Saturday, August 20, 2005

Running a Film Series

This summer, Jordan and I ran a film series at the local library. We used the projector from LMC-TV, and back at the beginning of the summer chose eight films to show people. I was expecting to get a twenty or thirty year old demographic, and chose the films accordingly. Also, one of the points of the thing was that there was a discussion afterwards, so we chose films that would be conducive to discussion.

Once the screenings started it became apparent that we were not getting the younger demographic. At the vast majority of screenings, we had people who were basically fifty and up. And in a lot of cases, the films we had programmed were not in line with their tastes.

The screening that went the worst was when we showed Safe, the 1995 Todd Haynes film. This was a film I loved, and hadn't heard about until this year, so I figured it was the perfect film to show and get more exposure for. However, the film is apparently glacially paced. It's not fast, but I didn't really notice any dragging, however at this screening, we had four old people in attendance and apparently they felt watching the film was not a good use of the time they had left on this Earth and an hour and a half into the film, one of them said "I can't take it anymore" and walked out. So, this was a low point.

However, the next week we were screening Oldboy. I was anticipating a lot of awkwardness, but this one went really well. We actually got a younger audience for this film, about ten people, and it hit the audience exactly as intended, getting a huge gasp at the revelatory moment at the end of the film, as well as a lot of "Augh"s during the nastier moments.

At Waking Life we got an older audience who were bored by the film, so we stopped it halfway through. They claimed it was too 'college' and left then. But, we did have an interesting discussion, so it was a success on the whole.

Then we screened Fallen Angels, the Wong Kar-Wai film. We had a big audience for this and the movie went over pretty well. People might not have loved it, but there were no walkouts and we had a solid discussion afterwards.'

The last film we were set to show was Irreversible. At the beginning of doing this, I was thinking that we could challenge the audience, show them this really challenging film and push the boundaries of the way people think.

I'd always wondered why TV networks didn't show more challenging program, and why movie studios pushed to make movies more likable. Now I can understand that mentality. Doing these screenings I saw slow paced arty movies fail to connect with an audience, who always seemed bored and on the edge of leaving. As time went on, I was wishing we had shorter films that would go over better with the crowd. I moved away from more challening stuff, and rather than thinking about showing the best film, I wanted to show stuff that would appeal to the audience. It's so easy to say in theory you want to challenge the audience, but when you actually have to sit there with them, it's not so easy.

So, Jordan and I had basically decided we couldn't show Irreversible. It was too graphic and intense for people. But, we arrived there and three people said they were there to see it and wanted us to show it. Unfortunately we also had three old women who thought we were going to show American Beauty. So, we decided to go through with Irreversible, after warning them that it was incredibly intense and that they could feel free to walk out if they needed to. I was expecting the old women to go sometime between the start of the Rectum scene and the scene where Pierre bangs the man's head in with a fire extinguisher. However, they stuck around, and I figured the rape scene would end it for them, but they sat through that.

We reached the end of the film, throughout which there was such palpable awkwardness in the air I couldn't even really enjoy it. I was stunned that the old women had made it through the movie, but they had and the three people who had requested the film liked it. So, it was a success and I had achieved my original goal of challenging people's ideas of film.

We may not have gotten that many people, but at the end of most of the screenings I felt pretty good about how it went, and if we bring it back next year, I think we will program a little differently, some more accessible, quicker paced films that can still challenge the audience. I guess you do sometimes have to make concessions to how the audience feels and not just show what you like.

Tomorrow: Look for my reaction to the final episode of Six Feet Under!

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

TV Status Report

Six Feet Under comes to an end next week, by far the best show on TV right now, at least until The Sopranos comes back. So, with the end of Six Feet Under, there's only a few shows left that I'm still watching.

This fall, I'll be watching 24, Arrested Development, Gilmore Girls and probably Lost, though that show has been so poorly run, I very well might end up dropping it. 24 had its strongest season last year, the show constantly makes me say they can't top what they've done before, and then somehow they do. So, that's a must watch. Arrested Development is one of the funniest series ever, certainly the best American comedy since the glory days of Seinfeld, and I'm really psyched to see where they go with the new season.

Then there's Gilmore Girls. I watched the first five seasons in the spring, and it's a smart, rather addictive show, probably the one I'm most looking forward to seeing new stuff from. Even though 24 is probably a 'better' show in terms of scope and content, Gilmore Girls has me hooked because I need to see what happens to the characters next. That's another show where the most recent season was the best one by far, so it's going to be interesting to see where it goes from here. I always like when shows mess with the status quo and that seems to be what they're doing.

March of next year will bring my most anticipated series, and that's The Sopranos, which finally returns with new episodes. It's been a long break since season five ended, yet another case where the most recent season was the best. The Sopranos gets so much hype, but it deserves it because it's the best made TV series ever. I prefer Buffy or Twin Peaks, but in terms of constructing a layered narrative that builds with each season, no show can top The Sopranos. In each episode of the last season, they did more than most shows can do in a season.

I think I'm different from a lot of TV viewers in that I tend to prefer the later seasons of a show to the early ones. If you look at reviews of the most recent season of Six Feet Under, it's almost a given that the show's first two seasons were the best, and that's the case with a lot of other shows, like Buffy or The Sopranos. In the case of all those series, I would consider the first season the weakest, and the best time of the series falls somewhere near the end.

I will admit that in the case of Six Feet Under, the plotting is definitely better at the beginning of the series. The revelation of Brenda's past, with the Charlotte Light and Dark book is phenomenal stuff, and would seem to be more interesting than the later years, when the plot is scaled back. However, if you go back and watch an episode from the first season, then watch a current episode, there's a huge difference and that's in the history, what the characters have been through. In the current season, each event has so much more impact because it ties in with what the characters have already been through, so, even if nothing's happening, we know so much about the characters that just having them interact is enough to create incredible tension.

Buffy season six is a great example of this. They scaled back the overall threat and let the character arcs play themselves out. It's my favorite season of the series, there's much higher emotional conflict than in the early years because we know so much about what everyone has already been through.

Basically what I'm saying is, in the later years, when you know the characters better, the show is inevitably more interesting, because every interaction has history behind it, and seeing characters you know go through stuff is more interesting than seeing new people go through stuff. The only time a show goes bad in the later years is if it ignores the character arcs, as Buffy season seven did, or more notably the abhorrent X-Files season 8 and 9.

So, I checked out the first episode of the new Showtime series Weeds, about a widowed mother who sells marijuana to support her children. It stars Mary Louise Parker, who's one of my favorite actresses. She was great on The West Wing, and was the highlight of the great miniseries Angels in America. So, I was expecting good things.

Unfortunately, the show just felt a bit too much like an ordinary sitcom. It's dressed up with attitude, and the characters all go a lot further than people on your average family sitcom would, but at its core, it's got the same beats. I guess I was expecting something a bit darker, more of a The Office style very dark comedy, and this just isn't that.

That said, I enjoyed the episode, Mary Louise Parker was great, and I certainly don't mind spending a half hour watching her, but the rest of the cast were overacting and didn't seem that real. I guess I'm so used to the Arrested Development/The Office documentary style comedy it's tough to adjust to this. But, I'll give it another couple of episodes, because the premise is great and has a lot of potential.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Six Feet Under: 'Static'

Wow. That was an incredibly powerful episode, I'm not sure if it's the weight of five years of backstory, the knowledge that everything's coming to an end, or that it was just a really well written episode, but that was one of the most powerful episodes in the show's entire run, and a great return to dramatic heights after the slight dip that was last week's episode. This was an episode that right from the beginning had me completely enraptured, and in the final scene, I needed more. Alas, that will have to wait another week.

The most powerful thing for me here was the way they used Nate. He basically has become the new Nathaniel, though I'm almost positive we'll be seeing some of Nate Sr. next week. The glimpse of Nate during the birth was the most effective scene, I'm not sure what it was, but that image of him there was incredibly powerful. The other really great use of Nate was when he's telling Brenda to just go ahead and be with Billy.

That part of the episode was my favorite. Brenda and Billy, along with Nate, have always been my favorite characters on the show, and I loved the boundary challenging dynamic between Brenda and Billy, they both love each other so much, but have to be self conscious about it, particularly after Billy crossed the boundary and confessed to loving Brenda as more than a brother a few seasons ago. I love the shot of Brenda in the elevator, and then Nate's speech to her makes some valid points in terms of her psyche. Would she really hurt anyone by living with Billy? The scene where the two of them are together in his room was so incredibly tense, and I'm a bit disappointed it turned out to be a dream, just because it was such an emotionally challenging scene for the characters.

Still, it works because it's not just there to tease the audience, it's Brenda working through the boundaries in her head. In theory, she could just run away with Billy, but when she actually thinks about it, she can't go through with it. For years, Brenda has used Billy as a crutch, an excuse for why her relationships fail. So, it would make sense that she would feel like she's destined to end up with Billy. But it's not what she needs, and to live that life would be not only wrong on a laws of nature level, it would also prevent her from giving her daughter the chance for a normal life. So, when she tells Billy to move out, she reasserts her independence, and moves him back into the uncle role, as opposed to being a father to her daughter.

I was torn on the issue of Maya because both Brenda and Ruth have a right to her, and could raise her well, but who would be better for her, and who really needs her? I love the scene in the doctor's office where George says "She's all Ruth has," with such force that we understand to take away Maya would leave Ruth with only the pain of her loss. But at the same time, we see Maya running to Brenda, the woman she considers her mother, and to keep a child from her mother wouldn't be right. It's definitely a conundrum.

Claire's meltdown early in the episode was great dramatically, and I really liked the way it was shot. I think they have the self righteous liberal anger down exactly. I did find it a bit odd that Claire would be so angry about Nate's death, they were close, but not to the point that losing him would throw her entire life into turmoil. I think it's more the fact that Claire is made acutely aware of her own mortality, much like David was. She sees Nate go from completely healthy to dead in one day, and she's forced to address the fact that she's basically lost her purpose in life, and as a result, she loses herself in drink and drugs, not unlike at the end of season four when she went on a coke binge during her art show.

So, Claire ends up hurting the people in her life, alienating Ted and ultimately crashing her car. So much of her identity was tied up in that green hearse, I think its destruction is going to provide a chance for Claire to redefine herself, she'll no longer be carrying the baggage of her upbringing around everywhere she goes.

David faces a similar problem as Claire, but it's mixed in with his fear about losing his kids, which drives him sort of insane. The opening scene with David and the radio had me freaked out, as did the limbless corpse. David, despite his long quest to adopt, is still not in the mindset of having kids, nor is Brenda for that matter. Ruth serves as the archetypal mother on this show, someone who put her life aside for her kids, but David is unable to keep his problems under wraps and instead brings them to his interaction with the kids. On some level this may be healthier, because Ruth became so repressed she was unable to function once she was no longer in the role of mother. But, she makes her view of parenting clear when she says that she would never give her kid away to someone else.

I really liked George in this episode, he seems to view raising Maya as the chance to make up for the problems he had with his own kids. He becomes the good guy, which made Maggie seem a bit harsh in the scene where she rails at him. I hope this isn't it for Maggie, I feel like we need a bit more resolution with her. I'm still wondering if Brenda is going to tell people the fact that Nate broke up with her on his death bed. I don't think anyone else knows that but her.

The other plot I really liked in this episode was Rico's story. For the first couple of seasons, it seemed like every Rico plot involved him being mad at the Fishers for treating him poorly, and that returns here, but this time Rico is in a much different position. With Nate gone and David crazy, Rico is able to step into a leadership role and Vanessa takes over Nate's role as the person who knows the right thing to say to those who are grieving. If Rico leaves to buy his own funeral home, would that mean the end of Fisher and Sons. On one level, that would be an appropriate end for the series, but I'd rather see Rico take over the Fishers' funeral home. It would make sense that Rico, the only person who actually wanted into the business, would end up running things.

Considering there's one episode left, I'm still really unsure how it's all going to end. I was expecting David to end up in a happy family, but now he's losing it, and he may be too far gone to bring it back in one episode, especially considering the scene between him and Keith in the promo. Then there's still the issue of Roger and the 'blowjob video' mentioned last episode, though I'm thinking that's just there to explain the fact that Keith was basically whoring himself to Roger. I'm thinking that David may go on some kind of vision quest type thing, encounter the afterlife, much like Claire in season three's finale, and then come back to Keith, refereshed and ready to be a family again. I also think he'll end up leaving the funeral business. So, the last image I see is of him and Keith still struggling, but on the road to happiness.

As for Brenda, I think her baby will make it. Alan Ball has been tough on the characters, but I don't think he'd be so brutal as to kill Brenda's baby three episodes after her husband died. As for her ultimate fate, I'm really not sure, it would make sense to put her in the role of single mom caring for two kids, to show how much she's changed over the course of the series, but to end with her in a family also might be a little too happy for Ball. Alternatively, he could have Brenda lose her baby, leave Maya with Ruth and just leave, to start a new life.

Claire has no obvious ending in sight. It would be trite to have her resolve her issues in one episode, I don't see her winding up with Ted at the end of the series, so I'd imagine she's on her own, and maybe she goes back to the art, indicating to us that she's back on the path she belongs.

I'm almost positive Rico and Vanessa are going to open a funeral home, the only real question is whether it's the Fishers' or the other one. If Rico does take over the Fisher home, I could see Ruth and George going off to live somewhere else, and Ruth finally leaving behind the role of mother. Of course, if she does take in Maya, then she could stay at Fisher and Sons and once again have the purpose she lost as her kids grew up.

So, it's wide open. I'm glad the finale is 75 minutes, because there's still a lot to do, and I'm hoping that Alan Ball brings out some of the crazy symbolic dream stuff his episodes are known for.

It's always weird watching the end of a series. On one level, I can't wait to see what happens in the next episode, but once I do, there's the sadness of knowing there will never be new adventures for the Fisher family. Very few series are so close to my sensibilities, with serial character based storytelling and lots of dream imagery.

I feel like I know the characters so well and watching this episode I would find myself yelling at the characters, cringing as they did things I knew they'd regret and feeling sad when they were. That's great storytelling, and it's the sort of thing that only long form television storytelling can do. I'll give more of the post mortem next week, but for now, I can't wait for next Sunday and at the same time, when watching that last episode, I'm going to wish that it'll never end.