Thursday, November 16, 2006

Rescue Me: The Second Season

I finished watching this today and it's pretty undeniable that this is a well put together, compulsively viewable series. However, it's one of those things that doesn't have the after viewing appeal of a truly great series, like a Buffy or Six Feet Under. The best works are ones that live on in your head after the episode and demand analysis and discussion. I enjoyed all the episodes of the show, but I never felt a compulsive need to see more. It's certainly a good series, but it never quite makes it to great.

My big issue with the show is that I've seen so much longform TV, I'm starting to get immune to the tricks that every show seems to use, and one of the primary ones is to heap catastrophe after catastrophe on its main characters. The end of this season is emotionally engaging, but feels a bit excessive, having one person get what they want would have provided some contrast, and made what the others go through even more painful. If you just keep making things bad for your characters, there's nowhere to go. Nate in Six Feet Under went through some awful, awful shit, but this was mixed up with some triumphs for the other characters, and an awareness in the character of his bad fate. Using the flaws inherent in long form storytelling to a show's advantage is always a good move, but here, we never make that leap. Instead, the characters remain trapped in patterns of crap and never really look back or forward to reflect on it. It's not that there's no history, it's more that things are forgotten easily once the next plot comes along.

The final episode is a multi-layered assault on everyone in the cast. The most obvious being the inexplicable death of Tommy's son in the penultimate episode. The writers had put themselves in a corner by having Janet and Tommy back together in a happy marriage. I liked the idea that they're both unashamedly using drugs to make the marriage work, and I think there's a lot of dramatic potential in exploring the conflict there. That's why the choice to have their son randomly die doesn't really work, rather than let the characters face the consequences of what they're doing, an outside force comes in and disrupts everything.

This season used a lot of three storytelling devices designed to cheat a story into being special. The child's death is one. This story uses our conception of what it would be like to lose your child rather than any actualy work done on the relationship between Tommy and Connor to get our sympathy. It's a cheap device because they don't have to earn it, all the drama is inherent in the action. It becomes a cure all to throw chaos into the status quo they'd built over the course of the season and an easy way to spin Tommy's arc in a different direction. Does it work at being dramatic? Yes, but that doesn't really excuse it.

Another cheap storytelling trick is the use of a newly discovered sibling. How many sitcoms have had the roguish brother comes to town, and he's gone straight, but just needs to borrow a little money to get his new plan off the ground storyline? Maggie's bit has some of that, but the bigger offender is the Father Murphy storyline. Clearly they wanted to do a story about a pedophile priest, and make us care about the character. Rather than earning a relationship through character development, they do the cheap trick of having Tommy magically have a long lost half brother. This is the same as the return of the old childhood friend, it's a way to circumvent actual storytelling work and instead let the storyline coast on audience assumptions. We accept Tommy caring about the character because of the familial relationship, and I'll admit that the resolution of the storyline is affecting. Yet, it's so exploitative it's hard to endorse it as quality work.

Yet another cheap trick is the pregnancy storyline. Why do shows think it's a good idea to make a character pregnant? That's the ultimate sign that a character has nowhere left to go and the writers decided, hey, why not? See the last two seasons of The X-Files. The pregnancy here isn't as bad as that, but the whole thing with Sheila still felt rather manipulative. I suppose she was meant to be manipulating Tommy through the pregnancy, but it seemed like a hollow way to extend their relationship, and then it disappeared at a time convinient to the plot.

I was about to ponder, why does Sheila stay with her girlfriend despite how bad she's being treated, and discuss this as a plot flaw. But, I think it's intentional and Sheila is the type of person who's totally dependent on her significant other for support. She cannot be alone and she's drawn to very strong people who will direct her life. She loves Tommy more, but stays with Debbie because she is a surrogate. One of the rawest, most powerful scenes is Sheila's tearful crying to Tommy in the street. That's earned emotion. I find the character very frustrating, but there are people like that, so it works.

Anyway, on a more positive note, Tommy does go on a fascinating journey this season. I love his surface cynicism about AA, and the way he actually does accept what they're saying. The scene with Johnny where he's holding the drink is really tense and I like that they didn't go the sensational route of having him go right back to drinking.

Elsewhere, the episode provides more dark times. I think they left a bit too much to the finale, which gave it a car pileup type feel, where you keep getting slammed with plot points and no time to absorb them. Laura's exit felt very abrupt, I would have liked to see more hints of her unhappiness earlier in the season. After the 'twat' incident, she seemed to gain the acceptance of the guys, and it strikes me as cowardly for her to disappear without even saying goodbye. The conflict is always there, but it wasn't played on the surface for a while. To me, it felt like the actress all of a sudden said she wanted off the show and they had to hastily write her out. Again, it makes for an emotional scene, with Franco's crying, but it feels a bit manipulative because it's so quick.

The Lou/Danni plot is also full of issues. Watching this, I immediately thought "she's using him." Then, for a few episodes I was wondering "Is she using him?" Then it was confirmed in the finale. I don't know if the best way to do a plot twist is to make it so obvious the audience questions whether you'll actually go that route. It would have been more interesting, if a bit unrealistic, to have them actually try to have a relationship, and see if Lou could get past her history. Instead we get a scorched Earth approach, clearing all the plot threads out of the way.

I think the show works for the same reason that Garth Ennis' stuff does. It's all about exploring this hyper-masculine world of people who are very tough on the surface, but have feelings underneath. In Preacher, Ennis uses the same ridiculous humor that Leary indulges in, masking the actual melodramatic underpinnings of the narrative. This is a soap opera, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but the gruff surface can mean that the frequent use of stock plots is not as obvious.

The show raises the question, how is it possible to do an ongoing drama series without resorting to layering pain on the characters week after week? It's obviously not easy. I feel like this show needs to let the characters have some more good times and mix in some up stuff with some of the bad stuff. Because bad stuff happens every week, the season finale needs to put things on a ridiculously bad level to stand out. If you let the characters have some good times, the hurt stiings even more.

Even though I criticize the show, I still really enjoyed it. Ongoing stories have the advantage of character familiarity. I like these people and want to know what happens to them, that can outweigh the sometimes cliched plotting. When I lose interest in a show is when it becomes so over the top that any sense of reality in the characters is gone. That hasn't happened here, and I'm hoping that season three will refine things and resolve the issues present here.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Wild At Heart

I first saw Wild at Heart on an old VHS copy, and I didn't particularly like it. It dragged quite a bit, and I never got caught up in the world of the film. I saw it again last year on DVD and liked it more so I bought my own copy and rewatched it again yesterday. My initial opinion has been radically revised, it's a great movie, though a minor work in Lynch's overall canon. Looking at the overall progression of Lynch's career, there's a pretty clear line from Blue Velvet->Twin Peaks->Fire Walk With Me->Lost Highway->Mulholland Dr.->Inland Empire. We see his themes evolve and him move from a straightforward narrative to stories based entirely on dream logic. Wild at Heart has a lot of Lynchian stuff, but feels more like a one off fun project than a critical personal statement.

Wild at Heart is notable for being one of the least complicated Lynch films. A lot of bad stuff happens along the way, but there's very little of the extreme psychological angst that plagues the characters in his FWWM, MD or IE. Sailor and Lula are anchored by their love, and that allows them to pass through their various trials relatively unscathed. It's notable that Lynch basically skips over any sections where they aren't together. Sailor's two prison sentences pass quickly, we never see Lula suffering with her mother, or Sailor's trials in prison. Considering how evil Marietta seems, those six years that Lula is living with her must have been awful. However, that's never even mentioned. The way the film plays, it's like they don't even exist when they're not with each other.

The emotional lowpoints occur when Sailor leaves Lula, trying to do what he thinks is right for her, ignorant of the fact that all she really wants is to be with him. His epiphany at the end is that they're both wild at heart, Lula doesn't want an ordinary, reliable guy, she wants the fire that she and Sailor shares. That fire is wonderfully visualized in the numerous extreme closeups of matches being struck. The fire imagery is some of Lynch's most powerful, and the sound design maximizes the impact. The titles are overflowing with visual and sonic input, I love the way the words Wild at Heart fly towards us and land with a thud in place. It's always interesting to follow directors' font choices, and the font here is the same as in Fire Walk With Me.

The film has an episodic structure, and that structure contributes to most of the issues with the film. Everything up until Big Tuna is really well paced, the editing working on a free associative level, connecting images and characters in a subconscious kind of way. There's so many brilliant moments in the opening, the color drenched sex scenes, the strobe light backed opening of the dance scene and the excessive mise en scene of the Mr. Reindeer scenes. More than any other Lynch film, I think you could criticize this for being weird for weird's sake. The Crispin Glover episode has no particular reason for being in the film, but it works because of the narrative flow. The intercutting between Marietta, her associates and Sailor/Lula means we're not in a strictly organized narrative. I'm still not sure who all the people on the periphery of the story are, and there's no particular reason for them to be there, other than the enjoyment we get from watching the weirdness of the interactions. Harry Dean Stanton's death scene is great stuff, and I love Francis Bay instructing the prostitutes on how to best serve Mr. Reindeer.

The best moment in the film is when Lula and Sailor are cruising down the highway, listening to Chris Isaak's Wicked Game. They encounter Sherilynn Fenn and watch her die. It's very sad and captures the mystery of driving down the street at night. One of Lynch's favorite recurring images is a pair of headlights speeding down the highway, illuminating the yellow lines on the road, and seldom has it been used to better effect than here were the road at night becomes a world isolated from the rest of reality.

The film loses a bit of energy once they got bogged down in the stuff at Big Tuna. I really like the night gathering scene and Bobby Peru's entrance, but after that, Peru becomes too obvious an antagonist. The joy of the film isn't in seeing the characters tested, it's more just being with them on the ride. The scene where Bobby forces Lula to say "Fuck me" is the ultimate violation, with Lula's positive sexual energy being used for destructive ends, however there's no particular consequence to it. Plus, it's tricky moral territory when a scene walks the line of implying that she might actually want to be raped by him. The way it's played, you could easily interpret it that way.

I love the image of Bobby with the stocking over his face, but other than that the robbery sequence feels like something I've seen in a whole bunch of other movies. The other element of the film that feels cliched is the Wizard of Oz references. I get that it's a major film for Lynch, but with the arguable exception of Star Wars, it's the most cliched movie to reference. I suppose one could argue that it's transcended to the level of cultural mythology, but if that's so, we probably don't need the constant verbal references throughout, just the glass ball and Good Witch appearance at the end would work.

The film stumbles again with the structuring of the finale. All the momentum in the film comes from being on the road, and the release from prison stuff just takes too long. It feels like the movie's over, then there's another ten minutes. I don't think this kills the film, it's just that most Lynch movies end on their best moments, and this one burns out before it reaches the finish. But, I think that's an inevitable consequence of the road movie. It's about the journey, so the destination is always going to feel a bit underwhelming. I want to see Lula and Sailor flying down the road, not hanging out with their kid, stalled in traffic. Like Blue Velvet, the ending affirms the American ideal of the nuclear family, but I think it would have been better to drop the kid from the plot.

Jeffery in Blue Velvet is clearly an analogue for Lynch himself. Is Sailor as well? I see him as a fantasy persona, again drawing on 50s mythology, he's the ultra cool greaser, sort of like James from Twin Peaks, only actually cool. He's a juvenile delinquent who's allowed to grow up and actually get a happy ending. So, the film is removed from the stifling morality of most actual road films in the 50s. That's because the world around them has shifted. They're the most normal ones, it's the rest of the world that's totally insane and evil. The film is structured to emphasize the us vs. them quality, it's Sailor and Lula versus this massive conspiracy designed to keep them apart. However, they overcome it and are united together in the end.

The film features a lot of Lynchy moments, the cabaret singer in front of blue curtains, strobe lights, characters representing the essence of evil. However, it's somewhat removed from most of his stuff. The film it's closest to is The Straight Story, which also has a road movie structure, though that one is significantly less Lynch than most of his other stuff. I see Wild at Heart as Lynch at his least serious. Having proven himself with Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, he was ready to just cut loose and do whatever he wanted, forsaking the heavy themes of those two films for just pure adventure. Of course, being David Lynch, his idea of a fun romp is quite different from your average movie like this. There's plenty of great stuff in here and it succeeds in being a wonderfully entertaining movie. Coming off of the heaviness of MD and IE, going for something like this again, a lighter, but still offbeat movie, could be the best way to keep his art moving forward.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

David Cronenberg's Crash

This film has the unfortunate fate of always having to be qualified as "No, not that Crash, the other one." Why is this film "the other Crash"? A large part is because it's one of the odder films you'll ever see, taking Cronenberg's fascination with the fusion of the body and technology to an interesting extreme, erasing the boundaries between the act of driving and the act of having sex.

I haven't seen that much Cronenberg, but the man has a very specific style of directing, and all his films could easily fit into a meta-Cronenbergverse. His shot choice isn't immediately distinctive, but watching this, there was a certain similarity to his other works. His characters frequently have an odd way of interacting with each other, and the people here almost never have a normal conversation. Ballard will say a line and Catherine will say a line, but it's more like seperate monologues than dialogue.

The thing that makes the film work is the same thing that makes Videodrome a success, the way that Cronenberg gradually draws you into a world of deviant behavior. You don't view the film in the way you watch most films, empathizing with the characters and sharing in the struggle. Here, it's more like you're just offscreen, in the same room with the characters, hanging out with them, but still uncertain of why they're doing what they're doing. Much has been made of the idea of the gaze in film, and this certainly emphasizes the voyeuristic. All the characters play to the camera, most notably in the scene with Rosanna Arquette in the car dealership, where she becomes an exhibitionist for all of us. This is made explicit with the dealer's presence, but it's not even needed, we're forced into his role through the construction of the film.

Basically, the characters are all about extremes. Ballard starts out in an odd, but still somewhat conventional relationship. For Catherine, it's at first enough to have sex on a stationary plane, but as the film rolls on, she needs more, and so does James. Here it's the car crash subculture that becomes that obsession. As the film progresses, it's all about raising the stakes, and that means that, for them, sex is all about danger. In the end, her car crashes and rolls over, but the fact that she's still alive means they didn't go far enough. That's why James says "Maybe next time." Vaughan makes the parallels explicit when he says the car crash is not a destructive event, it is a fertilizing one. The ultimate climax would be to die in a crash and experience a brief moment of perfect transendence in the process.

The thing that makes the film odd is that it's completely implausible. Vaughan would almost certainly have died from what he's trying to do, and I don't really see anyone getting a sexual charge from a car crash, at least not for long. So, the entire film is based on a metaphor, substituting car crashes for any sexual hangup. It's also tough because Cronenberg never gives us an outside point of view, no one questions what they're doing, no matter how ridiculous. A normal plot would have Catherine mad at James for what he's doing, but she gets drawn in without a big to do. The characters all connected through their fetish, and it's up to the viewer to judge them.

This subject matter is perfect for Cronenberg. His films almost always deal with the fusion of technology and the human body. So, the medical accsessories, notably Rosanna Arquette's leg braces become more about fetishistic presentation than medical assistance. It's a weird film, and that's a good thing. Watching this, you drift into their world and get lost in something completely other.

Battlestar Galactica - 'A Measure of Salvation' (3x07)

This episode has some issues with its overall narrative construction, but it was incredibly entertaining while I was watching it, and I think that overwhelms the problems that emerge with the ending. And regardless of the specific issues with what went down at the end, the general direction of the series is still very strong, and I'm optimistic about the future.

There were two strands of this episode that I loved. One was Baltar's interrogation stuff. Baltar's stay on the cylon ship has given new freshness to his mental interactions with Six. Last season, they had pretty much exhausted both the comedy and drama of doing scenes that juxtapose Head Six's words with whoever Baltar was really talking to. However, here we see a really striking juxtaposition of pleasure and pain that completely blurs the lines between what's real and what's not.

Watching, we don't know what Baltar is feeling. From doing audio work myself, I know out of context, it becomes pretty easy to confuse cries of pain with cries of sexual pleasure, and this scene makes expert use of that fact. When Baltar's in the chair, he's yelling, but that could just as easily be in reaction to what Six is doing in his head as it is to the pain that D'Anna is inflicting on him. I still love the look of both the ship and the beach in his mind. The color correction maximizes that, a stark contrast between cold blues and rich, warm reds.

These scenes further the idea that this Six is a benevolent force, and once again Baltar is confronted with the will of God. I love the philosophical stuff here, and D'Anna's expression at the end, when she is confronted by Baltar's declaration of love, is great. I love all this cylon basestar stuff and I'm really curious to see how it develops.

The other great element of this episode was the stuff with Helo. There's a lot of dramatic potential in his relationship with Sharon, but we haven't gotten a chance to explore that in a while. This brings it to the forefront, and we see each of them at cross loyalties. Sharon has chosen to serve on Galactica, and will not betray that oath. She would rather let her entire race die than betray Adama. That's only going to make it even more crushing when she finds out what Adama and Roslin did to Hera. I'm guessing that scene will be in episode eleven, and incite some kind of clifhanger for the brief midseason break.

I think this episode works very differently depending on how you feel about the moral question of what to do with the diseased cylons. I've always sympathized with the cylons, and the idea of exterminating them with this bio-weapon is morally objectionable. The thing that most of the human characters on the show won't admit is that the cylons are virtually identical to humans. The differences they have are more cultural than biological. There's more difference between primitive humans and the people on Galactica than there are between the cylons and people on Galactica. To destroy all the cylons might be the prudent military choice, but I would agree with Helo that it's crossing a moral line, and should not be done.

He gets his best material in a long time. I love the difficulty he has dealing with both Sharon's seeming indifference, and the fleet's strong stance in favor of extermination. He's a wild card now, and even more than for Sharon, the knowledge that Adama and Roslin took Hera could destroy him. I'm really curious to see his reaction, will he and Sharon leave Galactica and go to the cylon ship? Hera is there, so it would make sense. And, we would get an interesting reversal where Helo would be forced to decide just how much he really can accept cylon culture.

The show always poses really interesting moral questions. The problem with a really tough moral conundrum is that solving it requires major consequences, or a copout ending. And this ending feels a bit lacking in consequences. Even if they're not going to discipline Helo, there should have been a scene where we get some sense of where Adama and Roslin stand on the actions. I do find it interesting how they have switched roles from where they were at the beginning of the series. Adama's work with Sharon has forced him to reassess the cylons, while Roslin remains generally removed, willing to give the go ahead to exterminate the whole race. I would have liked to have seen some followup on how she feels about making that call.

However, I don't think the lacking ending doesn't preclude this from being a really strong episode. I love the way this season is developing, it's easily the best series on television.