Saturday, October 14, 2006

Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette surprised me because it's a bit heavier than I was expecting. The trailer and reviews made it seem like just a series of parties, but there's actually a lot of depth here, and that's both a strength and a fault. It hurts the film because it gets bogged down at times, and can't function on the characters and visual moments. However, on the whole this is an original, striking portrait of a world that seems totally different, but has quite a few similaritites with our own.

The film has a striking opening sequence, showing Marie's removal from everything she's known to go to France. We see her as a natural, rather ordinary girl, still petty and adolescent. She goes on a carriage ride to the Austria-France border, where she's transformed into a totally made up, fashioned royal. The scene perfectly establishes the film's central theme, which is the way that the strict social rules of the court threaten to extinguish the life within Marie.

This early scene has some of my favorite visual stuff in the film. The blue of the coach is gorgeous engulfed by the forest. Most of the film is set at Versailles, which becomes suffocating. There's just so much stuff in the frame that it overwhelms everything. I think that's partially intentional, but it becomes exhausting. I suppose you could make the same complaint about the Japanese cityscape in 'Lost in Translation,' but I found that environment more interesting than the palace here. I do like the return of the main character with her face pressed up against a window while driving, which is clearly one of Sofia's signature images.

Generally speaking, I'm not a fan of period films. I think people can get so focused on being historically accurate that they lose sight of telling a story about real people, and that's something that Sofia falls prey to at times. The one period film that was an unqualified success is Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, a film with a lot of thematic similarities to Marie Antoinette. Both are about the difficulty of navigating a very strict social environment, of conforming to custom at the expense of your own desires. What makes Lyndon so special is that we get the feeling that these are real people trapped in a bizarre world. They find the customs weird too, but nobody's going to stand up against them.

In Marie Antoinette, the best moments are the ones where we see Marie using her influence to redefine the rules of the court. The ridiculousness of their world is ably demonstrated by scenes like the first dressing and the tableau shots Marie and Louis eating. Louis is such a distant character, it's easy to relate with Marie's inability to get him to consummate the marriage. This is her one mission, and she's completely failing because he's off in his own world. The funniest exchange in the film was when Marie asks him whether he enjoys his locks hobby, and he responds simply "Obviously." She's trying to reach out to him, but he's giving her absolutely nothing.

At first, we see this conflict only from Marie's side. She takes all the blame for not making him want her enough to have sex. The letters from her mother make this desperately clear, she seems to have no allies in the palace. This reinforces the idea that she's a stranger in this world, and will always be an outsider until she produces a son. The film itself reinforces this pressure with scenes like the couple leaving the card game so that they can go make love more than five times, and also with the juxtaposition of DuBarry and Rip Torn going wild and Louis and Marie sitting perfectly still and separate.

Despite Rip Torn and Asia Argento's fantastic performances, this early part of the film is its weakest. The film spends too much time reinforcing the same points, and we too get bogged down in the malaise that Marie is feeling. DuBarry is a great character, but she never gets the chance to really do anything. The awkward conversation with Marie is good, and I get what Coppola's trying to do here, but I feel like we could get the same point and still lose five to ten minutes. Even though I liked the nod to All That Jazz with Marie's wakeup music, that particular beat was still played a few too many times. I feel like this whole half hour or so could have played better if it was played against some contemporary music and done in montage fashion rather than in individual scenes.

Much of the dialogue about the film has focused on Marie's shallowness, but I think her struggle actually had quite a bit of depth. Sofia's mission isn't to tell a history of 18th century France, so there's no need to give us a lot of context for what's happening outside the palace. Her goal is to tell the story of a girl taken from her home, placed in a foreign country as a diplomatic maneuver, and given the ridiculous task of producing an heir. That is her only value to the nations, to be a diplomatic object.

So, her partying and consumption becomes a way of rebelling against the task assigned to her. If he's only there to produce an heir, she might as well have as much fun as possible while doing so. And that's where the fun parts of the film come in. It's great to watch Marie clap at the opera and gradually watch as everyone else joins her. She is using her power to rewrite social custom, something that is also the subject of the "I Want Candy" montage, a tribute to her consumer excess, which becomes her method of rebelling against her set role.

I think a lot of the criticism for the film could come from the fact that it treats with seriousness the problems of someone who's got so much. I guess there's a tendency in cinema to reward films that deal with 'social problems,' like poverty and war, the malaise of an excessively rich woman doesn't exactly fit there. Yet, it makes sense for Sofia to tackle this, considering her background. She is essentially a princess, someone who could easily do nothing her life and still live comfortably, but she seeks to move beyond this role and claim an identity of her own. This is a film about celebrity, people who can buy anything they want except anonymity and the ability to return to what they once had. I don't see the film as "Paris Hilton in 18th Century France," this is a girl who didn't necessarily want to be famous, she had no choice.

It's notable that many of the critical figures in the film are people who grew up in privileged environments, not 'normal' childhoods. Sofia Coppola is the obvious one, but we've also got Asia Argento, another director's daughter. Kirsten Dunst was a child star, sharing scene with Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise at age ten. Jason Schwartzman is also a part of the Coppola family, and found similar early success. For a lot of directors, such as Martin Scorsese, it becomes increasingly difficult to find personal material to draw from for your films once you become famous. He couldn't make a film like Mean Streets today because his whole life is centered around the film industry. If you're working twelve hours a day on a set, it's going to be tough to write a 'normal' life. I'd rather see that disconnection from normal reality manifest itself in a film like Marie Antoinette, which approaches the problem in an allegorical way, than in another movie about making movies.

I think the film does a good job of displaying the simultaneous joy and difficulty of being in this sort of privileged position. Following the king's death, Marie turns the court into her own playground, doing whatever she wants and buying as much as she can. However, the film still shows the difficulty of living in the claustrophobic Versailles. Just watching those scenes I became uncomfortable, struggling to find the humanity in the excessive design and wardrobe. Two really powerful moments in Versailles are Marie's flight from the crowd, to hide and cry for her mother, and her desperate run to lie on her own and dream about Count Fersen. I particularly like her dreamscape of him, looking at her in the midst of explosions and battle. His exaggerated masculinity is such a contrast to the fey Louis.

But, those moments are rare, generally Versailles is a place of gossip and observation, where the slightest misstep will become the talk of the masses. The best moments of the film are the ones where Marie finds an escape, an ability to stop being the Dauphin and just be herself. The masked ball is a fine example of this, and one of the best scenes in the film. I love the design here, and the use of contemporary music feels completely organic to the world. Marie revels in her anonymity and we see her happier than she's ever been.

Even though I really liked the scene, I can't help but feel that it could have been just a little bit better. I was waiting for the film to launch into a really pop moment, but a lot of times, she seemed to rely more on the production design and wardrobe to carry the visual load, rather than the actual camerawork. The best moments in film are ones that make me gasp because they're just so stylish, or perfectly constructed to maximize emotion. I liked the visuals of the film and enjoyed the music, but there were only a couple of moments that really wowed me. The best moments in a film are ones that make me says "I want to do that" in my own work, and I didn't feel that too much here. That said, I don't think I have the budget for an 18th century costume drama, so perhaps that's for the best.

Despite that complaint, it was still a really strong scene. The scenes that I loved the most was Marie's time at her retreat. The nature shots recalled Malick, perhaps the highest compliment one can give to shots of nature. They also fit into his thematic universe, the idea that nature can be an edenic retreat from the destructive force of civilization. As Marie's leaving, she says she wants to wear something more natural, and she winds up in the plain white dress, a massive contrast from what she's wearing for the rest of the film. She walks through the fields and plays with her daughter, for the first time in the film, able to be on her own and be just a person, not an icon.

Throughout the film nature is used in this way, be it her ecstatic fall into grass after consummating the marriage or the scene in which she sits with two couples and watches the sun rise. That predawn hour looks incredible on film, giving everything a blue tint. It was notable that we never saw the actual sun rise, just the reflection of it in the pool. On the one hand, I wanted to see it, but their description of it as the most beautiful thing they've ever seen makes it impossible for any actual sun rise to live up to, and instead we're left with our mental picture of what it would be.

Then, at her retreat we get the wonderful scene where she and her friends are picking strawberries. This leads into her flirtation with Fersen and the ultimate consummation of their relationship. This is the time that she feels most human, she's gone through this weird ordeal, and now she gets to have her real adolescence, to experience first love and experiment with drugs on her own, away from any parental figures. It's like the archetypal college experience, only her order of development is screwy because of her royal status. Together with Fersen, she has an idyllic retreat from the world, moments that sustain her when she is eventually forced to return to the court.

The final chunk of the film deals with the gradual dissolution of the royal court. The film implies that it was Louis' decision to lend support to the American army that ultimately brought about his downfall. In the context of the time, it's the petty rivalry between nations that dooms France's monarch. He spends money that could be spent on his people to stick it to England, and that backfires in a huge way. The royals live in a rarefied world, it's easy for him to say we'll raise taxes slightly to justify the American expedition, but for the people on the streets, that tax raise becomes the tipping point.

I'm not sure if a contemporary reading was intended, but it's easy to equate Louis with Bush. Both are men born to great power, controlled by experts around them who guide their decisions. They each engage in foreign campaigns that throw the country into debt and result in a decline in popularity. Certainly the bubble around the royals has a lot in common with the bubble that Bush has built around his inner circle.

Our emotional reaction to the final sequences is interesting. In a traditional film, you'd sympathize with the underdogs and would be glad to see royal society breaking down. Certainly much of the early part of this film was concerned with the absurdity of the royal court. However, in the latter half, we see Marie take control of the court and turn it into a place for fun and revelry. It hurts to see her clapping alone at the opera, the first signal of her impending doom. And here, the "Let them eat cake" remark doesn't indicate arrogance, her dismissal of it is used to build up sympathy for her. I like her reading through the gossip column, debunking the myths about her, something I could easily imagine celebrities today doing.

With the peasants outside her door, her friends scatter, but she remains standing by Louis. After her experience with Ferson, I think she's ready to settle down, she's tasted love, but knows that it's not her destiny to be free. She has been placed into the role of Queen, and she will serve. This is a marked contrast from the beginning of the film, where she was eager to flee to Austria. I feel like the film is about her growing up, and in some ways, her arc resembles Pocohontas' in The New World, each is taken from their native environment and forced into a restricting civilization. However, through motherhood they get in touch with something essentially human that was hidden in the pageantry, and through this, they are able to accept a role within society.

The dining room scene at the end is notable for its emptiness. The entourage is gone, it's just Louis and Marie sitting in the dark. Outside, the sounds of peasant protest is overwhelming. They have little real power, but have become the symbols for all that is wrong in French society. Marie standing on the balcony, looking down at the masses is one of the most powerful visuals in the film, clearly illustrating the gulf between them. She has been raised in this world and has no chance of relating to the peasant concerns.

As the film ends, she is rushed through the masses to a coach, and winds up fleeing the place she came to at the film's opening. In the film's final line, she says "I'm saying goodbye," goodbye to the place, but also the lifestyle. The revolution signals the end of her class, and she knows that the bet she made, to marry Louis and be Queen, has gone awry. That was what the film was about, and this is the ending, we don't need to see her killed. Her world is gone, so her actual life is irrelevant.

I think the film's a lot deeper than the critical consesus would have you believe. Maybe it is Paris Hilton in 18th century France, but considering the world we live in, isn't a film that critically examines celebrity and privelege something worthwhile? I love the fact that there's no attempt to place her story in a larger historical context, we've seen that before, and I think most viewers will have a general idea of what happens after the film ends. It's a film about a critical moment of transition for human society and I think it does a great job of examining all the issues surrounding that.

Where the film falls down for me is in some of the execution. The actors all have different accents, and some of the dialogue falls prey to that clumsy period-speak. Some of Marie's lines recalled Natalie Portman in the Star Wars prequels, not a good thing. It also might have been good to limit the number of people in Marie's crew, she had a varying cast so we never got a sense of who she really cared about and who she was forced to be with. And I wish there were more fantastic pop moments like the scenes at the retreat. Not much in the first half of the movie really jumps out as a perfect movie moment. And I would have liked more music, particularly modern stuff. I think those songs fit perfectly into the world and would have preferred more of them over the period stuff.

But, the more the film sinks in, the more I'm liking it. I went in with a specific idea of what the film would be, and it didn't quite conform to that. However, I really like what Sofia did with it, and I think a second viewing would allow me to better get lost in the world that Marie inhabits. I'm not the biggest fan of period films, but this did enough to get past my prejudice and make these characters feel real. I also want to see it again because I missed Phoenix. Were they the guys with guitars singing to Marie, or were they in a different scene?

I think Sofia is one of the most interesting American directors now because she understands the fact that cinema is more about images and moments than narrative. She's a big Wong Kar-Wai fan and that really shows, Lost in Translation is the closest thing to an American Wong Kar-Wai film, and a lot of this movie's irregular narrative style recalls his stuff. However, to make a Wong Kar-Wai style movie work, your visuals and music have to be on, otherwise it can drag. For a lot of this film, it is, but the moments that aren't hold it back from the greatness of Lost in Translation or The Virgin Suicides. Like Wong Kar-Wai's Ashes of Time, it puts the themes that she'd already developed on a much larger canvas. Ashes of Time was critical in opening WKW up to more adventurous, free style filmmaking, and this film will hopefully do the same thing for Sofia.

Looking at her three films, a priveleged, but uneasy young woman is her archetypal character. Each of them is imprisoned in some way. Lux and Marie are clearly held bac by parental expectations and strict behavior guidelines. Both revel in defying these restrictions, and have brief moments of love before their worlds fall apart. Charlotte and Marie are both alone in a crowd, unable to relate to anyone around them, and the search for those moments of connection is what drives them. Visually, Sofia is concerned with rich environments, full of visual activity and detail. Emotionally, she's all about bittersweet, moments of happiness peaking through a dull, sad world. And the men in her films are generally ineffectual and distant.

In terms of developing her oeuvre, I feel like Sofia is going in the right direction. Everyone has certain themes that attract them, and it would be ridiculous to suggest that Sofia make a war film or something like that. I'd like to see her work in the present again, but she is able to make periods come alive, so I'm up for pretty much anything from her. The thing I would most like to see is her Chungking Express, a quick, stylish film to counterbalance the big costume epic.

But, it'll probably be three years at least, considering she's about to give birth to her first child. But, I'll be there to see whatever she comes up with when it's time to start again. The only thing I really ask is that she let Thomas Mars and Phoenix do the soundtrack.

Battlestar Galactica - 'Exodus: Part I' (3x03)

Another stellar hour of a show that's really raised its game with the third season. I feel like everyone, both viewers and the show's creators, was a bit underwhelmed by the second half of season two. I know I was pretty disappointed, and was starting to drift away from the series until the fantastic 1-2-3 punch of Downloaded and the season finale. And they just haven't let up after that, going into more complex, challenging stories with each episode.

While I generally loved the episode, I groaned a bit when 'One Hour Earlier' appeared on the screen. I think this device is usually a mistake. Countless episodes of Alias would use this flashback structure and it just isn't that interesting. In the case of this episode, it feels like we just had to track back to justify Roslin and Zarek not dying in the cliffhanger. Now, this isn't as egregious a trackback as something like The X-Files' 'Redux I,' but still, I think it would have been more effective to just start with the Chief hearing that Callie was with the people to be killed and then going from there.

It was pretty obvious that Roslin would survive, but I feel like setting up such a bold cliffhanger and then not paying it off with anything particularly interesting is a copout. I can't remember a major character ever dying on the show, and if you want to keep stakes high, occasionally someone has to go. Part of the reason that 24 is so legitimately tense is because anyone is expendable, they take it a bit far, but it's a lesson to learn.

I just want to remark on how fantastic the cinematography in the series is. The color correction they use gives each scene a really unique palette, be it the cold blue of the settlement or the slight brown of the woods. The vision scene was particularly standout. I love the way contrast is used to make the light look completely white, and the handheld camera work always brings our attention to the most important events in the scene. The use of zooms is also very cool, enhancing the feeling of reality. This is probably the best shot series ever on TV.

The piece of this episode that I loved most is Sharon's work with the resistance. She's someone who has totally redefined herself, abandoning the cylons, her people, for love and belief in the values that Adama is espousing. She is actively subverting her own people by helping to move the humans off New Caprica, and is doing so willingly. She has come to believe fully in the principles of Adama's leadership. And that's what makes the scene in the cylon headquarters so wrenching.

First off, I love the production design inside the cylon complex, the quick flashing lights of the data console and the stark white of the filing room. This scene shows that the cylons do have machine elements, they seem to have a kind of symbiosis with their machinery. It's so tough to watch Sharon walk the street and be heckled and assaulted, her outside appearance in total contrast to what she's actually there for.

And then it becomes even more brutal when she's confronted by D'Anna, with the news that Hera's alive. We're supporting Sharon in her work with humanity, the gradual development of her relationship with Adama was the strongest element of season 2.5, and their scenes together last week showed a deep understanding. But, at the same time, we're aware that they fucked her. There's no other way to describe it, Adama and Roslin completely screwed Sharon, and she would be totally justified in screwing them back. They lied to her and Helo, and took away the thing that mattered most to them in the world. There's no way to apologize for that. Watching the scene, Sharon seems to know, on some level, that D'Anna is right. She never exactly trusted their story about Hera, but by being immersed in human culture for so long, she's just come to accept her role and value what they give her. So, she chooses to finish her mission, but at the end of the episode, we can tell how pained Sharon is.

That scene is easily the highlight of the episode and draws you in so many different directions as a viewer. I was relieved when Sharon shot her, but I was also left dreading the inevitable moment when she finds out that they've been lying to her. When it happens, I think she may secretly resume working with the cylons, serving as a mole within the human fleet. The scene really plays up the moral ambiguity of the situation, making it difficult to sympathize with anyone but Sharon herself. Grace Park is really fantastic, making Sharon easily my favorite character on the series.

Earlier in the episode, D'Anna's visit to the oracle reveals more of her human side. The moment I love is when the oracle is talking about the child, how one day D'Anna will hold it and experience true love, and we see that D'Anna's crying. There's no attention drawn to the tear on her cheek, and the subtlety of the moment is what gives it meaning. Now, she seeks Hera not so much for the overall cylon plan, but to experience the emotion that both Sharon and Caprica Six have had, but the other cylons lack.

Another great moment in the episode is the scene with Baltar and Six. Here we see just how put upon Baltar's been over the past four months. You can see it physically, and just in the way he behaves compared to the way things used to be. He has absolutely no agency, and guilt over what he did is starting to drag him down. I would like more investigation into his relationship with Six and how they're managing to function personally within this totally divided world.

The cylon leadership is again equated with the floundering American leadership in Iraq. They don't have the resources to take greater control of the area, and the war is a huge strain on their internal dynamics. I like the way Caprica Six is equated with Baltar, in her lack of agency within the group. She started this as a way to save the humans, but has been overruled by the more militant elements of cylon civilization. That scene also raises the issue of the download process, and how it's gradually wearing down the cylon personnel.

These first three episodes have a very Star Wars feel. The show's always felt similar to the trilogy for me, but here we get the most concrete sense of a rebel alliance fighting back a big empire. I may not talk about it much on here, most of the stuff I enjoy today doesn't have much in common with Star Wars, but what those films do is create a story so epic, so deeply mythic that it drags you beyond your complacency wholly into another world. This show is increasingly doing this, and there are moments that hit the same emotions as the strained desperation of Empire Strikes Back. I'm thinking particularly of the scene on the hangar deck, which had a real powerful sense that something important was about to happen. Other scenes with the resistance down on the surface also manage that same quality.

I guess the thing I love about Star Wars, and this season, is the way that it tracks these personal conflicts that have universal consequences. There's so much scope to the story, but it's still got characters who feel real, who you can relate to. I think that's what similar stories set in history lack, they're so bound by the need to be 'real' as in true to the period that they lose the sense of universal human reality. Watching these episodes, and the series in general, we see what would happen if our whole society was thrown into chaos, and that's more interesting than seeing the same old story about teenage boys sent off to fight in a foreign land.

Some other great moments include Tigh snapping at his wife at the end, Sharon's final words to the chief and Zarek and Roslin's conversation in the pit. This was an episode where I was not happy to see the Executive Producer credit. So far, this season has been absolutely on fire, challenging the viewer and forcing you to question your emotional allegiances. Rarely have I seen such fantastic storytelling, and I really hope that they keep it up for the rest of the season.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Weekend Update

More Inland

Many page views this week for people checking out the Inland Empire reviews. It's cool to see the film before a lot is written about it, I'm not sure how much my thoughts will resemble the critical consesus that eventually develops, but for me, they felt right on this viewing. The film that it most reminds me of, besides Lynch's own stuff, is Mike Figgis' Hotel. Both are shot on DV and explore the line between cinema and reality. I think Inland's much better than Hotel, but if you liked it, definitely give Hotel a look. And for the curious, here's my ranking of all Lynch's films:

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
Mulholland Dr.
Lost Highway
Inland Empire
Blue Velvet
Wild at Heart
The Straight Story
The Elephant Man

Patti Smith

I've been listening to a lot of Patti Smith stuff to preprare for Sunday's show at CBGB's. I feel a bit bad taking a ticket since I'm not a huge fan, and don't have any particular connection to the club. However, I'm liking her stuff more and more, and I'm imagining she'll give it her all for the final show. I'm figuring it'll be at least a two hour set, probably closer to three. My favorite stuff is definitely her 70s work, Horses, Easter and Wave. But, I enjoyed 1997's Peace and Noise as well. I'm not sure where she draws most of her stuff from live, but I'd guess that she'll probably be playing more classics than she would at an average show.

Veronica Mars - 'My Big Fat Greek Rush Week' (3x02)

Mini review for the episode this week. I still find the Keith plot rather convoluted, and the difficulty of figuring out what's going on numbs any emotional impact. The problem is the Fitzpatricks were always treated as one entity, and it's difficult to follow a story that involves them doing seperate things. Veronica's plot was pretty fun, a bit of an Alias Jr. feel, and the show once again questions her moral authority. She sees the world in black and white, and that winds up causing problems when she realizes the sorority isn't all bad. I think a major arc should be really breaking Veronica down, and forcing her to confront the way she lives her life. But, the show doesn't seem to have any interest in exploring that, it comes up occasionally, but is never really developed. Also, I thought they outlawed prison experiments, but that was a pretty fun storyline. It was cool to see not only Samm Levine of Freaks and Geeks, but also Rider Strong of Boy Meets World. He was pretty good, and I could see him as a potential recurring.

I would say the episode was stronger than the first week, but there's still an issue with the fact that the show generally has a pretty light tone, but it's got to deal with this ongoing rape storyline, something you can't really quip about. More than that, I found it odd that Veronica felt so guilty about not checking in with Parker, considering there were no cries for help, what was she supposed to do, turn on the light and say "Everything going okay here?" I suppose it's more just general guilt, but still.

Studio 60 - 'The West Coast Delay' (1x04)

This was a pretty good episode, bringing back a lot of memories of Sportsnight. However, this show just embaresses Sportsnight in terms of visual scope, so I don't mind retreading stuff. I found it odd that Lucy Davis, who played Dawn in the original The Office is playing a character in the writers' room. There's nothing weird about her being on the show, but just the fact that she's such a minor character, and I hadn't heard anything about it at all. I'm hoping she'll get more material later, she's too talented an actress to waste in a really minor position.

Upcoming Dates of Note

10/14 - Marie Antoinette at NYFF
10/15 - Patti Smith at CBGB's
10/25 - Seven Soldiers #1 Released
10/27 - Babel Released
11/22 - The Fountain Released

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

From Hell - Chapters 5-7

Chapter five opens with a scene that at first mystified me, a German couple having sex, which is interrupted by visions of a Jewish temple gushing blood. The dialogue's all in German, so I was just going to move on, confounded. But, then I remembered the annotations and flipped back to find out that this scene depicts Hitler's conception! Knowing this makes the scene a great addition. The whole work is about how Gull ushers in the twentieth century, so featuring the conception of one of that century's key figures is a good thematic element. One of the things that makes me love the work so much is the fact that it's not just about a series of murders, it's about chronicling a specific turning point in the history of human society.

From there, we got to an effective, if slightly obvious, contrasting of Gull's upper class life with the difficult situations for the poor. One thing the work consistently does is make clear how difficult it is for poorer people living in Whitechapel. All these women are murdered because they couldn't make enough money to pay for lodging, so they wound up on the street alone, late at night. The tragic irony of the scenes where Gull meets them in the coach is that they think they've just hit the jackpot, found a wealthy client who can give them food and protection. That is not the case.

The murder of Polly Nichols is a masterfully executed sequence. The bottom of page 5.23 where Polly walks across a sea of fire is an incredible image, leading into the tense scene with Polly in Gull's coach. In both this scene and the later scene with Anne, Gull equates the act of murder with marriage. According to him, the institution of marriage has been warped into a way for men to keep women down, the patriarchal rule replacing their previous dominance of social worlds. This makes literal the idea that marriage is killing women.

I like the way that Gull positions Polly as a sacrifice to Ganesa. He believes that his duty to murder these women is a god-given one, the essential act to close out an age. After cutting her up, Gull declares "She was full of light." This could refer to her life, her creative essence that he has now snuffed out. Gull is continually caught between his left brain scientific patriarchal side and his fascination with the older gods.

From here, we move in to an exploration of the way that the killing affects the world of Whitechapel. It creates an instant mania among the people, and is a level of brutality that the police force seems totally incapable of dealing with. They are old, upper class people who have no way of relating to the world these women come from. Abberline is someone who's trying to leave that world behind, but finds his only chance for advacement comes from exploiting his origins and serving as a "Whitechapel expert" for the people in the case.

Class issues are clearly a major concern. There were the overt juxtapositions of chapter five, and here, we see Abberline comparing the life of Whitechapel to the staid upper class world he now inhabits. His talks with Emma have a vitality that he doesn't have in the relationship with his wife.

Much of the work is concerned with showing the seeds of our current world, and that's where the media stuff comes in. Abberline's meeting with Mexico Joe provides some foreshadowing about the rise of Russia and America, and gives Moore a chance to give another nod to Crowley, one of his idols. America's style of adventurous individualism has come to England in the form of a Wild West show, and it will soon come in more deeply influential ways. As he wanders out, Abberline finds that the crime scene has become an amusement for people, the killing a commodified event turned into entertainment. People reenact the murder for their own entertainment, unaware of the actual harm that's been done. Here lie the roots of our current scandal obsessed media culture, which turns real life tragedy into entertainment for the masses. Polly's funeral turns into a spectacle for people to watch and enjoy.

Later, we see the O Star editor realize that the killer himself is beside the point, it's the media image of the killer that matters. So, he creates 'Jack the Ripper,' and in the letter he sends to the police, he casts a spell that makes what he wrote about into reality for the populace as a whole. He does as much to create Jack the Ripper as Gull did. Gull claimed that the irrational, female side is in decline, but the fact that this Jack the Ripper character becomes so powerful, despite not existing like they think he did, would indicate that he functions as a representative of the old gods. Jack is a god who incarnates the deepest fears of all these women, the fact that he actually exists is nearly irrelevant to that. And that may be Gull's greatest fear, the idea that what he actually does is less significant than the legend built up around 'Jack the Ripper,' a figure whose power greatly outweighs his own.

Creating a 'god' could be interpreted as simply creating a fictional being who begins to effect reality. So, Bob Kane loosed Batman onto the world, a figure whose power greatly outweighs his own, and has lived on long after his creator's death. Gull has done the same for Jack the Ripper, creating a figure who casts a shadow deep in the twentieth century. I think that's the significance of Gull's visions of the future, which begin during the killing of Anne. He is looking at the world that his actions will ultimately bring about, a world where reality is malleable by leaders who can control the media.

The murder scene is once again deeply powerful, and the final moments show the Jack the Ripper figure beginning to assert his power. At this point, Gull has lost control, his actions have begun to inspire others to worship this deity he has conjured. Gull himself may be a left brained patriarchal man, seeking to preserve traditional societal order, but the deity he has conjured is inspiring irrational fear. Science is rendering the old gods obsolete, but in Jack he creates a new incarnation of those old figures. People do not believe in Jack as a god, but that doesn't matter. He still exerts the same fear that the old gods did, he creates an archetypal figure, the serial killer, who will exert fear far beyond the man's lifetime.

Heroes - 'One Giant Leap' (1x03)

This show continues to impress with another strong hour. Three episodes in, we seem to have all the major players set, and their seperate plot strands are gradually moving together. I get the sense that this show will be different from your usual series in that there's not going to be a set status quo. At this point, all the characters are seperate, but if they meet up, which seems like it'll happen fairly quickly, possibly by the November nuclear event or at least by the end of the first season, and once they're together the show will have to radically alter its structure and provide a more concerete objective for the heroes.

As I've mentioned before, this reminds me of Carnivale. That was a show with a split structure that slowly brought its characters together. Carnivale made a big point of its slow pace, which became frustrating by the middle of the second season. That's why it bothers me to see people complain that the plot here is moving too slow, it's in the third episode! We have to understand the characters in their own context or their meeting won't have much meaning. Carnivale never got a third season, so it's unclear how the show would have proceeded from the meeting of all the characters at the end of the second season. Supposedly, there would be a leap forward in time, an idea that would be interesting for this series to do. After a couple of seasons, they could jump forward to a world where more people are super powered and it's gradually restructuring society.

I was glad to see that the show got a full season pick up, and is getting generally good ratings. This show has so much potential, I hope the creators get to tell the whole story they have in mind. I haven't read much on the behind the scenes aspects, but I do hope that they have a definitive ending in mind, and are willing to cut off the show when they reach that point.

The issue with this split story format is that some are better than others. Niki's stuff is still weak and Nathan doesn't have much going on. However, the rest are all interesting. And, even in the lesser storylines we still get the occasional fantastic moment, like the cut from Peter and Simone kissing to the artist looking at the drawing of the two of them, a really well done visual and emotional moment.

Hiro is still the highlight and I love the dynamic with him and his friend. The setpiece with him saving the girl was really well done. Also, the idea that they're following this comic from the future as a guideline for how to live in the present is fantastic, very Morrison. It's also a great metaphor for the idea that these people have a special destiny. For him, it was literally written, and how he will deal with his powers now that he's reached the end of the book.

Greg Grunberg's Matt also has some good stuff. I like the lack of sensationalism about his powers, it's just something that he's developed. The scene where Sylar forces Clea Duvall to almost shoot herself was fantastic. I do hope that Clea sticks around, since she's a great actress and will perhaps justify my endless comparison of the show to Carnivale.

Claire is the other standout character so far. It's a bit contrived that she continually suffers mortal injuries, but my fanwank is that her bones are more malleable due to the healing process, so this spike might go through her head whereas it would only bump a normal person. The rape attempt was pretty intense, though, as with Veronica Mars, I take issue with using rape as a way to raise the stakes in the story. Though, it fits better with this show's tone than with Veronica's. And that final scene with her was great.

So, the show continues to roll along. Other than Battlestar, this is the show I'm most interested in right now. It's surprising that a network would commission a show like this, and it's great that it's been so successful. But that's a great example of how TV has changed, we're in the medium's golden age right now.

Gilmore Girls - 'Lorelai's First Cotillion' (7x03)

This episode was the best of the season so far. I think Rosenthal's writing team is getting more accustomed to the characters' voices and is less self conscious about trying to squeeze in a setpiece that feels like classic Gilmore. However, it's not got the tightly focused character trials of the past two seasons, instead the characters seem more subject to the needs of the plot. That's the major difference between a soap opera and a drama, a drama takes it plots organically from the characters' issues, while a soap chooses instead to manipulate its characters into sensational plots.

The episode's basic thesis, that Lorelai has lived her whole life based on rebelling against Richard and Emily is one of the critical themes of the series. It's been ridiculous at times that she is so concerned about what they think, but they're critical to the show, and the antagonism is necessary. However, it might be interesting to show her trying to reconcile the two parts of her life and come to terms with her upbringing. A relationship with Christopher would be the fulfillment of her parents' ultimate wish, that she finally build a nuclear family for Rory.

Unlike a lot of people, I think a Lorelai/Christopher relationship is just as valid a direction for her as being with Luke. The show circa season five was presenting her narrative as one that led towards Luke. However, if you look back to season two, she was all set to get together with Christopher, it was only Sherri's pregnancy that disrupted it. That was one of the dramatic high points of the series, and I think it's still a largely unresolved issue.

Christopher has been messed around with a bit due to the needs of the plot. By allying him with Emily in season, he became an antagonist to Lorelai, however, his general arc over the series has been an acceptance of responsibility and commitment. I'm a big fan of Luke, but I do think that last season's events provided Lorelai with sufficient motivation to move on from him. Plus, from a dramatic point of view, this storyline has a lot of potential.

The structure of this season has been designed to put Lorelai in more comedic situations, as opposed to last year where she went through her extended depressed period. So, we get the story of the cotillion along with the dramatic stuff that closes the episode. On the one hand, this lets the show maintain a tone closer to its earlier years, however, I think it undermines Lorelai's arc by denying her a consistency of mood. The cotillion was meant to show Lorelai that doing what her parents want her to do isn't all bad, leading her to call Christopher at the end of the episode.

This episode benefitted from the fact that the best supporting characters, the elder Gilmore and Lane's crew, were featured. Lane's stuff was entertaining, but I still think the arc is really misguided. From a practical standpoint, it makes no sense for them to go through with having this kid if they both really don't want to. That they don't even bring up the alternative is a bit weird, though I suppose that wouldn't fit with the show's tone. That's why the whole storyline was misguided. But, I do like Lane and Rory having scenes together again, they barely saw each other for all of season six.

So, it was a pretty strong episode, however I think the show has a major problem, and that's the lack of a guiding vision. Without the Palladinos, it's difficult to accept these character arcs as the characters' actual direction. I don't know where they would have taken Lorelai, but I feel like it would have been a more organic, subtle development than what's going on here. However, this was the best episode of the season, and hopefully this trend of increasing quality will continue.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Inland Empire - No Spoilers

If I know I'm going to see a movie, I hate hearing plot details in advance. So, I'll start off with a completely spoiler free recounting of my opinion on the film. Then I'll do a seperate post with in depth analysis, and try to unpack what the film is doing. Contrary to what some reviewers might tell you, there is a logic to this film, and out of the many disparate parts, there's enough for every viewer to make a structure that works for them.

I loved the film. After seeing it, I was energized and happy that something so unique and powerful was brought into the world. However, that's not to say that the film is perfect. The first hour or so is problematic for a number of reasons. One is the pacing, there's a lot of fat still on the film, I think you could easily lose ten minutes of the first hour without a problem. Once you get to a certain transition point, everything picks up and the film flows amazingly for the final two hours. The film is very fragmented, but that means that Lynch gets to indulge in moments of pure visual cinema. There's a lot of recurriing images and motifs from his previous stuff, but it's played in such a way that it's still fresh. And, particularly towards the end, there's a series of sublime moments to rival Club Silencio or Laura and Cooper in the red room.

One of the big issues surrounding the film is Lynch's use of digital video. It doesn't look like film, and I don't think he's trying to make it look like film. The film's first chunk will have the haters feeling validated, since there's some pretty ugly stuff that's also poorly composed. These shots wouldn't look good on film and I'm not sure what he was thinking with them. The wider shots don't play as well in DV, but closeups are gorgeous and a lot of the night photography has a grit and authenticity that you couldn't get with the massive lights needed for night film shoots. After a shaky start, things settle down, and it looks much better as the film goes on. In the moments where the film succeeds, the aesthetic supports its thematic intentions, when things aren't working so well, you're more aware of the issues. I feel like this is a film that will look better on DVD, because the PD-150 just isn't meant to be blown up to theatrical size. But, as I said, the majority of stuff looks pretty good, and some is absoultely fantastic, rivaling the best images Lynch has ever produced.

On the whole, my reaction to the film is similar to how I felt about Revenge of the Sith. In both cases, we've got directors who are serving their personal vision and producing a film that has an ambition and power that's nearly unparalleled. However, they both also stumble on some basic things, making the films an easy target for criticism. I'm sure many people will be saying the film makes no sense, is way too long and looks like shit. And, to an extent, all these criticisms are true. But, I think the moments of wonder far outweigh these flaws, and in the final assessment, this film is a totally unique, extremely powerful vision, that pushes Lynch's trademark themes and emotional concerns further than they've ever gone before, creating a film that's unlike anything else I've ever seen, or heard. The sound design in this thing was imposing and powerful.

After the screening, we were pointed to the balcony where Lynch, Laura Dern and Justin Theroux were sitting, positioned much like the blue haired lady from the end of Mulholland Dr. I didn't realize they'd all be there, so it was a nice bonus. In the Q&A Lynch talked a lot about the digital process. The film was shot over a period of three years, developing the script as they went along. He started out using the PD-150 like a toy, but gradually saw the beauty of the images and decided to shoot a film on digital. He stuck with the 150 because that was what first attracted him to digital, though I'm guessing he'll use a higher end camera on the next project. For that next project, he said he wants to use a script.

When asked whether the film has a concrete explanation/linear narrative, as Mulholland Dr. did, Lynch said "Yes." Lynch has talked about how he had a specific vision of what Lost Highway meant, but it differed from co-writer Barry Gifford. However, he has no desire to talk about his own interpretations of the work, because the real joy is in relating to the film on your own terms.

The questions were all pretty interesting, and thankfully no one asked him for an explanation of everything. The audience seemed pretty into the film, though there were a couple of walkouts. However, I got the sense it was mostly Lynch faithful there. I feel like this movie won't play with most people in a general audience, it's too demanding and idiosyncratic. It certainly won't have the success of Mullholand Dr.

After the Q&A, Lynch hung out and signed stuff and answered more questions. I asked him about the Twin Peaks season two DVDs, and he said that the 5.1 mix is done and they're sounding great. And they should be coming soon. Same for the Fire Walk With Me deleted scenes, which he said were coming. I hadn't heard of any progress on this front, but maybe there was an arrangement with the producers of the show DVDs. At least there's still hope. Lost Highway has been color timed and is ready for DVD release, but there's no progress on actually gettiing it released. Lynch was great, ignoring a staffer's request that he get going, he continued to sign stuff for a long time after. This was a huge contrast to the last time I saw him, during his maharishi promo tour. I got my program signed, and also asked him another question about the film's closing credits, which are different from his previous, but I don't want to spoil that. He also said that the film will probably be coming out in November or December, and considering today's announcement that he's distributing the film himself, he'd be the one to know.

If ever there was a film to disribute oneself, this'd be it. It's a very difficult film and isn't likely to make a lot of money. But, it deserves to find an audience, and hopefully Lynch will get it out to a lot of people. I know I would love to watch the film again, as soon as possible. There's so much in there, and I think it'll be debated as fiercely as Mulholland Dr. was.

Inland Empire - Spoilers

If you haven't seen the film, I'd reccomend going in cold. Read as little as possible. But, if you have, or if you just don't care, read on for what will be the deepest analysis of this film yet to be done! Or at least deeper than any of the other stuff I've read on the web so far. It's a bit rambling, this is my raw reaction to the film.

A couple of weeks ago I saw The Science of Sleep, a film that feels like a more abstract remake of Michel Gondry's own Eternal Sunshine. It forsakes the polished, Hollywood look of Eternal in favor of a grittier, more abstract narrative that's harder to follow, but rewarding in its own way. Inland Empire does the same thing for Mulholland Dr., at times it feels surprisingly redundant of what Mulholland did, but there's so much other stuff going on, it becomes a unique entity all its own. I would not have thought that you could create a film that would make Mulholland Dr. look tame and mainstream, but that's what this does, the sheer force of its abstract, emotion driven narrative leaves the highly structured dual worlds of previous Lynch films in the past.

The opening sequence is astonishing, drawing you into the film primarily through the booming bass of the ambiient soundtrack. I love the reveal of the massive title, as well as the recurring image of the needle on the record player, a throwback to Twin Peaks. There are so many throwbacks to previous Lynch films here, it can become almost a where's Waldo search, but at this point, I consider Lynch's films to take place in a shared narrative universe. So, much like you can't fault Tim Burton for making another film about a pale outsider protagonist in a world filled with striped black and white, Lynch owns the domain of red curtains, heavy blue lighting, strobes and fragmened women.

From there we jump to a brutal near rape of a Polish prostitute, which leads into scenes from Rabbits. This part of the film is quite good, the abstraction of the faces in the opening scene likely a comment on the mutability of identity, a critical theme in all of Lynch's work. The image of the woman crying as she watches TV is very loaded, and also classic Lynch. In FWWM and Mulholland Dr., the protagonists cry while watching a live performance. Here, the woman cries while watching a TV image, a comment on the use of digital photography? That's possible, but I think it's more designed to tie in with the idea of film as dream.

The way I saw the film's structure is as follows: This woman, who watches the film, was the star of the previous version of the Blue Tomorrows film. In the film, there is a thin line between acting and reality, so her life seemingly merged with that of the character. She observes Laura Dern, a woman who is a fantasy version of herself. So, Nikki/Sue is a composite figure built from the real life of this brutalized Polish prostitute and the imagined life of Nikki, American movie star. However, unlike Mulholland Dr., I would hesitate to assign a simple real/imaginary dichotomy to any of this, there's a kind of symbiosis between the two characters, just as the Polish woman is seen watching/imaginging Laura Dern, Nikki's immersion in the role seems to have to put her in touch with the spirit of the woman who acted in the film before her. The two are symbiotic, and it's in their meeting that the narrative world exists.

So, like Mulholland Dr. the film begins in a kind of fantasy world. Here, Nikki is a successful actress, about to return to the top. The scene with Grace Zabriskie, much as I love her, is the weakest in the film. It's meant to be slow, but it winds up taking forever, with not enough content. I see Grace as someone in the tradition of Philip Gerard, The Cowboy and particularly Louise Bonner from Mulholland Dr., a person with access to higher dimensional powers and a picture of the overall shape of the world. I wish there was a transcript of this movie somewhere, because I'm sure what she says ties in thematically with what went on after, but I can't remember it well enough to analyze it. However, she does cause a shift in perception for Nikki, throwing her into the future through the shift to the other couch.

This leads us to the glory/hollowness of fame sequence, where we observe Nikki and Devon going through the basic rituals of being a star. Notable things here are the hyper-masculineness of Devon and his crew, as well as the difference between Nikki's friends here and the gang of women that crops up around her later in the film. One of Lynch's main preoccupations, in both this film and Mulholland Dr., is the way that Hollywood destroys the dreams and lives of young women who go there seek stardom. But this is her time at the top, where she finds only hollowness and facade. I was surprised to see William H. Macy make an appearance in the film, seemingly reprising his 30s radio announcer character from Seabiscuit.

This whole opening chunk is, for me, the weak part of the film. I've read reviews, mostly the negative ones, that say the film goes off the tracks after the first hour, and that shows that the first hour is the most narrative driven. It's not totally conventional, but things go ahead pretty much linearly, stopping occasionally to play with distinctions between film and reality, as in the veranda conversation between Billy and Sue.

The most important notion for the rest of the film is the idea that the movie they're engaged in is the remake of a Polish film. As we proceed, we see Nikki getting lost in the role, and gradually becoming unable to distinguish the fiction from the reality. However, this is not an original reality, she is going down a path that has previously killed someone. The scene where she says "Our lives are just like the script" is really effective and gives you a sense of her loss of perspective.

I'd place this film into a loose trilogy with Fire Walk With Me and Mulholland Dr., all films that deal with women under extreme stress who experience degrees of psychosis and dissolving identity. Inland Empire only confirms FWWM as the major turning point of Lynch's career. Before that, all his films featured male protagonists and fairly straightforward narrative structures. Even Eraserhead is fairly straightforward story wise, if difficult to decipher due to the heavy symbolism involved. But, from FWWM on, we've gotten an increasingly subjective view of reality, with fractured scenes and moments depicting the characters' psyches rather than the real world they inhabit.

Laura Dern has a look that's very similar to Naomi Watts in Mulholland Dr., in a few shots they're virtually indistinguishable. He loves deep red lipstick, blue eyeshadow and clearly defined eyelashes. Lynch's 'good' females are almost always blondes. This film doesn't explicitly engage with the blonde/brunette dichotomy he's so fond of, except for the Asian woman's speech about her friend who wears a blonde wig and looks like a movie star in it. Here, the idea of movie star is a persona you can put on and pretend to be, but, it's all an illusion.

Things proceed in a fairly straightforward manner until Devon and Nikki have sex. The lighting in this scene, the really heavy blue, recalls Club Silencio from Mulholland Dr. In Lynch's films, strobing blue light marks the transition between realities, and this scene is a great application of that. It's one of the most striking scenes in the film, and is another moment where a character says that they're going to be some place in the future, then all of a sudden they are there. In this film, there's no distinction between thought and reality, characters move through space and time like a person moves through his/her memories, fragments of everything hanging together, cropping up in the most unlikely places.

Nikki, now known as Sue, is first seen passing through the door on the film set. This indicates that she now exists in a fictional realm. The way the rest of the film plays, this entire episode could stem from Nikki's imagination, or, Nikki could be an invention of Sue. The film seems to be a recurring event within reality, something that entraps its actors into a cycle of destruction as the line between actor and character becomes indistinct.

I hesitate to approach this film in the same way as Mulholland Dr. or even Lost Highway, where you come up with a basic explanation, then sculpt to fit what happens in the film. Here, there's so many layers of reality in play, I feel it's better to follow emotional logic. I'm sure you could come up with a valid explanation for the events, but I don't think one is required. I didn't feel a need to "solve the puzzle" at the end of the movie, which is what Mulholland prompts in a lot of people. After seeing MD, I wanted to find an answer, but, either I've grown or the film is different, and now I'm happy to just accept what happened on its own terms. That's not to say it shouldn't be analyzed, rather analysis can't be based around trying to fit everything into a set framework.

Anyway, at first the new setting is a challenge, but gradually enough is revealed that you can piece it into a decent narrative. Sue's monologue to the mysterious guy is near the end of things. She begins as part of a family with a husband and son. However, her son dies and her husband becomes abusive, then eventually leaves to go off with some Polish circus buddies. I think the Polish elements are designed to show the bleed between the Polish woman and Sue/Nikki, this whole world is a reality shared between the two of them.

Though the world of Sue also reflects Nikki's. She's got a jealous husband, who is apparently jealous for a reason. We don't know enough about the movie that they're filming to understand what's drawn from the film and what's drawn from life. Sue seems to be a 'real' person, while Billy remains his fictional self.

I recognized the trailer where Sue lives from the 'Room to Dream' DVD, which also features a scene that didn't make it into Inland Empire, where some of the girls sing a song in a Lynchian way. The scene wasn't very good, so I'm glad it didn't make the cut.

During this time, Sue spends a lot of time wandering around in her apartment, which bleeds into a backstage area. I love these wandering scenes, I think they're very Lynch, and some of the strobe effects he uses are really intense. A lot of films use similar techniques to make you jump, but here I was scared on a deeper level. Some of the images he uses hit deep and frighten you on some kind of subconscious level.

While wandering, Sue encounters new friends, to replace Nikki's stylish twosome. Now, she's got a posse of Polish prostitutes. In most of these scenes, she's placed at a distance, likely seeing in them a reflection of herself, as things go worse, this is what she's headed towards. The girls talk about "tits and ass," reemphasizing the idea that Hollywood values women based solely on their physical qualities. Of course Lynch has one of them raise her shirt for no particular reason so that the others can comment on her breasts. Hey, it's his perogative. I do like how these girls didn't look like typical Hollywood people, you could really believe that they would be turning tricks out on the street.

From there, there's a startling jump cut to...a performance of the Locomotion! I was not expecting that, but it's one of the most fun moments in the film. There's a ton of heavy sound design, but I would have liked a bit more score. The moments where music is used are great, Lynch remains a master of creating a mood via song.

Sue is getting more frazzled, leading up to her journey to the Axxon club. This is another quintessentially Lynch scene, and I would have actually liked to spend a bit more time there. However, she passes through the curtains and up to deliver her monologue upstairs. Throughout the film, Laura Dern is phenomenal. She has to work such intense emotional territory, without a clear picture of her character of the film in general. But, it works and she equals Naomi Watts' stunning work in Mulholland Dr. The monologue is particularly notable, really brutal stuff.

As the film progresses, we get a recurring motif of phone calls or incidents that are shown from one side first, then shown again from a different perspective. Sue's appearance on the stage is a great example of this, as well as the various interactions with the Rabbitsverse. It's really effective in creating a sense of unity to this intimidatingly large work.

The part of the film that represents the biggest growth for Lynch is Sue's collapse on the streets. He does a great job of making the L.A. streets into an alien dimension, populated by burnt out, broken people. Sue throwing up blood on to the Star may be a bit obvious, but it's a very effective image nonetheless. This leads to the fantastic monologue about Niko, the prostitute with a hole in her vaginal wall. I didn't think the subtitles were necessary here, but the fact that Lynch put them on indicates that what she says is absolutely critical to the film. Niko's story is the ultimate Holllywood dejection tale, she falls to the status of hooker, is abused some more, and ultimately loses that which is essentially female. Yet, when she puts on a blond wig, she can still pretend she's a star. And I love the way her companion punctures the drama by saying "Who wants to hear about this shit?"

This segment makes literal what was symbolic in Mulholland Dr., Diane's fear that she would become a bum on the street. Here, Sue reaches that bottom, all her promise used up and her life exhausted. It's a very powerful scene, and I felt a bit cheated when we pulled back to reveal it as a staged occurence. It's odd to puncture such a sincere emotional moment in that way.

The last chunk of the film continues to play with perception and layers of reality. Sue wanders into a movie theater showing herself on the screen, recalling her previous line about watching her own life like it's in a theater where the lights went down. This also connects her with the Polish woman. The end of the film is backed by an ethereal vocal track, bringing back the feel of the final scene of FWWM. Sue and the Polish woman finally meet, and in that moment the Polish woman sees her reality on the screen. She kisses Sue, who then fades away.

I don't see this as sexual at all, it's more an expression of love and sympathy. For the Polish woman, Sue/Nikki was a fantasy figure she was able to connect with through the act of watching the TV. However, once the reality she's watching becomes her own, she's able to reconcicle her issues and her fantasy is no longer required. I'd have to see it again to see exactly how things play out, but the impression I got was that the Sue storyline was a manifestation of her fears, her worst nightmare of the life she could have. However, at the end she finds herself reunited with her husband and son, in a moment of happiness that recalls Dorothy at the end of Blue Velvet.

For Sue/Nikki, she looks to where her dark future began and sees a more innocent version of herself. The music and general emotion of the moment leads me to feel that she too has went through this nightmare and come out the other side able to see a purer version of herself. Both women experience a collective apocalypse and come out stronger on the other side. Rather than Mulholland Dr., where reality is the nightmare, here, it is the fantasy that houses darkness. This fantasy is embodied in the film, which killed both its leads. To act in this film is to go through total destruction of oneself, the film follows the two women to their lowest ebb, only to reveal that this is not what's real, their worlds are still intact, and the best of them is what survives.

So, thinking about it has led me to an explanation that feels right. In the film, we follow two actresses who signed on to appear in a film based on a cursed Polish folk tale. By acting in the film, they become absorbed into its world of darkness and lose the ability to separate the film from the reality. We see Nikki starting to succumb to this during the pre-blue change scenes. At the end, they make it through the darkness and we find that her 'death' on the street frees her from the spell of the film and frees her to go live her own life. When we next see her Nikki is wearing a blue dress, much like the one that Laura Dern wore in Blue Velvet, and it's meant to evoke angelic purity. Much like Laura Palmer, both of them go through all this awfulness and finds peace in the end.

Following this sublime ending, we get something a bit weird, a dance scene over the closing credits. This is usually reserved for comedy films, but it winds up working wonderfully here. I asked Lynch why he chose to include the scene, considering it so radically alters your mood leaving the theater, and he said "It just felt right." I'd agree, after all the film takes you through, it's nice to have a bit of fun. I like the idea that this party just all of a sudden rose up in the place where the film ended.

Plus, the scene is full of easter eggs for Lynch fans, throwbacks to his previous work. We pan over from the one legged woman to find Laura Haring just chilling. There's a monkey leaping around who looks exactly like the 'Judy' monkey from Fire Walk With Me, Laura Dern is wearing her Blue Velvet dress, and we've even got a guy sawing at a log, referencing both Twin Peaks and Industrial Symphony No. 1. This is all set to a rocking song, with all kinds of strobe going on. It's a whole lot of fun, and actually has some of the film's most dynamic visuals.

So, I think this was a thoroughly successful film. There's a few issues, but those could easily dissipate on the second viewing. Even though some scenes and themes were very close to Mulholland Dr., like the homeless thing, I feel like the looser visual and narrative styles made the old Lynch tropes feel fresh. I've called Mulholland a Lynch greatest hits album, taking pieces of everything he's done and combining them into one great film. Inland uses a lot of the same things, but feels fresh and exciting. It's pure Lynch, his ideas unfiltered by the need to script and structure, and that's the source of the film's greatest successes and its failures. But, I honestly don't think this film would work in a more traditional style, it would be too close to MD, the digital liberated Lynch to go as weird as he pleases, and it's exhilirating to watch.

Battlestar Galactica - 'Occupation/Precipice' (3x01 & 3x02)

Fuck, that was an amazing piece of art. Watching these episodes, I was thankful that something so powerful and challenging and well made exists. I really enjoyed the first two seasons of Galactica, but this is the first episode to recapture the feeling of total apocalyptic feeling crushing down around the characters in the way that was so shocking in the miniseries. It's full of devestating sadness and very powerful, charged images. Not since the glory days of The X-Files have I seen a series come out of the gate this strong.

The silent except for music, cutting between characters opening is a technique that's used during a lot of the series' more important episodes, most notably the first season finale. Here, we see fragments of the new world, brief glimpses of the characters in the reality that's been built in the gap between seasons. It's a world where everything's going wrong, the humans on New Caprica are oppressed, those on Galactica feel totally powerless and even the cylons are dissatisfied with their lack of success in molding the human population to their ideal. The flashes of light and dark are extremely evocative, putting us into the mood of the story before we even know what's going on in terms of the narrative.

Throughout the episode, the production is just phenomenal. I love the look here, the high contrast lighting and oppressive greenish tint. It's not at all pretty, and it's a bit uncomfortable to watch it, but it's critical in establishing the mood of the world. The music was also fantastic, building tension in a way that didn't stand out as emotionally manipulating. The heavy, almost tribal drums were very effective, particularly in the finale of Precipice, when Callie was running away from the firing squad.

Let me talk about that scene right now, because it encapsulates so much of what makes the episode totally unique and powerful. After watching Schindler's List, I wrote up a blog about the trouble making films about real events. Basically, when you make a film about the holocaust or 9/11, you're bringing so much cultural baggage that it's impossible to evaluate the story on its own merits. That's the beauty of genre, the ability to twist reality into a form that can be more objectively evaluated, and also make a more cutting commentary on the reality of events.

There's two primary metaphors at work here. One is playing this scenario as a stand in for the mess we're in Iraq. Basically, the cylons went in to try to bring their idea of freedom to these people, but wound up getting caught up in a cycle of violence that has thrown their mission awry. Some of the cylons are still idealistic, but most didn't have noble intentions from the start. That puts the heroes of our show in the position of the Iraqi insurgents, bombing US military troops and trying to retake their own messed up country. It's a bold statement, and the sort of thing you just couldn't get away with in a show actually set in Iraq. But the points are the same, and with this storyline the show has reannounced itself as the most politically relevant show on television.

The other key metaphor is to Vichy France. I wasn't thinking in those terms until the final sequence which plays up Nazi parallels in a really boldly deliberate way. Zarek and Laura are trucked off in a car, and you could clearly see some kind of tattoo on his wrists. Then they're all lined up in front of a ditch and the cylons open machine gun fire. This is an example of taking a culturally powerful image and using it to support the story rather than being the story in and of itself. I've always felt that war movies should be set in the future, because then you can show the horror of war without having to worry about the need to represent a specific historical reality. That's what this does, and it's the first piece of TV I've seen that has thrown the characters into such total chaos, a bleak reality with only a little bit of hope for the future.

One of the most interesting threads in the episode is Kara's imprisonment. I love when she stabs Leoben, it's her fierceness that makes the character so interesting. On the one hand, I was a bit disappointed that just as I was reveling in the character's violent abandon, they bring in a kid to potentially soften her up. But, I think there's a lot of potential in that arc, and as long as they don't domesticate Kara, it should be cool. I think the final moment, of her holding Leoben's hand is incredibly creepy, and yet warm. This is a guy who's so desperate to feel love, he's waited four months just on the faith that eventually she will say that she loves him. The thing that makes the cylons work is their ambiguity, even though they imprison the humans, they're still desperately jealous of their capacity for feeling, their capacity for love. I'm a little unclear if Leoben is the father, it's never been established what's going on with the cylon equipment, but if they built this whole thing to make cylon/human hybrids, the possibility must exist.

Another really interesting thing was watching Caprica Six and Sharon's distaste for the way the cylon occupation has been run. They had noble intentions, which have been totally lost. I think keeping this element of the cylons is essential, if they're just generic evildoers, the story doesn't really work, but the if the cylons really are trying to help the humans, then there's a tasty level of ambiguity. Looking ahead, I feel like the two of them could eventually be the ones to help the human resistance and the cylons find a truce.

That leads me to the other Sharon. The scene with her and Adama was wonderful, you get the sense that Adama is totally exasperated with the people he's working with, sick of their incompetence and unprofessionalism, his son most of all. Sharon is the only one who understands him, and it's a great scene when he gives her the mission, placing his trust in her, a trust I feel is not at all unjustified. That was the highlight of the Galactica stuff, which was generally the weaker part of the episode. The one moment that felt false to me was the Adama/Lee heart to heart. Lee just never really worked as a character for me, though I do like his new smart aleck fat man persona.

Basically, the season finds everyone on the show pushed to the edge. Just on their faces you can see that there's not much left for them to give, the cylons are gradually wearing them down, be it Tigh, who has given up on moral principles and is going with a win now, worry later strategy. Baltar is totally powerless, retreating further into his own head, we've reached the point where characters consider suicide the only viable option. The bombing at the end of the first episode is really disturbing, and it was jarring to cut from the floating dust and bodies to an upbeat commercial. More than any show I've ever seen, this one feels like it needs a minute to ease you into the commercial.

Watching this episode was almost humbling for me, I felt like I wasn't worthy of seeing something so good on a weekly TV series, but this is just another example of the possibilities of television storytelling being radically altered. This is the most probing commentary I've seen on the Iraq war, and the war on terror in general, from any piece of fiction since 9/11 happened. It's not too soon for it, now is the time to ask why our country is being turned into a police state, with no moral concerns whatsoever. We are the cylon occupation government, and it's their folly that's created the chaos that is Iraq, that is New Caprica.

And in the midst of all this chaos, we have characters that I really care about. The intensity of the action has made the characters even more sympathetic and relatable. In the miniseries, there was the sense that everyone was in danger, and anything could happen. That wore away as the series went on and settled into a predictable pattern, but this season premiere destroys all existing patterns and returns the show to a world where there is no security for everyone. By making things so bleak, it makes the victories that much rewarding, and the danger for our characters really suspenseful. This episode had me fully engaged, and I can't wait to see where the series goes from here. This is the most successful reinvention of an existing series I've ever seen, and easily the series' best episode.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Weekend Update

Inland Empire

Tomorrow I'll be seeing David Lynch's new film, Inland Empire. The buzz out of Venice wasn't great, but the reviews I've seen from New York are a lot more promising. I've got a vague idea of what it's about, but I'm glad I haven't seen a trailer or a lot of pictures, it'll be a truly fresh experience without any prior expectations. I saw Mulholland Dr. in the summer of 2003, and since then I've seen everything else Lynch has ever done, so I can't really say I've been waiting for this as long as some other people, but it's still much anticipated. I'll be going in depth on the film tomorrow night.

Brothers and Sisters

I watched the first episode of this show, largely because it starred Rachel Griffiths. Her work as Brenda on Six Feet Under was some of the best acting I've ever seen. For me, she was indistinguishable from the character, and it was jarring to hear her speak in an Australian accent on the behind the scenes stuff. The weird thing about this show is that it's got the same premise and setup as Six Feet Under. A prodigal child, in this case Calista Flockhart stands in for Nate, returns to their family and the father dies, throwing the family business into chaos. The pilot was alright, but the similarities to SFU only made it even more clear how lacking this show was next to Six Feet. After only one episode, I felt like I had a clear picture of who the Six Feet Under characters were, and I was eager to learn more about them. Here, there's a bunch of caricatures, and even Rachel was made subject to some weak soap operay storytelling. I wound up just remembering the good times with Brenda during the hour.


A more successful series for an SFU alum is Dexter, starring Michael C. Hall. I was always a bigger fan of the Nate/Brenda stuff, so it's easier for me to accept Hall in another role. Occasionally I would be like, why isn't he gay, but generally speaking he sold me on this guy as a totally different character. Now, that's a lot easier for him to do because Dexter is a pretty distinct character. The basic premise is that he's a forensics profiler who does vigilante killings in his spare time. But, on a character level, the idea is that he's a hollow shell who doesn't feel anything and just fakes all the surface emotions that people present. The end of the first episode leads us to believe that the series' arc will revolve around him gradually developing emotions, throwing his world into chaos. Hall is great, and it's nice to see Julie Benz doing good work as well. I'm not sure if the series will work for the long term, but there's definitely a couple of good seasons in the premise. That said, it was a bit weird that they chose to have a bald, black cop be Hall's antagonist in this role, I kept thinking, Keith?

Studio 60 - Episode 3

I loved the first episode, wasn't huge on the second, but the third brought me back. This one had a bit more scope than two, and was just more fun to watch. I think the sketches worked better, though I doubt that a network executive's DUI eight years prior would be such a big story. I'll be back next week, though the show's ratings aren't too promising for a long run. At least Heroes got picked up for the full season.

State of TV

I really hope no one brings out the old, "There's nothing good on TV" now because this fall has to be one of the deepest TV seasons ever. I'm watching something like eight shows a week, and that's without sampling shows like The Nine and Friday Night Lights that received massive critical acclaim. We're at a point in the medium where people are taking risks and delivering better than film writing and direction on a weekly basis. And I've still got the Battlestar Galactica premiere waiting to be watched.

Phoenix - United

I listened to United a couple of days ago and it was my best listen to the album ever. I fell in love with Phoenix's Alphabetical, and United was always weaker for me. But I've given it some more attention lately and the two albums are now pretty equal for me. I think a lot of it was hearing the songs live, which made me really appreciate how good they are. 'Too Young' and 'If You Ever Feel Better' are perfectly constructed pop songs and 'Funky Squaredance' is an unparalleled house/rock/disco epic. I particularly like how the guitar in that songs sounds exactly like the guitars in Daft Punk's 'Digital Love.' Other lesser known tracks like 'City on Fire' and 'Embuscade' are equally engaging. I hope they bring it back to the warmer keyboard sound for their next album, 'It's Never Been Like That' was good, but not unique. I've never heard anything else like United or Alphabetical.

Upcoming Dates of Note

10/9 - Inland Empire at NYFF
10/14 - Marie Antoinette at NYFF
10/15 - Patti Smith at CBGB's
10/25 - Seven Soldiers #1 Released
10/27 - Babel Released
11/22 - The Fountain Released