Archive for August, 2013

Cogito: John Branch

August 26, 2013

Film, TV, DVDs, Books, Magazines

JB photo-painting by RC 2



On Watching TV:
The Long and the Short of It

Last year, Jennifer Egan wrote a piece of short fiction for The New Yorker, called “Black Box,” eganthat she designed for Twitter. link Beginning on May 24, TNY’s fiction department tweeted the story in 10 nightly installments before printing it complete in the magazine. I hadn’t read any Twitter fiction but admired Egan, so I sat down the first night to watch. The six opening tweets hooked me. Wondering what to call the experience (punctuated unfolding?), I followed avidly to the end and re-read “Black Box” as soon as I received the printed magazine. Surely something was new about this, my overexcited brain proposed.

Was I right? As Kirby used to say in the Hertz car-rental ads, “Not exactly.” If you close one eye and hold your head just so, you can see parallels for this in earlier times, and even in other media today.

sterneWay back in 1759, Laurence Sterne began publishing Tristram Shandy in parts. Apparently he wrote and published a volume or so whenever he felt like it; the novel eventually ran to nine volumes released over about eight years without ever reaching a conclusive ending. At almost the same time, Tobias Smollettismolle001p1 (a name that begs to be re-used) began serializing his novel The Life and Adventures of Sir Launcelot Greaves in a monthly magazine he had just launched. Fast-forward a few decades; in the 19th century, serialization became quite the thing. Charles Dickens first published all of his novels dickensserially, from The Pickwick Papers (begun in 1837) through Our Mutual Friend, the last one he completed (published in 1864–65). Wilkie Collins did it; Henry James did it. joyceEven James Joyce did it, publishing Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man serially (1914–15) and doing it again with Ulysses (1918–20).

Fast-forward again. The new serial forms of the 20th century, in particular the TV series, were for the most part simple, morally unambiguous, and open-ended. How hard was it to star trekdrop into any of the Star Trek shows and find your footing? It did matter a little what happened along the way, as with Dallas (1978–91), or at least at the end, as with The Fugitive (1963–67); the ravening desire to learn who shot J.R. infiltrated a ballet audience I was part of one night. But to be snooty about it—which I can do because I watched some of that stuff myself—these were pretty shapeless tales, which as much as anything else satisfied a compulsion for repetition.

Eventually, the idea of doing more and better dawned on the creators of TV shows. Since sometime in the 90s, the most ambitious of these men and women have been charting the path of characters, situations, and themes across multiple story arcs (episode, season, entire run) and employing what writer Steven Berlin Johnson concisely called “complex, multithreaded storytelling.”

Writing in the mid-naughts, Johnson was describing sophisticated and elaborate TV programs such as The Sopranos and Lost. These shows get serious attention in academia. Mad Men, for instance,mad men inspired an excellent book of critical essays, link and also a blog from the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. link They’re among the popular entertainments that Johnson wrote about in his 2005 book, Everything Bad Is Good for You, which argued that the best TV series and video games don’t dull your mind but cultivate it. In a way, these shows are the new novels.

Almost all of them have been hour-long dramas, although New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum recently made a strong case for including HBO’s 30-minute comedy Sex and the City among the pathbreakers. link They’ve mostly been on cable, not broadcast networks, in part because the FCC’s onerous constraints, sex and the cityintended to keep the public airwaves clean enough not to shock time travelers from Dickens’s era, don’t apply to cable networks.

One thing about the novelistic shows—and other successful TV series—might be recognizable to the Victorians: their delivery. The tale is told first in serial installments, which are then gathered into a whole. In Victoria’s time, serialized novels were gathered into books; in our time, TV shows are collected into boxes of DVDs or Blu-ray disks. The main difference is that with TV the process repeats for subsequent seasons. (Sadly, if there’s no second season, there’s typically no DVD release either. AMC’s fine conspiracy drama, Rubicon, is now gone unless you’re willing to use “enhanced acquisition techniques”—that is, downloading a torrent file.)

I don’t want to read a novel as if it were a TV show, in weekly nibbles across a long span of time. I don’t even want to watch TV—the better shows, that is—on TV, in bits and bites. (No doubt the challenge of keeping track of things for months is part of what’s good for you, but I’m lazy.) Charles McGrath tipped me to an alternative with a 2006 article in The New York Times, in which he reported discovering that “DVD…seems the best way to watch any of the new, extended-plotline series: not just ’24,’ but also ‘Lost,’ ‘Alias’ and ‘The Wire.’” But the value of this didn’t register with me until early 2010, when a former colleague in the TV business persuaded me I had to watch Mad Men. For a few weeks as its disks came and went in the mail, my head was dizzy with the developments in Mad Men’s first two seasons, which had taken nearly a year and a half to reach cable viewers.

Even better than DVDs is Netflix streaming. (Other sources exist, but Netflix is tops in my book.) This is bingeing par excellence. No fussing with disks; just push a few buttons and away you go. Netflix is so sure you’ll want to watch multiple episodes that it keeps ’em coming—you have to tell it to stop. This is very modern, except that it’s exactly what happens when you pick up a novel. I saw the first four seasons of Breaking Bad this way; I think it took me about 10 days.

Tradition dies hard; until this year, TV always parceled out its series at one-week intervals. That changed on February 1, when Netflix released 13 episodes of House of Cards all at once. It was popular and also well-regarded; the show earned nine Emmy nominations. house of cardsOther Netflix streaming productions earned four more. At last, conditions were right for a serious-minded, novelistic TV drama to be released as though it really were a novel: in one piece. I watched the whole batch over the course of four days; some viewers saw it all within about 24 hours. It left us hungry for more. Luckily, there will be at least one further season of House of Cards.

A final thought: The Netflix House of Cards was based on a BBC mini-series of the same name. And what was it based on? A novel.

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Apollo’s Girl

August 18, 2013


Elysium: One Hell of a Ride

Director Neill Blomkamp, who swallowed CGI whole in one prodigious gulp in large_district9his mid-teens, went on to deploy his mastery with a series of advertising and dramatic short films, and with the serio-comic feature District 9 in 2009. It skewered South Africa’s heritage of apartheid and economic inequality with marvelously homely aliens as the underdogs, and starred Blomkamp’s former employer (producer Sharlto Copley) copley district 9as a mousey bureaucrat-cum-hero who finally stands to deliver them from unspeakable earthly cruelties.  What made it special was Blomkamp’s  unswerving commitment to its reflection of  realpolitik, balanced by his delight in messing about with effects. So it was an originalsci-fi with a purpose, heart, mind, and tongue in cheek. 

Attention was paid by the critics and increasingly by the studios, impressed by its ballooning profit margin. Although finding accurate current totals is something of a slippery slope, there is general agreement that District 9 cost about 30 million dollars, and has made some several hundred million since its initial release.  Of course opportunity knocked. The question was: what would Blomkamp do next?

Behold Elysium! It’s bigger, bolder, and a tad less original than District 9, with bonafide international stars (Matt Damon, Jodie Foster) and again Sharlto Copleythis time as a copleytruly larger-than-life incarnation of purest villainy.  But Blomkamp’s ideas still drive the story, with the haves and have-nots playing out a familiar (and wholly plausible) economic scenario in the not-too-distant future. What keeps it above the heavy-handed action category is partly Damon’s radiant goodness (and the evil duo of Foster and Copley), but even more the evidence of Blomkamp’s passionate love for special effects. Not just the sets, but especially for the shuttles that constantly whiz from Earth (dying of pollution and poverty) to the space station (Elysium) where the 1% live, seemingly forever, in perfect control. The shuttles, from sleek capsules blomkampon scheduled runs, to rogue rustbelt wonders a hair’s breadth from crashing and burning, are Blomkamp’s favorite toys.  And he really knows how to play with them so we just can’t quit the game. Although Elysium is closer to a comic book spirit than its predecessor (it is, after all, a studio film), Blomkamp’s heart remains in the right place.  Let’s hope it stays there…

Cinema of Resistance: Film Society of Lincoln Center

This is an extraordinarily well-curated series that will run from August 28 through September 3 at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Center. As an antidote to the current avalanche of worldly woes on every side, and the exhaustion and anomie it produces, it focuses on specific conflicts that sparked real opposition and, eventually, peace.  Of course there were lessons to be learned (most urgently that those who forget history are destined to repeat it). But they were decades ago. So perhaps its subtitle should be Lest We Forget.

far fromOne cause for celebration is a newly restored print of Far From Vietnam, shown at the New York Film Festival in 1967. A collaborative film by some very big names (Jean-Luc Godard, Joris Ivens, William Klein, Claude Lelouch, Chris Marker, Alain Resnais and Agnés Varda), it explodes with the anguish of the long, long war, but also revealsin a raucous sequence shot in New Yorkwhat it was like to be here when people not only took to the streets to protest, but participated in only-in-New York screaming matches of raw vitriol and principle en route.  This landmark movie hasn’t a frame of exhaustion or anomie to its name.

By way of comparison, Icarus Films is offering Far From Afghanistanafghanistananother collaborative film–that’s right here, right now, featuring the longest war in US history and how it has impacted both the occupiers and the occupied; there are no winners this time around, nor is the end truly in sight. No one is taking to the streets these days, and most of the contention is behind closed doors in Congress. Lessons not learned…Andre Gregory stars.

20 in aures 2rene vautierOne of the series’ rediscoveries is René Vautier’s haunting To Be 20 in the Aurès, a fiction film from 1972. The French did not give Algeria its independence until 1962, and then only after years of violence that targeted both the colony and the French capital. A long, hard look at how the French treated their subjects, To Be 20 follows a unit of pacifists from Brittany who are conscripted to fight abroad, with bitter results. But it rises far above the army buddy genre familiar to Americans because the soldiers are both occupiers and colonists. Their suffering is 20 in aures 1balanced by their contempt for the Algerians they oppose. Yet the Algerians have inherited a culture of which the French know next to nothing; the desert is punctuated with ancient ruins and pictographs that beg for contemplation that never comes. The entire cast (including Alexandre Arcady and a young Phillipe Léotard) is outstanding. Don’t miss it!

For a complete schedule for Cinema of Resistance: screenings

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