Downton Abbey

September 30, 2011

I’ve already complained enough about the milquetoast tastes of Academy Awards voters and their love of inoffensive, tarted-up junk food like The King’s Speech, and though I will certainly wheel that bugbear out again in a few months, it is a little bit harder to say the same thing about the Emmys.  Sure, they tend towards the conservative (as you’d expect), but they’ve also spent the last decade as a platform from which to praise HBO, which is without a doubt the single most artistically interesting (and, indeed, revolutionary) television channel of our times.  You can make arguments that the middle of the road taste still wins out when Modern Family receives best comedy series or even that Mad Men’s four successive best drama victories represent a handy intersection of those milquetoast values with genuinely complex artistic achievement, but really, this has been HBO’s decade and it will continue to be for some time to come.  It is, then, only under these circumstances where a five-part mini-series adaptation of James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce by idiosyncratic director Todd Haynes (Velvet Goldmine, I’m Not There) would be seen as the all-but-unbeatable juggernaut of the night.  So it was a shock when plucky ITV-produced upstart Downton Abbey, aired in the US on PBS, swept in and took the prize from under poor old Mildred’s nose.  This isn’t to say that Mildred Pierce was the best possible winner – that went to the not-even-nominated Carlos – but it was still a deserving one.  I subsequently watched all of Downton Abbey, and all those King’s Speech feelings came flooding right back.  Once again, the “discerning” American viewer gave into their baser instincts for easy, melodramatic nonsense, only this time it was incredibly offensive.  Read the rest of this entry »

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Drive

September 23, 2011

Caution:  Spoilers Abound

Reading snippets of interviews and press releases for Drive, I found a number of references by star Ryan Gosling and director Nicolas Winding Refn to John Hughes, specifically Pretty in Pink and Sixteen Candles.  These were perplexing remarks knowing what little I did about the film, but as I watched the film, I slowly found them quite instructive.  Perhaps not for the reasons they intended, I’ll admit, but instructive all the same.  Trying to analyze the similarities in a straightforward way, I couldn’t find any connection beyond a simple love story and romantic synth-pop heavy soundtrack, but even those elements weren’t terribly Hughes-like in any specific way.  It dawned on me, however, during certain sequences between Ryan Gosling’s Driver (as is so often with characters of this type, he’s never given a name) and Carey Mulligan’s Irene, the next-door neighbour with whom he makes a connection.  It was the feeling of these scenes that reminded me of Hughes.  Not in a direct way, mind, but in the way that I watched Hughes’ movies as an adolescent, all filled with a simplistic, romantic notion that came about through a combination of my total lack of understanding of how real relationships might function and beautiful, heart-on-its-sleeve emotional synthpop.  Therein lays, I think, the key to coming to understanding not only the Driver, but also the larger perspective of the film as a whole.

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Contagion

September 15, 2011

The central problem with any epidemic-based disaster movie is that labwork just isn’t that exciting.  Disaster movies revel in the initial destruction.  It’s the queasy thrill of seeing our everyday lives, our civilizations and societies, turned upside down in a spectacular fashion that draws us to them.  The almost built-in problem is peaking too early:  you’ve got to find a way to make everything post-cataclysm consistently interesting.  In 2012 they end up with ridiculous arks.  In Independence Day we get jet/spacecraft dogfights.  In The Poseidon Adventure, we follow the ragtag survivors through the bowels of the ship.  Watching someone crawl through torn metal just isn’t as exciting as watching a rogue wave flip a cruise liner.  Still, there are goals there.  In the case of an epidemic, the goal is to find a cure, which unfortunately involves labwork – or at least it should.  Wolfgang Petersen’s Outbreak used the absurd-but-very-achievable goal of finding the original carrier – a little monkey – and that would solve all the problems.  Even then, if you remember, that wasn’t enough.  Injecting people wasn’t a sufficient climax, so there had to be a ridiculous helicopter standoff.  Steven Soderberg’s Contagion has no interest in any of that.  It is billed as a thriller, but really it just wants to posit a scenario.  Read the rest of this entry »

I have recently finished reading Simon Reynolds’ latest tome, Retromania, which largely deals with pop culture –and specifically, music’s – cyclical nature; it constantly looks back to repeat itself and revel in past glories.  The book deals mostly in music, though fashion is thrown in as a comparison, and films are very rarely mentioned at all.  The only major instance I can recall is in regards to the early 70s boom in 50s nostalgia, when American Graffiti became a massive hit, capturing the cultural zeitgeist along with Sha Na Na and eventually the TV series Happy Days.  He attributes that particular revival to the fallout of the 60s that so deeply split America that everyone wanted to think back upon the simpler times of their collective youth, when they listened to rock n’ roll and everyone gathered at school dances.  This was largely an imagined past, of course, as socio-economic variations meant a lot of different experiences for a lot of different people, and times were just as rough for some then as they were at their present.  Still, nostalgia has a powerful effect, and though it is generally an instinct of conservativism and all of the negative connatations with ignoring both the present and the future that entails, it has produced some great art.  American Graffiti, for instance, is a brilliant example of inter-weaving narrative strands that also captures some universal truths in a specific moment.

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