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

Monday (11/1/10) 12:42pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  In the Loop
TV:  Gavin & Stacey [Series 1]
Books:  American Psycho

In the Loop
This is the feature film from Armando Inaucci and the folks behind The Thick of It, BBC Four's vérité-style half-hour satire of British politics.  You can read what I had to say about the TV show here and here.  And In the Loop is pretty much the same thing, only movie-shaped.  There's the same loose, vérité feeling.  There's the same baroque swearing.

And most of all, there's the same sense that you're watching the diametric opposite of The West Wing.

Whereas Sorkin sees a world of essentially noble and brilliant civil servants facing inevitable, meaningful conflicts, Ianucci sees a world that's much... smaller, and much meaner.  In Ianucci's world, a political action begins with some casual cock-up, is exacerbated by acts of petty revenge and desperate self-preservation, and finally gets resolved when some operative cauterizes the political wound by doing something unconscionable to someone disposable.  Politicians have principles in Ianucci's world, but those principles don't particularly matter.

The movie's larger scale lets the chaos spiral even further out of control than it did on the TV show.  Indeed, In the Loop's dust-up is an international incident, with a declaration of war hanging in the balance. 

That said, the plot doesn't have the tightly-woven feel of most of the episodes.  The film does have an arc -- things get crazier and crazier and the stakes got higher and higher -- but then it just kind of stops.  Oh, it's done?  I'm seeing the credits now?  Well I guess it's done then.  There isn't that classic moment where the chaos comes back *together* in a satisfying way to resolve the question raised by the story.  Things happen, people struggle, and in the end the UN resolution goes the way it goes just... because.  Roll credits.

That said, it's still entertaining.  The chaos is fun to watch, and the vérité profanity is refreshingly different from pretty much everything else on the cinematic menu these days.  Just don't expect much of the overarching story, and you won't be disappointed.

Gavin & Stacey [Series 1]
This is the BBC half-hour single-camera comedy about a man from Essex and a woman from Wales who, after months of phone conversations, finally meet in person and pursue a relationship.

I talk sometimes about 'the solid three-star film' -- movies that don't try to rewrite the books for cinema, but have some modest aim, and manage to accomplish it well.  Maybe something like The Matador -- it's not a staggering disquisition on life and death, but it aims to be a nice little story about a run-in with a hired assassin, and it succeeds on those terms.

I feel like I rarely see 'the solid three-star television show' -- because typically, if a TV show lacks ambition, it lacks originality and depth as well.  A TV show that's just 'good enough' is probably going to be the zillionth doctor or lawyer or cop procedural littering the 8pm slot.  In television, you really want something that swings wildly for the fences (hi, Dollhouse) or nothing at all.

Gavin and Stacy is a solid, three-star TV show.  It has a simple aim:  we're just going to follow these two title characters as they fumble towards making a life together.  It avoids the manufactured drama of typical 'relationship shows' and romcoms, in favor of realistic, observational humor.  We watch the lovers' families slowly get to know each other.  We see how their immediate friends react.

It's a show where, time and again, you'll feel like you just saw a kind of fake, sitcom-y moment.  And then you'll mentally rewind the video, and realize that, no, people really do act like that.  Yes, a party-planner really could be that dead-serious.  Yes, an older gentleman really would take ten minutes to explain to you how Google Maps works.  And so on.

It does reach some moments of real emotional power, and it does include some real side-splitting jokes.  But generally this show just wants the small, real moment, and the quiet smile of recognition.

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
Pretty much every time I venture back to Serious Literary Novels, I come to the conclusion that I just don't get the format.  Or maybe, I understand intellectually what the format is trying to do, but it just doesn't do anything for me.

Take American Psycho.  For me, the thing that leaps out at me isn't the blunt, affectless gore, or the fact that it's drenched in misogyny to the point that Simon & Schuster refused to publish it.  Mostly, I looked at American Psycho and thought, "There's no story here."  There are intense scenes, yes.  There's classic, deep, novelistic characterization.  There is world-building that would make any fantasy novelist sick with jealousy.

But there's no *question* here.  There's no "how is it going to turn out?" here.  There's no turning the next page to find out what happens in the next chapter.  Instead, the book feels mellow and slack, which is surprising for a novel about a coked-up serial killer.  It makes desultory wanderings into this scene, then that one, then another.  There's a general feeling of slow dissolution to the main character, but that's really the only trace of a story arc I ever saw.

The novel famously detours into chapter-long disquisitions about really cheesy 80s pop albums -- and even that doesn't break up the flow of the story, because, well, there's no flow, and there's no story.  Sure.  Bring on an exhaustive list of Huey Lewis and the News albums.  Why not?

I need to wrap my head around what novels are trying to do, not what I want them to do.  They're not sitting around the campfire telling you a tale where one event follows another.  Instead, they're using a bunch of little pieces to explore, not a plot, but a state of mind.  American Pastoral wanted to tell us about that state of the Great White American Male in the aftermath of the violent 60s.  Special Topics in Calamity Physics wanted us to feel the glee of snarky academes talking about the great novels that the miserable proles hadn't read.  The Corrections wanted us to see the slow, miserable failure of *everybody* in the modern middle class.

And American Psycho?  As far as I can tell, it's just about hate.  It's about hating yuppies to an extent that I had never thought possible.

I mean, I get that it's satire.  I get that Ellis doesn't mean to glamorize murder, or deify the rich, white twenty-seven-year-olds at the top of 1989 Manhattan society.  But he hates all of his characters so much.  Patrick Bateman is as consummate a monster as I've seen in a novel -- and as for his yuppie Wall Street friends, really the nicest thing you could say about them is that at least they don't chop up homeless men in their spare time.  Perhaps a few of the female characters are meant to be moral, but they're also so gormless, ignorant, and ineffectual that you can feel the author's hate blasting at them, too.

A freak tsunami could wipe away the whole world of American Psycho, and nothing of value would be lost.

Obviously, the book is well-written.  Obviously, Ellis makes his point with resounding intensity and clarity.  And *that's* what the book is about -- not a storyline or even a character study.  It's about just how worthless all of these people are, over and over again.  And that relentless nihilism (beneath that very thin veneer of humor) makes this a tough read, both because it's a miserable way of viewing the world, and because it makes it impossible to care how anything turns out.

But I plodded through the dozens of vignettes of power lunches at trendy restaurants, and grisly, ritualistic killings.  Somehow I got to the end.

I swear, I just don't get novels.

For next time, I'll watch the Mamet show-biz romp State and Main, start season three of Friday Night Lights, and perhaps start in on a book about applied game theory.  Hopefully I'll also get around to writing about Click and the start of season two of Dollhouse.  Eventually I'll start in on another audiobook -- I'm currently leaning towards Game of Thrones.

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Date:Monday (11/1/10) 12:03pm
I felt kind of the same way about American Psycho. There's no story there, just ... it's kind of a novel-length tone poem about the banality of that life. The nihilistic bent comes from, in my opinion, the utter anonymity that comes from the sameness of all the characters. To me, the bit at the end isn't about it was all in Bateman's head or not; it's revealing the inability to tell one character from the next, not only on the reader's side, but within the world of the fiction. If you can't tell whether you're going out to dinner with this guy or the other, or someone insists that they just had lunch with Paul Allen, who you butchered the other night, then why not just go ahead and continue the blood-storm? If you can commit horrible act after horrible act, and then just blend back into the background noise, what's stopping you? In Bateman's case, nothing. He's just not there.
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Date:Tuesday (11/2/10) 7:30pm
How do you make Peter Rogers crazy?

"Show him anything that doesn't have a clear narrative," said the walrus, as he breathed his last breath.
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[User Picture]
Date:Tuesday (11/2/10) 9:08pm
Eh, that's generally true in a lot of cases, but then some of my favorite works -- Millennium Actress, say, or Sunday in the Park with George -- don't have clear narrative.

Then again, I did go a bit crazy because I couldn't (and still can't) figure out how Sunday in the Park with George does what it does....
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