Monday, July 29, 2013

Kane, Alone.

Many films come and go, and many have, as of late, made their way to HD and Blu-Ray.  Yet one film stands above them all--and not just because I say so.  Most cinephines agree (and I would go so far as to say that contrarians are as shoeless rubes standing before the statue of David saying, "He's got his biz-ness out!").

Citizen Kane.  The greatest film ever made.

Its remastering and ascension to the highest home cinema quality is befitting indeed for its 70th anniversary, along with the requisite bonus inclusions of PBS' The Battle Over Citizen Kane and the minor masterpiece of historical fiction, RKO 281.  To watch Kane (along with those bonus films, and the two commentary tracks by Peter Bogdanovich and Roger Ebert) is to know all of cinema.  It is the zenith that all afterwards have tried to climb.

How then does it fit into the question of the week--an actor's body of work?  It is simple: only one actor could convincingly play a character from 24 to 80, all while being 24.  Naturally, I speak of Orson Welles, whose all other films combined do not add up to his acting, directing, producing, writing, and overall micromanagement of this film.  In short, some actors require 10 films for greatness (Daniel Day-Lewis comes to mind as having a nearly flawless resume); yet Welles achieves--if not surpasses that greatness on the strength of Kane alone.  His other acting endeavors merely add to the greatness with varying degrees of success. 

Great art appears static (take note, Mr. Lucas), yet grows with the viewer.  This has been my experience with Citizen Kane, and cause to watch it yearly, as it reveals new things in myself.  Indeed, I wonder what the HD viewing will reveal.  To be clear, there are no changes to this latest release in the film (aside from some readjustments returning the film to its intended clarity--in Berstein's office, for example, the rain has returned!)  Rather, I wonder if seeing the film with extra sharpness will yield any further reflections. Yet it really isn't about the picture; it's the story.

Ultimately Kane is an haute couture funhouse mirror: the mangled, charismatic, enigmatic, loveless, lovelorn Charles Foster Kane is us--his life is all that we aspire to be... at times, anyway.  His fate, his regrets are what is reflected back in that mirror, leaving us to question if it is us, or will be us, at all.

And thus, in considering a body of work, it is as it was in the film.  It is as it should be: Kane, alone.

Monday, July 22, 2013

LOST In the Long Form

A few years ago, a pal helped me out; I was in a bind and needed someone to read an episode summary for my podcast Looking Back At Lost, and he helped me out.  He didn't watch Lost, and as I sent off the text of the summary, I wondered what it must be like to suddenly read about flashbacks and the hatch and tailies and Mr. Eko and computers and buttons and timers with 108 minutes.  As can hear (either here or here), he did a great job.  (Sure, at one moment of frustration with all the plot particulars, he cursed and denounced the show... but hey.)

However, as I prepared next week's podcast for "Everyone Hates Hugo," I was struck by how serialized television is absolutely remarkable.  Had JPR, or any other Lost newbie watched it, the episode would have been coherent enough.  (Indeed, I was irked that the script included plain-jane exposition moments like "So that hatch has a button that needs pushing every 108 minutes?" Such dialogue is there to be kind to new viewers.)

It's the ending that would go over the head of any new viewer--perhaps the best ending of any Lost episode, save the finale.  It's the ending that speaks to a pure, elemental truth while holding up a mirror to ugly corners of the audience's mind.

Lost had 121 episodes, but into the very first one, about 20 minutes in, we are introduced to the character of Rose.  On the plane, she's a mildly nervous flyer, concerned about her husband who has gone to use the bathroom towards the tail.  After the crash, she is inward, serene, and calm.  She says, in the course of the two hour first episode, that she isn't mourning the loss of her husband because he isn't dead.  She is told that she is being unrealistic, that she is in shock.  Now, even if you haven't watched a minute of Lost, you can probably guess the obvious authorial twist: her husband, Bernard, indeed is not dead.

But in the magnificence of the long form of television, we could only predict that, and only while juggling more prominent story elements, both mysterious and up-front.  This long form of television is something that, I fear, gets missed out on when one suddenly has an entire show available to them, be it on DVD, Blu-Ray, or online.  With any dramatic presentation, time must go on in between the episodes.  It's something that the British, with their under-funded television system, miss out on.  Oh, they're so impressed with six consectutive weeks of 30 minute episodes of The Office! That's a blink of an eye, and why the American version was able to slowly, savoringly brew the bond between Pam and Jim.

The effect is doubled, almost literally, with an American network drama like Lost, with 20+ episodes per season (for its first three seasons, anyway).  To have Rose stubbornly declare that her husband isn't dead in September is character shading; for her to repeat it again in the winter of our viewing is keeping up with a recurring "guest" character.  To then return to it a full year after she first looked back on the plane, hoping her husband would return to his seat soon is masterful.

And so that masterful moment, incubated for a year in original-viewing time, or at the very least matured across 25 or so episodes, was brought to fruition.  Some of our main castatways had been on a raft, and ultimately washed ashore on another part of the island, found by mysterious folks. For an episode or two the show teased us, but we were told that those folks were from the tail section.  At that point, naturally, it was only a matter of time before Bernard, Rose's husband, stepped to the forefront.

Yet the show went one step further: not only speaking to the bonds of love, but shaming the audience in the process.  The small contingent of those on the raft, with some of the tail section folks, go back to the meager home base of the latter.

A white man approaches our castaways.  He asks, "Back where you guys, uh, where you came from -- is there a woman named Rose there?"

The hushed response from one of our heroes: "Black chick in her 50's?"

The white man asks, his voice hushed, "Is she okay?" He's told that she is alive and well.  He thanks them, adding, "I'm--I'm Bernard."

To have seen this love from afar develop over a year's worth of episodes is one of the great feats of television; for us to realize, with our meager views, that we always imagined Rose's husband to be a black man shames us and reminds us about the basic, human messages that can be contained by the long form of television.

Monday, July 15, 2013

What's That Smell?

I would propose that there is little honor in getting your ass kicked.  Sure, there are some great fighters out there (Ali, Lion-O, The Rock), but I'm sure Sun Tzu has some sort of Art of War quote about either manning up and having an equal-to-better chance against your opponent, or changing the parameters in order to have an equal-to-better chance against your opponent... or just giving up.  Therefore, I propose that if I'm getting my ass kicked, there is only really one honorable person to do it to me.


And I don't mean that in some sort of nambsy-pambsy metaphor, as in "Oh, I wasn't as emotionally ravaged in life as Ana Lucia so when I had to fistfight her I didn't give it my all, therefore I beat myself." I mean getting an ass kicking myself by myself in the only way worth doing it.  Dissociative personality disorder expressing itself in a parking lot.  Sound familiar?  It's from the cinematic anthem to mediocrity and consumerism of my generation.

Fight Club.  Fucking Fight Club.

I am Jack's sense of self-loathing.  Oh, and Jack is you.
If I'm going to suffer the indignity of an ass kicking, why not go all out?  Why not just go stark raving mad--have a complete break from reality, start living in an abandoned house, and fuck up the world?  Tyler Durden is an expression of rage against everything: society, belongings, how we relate with others, and how we feel about ourselves.  He represents a fresh, clean start.  No stretch, of course, that he sells soap.

Yet even in that, there's a bit of self-loathing appropriate for the notion of me kicking my ass.  Tyler "dies," and that genie is put back into the bottle.  Indeed, as he passes on, or disappears, or recedes as the Narrator's mind heals (hey, newsflash: the Narrator isn't named, because he's the audience), Tyler almost notices his own corrupt self for the first time.  "What's that smell?" he asks, fading away.

So maybe there is no honor in it.  Or maybe the honor is that once  Tyler Durden kicks your ass, it's only a matter of time before you kick his ass back.

The irony being that you're only beating yourself up.

Monday, July 8, 2013

So Good I Have to Stop

Beware of spoilers.

I think that my geek story starts with my uncle.  He was the one who had the whole family watch the first episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation shortly after it aired; thus was born my pattern wherein I'd become a rabid fan of something, moving to live, eat, and breathe it.  Trek was at the top of the list for the Next Gen years, Superman's been there with Lois and Clark as well as Smallville.  For each of them there was that nerdish dedication: I've met a few Trek actors, I saw Terry Hatcher (from afar) on her way to film as Lois Lane, and so forth.

Perhaps entering my twenties brought some sense of maturation, to leave that maddening thirst behind.  Perhaps the shows themselves changed (I did, after all, slowly abandon Trek before finding it again and making my way through seeing all I had missed via Netflix).

There was, however, one show in my twenties that was worthy of such adulation.  In my more mature mindest, though, I've found it so good I had to stop.

It was December 2003 when I recorded the first part of the new Battlestar Galactica miniseries.  I'm not quite sure how I found it, or what drew me to it.  But somehow it was on my radar (or dradis, for you BSG fans) and I watched it.  It was what few science fiction shows--indeed, few dramatic presentations--had the courage to be: daring, unapologetic, deliciously dark, terribly brooding.  I loved it and the second part which aired soon thereafter.  I waited with baited breath for SciFi to pick up the series, as indeed it did.  Filming commenced in the summer... with the show proper to start airing in December 2004.

The first season was, and remains, wonderful.  It was a bit of a shock at first how serialized they are with the show, but that indeed was also boldly going where Trek could not (indeed, in my Trek rewatch I've been aghast to read about particular episodes where characterization was knocked down since Gene Roddenberry felt "that sort of thing" (usually romance, or lust, or anger) wouldn't be a factor in the 24th Century.  (Pity the writers who had to remove romance, lust, and anger out of their literary toolboxes.))  At any rate, the first season ended with a shocking cliffhanger--the very sort of ending that made you wonder if they truly can come back from it.  (Hint: they did.)

The notion of "so good I had to stop" came in the second season.  Due to a VCR error, the Friday night airing of an episode was not recorded.  I didn't discover it until over a week later, when its reruns were over.

(I'll pause with a bit of a history lesson for our younger readers.  You probably have seen VCRs at school, so you understand that part.  But back in 2004, there were few realistic options if you had missed a TV episode.  Illegal sources online surely existed, but the combination of high speed internet and having a computer capable of adequately playing such video wasn't the norm.  Similarly, iTunes didn't start selling some TV shows until October 2005, let alone have most series as is assumed today.)

So there I was, having missed an episode with no recourse.  Sure, I could have picked things up with the next episode... but that wasn't how I wanted to watch Battlestar.  It was so good that I had to stop.  And wait.  Wait for that episode.

At that point, I must admit I did fall out of the BSG habit.  Other things occurred--graduating college, looking for and finding a job, meeting my future wife.  Life happened, but always in the back of my mind I was waiting for the right time to return to BSG.

When Netflix announced last fall that BSG (and, I suppose, other shows) would be available in the latest streaming deal, I was absolutely elated--to the point that I raced home the afternoon it came out and watched the first episode of the first season.  That weekend, I voraciously consumed the entire first season.  Should I be proud or ashamed to have watched 13 hours of TV in three days?  I slowed myself to an appropriate speed--but still a fast one nonetheless.

Luckily the show had a built in way to slow me down even more, for each season (or mid-season) cliffhanger is so good that I've had to stop for a bit.  The episode "Pegasus," with the revelation that off-camera a baddie Cylon woman has been captured and repeatedly beaten, tortured, and gang raped into a non-verbal, non-responsive state is something that left me so troubled that I probably will never watch the episode again.  "Lay Down Your Burdens, Part 2" has that same victim killing herself by detonating a nuclear bomb... and coincidentally leads to her Cylon brethren finding the human's interim home and occupying it.  "Crossroads, Part 2" kicks viewers in the gut by revealing that four beloved (well, some of them anyway) characters are Cylons, and does so by having one of the most extended mindscrews I've ever seen.  Said the joker to the thief, so they say.

Similarly, I'm back at not watching again, because it's so good.  Last night, in bed, I watched "Revelations," which is the mid-season cliffhanger for season four.  After having watched BSG since 2003, I have 11 episodes left.  But I won't watch it tonight, or for a few days.  The ending of the episode--where, rather shockingly, they find Earth--started out to be a happy moment, albeit a confusing one.  Since the miniseries, finding Earth had been The Goal.  Now, with 11 episode left, they find it?  Where could the show go?

The closing minutes of "Revelations," with no dialogue and little music, show the main cast and the key guest starts standing on a cold, gray, Earth beach.  They all look either grim or upset.  The camera, in a long, uncut tracking shot, shows the wreckage of a building.  And another.  And another.  And crumbling, destroyed buildings in the distance.  As a demolished bridge comes into view, the scene cuts to black.

Last night, I had dreams of finding disappointing things... all due to this most wonderful of television programs. 
They can't get no relief.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

George Takei, American.

Americans at Tule Lake Internment Camp
There I was, I jaunty lad of 14, living in the roaring, golden 1990s.  It was a special time to be alive, for it was the golden age of Star Trek.  Classic Trek movies were in recent memory, two Trek series had been on TV--concurrently, Pocket Books churned out endless Trek paperbacks.  I ate it all up: the litany of Trek Halloween costumes (lieutenant commander in engineering gold, captain's rank in suitable red), the awful SNES game, posters, you name it.  Indeed, as that jaunty lad of 14, I was making my way through "the autobiographies," starting with Shatner's Star Trek Memories and it's smartly-titled sequel Star Trek Movie Memories.
Boy, times were great!  Then I got the latest Trek thing I felt I had to buy:  To the Stars: The Autobiography of George Takei, Star Trek's Mr. Sulu.  Boy, I said, this will be great!  I'll get to hear all those stories that Shatner told about making Trek... but now I'll get to hear the Sulu guy tell them!

As it turns out, everyone should read To the Stars, not for amusing Star Trek anecdotes, but because of the truth of Takei's early life.

You see, my father is a history buff, and for anyone born in the middle chunk of the Twentieth Century, as he was, "the" historical event was World War II.  The great thing about World War II anecdotes is that if you're American, you always come out on top!  Reluctant to enter "Europe's" war?  Pearl Harbor... got to get revenge!  Germany claims our commerce-driven factories will only create fat-cat Cadillac? Those factories spit out the P-51 Mustang--known (after the fact) as the Cadillac of the sky!  Yes, in my early life, there was nothing like a good ole World War II story that showed the good ole US of A.

Which is contrasted--shamefully, horribly--by Takei's early life.  The beginning is the stuff of home-baked apple pie: born in Los Angeles, named for the British George VI (crowned in 1937, the year Takei was born), went to public school.  However, in 1942, the Takei family and thousands of other American citizens of Japanese origin living on the west coast were forcibly removed from their homes and put into prison camps guarded by the US Army.  The crime these families committed: looking Japanese.  Speaking Japanese.  Being Japanese.  It was enough to assume they might collaborate with the Empire of Japan during the war.

Learning this fact horrified me.  Do the math: George Takei was a kindergartener and was put in prison with his family.  Their prison varied, from horse stables at a racetrack, to a 10 foot by 10 foot shack with a dirt floor.  Always there were guards with guns that pointed inside the internment camps--guns held by American solders keeping a wary eye on American citizens.  Training the sights on American kindergarteners.

The internment of Japanese-Americans ended in 1945, and George Takei has gone on to international fame and iconography, fortune, ventures into politics, and has enjoyed the full liberties of America, including marriage.  That he has so heartily embraced that most American of things--Hollywood, and that his career has spanned over half a century is remarkable.  It is even the more amazing that he has come so far from an environment that made such clearly unconstitutional imprisonment an acceptable thing.

I prefer too the truth of it, the fact that the bold, shining Uncle Sam of World War II is brought a bit down to earth due to his sins in the greater good.  It keeps us grounded, even as we look to the stars.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Without a Clu

The ubiquity of special effects as a digital tool is such nowadays that we almost take it for granted.  Digital effects are relatively cheap, user-friendly, and accessible: ask Freddie Wong, who had dreams of getting into the movie business, but now makes a living making short, special-effects-laden mini-movies on YouTube. Thus it is rather stunning to think of a film which was under-appreciated for its time: Tron.  In fact, it is downright eye-popping that it was under-appreciated in two ways.

First, the notion of computer-generated special effects was literally inconceivable to mainstream Hollywood.  Indeed, I am not using the word "literally" in a figurative sense, as many knuckle-draggers are wont to do: the film was not nominated for a best special effects Oscar due to computer use being looked upon as cheating.  Though computer effects advances throughout the 1980s exist with notable guideposts, the general starting point for the modern use of CGI seems to be Jurassic Park, which was released in 1993 (and it is worth mentioning that Spielberg started preproduction on the film with the full intention of using go motion for the film).  Thus it is astonishing to think that Tron, released a whopping 11 years previous would be so far ahead of its time--and indeed to receive damnation by no praise from a Hollywood effects industry that was entering its final decade.

Second, Tron foresaw a degree of human/computer integration that seemed not analogous, but fantastic in the classical sense of the word.  Now, to be clear, I am not claiming that the basic premise of the film (our computers have little humanoid electronic chaps who carry out functions as part of their daily labors) is, or likely ever will be, the case.  But rather, if one looks at the film as a metaphor, have we not become "sucked in" to our computers?  People sit at them, typing away like mindless automatons (indeed, sometimes we mindlessly type away about how we mindlessly type away...); people stare into the screens to find romantic encounters or sexual release; people become entrenched in never-ending games: people increasingly live their lives in computers.  Tron foretells this world of being pulled into a computer, not only for the "computer geek," but for most of us.  Indeed, the idea that one isn't on Facebook arouses mild suspicion; the idea that one doesn't have an email is looked at as being low class.

In conclusion, I must admit that the film itself isn't really that compelling as either entertainment or for though provocation.  Nonetheless, the vision that it had, both in terms of its production and message, is absolutely astonishing--and it paid a price for being ahead of its time.