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

Monday (12/14/09) 3:53pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  Michael Clayton
TV:  The Mighty Boosh [1x01-1x05]
Books:  Sway:  The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior

Michael Clayton
I like to think I'm good at picking apart movies.  And if I watch a movie that doesn't work, I can at least formulate strong opinions about what bits went wrong and how they could have reworked it to make it better.[1]

But when a movie goes *right*, I'm more or less mystified.  I have vague notions about act structures, rising stakes, acceleration, and character arcs.  But I mostly just look at the whole complex, smoothly-running engine with all the comprehension of a dog watching a card trick.

This hints to me that maybe I'm not as good at picking apart movies as I think I am.

So it is with Michael Clayton.  The movie works, and I have only vague ideas as to why or how it works.

I mean, the setup is actually dead-simple.  There's this giant lawsuit.  There's a guy who's about to blow the whole lawsuit for the (very powerful) defendant.  The defendant has the whistle-blower killed.  And this other fellow, Michael Clayton, noses around a bit and soon gets in hot water himself.  They try to kill him.  He finds a way to get the bad guys arrested.  End of film.

There are Lifetime movies-of-the-week that have that basic structure, right?  So what makes this movie so good?  I suppose plot isn't everything.  This seems to be a movie where the plot is serviceable and solid[2], but what's really fascinating is the characters moving through that plot. 

But then, maybe there are currents moving through this plot that are too subtle for me to consciously notice.  I'm sure the plot is somehow about Michael moving on from unthinkingly doing his job as a law-firm's clean-up man to accomplishing something meaningful by getting a Big Bad sent to jail.  Perhaps it's that character arc that provides the foundation for Clooney's excellent performance.

*shrug*  Somehow, it all holds together.

Honestly, what really caught my eye in this movie was its verisimilitude.  This film is full of convincing details, from Michael's casual "the police don't call" to Arthur's bravura speech about exactly why the law firm shouldn't try to institutionalize him against his will.  This is full of details about rich and powerful people that feel accurate.[3]

The movie also pulls off a nice bit of sleight-of-hand with its opening scenes.

Michael Clayton opens with the first ten minutes of act III.  Then ratchets back to the start of act I, and eventually catches up with itself.  This is an old gambit, and one you see all over the place in TV dramas.  It's an easy way to draw the audience in:  you show something crazy and over-the-top happen in the teaser, you pull a "three days earlier" subtitle, and the audience is dying to know how you got from point A to point B.

Now I said there was a bit of sleight-of-hand here.  The sleight-of-hand has to do with what *happens* in that opening gambit.  Specifically, Michael sees some horses on a hill, stops his car, gets out, andwalks up to them.  Then his car explodes.  He randomly notices some animals, and that saves his life.

In the writing biz, they call this a 'coincidence'.

And audiences hate coincidences precisely half the time.

When a coincidence *starts* a story, audiences don't mind.  If Chuck Bartowski *happens* to be the one guy who gets blasted with the Intersect at the start of Chuck, well, that's fine.  That starts a story.  We're cool with that.

On the other hand, audiences hate it when coincidence is used to *resolve* a story.  If James Bond is on the run from a laser-nunchuck wielding ninja at the end of act III, and the ninja happens to slip on a randomly-strewn banana peel and die, that is an unsatisfying ending.  We want the hero to win, not luck out.

But Michael Clayton has that sort of banana-peel resolution.  Michael learns about this conspiracy with U/North, he discovers that Arthur was killed, he's on the run from a very canny adversary with superior resources, they plant a bomb in his car, they have the perfect plan to kill him very dead... and then Michael happens to go for a walk at the exact right moment.

The only way Michael Clayton wins at the end is by rolling a double-zero on the Roulette wheel.  Theoretically, we should hate this.

But the writer finds a way to make this work.  Specifically, he uses nonchronological narration to front-load that coincidence at the *beginning*.  Now we see Michael happen to survive this car bomb at the *start* of the movie.  Instead of feeling like a deus ex machina, it feels like an inciting incident, something that starts the story going.

Even though it's not.


The Mighty Boosh [1x01-1x05]
This is the surreal BBC comedy series from English comedy duo Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding.

So many people had told me about how surreal this show was, how out-there, how mind-bending.  The show itself was something of a letdown in that regard.  I suppose hype always causes this problem.

But I suspect that something else is at work here.  You see, I do a lot of improv.  And if you do a lot of improv, that really moves the goal posts for what you think constitutes "surreal".

Every improv show I've ever done or seen has, at some point, detoured into loopy counterfactuals.  At some point there's an offer that makes a sort of dream-sense (or joke-sense) in the moment, but upon any intellectual reflection, your brain coughs up, "Wait, his brother is trying to eat a dozen live parakeets?  That would never happen in the real world!"[4]

And mind you, that happens even in fairly 'straight' improv shows.  (Even the last Dickens rehearsal, which was brilliant, included an attempted murder by slowly stuffing someone's mouth with coal.)  If an improv show is touted as 'surreal' or 'out there', all bets are off.  In an especially wacky improv show, your mother morphs into a goat who then, I don't know, eats the planet Neptune or something.

So between the improv and an irregular diet of performance art and youtube videos, I've developed certain rarefied expectations of what constitutes 'surreal'.  So if somebody tells me, "Oh-ho, get a load of this, it is CRAZY," I'm pretty much expecting the tape from Ringu.

The Mighty Boosh is not that.  The Mighty Boosh is a fairly nice, simple, staid sitcom with an affection for loopy jokes.  It centers around a pair of zookeepers named Howard Moon and Vince Noir.  Howard is staid and buttoned-down.  Vince is breezy and cool.  Every week, they run into some wacky problems at the zoo, and every week they resolve it in thirty minutes minus commercials.

It's nowhere near as anarchic as, say, The Young Ones, nor is it as random as your average Adult Swim stoner-toon.  It's just a sitcom, but with some of the loopy detours you might see in an improv show (like, say, dancing wolves in mod suits).

And if you approach it from that perspective -- instead of the "OH MY GOD THIS WILL BLOW YOUR *MIND*" hype -- the show has its rewards.  It show veers into winningly low-rent musical numbers and special effects, and they do some fun and silly world-building.  Show up expecting something endearingly zany, and you won't come away disappointed.

Come to think of it, I also bring along some expectations about stories that tout themselves as surreal.  Typically, I expect stories like that to be adversarial, almost designed to alienate the audience in a Brechtian sort of way.  Especially in performance art, it becomes a kind of pissing contest between the artist and the audience:  "Oh yeah?  You think you can handle weird theater?  Well what about *this*?!"

But The Mighty Boosh opens with the stentorian words, "Join us, on a journey through time and space..." -- and it's all about being inclusive.  It beckons you along through these detours with the "isn't this fun?" attitude of a children's show, instead of being adversarial.  (The Young Ones, for example, had a chip on its shoulder against staid, normal comedy -- a very "take *that*, Dad!" sort of vibe.)

It is what it is.  It's a pleasant way to pass half an hour.  I suppose I'll watch the rest of the season and call it a day.

Sway:  The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior by Ari and Rom Brafman
Every so often, I indulge in a pop-psychology audiobook.  This one is about irrational thinking, with a slight bent towards accounting for such errors in the world of business management.

It was mostly by-the-numbers psychology that everybody's more-or-less familiar with:  loss aversion (you work way too hard to avoid losses), the diagnosis bias (once you've 'diagnosed' a problem, you notice evidence that supports it but dismiss evidence that disproves it), and so on.

The most interesting part to me was a section about trying to place a nuclear-waste dump near a Swiss town.  They canvassed townspeople to see who would accept the dump near the town; 51% said yes.  They townspeople to see who would accept the dump near the town if they were paid a large sum of money; suddenly the "yes"es plummetted.  It turns out that different parts of your brain handle "is this the right thing to do?" versus "is this worth <x> dollars for me to do?"  If you introduce a menial payment for a beneficent task, people switch over to that latter circuit -- and suddenly, the task that seemed so morally-right before suddenly seems to be beneath them.

The rest of the book was mostly stuff I'd heard before.

A lot of it talked about how much what you tell people will control their perceptions, even in the face of blatant contradictory evidence.  In one case, they brought in a substitute teacher, after giving the class two slightly different bios of the lecturer.  Some students read a bio that described the speaker as "cold", whereas the other students read a bio that described him as "cold".  Then, after they all watched the same lecture, they came to wildly different conclusions about the guy -- informed, of course, by that one word in the bio.

I find this worrying, since I'm modest to a fault[5], and lord only knows how that's kneecapped my day-to-day life.

Ah well.

For next time:  I'll continue reading David Copperfield, continue watching Dollhouse, and listen to a new audiobook.

[1] ... though I suppose everybody does that.

[2] Keep in mind, a plot that is "serviceable and solid" is devilishly hard to write -- if it weren't, we'd see more of them.

[3] Compare this to my recent posts about Dollhouse, which is overrun with rich and powerful people who just don't have the ring of truth about them.

[4] Side note:  I'd love to be proved wrong on this point.  It also may be that I'm just not watching/doing the right shows.

[5] ... which, I suppose, is an immodest thing to say?  *head explodes*

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Date:Tuesday (12/15/09) 10:07pm
I wouldn't give up on Mighty Boosh right away. The three series all take place in a different location(sort of), and I didn't think the first season was all that crazy.
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