Moving Images

Game of Thrones

Years ago, when I first started reading George RR Martin’s series, I found immediate comparisons with HBO’s The Sopranos. The sex, violence and backstabbing in Westeros was right on par with Tony, Paulie, Christopher and the rest of the Jersey crew. Luckily, plenty of folks with dollars thought the same thing, and here we are, years later, with the first season wrapped and another on the way. I will say – it could not have been better. The casting is pitch-perfect; the aesthetics of the lands and cultures are right on. Even the dialog has been tightened, so Tyrion’s quips are still just as sharp, Arya’s just as feisty, Daenery’s just as regal, but we can fit a 1000 pages in 10 hours. I would trade half the sexposition scenes for larger battles, but hey, it’s not television, it’s HBO. Bonus: Dance with Dragons is *actually* getting released this year!

Tree of Life

I’m not sure if it’s an actual quote, but I’ve always thought “All film is fiction”. What that means is that film will always be a substitute for reality, as much as it attempts to mirror it. There will always be a hint of the unreal, whether it’s the makeup on the actor’s face, the artificial lighting, awkward dialog, or even the pace of editing during post-production. Malick’s own films understand the gap can’t be truly bridged, and instead of going in the conventional directions, either towards theatrical performance (via dialog, scenery chewing acting) or gritty reality (hand-held camera, natural lighting), he goes for hyper-reality: visions that would only exist in dreams.

Tree of Life has both the grandest scope and the most intimate focus of all his films, contrasting a montage of childhood snippets from 1950s Texas with the very creation of the universe. The central question: does life follow the way of nature (a stern father, the elemental forces of the universe); or the way of grace (an angelic mother; an afterlife of reunions on an endless beach). The cinematography and editing are incredible, of course, but it’s the way Malick can pull central questions of morality from images of trees and rivers that really give the film weight. For the young boy, those suburban lawns and woodlands are Eden – we see him tempted with the Apple of choice, freedom and selfishness. We see his pride and guilt and sadness. We see him exiled from that garden, and years later, his sullen self, lost in an urban wasteland of towering steel and glass. Is there a way back?

Leaving the Island

NOTE: This post is about the end of LOST. It contains SPOILERS

Like any good series finale, it was polarizing. A few writer’s I read even went so far as to say it ruined the entire series.

Most of the complaints stem from the finale itself – not that ends weren’t tied up, but they were fixed in a way inconsistent with the show as a whole. We were obsessed with the trinkets in the rabbit hole: how far did Dharma and Charles Widmore and Egyptian hieroglyphics really go? What were the numbers? Was the smoke monster some sort of nano-bot guardian of the island’s secrets?

And the show answered by saying: none of that’s important. What was important were Jack, Hurley, Kate, Sawyer, Sayid, Sun and Jin, and of course Locke (nevermind that he went rogue for the last two seasons…)

It’s taken me some time to digest. But I remembered back to what hooked me on the show in the first place. It was first in season one, when Locke went out in the rain with his knives and found freedom in the mystery of the island, only to become obsessed with the hatch. That first extended metaphor of the button was for us, the viewer. Did the button really matter, or was it just an illusion to draw us along, a psychological experiment? Those science vs. faith conversations between Locke and Jack were some of the best in the show.

And then in season two, conflicts with the Others – Lost perfectly captured and demonstrated the paranoia of conflict, terrorism, torture that were unavoidable in those early years post 9/11.

That’s what these island dramas are always about – a microcosm of human society. The sci-fi elements were window dressing to attract the modern obsessive fan with high def TVs, frame capture TIVOs and internet forums. The core was always that same story in Lord of the Flies or Robinson Crusoe – man vs nature; man vs man; man vs self.

The problem with any serial drama stretched over hundreds of hours is that it’s tough to show character growth without turned off the audience. We want to see Jack Shephard work through his demons, but we don’t want him to give up his guilty-savior complex, which can be at times obnoxious, but what makes Jack…Jack. It was obvious he’d be a sacrificial lamb in the finale. It was pretty bold to show his purgatorial redemption as well. That last conversation between Jack and Locke brings the entire thing full circle, when Jack realizes his purpose.

Faith won out. Science (represented by Dharma, Widmore, even the original Man in Black) got the proverbial (and literal) gunshot to the chest.

So now that it’s over, why be disappointed? It was an hour of entertainment on a weeknight filled with adventure, mystery, and deep questions, for six years. What more could you ask for? It’s time to let go. Now I just need to wait for the DVD box set. Apparently, there’s a secret revealed at 23:42 and 15:16 on episode 8 of the 4th disc!

New Sights

John Adams
I will not drink Merlot!
Since HBO retired its Emmy-makers, it’s been lacking in quality programming. Some of the strongest shows were the historical dramas (Band of Brothers, Rome, Deadwood) and John Adams can join that pantheon. Initially Paul Giamatti in the title role was criticized, but I think he fills it well, certainly the later years of bulging gut and balding pate. (Jefferson is another matter).

But the costumes and set pieces are secondary to the root of the miniseries, which is the birth of the United States in a new perspective. A telling scene occurs near the end, when Adams examines John Trumbull’s historic painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Adams in incensed, pointing out the historical inaccuracies: there was no grand official ceremony – isolated representatives signed in fearful secret during the siege of Philadelphia.

One crux of the series is the relationship with Adams and Jefferson. Adams was a statist, imbued with a Hobbsian mindset, fearful of the fickle sway of public opinion. Jefferson, in contrast, was enraptured with pure liberty, the sanctity of the states, agrarian Virginia instead of the industrialized New England. It was the horrible degeneration of the French Revolution that put Jefferson’s dreams of global democracy and liberty on hold, and paved the way for Adams’ Sedition Acts (the Patriot Act of 1796).

Adams was a cranky man, impatient with those who didn’t share his convictions or live up to his expectations (even disowning his own son). But Giamatti expertly balances the passionate vitriol with stubborn, subdued love, especially in scenes with the equally talented Laura Linney.

Most of all, I enjoyed the writing of the show, much of it verbatim from letters and speeches. In many exchanges, the word *providence* is employed, lifted directly from Abigail and John’s correspondence. Nowadays, our secular age would substitute “random chance” or even “luck”. I prefer “providence”, not because it demands a manipulative deity, but because it implies hope in situations beyond control. And I think any patriot staking his own life and liberty to ensure future generations the same would much prefer providence to chance.

Eastern Promises
he should be a hand model
David Cronenburg has always been an auteur of the grotesque. In the 80s it was strange science fiction devices and inventions that transformed human biology. Lately he’s been interested in pure violence in the context of organized crime. History of Violence was the first, and it stunned more with its pure savagery than the slightly muddled narrative. Eastern Promises is a redux of sorts, again with Vigo Mortensen, who plays a tattooed Russian henchman. The talk of the film is a ten minute naked fight scene in a steamy sauna, bold swaths of blood on inked skin. But it is Vigo’s performance as a weary soldier caught inextricably in the web of violence that seals the deal.

Michael Clayton

2007 was a year of dreary, serious movies, with lots of moral ambiguities, ugly violence, weary protagonists (save Juno and the Apatow films). As Michael Clayton, George Clooney probably gives his best performance. On the surface, a suave lawyer who drives a black sedan, and “fixes” critical situations for his firm. But as the legal thriller unspools, we see another side of the man, guilty about his failures as a father, husband, brother. Even as he delivers his lines with trademark Colony cool, his eyes and mouth betray his moral uncertainties. At the end of the film, he hops in a cab – “Fifty bucks, just drive” – and we just watch his face, the entire tragic drama of the film replayed in his stubbled jaw and dark eyes.

Sunshine

It’s been some time since a quality hard sci-fi film was released, with all the space opera and fantasy draining away CGI budgets. Sunshine has been called the 2001 for our generation, although I wouldn’t go that far. The premise is simplistic enough – a team of astronauts must fly a giant pack of H-bombs to kick-start the dying sun. It’s the visuals that sell the thing. The film is always facing the sun, the screen painted in all shades of fire – yellow and orange and pure overwhelming white. There’s a spiritual appeal to their quest, something transcendental, but when things begin to inevitably go wrong, it devolves into Event Horizon. An admirable try, but if 2001 is any model, avoid the cheap thrills and stick with wonder.

New Reads, Sights, Sounds

Over the last month, it feels like all I do is consume art. Gobble, gobble. It’s a pretty standard pastime, be it television, video games, internet sites, mp3s. But good art requires a response, acknowledgement by the receiver.

If we consume in a vacuum, art will just become mindless content that fills our empty hours with useful diversions. We’ll invest in the pretty spectacles that incite direct emotional appeal, but do not require introspection or critical thinking.

So this is my exercise. Perhaps it’s a penance – it feels like work. But it’s necessary to glean more than passing amusement from the reads, sights and sounds that have filled my time.