Movies: Burning, Volver
TV: The Good Place (season four), The Mandalorian (season one)
This is the 2018 drama from South Korean director Lee Chang-dong. It's about a would-be writer (Jong-su) who reconnects with an old classmate (Hae-mi), and then meets the classmate's new friend (Ben), a suave, mysterious businessman who may be a criminal on the side.
I liked this movie. And what intrigued me the most about it is how it uses things I often dislike in movies to riveting effect. For instance: ambiguity. Ambiguity in the sort-of-childish films I usually watch is basically a sign that somebody screwed up. An important line got cut, or the script wasn't quite solid, and you're left wondering, "Wait, *why* is that character mad at everyone all of a sudden?" and you just bear with it.
As far as I can tell, Burning uses ambiguity deliberately. It's very picky and very particular about its ambiguity. And it uses that ambiguity to slowly drive you insane. You meet Ben, and you just know something's off about him. And right from the start, that nagging feeling comes from ambiguity: if someone asks a guy with a Porsche and a penthouse how he makes his money, and the response is just a vague little zen koan about how you should follow your passion, that ambiguity gets under your skin. You want to say, "No. Really. What the fuck is your job?!", but maybe that would cause a scene. So the question curdles as you imagine the worst.
Burning is unique in how it takes that feeling and slowly ratchets it up until it's overwhelming. Ben tells Jong-su that he (Ben) is a petty criminal on the side, with a penchant for burning abandoned greenhouses every couple of months. "Oh," you think. "Okay, now I know *something* about what this guy's deal is." And then further details make it seem like, no, that may have just been a grinning, extravagant lie. And then (I'll tread lightly here) it seems like Ben might be doing things much worse than burning greenhouses — but again, there's never proof.
It's great to see a movie go for something so specific, and elicit a feeling I haven't gotten from other movies before.
It also does this via another practice I don't often like: this is a long, languid movie. It runs about two and a half hours, and everything — plot-lines, scenes, individual reaction shots — plays out slowly and patiently. On the one hand, it's nice to watch a movie that doesn't feel like it always has something more important to get to than its current scene. But also, this is the exact tool this movie *needs* to keep ratcheting up the tension on your "What the hell is going *on*?!" twitchiness.
It's like there's not enough action to distract you from the mounting discomfort.
Another thing that usually gets on my nerves: a kind of schlubby male protagonist that lucks into a relationship with a far more attractive woman. This was so prevalent in sitcoms for a while that they got collectively shorthanded as "fat guy hot wife" shows. But again, Burning does this and makes it work.
In this case it's a combination of two factors. First, it's this sense that Jong-su, the sort of schlubby dude, is sympathetic but always seems a beat or two behind following what's going on around him.¹ He does some clever things later in the film, but overall you get this feeling like whatever mystery he's embroiled in, he is *not* the guy who's equipped to figure it all out. And that puts you in his corner.
And his relationship with Hae-mi seems to have this same feeling of being 'off'. You learn some of what's going on — Hae-mi has a history with Jong-su, albeit one he doesn't really remember, and she's looking for some resolution to it. But it's still that mounting feeling of "something doesn't quite add up here", and again, you feel like, of all people, Jong-su isn't going to be the one to get to the bottom of it.
(Also, they initially play the sexuality at a slow burn, so that you, like Jong-su, are happily distracted for a while until the "waiiiit a minute" feeling kicks in.)
This is a great movie, and I'm sure better critics can plumb it for further depths. Highly recommended.
This is Pedro Almodóvar's 2006 drama about a family whose matriarch returns from the dead during a time of crisis.
This was my first DVD after Herzog's Aguirre, the Wrath of God, and in the strangest way, Volver feels like a nice complement to the 1972 film. In both cases, I find myself attending to a voice that's so particular, and so distinct from the conventional movies I've been watching lately, that I have to take a moment to get my bearings. But after I do, while I'm not sure I'm having an absolute blast with the film, I feel a deep contentment at knowing that there are more things a movie can do than just the things that I'm used to.
And it's wonderful, too, to see a filmmaker who is in so many ways the diametric opposite of Herzog. Gauging from just these two films, I would jump to the following conclusions. Herzog focuses on men; Almodóvar on women. Herzog's worlds are bleak, claustrophobic, and oppressive; Almodóvar's are airy, expansive, and overflowing with intensity and color. Herzog's characters are focused, precise, and intense; Almodóvar's are equally intense, but also outgoing and impulsive, with heightened scenarios sending them through whirlwinds of emotion.
And yet both of them give you that feeling that the movie exists because there's something the director has to get across to you that they just couldn't do any other way besides a film. And you can *feel* how intensely the filmmakers care about this, and that alone keeps you riveted to the screen.
If you tell someone about what happens in Volver, it feels like it should be a telenovela. By my tally, this two hour movie contains several murders, the dead rising form the grave, a fatal illness, a family confrontation on a live TV show, and a most-likely-illegal business deal. But you watch the movie, and it doesn't *feel* like that. It doesn't feel like the movie is ever saying "Look at this! See how *crazy* it is?"
It's more like, this is just the world that Almodóvar traffics in. The colors are a little more saturated. The events are a little more dramatic. The close-ups are a little tighter in, and the noises feel a little louder.
Honest, if we're trading in Spanish-language tropes from the other side of the Atlantic, it feels more like magical realism. To quickly recap: fantasy is where the pegasus comes to town and isn't it breathtaking and wonderful?; magical realism is where the pegasus comes to town and you sigh and dig the noisemaker out of the hall closet so the goddamn flying horse won't shit on your lawn. Again.
You just accept that these impossible things exist in Almodóvar's world, the same way you accept the shootouts in a western or the flying cars in futuristic sci-fi. This is partly because of how matter-of-factly the characters accept them — there's no "viewpoint character from the real world" to waste our time with "Whu-wait, a dead person reappeared? How is that possible?"
But it's mainly because this movie cares so much about relationships.² Most movies are purely transactional — the hero wants to win the hot-dog eating contest, and he mostly thinks of other people as helping or hurting him in his quest. Maybe he's annoyed with the love interest, and then attracted to her. And that's kind of it.
Here, you can pick any two characters and know how they feel about each other. Not only that, but there's nuanced — it's not the blank "like"/"do not like" of your usual commercial tentpole. And also, there's history — this movie is kind of astounding at how much backstory they pack in for these characters. Part of the overall sense, I guess, that Volver is just overflowing, with everything, all of the time.
The movie doesn't end when it ties up its plot points, though it does, or reveals its backstory secrets, which it does. It's over when this universe of interrelationships shifts, and everyone arrives at their new normal.
I'm glad I finally got around to Almodóvar. I'm sure this won't be the last of his that I see.
(Side note: one minor complaint is that the netflix DVD didn't have Spanish-language captions. So my options were to watch the whole thing in peninsular Spanish [no captions] and understand almost none of it, or watch it with English captions and not be able to practice listening. I opted for the latter.)
The Good Place (season four)
This is the final season of the NBC comedy about Eleanor Shellstrop's adventures in the afterlife. In this final go-round, Team Cockroach is tasked with proving that humans are capable of growth, and redesigning the afterlife around that principle.
This is not the best season of The Good Place.
But it'll surely rank as of the best finales of the year.
I can understand their ending it at season four. The show had kind of of painted itself into a corner — around season three, the characters had mostly worked through their problems. That left very few places to go with their character arcs. You can have them develop new problems, but then the arcs feel discontinuous, like their journey was about one thing for a few years, and now it's about something else, and that puts a bad taste in our mouths.
This show goes the other, wiser route: now that they've got their own shit together, the challenge is to pay it forward.
You saw this in season three, where, faced with certain condemnation to the Bad Place, they tried to save as many of their friends as possible. And season four wisely expands the frame on this, by asking them to fix, first, another squad of bad-place candidates, and then: the entire afterlife.
I feel like that's the perfect way to spend this last season: if season one was a simplistic afterlife that a freshman philosophy 101 student could shoot full of holes, then the natural way for the show to end is to present an afterlife that makes sense. And so that's what we've got with season four. They run their experiment with the bad-place-selected candidates, they get Chidi to enact a plan throughout the afterlife, and then, in a stroke of genius, they have to fix heaven.
That's all to the good.
But the 'pay it forward' storyline necessarily forces some problems. First, it throws the focus away from our established characters and towards the very people they're trying to help. And no matter how well-written the newbies are, it's hard to generate the same investment in them that we've had for the main cast.
Second, people who have their shit together are harder to make funny. Hell, they're just flat-out harder to tell stories about. When you put four people in a room and they all have out-of-whack coping mechanisms, if you just let them react to each other, you'll have drama. Heighten the reactions a bit, and the drama becomes comedy. Think of reality shows — you cast the most screwed-up people you can, and ideally get them drunk, deprive them of sleep (and possibly food), and tada! watch the sparks fly.
If everyone acts like an adult, then they have a collective inertia: nothing dramatic happens.
And so you have two forces battling it out in the final season.
On the one hand, the structure is brilliant. Putting the team on the other side of what happened in season one is a beautiful piece of symmetry, and it creates situations that are familiar to us, but which we're seeing from a completely different angle. "The Answer", with its head-spinning trip alongside all the material we've seen so far, is one of the best of the season. And the show keeps up its habit of barreling past the endpoints we think, from experiences with lesser shows, are a long way off: the experiment ends; they win the right to redesign the afterlife; they reach the good place; they redesign the good place.
On the other hand, the characters are kinda... stable. Internally between the characters, things are more static. We do get some heartbreaking moments where Chidi does not remember Eleanor — even now, I don't ship the characters strongly, but I identify with that moment where someone dear to you no longer remembers your name. But generally, we don't see strong stories *between* the characters — instead, we're focused on new people, outside threats, and dizzying world-building.
And that's great, but it's always going to have a hint of a letdown.
That said: the finale was amazing.
It's easy to imagine any other version of this show pumping the brakes before the end. It's *very* easy to imagine a show ending with Team Cockroach going to heaven, and we fade to white, and we never, ever know what heaven is in this universe. It's easy to imagine ending on Team Cockroach getting the opportunity to redesign heaven, and ending on them starting that effort, and then we never know how it turns out. Iit's easy to imagine a show balking at the idea of staking a claim: here's what this universe's heaven is like; here's a better way for it to work; here's, definitively, how things end for these characters.
It's especially easy to imagine this for some show that didn't *need* to be set in the afterlife. Say, it was a romcom that just happened to be set in the afterlife. That's the show that could swerve from actually showing heaven, perhaps out of a fear of being offensive.
But this show had to take us all the way to the end. It was set in the afterlife so it could explore questions about morality and death. By season four, it's asking such big philosophical questions, now, that we *have* to 'go there', over and over again. We have to hit "how do we redesign hell" and "how do we redesign heaven". And, in the end, our hero has to die. Really die. Because ultimately, one of the ideas that inspired this whole show was the notion that without mortality — an end, with no eternal souls and no takebacks — our time on earth loses meaning.
And one of the joys of this last episode — through the ugly-sobbing that I was doing for the whole hour — is that this TV show, this inheritor of LOST, this thing that balanced its whole first season on an M.-Night-Shyamalan-style twist and ran roughshod past expectations for every subsequent season, this rollercoaster with more unexpected left turns than a malicious GPS — went perfectly straight. Sure, there were small surprises: Tahani becomes an architect, Jason doesn't vanish when you expect him to.
But generally, the episode title tells you exactly what will happen: "Whenever You're Ready". And the last surprise, from this show that's been all about surprises, was how doggedly they played out the inevitability of that premise. Given all the time in the world, a soul will, at some point, realize it's done everything it needs to do. And that will be the end. As a viewer, you keep wishing for a twist, or an out — for not having to say goodbye. But you know this is where this show, that began with death, has been heading the whole time.
There were lots of indulgent touches around the edges of the finale. I loved how many secondary characters they got in, smoothly working them into backgrounds, or group scenes, or crowds. Trevor is still flying, howling, through the afterlife void. Eleanor's roommates made it, at last. Doug Forcett returned to his younger form and is gorging on fried chicken.
And there were indulgent touches for the show's team, as well. Both of their main philosophy advisors have cameos, as does Mary Steenburgen (Mr. Danson's wife) and Nick Offerman (as himself). They get one last chance to show off Manny Jacinto's dance moves. They briefly take the show to Athens and to Paris.
And with one last impressively intricate callback, it's done.
We will never see anything like it again.
And that seems right.
The Mandalorian (season one)
This is the first season of the Star Wars TV show about a lone bounty hunter who winds up caring for a small child.
This was the show I needed after The Rise of Skywalker. Yes, some of you loved it, some of you hated it, but I think we can all agree it was a lot of "running running action shout shout running reference reference run to the thing get the thing aaaaa". It was breathless and rapid. If you liked it, it was exhilarating; if you didn't, it was incoherent.
Me, I enjoyed seeing the opposite of that. The Mandalorian is one of the most patient shows this side of Rectify. If you have a 45-minute episode of The Mandalorian, maybe four things happen in it. The rest of the time, the show just... luxuriates. You get long, contemplative shots of alien landscapes. You get cagey conversations about the Mandalorian's shadowy past. They bring in a guest star and give them a little time to establish who they are. Tense standoffs linger.
The action sequences, while expertly done, land especially well because they interrupt stretches of relative silence.
This style also means you-the-viewer have plenty of time to *consider* this plot. It's like each plot point is a hammer, or a jewelry box, and you have plenty of time to pick it up, look it over, and judge if it's solidly constructed. Fortunately, The Mandalorian is basically a TV sci-fi Western — and possibly the first one? Yes, Firefly branded itself a "space Western", but it couldn't help constantly subverting the old storylines of Western TV shows, or going off in delightful tangents all its own. (Hel-lo, "Jaynestown".) And Roddenberry pitched Star Trek as "Wagon Train in space", but the final product had more in common, structurally, with The Twilight Zone than any wild Western ride.
The Mandalorian is just straight-up doing "TV Westerns' Greatest Hits". And it works, because we're no longer seeing those stories all the time — whee, they're new to us — and they were genre tropes because they worked very reliably. Doing a prison break, defending a town from bandits, stealing a MacGuffin from a base — these are some of the most solid foundations you can build a plot on. And they are not varying from tradition.
Honestly, it's impressive that, in a time when we have some of the most wildly inventive TV shows ever made³, The Mandalorian proves its mettle by being almost perversely unoriginal. It does old, familiar stories. It succeeds by doing those stories with a level of skill that most of the Star Wars films can't match.
For instance, this is one of the best-cast shows I've seen in ages. Yes, the puppetry work on The Child is astounding — and bless them for only using CGI judiciously with the character — but there's not a weak link in the cast. They even include an MMA fighter, Gina Carano, and perfectly arrange her part so that someone who's a great fighter but not a trained actor can shine in the role. And that's something you notice throughout — that they've crafted these roles where the actors can play pretty close to their 'pocket' and it works perfectly. (See Werner Herzog in the early episodes — he can just *be* Werner Herzog and it fits the story perfectly.)
It's got the best special-effects work of nearly any TV show. Even outside of the expert puppetry, and the CGI space effects, and the occasional blaster fights, their crazy "stagecraft" technology lets them surround each scene with a live, high-res, camera-responsive green screen. So suddenly the show looks like they just happened to have access to a dozen locations that were untouched landscapes from one horizon to the other. Per episode.
Beyond that, I don't find myself with much to say about The Mandalorian. It tells a simple story well. It deploys well-worn storytelling tools effectively. The technology is a game-changer, but the content merely reminds us what a challenge it is to so the simple stuff right, and how rewarding it can be when you do so.
For next week: I still need to write up Witch Hat Atelier, and I'm now reading a parenting book. I'm still almost done with Watchmen and season three of BoJack Horseman, and I've started watching Chernobyl. In Spanish, I've started reading Las Grietas de Jara and watching Roma. On The Great Courses, I'm watching/listening to a course about infrastructure engineering.
¹ Between this and Norwegian Wood, I'm wondering if this is a Murasaki tic.
² You get a sense for this, I think, after doing enough improv.
³ Hi there The Good Place!