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

Monday (4/25/11) 11:37pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  The Killers [spoilers]
TV:  Game of Thrones [1x01]
Books:  Y:  The Last Man [The Deluxe Edition, vols. 1-3]

The Killers [spoilers]
This is Robert Siodmak's 1946 adaptation of the Ernest Hemingway short story of the same name.  I watched it as part of my continuing preparations for the Hideout's film-noir show.  The notes I took while watching the film are here.

As you keep watching noir (and performing it), eventually you get this instinct, when you see one more film, to set aside all the conventions.  Yes, this features corruption in boxing.  Yes, there's an insurance investigator.  Yes, there's a heist with double-crosses.  Yes, there's a troubled man who can't escape his past, and a knockout dame who's nothing but trouble.  You see past all that, since you've already seen it over and over again, and you seize on what's different.  It's the Passover question:  "Why is *this* noir different from all *other* noirs?"

And in this one, it's got to be the sense of melancholy.

The film confutes our expectations right at the outset:  the eponymous killers show up in Brentwood, and we find out they're there to kill "Paul", AKA "the Swede".  Through a long, long, unbearably-tense scene in a diner, the question forms in our minds:  how is Paul gonna get out of this?  We finally see the guy, and he looks like a movie star, so obviously the plot has something up its --

Oh.  No.  Okay, he's just been shot dead.

And that's when we find out that it's not that kind of movie.  It's not about the excitement of seeing a downtrodden guy overreach himself.  This isn't about the simmering sexual tension of a detective getting duped by a femme fatale.  Sure, all of that happens, but dep down, this is about how a good guy wound up dead.  And through the whole film, as the resulting insurance investigation frames flashbacks into the Swede's backstory, the audience thinks:  isn't it just a damned shame?

We think the mood is set by these diner employees, just trying to get through the dinner hour without getting shot by two out-of-town assassins.  But instead, it's about the Swede, lying in bed, knowing what's coming -- two guys with guns -- and figuring, ah well, he probably deserved it.

I suppose mood is what really holds the piece together -- mood, and the audience's curiosity about just what the Swede did to get himself killed.  Apart from that initial scene, the movie doesn't really play out with intense plotting.  The insurance investigator learns about the death, gathers up the basic forensic evidence, and then goes to talk to people who knew the dead man.  So we get one white-knuckle crime-drama scene where we're desparately curious to see how it ends, and then after that... a series of vignettes.

The Swede tears up his hotel room, despairing.  The Swede loses his last fight, his right hand nearly broken to pieces.  The Swede hangs out in his prison cell.  It's all mosaic-pieces falling into place, scenes that are often themselves light on conflict, but they continue to tell us where this guy came from.  And all through it, even the lightest scene is shot through with the audience's knowledge:  this man falls.  He's going to die.  He's going to feel like he deserves it.

And so, the sadness deepens as the film continues.  Eventually, plot logistics do start locking into place.  This might be the only noir I've seen where there are multiple double-crosses, but the plot stayed perfectly comprehensible.  (Compare this to anything involving Philip Marlowe.)  And while that does give a certain satisfaction to the audience -- and a sense of closure to the picture -- it feels like a secondary concern.  It's important in that it tells us *why* the Swede was doomed.  In and of itself, it's just so many plot moves.

It's interesting to note that the original short story was limited to just that opening scene:  just the killers arriving in town, the Swede resigned to his fate, and the killing.  All of the conventional noir elements -- the boxing scenes, the heist, the insurance investigation, the loose pile of money -- those were all added on.  And, since they're conventional elements, they're forgotten.  What you remember is the poor, doomed ex-boxer, lying in bed, waiting for his fate, knowing there's nothing to be done.

Game of Thrones [1x01]
This is the premiere of the HBO adaptation of George R. R. Martin's fantasy epic, which I read earlier this year.

Honestly, I found myself underwhelmed by this premiere.  And equally-honestly, I think that might have been unavoidable.  Game of Thrones has a staggering amount of plot in it, and starting it all going is like pushing a big, heavy, recalcitrant boulder.[1]  There is a whole world to sketch in.  There are dozens of characters to introduce us to.  There are all these relationships to establish.  And there is an elaborate power struggle to tell us about.

So of course you spend the first dozen chapters wondering, "Why are we looking at these characters now?" or "What does this have to do with anything?" or "What do these people want?"  But the book rumbles on, and in time, you know these things, and Mr. Martin has a wonderfully elaborate playset to work with.

So with episode one, Game of Thrones is slogging through that pre-game.  We've seen very little of the book's breakneck action or agonizing dilemmas yet.  It's done the best it can, keeping all these scenes moving under the massive weight of exposition.  And what's worse is that it's exposition I'm already familiar with from the novel.

Honestly, I wasn't really watching the story.  I was more paying attention to the art direction and the performances.  King's Landing looked delightfully "off" architecturally in a way I can't put my finger on, but was perfect for a fantasy world.  Winterfell looked grubby and cold in a way that one rarely sees in the swords-and-sorcery genre.[2]  And I was probably the only person a bit underwhelmed by Peter Dinklage's turn as Tyrion Lannister, which probably says more about my loony expectations than it does about the performance.  I'm still mystified that fans were complaining about Mark Addy as Robert -- yes, a big, jovial, comic actor is perfect for the vaguely Falstaffian king.  Duh.

So I enjoyed the pilot, but I don't feel like I need to keep up with this adaptation week-to-week.  It's largely the story I had imagined while reading the novels, and it'll still be there on DVD for me to catch up on later.

Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan [The Deluxe Edition, vols. 1-3]
This is Brian K. Vaughn's comic about the last man left alive after a plague instantly kills every male mammal on earth.  It's being released as a five-volume "Deluxe Edition", with the final volume due out next month.

People keep trying to turn Y: The Last Man into a movie, and that perplexes me.  To my mind, a story that wants to be a movie is a story you remember in terms of a character and an action.  "John McClane has to take down terrorists who have taken over Nakatomi Plaza" -- that's a movie.  Moreover, a movie story is one where you switch out the setting and it stays essentially the same.  Thus, Die Hard 2:  Die Hard on an Airplane.[3]
But what is Y: the Last Man?  Sure, I could explain the story in terms of "Yorick Brown wants to find his girlfriend in a time of crisis," but it's stupidly obvious that that's not Y.  And you sure as hell know that removing the setting would kill what the comic is about.

Y:  The Last Man isn't about a guy who wants a thing.  It's about a world without males, and what that scenario has to show us about this world *with* them.  There are stretches where Yorick is just an observer, taking in a strange situation along with us, wondering how to feel about it.  A movie would instead focus on Yorick On His Quest and tease us with The Mystery of Why All the Men Died... and it would miss the point.

There have been vague rumblings about adapting it into a television show or mini-series; those feel much more on-target.

That said, the comic is perfect as is[4].  Story-wise, most of it is the comic equivalent of a 'road movie', and issues can explore one setting or another.  There's room for more forays into dream sequences and flashbacks and community theater.  But mostly there's room for us to learn about life after the 'gendercide'.

Part of it is just the "Huh, hadn't thought of that" effect of any science fiction that takes its counterfactuals seriously.  For instance, in this world, airline travel shuts down.  Because, oh, right -- 95% of airline pilots are men.  So, when the plague hits, almost every plane in the air crashes; after the plague, hardly any pilots are left to fly the few planes that remain.

But the more intriguing aspects of the world are less about logistics and more about exploring gender.

How much of it is biology?  How much of it is an artifact of falling into a particular kind of agrarian, patriarchal society about ten thousand years ago?  Gender differences play out in all sorts of ways in all sorts of societies, but the common trait is that every society firmly believes that, no matter how many draconian rules they have to instate to enforce gender roles... by god, their gender roles are firmly dictated by *nature*.[5]  Taking away all the men (save one) is a kind of scientific experiment where we see how much of that is true.

Y: The Last Man implies its own conclusions about this.  I don't know if it's right or it's wrong -- I don't even know enough about it to formulate an opinion -- but I love that it's asking these interesting questions, and finding a story concept that lets us explore them.

Anyway, those are the sorts of questions you've got in the forefront of your mind in, say, books one and two.  But once the story really gets going, Mr. Vaughn has got such a sure command of plotting that you're pretty much just desperate to know what will happen next.  The series is a master class in "How do I use one single panel at the end of an issue to introduce a surprising new source of danger?"

Sure, sometimes it's cheesy -- oh, our heroes are being stalked by *bad guys*!  (And they don't even *see* the bad guys!  Oh noez!)  But sometimes it's something he's been hinting at all along, and that last panel is a perfectly-sprung trap worthy of the closing shot of a LOST episode.[6]  And regardless of how he does it, it's always very, very, very concise:  it's just one image -- or just one salient detail of that image -- that tells you that the situation is completely different from what you thought, and infinitely more dangerous.

So that covers the basics of my immediate response to Y: The Last Man.  Hopefully, some time in the next few weeks I can pick up the last volumes and come up with more things to say about it.

For next time:  I'm off of audiobooks right now -- I'm catching up on podcasts for the time being -- but I have an audiocourse about effective communication queued up.  Book-wise, I'm just about done with Time Off:  A Psychological Guide to Vacations, and after that I'll finally start in on Schulz and Peanuts, which I've been meaning to read forever.  On DVD, I'm finally watching Steven Moffat's delightful Sherlock.

[1] It shares this in common with some of the weightier Dickens novels.  Bleak House is really a cracking novel, once you get to about page six hundred or so.

[2] ... a notable exception being Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which is in a lot of ways bizarrely accurate for a film set in the Middle Ages.

[3] Note that nothing can explain Live Free or Die Hard except base greed.

[4] I'm with Roger Ebert in feeling a bit wistful that we never remake or adapt the works that just didn't quite deliver on a good premise the first time around.  No, we tend to remake and adapt things that were just fine as they were -- or worse, remake something pointless into something else that's equally pointless.

[5] It's interesting, reading this book after finishing up Sex at Dawn.

[6] Not entirely a surprise, given that Vaughn would go on to write for LOST in seasons 3-5.[6b]

[6b] ... which is a sort of meta-payoff, since Hurley is shown reading Y:  The Last Man during that show's first season.

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[User Picture]
Date:Tuesday (4/26/11) 7:21am

Speaking of Monty Python being strangely accurate...

...a doctor friend told me that Scrubs is the most accurate medical show ever on television. Who knows, maybe if you're doing a comedy, you're free of the pressure to over-dramatize and slap a layer of bright paint on everything.
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[User Picture]
Date:Tuesday (4/26/11) 9:09am

Re: Speaking of Monty Python being strangely accurate...

Yup, I've heard that, too -- it's one of the only medical shows I know of where they mine most of their show ideas from anecdotes they've gotten from doctors.
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