wax banks

second-best since Cantor

Category: watching

Cognitive dissonance on Trump’s ‘dealmaking’ persona.

Quoth Politico:

Donald Trump had heard enough about policy and process. It was Thursday afternoon and members of the House Freedom Caucus were peppering the president with wonkish concerns about the American Health Care Act—the language that would leave Obamacare’s “essential health benefits” in place, the community rating provision that limited what insurers could charge certain patients, and whether the next two steps of Speaker Paul Ryan’s master plan were even feasible—when Trump decided to cut them off.

“Forget about the little shit,” Trump said, according to multiple sources in the room. “Let’s focus on the big picture here.”

The group of roughly 30 House conservatives, gathered around a mammoth, oval-shaped conference table in the Cabinet Room of the White House, exchanged disapproving looks. Trump wanted to emphasize the political ramifications of the bill’s defeat; specifically, he said, it would derail his first-term agenda and imperil his prospects for reelection in 2020. The lawmakers nodded and said they understood. And yet they were disturbed by his dismissiveness. For many of the members, the “little shit” meant the policy details that could make or break their support for the bill—and have far-reaching implications for their constituents and the country.

“We’re talking about one-fifth of our economy,” a member told me afterward.

Filled with hope once again, Freedom Caucus members were once again promptly disappointed. This meeting was yet another “take one for the team” seminar. The atmosphere was friendly, and the president had the group laughing with irrelevant riffs and stories of negotiations past, but it became clear, as soon as he made the “little shit” comment, that no serious changes were going to be made, because the president didn’t have sufficient command of the policy details to negotiate what would or would not be realistic for Ryan to shepherd through the House.

Trump has never shown any particular abilities as a businessman — he’s a TV/tabloid performer whose job is to act the part of the dealmaking shark, and he’s paid handsomely to propagate that lie. Everyone knows that, right? Everyone I know is up on the salient bits of his life story: the repeated bankruptcies, the tax evasions, the Russian bailouts, the banks’ refusal to do business with him, ‘the only guy in history who went broke running a casino,’ etc. He’s a poseur who’d be broke in a ditch if it weren’t for Dad’s money, and later Putin’s.

Doesn’t everyone know all this? Why do gossip rags like Politico keep giving us Trump stories whose frame is ‘famed dealmaker finds Washington is more complicated than he thought,’ when he’s not famed for making deals, he’s famed for being rich?

But of course, my own cognitive dissonance isn’t as widely shared as I think/hope. A surprising chunk of the American population persists in its belief that the man knows what he’s doing: the folks who watched The Apprentice (I never have, alas) and believed it, who bought into the election-year narrative of Trump as outsider ‘swamp drainer,’ who seriously think of Trump as a master businessman, who voted for the man out of the belief that he’d bring some good ol’ capitalist efficiency to a dysfunctional federal government. I have to keep reminding myself that millions of people continue to think — against all evidence, all sense — that Trump’s doing a hell of a job.

They’re wrong, they’ve been suckered, and for years it’s been easy to see through the con and know how it would end. (And never ever forget that the Republican Party profited handsomely in the short term from the gulling of so many millions of media-addicted marks, at enormous long-term cost to all involved. This isn’t just about Trump; the Democrats are an unprincipled disaster but this particular cluster of lies only works in today’s Republican Party.) But you can’t tell anyone anything. We have to see and hear for ourselves; ask Thomas. With any luck, this first bout of cowardice and stupidity will enlighten a few hundred thousand voters, a couple million, and the inevitable selloff will begin sooner than anticipated.

I got the election outcome wrong (having denied the evidence of my own eyes), but I stand by this prediction: the GOP will turn on Trump the instant it’s politically expedient. Last year I figured that was 2019, but as the reptilian Mr Manafort offers to testify before Nunes and Schiff, I wonder if I wasn’t insufficiently optimistic (pessimistic?) to the tune of roughly two years…


The funniest part of the AHCA debacle, for me — the only funny part really — is that I agree 100% with Trump’s impatient dismissal of the House GOP caucus. The man’s never had a real job; he’s been his own boss all his life, in a flat organization which has allowed him to involve himself in whatever aspects of the business he wishes, to whatever degree he likes, solely according to his whims. He’s contemptible, alright? Yugely so. But he didn’t write a bill that would kick 20ish million people off the insurance rolls, and he didn’t insist on making the bill worse, deadlier, as a condition of his backing it. Trump doesn’t have principles or basic intelligence, but the House GOP is full of genuinely hateful guys. When Trump’s gone, our pseudoconservative ‘permanent opposition’ party will still be around. Trump is, in a sense, the easier problem to solve.

Avatar: The Last Airbender.

The summary enthusiastic recommendation first: This is the best ‘children’s show’ I’ve ever seen, and will move adults (as it moved me) in surprising ways.

At first it looks like yet another cheaply produced genre pastiche on the order of Ninjago. (See below.) Certainly the premise is familiar enough: magical boy-of-destiny returns to the world to master the four elements and defeat evil, aided by a couple of plucky kids. And the pan-Asian kung fu pastiche is dangerous ground for a predominantly white cast of voice actors to tread, and…

…but then the show’s first scene sees the competent polar-tribal female lead (Katara) scold her competent brother (Sokka) for sexism in as many words, and while ‘progressive’ means something more than box-checking if it means anything at all, that’s a hell of a way to announce your intentions as storytellers. But that’s only politics. This is what matters: the jokes are funny, and the characters look and talk like people, and there’s a magical boy in an iceberg who talks like a boy, plus he’s got a flying six-legged platypus-bison of some kind (‘pretty cool’ as they say) to which he has a touchingly intense relationship, and when they travel to the siblings’ village the old woman looks and talks like an old woman rather than The Old Woman, and then the Fire Nation arrives looking like Nazi Samurai…

And there’s the magic, the ‘bending’: the ‘waterbenders’ practice a recognizable magical martial art, the ‘firebenders’ a distinctive art of their own, and the last ‘airbender’ a kinetic language unique to him — each tribe’s fighting/magic style a loving tribute to an existing martial arts tradition, each embodying in form and movement the character-as-destiny which is the standard premise of this sort of story. Because ‘bending’ is central to the story, it needs to be more than four-colour kickpunching, and it is — the most surprising and impressive thing about the show, from the beginning, is the subtle transformation of its bog-standard four-way elemental schema from storytelling convenience to philosophical argument.

In other words, notwithstanding the overacted teenage villain Prince Zuko (who (thank Christ) gets interesting pretty quickly), Avatar‘s two-part opener immediately dispels any worry that it’s just a checklist wuxia pastiche, and projects an unusually thoughtful and humane spirit, which marks it as both psychologically and politically sophisticated. I’d say ‘…for a kid’s show’ but I don’t think it’s necessary — Avatar refers time and again not only to Star Wars and The Matrix, as expected, but also (more tellingly) to Miyazaki’s elegiac fantasies; and the writing shows a subtle sensitivity to Avatar‘s pan-Asian source mythologies and folktales. At times it seems intentionally to court comparisons to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which went off the air less than two years before Avatar‘s premiere — there’s a clear homage to the canonical Buffy episode ‘The Zeppo’ that warmed my heart. Its creators clearly didn’t think of their show as proscriptively ‘for children,’ nor did they make a corporate ‘all-ages’ entertainment in the disappointing Shrek/Lego Movie/Minions mould; instead of following the constrictive rules of corporate youth-marketed products, Avatar‘s creators obeyed principles which generated both kid-friendly scenarios and believable group dynamics without sacrificing narrative momentum.

Indeed, the 90+ minute final episode, ‘Sozin’s Comet,’ is that rarest of series finales, the ideal end to both deep story and plot-mechanics. My only major complaint about the final season is its focus on romantic pairings at the expense of the dynamic, persnickety relationships which formed throughout the first two years — and my wife, who loved the show and shares this complaint, was particularly irritated by the creators’ choice of final scene and image. (I also disliked the inexplicable repeated use of the word ‘confused’ to mean ‘ambivalent’ and ‘conflicted’ and ‘frustrated’ and ‘preoccupied’; that seemed like the writers’ only obvious lapse of faith in the audience’s intelligence, or else a failure of nerve.) But ‘Sozin’s Comet’ is still an absolute triumph, and it would be even if it only brought three long-simmering conflicts to genuinely suspenseful climaxes, paid off a bit of deep ‘mythology,’ and delivered an extended knock-down, drag-out magical kung fu fight between two of the storyworld’s most powerful beings. Its real achievement is greater than that: it pays off the show’s central storyline by introducing new ‘worldbuilding’ information in a way that seems perfectly natural, inevitable, instead of convenient — the final battle echoes every conflict of the preceding three seasons, and its resolution reveals something new about the world of Avatar without violating the art/artist/audience contract.

(The finale also includes a magical island that deliberately conjures (and I think spoofs) the memory of Lost, an overpraised and derivative show whose fatal abstraction and ultimate failure of taste and sense stand as warnings to TV-serial creators. Kudos to my wife for pointing out the Lost resonance.)

Avatar‘s rare coherence and genre-defying sophistication — not to mention its bone-deep commitment to a (let’s say) progressive vision of family and community — are all the more impressive given the show’s occasional formal experiments. One episode makes the non-speaking flying bison its POV character; another is a series of impressionistic vignettes set on the eve of battle; a third uses multiple animation styles to tell a good ol’ Rashomon story. The penultimate episode has the kids watching a play about themselves, performed by a troupe of Fire Nation actors, which takes an eerie turn in its final scenes. But this isn’t cleverness or ostentation: every story about children adventuring in a grownup world draws on the same fundamental dynamic tension, whereby the kids’ clarifying (naive) vision carries a kind of moral force weighing against their discovery that the world is fiendishly complicated, and adulthood itself is no sin; indeed the idea of sin (of ultimate good and bad) seems less and less believable the more of the world you take into account (cf. recent YA examples: Harry Potter, His Dark Materials, the Star Wars prequels). As the world of Avatar deepens and variegates, the range of the heroes’ experiences is reflected stylistically, formally, on top of the actual ‘content’ of those adventures — assuming that distinction has meaning in the first place.

I really can’t say enough about Avatar. It came into our lives at just the right moment. Every day I wake up in a country whose hugely unpopular president is a bellicose semiliterate imbecile afraid of his own shadow; Avatar has allowed me to escape to a story that isn’t simple or safe or free from evil, but is filled with humanity and love, truthfully — that is to say, beautifully — told. Above all, I’m grateful to have been able to share it with my six-year-old son.

He loved it, by the way.


Ninjago note

Ninjago was the biggest casualty of our Avatar experience. I quite liked it at the time, as a light entertainment aimed at kids and their interested/hovering parents. But I’m now convinced it’s a somewhat cynical knockoff of Avatar, with none of the earlier show’s depth or grace. The upcoming Ninjago film looks miserable — more ‘meta’ comedy in the vein of The Lego Movie, ugh — and the central figure of Lloyd Garmadon the Green Ninja, once just an underwritten plot-necessity, now feels to me like the worst sort of storytelling laziness. (Aang the Avatar is Hamlet in comparison.) If they make another season of the show we’ll presumably watch it, and I’ll presumably enjoy the zany antics and genre spoofs, but now I’ve seen firsthand how much more could have been done with the same raw materials. It’s lost its lustre. Blessed are they who do not see, but still believe, etc., etc.; on the other hand, better late than never.

One-line reviews/summaries.

Literary Theory (Terry Eagleton)

The whole history of literary theory has led inexorably to the literary theory of Terry Eagleton. –Terry Eagleton, convincingly

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Hunter Thompson)

Mustn’t slow down or the Seventies will catch you.

Seinfeld (Larry David et al.)

Apparently in the 80s and 90s everyone was inexplicably wealthy and Jewish and everyone was terrible, and the reason your idiot friends hate the final episode isn’t so much that it isn’t funny as that it was the first moment when David et al. refused to cut away from the severed heads and gouts of blood.

Logan (James Mangold et al.)

A perfectly fine latter-day Western is accidentally marketed as a superhero film; hijinks ensue.

Deadpool

Only in our era of absolute myopic cowardice could this intermittently funny movie for scared 20something boys be called ‘risky’ or ‘adult.’

Sidenote re: Deadpool

The joke about International Women’s Day (pegging) was, in my mind, the moment it went from ‘forgettable’ to ‘contemptible’; YMMV.

Logan.

  1. I suspect Hugh Jackman is the last screen Wolverine; I hope so. You can only ring changes on that character so many times, within the confines of the ‘tentpole actioner’ as they say. Jackman grew into the role, doing solid work even in terrible films, and created — pardon me — an iconic screen character; he deserves the chance to bring the curtain down. The fact that whoever’s making those alternate-timeline X-Men movies won’t cast anyone else in the role is a real compliment to him. (That said, I wondered a couple of times what Mel Gibson could’ve done as old Logan — it was the beard that set me off, but Jackman’s fellow Aussie is still, I think, better at communicating Logan‘s mix of pain, confusion, resignation, misanthrophy, and (lest we forget) feral rage.)
  2. Patrick Stewart deserves an Oscar, not only because he’ll make an excellent speech. He takes a risk here and delivers a flawless performance that owes nothing to the standard language of ‘superhero films’; Jackman does a lot of fighting, as you’d expect of Wolverine, but Stewart is playing a low-key drama about aging ungracefully. I’m reminded of Gielgud’s frail Prospero, and wish I’d seen Stewart’s…
  3. Dafne Keen provides a feral take on Stranger Things‘s ‘Eleven.’ She’s every inch as good as her costars, especially in the film’s many intensely quiet moments. So’s Stephen Merchant as a run-down Caliban, who must’ve loved playing scenes with the naughty Mr Grant. And though Boyd Holbrook’s role is a bit of a clunker, he does his best to run off with the film. Everyone onscreen is in top form. As someone else points out: a lot of excellent screen actors pop up in cape’n’cowl films with nothing to do, and Logan shows how deep you can go once you’ve established the characters and ensemble and are no longer beholden to the almighty ‘mythology.’ (By all accounts Logan diverges completely from its ostensible source material, profitably cynical hack writer Mark Millar’s Old Man Logan.)
  4. Logan is a Western (no points for figuring that out), and makes heartbreaking use of footage and dialogue from Shane. Yes there’s much talk — predictable, since film critics are almost all hacks, even the ‘names’ — of Logan ‘transcending’ the comic-book film and ‘defying genre conventions,’ etc., but for God’s sake ignore all that chatter. It’s squarely within the conventions of a different sort of story that’s fallen out of favour with (young) film audiences, and it will be overrated by critics as a result. This is an important thing to understand about critics and tastemakers: when a media text that appears, or is expected, to belong to one genre is revealed to belong to another, they flip out, because in that case they have something to do. Sci-fi story that’s actually a domestic melodrama? Gush. Fight movie doubles as anticapitalist protest? Gush. Surprisingly gory superhero film is really about old people? Gush. (Star Wars meets The Dirty Dozen? Gush of relief.) It would be a very good (if somewhat old-fashioned) Western if it didn’t have superheroes in it, its iconography smartly utilized by James Mangold et al., but once those adamantium claws go snikt there’s no stopping the fanthusiasm, and critical perspective collapses.
  5. As ‘awesome’ violence is to comixxx fanboys, schematic genre-crossing is to film critics.
  6. I cried at the end, during the eulogy (it doesn’t spoil anything, really, to suggest that there’ll be a eulogy, though I won’t say whose). I had an intense feeling of having come through something, and I can’t tell whether I mourned the character or the franchise, which is a little disgusting. Jackman’s been Wolverine for, what, twenty years? That’s a long time to live with an idea. But during the other obvious tearjerker moment, not only didn’t I cry, I didn’t feel much of anything — it felt like a necessary step in the narrative progression of a dark Western film. ‘But this is a big deal in a superhero movie!’ went my inner nerd, and I began to wonder whether that voice, too, needed to die in order that everyone else might glimpse transcendence.
  7. The idea that every aesthetic judgment about a superhero film must be conducted in terms only of other superhero films is cowardice. If they’re good films, they’re good even with masked vigilantes in them, and we shouldn’t use the words ‘guilty pleasure’ to mask our interest. If they can’t hold up to that standard — if, for instance, your connection to Logan and Logan is nostalgia for a line of commercial products, and you’re just better off watching Mangold’s riveting 3:10 to Yuma — then why do we bother? Because they’re popular? Logan‘s quite a good film on its own terms, and that’s enough to justify the price of your matinee ticket, but the gushing has to do with its status as a ‘genre-defying’ popcorn flick, which shows how deep the rot has gone. One critic approvingly points out that the heroes fail, at one crucial juncture, to drive over a chicken-wire fence; they get snarled in it instead, and have to back out. Funny, no? Clever, no? Honest, no? And so we must deduce that no superhero film has ever been honest before, because we’re goldfish forgetting the other side of our tank.
  8. Lemme put it this way: I saw the movie yesterday and can vividly remember much or most of it now, nearly twenty-four hours later — but only because I’m trying. Honestly, until I sat down to write about it, it had slipped from my mind, like so many other good movies.

THE WIRE and THE SOPRANOS, dirt cheap. Buy?

The Wire and The Sopranos were on sale on Blu-Ray for $60ish apiece yesterday only. If you haven’t seen them, you should consider buying them next time this happens.

It’s been a while since I wrote one of these posts, forgive me if I’m a little rusty.

The turn-of-the-millennium ‘Golden Age’ of primetime drama kicked off with damaged/compromised classics like Twin Peaks, NYPD Blue, and The X-Files, which incorporated soap-opera seriality (via shows like Hill Street Blues) into the hourlong network drama format. Canonical shows like Buffy and My So-Called Life reveled in that new freedom, clearing way for achievements like the first two years of Veronica Mars, but it wasn’t until HBO got into the game that the primetime drama reached full maturity.

Oz was their first step, but The Sopranos was the breakthrough: a domestic ‘dramedy’ playing on familiar tropes (the henpecked Kramden/Bunker figure, the dysfunctional ethnic clan) with a theretofore unimaginable intensity, viscerality, subtlety, and — this is the key — honesty about sacred institutions like marriage. The Sopranos, by no means the subtlest of HBO’s great dramas, demonstrated that a primetime series could leave important matters of plot and character unexplained from week to week, trusting viewers to follow not only the in-world action but the various social-critical and symbolic levels of the show as well. Though this may seem silly to young viewers today, it was an extraordinarily demanding show in its time.

It was an actors’ showcase. James Gandolfini and Edie Falco not only gave two of the great individual performances in the history of the medium, they collaborated on one of the essential onscreen depictions of a marriage. The cast wasn’t uniformly excellent, and there were only a handful of sizable female roles, but the high pitch of the action meant that everyone on the show had great material to work with, and a handful of performances were career bests. (The rise and fall of Johnny Sack, for instance, is a masterpiece of writing, acting, and direction.)

It was a writers’ showcase. David Chase and his staff took huge risks: showing the main character committing horrific violence with his bare hands, say, or doing a Rosencrantz & Guildenstern episode in the Pine Barrens. Carmela and Tony’s showdown in the Season Four finale (‘Whitecaps’) includes two bravura scenes which belong in the American dramatic pantheon. ‘The Test Dream’ is pure Freudian nightwork. And of course the finale is an extraordinary achievement — perfectly emotionally correct but, at the level of plot, a bit of a tease.

It was laugh-out-loud funny — indeed, it was in many ways a domestic/workplace sitcom in the All in the Family mode — yet its often broad comedy only deepened its horror, denying viewers easy acclimation to a single tone (unlike Game of Thrones, say, a fine successor show which has traded wit for (self-)importance). Of the Golden Age dramas, The Sopranos was the jokiest one, and the most disturbing.

It was, in the final analysis, the Peak Era show that most harshly defied viewer expectations. Deadwood‘s anticlimaxes, The Wire‘s ‘inner’ climaxes, the unintentional hilarity of Galactica and Lost‘s endings…none of these assaulted the basic art/artist/audience contract the way the final season(s) of The Sopranos did. David Chase’s deep cycnicism is the primary colour of those last 20ish episodes, making the show less immediately satisfying but ultimately more haunting. Like the Seinfeld finale, Chase’s closing episode ‘Made in America’ reveals the pitch-black heart of the work; of course viewers hated it, didn’t get it, asked the wrong questions. But it works and it’s beautiful.

The Sopranos is one of the great American dramatic achievements.

(And yet Mad Men, helmed by Sopranos alum Matt Weiner, surpassed it in most respects. Weiner’s achievement is secondary, late: he applied the dramatic model of The Sopranos to a meticulously reimagined 1960s Manhattan, foregrounded female characters (and writers) (neither of which Chase took to), and sacrificed none of the comedy or dramatic intensity while doing without the lurid violence. I’d say Weiner’s series is ‘the better show’ overall, for what that’s worth. But as with the imperfect Buffy and X-Files, at its peak, nothing could touch The Sopranos.)


The Wire, meanwhile, is harder to talk on without parenthesizing. It’s the most tightly constructed Peak Era show, and the one with the biggest immediate social impact. It’s hard to celebrate individual scenes, sequences, and episodes, because the show was conceived in purely serial terms, each episode existing solely as a portion of the whole. No standalones, no gimmicks, just pure longform drama of a kind never before seen on primetime TV. (Even Babylon 5 couldn’t work on its level, though Breaking Bad fans claim that show did.) The well wrought multiyear narratives of The Wire make the X-Files ‘mytharc’ and Lost‘s endless backstory tap-dancing seem even more childish than they actually were.

Yet the satisfactions of the series are very different from those of the other ‘Peak Era’ dramas. By creator David Simon’s own account, The Wire‘s characters were conceived in a more limited way than Chase’s (or David Milch’s) — a ‘Greek’ vs ‘Shakespearean’ dramatic model, with the little guy crushed over and over by ‘postmodern institutions’ — so the only completely imagined character on the show is its dearest subject, Baltimore itself. The private lives of the individual characters barely register, except as (usually ironic) counterpoint to the ongoing polemic. This is risky business, but Simon managed to put together one of the best writing staffs ever assembled for a show of this kind. They pulled it off.

The Wire, then, is the ultimate treatment of a single city in American TV or film, each season focusing on a different community (cops and drug dealers, dockworkers, City Hall, city schools, the Baltimore Sun) to make an inescapable point about the disaster of the ‘drug war’ and the suffocation of the urban underclass under late capitalism. Its chief virtue is ‘authenticity’: driven by a collective reportorial instinct (and Simon’s own experience as a journalistic ’embed’ with Baltimore PD’s Homicide unit) Simon and his writers attended to details which might never have occurred to writers on an ordinary cops’n’robbers show. The series’s pragmatic attitude toward the drug trade (‘the only profitable industry left in West Baltimore’) and the creators’ realism about the limitations of police work (the cops and corner boys are soldiers in a war none of them actually want to fight) keep the drama even-keeled, in a sense, making room for small victories and drawing extraordinary power from small defeats — there are heroes and villains aplenty, but The Wire‘s world is one in which the Struggle, the Dream, is simply to be able to slow down, to survive, to be ordinary. Even moreso than The Sopranos, which focuses on the long second act of a man’s life, The Wire dramatizes continuation, settling, even boredom.

Plenty of gunfights, of course, and highly technical discussion of investigative techniques (infodumped so skillfully at times you’ll never know what hit you), some superb comedy, and each year, a penultimate episode so crushingly sad and intense that you’ll swear it was the best thing ever aired on American TV.

Which, honestly, it might’ve been. I know which shows I prefer from hour to hour, but taken as a whole, there’s nothing like The Wire. It’s one of the classic works of American agitprop — but it’s also a great crime drama. The Sopranos is no longer one of a kind, but The Wire is, and will (I suspect) remain so.

Favourite (not best?) movies.

Spirited Away. The most complexly melancholy ‘children’s movie’ I know, and one of the most visually imaginative. Perfect, if a movie can be perfect.

Southland Tales. A ecstatic psychedelic-apocalyptic mess, eagerly courting ridicule, with the curious haunted quality of Kelly’s precocious Donnie Darko but none of that movie’s emotional maturity or restraint. In some sense, surely the most Phildickian film ever.

She Hate Me. A symphony like the more coherent Bamboozled, where Do the Right Thing was a taut chamber piece. I jokingly call Southland Tales ‘the white She Hate Me,’ which is to say they’re both ‘fantasias on national themes’ (cf. Angels in America) which seem to resemble, too closely for viewer comfort, the interiors of their respective creators’ heads.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. This one holds an odd place in the pantheon: in some respects it’s a Western arthouse film, with the familiar emotional palette and granularity of an episode of Mad Men, but which happens to be about wuxia movies. Luckily it’s also a superb wuxia specimen. I fell for this one in the theater, where the crowd burst into applause after the first fight between Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi. Few ‘action films’ have so expertly communicated the emotional states and stakes of their martial sequences. Yuen Wo Ping’s fight choreography inspires awe, but you’ve seen The Matrix so you knew that. What matters is that the fight scenes are also the most emotionally compelling dramatic exchanges in this (moving) film, even for a Western viewer — they’re shot, cut, and acted to tell perfectly formed stories. There are more visually arresting movies in its artsy-wuxia niche, but none that so effortlessly incorporate Western dramatic arts.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? My lit-theory professor told me each Coen Bros film was a play on a time and a place — they’re moving portraits of cultural moments, real and imagined. O Brother portrays the mythology of the Depression-era South. You can turn off the gorgeous visuals, ignore the snappy dialogue and egoless acting, and marvel at the sound: it’s a musical, the best of modern times, with the most thematically coherent (also beautiful) soundtrack of all. Better and deeper than its reputation.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Two unique creators at the height of their powers, served by a master actress and an extraordinary (and widely misused and misunderstood) comic actor, tell a simple story about falling in love and falling out of love. The final movement is shattering. On a date early in our relationship, my not-yet-wife scolded me for being ‘demonstrative’ by sighing constantly during this film. She was right and can piss off.

Gremlins. The great Christmas movie of the 80s.

E.T. The scientists. And then the bicycle.

Ghostbusters. OK yes: funny, groovy, mean spirited, with heaping doses of perfect eliptonic twaddle and two genuinely creepy scenes. And OK yes, Bill Murray. But not Bill Murray, master comic improviser, which everybody already knows about. This is glory: Bill Murray, dramatic improviser, suddenly turning in celebratory circles in the park as the music swells and Sigourney Weaver walks away smiling. What are the chances that a high-concept comic romp with half a script could offer a throwaway moment of romantic perfection?

Hedwig & the Angry Inch. Blah blah ‘not real rock & roll’ and the final song suffers somewhat for being sung by Trask instead of Mitchell. But what other film works at this particular pitch?

Magnolia. Go ahead and make fun, and I’ll just sit here and enjoy watching a perfectly realized work of musical and dramatic and cinematic art, deliriously in love with its own voice, which climaxes in the middle with the wordless administration of a dropper full of morphine by a hospice nurse.

Some imaginary combination of the Matrix films. If I could cut the second and third films together in a way that would make you understand that the entire trilogy (and not just the first film) is a classic work of sci-fi, I would do so.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Not perfect like Raiders, not wonderfully grotesque like Temple of Doom. But: ‘You left just when you were becoming interesting.’ And: ‘I thought I lost you, boy.’ (And come to think of it: ‘If you are Scottish, lord, then I am Mickey Mouse.’) The tank battle is one of the great action setpieces, the score is sweetly sad, and it should have ended here.

Stop Making Sense. The rapturous final batch of songs make the case for the boundary-shattering power of groove as eloquently as any weird little hyper-controlled art flick ever has.

La Jetee. Inseparable, in my mind, from the Left Bank film festival where I first saw it — well after being knocked over by Twelve Monkeys, which I like more but value less. And that one shot (if you know, you know) is, for me, a small sacred thing: the incarnation and withdrawal of a goddess.

High School. What does evil look like? Maybe it looks like the final frames of this extraordinary, essential, still-relevant documentary.

Fight Club. Weighed down by cultural baggage, none of it interesting, this film is no longer held in the esteem it deserves. Never mind that it’s a virtuosic catalogue of cinematic technique; never mind that it’s really funny; never mind that This Really Is How It Feels Sometimes. How many films ever move this swiftly and smartly for two hours?

Blade Runner. Here’s how much this movie does right: the three-hour audio remix from Don Joyce’s Over the Edge radio show is one of the classic works of sci-fi all by itself, even without the epochal visual design.

Punch-Drunk Love. That score. Those moving colour splashes. Several moments of such light and sweetness they’re nearly unbearable. Several sequences of profound, courageous discomfort. Two daft dialogue scenes between Adam Sandler and Philip Seymour Hoffman, who couldn’t possibly be less well matched and yet and yet and yet and oh my God two of the most beautiful kisses ever put to film.

Princess Bride. You’d think it’d be enough, filming the best of all American movie swordfights. You’d think they’d’ve been satisfied, giving the world Vizzini’s mad hubristic Battle of Wits and the rise and fall and transformation and apotheosis of Inigo Montoya. But no. They insisted on wrapping those moments up in a flawless old-fashioned comedy. Bit of cheek, isn’t it.

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Terry Gilliam’s film has a classic orchestral score (conducted with rare wit), a lovely little moebius-strip of a story, and a light-operatic whimsy which leavens and complements Gilliam’s characteristic visual grotesquerie.

The Empire Strikes Back. Meticulously staged expressionist art film, all vivid colours and expert genre pastiche and lightly handled iconic tableaux, referring to dimly remembered but irrelevant backstory. Or, in Andrew Rilstone’s (possibly misremembered-by-me) words: ‘…as if Leigh Brackett picked up George Lucas’s Star Wars action figures and started acting out Hamlet with them.’

Chungking Express. Shot for peanuts, half improvised, in a few weeks between takes of a bigger-budget film. Wong Kar-Wai has made better films (In the Mood for Love, for instance) but this is a tiny magic spell with as strong a sense of place as any other movie.

The Singing Detective. If I could preserve a single screen performance (that I’m aware of) of the 20th century, it’d be Michael Gambon’s.

Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants. This is mastery. This is the old way. Jay is a singular human being, and this film of his stage show is the essential document of his unique art.

Watching EMPIRE STRIKES BACK with my son.

My wife had only seen Empire once, my son had only seen A New Hope (once). I’ve seen them a hundred times. OK, press play.

They loved it. You forget what a visually striking film it is — the colours are dazzling, ‘painterly,’ Hoth bleached white crosshatched with livid red and green lasers, Bespin startling sunset orange, Dagobah an organic riot despite being shot in a studio. The fight in the freezing chamber is shot half in silhouette. And that final tableau…

Great film. A peculiar one as well. The middlest of middle chapters, ‘unsatisfying’ in theory but exhilarating and unsettling in practice. Two hours of unremitting tension and trouble (40ish minutes of nonstop movement to begin), culminating in about three minutes of ‘relief’ as the heroes, hanging around in a hospital, vow to fix things. Best dialogue in the series, best direction, richest material design. Contrarians are, in this case, merely wrong — Empire is straightforwardly the best thing about Star Wars.

My son’s reaction was interesting. He made me turn off the sound at two points: hand-removal and ‘Noooo!’ Turns out he has a really hard time watching film of grownups in terrible pain and confusion. (During Finding Dory he went to pieces when Dory spied her mom crying, right before she got lost.)

When we say kids have a hard time separating reality and fantasy in film, that’s partly (mostly?) because we do a poor job explaining what ‘acting’ and ‘filming’ and ‘special effects’ are — there’s so much we adults take for granted in film, never mind the up-down curve of a narrative… How would a kid figure out what a cartoon is, without being carefully told? It moves, it speaks. It feels pain.

Now we’re ready for Return of the Jedi, which he’ll love and I’ll have mixed feelings about. If my son wants to watch the prequels, we will, but I won’t push them. They’re a bit much.

James Luceno, STAR WARS: DARTH PLAGUEIS.

Prequel to the prequels, its title character briefly mentioned in Revenge of the Sith as the villain who taught the Emperor and created (or caused to be created) Anakin Skywalker — it’s hard to imagine Dark Plagueis making sense or holding interest to anyone who isn’t already something of a Star Wars obsessive. For them, for me, it’s a (minor) revelation, assembling the scattered ‘prequel trilogy’ into a coherent narrative and imparting a real sense of mythic heft to Palpatine’s behind-the-scenes shenanigans.

This is a better book than Labyrinth of Evil, better in many ways than the Thrawn books (especially the later volumes), and has me thinking Luceno is a genuinely strong writer overall. On the merits, I find myself happily recommending it to anyone who cares at all about the films. But that ‘on the merits’ is doing a lot of work there — after all, the merits of a movie tie-in novel providing century-deep background to the prequels to one of American mythology’s recent holy texts are…difficult to determine ‘objectively.’

I enjoyed it. It crosshatches the Star Wars ‘Expanded Universe’ superbly. It will, I secretly geekily hope, become relevant to the Rey/Ren trilogy.

Enough about the book.


The prequel trilogy, the Tragedy of Anakin Skywalker and the Rise of Emperor Palpatine, takes more abuse than it deserves. Yes, the dialogue’s terrible; yes the acting and direction are flat and wooden despite the massive reservoir of available talent; yes, the pacing is all wrong; yes, the edits cut a coherent story to pieces and turned Episode III into a hyperfocused all-Anakin-hour instead of the proper finish which the political plots demanded. And yes, yes, yes, the love story is an embarrassment which even Natalie Portman couldn’t save.

But as 2012’s Darth Plagueis makes clearer than ever, as I’ve contended for years, the story of the prequels is substantially richer than Lucas has ever been given credit for. The prequels’ political story is opaque the way The Wire‘s fifth season is opaque — asking the viewer/reader to pay attention to what’s not happening is a weird way to go about the business of drama. The point of the prequels is: How does Anakin become Vader, and how did the Republic fall? But scene to scene, for viewers who care to get invested in Silly Plot Stuff, the mystery of the prequel series is: Cui bono? Why is Palpatine supporting a Trade Federation blockade that undermines the Republic Senate? Why did a Jedi Master (Sifo-Dyas, briefly mentioned in the film) commission the breeding of a clone army more than a decade before the events of the trilogy? Why is Dooku pushing the Separatist agenda while working with the guy who’s trying to take over the Republic? Why does Palpatine tell Anakin a snippet of Plagueis’s story? Nerd-viewers tend to throw up their hands and say that the prequels simply make no sense. But Luceno’s novel paints a different picture: Palpatine’s plot isn’t incoherent, just complicated and something like a century old, stretching much further into the storyworld and deeper into that world’s mythology than the films are able adequately to depict.

You might say Lucas failed twice over, then: failed to make films that hold together as films, and — sadder, I think — failed too to bring the full scope of his conspiracy plot to the screen. But that conspiracy plot is actually pretty groovy.

Clarificatory nerdery: Dooku was tempted to leave the Jedi by Plagueis, acting ‘on his own’ but with a little help from bad friends, and his character suddenly makes all kinds of sense set against the political situation of the final years of the Republic. Sifo-Dyas’s commission of the clone army was suggested by Plagueis, but it was necessary because the Republic had demilitarized years before, and the Senate was wary of authorizing local planetary/systemwide militias. Dooku’s involvement with Palpatine was a complex mix of self-interest (Dark Side curiosity) and a kind of burn-it-to-save-it noble interest in remaking the Republic. The Trade Federation was an actual galactic mover&shaker, illegally armed, whose attempted entry into the Senate as a non-planetary voting member is actually a compelling political story/allegory on its own.

Luceno, writing Darth Plagueis in the middle of the Obama presidency, had the luxury of going beyond the histrionics of Bush-era political discourse — and while it’s weird to say this about a Star Wars novel, I can tell you that the political parallels between the prequels and the current state of USA politics are compelling and long planned. (This shouldn’t be news: Star Wars itself was, remember, partly a cry against Nixon and Vietnam.)

My point here is that the movie prequels just scratch the surface of a political narrative that’s of interest in itself, and which transforms Star Wars from a simple hero/villain pulp story into a century-spanning tale of backroom intrigue in which laser sword fighting (though Cool) is actually something of a distraction. The Sith are in the middle of it all, not just as cackling sorcerers but as political schemers whose Grand Design succeeds precisely because it’s carried out on both the metaphysical and ‘mundane’ levels — in other words, the ridiculous notion of an Evil Vizier manipulating the galactic legislature for a century actually makes a lot of sense if the vizier is actually a political frontman and a banking clan bigwig funding a sort of Trilateral Commission over the better part of a century. In other other words, the prequels turn out to be the story of, if you’re willing to play fast’n’loose with history a bit, Henry Kissinger and Nixon taking over the galaxy.

Which is exactly what Lucas wrote on the first handwritten page of his first draft of Star Wars: ‘a band of Nixonian thugs’ engineering race riots and capitalizing on political chaos to sweep into power.

Again: this isn’t Great Literature. It isn’t even great filmmaking, except in terms of visual imagination. But when people talk about George Lucas’s vision, this is part of what they mean: his ability to conjure a universe that feels real, lived in, despite containing centuries-long wizard conspiracies and laser space monks and such. I’ve written before about Lucas as the Chris Carter of film, or vice versa — gifted with a remarkable creative vision, but lacking some of the technical skills (in both Lucas’s and Carter’s case, dialogue writing especially) to bring it fully into being.

Luceno’s novel, as a culminating text in the Star Wars Expanded Universe (which is ‘no longer canon,’ though it’s hard to tell why anyone should care), helps realize that vision. It makes Star Wars better. That’s not such a big deal, despite my word count here, but it’s not nothing.

And y’know, maybe it’s not such a small thing either.

Two words about three black guys in CIVIL WAR.

Started this weeks ago, before the IRON MAN news. Incoherent, sorry.

When the Avengers and company first sit down to debate whether to accept government oversight in Captain America: Civil War, the first (somewhat pedantic) back-and-forth goes to Don Cheadle (Rhodes/War Machine) and Anthony Mackie (Sam Wilson/Falcon). They play decorated combat veterans who spend most of their onscreen time as second fiddles to the film’s main characters, Iron Man and Captain America — they’re sidekicks, honestly, and are called on to act as the protagonists’ outboard conscience. But their status as (relatively) ordinary public servants thrust into a superpowered godswar gives them a certain morally elevated status in the storyworld, and the first thing we see when the Plot Engine starts turning is two African-American actors politely but energetically disagreeing — leading the superhero discussion — about a legal/moral matter.

Meanwhile, the ‘Who is this masked man and to whom does he pledge allegiance?!’ character is King T’challa of Wakanda a/k/a Black Panther, played by Chadwick Boseman. He spends the movie as an avenging angel chasing the Good Guys after his dad’s killed, but in the end he sees them ‘consumed by vengeance’ &c &c and finally joins up with Captain America. He is, by a large margin, the ‘coolest’ new character in the film, and the mid-credits scene sets up his solo film (due in, what, 2018?).

I mention this only to make the point that while Civil War — an ‘excellent superhero film,’ though we must avoid making ‘superhero film’ a standard of quality as well as a genre — does require a bit of Africanesque Cultural Mumbo-Jumbo to power its plot, it also casually places three black guys in major roles without feeling the need to be either delicate or ostentatious about it. And this is easier in a superhero film than elsewhere, precisely because of the capes and cowls and rocket packs.

Remember the scene in (the actually diverse-in-conception) Global Frequency, when the parkour runner Sita Patel is climbing up the side of the ferris wheel, and a little south-Asian girl calls out, wide-eyed: ‘Daddy, look. Spider-Man’s a girl! And she’s just like us‘…?

That’s the secret of superhero comix: the costume, the role, is an idea. It’s a dream. The person inside is someone and something else entirely; it could be you, no matter who you are. When these things work, I think that’s why. The story is set up to encourage identification across identitarian lines.

The prominence of three black actors (plus one actress, in a much less interesting stock role) in Civil War is a small step for casting agents everywhere, whatever, but it’s also a reminder of the way these stupid capes and cowls can level the playing field for the people wearing them. The way sports can, or theatre. (You might say superhero stories are a mix of the two — the team’s ‘costumes’ are ‘uniforms’ and so on.) The imagination works in four colours, not two.

But then again: these changes have already taken place, in Perfectly Safe Hollywood Tentpole Films. And yet the world is as it is. Indeed, you might say these changes are one reason why

Addendum

Representation is not justice. And though we kid ourselves otherwise, it is not economic opportunity. (The first 15-year-old black female MIT-undergrad miracle child Iron-Man will, I think, be written by Brian Michael Bendis.) I wonder, would you have cared about that character’s story if she were taking over a generic superhero role in an indie comic, and not a Marvel Property?

Come to think of it, would you have cared about Tony Stark’s?

Anyhow, if you settle for comics about black girls written by Brian Bendis then that’s what you’ll get. But you don’t need to.

Captain America: Civil War.

I just saw it. I enjoyed it. Today’s Marvel movies owe a lot to TV; I can’t believe they exist.

Counting generously, there are twenty funny lines in the whole of Captain America: Civil War — a comic book movie of well over two hours. Most of them go to Spider-Man.

Against that embarrassing total we have one of the better scenes of comic-book mayhem ever put to film — ‘The Airport Sequence,’ as the fanboys have been referring to it for weeks — and the closing fistfight, which seems to bring the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe to a climax.

The music is terrible. The purely visual aspects of the film, overseen by the Brothers Russo, are pedestrian; I’m reminded that Joss Whedon’s camera eye is stronger than he’s generally given credit for. There’s little wit in the dialogue and even less in the visuals.

At this point, though, the Marvel ensemble is these films’ main special effect, and the Russos handle it well. Too many critics talk about modern film as if the sole job of the director was to tell the cameraman when to swoop and when to sit, but the Russos know from TV how to handle a woolly ensemble cast, and they’ve kept the actors grounded despite being badly outnumbered. The performances are almost all strong, especially Mr Robert Downey Jr as Iron Man. Downey’s improvisatory intelligence is his most distinctive feature as an actor, I think, but it can grate at times; he’s helped immensely in that regard by the presence of what appears to be a very talented 12-year-old boy as Spider-Man. When the two of them are onscreen together, Downey seems to age twenty years (beautifully). His weariness as Stark is moving and totally convincing.

Chris Evans, no one’s idea of a master actor, has turned out to be ideal for the part of Captain America, aging noticeably into his younger-elder-statesman role and standing immovable against the irrepressible Downey. Their big punchup at the end brings both characters’ stories perfectly into focus, and they play that sequence to the nines, especially Downey, who in a transformative moment of grief and rage looks like a little boy in the Iron Man suit. In a movie full of (at times surprisingly clumsy) CGI, that’s the most impressive visual on offer.

It seems impossible that a movie like this could exist. This is the thirteenth Marvel movie (counting the Ed Norton Hulk) since Downey/Favreau’s first Iron Man, and it draws on the equivalent of several TV seasons’ worth of continuity — which an up-to-date theatergoer would have paid more than $100 to see in theaters. (I’ve seen the two Avengers movies, Winter Soldier (surprising), the middling Ant-Man, and the fun but overrated Guardians of the Galaxy — plus Deadpool, much duller than the boy nerds had led me to believe.) The demands which a film like Civil War makes on the casual viewer are astounding; there’s simply no way of parsing the events of this film without having invested an unprecedented amount of energy in the minutiae of comixxx plot shenanigans. The first half of Civil War is hopelessly overstuffed, partly because the Marvel guys can’t help themselves and partly because there’s so damned much material to bring together.

Which is why Civil War feels more like the climactic episode of a TV season — a season of, ahem, Buffy? — than a movie costing a quarter of a billion dollars. It doesn’t even try to function as a standalone story, not that it could, and while we’ve all seen movies that rely on other films for context and meaning, it feels strange to walk out of a movie house after three hours feeling like you’ve just seen a middle chapter.

It’s interesting that the Russos are the guys in charge here. Their pedigree is primarily TV, not film — like Joss Whedon’s, I’d note. They work fast, don’t get fancy with the camera, and crucially they can handle the unique constraints of serial storytelling. (Their most interesting résumé line: more than a dozen episodes of Arrested Development between them.) Between Civil War and the strong but overrated-for-reasons-of-nostalgia Winter Soldier, I can see why Marvel has tapped the Russos for the upcoming Avengers diptych.

But I’m not excited about them at all. Civil War approaches Whedonesque grandeur in The Airport Sequence — the big action setpiece which pits maybe a dozen Marvel heroes against each other, thereby neatly sidestepping the interchangeable-villains problem which tends to plague these movies — but while I found that sequence thrilling, the presence of Giant-Man (Gi-Ant-Man?) mostly reminded me that no one working on the Marvel movies has matched the visual poetry of Edgar Wright. Whedon was the best writer Marvel will ever get for these flicks, but Wright’s ‘Cornetto trilogy’ effortlessly surpasses all the Marvel films for funnybook-flavoured wit.

It’s good that Marvel’s branching out to make goofier, weirder movies like Guardians, Ant-Man, and the forthcoming Doctor Strange (the Marvel announcement I’m most excited about) — their mainline films are slowly being drained of their wit, and self-serious comics (or comix movies) are a souldeadening bore, as DC’s Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder can tell you.

Anyhow, this is a surprisingly effective movie, better than it has any right to be. It made me miss the interesting storytellers who’ve left the Marvel fold. I don’t care that it has Spider-Man in it, and I don’t see why you’d care either, though I imagine you’ll dig Black Panther as I did. The dialogue is pretty good, not great, and once the Plot Business of the first half fully unfurls, the deep Story Stuff is compelling. The ending is a bit of a cop-out.

It is, in short, appointment TV.