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

Monday (6/4/12) 4:50pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  The Iron Giant, Dead Poets Society
TV:  Friday Night Lights [4x01-4x09]
Books:  <none>

The Iron Giant
This would be the... fourth? fifth? time I've seen this film.  I said most of what I have to say about it years ago, when the Alamo brought in its screenwriter for a Q&A.  Watching it again now, I'm mostly appreciating it from a craft perspective.  And not even in an "I am analyzing this film while I'm watching it" sort of way.  It's more that, while watching The Iron Giant, that part of my brain shuts down.  It never pipes up with "this scene doesn't really work", or "this whole section is unnecessary".  The whole story just feels inevitable, start to finish.

I suppose I also noticed the animation style of the film this time around.  This time, it feels like it's much more deliberately hearkening back to old Disney work, and to Brad Bird's tutelage among the Nine Old Men.  I can't quite put into words how it feels different from most animation I see these days.  All I can think to say is that "it's not trying to be cool".  It's not trying to be flashy or stylized.  But then, neither is it animation like Avatar that aims for a quasi-realism that kind of "gets out of the way" and lets you focus on the action.  In this case, it feels like all they care about with the figure animation is *character*.  If characters are pushed a bit into caricature in service of characterization (wow, that's a lot of cognates in a row), so be it.  It even feels like they open with that crazily-drawn fisherman at the start of the story so that they set a precedent early: people in this movie can be drawn kind of freaky, so don't be surprised if you see a variety of slightly-cooky caricatures.

Dead Poets Society
I admit, re-watching this for the first time in ages mainly made me think, "Thank god I am no longer in school."  I would say "I don't deal well with authority", but that would make me sound like someone with a rebel streak and probably a motorcycle.  (The facial scar, I've got covered, I s'pose.)  Instead, I just abhor being told what to do, but I act meek and polite, so it usually leads a lot of bitter sulking.

So school?  Not the best place for me.  And a school like the Welton Academy emphasized the things I hated the most about school -- and, by extension, being a teenager.

As for the story itself, it holds up well enough.  I was mostly interested in how particular it was about its setting.  Sure, there was a story about inspiration and rebellion and the like, and that gave the movie enough plot to not be boring, but the interesting part, for me, was seeing what a boarding school in the 50s was like.  It must have seemed a bit odd to me when I watched this as a kid.  Now, in a world of smartphones and kids who probably know more than I do about sex by their early teens... I can't tell if the late-50s Welton Acaedemy feels quaint, or if it feels like science fiction.

And yes, Robin Williams turns in a good performance -- though the section where he's obviously allowed to do his own comedy sticks out like a sore thumb, and is just about as painful.  He recites a bunch of Shakespeare quotes in a variety of old movie impressions.  The kids laugh like it's funny.  I felt sorry for the kids.

And I suppose the teen suicide reads far differently at this age.  When you're young, you focus on how unfair his circumstances are.  When you're old, you just think, "Good Christ, kid, just wait a couple of goddamn years.  Then go do whatever the hell you want."  I suppose I've lost touch with how things felt back then, and I don't understand any more.

I suppose I also felt a bit sorry for myself.  Nothing all that inspiring happened in my school years.  I didn't bother rebelling against anything.  I didn't fall in love.  I didn't discover any great passions for anything.  I just quietly slogged through, confident that every step was getting me closer to getting the hell out of Louisville.  What did I do?  I survived.

Friday Night Lights [4x01-4x09]
The fourth season of this NBC football drama moves the action from Dillon High, which has perhaps the best high-school football team in Texas, to East Dillon, the school on the wrong side of the tracks, beset with poverty, crime, and a general indifference to football.

I admit, I was a little let down by these episodes, but only because my expectations were sky-high.  From what I'd heard about season four, I was expecting something on the level of The Wire.  What I got was still good, with more than its share of heart-rending moments, but it suffered a little in comparison to the absolutely brilliant seasons I've been watching lately.

First, the good things.  I talked last week about how challenging it is to tell a hundred or so stories using one set of characters and relationships, and how rearranging things from one season to the next often gives you new territory to explore.  Season four of FNL is one of the best cases of rearrangement I've seen.  We're not just changing schools, we're changing to a school that's about as different from "West Dillon" as possible.  At West Dillon, the question was whether they would win state, or whether the kids' problems -- which were often pretty manageable teenager-y problems -- would derail the team.  At East Dillon, it's less about winning state and more about whether the school can keep its football team, and also whether these kids can avoid getting shot this year.  It kind of puts "OMG I luv these two boys but can't decide" into perspective.

They spent a good chunk of season three just laying out storylines that would make this transfer possible.  They brought in Joe McCoy, who would eventually architect Taylor's ouster.  They set up the redistricting storyline that introduced East Dillon.  They gave Coach Taylor a steady series of conflicts with J. D. McCoy, which would motivate kicking Taylor out of West Dillon.  It's a marvel that they kept the storylines interesting while they were essentially building this huge plot artifice that would set up season four.

This move to the new school also introduces a new set of football players, which helps deal with the fact that most of their students were graduating from Dillon, and they hadn't introduced many younger students to take their place on the show.  Sure, they could have gone the "Nikki and Paolo" route -- "these people were at West Dillon all along! you just never noticed them before!" -- but it feels more credible for the show to move to a new school and get to know new students there.

There were a lot of cast departures going into season four.  It's a surprise that FNL manages to turn this to their advantage.  This is yet another "squaring the circle" TV-show problem, this one specific to high-school shows:  if your show is set in high school, eventually, your kids will graduate and leave the show.  Now all your characters your audience has built a connection to are all gone, and you're left starting from scratch.

There are different ways to deal with that.  You can get creative with the timeline.  90210 had, I believe, two consecutive junior years for its cast.  FNL was purposefully vague about what year its students were in, so that it could hold on to them a bit longer.  You can find ways to bring cast members back after graduation.  This is usually a bit awkward, but FNL handled it fairly gracefully -- usually by following a character like Jason Street post-graduation without necessarily bringing him back to the high-school environment.  Lots of shows solve this by abandoning the high school completely and moving the characters en masse to college -- we all remember how UC Sunnydale magically appeared when Buffy approached graduation day.

But FNL regularly hits on one of the strongest things you can do with these necessary departures, a strategy that's very rarely used: just let the characters leave.  I'm thinking here especially of Matt Saracen.  They hold on to him for a while.  They burn off some of the main stories they must have had "in the bag" for him -- I'm sure they put Saracen's distant father in the army in the middle east with an eye towards having him killed in action later.  And then they just let Matt leave.  Sure, this strategy means they have to do the hard work of establishing *new* central characters.  But at the same time, the departures feel real and powerful.  Did I cry at the end of "Stay", as Matt Saracen drives down the long highway out of town?  Of course I did.  I'm not made of stone.

And yet it's strange -- in spite of so many emotional wollops in this season, I still feel little twinges of disappointment.  I think among the East Dillon cast, Vince is the only student I'm really getting to know, and possibly Becky.  And I can't help feeling uncomfortable with the overtones of "rich white guys come to a largely black school to save black kids from their backwards ways."  Friday Night Lights is aware of this, and even has some of the East Dillon characters mention it explicitly.  But it still keeps drifting towards Dangerous Minds territory.  I found myself wishing we'd see more of the East Dillon kids just living their life in ways that didn't necessarily illustrate problems for Coach Taylor would have to address.  Okay, these are the things you're struggling with -- these are your sources of adversity -- but what are you good at? what makes you happy? what do you dream of?  Who are you apart from these movie-of-the-week-esque troubles?

Of course, maybe FNL has always defined many of its characters this way, and I just never noticed.  Or maybe, given time (and another season), these characters will get filled in with some more detail and nuance.  Or maybe I'm just blind to good work -- again, given this season's critical renown, that wouldn't surprise me.

At the same time, the things that FNL does well, it continues to do well.  Coach and Tami continue to have one of the best-realized relationships on television, and they put the lie to the notion that you can't tell interesting stories about people *after* they fall in love and become a couple.  Hell, one of my favorite moments of the season so far is just Tami and Coach, sitting on the couch and commiserating after they have had terrible days at Dillon and East Dillon, respectively.  I admit, sometimes I just feel like some kind of scientific observer, taking notes along the lines of, "Ohhhh!  *This* is how a stable and healthy relationship works!"[1]

And the show continues to impress with its vérité-feeling dialog and shooting style.  It's not the shock that it was at its premiere, and its documentar-ish style has become more prevalent on TV since then, but it's still good, and still worth the migraines it must give its editors.  And it's still wonderful to see how it uses location shooting -- sure, it's fun to trainspot all the Austin-area locations[2], but it also gives everything a convincing, lived-in quality, and makes it feel much more unique[3] than the usual bland soundstages.

It gets easy to take all that for granted, but it's really amazing work.

For next time:  I'll finish season four of Friday Night Lights, and continue plodding through my audiobook of A Clash of Kings.  At some point, I'd like to watch season one of Breaking Bad or season two of Mad Men.  Would anyone be willing to loan me those DVDs?  Failing that, I might watch season two of Louie, or season one of Downton Abbey.

[1] Yeah, my parents couldn't stand each other.
[2] I suspect the funeral-home establishing shot in "The Son" was done literally one block from my house.
[3] Yes, you can add qualifiers to "unique".  Siddown, newb grammar Nazi.

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Date:Tuesday (6/5/12) 2:53pm
I assume you don't have Netflix? (Seasons 1-3 of Breaking Bad and 1-4 of Mad Men are on there.)
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