Peter (hujhax) wrote,

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... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Books:  The History and Achievements of the Islamic Golden Age [audiocourse], Vegetable Gardening for Dummies
Movies:  Mission Impossible 3 [spoilers]
TV:  GLOW (season 1)

The History and Achievements of the Islamic Golden Age [audiocourse] by Eamonn Gearon
This is the 2017 Teaching Company course detailing the intellectual and cultural achievements of the so-called "Golden Age of Islam", dating from around 550AD to 1250AD across the Middle East.

This course is pretty much what it says on the tin.  It details the accomplishments of the Islamic world, showing what they were up to while Christian Europe was in the throes of the Dark Ages.

This was a completely average history audiocourse.  It was not inept at any point.  The lecturer is very clearly "reading a series of essays" rather than lecturing.  His delivery is engaged and understandable, but not in any way conversational or engaging.  Compare him to a superior presenter like John McWhorter, and you see that this course has none of the variations in dynamics or tempo, none of the conversational filler words, none of the techniques that make you feel like *part* of the course instead of a passive recipient.

The material is carefully organized.  It's fine.  There's no real through-line to the course besides "they did a lot of cool stuff in the old-timey Middle East".  Each individual lecture covers some or other cool thing — architecture, philosophy, science, the construction of Baghdad's "House of Wisdom" — giving you the details, and a few quotes from modern-day professors talking about how impressed they are with it.

And that's... fine.  I mean, the material itself shines: the work that was going on in that region over that period was astounding, both in terms of original research and in preserving the works of antiquity.  Hell, one scholar came within a hair's breadth of figuring out evolution about six hundred years early.  But again, each individual lecture has no story beyond "this aspect of that culture was cool".  In addition, the lectures don't build on each other, to the point that many of them re-explain to the listener what "The Golden Age of Islam" means.

I *am* glad I listened to this.  It's a part of history we don't often hear about[1], which means there was plenty for me to learn.  For instance, I'd never heard of the aforementioned "House of Wisdom", a great library on the order of Alexandria, that was destroyed in the sacking of Baghdad in 1258.  Also, in our current nightmare timeline, it feels good to learn more about Islam, and to learn more about a period of (for its time) peaceful and productive coexistence.  But I'm sure there are better treatments of the material out there.

Vegetable Gardening for Dummies by Charlie Nardozzi
This is exactly what it says on the tin: a bright yellow "... for Dummies" guidebook about how to plant vegetables.

And as with the Gardening Basics for Dummies book, you know what you're getting: a very surface level, dad-humor-filled skim of a practical topic.  I'd picked it up hoping to get some guidance on how to plant a garden in my new backyard.

I was surprised to discover that reading a book about how to garden vegetables was basically useless.

They waste some time on "here's why planting a vegetable garden is a good idea".  It's not quite as bad as it was in Gardening Basics, but still: I bought the damn book already, dude.  Don't waste my time reassuring me that I want what I want.  And any discussion among gardeners about "why to plant a garden" tends to go in two weird and unwelcome directions:

1. This is how you LIVE OFF THE GRID and ensure that THE MAN doesn't CONTROL YOUR FOOD.
2. This is how you MAKE SURE that the EVIL CHEMICALS don't get in your SYSTEM.

To which the only reasonable replies are:
1. I don't want to destroy capitalism today, just let me plant a tomato.
2. Yes, okay, vaccines can't melt steel beams, please just tell me how to deal with aphids.

I feel like my motivations for having a garden — they are pretty, they remind me of my childhood, and working on them is relaxing — are out of step from gardeners intent enough on the hobby to write guidebooks.

The book trucks along from there, covering everything at about an inch of depth.  And weirdly it managed to sidestep every question *I* had about planting a garden.  There were entire chapters devoted to dealing with cold weather, but next to nothing about how to handle Austin's blast-furnace summers.  Maybe it's because vegetable gardening is impossible when it's 112° outside, but if that's the case, the book could at least *tell* me so.

There were lots of sections on how to increase nitrogen content, how to create compost (so much about compost), how to change the pH of soil, but nothing about *my* soil problem: high phosphorous.  If I improve the soil with anything that has phosphorous in it, I'm screwed, but the book remained silent on addressing this point.

There was an entire chapter on dealing with animals that might eat your food, but it didn't say anything about handling squirrels, which are everywhere in this neighborhood.  It might be that squirrels are not a problem, or it might be that there is nothing you can do about them, but again, the book remained silent.

Anyway, it spends a significant amount of its length just listing out vegetable cultivars, and why the author thinks they're cool.  And that's fine — he's not a breathtaking prose stylist, but the lists are pleasant and comprehensive — but it's basically fungible with a nursery catalog at that point.

After that, it finally settles into the details of preparing a garden plot and watering and weeding your plants.  And good Christ, they make it seem difficult.  And if that's the case — if it just eats hours and hours and hours of your time until each tomato is effectively $700 — that's fine, just be up-front about it in the book.  Tell me at the start, "Vegetable gardening is a laborious, unglamorous, part-time job where the only pay is a $100 pile of produce you get at the end of an entire season of work," and I won't be surprised when all the painstaking tasks are detailed in the rest of the book.  Instead, it's all, "Hey!  These are all the free-standing structures you need to build before you spend an hour a day pulling weeds and researching suitably 'organic' pesticides."

I feel like this book is geared at a retiree in the Hamptons who really likes dad jokes and has nothing but time on his hands.

So basically this book talked me out of having a vegetable garden, at least for now.  I may try "solarizing" the soil over the summer and planting some things in the fall.  Or I may just join a CSA and call it a day.

Mission: Impossible 3 [spoilesr]
This is the 2006 franchise film in which super-spy Ethan Hunt has to track down a mysterious bioweapon before a merciless arms dealer can do the same.

There is more good movie in the first two minutes of this film than there was in the entirety of Mission: Impossible 2.  Its renowned cold open[2] instantly makes you realize how much was missing from the previous film.  You realize you never had a villain with any screen presence.[3]  You never had a relationship with a love interest that felt earnest or compelling.  And jesus, you never even had your hero in credible *danger*, through that whole two-hour-plus epic.

And somehow we get all of this from Phillip Seymour Hoffman counting downwards from ten.

And that scene also tips its hand on how they're going to use Tom Cruise.

I can explain.

First I'm going to talk about another movie with a Philip Seymour Hoffman villain: Punch-Drunk Love.  That's a movie where Paul Thomas Anderson looked at Adam Sandler movies, and at the comedian's sort of "angry man-child" persona, and wrote his own movie around that — or more precisely, around what that person would actually be like.  How damaged do you have to be to act like an Adam Sandler character?  What are the consequences?  And, in the end, can that person be happy?  It's moving, funny, and memorable — and, of course, Adam Sandler plays the lead impeccably.

Here, I see JJ Abrams doing the same thing with Mr. Cruise.  Specifically, Tom Cruise never comes across as a man who *is charismatic*.  He comes across as a man who *deploys charisma*.  There's never any ease to it, but always an edgy, manic intensity.  The "jumping on the coach" Oprah appearance went viral partly because a man jumping up and down on your furniture shouting at you that YES HE REALLY DOES LOVE HIS WIFE is relatively on-brand for this fellow.

And in MI:3, I see Mr. Abrams leaning on that.  In that first scene, between the numbers of Mr. Hoffman's countdown, we see Ethan Hunt desperately deploying charisma.  He's presenting arguments, cycling through emotions, trying so, so hard to be instantly Mr. Davian's friend — and none of it works.  And it is singularly scary to watch a character whose only mechanism for handling the world is failing.  It's like watching a robot malfunction, flipping rapidly through all the settings that usually work, and just occasionally seeing the mask slip — and behind it there's nothing but hurt, and anger, and confusion, all swirling together.

I go on at such length about this because (1) it's really cool.  But then, there are lots of other really cool things to this movie, and we'll get to them shortly.  The main reason is (2) this is kind of what the whole movie is *about*.  Ethan is a character who is constantly performing.  He's performing as a drab DOT employee for his own fiancée.[4]  He's performing as 'a mentor that's definitely not getting his ass kicked' for his kidnapped student.  He's performing as 'a leader that is definitely not losing his shit' for his team.  And then there are all the vocational spy-role-plays on top of that.

And this is why you tell spy stories.  They're ultimately about the ways we lie to everyone around us — the way we're always pulling the strings to appear as the right person for the right audience.  And the way that, ultimately that may be *all there is* — no 'real you' manipulating anything.  Just strings.  And so I was genuinely moved, both by the artistry and the emotion, by the closing scenes of the story.  Ultimately, this is about whether Ethan Hunt, the greatest pretender in his industry, can be himself, wholly himself, for the woman he loves.

No jumping on anything; just honest words.

So that's where we're starting from with MI:3: an underlying character arc that actually means something, with the actor uniquely qualified to perform it.

But there is so much else to like about this movie.

For example: the plot is simple!  Oh glorious day, the plot is simple!  Bad guy has a thing!  Get the thing away from him!  Put him in jail!  None of the goddamn useless loop-de-loops of MI:2 where they're getting a (remarkably similar) thing, and they have a Rube-Goldberg-ian plan to get it, and they have a stock-option plan in mind to take advantage of it, but they need to start a global pandemic and also conspire with a CEO and and and... all of that bullshit is blown away.  The heists are somewhat intricate, but you know where the *story* is at all times.  You make the *plot* simple.  You make the *execution* challenging.

Likewise, the action makes sense.  Gone are Mr. Woo's misguided reaches for slow-mo 'beauty shots' riddled with doves.  I suspect this film was just ahead of the creeping "Bourne-ification" of action cinema.  Instead, Mr. Abrams uses long takes that move through his sets to nail down the geography of the fight scenes.  It's usually less about 'who has the coolest fighting move' and more storytelling based — the good guys win the day because of something that's been set up earlier in the story.  Julia can take down the bad guys because Ethan has given her very good, very concise training on her weapon.[5]

The script is so self-assured in its storytelling that it's almost just showing off.

Consider the big theft of the Rabbit's Foot: any journeyman version of this movie would show Ethan Hunt stealing the thing.  Yes, that beat doesn't move the plot forward, and yes, the movie should instead focus on the *team* putting some intricate plan in motion, but that alternate movie would grudgingly go through the motions of infiltrating the corporate compound, because *sigh* that's what this franchise is *supposed* to do.  Abrams blithely skips past it, instead turning the whole theft into a brief offscreen pause for breath between a hair-raising swing to the rooftop and a breakneck car-chase escape.  Likewise, never telling us what the Rabbit's Foot *is* (apart from some vague biohazard labeling) stands as another case where a lesser movie (like MI:2) would wearily go through the motions of exposition-ing what exactly we're dealing with.  MI:3 knows that it doesn't matter, and is so certain of it that it provides no explanation whatsoever.

The villains are perfectly depicted.  I love how Mr. Hoffman plays Davios, a performance in many ways commendable for what he doesn't do.  Other actors would chew a lot more scenery in this role.  Even when he tells Ethan he's going to murder the man's wife, it's almost blasé, the dead delivery of someone without anything to prove and without any emotions beyond outbursts of volcanic anger.  And when the final villain is revealed, it's basically Erik Prince — a neoliberal hawk looking to start wars for regime change and profit.  I was not expecting searing critique of the U. S. intelligence community from a tentpole actioner, but I am certainly not complaining.

Finally, I love that the bulk of the story spins out of unintended consequences.  Ethan leaps into action to save Farris in a questionable operation.  He kidnaps Davios on no one's authority, reveals vital intel about who he is in a fit of rage, misjudges the intel that Farris brought him, and spends the last hour of the film cleaning up the mess.  Every screenwriter talks about how writing act two is hard — one suspects it might be because they're not letting their hero make dire-enough mistakes.  Here, Ethan makes understandable but unforced errors, and the rest of the plot falls like dominoes.

This is a shocking increase in quality from MI:2 — I can't think of another franchise with such a pronounced improvement in successive films.  It's my favorite action movie I've seen in years, and might be one of my favorites of all time.

GLOW (season 1)
This is the 2017 netflix dramedy inspired by the making of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling TV show in the 1980s.

I queued this up for light entertainment.  I thought it would be a fun, breezy dramedy — something with high, period production values and a strong feminist perspective — about women's wrestling in the 80s.

So I watched the pilot.

And there's a scene in the pilot, in the GLOW auditions, where Ruth and Britney are doing terrible, terrible scenework.  And the director tells them, stop that, just do the fight choreogarphy we were asking you to do.  They nod, and they continue doing terrible, terrible scenework.  And the director says okay, you're cut from the auditions, you can go home now.  And Ruth is shocked and put out by this.

"What?" says Sam Sykes.  "I asked you to do a thing.  And you didn't do it.  So... go home!"  And just the way he says it — the surprised exasperation of it — made it click for me:


Oh god.

This is a show about improv, isn't it.

See, I've been in that exact audition interaction.  Hell, I have been *both people* in that interaction.  I've been that actor.  More recently, I've been that director, saddened and confused, running an audition, inwardly saying, "I'm trying to help you!  I'm asking you to do the thing I want to see you do!  Why are you not doing the thing?  JUST DO THE THING!"  And I can say decisively, that moment feels exactly like Marc Maron's eerily dead-on line reading.

What followed were eight episodes that sometimes veered into soap-opera plot twists, sometimes indulged in 1980s minstrelry (just LOOK at how 80S this is, AMIRITE?), but were mainly centered on gut-punch observations about improv that hit closer to home than many properties that were nominally *about* improv.  An actor complains about having to learn fight choreography so they can 'fight' safely in the ring.  There are uncomfortable questions about whether they're parodying something they dislike about society, or just playing into it and indulging their audience's worst instincts.  They get the group to construct personas, largely inspired by available costumes.  All of this is stuff I've encountered in improv.[6]

Even apart from its spine-chilling "oh god I've lived through that" elements, GLOW is a solid show.  Marc Maron is mainly known as a podcaster, but they build a character almost completely around his persona, and it works beautifully, managing to nail a character who's trying to do good work, and do well by the people working for him, but is so broken and ignorant that he winds up wreaking havoc.  Allison Brie is the lead, tweaking her "high-strung overachiever" character into an "ingénue come to the big city" who has big dreams and maybe less talent.  And they fill out the cast with a bunch of very sharply-drawn would-be wrestlers — strong personalities who bounce off of each other in interesting ways.

They have a good, straightforward story they can work from: they're trying to put on a show — specifically, a ladies' wrestling show for public access.  And that gives them a solid spine: every episode can introduce some new impediment to throw in their way.  The problems can be external: the funding dries up; the venue falls through; their trainer gets fired.  Or they can be internal: say, the love triangle between Ms. Brie's Ruth Wilder, retired soap-opera actress Debbie Egan, and Debbie's husband can suddenly surface and wreck everything.  And yet, they soldier on towards their premiere.

All in all, it makes for a pleasant, engaging, oh-god-stop-ripping-things-from-my-life sort of show.

For next week: I'm finsihing season two of The Dragon Prince.  I'm reading Powers.  I still have to write about Amy Gentry's debut novel and Captain Marvel.

[1] ... which actually made it hard as hell to follow — without any established facts to "attach" the new information to, it was hard to mentally "hold on" to anything.  (Also not helpful: not knowing Arabic, which ensured that every name of every place and every person all sounded kind of the same to me.)
[2] Now granted, "using the start of act three as your teaser" is a standard trick you see all over the place in TV, so it's unsurprising to see TV veteran JJ Abrams bring it to bear here.  But it's a cliché because it works, and after the tepid nonsense of M:I2, it's good that this movie grabs you by the lapels and makes you pay attention.
[3] Dougray Scott did great work elsewhere, so you have to figure his talents were just criminally wasted in M:I2.  And if it's an acting contest between anybody and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, "anybody" is going to lose.
[4] I was a bit thrown that any right-thinking person would meet a DC transportation engineer and not *immediately* insist on an hours-long discussion about traffic density and travel modes, but I move in odd social circles.
[5] And let's take a moment here to stand in slackjawed awe of how well this film uses Ethan's job as a story generator.  Every lesser movie would use "Ethan is now doing training at IMF" as a throwaway, setting it up as an excuse to do a hoary old "but one last job gets him back into the field" trope and then forgetting about it.  Here, the training gig is both what kicks off the story (a star student gets kidnapped and killed) and what resolves it in the end (miraculously, everything hinges on how well he can train a newbie at clearing a room).
[6] All of this and *more*, I should say — there are other parallels I can't really cite without making fellow improvisors uncomfortable.
Tags: media update, weekly
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