Friday, December 23, 2005

Nip/Tuck: The End of Year Three

Nip/Tuck is a show that always entertains, but rarely rises to the level of great television. It's a show that despite being for "mature audiences" is at times very immature. It's so concerned with shocking the audience that it frequently sacrifices narrative integrity. In theory a neo-nazi forcing someone to cut off a transgendered man's penis is pretty shocking, but in reality, it doesn't even come close to minor scenes on Six Feet Under, such as Ruth slapping Claire in the season premiere of year five. It's because the Six Feet Under shocks are rooted in our knowledge of the characters rather than societal taboos. So, Kit and Quentin having a semi-incestuous relationship barely registers, whereas Billy's awkward confession of love to Brenda at the end of year three is disturbing because it's happening to people we really care about.

I'd compare it to telling a story in real life. There are some stories that are hilarious and work just as anecdotes, regardless of whether you know the people. Then there's some stories that work in a specific circle, but just bomb when you tell it to strangers. It's because you inevitably care more about events that happen to people you know, and I feel like the Six Feet Under or Buffy characters are the equivalent of friends or family, whereas the people from Nip/Tuck are people you see occasionally, but don't know that well. So, they need this outrageous stuff to make up for the fact that you don't really care about the characters.

The only really strong emotional bond I care about on the show is between Christian and Kimber, and the scene with them in the hospital is heartbreaking because we see Christian completely open emotionally, getting rejected and hurt by Kimber. It's tough to watch, depriving you of the hero role we were hoping for Christian. Christian is always interesting, it's the McNamaras who frequently induce boredom or disinterest.

The episode as a whole played pretty well, the carver revelation wasn't particularly shocking, though the "He has no penis" thing was pretty funny, largely because the way she delivered the line sounded exactly like Bill Murray's delivery of "Yes it's true, this man has no dick" in Ghostbusters. I think the odd thing about the show is that it should in theory be about ultra glamourous, slick people, and that's when it works, but they constantly bring in these grotesque images, as if inducing guilt for enjoying the beautiful. Being a huge fan of Wong Kar-Wai, I'm partial to beautiful people in stylish environments suffering, and the constant nasty images get a bit annoying after a while.

The most striking thing about the episode for me was just how sadistic it was. This season, they've done a bunch of intercutting parallel scenes, advancing them simultaneously. It's something that has potential, but usually doesn't work. In the previous episode, it made no sense to disrupt the drama of Sean and Julia's discussion of the baby by intercutting it with the story of two people who had only just appeared in this episode. Here, parallels are presented between the ordeal that Matt goes through and the ordeal that Sean and Christian undergo. This makes narrative sense, the intercut climax was used brilliantly by Lucas in Empire and Jedi to build tension in each narrative line, however here the effect is something different.

So much time is spent on this graphic torture that it really crosses the line into emotional sadism towards the audience. There's definitely merit in making the audience uncomfortable, but these scenes dwell in those emotions for so long that I became numb to them and started to view it solely as a bizarre act of vengeance on the characters that they'd created. It was like they hated them so much, they wanted them to suffer this prolonged torture with no apparent narrative purpose.

Now, I'm a huge fan of both suffering characters and torture in films. Oldboy is one of my favorite movies, but there it was done with style, to build the narrative stakes, here it was so prolonged, it became an end in itself. In a film, you're not as attached to the characters, so the torture is more removed, but here they've been with these people for three years, it felt odd to put them through this awful ordeal. It's similar to the feeling I got from 'That's My Dog' in Six Feet Under, it's just this unnecessary punishment on the character.

So, the show enters season four with something of a return to the status quo, and once again leaves this season's year long guest stars off on their own, liberated from the chaos they wreaked on the lives of McNamara/Troy. This was definitely the show's weakest year, though this episode basically cleared the deck, and moved us into a new status quo for next year, or rather an old status quo, the same one the show had when it began. What's to come next year? Who knows, I'll watch, but it's not a situation where I really care. As long as Christian and Kimber give it a go, there'll be something worth watching.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Great Films

This Sunday's New York Times had an interesting article on the disappearance of stunningly bad movies, with the idea that the disappearance of colossal failures has also led to a decrease in the amount of truly great movies, leaving us with a bunch of good, but uninspiring movies. This is something I'd definitely agree with, especially coming off one of the weakest years in American cinema in a long time.

There were two American movies that I loved this year. I saw a lot of good movies, but only two really imprinted on my consciousness, and both were incredibly ambitious, frequently critically maligned films: Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith and Domino. Sith did get generally good reviews, but at the same time, the negative reviews were filled with a venom, sheer emotional expression that you couldn't find in a good review for a film like Good Night and Good Luck. Domino was really hated on, cited as a nadir for cinema. I really wanted to see a film that could provoke such strong reactions and I was not disappointed by the film, I think it's pushing the so called MTV style to its limits, creating a film were the narrative is secondary to the editing. It's practically an avant garde film, taking a fairly standard narrative and transforming it into this visual art object.

These were two films that did new things with the medium and had a startling level of ambition. Sith was about the destruction of the universe, and the complete breakdown of one man's life. It's a massive movie reaching so high that obviously some people are going to say it fails. It's not safe, and the basic problem with so many of the prestige movies coming out now is that they're safe, they distance themselves from the audience, showing us events, rather than really engaging the viewer in what's going on.

One of the big problems with a lot of the big movies coming out at the end of this year is that they're set in the past. I've got no problem with the occasional period film, but the fact that seven out of ten best picture nominees at the Golden Globes are set in the past is a bit excessive. There's a lot of issues with doing period films, most notably the fact that it's often difficult to emotionally engage with the people in these films. Frequently, they're so caught up with issues from that era that it becomes hard to relate with the characters as people, and in the case of films based on historical events, we already know everything that's going to happen. So, a film like Good Night and Good Luck is entertaining, but you're never really caught up in things emotionally because you already know what's going to happen.

The other major problem with that film is that there's too much emotional distance between the audience and the characters. The film looks good, but the filmmaking isn't used to draw the audience into the characters' minds. I would point to Irreversible as the ultimate example of the filmmaker's choices making the audience feel the events. The film wouldn't have the power that it does if the character was a stationary observer. The medium's power is in its ability to engulf the audience in events.

When I watch the films that I truly love, there's always a moment where I sit up and just smile because the film is so perfect there, you can't help but be overwhelmed. It's not even happy moments that do this, in 2046, the scene on the train where Faye stands on the train and titles show time passing, I was just in awe of the moment, the emotional impact overwhelming there. Similarly, in Domino, the end of the film when the casino is blowing up and Keira is firing two machine guns, it's so excessive and over the top, you can't help but smile. And watching the end of Revenge of the Sith, I had a huge smile on my face because the ending was perfect.

In a film like Good Night, Mystic River, countless others, they receive huge critical acclaim and awards, but there's no real excitement there. Clint Eastwood was hailed for making sturdy, classical films, implying that this new style is bad. The medium has changed a lot, I would argue for the better, but it's the fact that people make such crappy films that gives fast editing and moving camera a bad name. A film like Mystic River is good, but it doesn't even try to be great. To be great a movie needs more than just good performances and story, you need good filmmaking too. Now, good filmmaking need not be showy. Watching a film by Kim Ki-Duk, you can see a restrained style, but the way he frames shots gives them a huge amount of meaning and beauty. There's an emphasis on using the frame as a way of commenting on the characters, and you just don't get that in the weak prestige films.

And this gets back to the issue of making really bad movies. A film like Mystic River is safe because there's no personal investment, it started as a book, was turned into a screenplay by someone else and then directed by another person. Who's film is that? Can you really call it a Clint Eastwood film when all he did is direct it, and poorly I might add. Same for Milliion Dollar Baby, it's the product of so many people, there's no real emotional investment.

I've talked about this before, but why is it acceptable in films to make stories that aren't your own? It's absolutely ridiculous. Of the ten films nominated for best picture at the Golden Globes, only two aren't adapted from something else. There are two original screenplays, which is absolutely ridiculous. Why would you want to tell someone else's story? In some cases, it is worth doing because you such a passion for the material. Domino is a film where Tony Scott clearly loved the material and that's why he made it, and at the same time, his movie made great use of the medium, not jus telling the story, but truly making it into something that could only be done in film. But does anyone really care about Mrs. Henderson Presents, or was it just a case of someone looking at the demographics and thinking it had a chance of making money.

If you're making someone else's story, there's almost always a loss of quality because it's a second generation piece. You have to fit the story into the constraints of a film, rather than building a film that will use those constraints to its advantage. Look at a film like 2046, this is a movie where the creator is clearly totally emotionally invested in it, and that results in a passion and beauty far exceeding nearly any other film released this year.

Getting back to the first point, all great movies have a leap of faith moment, when they attempt something risky that could either take the film to a higher plane or end up getting laughed at. Magnolia is a film that's hugely ambitious and certainly had the potential to bomb horribly. There's a moment about two hours into the film where all the characters sing along to 'Wise Up,' an extremely risky move that could come off utterly ridiculous, but in the film, it completely works and winds up as one of the film's greatest moments. It's that creative risktaking that makes the film so powerful, and when you compare Magnolia to a film like Mystic River, Mystic River seems laughably pathetic. The epic grandeur, scope, filmmaking and emotion dwarf the "well told" story of Mystic River.

Saying that filmmakers should stick to the "classical" template that Eastwood was so praised for is absolutely absurd. The painting from the Renaissance might have been good, but is anyone saying that we should just try to replicate that style. No, things have moved on and the medium has evolved. So has film, and to try to lock it into a boring template is weak. To be honest, I too would rather see a film that aims for the stars and ends up falling short than something that just plays it safe. Sith may be more flawed than a lot of films, but it does so much good stuff, it makes up for it.

Even in my own work, Ricky Frost is pretty good storywise, but it's the filmmaking that hopefully makes it into a successful film. It's the use of music and strong images that make it more than just a teen angst story. We could have told it in the classical style, but by juxtaposing images, dialogue and music we made an engrossing film.

It may be tough to work within the system and produce an original work, but even if you have a standard story, use the filmmaking to make it extraordinary, like Domino did, or to push the emotions to an apocalyptic level, as Magnolia did. The whole world might have been at stake in Narnia, but that didn't engage me as much emotionally as did the lives of nine people in the Valley in Magnolia.