Bad Movie Night — Battleship/John Carter

As I noted recently, it’s been a long time since our household made the proper commitment to a good ol’ fashioned Bad Movie Night. Our tradition is long and honored: a double feature, preferably with some sort of link and heavy encouragement to merciless mock all that plays out on the screen. When we settled down for the night atypically early, we took our shared commitment to whittling down the material on our overstuffed DVR as impetus to dive into some of the material we’d collected specifically because we thought it might suit our more malicious, misanthropic, and misogynistic cinematic habits. Beer at the ready, we dove in.

And what better place to start than with Battleship (Peter Berg, 2012), one of the more notable bombs of the past few years. Part of the increasingly absurd notion that every recognizable brand should be fodder for big screen mayhem, this sci-fi actioner supposedly takes its inspiration from the classic board game. Yes, there are battleships in it, and some of the explosive weapons hurtling through the air vaguely resemble the pegs that were shoved into either plastic sea vessels of embedded cubes of blue, but it mostly seems like a generic riff on Transformers shoved into a different package from the next aisle over in the toy section.

I’m tempted to argue that the plot makes no sense, but it’s actually too simplistic to be confusing in the slightest. There are navy guys, including the obligatory rebellious rule-breaker (Taylor Kitsch), out on maneuvers. Then aliens attack as big robot monsters from the sky. And that’s about it. Yeah, there are subplots, including the rebel’s hope to marry the hot daughter (Brooklyn Decker) of the gravel-voiced and boulder-brained Commander of the U.S. Fleet (Liam Neeson, further away than ever from his Oscar-contending days) and, well, I’m sure there’s another subplot in there somewhere. Maybe not, though, given that most of what comes out of the mouths of other characters is so inconsequential that one website volunteered for the task of cataloguing every line of dialogue uttered by Rihanna as a crew member. Only five of the sixty-eight lines contains more than a total of ten words.

The original plan called for making it a Hasbro night, since G.I. Joe: Retaliation is just sitting out there. Instead, we realized we had the opportunity to experience the totality of Kitsch’s very bad year of attempted blockbuster stardom (he also appeared in Oliver Stone’s Savages in 2012, which also doesn’t look good, but ultimately belongs in a very different category). So we opted for John Carter (Andrew Stanton, 2012), maybe the year’s most notorious attempt to launch a franchise and a potent argument against giving skilled Pixar filmmakers the keys to live-action vehicles.

The notion of adapting the adventures of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s planetary-displaced warrior had been kicking around for a while. It was reportedly Stanton’s passion for the product that finally brought it to expensive fruition, with Kitsch burdened with the title role. Stanton certainly directs the film like a true believer. Indeed his zealotry is so complete that it is evidently beyond his ken that anyone might find the material completely ridiculous. It doesn’t help that his collaborators in the art and costume departments deliver work that recalls the campy nonsense of 1980’s Flash Gordon. The goofiness packed into the frame accentuates the worst elements of the script, including the dopey framing sequence conceit that Burroughs himself is learning about all this from a journal left to him by his late Uncle John. The most problematic aspect of the storytelling, though, is that its dreadfully boring. Even on a Bad Movie Night — maybe especially on a Bad Movie Night — that remains the worst sin a film and a filmmaker can commit.

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Beautiful girl, lovely dress, where she is now I can only guess

As I started gathering some digital resources to provide supporting research in writing about the new film Gone Girl, I was briefly taken aback when reminded that Gillian Flynn’s novel of the same name came out just two years ago, arriving in June of 2012. Something about the book makes it feel like it’s been out there for much longer, maybe forever. It could be the way it touches on primal fears and animosities, doing so with a scathing directness and a brilliantly bleak sense of humor. Or it could simply be attributed to the uncommonly fast turnaround from page to screen, making the jump at a clip largely unseen since John Grisham’s novels were practically being published with film production call sheets as appendices. There was barely time to move a bookmark from front to back before the scuttlebutt about the film was in full lather, interest only compounded by Flynn’s very direct involvement in the production. She’s the only credited writer on the adapted screenplay, which made rumors of changes — even highly significant changes — all the more intriguing.

Despite hints otherwise, the finished film is highly faithful to Flynn’s original work. Yet, what’s fascinating in that respect is the skillful, sometimes merciless adaptation Flynn has rendered. A former writer for Entertainment Weekly who spent her fair share of time covering film, Flynn noted that her experience allowed her to approach the task of adaptation without a sense of preciousness about her plot and words. She recognized that prose and film are two entirely different beasts, and her new task was reshaping her story to the needs of cinema. She’s succeeded beautifully. Gone Girl has the same headlong, devilishly unpredictable storytelling of Flynn’s novel. If she necessarily transferred a couple of the slightly questionable plot turns, Flynn also shrewdly knew what to cut. Even stretching out to director David Fincher’s preferred lengthiness (he hasn’t made a film that runs less that two hours since 2002’s Panic Room), the film never feels long because the story has been shaved down to its essentials.

And the essentials of Gone Girl are consistently compelling. A woman named Amy (Rosamund Pike) has gone missing from her suburban Missouri home, on her wedding anniversary, no less. Her husband, Nick (Ben Affleck), seems the likeliest suspect, especially as different details emerge about oddities at the crime scene and strain within the marriage, largely, so it seems, due to Nick’s various transgressions. In the novel, Flynn deftly withholds information without resorting to trickery, making the truth unclear for a remarkable length of time. If the film can’t quite replicate that uncertainty, it has its own intriguing tension to it, building meticulously rendered thrills in the discovery process, which is happening on multiple levels — with the police, with Nick, with everyone else that slips into the orbit of the mystery.

Those discoveries are met time and again by an absolutely perfect cast. Rosamund Pike is the most stellar, playing a deeply complicated role with subtlety and restrained invention, but there a great turns throughout: Tyler Perry as an assured, coolly gregarious attorney, Kim Dickens as a detective investigating the disappearance, Carrie Coon as Nick’s sister (arguably the only character who can be said to be consistently sympathetic), and even Sela Ward, making the most of a handful of minutes as a television interviewer. The little miracles even extend to Affleck, that most opaque of actors, who is ideally suited for the role and handles it with the right balance of anxiety and agitation. He can’t quite find his way to the nuance needed for some of the later scenes, but there’s a high degree of difficulty to those most critical moments. It’s hardly a huge failing that Affleck clips his toe on the top of the final hurdle.

The movie has already launched a thousand think pieces, with another thousand sure to come. This fevered attempt to parse the deeper meanings and subtexts of the story only makes me that much more grateful that Fincher is at the helm. I don’t agree with or celebrate every choice he makes as a filmmaker, but at least he makes choices with some meaning behind them. It would have been so easy to hand this hot property over to a safe Hollywood hack like Brett Ratner or Ridley Scott and just watch the box office tote board spin to ever higher numbers. But Gone Girl is more richer work than that, one that deserves proper attention given to its deeper, darker themes. For example, those who challenge the whole work as problematically playing to the misogynistic suspicion that most women who are reporting some sort of abuse are doing so out of calculation and retribution aren’t entirely wrong, but in ignoring the inherent judgments rendered against nearly every character in the story, they’re not precisely right either.

Fincher makes his own choices that further challenge easy conclusions about that Gone Girl is ultimately trying to say, the most prominent in the staging of the famous “Cool Girl” monologue. Needing something visual to go with the words, Fincher puts a truncated version of the monologue over point of view shots of women in passing vehicles who presumably fit the angry description. This shifts the judgment in interesting ways, but not necessarily in the way that’s most readily apparent. There’s been some consternation about the choice, saying the blame shifts from oppressive social constructions to the women themselves (which already offers a slightly more generous reading of the original passage). That ignores, however, that the women in the nearby cars aren’t accompanied by men, so there’s no reason to believe they’re performing. Maybe they are indeed being themselves, as most do when in the supposedly protected, private space of a moving car (in truth, everyone can see the full-throated singing along to a Kelly Clarkson song). This then makes the monologue untrue and maybe just another manifestation of the unhinged disdain that defines the character delivering it.

I have no idea as to whether or not my little “think paragraph” there accurately describes Fincher’s intent in the scene. In a way, I don’t care. That there’s material within the film to explore, to hold up to the light from as many different angles as possible, is cause enough to celebrate Gone Girl. Fincher, Flynn, and everyone involved could have settled for a humble potboiler. Instead, they took a stab at complex, ambiguous art. Maybe that’s why it strikes me as timeless.

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College Countdown: Rockpool’s Top 20 College Radio Albums, November 1988, 13

13. Michelle Shocked, Short Sharp Shocked

I’m going to flip the script for this week’s entry. Usually, I track through where I was at in my musical growth when I first encountered the record featured, talk about the actual merits of the music, and then finish with a brief consideration of where the artist has gone in the twenty-five (plus!) years since. With Michelle Shocked, however, I feel compelled to begin with the unexpected anti-gay marriage rant from last year that earned her more prominent placement in the music press than she’s had in years. I would have quickly named Shocked as one of my favorite performers through the first half of the nineteen-nineties, but I largely lost track of her somewhere around the time she wrenched herself free of the label contract that inspired her to name a self-released album Artists Make Lousy Slaves. By the time I got to hear her output again a few years later, it sounded drab enough to me that I didn’t give it much additional thought. I certainly didn’t know she’d become a born again Christian, openly referring to herself as “the world’s greatest homophobe” when asked about the lesbian fan base that was instrumental in her early success. So the bigotry she espoused was entirely unexpected to me, especially since it was so completely at odds with the image I had of her from the time when I was an avid listener. She was a lefty protest singer when I left her. Now she was practically auditioning for a spot on a Fox News panel (well, except for getting arrested at Occupy L.A. protests).

As I noted, my disinterest in her more recent music is entirely on its merits (albeit merits gauged in the equivalent of glancing blows) and not predicated on a personal aversion to her bigotry, though that reaction is firmly in place. I’ve long said that if I got rid of every album in my collection that was created by everyone who I was pretty sure could be reasonably termed as an asshole in real life, I wouldn’t have much much music left to listen to. Still, I take a certain satisfaction in the fact that it’s now been a long, long time since I’ve supported Shocked in any way, while simultaneously feeling a little tingle of what can best be called regret whenever one of her old songs shuffles up. All that typed, Short Sharp Shocked is a terrific album.

Released by Mercury Records in the fall of 1988, Short Sharp Shocked was Shocked’s second album, and it was a clear statement of purpose. Her debut release, The Texas Campfire Tapes, is exactly what title implies. The album is what the lo-fi kids dream about: it’s nothing more than Shocked sitting out in the open air, playing her guitar and singing her songs. There are crickets in the background. The starkness of unadorned music presented her as a songwriter, first and foremost. She was a nimble musician and possessed an evocative voice, but the selling point was her ability to craft compelling songs that told stories both simple and profound. That established, Short Sharp Shocked seemed positioned to prove how much more she could do. The opening track, “When I Grow Up,” is layered with different studio adornments, as if to jar any listener expecting more of the same. It’s hardly a New Order song or anything like that, but it is loaded with strange, bendy noises that alter the dynamics of the song, heightening the sense of oddity as Shocked announces in the lyrics that she plans to have well over a hundred babies, adding, “We’ll raise ‘em on tiger’s milk and green bananas/ Mangoes and coconuts and watermelons/ We’re gonna give ‘em that watermelon when they starts yellin’.”

Across the album, Shocked balances folk-punk sensibilities with an earthier brand of studio polish, the latter provided by producer Pete Anderson, a longtime collaborator of Dwight Yoakam. Lead single “Anchorage” even alludes to this, as the reported correspondence with her friend who’s relocated to “the largest state in the Union” asks her “What’s it like to be a skateboard punk rocker” and notes that her husband, Leroy, urges her to “keep on rocking, girl.” He also wants a picture. While Shocked made a case for herself as a pointed, politically-minded folk singer, she clearly didn’t want to be pigeonholed either. Thought that would become even more clear on subsequent releases, Short Sharp Shocked is already filled with songs that convincingly make the case that Shocked can zip across different styles: the bluesy grind of “If Love Was a Train,” the punk blast of hidden track “Fogtown,” the protest song repackaged as oblong jazz rumination with “Graffiti Limbo.”

That diversity of sound combined with the strength of her point of view had me convinced that Shocked was one of those artists who was in it for the long haul. This wasn’t just an interesting voice, I though. It was an important voice. I stuck with that conviction for a while, thought Shocked kept doing little things to convince me otherwise, including the one live performance I saw, circa 1996, when she alternated between daffily charming and borderline basket case. Still, I never foresaw how far off the rails she’d someday go, so far that it’s inconceivable she can find her way back to the sturdy, steel pathway ever again.

Previously…
An Introduction
–20: Substance
–19: End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues
–18: Rank
–17: Lovely
–16: Ghost Stories
–15: 2 Steps from the Middle Ages
–14: Lincoln

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From the Archive: Carlito’s Way

I’m overjoyed that I’m presenting a review in which I use the word “downright” twice. As the Gone Girl think pieces begin to pile up, let’s revisit the last decent work of a director who has genuine threads of misogyny running through his work, shall we? This was written for the Reel Thing Reports that ran a couple times a day on WWSP-90FM after my graduation necessitated retiring the weekly program of the same (or same-ish, to be accurate) name.

Almost all of director Brian De Palma’s films include at least one passage that is put together with such impressive images and live wire storytelling skill that you’d swear he agreed to the entire picture just to take a crack at that one section. In a great film like “The Untouchables,” it’s the Odessa Steps tribute final shootout. And even a bad film like “Bonfire of the Vanities” boasts the dizzying opening tracking shot that follows Bruce Willis through the maze-like interior of a hotel basement. In De Palma’s new film, entitled “Carlito’s Way,” the moment comes near the end and finds Al Pacino being chased through the subway and engaging in a gun battle on the escalators of Grand Central Station. The scene recalls “The Untouchables” and reinvents it for thr grittier, nastier ’90s. The poetry has been intentionally drained out of it, and it now plays out with a new rage and intensity, hitting with the impact of a lightning strike.

In the film, Pacino plays Carlito Brigante, a Puerto Rican gangster who is sprung early from a thirty-year prison sentence because of illegal wiretaps used in his conviction. He wants to go straight, dreaming of retiring to the Bahamas to run a car rental business. But every time he wants out, they pull him back in. Though he gets a respectable job running a trendy nightclub, his past keeps intruding into his life, both in the form of old friends and a troubling reputation. The biggest challenge to his attempts to change comes from the seedy lawyer who got him out of prison and requests a favor that Pacino feels honor bound to do for him.

The screenplay isn’t exactly bursting with originality and feels like particularly old ground for Pacino. The screenplay by David Koepp, adapted from a pair of Edwin Torres novels, moves through the motions so predictably that De Palma can start the film by showing us the ending without doing a whole lot of damage. We would have seen it coming anyway. The weak screenplay is overcome, however, by the trio of De Palma, Pacino, and Penn. After a series of misfires, De Palma is back in fine, corrosively exciting form. As the camera swings around Pacino’s disco, taking in the gaudy neon or the editing is fast and furious during a tense poolroom scene, you can feel De Palma bristling with creative energy. De Palma makes this world so darkly appalling that looking away is impossible.

Pacino is given surprisingly little to do as the film takes advantage of his character’s allegiances with ever trying to understand them, but he is nonetheless a riveting, explosive screen presence. When the anger of his past life rushes into the character, Pacino makes the moment downright chilling. And Sean Penn takes the character of the lawyer and finds the oily soul of a man who has spent his professional life intimidated by his gangster clients and is now reveling in the cocaine-inspired confidence that allows him to lash back at them. None of that forgives the fact that Penelope Ann Miller’s character, a dancer who serves as Pacino’s love interest, is horribly underwritten. And those who continually charge De Palma with misogynistic attitudes in his films will find plenty to rail against here, much of it hard to defend.

“Carlito’s Way” stands as little more than a shaky star vehicle meant to give Al Pacino the chance to show off his ferocious talent. Luckily, on those terms, it’s genuinely entertaining and, at times, downright thrilling. (3 stars, out of 4)

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One for Friday: Big Audio Dynamite, “The Battle of All Saints Road”

Mick Jones won the break-up of the Clash. While the intense animosity that led to the dissolution of The Only Band That Matters didn’t necessarily last (Jones and Joe Strummer, the primary combatants, were working together again by 1986, a mere three years after the former was fired from the Clash by the latter), it was enough of a defining factor in the band’s end that it felt like there was an obligation to choose sides, in the same way that everyone had to have a favorite Beatle. That comparison might seem a little off, but the band’s masterpiece, London Calling, does bear a shared writing credit for Jones and Strummer that recalls the famous “Lennon/McCartney” tag. Hell, the Clash even had a Yoko Ono analogue of sorts, when Jones’s tempestuous relationship with Ellen Foley occasionally impacted band dynamics (and inspired one of their best songs, so it’s a net win for the listening public). There was no requirement to weigh in on bassist Paul Simonon post-Clash career, but weighing whether Jones or Strummer got the better of the aftermath was a topic for the cool kids to talk about over the last tepid beer at three in the morning.

At least in the late-eighties, I think it was considered cooler to favor Joe Strummer. For one thing, he simply looked the part. For another, Strummer was mostly working on cool movie soundtracks (back when Alex Cox was still considered a vital, up-and-coming director) and even getting the occasional acting gig in films with heady indie cachet. At the time, most of the people who I heard talk about what Jones was simultaneously up to were fairly dismissive of it, at least in comparison. They may have owned the records he was making with his new band, Big Audio Dynamite, but they weren’t all that happy about it.

Thing is, those Big Audio Dynamite albums have aged pretty well. Upon their release, there was often more focus on how far Jones had strayed from the beloved sound of the Clash. Usually, that sort of creative growth and diversity would be viewed as a positive. It’s a little different when the predecessor group looms so large and the dance-driven beats adopted by the later band seem so far removed from the punk legend. Realistically, what Big Audio Dynamite was creating wasn’t so wildly different from the output of the Clash that some lines couldn’t be drawn between the two, wavy as they might be. This is especially true if the line is drawn to the terrific free-for-all of Sandinista! (here I will concede that I have a greater affection for Sandinista! than most). And the best Big Audio Dynamite music fairly bristles with the energy of a group trying out all the rapidly-evolving studio possibilities at their disposal. Strummer’s musical efforts after his time in the Clash are generally muddled and disappointing. While Big Audio Dynamite arguably never put it all together on a single album, they created a lot of material worth celebrating, making them one of the few groups that offer justification for a well-curated “Greatest Hits” release as necessary addition to a record collection.

Listen or download –> Big Audio Dynamite, “The Battle of All Saints Road”

(Disclaimer: As the absolute lack of commentary on the individual track shared might suggest, the song was selected less because of its particular brilliance and more because it’s one of the better offerings from an album that’s out of print. Additionally, to the best of my knowledge it hasn’t been included on one of the many collections to come out under the Big Audio Dynamite name, hence my use of the term “well-curated” in the aspirational recommendation in the last sentence of the proper write-up. So many words in this disclaimer already, and I haven’t even gotten to the obligatory notice of willing removal of the track from the internet if I’m asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request. That’s what happens when the disclaimer has to carry some of the burden of explaining the track because I simply didn’t do a good enough job in the meat of the post. It feels like a mess right now, is what I’m trying to convey. So I’m just going to stop typing. Well, I’ll stop after adding the last parenthesis anyway.)

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That Championship Season: Gilmore Girls, Season Three

I think of the focus on and fascination with television showrunners as a relatively new phenomenon. There were a handful of producers whose names meant something to viewers a generation or two earlier (Aaron Spelling and Steven Bochco, to select two located at markedly different places on the quality programming spectrum), but by and large the creative process that went into episodic series wasn’t really at the forefront, even, quite often, for those charged with writing about television. The sharpest turn in that direction probably came with the emergence of The Sopranos, a show that was so clearly a different-level work of art that there was a greater urgency to ascribe authorship to it. It wasn’t TV, it was HBO, after all. At around the same time, a far less likely network was doing its part to establish the primacy of the showrunner voice as the most compelling reason to point metaphorical rabbit ears in their direction. The WB launched in 2005 as little more than a desperate attempt to duplicate the success of Fox, right down to weird, carbon copy shows. By the late-nineties, it was settling on its own character, thanks largely to the cult success of Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, itself an argument for championing a distinctive creator. The show that represented the same argument made in tandem was Amy Sherman-Palladino’s Gilmore Girls.

Considering its development, Gilmore Girls presumably would have more in common with the WB’s most popular program, the religion-tinged, very-special-episode factory 7th Heaven. Gilmore Girls was one of the first series that was financial propped up by the Family Friendly Programming Forum (it seems to now be known as the ANA Alliance for Family Entertainment), a group that provided dollars during the process of creating a pilot. Certainly the presence of a headstrong unwed mother indicated this might not be strictly safe, Christian-y fare, but the shadow presence of that group often led coverage of the program when it debuted. Quickly, though, it became clear that whatever levels of familial drama that may have garnered Sherman-Palladino some support from the group was largely a vehicle for her to provide what really seemed to interest her: the sharpest, wittiest, fastest dialogue she could tap out. It wasn’t for nothing that she named her production company Dorothy Parker Drank Here. Palladino and her writing staff were famous for delivering scripts that seemed far too long to fit into the the 45 minutes allotted for the program. While they had their not-so-secret weapons (star Lauren Graham chief among them) in accomplishing the accordioning of too many words into too little time, mostly it was a dedication to transferring the classic screwball comedy banter to a 21st century awash in high school drama and pop culture references.

The show was solid from the jump, but by the third season, the rhythms were perfectly developed. Importantly, the show also wasn’t yet suffering from the problems that would eventually do it in: an overabundance of implausible small town quirk and a need to prolong the longterm dramatic arcs, especially those centered on romantic relationships, until keeping the desired conflicts in place necessitated a procession of increasingly poor decisions. In Season Three, the show could still play around with its requisite will-they-or-won’t-they storyline, between Lorelei (Graham) and Luke (Scott Patterson) by opening with a rare instance of a dream sequence fake-out done well.

Lorelei dreams she and Luke are a couple, he cooking her breakfast in the morning and she pregnant with twins (preemptively dubbed Sid and Nancy). As the first scene following summer hiatus, it seemed there could be a real chance that the status quo had been upended. Even as a manifestation of Lorelei’s subconscious, it held some promise of a willingness to take the story in new directions. That promise wasn’t entirely fulfilled during the course of the third season, but Palladino’s interest in toying with audience expectations is a fruitful clue as to the friction of possibility in what would follow.

Much of the success of the season stemmed from the solid groundwork done previously on the show. Gilmore Girls benefitted from well-drawn characters with clear motivations and relationships to each other. Lorelei was trying to provide opportunities for her daughter, Rory (Alexis Bledel), while doing her level-best to avoid relying on the wealthy parents, Emily and Richard (Kelly Bishop and Edward Herrmann, both invaluable), she never forgave for perceived slights in her youth. In the show’s most useful, even ingenious conceit, to get the loan necessary to keep Rory attending the a posh prep school that will aid in her ivy league aspirations, Lorelei has to agree to weekly family dinners with the whole family, meaning the most manipulative action taken by her parents springs from a desire for togetherness. Not only does it set up scenes flavored with the sort of veiled animosity and aspirations towards intellectual one-upsmanship that are the stuff of beautifully barbed dialogue, but it casts the one of the show’s central conflicts in gratifying ambiguity. Richard and Emily may be the antagonists to our beloved, motormouth protagonist, but they really just want to know their granddaughter. How bad can they be?

By this point, the dynamic was so well established that the show could have its most prosperous creative moments in introducing other characters into the dinner scenes. This was often accomplished with boyfriends, since tangled romances were the easiest ways to keep problems brewing for the Gilmores. It’s a sign of the where the show’s real heart lies that the most effective way to shift the dinner sequence on its axis was the inclusion of Richard’s mother, Trix (Marion Ross), an imperious figure whose bullying of Emily both mirrored the treatment Lorelei felt she received from her parents and shifted her sympathy back to her mother.

Given the well-established baselines, there were fruitful, realistic complications that could be added. It had meaning when Rory’s friend Lane (Keiko Agena) could surreptitiously join a band and date a boy outside of her mother’s narrow range of approval (the boy was played by Adam Brody in a performance that anticipated and probably shaped the charms of Seth Cohen). Lorelei’s dreams of owning her own inn with her chef friend Sookie (Melissa McCarthy) had the weight of developed history when shifting fortunes necessitated unexpectedly early decisions. The love triangle Rory had ensconced herself within had small, wholly believable developments, including one of the relatively rare instances when one of the ridiculous events that were constantly taking place in Stars Hollow, the forcibly quaint Connecticut town where Lorelei and Rory lived, added poignancy to a moment, when one of Rory’s relationships ended at a dance marathon, complete with period costumes.

There’s a key strength to the third season in the “small developments” I refer to. Gilmore Girls is about likable, tenderly flawed people. Keeping their problems at mild, manageable levels is an important strategy. The more complex the series got in providing hardship and setbacks to its characters, the more it needed to rely on uncharacteristic self-sabotage. Palladino wrote smart characters, which made it problematic in later seasons when the plots required them to do stupid things. In Season Three, the proper balance remains in place. Even what is arguably the most problematic recurring storyline in the series, Lorelei’s continued fascination with Christopher (David Sutcliffe), her ex and Rory’s father, fully makes sense in this season, as it’s grounded in his unlikely forward movement towards maturity, which naturally makes Lorelei think about both what could have been and the ways in which her own life is stalled. It works within the established context of the character without diminishing her.

Creatively, Palladino exhibited more assurance during the third season of Gilmore Girls than at any other point in the run of the series. (The final season was the only one that didn’t have Palladino as a showrunner and is best ignored.) Through steady development of the program’s world, she’d earned trust, and the presence of her name connected to the writing credit at the top of the show promised an episode especially rife with brightly bristling dialogue. It was also a welcome reminder that the reason Gilmore Girls was so good was because she was running the show.

Previously…
An Introduction
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season Five
Cheers, Season Five
The Sopranos, Season One
St. Elsewhere, Season Four
Veronica Mars, Season One
The Office, Season Two
The Ben Stiller Show, Season One

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Top Fifty Films of the 50s — Number Thirteen

#13 — Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954)
Sometimes when a work of art can reasonably be deemed prescient, what’s actually happening is the fiction is tapping into a fundamental truth about human nature, something that can carry forward and be applied to future situations regardless of the technological or social advances that take place. The crux of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window — the specific incident that drives the plot — involves a housebound photographer (James Stewart) who looks across the courtyard and witnesses what he’s certain is a murder. Adapted from a Cornell Woolrich short story (the script is credited to John Michael Hayes, one of Hitchcock’s favored screenwriters), the film allows Hitchcock to scratch many of his most persistent artistic itches: the normal man thrust into troubling circumstances, the ease with which people commit reprehensible acts, even a rigid structural impediment that necessitates visual creativity (the director had such a complete command of film narrative grammar by this point in his career that it seemed he was cooking up self-imposed challenges to keep things interesting). It succeeds equally as a piece of crackerjack entertainment and a master class in onscreen suspense, which contributes to this standing as arguably Hitchcock’s most imitated film, at least if television episode storylines are included in the tallying. For me, the primary appeal of a modern viewing is discovering how nicely Rear Window serves as an analogue for the safely distant voyeurism of the internet age.

Stewart’s L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies may become obsessive over the dark doings of Lars Thorswald (Raymond Burr), but that’s not the only impromptu reality show he watches across the way. The conspicuous lack of blinds or drawn curtains on his neighbors’ windows sets Jeff to examining all of them, taking what he sees to help build narratives and add character depth. He goes further to give some of them nicknames, such as Miss Torso (Georgine Darcy) and Miss Lonelyheart (Judith Evelyn), not unlike the online handles that currently proliferate. He consumes the data they unwittingly provide, eventually feeling that he knows them, knows their stories. He has only shards of their existences and yet feels as closeness to them all, one that he doesn’t quite realize is entirely manufactured by him. To most of them he is a passive observer, unnoticed and not considered. He is following, but has no followers himself. That imbalance doesn’t diminish his sense of closeness to those he watches, indeed his feeling of ownership. Jeff stands in for anyone who follows a Twitter feed (or Tumblr account, or Instagram account, or….) and feels a one-sided closeness to a stranger because of it.

Of course, all that film school analysis is probably more indicative of the pliability of Hitchcock’s themes than anything else. Jeff’s hunt for the portions of the murder plot that are still missing from his picture can be (and certainly has been) seen as Hitchcock illustrating the necessary storytelling rigor than goes into good filmmaking. Voyeurism in any and all of its forms is present in the film, and surely there are hundreds of meticulous, passionate essays with the subtitle “Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window and the Male Gaze” out there in the world. Hell, it’s possible the only thing the director really cared about in pursuing Rear Window was the cementing of another vehicle that would allow him to train his camera on Grace Kelly, the quintessential Hitchcock blonde, all placid beauty and untouchable, well-chilled sex appeal. It was his second film with her that already that year, and the second of three straight in which he cast her in the lead. Almost as if he knew his time with her as a muse was limited, he pushed to work with Kelly as much as possible. My celebration of modern parallels to Rear Window‘s ideas aside, Hitchcock’s urgency to collaborate with Kelly before she exited his creative life forever may represent the keenest predictive powers at work.

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Posted in Film
October 2014
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