February or March when it snows after the shops have shifted seasons? – do the shops not take a commercial beating selling clothes that won’t be needed for another five months? What’s going on, in short, and why does this happen season after season? In the meantime I shall be pulling on a trapper hat much like the one pictured above, bought at an outrageous discount last week at H&M.

The Gibraltar Gambit

Previously I’ve suspected there was a recurring Google Calendar alert somewhere in the Spanish civil service. This reminded them to enrage Michael Howard into threatening to cable out the entire Mediterranean fleet by periodically asking for Gibraltar back. Now it seems the Greeks are getting in on the act, if the return of the Elgin marbles really has been tacked onto proposals for trade talk tactics between Britain and the remaining members of the EU. Where might this all end? Yield Rockall? There are so many grievances that so many countries have with the lonely island that the list could get truly absurd. Mind you would it really be any more absurd than the American list topped by “– and agree to have all your chickens dumped in chlorine like they’ve been to a low-rent swimming pool”?

A bold artistic decision to ensure the future of the show … that cancels the future of the show

I feel like this is a corollary to the previous series of entries on attempts to make mucho money by terrible artistic decisions that ended up making predictably terrible art and then hysterically nada money. It appears Hulu have absolutely no plans whatsoever to continue their revival of Veronica Mars. Critics lauded the bold artistic decision creator Rob Thomas considered necessary to ensure the future of the show, but die-hard fans excoriated that bold artistic decision, which they saw as simply dynamiting Veronica Mars. And as the die-hard fans were the only reason a cancelled Zeros network show had such a curious afterlife in the first place this was a move that backfired spectacularly; quelle surprise but the brickbats of the fans matters more to Hulu than the garlands of the critics. I will probably never bother with the Hulu season because I don’t want to see the final five minutes. (And I had been intrigued to see JK Simmons, who was so good in Thomas’ unseen show Party Down, enter the world of Neptune.) I don’t check out of this universe lightly; I have both of the Veronica Mars novels and all three seasons on DVD. When I had to introduce Elliot Harris to Veronica Mars from scratch, before catching the Veronica Mars movie in the one cinema in Dublin showing it, I sent him six clips I thought would give him a flavour of the show and act as a ‘Previously on Veronica Mars…’  I told him if he only watched one that Logan’s ‘Epic Love’ speech to Veronica was by far the most important one. Rob Thomas’ justification for throwing that speech, that dynamic in the morgue bin was that for the show to continue as a noir mystery Veronica had to be a lone wolf. Well… offhand the existence of The Thin Man and Moonlighting suggests otherwise. Maybe simply have Logan appear from time to time, as the service permits, as in the novels. Anything but blow him to blazes so that the show can continue in limited runs whenever Thomas and Kristen Bell can fit it in their schedules. If nobody is left who wants to see the show then your damn schedules could be free enough to accommodate a network season but it doesn’t matter.

Starbucks doubles down in Dundrum

To return to Dundrum Town Centre and the laws of economics puzzling me, how the devil is Starbucks returning to its previous haunt by the Mill Pond? This was the smaller of their two Dundrum Town Centre establishments, and shared its space with Mao. After some mysterious happening an eternal refurbishment unsurprisingly led to the departure of both Starbucks and Mao and a dizzying array of temporary tenants (bean bags, arcade games, net cafe, Italian furniture) before now Starbucks has returned, to take just not its old slot, but Mao’s slot too!

iZombie, oDear

After two years or so of a break since finishing season 2 of iZombie I found myself utterly lost when attempting to start season 3 and so went back to the pilot and re-watched the show, enjoying it greatly. And then, as I finally made my way into new episodes, a sinking feeling started to take hold. Season 3 of iZombie is not all that great… There are several threads one could point to that unravelled the fabric of the show: the utter idiocy of the Peyton/Blaine/Ravi storyline, the utter idiocy of Major’s hooking up with a clearly unhinged Chaos Killer groupie, the utter idiocy of Ravi spilling the entire secret history of the zombie plague to a reporter unawares. All revolved around characters behaving like complete morons at odds with their previous actions on the show. The wider conspiracies surrounding the activities of Fillmore Graves and Zombie Truthers never quite exerted the magnetic pull of the Max Rager machinations of the previous season, and this less satisfying arc tended to swamp the case of the week mysteries which themselves became more hit and miss.

Mitt Romney: Profile in Courage

How unexpected. A year and a half ago I was remembering the 2012 election duel between Obama and Romney because of College Humour’s ‘Gangnam Style’ parody video ‘Mitt Romney Style’. At the time I referred to the robotic Romney, who surprised Obama in the first debate by having had a Reagan upgrade to the operating software;  beginning with a perfectly executed joke that left Obama so stunned that he staggered thru that entire debate punch-drunk. I had seen Romney’s sons appear on Conan O’Brien’s TBS show and had mused that George Romney’s charisma had skipped a generation. Of late, however, the interviews Romney has been giving to the Atlantic‘s McKay Coppins suggests a looser more devil-may-care character has emerged in the last job he will ever have. Eighteen months ago I mused that everyone had been glad that the RNC intimated to Romney that he should stop seeking to run again in 2016, but what people wouldn’t give now to have had Romney rather than Trump as the GOP candidate in 2016. And now it seems Romney, at eight years distance from his run when it was obligatory to demonise him, is revealing what he might have been like as a President in a crisis – voting his conscience though the heavens fall.

June 29, 2019

On Rewatching Movies

The Atlantic recently showcased some findings from behavioural economists suggesting that we overvalue novelty and undervalue repetition, and it made me think about how I’ve been watching movies of late.

Listener up there! what have you to confide to me? Do I anticipate Trump? Very well then I anticipate Trump.

I have been finding it hard, looking back to 2010 in the last few weeks, to get a handle on the contours of this decade, cinematically speaking. And I think some of that difficulty is owing to my not having rewatched as many movies as I would have done during the previous decade. This was a deliberate decision to use my time to add as many new titles to my ken as possible rather than simply rewatching what I had already seen. And that decision has been quite rewarding: I have seen more Jean-Luc Godard, Woody Allen, Orson Welles, Andrei Tarkovsky, Louis Malle, and Mia Hansen-Love films than I would’ve had I not sought them out. But it seems there is an opportunity cost: if you focus on expanding your knowledge, it comes at the cost of deepening existing knowledge.

There is a lot to be said for repetition to really soak in a film. After all a vital check on whether a film really stands up is whether it can be rewatched with profit. I saw Birdman and High-Rise twice within days and loved them both times. In the case of High-Rise I had a totally different viewing experience each time: a crowded screening in IFI 2, where Stephen Errity and I managed to miss the opening scene, brought out the comedy of the film, whereas a deserted screening in IFI 1 with Paul Fennessy brought out the visual grandeur of the film. John Healy opines that repetition, like constantly catching snippets or indeed all of Jaws on heavy rotation on a movie channel, allows you enjoy lots of little details you’d otherwise miss without seeing it so often.

Little details can create what I’ve previously dubbed ‘mental architecture’. Watching The Matrix again and again and again you find yourself responding to someone asking your name with ‘Yeah, that’s me’ and only later realise you were quoting Keanu Reeves. Clambering off the floor with a somewhat awkward grace you realise later you were approximating how Keanu Reeves got up off his knees at the end of Constantine. In neither instance were these conscious emulations, simply physical or verbal replications of an oft-seen physical action or verbal response. The joy of repetition is that which comes from knowing a movie inside out: like watching a James Bond movie with my Dad, hooting at in-jokes about Ken Adam’s inability to stop blowing the budget on working monorails, or quoting along to The Matrix Reloaded line after line en masse with friends.

Whooping up Back to the Future Day on ITV 2 with my Dad back in 2015 wouldn’t have been half as awesome if we hadn’t watched each film repeatedly together over three decades. When Dad couldn’t countenance a full film I would summon from the DVR just the helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now, Donald Sutherland’s JFK monologue, the Joker’s attack on the van in The Dark Knight:

At the far left of the shelf of DVDs was a single unlabelled videocassette. Schwartz slid it out with a finger and popped it into the ancient VCR.

“What’s this?” Henry asked.

“You’ll see.”

Schwartz watched this tape alone sometimes, late at night, the way he reread certain passages of Aurelius. It restored some nameless element of his personality that threatened to slip away if he didn’t stay vigilant. (The Art of Fielding)

Repetition can allow us grasp a film from different angles, enjoy the red herrings we missed before, create personal in-jokes, and provide us with an idiosyncratic frame of reference. But it can also utterly surprise. I was experiencing the rare joy of sharing a friend’s first encounter with a classic in 2017 when I nearly gasped at Citizen Kane on the big screen. Donald Trump’s threat to Hillary Clinton during their debates that he would, if elected, appoint a special prosecutor to look into her situation, now found an incredible anticipation in Charles Foster Kane’s threat during his speech that his “first official act as governor of this state will be to appoint a special district attorney to arrange for the indictment, prosecution and conviction of Boss Jim W Gettys”. There was now a new meaning in an old text.

In the case of Citizen Kane and American politics life was imitating art, as Oscar Wilde opined happened more often than vice versa, and a piece of art that had seemed to have a stable meaning had had that meaning upended. Repetition is not old hat in a world of novelty and completist instincts. It is both a time machine, that can enable us remember the way we enjoyed a movie the first time we saw it and remember ourselves and the milieu of that experience, and a transmogrifier that reworks old movies into something we never suspected our contemporary.

June 26, 2019

Constructing a Theatrical To-Do List

Repetition has been on my mind lately via the Atlantic, and a morbid awareness of how little time is left to repeat anything courtesy of two people who’ve been mentioned hereabouts before. One had calculated they’d passed the tipping point where they’d now lived for longer than they had left to live. The other declared that they didn’t really re-read books – at 20 a year the odds were against reading another thousand of them. This was followed by a disavowal of angst over picking a thousand worthy books in favour of Jack Reacher whenever in felt right. There will now follow some characteristic angst on my part in which I try to pick not books but worthy plays to attend.

‘[INSERT NUMBER] [INSERT ARTWORKS] To See Before You Die’ books are two a penny, and I’ve fallen into their orbit once by request. But I’ve always found those titles superficially morbid. This piece aspires to be rigorously morbid. I’m not going to furnish a list of plays with blurbs, nor playwrights with blurbs, I’m going to be a bit more practical. Suppose that I have thirty years left of theatre-going. It’s not a bad supposition. I highly doubt that in my sixties I will have the interest, energy or ability to haunt theatres in the way I have in the past few years. It is therefore highly probable that the attendance of these plays will be frontloaded towards the first decade and a half. Suppose that I was to attend six plays a year. At an average price of 30e per play that’s 180e a year, or put another way those six plays have an opportunity cost of seeing 30 films a year for 6e in the Ormonde on Wednesdays.

I find that I have only ever been to twelve Shakespeare plays: Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, King Lear, Richard III, The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing, Measure for Measure, Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and As You Like It. But I have been to several different productions of several of those titles. That’s half the problem with Shakespeare in Dublin compared to Shakespeare in London, the struggle to get to more than a handful of titles. I have decided for myself thirteen more Shakespeare plays I aspire to see in the theatre, which group nicely as the Henriad, the Romans, and the somewhat comical: Richard II, Henry IV: Parts One and Two, Henry V, Titus Andronicus, Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, The Merchant of Venice, The Winter’s Tale, Love’s Labours’ Lost, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and The Taming of the Shrew. And I can live with not making it to Troilus & Cressida, The Comedy of Errors, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and the rest.

And this is before grasping the thorny issue of bad productions… I have seen superlative productions of Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard. I consider those Chekhov boxes firmly ticked, leaving only Uncle Vanya and Ivanov to go. But… that the production I saw of The Seagull was less a production of Chekhov than a dumpster fire of an ensemble’s Chekhov scripts. So The Seagull goes out of the inbox and back into the To-Do List. And the same holds true for Shakespeare: Romeo and JulietMeasure for Measure, Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and As You Like It all need revisiting to hit upon a production that feels halfway towards being definitive.

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