Friday, October 12, 2007

Deadwood and its Secret Fourth Season

I finished watching Deadwood yesterday, a show I constantly enjoyed, but didn’t love in the way that a lot of others did. The third season in particular was brilliant, with the looming menace of Hearst throwing the entire camp into chaos. While I would love to see the promised, but unlikely to happen TV movies, I don’t think it’s quite true that the series had no conclusion. The last episode resolved the Hearst arc, and featured the pull between civilization and the wild that’s been the key motif of the entire series. Yes, it’s more of an Angel go out in battle ending than a definitive conclusion, but I don’t know that any conclusion would have been truly definitive.

Still, conclusion comes in the most unlikely of ways, and, as Milch himself has said, you’re always telling the same story. John From Cincinnati functions as a kind of Earth 2 Deadwood, taking the same character archetypes and central narrative focus, but flinging it a century forward to the present day. The last season of Deadwood put our heroes in conflict with the standardizing force of corporate America, the beginning of a process that continues to this day. It’s notable that as the series begins, the entire JFC crew has been devastated by their encounter with a large corporation that mined their talent and discarded them when it was used up. The Deadwood camp formed around the gold deposits in the town, the community in JFC grows up around the Yosts’ talent.

So, let’s imagine that Hearst had mined all the gold in the camp, then he’d leave and there’d be nothing left but the sort of messy ruins that we see on JFC. How do you rebuild from that? That’s the question that haunts all the characters in JFC, tormented by trouble in their past they have slipped into isolation. On Deadwood, we saw characters pulled out of their lonely isolation and form a community. The third season is all about the crystallization of the bonds in response to an outside threat. JFC has the same central theme, but it treats it in a different way.

In Deadwood, it is the need to survive that forces the characters to unite. Alone in the wild, they are all in peril, like Sophia in the first episode. Brought into a community, they each find their place and gradually form a functioning civilization. By the time of JFC, it’s pretty easy to survive, there is no longer the necessity to band together to survive, but isolation has thrown the characters into depression. That’s why John appears. John is a literal incarnation of the force underlying all of Milch’s work, the force of community that draws people together and allows individuals to become something more through collective effort. Whatever John’s origin, that’s what he does, he brings people together.

John From Cincinnati even offers a solution to the Hearst conflict, with Stinkweed standing in for Hearst. Rather than trying to beat Linc at his own game, as I assumed they would at the start of the season, Butchie and his crew turn Linc to their side and wind up in control of the corporation. The force that threatened to destroy Deadwood is now under the control of the people. Corporations have a huge amount of power, and harnessed for good, they could remake the world. That’s the scenario Milch offers at the end of John From Cincinnati, the destructive forces turned to positive ones.

Ultimately, that’s what I loved about John From Cincinnati. Amidst all the grittiness, there was a real light and hope. This was a show full of joy and happiness, about characters overcoming their problems and coming together. But, because he made it hard, he made it real, it felt genuine. The essential appeal of Milch’s work is this notion that everyone has a place and can be accepted. The characters in Deadwood certainly suffer, but they all have a group of people to support them.

What of the characters? The most obvious parallels are where the same actors reoccur. Milch doesn’t cast them against type, Freddie the drug dealer is what Charlie Utter probably would have been in today’s world, associated with the same vagrant underclass. Same for Trixie and Jerri, she wouldn’t be a whore in the present day, but she has the same power. Obviously, these parallels aren’t the same thing as actually seeing the character arcs resolved, but if you want to understand where the series was going, just consider John a 130 year jump into the future.

It’s frustrating that a lot of people who loved Deadwood seemed reluctant to engage with JFC, when it was as close to a fourth season as we’re going to get. Milch’s new cop series for HBO probably won’t have the same sprawling ensemble cast, he’ll probably reign himself in a bit after two cancellations.

As for Deadwood itself, those final moments were full of tension and in some respects, certainty. The community has asserted itself, and Hearst leaves on their terms. I do think it’s a bit of an anticlimax, that he all of a sudden decides to leave, but I love when a show goes out on crazy tension, and this was like that. I would love to see the movies, but the show feels more about day to day life in a singular moment, and hopping through time to get ‘resolution’ for the characters might deprive us of the show’s real central character, the camp itself. I suppose my dream fanboy Milch project would be some kind of crossover between JFC and Deadwood, where characters hop through time and see the effects of 130 years ago on the present. But, I’ve probably been reading too much Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Monday, October 08, 2007

There's Only One Sun

This film dropped out of nowhere for me. I was going around online, saw a link to it on Youtube and figured I’d check it out. Ten minutes later, I was once again in awe of the greatest filmmaker in the world. Making what’s ostensibly an advertisement for a flatscreen TV, Wong Kar-Wai delves back into the robot world of 2046 and spins another dizzying tale of identity and ennui under gorgeous neon lights.

If I was to ask someone to make a short film for me, I don’t know that they could make something perfect for this. It consists almost entirely of elements that I love. For one, Wong Kar-Wai is directing, with a ton of his signature elements in place. The voiceover ponders identity questions and lulls you into a moody haze, perfectly complimenting the music and visuals to build atmosphere. Watching Wong Kar-Wai movies always makes me want to use voiceover in my own work, since he pulls it off so effortlessly, these beautiful words flowing from the characters.

The plot revolves a female robot operative who poses as a blind woman to track down a man called The Light. The story doesn’t really matter though, it’s really about the desire she has, to see him even after he’s gone. The light is secret, and she can only find him in her memories, represented through the screen. Much like the jukebox in Fallen Angels, the TV screen here becomes a center of erotic desire. The woman is practically fucking the TV at the end of the ad, literally trying to get lost in her memories. This ties in with the themes in all his work, 2046 in particular. That work was all about living in memories, and the inability to deal with the present.

A lot of the sci-fi ideas from 2046 crop up here. We’ve got those amazing shoes that light up when they touch the ground. Those shoes alone have more style than pretty much every other film I’ve seen this year. Nobody makes his characters look as glam as Wong Kar-Wai. I love the red trenchcoat, and the black outfit the woman’s wearing when sitting on the bed. Even the odd future headcovering at the end works. And, the hair style is fantastic, looking like 1920s Edith Manning from The Invisibles, the hair has a kind of plastic quality. She’s gorgeous, in a specifically Wong Kar-Wai kind of way.

But, it’s not just the woman who’s gorgeous, the cinematography here is just so lush and moody. Even on a crappy Youtube video, you get lost in it. The neon lights and colors seem to hang in the air, palpable mood. I love those halls filled with neon colors and the out of focus shadows drifting through them. Combined with the same haunting songs from 2046, and we’ve got a lost chapter of that movie.

It really frustrates me that we’ve never gotten a definitive DVD, with deleted material from those future segments. The robot story with Faye Wong is my favorite thing in any Wong Kar-Wai movie. As this film shows, he approaches the genre in a really unique way. He turns it into an allegorical playground for emotion. The odd characters maximize the feelings involved, turning individual romantic conflicts into emotional drama that plays on the nature of humanity itself. That’s what the genre at its best can do, and Wong Kar-Wai has proved himself the heir to classic 70s sci-fi cinema.

It had been a while since I’d seen new Wong Kar-Wai material, and this one just popped out of nowhere to dazzle. It’s a perfect short, and I really hope to get a DVD quality version at one point so it’s even easier to get lost in.

I'm Not a Cyborg, but That's OK

Park Chanwook is one of the best filmmakers working today, and in his past two films, Oldboy and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, he told stories that melded endlessly inventive visual storytelling methods with operatic emotional content to create enormously entertaining and affecting films. But, the Vengeance trilogy is over and his new film, I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK is more of a whimsical comedy. It’s an interesting movie, with a lot of great stuff, but doesn’t quite pull together in the way those two films do.

This film is like a slightly twisted Amelie, with a similarly eccentric female main character and the same tentative romance between two damaged people. It’s largely the central character, Young Goon, and Su-Jeong Lim’s performance that’s make the movie work. She is funny and keeps a realism and humanity going through the various ridiculous things that happen. The moments where she talks to various appliances, particularly the first scene with the vending machine, are really funny and also emotionally real. She sells you on the delusion that this girl believes she’s a cyborg, to the point that it becomes almost real. You don’t want her to learn that she isn’t a cyborg, and grow out of this at the end, you want her to succeed at being a cyborg.

Park has a lot of funny bits with the cyborg thing. I love when she licks batteries for dinner, and the opening sequence, where she charges herself is both disturbing and funny. The most visually stunning sequence occurs with the intercutting of her shock therapy treatment and a fantasy of her in a cyborg incubator.

The emotional high point of the film is near the end, when Il-Sun constructs a “rice-megatron” for her, and proceeds to install it. Here, the fantasy becomes real because making her believe in the rice-megatron would save her life. It’s hard to watch her get fed through a tube, hard to watch Il-Sun’s anxiety when she won’t eat. You want her to accept his salvation, but lurking behind is the fear that she’ll snap out of the trance, call him on the ridiculousness of the device and reject it. When we finally see her eat, and can see the gears through her chest while Il-Sun hugs her, that’s a perfectly executed moment.

But, the film suffers a bit from lax pacing. In Lady Vengeance, Park took time out to tell various stories about the female prisoners. That worked because we knew who our central character was and what she wanted. Here, the central character is less active, so the various digressions to explore other random characters wind up fracturing the narrative. If you cut out 15 minutes of that stuff, you’d have a really tight, emotional story focused on Il-Sun and Young-Goon. That’s the story I wanted, but for a good chunk of the film, it’s lost amidst the messy subplots that ultimately don’t go anywhere. Park seems to love telling these short stories, but with the exception of the woman with mythomania, they’re empty quirk without the emotional resonance of the main story.

The other major issue for me was the ending sequence. The rice-megatron’s success was the perfect emotional moment to go out on. The subsequent lightning rod scene had its moments, but the movie sort of ended without any real closure for the characters. There’s no reason for that to happen, in light of the fact that we already had the perfect closure. So, that scene winds up just feeling superfluous.

Strangely enough, the guiding narrative drive behind this film is also a drive for vengeance. However, it’s treated almost as a parody. Here, the need to get revenge on the white ‘uns turns Young-Goon into a cyborg. The conclusion of Lady Vengenace indicated that the search for vengeance strips people of their humanity. That’s reinforced here, Young-Goon is at her most cyborg when she reveals her finger guns and shoots the hospital staff. But, the film’s whimsical tone means it never reaches the deep emotion that Oldboy and Lady Vengeance did. The final moments of Lady Vengeance are devastating, when she plunges her face into the cake in a gracefully falling snow. Nothing here reaches that power.

But, even Park slightly off his game is still better than almost everyone else out there. The film is consistently visually inventive and really fun to watch. Everyone has some lesser projects in their catalogue, and I think it was necessary to lighten up a bit after the vengeance trilogy. So, the film is a success, but not a masterpiece.