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

Monday (12/8/08) 11:16am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  Safety Last!
TV:  Dead Like Me [1x02-1x06]
Books:  <none>

Safety Last!
Who talks about Harold Lloyd any more?  Sure, we all remember Chaplin and Keaton, but Harold Lloyd?  In his day, he was as popular as any silent film star.  But after the talkies came along, Chaplin's works lapsed into the public domain, while Lloyd held copyright to all of his works.  The result:  Chaplin's movies were shown everywhere, while Lloyd rarely allowed even theatrical showings of his films. 

Nowadays, all the cultural consciousness remembers is that shot of the clock face, if we remember him at all.

Anyway, I'd been meaning to catch an old Harold Lloyd movie for some time, since zinereem claimed that my silent scenes were reminiscent of Mr. Lloyd's work.  Recently, I watched a documentary about Pola Negri, which re-piqued my interest in the silent-film era.  So I figured I'd watch Safety Last!, his best-known movie, and the one with that famous clock scene.

So, what do I think of Harold Lloyd?  It's interesting -- it's kind of like Lloyd splits the difference between Chaplin and Keaton.  Chaplin does the sort of broad clowning that works great with the stuntwork in his elaborate set-pieces.  Keaton, of course, underplays.[1]  Compared to those extremes, Lloyd seems pretty much normal.

But at the same time, his acting is stylized and artificial enough so that he can get across fairly complicated ideas.  I loved a scene where Lloyd buys a necklace from a jeweler who tends to rub his hands together (embarrassing anti-Semitism FTW!).  The scene shows Lloyd unconsciously rubbing his hands together in the same way -- and you know exactly what's going on.  Lloyd isn't making fun of the jeweler; he isn't trying to be ingratiating to the jeweler; he is just mindlessly imitating the other guy without even realizing it.  His physical acting is specific enough to convey that.[2]

At his best, Lloyd doesn't need stunts or schtick at all -- he can create comedy out of simple and accurate observation.

It's also interesting that Lloyd[3] tells jokes with the camera in a way that other silent-film comedians don't.  The opening shot, for example, shows Lloyd behind bars with a noose in the background.  Then the camera pulls away to reveal that, no, Lloyd is at a train station, and the 'noose' is a hook used for train dispatches.  The movie includes several jokey reveals like that.

The movie itself is just okay.  I don't agree with the claims that the silent era was perfect and it's all been downhill from there -- what I've seen of old movies makes me think that in 1923, maybe movies didn't quite know how to be movies yet.  The first half of the film is all episodic material designed to set up all the elements for the second half, which is basically all stunts.  So up until the second half, there isn't really a plot there -- it's just Lloyd wandering through his workday as various zany things happen.  But it's still amusing, so it's hard to be annoyed.

But really, once the main stunt gets going, the plot moves just fine.  Lloyd winds up climbing a 20-story building, King-Kong-style, as a publicity stunt, and the plot is perfectly straightforward and visual:  he's on his way from point A to point B; will he make it?  You can throw in a whole bunch of random, episodic gags along the way, and the story still works.

All in all it's a solidly-entertaining little film, so I take zinereem's comparison as a compliment.

Dead Like Me [1x02-1x06]
These are the next five episodes of Dead Like Me:  "Dead Girl Walking", "Curious George", "Reapercussions", "Reaping Havoc", and "My Room".  Note that this run of episodes takes us past showrunner Bryan Fuller's departure in 1x05.

So far, I'd only seen the pilot, so with this batch of episodes I got a much better idea of what the show does right and what the show does wrong.

Ironically, Mr. Fuller isn't so strong with supernatural storytelling.

I say "ironically" because (1) I have only a vague handle on what "ironically" means, and (2) *each* of Mr. Fuller's shows -- Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls, and Pushing Daisies -- has a supernatural *premise*.  But I can see this fairly consistently now:  Mr. Fuller is at his best when he writes about families.  The best thing about Wonderfalls wasn't the talking tchotchkes -- it was the scary-accurate way it depicted all the inter-relationships within Jaye's family.  The best thing about "Company Man" wasn't the plot loop-de-loops it filled in within the established backstory of Heroes[5] -- it was how clearly Fuller conveyed HRG's affection for his adopted daughter.

And in Dead Like Me, you've got this wacky story about George learning to grim-reap counterpointed against a simple family drama about the family grappling with George's death.  It's uncomfortable, it's depressing as hell, it's not particularly original as stories go, but I still find myself peevishly waiting through the 'reaper' sections of the show so that we can return to the 'family' storyline.  Mr. Fuller & Co. are just that good.

Why is it so good?  I still don't quite know.  I know part of it is that Cynthia Stevenson just acts the hell out of it.  I look at her other imdb credits (Air Bud, Agent Cody Banks) and I despair.

But frankly, it'd be more prudent for me to stick to evaluating the writing.[6]  I can see that they've given the family members very specific characters with very specific behavior.  And I love that George's relatives aren't just little twine-balls of sunshine and sympathy -- they're mean, they do bad things, and the only reason we don't just hate them is that the writers somehow get us to see and feel where they're coming from.  Frankly, the show takes a hell of a chance here -- if they failed at making us understand *why* George's relatives lashed out, we'd wind up hating everybody.

On the minus side, I've noticed that this show has a penchant for including an occasional 'filler scene' that doesn't contribute to the plot.  For example, "Curious George" includes a lengthy diner scene where Mason and Jade bicker about whether Jade should buy a bird.

I'm a bit puzzled as to why these scenes bore me so much.  There are other productions where such 'character scenes' work beautifully.  Freaks and Geeks, for example, had them in spades.  That show has one scene where Sam asks Bill and Neil, "Will girls ever like us?", and it leads to a three-minute contemplative chat, and I wouldn't trade that for *any* amount of plot churn.  Hell, you could argue that the best scenes in Fargo were the ones that were curiously disjoint from the central crime caper.  But somehow these scenes in Dead Like Me -- like the bird scene -- are just D. O. A.[7]

I suspect the problem is that Fuller & Co. are trying to coast on banter.

If we talk about "what a scene is about" versus "what a scene is *really* about", these plot-extraneous scenes don't even *have* a "what it's really about".  It's about the bird.  And it's about amusing us with the witty banter about the bird.  It doesn't foreground some deep character conflict within the central cast.  It doesn't deepen the characters in any significant way.  It just sits there and tries to be funny.

And, while Mr. Fuller has many, many virtues, he's not a stand-up comedian.[4]  He doesn't write jokes; he doesn't reduce me to paroxysms of laughter with polished one-liners.  So we've got this scene that doesn't really push the main plot along, doesn't have a consequential plot of its own, and doesn't really bring the funny -- and it sticks out like a sore thumb.

"Oh.  Um... everything just kinda stopped.  When will they stop talking about birds?"

They sometimes have a similar problem on a larger scale, where the A- and B-stories just don't connect.  "Reaping Havoc," for example, isolates Mason in a plot where he has a long conversation with an old lady who just died.  It's supposed to be thematically connected to the A-story, where George is trying to make friends with people.  But even if the viewer can intellectually puzzle out that similarity, it still *feels* like we're flipping channels between two unrelated shows.

Finally, I'm disappointed with Stewart Copeland's score.  This is a damn shame, because I'm convinced that Mr. Copeland comprises about 80% of what was/is cool about the Police and I really liked his "Klark Kent" solo album.  I was keen to see what he would do with scoring a TV show.

And while he did write a great percussive and Latin-tinged main theme for the show, the rest of his score draws too much attention to itself.  The quirky, danceable music gets out in front of the scene when it should just be a supporting player.

For me, the worst scoring choice is the repeated use of "Boom Boom Ba" -- great song, and maybe a great song to score a silent scene in a club, but for a quiet, awkward family scene?  No.  And when they use it in a scene with *dialog*, the lines fight with the song in a way that's just sloppy.

That said, it might be worth seeing the rest of season one.  The bits where they're firing on all cylinders may outweigh the bits where they're still finding their way.

For next time:  more of The Wire, and who knows what else.  I may finish that audiocourse about the Bill of Rights and that Henry Jenkins book.

Currently listening to Mendelssohn at work.  Nothing new to report in the world of podcasts, either.  Alas.

[1] ... though he doesn't underplay as much as people tend to think he underplays.  Keaton often sets up scenes so that the audience knows a lot more than his character.  We see a collapsing house nearly squish Buster Keaton like a bug; Keaton's character merely hears a loud noise and finds himself standing on a wood floor.  Keaton's character rarely realizes how crazy any given situation is, so to some extent his under-acting is normal-acting.

[2] Another great example is when Lloyd makes about five consecutive attempts to barge into his boss's office.  Every time, he veers away and chickens out -- and every time, you can clearly tell that he (1) finds a new way to motivate himself to head in the door, and (2) finds a new reason to chicken out.  There are several bits like this, where Lloyd repeats the same basic physical action but approaches it in novel ways.  (See also:  the repeated times he avoids getting knocked in the head by the weathervane.)

[3] ... or more accurately, Lloyd's filmmaking team.

[4] ... more precisely, neither Mr. Fuller nor any of the staff writers working for Mr. Fuller is a stand-up comedian.

[5] ... although I have to admit, that was all pretty damn elegant.

[6] I may not be a good writer, but I'm certainly better at writing than acting.

[7] ... no pun intended.

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