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

Monday (7/20/09) 7:10pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies: My Left Foot
TV: Grosse Pointe [1x07-1x13]
Books: Troilus & Cressida [Arden, 3rd ed.]

My Left Foot
I approached this movie with some trepidation. Ah, the uplifting biopic of Christy Brown, a man who triumphed over cerebral palsy to become a noted Irish novelist. Period drama, biopic, physical impediment -- hey, where's my "pointless Oscar-bait" Bingo card? I could make some money here!

But I really needed to atone for watching every episode of Grosse Pointe, so I went ahead and watched this.

I've said before that I'm leery of biopics in general. As far as I can tell, with a typical biopic, the plot is held together with chewing gum and baling wire, the liberties taken with realism are large and puzzling, and the story wanders all over the place to include a dozen different cities and a billion different background characters.[1] There's no feeling of elegance or unity to a biopic, and no sense that the movie is *going* somewhere.

I assume that people watch a biopic just so they can watch the towering, multifaceted performance that's typically at the center of it. The story can go hang, because we're just so damn fascinated by Jamie Foxx's portrayal of Ray Charles, or Denzel Washington as Malcolm X, or Jim Carrey as Andy Kaufman. We get to see various facets of the familiar historical figure as they face different aspects of their lives. We get to see that person grow and change over months, or years, or decades.

But we don't get something that works as a movie. There's no clearly-defined objective in the balance. There's no what-happens-next. There's no focus.

Honestly, I think a biography doesn't *want* to be a movie. If anything, it wants to be a webseries. I'm defining 'webseries' rather narrowly to be a series of three-to-five-minute webisodes that address common subject matter but don't necessarily add up to a narrative story. In a webseries format, you could show us all these varied scenes from the celebrity's life -- oh, here's where he got his first record contract! here's where he got married to that other celebrity! here are the wacky hijinx with the llamas! -- without having to pound it into the three-act structure that the audience vehemently expects from a feature film. Instead, you just show a set of scenes that work just fine as individual scenes and reveal all the different facets of this finely-nuanced performance: here he is with his family, here he is with his business manager, here he is on the wrong side of a prison shiv fight, et cetera.

Oop-la, 350 words and I still haven't talked about the movie.

My Left Foot does about as well as it can do. It has Daniel-Day Lewis in the career-making role as Christy Brown, irascible, brilliant, and saddled with a set of constantly-misfiring muscles, save for that eponymous left foot, which he eventually uses for writing, painting, and everything else. And of *course* it's a brilliant performance: riveting, detailed, and utterly convincing.

The question is, do they build a good movie around that performance? And the answer is, kind of.

My Left Foot never quite overcomes what I think is the central flaw of biopics: no objective. A movie is about a person who wants something and goes after it. Only the most single-minded of us live our whole lives like that.[2] Typically, a biopic is about somebody just living out a life. The performance keeps your butt in the seat, but you're rarely on pins and needles wondering what will happen next.

So you're less watching a story as watching individual scenes, and you're less judging the plot as you are judging the central performance, and the interest of the world built up around it.

One thing it does beautifully is to set up almost unwatchable scenes. I don't think it spoils anything to say that Christy fancies a girl at one point, and then declares his love to her, and then that leads to a very public rejection and long, awkward stares from everyone in the immediate area.

It got me to thinking, does television do scenes like this? As far as I can tell, television only does the really awkward, painful-to-watch scenes in its comedies -- specifically, in those Brit-influenced sitcoms of the 'irritainment' variety. Dramas? They'll have scenes that are tense, sure. And there's the occasional gem like Freaks and Geeks that will downright revel in life's awful little humiliations.

But most of the time, television drama creates tension of the "ohmigod what will happen next?" variety, not the "ohmigod I feel so embarrassed for these people I want to crawl under a rock" variety. I'm guessing this is where television faces a "tyranny of the clicker" that's less prevalent in film.

In television, the moment you show something that people really hate watching, they will switch to another station in droves. In film, your audience is less likely to flee the theater. So perhaps film is more likely to include a woman giving a cerebral-palsy sufferer a slow, pained rejection, and create a really compelling scene in that way.

What's interesting is that this same 'tyranny of the clicker' effect may explain the "plotless biopic" problem. One *advantage* to clicker-tyranny is that it leads to a healthy respect for plot. Even the dumbest TV episode has something at stake, raises the stakes on it, and keeps the story moving along in every scene.[3] But then a TV show can't afford to make these beautiful 'unwatchable scenes' -- not unless it's a very clear context where we the audience know it's supposed to be funny.

Eh, I've wandered away from the film again. Honestly, the film doesn't do much to hold my attention. If I told you "this is a movie about a man with crippling cerebral palsy who goes on to become a noted novelist", My Left Foot is almost 100% the movie you'd imagine. Yes, they recount his life as flashbacks from a clumsy framing story. Yes, when he's a kid nobody really knows how to deal with CP. Yes, people help him later on. Yes, he gets revealed as a great talent, there is triumph, et cetera. *yawn*

The surprises are few. I was happily surprised to see how supportive his family was, throughout. Usually in these stories the person-with-a-disability winds up like Harry Potter, sequestered off in some dingy room and otherwise mistreated. In this case, Christy's father was grouchy and standoffish, but the rest of the Browns were behind him every step of the way.

It is what it is.

Grosse Pointe [1x07-1x13]
And now I take a break from depth, quality, cinematography, and humor-that's-actually-funny so that I may watch Grosse Pointe and be all swoony over its female leads.

Getting addicted to a crap TV show is annoying as hell. I am well aware that Grosse Pointe is a trashy piece of trash. But both Irene Molloy and Lindsay Sloane are freakishly hot, so that meant that by sheer force of hormones I was concerned about what happened to their characters.

Meanwhile, the non-lizard-brain part of my mind casually observed all the different ways this show was drivel. The most amusing flaw is how there's almost no difference between the 'awful' dialog on the show-within-a-show and the 'real life' dialog from the backstage antics. It's not *quite* as stilted, but the difference is slight one, of degree. The worst (or "best," depending on whether you want to laugh *with* the show or laugh *at* it) is when they try to have a heartfelt scene backstage. The actors do their level best, but the script just isn't there for them. In retrospect, I think Darren Star does great writing the sort of shallow, overwrought melodrama required for 90210. But as far as I can tell, he just doesn't have any other gears in his gearbox, and the writers he hired must have simply followed suit.

And the jokes -- oh god, the jokes are just awful. One scene has five puns in a row on the subject of defecation. One of them is "do your duty." (... which sounds like 'doody.' Think like a five-year-old; evidently the writers do.) One scene has the executive producer impressing a date with observational humor: "Why do they call them 'blue jeans' when they come in black, white, or even brown?" No, this isn't arch, ironic meta-humor where they foreground the lameness of their own material. They're just shooting that first draft that comes along before the real writers come in and substitute in the *good* jokes. They don't even land on decent jokes for the act outs, which is bizarre for a sitcom.

Still, I got addicted to the damn thing. I don't often get all swoony over television characters, and I'd forgotten how addictive a TV show becomes if you wind up in that state. (Suddenly network-TV strategies make a lot more sense, I suppose.) They used the oldest soap-opera trick in the book -- "Ooh, will the sympathetic male and female leads get together, or won't they? Oh, I'm just on tenterhooks!"[4] And, well, Mses. Molloy and Sloane continued to be attractive in that Hollywood, smoke-and-mirrors, biologically-improbable way, so I kept watching to the bitter end.

One small thing they did right was to bring forward the show-within-a-show's beleaguered production assistant, Kevin. Apparently he had just a single line in the pilot, and they kept finding additional uses for him as the show went on. Better shows (say, Freaks and Geeks or Veronica Mars) do this all the time, finding excuses to bring back guest stars and bring auspicious extras into the central-cast fold. You wind up with a broad bench of excellent secondary characters, and a strong sense that the episodes represent a cohesive universe instead of just a few well-paid actors on a claustrophobic sound stage.

So. They did that once, and good on them for that.

This also led to a good running gag where Kevin suggested episode plots based on famous movies. This gave the writers a great shorthand for conveying that "this show-within-the-show episode is a stunt episode based on (say) Vertigo." Frankly, their well ran dry on satirizing run-of-the-mill teen-soap scenes early on -- they just ran out of things to say about the source material -- so the movie ripoffs gave them something new to show us.

One last good thing: they got a laugh out of me with the line, "My pubes are like trick candles."

Stay classy, Darren.

Troilus & Cressida [Arden, 3rd ed.]
Here again I venture into the Shakespeare plays that they never make you read in high school or college, and that the local production companies don't go anywhere near. It's kind of hard to say why Troilus & Cressida has fallen into that bin of oblivion. It's not rapey, like The Two Gentlemen of Verona. It's not surrounded by a wall of impenetrable contemporary references, like Love's Labors Lost.

Maybe the problem is the Trojan War. Modern audiences have a vague awareness of something to do with a big wooden horse[5], but to understand this play, you pretty much have to know the whole story. Sure, the title couple is ostensibly in the foreground of the play, but the historical backdrop governs their destiny.

Shakespeare counted on an audience that's familiar with the source material. Thus assured, he made a play with about a dozen major characters (three of whom -- Achilles, Agamemnon, Ajax -- all start with 'A', which is infuriating) and sets them off plotting political machinations on one another. Occasionally, the Grecians stop plotting to debate (at length) the rectitude of abducting Helen in the first place. This was a fashionable topic of debate to Elizabethan intellectuals, but modern audiences just blink a few times and recall that Helen was the pretty lady from Troy who was the ostensible purpose for the whole war. In addition, all the actions hinge on classical (or reconstructed-classical-as-viewed-by-post-feudalists) mores and attitudes that feel decidedly foreign and confusing.

But frankly, it might be that knowing the historical background doesn't help much. Even if you're steeped in classics, Troilus and Cressida is still a dense play with a lot of characters and a lot of discrete storylines bouncing off of each other.

Or maybe people get offended by Thersites and Pandarus, both of whom are easily the most angry, venomous characters I've seen in Shakespeare. They're like the clowns from the comedies, only they substitute misanthropic rage for punning whimsy.

I'm betting, though, that the main problem is a simple lack of a central spine. Sure, Hamlet (which was written at roughly the same time) is complicated as hell, but at its core, it's an old revenge story. We know what Hamlet's mission is. When something happens, we know how it relates to that mission.

Troilus and Cressida, on the other hand, tends to leave us out to sea. Sure, it's ostensibly about its title couple -- how they're in love, they finally declare their love, and then they get tragically separated. But that story gets shoved aside most of the time so that we can follow political intrigue in the Grecian and Trojan camps, as both sides angle to set up what turns out to be the ultimate showdown (of ultimate destiny) between Achilles and Hector.

Sure, that duel has an effect on the central couple. The internecine political bargaining is what gets traded Cressida off to the Greeks in the first place, and presumably if the Trojans win, then maybe the starcross'd lovers can be reunited. But the connection is tenuous, and the audience feels like they're watching a play called Troilus and Cressida that concerns itself with neither of them.

And even when it's about the central couple, neither of them has a clear objective. Hell, Cressida is ambivalent about getting together in the first place. Once they're separated, there's no speechifying about how they'll move heaven and earth to be reunited. Instead, they're both just kind of bummed. Thus the play feels less like a story and more like a bunch of stuff that happens to occur in order.

Note that this made it pretty much impossible to give the play a satisfying ending. If there's no central storyline to speak of -- no hero pursuing an objective who might fail or succeed -- there's no way to convince the audience that you've *resolved* that storyline. As it is, once the duel finishes, the play just kind of halts shortly after.

In any case, this edition's introduction does a passable job of setting us up for the play. Mr. Bevington doesn't present anything too surprising. (Did you know that time is both a creator *and* a destroyer? Apparently this play is one of those rare poetic works bold enough to address this point.) He's no great shakes at structuring his arguments in a compelling way, but he splits the intro into enough subheadings to keep it under control. Basically, he provides lots of information and some of it (say, the various takes on chivalry) is interesting and useful.

Not much new, podcast-wise. I listen to a lot fewer podcasts now that I'm using my iPhone for reading most of the time.

Music-wise, I haven't been listening to much of anything, because dammit, all the mp3 links are broken on Noel Murray's "Popless" column.

For next time: finishing off Generation Kill, watching a bit of the legendary Dana Carvey Show, and (god willing) starting in on season two of Pushing Daisies. (!) I'm also planning to buy the über-edition of Sports Night -- once I do that, expect reviews every couple of episodes.

[1] It's interesting to compare the 'nonfiction' biopics to something like The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Blimp has the liberty of being fictional, so it can mercilessly limit its storyline: three actors, maybe a half-dozen locations, and one very strong central theme (of honor in warfare). Compared to your average biopic, Blimp is laser-focused.

[2] And hell, I'd argue that somebody so singular in his or her pursuits is usually too dull to be worth making a movie about. ("What'd you do today, Peter?" "I built another model train, even better than the last!" "Oh. Again." "Eventually I will build the finest model train in the world!" "Whatever. Later, man.")

[3] I'd argue that, when we're assessing the quality of a TV show, it's never a question of whether it has a story or not, it's a question of whether that story is compelling or original. It's film where you can wind up with 2.5 hours of robots making no damn sense.

[4] And of course, this being "reset-button television", they'd have episode after episode that *almost* brought the pair together only to contrive a strained reason to split them up in the last three minutes. God forbid should the characters *progress* in any way or face different challenges.

[5] It's kind of pathetic that I had to bookmark the Dramatis Personae page just so I could look up which characters were Trojans and which ones were Greeks. Or more precisely, it's kind of pathetic that I had to look up, say, Achilles on that page.

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