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

Thursday (7/24/14) 11:27pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  Reform School Girl (1957)
TV:  Cosmos [season one], Enlightened [season one] [minor spoilers]
Books:  The Revolution Was Televised [audiobook], Stephen Fry Presents a Selection of Anton Chekhov's Short Stories [audiobook], The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, We3

Reform School Girl (1957)
This is the 1957 exploitation film about a teenage girl wrongly sent to a girls' reformatory.  (More research for the upcoming Hideout show.)

This was a pleasant enough B-movie.  Its 1950s earnestness borders on camp, so it's hard to take seriously, but it's still entertaining.  The movie strains mightily to make its protagonist, Donna Price, as sympathetic as possible.  The reform-school girls get one trait each, and are shown to be absolutely good or bad.  The plot gets a little clumsy, but we know who the heroine is, and we know who the love interest is, and we know who the bad guy is.  It's all simple, and clear, and clean, with a few fun fight scenes and a few fun romantic scenes.[1]

And of course, Donna Price ends up alright because she finds a nice man to take care of her.  Behold, the 50s: they're trying their best, and they just don't know any better.

This whole genre has this cognitive dissonance between giving women agency and screen time while absolutely undercutting them in unsubtle ways.  The trailer for this movie's 1986 remake includes the hilarious line: "Here they are: the loveliest girls in the history of socially-conscious cinema!"  That kind of sums it up.

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey [season one]
This is Neal deGrasse Tyson's series about modern science, with an emphasis on astrophysics.  It's a reboot of the 1980 Carl Sagan series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.

I'll say one thing above all else: this is the most beautiful CGI I've seen on television, possibly ever.  It's flat-out amazing to see what digital artists can do when they're asked to depict the whole universe, from subatomic particles to the horizon of the observable universe.

As for the content itself, it was maybe half stuff I knew and half stuff I didn't.  I'd seen Frauenhofer lines before, but had no idea they were called "Frauenhofer lines", and even less idea how they'd been discovered.  And this was the general pattern -- I knew the main theories that the show was getting at, but few of the details, and none of the historical background.

Tyson is a good host.  You sense that he's forced to hold back a little, perhaps because he's just one part of this massive big-budget production engine.  (So many marks to hit, so much CGI to interact with.)  He comes across as more measured and calm than his happy, excited persona in The Inexplicable Universe, but the excitement is still there, and still perceptible.

It was depressing that so much of the running time had to be given over to explaining that, no, really, the scientific method is an effective way to discover things.  Yes, I get it: I live in a time and place where, bizarrely, many, many people loathe the idea of looking at the world around us and drawing logical conclusions.  "BUT MY MAGIC BOOK SAYS THE SKY IS GREEN."  Well, yes, you should probably treat that as a metaphor, then.  So there were many parts of Cosmos where my response was a peevish, "Well, *duh*." followed by a sad, "Oh, right.  *That's* why he's arguing for that accepted scientific principle."

I feel sad, though, that a second season seems unlikely.  There are many, many more journeys this show could go on, and many more things I could learn.  Ah well.  I suppose that lingering feeling means that the show achieved its goal after all.

Enlightened [season one] [minor spoilers]
This is the half-hour HBO dramedy about a manager at a pharmaceutical conglomerate who has a breakdown, goes on a new-age retreat, and comes back intent on improving the lives of everyone around her.

This is a damn challenging show to summarize, because, in the end, it's not really concept-driven.  You could argue that it's hardly plot-driven -- plot just kind of happens, slowly, in the background, a clothesline to hang things on.  To my mind, it's really about that moment when you realize that everyone else you've seen has their own lives, their own depth, their own thoughts -- that all the multitudes you feel within yourself are there in every other human being.  I feel like the show is telling the story of Amy trying to fix the company she worked at, yes, but it's doing that in order to depict all the people in Amy's life, all their quirks, and foibles, and deep, perhaps irrevocable pain.

Writer Mike White gets at this kind of obliquely.  The heroine, Amy Jellicoe, is intent on doing good, but is also staggeringly blind to subtlety, to social cues, to basic empathy.  It's like she's the one in this world who most wants to reach out to everyone around her, but who has the least idea who these people are.  And this weird contradiction makes for a lot of awkward comedy.  I won't lie: I did not like the first half of this season.  It's hard to watch.  It hits British-The-Office levels of awkwardness.

But these same awkward conversations, these note-perfect scenes where two people talk completely past each other as Amy blunders into worse and worse faux pas -- the things that Amy can't see are things that are revealed to the audience.  And so, through all this nigh-unwatchable awkwardness, they steadily build up the world of Amy's family, and friends, and coworkers.

And then in episode nine, Mr. White does something unexpected and brilliant.  It's one episode shy of the end of the season.  This is where an actioner would get pieces into place for the thrilling conclusion.  This is where a mystery show would get the detectives just about caught up to the killer.  This is where Joss Whedon would... well, create a huge series finale, since he liked to do that in his penultimate episodes.  In any case, this is where shows drop all this idle exploring and kick into the plot gear.

But Enlightened isn't about the plot.  And in episode nine, when it should be gunning for the finish, it shifts focus completely, and gives us an episode devoted to Helen, Amy's mother.  So far, she's been a supporting character, shrill and judgmental and toxic in her relationship with Amy.  She's just been a sort of wall of adversity.  And now we see everything from Helen's point of view.

Maybe this is just me flashing back to my own mother's declining years, but to me it was a half-hour of relentless heartbreak.  Helen spends her day almost completely alone.  Her one conversation, with an old friend at a supermarket, homes in on her lingering disappointment with Amy, which she tries to put a brave face on.  And it all leads up to a flashback to Amy's father's suicide, in that very house, still always lingering there as a memory.

Again: not related to the plot at all.  Helen is not going to take down the mega-conglomerate.  Helen is on the periphery of the story.  But it's absolutely the culmination of what the show is about.  Watching that episode, I could feel my stomach go into free-fall, realizing that it wasn't just Amy: all of these characters, all the time, were hurting *so much*.  I had seen it, and in a way, not seen it, all along.

And you realize, then, that this is a world that *needs* Amy, however whackadoo her new-age wisdom is, however misinformed her efforts.  It needs someone to do good, but this woman who's signed on for the job is as ill-suited to it as possible.

Oddly, I feel about this season the way I felt about Synecdoche, New York: I'm not sure I completely understood it, and I'm not sure I could ever watch it again, but... what a weight it had.  What a wallop it packed.

It was really something.

The Revolution Was Televised by Alan Sepinwall
This is TV critic Alan Sepinwall's 2012 book about the progression of quality TV dramas over the last fifteen years.  It's a fairly straightforward book: twelve chapters, each one devoted to a different drama, starting in 1997 with Oz and ending in the present day with Breaking Bad.  He gives a straightforward history of each show, supplemented with interviews with most of the showrunners.[1]

So of *course* this book is like candy to me.  Sepinwall is one of the best TV reviewers working, and I'm delighted to fill in the gaps of my knowledge of how, say, The Shield came together or how Friday Night Lights arranged its DirectTV co-broadcasting deal.  And you can probably tell from that sentence whether this is a book you're interested in or not.  For whatever reason, this sort of information fascinates me.

And beyond that, the essays add up to an overall narrative.  Early experiments like emboldened later creators like David Chase.  The Sopranos was partly the result of David Chase looking at Oz and seeing the opportunity to make a different kind of show.  And once The Sopranos had made a big splash, suddenly basic cable saw the opportunity to do "The Sopranos for basic cable".  It's fun to see each show creator run with the ideas that have been introduced before.

Stephen Fry Presents a Selection of Anton Chekhov's Short Stories [audiobook]
This is a short, slight collection -- just a couple of hours total -- of Chekhov short stories read by Stephen Fry, part of a series of 2-CD sets Mr. Fry has narrated.

It's odd.  This collection feels both too small to say anything meaningful about -- just a half-dozen stories, none of them all that long -- and too big to say anything meaningful about.  Anton Chekhov is rightly renowned as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, short-story writer that ever lived.

In this brief glimpse, I saw what I usually see in Chekhov: he always strikes me as having a big heart.

I feel like I move in a society where my value as a person is assessed based on how happy I appear to and how successful I appear to be.  I feel like the fiction in my world reflects that.  But in Chekhov, you see characters who are unhappy, who are unsuccessful, who are stuck in sad ruts, who don't get what they want... and it feels like, to Chekhov, that's okay.  They're still people.  They're still valid.  They're still interesting.  They still merit an affectionate and understanding portrayal.  I've always seen something lovely and affirming in that, in spite of his work's prevailing melancholy.

I feel like many modern short-story writers have run with this to extremes, giving us one sad-sack after another, but without that apparent affection for those people.  These writers show us a character in dire misery so as to be edgy, or to express their own cool cynicism, or to show us what a hip, dangerous, marginalized world they themselves move in.  It's harder-edged -- more wintry than autumnal.

For me the most affecting tale was one of the briefer ones -- "Misery" is a quick character sketch of Iona, a cab driver whose son has just passed away.  He works through the evening.  He tries hard to find someone to talk to about it.  Hardly anything really happens as he goes about his day, but you get the sense that nothing really *has* to happen here.  Iona still earns our attention.  Just being himself on that evening is enough.  It makes one think that, for all of us, it's enough.

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward R. Tufte
Tufte is a renowned figure in the world of data visualization.  Published in the mid-80s, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information was his first book on the subject, and is reputed to be his best.  It feels like a manifesto -- "Here is what is wrong with charts and graphs these days, and here are general rules for fixing them." -- and I could easily see his later books being just refinements on these principles, fleshing them out in greater detail.

The book itself is a really good read.  Tufte explains his ideas clearly, with a snarky, dry sense of humor that makes this rather erudite subject fun.  He has plenty of examples, and the bad examples are even more fun than the good ones, as he shows how poorly-designed newspaper graphics can create a huge, splashy picture with almost no information, and even that meager information getting distorted and misrepresented.

The general ideas are fascinating.  The one I found the most interesting is the one that should, perhaps, seem self-evident: have interesting data in the first place.  Often the best way to make a better graph is to get better data.  And if you're just presenting two numbers, then you're better off scrapping the whole thing and writing the data out as a sentence.  I'd heard so much about how to present information, but nobody had ever made the simple observation that a good graph won't save a boring dataset.

But once you actually have interesting data to present, then the graph (or chart, or what-have-you) doesn't have to *do* anything.  It is just there to provide a window -- as simple a window as possible -- into this fascinating dataset you've collected.  A lot of the other principles in the book proceed from this notion that the graph is *just* there to provide a conduit between the viewer and the data.

For instance, he says that the design shouldn't skew the data.  That makes sense -- we're here to see the *data*, not the weird, funhouse-mirror misrepresentation a bad design brings to the data.  He says that the graph should show the most data with the least ink.  Again, this makes sense.  Your data representation shouldn't add a bunch of useless baubles and gewgaws that distract from the data that the audience is there to see.  Ideally, one item in the graph should represent multiple pieces of data.  For instance, you could have a wind map that shows the wind speed and direction at various locations, with a red/blue gradient showing temperature.  This allows the viewer to explore the dataset in different ways -- where are all the hot winds? are there heavy cold winds in the northwest?  are all nor'easters high-speed?  And so on.

All in all, I don't know how much practical use I can make of this book, but its principles are so straightforward that I imagine they'll stick with me for a long time.  If I ever have to design a graph again, I'll think back on this book.

We3 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely
This is the hardbound version of a three-issue comic about three bionically-enhanced animals that escape from a military installation.

I read this book only a few pages at a time.

Part of this was because of the density of its artwork -- Morrison and Quitely aimed to do some innovative things with the comic-book form in We3 ("let's see the movies try *this*", snarks one Morrison's script notes).  I'm not very conversant with comic books, so I had to read many pages slowly and methodically.

But the main reason I read it slow was that nearly every page of it made me want to cry, and every few pages or so I needed a break from the material, emotionally.  Marathonning We3 is a bad idea for the same reason marathonning Breaking Bad is a bad idea: it's great work, but there's only so much one can take on at a time.  Consider that We3 starts with a "lost dog" poster and then cuts to gruesome animal testing, and you get some notion of what you're in for.

As a lifelong fan of Watership Down, I was on-board for the duration.  The trio of animals escape, and the military hunts them down (so, perhaps more like The Plague Dogs than Watership Down then).  The animals have bionic enhancements that allow them to speak some basic phrases -- simple, uninflected exchanges like "HOME SOON" / "NO HOME" become more powerful for their stark, sad simplicity.

Much has been said of the dazzling fight sequences.  Much has been said of how the comic stays true to the nature of real animals.  (What does a bionically-enhanced cat do in a forest?  Why, use its laser-projectile unit to kill passing birds for fun, of course.)  But mainly I just gave myself over to the story's emotional manipulations, and it was a powerfully affecting ride.

Apparently there have been plans to make a movie out of this.  Apparently those plans have been scuttled into the deepest pits of development hell.  Neither event surprises me.  I can see a development exec gleefully buy up the property based on its logline ("OMG A BIONIC DOG ON THE RUN FROM THE ARMY!") and then abandon ship when he saw what he'd *really* bought ("Oh, it's a relentlessly tragic story about desperate survival and animal cruelty.")

It's a great book.  Someday, I'll prepare myself emotionally and have another go at reading it.

For next week: more reform-school movies, as I prepare for our August rehearsals.  I've started watching the first season of Arrow.  Hopefully I'll start reading Tapworthy (it's about iPhone app design, not dancing).

[1] ... and surprisingly competent swing dancing.  I'm used to seeing atrocious swing dancing in movies.  (Exhibit 1: Swingers.)
[2] ... though apparently neither Joss Whedon nor Matthew Weiner had time to be interviewed.  Ah well.

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