Friday, March 30, 2012

Remains of the Day - as wonderful on paper as it is on screen

I just finished reading Remains of the Day. It was a remarkable book. But even more remarkable perhaps is the fact that now having read it, I am put in the unusual position of finding that experiencing a book deepened my appreciation of its film adaptation.

The book is a moving and intimate portrait of Mr. Stevens. With its narrow beam on Stevens' internal dialog and its brilliant first person narrative, the book breaths precious life into both large scale changes going on in the world and and the introspective twilight of an individual man's life. It is poignant, touching, sad and thought provoking -- compelling literature.

As for the film, which I've seen a couple of times: I knew that it was good, even great, but until now I didn't realize how remarkably true to the story as written by Kazuo Ishiguro, it was. Yes, there are a couple of small details that changed, but the film manages to mirror the amazing subtlety and introspective tone found in the book and follow the plot very closely indeed. It is shocking how some scenes, such as those involving Stevens' elderly father, played out with as much and more heartbreaking poingnancy in the film as in the book.

The central messages of the film/book are equally ambiguous: Stevens' definitions of "dignity" and "greatness" (as it pertains to butlery?), Stevens' priorities which fascinatingly allow him to ignore the real moments of his own life while supporting the work of men he is convinced are great and who dabble in major world events. It is easy to judge Stevens and find great loss in how he has lived, but who is to say that his notions and his service were wholly wrong? Giving of oneself totally in service to others is something few modern people understand. He is nothing if not intelligent and intentional with his choices.

In any case, although I enjoyed the film version very much before, now having read Remains of the Day, I am simply floored by what the movie was able to do.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Movies and TV Shows are almost always "good"

My sister and I were talking yesterday; she was anticipating her trip to the theater to see the Hunger Games and wondering if it was going to be good.

For some reason, that struck me as interesting and I got to thinking. Of course it's going to be "good." It is almost certain to be an extraordinary entertainment experience. In fact, this is true about just about any big-budget Hollywood movie. Think alone of the spectacle of costumes, props and locations, the camera work, the sheer number of actors on screen. Even when a movie really misses the mark and fails to tell a great story or provide a moving experience, it is almost always capable of entertaining us if we let it.

Imagine applying Hollywood production standards to your kid's school play. How much entertainment value would you get from Hollywood standard special effects, sound track, or choreography if it were done locally? Even catastrophic "flops" like Cleopatra or The Postman provide stunning levels of production value entertainment if viewed in the right light.

I don't mean to suggest that I myself don't have very high viewing standards. I know I do. I don't like to spend time with movie and TV that doesn't offer something truly meaningful. But, it is important every once in a while to step back and notice that the people who produce shows, fill our lives with incredibly good entertainment all the time, even when they fail to do something profound.  It is very rare to see any movie so bad that watching it truly feels like such a waste of time and money and that I actually want to leave the theater.

And theater-going aside (which must be a special case in favor of putting up with sub-standard work, considering that we've put on clothes, gotten into the car, shelled out money, and restricted ourselves to the option now playing in front of us), we watch a huge variety of shows with spectacular ease in our modern world. Even if you just weigh the quality of work now available around you at all times, through Netflix, TV, Youtbue, you-name-it, there can be no doubt that we have all become super-connoisseurs of entertainment. We can preview and watch snippets and move on oh so easily when they don't strike our fancy. There is no commitment. It is easy to flip through channels and get frustrated thinking "there's nothing good on" -- but the real problem is the reverse! Almost everything on is good to some extent, so it takes something exceptional to even tempt us.

We are clearly the most entertained people to have ever walked the earth. (Even the most pathetic of game apps on my phone is, truly, astonishingly capable entertainment). Please don't misunderstand. It is important to be discerning, exactly because of this glut of entertainment; it is more important than ever to spend our time wisely on things that feel fulfilling and meaningful. But don't lets confuse that idea with the idea that the things we don't like don't have some entertainment value to offer. They as often as not involve the myriad talents of people who are extremely good at what they do and the expenditures of massive amounts of money. They are "good" productions at some basic level. Even if we don't want to watch them.

Here's a piece I came across on a site called the Daily Beast while doing a bit of research on Hollywood's Top Ten Biggest Flops. The article says that "aside from Geena Davis's sassy one-liners, there is nothing enjoyable about 1995's Cutthroat Island." Seriously? Nothing?

This photograph alone looks pretty spectacular to me. Look at that dress she's wearing. Its gorgeous. Imagine that at the local high school theater production. Also notice that there's some sort of explosion going on in the background? Imagine how much entertainment value would be packed into an explosion like that were it part of your local neighborhood's 4th of July fair?  Just because the movie lost money and didn't live up to its potential, doesn't mean it had nothing to offer the consumer. Should we only decide we've been entertained if our excitement is proportional to how much the production company spent?

In any case, I haven't talked to my sister today to find out how Hunger Games went. But I'm pretty sure that, by almost any reasonable standard, it was good.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Sliding Doors, More than a Clever Little Plot Device

After watching a great movie, I often read reviews of it. I'm not sure why -- whether I'm seeking validation ("it really was good, wasn't it?") or just looking to put my finger on what made it good, but I like to hear what the professionals have to say.

So when they trash a movie that I find amazing, its a jarring reality.  And then the wheels of justification start turning. These are the times it is really good to have a blog.

And what movie inspired such clashing of realities? Sliding Doors. The 1998 movie staring Gwyneth Paltrow. Watching it again recently and reveling in the incredible theme of dual realities, I was surprised to find that I seem to like this film a lot more than most critics do. They all pay lip service to the clever plot device underlying the film but then nitpick the script. In doing so they really miss the magic. The parallel, alternate reality concept is much more than just a clever little idea, it is a brilliant concept worthy of acclaim and providing a deep movie-watching experience.

Imagine if one of those "what if moments" in life came true. "If only I'd locked the door," "made that light," "turned off the iron," or "called my mom" -- all the little moments on which the happiness of our lives seem to turn at a given moment. What if we could metaphysically explore both alternate timelines and see what would have been different?

That is what Sliding Doors visualizes so wonderfully in this elegantly philosophical exploration of a woman's life.

As the movie starts, our main character, Helen, (Gwenyth Paltrow) gets fired from her job. She heads home in humiliation. Only she misses her subway train by a second -- the sliding door shuts in her face. At that moment, this movie allows reality to split. Her life becomes bifurcated.

In one possible reality, yes, she misses that train, and takes a cab. But what if she had made that train? A second vignette begins to intercut with the first and explores that reality. If she had made the train? She'd have plopped herself down next to John Hannah (nice sympathetic and intelligent guy "James" with his impossibly charming accent.) Not a bad thing to have happen, even on an otherwise really bad day. Then she'd get home a bit earlier, and what she would find there would change her life even more: her boyfriend making love to another woman. Now she has no job and no guy and is hits rock bottom instantly.

But in the other vignette, Helen, after her cab ride, gets out and gets mugged which causes two important things to happen, the first that she shows up back at the apartment too late to catch her boyfriend in the act, and the second, that she gets a very useful bandage on her head (to let us know which vignette we're in). This Helen thinks her relationship is fine and takes comfort in his arms.

From here reality plays out along a different course for each. The rock-bottom Gwyneth gets a new hairdo, taking over where the bandage left off in distinguishing our vignettes. She doesn’t have a relationship to fall back on so she plows headlong into change, relying on true friends old and new to support her in her new choices. New friend James is adorable in this movie. In one of my favorite scenes, as he gets to know Helen better:

“Wait. Hold. Hold. Your friend Anna thinks I’m cute? You’re friend Anna thinks I’m cute. Shit  I just blew, wait, 2. 85. 2.85 on the wrong girl." James sums up one of the central tenants of life in his next speech: "Helen, listen sometimes we are thrown into people lives when they just need to be cheered up, or reassured, and it turns out for some reason its your  job. - I don’t know why.  - In your case its my job.  But, I’ll be honest, the fact that I find you moderately attractive just makes my job easier on my part. My intentions are completely honorable."

The plot continues on, exploring both Helens' relationships and careers. Ultimately the message is that you can't avoid the life you're supposed to be living. Your fate is your fate and both Helens move along a life course that will ultimately explore the reality they have to be living. I won't give away too many more plot details because if you've read this far, you should certainly be watching the movie for yourself.


Thursday, March 8, 2012

Why "Mad Men" is Ultimately Disappointing

Despite its stunning use of period detail and its talented cast, especially the inexplicably appealing lead character Don Draper, Mad Men fails. Or, at least, doesn't quite live up to what is should be, because, in spite of all these tremendous advantages, it, like most American tv, fails to understand what great drama is ultimately about and instead devolves into caricature and simple male fantasy.

In case you aren't familiar with the show, let me backtrack a bit. Mad Men, a show soon to be in its 5th season on AMC and easy enough to find on Netflix, takes its name from a term that was apparently coined in the 1950s or 1960s for the magical talents of the men who populated the high power Madison Avenue advertising world. The show's setting in a very polished 1960s world is a stroke of genius. And its attention to period clothing, music, typewriters, and hairstyles is nothing short of astonishing. If you like the early 60s, this show is worth watching for that reason alone.

Unfortunately, beyond the heady transportation back in time, the show is an example of lost potential -- offering up a far too simplistic and shallow interpretation of gender roles to be able to be taken seriously. Which is sad because I really wanted to take the show seriously! The poorly conceived gender roles are such a huge part of the show, they can't be set off to the side easily.

The office setting is populated with stables of unreasonably jerky sexist men and irrationally simple "girls" who serve them. It is irrational because their interplay is too far beyond what would have been conceivably acceptable in a high-level business environment. The men are beyond sexist -- they are boorish, rude and seriously entitled. The women are worse: simple, shrinking, and servile to the extreme.

I can accept that an office with a male-dominated power structure and pretty young secretaries probably had lots of hanky panky going on in the early 1960s, but it also has to be true that most of the men and women populating that world would have been devoted enough to their jobs and higher life-purposes to have been basically respectful of one another. The problem with Mad Men, as with so many American shows is that is just goes too far toward showing a fantasy male world. If the show were only reasonably balanced in its portrayals I would be in love with it. But instead, it portrays a view of women that is extremely limited.

Disproportionately dismal pictures of the past aren't helpful. Some will watch and say: "oooh, look how bad things used to be and how far we've come" or "well, that's just the way the world was back then." But believing too ill of the recent past diminishes us. Yes, the world was a more limited place in 1960 -- surely women were propositioned at work and treated as less capable than men. But they weren't property. And they did actually have brains, even if many men didn't recognize that. I am disappointed that the women on the show are so accepting of their very limited role. But I am even more dissappointed that the show protrays men as almost uniformly and collectively offensive. I'm not questioning that men had more social licence back then to be horrific to women, but that so many of them would choose it.

A particularly glaring example of this is in an episode where the ad men who are having a difficult time coming up with a slogan for a lipstick promotion gather all the secretaries into a room for a brainstorming session to try out the lipsticks. Although it was their idea to see what the women thought, the men are all extremely condescending. This scene plays out like an X-rated movie with the sexy women all gathered together giggling and talking about how stupid they are -- wondering what it means to “brainstorm” and primping and thrusting themselves about, while putting on lipstick as the men all sit behind a two-way mirror making insulting comments about them.

The part that strains credulity is that the show wants it both ways -- both a vision of women as extremely oppressed and downtrodden (to the point that they don't express opinions or any dissatisfaction) and, at the same time, extremely willing to be sexually promiscuous without much thought as to who with or why. It's not a reasonable interpretation of what people do.

Ironically, it is because the show refuses to allow such an unrealistic fantasy interpretation of one character, Don Draper, that he is the highlight of the program. Unlike Mad Men's treatment of women (painted heavily with a fake male fantasy brush), Draper is painted fairly, and in mottled tones. It would have been very easy to make him a godlike man -- the perfect female fantasy -- if he were also a faithful  and present husband. But he's not. He's real and he's nuanced and he cheats. He's a deeply fallible character and a very real one.

Draper has a Cary Grant-like charm and polish but is also rough and masculine.  At the same time, he is capable of great vulnerability when he's with the women he's with. Its surprising to see such a character be emotional and fleshed out. An interesting and winning combination. And Don Draper has excellent taste in women. He may be horny but he is not shallow or cheap. Even his silly simple blonde wife is very kind, sweet, deep, and sad. She is appealing and likable -- as are his hipster, beatnik, freethinking girlfriend and his intelligent and serious crush.

Oddly enough, I do enjoy the show -- despite its shortcomings, and will probably continue to watch it. I just could have loved it so much better had it made an attempt to produce a more real reality with respect to gender roles. I can't rejoice in a show that makes so little effort to rejoice in women.

I should add the caveat that I'm only halfway in to the first season. For all I know, the producers and writers have learned about and become attentive to these issues -- and addressed them in subsequent episodes or seasons. Because if it simply offered a reasonable mix of happy women and dissatisfied women of loose women and virginal women, as well as men who were boorish and men who were pleasant and respectful, the show would be amazing. As with most things, a reasonable mix really does do the trick.

I can't help but wish that this show had been brought to my screen via my beloved Brits. I am sure they could have done it right. Had Mad Men been produced by people who had a real drama sense underlying it, it could have been amazing.