Saturday, July 15, 2006

Freaks and Geeks: 'Smooching and Mooching' (1x16)

I've been watching Freaks and Geeks, through 'Smooching and Mooching' right now. I was one of the few viewers who actually watched it when it was on TV and I've always been a big fan of the series, however, when I first watched it, it was before I was a really big fan of serialized TV storytelling. After seeing many series, I've got a slightly different perspective on the series.

I don't think Freaks and Geeks is a perfect series, but like Cowboy Bebop and The Office, it's a show that accomplishes exactly what it set out to do. Part of this feeling is probably due to the fact that it has such a short run, it doesn't experience the growing pains that come from a major change to the series' premise, as in say Buffy or Gilmore Girls season four. If there was a third season, a bunch of the characters would be out of high school and I'd be very curious to know what the longterm plans for the show where. Buffy showed that if you have good characters, leaving a high school setting can actually help the show, because the problems become larger. That would force the freaks to really examine the direction of their life, it's not so fun misbehaving when you're out of school with no job and no long term plan.

Going ahead it would have been difficult to keep those characters together, Lindsay would pretty much have had to go to college, so even if you did keep the other freaks together, you'd have the serious issue of your main character being cut off from every other character.

Besides the obvious issues surrounding the freaks' graduation, I'm not so sure the geek plots would have worked moving ahead. In the DVD booklet, they talk about how once they knew the show was ending they decided to throw Sam a date with Cindy. So, if the show wasn't cancelled maybe that wouldn't have happened, but as it is, that's the major misstep of the series for me. Maybe it's just personal bias, but you very rarely see the 'male friend' move into the role of boyfriend, particularly when Sam is so socially inept around Cindy.

Most of the show takes place in such an oppressively real environment. The pleasure and pain of the series is the extreme awkwardness of the interactions between characters. We're allowed to see everyone at their worst and that makes the moments of happiness more satisfying. But, the end of 'Smooching and Mooching' is a case where the show goes off into fantasy and gives the viewer something that's enjoyable but rather unbelievable, notably the scene with Vicki and Bill. I think his speech where he asks her "What's it like being pretty" is fantastic, but the fact that she kisses him so enthusiastically rings false. I would have rather seen her just give him a small kiss, acknowledging his point, but not leaving reality.

However, in that same episode we get one of the best stories on the series, Nick's time with the Weirs. This story works well on so many levels because we're allowed to view things from Nick's perspective, Lindsay's perspective and Harold's perspective. It's a series of very small, believable events that build to illuminate a lot of character truths. Nick isn't used to an environment where people actually support him, Harold gives him encouragement while still being tough on him, something that his father wouldn't do. Lindsay's jealousy of her parents' affection for Nick is wonderfully done and also reinforces her difference from the freaks. She has so much ability, she needs to do more to succeed than they do. Her intelligence prevents her from fully joining their circle, and that's both a blessing and a curse for her. She has to be aware that they'll probably never leave town, but she will. And it's also extremely funny.

With only a couple of exceptions, the freaks' storylines are almost always superior to the geek storylines. That's because in most cases the geek ones are the comic relief, they go through some stuff, learn a lesson and move on. There's more ambiguity on the freak side. When the geeks do go for high drama, it's usually a reaction to something around them, like Neil's dad's affair or Bill's allergies, rather than coming out of their own lives and actions.

The show has a very de-dramatized 70s cinema style most of the time, but it does hew a bit too closely to the set up a problem, play out problem, find closure for problem structure of a lot of TV shows. There's continuing arcs, but each episode has a standalone story and that sometimes results in a feeling of artificiality to the closure that the characters find. Because there's a large cast we get a Sopranos season five style structure where one or two characters will have the spotlight for the week and play out all their issues. On The Sopranos this was used to give insight to the characters, but usually there wasn't any easy resolution. Some plots here work that way, others go for the easy solution to character problems.

But, that doesn't stop it from being a great show. This is a show that had its exact voice right from the beginning and never did a bad episode. There's some I like less than others, but there's always at least one good plot going on. The show's dual structure allows for an easier balance of comedy and drama than on almost any other show. You can have one character in a coma almost dying and another doing some broad marijuana humor and it works. And when the two universes collide, as in the great moment where Neil sees his brother kissing Lindsay, it provides for some of the best moments of the show, as we watch how actions have reprocussions across group lines.

Related Posts
Freaks and Geeks: 'Pilot' (1x01) (6/26/2006)
Freaks and Geeks: 'Discos and Dragons' (1x18) (7/18/2006)

Friday, July 14, 2006

Weekend Update

Bunch of small news items to cover today.

Phoenix Tickets

Damn you working during the day! I'd been waiting to see when tickets for Phoneix's August 7th show at Bowery Ballroom go on sale and it turns out that they went on sale at noon today, so I missed them. I'm hoping to track down tickets somehow, if anyone's got any extras, drop me an e-mail: You would be my best friend. And if you get a chance to go the show, definitely do so, their last show at the Bowery Ballroom was awesome. Let's hope they kept the same drummer.

Gnarls Barkley/Peeping Tom Show

I may miss out on that show, but last night I grabbed tickets for the August 17 Gnarls Barkley show in Central Park. When I heard about the show, I was thinking about going, but I decided that it wasn't quite worth it. However, yesterday I saw that Peeping Tom was going to be supporting Gnarls at the show. Peeping Tom is Mike Patton's newest album, it's pretty good, though a bit routine for Patton. However, he's one of my favorite singers and I've never seen him live, so this is the perfect opportunity. Plus, I am psyched to see Gnarls, I saw Cee-Lo at Wesleyan Spring Fling in 2005 and he was very entertaining. So, this should be a good show.

True Blood

HBO did a press conference yesterday to announce their future plans. There's one bad piece of news, that the new season of The Sopranos has been delayed until March. However, in good news, Alan Ball's new series, True Blood is moving forward for a probable Autumn 2007 premiere. Six Feet Under is my third favorite TV series of all time so I am quite excited to see what he does next. He has an uncanny ability to create characters who are totally real and a wonderful mix of flaws and virtues. At the end of SFU we may hate Nate's choices, but it's easy to see why he does what he does. Plus, it'll be cool to see Ball tackle vampires, his casting in season four indicates that he's a Buffy fan, so how will this crew of undead compare to Buffy's? We'll see, but I do know that this is my most anticipated film project.


I've been on a big Altman kick the past couple of posts, hailing the man's virtues like it' going out of style, but it's not all good. I watched Popeye a few days ago and was not impressed. It had some trademark Altman elements, but Altman works best when he shoots in a documentary style, drawing you into a believable world. The fact that every line Williams speaks sounds poorly ADRed is the first strike against this film, and the awful townspeople are the next. That said, it was cool to hear "He Needs Me" in its original form. It made me want to give Punch Drunk Love another viewing.

The Youth Speak!

I'm running a broadcast news workshop for teens now and it's interesting to hear them talk about films. I heard a couple of people mention how they're sick of the fact that everything's a sequel or remake. Hollywood, this is your demographic, they want new stuff! However, they did see all these sequels or remakes, so even if people complain about it, they still go see these films.

Upcoming Dates of Note
7/21 - Clerks II released
7/22 - Elysian Fields at Joe's Pub
7/28 - Miami Vice released
8/3 - New Pornographers at Summerstage
8/7 - Phoenix at Bowery Ballroom (Hopefully)
8/8 - Manderlay on DVD
8/17 - Gnarls Barkley at Summerstage
9/22 - Science of Sleep Releated
9/24 - The Flaming Lips at Hammerstein
10/13 - The Fountain Released
10/20 - Marie Antoinette Released

Related Posts
McCabe and Mrs. Miller (5/11/2006)
Phoenix @ Bowery Ballroom (5/11/2006)
Nashville (7/7/2006)

Monday, July 10, 2006

3 Women

The Altman watching continued today as I checked out another one of his 70s classics, 3 Women. Even more than Nashville, this is a film that would be completely impossible to make within the studio system today. Even the vast majority of indies don't come close to this level of narrative ambiguity. So, we can be thankful that Altman got a chance to do stuff like this back then.

Watching a film like this, with the high levels of narrative ambiguity and character transition, forces you to sit back and go with the flow. For a lot of people this is a problem, unlike Mulholland Dr., which engages in similar identity games, there's no definitive answer for what happens here. The film gives you the raw material to think over, but it's up to you to construct your own throughline. Altman drew the film from dreams, and it's likely that even he doesn't know exactly what everything means, it just feels right emotionally.

I'll start with the film's ending and track back. The closing moments of this film remind me of Kim Ki-Duk's The Isle, in the sense that the last scene isn't so much tied into the narrative we've seen before as it is a thematic summation of the film as a whole. These three women represent archetypes and as the film progresses, we see them each grow up and take on each others' roles. The entire film is about the life cycle, the progression from childhood to adulthood to old age and ultimately death.

Water is a critical image in the film. We open with a pool, images of naked people adorning the walls, reproduction is a clear motif. Water is where we come from, and it's ultimately where we go back to, we move from the waters of birth at the beginning to the water of death, which the old people enter. It's clearly a cyclical thing.

At the beginning of the film we see Pinky as a child, lacking confidence and seeking a mother figure to latch onto. She finds a role model in Millie, a single woman who seems to be in total control of her life. Her self image is totally out of whack with how society perceives her. She considers herself a confident single woman, with countless male admirers. She's trying to conform to the image of single women presented in magazines, however in reality no one particularly cares about her. Her attempts at high fashion are mocked by the other people in the singles' community and the doctors don't even notice she's there. At work, she's the only one without a counterpart, so she naturally latches on to Pinky, who looks up to her and makes her feel like the image she has of herself.

Millie is constantly making allusions to the interest that men have in her, talking about the pill and the rollaway bed, and at first Pinky is quite admiring, imitating Millie in every way she can. However, as things progress, the reality of Millie's life comes to the surface. She obsesses about her dinner party, but the people wind up not even showing up and when she goes out to get a man, it's actually Edgar. Seeing Millie with Edgar exposes Pinky to the fact that most of Millie's claims are hyperbole and that it's not Pinky holding Millie back, it's Millie herself.

Millie yells at Pinky and forces her to be complicit in Edgar cheating on his pregnant wife. Being exposed to the truth about Millie, her parent figure, forces Pinky to grow up and plunge into the water. The water in the film is associated with the life cycle, Pinky enters a child, but emerges as an adult, taking on the role that Millie had fashioned for herself in the first part of the film.

Here, we see another parent/child relationship. Pinky wakes up and says that she doesn't know the people who claim to be her parents. This works both as evidence that Pinky has become part of a new family unit, with Millie and Willie, however it also works as a depiction of what every child has to do to grow up. In becoming an adult, Pinky must reject her parents and establish herself as an independent person. This is an extreme representation of that, in that she actually claims that they aren't her parents at all, but it fits perfectly with the theme of growing up.

Earlier in the film, our point of view character was usually Pinky, and we saw Millie through her eyes. However, after Pinky goes into the coma there's a switch, and we begin to see things through Millie's eyes. After waking up, Pinky fashions herself into the person that Millie wanted to be. She's popular with all the men at the apartment complex and has even taken Edgar away from Millie. Physically she's transformed into an adult, putting on makeup and dressing in a different way. In becoming an adult, she has forced Millie into the role of a mother. We no longer see Millie pursuing men, rather she's trying to keep Pinky safe. The car stealing episode in particular sees Millie treating Pinky like her daughter. Pinky's leap has also forced Millie to grow up and abandon her previous identity. She's become the mother.

So, where does that leave the woman who's actually pregnant? With Millie growing up to assume the role of mother, Willie must also grow up and give up her fertility. This is dramatically represented in the scene in which Willie gives birth to a stillborn child. The generations have advanced and she now must be the elderly one. During this scene we see water covering parts of the screen, as in the opening scene, a visual reminder of the advance of generations.

The film's final scene effectively sums up the themes of what we've seen before, clarifying the roles of all the women within the film. Pinky now calls Millie her mother, and Willie is the grandmother. This scene is designed to show us how each of the characters embodies one of the archetypal female roles, and over the course of time they move through these roles. The film's tagline is 1 woman became 2/2 women became 3/3 women became 1, the 3 Women of the title aren't the three characters, rather it's the three archetypal roles: child, mother and elder.

If the archetypal role of woman is to give birth, to bear and produce life, the critical scene of the entire film is the birth scene. Here, we see Willie, the elder, becoming aware that she is no longer able to give birth, she has moved beyond fertility and lost her purpose. Millie insists that she doesn't know how to deliver a child, but because she's in the role of mother, she draws on innate knowledge that shows her what to do. Pinky is outside, the child confronted with her future. She may be young now, but eventually she will be the one giving birth and that scares her.

As the film proceeds, it becomes more and more about these archetypal roles and the characters recede from reality. We no longer see them at work and by the end even the singles complex has faded away. The birth scene takes place away from society, out in the desert with only women present. Here, we see the death of a male child, he can not live in this world which is devoted to exploring the life cycle of women. Similarly, Edgar dies. He has no place in the final scene, which is about characters embodying the three stages of the female life cycle.

So, the critical thing to note about this film is the way that it progresses from a relatively mundane real world setting into an increasingly metaphoric world where characters cease to have agency and instead are forced into roles dictated by the progression of time. Just like no one makes a conscious decision to stop being young, Millie never decides to move into the role of mother, rather the ascent of a new generation means that she can not continue to live the life of a young single woman. Just as Pinky stole her social security number, she steals her role in the world, forcing Millie to find another.

The final scene effectively sums it all up, showing the way that all women are connected and through the progression of time, the young supplant the old until they return to the waters and the cycle begins again.

Was this the interpretation that Altman intended? I don't know, but I feel like the film supports it. I don't think this was strong as McCabe or Nashville, but from an analytical perspective, it may be Altman's richest, most challenging film.

Related Posts
McCabe and Mrs. Miller (5/11/2006)
Nashville (7/7/2006)