Orange Is the New Boring

I loved House of Cards and went back to see the British predecessor.  It, too, was quite impressive as F.U., Frances Urquart fought his way to power by any means necessary, including murder.  It stretched plausibility at times as did the Kevin  Spacy version but it made me feel as if Netflix was the new player in town.

I’m not so sure anymore.

Orange Is the New Black has the seductive Here-Is-a-World-You-Can-Immerse-Yourself-in-for-a-Long Time quality of House of Cards and classic TV shows from The Wire to Mad Men.  Prison is a great set up in that sense and the flashbacks that gradually flesh out the characters and help us understand their actions–why Red would hate a somewhat privileged, smug preppy girl (our hero), for example, becomes very clear from her past humiliations–add density and texture to it all.

But I may have seen too many classic B movies sets in prisons or Midnight Express or Genet’s Un Chant d’Amour to buy the convenient division of roles and types that get played out with a pastel tinted emotional palette. Lots of innuendo, little action.  Lots of predictability, few surprises.  And plausibility seems stetched at almost every moment Piper Chapman, our hero, (played by Taylor Schilling) is on screen with her well coifed hair and model looks.  Her cluelessness can be an attraction, for a while, and her former lesbian self and the partner who saw to it that she did  time, at the same jail, add a bit of complexity–or is it titillation?–to her character but when the series begins with the shower scene, the inevitable–for cable–bare breasts, and a healthy dollop of comment on them by another inmate we know that pandering is not beneath the writing and directing crew.

That we enter a women’s prison and experience a new form of dynamic, very different from the male prison films I referred to, could be a great plus but when I think of what Lena Dunham did to the girlfriends banding together formula with her series Girls, I feel more opportunities have been missed than seized.



Ironic Documentaries

I just had an opportunity to teach a summer course to a large group of professors and filmmakers, mainly from Eastern Europe, at the Central European University in Budapest.  You may heard of CEU as the product of George Soros’s investment in promoting democracy in the former Soviet Union after the Berlin Wall fell. CEU had its origins in that gesture and is a very successful graduate level university focused not on technology and science, as so many are, but on the humanities and social sciences as tools that assist in the understanding of others.

The course was on what the impact of documentaries is, how our belief in an underlying reality caught, in some measure, on film has much to do with the impact of most documentaries ,and how mockumentaries that pretend to have such an underpinning pull us up short. The result can be amusement or anger depending on many factors but what these films have in common is their irony. They don’t say what the mean or entirely mean what they say: they wink. And if we have familiarity with the form, we eventually get the wink, understand the irony, and process its effect.  I wanted to stress how conventions often frame the meaning of a message so that the belief in an underlying reality caught on film stems as much from the use of voice-over, interviews, reference to experts, B-roll editing that illustrates claims as if to prove them, and so on, as it does in any absolute form of reliability.  That being so, it is then fairly easy to mimic these conventions to produce irony.  it is less easy to do so skillfully but over the course of our meetings, we were able to explore the implications in a rich and rewarding way.  There’s more to say and that will probably become an article in the near future.