It was you, Bodie. You broke my heart.

Life (and Death) on the Streets

I feel old. I been out there since I was 13. I ain’t never fucked up a count, never stole off a package, never did some shit that I wasn’t told to do. I been straight up. But what come back? Hmm? You’d think if I get jammed up on some shit they’d be like, “A’ight, yeah. Bodie been there. Bodie hang tough. We got his pay lawyer. We got a bail.” They want me to stand with them, right? But where the fuck they at when they supposed to be standing by us? I mean, when shit goes bad and there’s hell to pay, where they at? This game is rigged, man. We like the little bitches on a chessboard.

Poor Bodie. Poor loyal, misguided, tragic Bodie. Like so many on The Wire, we’ve seen him do terrible things ever since he and Poot shot Wallace back in season 1 – yet he wasn’t a bad guy. He wasn’t evil. He was just one of those little bitches on a chessboard, just like another tragic player who decided that enough was enough and ended up hanging from a prison doorknob with a belt around his neck.

Poor Randy. Screwed over by the stupidity of a cop who doesn’t get that he’s betraying this kid – but screwed over even more by a society where talking to a cop is much worse a crime than putting a bullet in someone’s head, it seems, and by a system that at best can keep an account of the people it’s failing – but actually helping them? Sorry, no. Not enough money, not enough people to do the work, not enough of an incentive to cut through the red tape.

Poor Carver, trying so hard to do right by those under his care. Poor Dukie, for whom a day in high school is more frightening than a life on the corners. Poor Michael, killing his soul to protect his little brother. Poor Bubbles, saddest of all. You all broke my heart… and I know I’ll be back for more.

bubbles

I’d thought that season 2 of The Wire was as tragic as it would get. Frank Sobotka going to his death, thinking that he had even the tiniest chance of patching things up for himself, his nephew, his union, for the men he felt responsible for. But the slow, drawn out death of the working stiffs’ union doesn’t hold a candle to the perpetual, systemic sickness which The Wire, season by season, evokes for us, and the way it infects the youngest already.

With “Final Grades”, the season 4 finale, The Wire may just have topped Six Feet Under as my favourite series. The care and intricacy with which the characters are developed, the interconnecting themes play out – has there ever been a series as perfectly constructed yet feeling so right and so true? I could point to episodes, plot strands and even characters in Six Feet Under that didn’t add anything much to the overall series. The Wire? Everything adds to the whole, coming together with dizzying precision, affecting me to an extent that I never would have expected from what looks like a naturalistic cop series about drugs and crime.

Chris, Michael and Snoop (shudder...)

All of this might sound like The Wire is too complex, too constructed for its own good, but the scenes and the characters breathe with a lightness of touch that has to be seen over a number of seasons to be appreciated. It’s only when you take a step back that you can see just how perfectly wrought the series is.

Okay, enough of this clumsy attempt to put into words the effect that “Final Grades” had on me. Unless you’re scared of spoilers, you may want to check out this page (http://www.theguywiththeglasses.com/2008/03/wire-top-scenes.html) as it deftly picks some of the best scenes of the series up to the end of season 4.

And, apart from anything else, it’s good to see a quality series that actually makes it to the end without being cancelled prematurely. (There is something cruelly ironic about releasing a DVD set called Deadwood – Complete Collection. Be honest, cocksucker, and call it what it is: Deadwood – Dead Before Its Time or Deadwood – We Killed It Because We Had To Pay For This Weirdo Surfer Dude Series or Deadwood – Because A Good Novel With The Final Chapter Ripped Out Is Still A Good Novel, Right?)

Shame I’ve already used “A Death in the Family”…

Anyway, it’s really two deaths I’ll be writing about. And the whole notion of family… well, let’s put it this way. It’s complicated.

I’m currently rewatching The Sopranos and I just finished season 3 (“… In which an old friend’s son is shot in the back of the head and Meadow interrupts a sentimental song with thrown chunks of bread and a rendition of a Britney Spears classic”). While the series dealt in ambiguities from the very beginning, season 3 is perhaps the first one where the audience’s complicity is brought to the fore. We root for Tony Soprano, paterfamilias to two families, but for all his charm and for all our sympathy for him (when he’s not being an asshole to the people around him) he is evil – if he is defined by who he is and what he does, he’s evil. Less so than the outright psychos in his entourage (I’m mainly looking at you, Paulie and Ralphie) and more self-aware, but he enables them and depends on them and their actions for his own success.

Up to the end of season 3, we’ve never seen him quite this manipulative and hypocritical, and now it’s seeping into his children more and more. Knowing quite well on one level that her idiot ex was killed because of the system her father upholds, she now defends it – to the face of idiot ex’s sister and with a degree of self-righteousness that is nauseating.

He's behind you!

The problem I have with rewatching The Sopranos, though, is that differently from, say, Deadwood, Six Feet Under or (most of all) The Wire the episodes and seasons are pretty much exchangeable. There’s very little character development – which may be the point, but if you could watch the episodes in pretty much any order and the only thing you can determine by whether it’s season 1, 3 or 6 is how old the kids are and whether Pussy Bompensiero is around? In my books that diminishes the lasting appeal and success of the series.

Talking of deaths in series: since Switzerland is a couple of months behind the States with respect to TV, we only got to see the House season 4 finale now… and what a downer that one was. Even though season 4 was the shortest season of the series ever, most of the episodes after House had chosen his new team felt like retreads (or, in fact, re-re-retreads), but the two finale episodes, “House’s Head” and “Wilson’s Heart”, were among the best and definitely the emotionally strongest episodes. I remember pretty much hating Robert Sean Leonard in Much Ado About Nothing, but together with Hugh Laurie he carries the series even in its most generic episodes. Give him material such as this and he absolutely shines. (And I don’t know what it is, but give me a well-acted man crying his eyes out in a series and I get a big lump in my throad…)

I still don’t think that Kate Beckinsale is talented or particularly beautiful, though, so there.

Give me Emma and Kenneth any time. Please.

SoCal, baby! (Shoot me now…)

In case you were wondering: I haven’t abandoned you or the internet or my “way too late to be of any relevance whatsoever” blog. I’ve just been away, and still am. For the first time in my life, I’m not just witnessing the sheer bigness (biggitude?) of the United States of Thingamy through the TV screen – I’m in San Diego, enjoying the sun, the zoo, the predominantly Democrat people, the 24-hour shop at the gas station that sells juices made up of broccoli, spinach and garlic that nevertheless taste pretty damn good.

I’ve also made it to the fabled American movie theatre, and the first and most important thing to report is this: they show about 2 1/2 times as many trailers as they do back home! (That’s it, I’m moving here…) Okay, the number of trailers may not quite make up for the film that followed them in this instance…

As I may or may not have mentioned earlier, I’m not a Western fan as such… but some films and series that I like a lot happen to be Westerns. I like what you can do with a well established genre – such as showing up the genre’s limitations and giving alternate readings of its archetypes. I love Deadwood and The Assassination of is anyone still reading this title or have you already jumped to the end of the italics? is one of my favourite films of the last couple of years.

Appaloosa, Ed Harris’ second film as a director, could have been made 60 years ago, with little changes. It’s old fashioned. That in itself isn’t bad. What is a shame is that the film becomes way too comfortable with itself, to the point where, even when bad things happen, there is no urgency to the story at all. There’s too much there that is utterly predictable. And most of the characters have the emotional maturity of sitcom characters.

As a result, I sat there thinking, “Nice acting, but I don’t really care.” I didn’t care whether Harris’ character and Renée Zellweger’s golddigger would end up with each other and be happy. I didn’t much care whether any of the protagonists would die before the end. The few bits that made me look up with interest – the quasi-domestic relationship between Harris and Mortensen before it’s broken up by, gosh darn!, a woman is quite nice, and the film’s nicely aware of Harris’ character being rather thick at the best of times – were nice enough, but the overriding thought on my mind as I left the cinema was: “I wonder how many episodes of Deadwood season 4 this could have financed…”

On a slightly different note: Watched the premiere of the US Life on Mars. Was left with a deeply felt confusion as to why to do this remake and a mixture of pity for Harvey Keitel (he looked like he wanted to be somewhere else) and annoyance with him (if he doesn’t want to be there, why is he taking up the space?). I have no problem with remakes on principle – but if they’re as pointless, and joyless, as this one I have to wonder: “How many episodes of Deadwood…?”

Girl power

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is an odd beast. It is perhaps the wittiest series with what would seem to be the dumbest premise: HIgh school chick fights vampire. It was cheesy, it had bad fight scenes much of the time, and many of the actors weren’t terribly good.

Yet what Buffy got right, it got right. In every season, there were episodes that are up there with my favourite television fare ever – and yes, that includes Six Feet Under and Deadwood. Over the course of seven seasons, I’ve come to care about all the characters. That never happened with any of the Star Trek series that I watched as a teenager. Nor did I grow tired of Buffy in the way that I lost patience with The X-Files.

Much of that has to do with Joss Whedon’s characters. They quickly come to feel like people you want to spend time with. Yes, even Angel… and yes, even season 6/7 Buffy, although to a lesser extent. (There were moments – flashes – when I even liked Dawn. I’m sorry.) They come to feel real, which is an amazing feat, considering that these people tend to spend their time fighting rubber-mask baddies and being American teenagers.

Yes, the series lost some steam after season 5 ended. There’s a lot going on in seasons 6 and 7 where I thought, “Yes, I see what they’re doing there… I see where they’re going with this”, but it was less enjoyable than what had come earlier. But I do not get the hate those later seasons get from some of the fans. I do not get the vitriol or the sense of betrayal that you find on the internet. (But then, there’s so much on the internet I do not get…)

It’s interesting re-watching season 2 now (our Sunday morning fare), since this is pretty much when the series came into its own. In the sophomore year, the actors had found their feet and really got their characters, to the point where it didn’t matter that much whether they were great actors or not. The writing had got more comfortable, yet at the same time more daring. In season 1, a later episode such as “The Body” or “Once More, With Feeling” wouldn’t have been imaginable; after season 2, pretty much anything was possible. (Well, not quite. I was only prepared for Whedon’s sadistic glee in doing horrible things to his characters because I’d previously seen Serenity. Yes, Joss, I know what you were doing there, I know what you were going for, and if I ever meet you I’ll be sure to applaud you for your audacity while I repeatedly kick you in the privates.)
So, re-watching Buffy while cuddling up to my loved one keeps me from missing Giles and Willow, and Xander and Cordelia, Oz and Joyce… and Buffy. As Willow said so memorably, “Sweet girl. Not that bright.”

Good thing that Joss Whedon and Brian K. Vaughn (of Y: Last Man and Runaways fame) are doing season 8 in comic book form. Shiny.

Tell us something pretty, HBO

Phew. Remember the first and second season finales of Deadwood? Basically happy endings, complete with mercy killings and stabbed Cy Tolliver?

Don’t expect that sort of cheery capper to season 3. Expect, instead, to curse and swear at your television – standing in, of course, for the Powers that Be at HBO. For cancelling a TV series intended to run for four seasons, and a brilliant written, acted, directed, filmed TV series at that, after it’s run for three of those seasons. In a world where another HBO series about old-fashioned romanticism dressed up as postfeminism gets a big screen outing, it’s more than just a shame that we’re not likely ever to see Deadwood end as would befit the series. It’s a crime. And it makes me think that Al Swearengen should be let loose with his knife in the dreams of those HBO cocksuckers (as he might put it if he was in a good mood) to put the fear of Al into them.

Daniel Plainview, eat your black heart out

No, it’s not that Deadwood ends on an exclusively bleak, depressing note. There are lots of small moments that are beautiful, little smiles and touches that show some hope. Sol and Trixie. Richardson and Aunt Lou. Even E.B. standing on the roof of his hotel, bless his little cotton socks. But on the whole, the good (and not so good) people of Deadwood have been beaten, for the first time. They’ve been kicked in the kidneys. There has been blood, and for once, it’s less than clear whether any scrubbing will get rid of that blood.

So, until tomorrow I’ll try to get over my pissed-off-ness with the hoopleheads at HBO. Expect some lines on No Country for Old Men soon. At least that one’s got a two-time Deadwood veteran…

P.S.: Apparently, the person who was supposed to play Al Swearengen at first was one Ed O’Neill. Photo given below. No joke.

Can’t… joke… about… this

Suffer the little children

I missed Monster’s Ball when it was on at the cinema, and I never really went out of my way to see it on TV. There’s no particular reason for this – except, perhaps, that there seemed to be more talk about the fairly explicit sex scene between Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton than about anything else. Okay, a good sex scene can make a film better (Don’t Look Now, I’m ogling you!), but there’d better be something beyond copulatory goodness.

Marc Forster, the director of Monster’s Ball, is one of the few Swiss people who’ve made it big in Hollywood – so big in fact that he’s now doing the new James Bond movie. He seems to be comfortable in many different genres and he gets in the good actors.

Stranger than Fiction

And yet. I wasn’t too keen on Stranger than Fiction, a film that desperately wanted to be more clever than it really was. True, Will Ferrell put in a fairly poignant performance, and I always enjoy watching Maggie Gyllenhaal, but all in all the movie felt like Charlie Kaufman Light, turning its metafictional veneer to the service of an essentially trite Carpe Diem story. And what was worse (at least for me): the book that the critically acclaimed author played by Emma Thompson was writing was drivel of the worst sort. It wasn’t even a parody of literary fiction – it was the sort of thing that a decidedly mediocre first-term creative writing student might cobble together, feeling awfully proud of himself.

Last week we watched Finding Neverland. Again, Forster’s assembled a lovely cast of actors: Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Julie Christie, Dustin Hoffman. The film is well crafted, obviously. But the story and dialogues render their work disappointingly toothless. Most of the performances are adequate, but let’s face it: it doesn’t take much to get an adequate performance from these actors. It’s more difficult to get a bad performance from them. But what can they do, when their characters can all be summarised in two sentences without being reductive?

Finding Neverland

There are small joys in both films. Dustin Hoffman is understated but great fun, both as the theatre impressario and as Stranger than Fiction’s literary critic. (I just wish he’d say what is so blatantly obvious – that the book Will Ferrell’s character is in is badly written rubbish.) And Freddy Highmore (who went on to play with Johnny Depp yet again in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) is great. Not only is his acting subtle and moving, his character is probably the only one in the film who is ambivalent, who has depth, who doesn’t fit comfortably into a well-worn cliché.

Talking of children: perhaps the strangest, sweetest sight in any Deadwood episode is that of the school children lined up behind Joanie Stubbs and Calamity Jane holding hands, walking down the thoroughfare to their new school. For a few moments, the scheming and bloodshed comes to a complete halt as the inhabitants of Deadwood come out to watch the children. I have a feeling, though, that “Amateur Night” will be the last episode of the season (and, sadly, series) that will allow for such peace and quiet. Something is going to happen, and it’s going to happen sooner rather than later. I’ve rarely seen a series that managed as well to ratch up the tension. Somehow I have the distinct impression that the title of a recent P.T. Anderson film will describe the last three episodes of the series quite accurately.

And no, I don’t mean Punch Drunk Love.

Her name is Bambi?

Nope, but it might as well be… Okay, what on earth am I talking about? Grey’s Anatomy season 4, which just started over here.

I’ll get it out of the way first and foremost. I basically like Grey’s Anatomy. I like watching many of the characters, and usually, when it gets too soppy, I just bite my tongue until the next time Christina or Bailey are back on screen and then I’m okay. However, I got very tired of the non-medical soap opera in season 3. And the season 4 starter didn’t much convince me that change was inevitable, however much Meredith rambled on about it in her voice-over.

And what I really mind, not specifically about this series but about so many soap operas in general: I don’t want to be told who to like and who to dislike. I want to figure that out for myself. And I especially dislike being told (implicitly, of course, but not very subtly) that I’m supposed to like character A when I’ve just come to the conclusion that character A is an idiot and is wasting my time. And no, just because a character is made out to be all cute and adorable doesn’t mean that I can’t dislike her.

Yes, I’m looking at you, Lexie Grey.

Yes. She’s cute as a button. I hate her.

(Warning: If you’re tired of my “I love HBO” sermons, this is where you go and read that other blog. You know, the one by that guy who writes about these things. And there are pictures and stuff.)

That’s one of the things I love about Six Feet Under, The Sopranos and Deadwood, or even Battlestar Galactica (okay, that one isn’t HBO). No one tells me that I have to like Tony Soprano or Alma Garret or Nate Fisher. In fact, it’s absolutely okay for me to dislike Starbuck (which I don’t – but I could!) or Claire or Carmela. And, what is more important, the characters are deeper, more real – they can’t be reduced to Good Guys and Bad Guys. You may feel understanding for them, but that doesn’t stop you from shouting at them in the next scene, telling them to stop being so fucking stupid, goddamnit, cocksuckers!

Okay… perhaps I should try to reduce the weekly dose of Deadwood.

It’s all fun and games after someone loses an eye

Even though Deadwood has some of the grimmest moments of any TV series I’ve seen so far (probably the top 5 series in that respect would be HBO, by the way), one of the reasons it works so well in creating credible, likeable characters is by infusing them with a sense of humour. This is rarely as obvious as in the scenes with Dan Dority and Johnny Burns – and in yesterday’s episode, the magnificently titled “Unauthorized Cinnamon” (you’d probably expect that sort of title more from some anime than from a gritty western series), there was a scene with Al’s henchmen that had me giggling madly to myself. I would quote it, but without the context and the acting it wouldn’t be half as funny. There’s also a priceless moment with a mad, effete tailor trying to convince Al to wear colourful swatches of cloth on his Heastified hand – good old Swingen has never looked quite that baffled. The tonal range of the actors on Deadwood is simply amazing… as the scenes depicting the growing closeness between Calamity Jane and Joanie Stubbs also show.

Al alone

However, don’t take my word for it. If you’re in any way interested in good writing, characterisation and gorgeously cinematic television, and if you don’t mind the occasional throat-slicing, go out, get Deadwood season 1, watch, and then go and get the next two series. And then hunt me down and kick my ass for getting you hooked on a series that was cancelled before they could finish the story as written.

Okay, enough blather from me about my favourite series. So, even though it’s Sunday and we’re about to watch the penultimate episode of Six Feet Under, let me just add two YouTube trouvailles. The first is a trailer for David Cronenberg’s Videodrome that is so gloriously corny and ’80s weird that I, as an 1980s movie goer, would have expected the film to be a soft-porn retelling of Tron. The second is a six-minute short by Cronenberg called Camera, picking up some of the themes of Videodrome, just without the porn creepiness, the graphic bodily mutilations and James Woods sticking his head in a TV. Hey – whatever shoots water up his stick, eh?

No more House calls for a while

On Monday, Swiss television showed the season 3 finales of both House, M.D. and Lost. We haven’t seen the latter yet, but it probably says it all that the best moment of House, at least for me, was the Chase/Cameron kiss. That scene was sweet, but the actual medical case was too vague and the character interaction not very interesting. The House vs. God angle had also been done previously. All in all it felt like the series could do with a couple of months off. Seeing as season 4, cut short by striking writers, is just about over in the States, we might get it fairly soon…

Gregory House, looking dark and depressed in between snarky quips

… but first, we’ve got the grand return of Grey’s Anatomy (at a point where I sometimes feel that if I have to watch McDreamy be a self-righteous, self-infatuated git for another minute, I’ll find the actor and put his face through a meat grinder), doubled up with Private Practice, the Grey spin-off that got started in an atrociously written and at best adequately acted two-parter on its mother series.

How’s a man to cope – especially when this man knows that there are only six more episodes of Deadwood? Like, ever? Come to think of it, I’d like to see a cross-over where some select characters from Grey’s Anatomy and perhaps Desperate Housewives stop by the picturesque little town of Deadwood. Derek Shepherd could open a practice with Dan Doherty as opthalmologist. (If you have no idea what I’m talking about, click here, unless you’re still hoping to watch season 3 of Deadwood.)

Six Feet Under is also almost over – two more episodes. What next? We’ve got a fair choice of series: Rome, The Wire, Carnivàle, season 6 of The Sopranos. Then there’s more escapist or pulpy fare: Heroes, Veronica Mars, Joan of Arcadia, Dexter. I’ve heard very good things about the latter series, especially season 2 – which came as a bit of a surprise, as the second Dexter novel was quite a bit weaker than the first. I guess that sometimes film and TV can improve on books…

And to end this very meandering blog entry, here’s a YouTube clip – the very effective opening credits for Dexter, a show whose ‘hero’ is a serial killer… who is intent on only killing ‘bad guys’:

This is the one with pictures!

And what pretty pictures they are! Oh! Oh!

Okay, enough of that… it’s getting silly. What is there to talk about? Blood Simple, perhaps, which we watched tonight. A fascinating film to watch if you like les frères Coen, because it combines the “Ohshitohshitohshit…” tension of a James M. Cain novel with traces of the subversive humour that would come to full bloom in later Coen movies. Then again, I don’t particularly feel like talking about that movie. Go and watch it yourself, if you can keep yourself from constantly muttering, “Oh. My. God. Frances McDormand is so young!”

What else then? Nate Fisher’s funeral perhaps. It’s strange – when I first watched this episode about 1 1/2 years ago, I mostly felt numb throughout it. The tears only started to come halfway through the penultimate episode “Static”. (When the car pickup guy kicks in the crashed hearse’s window, that does me in completely.) This time, though, the aptly names “All Alone” really got to me. The way all the remaining Fishers, as well as Brenda and Maggie, were locked into themselves by their grief, rage and frustration. The way putting shrouded Nate in that hole in the ground seemed so final – even though this is Six Feet Under, where the dead appear to the living to cajole, taunt and sometimes, very rarely, if you’re lucky, offer much needed sympathy. Even Claire’s flashback to the day Kurt Cobain died (“Too pure for this world”?! Whatever it is you’re smoking, buddy boy, gimme some of that!) didn’t just feel embarrassing. Perhaps I’m just getting soppy and old.

Ruth alone

Or should I write about Deadwood? I’ve already said a lot about the tension that’s been building up since George Hearst’s arrival and immediate claim. It definitely feels like more blood will be spilled before the end of the season – and quite some blood has already been spilled. Not to mention other body parts ending up where they don’t really belong.

So, just one brief note about Deadwood: in addition to the dialogues, the world that is evoked, the storylines, the series’ feel for what the Germans call Spannungsbogen (there’s really no exact English equivalent, which I consider a much greater inadequacy than the lack of Zeitgeist or Blitzkrieg), I simply love the faces. They all tell stories, and they feel so eminently right.

George Hearst, looking for a new captain (preferably with two eyes)