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Category: watching

A note about STAR WARS and myth.

Episodes IV, V, and VI

Star Wars is a myth: ‘The Labours of Luke Skywalker.’ It accumulates story-stuff as it goes along, but the first trilogy focuses on Luke and his companions undergoing trials, separations, revelations, tests, purifications, and transformations (farmboy-to-knight, princess-to-soldier, thief-to-citizen) before the final confrontation with Evil. In the end, the knight enters the castle to slay the father-dragon and the corrupter-god, the princess and the citizen return to the primal/magic forest to do battle with great tree-sized monsters and faceless demons, and Good is restored. They gather by a fire and tell stories as night falls.

This is not news, nor is it terribly interesting on its own. Crucially, the original Star Wars films aren’t about myth — they’re ‘innocent’ in a sense, if anything is.

Myths, as I think Joseph Campbell said, are psychology misunderstood as history.

Star Wars is about the transition from childhood innocence to adult knowing and action.

Episodes I, II, and III

The prequels tell two stories: ‘The Fall of Anakin Skywalker,’ in a mythic register, and the somewhat less popular but more contemporary-conventional ‘The Fall of the Old Republic.’ The latter political story is more complicated than what made it to the screen, all but disappearing in the third film; George Lucas reconceived Revenge of the Sith in the editing suite as a tightly focused story about Anakin, further imbalancing an already clumsy prequel trilogy.

The Fall of Anakin Skywalker is an inverted messiah/saviour story. Prophesied miracle-baby is taken from his mother, comes to the castle to become a knight, meets and is turned away by his future queen, and in his arrogance struggles with whether to turn his back on his teacher. His mother is captured and killed by monsters; in his fury he bloodily murders them. In his selfishness he courts a princess and conceives a child. In hubris he duels a master knight, losing a hand. In a second duel he bests the old master, and in his weakness of character murders him. Misled by the corrupter, in his terror and arrogance — in his inability to cast aside the misprision of Self which was always the primary obstacle for him and his fellow knights — he declares himself a servant of Evil and helps wipe out the knighthood.

Finally, he duels his teacher, and in his arrogance and pride and dogmatic certainty he is wounded and left for dead. The corrupter makes him into a dragon, and the dragon flies off to burninate the countryside and burninate the peasants…

The political story is there partly to provide context for the two myths. Because we know the outcome — these are ‘prequels’ — there’s no real suspense to it, only deferral. It takes up a far amount of the prequel trilogy, and is the prequels’ most enjoyable aspect, as far as I’m concerned, though primarily in the abstract, i.e. I enjoy reading the story more than I enjoy watching the movies, which are not entirely incorrectly regarded as shit.

‘The Fall of Anakin Skywalker’ is also about the transition from childhood innocence to adult knowing and action. The political story is, in part, about myth and mythmaking. The prequels lack the laser-clarity of the original films partly because their second story-strand ‘problematizes’ the first; Anakin isn’t simply the author of his destiny, and while the tragic ‘Fall of Anakin’ story is told like an ancient myth, all archetypal locations and abstract gestures and iconic clashes, ‘The Fall of the Old Republic’ is a modern tale which fits uneasily with its parallel mythic story. When they converge — as in the magnificently pedantic wizard-duel in the Senate chamber between Sidious and Yoda, or Anakin’s quietly horrifying murder of the children at the Temple — the story seems somehow greater than itself; it all seems almost worth it.

Lucas doesn’t get enough credit for the complexity (and I’d say importance) of the task he set for himself in the prequels. He failed to bring it off, ‘as everyone knows,’ but throughout that series you can see flashes of something like a work of genius, which is to say, among other things, imaginative excess.

I say all this as prologue to a comment about The Force Awakens and millennials LOL, which I will not now write because it’s time to take my son to school.

The mystery box, again.

Attention conservation notice: 800 words on familiar themes with a familiar cast of characters, hopefully enabling me to put this stuff aside and concentrate on bigger things.

The trouble with JJ Abrams’s inexplicably beloved ‘mystery box’ story-cum-theory of storytelling is that asking lots of questions of the form ‘What’s in the box?’ doesn’t actually take imagination. None at all. The act of imagination is what comes next: building a world inside the box. Brainstorming isn’t creativity.

You’ve seen Lost, right? Started well, then started going to shit the instant its creators needed to start actually answering the Neat-O Questions their premise had raised. Abrams was only a minor force in the making of the show after its first season, as I understand it, but his influence is all over Lost, including its embarrassing finale — that arc from ‘Everything we put onscreen means something’ to ‘Something something nondenominational purgatory because the important thing is that we have shared a TV show together‘ is the most JJ Abrams-y narrative collapse I can think of. (That doesn’t let Damon Lindelof off the hook, of course, but he was awfully young after all…)

I’m not convinced that Abrams actually has an imagination. He can write snappy dialogue, he’s a skilled cinematic mimic, and like several TV directors/showrunners he seems to work well with actors. But he seems to possess no capacity for vision, none at all.

Better a clumsy visionary than a skillful nullity, I say.

That said, I’m sure he’s a nice man, professional, and I’m sure his shoots all come in on time and under budget. I bet he’s kind to children, his wife, his dog. Alas, all I get of him is his work.

What, again with The X-Files?

I’ve written a couple of times that George Lucas is the Chris Carter of film — influential, gifted creators, maybe geniuses of a sort, who nonetheless shouldn’t be allowed within typing distance of their own work. Neither can be counted on to write credible dialogue, but each found his way to making some of the definitive American entertainment of his time on the strength of a creative vision. That term comes up over and over in the superb Empire of Dreams documentary about Lucas and Star Wars — interviewees involved in the film will go on about his limitations (none more wittily than Carrie Fisher), but over and over they’ll come back to his ‘vision,’ by which they mean not only ‘intellectual property’ but something like his unique, idiosyncratic conception of their shared project.

Just go with it, is the repeated refrain, trust in George’s vision. Which is to say both that Lucas’s ability to communicate with his cast and crew was limited because he was a young nerd (‘Faster! More intense!’), and that there was something coherent and in its way beautiful that no one else in the project could quite picture, which everyone involved trusted Lucas to possess and to nurture. Once the first one made a mountain of money, it was easier to trust in Lucas — he could buy trust — which is why the original Star Wars has an infectious joy, a sensawunda, that none of the other films in the series ever duplicated. It does more than just ‘work’ because it might not have worked. When you watch Star Wars, you see hundreds of people making art without reassurance that any of it actually go off, engaged in esoteric labours surrounded by strange icons and images, directed by a dreamer rather than a studio professional.

Carter doesn’t have the same reputation, but his work follows the same pattern: the overall conception of The X-Files — not the ‘concept,’ the logline (FBI agents investigate gov’t conspiracy and Fortean weirdness) but what you might call the guiding world-principle (marginal seekers navigate the American mythosphere in the twilight of empire, dogged by apostles of order and power, searching for transcendent truth) — is Carter’s unique irreducible contribution, a way of seeing rather than a specific sight. What’s compelling about the show, after all these years, is its sense of a specific time and place, a specific ‘multi-user shared hallucination,’ filtered through a particular sensibility.

Creative ‘vision’ isn’t content, it’s understanding: a structure of knowledge, . It tends to be interested in style only provisionally, as a solution to a communicative problem. That’s why visionary art tends toward formal incoherence (genre-crossing, lapses of ‘taste,’ stylistic improprieties, ill-proportioned and anticlimactic narrative) but is often experienced as extraordinarily vivid and immersive, as ‘truer than true’ on a level beneath conscious expression. (As usual, think of Southland Tales.)

The X-Files and Star Wars don’t depict ‘worlds’ in the sense of Westeros, or Middle-Earth. They give accounts of dreams, of myth, and like those imaginative experiences they don’t concern themselves with making sense after the fact, in the critical/analytical domain — myths become mythoi, dreams become dreamworlds, and deep transformation is achieved that can’t easily be explained (which is why we go on about ‘alchemy’ and ‘the soul’ and ‘the cosmic’ and other such nonsense).

We’re sliding towards talking about psychedelia, so this is where we pull back on the reins for the time being.

ARRIVAL (Denis Villeneuve et al., 2016).

In 2002ish(?) I went to MIT’s all night Sci-Fi Marathon. Had a few drinks. They showed Ghostbusters, and when Bill Murray said ‘Back off man, I’m a scientist’ the entire crowd lost its mind. It was one of the peak moments of any human life.

The trouble with science fiction film is that, while there are smart serious people in Hollywood, very few people on the ‘creative’ side of the industry appear to value analytical intelligence or have any first- or even secondhand experience of serious abstract intellection. Hollywood’s terrible at capturing what it’s like to solve complex problems by methods other than force or subterfuge. (This is why most ‘spy films’ are just fight films with acronyms.) And screen actors, afforded no rehearsal or research time, reduce ‘intelligence’ to mannerism for an American audience that can’t sit still for movies that are more talk (or think) than, um, explode.

It isn’t just a matter of engineering projects or scientific research, say, being impossible to dramatize — Primer came out 13(!) years ago for Christ’s sake, written on spec and shot/chopped for $7K. It’s that dramatizing hard work is hard work, calling for direct rather than analogical sense of the shape of the work being depicted, and the vanishingly few screenwriters and directors who can handle that work are busy making films for stupid horny distracted adolescents, i.e. ‘making Hollywood movies.’

Which is why Arrival feels not just like a classic science fiction film, which it is, but like a minor miracle.

Fear not, NO SPOILERS FOLLOW. Arrival deserves to be seen fresh.

Complaints first, though: Arrival nominally features two main characters, but Jeremy Renner as Ian the theoretical physicist (alas, not believable) is very much background to Amy Adams’s extraordinary performance as Louise the linguist/translator. Ian is essential to the story, but he hardly acts throughout; he’s the sidekick. That I don’t mind, though — the problem is that one of the interesting intellectual elements of Ted Chiang’s ‘Story of Your Life,’ source material for the film, has been chucked out along with any sense of Ian’s character. (Fermat, if you’re wondering.) Ian’s job in the film is to perform a bit of basic mathematical analysis at a crucial moment in the plot and otherwise be a kind of Manic Pixie Dream Scientist, which makes sense given Louise’s story but makes for a somewhat imbalanced setup: the compelling drama is all internal to her.

The political material is sketched in, and we don’t actually see collaboration between scientists — when Ian says he needs his team and Louise’s working together on a project, that doesn’t mean anything at all in story terms, because we’ve never actually met either team.

It’s a chamber piece with featured soloist.

Fortunately the soloist is Amy Adams, who accomplishes a difficult task: sympathetically evoking the interior life of an analytically intelligent introvert struggling with unbearable personal trauma (the death of a child), the most difficult and consequential professional task of her life, and — almost incidentally — the awesome presence on earth of twelve Big Dumb Objects.

(Chiang’s first published story, ‘The Tower of Babylon,’ effortlessly balances these three elements as well, in a tale which considers the Tower of Babel as both massive civil-engineering project and mind-shattering supernatural encounter. Chiang is infuriatingly good.)

Moreover, the structure of the story — particularly the relationship between Adams’s ruminative introductory/framing narration and the matter-of-fact present-time action — offsets the geopolitical story (race against the military clock) and the central mystery (what do the aliens want?) with an additional note of uncertainty. Adams bears primary responsibility for grounding the audience while the narrative dream deepens and grows stranger. To the credit of everyone involved, especially Adams and heroic screenwriter Eric Heisserer, the climactic revelations make sense not only plotwise but in emotional terms; the finale is unusual in Hollywood terms in that its full implications play out only in retrospect, without any ‘gotcha!’ thriller-plot nonsense. Adams’s emotional line is crystal clear on first viewing, and the understated finale deepens the significance of her choices without making the first viewing ‘obsolete.’ This isn’t a Sixth Sense-style twisty film, it’s something much deeper, about which I won’t say any more…

Two final notes, then.

First: Arrival‘s most immediately significant (i.e. current) achievement is its depiction of an intelligent, introverted, driven, professionally respected American woman who displays a full palette of complex emotions under stress without ever being The Damsel or The Bitch or The Nerd. She’s a fully realized human being, which is to say her femaleness matters to the story but is never simply part of the scenery. Chiang, Heisserer, and director Denis Villeneuve(!!) deserve so much credit for conceiving the character of Louise and shepherding her through the creative process, enabling Adams to deliver this note-perfect performance. Arrival is a film about identity irreducible to identity politics, you might say.

And last: I remember seeing the restored THX-1138 in theaters in 2004; so much of that dreamlike experience has stayed with me, most especially Walter Murch’s immersive ambient soundtrack. Arrival felt at times like Terrence Malick’s THX, the aggressive/trippy mix of mournful strings and hrrrmmm-hoom!! synths combining with the rich ambient sound to create a world truly apart. I don’t listen to a lot of film scores anymore, but I’m seeking this one out, if only to be able to return to Arrival from time to time.

I was — it feels strange to say this but if you know me you’ll understand why I do — I was, I am, grateful for this film.

‘The Force Awakens’ in light of ‘Rogue One’ and vice versa.

(Spoilers ahead, rubes.)

I find myself thinking that The Force Awakens is an extraordinarily well executed piece of fanservice — and in boring conventional ‘is this good art’ terms, an embarrassment. Its dialogue is snappy, the performances range from good to great, the clumsy ‘power creep’ of Rey’s story is nearly erased by Daisy Ridley’s charisma (which outstrips her perfectly reasonable acting skills), and the creators’ commitment to expanding the Star Wars universe is admirable. Walter Chaw is right: The Force Awakens fulfills one promise of the original trilogy by offering a vision of the galaxy that seems, at moments, almost galaxy-sized.

Well, almost.

By the end, The Force Awakens has collapsed into a series of by-the-numbers repetitions and blood feuds and familial agony, and I’m left attending to the good bits: the lead performances (especially Adam Driver’s) and the maybe-brilliant subtext. To wit: A new generation of kids have inherited a Star Wars legacy that’s too big for them, they shrink from their duty, they fool around with the old toys, and in the end the people they love — the stars of the old movies — start dying. This is JJ Abrams’s schtick, I think; I don’t think he has any real value as an artist but he does seem productively and even admirably aware of his lateness, so to speak. To my eye he’s made derivativeness itself the center of his aesthetic, such as it is. The subtext of The Force Awakens (which I’m happy to credit to its creators and not my own overcompensatory urge) elevates the material.

It’d better! Because near as I can tell, nothing is at stake in Abrams’s film. Finn isn’t going to die, Rey isn’t going to kill Li’l Ben, and the Starkiller Base is gonna blow up good. The Plot Points are ticked off.

The Force Awakens is like a midseason episode of a long-running TV series. It can’t take risks. Kathleen Kennedy did the right thing, then, by hiring a writer/director who won’t take them either.

Which brings us to Rogue One, Gareth Edwards’s equally well executed bit of fanservice, which in boring conventional ‘is this good art’ terms is the best Star Wars film since Reagan was elected. It takes a question that millions of misprising adolescents have pointlessly asked — ‘Why does the Death Star have such a stupid fatal flaw?’ — and wraps a wonderful Dirty Dozen-ish war story around the appropriately ridiculous answer (‘Because the heroine’s terminally noble father put it there’).

Rogue One is the first movie in the saga since Return of the Jedi to offer meaningful stakes — its position as ‘infix prequel’ lets Edwards introduce an entirely new cast of characters whose fates the audience can’t easily guess, and he and his writers have the audacity to do the one thing no Star Wars fan would expect in that situation: they kill every single new character they introduce, heroes and villains and droids and aliens. In doing so they subtly alter the original film, recasting the Rebellion in more visceral and active terms than the first movie managed to suggest. (The sparseness of most pre-CGI science fiction film and early video games was an enormously consequential economic phenomenon about which, as they say, we will say more.) And unlike Abrams’s film (but much like the prequels), Rogue One makes the Star Wars galaxy feel bigger, more crowded. To my mind that’s the best thing about it.

OK, the nervewracking third act suicide mission/epic battle is the best thing about it. And Alan Tudyk’s droid is also the best thing about it.

The cast is pretty swell, Giacchino’s score is largely on point (though the (studio orchestra’s?) performance of the end credits is a little embarrassing), the funny bits are funny, and it’s the first film in the series that concedes nothing to its young viewers. In that respect it differs not only from the prequels, which foreshortened and dumbed down Lucas’s genuinely interesting political story, but from The Force Awakens, with its two cringeworthy uses of the word ‘boyfriend.’ (They’re both funny! And slightly discordant, in a Thoroughly Modern way.) Rogue One isn’t a tale of deeply complicated crosshatching moral codes and weary cynicisms, not quite, but it’s the first Star Wars film to successfully combine the operatic omnisignificance of the core generational narrative with something like ‘realistic’ grownup characterization — not to mention ‘worldbuilding’ of any seriousness.

The Force Awakens is, as usual for Abrams, absolutely risible in this area. The final act of the film kicks off with a bit of offhand planetary genocide — billions of people wiped out in the blink of an eye solely to advance the paper-thin plot. The only lives that matter in that film are the protagonists’, which is part of what I mean when I say ‘no stakes.’ (Did Han’s death actually surprise you? Have you seen a film before?) Nothing but Plot is ever in play for Abrams, except of course Nostalgia — but Rogue One gobbles up every character who appears onscreen and you feel every death; by the end you feel as if the heroes of the original trilogy were lucky to’ve made it that far.

Rewatching part of it today, I was surprised by my own feeling of…resentment? at the fact that the story didn’t end with that stunning image of the two heroes dying on the beach. ‘Oh, we need some Darth Vader of course,’ was my thought. But when the credits rolled I had to admit that handing the baton to Leia and Vader/Anakin was the perfect ending. The work never ends, is the point, or one point, or part of the point. Jyn and Cassian die in service of something that the writers and director and actors and — I suspect — the audience understand to be greater than the narrative: an idea too complex to fit neatly into the ‘Character Motivation’ slot in the script. Which is only to say that I believed in Rogue One in a way I’ve never, after four or five viewings, managed to believe in The Force Awakens.

Anyhow, this isn’t supposed to matter, because these aren’t movies, they’re Star Wars popstuff thingies. But pretending for a second that we’re allowed to judge nostalgia-objects as if they were actual existing artworks has been, I hope, a useful exercise, even as our culture-sized canoe heads for the waterfall.

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.