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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Monday (6/8/09) 12:51pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

[Missed one week where I didn't watch anything, and then a second week where I was .]

Movies:  Brokeback Mountain
TV:  The Sopranos [1x09-1x12]
Books:  <none>

Brokeback Mountain
Sometimes it seems like short stories are the best candidates for film adaptations.  People try to adapt novels, and wind up having to cut 90% of the plot and all of the interiority.  They try to adapt TV series, and they wind up with too many characters and too much spectacle.  They work with plays, and they have to bend over backwards to make it feel like something other than three guys in a room.[1]

But a well-chosen short story often comes through feeling like it wanted to be a movie all along.  The plot doesn't get muddled in endless tangents and B-stories.  There are enough details to be evocative to the filmmakers, but not constricting.  There's something simple to what it has to say, something you can get across in an hour or two of film.

Most importantly, a short story isn't too plotty.

Brokeback Mountain, first and foremost, is a movie that has breathing room.  Watching it reminds you how uniformly plotty TV and film have gotten lately.  Sure there are exceptions (Mad Men, mumblecore), but by and large successful projects focus on forward motion.  TV is full of procedurals that plod ceaselessly from clue to clue, or the occasional serial that's chock-full of gosh-wow plot twists.  Cinematic blockbusters shuttle the audience from one expensive CGI battle royale to the next.

You begin to wonder if there's any room any more for Sam Weir sitting on a stoop and asking Neil and Bill, "Will girls ever like us?"[2]  There's no place for the scene that just breathes, and observes, and doesn't move any faster than it had to.

So that was something I liked instantly about Brokeback Mountain -- the calm, elegant pacing.  You could probably summarize the whole plot in seven sentences without leaving out anything important.

Also, I tend to like love stories where the central relationship isn't convenient.

It seems like most romances center on a couple where the parents would emphatically approve:  ah, yes, the male 30-ish white yuppie is going to marry the female 30-ish white yuppie.  How perfectly scandalous.  In fact, the central couple is so innocuous and convenient that the script has to labor mightily to create impediments.  Eventually its main characters have to be idiotic enough to manufacture misunderstandings and umbrageous enough to take offence at every perceived personality flaw.

Eventually it seems like love, movie love, isn't something that the characters feel with any passion -- instead, it's something that pretty people idly indulge when they have too much time on their hands.

So when I see a movie about doomed love, there's almost something noble about it.  At least it reminds you that being human isn't just quietly ticking boxes next to sensible, rational goals until you die.

I can't think of much else to say about this one.  It's not terribly deep or complicated.  It doesn't have anything sophisticated or novel to say about its subject matter.  But again, those are probably merits rather than flaws; it has a simple story to tell and it tells it, movingly.

And then, of course, it wound up being the punch line to a billion frat-boy jokes.  I can see why the cineastes and hipsters were unhappy with that.

The Sopranos [1x09-1x12]
Disc three of the first season of The Sopranos has four episodes:  "Boca", "A Hit is a Hit", "Nobody Knows Anything", and "Isabella."

It's looking like The Sopranos is Citizen Kane all over again.  You'll recall that Citizen Kane was groundbreaking in its time, with a long list of innovations:  the deep-focus shots, the upward angles, the age makeup, the elegant time compression.  These have all become common film techniques, but they pretty much started with Kane.  But then again, when I watch the film, who cares?  I'm no scholar of cinema (yes, I had to look up that laundry-list of innovations on wikipedia), so I don't really care that all these pre-1941 films (which I've never seen anyway) didn't bother using their soundtrack to aid the scene-to-scene continuity.

Instead, I try to watch this thing that's "the Citizen Kane of movies," and it's... y'know, nice.  But you've been told by (say) Sight & Sound that it's the best film ever made.  Perhaps nothing can live up to that.

So now I'm watching The Sopranos.  I know at least a smattering about TV history, so I can see that this show, hitting the airwaves in the late 90s, *mattered*.  It must have raised the bar.  It must have made everything else look cheap and shabby by comparison, if not in production values, then in acting.  Yes, even that 90s drama that you really really love doesn't have the psychological complexity of The Sopranos.  And even that 90s drama you thought was really amazing didn't dominate the cultural and critical landscape the way The Sopranos did.

Frankly, the more I watch, the less ashamed I am of being incredibly biased towards shows from the late 90s and later.  There's a sharp, rising cliff of quality that exists mostly because of The Sopranos.

But again:  unless the last episode of this first season really blows me away, I think it's Citizen Kane all over again.  Frankly, I miss the innovations that have come to television in the '00s.  I miss the crazy production values that are possible as effects become cheaper and faster.[3]  I miss the stronger acceptance of serialization that we got towards the mid-00s.

And I miss being surprised.  What annoys me in The Sopranos is that often I figure out the plot much faster than the plot actually happens.  For example, the B-story of "A Hit is a Hit" sets up very clear initial conditions:  Christopher meets a record producer, and his girlfriend Adriana knows a band.  So of course we know that the band will suck, Adriana will promote them, Christopher will take them to the producer, and the producer will string Christopher along just because he's hot for Adriana.  I mean, duh.  We spend forty minutes or so watching that spin out, and hope it has something surprising at the end.[4]

I'm not saying all plots need surprise.  In fact, one could argue that The Sopranos isn't really about its plot -- instead its about exploring the conflicts in its characters.Yet modern shows -- the good ones -- find ways around predictability.  Mad Men does it by playing its cards really close to its chest -- everything is so subtle that it often only makes sense at the end.[5]  LOST does it through a series of bravura twist endings, and Arrested Development with absurdist, batshit randomness.  Whedon's shows stay ahead of you by taking crazy left turns at nearly every act break.

The bottom line is, I'm not used to this double vision:  part of me is watching the show as it happens; part of me idly constructs where the show will be ten minutes from now.  Maybe audiences have just gotten sharper at predicting stuff over the last decade.  If that's true, I shudder to think what would happen if I tried to watch a drama from the early 90s.

(Of course, I realize that I'm saying the exact opposite here of what I said in the Brokeback Mountain review, and I'm not quite sure what to make of that.  Somehow, that movie did just fine with a dirt-simple plot with no surprises.  I suspect that the problem with these Sopranos episodes is that I'm way ahead of the characters, and waiting for them to *catch up* already.)

Not much new, podcast-wise.  I've listened to a smattering of EscapePod episodes, but none of them have really stood out.  I've listened to a couple of Shakespeare plays from speak-the-speech; they were alright.

Music-wise, I'm still listening to Schumann -- symphonic études now.

For next time:  more Sopranos, more Twelfth Night, and the novel Brit-com Peep Show.  I'm also listening to an audiobook of The Metamorphoses which is making no sense to me whatsoever.

[1] Eventually it feels like you're trying to adapt an opera into a pinball game -- even if you're using bits and pieces of the original, what's the point?

[2] Yes, I know: that's an ironic choice for a movie about gay men.

[3] Yes, I know The Sopranos is not a sci-fi show.  Keep in mind that 'effects' can include damn near anything, like the crazy color saturation in Pushing Daisies or even just, say, painting out part of the background of an outdoor location.  It's now possible for any show to look more expensive for less money.

[4] Isabella
comes closest to surprise, but its gimmick has been imitated in so many other shows that I caught it almost instantly.

[5] ... a circumstance for which someone created the lovely coinage "postdictable."

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Mood: [mood icon] contemplative · Music: none
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[User Picture]
Date:Monday (6/8/09) 12:20pm
I highly recommend this book of short stories that have been adapted into films. It's a great collection, and does a great job of proving your point about short stories being good source materials for films.

And I agree with everything you said about Brokeback. That is exactly why I loved that movie so much. The entire thing BREATHED. The pacing, the music, the acting style, all of it. Loved it.
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[User Picture]
Date:Monday (6/8/09) 3:26pm
Ooh. Putting that book on my to-read list...

I agree that short stories make great films. I've been dying to check out "Away From Her" for that very reason. It's too bad the short story is dead.
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[User Picture]
Date:Monday (6/8/09) 1:34pm
I feel inspired here to say my opinion about Brokeback Mountain. I thought Gyllenhaal's performance was awkward and Hollywoody next to that of Ledger. I didn't understand why they liked each other so much, but I didn't care enough about the dudes to try to figure that out. The somber tone of the film was so overbearing for me that I felt like I was either being told a lesson, or at least that the filmmaker wanted me to feel bad about something. Basically, there was nothing that I like about movies-- except for its poetical, meditative pace-- in this movie.
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Date:Monday (6/8/09) 3:27pm
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[User Picture]
Date:Monday (6/8/09) 8:09pm
You know, I read the short story of Brokenback Mountain before I saw the movie and can I just tell you how powerful that story was. And like you said, it lends itself to be a movie literally from the paper to the screen.
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