Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Gilmore Girls: 'I Get a Sidekick Out of You' (6x19)

This season's primary focus has been long festering disagreements between characters, in which neither will budge to admit their fault and reconcile. In the first part of the season it was Lorelai and Rory, neither of whom would reach out to each other, and thus let their disagreement linger for much longer than it should. After they resolved things, new problems emerged, most notably Lorelai's issues with Luke.

Even though the two of them aren't actually together in the episode, their issues underline everything that occurs. For Lorelai, the happiness Lane has on her wedding day is cutting, magnifying her insecurities about the overall direction of her life. The opening comedy bit, with Mrs. Kim implying she'd be seen as a hooker, plays on this, and even though she jokes about it, you can tell that it really bothers Lorelai.

Even though things go bad later, the first chunk of the episode had some pretty funny stuff. The funniest line was definitely "Your daughter's about to see Richard Gere's penis," though the whole bachelor/bachelorette party bit was a bit too consciously quirky. I'm not a big fan of the characters in the town, and it's a bit odd that Lorelai would be in change of Lane's bachelorette party. But, she is the star of the show, so I guess you've just to accept it.

Throughout the whole run of the show, Christopher has been an omnipresent force in Lorelai's life, and the way he's been perceived has fluctuated. In season five he was used as a heel, placed between the true love between Luke and Lorelai. However, back in season two, you're set up to really like him, and when he finds out that Shari is pregnant, it's devestating. The episodes that closed the season were some of the series' best, and the loss that Lorelai had then, of the chance to finally form a "traditional" family clearly lingers.

This season, Christopher has been used as a contrast to Luke, who's been very evasive and avoidy in his relationship with Lorelai. Because Christopher has hurt her so many times before, he's very conscious of the fact that he needs to treat her well, and he's become a much more likable character as a result. if Lorelai does have some kind of breakdown with Luke, Christopher is likely the person she'd go to to talk about it.

At the wedding, Lorelai and Christopher are again put in the role of a couple, and the unspoken idea is that what Lane and Zach have is what Lorelai and Christopher should have had. Chris makes this clear when he says "They've still got time to mess it up," even the best relationship can be destroyed through a bad deed, or inaction.

And for Luke and Lorelai, it's that inaction that's dooming them. Last week, Emily yelled at Lorelai, telling her to talk to Luke about April, but she already knew she had to do this and hasn't. Neither her nor Luke will budge and that's destroying their relationship. When Lorelai finds out that Rory met April, it makes things even worse. The previous week, Emily made a concerted effort to reach out to the girl she thought was Luke's daughter, something that Lorelai never did, and Lorelai can't really criticize Rory for having contact with April, it's only Lorelai's issues that make it wrong.

So, all this bad stuff leads up to her disastrous toast. This was a really tough scene to watch, since she's so clearly saying stuff she shouldn't say, and you're just stuck there watching her fall deeper and deeper into her own problems, threatening to ruin Zach and Lane's happiness with her own issues. They don't seem to be bothered too much, but for Christopher and Rory, it's disturbing to see Lorelai like that.

At this point in her life, she's lost so many relationships, and there was the sense that Luke was the ultimate destination, the one guy who really loved her and with whom she had no problems. However, it's become clear that they do have some major issues, and if things don't work out with Luke, she feels like that's the final proof of her inadaquecy in building relationships.

In doing a long form series, you're bound to repeat certain plots. Lorelai couldn't get married to Max in season one, or to Christopher in season two, but because the Palladinos continually use marriage as a way to build the importance of storylines, you're bound to end up with a lot of broken engagements. So, rather than running from that, they use it as Lorelai's character flaw, it's not that the series structure won't allow her to be married, it's her own problems that cause this, and thus, the plotting is turned into a character flaw, and can then be interrogated within the narrative. So, a potential weakness is turned into a strength. It's the same thing that Joss Whedon did with season six of Buffy, where all the character flaws that were under the surface came to a head and caused major problems.

Lorelai's problems aren't quite on Buffy season six level yet, but there's definitely the possibility of things going there. She's got major issues, and seems unwilling to reach out to Luke to resolve them. I'm hoping that next week's episode picks up where this one ended and we get to see Christopher and Lorelai review the events of the wedding. If he's aware of just how bad things are with Luke, it could give Christopher hope that he could finally get together with Lorelai, and if Luke didn't work out, he'd certainly be her top option. As the toast shows us, Lorelai is clearly lonely and that could drive her back to Christopher.

Even though I'm really liking Lorelai's breakdown storyline I do find it odd how the entire narrative of the series has been altered this season. Everything seemed to be leading up to Luke and Lorelai getting together, the seeds of the relationship have been there since the beginning, and Luke's realization that he was in love with her at season four was one of the best moments of the series. So, what happened to change things for him?

On one level, it's the need to keep the series going, but within the world of the story, we've got something of a Nate/Brenda season five dynamic. Luke always knew he loved Lorelai, so he didn't allow any other relationships to progress, assuming that when he did get together with Lorelai, then he could settle down. However, like Nate, he got together with her and is now realizing that the problems might actually be with his own independence. He's not ready for a relationship, hence the use of April as a way to get out of committing to Lorelai.

I do think that we need to explore more from Luke's perspective. It's possible that he resents Lorelai for pushing him away during the Rory exile period, and is now punishing Lorelai for doing that. It's unclear what he's thinking, he must have some idea of what keeping April from Lorelai is doing.

I'm psyched to see the last three episodes. Things seem to be headed for a major meltdown and that's always interesting to watch.

Lost Highway

Lost Highway marks a critical turning point in David Lynch's oevure, moving towards an even more abstract narrative structure than he used in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. FWWM, Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive all tell very similar stories, chronicling their protagonists' acceptance fo death. In FWWM, we see a clear delineation between reality and other worlds, Laura quite literally walks througha picture, out of our world and into the alternate reality of the black lodge.

Lost Highway features less overt weirdness than FWWM, the film that sees Lynch engage in his most purely abstract filmmaking since Eraserhead. You could watch most scenes from Lost Highway and get the impression that this is a fairly normal movie. However, the narrative is a radical departure from what he'd done before. Lynch's movies always took place in a slightly askew universe, but usually proceeded through a fairly standard narrative structure. Lost Highway throws out traditional ideas of narrative by placing the film entirely within the mind of the protagonist. In Mulholland Drive, the finaly forty or so minutes of the film seem to exist in an objective reality, even if we're still experiencing Diane's perception, it's her direct perception of real events, rather than a fantasy construction.

In Lost Highway, everything in the film is a subjective experience, seen through the lens of Fred's mind as he's being electrocuted. The critical line in the film is when the Mystery Man says that "In the East, the Far East, when a person is sentenced to death, they're sent to a place where they can't escape, never knowing when an executioner will step up behind them and fire a bullet into the back of their head." So, the entre film we're watching is waiting for the bullet, with Fred constructing elaborate scenarios to escape from death, only to find that he can keep running, but death will always catch up.

When the film starts, we're watching a fairly close approximation of his actual life. He's married to Renee, but is deeply suspicious of her. The film has a very deliberate pace at the beginning, and in a few spots is a little bit too slow. However, I do love the scene where he's playing the sax, the strobing lights and wildness of his playing set up the fact that his mental state is a little bit off. The performance scenes in Lynch films are almost always a highlight, and this one is strong even though it doesn't have the emotional pull of Club Silencio or Dorothy singing "Blue Velvet."

This first chunk of scenes sets up that Fred and Renee are rather distant from each other, barely speaking and not engaging emotionally with each other at all. Things start to pick up when the videotapes turn up. Fred says that he doesn't like videotapes because he prefers to remember things how he remembers them, not how they actually were. This pretty accurately sums up the film itself, rather than admit the reality of what he's done, he constructs an elaborate fantasy scenario to distance himself from the horror of what he did. The videotapes are like messages from his conscious, real memories breaking into the fantasy world, and understandably he's freaked out by the videos, because they're puncturing his reality.

His suspicions come to the fore during the party scene. Here, he sees Alice being outgoing and jovial, as opposed to her somber demeanor when she's alone with him. On top of this, Fred encounters the Mystery Man. I love the phone call bit as a cool concept, but it also further elucidates the film's overall plot. The Mystery Man is representative of evil, of sin. So, if the Mystery Man is already in his house, it would imply that he's already committed an act of evil. Considering that the Mystery Man is with him when he commits murder at the end of the film, we can assume that he's sort of an embodiment of evil, who urges people on to do bad things.

Lynch has said that his film takes place in the same universe as Twin Peaks, and that would put the Mystery Man in a similar place as BOB, the entity that possesses Leland and forces him to kill his own daughter. BOB can be thought of either as a supernatural entity, or as the capacity that all men have for evil. So, Leland's own innate problems manifest themselves in this BOB persona. Similarly, the Mystery Man works either as an actual supernatural entity or as a manifestation of Fred's jealousy, urging him to do bad things. He is the evil that men do.

The party brings Fred in touch with his guilt and the reality of what he did. Both the discussion with the Mystery Man and the subsequent discussion with Renee on the way home, in which he tries to find out more about how she met Andy see him getting close to the mindset he was in when he killed her. So, shortly after they get back he wanders into the shadows, and moves closer to reality.

If there is one sequence that takes place in an objective reality, it would be the stuff at the police station where Fred is interrogated and experiences migraines in his cell. You could even argue that the entire film to this point is reality, but I think the Mystery Man and the videotapes would discount that theory. Considering the Mystery Man is the one holding the surveillance camera at the end of the film, the discovery of the videotapes is like a broadcast from his subconscious, disrupting the fantasy world.

The exact nature of the reality of the prison scenes is irrelevant. What is clear is that the fantasy world is breaking down and Fred is moving closer and closer to death. He's sentenced to the electric chair, seemingly with no way out. However, in his migraine haze, he peers up into the light and moves into another world.

What struck me on this viewing was the similarity between this and the Costa Mesa stuff in The Sopranos. Tony also constructs a fantasy world for himself, in which he can live a new life, but that world gradually breaks down, returning him to his real life. Both work use the bright circle of light as a transition betweeen worlds, the lamp in LH and the helicopter searchlight in The Sopranos.

The transition sequence between Fred's story and Pete's is interesting. Pete seems to be literally plucked from his world and moved into the cell. This would imply that Fred had constructed this fantasy persona before, and now he becomes him. However, it could also be read as Fred trying to build up some kind of justification for why Pete is in the cell. Even in this mental realm, certain rules of cause and effect must be obeyed.

Pete is a fictional construction that Fred uses to escape from all the problems he accrued in his adult life. Trapped in a loveless marriage and plagued by jealousy and guilt, he decides to revert to his teenage years and escape all that. The life he builds for himself is interesting, in some respects, Pete is a failure, he's 24, but still lives with his parents. The way I read it, Fred was lonely and decided to construct an identity where he had people who were looking out for him and caring about him. So, this guy who seemed connected with only one person, his wife, builds a world where he's got friends coming over to visit him, parents who look out for him, and a girlfriend who's deeply in love with him.

So, this world seems to be completely removed from who he was before, that is until he encounters Alice, a different version of Renee. Lynch loves to do the blonde hair/dark hair contrast, it turns up in nearly every thing he's done. Alice is an interesting construction because she's simultaneously everything that Fred wanted Renee to be and everything he didn't want her to be. Alice is passionate about Pete, their sex is a major contrast to the pained groping of Fred and Renee. As Pete, Fred is able to recapture the fire he once had, another reason why he chose this younger persona for his reinvention. Clearly there's a fantasy element to this, since both Alice and Sheila are desperate to spend time with him. As the policeman says "This fucker gets more pussy than a toilet seat."

The first time I saw the introduction of Alice, where she walks into the car, backed by Lou Reed's cover of "This Magic Moment," I felt it didn't quite work. The punk or alternative covers of 50s pop songs frequently come across as cheesy, and it's odd that Lynch would choose to use an updated version of a 50s pop song when he's usually interested in contrasting the sordid world of his films with sappy 50s pop songs. But, watching it this time I liked it more. The way he films it makes you see Alice through the eyes of someone who's completely drawn to her. Patricia Arquette's certainly attractive here, but the way it's shot pushes it beyond just the surface.

That scene actually gets to one of the key issues with the film, the idea of male possessiveness. When Pete sees Alice, he views her as an object, a point of view that's Fred's fatal flaw. In creating Alice, Fred flips the dynamic of his actual relationship with her, splitting himself into two people. I already covered Pete, who Fred actually identifies with. However, with Mr. Eddy, we see someone who represents the other side of Fred, all his bad traits.

Considering he murdered his wife, Fred clearly has some anger issues, and in the driving sequence, we see that Eddy has a similarly short fuse. Eddy also has jealousy issues, he's the old guy, who apparently does not satisfy his wife sexually. Fred has all these problems, so he makes his problems into his enemy and constructs a fantasy persona for himself.

However, the very presence of Alice represents a break in the fantasy persona. What started as a total break is gradually returning to the reality of Fred Madison's life. This is accelerated with one of the most striking sequences in the film, Alice's strip at gunpoint. Considering this sequence is seen through Fred's own perception, it's clear that even though he killed her because she was fooling around, on some level he's also turned on by it. That's why he'd construct this elaborate scenario.

The scene simultaneously exonerates Alice and revels in her betrayal. He can justify her adultery by saying that she only did it so save herself, she had no choice, but at the same time, he eroticizes the scenario. It's the Madonna/whore idea, and that's Fred's ultimate downfall. It's likely that what drove him to actually kill her was not so much the actual fooling around, but the fact that he liked to think of her in that way, as an object.

This leads into the phone call sequence with the mystery man and Mr. Eddy. This features the essential "Far East" speech, which basically explains the film. I love the end of the scene where Mr. Eddy says "Pete... I just wanted to jump on and tell you I'm really glad you're doin' okay." It's simultaneously hilarious and menacing.

The objectification continues with the sequence at Andy's house. This is where the film starts to get really good. It's unclear who Andy is in reality, if he's a big porn mogul, or if he's just a guy who Renee was attracted to. That's irrelevant in the overall scheme of things. What Fred does is turn her ambiguous relationship with Andy into this elaborate porn ring.

The porn film loops are quite different from the videos we saw earlier. The videos are clearly shot by the mystery man, on the security camera he's carrying with him. They're as close as we get to objective reality. The porn videos are most likely a construction of Fred's mind. They're omnipresent in his mental world because they're the best evidence of what drove him to kill her. He was always imagining these scenarios and their intrusion in the fantasy world is another indicator that it's about to collapse. Pete seems unphased by their presence, but the very nature of the videos, their extreme sordidness would indicate that they're Fred's ultimate nightmare.

And yet, at the same time he imagines Mr. Eddy, the side of himself that killed her, turned on by the videos, and watching them with Alice. This again ties into his conflict about his feelings, on one level he hates her for making them, but part of him wants to revel in it, and use her sexual exploration as part of their relationship. It's notable that Mr. Eddy and Alice at the video screening are much more passionate than Fred and Renee in their bedroom. That scene can also be read as Fred's ultimate fear, that Renee loves making these videos and having sex with other men, while she won't give him any passion. So, Eddy is another fantasy figure, once again Fred gets to be in sexual control of Alice rather than being pathetically unequipped to please her.

After the business at Andy's house we get my favorite scene in the film, the sex in the headlights. This scene pushes the visuals to an extreme, I love how the characters are virtually white silhouettes against the black background. They move in slow motion, abstracted, to the incredible sounds of This Mortal Coil's "Song to the Siren." I hadn't noticed it before, but the song appears briefly earlier in the film when Fred is first having sex with Renee. So, its presence would indicate the collapse of the fantasy world, once again we get the light motif, the same transition that brought us Pete sends him away, and brings Fred back. It was the rebuilding of the house that allowed Fred to escape himself, but now back at its site, in the presence of the Mystery Man, his guilt, his true self returns.

Alice says "You'll never have me," which is literally true, since she's dead, but also plays on Fred's insecurities. Even though they were married, they weren't connected, he can make these fantasies, but he'll never have the same passion that she had with Andy or Eddy/Laurant. Of course, he can only imagine that passion, so in a sense what she's saying is that the real her will never live up to the mental image of the woman he created. This is an especially apt comment in light of the fact that Alice is an entirely fictional construction.

From here the film takes off into the sort of abstraction that Lynch excels at. I love the idea of the Lost Highway hotel, a stopover for Fred on the journey through his subconscious. Here he sees more distorted images of Renee, and ultimately finds Mr. Eddy. Aided by the Mystery Man, he drags Eddy out into the desert. At this point, Fred has basically accepted his guilt. If we're to take the Mystery Man as a physical embodiment of that guilt, the fact that he's working with him would indicate that he's moved beyond trying to come to terms with the murder and instead is embracing his identity as a killer.

If we're to read Eddy as Fred's own jealous side, then murdering him would seem to lay to rest the trauma surrounding Renee's death. He confronts him with the porn images on the TV, then kills him. The basic point is that Fred has accepted the truth, the fantasy world is crumbling and falling into chaos.

This is partially manifested in the cleanup scenes at Andy's house. Previously we had two seperate sets of cops for Pete and Fred. Now, they're working together, and where once we had two women in the photo, there's now only one. The entire Pete identity has collapsed, and Fred has come to terms with the fact that it was only one woman all along, a further breakdown of the fantasy.

We come full circle when Fred speaks into the intercom. This may be a tie in to the idea of the Far Eastern purgatory, that he will continue in this loop forever, another Fred Madison will hear this message and take the journey one more time, even as this one goes off to death. Either way, it's a nice bit of narrative symmetry leading us into the final scene.

Having accepted guilt for the murder of Renee, and possibly the murder of Andy and Eddy, Fred flees from the police. I'm not sure whether he killed Andy in real life, I would say it's unlikely. He is reluctant to engage with the moment where he actually killed Renee, but he dwells on the death of Eddy and Andy in the dream. So, I would think that's another example of the fantasy construction, this time he gets revenge not only on his wife, but also on the men that she was fooling around with.

And then he's off on the Lost Highway, fleeing the police. Throughout the film we've seen moments of intense light and heat that are used to signal major transitions. The final transition for everyone is death, and here at the end, death comes to Fred Madison. The lighting bolts as he's driving is the charge from the electric chair being pumped through him. He's created this elaborate fantasy scenarios throughout the film to avoid the truth, but now the police are catching up with him, he's got nowhere to go, for him the road has ended.

Lost Highway is an essential Lynch work, paving the way for a film that uses very similar structure and themes, but in a more cohesive, stylish way, and that's Mulholland Drive. Lost Highway is a tougher film to engage with because it's a dirtier film. MD has a sheen, so that even if you don't follow the plot you can enjoy the Hollywood glamour, humor and wacky characters.

Lost Highway is in some ways the least Lynchian of all his films. Most of his movies take place in a world that's slightly askew, usually thrown back towards the 50s. Lost Highway has some over the top characters, but other than the Mystery Man, no one who's weird in the way that the Log Lady or Frank Booth is. It's a much more modern, reality based film, despite taking place entirely in this guy's head.

This modernity actually makes it seem more dated in some ways than a lot of Lynch. Blue Velvet, TP or MD take place in a time warp that's part 50s, part present day, and that makes it timeless. Lost Highway is very tied to 1997, particularly in the soundtrack. This is the only Lynch film to make extensive use of contemporary recordings, I'm not sure if that was a studio choice or his own, but it gives things a different feeling than other Lynch movies. This certainly the most rock Lynch movie, and even though only a small bit of his music was used, the film does have the feel of a Trent Reznor song. I love the typical Angelo Badalamenti Lynch music, but it is good to mix things up. One of the flaws of MD is that it uses so many of Lynch's previous tricks, Lost Highway is much more groundbreaking for him.

In terms of music, besides the afforementioned brilliance of "Song to the Siren," I love the David Bowie track that bookends the film. It fits so well with the image of the lights on the road, and its return at the end creates another piece of symmetry to compliment the "Dick Laurant is dead" repetition. You get the sense that you could start the film again right there and things would still work. I also love the Rammstein tracks, their German vocals lending a bizarre grandeur to the proceedings.

If Lost Highway has a flaw, it's that the pacing is so deliberate the first half of the movie suffers a bit. It's necessary to lay out the themes, but watching it again, I found myself waiting for the cool stuff from the second half, there's not as much visceral entertainment in the first chunk of the film.

But that doesn't stop it from being a great film. This is such a thematically complex film, I love the fact that Lynch won't give a definitive interpretation. I feel like I got the film, but there are other, equally valid interpretations. The film gives you a basic design, and you're allowed to fill in the details for yourself. I'd consider this, Fire Walk With Me and Mulholland a thematic trilogy, and those three films are some of the richest, most complex films ever made. Lynch's subconscious motivated filmmaking creates consistently confounding and demanding narratives, where the film is just the start, the real fun comes afterwards, trying to turn the pieces into your own whole. I love this kind of filmmaking, it makes the typical three act narrative look positively boring, and with the exception of Miike, I can think of no one else who's doing movies that challenge you in this way. Watching the film again has made me even hungrier for Inland Empire, it's been too long since I've had some new Lynch to contemplate.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The Sopranos: 'Live Free or Die' (6x06)

This episode marks the halfway point of the season and the themes are becoming clearer and clearer. The first episode focused primarily on the story of a guy who wants to retire from the mob, and gradually realizes that, for him, there's only one way out. That storyline was clearly meant to be an overture for the entire season, setting out the themes that we'd explore later on, and that main question seems to be, can you get out, or will they always pull you back in?

In this episode we see that idea explored through two seperate storylines, Vito's and Tony's. Vito got the idea that it was basically over for him back in Jersey and decided to make a run for it and try out life somwhere else. Vito is so constricted by the societal restrictions of his world that he literally has no other option. If he stayed, he'd be ridiculed and possibly killed. Now, obviously he made the wrong choice going out to the bar, in his line of work, being spotted at a place like that is a career killer and sooner or later, it was going to catch up with him. However, that doesn't undermine audience sympathy for the character. This episode marks the first time we've seen someone actually leave mob life behind. Christopher has contemplated it on a number of occasions, but Vito is the first to leave Jersey and possibly find a viable life somewhere else.

His flight had a weird quality. Clearly there was some playing with the idea that he was going to crash his car and die, the greasy chicken, cellphone and torrential rain all set us up for the inevitable skid into a pole. But, it's not inevitable and Vito makes it, only to be stranded in the rain. There's some interesting symbolism in Vito's car being destroyed, leaving him with virtually nothing. With the destruction of the car, any easy way to return home is taken away, he has no choice but to stay in this town.

The whole sequence seemed to call back to the Costa Mesa stuff from Tony's dream sequences. In both cases we get someone who's stranded in a strange place with no way out, separated from their usual identity. Vito's walk towards the hotel echoes the end of the Costa Mesa sequence, Tony was not able to go into the hotel and completely remove himself from his identity. However, Vito does enter the hotel, and as the episode progresses, he moves further and further away from who he was.

This town is something of a utopia for Vito. A gay couple isn't considered strange, and the lady at the hotel does him a favor with no expectation of anything in return. By the end of the episode, Vito is liberated enough to walk into the antiques store and no longer mask who he really is. He is a "natural" for the first time in his life.

So, things are looking up for Vito, but on the home front his departure is causing major problems. I liked the way that Tony and his crew found out, another example of the vast gossip circles these gangsters have. It was nice to see another Westchester mention, with this guy from Yonkers playing such a critical role in the episode. I also really like the way the whole thing starts out as something humorous, but as the episode progresses and the full consequence of Vito's sexuality becomes apparent, things turn very serious.

Tony himself is still struggling with reconciling his newfound joy at just being alive with his continually difficult day to day existence. It's something that's nicely expressed in the opening scene, where he is just trying to relax, but the ventilator keeps making noise. And as the episode goes on, he'll have a lot worse noise than the ventilator.

I'm loving the direction that Tony is going in this season. For the entire run of the show, we've had the sense that he's different than the other mobsters, more intellectual and introspective. The shooting put him in an entirely different world for a time, and that has heavily influenced the way he perceives his existence in the present. He no longer accepts the customs of the world, just because they've always been that way, he questions things and that makes it difficult for him to be a mob leader.

His scene with Melfi was one of the best Melfi scenes in the show's entire run, functioning as a forum for Tony to essentially debate himself. Tony is torn between the values that have been culturally instilled in him his whole life and what he actually wants to believe in, but feels he can't. The scene with Meadow is troubling to place because it shows Tony being very much old style Tony. This may be a tie in to Chris's claim back in episode two that Tony takes terrorism very seriously, so he's not willing to give Arabs the benefit of the doubt.

However, with Melfi he's clearly torn on the issue of homosexuality. He recognizes that it could damage his organization, and claims to be disgusted by it, but at the same time, he's inclined to just let people do what they want in their personal life, basically his own don't ask, don't tell policy. This is how it is with prison sex, and apparently how they treated previous gay mobsters, as he alludes to Sil during their final scene together. Melfi rightly points out that Tony is conflicted on the issue, he's by no means progressive, but next to his crew, who feel that it's a crime worthy of death, he's positively welcoming.

The meeting with Finn was a really well done scene, showing us a wide variety of perspectives on the issue. Finn is very disturbed, as he makes clear in the final scene. Considering that Tony brought Finn in to "testify," he's clearly not actively looking out for Vito, but at the same time, he doesn't want to send out the death squad right away.

By the end of the episode it's apparent that Tony's going to have to make a choice. The scene with him and Silvio was brilliant. The lingering shot on Tony in the foreground, Sil in the background sets you up for some kind of conflict between the two of them, and you're just sitting there, waiting for someone to speak. Silvio makes it clear that to accept Vito back would undermine the order of their world. He addressed the kissing issue, which I discussed last week. Even more than upsetting their business world, admitting Vito back into the circle would destroy their "social club," and create a lot of internal angst. If Tony let Vito back in, it's a potentially suicidal move, but the question arises, is that what he would want, to get out of the mob world any way he could.

The essential problem for Tony right now is that his business is inherently immoral and will always create noise to distract him from his relaxation. We're left wondering if Tony is really committed to changing his life, or if, as he tells Melfi, the troubles of everyday life will eventually return him to the way he was.

Off in the subplots, we get some interesting stuff with Carmela and Meadow. When Carmela agreed to take Tony back, it was partially, if not mainly, motivated by the desire to use his money to start her own business ventures and eventually find some form of self reliance. In the first episode of the season we saw her jealousy of Angie, who has become totally self reliant, and in this episode has taken total control of her life and work. In the terms of their society, she's become a man, throwing the women a check rather than helping them with the silent auction, much as their husbands would. And she's running operations on the street through members of Tony's crew. She's acheiving her dreams as Carmela's are falling apart. The men in her life won't take her seriously, but without their help she can't get started. Hence, she's locked in the cycle of dependency she's been in for all her life.

Meadow, like Tony, is put in some compromised positions this episode. In arguments, the position you argue largely depend on those you're arguing with. So, talking to Tony, she's railing against the mistreatment of Afghanis who came to America, a classic liberal cause, yet under this, she's becoming more and more loyal to the family, something that's enhanced by Finn's increasing unease. So, like Tony, she finds herself sometimes arguing the conservative position, sometimes the liberal.

I'm guessing that things won't go too well with Finn. I think he's always been aware of the violence of the Soprano family, but what unnerves him is the fact that Meadow is becoming an apologist for the family. She's still never been exposed to the real horror of what they do, as Finn has been on a number of occasions. He's seen these people basically condemn Vito to death just for being gay, something that Meadow can't seem to process.

All she sees is the injustice done unto Johnny, something that apparently pales in comparison to the white collar criminals. This is a line of argument Tony himself has used quite a bit, in one episode he mentions that the Enron guys are worse criminals than he is. Meadow sees only the injustice, not the fact that Johnny Sack clearly is guilty of murder. I hesitate to make predictions, but I'm thinking that this law firm internship could go bad when the lawyers make fun of her for her family connections, something that would drive her even closer to the family. Could we see Meadow turning into a mob lawyer, aiding her father? I'm not sure it'll go that far, but clearly she's been moving closer and closer to the family, in both senses of the word.

One little thing I really liked about the episode was the subtle callbacks to last week. Watching it weeks apart, I allow for some gaps in action, so if the beatdown at the end of the last episode wasn't addressed, I would have assumed that it happened between episodes. However, when watching the show on DVD, those little callbacks to the previous episode work wonders to create the sense of a consistent world, smoothing the transition from episode to episode. And here it does give us some nice insight into the fact that Tony's ploy did work, because Christopher admits he was wrong about his plan for the Rusty hit.

So, another bold change of direction. Vito is give the chance for a better life, but will he be able to remain under the radar, away from Paulie and the others who are looking for vengeance. I loved Chase's little nod to certain elements of the fanbase, with Tony complaining about how some people can't wait to whack somebody, but I will say that between the open insolence this week and the Barone issue, Paulie's future does not look bright.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

The Thin Red Line

One of my favorite films from last year was Terence Malick's The New World. So, having enjoyed that film so much, I decided to revisit the first film of his that I saw, The Thin Red Line. I'm not usually a big fan of war movies, more than any other genre, it's very limiting, there's only so many different ways you can set up the platoon of archetypal characters, all longing to get home. Earlier this week, I watched the Korean film Taegukgi which was well shot, but I'd seen the characters and situations in many other movies. Jarhead basically admitted that there was nothing left to do with the war movie and did a meta take on the genre, where no one actually fights, the only action we see is when they're watching Apocalypse Now. This film seemed to signal the total exhaustion of the genre. Unless you do something set in the future, there's very few interesting directions left for the war movie to explore.

With The Thin Red Line, Malick approaches war in his traditional style, a dreamlike, poetic haze, with lots of voiceover and editing that connects images and feelings rather than plot points. The film is about half masterpiece and half good, but flawed. The parts that do work are primarily the ones away from combat, where we focus on what the soldiers are thinking and feeling.

The opening is incredible, with gorgeous visuals showing Whit's sojourn in the native peoples' village. The joy he feels here hangs over the rest of the film, which generally does not go well for any of the characters. You can see a lot of the roots of The New World here, Whit is basically John Smith, a soldier trying to assimilate into a peaceful village, finding a utopia only to be pulled away from it. The way nature is shot, particularly the underwater swimming scenes, is replicated almost exactly in the latter film.

The basic theme of the film is that war destroys all around it. So, Nick Nolte may express ambivalence about his role as commander, but during the fight, he's still yelling at his troops, ordering them into dangerous situations. The film doesn't give us any sense of satisfaction from the victories, there's no clear line between the battles, so everything just blurs together, and even though progress is made, we know that this island isn't of particular strategic importance. It's just people killing other people. And, like a virus, the corruption spreads to the native people, who are fighting each other at the end of the film, and won't allow Whit back into the village.

The major issue with the film is that there's so many characters, and not that many of them are really developed. There's a few people, Whit, Staros, Jack, whose storylines we can follow, but they'll disappear for a while and we'll just have other people showing up and doing stuff. In some senses this is the film's strength, rather than having cliched archetypal characters we get people who are just there, however, it makes it hard to get emotionally wrapped up in the story. In The New World or Days of Heaven, the limited casts allow for more direction emotional involvement with the story, we know everyone's basic desires and as a result can sympathize with what's going on.

I guess the major issue for me is that Whit and Jack, the two most developed characters, look so much alike, I was constantly trying to keep track of which was which. They're all dressed the same and have the same hairstyle, so it's hard to follow things. I'm hoping if I watch it again, I'll be able to better separate the two of them, I remember the first time I watched it I had an even harder time telling who was who.

The story of Jack and his wife was one of the strongest parts of the film because of the way it was told. By keeping everything visual, we see her through his eyes, the beautiful photography capturing this idealized image of her that he's created. The scene where she's on the swing, or the later scene where she looks out the window are both incredibly striking matches of editing and composition. It's devestating when we find out she's left him.

That plays out in the downtime between the taking of the ridge and the final battle, the best section of the film. The combat scenes are shot in an interesting way, but ultimately it's something we've seen before and doesn't allow Malick to play to his strengths. It's during the downtime that we can explore more of what the characters are feeling. Whit's return to the village encapsulates the theme of the film, and positions it closely with the rest of Malick's oeuvre.

All of his films are about the corruption of Eden. Here it's the war turning this natural community into a battleground, a graveyard. Whit chooses to die at the end because he's seen too much, and can't go back to the way he was. The light he carried is gone, and without that, he doesn't want to live.

So, I think the film is successful on the whole, there's some amazing parts, but the combat scenes don't match up to the non-combat stuff. It may have been Malick's intent to make the combat less engaging than the rest of the film, but as a viewer, it means that about half the film is spent on less interesting material. However, Malick is able to reimagine the war movie and create something that I'd place alongside Apocalypse Now as the only essential war films. I'd rather see someone try something radically different, like Malick did here, than just churn out a formulaic combat melodrama like Taegukgi.

Malick is a master filmmaker because he is uniquely committed to working with what only film can do, using images and music to build connections rather than relying on dialogue or plot. And without this film, I don't think we'd have seen the even more experimental New World.