A Scottish tv series with an “out there” premise that pays off in spades: 2 female detectives try to find out what happened on a nuclear submarine after a crew member dies.(It’s on Peacock.) Of course, he didn’t just die. He was murdered. And on a sub, that means a Big Problem. By now one detective is on the boat, despite having been in the family car when it plunged to the bottom of a lake and her husband died, but not her daughter, and the other one on land, bumping heads and tracing leads that include a nuclear disarmament group, a big time politician, MI5, Russian spies and American arrogance, plus numerous suspicious acting crew members, and multiple sabotage attempts aboard the HMS Vigil. Adding to the sizzle is the love affair that brews between the two women. One straight, one gay, both drawn to each other with inevitable tensions. Their love smolders. It’s like hot embers that just need a spark to roar into flames. The actors are fabulous throughout. Tension abounds. Feelings percolate. Danger awaits. It’s one of the best series I’ve seen in recent months.
Spike Lee is a challenge and clearly intends to be just that. His films always contain “extraneous” elements that no Hollywood producer would want: shots of protests, MLK orating, violence in the streets, etc.–all in relation to a story based on The Treasure of Sierra Madre but shifted from white guys seeking gold in Mexico to black guys seeking gold in Vietnam. And the remains of their hero/leader, a too good to be true soldier who was killed in an ill-conceived mission. The Bloods return after all these years to a Vietnam that at first looks like an extension of any other tourist destination but quickly becomes the foil needed to bring out the damage these men have suffered for decades: PTSD in a single word. Especially Paul who remains in a jittery rage, ready to attack anyone, including his son, if they cross him and he is easily crossed.
Paul is the central character and not an appealing one. Lee tests us to like a guy so badly messed up. By the military that used black troops as cannon fodder, by buddies who can’t quite connect with each other, by Vietnamese who harbor hatreds of their own. The last point, like much in the film, stretches credibility. By most accounts modern-day Vietnamese have moved beyond the American War of some 45 years ago. Young men then would be in their sixties now. Young men now would not have been born until 20-30 years after the war, so why do two different young Vietnamese men say people like Paul killed their mother and father? Lee wants the rage to burst out everywhere but turns the Vietnamese into stereotypical bad guys, or the one “loyal” good guy, or the women who were whores and now prosper, etc. It’s a Frenchman who is the most conniving although a band of greedy thugs who covet the gold come a close second. At least they don’t promise one thing and then do another.
My comments are a bit of a jumble because the film is too and although I admired its power and the simmering turmoil inside the men, the film just doesn’t gel. It uses another culture, or distorts another culture, to bring out the issues and defects Lee wants to display in these damaged men, which range from wisdom and altruism, despite their sufferings, to the murderous, mad rage of Paul. He also stretches out the ending by some 15 minutes after it is clear how things end up by tacking on scene after scene as if one more scene will really nail the thematic nail on the head. They just add clutter.
I’m glad I saw it but wish we had a film on that war that gave a more balanced, more insightful portrait of what it was like for the America that resisted it, the soldiers who fought it, and the people whose country endured it.
During the time of the plague–the virus mainly, more than the orange man in that white house–I have been taking long hikes in the city, first in Golden Gate Park, discovering nooks and crannies off the beaten path and now, along the bay side and the shore, south of the new Warrior stadium. Under siege now by the developer caste, and their paint-by-number, utterly hideous box buildings, mostly 2 or 3 story apartment complexes that could be anywhere, are always somewhere in the gray spectrum, and have absolutely nothing to do with the style or tone that distinguished this once unique city, it remains, so far, a largely neglected, semi-industrial zone. The photos catch parts of it, beginning, though with the UCSF medical complex which is a massive hospital/research array of buildings that have almost zero street level identity and hence feel barren even though some of the buildings are above average in their architectural distinction. South of there the waterfront is still mostly industrial and those two areas are where the photos come from so, if each is worth a 1000 words, it’s time to move to pictures.
More to come
A character in Money Heist reminded me of Wile. E. Coyote who comes up with ingenious plans to capture the Road Runner, only to see them fail every time. He never learns and the characters never change. They just go through different challenges with the same results, akin to one definition of crazy. But, in this case, funny.
So: Aren’t many TV series, even some of the best like that? The basic qualities of the key characters are established early on and then they face challenge after challenge only to find a way to overcome them. Character development or change is rare since the appeal of the challenges is seeing how their fixed personality gets them through the problem: Saul Goodman’s resourceful efforts in Better Call Saul to work the legal system to benefit less than law-abiding citizens, Marty and Wendy Byrde’s incredible ability in Ozark to use their wits to outsmart gangsters and cartels, scheming locals and crooked politicians no matter how dire the circumstances? Money Heist explores a single robbery attempt over two seasons as challenge after challenge confronts the impressively resourceful robbers, who also have a political axe to grind with late capitalism!
And in others like The Bridge or Shetland or A Place to Call Home, the challenges may impede a murder investigation or test the mettle of an entire family, but the characters alter little while the challenges proliferate like a field of wildflowers.
But doesn’t this idea of fixed characters confronting severe challenges that they typically overcome with skill and wit not go back at least to The Odyssey? Do TV series owe an enormous debt not only to Chuck Jones and his amazing cartoons but also to Homer and his classic tale of an almost interminable quest to achieve a long-desired goal despite nearly insurmountable obstacles? Except in some TV series the hero’s journey doesn’t bring them home so much as the kind of predicament that invites another season. Stay tuned.
A friend is making an art project by shooting each flight of stairs in a five story building. There is a quiet, haunting quality to the work that struck me as quite impressive. It made me wonder if this casual, random shot I took of a new stairway railing to document its existence might qualify as art?
Does intention matter? Might something done for one reason fulfill another? Did Mr. Campbell think his soup cans would wind up in museums?
Heady questions and perhaps unanswerable, but there’s something worth pondering in all this. Anyway, here’s the photo I took; what do you think?
On Alex Gibney’s The Inventor
From NYT obit, 3/29/2019
“ I try to keep a certain level of quality of my films. I don’t do commercials, I don’t do films pre-prepared by other people, I don’t do star system. So I do my own little thing.”
For someone to provide Errol Morris’ extraordinary footage of Elizabeth Holmes and her Theranos dream of blood-based lab work easily done in every home to Alex Gibney has resulted in the best Errol Morris film Morris never made. This gift to Gibney is not unlike the gift to Werner Herzog of the remarkable footage shot by Timothy Treadwell before he died, attacked by a grizzly bear. Herzog’s Grizzly Man distances itself from the self-serving intentions of Treadwell’s footage to question the very premise Treadwell lived by (namely, that he could live among wild grizzly bears as one of them, protecting them from harm.) It is also reminiscent of the gift of CBS videotapes of the McCarthy/Army hearings in the late 50s I believe that arrived at Emile de Antonio’s studio and became his brilliant Point of Order, a reedited version that exposed Senator Joe McCarthy’s ruthless, senseless, vicious style of personal attack, aimed, of course, of saving us from Communism. Gibney does the same. Morris’ initially prestigious assignment to bring an extra measure of glamor to Holmes and Theranos very well be vanishing from his resume at this very moment. His Theranos footage doesn’t gibe with his reputation for bringing out the self-deceptions his feature doc subjects have grown accustomed to as Gibney makes abundantly clear.
All the lovely portrait footage of Holmes inevitably exposes her as a poseur, intent on selling an unworkable and probably impossible idea to those naive enough to believe all the hype about Silicon Valley’s myths of miracle working. It merits close watching for the warning it issues to beware of snake oil salespeople, whatever their pitch. Hard questions needed asking and not Henry Kissinger, George Schulz, or other Board members, not the venture capitalists, not Walmart, which installed her grossly defective machines, not Errol Morris who took the money and added the charm as biden, asked them. Gibney does and the result is a powerful reminder of the power of power to corrupt.
Varda’s passing has been well noted already and I just want to add that her Les Glaneurs, The Gleaners and I, is one of my all-time favorite films. The gathering of left-overs and the parallels with creative endeavor, with bricolage in general and editing as well, resonates through that film beautifully, as do her reflections on mortality. She uses a hand-held digital camera to return to the era of oil painting and original work of art with its unique aura, a very clever way of undermining the magic and miracles wrought by technology which she clearly appreciates but insists on placing in a larger perspective. Varda was an original and she is missed.
Everyone has a birthday every year but we save anniversaries for yet more special occasions, from long-term survival in marriages and jobs, to the continued existence of vital institutions, documents and countries.
And even Film Departments.
In this case, the Film Department, now, of course, the Film and Media Department, at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.
Founded in the late ’60s by the noted Canadian scholar Peter Harcourt, it was quickly off and running, hosting distinguished faculty, turning out grads who went on to considerable success, and becoming a fixture in the staid landscape of a venerable but quite traditional university.
Now fifty years later, it’s time for an anniversary and I have a chance to attend and make a small contribution. I haven’t been back but once since spending the first thirteen years of my career there and I am looking forward to offering a report on what the intervening time has wrought.
It seems, at the very least, that the Department has managed to age gracefully and to mature into a major player on the national stage.
A Sunday afternoon at the Oakland Museum of Art isn’t quite like going to one of the big tourist destination museums in the Bay Area but it should be.
There is a current exhibition devoted to Ray and Charles Eames, the couple who invented Chairs,designed houses, invented splints and stretchers (in WWII), and made films. They have never left the never left the design landscape given how massive their influence has been.
The object on the left, of shaped plywood, was manufactured in the 1000s for the military during WWII. the object on the right is a spin off, a free form figure by Charles based on the splint.
In a Q&A posted on walls of the exhibit, Eames gives one sentence answers to a series of essay questions. Some take up the question of the splint:
The Eameses, designers by their own admission, remind us that they, like Picasso or Rembrandt, are useful and purposeful but in a more subtle way than an industrial, use-value oriented culture might appreciate. Art and great design affords pleasure. Pleasure is not only useful but essential. It is one of the two great “principles” described by Freud but we don’t need Sigmund to tell us what life without pleasure would be like. That is a purpose fulfilled by great design and great art alike. Design may also solve industrial problems, problems of commodity production and consumption, but at best, as here, it does more than that.
Consider the Eames chair:
A pricey item today, and a true classic, but also–is it not?–a source of pleasure. It fulfills the need for pleasure by the grace and beauty of its design even as it supports the human body in a seated position. (I confess: I have one. But only one.)
The exhibit includes several of the Eames’s films as well, including the famous Powers of Ten and Think. They built their films as ensembles, bits and pieces hanging together by the thread of an idea and the form retains its power and beauty to this day.
The exhibit is on for a few more months.
The de Young museum has its Cult of the Machine show on. Machines: futurists loved them; Constructivists praised them; Precisionists fetishized them, or, at least, some of them did. Charles Scheeler, Charles Demuth sure did love ’em. The show gives them their due and they deserve it. Scheeler, in particular, reveres the majesty and mystery of machines, industry, power as an alchemist’s brew of transformation. It even transforms humans right out of the picture. His and most of these guys pictures are of industrial might, not as menacing but majestic, sublime, beyond our capacity to fully appreciated even if we created it.
But the show has an underbelly. They’re the works that fascinated me for having some sense, as some do now, of what lurks beneath the utopian dreams, the ones heard now of a world of communication, connection and Friends(hips).
They saw things a little differently.
Void of humans but abristle with energy and motion, there is an ambiguity at work. Seen from on high, the New York city waterfront runs like a ribbon through a tissue of industry, but one that sends up signals of smoke and steam whose meaning is unclear. Perhaps the ambiguity is what convinced Georgia O’Keefe to move to New Mexico.
And then there’s this:
In this work by George Ault, factory and ship smoke, white and black, obliterates whatever lies beyond it. And the far shore is entirely grey with waterfront wharves and buildings that seem to emerge from or plunge into the water. Up close it is as if the water swallows the buildings; man has not fully emerged from his watery beginnings.
Here, O’Keefe captures two great, black monoliths and a white one beyond, all dwarfing the silvery moon that sneaks out between them all. Boldly bleak, capturing the canyon like enormity of New York, it also lacks warmth or comfort, a far cry from the desert world of flowers she later turned to.
Ault didn’t see the rural American of the ’30 as much better. Black, devoid of any enlivening detail, absent humans, a warped and pointless fence, the shapes and geometry that give the city its dynamism appear here more as a sepluchral loss than a rustic retreat.
With a little hint of mischief the show also includes this shot of Imogene Cunningham and the model Twinkie where Cunningham appears as if she might be coming upon Susanna before the elders find her. Her camera seems to be the main link to the other works and the humor of the shot is largely absent elsewhere, save for the inevitable clip of Charlie Chaplin caught in the gears and cogs of an assembly line from Modern Times.
And for a finale,
Charles Holbrook Carter’s War Bride, faceless and alone before the altar, or machinery (of the church?), with pews that look like aircraft hangars and two gear works on either side that could be totems from another era. Who gets to marry the machine? Who is left behind? Can anyone survive the marriage of heaven and hell, or man and machine–questions we seem to ask in one form or another every day.