There is always a moment for me, early in any movie rather than late, where I ask myself if the storytelling is going to be good (or memorable, or quippy, or smart). Sometimes I am fooled into believing that it’s going to be great, as in The United States vs. Billie Holliday, where the movie starts out fine, gets bad and worse the longer I am sitting there, watching it crumble despite Andra Day’s fabulous performance. With Miranda July’s Kajillionaire, I knew that the story it was about to tell me was going to be a keeper, and I was not wrong. If you see Richard Jenkins standing at a downtown L.A. bus station, how can you not think of the pilot of Six Feet Under? The movie could easily be based on a graphic novel along the lines of Ghost World, and three streets along, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia might be unfolding.Continue reading
Join us every week for a trip into the weird and wonderful world of trailers. Whether it’s the first teaser for the latest instalment in your favourite franchise, an obscure preview for a strange indie darling, whether it’s good, bad, ugly or just plain weird – your favourite pop culture baristas are there to tell you what they think.
Considering how iconic the film is, it’s sort of amazing that we here at A Damn Fine Cup of Culture haven’t written about David Lean’s epic classic Lawrence of Arabia before – but then Julie more than made up for this with last Friday’s Six Damn Fine Degrees post. Even at a time when most of us cannot go to the cinema because all the movie theatres are closed, it feels good to remember those silver screen classics. Here’s hoping we’ll have a chance to see Lawrence of Arabia as it was meant to be seen, on as big a screen as possible, before long. Though if your favourite way of watching Peter O’Toole’s blue, blue eyes is on a small iPhone screen? No problem, man. You do you, even if that you is puzzling and strange.Continue reading
Mid-February in the Swiss capital: as the pandemic grinds on it’s definitely getting to me more. Differently from many, it’s not the relative lack of social contact: I’m not the most social animal at the best of times. I would even say it’s been quite good for me and my wife that we’ve both been working from home for much of the last year, which means that we don’t just see each other in the morning when we’re still tired and in the evening when we’re tired again. I have been seeing a friend once a week for coffee, but beyond this I don’t acutely miss going out and meeting people in larger numbers than what I can count on one hand; I can get most of the social interaction I need via Skype, Zoom and Tabletop Simulator – the latter of which allows us to rule at the boardgame Pandemic during an actual pandemic. What times we live in!Continue reading
The first half-dozen years or so of the 21st century saw some of the strongest arguments that a Golden Age of Television had arrived. Many of those were produced by HBO, from the New Jersey mobscapades of The Sopranos to the sprawling social canvas of The Wire. While it was cancelled after three season, the Western series Deadwood stands tall among the standouts of that time. Even thirteen years after its cancellation, it’s difficult to find a series as accomplished, with an ensemble cast as strong, and with writing as distinct.Continue reading
In an instant, they were gone. Family, friends, lovers. You turned around for one moment, and when you turned back they were gone. Where? Why? Who knows. How to go on? Who knows. And how can you ever hold on to anyone again if you don’t know whether it might happen again?
No, I’m not talking about the Snap. (We’ve done enough of that elsewhere.) I’m not talking about the Rapture either, not quite. What I am talking about is one of the strangest, saddest, most infuriating, most hopeless, most hopeful stories I’ve seen, on TV or elsewhere: The Leftovers.
It is not that Will is a bad father. He is caring, he looks after his daughter’s physical needs. He teaches her self-reliance, and her intelligence and resilience clearly indicate that he’s done a lot of things very well. In fact, if he hadn’t done such a good job of raising his daughter, she might never find the strength to tell him that he cannot take her with him.
There are the stars, the big names, the recognisable faces, the Brads and Georges and Scarletts. Then there are those actors who may not be gorgeous and glamorous but who are great actors and win awards. And then there are those actors whose faces you recognise, whose names you may not remember immediately but seeing them always makes you like a film that little bit more, because it’s got Whatshisface and Whatshername in it. Unless, of course, you are a film geek and sigh contentedly whenever you see good old Whatshisface, mouthing the man’s IMDB link to yourself.
One of the actors that I always enjoy seeing, even in middling and even decidedly dodgy films, is Richard Jenkins. He is probably what is called a “character actor”, which more often than not seems to translate into “We want to say something nice about this guy but he’s not a hunk nor is he a tortured genius.” He can be utterly amazing, as in The Visitor, a film that could have been unbearable Oscar bait but ended up subtle, poignant and quietly devastating, an achievement that was in no small part due to Jenkins’ performance.
However, as good as the actor was in The Visitor, it’s Six Feet Under that best encapsulates why I love Jenkins. He’s good at playing dignified, often melancholy and sometimes stodgy everymen, but when given the chance to let loose he has a goofy, subversive energy, a Coenesque quality that is unmatched. (He’s been in three of the Coen brothers’ films, but what I best remember him for is his turn in The Man Who Wasn’t There: “Riedenschneider!”)
Jenkins has the face of a slightly disappointed man exhausted by life, but he has that gift of pulling off quirkiness without that precocious, grating quality that indie quirk often takes on. There’s a scene in the first season of Six Feet Under, where main character Nate finds out that his deceased father Nathanael Fisher Sr., undertaker and proprietor of Fisher & Sons, had a secret room above an Indian restaurant that no one in his family knew about. As Nate imagines what his father may have got up to in this room, we see several scenarios: Nate Senior playing solitaire, Nate Senior shaking his booty to a groovy record, Nate Senior having it off with a hooker, Nate Senior shooting at passers-by with a sniper rifle. It’s a tricky scene, and I can’t imagine anyone other than Jenkins pulling it off as he does, deadpan and perfect.
The AV Club, as so often, has a fun and informative interview with Jenkins in their “Random Roles” series – well worth checking out for anyone who finds themselves to be quite a fan of Late Nate.
On most message boards, forums and online communities that I’m a part of (all… let’s see… 3 1/2 of them) I probably post most frequently in threads relating to films, TV series, novels, plays, comics and other media that are largely dedicated to storytelling, characterisation and the like. One recent discussion I took part in was about the HBO series Game of Thrones, and while many of the topics were predictable (OMG sexposition! Just how much does Tyrion rule? Is there such a thing as posting that animated GIF of Joffrey being slapped too often?), one caught me by surprise: a poster criticised that there’s barely anyone in the series to root for.
The reason for my surprise was this: I realised that ‘rooting for someone’ has never been a measure of whether I enjoy a story or not. Of course I root for the Indiana Joneses and John McClanes, the Bastian Balthasar Buxes and… I’m actually finding it difficult to come up with more examples, which is quite telling. Some kinds of stories necessitate a ‘good guy’ to root for, but this isn’t anything I’m looking for in storytelling. On the other hand, what I am looking for is the potential to empathise with the characters whose lives I’m following. And that’s something I find quite easy – you could go so far as to say that I’m a bit of an ’empathy whore’. I’ve never really rooted for Tony Soprano, Richard III, even a Darth Vader – or, for that matter, a Cersei Lannister, not exactly one of the nicer characters in a series that isn’t exactly famous for its many loveable protagonists.
It’s one of the reasons why I’ve greatly enjoyed series whose protagonists do questionable, petty, selfish things all the time, from the characters in Six Feet Under (as the series goes on, Nate becomes more and more selfish in his actions, yet that never makes me care about him any less), to the shades-of-grey cast of any season of The Wire (yes, I even care about Rawls, while fully acknowledging what a dick he is) to the moral monsters of The Sopranos. Which is also why the flip-side of rooting for a fictional character is something I very rarely do – I often read about other forumites wanting this or that character to die horribly, to get knifed in the back or thrown off a cliff or get a bullet in his head, which I just don’t get. I don’t get the vehemence and sadism with which these things are often formulated (and yes, I do understand that wishing death on a fictional character is not the same as wanting a real person to die), but more than that, whether a character is morally reprehensible or not doesn’t have anything to do with whether I want to continue watching them. Al Swearengen is a Machiavellian monster, happy to kill, or have killed, anyone who stands in the way of his plans, yet I can think of few characters who are as enjoyable to watch as him. Tony Soprano made The Sopranos must-watch TV for six seasons, even in the worst episodes. Even generally likeable characters like The Wire‘s Bodie or Rome‘s Titus Pullo do horrible, heinous things. It’s not just that I don’t get why or how the moralities of their actions would influence my wanting to watch them: it’s that their flaws, their ambiguity, often make them more interesting characters for me. (Obviously my enjoyment of the characters also has a lot to do with how they’re written and acted – I want to watch an Al Swearengen at least as much because of Ian McShane’s performance as because he’s a fascinating, complex character, and the same’s definitely true for Breaking Bad‘s Walt White and the fantastic acting by Bryan Cranston.)
However, there are characters – very few, but they exist – that don’t evoke any empathy on my part. There are some that I dislike so much I wouldn’t mind something horrible happening to them. I’ll admit it right here and now: every time I watch One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I hope that McMurphy will succeed in strangling Nurse Ratched to death this time round. I guess that while I’m a bleeding heart of the worst kind when it comes to fictional characters as well, there’s still a tiny little reactionary inside me wanting to get out and flip the switch.
My tastes probably tend towards the dark and tragic somewhat. For a while David Fincher’s Seven was my feelgood film (and I’m only exaggerating slightly). I’m not particularly into comedies, mainly because I don’t tend to find them funny – but I think that Shakespeare’s Richard III and John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi are both rich in humour, though of the blackest sort. I tend to label things as “bittersweet” that my Significant Other would call “depressing as hell”.
Imagine my surprise when we finished watching season 2 of Oz… and my reaction was pretty much this: Whoa. This series may be too negative, too pessimistic, too “everything is going to shit” for me. By comparison, the last two seasons of Six Feet Under were light tragicomedy, The Sopranos is Analyse This! and Deadwood is Paint My Wagon. In the season 2 finale, Oz gives us a pedophile ex-priest getting crucified by Arians, a Latino guard’s eyes getting stabbed (with disturbing visuals of the damage) and one inmate’s arms and legs being broken. (I can still hear the snapping sounds…) When an old Nigerian gets stabbed to death, it almost feels like a relief: Thank god, they could have put his arm down the garbage disposal and then fed him his own kidneys!
Oz is open to allegations of being gratuitous in its use of violence, at least in this episode – but then, I can think of scenes of Deadwood, Rome and indeed Six Feet Under (elevator bisection!) that are as visceral and gory. So what is it, if not the gruesome depiction of violence? Is it that the characters are by and large doing evil things? Hey, Al Swearengen could pull off as many as six evil things before breakfast, without breaking into a sweat. The Soprano mob was no bit more angelic than the inmates of Oswald Penitentiary. So, again: what is it that makes Oz less bearable?
I think it’s this: Oz is about a world where hope is mostly dead, and what hope is left is killed over and over again. All these other series, for the pain, suffering and evil acts they depict, they haven’t killed off hope. Goodness can exist and survive and sometimes even thrive. In Oz, the only way that goodness can avoid being trampled is by hiding away, making itself smaller. There are sparse moments of light, but they are so exceptional and all the characters seem to know it that you almost dismiss them as a mere distraction from the doom and gloom. And yes, there is humour, but most of the time it’s grim as hell. Even the world of The Wire is more hopeful. Consider that: The Wire is more hopeful than Oz.
Arguably, that’s the world the series depicts: its version of the American penal system is Hell, an institutional hell where goodness is weakness, and the weak get their arms and legs broken. But if a series is that relentlessly negative and nine out of ten times something good happening is just occasion for the characters to fall from a greater height, it becomes wearying. And it’s the first HBO series where I’m not exactly eager to get started on the next season as soon as possible.
Perhaps I need to recover with something lighter.
Since Switzerland is behind the rest of the world in all things pop culture, we’ve only just finished watching the first season of True Blood. Now, for those of you who have been following my HBO fetishism for a while, this will come as a bit of a surprise, but… I thought that True Blood was nothing much to write home about. It was entertaining enough, but I wouldn’t give the best episode of the series for the worst of Deadwood, The Wire or Six Feet Under, that other Alan Ball series. (I might be willing to exchange any episode of True Blood for that episode of The Sopranos where Tony meets his father’s mistress. Shudder…)
One major problem with the series, at least from my point of view, is that the main characters are much less interesting than the side characters that wander in for a couple of episodes. Bill and Sookie (or “Sookaaah!”, as Bill might put it) are okay, as are Sam, Tara, Jason and all the others, but I never really cared all that much about what was going to happen to them. On the other hand, I cared about poor, shlubby, gay vampire Eddie, I cared about psychotic, sexy hippie/murderess Amy, and I definitely wouldn’t mind seeing more of Kurt Kobain lookalike Eric (a charismatic performance by Alexander “Iceman” Skarsgard) or the Magister as played by Zeljko Ivanek.
At the same time, True Blood is almost perfect fare for a tired evening after a day at the office. It’s fun, it’s nice to look at, and that title tune always gets my toes twitching. Now, if only it was on offer as a downloadable track for Rock Band…
We’re also almost at the end of the first season of The West Wing. It took me an episode or two to forget that the guy playing the President had also been Greg Stillson in David Cronenberg’s film version of The Dead Zone, i.e. not a man you’d want anywhere near the White House, but now I’m okay with Prez Jed Bartlett sitting in the Oval Office.
So far I’m enjoying the series a lot, although it’s pretty much the opposite of True Blood – intelligent writing, heavy on words and ideas, and very little in the way of graphic sex, fangs, shapeshifters and blood. It does, however, have Allison Janney, an actress who I’ve come to like a lot. If I had to single out one of the characters from the series as my favourite one, it’d be her C.J. Gregg. Janney is as pitch-perfect with scenes of political drama as she is with understated humour and outright goofiness.
It’s amazing, though, how bad most of the characters on the series are when it comes to interpersonal relationships that aren’t primarily defined by work. They make great colleagues (when they’re not making vicious fun of you after a root canal) – they seem to make for lousy boy- and girlfriends (though mostly boyfriends). Déformation professionelle, I guess.