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

Monday (5/23/11) 1:13pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

[Missed a week, owing to laziness.]

Movies:  Modern Romance [mild spoilers]
TV:  Community [1x20-1x25] [mild spoilers], Sherlock [series 1] [mild spoilers]
Books:  <none>

Modern Romance [mild spoilers]
This is Albert Brooks' 1981 comedy about dealing with a breakup.

There's something about Modern Romance that makes it feel like it's not quite a movie.  Instead, I can't help thinking it's something halfway between a movie and, say, a stand-up routine from an observational comic, an hour and a half of stage time that opens with, "So I broke up with my girlfriend.  Again."

It doesn't really have a plot, apart from "Robert Cole wants to recover after a breakup."  Instead, it moves from vignette to vignette:  Robert breaks up with Mary; Robert hangs out at home and slightly overdoses on quaaludes; Robert takes up running.  None of these have laugh-out-loud moments; instead, you see the sort of observational details that might make you smile with embarrassed recognition.

And it definitely feels less like "a film telling a story about characters" than "a guy telling you about his life".  Maybe knowing that Albert Brooks also wrote and directed the feature biases my judgment.  But there's always this air of self-indulgence to the storytelling.  Even when "Robert" is held up for ridicule, I'm not thinking, "Oh, Robert is such a silly character," I'm thinking, "Albert Brooks has decided that this is an acceptable level of self-effacement to show."  When comedians talk about their foibles, you feel like they still have a level of power over them, in that they can mine them for material.  Yeah, you're such a schmuck, Albert -- but you still wind up with the girl who's pretty much the paragon of beuaty for 1981.  How very modest.

The overall style of the film is far removed from most of the comedies I see these days.  Part of it is just because it's from thirty years ago, so there are long (long, long) takes.  You'll watch some mundane activity in the movie, and after a while you'll realize that the take's duration is approaching "street shootout in Children of Men" territory.  Plus the styles from 1980 always feel peculiarly alien to me, because they're right on the far edge of what I can remember.  All the unfortunate earth tones and boxy household gadgets are like being reminded of a dream I can't consciously recall.

But it's unique for other reasons, too.  It's weirdly relentless in its focus on Robert Cole.  There's no B-story.  There's no scene without Robert in it.  Hell, there are only a few recurring secondary characters.  We just follow Robert, onscreen for almost every frame, as he moves from one vignette, to the next, to the next.  In many of the scenes Robert is entirely alone, forcing some stilted expository monologs that let us know what's going on.

Is it actually funny?  I wound up picking this movie up because Drew McWeeny couldn't stop singing its praises over on hitfix.  But I had a more tepid response.

Mainly, I couldn't stand the whining.  Most people, when they want something, they argue forcefully for why they should get it.  And if I don't agree with them, I'll be a bit annoyed, but at least I'm having a productive discussion about why I'm not acceding to their terms, or perhaps we're actively negotiating an effective compromise. 

But there are other people, people who don't argue forcefully, people who instead just say what they want in a weak, whinging tone of voice.  And then instead of building a case for it, they just repeat that whined, "you should give me <x>", over and over.  And you can try to get them to make some cogent argument for themselves, but that doesn't dissuade them from their strategy of repetitive whining.  It's like instead of trying to bring me around to their way of thinking, they're instead hoping to browbeat me into submission with a vague air of martyred and maudlin disappointment.

I don't know if this infuriates everybody; I just know it infuriates me.  And this is how Robert Hall deals with *everything*.  "You should get back together with meeeee", "You should let me cut the space film this waaaaay", "You should marry meeeeee."  Eventually, this film set some sort of record for the number of times I shouted, "I hope you die of botulism!" at the screen.

It's possible that I just wasn't identifying with Robert enough.  I guess I've had a sheltered life, is maybe my limited experience with breakups limits my empathy.  And it really does feel like this movie hinges on recognizing shared experience, because it has no surprises.  Once you know what the joke of a scene is, you already know how it'll play out.  And you're not seeing the protagonist make any progress towards any goal, really -- by the end of the movie, he's right back where he started.

... which is a shame, because he really should have died of botulism somewhere along the way.

Community [1x20-1x25] [mild spoilers]
The first season of Community finishes up with the episodes "The Science of Illusion", "Contemporary American Poultry", "The Art of Discourse", "Modern Warfare", "English as a Second Language", and "Pascal's Triangle Revisited".

Let's just open with the heresy:  I didn't love "Modern Warfare" (AKA "the paintball episode").  I thought it was fun, and I liked it okay, but friends who've found out I'm watching Community have asked me in hushed tones, "Have you seen the paintball episode yet?"  Critics I respect have put "Modern Warfare" on their lists of the best TV episodes of 2010, even mentioning it in the same breath as "The Contest" or "Marge Versus the Monorail" as one of the best sitcom episodes ever made.

So maybe it was overhyped, but I watched the episode and... and I could tell that it was accomplishing its goals as effectively as possible:  it was a deft mash-up of about two dozen different action movies, with clever allusions coming one after the other.  Justin Lin directs the action beats expertly -- Abed's "bouncing off the wall" Matrix stunt would have been a momentary jaw-dropper even on a straight-up action show like Burn Notice.

But at the same time, the episode felt hollow, like (say) an episode of Robot Chicken or Family Guy -- it was clever, but there was nothing to care about there. 

Put another way, Jane Espenson talks about the difference between "what an episode is about" (Angel turns bad after experiencing a 'moment of perfect joy') and "what an episode is *really* about" (dudes can turn douche-y after sleeping with a girl).  "Modern Warfare" was about a paintball tournament.  And deep down, under all the clever metaphors and allusions, it was really about... a paintball tournament.

And honestly, this had followed several genre-exercise episodes that gave me a similar feeling.  Or more specifically, I felt like Community had, after a season of exciting exploration, finally found its voice... and settled into something very rigid and stable.  Community knew who all of its characters were.  It knew which combinations of characters worked well.  And now it knew its schtick:  put this crew into a parody of some well-known movie genre, draw a lot of jokes out of the fact that the stakes are set incongruously low ("it's a Mafia movie, but it's about chicken fingers! ha!" "it's a seafaring adventure, but the boat's in the parking lot! ha!"), and for god's sake, don't let any of the characters change or develop.  We've got our thing down; let's just start cranking out a bunch of variations on the one episode that really works.

So you wind up with television that's mind-blowingly competent.

The serialized elements are still there, but they've started to feel arbitrary.  For instance, in the last episode, both Britta and Professor Slater declare their love for Joel.  And that doesn't feel like the natural "what happens next" for either of those characters.  Instead, it feels like a hamhanded way to shoehorn a 'which babe will Joel choose?' scene into the finale.  The fact that they hang a lantern on this ("No way, dude!  Team Slater!") doesn't make it less clumsy -- they're still marionetting the characters through arbitrary plotting, and making them feel less like real people whom I can care about. 

Along the way, I was intrigued by the tiny hints at a Britta/Abed pairing that happened in "English as a Second Language".  Yes, I know, I'm probably biased in wanting the vagueley Aspy character get the gorgeous blonde.  But I liked how the matchup seemed to creep in from the background.  We didn't get to see some high-flown confession-of-love scene -- instead, it's "oh, hey, they're arm-in-arm, so... well, okay, then."  This happens in real life (from my outside perspective) all the time, but I never saw it in a TV show 'til now.  And also, I was intrigued because those two having a relationship would not be easy.  At all.  So to some extent, I was thinking, "Okay, how are Britta and Abed making that work?"[1]

But, one episode later, the plot element was dropped so clumsily it might as well have been improv on a bad night.

In retrospect, I think I liked Community when it didn't know what it was yet.  I liked watching it experiment.  It figured out Donald Glover and Danny Pudi worked well together, so it found excuses to pair them off.  It figured out that audiences responded negatively to Britta, so they folded that into the show's world, and made Britta the person that others tended to instantly dislike.  They set up the big "will they or won't they?" pairing, and then realized it wasn't that exciting, week-to-week, and so they moved on.

I'm not feeling that excitement with these episodes.  It's still fun, and it's still funny, but I imagine I'll catch up on a bunch of other shows before coming around to Community's second season.

Sherlock [series 1] [mild spoilers]
This is Steven Moffat's 2010 BBC series that updates classic Sherlock Holmes stories to modern-day London.

A bizarre realization crept up on me as I was watching this show:  I've never seen a TV show set in modern London.  Or if I have, it's had that "Friends effect" where, even though it's ostensibly set in the city, it doesn't *feel* like the city, and the show spends most of its time on a few standing sets that could be anywhere.

But with this update on the Conan Doyle stories, they found that the show worked best when they emphasized that Sherlock was in modern times -- so this ostensibly police-procedural-with-a-twist turned into something of a London travelogue.  Different episodes explore different parts of London (the City, the back alleys, etc.), and the sense of scale, and motion, and excitement captures something about London that, while it may not be true (I've *still* never been to London), is certainly engaging.

I was also surprised that I liked their little editing tics.  For instance, their habit of superimposing text messages over the scene -- or more precisely, turning them into special-effect elements that gently floated above the phones -- was a huge relief.  Finally, I don't have to see a clumsy five-second insert shot of a smart-phone with a tiny screen and some godawful font, as I idly wonder why the character would hold the phone so preternaturally still for five seconds.  Adding bits of text representing the clues that Sherlock saw was also a useful cheat -- instead of staring at a scene and wondering which tiny detail of the production design was supposed to be a clue, we could see all the clues, and try to put them together before Sherlock explained the answer.  There were a few cases where this experimentation failed them -- the cabbie foot chase in the pilot turned into an unengaging mess, because their editing techniques drew all the focus away from the story -- but generally it solved a lot of their storytelling problems very neatly.

Even the cutesy sped-up tilt-shift footage of London they used for their interstitials was pleasant.  At the very least, I hadn't seen it before.

I especially like how much attention they pay to Watson's characterization.  Typical Sherlock Holmes adaptations cast Watson as a likeable buffoon.  Guy Ritchie cast Watson instead as Holmes's action-loving husband-in-all-but-sex.  In both cases, Watson is more of a story tool than a character -- in the former, he makes Sherlock look smarter; in the latter, he provides bickering conflict with the lead (in doing the "try to prevent the lead from doing the cool stuff that is the point of the story" actions that are often relegated to TV "wife" characters).

But in this case, Watson is our viewpoint character, and this is his story.  Yes, Sherlock himself is what makes this TV show different from all other TV shows, but Watson has deep, relatable problems -- and while the show is ostensibly about solving crimes, it's really about Watson figuring out how to rejoin civilian society after a harrowing military stint in Afghanistan.

Or at least, it is for that first episode or two.  By the time we settle into "The Great Game", it's basically about the crime-solving.  And for me, the show becomes something of a letdown at that point.  Yes, it's intriguing watching Holmes put together the clues of this series of crimes.[2]  And yes, they draw admirable tension out of having innocent bystanders rigged with bombs in public places (a practice that might strike more of a nerve with post-Troubles English audiences than with Americans).  But the personal conflicts feel diminished to me.  Yes, Watson hates that Sherlock is so unemotional about this, but that's static:  it's the same conflict they always have.  There's no personal story here that's going anywhere.

And, while Moriarty is wonderfully portrayed, and while the show does a good job of setting him up as parallel to Holmes (and perhaps, just as bored as Sherlock is), I grow weary of the villain who decides to set odd little tests for our hero.  Look, a guy who makes you run around the city solving puzzles on set time limits is not a supervillain, he's a reality-TV-show producer.  Any time a villain's main objective is to create situations that would make for good television drama, it feels lazy and manufactured to me.  And if the villain's motivation is "he's bored! and kuh-razy!", that makes the screenwriter-y puppet strings that much more visible.

That said, I still eagerly await the next series of Sherlock.  This is partly because slightly-dull Sherlock still beats most television.  It's partly because I'm intrigued to see how Moffat et al manage to modernize some of the more-specifically Victorian aspects of the source material.  But mainly, it's because I don't think they'll crank out a second series just to make money.  I think they'll tell an underlying, emotional story that audiences can connect to.

That said, if it just settles into a high-production-value equivalent to Murder, She Wrote, then I'm out.

For next time:  I'm currently listening to a Teaching Company audiocourse about effective communication skills.  Meanwhile, I'm still reading through David Michaelis' massive and authoritative biography Schultz and Peanuts.

[1] Oddly, I'm reminded of Firefly:  "Yeah, people don't really 'get' Zoe and me."

[2] Though I don't think it quite adheres to fair play -- that is, an audience member given the clues could not, given time and resources, reach the conclusions Holmes comes to.[2b]

[2b] In fact, you could probably do some of this Holmes-ian action in improv -- just cobble together an explanation out of observations that retroactively become clues, make it sound very authoritative, have everybody agree with your conclusion, and ta-da! you've 'solved' the crime.

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Date:Tuesday (8/9/11) 1:09pm
So, obviously this is over a month late, but I'm reading back in your Media Updates, and I wanted to tell you that this line:

Look, a guy who makes you run around the city solving puzzles on set time limits is not a supervillain, he's a reality-TV-show producer.

...made me laugh for about a minute solid. :D

Any time a villain's main objective is to create situations that would make for good television drama, it feels lazy and manufactured to me. And if the villain's motivation is "he's bored! and kuh-razy!", that makes the screenwriter-y puppet strings that much more visible.

SO TRUE. People, stop writing this! It stretches credibility and it's incredibly overdone! (I know it works for the Joker, but he's an iconic villain who also has the "clowns are scary!" thing working for him.)

Also, shouldn't the guy running a major criminal empire have better things to do with his time? I mean really.
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Date:Tuesday (8/9/11) 1:20pm


It may be that the Joker's hijinx in The Dark Knight work because they're often clearly centered on breaking Batman morally -- e.g. Batman has to let one boatload of people die -- so even though it has the same structure as these other stories, there's an underlying motive beyond "bored crazy guy".  (And yes, also, clowns are scary, and iconic clowns, only more so.)
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Date:Tuesday (8/9/11) 1:54pm
Yep. And also, there's the surrounding framework mythology of Gotham as a kind of inherently mad, evil place (cf.: Jack Nicholson's Joker saying, "Good people shouldn't live here"), so that both Batman and the Joker are symptoms of that madness, despite being on opposite sides. And the Joker came along after Batman, and as a reaction to Batman, so it makes sense that his motivations would center on breaking Batman's morality. Whereas Moriarty has apparently been established for quite some time, and didn't take note of Sherlock until he started getting in the way. So why is he spending all of his time playing games with the guy now instead of just shooting him? That is no way to run a criminal empire. *judges!*

Plus, you know, no matter how gritty the Dark Knight movies are, at the end of the day, it's still a story about a billionaire who dresses up like a bat. So viewers may have a somewhat lower expectation of realism than for a story about a guy who fights crime by being really good at noticing stuff.

...I still maintain that Molly (the morgue attendant with a crush on Sherlock, who Moriarty was dating) would have been a much better surprise!Moriarty, being a lot more like ACD's dusty, dry old mathematics professor.
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Date:Tuesday (8/9/11) 1:58pm
Good points all 'round!

Huh, I hadn't ever thought of the "Molly-arty" possibility.  Hopefully the world of fanfic is exploring that idea somewhere.
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Date:Tuesday (8/9/11) 2:03pm
Oh, it is. Definitely. It's even referred to as "Molliarty" as a genre. XD
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