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

Monday (2/8/16) 1:37am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Books:  The Bloody Crown of Conan [audiobook], Coen Brothers -- Virgin Film
Movies:  Intolerable Cruelty
TV:  Galavant [2x01-2x04]

The Bloody Crown of Conan [audiobook]
This is the second of a three-volume set comprising all of Robert E. Howard's stories of Conan the Barbarian.

To paraphrase the Shock T's (and their excellent song "Nobody Really Likes Shakespeare"), I'm convinced that nobody really likes the old pulp adventures, and they just pretend they do.  Or more precisely, people are in love with our *interpretation* of those old stories rather than the stories themselves.  Yes, we all remember the classic scene where the hero is surely doomed -- trapped! surrounded by monsters! and about to be killed by a mad scientist intent on TAKING OVER ZE VORLD! -- except... that scene never happened.  Simply put, the heroes of the pulps always have the upper hand.  You're never on the edge of your seat wondering how the hero can get out of this scrape, because the heroes just win all the time, and the plot is something like a procedural: you watch the hero go from clue to clue, taking down bad guys like they're nothing.

So by and large, you wind up with a lot of stories that are great for providing power fantasies -- and lord knows, if you're a twelve-year-old boy in the midst of the Depression, you can use all the power fantasies you can get -- but not particularly good storytelling.

For me, the interesting thing with Conan is comparing it to that baseline -- seeing how it exemplifies the shoddy, dull storytelling of the pulps, and seeing how it finds ways to transcend it, and make something genuinely entertaining.  Because make no mistake, Conan is an invulnerable hero.  It's a weird paradox that these stories put Conan in impossibly dangerous situations -- he fights a bizarre hell-beast that comes lurching out of a dungeon; he gets crucified in the middle of the desert; he's swimming across shark-infested waters, with no sign of land on any horizon -- but never puts him in danger.  Or more precisely, there's no feeling of danger -- it's more like, "Oh, well here's another baddie for Conan to dispatch" or "Okay, one wildly-improbable escape coming up!"  As I've said before, you're basically just watching a teenage boy play through World of Warcraft with some sort of cheat mode activated.  (Of course, Howard is still worlds better than most of his contemporaries at actually creating those dangerous situations in the first place.)

As I've also noted before, Howard's world-building is fascinating in and of itself.  Often, even if a plot line is lagging or a character seems weakly-drawn and unengaging, the sheer breadth and depth of the world of Hyborea can make for an entertaining read.  And I think Howard here just has a lot more to draw on than most of his contemporaries did.  I know I speak heresy, but I don't think the writers of The Shadow knew a lot about mesermerism.  On the other hand, Howard knows and loves his history books, and he takes every opportunity to feed that into his fiction.  He often chooses not-quite-real-world names -- the "Himaleean" Mountains, the nation of "Afghulistan" -- so the audience immediately twigs to its real-world counterpart.  This made it easier for him to bring his historical knowledge into the story without being crippled by any need for historical accuracy.  And on top of that, Howard has Lovecraft to draw on.  He outgrew his phase of trying to write like Lovecraft, but he always had H. P.'s fantastical bestiary of otherworldly creatures to draw on.

And this "world-size" strength really shines in this second volume, which includes the longest Conan stories, including the novel The Hour of the Dragon.  When Howard hits those really long word counts, the stories don't get *deeper* -- there's nothing here as fascinating as the world of "Red Nails", for example -- so much as *wider*.  In the novel, we get a sort of rambling, episodic story, kind of a Hyborean road trip, which doesn't really build to anything (it could probably have had the episodes listed in any order), but takes us all across this world, giving it a jaw-dropping sense of scale.

And he's still writing stories that are *about* something, which is more than can be said for many of his contemporaries.  These stories from the middle of Howard's Conan run don't play the "civilization versus barbarism" theme nearly as well as the later masterpieces like (again) "Red Nails", but they play with the same idea.  Howard's idealistic ideas about barbarism strike me as laughable -- noble-savage nonsense that's easily proved false by ample evidence -- but it still makes the stories resonant.  It's not just about Conan -- it's about the historical cycles of uplift and decay that he's just one small part of.

In retrospect, I'm sad that I read (= "listened to") the third volume first.  As a result, this second volume feels frustrating, like it's close, but it's not *quite* there yet.  There's no society as fascinating as the residents of the "Red Nails" city of Xuchotil.  There's no tense set of double- and double-double-crosses as in "The Black Stranger".  There's no female character with as much agency as Valeria.  Instead, it feels closer to level-grinding in some good-but-not-great sword-and-sandal MMORPG.  He's got a great world -- now he just needs great stories to tell in it.

Coen Brothers -- Virgin Film by Eddie Robson
This is the "Coen Brothers" entry in the Virgin Film books, a series that discusses the filmographies of various filmmakers.

You come into this expecting something fairly dry.  It has a very simple format: for each film up to its time of publication (2011 -- it ends with Intolerable Cruelty), it lists the cast and crew for the film, some information about how it was put together, a summary of the critical response, and some opining about how it fits into their overall catalog.  It feels like you'll be reading a slightly-tarted-up and overpriced version of wikipedia.

Happily, the book feels like much more than that.  This is partly because the writer has clearly done his research, trawling through every available interview, DVD extra, and deleted scene out there.  And it's partly because the Coens are rather elusive, as filmmakers go -- I mean, they're not mysterious, Salinger-esque hermits, but they make it very clear that they want their work to speak for itself.  You ask the Coens what a film "means", and they'll either lie to you amusingly or helpfully tell you to just watch the damn film.

And best of all, the writer isn't afraid to have opinions of his own.  He doesn't overwhelm the material, but he isn't aiming for a zen-like neutral point of view, either.  He has opinions about the arc of the Coens' careers, and about the critical treatment of their films, and about the strengths and weaknesses of each outing.

Even though this book is very concise, it's very thorough.  I thought I knew a fair amount about the Coens' catalog, but this book gave me a lot of interesting things to think about.  For example, when Fargo was first released, they intended the audience to take its "based on a true story" introduction at face value -- which viewers did, at first -- and this had lots of interesting effects on how the film was written, shot, and acted.  For The Big Lebowski, perennial Coen-score-composer Carter Burwell had an interesting job, writing bits of scoring to perfectly match the collection of pop songs that T. Bone Burnett filled the film with.

It's a good, quick read for anybody interested in the Coen Brothers.

Intolerable Cruelty
This is the Coen Brothers' 2003 romantic comedy about a renowned divorce attorney who falls in love with a perhaps-untrustworthy client.

It's generally acknowledged that the Coens kind of went off the rails with this one.  The Man Who Wasn't There may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it's a riveting, ambitious piece of cinema.  But with Intolerable Cruelty, the Coens made their first sort of shrug of a movie, an inessential bit of fluff that will never be anyone's favorite thing.

The whole thing is shrouded in dislike.  The Coens don't particularly like setting their movies in the present.  Some films occupy a dreamy, cobbled-together past (The Hudsucker Proxy, O Brother Where Art Thou?, Inside Llewyn Davis), and others use a shorter distance of time to view the immediate past from a slight remove (Fargo, The Big Lebowski).  In one of their (few) interviews, they talk about how, when depicting the present, it's hard to do much besides just, well, *depict* it.  You fall into just re-creating mundane reality, without much of an attitude towards the material.  The 'contemporary' Coen films that work (Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Burn After Reading) seem to work extra-hard to give their settings a bit more 'snap', something more engaging than "Yup, this is a house.  It looks like what a house looks like."

And the Coens just don't seem to get any joy out of doing a straight-up romantic comedy.  They try to amuse themselves with diversions from the main plot, but there's generally a feeling of "welp, we committed to doing this genre, we might as well slog through all of the story beats".  And that lack-of-joy washes over the characters.  Even in the bleakest Coen films, you sense that they empathize with most of their characters, and the incomprehensible monsters (e.g., Anton Cirugh) they at least find interesting.  But without that fascination or warmth, their characters just feel mannered and distant and mean.  And it adds a whole new problematic layer when that antipathy turns the subtext of the movie into "women are kuh-razy gold-diggers, amirite?"

It's like the genre conventions strip them of their whimsy -- they're no longer willing to go on idle, Mike-Yanagita-like tangents, or take Burn After Reading-style twists and turns.  Nope, they have to follow the general shape of a romantic comedy, because that's what it says on the tin.  And yet that genre doesn't pay off any rewards, either.  There's no sense of "thank *god*, we're doing a romcom, so we can finally do a classic meet-cute scene!" or "I *love* that we'll get to set up a crazy misunderstanding that keeps them apart!" or "What pop songs can we use to score this?"

It's a shame, because the performers are all game.  It's a damn shame this is the only appearance by Geoffrey Rush in a Coen Brothers film (see also: Nicolas Cage); George Clooney turns in another of those loopy performances that you can only get from a leading man with Batman and Robin money who is doing whatever he waaants, man; even Catherine Zeta-Jones does the best she can with her muddle of a character.

In the end, the most frustrating thing is that I can't quite pinpoint what's missing here.  You sense that there's one ingredient, one defining, Coen-esque quality that got taken out and, like it was a precisely-removed load-bearing Jenga block, left the rest of the movie an unsalvageable mess.  There's some engagement, some tension, some push-pull of warm empathy and wry detachment that's missing here.  You're left with pretty people marching through an old formula.  It ends with a character hosting a reality show, and the scene makes it glaringly obvious that the filmmakers neither watch nor enjoy reality shows one bit.

Kind of the whole thing in a microcosm there, I suppose.

Galavant [2x01-2x04]
This is the improbable second season of the ABC fantasy musical comedy.

Any discussion of Galavant has to begin with this question: how is this show still on?  In the first season, we were asking "How does this show even exist?", and now it's somehow stumbled into a second season.  Every minute you watch Galavant, you find yourself wondering if this is some sort of fever dream, and when you wake up and tell your friend you were dreaming about a "fantasy musical comedy" on a major network, you'll realize that was a red flag indicating "nothing you are experience is actually happening, or could possibly happen."

But here the show is, and it's moving into its second season.

And so far, I'm impressed.  I wouldn't say it's a great show, but it's a show that's learning over time, and improving thereby.  Yes, they're still doing ham-handed anachronism, but they're doing it a little more deftly -- creating a gay bar called "The Enchanted Forest" provides a lot more fun than just naming a knight "Jean Hamm" and kind of calling it a day.  But they've also developed their characters to a point that they can do more character-based humor.  They're at a point now where watching Isabella's parents, or Gareth, or (of course) King Richards just be themselves is rich comic fodder, and they lean into that appropriately.

Also, they've reshuffled the cast, and that has yielded a lot of dividends.  Before, the show had a kind of "A cast" of really engaging characters in the castle, and then a "B cast" of rather less engaging characters on the road.  Now we have three groups.  Galavant and King Richard are in a sort of road movie, which is great -- King Richard is an amazing character, the jewel of the series, and Joshua Sasse now gets to play the straight man, which is well within his abilities.[1]  When his comic excesses as a vain, self-righteous knight were supposed to carry the "B cast," that worked less well.  Meanwhile, Gareth, Magdalena, and (somehow) Sid are at the castle, and while none of them have been the breakout stars of the show, Gareth and Magdalena play off of each other very nicely.  Finally, Vincenzo (the chef) and Gwynne (the maid) are Hortensia with Isabella and her parents, and they show wisely leans into the adorable relationship of the former two.  And I actually like their decision to hypnotize Isabella into a marriage-crazed bride-to-be.  It's perhaps not great from a feminist perspective, but it gives Karen David material that she can play ably.

And the music is still remarkably good, given the adverse circumstances of TV production.  Sure, Menken and Slater haven't written anything as earwormingly hummable as the main theme, but they're making perfectly serviceable numbers every week, and they're doing a better job of fitting the songs into the story.  There's less of a feeling of "welp, guess it's time for another song now" -- the songs emerge more sensibly from the stories, this time around.

And even if it isn't a great show, it's still a very good one, and a fantasy musical comedy is absolutely in my wheelhouse.  So I'm inclined to enjoy its strengths far more than nitpick its weaknesses, follow it through the rest of season two, and hope for an even-less-probable renewal.

For next week: I'm watching season 5 of Good Eats and season 2 of Last Week Tonight while exercising.  I'm listening to an audiocourse about conflict-management and reading a book about directing.  Next week, I'll catch up on writing about Sense and Sensibility, The Ladykillers, and No Country for Old Men.

[1] I'm happy that they've introduced Roberta as King Richard's love interest -- I just wish they give her a little more dimension and agency beyond just being "Richard's love interest".  There are some promising signs there, but nobody ever went broke betting on TV being sexist and stupid.[1b]
[1b] Presumably because one can't even conceive of a situation where a bookie would really take bets on something so subjective, unquantifiable, and of limited interest to a nerdy in-group... but you get the idea.

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Mood: [mood icon] contemplative · Music: none
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