Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Raincoat Chic

You should never underestimate the shabby lieutenant with the glass eye. That's what I've gleaned so far from watching the two pilot episodes of Columbo. The first, from 1968, is better written but has lower production values while the second, from 1971, has better production values and isn't as well written. Both were directed by Richard Irving and written by Richard Levinson and William Link, both are entertaining, the second one is slightly better.

The first one is about a psychiatrist (Gene Barry) who kills his wife for her money and the second one is about a lawyer (Leslie Williams) who kills her husband for his money. Both cases allow for striking contrast between Columbo's rumpled raincoat and the culprit's swanky digs, especially the second one, where the murderess puts her feet up in a mansion that looks vaguely like something out of a Cocteau film.

The first episode, which had its origins as a stage play from years earlier, has a more complex, well thought out plot. The psychiatrist's plan for covering up his crime, and his relationship his attractive mistress, are more complicated, though the cheapness of the penthouse set detracts a bit from verisimilitude.

For the big chunk of the episode before Columbo shows up, well over twenty minutes, it feels like fourth rate Hitchcock. Then Peter Falk walks in and things get interesting.

The cat and mouse between him and the murderer is entrancing as we watch Falk to see how much of his discomfort is feigned and how much of what he lets slip is his genuine obsession. The second pilot makes the wise decision to bring him in almost from the beginning, bumbling about the murderess' palatial porch, looking for a lost pen.

The plot here, slightly inspired by Double Indemnity (which appears briefly on a television screen) involves the inconvenient daughter of the murdered man. Columbo capitalises on the girl's suspicions in a climax that doesn't quite make sense but is amusing enough you forgive it.

Columbo is available on Amazon Prime with limited commercials via imdb.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

The Name of Saul

No, you can't go back to Jimmy McGill because this is now a show about Saul Goodman. Sunday night saw the fifth season premiere of Better Call Saul and Bob Odenkirk's protagonist getting his name officially changed. As he explains it to Kim, he sees it as a fresh start but she clearly worries it's a sign he's giving in to his worst instincts. Written by series co-creator Peter Gould, it's a good start to a season that promises to bring an illuminating clash between Saul and Kim.

In fact, the season episode titles paint a pretty clear arc already:

No Gennifer Hutchison episodes this season? Unless she wrote one of those TBA episodes. I hope so, she was my favourite writer on the show.

Kim (Rhea Seehorn) is having to work a little harder not to see the Saul in Jimmy. Though we have seen her, in seasons past, getting turned on by his conman antics and even participating a little. She reluctantly even takes his suggestion when dealing with a client in this episode but she really doesn't seem to like it.

It's nice to see the return of the gaudy suits.

Like every season premiere of the series this one began with a lengthy flashforoward to Saul in hiding, now as Gene, the manager of a Cinnebon. This time there was a pleasant surprise cameo from Robert Forster who apparently shot his scene while working on El Camino.

Saul has to call him because someone recognised him from his Albuquerque days. And I loved how that went down. Some might mistake it for bad writing that the guy manages to coax Gene into admitting he's Saul. It seems like Saul would be too smart to ever think he would have to give in. But intelligence wasn't in play here. It was the need to be recognised as who he was, the identity that he establishes in the same episode, years earlier. It's not intellectual, it's pure, maybe unstoppable, emotional need. It's another layer to his tragedy.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Ascension of the Doctor Product

For the first time in its 56 year history, Doctor Who finally went to Ireland on Sunday night. I wonder why it took so long. There were several Irish characters too, named characters, even, for the first time since one minor character in the Third Doctor era. I only wish it happened in a better episode.

We begin with the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and with the companions referred to by the increasingly ironic appellation "Fam" showing up in a war zone--the aftermath of the Cybermen wiping out most of the human race on Earth. So is this an alternate future to the apocalypse that happens in "Orphan 55"? Spirit, "are these the shadows of the things that Will be or are they shadows of things that May be, only?" Funny, no-one asks the Doctor that question.

A lot of people call out Chris Chibnall personally for the bad writing of the Thirteenth Doctor era but I've generally refrained from doing so. Oh, I certainly don't think he's among the best showrunners ever and I'd say he's the weakest of the revived era but I'm not prepared to say for sure what's his fault and what isn't. Particularly since Neil Gaiman recently discussed publicly how scripts for the show have been meddled with without consent from the writers since at least Eleven's final season, I suspect many of the very worst elements of the past two seasons have come from the producers and not from Chibnall. That would explain the tacked on feel of "Orphan 55"'s epilogue and would also explain the Doctor's abrupt reversal of her nonsensical rule against explosives in the previous season. Sometimes Chibnall gets in a shot against the meddlers. That's what I think is going on but I can't be sure. If Ryan (Tosin Cole), Yaz (Mandip Gil), and Graham (Bradley Walsh) are creations of the producers, it might explain why Chibnall seems to have given them pretty rough and unflattering treatment this season.

Of course, things like Graham and Yaz's pep talks to each other last night have the kind of dopiness of something intended to be great, so it's hard to say. Gods, the arrogance of these two telling each other they're unstoppable. Their suggestions amount to little more than look out the window and divert power from life support. What this show needs is William Shatner.

There's a conflict set up in the episode between the Doctor's belief that she needs to work alone and the Fam's desire to contribute. So the companions being insubstantial and poorly developed undercuts everything, particularly when Graham all of a sudden knows a thing or two about spaceships. When did that happen? Maybe it'll be up to Big Finish to supply crucial character development fifteen or so years from now.

I did like the design of the ramshackle space ship and how you can see the hull spinning from the inside. This season certainly hasn't fallen down on production design, though the cinematography is still pretty lazy. The music hasn't irritated me as much as it did last season until last night's episode when the constant, sappy violin for every shot in Ireland accompanied director Jamie Magnus Stone's overuse of close-ups to achieve the effect of having my eyes and ears gouged with lumps of butter. It made Darby O'Gill and the Little People look like The Field.

So I guess next time we're going to get an answer to the Gallifrey mystery and Doctor Ruth and just how in blazes those flashbacks to Ireland add up to anything. Could be it's a really good explanation, who knows? Who knows.

Twitter Sonnet #1331

Controllers made the gamer move the sprite.
Detectives saw the pool behind cigars.
The heavy case was lighter sans the night.
Along the ridge there rode the smoke hussars.
The desert took a train of golden clocks.
The sand consumed the iron hands of time.
In feet we measured bags of sainted socks.
In metric lengths we took the longer climb.
In closets stuffed with cloth we quickly dress.
A normal suit displays the manic ken.
As plastic limbs decry the paper mess.
Recycled teeth could chew the metal bin.
As metal fate distorts the door-ish cloud
The window mist becomes increasing loud.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Rabbit Courage

Not all the things we liked as kids look so good when we're older, whether it's He-Man or Good Luck Trolls or, like the protagonist of 2019's Jojo Rabbit, Adolf Hitler. True, being a Nazi fanboy has direr connotations than being an avid Pog collector, but filmmaker Taika Waititi wisely sees the same rules of youthful foolishness likely applied. Employing a tone frequently reminiscent of Wes Anderson, Waititi made a good comedy about the innocent absurdity that can exist concurrently with malicious horror.

As Dostoevsky wrote in The Brothers Karamazov, "As a general rule, people, even the wicked, are much more naïve and simple-hearted than we suppose. And we ourselves are, too." As young Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) takes to Hitler Youth training with gusto, he meets silly adult Nazis played by Sam Rockwell, Alfie Allen, and Rebel Wilson. Wilson's character, Fraulein Rahm, never breaks stride in her devotion to the cause, even later in the film when she's packing kids off with explosives. She maintains the manner of a secretary whose mind is never entirely on her boring job yet her devotion to the concept is beyond question.

The film's most interesting character is Sam Rockwell's Captain Klenzendorf whose fervour for the National Socialist Party has worn out with age and experience along with assorted other kinds of youthful idealism and slavishness. He designs his own uniform at one point with ridiculous crimson fringe and a plumed helmet that doesn't so much proclaim his loyalties as much as it says, "Fuck this noise, I'm doing what I want."

Jojo's mother, played by an especially sharp and charming Scarlett Johansson, is a more straight forward, secret anti-Nazi, and Jojo discovers one day a Jewish girl his mother's been hiding in the wall. Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) threatens and mocks the boy and he, of course, is horrified by her. But like most kids who spend a lot of time together on the playground, no taunts or factionalism can quite outlast the influence of shared experience and hormones.

Waititi himself plays Jojo's imaginary friend in the film, a version of Adolf Hitler, whose childlike recriminations and articulations of moral support seem much more like a kid's construct than the bloody dictator, though there's understandably some overlap between the two. Waititi's performance is very funny.

It's a very sweet film that says some rather dangerously innocent and insightful things about human nature.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

The Gift of Fresh Clones

Last night, after six years, Clone Wars returned. Breathe the free air again, my friends. It's so little but so much. Sure, the episode is less than thirty minutes and sure, many of us have basically seen it already as it was one of the unfinished episode released in a rough form years ago. But now it's finished and it's the herald of a full, finished, albeit short, season. Sorry to invoke Lord of the Rings in a Star Wars context but it does feel a little like Theoden, throwing off the influence of Wormtongue, letting the weight of premature, imposed decrepitude fall away.

No heavy handed morals. No annoying insistence that every character fit neatly and always obviously into slots of good and evil. It's just pure, sweet, story.

One of the things I always loved about the cgi Clone Wars series is that it presented the tragedy of Anakin and the Republic along with a subtle, melancholy satire of propaganda. Those openings with the strident announcer and the trite title card messages are so like 1940s war reels. And the more the characters of the clone troops are developed, the more we see stories of them presented as hard struggling heroes, the more horrific is the idea that, one day, their loyalties are going to turn with a flick of a switch. Their significance as representatives of the viewer's feelings onscreen are going to be turned instantly and so easily. It's perfect because that's the nature of propaganda. It gradually forces everyone into simpler, infantile perspectives of good guys and bad guys, to the point where even contemplating the perspective of the other side feels frightening. So when the Emperor or Stalin says we're all going to change directions, no matter how completely or abruptly or senselessly, people do it, automatically--not just because they fear prison or death but because they've been conditioned not to think deeper than on the simplest, loudest rhetorical level.

That's why I was so disappointed when, on Rebels, it was shown that Rex and his team had somehow resisted Order 66. After that, their characters were of no interest to me. It's like if Othello ended with everyone surviving and Othello going off looking for buried treasure with a wisecracking sidekick.

Anyway, last night's new episode, "The Bad Batch", features two of the more prominent Clone Troopers, Rex (Dee Bradley Baker) and Cody (Dee Bradley Baker), teaming up with a squad of troopers who call themselves the "Bad Batch", a group of aberrant clones who've been deployed because of their "favourable" mutations. The implication that there are some mutant clones who can't cut it, along with an oblique sex joke from one member of the Bad Batch (about some hostile animals who'd tried to mate with the squad), signal we are blessedly outside of Disney moral territory. The Bad Batch includes a big fellow who lives for the thrill of killing droids, a sinister sniper, and a leader who seems to have been modelled on Rambo.

They're on a mission to go behind enemy lines and the old battle droids are back. It's true, the Phantom Menace era droids are silly though I've always liked how they never come off as sadistic. Even in Revenge of the Sith, they seem more like bored office workers chatting around the water cooler until it's their turn to be decapitated by rampaging Jedi.

Like many Clone Wars episodes, the resolution, where Rex finds a clue that one of his comrades, previously presumed dead, may still be alive and working for the enemy, feels strangely small given the scope established in the story. But this is perfect, it's one of the things that gives Clone Wars a genuine feel of a classic serial. This is only one piece of a larger puzzle.

Clone Wars is available on Disney+.

Friday, February 21, 2020

Lone Wolf and Star Wars Digression

In 1970, a manga with beautiful, I'd say just about flawless, artwork debuted called Kozure Okami (子連れ狼), released in English speaking markets seventeen years later under the awkward title of Lone Wolf and Cub. It's been adapted several times to film and television but the manga remains the definitive version, I'd say because of the artwork by Goseki Kojima.

As a comic artist myself, it's the kind of thing that makes me want to give up, it makes me feel like a complete amateur. But I have to remember there are always going to be people out there who are absolute masters and we all have to live in their shadows. Still, jealousy compels me to pick out flaws and I would say Kojima's not the best when it comes to drawing naked women who tend to look suspiciously like wooden marionettes with mosquito bites on their chests.

But I feel a little ashamed of myself even saying that because these drawings get the job done and 95% of the rest of the time every panel is breathtaking, some even more than others.

The lead character, a mysterious ronin, often looks identical to Toshiro Mifune and Kojima's gorgeous depictions of windswept fields and shabby streets clearly look like he'd watched Yojimbo more than a dozen times. But he makes the aesthetic his own, bringing Kurosawa's Hollywood Western inspired samurai into the realm of classical Japanese ink art. I've read the first eight chapters so far and each is essentially a stand alone vignette. The stories are much pulpier than Kurosawa, more like Zatoichi or Lady Snowblood than Yojimbo or Hidden Fortress. The Kozure Okami is proficient and indomitable on a more supernatural level than any of Kurosawa's more realistic protagonists, even Sanjuro.

The Japanese title is much nicer than the English one though it means basically the same thing. But in Japanese you can make simpler adjectives from more complicated ideas than you can in English so "Kozure" describes the "Okami", the wolf, as someone who brings a child with him. This leads to some unwieldy dialogue in the English translation in which it seems the ronin is referred to, by himself, as "Lone Wolf and Cub" and other times it seems to encompass the child as it naturally would in English.

I picked up a copy of the first Dark Horse omnibus at a used bookshop after watching The Mandalorian. The cover features art by Frank Miller from an earlier edition from series' first U.S. release, which is decent art, but can hardly compare with Kojima's. Like many people, I thought The Mandalorian must have been influenced by Kozure Okami, and maybe it was, but there are fundamental differences between the two kinds of storytelling that led me to realise in another way what, precisely, is the problem with Star Wars under Disney. The Kozure Okami works as a hired killer and though sometimes he seems to have his own idea of fair play and kills based on his own desires, he also doesn't seem to react when, after he's been taken captive, an innocent bystander is raped and murdered in chapter 8. He shows a willingness to kill, and does so, even when people might not wholly deserve it. Sometimes he just has to do it to survive and he's clearly made his peace with that fact. Not so the Mandalorian for whom life somehow constantly, conveniently arranges itself so his choice is always between absolute good and absolute evil. Under Disney, Star Wars is about good versus evil and under George Lucas it really wasn't. I say this even as I suspect that there may be an interview somewhere where Lucas himself has said, "Star Wars is about good versus evil," but I think it may be better classified as "Light versus Dark". Disney's sequel trilogy doesn't really acknowledge reasons as to why the Dark Side might be more attractive but this is exactly what makes The Empire Strikes Back the best movie of the original trilogy and it's also one of the best qualities of the prequel trilogy. Yoda describes Vader's choice as taking the "quick and easy" path. This may be Yoda's own bias--Vader's path doesn't look that easy, really, except when it comes to making decisions. The "light" side is filled with internal conflict--Han and Leia have trouble sorting out their feelings for each other, Luke wants to prove himself but struggles with his faith in the Force. Meanwhile, Vader just Force chokes anyone who fails him and moves on to the next task.

Rian Johnson's film implied Luke was wrong to see the Jedi only as the sum of their flaws, hinted at and developed in the prequel trilogy, but Last Jedi, despite being the analogue for Empire, has very little discussion about the relative merits of the Dark and Light sides. But the problems with the Jedi were right there in the original trilogy. Obi-Wan's great line, "“Luke, you're going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view," says it all. Obi-Wan was so comfortable with that fact that he had engineered his own perspective to look at Vader and Anakin as two separate people. He didn't hesitate to tell Luke that Vader had killed Anakin in A New Hope. After all, it served his purpose, to drive Luke in the right direction; he was essentially creating propaganda. So it's no big deal for him to describe Vader as simply, "twisted and evil."

It makes sense for Rise of Skywalker to be about the redemption of the Jedi as an order since, arguably, it was Luke's defiance of Jedi orthodoxy that brought him victory in Return of the Jedi--he dared to believe a Sith Lord could be reclaimed. Redeeming Ben Solo was a good step but it would have been even better to introduce complexity to Palpatine's story. Hopefully there's still time for that.

Twitter Sonnet #1330

Proportion sags behind a wall of milk.
The funny nails returned again to stick.
A car was washed in rags of shredded silk.
Demented fog about the land was thick.
A walking lens deserts the glasses frame.
Deserted screens remember showing films.
For any lump of vision takes its name.
Projector light at sea too often dims.
A laser sound intrudes on cable's night.
A shadow marred the matte behind the glass.
In paint and paper plays beguiled sight.
Electric eyes combine in jelly mass.
Discordant pairs disrupt the gentle reeds.
Distracted thoughts'll sow disturbing seeds.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Little 'Scape

Farscape has its inevitable shrink ray episode, and that's always fun (or almost always), but it turns out to be a minor element in an episode that focuses more on the season's overarching plot.

Season Four, Episode Eight: I Shrink, Therefore I Am

In an amusing cold open, Crichton (Ben Browder) and Noranti (Melissa Jaffer) are heading back to Moya after a supply run. Crichton is tipped off by Pilot (Lani Tupu) that the ship has been taken over by mercenaries when Pilot tells him everyone else is too busy to talk--that Aeryn (Claudia Black) is writing poetry and Rygel (Jonathan Hardy) isn't hungry for dinner which Chiana (Gigi Edgley) and Sikozu (Raelee Hill) are cooking together.

Sikozu has the cutest glare. Naturally, the two are actually getting on each other's nerves, tied up together. When Crichton finally does get aboard (leaving Noranti floating in space in a trance) he has to hide in the air ducts and team up with Scorpius (Wayne Pygram).

Crichton and Scorpius feels a little like Crichton and Harvey though Scorpius refrains from making any pop culture references. Crichton seems to enjoy teasing him, to the point of giving him an unloaded gun in a dangerous situation.

This episode features the first appearance of a "ruling class" Scarran (Duncan Young) who shows an ability to read minds, finding Crichton's location by reading Rygel's thoughts. He doesn't even have to use a heat ray.

Mostly the shrink ray is just a convenient way for the bandits to tote their captives around. The end of the episode features a very brief, amusing moment with tiny Aeryn riding a DRD and the final fight between Crichton and the Scarran involves them alternately shrinking and enlarging, which is still fun to watch even after having seen the Ant-Man movies.

At this point, "John Quixote" is still the most interesting episode of Season Four, with several episodes like this that seem to focus more on action and plots. I was never a fan of Aeryn's pregnancy and thought it generally didn't drive the story as well as the complicated, stranger motivations from the first three seasons. But there are still some very good episodes left to go.

. . .

Farscape is available now on Amazon Prime.

This entry is part of a series I'm writing on Farscape for the show's 20th anniversary. My previous reviews can be found here (episodes are in the order intended by the show's creators rather than the broadcast order):

Season One:

Episode 1: Pilot
Episode 2: I, E.T.
Episode 3: Exodus from Genesis
Episode 4: Throne for a Loss
Episode 5: Back and Back and Back to the Future
Episode 6: Thank God It's Friday Again
Episode 7: PK Tech Girl
Episode 8: That Old Black Magic
Episode 9: DNA Mad Scientist
Episode 10: They've Got a Secret
Episode 11: Till the Blood Runs Clear
Episode 12: Rhapsody in Blue
Episode 13: The Flax
Episode 14: Jeremiah Crichton
Episode 15: Durka Returns
Episode 16: A Human Reaction
Episode 17: Through the Looking Glass
Episode 18: A Bug's Life
Episode 19: Nerve
Episode 20: The Hidden Memory
Episode 21: Bone to be Wild
Episode 22: Family Ties

Season Two:

Episode 1: Mind the Baby
Episode 2: Vitas Mortis
Episode 3: Taking the Stone
Episode 4: Crackers Don't Matter
Episode 5: Picture If You Will
Episode 6: The Way We Weren't
Episode 7: Home on the Remains
Episode 8: Dream a Little Dream
Episode 9: Out of Their Minds
Episode 10: My Three Crichtons
Episode 11: Look at the Princess, Part I: A Kiss is But a Kiss
Episode 12: Look at the Princess, Part II: I Do, I Think
Episode 13: Look at the Princess, Part III: The Maltese Crichton
Episode 14: Beware of Dog
Episode 15: Won't Get Fooled Again
Episode 16: The Locket
Episode 17: The Ugly Truth
Episode 18: A Clockwork Nebari
Episode 19: Liars, Guns, and Money, Part I: A Not So Simple Plan
Episode 20: Liars, Guns, and Money, Part II: With Friends Like These . . .
Episode 21: Liars, Guns, and Money, Part III: Plan B
Episode 22: Die Me, Dichotomy

Season Three:

Episode 1: Season of Death
Episode 2: Suns and Lovers
Episode 3: Self-Inflicted Wounds, Part I: Would'a, Could'a, Should'a
Episode 4: Self-Inflicted Wounds, Part II: Wait for the Wheel
Episode 5: . . . Different Destinations
Episode 6: Eat Me
Episode 7: Thanks for Sharing
Episode 8: Green Eyed Monster
Episode 9: Losing Time
Episode 10: Relativity
Episode 11: Incubator
Episode 12: Meltdown
Episode 13: Scratch 'n Sniff
Episode 14: Infinite Possibilities, Part I: Daedalus Demands
Episode 15: Infinite Possibilities, Part II: Icarus Abides
Episode 16: Revenging Angel
Episode 17: The Choice
Episode 18: Fractures
Episode 19: I-Yensch, You-Yensch
Episode 20: Into the Lion's Den, Part I: Lambs to the Slaughter
Episode 21: Into the Lion's Den, Part II: Wolf in Sheep's Clothing
Episode 22: A Dog with Two Bones

Season Four

Episode 1: Crichton Kicks
Episode 2: What was Lost, Part I: Sacrifice
Episode 3: What was Lost, Part II: Resurrection
Episode 4: Lava's a Many Splendoured Thing
Episode 5: Promises
Episode 6: Natural Election
Episode 7: John Quixote

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

The Boiling Mirror

I know some people express their affection through constant arguments and manipulation. I've always had trouble understanding why this is so but I found 1950's Les Enfants Terribles captivating. The tale of two beautiful siblings who live together, their eternal war on each other and their shared fantasies, it's also a singular combination of vision from two of France's greatest filmmakers, Jean-Pierre Melville and Jean Cocteau.

Cocteau wrote the source novel and the screenplay and provides voice-over narration for the film. He also directed one scene when Melville was ill--Melville is the film's credited director. That some have suggested the movie was really directed by Cocteau and Melville was entirely employed on more technical aspects of production (Melville was also the producer) isn't surprising. It was only Melville's second feature, after Le Silence de la Mer, and Les Enfants Terrible, with its raucous dialogue and reverence for beauty, seems much more like Cocteau than the director who established himself as a great maker of noir.

But there is at least one important carryover from Le Silence de la Mer; one of that film's stars, Nicole Stephane, plays Elisabeth, one of the siblings, and supposedly this is one of the primary things that convinced Cocteau that Melville was the man to adapt his novel. But it was apparently in spite of Melville's disapproval that Cocteau insisted on casting Edouard Dermit as Paul, the other sibling, who was too old for the part of the high schooler whose delicate frame confines him to bed for days after being hit with a snowball.

Yet Dermit has a wonderfully Cocteau-ish look and, more importantly, bears a remarkable resemblance to Stephane. It's easy to see the two as reflections of each other, ever bound by attraction and repulsed by over-familiarity. They have a game where they compose a fantasy together and have a drawer where they've agreed to keep odds and ends as "treasures". They shoplift together compulsively--their rule is that they must never steal something that might be useful. Cocteau informs us in voiceover that it's Elisabeth's policy never to thank anyone for anything--she, "always expects miracles." It's as though the two maintain their dreamworld territory by denying any normal physical or emotional reactions to the rest of the world.

Maybe this gives their fights the freedom to be so absolutely brutal. In one scene, Paul tosses a glass of milk on Elisabeth while she's in bed. In another, the two fight so unrelentingly for the bath that both angrily pull their cloths off in their stampede for the water. Of course, it seems there must be an erotic element to their relationship, which seems confirmed when Elisabeth becomes jealous that Paul's fallen for another girl. This other girl, Agathe, is played by Renee Cosima who also played the boy who threw the snowball at Paul. Everyone remarks on the resemblance. Once again, Paul is attracted to the face of one who's brought him pain but by a trick of fate that same face belongs to a gentle, loving young woman. Of course, Elisabeth won't have it and that's where the manipulations start.

Whoever's most responsible for this cruel, fascinating film, it's certainly always a pleasure to look at. Les Enfants Terrible is available on The Criterion Channel.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Beware the Ballerinas

At what point does adoration, and the pleasure of being adored, become love? Ingmar Bergman's bittersweet 1951 film Summer Interlude (Sommarlek) explores the question with two young lovers; a ballerina and the devoted fan she brings into her life. Beautifully shot with sensitive performances, the film always captivates, even if it isn't quite as impressive as the films Bergman would later make.

It's hard to imagine anyone seeing this movie and not thinking of, if they've seen it, The Red Shoes, particularly as a conflict is introduced between the artist's devotion to her work and her devotion to the man she loves. I wonder if Bergman was at all influenced by The Red Shoes, if he decided to take it as a prompt, because I could easily imagine the maker of this film watching The Red Shoes and saying, "Yes, but . . ."

But where does the ballerina's love for the the man come from in the first place? Summer Interlude's ballerina is more coquettish than Moira Shearer. Marie (Maj-Britt Nilsson) is amused and flattered when she notices young Henrik (Birger Malmsten) watching her on the bus after her performance. Soon they're spending summer afternoons together, swimming near her little cottage, but even as she lays her head on his lap, smiling up at him, she teases him by asking why he loves her and insisting that she doesn't love him in return.

A very simple psychological explanation (for Bergman) is given for Marie's behaviour when we see how, since she was a young girl, her uncle, Erland (Georg Funkquist), has fondled her hair and spoken in a sexually provocative way to her; she's grown up on a one sided affair, one defined by the lust of one party. Does Marie expect Henrik to force himself on her, or is the dynamic replicated by Marie's occupation of Henrik's time and affection?

She experiences a crisis when it finally seems Henrik has lost his compulsion to be with her--she only knows how to use her sweetness to torment him, not to please him. This simple dynamic is enhanced greatly by the compositions and performances, particularly Maj-Britt Nilsson, whose laughter under the young man's gaze is both manic and charming, unaffected yet calculated. One is left with the impression that maybe there's something between the two that can't be so easily defined.

Summer Interlude is available on The Criterion Channel.

Twitter Sonnet #1329

In poison pots the thumbs obscure the doll.
A row of ribbons blocked the needle's path.
Approval bit the plates around the hall.
A noisy line provokes a louder wrath
A spiny book returned a desk to shelves.
Accounting time replenished trees and shrubs.
Before the cookies here were only elves.
A million sprites would bathe in million tubs.
In forest blades the flutes were hidden well.
The music's glass emits a shaken tone.
Concealing cards could not disguise the tell.
The canvas paint could best be labelled "bone".
Alone, the metal makes a lumpy man.
The butter lump completes the heated pan.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Back to Villa Diodati for the First Time

The obvious point of comparison for last night's new Doctor Who would be the series of Eighth Doctor audioplays featuring Mary Shelley as a companion. Certainly the episode, "The Haunting of Villa Diodati", lifts much of its basic premise from those 2011 audio plays, but I found myself surprisingly reminded of The Ghost Breakers, a 1940 comedy starring Bob Hope and Willie Best, aka Sleep 'N Eat. Seeing Ryan (Tosin Cole) in 19th century garb obviously brings to mind attitudes about race at the time while the writers' decision to portray Ryan as goofy and stupid resulted in a surprising moment on the stairs when he reacts to what he thinks is a ghost bumping his elbow, with exaggerated fright. And I thought of Willie Best and any number of black comedic performers in the mid-20th century who were cast in roles that reinforced stereotypes of black people as being stupid or lazy. Funny how this kind of portrayal is now considered progressive. Weird how we come full circle. It should be said Willie Best gave a much better performance, with a better sense of comedic timing, than Tosin Cole.

Graham (Bradley Walsh) is certainly no Bob Hope so I guess we could say the white guy, or at least one white guy, comes off just as stupid. Though Lord Byron as portrayed by Jacob Collins-Levy comes off as a broad, idiotic cad, come to think of it. His attempts to flirt with the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) are automatically rebuffed. Wouldn't want sexual tension, would we? Not when we've succeeded in getting the ratings below five million in the UK, back to the levels of Capaldi's last season. Hmm, there wasn't much sexual chemistry between Twelve and Bill, either, was there? Yet at least the writing was sharp in that season, even if it was unpopular. One of the ways in which the Eighth Doctor audioplays are superior to Sunday's episode is that they allow the Doctor and Mary Shelley to engage in intellectual discussion instead of just bumbling about.

But "The Haunting of Villa Diodati" happens to be one of the better episodes of the season, or maybe it's just that I'm a sucker for haunted house stories. The premise of a house where people seem to move continually into the same room even reminded me of the Halloween episode of Simon and Simon that made an impression on me as a child. I also thought the design of the Lone Cyberman (Patrick O'Kane) was pretty good.

Yet one can't help thinking back to the Eighth Doctor audios again and again, especially since, like this episode, they made something of the fact that 1816 also happened to be the "year without a summer" and also had Mary Shelley encounter Cybermen to draw comparisons between them and Frankenstein. This wouldn't be the first time an episode of the revived series was based on an audioplay--the Ninth Doctor story "Dalek" was written by Robert Shearman based on his own Sixth Doctor audio Jubilee, though the stories were different enough that one could still imagine them both existing in the same continuity. A few episodes have even seemed to draw on audios without crediting the source before--the Tenth Doctor story "Fires of Pompei" has noticeable similarities to the Seventh Doctor audio The Fires of Vulcan. But even then, "Fires of Pompei" brought plenty of new ideas to the table where "The Haunting of Villa Diodati" just feels like a partial synopsis.

So now it looks like we have to choose between continuities. Do we consider the Eighth Doctor audios canon or "The Haunting of Villa Diodati"? Hmm. It's kind of like asking would you rather drink champagne or water with the crushed ice from a McDonald's beverage dispenser.

The Doctor had a big speech in this one about how sometimes she's the only one qualified to make a decision and how lonely that is. Which seemed a bit cruel given how obviously deficient her companions are. Though I was surprised last week when the show took so much heat for the Doctor's insensitive reaction to Graham. The Doctor's supposed to be insensitive to the human experience sometimes. Sure, it was badly written and even Twelve would probably have conveyed a sense of being troubled even through a gruff response. But at least it was somewhat in character for the Doctor. I guess we all have our particular tastes as to what qualifies as the worst writing.

It's worth remembering the best portrayal of Mary Shelley on that fateful night remains Elsa Lanchester's in Bride of Frankenstein.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Who's the More Parasitic?

Class mobility comes only with blood, lies, and sorrow in 2019's Parasite (기생충). Like many of the best South Korean films of the past thirty years, it doesn't fit neatly into one traditional genre, having elements of black comedy, thriller, and drama. It could also be called a sort of dark fairy tale, certainly an allegory for social class relations. Like most Best Picture winners, it's good but leaves one asking, "Really? That was the best picture of the year?"

Also like most Best Picture winners, it's likely that politics played a big role. The Academy has received a lot of flack for not meeting the eternally unattainable level of inclusivity to make people stop complaining so it probably felt good to vote for the first non-English-language film to win Best Picture. But it also fits the more traditional political motivation of rewarding a director's latest, decent movie for the failure to recognise one or more of his earlier, much better films--like Shape of Water or Gladiator--in this case, Bong Joon-ho might have been better recognised for Snowpiercer or Mother.

Parasite is the story of a poor, chronically unemployed family and their successful scheme to get themselves all hired as a wealthy family's cadre of servants, only for everything to go terribly wrong. It starts when the teenage son, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), gets a job as an English tutor for the wealthy family's daughter, Da-hye (Jung Ji-so). He's then able to recommend "Jessica", in reality his sister, Ki-jeong (Park So-dam), as an "art therapy" tutor for the wealthy family's rambunctious, pre-pubescent son, Da-song (Jung Hyeon-jun).

One of the funniest moments in the movie is when Ki-jeong carefully asks the wealthy mother, Yeon-gyo (Cho Yeo-jeong), "if anything happened to Da-song when he was in first grade?" Like the sucker she is, Yeon-gyo immediately reacts in shock to this keen insight.

Soon the rest of the poor Kim family are employed with the father (Song Kang-ho) as the family driver and the mother (Jang Hye-jin) as the housekeeper. It's this last job that finally introduces a wrinkle when the previous housekeeper (Lee Jung-eun) turns out to have been keeping her husband secretly in a bunker beneath the house. The rest of the film, while still having funny moments, becomes more of an action thriller where the conflict between the Kim family and the old housekeeper's works as a metaphor for the competition between members of a lower economic class for the rare opportunity of advancement. Do they just fight each other, or will the proletariat finally find some solidarity in conflict with the blissful and insensitive elite?

Despite several jokes at the expense of North Korea, there's certainly an unmistakeably Marxist philosophy behind the story, almost reminiscent of a Soviet propaganda film. While the story is entertaining and the actors give good performances, there's a lack of complexity to the protagonists and little in terms of distinct personality traits among them--aside from age and sex, there's little to distinguish the daughter and the father, for example. But this is often the case with allegory and propaganda, as is some improbability in some of the plot points, not to mention a climax that makes very little sense. But it works because there are plenty of good jokes and the actors all deliver good performances.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Why You Shouldn't Enchant and Murder a King

If someone took the grisliest parts of Macbeth and Titus Andronicus, combined them, and then decided to up the ante, you might end up with something like Morindos, a piece of short prose fiction by an anonymous author, published in 1609. Supposedly the history of a Spanish king called Morindos, it's mostly about the witch who marries him and the horrible fates met with by her seven daughters, each representing a different sin. It certainly lacks the complexity of Macbeth and even Titus Andronicus but it's a pretty engrossing spectacle in its way.

The story begins with the King and his marriage to a witch called Miracola--curiously close to the vampire Mircala from 1872's Carmilla. Miracola makes a hell of a fabulous entrance:

Upon a time when King Morindos, in the height of his revels, whilst some of his fairest concubines danced before him naked in their cambric smocks, the more to enkindle lust's fire, she entered the chamber of their licentious sports, with a masque of wonder, the like never seen in the prince's court; for all the masquers, except herself, were infernal spirits, visible but not tangible, all in the shape of young ladies, attired in more changeable silks than the colours of the rainbow, herself in a robe of such richness as it seemed to exceed the glory of the sun for brightness.

She enchants the King and after some fornication she causes him to go blind, deaf, and unable to speak, "as a bear new-whelped, like a lump of flesh without fashion." Like Macbeth, Miracola receives a prophecy that makes it sound like she's invulnerable, but it turns out the specific interpretation fate has for the prophecy means it's actually of her certain doom, though fate is a little less creative here than Macbeth's witches; she's told she won't die until the seven days of the week have been forgotten, which somehow turns out to mean she won't die until her seven daughters are dead. The rest of the story consists of vignettes of each daughter's death, each in some way representative of one of the deadly sins. The one representing Pride, Sola, is beautiful at first but then becomes hideous. When she tries to claw off her diseased skin it drastically backfires because "the envy of heaven , clothed with red vengeance, had doomed her to a miserable death, for neither art nor nature, by any practice, could ever after cover her hated body with any kind of skin, but that all her flesh continued raw and loathsome and putrefied unto her bones.". The next daughter, Lucina, representing envy, is unable to bear children so she bakes someone else's baby into a pie and feeds it to them. It's all quite decadently horrific.

And the moral of that story, as the Duchess from Alice in Wonderland would say . . . is sometimes things are really horrible.

Twitter Sonnet #1328

Triangle traps escort the learned babe.
Enchanted eggs disrupt the oven mitt.
Advancing ships were gone by astrolabe.
For thinking thoughts it often helps to sit.
A turtle mocked could tell of lobster things.
A dancer brought could bring the sandy stuff.
A busy shore adorns the edge and sings.
To teach a tortoise less is often rough.
Flamingo finish shone on cards in place.
The absent twins appeared in coffee dreams.
In hotter sequels stirred with plastic grace.
Reflections changed between the glassy seams.
The audience abides in comfy seats.
A metronome replies in counted beats.