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

Monday (2/1/10) 9:33pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

[Catching up on three weeks of media consumption.  *shrug*  I've been busy.]

Movies:  Wit
TV:  Chuck [1x01-1x05], Dexter [1x01-1x04]
Books:  The Arabian Nights, The Art of War [audiobook]



Wit
This is the 2001 Mike Nichols/Emma Thompson adaptation of the Pulitzer-Prize-winning play about Vivian Bearing, a college literature professor dying of ovarian cancer.  This is also a movie I put off watching over and over again, because I didn't want to watch somebody dying of cancer.

In the end, I'm not sure I have much to say about it.

As I watched, the film it interested me from a structural angle, in that it seemed to function like a biopic.  It seems to be less about its plot than it is about its central character.  Sure, the procession of the disease gives an arc to the plot:  things get worse and worse, and this very powerful woman is laid low, and then she dies.

But essentially, it's a showcase for focusing in on a bravura performance.  I knew how it ended, both because I've seen the play before and I know how metastatic Stage IV ovarian cancer tends to go.  So instead, it was a matter of watching how the different hospital interactions and flashbacks revealed more and more of this woman's personality.

I was intrigued by how Mr. Nichols translated the play's fluid use of the stage to film.  In the play, Vivian can flip back from the hospital bed to her early childhood by just an adjustment of affect.  It's a relatively blank stage, and theatergoers accept the convention that, yes, now we're actually in a different scene, at a different time.  Nichols has to stick to film conventions, so we get scenes with Emma Thompson made up to look college-age, we get sets that flip between her childhood home and her hospital room, and... it works, I suppose.  But I waste some mental cycles thinking about how cleverly it's been done.

And 'clever' isn't really what this film is about.  In the end, it's not clever, it's just simple.  Cancer is scary.  It robs Professor Bearing of her dignity, and then it kills her.  Some people are kind to her along the way.  She thinks back on moments that mattered to her.  And that's all there is, and it feels honest and cathartic.

(Side note:  I highly recommend Roger Ebert's blog entry about this film.)


Chuck [1x01-1x05]
Chuck is the Josh Schwartz light spy drama about an electronics-store employee who, after getting the secrets of the NSA and CIA beamed into his brain, secretly helps a couple of government agents on spy missions.

When I first reviewed Burn Notice, I talked about the old action shows from the eighties.  I said that they'd all migrated to basic cable, and gotten a lot better.  Chuck, then, is something of an anomaly.  It's one of those action dramedies that somehow has carved out a spot for itself on broadcast television.

Big broadcast networks aren't really in the Chuck business these days.  They're in the American Idol business (big-hit reality shows), or the CSI business (crime procedurals), or the Two and a Half Men business (multicamera sitcoms that draw huge numbers even though critics revile them), or *shudder* the Jay Leno Show business (desperate, ill-fated attempts to "reinvent the business model" of television).  A comedy with fight scenes and spy stuff and jokes just isn't their bailiwick any more.

To my mind, Chuck suffers a bit from being on a big network.  Instead of gunning for a solid niche audience with a focussed, unique take on the genre -- I'd argue that this is what Burn Notice does -- Chuck tries to be all things to all people.  You won't hear dialog on Chuck that could only be on Chuck.  You won't see camera shots on Chuck that could only be on Chuck.  And the show cowers from serialized elements, so as not to alienate the I'm-bored-and-I'll-watch-whatever-happens-to-be-on crowd.

At least at this point, it's an unambitious show.

But it's a solid show, for all that.  The premise works well.  Chuck keeps his day job at the Buy More as a cover, and spends his off hours on spy missions with two agents, one of whom is played by Adam Baldwin in all his angrily-grunting glory.  The other one is played by Yvonne Strahovski, a gorgeous blonde, whose cover story is that she is Chuck's girlfriend.  So that sets up a neat relationship where they are secretly in love, but they are pretending to be in love, and they can't *really* be in love, on account of the job.

All the critical reports are that the show really finds itself in the second season, and I believe that.  These episodes don't blow the lid off of anything, but they certainly build a solid foundation for a show.  They  patiently build their back bench of secondary characters.  They patiently explore new emotional, relationship issues between the characters with every episode.  They take care to alternate between the spy stuff and Chuck's home life, gradually exploring and developing each side.  The acting is great across the board, the scripts work well enough, and there's a lot of money up on the screen.

So, yeah, I could see this show embracing more serialized elements and becoming something great.  The serialized elements would add an interesting overall story arc, and introduce mythology-style questions that could be answered later in the season.  But more importantly, it would make the show less reset-button-y.  Right now it's a bit like Perfect Strangers (or some similarly-unambitious 80s sitcom) -- at the end of the episode, everything is going to revert to the status quo.  No matter what happens in the episode, you know that in forty-two minutes, every relationship will be the same, every job will be the same, every attitude will be the same.

Once you ditch the reset button, though, things can change.  Things can have consequences.  And that gives the plot threads real stakes.  And suddenly you're watching a story instead of a tame, pleasant genre exercise.

I hope I don't sound too pejorative about season one of Chuck.  It's the sort of 'solid, three-star hit' I see far too rarely on television.  Usually everything I watch is either 'amazing' or 'bah! not worth my time'.  It's nice to see a show that's fun and entertaining even though it isn't swinging for the fences.  Plus it has an awesome opening-credits sequence.  How can you not like that?

(Side note:  one stylistic tic I never want to see again is the "freeze-frame occasionally during the fight scene" gimmick.  Yes, it does let me concentrate momentarily on some fun roundhouse kick or something.  But mainly, it makes me think my DVD player is choking on the disc, over and over and over.)


Dexter [1x01-1x04]
Dexter is Showtime's series about Dexter Morgan, a serial killer who hunts other serial killers.  He works as a blood-spatter expert for the Miami police department, and periodically 'takes care of' the criminals who get away.

I can sum up my reaction in eight words:  "This show is far better than its scripts."

It's at this point I really wish I had some transcripts I could quote from.  It's handy to see the words on the page and realize that they would pose some challenges.  Instead, I have to be handwavey.  I recall one scene where Debra Morgan -- Dexter's sister, who just moved from vice to homicide -- talks to some prostitutes she knows for possible leads in a case.  Then there's a long chat where the prostitutes imply that her captain is like a pimp.  Debra says no, her captain is not like a pimp.  The prostitutes do a lengthy catechism -- "Does she tell you what to do?" etc. -- to establish that, no, she is.

On the page, that must be a dull stretch of dialog.  You know where the scene is going from a mile away, it's not a particularly original conceit, the prostitutes are written in a standard-issue, vague, central-casting sort of way.  It doesn't move the story anywhere, so presumably it's comic relief, but it's not original enough to be funny.

What saves the scene is that Debra, played by Jennifer Carpenter[1], is responding to this situation like a real human being would.  You trudge through the bland scene just to watch how she plays it.

Other scenes are clunky in other ways.  Many of the scenes where 'Debra and Dexter have dinner and talk about the case' are vast, hopeless exposition dumps.  Supporting character motivations are simple and conventional.  The detectives chase down clues the way they might in any CBS[2] procedural.  The joke where "Dexter says something serial-killer-ish, then finds a way to explain it away" gets old by about the third time they use it, and they use it about three times per episode.

So the scripts aren't the best-written work I've ever seen.

In some ways, they're not the most original scripts I've ever seen, either.

I've joked before about "novelty capital" -- that any TV show has only a limited capacity for being original.  In this case, it looks like they spent all their "novelty capital" on their central conceit:  their main character is a sympathetic, crime-solving serial killer.

If you're going to do that, you have to save capital everywhere else.  So of course his superior officer is a loud black man who shouts at him a lot.  Of course the crime-solving is the standard, neat-and-tidy clue-finding game rather than real police work.  And so on.

Let me take a few steps back here.  As with Chuck, I want to make it clear that I think Dexter is a good show -- yes, in spite of the script being a bit by-the-numbers and clumsy.

First off, as I hinted before, the core cast is phenomenal.  Michael C. Hall deserves all the praise that he gets for the title role (and yet no Emmy -- huh).  More on that in a bit.  But also the two other leads -- Jennifer Carpenter as Debra Morgan and Julie Benz as Rita Bennet -- do great work grounding their scenes in reality.

Another example:  when Debra freezes up presenting a possible lead to the captain, she plays it like a real person walked into the room.  Yes, that's really what it's like when someone a bit socially awkward gets incapacitated with nerves.  She's not signifying the behavior in some big, mannered, stagey way, but the halting speech cadence, the furtive eye contact, and the closed body language all play right.  And I think Julie Benz does just as well in her 'home' scenes with Dexter.

The other thing the show has going for it is, of course, that central conceit.  It's novel:  none of us have seen a show about a sympathetic, crime-solving serial killer before.  It's fascinating to see that mental disorder depicted in detail from the inside.  And of course, it leads to all sorts of thrillingly-revolting murder scenes.

But I think the important thing is that they use Dexter to make the show about something.  I mean, sure, the show is about a killer.  But really, it's about maintaining a façade.  At the risk of sounding stoner-profound, we all do that, right?  Yes, even that one person you know who's, like, so open and so, y'know, *real*.

So why not explore that in fiction?  And if you're going to explore that in fiction, why not turn up the volume up as much as possible on it:  the secret isn't "I appreciate Hall & Oates un-ironically," it's "I kill people ritualistically, over and over again."  It's the worst possible secret, it takes the most possible maintenance to hide it, and with one false move, it's all over.

To a lesser extent, the show's about trying to do the right thing when you're really not wired for that.  And again, we all face this, and again, why not up the volume from "I shouldn't eat this cupcake because it would be bad for me" to "I shouldn't kill this person who CLEARLY NEEDS KILLING because that would go against the Code of Harry"?

I think that's what gives the show some weight, when otherwise it might be some fun-but-slight bit of Grand Guignol.  And I think that's how they perform that impossible task of making the serial killer sympathetic.  I mean, sure, they beat it into the ground that he's only killing evil, evil, evil murderers whom the law can't touch.  And they show Dexter doing lots of sympathetic stuff to maintain his façade.

But mainly, they hammer on those two qualities we can all relate to:  it's hard to pretend to be who they want you to be, and it's hard to do right when you're wired to do wrong.

So I'll watch the rest of this season.  I've heard later seasons go a little astray, and I agree with the sentiment that this show should have an end date, à la LOST.  Otherwise, it could get repetitive and static.  ("Oh!  Hey!  Dexter eluded being found out YET AGAIN!  So we hit the reset button one more time...")


The Arabian Nights, translated by Husain Haddawy
This is the collection of ancient Arabic, Persian, and Indian stories, that's bundled together under the central conceit that these were tales the storyteller Shaharazad told a mad king to keep him from killing her.

I read this as preparation for One More Night, the Arabian Nights-themed show at SVT.  I've taken extensive notes on the book here, here, here, and here, and I don't know if I have much to add to that.  I suppose I can list some general impressions.

The first time I picked up this book, I was trying to read the Sir Richard Burton translation, and I gave up after three pages.  My first impression was that it was stuffy and Victorian to the point of incomprehensibility.

As you might expect, reading the book in a modern translation was quite an eye-opener.  Yes, it had lots more sex than I expected, even though I'd been told to expect lots of sex.  But mostly I was surprised by how much glee there was to the storytelling.  Like William Goldman's "abridgement" of the "original" Princess Bride, you can feel the book skipping all the boring sections to get to the good parts.  (I'm convinced that an ancient Arabic version of The Lord of the Rings would have skipped Fellowship in its entirety.)

The "telling a story to save her own life" isn't just tacked on.  The stories really do have this breathless, fast-moving quality.  They really do end each of the 'nights' with cliffhanger after cliffhanger, sometimes with such rapidity that it reminds you of these newfangled six-act TV dramas where the act-outs are, like, five minutes apart.

And the stuff between the cliffhangers is unabashedly entertaining.  It's not there to elicit deep thought.  It's there to tell stories in big, bright colors, with the bravest soldiers and the wiliest viziers and the most beautiful damsels all whirling about in a world with bizarre curses and spells and far-flung locations.  It's like this book -- I suppose, this cultural tradition -- has decided it wants to go in this 'entertain the people with a Great Big Damn Story' direction, and it's going to pursue that direction as far as it can go.  More power to'em.

Another impression:  man, this book hates women.  Yeah, I know that in the Middle Ages, being a girl pretty much sucked wherever you were.  But it's still unsettling to see, say, women getting punished for infidelity with death, and men... men never really being unfaithful, as far as I can tell.  And the emphasis on bedding virgins seems... well, yeah, I get that it's part of the cultures that produced these stories, but still:  creepy.

And I'm not saying, "Ooh, look at me, I'm soooo much more modern than this book."  Nor am I saying I understand ancient Arabia or modern feminism enough to have any worthwhile observations on this topic.  I'm mainly just pointing out that it's been weird to read this book with one track of my mind happily following the magical-genie stories, and another track of my mind constantly aghast at whatever fresh hell they were inflicting on the ladytypes.  It was tricky, keeping the latter from interfering with the former.


The Art of War [audiobook]
The Art of War is the ancient Chinese treatise about land warfare.

I have very little to say about this audiobook.  I've always been curious about The Art of War -- it seemed to be the favorite book of every 80s corporate type with an exoticism streak, so I'd meant to check it out forever.  This audiobook presents the (short) book in its entirety, and then presents it a second time, this time with extensive annotations.

I felt like half the time, I was listening to observations like "Attack your enemy where he is weakest.  Do not attack where he is strongest."  What do you do with that?  If you're me, you mutter, "Well, *duh*," and you wonder why you're wasting time with this book.  A lot of the book feels like common sense expressed in neat-sounding epigrams.  Maybe they're points people don't always apply to combat situations, or maybe they're points that reward careful and time-consuming contemplation.  But at first listen, it all feels like a bunch of useful commonplaces.

Then, of course, there are sections that feel like they apply only to ancient land warfare.  Now I know what sort of dust patterns indicate approaching cavalry, I suppose.  And it may someday be useful to know when I'm supposed to set fire to bulls and loose them in my enemy's city.  But most of those sections are going in my brain's "interesting but useless facts" file.

I'm glad I gave this book a shot, but I think it just wasn't for me.


For next time:  not sure.  Perhaps more Dexter, perhaps more Chuck.  I may start watching City of Men.  I've started listening to an audiobook of Old Man's War, but it'll be a while before I finish it.

________
[1] Huh -- apparently, she's from Louisville, and got her start at Walden Theater there.  She's not too much younger than I am, so we might have crossed paths at some point, decades ago.  Neat.

[2] AKA "The Crime Broadcasting Network".

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From:innocentsmith
Date:Monday (2/1/10) 11:10pm
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Now I know what sort of dust patterns indicate approaching cavalry, I suppose. And it may someday be useful to know when I'm supposed to set fire to bulls and loose them in my enemy's city.

"...wherein Spanish has committed one of the classic blunders.

"This week's situation: You have gotten involved in an ancient Chinese land war!"

Look, I love the Spanish entries, okay?

I'll be interested to hear your ongoing thoughts on Dexter, which I love but am occasionally dissatisfied with. Later seasons are, IMO, still good, but first and second are probably the best thus far. (I'm also glad you like Deb, because she is my faaaaavorite.)
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From:hujhax
Date:Tuesday (2/2/10) 2:15pm
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"This week's situation: You have gotten involved in an ancient Chinese land war!"

"I don't care if it is the coldest winter in fifty years!  I wanna invade Russia!"
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From:puppybane
Date:Monday (2/1/10) 11:41pm
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The second season of Dexter gets really good. But yeah, there are a bunch of bad elements to the show. Also, Dexter has one of the best credit sequences ever. Though I can't watch it while eating.
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From:hujhax
Date:Tuesday (2/2/10) 2:14pm
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Also, Dexter has one of the best credit sequences ever.

~ agreed ~
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From:shadyglenn
Date:Tuesday (2/2/10) 2:05pm
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I don't feel like Dexter goes off the rails (at least, through the third season), so much as focuses less on his killing and more on the difficulties of keeping up his facade and his need to have someone who, like Harry, understands and accepts him.

I really enjoy the supporting cast of the show, too, and once you get farther into the series, several of them get some nice story arcs themselves.
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[User Picture]
From:hujhax
Date:Tuesday (2/2/10) 2:13pm
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I don't feel like Dexter goes off the rails (at least, through the third season), so much as focuses less on his killing and more on the difficulties of keeping up his facade and his need to have someone who, like Harry, understands and accepts him.

Cool -- that seems like a good direction for it to go in, and a good way to keep the show from getting stale.

I really enjoy the supporting cast of the show, too, and once you get farther into the series, several of them get some nice story arcs themselves.

I look forward to seeing what happens to them in the rest of season one.
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