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

Friday (8/22/14) 2:51am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  Girl Gang (1954), Guardians of the Galaxy
TV:  <none>
Books:  Envisioning Information

Girl Gang (1954)
This is a 1950s exploitation movie about a sleazy gangster who lures in innocent teenage girls, gets them hooked on drugs, and has them commit crimes for him.

This is bad, but it's bad in a different way than last week's Reform School Girls.  The 1980s movie was awesomely over-the-top.  This one, on the other hand, is so cheap and clumsy that it's actually kind of cute.

It's a perfect example of 50s exploitation movies.  Back then, these films existed nominally to warn young people about the dangers of whatever was causing alarm that year -- marijuana, sex, fast cars -- but obviously they're there to titillate their very repressed audience by depicting these fun, forbidden experiences.  (Though let's be honest: they probably mainly existed to provide background noise for teenage couples making at at the drive-in.)

The movie is as cheaply cranked-out and cliché as most early exploitation flicks. 

I was surprised at how much of the movie was dead silent -- and not, say, the deliberate silence of somebody walking into the spooky basement in a horror movie, or the silences associated with vérité-style films.  This was more like, "Oops, we couldn't afford more than twenty minutes of scoring."[1]

It goes hand in hand with the incredibly slow pace of TV and film back then.  Modern film does a lot of shortcutting -- if I'm in a movie, and I say, "Y'know what?  I'll give Dan a call," then the next scene would likely start with Dan on the phone, talking to me, mid-conversation.  This was not always so.  Back in the day, we would show: (1) me crossing the room to the telephone, (2) me dialing the phone, (3) Dan picking up the phone, (4) an exchange of phone pleasantries, and *then* (5) we catch up to the modern-day cut.  TV and film patiently held your hand, showing you exactly how people got from point A to point B, and not taxing you too much to constuct the points in between.

This wasn't always a bad thing.  In a forties private-eye movie, a scene where the P. I. slowly saunters up to the rich mogul's mansion could be a fabulous, stylish way to really plant us in the setting.  In Girl Gang, though, it leads to long lulls where characters slowly ascend a staircase, or slowly approach a building, or slowly dial a rotary phone, all in dead silence.

Plot-wise, not a lot happens.  We see some random scenes of kids being lured into a world of sin.  A clean-scrubbed couple is shown the wonders of (*gasp*) reefer.  Some girls steal a car.  And in one odd case, we're treated to three or four minutes of a crowd of youths listening to boogie-woogie piano.  Then a bunch of them swing-dance -- surprisingly well, since this was made in the early 50s -- and one couple gets high and goes to a back room to make out.[2]

Interspersed with this is a lot of heroin usage.

That really threw me.  I suppose to contemporaries, heroin was just a slightly stronger drug than marijuana.  And they clearly thought, as some benighted souls still do think, that marijuana was a 'gateway drug' to herion usage.  But to my sensibilities, pot is the drug of The Big Lebowski, while heroin is the drug of Trainspotting and Requiem for a Dream.  Heroin scares the shit out of me, both because of how addictive it is and how many people it kills.  So I'm watching this innocuous, amusing film about the spooooky dangers of reefer, ha-ha-ha, and suddenly I'm watching, in detail, Joe guiding June through shooting up for the first time, and I want to hide under my couch.  It creeps me out, both because heroin creeps me out, and the implied attitude towards heroin -- that it's basically just marijuana-plus -- *really* creeps me out.

There were a few other odd bits and pieces.  Apparently the objective of kissing in this universe is to go from "zero" to "maximum forward lip-pressure" as quickly as possible.  At the end, when the cops inevitably crack down on the gang[3]  The cops actually gun down a fleeing, unarmed suspect, which is, I suppose, tragically credible.  And apparently the boogeyman of false rape accusations was a thing back then, too.

So mostly this was just a cute attempt at a movie that endlessly depicted/condemned all the harmless things that 1950s squares were afraid of.  But still, there are elements throughout that hint that something was very, very wrong with American society back then.

Guardians of the Galaxy
This is the latest Marvel Cinematic Universe movie, a space opera about an abducted human who teams up with a group of misfits to keep a warlord from conquering the galaxy.

Let's just get this out of the way: yes, I liked the movie.  No, I didn't like the movie as much as you did.

But I am ecstatic that this movie exists and is succeeding.  Everything about this feels like it was done on a dare.  "Yes, we're going to take one of the more obscure intellectual property out of the vaults and make a tentpole movie out of it.  It'll star a supporting actor from a quirky, medium-rated sitcom.  And for the most part, it'll be breezy and fun."  On paper, that movie should fail.  Or more precisely, any movie executive anywhere would shout, terrified, that that movie will fail.

And we've seen movie after movie after movie after movie that just feels so goddamned *safe* that it crosses the line into insecurity.  "No, no, don't worry, this is a property you've seen before, okay?  Yeah.  It's just a re-imagining of that Spider-Man movie you saw three years ago.  Don't worry.  It's fine.  And hey, don't worry, it's *so*, so grimdark.  So nobody will make fun of us for telling a story about superheroes, right?  No, every frame will emphasize just how seriously we're taking this, and how dark and intense everything is.  And we've got one complete unknown surrounded by name actors that you recognize from everything else.  So don't worry.  This is safe, right?  This is okay, right?  Right?  LOVE ME WAAAAAH PLEASE LOVE ME"  Eventually, you go see a movie like that, and it's like you haven't seen a movie at all -- instead, you've just been reassured for two hours.

So yes, I love watching Guardians of the Galaxy crash into the summer box office like the Kool-Aid Man and shout, "FUCK THAT NOISE HERE'S A RACCOON WITH A MACHINE GUN".  Yes, a movie can take some chances.  Yes, a movie can show us characters we haven't seen before.  Yes, a movie can actually enjoy being a *movie* for a change, instead of dithering and whining that being a superhero is haaaaard.

And honestly, in the grand scheme of things, that matters more to me than whether I even liked the movie or not.  I'll often prefer a movie that fails at something admirably over a movie that succeeds at something dull, and Guardians hardly fails.

But still, I can nitpick its world-building.  Look, we all know that this film is trying to evoke Star Wars -- or more specifically, it's trying to draw on that whole movement of breezy 70s space operas that Star Wars kicked off.  It's there in the soundtrack.  It's there in the title design.  It's there in the tone.  Clearly, six-year-old James Gunn saw Star Wars when it came out.  Clearly, he loves that and wants to bring it to the screen -- and that's great.  Like I implied above, this is a tone we've needed onscreen for a long, long time.[4]

But honestly, it makes me wish that this movie shared the Star Wars attitude towards world-building.  As I've said before, what impresses me most about A New Hope is how expansive the world feels -- it feels like we're just seeing one little sliver of a much broader universe.  To me, Guardians of the Galaxy didn't feel like it extended one pixel beyond what I was seeing onscreen.

Why is that?

I think part of it has to do with practical effects versus CGI.  When you use more practicals -- even when you use models -- yes, there's a danger that it will look hokey, but it will feel more lived-in and real.  If you build a 'droid' out of old repurposed vacuum-cleaner parts and send it doddering around the soundstage, you can hit a sweet spot, where it looks just real enough to be part of that world, but in no way like it's supposed to look cool.  It's just a normal, natural part of the everyday things you would see there.

But mainly, Star Wars profligate with references to things outside the story universe.  They allude to the Clone Wars.  The Clone Wars have nothing at all to do with the current story.  They're just there, a thing that exists outside the narrative, and which expands the scope of the universe.  The cantina scene introduces a whole array of quirky aliens, all up to their own business.  We learn nothing of them in the film.  And on and on it goes, never drawing attention to the practice, and never stalling out the film to Deliver Exposition, but still relentlessly throwing out these tendrils, expanding the world to include useless, wonderful things.

Guardians, on the other hand, is quietly efficient, the way modern movies are.  It's like it expanded Chekhov's advice to "never introduce a gun that you never fire" to "never introduce any fact anywhere ever that isn't directly necessary for a later plot development".  Normally, this is the sort of elegance that I have respect for -- if I watch an improv show with no dropped offers, I'm a happy camper -- but here, it just makes the world feel small.  I saw so many places, and saw so many characters, and yet I know nobody will be talking about the Guardians-verse.  In my mind, that universe doesn't exist on its own -- it's only the minimum sufficient scaffolding for the story they set out to tell.

As far as I could tell, Knowhere[5] was the only "useless" exposition we got -- a quick voiceover about how it was the head of some Galactus-like spacefaring alien.  Even then, it's not casually tossed-off like the Clone Wars.  No, it's framed very specifically as "now we're delivering exposition", as the voiceover is matched to explanatory visuals.

And, continuing the Star Wars comparisons, I felt like I got caught up in political exposition analogous to the trade-federation nonsense at the start of The Phantom Menace.  Okay, so there's a peace treaty, and there's the blue guy, and he's trying to outflank the guy on the asteroid, and then there's the daughter, and the adopted daughter, and they both betray the father for... reasons? or something?  It feels like it's afflicted by the post-2000 tentpole movie problem, where the filmmakers feel like they have to gin up more plot, as if anybody ever walked away from an action-adventure movie saying "I liked it, but the plot was too clear and simple."

So I was always a little detached from it, and never quite *feeling* the movie as much as Mr. Gunn wanted me to.[6]

But still, any film that opens with a space thief dancing through a planetary ruin, lip-syncing to "Come and Get Your Love" -- that film is going to be fun.  And it is a lot of fun.  So many of its jokes hit.  It gets so much mileage out of just letting Chris Pratt use his own comic persona.  It has so much fun sending up space-opera tropes just enough to be hilarious, but not so much that it undercuts the film.  It even lets the stuffy "Alliance" types have a good time, with John C. Reilly being hilarious just by taking the whole situation perfectly seriously.  Really, only the villains didn't get the memo that this was a light mimosa of a film, and their bland intensity (taking no pleasure in being bad) doesn't drag things down too much.

Basically, the movie bets everything on coming up with a winning set of hero characters.  If the central five are boring, the movie fails.  But if they're engaging and fun, then we'll follow them anywhere.  If they are caught up in a convoluted plot, that's fine, we'll just tune that out.  If they face off against glum, one-note villains, that's fine, we'll concentrate on the heroes.  If the world they're in seems small, that's fine, we're not really looking at the margins anyway.

But these are just good characters.  Yes, Gamora is a "strong woman" cliché, but the part is written and played nicely.  Quill is basically Chris Pratt in space[7], and that's great.  Groot and Rocket are instantly beloved by fandom.  Even when the photorealism is a bit iffy on the CGI, it just doesn't matter.  They are expressive characters.  If you can put a soul in their eyes, who cares about some shader being a bit wonky?[8]  And even Drax, with his "taking all metaphors literally" gimmick, was perfectly engaging, given that one main note to play.[9]

So again: I liked it.  I didn't like it as much as you liked it.  But I'm so glad it exists, and I'm so happy they're making another one.

Envisioning Information by Edward Tufte
This was Tufte's follow-up to The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.  The original has become a bible of sorts for modern-day data-visualization.  This follow-up expands on some of his ideas.

I don't have much to say about this follow-up.  It's interesting.  It's not as interesting as the first book.  The first book has exquisitely simple but mind-blowing bombshells like "the best way to make an interesting visualization is to have interesting data in the first place."  (So simple, in retrospect!)  This one feels more like it's just dotting the i's and crossing the t's.  It has some interesting things to say about the use of color in visualizations, and its concept of "data layering" -- arranging a visualization so that the broad strokes leap out at you first, and then you can peer at it more closely for finer details -- seems like an admirable goal to aim for.  And he uses a wonderful variety of graphs, maps, and charts to exemplify his points.

But all of that said, a few days after finishing the book, not much has stuck with me.

For next week: more reform-school movies, as I prepare for the Wayward Girls show, the rest of season one of Arrow, and I might finish Tapworthy (it's about iPhone app design, not dancing).  I'm also listening to an audiocourse from The Teaching Company.

[1] And the silence was often weirdly inconsistent.  Presumably they weren't too concerned with recording room tone, so the scene would flip from (say) a two-shot to an insert shot, and suddenly there would be a weird buzzing in the soundtrack.
[2] I'm sorry, but those kids are guilty of nothing but BEING ADORABLE.
[3] This is right after the expository dialog about exactly how evil the gang is, and how we should avoid behaviors like that.
... not least in the Star Wars prequels.
[5] My thought at the time: "Wait, how does that pun also work in... whatever pan-galactic language they're all speaking?"
[6] Still, gotta give him points for trying.  Watch a Michael Bay film, and it's like he's terrified you'll have any emotion besides a vaguely-smug, swagger-y feeling.
[7] Complete with a few millennial-neologism missteps.
[8] I especially liked giving Rocket a drunken monolog about how deeply, deeply messed-up he feels about his provenance.  Without that sympathetic side and depth, he could have turned into a repellent, Dennis-Miller-like sarcasm factory.
[9] Although dear god, did the "whore" line *really* need to stay in there?  Talk about yanking me right out of the movie....

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