Monday, April 21, 2014

The Wild Bunch's flashbacks and other structural issues

Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch is known as one of those late Westerns that shows the encroachment of the future--the running out of land and time for a bunch of old outlaws--and as a very violent film. It reminds me a lot of Blood Meridian on both counts: a revisionist Western where all our usual ideas are twisted by age and by the dirty reality of what these guys live through.

That said, and before I split the movie up into beats, I want to talk about two interesting things. First, you could easily tell this as the story of the outlaw leader; or of the ex-outlaw who is hunting the outlaw group. But Peckinpah cuts back and forth between Pike Bishop, aging outlaw with a tenuous grasp of his outlaw group and Deke Thornton, ex-range rover who has been co-opted by the railroad to hunt Bishop down. (I'm a little unclear, but it seems like Deke is working with the law to obtain pardon for his past misdeeds.)

Now, this doesn't make them co-protagonists: a film could easily show the protagonist running and then the antagonist chasing as a way to ramp up tension. And a film could parallel the two characters' journeys and stories: as here, both Pike and Deke are leading groups of unruly men, looking to get out of the game through one big score. Peckinpah also gives Pike and Deke both their own flashbacks, where we see some part of what motivates them: Deke's capture and terrible experience of jail, Pike's failure to settle down.

The film is also curious because with so many people, it might be hard to figure out who to look out or care about. Do we care about Pike or Deke? Do we care about Dutch or the German consultant? Or the Mexican general or etc., etc. The flashbacks help with that, as do some of the monologues: Pike and Deke are the only ones with flashbacks, the only ones working off some debt, the only ones whose ambitions we know about. So we know that Dutch wants to make money, but what for? We never really get a sense of what he considers the good life. So the flashbacks--which might be clumsy--help to focus our attention on what we should be watching.

Now, for the beats and scenes:

  1. Bank robbery: we meet Pike's group in the midst of a robbery (which is at least half a heist, as they've dressed in army uniforms as disguise); we meet Deke's posse trying to stop the robbery 
  2. Aftermath: we see the posse being rather terrible bounty hunters, arguing over who killed whom and not caring about the town getting shot to hell; we also see Pike's team deal with the fact that their robbery is all scrap metal, not silver--which strains the group.
    1. The aftermath sequence is actually a few scenes, with Deke's men being terrible and the townsfolk yelling at the railroad man; Deke yelling at his men and the railroad man reminding him of the deal; and with Pike killing a wounded man and then the team resting at their rendezvous place
  3. Matched memories: Deke notes that Pike is the best and he knows since he rode with Pike; Pike remembers how Deke got caught and he didn't; Pike comments on the old feller (Sykes) who sticks around them.
  4. Trouble and triumph on the trail: There's some hard travels and Pike is getting older. But he gives a speech that keeps them together, all the way to Mexico, where fellow robber Angel's village gives them a warm welcome--even though they've got problems: the crooked federales, led by Mapache, who lured away Angel's sweetheart.
  5. The general, the deal: Which brings us to Mapache, the general who needs good American rifles to defeat Pancho Villa, and who agrees to pay Pike a great deal of money. These scene ends well for the Americans, though it begins with danger as Angel confronts his sweetheart and then shoots her. Which brings us to a big party scene and a discussion of what they'll do with the money--and how much Angel hates Mapache, which launches the plan to give Angel's people one of the cases of guns.
  6. The hunter: We get some info on Deke and his hunters, who suspect Pike of trying to rob the very train full of guns that we know Pike will rob. Ruh-roh.
  7. The robbery: another fun heist/shootout as Pike robs the train, Deke's posse chases, and the green US Army chases them.
  8. Mapache's problem: We see Pancho Villa's men kick the hell out of Mapache, which reminds us that he needs the guns.
  9. The two gun transfer problem: Pike gives guns to Angel's friends. To make sure they get paid, Pike's men first wire up the guns to explode, then plan to transfer them in small shipments, while getting paid each time. The only problem is that Angel is fingered as the guy who stole the missing shipment of guns--the mother of the woman he killed told on him. So Mapache takes him.
  10. Deke on the trail: Pike doesn't want to go rescue Angel, but with Deke men on their trail, he decides to go visit the general for save haven. (One of Deke's men shoots Sykes in the leg; wounded Sykes eventually is found by an Indian.)
  11. Disgusting party: Just as we had a party at 5, we see Mapache celebrate his guns, and also celebrating by torturing Angel. Pike doesn't like it, but can't do anything.
  12. On Deke's trail: meanwhile, Deke is being hunted by US Army, since some of his men shot at them in 7. His only hope is to take down Pike.
  13. Endgame: Next morning, Pike is disgusted with himself and gathers his men to take back Angel, which leads to the massacre when Mapache slits Angel's throat and they shoot Mapache and then the German consultant.
    1. Notable: Deke looks on as Pike and the federales fight it out.
    2. Pike shoots a woman, reminiscent of his memory of his lover getting shot by her husband.
    3. Pike gets shot by a child soldier.
  14. Deke's reckoning: Deke's posse comes on the scene, acting as loutish as usual; Deke grabs Pike's gun and decides to stay behind. He runs into Sykes and the Indians who offer him a place: "It ain't like it used to be, but it'll do."
One other thing I want to say about this film is that it's very long, partly because many scenes follow people from one situation to another--for instance, 13 features the men getting dressed, armed, and walking down the street before we get to the next bit of action. We get lots of other similar scenes of travel, usually as a means to build up tension. But there's also some extra length to many scenes that are just talking scenes. So when the robbers find that their treasure is worthless, we get lots of Tarantino-esque chatting.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 223: J. Sterling Morton, About Trees (#223)

J. Sterling Morton, "About Trees" (1893) from American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau:

J. Sterling Morton was a latter-day Johnny Appleseed, an evangelist for trees as both beautiful and useful--which is the sort of position that comes to one on the empty plains of Nebraska. He's become known as the originator of America's Arbor Day; and while he started it in Nebraska in 1872, by the 1890s, it was widely spread in the US. The US Forestry Service put out a pamphlet of information and fun, child-friendly activities--tree propaganda, essentially--and Morton included this essay in that pamphlet.

It's a short essay, and it starts off with a pretty common paean to trees: they don't care if you're rich or not, they'll shade you anyway. But Morton goes on from there, noting how trees basically power our world:
There is no light coming from your wood, corncob, or coal fire which some vegetable Prometheus did not, in its days of growth, steal from the sun and secrete in the mysteries of a vegetable organism.
"Vegetable Prometheus" is pretty amazing, both as metaphor and truth, as he points out: trees really do take sunlight and make usable energy for us (if we're still in a wood-burning society, as opposed to a directly solar-powered society). But he goes on, noting how society needs trees, and how, without proper tree planting, a society will soon be treeless and doomed, much like in the Middle East. (If you're a climatologist or a historian of colonialism, here's your time to say, "What?") For Morton, the story of the Orient is that
where the olive and the pomegranate and the vine once held up their luscious fruit for the sun to kiss, all is now infertility, desolation, desert, and solitude. The orient is dead to civilization, dead to commerce, dead to intellectual development. The orient died of treelessness.
OK, so maybe his sense of history is a little narrow, but damn, that's some fine use of imagery to get his message across: trees are important, so plant one already!

Friday, April 18, 2014

Captain America 2, fourth (and hopefully final) thoughts

As an action film, Captain America 2 was... OK. This is really the make-or-break aspect for a film like this. (That and box office--and I think the film is doing fine at the box office. We saw it on opening day at 2:40 and the theater was pretty packed, though not sold out.) And it delivers on a few scales. Let's try to break this down (because I love breaking things down. Not such a fan of putting things together afterward. Oh well).

Was the action exciting as action? Sure. It was fun to see an old-fashioned car chase and a brawl in an elevator and so on. I especially thought it was smart to keep the action sort of low-key: when it's just Captain punching a guy, we don't wonder why they don't call in Thor and everyone else on the Avengers. That said, my girlfriend thought that some of the action scenes went on a little long, and I have to agree, because--

Was the action exciting as story? Not really always. In fact, the action almost always was spectacle that didn't move the story forward and had no more narrative weight than "Will Captain defeat his enemy?" The most interesting fight scene occurred with the Winter Soldier, but almost everything else was clearing the level to get to the boss. And when the fight is between Black Widow and Robert Redford, well, la, you'll excuse me for checking my watch. (In fact, I keep thinking how much more awesome and fun it would've been if the SHIELD council had actually done something to save themselves. No offense, but in a film where we see how fallible the institution is, what sort of message does it send to make us normal people wait for the superheroes to save us?)

Was there anything that slowed down the action? For me, the film has a lot of "people staring out windows giving big speeches" moments. It might only have two of those scenes, but they stick out like a sore thumb to me. When there's nothing happening on the screen and all the info is being delivered verbally, I feel like we might as well have a flashing light declaring this "Theme discussion" or "Background exposition." In a film that has a bunch of clever and well-done scenes, these few hiccups stick out.

Uh, well, I thought I had more issues to break down, but now I'm not so sure. So, after all those posts, I would probably sum up Captain America 2 by saying that it was mistitled in the subtitle: the Winter Soldier is such a minor part of the story, though he is the best and most interesting. It was fun, but not as exhilarating as the first Captain America. And not as topical and interesting as it could be.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Captain America 2, third thoughts

Previously on this blog:

  • Everyone seems to love Captain America 2.
  • It hits Captain's melancholy hard.
  • It doesn't really play with paranoia, political thrills, or surprise in any meaningful way.
  • It doesn't really have anything serious to say about contemporary issues.
(Oh, I forgot to mention another big-swing-and-a-miss surprise, which is the putative death of Nick Fury. Yeah, I don't think they're going to kill Nick Fury--at least, not outside of an Avengers movie.)

In a way, the last was the most disappointing. Learning that SHIELD was actually sheltering a secret cabal of Hydra deflected all of the serious ethical issues that we have. Which is fine for an action movie--maybe in a movie about a super-soldier who always does the right thing, you don't want to say "sometimes our military-security complex makes the wrong decision." But the way that this film puts all the blame on Hydra makes the moral issues more melodrama than drama. Particularly in a movie featuring lots of shoot-outs in crowded areas, this "the bad guys do bad things, the good guys are always good" morality rang as hollowly as a fist on Captain's shield.

So, Captain America 2 was a serious film when it looked at Steve Rogers's sadness and out-of-time quality; but it undercut that when it portrayed his enemies as completely evil and (worse) dumb. So, how was it as an action film?

Monday, April 14, 2014

Captain America 2, second thoughts

Captain America 2 takes Captain America, removes his clear enemies (Nazis, Hydra, Chitauri), and emphasizes how he's all alone, out of his own time. (The Avengers did the out-of-time shtick more superficially and amusingly, emphasizing that Steve Rogers doesn't know popular movies or that he's the subject of collectible cards.) This ramps up the uncertainty... or at least it should.

But when a film casts Robert Redford as a previously unknown but powerful character, and when we suspect that someone is really a traitor, it's like when Law & Order has a famous person: we know who the bad guy is. Similarly, when Captain America is alone romantically and ends up kissing Scarlett Johansson, I don't really wonder if maybe they'll become an item; or when Captain America attempts to reform his friend-turned-brainwashed killer, there's not much anxiety about whether it'll work.

So while Captain America 2 poses itself as something of a paranoiac political thriller, dealing with contemporary issues of the security state and over-surveillance and big data, it doesn't really land any of those punches. Critics and friends lauded that commentary on contemporary issues, but it felt pretty flat to me: "How much is security worth?" is an interesting question. "Can we morally kill an innocent if our big data analysis says this person will be a problem?" is a less interesting question. "Can we sacrifice freedom if it insures security--and, oh yeah, Hydra will be in charge?" isn't even a question at all--it's a call to arms.

Part of the failure of this film for me is encapsulated in the hostile takeover of SHIELD headquarters during the launch of the three new super-helicarriers: if your super-secret society is a few minutes away from taking over control through manipulation and subterfuge, why bring out the guys with the guns? Instead of ramping up tension, all that does is replace uncertainty with certainty. Which turns paranoia into a boxing match and clears up any problems that Captain had. After all, more than friends, Captain America needs a clear enemy.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 222: Bernard Malamud, Idiots First (#222)

Bernard Malamud, "Idiots First" (1961) from Bernard Malamud: Novels and Stories of the 1960s:

I have several responses to works that really amaze me: occasionally I may want to take some aspect of the story out for a drive myself--what else does this character do, what else could happen in this setting, what happens to the premise if we look at this this way; I may want to take the story apart to see how it works; or I may want to transform the work into some other medium, to hear the characters speak in a radio play or see the action in a comic book.

Malamud's "Idiots First" feels like a puppet show, a sort of twisted Punch-and-Judy or morality play without any clear message. Part of this response is due to the irreality of the world, despite the reality of the situation.

Mendel is a dying man with a handicapped adult son named Isaac; and Mendel--who knows that he has only this one last night--needs to raise the money necessary to send Isaac to his uncle in California. What can he pawn? Who can he ask? What dangers does he have to avoid?

In many ways, the story is predictable: the pawnbroker will take the gold watch, but not for what Mendel would want; the rich man can offer dinner, but doesn't give money; the park where they would rest has some odd goings-on, with a policeman searching for a man. So far, so O. Henry, right? I mean, there's no irony, but there's the steady sense of failure dogging the hero here, just as in an O. Henry story.

But we're not in an O. Henry world, as the language of the story repeatedly reminds us. When Mendel wakes up.,"He drew on his cold embittered clothing..." How can clothing be embittered?

But what really sets this story apart and makes it amazing and troubling is that irreality, that strangeness that suffuses so many of the scenes. When they go to a park, Mendel notes that the leafless tree has a thick branch going up and a thin branch hanging down--until they walk away and the thick branch is hanging down and the thing branch points up. When Mendel finally gets an item to pawn, they are followed by a shadowy figure named Ginzburg (7). Is Ginzburg the pawnbroker? No, Ginzburg is the character that Mendel warned Isaac of at the beginning. So who is he?

That's never clear, though after following Mendel, it seems like Ginzburg works at the train station, since he's in charge of the gate that will stop Isaac from getting on the train. And when Mendel begs for kindness, Ginzburg gives an almost satanic response:
“What then is your responsibility?”
“To create conditions. To make happen what happens. I ain’t in the anthropomorphic business.”
That "anthropomorphic business" might be a mis-statement for something like "philanthropic" but it keeps bringing me back to those embittered clothes and that moving tree. As if Ginzburg is exactly part of that anthropomorphic business: a satanic author figure who controls Mendel's sadness.

So it's doubly interesting that Mendel wins through no greatness of his own. It's just that during their scuffle, Ginzburg see himself in Mendel's eye and sees that he is a monster. What author hasn't felt that in describing their characters' hardships?

Friday, April 11, 2014

Captain America 2, first thoughts

I don't know what to say, other than the obvious: there will be spoilers, so advance at your own risk.

Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier has been getting almost universally good reviews, both from professional reviewers and (especially) from people on my Twitter feed. And I just don't know what to say. Well, let's start at the beginning: what do we expect from a Captain America movie?
  • There's going to be a lot of action.
  • There's going to be some man-out-of-time issues.
  • Noble and potentially sacrificial actions.
  • Nazis.
Well, no, maybe not that last: after the first movie (and after Avengers) we know that Captain America is in the present day--which is why there's more man-out-of-time issues and fewer Nazis. Which is kind of a problem, I think.

That is, putting Captain America in the modern day means we're going to have more melancholy and lost identity issues: Captain America has no family, no friends, and no clear enemies. He doesn't even have a shared pop culture storebank. He's literally a museum piece in the sequel, when he goes to the Captain America exhibit at the Smithsonian--which was a slight lull in the action, but a clever way to remind people of the first movie.

Another excellent scene saw Captain America going to visit the somewhat senile Peggy Carter, as a further reminder that he is alone, and potentially living in the past. This is something that we don't necessarily expect from a Captain America movie: melancholy. In the first movie, he may be disappointed with his role, but he's always sure of his place in the larger society. In The Avengers, there's some hints about how he no longer fits so easily, no longer is sure of the rightness of his side.

Captain America 2 takes this idea and turns it up: fewer Nazis and/therefore more uncertainty. Does it work?

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

True Detective (filmic, weird, character review)

Last time, I noted that True Detective gets a lot of adjectives applied to it, such as filmic and genius. One thing that I would like to note at the outset is that I understand both why people loved it and why people hated it. And, related, one thing that I think HBO is uniquely positioned to do is to produce this sort of mini-series that is the unique vision of a few people. That is, a typical tv show will have a bunch of writers and directors; True Detective is credited to just one writer and just one director. So the show has a real coherence in tone that not a lot of shows achieve. And if you don't like that tone/style/whatever, you won't find anything to keep you coming back, and vice versa.

In other words, it's the tv equivalent of Wes Anderson or someone like that: a writer-director with a particular vision. If you don't like a Wes Anderson film, it's more than likely that you won't like any of his films. (Note: "likely.") This is probably one reason why the adjective "filmic" or "cinematic" got attached to True Detective. Another reason is that the direction often lingers, especially on the landscape and panoramic scenes, which is definitely something that makes the tv show seem like it wants to be on the big screen. Honestly, if you can't tell, I think comparing this tv show to film doesn't quite hit the mark, while at the same time pointing to something real. Sure, this tv show loves this Louisiana bayou-world as much as a Western loves its Painted Desert and Monument Valley. Sure, the pace may at times be leisurely--but we can say that without falling back on some notion of "cinematicness" that is never really defined.

(Also, a moment of silence to honor the music choices of T-Bone Burnett.)

One reason why I want to emphasize the odd pacing is because the hurry-up-and-wait structure gives the scenes of action a shocking feeling, while also giving us time to watch these people in bog-standard life that isn't iconic. I mean, in a film or a tv show, we might see a happy family at dinner, which is such an iconic scene that the audience is meant to read this as "sign of happy family." But here, in between some shocking violence, we have a lot of awkward car rides and drunken discussions and family affairs of all sorts. It's enough space for the characters to breathe as characters, rather than as stereotypes and icons.

And it would be so easy for these characters to turn into stereotypes: the unhappy wife, the philandering husband, the faux-philosophical nihilist with the dark past. So how does the show prevent that? Well, first, I would argue that it doesn't entirely. As any good improv teacher will tell you, sometimes you use those stereotypes to set up the characters quickly and then complicate them. Here, we see the two detective at two different times in their lives, which gives us two different looks: Rust is a nihilist and a burn-out; Marty is a philandering husband and the comfortable PI. The show also gives us many different scenes and locations for bringing out these characters, with Rust's bizarre, penitential apartment contrasted with Marty's house--which is especially contrasted since we see them each crossing over to the other's world.

Which brings us to the notion of the world as a whole: what sort of world do we live in? Rust believes in nothing, eternal darkness, the end of all life--and possibly in the corruption of institutions by some extra-dimensional horror. (Carcosa, the Yellow King.) Marty believes in getting along to get on, in the innocence of children. Ultimately, unlike Lost or some other shows that give us no option other than the Weird, True Detective hovers on the edge: everything we see that's weird could be drug-induced or up to bizarre backwoods weirdness. But this is where the tv show really shines for me; because, in the very last moments, we're given a double view of the heavens: either the sky is all dark with only a few stars--or maybe the light is winning and banishing the dark. It's an interesting viewpoint and character switch--Rust is the one who offers the happy reading of the night sky and it's a transition into a qualified happy ending that feels earned by all the horror and weirdness that they slogged through earlier.

Monday, April 7, 2014

True Detective (summary and note on format)

True Detectives is another HBO show where I felt like everyone who was watching it was talking about it online; though, whereas Girls has its bloggers (both fans and enemies), True Detective seemed to have lots of Twitterers. So even before I watched the show, I had heard bits and pieces. (Although, I will say this: even without assiduously avoiding spoilers, I didn't see a lot online. Are people/fans growing an aversion to spoiling works for people when those works are susceptible to time-shifting?)

And when I went to LA, it seemed like everyone was talking about it--either noting it was genius (most common) or noting that it was overhyped. I also heard that it was filmic; that it was potentially a work of weird/Lovecraftian fiction; that McConaughey and Harrelson were great; and so on. So I didn't watch as a complete blank slate; but I also wasn't completely prepared for what I saw.

If you haven't seen it, here's the short(ish) version: Texan and nihilist Rustin Cohle moves to Louisiana, where he partners with happily married and philandering detective Marty Hart. (Cohle is dark as coal, Hart is caught up in affairs of the heart, if you need a mnemonic to remember them by.) Their first case is a bizarre murder in 1995, where the victim seems to be murdered in ritualistic ways, without leaving lots of evidence.

Now, here's the twist to the format: in 2012, ex-cops Rust and Marty are being interviewed separately by two different cops, who seem to have some sort of agenda. Rust and Marty haven't talked for ten years, not since some unspecified falling out in 2002. But the story they tell the new detectives may not be the whole truth, as we see some things happen on screen that don't get talked about. So we get glimpses of 1995, 2012, and some commentary on the time between. Since Rust and Cohle already solved the murder, they can give us a flashforward to the solution.

The murder investigation prompts them on a tour of all sorts of underworld and fringe communities: tent revivals and burned out churches, prostitution-centered trailer parks, bayou fishermen communities, etc. As they follow leads and discover more possible murders, we get to hear both more about these guys--Rust isn't just a nihilist for fun and he spent a lot of time on drugs while he was doing undercover work--and also get some hints about the larger conspiracies of the world. Is there a secret cult to the King in Yellow? Is that cult connected to power and wealth in Louisiana?

And then, in the last two episodes of the eight episode season, the format changes slightly: the new cops have all but accused Rust of being a serial killer, which prompts him and Marty to get together, which leads to Rust sharing his evidence with Marty, which leads the two of them to try to crack this case in 2012, 17 years after they supposedly solved it.

These last two episodes also give us a bunch of scenes from other people's points-of-view, so we see the new cops getting lost in the wilderness and we see the killer in his wilderness mansion. And that change of format I think helps change the tone somewhat. The first part of the show is all about the mystery, with some of the anticipation of what's going to happen that we already have clues about. So someone comments on the shootout Rust and Marty had with the killers, building up suspense for when we actually see it/hear the full story. When we jump to 2012, we can't have the same sort of set-up/anticipation... unless we see the bad guy's POV. It's a very nice and minor switch, that preserves a lot of the dread, while changing the focus of that dread. I mean, in episodes one-through-six, we know Rust and Marty can't die. In seven and eight, that certainty is gone.

This is getting too long; I'll continue on Wednesday's post.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 221: William Dean Howells, Shakespeare (#221)

William Dean Howells, "Shakespeare" (1894) from Shakespeare in America: An Anthology from the Revolution to Now:

In college, a couple of friends played a trivia/memory game where we merely tried to name all of Shakespeare's plays. It's surprisingly hard to do if you're not intensely into Shakespeare. But William Dean Howells probably could've done that easily--though as he points out, being in love with Shakespeare doesn't mean you've read everything he's written or even loved everything he wrote.

Which are some of the great moments in this childhood reminiscence/paean to Shakespeare. Howells traces his history with Shakespeare, noting all of the environmental factors: a small town that was oddly cultured and literary; a good friend who also loved Shakespeare; a free lending library.

In fact, part of the joy here for me is to hear Howells reminisce and puncture the reminiscence at the same time. So we hear that the foundation and expansion of the local paper
were events so filling that they left little room for any other excitement but that of getting acquainted with the young people of the village, and going to parties, and sleigh rides, and walks, and drives, and picnics, and dances, and all the other pleasures which that community seemed to indulge beyond any other we had known.
Which is really a microcosm of my favorite things about Howells, which are his balance, his humor, and his humanism. Howells so often takes a scene and then reminds us of the other side. "The paper was expanded! But really, there's other things people care about." Similarly, the whole piece is basically, "Shakespeare is amazing... except for when he isn't."

It's also fascinating to see Howells note (a) that Falstaff was better in the original Henry plays and (b) that Howells himself wrote Falstaff fan-fiction. He also goes on to say something that still gets said today, that we sometimes over-hype these classics and hurt developing readers by making them stick to this party line of greatness while also forcing these works on them too soon: "we are loaded down
with the responsibility of finding him all we have been told he is."

Friday, April 4, 2014

Archer's great transitions

I've been pretty busy with cruise preparations, raising the question: can a Marxist go on a cruise and still call himself a Marxist?

That question aside, I was also re-watching the first season of Archer, the animated comedy about the dysfunctional and absurd spy agency while I was packing for my cruise. And, oh man, I really dig that show. You may not dig it, for any of a dozen reasons. Perhaps you find the humor a little crude, or the characters too absurd, or maybe you just don't like the animation style (with it's heavy black lines).

But even if you don't love the show, I think we all can learn something about transitions from Archer.

For instance, there's a lot of great x/not-x ironic transitions, as in "What could go wrong?" transitioning to something terrible.

There's also the x/x-in-different-context transition, as in "Look at me," Lana says, as way of arguing that Cyril won't run to another woman, transitioning to the other woman yelling "Look at me" to Cyril as part of their rough sex play.

Then there's the audio wrap-around version of that, where some character says something, then we cut to some other scene where some other character has said that in a different context. ("It's not what it looks like," says Lana, explaining how she's not about to have sex with someone to Cyril; cut to a seemingly dead body and Pam explaining to Malory Archer the same thing.)

There are other transitions, but that's a good start. Interesting that not all of the transitions here are laugh-out-loud funny, but there's a steady sense of connection and forward-movement.

Note: I am writing this while watching the episode "Skytanic," so that's where most of my examples are from.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Inside and outside Llewyn Davis

If you want to read some interesting commentary on Inside Llewyn Davis, I suggest you check out Todd Alcott's discussion of it (starting here).

Although my mom was a folky and I grew up listening to Bob Dylan, I was never really all that knowledgeable about the folk scene or movement; as illustration of that, if I have the choice of watching This is Spinal Tap or A Mighty Wind, I'll always choose Spinal Tap. Inside Llewyn Davis seems like it's even more referential to the real folk scene than Guest's Might Wind--just Google Image search for the cover of Llewyn's album and compare it to Dave van Ronk's album Inside and you'll see how close they are. So there's lots of references that I won't get and we can argue about how close this is to the historical situation; but at the end of the day, this is also a movie. So how's it work as a movie?


I mean, take apart a Coen movie into its constituent parts and what do we find:

  • a protagonist who gets pushed around by the environment and other people; a protagonist searching for home or identity (think of the Dude launched into action because his rug was ruined--the rug that "really pulled the room together"; or think of O Brother's Ulysses trying to put his family back together; of Barton Fink in a crappy hotel room staring at a picture of a beach);
  • a group of secondary characters that verge on the cartoony and grotesque (an angry character in a Coen brother film is always ready to be angry, a dumb character is on the edge of being too dumb to live, etc.);
  • some sort of quest, often to see or placate the Big Man/father figure (the studio director-turned-general in Barton Fink, the rich-not rich Lebowski, the mob/political boss of Miller's Crossing);
  • and some dark, weird humor.
And while Llewyn Davis seems different in some ways--Llewyn is less rakish and charming than many of their damaged protagonists--it's also pretty straight-forwardly Coenly:

  • Llewyn is a folk singer without a home: he floats from couch to couch, gets various boxes that people are no longer willing to hold for him; he's so homeless that he doesn't even have a grand story arc--no single quest to drive the movie;
  • Lleweyn is surrounded by New York grotesques: the Columbia professoriate who are only interested in things academically, his goofy folk scene compatriots--Justin Timberlake's aching eagerness, the military folky Troy's aching sincerity and simpleness, the grasping or incompetent agent Mel (who likes funerals more than sending out records), etc.
  • a series of quests around family and fatherhood: getting the cat back to the childless professors; getting the money for an abortion; learning about the child he has out there since one girlfriend didn't go through with her planned abortion; getting ancient jazzman/heroin addict/voodoo practitioner across the country; performing for big macher Bud Grossman, owner of a folk theater and kingmaker ("Gross" is big and/or disgusting, but with the first name "Bud," it's also "grows"); satisfying the older men at the Merchant Marines' union; playing for his legendary seaman dad, who has become senile; and finally going out to meet a shadowy figure who beats him up for making a scene with his wife;
  • and some unexpected laughs.
What's most interesting to me in this film is how the big man role and the quests seem to fracture. Which, from a craft perspective, is an interesting choice: it keeps the story moving and changing, but it doesn't give the viewers a comfortable hook to grab on to take them through the film. And it's not like the quests lead to each other: Llewyn doesn't go meet Bud Grossman because of anything that John Goodman does. Some of the quests don't go off at all--he never goes to Akron to meet his child--and the ones he does complete go wrong as often as not--he never finds the right cat to bring back to the professors' house, he doesn't get the go ahead from the big promoter, his dad doesn't respond to his music except by shitting himself, etc.

In a way, that series of quests and failures makes this movie the most bleak of the Coen brothers films. And I think we have to ask ourselves what success would even look like for Llewyn Davis. Is folk success fame and money? Authenticity? Getting out of the business entirely? It's hard to imagine a happy ending for him--which may be why the film opens and closes with some of the same images and ends by petering out: instead of chasing after the father figure that just beat him up and left him in the alley, Llewyn merely waves him off.

(Or does he say "au revoir"--until I see you again?)

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 220: Emma Frances Dawson, An Itinerant House (#220)

Emma Frances Dawson, "An Itinerant House" (1878) from American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps:

OK, there is one super-important bit of historical information that the LoA page tells you that makes this story slightly less eerie, which is... ready? I don't want to spoil anything for you, so read on if you want a slightly less eerie story: some of the 19th-century houses in San Francisco were pre-made iron structures that were made to be portable. So when the title promises "An Itinerant House," the double meaning is both that this is a house for itinerants and that the house itself moves around. Which makes the story slightly less eerie, but slightly more historically weird: when the protagonist goes into a room and remembers the room where that Traumatic Event happened, we're meant to understand that this is actually the room where it happened, not merely the narrator's psychic slippage.

And "slippage" is going to be the word of the day for this piece: not only does the house move around, but all the characters move around abruptly, and history itself jumps. For instance, in one line we might be in San Francisco, and in the next everyone has moved on, then met up again on a ship in NY in the next line, and then, in the fourth sentence, the long sea voyage is over and we're back in San Francisco. And I haven't even mentioned the most serious slippage of all, which is the way these characters keep slipping in some artistic reference or quote. Seriously, if you took out all the references to pre-existing work, this story would be half as long.

There's some justification for that, since these characters are all artists, but it gives the whole piece an unreal vibe. I'm trying to think of a good movie comparison here--Whit Stillman's dialogue is very mannered--but there's nothing quite like this non-stop quote-fest. Of course, they are using these quotes to express their real feelings (not like those guys you went to high school with who use Simpsons and Monty Python quotes to hide their feelings), but it still gives the story an unreal atmosphere, especially with the jumps in time.

Which is why it's so disappointing to find that this sort of house really was portable and this isn't all in these people's minds. Because the story's style and tone is so heightened and strange that it's a bit of a let-down to find this bedrock of reality.