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

Thursday (5/22/14) 11:20am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

[Missed several weeks, due to laziness. I am learning that this is a very bad idea.]

Movies:  House of Games [spoilers], Star Trek Into Darkness [spoilers]
TV:  Cowboy Bebop [1x10-1x26] [spoilers], Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. [1x20-1x22]
Books:  Dive Into Python, Writing Idiomatic Python


House of Games [spoilers]
This is David Mamet's 1987 directorial debut, a film about a psychologist who falls in with a group of con artists.

I wonder what it was like to watch House of Games when it came out. The basic structure might have seemed novel at the time: we watch con artists, they do their cons, and all along there was a *longer* con going on that gets revealed at the end. We get the delight of seeing how some cons work, and we get the delight of being surprised by the twist ending, and there's a certain bravura to a film that tells you straight-up that it's about liars and yet still finds a way to deceive you[1]

I suppose that storyline had been done *before* House of Games -- The Sting comes to mind -- but it's been done, and done, and done so often *since* House of Games that you just come to expect it. Okay. Right, here are the known scams. Okay, what's the long con here? And so there's no surprise to the twist in House of Games, because you were watching like a hawk for it the whole time. (Or maybe that was intentional?)

And beyond that, it was hard to really invest emotionally in the story -- I knew that, somehow, everything that was presented to me would be a trick, so I stayed detached, trying to outthink it, and kind of hating the heroine for being so gullible.[2] I watched the movie feeling like I'd seen it a few times before.

And that was really okay. Sure, it started out feeling heavily mannered and stilted -- it would be a few years before Mamet really found his sea legs and made movies that felt like movies (instead of plays) -- but eventually you settle into the rhythms and go with the flow. Yes, Mamet writes love scenes like a space alien who's only had a 1960s book titled How to Pick Up Girls as a reference, but the sex scene is mercifully brief.

Everything else is rather lovely. Mamet writes sharp, percussive dialog. He writes scenes with strong conflicts. He revels in con artistry and illusion. And he writes stories that are structurally sound as a Swiss watch. This feels like one of his lesser movies -- I preferred State and Main, for example -- but it's still a perfectly solid Mamet film.


Star Trek Into Darkness [spoilers]
This is the 2013 sequel to the 2009 Star Trek reboot.

About halfway through watching Star Trek: Into Darkness, I started referring to it as Axe Cop Star Trek. Axe Cop is a webcomic drawn by a professional artist and written by his five-year-old brother -- so you see very credible, respectable comics art relating a story that is hilariously-surreal nonsense.

And that's kind of what I was watching. The acting is again just wonderful across the board. Even Chris Pine puts in a solid, interesting performance, managing to play his cocksure arrogance against a growing maturity that the character himself doesn't quite know what to make of. (Yes, the sequel puts Kirk through pretty much the exact same character arc he went through in the first film. Second verse, same as the first.)

And many of the action sequences are breathtaking -- once J. J. Abrams got a hold of this script, he directed the hell out of it. Whether it was the vaguely-Mario-Kart like journey to the Dreadnought-class ship, or the Inception-esque journey through Engineering as the Enterprise tumbled into the atmosphere, or even the Raiders of the Lost Ark-style opening chase sequence with the natives and the volcano, Abrams kept things riveting, like they were white-knuckle levels of a video game. And sure, the cinematography is as blandly teal-and-orange as every other action movie these days, but it at least cuts down on the lens flares a bit.

All that said, the plot is still very Axe Cop. I felt like somebody had told a five-year-old the general idea of Star Trek, and now said five-year-old was excitedly babbling a story to me that he or she thought was the COOLEST STORY IN DA WORLD. Eventually my mind just gave up on following the story at all, because when I paid attention to what was happening, I just got angry because of how stupid everyone involved was acting. I mean, right off the bat: "We've had a terrorist attack -- we should convene all the top brass in the same location." I'll admit, that scene made Kirk seem clever for figuring it out, but it also made the United Federation of Planets look like utter morons.[3]

And I kept thinking that, over and over again. They're just bringing random ordnance on-board the Enterprise without looking at it? Kirk is going to straight-up attack the Klingon homeworld?[4] Marcus was killing the 72 Khan-pals by... loading them in torpedoes? (Can't he just disconnect the cryo-systems?) And Kirk is going to be surprised that this was actually a plot to start a war? And Admiral Marcus wanted to start a war as soon as possible because... of reasons? And then Khan wants to kill everyone in the universe because... what? Why?[5] What are *any* of these people thinking?

Eventually you see so much stupidity, or so many arbitrary character decisions that exist solely to make the screenwriters' lives easier, that your brain kind of sighs and gives up. Maybe Khan had a plan that relied on a ridiculous set of coincidences, or maybe he was improvising. I think at that point I was trying my best to shut my brain off and ignore the plot's ceaseless, nonsensical thrashing.

It's like the writers were trying to make a twisty, complicated John Le Carré novel, full of hidden motivations, betrayals, and manipulations. So, first question: is that really Star Trek? Do I come to the Star Trek franchise looking for a byzantine spy thriller? But okay, let's say, for whatever reason, that's what we're going for.[6]

Now you have another problem: that writing those sorts of spy-thriller stories is really hard. Smart characters tend to go directly and clearly for what they want, so if you want them to clever, manipulative, and indirect, then they'll either wind up looking stupid or, worse, arbitrary. You have to invent reasons for them to be sneaky, and those reasons have to make sense, and those reasons have to not interfere with *other* characters' reasons to be sneaky, and it all becomes a bit of a mess.[7]

But say you even somehow write a plot where the characters seem smart and realistic as they lie and manipulate and out-clever each other. Great. Now, you have yet another problem: making this storyline clear to the audience. You have to convey these multi-layered characters who say one thing, mean another, and perhaps have some hidden motivation underlying both. If you can't be clear about all the machinations in your well-constructed plot, it's all going to come across as mush.

But okay, say you're a freakish genius and you accomplish *that*. Now, the problem is that you don't have a story. You just have a plot. You just have a series of moves, a series of things-that-happen, and they don't *mean* anything emotionally to the characters. Nobody learns anything. There's no meaningful question at stake that finally gets resolved by all these machinations. You're not writing a screenplay, you're transcribing a chess match.

Whew.

So it's challenging. Now imagine doing all that under 'battle conditions', where you have to make it a traditional action tentpole movie and you've got Paramount Studios breathing down your neck the whole time and noting you to death.

So in a nutshell, what I'm saying is that the writers took on a story style that doesn't feel like Trek, and that was well beyond their ability to write well.

There were a lot of places where I just felt sorry for the screenwriters. Say when Khan gives the set of coordinates to Kirk. At this point, as a writer, I'd ask myself, "Why wouldn't Khan just *say* what's at those coordinates? *sigh* Well, that wouldn't be very cinematic, would it? and the rest of the plot hinges on Scotty getting on Marcus's ship[8], and... okay, fuck it, I'll just have Khan say, 'You have to see for yourself.' *sigh* Maybe the audience will buy it."

Or the concluding fistfight. "'And they punch and punch and jump to another thing and punch and then...' Well, shit. I have to do *something* special or interesting or this fight is going to be really boring, and it won't pay off *anything*. Maybe Spock uses some knowledge he's gained about Khan? or maybe some weakness of Khan kicks in? Or maybe... crap, I can't think of anything, let's just... 'And then Spock picks up a metal thing and uses it to punch really hard and the fight's over.' *sigh* Really? *That's* the best I can do? I'm going to go sit in the corner and think about my life choices."

Let's be clear: they had four years to make this. So they obviously had *time* to make the writing less stupid. But for whatever reason it just wasn't a priority.

*sigh* And then there's the end. They try a reversal of the tragic end of Wrath of Khan, only this time it's Kirk dying to save the ship. This probably felt clever to Axe Cop Trek writer ("OMG WE'LL DO THE SAME SCENE ONLY IT'LL BE ALL BACKWARDS AN STUFF"), but it doesn't quite work. Basically, anybody who's seen Khan is going to compare this scene to the same one in Khan and find it very, very lacking. In Khan, that scene was set up structurally with the Kobayashi Maru scene, and it became an amazing character moment for Kirk, who had always found a way to cheat, bend the rules, and win the day. And the scene included a perfect bit of gallows humor, as Spock wryly asked if Kirk liked his solution to the Kobayashi Maru.

Here in the reboot, the equivalent scene was just arbitrary and generically sad.

And then, somehow, they don't end the movie with that. That's... just... weird. Khan is defeated. Kirk is dead. The universe is saved. What. What. Why are there twenty minutes left. What... and they're seriously going to end this movie, this Star Trek movie, with a foot chase and a fistfight? We have an entire universe of sci-fi fun to play with, and we're limiting ourselves to the storytelling tools of a 70s cop show. Okay, fine.

Oh, and then they immediately walk back Kirk's death, because this is not a storytelling universe where anything has consequences or meaning.

Okay. That's all my vitriol exhausted.

Honestly, I had a pleasant enough time watching the movie. I went into this with very, very low expectations -- basically, "Huh, this is on netflix, let's see if it sucks as badly as my friends say it does." -- and that saved the movie for me. I just accepted that it had an Axe Cop plot, and focussed on the things that worked: the acting, the action sequences, the production values. Some of the dialog was very good, and in a meta way, it was fascinating to watch really good actors do the best they could with the dialog that was really bland. I honestly felt bad that we had to focus so much just on Kirk, Spock, and (*sigh*) bland guest stars -- they've got a great core ensemble here.

Ah well. That's what happens when you try to squeeze a TV property into a movie format -- the focus narrows, the world gets smaller, and you wind up with a pleasant, silly little action movie.


Cowboy Bebop [1x10-1x26] [spoilers]
This is the late-90s animé series about a crew of bounty hunters in the year 2071. I talk about its first batch of episodes here.

Again, I feel like my discussion of this show will be criminally short. It's good. It's very, very good. It's often listed as the best animé of all time. Everything that was good about the first batch of episodes -- the jaw-dropping soundtrack, the razor-sharp characterization, the beautiful, rich world-building -- is still good in the remaining ones.

Its treatment of its story arcs feels a bit odd -- Faye, Spike, and Ed all had mysterious origins, and the series has (very) sporadic hints at Faye's history pre-cryofreeze and Spike's history pre-bounty-hunting. Then all of that gets unraveled, revealed, and resolved in the last few episodes. But this was the late 90s, and series television tended to work like that then: have a bunch of self-contained stories with some question in the background, and then resolve the question in a multi-part finale.

And this structure works in the show's favor. Thematically, this show is very much in keeping with film noir, with its criminal underworld, wry wisecracks, and, most importantly, flawed heroes haunted by their pasts. So it makes sense, structurally, to have the heroes go on their bounty-hunter adventures through the solar system, while the hints about their earlier lives pop up sporadically, a dark, mysterious undertow.

And it makes sense that Spike doesn't get away clean at the end. Noir is not about happy endings, and this show pushed very hard in the 'happy' direction by safely seeing Jet, and Faye, and Ed through to the end. Given that, of course Spike was doomed. In some puritanical way, he was sacrifice himself to atone for his criminal past. And I like that story leaves it a little bit ambiguous at the very end: we see Spike collapsed on the stairwell, almost certainly dead.

Almost.


Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. [1x20-1x22] [spoilers]
These are the last three episodes of the first season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the show about a group of agents tasked with investigating superhero-related events in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Let me preface everything here with this: "Nothing Personal" was a phenomenal episode -- not just a good episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., but a good episode of television. It's one of the best episodes of *anything* that I've watched so far in 2014. I did not see that coming.

So let's just savor that for a bit.

Last time I mentioned that they were writing a fascinating situation for Skye and Ward, with the sorts of deceptions and double-crosses that, say, Star Trek Into Darkness swung for and missed, but that the actors playing Skye and Ward weren't quite up to it. In "Nothing Personal", they just wrote scenes for them that were so good they were impervious to poor performance. Hell, Brett Dalton's weaknesses were suddenly a *good* thing -- when his flat affect is recontextualized as the calm efficiency of a psychopath, Ward is very, very scary. When Skye's usual bulletproof, generic sassiness is more like desperate, forced charm, that is very, very engaging.

Meanwhile, the scenes back at Providence were very smartly written. They were the sort of scenes I was hoping for in the immediate wake of The Winter Soldier: something bizarre has happened, and our heroes, with very little information to go on and lots of wrong guesses along the way, have to reconstruct what's gone wrong. And then the army shows up, and they have to sort out what *that* is all about.

Even the action scenes worked, for a change. Skye's attempt to escape from the diner was appropriately terrifying, and her subsequent rescue was damn impressive. Coulson noticing that Deathlok had shown up was one of the better "holy crap" moments the show has ever done, and then the crash-landing with Lola was, while a bit cheesy in the CGI department, certainly riveting, with possibly the funniest denouement I've seen on this show.

It was just damned impressive.

Subsequent episodes were not as impressive.

"Ragtag" immediately tried to humanize Ward.

What.

Okay, no, what?

In "Nothing Personal," they had turned Ward into a scary-as-hell villain. I was uncomfortable watching villain-Ward on screen, because he was terrifying. This, for a genre show, is gold. And keep this in mind: how many engaging villains does the Marvel Cinematic Universe have? By my count, it's Loki, and also... um... er... okay, it's Loki. And here, by some bizarre alchemy, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. turned their most boring central character into a good villain.

Why would you walk that back? This was bizarre to watch. It was like they'd handed the showrunners a suitcase full of cash, and they spent "Ragtag" laughing, pouring lighter fluid on it, and setting it on fire.

Sure, redemption for a villain is a great story arc. Zuko's slow path to redemption in Avatar was one of the best things about a show overflowing with good thing. But 'slow' is the key word there: this is an arc you play out slowly, and deliberately -- you do it like you're doing it on purpose. You let the villainy sit there for a while, solidifying, becoming something the audience can genuinely and deeply hate. Then you let a little bit of light in. Then you start leading the villain away from the dark side. Then you make the consequences of doing the right thing (instead of the easy thing) heavier and heavier. Then usually there's some ultimate sacrifice the villain makes for the good guys. We all *get* this, right?

What Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. does is more perplexing. It basically rubs out the one strong characteristic -- his ruthless efficiency as an agent of Hydra -- that Ward has, leaving us with a blank slate again.[9] And it makes the show feel like it doesn't have the courage of its convictions. "Ooh Ward is a villain doing villainous things oh wait no he's not no he's actually sympathetic and relatable." Why should I care about anything this show is doing if next week it'll just hit the reset button and do something else, like some kind of 80s sitcom? And I honestly feel bad for TV writers when they desperately try one thing after another.

The present-day story was more interesting, with Coulson & Co. taking on Cybertek with nothing more than some ingenuity and a suitcase full of 50-year-old spy gear. Again, I'm glad to see the show move from what John Rogers calls "competence porn" to something a little more scrappy, something where taking on the bad guys is more 'risky and terrifying' and a little less 'this is my job'.

Then finally we get to the finale. Fitz and Simmons are in a pod at the bottom of the sea. They're given pretty banal, straight-ahead material, but they play it beautifully. It's sort of the converse of Skye and Ward, who are given complicated material that's well beyond them. Predictably, they lean on this "Fitz has a crush on Simmons" storyline, which has always felt forced, awkward, and squarely at odds with the actors' take on the characters. And, like all story arcs on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., they have played this out at an miserably slow pace.

I don't think showrunners will ever understand that "will they or won't they?" has a limited shelf life. Sure, It's exciting for a while. You wonder if they'll get together for a while. But eventually, it stops being cute, and starts to be just sad: two people with piss-poor communication skills who will be alone for a long, long time. In this case, Fitz's pining is both weird (because it wasn't really there on the screen until the writers decided it was) and depressing (because the writers haven't really given Fitz any compelling reason *not* to say anything).

And you just know that, come season two, Fitz will wake up with -- *gasp!* -- partial amnesia! So he'll have no memory of telling Simmons he loved her, and Simmons won't say anything because of... oh, I don't know. Reasons. And their relationship will limp along, getting sadder and sadder, even while it's very well-acted.

Meanwhile on land, the attack on Cybertek was exciting, in a big-dumb-action-movie kind of way. It was pleasant to see Garrett go full-on villain-crazy -- it was nothing I could take seriously, and felt almost like a parody of action movies, but it was a *fun* parody of action films. The May-Ward fight with the circular saw was engaging -- pretty much any time a fight includes a household item that we know is dangerous, the danger feels palpable. Improbably-foleyed punches just feel video-game-y and (perhaps intentionally) harmless. Somebody gets hit with a fire extinguisher in the Terriers pilot and... ow.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a bad show. But it's a special *kind* of bad show. It's not a bad show in its concept. With some shows, you see the first episode and you know that there's no way to get even a dozen stories out of the concept, or you see the pilot and realize you don't want to spend even another ten minutes with these characters. No, this one has a sound premise, an interesting assortment of characters, and endless story possibilities.

And even when Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is lousy in its execution, it's always just a hair's-breadth away from being a good show. Skye is a fascinating character -- a girl who was abandoned by a series of foster parents and went into computer security -- if they'd just respect the backstory they've given her and explore who she is. Fitz and Simmons could have a fascinating, nuanced relationship, if they'd just move away from the "bland, one-sided pining" thing. Raina could be a fascinating character to focus on, if they'd ever properly focus on her. Even the show's mythology could be interesting if they'd take a page from Orphan Black and burn through it like they weren't afraid they'd run out.

It's like the lens is always just a few millimeters out of focus. And occasionally, someone snaps everything into view, and we get an episode like "F.Z.Z.T." or "Nothing Personal". It takes a special kind of bad show to do that. As it is, I guess I'll just accept that it's a light amusement for kids, and I'll stop expecting it to play in the same league as the rest of modern genre television.

It's a really good show from 1987. And it's trying its best.


Dive Into Python by Mark Pilgrim
This is a free online book about the Python language.

I felt just okay about this book. It's long and covers a lot of ground, so that's good. It's written in an accessible way by an author who, shocker of shockers, has a point of view about the material. (This is sadly rare in the computer books I read, where every author is trying to sound like they are delivering The Truth as impartially as humanly possible.) Its format, with short chapters featuring short annotated sections of Python code, along with explanations, worked okay for introducing concepts.

The main problem was that the book is about ten years old now, and suffers quite a bit for that. So you'd see it go over, in detail, how to do a low-level HTTP request, and in the back of your mind you'd think, "I'm never going to do this. I'm just going to use a library for this." Eventually, I felt like I was wasting my time with the more "time capsule"-y parts of the book, and just focused on the more evergreen concepts it presented.


Writing Idiomatic Python by Jeff Knupp
This is the perfect complement to a compendium about the Python language. It's a really short book about how you should be writing Python. Python has a lot of conventions to it. How much should I indent things? How should I name functions? When should I use for loops? (Answer to the last: if possible, never.) It's all the knowledge that every Python programmer seems to have picked up by osmosis, but that never shows up in the classic Reference Tome of the Computer Language.

I really liked how the book was formatted, too: each short chapter contained a short explanation of the principle involved, and then a section of code that (while correct) violated that principle, and then another section of code that followed that principle. Frankly, I wish there were a book like this for programming in general. And since it was such a slim volume, it served as a quick refresher on all the different language features I'd read about in the longer book.

Highly recommended to anybody who's just read a big book about Python.


For next week: I'll finally watch Adventure Time, in a sad-old-man attempt to keep up with The Young People of Today.

________
[1] See also: The Usual Suspects.
[2] ... which is obviously unfair of me. How could Margaret know she's in a con movie?
[3] Also, they have apparently not discovered Skype.
[4] Changing its name to Kronos just felt weird.
[5] One reasonable possibility: they are all secretly Daleks.
[6] After all, you can make a strong argument that a lot of Deep Space Nine had that twisty-and-turny feel to it.
[7] Hell, even Le Carré's great books are fairly straightforward, when you boil them down a bit -- e.g., "one of these four MI-5 guys is a mole: figure out which one."
[8] Because apparently Starfleet security is afflicted with a terrible case of the stupids. Oh, and while we're stopped in this footnote: seriously? they're building a Dreadnought-class starship in secret? and nobody's noticing? It's just a random, trillion-dollar line item in the Starfleet budget for "miscellaneous stuff?" Again, this movie actively punishes you for giving it any thought at all.
[9] See also how they effaced Logan's instability in
the Veronica Mars movie. Once you got rid of his issues, there really wasn't much left.

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