Friday, January 30, 2009

1/30/09 - Lost: Season 5, episodes 1-3

I'm a huge Lost fan, and I have to say that for all of its easily identified flaws (an overreliance on surprise reveals, a certain stinginess with revealing secrets, a really weird balance between its invisible redshirts and prominently displayed prime time players, and some large logic/plot holes), the show is attempting to pull off something that is insanely ambitious for a network TV series with over 10 million veiwers: namely, to tell a narratively complex sci-fi story with consistent, 3-dimensional characters while narrating in a a variety of nested flashbacks. That's a damned hard task to accomplish in a novel, let alone a series running for multiple years.

One interesting thing to me that I've noticed from discussions with friends of mind that watch the show is that they're not into the time travel angle, they're tired of Lost introducing mystery after mystery with no solution in sight. Which just illuminates the problem that faces the creators and writers of the show - the mystery is always, always more interesting than the resolution. So in a season that sees Lost actually driving towards answering some of the overarching questions that its been posing since day 1, people are losing interest because the resolution is coming into view, or erroneously asserting that the show is only piling on more mysteries.

My counter to that is to say look, watch, and see how many things that the writers are actually pivoting to address now that there's only 2 seasons left:

1. A huge question about the island in the first couple of seasons was succinctly summarized by Charlie as "Where are we?" and could be extrapolated to a greater question of "Why do fucked-up things happen on this island?". Without doing the big speech of exposition (yet), the writers have started filling out the outlines of an answer to this question - the island is a place where time is unstable, and where time has been messed with.

Also, an aside: for people asserting that the time travel is too arbitrary, I would second Alan Sepinwall's excellent recommendation to rent 12 Monkeys. That movie and Back to The Future capture the two competing theories of time travel, as far as I understand it. The Back to the Future model is the butterfly effect theory of time travel.

This is seen in the Ray Bradbury short story A Sound of Thunder that holds that making small changes in the past have a huge effect on the future. Thus, if Marty's parents don't fall in love with each other, Marty will be wiped out of existence.

12 Monkeys, on the other hand, ascribes to the linearity theory of time travel that basically states that the past cannot be changed because it has already happened. Thus, if you went back in time and tried to kill Hitler, for example, you would be unable to do so - maybe the gun would jam, maybe you would be killed en route, but because Hitler survived to start WWII that could not be stopped.

Lost is operating on somewhat of a hybrid model - Desmond has a limited ability to move in time and change things from happening (limited because Charlie eventually had to die), as, it is suggested, does Faraday as a result of his experiments, but the rest of the characters can't change the existing timeline.

2. Why do the Others know so much about the castaways? This question was posed in S1 and deepened throughout S1-S3, and now it seems clear that it has something to do with the time shifts on the island. We are now seeing that Locke has made contact with Richard in the past, which explains all those mysterious assertions in the first couple of seasons that the Others were waiting for Locke to show up.

3. The polar bear? Clearly, related to the Dharma Initiatives experiments with the big wheel. If Ben can be transported to Tunisia and back, so too could a polar bear.

4. Why does Widmore care so much about the island? We don't know yet, but we have now been shown how he first got there by way of the U.S. military.

5. What is the Dharma Initiative doing? We don't know the full details, but the big time wheel is clearly something that has prompted their scientific interest.

6. Who is the con man that caused Sawyer so much pain? Anthony Cooper, Locke's dad, and he's toast.

There are more, but that's just a representative sample to rebut the idea that Lost never answers the questions that its raising. Since they pinned an end date to the show I'm a lot more confident that they are moving toward resolution, which parodoxically seems to make people less interested.

Thoughts on Eps. 1-3:
  • Faraday is a great character. A strength of Lost is that for the most part they have been able to effectively introduce new characters and fold them into the existing ensemble if they take the time and care to do so. We're starting to get hints that Faraday has some dark secrets in his past related to the whole knowledge over morality dilemma portrayed in so many stories of the tragic scientist. In addition he's shown as being present at the discovery of the time wheel by the Dharma initiative - looks like Dan's actually the man with the answers. Just don't expect him to give any since he's terminally twitchy and stressed.
  • Charlotte is not a great character. A weakness of Lost is that with such a large ensemble sometimes they can't get a character defined before they have to be a part of the action, the way that the first 2 seasons had the luxury of fleshing out the main players through all the flashbacks. Charlotte has a perpetually pissed-off look on her face, and Faraday cares about her, but that seems like all we know about her. So who cares if she gets the time travel disease?
  • Jack and Kate have moved from compellingly tortured to really, really uninteresting. Ep. 3 was the best episode of the season so far partially due to the fact that Desmond was the protagonist of the main story, Sawyer and Faraday took the lead in the secondary story, and Jack and Kate off-island were nowhere to be found.
  • Sun slipping into the morally ambiguous realm is a great move. We've seen the pain that could underpin any destructive course of action she might choose to pursue.
  • They're going to milk Ben's good/evil ambiguity for all that its worth. Although I wouldn't be surprised if he doesn't wind up the Wizard of Oz figure, the small man behind the curtain. Now that we're seeing that Richard is really the power behind the Others, it gives more perspective on the leadership conflicts between he and Ben once Ben came on the scene.
  • Are the whispers we always used to hear in the woods related to the unstuck in time nature of the island?
More after episode 4 - I'm still all in.

Friday, January 16, 2009

1/16/09 - Party and Bullshit

Notorious coming to the movie theaters, and it looks like Biggie's getting the full-on hagiography treatment, which is almost a shame since the bulk of his recorded output is summed up by one of his earliest songs from '93:

Biggie: "Party and Bullshit"

Death has a way of whitewashing life; so too to any kind of lasting achievements. Phil Spector seems to be on a mission to balance the karmic scales by going full-blown crazy to reverse atone for all the girl-group singles he helped produce, but even with what looks an awful lot like blood on his hands, his epitaph is still going to be dominated by his musical work in the '60s. Abraham Lincoln put the Emancipation Proclamation in place, but they don't tell you in high school that he loved dirty jokes.

So it's a little disconcerting to see Biggie mythologized like this, blown up to a larger-than-life image, when he was especially gifted at creating himself as a larger-than-life image anyway. The tough part of it is that his version is a lot more complex and a lot more real feeling than the hagiographic treatment that seems to be advertised in the promotional materials for Notorioius. It's not an encouraging sign that Sean Combs help produce the movie; as the overblown explosion of "I'll Be Missing You" post-Las Vegas shooting showed, Puffy's trades in sentimentality and melodrama when it comes to his now 15 years dead friend. That's all well and good from a coping perspective, but it murders art.

The genius of Biggie was the way that he traded in operatic images and themes, but extracted real drama, not melodrama, from them. The blinged-out fantasy world that Puffy luxuriates in was, for sure, something that Biggie also cast as aspirational lifestyle shit in his rhymes. But Puffy's motto is to never let them see you sweat - Biggie let the contradictions hang out, and deepend the thrust of his lyrics by showing the fear, desparation, and hopelessness behind the gangsta mask.

Take the opener, "Things Have Changed", from Ready to Die - it comes replete with thug life imagery:

"Turn your pagers, to nineteen ninety three
Niggas is gettin smoked G, believe me
Talk slick, you get your neck slit quick
Cause real street niggas ain't havin that shit"

But what comes before that, what it opens with, is an invocation of what's been lost:

"Remember back in the days, when niggas had waves
Gazelle shades, and corn braids
Pitchin pennies, honies had the high top jellies
Shootin skelly, motherfuckers was all friendly
Loungin at the barbeques, drinkin brews
with the neighborhood crews, hangin on the avenues"

Biggie: "Things Done Changed"

In the opening verse of his debut album, Biggie sketches out the lament of the crack epidemic in the inner cities - the dissolution of neighborhood bonhomie in the name of the real. It's this "real" that Chris Rock so memorably skewered as a dead-end street, and the critique is right there in Biggie's verse - this is the way things are, he's saying, I'm a part of it, but the way things used to be worth lamenting.

It's the filling in of the context, of the margins, that make his verses so resonant, and that give even his straight-up gangster songs and verses their tragic weight. Without Michael Corleone in Italy, the depth of his fall doesn't quite tug on the heart so hard. Without the image of a Biggie waking up "fucked up/pockets broke as hell/another rock to sell", all the threats to grab his shotty and identify the body and smuggle crack and all that would just be the empty swagger that we've seen Xerox'ed into irrelevance by 50 Cent et. al. Similar to the way that one of 50s most compelling stories is that of wanted to sell drugs to buy a new hat (context is king), Biggie's gangster narratives are made so much richer by the details filling out the margins.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

1/9/09 - Coming around on Vampire Weekend

I resisted Vampire Weekend for a long time, mainly because they went to Columbia and then proceeded to join a band and become stars, pretty much in that order; I did the first two things and then most emphatically did not hit step #3, which has, let's say, somewhat impacted my critical faculties when it comes to VW. Aware that their album was percolating upwards and outward, and hearing vague things about Afropop influences and a modern Graceland-type sound and how they were a "breakout band" and "up and comer" and all that, well, basically it made me want to chew my own arm off.

I'm coming down off the ledge now, though, having finally sighed and made my through their debut and finding, well, yeah, that it's pretty great. If I just pretend that they're all from Vermont or something and met while farming Christmas trees one winter I'm able to get enough cognitive distance from my jealously to take in the music.

So whatever, I've been listening to their debut obsessively for the last month, which makes me about 16 months behind the rest of the country, but so be it. What pleasantly surprised me about the album is not the afrobeat and baroque influences, but the way that the band effectively uses sonic space.

Contrast this with Axl Rose and his white whale, Chinese Democracy, where each song has, I'm estimating, about 8,000,000 separate tracks mixed in, all building songs that are decidedly less than the sum of their parts. Or, if you want to go the indie route, contrast it with something like The Walkmen, who delight in piling ragged loud instruments on top of each other.

Guns N Roses (well, sort of, really just Axl):

The Walkmen: "The Rat"

In contrast, take a song like "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa", and marvel at all the empty space within the song. The intro is an interchange between the guitar and drums, and then the bass comes in. Having established a simple riff, the vocals then float in on top, but the simple guitar pattern and bass are still clear and distinct while still harmonizing with the verse melody. The riffs themselves on bass and guitar feature pauses and stops where the other instrument and vocals step briefly forward into the spotlight.

Then in the chorus, the riffs change slightly, while still leaving a lot of space for the vocals to come in and out, and finally the "Do-ooh-ooh-ooh" vocal melody loops back in over the vocal melody until it sounds like an instrument itself. The bridge features a mellow keyboard hook over drums and bass, and then we're back to the chorus again.

All of the instruments have so much space that the vocal melody is able to establish itself, wear the hook in, and then cede space back to the main instruments. As a consequence, the entire song has a feeling of airiness that lends it a certain dynamism that indie bands especially often run roughshod over. Spoon is the closest band that comes to mind, but to be honest Spoon often errs on the side of too much minimalism, robbing their songs of dynamics. VW has managed to put together songs that remain dynamic while still leaving enough space in to let the listener (aurally) breathe.

Monday, January 05, 2009

1/5/09 - Slumdog Millionaire vs. City of God

So I think I can turn in any sort of cinephile card -the 3 movies I've seen in the last 6 months are:

Iron Man The Dark Knight Slumdog Millionaire

I'm leading a populist revolution, baby! I refuse to watch your movie until it has reached critical mass - this just wasn't the year of taking fliers. So there's your top 3 of the year, by virtue of elimination. I just saw Slumdog Millionaire, and, after I had successfully separated out the movie I had just seen from all of my flashbacks to watching City of God, sat down with a set of conflicting set of reactions.

One, I loved the movie. The visuals and the music especially came in such a vivid wash that the movie grabs hold from moment one. The tight shots, the chaotic speed of the story and the rush of images, and the beauty of even the most terrible images (the bathtub filling with money, people of fire, piles upon piles of refuse), all form a sort of vortex of visual storytelling. As some movies do, Slumdog Millionaire vividly reminds the viewer that movies can tell stories in ways that no other medium can; larger than life images in a rush can provoke vertiginous feelings and reactions that words on a page, or images on a smaller screen, just can't.

And Jamal is an appealing protagonist, the movie is ultimately an emotional rush (upward), and really, despite some crushing imagery of poverty and entrapment and violence, is ultimately a fell-good movie. Wedded to the delirious tension of "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire". So I've got no complaints with the movie per se; I highly recommend it.

And yet...

And yet it's hard to shake the feeling after watching it that the movie falls apart a little bit the further it goes on and the more one thinks about it. The chief flaw is that the central relationship is the least interesting one of the entire movie. Jamal and Latika are stand-ins for the Platonic idea of love, that of the two halves that are meant for each other, against any and all logic. Their ability to find each other in all of the madness throughout the movie is beyond preposterous, the fact that his phone call to her basically kills his brother is treated as some sort of karmic balancing of the scales when really it's just florid narratively and kind of dumb, and centrally, the idea that they love each other from age 5 until their first kiss outside the studio after Jamal's just won 20 million sits uneasily with the purported social realism of the earlier parts of the movie. By the end of the movie we've shifted from hardscrabble reality brought brilliantly to live to a kind of fairy tale Never-Never Land, which rings false narratively and tonally. It's the way I felt at the conclusion of The Kite Runner: for such a messy social landscape, the central narrative sure features a lot of neat melodrama-style conclusions; the bad characters either repent or are killed or otherwise stymied, the good characters are rewarded. It's a feeling of aesthetic dishonesty in a way - a happy ending that doesn't quite jibe with the images of people on fire, the death of Jamal's mother, and the terrifying whirls of the abandoned child's life in Mumbai.

City of God came to mind while watching the movie, because what links the two is that both portray a life of poverty in a crowded city through inventive visual styling (and pointedly chaotic editing). Where they diverge is in tone and ultimate narrative goal - City of God is a social portrait, not a fairy tale, but it's a social portrait from frame one until the curtains drop. Rocket, the protagonist, falls in love when he is young and innocent too, but his lady love falls for Bene, the stylish bon vivant gangster who keeps Lil Ze in check for a lot of the movie. This is no fairy tale; it's life. I've got no complaints with the fairy tale of Slumdog Millionaire, but it makes the early scenes seem cheaper and more manipulative to find out that they are in service of a boy-meet-loses-gets-back girl story. City of God is messy in form and content; about nothing so much as the danger, excitement, and terror when poverty whittles away the basic rules of human nature.