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

Monday (4/20/09) 9:13pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  Rachel Getting Married
TV:  LOST [5x11-5x12] [spoilers], Andy Richter Controls the Universe [1x01-1x06]
Books:  <none>

Rachel Getting Married
The odd thing is that Rachel Getting Married made me spend some time thinking about Juno.  Both movies were from fairly new screenwriters -- Juno was Diablo Cody's first screenplay, and Rachel Getting Married was Jenny Lumet's fifth (but the first one produced).

Specifically, I was thinking about an interview with Cody, where they talked about some of the backlash against Juno and Cody.  She mentioned that a lot of the unfavorable response was sexism, and it makes sense that the scummy Hollywood establishment would respond with, "Egads!  A woman!  Writing our scripts!" (unless of course that woman is making your studio money). 

The truth is, *I* was kind of annoyed with Juno.  Yes, it was a nice little movie, but after the media circus kicked into its third month, I had had enough.  I don't think it was my own sexism against lady screenwriters kicking in (my adoration for the first few seasons of Gilmore Girls, let me show you it), but I couldn't verbalize exactly what my problem with it was.

I think Rachel Getting Married has cleared that up for me.  I was irritated because Juno is one of those movies where the screenwriter is almost out in front of the film, shouting, "LISTEN LISTEN LISTEN TO MY DISTINCTIVE VOICE".  You're made very aware, at every moment, that this is a written, invented, formalized storyline.

Now, there's absolutely nothing wrong with having such a distinctive voice.  Most of my favorite TV showrunners are writers you can identify after about ten seconds of dialog.  What bugs me is that these more showy writers become international phenoms, and screenwriters who do quieter work that's every bit as good fly under the radar.

It's kind of like how actors get lauded when they chew the scenery to bits, but ignored when you never catch them ac-ting.

Rachel Getting Married is the opposite of Juno.  It's a movie that doesn't feel like it *had* a writer, but that lack of apparent artifice is a sign of how well Ms. Lumet does her job, and how she builds a great framework for the rest of the production to build on.  It's the kind of detailed, naturalistic world you'd associate with Altman or perhaps Christopher Guest.

I admit, the structure of the film kind of bugs me.

It doesn't exactly have a character with a clear objective.  I'm sure you could apply some decoder ring to the movie and, with strenuous effort, pretend that it has the classic three-act structure of the modern film, but that would be pretty much a lie.  This movie doesn't work like that.  Instead, it works more like Mad Men -- it's not a guy on a quest for the magic thing, it's a bunch of characters with heavily-tamped-down inner conflicts in a room together.  Even when nothing's going on, you get the sense that that the subtle, constant conflicts between them could boil over.

The structure is there, but it's more subtle, and it often fades into the background.  There's just enough plot to tug you through this world and introduce you to its characters.

But yes, it bugs me.  Specifically, it bugs me because I know what's going to happen.  Some smug, n00b screenwriter will give me a script to provide notes on.  I'll read it, and I'll discover that it's an awful pile of meandering nonsense with no protagonist, no objectives, and nary a scene with any conflict.  I'll try to steer the person right:  "pick a hero," "make the hero want something," "make me wonder how each of the scenes will turn out."

Then the writer will get all defensive:  "Oh, *yeah?!*  Well, Rachel Getting Married doesn't have conflicts!"

And then I'll be mired in bickering over the subtle but profoundly important differences between the script for Rachel Getting Married and a hundred pages of slushpile kindling -- and I already spend far too much of my life struggling to convince people that what they teach you in Screenwriting 101 really is true.


The film is not without its flaws.  The resolution of the movie's central emotional baggage is a bit pat, in a "Lifetime movie-of-the-week" kind of way (though it's beautifully acted).  I felt guilty while watching a few of the more plot-light scenes, because I knew I was mostly enjoying it because it was spectacle -- wedding-porn for the NPR set, basically.  "And wouldn't it be great if there were, like, Indian-style wedding dresses?  And everybody was all artsy & stuff?  And then if Robyn Hitchcock played the reception?  Awesome!"

But those are minor complaints.  This is the best movie I've seen in a long time.

(Then again, I don't watch a lot of movies.)

LOST [5x12-5x13] [spoilers]
It's interesting, reviewing these episodes in pairs, because the showrunners often like to pair up episodes that radically contrast each other.  Such is the case with the last two episodes, "Dead Is Dead" and "Some Like It Hoth" -- perhaps the most mythology-heavy episode since "The Shape of Things to Come" and the most light and funny episode since that one about the big blue minibus.[1]

I described the previous two episodes as "setup", stupidly marionetting characters into place so that an interesting storyline can happen.  These two episodes felt more like payoff.  Yes, of *course* I want to know what happens when Lazarus!Locke meets up with the man who killed him.  Of *course* I want to see Miles confront his douchey father.[2]

Generally, the flashbacks in "Dead Is Dead" disappointed me, in that it was all pretty much what we expected.  Ah yes, Ben kidnaps Alex.  We'd heard about that.  And yeah, Rousseau went crazy -- we saw that during Jin's record-skips.  And yes, Widmore gets sent off the island -- okay, I guess we never knew exactly how that happened, but we knew about the broad strokes.

The exception, for me, is when they paid off the showdown with Penny.  Now I do have a complaint:  somebody should have gotten shot.  I'm not saying Penny had to die or that Desmond had to die -- although that would have been ballsy.  I'm just saying letting both of them get off scot-free feels kind of wussy.

But what I absolutely loved about the scene is how Ben behaves.  Both the writers and the actor really came through here, and they gave me a scene that I honestly haven't seen before:  a man finally committing the act of revenge he's long dreamed of, while at the *same time* finally being overcome with the notion that what he's doing is wrong.  I love the hell out of Ben's obviously-rehearsed speech, and the way Michael Emerson just plows through it, like Ben's thinking if he can just finish the speech fast enough, he can finished the job that he's calculated to be necessary.

Also nice:  cutting away from the flashback storyline right as Ben arrives at the marina.  Nicely done, writers.

The plot of the main storyline didn't do much for me:  once I found out that Ben's objective was to be judged by the monster, the whole thing felt like bridging to me.  That said, it was still very entertaining to see this reversed Ben-Locke dynamic.  I've commented before:  writing a TV character over several seasons can be tricky, because TVcharacters often stay fairly consistent in behavior and attitude.  But what you *can* do is move the characters into different positions -- e.g. put GOB in charge of the Bluth corporation.  Now even though the character stays the same, you're still seeing them in different circumstances, and it's exciting to learn new things about them.

This is not to say that Ben-the-sociopathic-manipulator was all played out, but Ben-the-holy-crap-what's-going-on-and-who-put-Locke-in-charge-dammit guy is a winning change of pace.

I said earlier that I found the bridging aspect of the story disappointing.  I knew where the story was going, so I spent a lot of time just waiting to go ahead and get to the scene where Smokey judges Ben.  Then when we finally *did* get to that scene, I was disappointed, because it was in many ways exactly what I expected.  Smokey surrounded Ben.  Smokey replayed bits of Ben's life relevant to Alex.  Smokey let Ben live.  (No, I don't think they'd off Ben at this point in the story.)

The smokey effect in this episode bugged me.  In "The 23rd Psalm", Eko faced down the monster and we just saw brief, evocative flashes from Eko's life.  I wish they'd reused that effect (1) for consistency's sake, (2) because it wouldn't have been quite so on-the-nose, and (3) the CGI might not have looked so cheesy.

That said, I did love the details in the temple (Anubis FTW!) and again, I loved how Michael Emerson *played* the scene.[3]  I was especially impressed that they gave the smokey scene *consequences*.  Pretty much every critic remarked on how devastated Ben sounds with that last line:  "It let me live."

Whew.  Okay, I'll have a bit less to say about "Some Like It Hoth".

Mo Ryan pointed out something very interesting about this episode, and I'll re-tell it in a sort of oblique way.

There are lots of different improv schools, and they teach lots of different ways to approach the craft.  Chicago's Annoyance Theatre has a particularly interesting take:  when you're on stage, all you care about is your character.  You're not trying to build a story, you're not trying to establish setting -- you might not even be concerned about listening to your fellow performers.  Your top priority is to establish a strong character and stick to it no matter what.[4]

Improvisors who don't follow this school of improv often fail to come up with interesting characters, or (and this is the important bit) when something significant happens to that character, the improvisor fumbles or drops their characterization.  The guy who only cares about money suddenly cares about impressing the girl, once the girl shows up.  (Okay, bad example.)

The thing is, screenwriters do this, too.  It was one of the biggest missed opportunities in the third season of Veronica Mars when one of the most distinctive characters basically became cliché and average when faced with a shattering emotional breakdown.  It's hard to hold a character together when you bring on the whacked-out situations.

What was beautiful about "Some Like It Hoth" was that Miles was always Miles.  No matter what happens, it's always filtered through his bitter, exasperated, Miles-ian worldview.  That's how you get a scene like the last flashback, where Miles returns the money to Mr. Gray.  I've never seen someone play a remorseful apology with so much *hostility* before -- and I'm always delighted when an episode can show me something new.

Apart from that, the episode felt like fairly typical LOST:  a series of flashbacks explaining a daddy issue, a main storyline with our heroes contending with a shadowy organization.  But this isn't an episode you really watch for the exciting plot -- if you do, you wind up bored during the long commutes in the big blue minibus.  No, this is about the humor of seeing Miles and Hurley deal with each other for long periods, or it's about learning more about how Miles deals with the world, or it's about empathizing with yet another case of parental neglect.

Sure, there were some plot sops thrown out there.  Yes, we learn that the "shadow of the statue" people are part of some wider-ranging conspiracy.  (But is that really a surprise?)  And yeah, we see the numbers for the first time.  (I was really hoping that Hurley would somehow originate the numbers, creating a closed loop.)  None of that particularly mattered to me.

What mattered to me was that last shot:  we see Daniel again.  Oh right, him.  Making him disappear for four consecutive episodes was probably the best bit of setup of all.[5]

Andy Richter Controls the Universe [1x01-1x06]
First, a bit of necessary disclosure:  I am biased in favor of this show because Irene Molloy is gorgeous.  In many of my weaker moments, I've been tempted to watch Grosse Pointe (her only other TV work) just because she's in it.

But I think even a less hormonal observer would conclude that ARCTU, like Andy Barker:  P. I., is a solid, three-star show.  It has no ambitions beyond wanting to make you laugh for twenty-two minutes, and unlike the world's endless supply of bland, hokey sitcoms, it generally succeeds.

It's not particularly original in its setting -- it's another workplace comedy -- or its casting -- a typical assortment of sitcom types.  Instead, it spends its originality on surreal 'callout' jokes of the type that get way out-of-hand in (say) Family Guy:  a character alludes to something silly, we cut from the main action for a bit to play that idea out, and then we return to the story.  In this case, we're frequently cutting to Andy's imagination, leading to musical numbers, a suit filled with puppies, and morning greetings scored to Etta James.

And in this, it's successful.  Its little bits of surreal self-indulgence are winning and inventive.  The hoary old sitcom plots creak along well enough, but you're not there for that, you're there for the musical numbers and the repeated guest appearances from Mr. Pickering, the 150-year-old founder of Andy's company.

(And for watching Irene Molloy.)

Okay, parenthetical voice, you do have a point there.

Side note:  fans of this show might like the showrunner's latest program, Better Off Ted, which looks to be another offbeat office comedy.

Nothing new, podcast-wise.  PodCastle continues to be not-quite-my-thing.  I may discontinue my subscription to The Economist's United States podcast, because the money talk goes way, way over my head.

Music-wise, I'm still listening to Schumann's lieder.

For next time:  more Richard II, more Andy Richter Controls the Universe, and more of The Sopranos.  I might finally watch When We Were Kings, and I'll start in on an audiobook about research into persuasion. 

[1] Another neat contrast:  the first episode has a main story in '08, with flashbacks moving from '77 to '08; the second episode has a main story in '77, with flashbacks (-forwards?) moving from '89 to '08.

[2] Yes, I know:  on LOST, this phrase is tautological.

[3] Oh, and that reminds me of a fourth thing I didn't like about the smokey effect:  this scene is not about smokey.  This is about Ben's *response* to smokey.  No matter how much money you spend on the CGI, it still doesn't matter as much as the emotions we see on Ben's face.

[4] It's reminiscent of the airline-safety instructions where they tell you to put on your own mask before helping other passengers:  if you can't bring a solid character to a scene (the thinking goes), you're not in a good position to help out anybody else.

[5] I'm really looking forward to the next episode, not least because of its badass title.

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Mood: [mood icon] contemplative · Music: none
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