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

Monday (11/8/10) 9:03pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  State and Main [spoilers]
TV:  Dollhouse [2x01-2x03] [spoilers]
Books:  Click

State and Main [spoilers]
This is David Mamet's showbiz comedy about a film production that descends on the sleepy town of Waterford, Vermont.

There's something a bit perplexing about a film when the first adjective that pops into your head for it is "innocuous", and only afterwards do you recall that it's a David Mamet movie whose plot mostly hinges on a case of statutory rape.  And in fact, most of the characters in this flick are nearly as ruthless and self-interested as you'd expect from one of Mamet's more pressure-cooker-ish pieces of single-setting theater.  And the film's plot ticks along so efficiently that you can use its props as a clock.  "Have we paid off the setup with the whiteboard yet?  No?  Then we're not done with the movie yet."

And yet Mamet is using this same toolbox to give us a lighthearted romantic comedy.  And while I wouldn't call it 100% successful, it's definitely interesting.  You watch Joe and Annie talk about the Old Mill script, and it's shot like romance, and it's scored like romance, and yet the dialog still has that uneasy, staccato feel.  This is not to say it's impossible to write cheery romance in that style, but it's so different from what you're *used* to in this sort of scene that it's... odd.  It doesn't necessarily sweep you away with their heart-fluttery affection, but it's certainly interesting.

(Side note:  I've got to ask myself how is it that the romantic dialog in any number of Aaron Sorkin projects sits just fine with me.  Sorkin clearly apes Mamet in a lot of ways.  Perhaps Sorkin smooths over some of the rough edges, making his exchanges less cautious and more mellifluous, with its easy, back-and-forth repetitions.  I don't know the answer here, but it merits further thought.)

And it's odd for me, seeing a Mamet film that ends on such a resolutely happy ending.  The last act, instead of letting people's lives collapse, works tirelessly to undo all the horrible situations.  A sack of money, a courthouse deposition, a script rewrite -- all of these story elements shuttle around the settings, trying to efficiently generate about a dozen happy endings.  Most of these people don't *earn* a happy ending, but it's not the kind of story that's about 'earning'.  Everybody lives happily ever after, and that's that.

And again, it's really weird to realize that this is a light comedy with statutory rape in the middle of it.  And of course, Mamet would give us a story where the young girl in that situation knows exactly what she's doing.  It seems like in Mamet's work, even the wide-eyed innocents think they have a pretty good scam going.

I keep talking circles around whether I think the movie is good or not.  I suppose I can't really rate it good or bad.  Watching Mamet put up a light romcom is a bit like watching a heavy metal band try playing a folk song.  They have the chops to play it competently, but their heart doesn't seem to be in the folksy cheeriness of it all.  But at the same time, they approach the songs in a way that nobody else would -- and for that alone, it merits listening.

Dollhouse [2x01-2x03] [spoilers]
This is the second season of Joss Whedon's show about an agency that uses brain-imprint technology to program "Actives" to go out and do jobs for wealthy clients.

I'm surprised that I forgot to write about this for a few weeks, because it certainly made an impression.  You'll recall that I had few kind words to say about the first half of the first season, but it pleased me a lot when it turned into something reminiscent of Death Note, as an Average Guy tried to reckon with a piece of technology that we're just not equipped to intuitively deal with.

Season two changes around the gameboard quite a bit.  With the start of the season, our Average Guy has been subsumed into the agency.  They wisely introduce a new Average (-ish) Guy -- a senator, bent on investigating the corporation -- but keep him relatively in the background.  Instead, we get moments of "How do you reckon with this miracle technology when you're the one being programmed?"

I felt like the first season of Dollhouse slowly approached this, as Echo slowly gained self-awareness over the course of her various assignments.  In season two, we reach the other side of that progression, and we get scenes like the one in "Vows" where Doctor Saunders tries to rape, and then confront, the programmer who 'manufactured' her.  It's one of the most profoundly disturbing scenes I've ever seen on a network show.  This is heady, Philip-K.-Dick territory, where the philosophical questions about identity, about what really *makes* you who you are, are bound to make your brain hurt and wonder what forces out there are silently programming *you*.

That said, the crazy philosophical material makes up maybe half the show.  Much of the rest is fairly standard-order TV-thriller material.  Yeah, fight scenes.  Yeah, evil conspiracies.  Yeah, I still keep asking awkward questions about how the Rossum Corporation could possibly stay in business when so many things go wrong with it.

I'm interested to see how the rest of the season splits the difference between "vertiginous mindf**k" and "competent action show".

Click:  The Magic of Instant Connections by Ori and Rom Brafman
This is (yet) another pop-psychology book.  This one, from the authors of Sway, tries to figure out why certain people just "click" and get along really well.

The favorable factors are pretty straightforward:  the people involved share something in common[1]; they meet under circumstances that separate them from the outside world; they manage to reveal a fair amount of information about themselves; simple stuff like that.  Odds are the whole book could be boiled down to five PowerPoint slides, but it gets padded out with anecdotes and rundowns of psychological experiments.

In the end, this book felt like a companion piece to First Impresions, but it felt a lot less useful.  Some of the advice is dirt simple:  people feel closer to you when you disclose stuff about yourself?  Duh!

But many of the factors are completely out of your hands:  you're more likely to "click" with people you're in regular proximity to.  (Say, your neighbor in a college dorm.)  So it's not really knowledge that you can *use* unless you're, say, in charge of a business office and you want to control the environment so as to make sure your employees 'click'.

But the book is written well enough, and it has a few intriguing ideas, so it isn't a total waste of time.  Plus the book is so short, and its font so big, that it couldn't possibly waste that much time.  Like Sway, it told me how scientists had proved experimentally some ideas that seemed intuitively obvious.  *shrug*  That's pop-psych for you.

For next time, I'm starting in on season three of Friday Night Lights and reading a book about applied game theory.  I've also started listening to an audiobook of A Game of Thrones, though I got off to a false start by accidentally starting in about a quarter of the way into the book.  ("Wow.  George R. R. Martin really drops you in the deep end, doesn't he?")  Hopefully I'll also watch a few more episodes of Dollhouse.

[1] ... and it can really be *anything*.  Even sharing a *birthday* makes people more likely to connect.

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[User Picture]
Date:Tuesday (11/9/10) 5:07pm
Re. Dollhouse, we can certainly agree on one thing: Enver Gjokaj fricking buries Eliza with his acting versatility.
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[User Picture]
Date:Wednesday (11/10/10) 8:46am
*nods sagely*
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