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

Monday (2/22/10) 9:15pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
TV:  Dexter [1x05-1x08] [spoilers], LOST [6x02-6x03] [spoilers]
Books:  Old Man's War

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
This is the 1954 film musical adaptation of the short story "The Sobbin' Women", itself a loose re-imagining of the ancient legend of the Rape of the Sabine Women(Note that in this case, "rape" is a transliteration of "raptio", or "abduction".)

I was due to watch a musical as homework for improv-singing class, and Curtis was the first to recommend this one:  "It's a great movie of a completely demented musical."  When Lauren pointed out that the titular brothers dance-fight a town, it was pretty much decided:  I have to watch this.

Now, it is a truth universally acknowledged that there are three basic responses to a movie:
1.  I like this movie.
2.  I do not like this movie.
3.  I am watching Showgirls.  What.

This'll be important later.

So the film gets going.  And perhaps because it was made in the 1950s, it's almost immediately offensive.  Adam Pontipee comes to town to pick up grub, chewing tobacco, cloth... and a wife.  And the jaunty musical cue lets you know that listing off a woman as a piece of property is a cute little joke.

But okay.  The movie comes from almost sixty years ago, so guess what?  It's going to have a different cultural perspective.  Lord knows, I don't want to be one of those hidebound types who live in a comfy little echo chamber and only ever like the films that agree with their political sensibilities.

So:  onward through the film I went.  Adam sings his first song, which is pleasant and -- wait, did Adam just sing something like, "Oh, that one's too fat!" as a medium-sized woman passed him by on the street?  Really?

This short section presents, in miniature, how the entire movie-watching experience went for me.  The movie generally veered between (1) music, which was full of pretty songs and acrobatic dance numbers, and (2) plot, which was jaw-dropping in its chipper offensiveness.  So my response veered between (1) I like this movie, and (2) I am watching Showgirls.  What.

This is not to say that the film has anything in common with Showgirls.  I'm just saying I that my brain responded in the same way:  it basically blue-screened.  Adam sings something along the lines of, "You see boys, when a woman says 'no' she actually means 'yes,'" and I'd sit there with my head pugtilted at the screen, thinking, "Did... he... actually... *say*... that?"

So, yes, the film was every bit as insane as Curtis had promised.

Setting aside for the moment the brain-scarring misogyny, it was interesting to see how Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was put together.  In the latest improv-singing class, Shana talked about how a 25-minute improvised musical is only going to have maybe six to seven minutes of scenework.  That means, plot-wise, you have to simplify, simplify, simplify.  And that held true for this musical, too:  the story had maybe as much plot as a conventional multi-camera sitcom episode.  So that's about twenty-two minutes of story expanded out to fill about a hundred minutes of movie.

Likewise, it was interesting to see how few musical ideas there really were in this movie.  The first couple of songs get reprised over and over, frequently filling in bits of the score.  In class, we had talked about repetition within songs[1], but I hadn't put it together that the same principle applies in full-length musicals.  Honestly, I can't recall seeing an improvised musical that used reprises effectively.

Finally, it was neat to see the musical blur the line between dance sequences and fight scenes.  Roger Ebert is fond of saying that they're essentially the same thing:  sure, it's ostensibly about some interaction between the characters, but on some level both fights and dances are just about celebrating movement that looks awesome.

(Side note:  apparently they made a musical TV series based on this film in the early 80s on CBS.  It has a small-but-devoted following.  It must have been... something.)

Dexter [1x05-1x08] [spoilers]
This is season 1, disc 2 of Showtime's series about a serial killer who only hunts other murderers.  My general impressions last time was that the show spent all its 'novelty capital' on its central conceit, leaving the rest of the show a rather straightforward crime procedural, albeit one with a very strong central cast and a fascinating theme of what it's like to fake your way through society.

The first batch of episodes felt like a mini-arc.  Dexter went up against the Ice Truck Killer, was given a great test with "would Dexter kill the security guard?", and passed it, abiding by the Code of Harry.  Done and done.

This next batch of episodes finds more ways to play out string with the Ice Truck Killer.  First off, the ITK comes after Dexter  directly, dredging up one of Dexter's victims from the bottom of the ocean and laying her out where she originally died.  Now we're talking.  Now we've got Debra profiling a serial killer who happens to match Dexter detail for detail, we've got possible witnesses placing Dexter at the scene of the crime, and we've got Dexter scrambling to stay one step ahead of his own law-enforcement department.

The simple plot logistics here are fun.  It's always great to watch a smart guy who has to play to the top of his intelligence.

But after that dies down, the thread becomes less interesting.  Oh, we've arrested a suspect!  Oh, but it's not the real ITK.  It begins to feel like the plot treadmill of (say) the overarching plot in Burn Notice, where with every little discovery, they just move the goal posts that much further away.

They stir up some interesting B-stories for the show.  During the pilot, you might well have wondered, "What would happen if Rita's convinct ex-husband came back?", and now we know.  You may have wondered what would happen if Jeremy Downs killed again, and now we know that, too.

They find isolated little scenarios that are fun -- say, Dexter visiting a psychiatrist, or Dexter contending with Rita wanting to have sex.

The rest of the show still feels like a slightly-upscale version of a bland CBS procedural.  Everyone doggedly chases down the usual jigsaw-piece clues in the usual funhouse-mirror version of police work that you see in hourlong crime dramas.  In the end, they finally reveal the ITK.  By the Law of Conservation of Characters, it's some minor character we've already seen -- and, yeah, it was the one that I guessed.  The actual genre parts of the show feel like stretches of Murder, She Wrote-y pabulum that you have to sit through to get to the next delightfully-off-kilter character beat.

They try to play some office-politics games within the police department, and that kind of falls on its face.  After you've seen The Wire, you're left with no desire to ever see a middling treatment of this subject.  Plus, these storylines are no different from any other office-politics storyline on any other show -- if you've sat down to watch a show about a serial killer who hunts other killers, you'd kind of prefer to see storylines unique to that world.

On a positive note, the core characters -- Dexter, Debra, Rita -- are as strong as ever.  (Why hasn't Jennifer Carpenter gotten more work?)  But the rest of the time, I feel like the show has spent all its novelty capital, and so it's just filling out the cast with characters that are simplified and smoothed over.  Okay, here's the creepy ex-con.  Here's the prostitute.  Here's the tough-as-nails police sergeant.  And so on, and so on.

A few of the secondary characters (Masuka, Harry) stand out, but generally the actors' performances can't salvage the blandly-written dialog.  With the secondary characters, I keep waiting for the details, the contradictions, the little moments that feel surprising and real.  Ah well.  Maybe they'll show up in the second half of the season.

I suppose my impression of this batch is largely the same as my impression of the first batch:  a gloriously-audacious premise, some dazzling lead performances, and a strong vein of alienation redeem what would otherwise be a by-the-numbers CBS killathon.

LOST [6x02-6x03] [spoilers]
Since last time, I've watched episodes two and three of this latest season:  "What Kate Does" and "The Substitute".

Well, the season premieres of LOST are all about exploding what you thought the show was about and setting off in a new direction.  Then the next few episodes slow things down.  You lay down exposition.  You set up objectives for the season.  You slowly build the engine that's going to drive the rest of the episodes.

Of course, the fans are alarmed that these two episodes amble along so slowly.  They take it as evidence that "OMG they won't have time to answer all the questions!"  This, they take in turn as evidence that "OMG they don't even *have* any answers!"  Then there's usually some great wailing that "This will be *just like* the BSG finale."

As far as I can tell, though, if they wanted to just info-dump the answers to all the questions that seem to me to be worth answering[2] -- blowing through them like GOB Bluth presenting construction ideas to Sitwell -- it would take about half an hour.  I think they can spread that exposition out through fourteen-odd hours without undue stress.

So the pace doesn't worry me.

At the same time, this doesn't mean I'm completely in love with the episodes, either.  The "flash-sideways" storyline continues to labor under the weight of "What is the significance of *any* of this, anyway?"  And the current storyline labors under the weight of "Nobody on LOST ever tells anybody else anything, ever."

So the Island storyline drifts forward.  After the drama of racing Sayid to the Temple, drowning him alive, and seeing him come back from the dead... the story settles down and spends these two episodes inching forward a millimeter at a time.[3]  Oh, now he's awake.  Now they're looking at him.  Now they're running some kind of test on him.  Now there's a pill.  Do we give it to him?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Nah, let's not.

And again, nobody tells anyone anything, so now Sayid has an undefined sickness that this vaguely-defined poison will address by either killing him or possibly not.  So there's not much to hold on to here.  You wait for the bits of action (Dogan clocks Jack!) or humor ("Dude, are you a zombie?") to keep your interest.

Meanwhile, the writers shuttle the characters around the island.  Okay, Ben is in a group of people burying Locke.  Okay, Smocke meets up with Sawyer in New Otherton.  Okay, Kate and Richard (AKA "Manbelline") are on their own and Jin has met up with zombie!Claire.  All the other gamepieces start out in the Temple.  Now all our separate groups have their own little quests, and hopefully all those story threads will give us an ample quantity of act-break cliffhangers for the next few episodes.

Now, what about the flash-sideways storylines?  I've met fans that love them.  I've met fans that hate them.

Me, I can see both sides of this.  I'm not the biggest fan of Kate Austen[4], and so perhaps I was doomed to dislike the Kate-centric flash-sideways.  I was engaged by her escape from the airport.[5]  But then we got to the Thelma-and-Louise section with Claire, and I found myself feeling a bit confused and detached.  This feeling, it turns out, was my brain's way of telling me "these character motivations make no sense."  (See ack's glorious takedown of the writing in her recap.)

I was much more engaged by the flash-sideways in "The Substitute".  I can't say I have any rational reason for it.  The story of alternate-world Locke getting fired and taking on a new job is solid, but not over-the-top awesome.  But I think this comes back to something I talked about last time:  even if I'm watching events that don't proceed in chronological order, some part of my brain still processes the story that way.

So when I watched "The Substitute", on some lizard-brain level, I was seeing this character who'd been conned, paralyzed, lied to, manipulated, shot, and strangled to death.  And I saw the poor bastard finally have a good day.  Yes, my higher brain functions fully recognize that this isn't what's going on.  ("Peter, it's just an alternate version of Locke; this has nothing to do with the storyline you've already seen.")  But... aw, there he is with Helen.  And happy/alternate!Hurley just gave him a job!  And things are going to be okay!

And I think there's a certain giddiness to seeing the same characters in novel situations.  I may be the only person who could watch "Ben Linus, History Teacher" for a good, long time.  Maybe it satisfies some sketch-comedy-obsessed part of my brain, or maybe it lights up the neurons that come up with spec scripts.  Either way, I think the flash-sideways will hold my interest until the show reveals why that storyline matters.

Finally, the new mysteries they've thrown in -- the mysterious blond boy that Mocke sees and the collection of names on the cave ceiling -- look like they could be useful.  Yes, it introduces more stuff to explain.  But whatever the kid is, he looks like a mouthpiece for as much exposition as the writers care to dump.  And the collection of names looks like a neat way to connect the dots between the numbers, the Island, Jacob, and the bizarre twists of fate that brought everyone there.

Again, they have plenty of time to get all these questions sorted.  These initial episodes are just setting up the Island-story infrastructure that they'll need later.


(Side note:  kudos to the Drafthouse for putting on the show.  They've put together a pre-show of amusing LOST-themed youtube vids, and there's a little community of regular viewers at the Village location.  There are always fun discussions between episodes and after the show.  I will miss that when it's all over.)

Old Man's War by John Scalzi [audiobook]
Old Man's War is John Scalzi's novel about John Parry, a septugenerian who leaves earth to join a futuristic interstellar army.

This book goes in the 'not my thing' pile.

As I was listening to it, I found myself wondering, "Do I just hate novels?"

Old Man's War features a hero with no objective.  He joins up with this military unit because... because he feels like it?  Because he's got nothing better to do?  And from there on out, it's like you're on one of those rides at Disneyworld.  The little rollercoaster cart drifts past a space elevator, past military-training scenes, past battle scenes.  And your protagonist isn't really doing anything, he's just sort of... drifting.  He follows orders.  He fights things.  Yawn.

Maybe novels can get away with this.  Maybe a novel is more about its setting, or its stylish prose, or the inner state of its viewpoint character, than it is about its plot.  Maybe nobody really cares how a novel turns out, or if anything happens in it at all.  (Note to self:  this could explain Twilight.)  But these days, I'm just too much of a structure nerd; when somebody tells me a story and it's not about a person who pursues a goal, I get pissed off.

I also found myself thinking, "Maybe I hate science fiction."  The book does have a lot of the conventional failings of sci-fi -- the thin characterization, the weak dialog heavy on limp one-liners, the giant blobs of exposition, the meandering storyline -- and honestly I sometimes wonder if sci-fi is much better suited to the short-story format.  Get in, show us your whiz-bang idea, get out.  Done.  Maybe that plays to the genre's unique ability to explore crazy concepts without bogging it down in characterization and large-scale plot.

As it stands, the only thing you can really enjoy in this novel is the world-building.  The novel features lots of futuristic technology, from space travel to bioengineering to nanobot-based weaponry.  And there are some neat aliens.  And... well, that's about it:  tech and aliens.  Human society is pretty much the same as it is on earth, only, y'know, on spaceships.  It's a universe that doesn't feel like it has much history -- we just exist in the moment, bopping from one battle to the next.

So:  sit back and take in the newfangled gadgets and the interesting xenofauna.  That's pretty much all you're getting.

Side note:  both this and Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom featured extended descriptions of crazy space orgies.  In the Doctorow novel, there was a big musical jam where occasionally musicians would throw aside their instruments and screw.  In this one, there's a period just after everybody's gotten their new bodies where they have constant sex.

Because I am a bad person, I read this as, "The sci-fi community doesn't so much fantasize about sex, as fantasize about a world where getting to sex doesn't require any sort of social grace."

For next time:  I'll finish watching Moon, see some more of Glee, and perhaps watch Hairspray.  Book-wise, I've started reading Perfecting Sound Forever:  An Aural History of Recorded Music.  On audiobook, I've started in on Atul Gawande's latest book, The Checklist Manifesto.

[1] How do you come up with the second verse of an improvised song?  You copy as much of the first verse as humanly possible.

[2] Alas, we may never know the real story behind Jack's tattoos.

[3] No that is not a contradiction in terms.  Shaddap.

[4] Side note:  I'm weirded out by the fact that I find Evangeline Lilly, the actress who plays the character, really attractive, while I'm indifferent to Kate herself.  In interviews, Ms. Lilly comes across as a goofy, whip-smart Canadian tomboy who just happens to be drop-dead gorgeous, and has a simian habit of climbing anything remotely climbable within reach.  How much more adorable could that woman be?  None.  None more adorable.  And yet, I watch Kate, and I feel all 'meh'.  It's weird.

[5] Apparently the alternate LAX isn't one that's been thoroughly locked down by the Transport Security Agency.

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[User Picture]
Date:Monday (2/22/10) 9:59pm
It amuses me to think that there was a time when "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" was one of my all-time favorite movies. And to imagine how unthinking the world of a child must be for that to be the case. And then to remember my first time watching it as an adult and thinking, "What the jumping Jesus Christ IS this, and how did I love it for so long???"

Your description of it all is dead on. And comparisons to Showgirls, whether direct or not, are giving me the giggles. :)
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[User Picture]
Date:Monday (2/22/10) 10:35pm
Kacey and I really liked the first season of Dexter. It's got a nice contained story. If you're feeling so-so on it by the end of season 1, it'd be best to just stop there. We continued watching, though, and it's still good (though we're not caught up on it--waiting for DVDs of the latest season)
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[User Picture]
Date:Tuesday (2/23/10) 9:39am
I think you need to read a different kind of novel. While you're right that novels can get away with more attention to style, setting, and art, the *great* novels don't forsake plot for all these other things. The Great Gatsby, for instance, has a remarkable setting and style, but there's also no question about what Nick and Gatsby want and what they will do to get it.

I'm always baffled when I pull the critic's latest darling off the shelf and can't figure out why I should care about the characters. (*cough**cough*TheCorrections*cough* It usually comes down to the fact that I don't know what they desire or I can't relate to their desires because they're so abstract. This frustration means that I don't read a lot of critically acclaimed literary fiction anymore.
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[User Picture]
Date:Tuesday (2/23/10) 9:43am
~ chortle ~

(I pretty much hated most of the characters in The Corrections, IIRC.  Does that count as caring about them?)
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