Real, Actual Notes On The Pilot Of Six Feet Under

I’ve heard incredible things about both the pilot and the finale of Six Feet Under and at least the first has delivered. This is a super polished, arch, stylized look into the most crushing, unfair, devastating abyss that is death AND IT WAS AWESOME. The show notes I took weren’t meant to be at all serious, but they devolved quickly and yet evolved at the same time into and all-caps, sputtering, extravaganza of awe.

Ok, you have my attention cinematography.

Oh, Dexter’s in this. Weird.

RICHARD JENKINS!

THOMAS NEWMAN ILOVEU.  WHY CANT YOU DO ALL THE MUSICS?

HBO and Ravens, what’s up with that?

Yes. Classical music. Win.

PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE WEIRD FUNERAL ADS TO OPEN EVERY EP

The worst things always happen in places where Christmas is sunny.

I LOVE THIS SHOW.

Dexter, you are weird.

A long time to leave that open space in the background…

CALLED IT. Bye, Richard Jenkins. 

Symbolism is Symbolic.

YOU ARE PREMIUM CABLE JEFF WINGER, NATE. I HAVE DECIDED.

I KNOW THAT ACTRESS. FROM WHERE?1

Oh God, the early aughts edgey girrrl look is really bad only ten years later. I’M SO DATED!

MMMGOOD CUT.

Oh no, it’s not even been ten minutes into the episode.

“IT’S JUST CRYSTAL METH.” WHOLE OTHER TV SHOW. BE THE ONE WHO KNOCKS CLARE JUST SYA NO!

HEE.

WHO ARE YOU KIDDING, MICHAEL HALL, YOU ARE A ROBOT.

Ha, high as balls, but yeah, she’s ok.

RICHARD JENKINS, WHY DIDN’T I HAVE THIS SPEECH IN MY HEADCANON WHEN I SAW CABIN IN THE WOODS? THIS AND DEAD LIKE ME WERE MAYBE NOT THE BEST COMBINATION. INCOMING EXISTENTIAL CRISIS.

…I CAN SEE WHY THEY NEEDED THE NEW HERSE.

OMG ALL THE SIBLING RIVALRY FOREVER PLEASE.

ALSO, I WANT FREDERICO TO BE PLAYED BY LUIZ GUSMAN EVEN THO HE WASN’T IN THE CREDITS. PLEASE, UNIVERSE? TIME CAN BE REWRITTEN.

WHY…THIS IS WEIRD. IT’S LIKE THE COMMERCIALS ARE FOR ACT BREAKS BUT IT’S HBO. YOU DON’T NEED NO STINKIN ACT BREAKS. IT’S ALL ONE STORY.

HANDS OF BLUE!!!!!?!!!!

RICO IS SQUIRLY AND I LOVE HIM.

BEST BEST BEST THE BEST AAAAAAH THE BEST. KEITH! KEITH YOU ARE THE BEST. YOUR MUSTACHE IS THE BEST. I WANT TO WATCH YOU WORK OUT. That’s…that’s not weird, right?

DO NOT Magnolia reference me right now, Brenda, I’m already in a state.

YOU DON’T NEED TO MAKE THEM SHOUT ALL THE TIME, ALAN BALL. ADVANTAGE JOSS WHEDON.

I kinda hope the jumps and projections aren’t a regular thing. You can only be clever so many times before you’re twee.

HEEEE.

KEITH! KEITH YOU’RE BACK!  OH SNAP. “POLITICAL” OH SNAP.

“IT WAS JUST SO REAL” IS THE CRY OF THE EMOTIONALLY NUMB HIPSTER, NATE. LOLZNATESHAIR.

This is the correct reaction to “I’m a WHORE!”

“I WENT CAMPING” is now officially my new euphemism.

Love the subliminal messaging above Brenda’s fridge.

RICHARD JENKINS YOU ARE BAMF.

GOD, YOU ARE PREMIUM CABLE JEFF WINGER, NATE.

This is an appropriately weird compliment for a funeral.

WOW. AWKWARD.

THIS IS PROBABLY MY FAVORITE SCENE AND THERE ISN’T A LOT OF TALKING.

AW, 2004 MUSIC, YOU’RE ADORABLE.

THIS IS LEGIT. AND IT’S WORDLESS AND VISUAL AND STYLED AND BEAUTIFUL. WE’RE ALL EQUISITE CORPSES!

THIS SHOW, MAN. THIS FUCKING SHOW.

I don’t mean to diminish the complicated things that Six Feet Under  is doing, both in formal and tonal terms. I’ll have more collected thoughts on the first two episodes in a bit, but when a show succeeds on a visceral level – the almost participatory, “Don’t go in there, you fuckwit!” level of engagement –  it is fantastic.

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Belated MovieBoozer Report: Pain & Gain

Summer movies are a strange phenomenon. I’ve having fun with the few I’ve seen already, but can’t really qualify any of them as, you know, good. Competent. Well shot. Well acted, even. But remember that time when Billy Wilder got to rewrite his own scripts? No? Well, it was the thirties. As much as I enjoy the Marvel House Style, it seems like movies aren’t better than they need to be anymore. So when something as kind of not cookie-cutter yet of the action/true crime mold as Pain & Gain doesn’t just get dumped in January but climbs the calendar all the way to the end of April? That’s exciting.

Mostly it’s because I believe that studio popcorn flicks can still bear an autuer’s mark. They can do interesting, distinct things within the basic parameters of a four-quadrant-pleasing blockbuster. Michael Bay might be everything critics think is wrong with Hollywood, but when you see a Michael Bay movie, you know it. No one else could be responsible for the things he does, for worse and for better. Pain & Gain comes really close to being a good film, but but it’s less Bay’s bombast and more his meanspirited glorification of all things domination that ultimately got in the way of the story.

Anyway, for all my thoughts, check out the review.

film reviews pain and gain

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Special Bloody Snowflakes: Cinematic Combat On TV

A television series’ identity, in this age spreading dawn’s rosy rays on the demands of niche audiences, is often a matter of differentiation. You have to make choices based on the resources you have, of course, and with a view to the goals and universal laws of your series, but also with consideration as to how those choices stack up against other shows addressing similar issues. TV series sort of get to be their own genres, accruing concerns and conventions that are repeated and varied until a well of expectations exist in the mind of the viewer.

For example, the ending of last week’s episode of Mad Men – Don slumped in daze of malaise in front of his apartment, out of synch with the unforgiving symmetry of the composition, a song of barbed significance coming on over the credits – feels as stock at this point as a high noon shootout. Now, no other episode, to my memory, has ended precisely this way and not every episode ending finds Don as puppy-dog lost as he is here. But it is a generic thing – the ending feels like the ending to the idea of the typical Mad Men episode I have in my head, one that will never fully play out on screen in its entirety (a very Mad Men concept itself). So newcomers that tread the same ground harrowed up by Mad Men have to contend not only with the baggage of their particular show format, distribution method, and/or series setting, but with the generic legacy of very successful, culturally impactful shows that are similar too. How do you differentiate the sci-fi frontier of Defiance from Firefly? How did Parks and Rec free itself from the shadow of The Office?

film studies

Sometimes that prime act of differentiation is as simple as having Mark Harmon as the lead of your forensic procedural, as opposed to Gary Sinise (RIP CSI: NY). However, last Sunday the planets aligned for a one-night-only triple set from three violent, pseudo-historical period pieces, and I wish they all could’ve spent more time on the air together. Looking at how Game of Thrones, Spartacus, and The Vikings all define and differentiate themselves, each is very openly stylized in a way that complements the overall identity of each particular series. There’s a lot that could be said, but the way the shows handle their combat sequences is a nice, concrete way of approaching the issue.

television studies

You can’t match Game of Thrones for scale or production value, and there’s no two ways around that. The show’s second season received a budget in excess of 60 million, nabbed gore-maester Neil Marshall (of The Decent and Centurion)to direct last year’s all-battle episode “Blackwater,” and utilizes locations already complete with ruined castles and weathered battlements by shooting in Northern Ireland and Croatia (and Malta, and Morocco, and Iceland, too). It has the money to be cinematic in the Cinerama sense, with an omniscient, roving eye and massive sets, faceless hordes and ‘hero’ extras, CGI and FX. The production value is lavish enough to be photographed more or less as-is without looking silly or small-time, and that’s actually kind of a huge deal for a TV series.

tv criticism

Yet, if you look at “Blackwater,” what’s noteworthy is how little time the speaking cast spends physically fighting. The battle is more like a madly spinning top being poked and prodded. The tension and suspense is in seeing on what side, Lannister or Baratheon, it will eventually land on. Most of the truly gruesome and explicit, although not hyperrealistic, violence happens to the redshirts on both sides, and one suspects that is part of the series’ point about power struggles. The emotion comes in as the consequences of these massed armies hacking at each other bear on characters from, largely, the removed, ruling elite, not through the martial prowess and passion of warrior-leads. We keep cutting back to Cersei getting increasingly drunk and hosting an uncensored course on Queenship with Sansa that gets more horrific as she loses hope, while the fortunes of the Lannisters hang on Tyrion’s nervous courage. The most triumphant moment is his heroic speech in the third act that undercuts traditional battle heroics.

The other most memorable moment, is the explosion of Wildfire, an impersonal thing of pure visual spectacle that both sets the tone but in many ways dwarfs all the action that follows. And that’s Game of Thrones for you – it’s immersed in impressive scale, staging, effects, and a conventional (read: compares favorably to film) style of combat cinematography, but the emphasis is still on the scales of power and where, exactly, those will balance out in relation to the characters we care about.

spartacus tv criticism

On the other end of the spectrum, Spartacus can do more with less, and with more flair, than pretty much anything else on TV. I’ve talked before about how its embrace of the most hyperreal, artificial tools in the cinematic apparatus translates to an outpouring of emotion and a statement of character agency. Spartacus can lemur-leap seven feet in the air to strike a man on horseback and slow down the camera’s speed because his desire to remove Crassus’ head from his body is so intense it transcends the laws of physics. People don’t just bleed when cut, they are fucking pressurized hydrants of blood and constrained passions and desperate hopes. The show became exceptional when it figured out how to marry stylized physical spectacle to emotionality, and distinct by how it was, at its best, able to crank both all the way up to 11.

spartacus tv criticism

Spartacus never had the budget for good looking, naturalistic production values (mo money, mo armorers with no fingerprints from making so much chainmail) and turned instead to green screens. But the show utilized that technology and played with depth in really interesting ways. Often, a character’s expression is highlighted and slightly detached from both an artificial, filtered atmosphere and the ubiquitous, synthetic blood-spatter. So the ‘truth’ in the frame is the emotion conveyed by the actors even as the relentless visual spectacle elevates action to an Elysian plane of fucking badassery. Its combat is personal and cathartic where Game of Thrones’ is global and machination-driven. It’s anchored, of course, by quieter dialog scenes that establish the relationships and desires the cast of Spartacus work out through sex and violence. But in terms of combat, overt stylization – whether it’s ramping (it’s always ramping), CGI-enhanced exsanguinations, whatever – actually serves to bolster the melodrama of the series, not undercut it.

spartacus tv studies

By Jupiter’s cock, the final showdown between Spartacus and Crassus is nothing but a font of full-throated emotion, complete with cutaways to those most loved and lost by the Thracian, yet it’s amazing how pared down (comparatively) their duel is, rhythmically punctuated by groans and the grinding of steel. There’s plenty of the show’s signature CGI splatter. But in the end, we have two men, their faces slick with congealing blood, spittle dangling from their mouths, and their desires, ideologies, and wills finding vent against the other. The fight is entrancing, brutal, and holds triumph for our hero without retconning his inevitable fall. The beauty of Spartacus is that it has serious, often very tender, things to say about love, personal dignity, and freedom, yet it expresses those ideas through ripped warriors killing and fucking their way across Italy.

the vikings tv criticism

This brings us to The Vikings, the freshman beginning to come into its own, with combat sequences that are often more assured and interesting than anything else in a given episode. What’s so wonderful about this series is the way it differentiates itself through an unadorned visual efficiency. Its style is workmanlike, as mechanical and percussive as a well-oiled piston. Vikings likes to have at least one extreme long shot of the entire crew engaged in hand-to-hand fighting, but it’s sort of like watching ants burrow through the sand. The gore is less, obviously, than premium cable, and no subjectivity has yet crept into the combat cinematography itself. But the stakes are hardly Machiavellian. The vikings come. They raid. They take gold. Off they sail again. Ragnar Lothbrok’s mad, calculating smile continually obscures his plans and motives from us as well as the bumbling Northumbrians.

vikings film studies

Vikings has a more sociological ax to grind than either of its cable kindred, portraying a culture of brutal, entrancing mystery clashing with the Christian worldview we’re familiar with. So it makes sense that battles are most interesting when they’re dealing with group dynamics: the discipline and coordination of holding a shield wall, even the ritualized, personal combat between the Jarl and Ragnar is ringed by people, not the stands of an arena. And the cinematography largely reflect this: fighting’s played in real time, without trickery or awe-inspiring staging, and shared among the raiding party of grim, almost dispassionate warriors. Well, there’s Floki. But the point here is The Vikings doesn’t try to weigh combat down with import beyond immediate survival or the acquisition of wealth. No rallying cry, no value statement, no historical ripple effect. It’s death as a way of life.

vikings tv history

It’s really special all three series, making very different cinematic decisions about a similar visual issue, got to share a night of programming. I’m not sure I even want another show to try and replicate the distinct stylization of Spartacus, but period series will continue to develop and bring new strategies to our small screens. Genres, and television shows, survive by varying themselves, after all – redefining and reacting to what’s gone before and surprising us with fresh perspective. To paraphrase a man who no longer exists, that is all a cable showrunner can do.

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Let Me Describe The Last Month

Click the image.
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Sorry to go all tumblr on you there. But melancholy happens. So that’s where I’ve been.

The great news is that period TV is a-blooming this spring with Game of Thrones, Vikings, and Spartacus all at least sharing the screen for one more, gloriously bloody week. Mad Men‘s back, more ponderous and oblique, and slyly hilarious, than ever, and I want to write about all these things this weekend. But with clear eyes and full heart, I can say that I’ve found what I think is the most flawless opening season of a TV show I’ve ever had the pleasure to watch.

tv studies

Get excited. I have thoughts on Friday Night Lights.

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The Fury Of The Footnote-Men: Evaluating History In Film

In the wake of the Oscars (19/24. Meh. Stupid sound editing/production design), a great hue and cry has been raised among the punditry over films and history and historicism and anachronism and I LOVE IT, y’all. There’s a great piece over at NPR about the historical accuracy of language in things like Lincoln and Downton Abbey, while CinemaBlend’s running a pithy argument for why Argo’s loose approach to authenticity allows it to transcend “truth” and work better as a film than the more serious Zero Dark Thirty and Lincoln.

lincoln film studies url-5

 

Really, you think?

This idea – that getting things wrong can actually makes them more right – is contingent upon a pre-agreed upon set of criteria for success. What those criteria are and how films and TV shows set up their own individual contracts with their viewers are fascinating to think about. Is it this chillingly realistic portrait? Or is it a bearded Ben Affleck and film stock? There’s a huge difference of attitude and tone between very conscious historical dramatization and what I like to call hashtag history, which evokes historical periods, events, and persons without any pretension towards accurately portraying them.

film studies robin hood

A fascinating example is Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, which can’t make up its mind what it wants to do with its historical setting and its ahistorical literary tradition. The closest people you can get to a historical Robin Hood are probably Eustace Folville and James Coterel, medieval gang leaders in and around Leicestershire and Derbyshire who may have had Lancastrian sympathies but certainly were all-purpose extorters, kidnappers, and murdurers, and survived because they acted on a freelance basis for the local nobility and clergy rather than on behalf of a stricken, oppressed peasantry.  While Coterel and Folville were gentrymen,  and probably had the lay of Sherwood forest,  unfortunately the first extant references we have for a ‘robbehood’ or ‘robehaud’ predate them, appearing in the late 1220s, almost thirty years after the death of Richard I, as placeholder names for itinerant felons. The Folville and Coterel gangs were active during the reign of Edward II and III, in the early fourteenth century, and the first literary reference to Robin Hood occurs in Piers Plowman, written towards the end of the same century. So in conclusion, no, there never was a Robin Hood.

This is because, if you read any of the actual early ballads and stories about Robin, he’s terrible at being Robin Hood. What he actually does is act as a foil for representatives of various medieval castes and tests them, exposing the corruption and hypocrisy of clergymen and nobles, the cruelty of minor town functionaries, stuff like that. Everyone beats him at archery and swordplay, even Marian ties with him, and he’s constantly getting captured by the evil sheriff and Little John and Much the Miller’s Son are constantly having to rescue him. And rescuing him means killing people. A lot. And then misrepresenting yourself as the person you killed before the King. And then freeing Robin and killing all the guards and stealing the tax chest. No mention is made of its distribution to the poor. Check this out: John smote of the munkis hed / no longer wolde he dwelle; / So did Moch the litull page, / Ffor ferd lest he wolde telle. Or, John struck off the monk’s head / no longer does he dwell; / So did Much the little page / for fear that he would tell.  Less “Huzzah!” and more “Take the Canoli,” right?

film theory robin hood

This is why I was initially excited about the 2010 Robin Hood trailer. Because it doesn’t really matter if you have the historical or literary background, but incorporating the legend’s darker origins would be wicked.  The film looked violent and full of glowering, a reconsideration of the romantic Robin legend solidified so concretely by 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood. The trouble is, whether you order green tights or not, you have to acknowledge the generic baggage you have in making a Robin Hood film. We’re looking for stuff. Where’s Little John? Maid Marian? The Sheriff? Prince John?  What is this version of Robin Hood’s general attitude? Does oppression get him down, or do you kind of suspect he’d be in the Greenwood anyway? In creating your forest hideout, you have to know where to place the trees around the secret entrance.

Scott’s Robin Hood is so caught up in reconsideration for its own sake – Richard is dead! And Robin’s a commoner! And the Merry Men can be feral children! And Marian gets to fight in a pitched battle! – that by the time it gets around to the pseudo democratic, “Rise up, good people, and defend justice and liberty!” themes that go along with Flynn’s feathered cap, they seem completely out of place. It gets neither the history or the myth “right” in terms of accuracy, nor sets up the grounds for us to take them as drama for its own sake. I mean, I’m thrilled whenever Elinor of Aquitaine shows up in anything, but by the time there’s, like, a reverse D-Day French invasion of England complete with medieval Higgins boats, you have well and truly broken the tether of your source material. The key is that by foregrounding the entire endeavor with a promise of “real” history or some sort of accuracy, that tether matters, and we as an audience want it. Another Ridley Scott historical gloomfest, Gladiator, gets its facts wrong too, but the film’s focus is not on the politics of the Nervian/Antoninian dynasty. It paints in broad, bloody strokes.

film studies lincoln

Lincoln is, in a sense, at similar cross-purposes. The film wants to portray the man as he really lived and to honor his legend. This is ambitious, and I think on the first front the film succeeds in a spectacular way. It offers us a repurposed view of an iconic image, a person about which we have certain assumptions, and its a view that acknowledges those assumptions and shows us something thrillingly new. The humane, burdened, slyly hilarious Lincoln that Day-Lewis turned in will be the authoritative version in all our minds for a good long while. Portraying the Importance, sending him off to The Ages, as best represented by that, ahem, obvert John Williams score, casts contrasting shadow on the film’s story itself. Argo has no such concerns about posterity. It ends on a storyboard with meaning to the emotional story of the protagonist. It could have been any hostage crisis, really, that facilitated that growth and exposed that level of silent sacrifice of extractor Tony Mendez, just so long as Ben Afflect could sport his full and many beard. The terms are less stringent. It’s easier, which is why what Lincoln did accomplish feels more like, you know, an accomplishment. Historical drama is very hard to get factually and emotionally correct. When you do it, though, the past comes alive;  for beings with existences as fleeting as ours, that’s not an ignoble endeavor.

the vikings tv studies

This is why, in conclusion, The Vikings, the History Channel’s first scripted effort (aside from Pawn Stars, but that’s another topic), will be fascinating to watch. It looks pretty damned narrative and involving and entirely a dramatic enterprise, but it’s airing on a network called The History Channel. We’re expecting both accuracy and truth. Where will it place its flag? How will it navigate these issues? Will Gabriel Byrne be scary-cranky or adorable-cranky? Will that hot Australian find Canada? I’m excited to find out. 

 

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Oh No Film Majors’ Oscar Predictions: Part 4

Aaah! I’m out of time! What’s going on? Annie, don’t you know you’re going to be on stage in like 30 minutes?! Red Carpet. “Oh my gosh, frenzy!”

Best Picture – Argo

Best Director – Ang Lee

Best Actor – Daniel Day Lewis

Best Actress – Jennifer Lawrence

Best Supporting Actress – Anne Hathaway

Best Supporting Actor – Robert De Niro

Boom! Done! See you on the other side.

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Oh No Film Majors’ Oscar Predictions: Part 3

We’re under an hour to go, so very quickly, here we go.

Best Cinematography

Who To Bet On: Life of Pi. Yeah, you know that whole defining how 3D can be used not just as gimmickry but as an discrete cinematic device integral to the experience of a film thing? It’s kind of a big deal.

Who To Support: Skyfall. Shanghai fight sequence. Roger Deakins. The colors! The colours!

Spoiler To Mention So You Still Look Smart: Skyfall. I mean, I personally love Sheamus McGarvey and Anna Karenina is pretty spectacular, even if it doesn’t come off. But it’s between Pi and Skyfall, and it’d be a pleasant surprise if it was Skyfall. 

Best Editing

Who To Bet On: Argo. It’s a taught film, man. Good timing of things. A thriller. Meh.

Who To Support: Zero Dark Thirty. It’s a bit unfair, in both directions, to judge ZDT by its raid sequences, but DID YOU SEE THE RAID SEQUENCE? It is textbook perfect tension. 

Spoiler To Mention So You Still Look Smart: Silver Linings Playbook. No one cares a whole lot about editing, so votes can be scattered around, and people do seem to love Silver Linings

Best Score

Who To Bet On: Life of Pi. Mychael Danna’s put in a lot of great work and the variety of instrumental influence at play in Pi is certainly in his favor.

Who To Support: Life of Pi. Yeah, all the choices are pretty fine on their own, and do what they’re supposed to in the film, so Pi is legit.

Spoiler To Mention So You Still Look Smart: Beasts of the Southern Wild. Score is the category Beasts has the most chance to win. It will not win. But this is their shot.

Best Song

Who To Bet On: Skyfall. The Academy wants to see Adele high-five Daniel Craig and be awesome.

Who To Support: Skyfall. We ALL want to see Adele high-five Daniel Craig and be awesome.

Spoiler To Mention So You Still Look Smart: Skyfall. Do you even know who else is nominated? Yeah, I didn’t think so.

Best Original Screenplay

Who To Bet On: Zero Dark Thirty. It’s a choice between a rock and hard place with Django and ZDT, but regardless of what you think about the movie, it’s structured cleanly and clinically, and is the classiest choice.

Who To Support: Moonrise Kingdom. Because it should win something, damnit. It’s a pretty decent Wes Anderson flick, and anything to not support Flight

Spoiler To Mention So You Still Look Smart: Django Unchained. It’s wordy like Lincoln  but shit blows up! Whooo? 

Best Adapted Screenplay

Who To Bet On: Argo. Writers have tended to be a little more hipster, rewarding non-Oscarbait when it can. Lincoln is the only other choice of merit and it’s a little too Important.

Who To Support: Lincoln. It’s Important for a reason, y’all. They get Abraham Lincoln right.

Spoiler To Mention So You Still Look Smart: Silver Linings Playbook. I say this because I don’t understand the love for SLP and Oscars often go to films whose appeal I don’t understand.  

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