January 31, 2005

The Medium

This is a keeper, I think, though I can't quite tell why. It has some parts as cheap and corny as Bewitched, some parts that are just standard police drama, like one can see at any hour in prime time. What's special is that it keeps its focus on the character's fundamental problem: she knows things other people don't know, and she doesn't know how she knows them, and she can't be ordinary, and more and more she doesn't want to be ordinary. That's a common problem and a deep problem, especially for psychics but not just for psychics. The artistry of the show is to keep this in focus as a problem: not letting it disappear under her superwoman persona or blow up into some Carrie-like crisis. Like lots of the problems of maturity, it just quietly goes on and on. One is reminded, here and with other adult stuff, what they quote from Jesus, "Take up your cross."

Posted by shea0017 at 10:28 PM

January 28, 2005

Pieces of Movies

On a bus tour in Berlin, we passed a large park, and our guide informed us that within this surprising wild area lived "300 pieces of deer." Boschian visions! Anyway, it is very important in finding movies interesting to look for interesting pieces of movies, in uninteresting movies, sometimes in very bad movies. Within The Runaway Bride, there's a 5 minute scene early on where the girlfriend of the Julia Roberts character calls her to account for flirting. I think the speech is a kind of human masterpiece and a philosophic masterpiece. The friend could screech out, "You man-stealing bitch" or some such, but she values the friendship enough to very carefully limit and point her criticism, to try harder than most people try to say exactly what is just and appropriate. The result is philosophically satisfying: one feels like, for once, somebody got the complexity of a situation more or less right. This scene is way, way better than the rest of the movie.

For other examples: most of the songs in The Sound of Music, the first half hour of the first Harry Potter movie, the opening of Patton -- the speech to the troops in front of the flag.

Taking pieces works better in some media than others. The Fifty Famous Moments of Music works, but nobody has tried Fifty Famous Inches of Art or Fifty Famous Square Feet of Architecture. With movies, it's almost necessary. So many movies spoil themselves by going on after they've done their one good bit of business.

Posted by shea0017 at 10:19 AM

January 23, 2005

The Lady Vanishes

You meet an old lady on a train. Midway through the trip, she's gone, and no one in the compartment will admit she ever existed. It is you against them, suddenly, asserting something obvious. And you know that reality has to have taken a very strange turn for this to happen; you can't trust anything any more.

People think that, in the course of their normal lives, they sometimes face moral decisions, as they sometimes face decisions of taste or preference, or decisions about how to accomplish some task. Morality is just one mode of thinking, appropriate to some encounters. Hitchcock's film puts it a little differently: people sometimes fall, without warning, from a normal, casual world into a world in which morality is all that matters.

Posted by shea0017 at 9:37 AM

January 22, 2005

Rear Window

Hitchcock's Rear Window captures the American predicament. The hero, Jimmy Stewart, the Last True Believer, sits in his apartment with his broken leg watching the action in various windows across the courtyard. He understands one sequence of scenes as murder, and tries to think what to do. Grace Kelly, the Ultimate Distraction, stops by from to time to time, pulling him back into his own, enviable life.

It's hard to say what Rear Window is. It isn't exactly a metaphor. Those kinds of apartment houses and courtyards really exist. My son lives in one in New York. And residents really do have the problem: when do I intervene? When do I know enough to act? Rear Window is more like an apotheosis or an epitome or an essence: a central scene by comparison to which lots of other American predicaments can be understood. You see a husband shouting at his wife in a strange language at Target. You watch the neighbor kids come out every afternoon to play all day in their muddy back yard. You watch the crack house traffic pattern emerge for a house down the street. We aren't one community, but we are in this together somehow.

One other fancy word for Rear Window: Eliot's phrase "objective correlative" -- the idea of an experience as the perfect embodiment of an emotion. This movie captures for me in a precise way the feeling of moral frustration, the birth of the idea of morality -- not as well as The Lady Vanishes but well enough.

Posted by shea0017 at 11:10 AM

January 17, 2005

Queen of the Zombies

Joan of Arcadia brings theological ideas to tv drama. Sometimes the ideas are frighteningly simplistic: "Things will turn out perfect if you do what God wants, and God leaves a little trail of clues, to show the way." But the last episode, Queen of Zombies, was very interesting. God is the director of a supernaturally stupid musical about zombies appearing at a prom to eat the promgoers' brains. The Director keeps throwing out the script and starting over, whenever anyone suggests a new direction. In the end, out of an utter fiasco, somebody writes a stunning song about love between the living and the dead, the monsters and the children of the light. The message to Joan, throughout the whole adventure: you may think that you know what's going on, but you don't quite. Just stay open. The episode manages to be theologically interesting, psychologically interesting, and very strange, all at once.

A trip to the episode guide shows that this one was written by Graeme Clifford, whose directing credits include Frances and Gleaming the Cube. Clifford has been involved in some capacity in an astonishing number of interesting, offbeat productions over many years. A piece of this depth is what one would expect from him.

It is natural to think of tv dramas as units. But they aren't units. Each episode is a dramatic unity, and careful viewing will take account of that.

Posted by shea0017 at 12:00 PM

January 14, 2005

Don't misunderestimate the American people

Compare the broadcast Bull Durham with the real thing. They cut a little bit of S/M -- and, so far as I could tell, lots of good lines that might offend somebody somehow. Look at any broadcast version of anything decent: they cut tasteful and necessary nudity wholesale, so there are scenes where people are looking shocked or surprised or turned on, and there's no hint what all the fuss is about. Broadcast television is wrecking powerful works of art, and, in process, educating people to expect nothing but amusement and titillation from film. If what one mostly sees is movies that are unintelligible messes, one doesn't expect anything better.

Also, the sex education of the American people is pretty much left to Sunday schools and pornography -- mostly pornography. Any attempt to say anything interesting about sex gets hacked to pieces.

I used to be puzzled about some brands of tv dinners with photos on the box that looked like dog barf. After a while , I came to suspect that these were the low-end lines of conglomerates that did fancier dinners, and the point of the disgusting photo was just to give buyers a reason to spend an extra $2. I suppose the massacre of movies on broadcast television is pretty good way to drive people to HBO and such. But as public education, it stinks.

Posted by shea0017 at 8:38 PM

January 12, 2005

Kindness and Nudity

I think there is nothing more interesting in the world, and nothing more philosophical, than ordinary people taking their clothes off in public. Partly, that's because ordinary people can't do that without it being an adventure, an exploration of themselves as social beings and as individuals, as deeply sexual, as related by usually unacknowledged commonalities to rest of humankind. (It's no accident that all those little people in last judgments are naked.) The pros have a different take on it altogether, and that shows in their faces.

Several fine movies work on this. The most important, I think, is a real documentary of Spencer Tunick's photography adventure called Naked States. Tunick is out to photograph assemblages of naked people in all 50 states, as partly a statement about war and violence. Some of his larger pieces remind one of the photos of mass graves from the concentration camps. Others shout out the contrast between flesh and concrete. They are striking images. The documentary shows the negotiations by which the photos are set up -- a work of performance art in itself. People gradually get it clear that this is a serious project by a real artist and that they have extraordinary permission to do something that they otherwise would never have dared to do. You can see on their faces this moment of realization: my life doesn't have to be the way it has always been. I can do this. The Fargo episode is worth the price of the tape.

Calendar Girls is a fictional retelling of a British fundraising project: middle aged and older women in a rather staid club do their usual stuffy calendar in the nude. Helen Mirren stars, and the spirit is quite like Naked States: people literally noticing and proclaiming, "There's more to me than meets the normal eye."

This is one of those projects it would be very easy to overdo: we do NOT for example need a nude reality show. Nudity has power and charm and grace for people who are usually very modest and almost always dressed. It's one of those paradox thingees.

Posted by shea0017 at 10:18 PM

January 11, 2005

Learning to love, inventing love, and fooling around

A faithful and perceptive reader asks, "So, what distinguishes a "teenage romance," from other film romances apart from the age of the lovers? " I'd say: nothing necessarily, but we take an interest in teenage romances because the parties to them don't know the rules, and so we have a front row seat to watch that strange mix of "learning from experience" and "making it up as you go along" that's part of growth into new dignities and indignities in the social world. Movies like Porky's I (the classic Porky's) are only interesting for their frequent wardrobe malfunctions; the characters are trying as fast as they can to learn a boring set of rules. What makes Flirting and Say Anything so appealing and hopeful is that the protagonists take responsibility for making up making out -- and flirting, and fighting and all that other stuff. They grab on to the next bit of life with human dignity, with the resolution to do it their own way. And that smells right and fresh and like a good idea in life in general.

I have this strange experience awakening my German language skills after many years of non-use. When I think, "How can I speak correctly?" I am paralyzed. When I think, "How can I make up a version of German that my old friend Lydia won't hate?" then I can write. It's the same with a lot of things. When we think of ourselves as inventors, we can take the next step. And the best teen romances are full of the spirit of invention.

Thanks for the question, Ron.

Posted by shea0017 at 9:54 PM

January 10, 2005

Small perfect things

Every so often, in a story genre that does trash mostly, somebody does a perfect movie. The thing makes a little splash, and then years later you find it on the sale tables. My nominee for "perfect in a not very reputable genre" is Say Anything, a teen romance movie that captures romance and respect and the difficulty of being a gifted kid and how you can still love your father even if he's seriously flawed. The thing proceeds from beginning to end without a false note.

It has some competition: Lucas, Flirting, Gregory's Girl, My First Mister all have their very strong points and all teach something. But they are all in one way or another alternative, odd, not-quite-the-genre. Say Anything stays within teen romance and makes it work.

Posted by shea0017 at 10:32 AM

January 5, 2005

"We watch, so you can play with your dog"

Too many people who canít afford to hate tv hate tv. They read Tolstoy, play with their dogs or children, cook good food, sleep. Thatís good stuff, but if you teach or preach or write for the paper or diagnose diseases, you have to know what mass messages are getting sent, through what cracks something fresh and interesting has insinuated itself into the public mind, to what new depths of tastelessness reality tv has fallen.

Cultural workers need a sacrificial watch force, maybe a kind of subscription thing: we watch tv so you donít have to. With summaries and clips and careful advice on what to peek at, such a force could give teachers and preachers and pundits and doctors the pleasures of tv-free life without the blind spots. There could be specialized versions, for doctors and lawyers and elementary teachers and more general ones for philosophers and politicians.

Hey, somebody greedy out there, this is a good idea. (Gratuities cheerfully accepted.)

Posted by shea0017 at 9:42 PM

January 3, 2005

Teaching classics: the ethics class from Missile

With this blog, I want to hold on to the stuff that is just necessary for teaching ethics. This 30 minutes or so of tape is the most valuable piece of teaching material I have ever found. I use it where-ever I can find any rationale at all, and it always produces remarkable discussion. The scenario: before men and women are sent into ICBM silos to await launch instructions, at the beginning of a 16 week technical training courses, recruits attend a brief ethics seminar. After the seminar, they sign papers affirming that they have no reservations abput inserting launch keys and launching weapons. Frederick Wiseman's documentary covers the whole training process. The ethics class is almost at the beginning of the tape. The best question to start discussion is the broadest: what seems worth talking about here? The question you end with is just: what is going on here?

Trust me on this one.

Posted by shea0017 at 10:59 PM

January 1, 2005

Veronica Mars

In Veronica Mars, a high school girl is trying to understand life-changing events in her recent past: a brutal murder, her mother's mysterious departure, her breakup with her boyfriend, her father's fall into disgrace. She solves high school sized mysteries along the way -- like Nancy Drew -- but she is also on the trail of the larger mystery about her own life -- not at all like Nancy Drew.

In one way, this show is not very remarkable. It is one more attempt to marry the detective genre, the sitcom, and soap opera into some package that will draw the different audiences of all three. But Veronica Mars points out something important about the television view of reality: people on television seldom have pasts -- or, if they do, they have no important relationship to their past. They aren't constantly thinking about "then and now." They live in a perpetual sunny present, so that no viewer who tunes in late on in the "series" will be inconvenienced. This marketing reality -- you can't make it on regular viewers -- forces a subtle and pervasive falsification of life. Many people live with a strong consciousness of "then and now" and everyone has that as a possibility. When the public models fail to acknowledge that possibility, it drives the past underground. Veronica Mars is notable for presenting a character for whom the past is always present. It gets some points for that.

Posted by shea0017 at 12:24 PM