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

Monday (5/10/10) 10:24am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  Silver City
TV:  LOST [6x14] [spoilers]
Books:  <none>

Silver City
This is one of those movies that showed up after I'd forgotten to muck around with my netflix queue for a few weeks.  Suddenly, Silver City rises from the depths of the queue and shows up in my mailbox.  "What the hell is this?  Why did I enqueue it?"

Turns out it's a John Sayles movie, and my abiding affection for Lone Star ensures that I'm going to periodically check back and see what Sayles is up to.  In this case, 'what he was up to' was sort of like his take on The Wire.

I sense I have gotten everyone's hopes up here to an extent that the material doesn't exactly merit.  This movie is like The Wire in its scope -- the film tops out over two hours -- and its subject matter -- an Irish-American investigator pokes his nose into a murder case that quickly extends its tendrils into various levels of politics, commerce, and labor in the Colorado mining country.

Gah.  I'm making the movie sound *good* again.  I don't mean to.  It honestly never occurred to me that the subject matter here was really quite promising.

So what makes this movie bad?

I'll try and approach this from the side.  A lot of people -- okay, a lot of people who care more about politics than television -- criticize The Wire for just being a partisan screed from David Simon.  But The Wire not a screed, and it's not even clearly partisan.  And Silver City serves as perhaps the best argument for this, because Silver City is what The Wire would be if it were a simple jeremiad against them eeeevil Republicans.

Poor Chris Cooper.  Here, he's playing the lead character, a senator aiming for the governor's seat, patterned with thudding obviousness on George W. Bush.  Senator Pilager -- yes, "pillager", because this film is subtle like that -- has the same verbal stumbles, the same 'non-detail-oriented' view towards policy papers, the same political opinions.  He even has Richard Dreyfuss following him around as an aide patterned with equally-thudding obviousness off of Karl Rove, just in case we didn't get it.

And y'know?  I wouldn't even mind all this hamhanded film á clef stuff, if the film had just used it to say something.  Okay, you don't like George W.  I get it.  Yes, we all know he's stupid.  We all know he was prone to meander confusedly through a sentence like a drunken fat man on a bicycle.  We know that Rove is a supreme political operative.  We know that mining companies are Teh Ebul when it comes to the environment. 

These are commonplaces.  They're pat political talking points.

The Wire is, by contrast, full of *research*.  It doesn't just feed you the concepts you've seen in political-joke lists your parents forwarded you.  Instead, it unravels a whole world of drugs, and cops, and politicians, that you honestly haven't seen before.  Carcetti is about as far from a simple political caricature as I've seen, though he hits a lot of the same notes of venality and vapid bonhomie that Sayles tries to hit here.

On the other hand, Silver City is full of speeches.  An ex-miner talks about how evil the Halliburton-esque "Benteen Corporation" is.  An underground newspaper editor (hey, he's one of the guys in the white hats!) speechifies on how his fringe publication winds up influencing the news.  A Mexican-American tells us about the plight of day-laborers in Colorado.  And on and on.

The production values don't help.  As usual, Sayles got a star-spangled cast (that small "newspaper editor" role went to Tim Roth), but he deploys them onto cheap, claustrophobic, television-looking sets.[1]  Music cues feel like they come from a library somewhere, and appear seemingly at random.

And the story lurches along, from one borrowed detective-story trope to another, from one Edifying Speech to another.  O'Brien doggedly pursues the case, but does anyone particularly care?  The case finally resolves itself at the end, with a death under banal circumstances -- and it isn't so much that the detective pieces together what's going on, as a witness narrates the entire thing as a flashback.

Dull, dull, dull.

Oh, and it ends with "America, the Beautiful" playing over a scene of an environmental catastrophe, just in case you'd missed the oh-so-subtle message that messing up the environment is bad.  I know, I know -- it takes a bold stand, there.  Only watch this if you are fully prepared to have your MIND BLOWN, and -- ah, screw it; I can't keep up that sarcastic conceit any more.

Like Andy Rooney said, "I'm often embarrassed by the people who agree with me."

LOST [6x14] [spoilers]
As there are only a few episodes left, and as I'm watching the show weekly instead of biweekly, I'm going to post individual updates about these last few episodes.  This week's episode was "The Candidate".

So here we are, three quarters of the way through the season, and a real storyline has emerged:  Smokey wants to get off the Island and wreak havoc; he has to kill all the remaining candidates to do so; but there's a rule that prevents him from killing the candidates directly.

So he has to get the candidates to kill each other.[2]

That's a hell of a dramatic way to finish out the show, especially when we're down to so few candidates.  It gives our heroes a really powerful opponent who's focussed on exploiting the character weaknesses we've seen throughout the run of the show.  John Truby would approve.

I'll admit, intellectually, I was frustrated with the Xanatos-like logistics of his takin'-the-sub plan.  I swear, once you notice the motif of "a bad guy with god-like prescience wants to put the hero through an interesting story," you start noticing it everywhere.  (Kind of like the teal/orange color-grading conspiracy.)  Of *course* Smokey can predict that all the Candidates will get on the sub, that one of them will be badly injured, that somebody will need a medic kit, that the sub won't have one, that Jack will check his backpack, that all of this will happen as the timer approaches 3:00, that Sayid will proffer a way to disarm the bomb, and that Sawyer will attempt to disarm it.

Whew.  Did that cover everything?

This is not necessarily a valid criticism of Smokey's plot.  Maybe his plan was as simple as "get as many of them as possible in the sub, and give Jack a bomb."  Or maybe the bomb *wouldn't* have gone off -- in that case, from a UI-design perspective, it would have made perfect sense to set the watch to run in ten-minute cycles.  Eventually, Jack's going to open his backpack, and you get that same storyline playing out.

But I've said this before -- on Dexter, on Dollhouse, and in various films -- I can't watch something like that without seeing all the design flaws in the plan.  What if Sawyer were incapacitated?  What if Jack dropped his backpack?  What if one of the wires got jiggled loose accidentally?  What if they found the bomb a little earlier and sealed it off in its own section of the ship?

In the end, I'm more impressed with villains who are brilliant improvisors than the ones who simply get the screenwriter's dispensation that all their best-laid and most-elaborate plans will never, ever go awry.  Try a convoluted plan like that in real life, and your fancy Rube Goldberg will fail on the very first domino.

(Not to mention the fact that it seems like it violates the spirit of any "you can't kill them" rule.  "Oh, I didn't *kill* them, I just put them on a sub with a giant C4 bomb that would explode if they try to disarm it!  How could that possibly be *killing* them?!"  Um... 'cause it is?  'cause it obviously is?)

That said, the story makes emotional sense, and that was enough to muffle my "this plan *sucks!*" voice.  It makes emotional sense that Jack's newfound faith[3] should conflict with Sawyer's situational ethics.  It makes emotional sense that Claire winds up (apparently) abandoned again.  It makes emotional sense that something would force Jin to choose between dying with his wife or leaving her to die.  And so on.

Basically, if Jack decides he has faith in the Island's having a plan for him, *something* (ideally, some-*one*) is going to challenge that.  If people swear they never abandoned Claire, and a sense of abandonment drove Claie crazy, *something* is going to happen so they have to abandon her again.  If Jin promises never to leave Sun, then *something* is going to happen to make that an agonizing choice.  You know all of this with the same certainty that you know a sitcom character who swears, "I'm never, never going to that party!" will be at the party after the next jump cut.

I don't think I have much to say about this episode's cavalcade of death.  Yeah, they again pulled off the trick of following one major-character death with more major-character deaths in close succession, thus making the subsequent deaths more of a surprise.  (See also:  Ana Lucia, Libby.)  And like everyone else, I kept it together until Hurley started sobbing.

Side note:  I would absolutely love it if 'the rules' had their origin in time travel.

Let me explain with an example.  Say you're sitting down to lunch, and -- *poof!* -- a time-traveller appears.  The time-traveller tells you, "Hey, I'm visiting from the future, and I can tell you definitively, you never eat that sandwich."  Then -- *poof!* -- the time-traveller disappears.

From this point on, there is an effective 'rule' that *you can't eat the sandwich*.  You pick up the sandwich; a car backfires; you drop the sandwich.  Or a gust of wind blows your table over.  Or you discover that its arugula is subpar, thus making the sandwich hopelessly inedible.  The bottom line is, the time-traveller *saw* your storyline -- and whatever happened, happened -- and in this case, 'whatever' includes no sandwich for you.  You might as well order the soup so you'll at least get *some* sustenance for lunch.

So what if Jacob and Esau have information from the future?  "Hey, I've seen how this turns out -- neither of you manage to kill anyone on this list."  In that case, it doesn't matter how über-powerful you are -- you can't fight fate.

There are lots of reasons why the show absolutely couldn't do this.  First off, it looks like the analogous rules between Ben and Widmore are more of a moral compact.  And not only that, but Widmore *breaks* the rules by killing Alex.  Also, one senses that it's the 'candidates' that get protection, and unless the message sent back in time was "you didn't kill any candidates while they were candidates", I can't make that jibe with this jerry-rigged theory.  Finally, the showrunners have made it clear that they're done with time travel now.

Ah well.  It's still a neat idea, and I don't think I've seen it done in time-travel stories before.  I may use it myself sometime.

For next time:  I'll finish up The Hurt Locker and It's a Good Life, If You Don't Weaken.  I might start watching Pineapple Express, just because I love keeping tabs on Freaks and Geeks alums, and I must see what David Gordon Green does with a stoner comedy.

[1] ... without the specific, detailed, lived-in quality the sets have on The Wire -- probably a side benefit of shooting on location.

[2] Of course, this raises the question, "Why is *that* the rule?"  To me, though, this reflects the overall pattern in LOST:  generally, the secrets of LOST are arbitrary/unexplainable facts that are designed to generate good stories.  For instance, in season four they have to "recreate the original circumstances of the crash" by getting the LOSTies on the Ajira flight.  It makes no scientific sense why this should be so -- for physical phenomena, one skinbag of water-and-salt is as good as another -- but it generates great storylines where the Candidates agonize over whether they did the right thing by leaving in the first place.

[3] Come to think of it, the "man of science"/"man of faith" dichotomy always rings a little false to me.  Here's the thing about science:  technically, science isn't about sticking to this scientific precept or that one.  Science's bottom line is that, when your observations conflict with your beliefs, your observations win.  So if you believe there are no black swans, and you observe a black swans, you adjust your belief accordingly instead of insisting it was a hallucination.  By this point, Jack has seen enough crazy stuff go down  that as a scientist he *has* to acknowledge there's something wonky going on.

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