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

Tuesday (7/28/09) 1:29pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

[Delayed a day due to travel.]

Movies:  Midnight Run
TV:  Generation Kill [Part 7]
Books:  On the Origin of Species [audiobook, abridged]

Midnight Run
This is the 1988 buddy action comedy that stars Robert De Niro as a bounty hunter who has to transport a prisoner (Charles Grodin) across the country.

De Niro walks into a hallway.  He patiently picks a lock.  He drops his lockpick.  He bends down to get it.  A rifle blast takes out the door.  And suddenly, he's chasing a guy out of the apartment complex and into an alleyway.

That opening scene tells you a lot.  The film's going to be fairly claustrophobic, with lots of interiors.  The focus is going to be on De Niro's tired, down-on-his-luck bounty hunter.

But most of all, this is going to be one of those movies where you can tell what's going on and why.

I think this is what keeps drawing me back to popcorn eighties films like Die Hard or Groundhog Day or Raiders of the Lost Ark:  sure, they're completely light entertainment.  They don't want to change your perception of reality or break the boundaries of what can happen in the medium of film.

But they are as solidly constructed as bells.  The way I feel towards these movies reminds me of when you get your hands on some ruggedized, heavy-duty electronics gadget, and you just spend time dropping and hitting it with things and marvelling that it still works afterwards.  I watch movies like this stunned that there are no moments of "wait, what is this subplot here for?" or "what does that guy want, exactly?"  They make your average modern popcorn flick look like a bloaty, unfocussed, meandering waste of time, and make most indie flicks look like self-indulgent twaddle that tells the audience to piss off.

I suspect I might not have had this attitude towards such movies, say, ten years ago.  I probably would have found them too obvious.  I would have gotten annoyed that, say, the first act has a big chunk of exposition that explains Jack's previous dealings with Serrano.  "Oh, look!  Exposition!"  These days?  Eh, fuck it.  If there's got to be exposition, get it out there.  Be succinct, be clear, get everybody in the audience on the same page, and move us the hell onto the next scene.

And what scenes!  Again, a decade hence I would have cavilled that the movie's bickering is cliché.  Ah yes.  The bounty hunter doesn't get along with his tight-fisted boss.  The cops are telling him to back off.  Ho-hum.  Now?  These days, I'm almost giddy:  every scene has conflict!  The characters want things! and it conflicts with things other characters want! and they fight to win!  How crazy!

And yes, I know that the eighties weren't any kind of golden age for this simple, well-built popcorn movie.  It's selective hindsight:  everything that wasn't worth watching has fallen into "the Xanadu bin", to be lovingly fetishized by a niche audience that values kitsch over plot.  The ones that last are the ones that are good.

Midnight Run is a road movie -- Jack Walsh has to get Jonathan Mardukas from New York to L. A. -- but it feels different from other road movies, in that this one focuses very closely on the relationship between the two leads.

Theoretically, *every* road movie is supposed to focus on the character(s) doing the roading.  But, frankly, with most road movies -- especially comedies -- that's just a lie; the movie is obviously an excuse to visit wacky people and places along the way from point A to point B.  While that's a great way to string together isolated, episodic comic set-pieces (no, I'm not complaining about spending time with Randy Quaid in National Lampoon's Vacation), it doesn't make for a story that adds up to anything.

What's worse, in a lot of road movies, the screenwriter knows a road movie is supposed to have an arc for the central character, so the writer tacks on some hokey explanation of what the lead character has learned along the trip.  It's almost as blatant as the "I think I learned something today" speeches from South Park, only it's played straight, and we're supposed to care.

Midnight Run, on the other hand, is all about the relationship between Walsh and Mardukas, all the way through.  Secondary characters don't draw focus with their wacky antics.  The scenes aren't isolated episodes; instead, they all relate to the ongoing chase involving the mob, the bail-bonds agency, and the FBI.  But still, there's that relentless focus:  more than half the movie is just Walsh and Dukakis in a small room, talking.

So, sure, the movie is obvious and unsubtle.  All the motivations are simple.  The writer sets up a small, obvious set of "Chekhov guns" in act one that pay off predictably in act three.  And they do strain a bit to arrive at tidy resolutions at the end of the story.

In the end, though, it feels like the sort of good, solid action comedy that doesn't get made any more.  These days, big crowd-pleasing movies are all about special-effects spectacle (or they're simple, hidebound romantic comedies).  Small, character-focussed movies are more concerned with hipper-than-thou style than solid plot construction.  I guess the current films that come closest to Midnight Run are the run-of-the-mill star-vehicle comedies, but those are being supplanted by sloppy, improvisational movies from Judd Apatow and friends (which are fine, just different).

For better or worse, they don't make them like this any more.

Generation Kill [Part 7]
The last disc of David Simon's miniseries about recon marines in the '03 Iraq invasion contains just the last episode and some special features.

What else is there to say about this show?  Plot-wise, the miniseries ends appropriately.  There's no big climactic battle, but this isn't a show about big, climactic battles -- it's a show about day-to-day life in the military.  The arcs are not of the "let's take on the Big Bad" variety, but are more internal.  So even though the action provides the logical ending for the story -- the batallion invades Baghdad, hoo-rah.

Instead of explosive, it's... contemplative.  The battallion has reached the end of something, and everybody in the batallion takes stock.  Colbert keeps risking life and limb to help out the Iraqis, even while muttering ominous prophesies about the imminent occupation.  Ray Person[1] finally hits the end of his surreal, profane sense of humor.  We see what happens to the virtuous leaders and what happens to the incompetent ones.  (If you're familiar with David Simon's work, you can perhaps make some make some predictions here.)

And Evan Wright goes home.  And nobody else does.  They're still there, trudging through the heat and the dust, getting by day-to-day, dealing with the drudgery, revelling in the combat, and grappling with what it all means.

On the Origin of Species [audiobook, abridged]
This is, of course, Darwin's seminal "abstract" that gave us the theory of evolution by natural selection and kicked off biology as we know it.[2]  This audiobook is read by noted biologist (and, these days, more-noted atheist) Richard Dawkins.  Ordinarily I avoid abridged audiobooks, but I figured it was worth hearing Professor Dawkins read the material.

Somehow I got through an entire biochemistry degree without ever reading (or having to read) anything by Darwin.  Odd.  The result of this is that, even though I'm familiar with evolutionary biology, the book had a lot of surprises.

I was impressed, for example, with the number of sensible experiments he carried out.  I always assumed that natural selection was just some breezy thought experiment inspired by a bunch of drawings of various finches in the Galápagos Islands.  But in fact Darwin arrives at several questions -- for example, can a plant get distributed from the mainland to an island 20 miles off? -- that he can address with well-designed experiments.  ("Well, how long will a branch with fruits float in the water?  Will the fruit germinate afterwards?  Okay, now how fast do currents move?")

I was impressed with Darwin's humility.  He says repeatedly that he knows that this theory is painfully counterintuitive, and he doesn't expect it to gain wide acceptance.  But I was also surprised by how many extant examples there were to work from, if one only knew where to look.  He mentions the evolution of languages as an obviously analogous system of evolution and differentiation[3], and he speaks at length of the artificial selection used in animal breeding to select for certain desireable traits.

That latter example makes natural selection seem almost self-evident.  You really feel like, once it was established that the age of the earth might be a mite longer than six thousand years, it was just a matter of time before evolution by natural selection just clicked into place.[4]

What everybody seems to talk about with this book is how thoroughly Darwin predicts counterarguments.  Darwin had kept his theories pretty completely to himself, publishing his brief 'abstract' only when fellow naturalists arrived on their own at similar conclusions and were beginning to rumble about publication themselves.  But in that time he thought through all the holes that could be shot through the idea.

He speaks at length, and interestingly, about the holes in the (contemporary) fossil record.  Then he patiently knocks that argument down.  The current fossils are only a fraction of the sum total of life.[5]  New species would first evolve in very localized areas, and those particular fossils may be completely lost.

He does an equally vigorous job of shooting down "independent creation", and keeps coming back to how the proponents of that theory never really *explain* anything, but keep 'restating the question in more dignified terms.'  Why are there vestigial organs?  "Because the Creator saw fit to put those in."  Or, maybe a species with that organ found itself in circumstances where that organ was useless?  Maybe?

And so on.

Not much new, podcast-wise.  I have been going through some EscapePod episodes this week, and I was really impressed with "Private Detective Molly"(Text here.)

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:  I've started in on season two of Pushing Daisies, and after that I'll watch The Dana Carvey Show.  I'm still reading the Arden edition of Henry V.  Not sure what audiobook I'll start next.

[1] I watched that character and thought to myself, "You know, if I were in the military, I would be exactly like that guy."  Anybody else have that response?

[2] Fun fact:  in the same year -- 1861 -- that On the Origin of Species was published (hello, evolution), Mendel was off in his monastery doing his pea-plant experiments (hello, genetics), and people started noticing odd gunk in the middle of cell nuclei (hello, DNA).

[3] One wonders if linguists have to put with "Babelists" who insist that all current languages were invented wholesale by God in 5,500 B.C.  (And the reams of ancient documents showing linguistic evolution are SATANIC LIES!)  One hopes not.  One suspects the worst.

[4] ... and, in fact, several other naturalists were arriving at Darwin's theory at the same time Darwin was.

[5] History would bear him out on this one.  Since his time, there's been a steady stream of fossils filling in history's evolutionary gaps.

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Date:Tuesday (7/28/09) 1:13pm
Hm, maybe I should try doing the audiobook version. I tried reading it, but 19th century prose is enamored of subordinate clauses. It may seem, to the casual reader who wondered why I would go on about this subject, when it is not as interesting as other subjects in grammar, such as spelling, punctuation, and proper attribution (an amusing story of which I shall not get into at this time), that all of this discussion of subordinate clauses is, having read through many such examples myself, and wondering how it could be endured, boring.

But, even the first chapter demonstrates all of the things you noted. I mean, one of those subordinate clauses consisted a list of dozens of named parts of pigeons that can be found to vary.
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