Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Singing Soprano in the Choir, Harmonies with Brandon

"Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed on. If, by the admittance of abandoned men, this evil increases to such a degree that it holds places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues peoples, it assumes the more plainly the name of a kingdom, because the reality is now manifestly conferred on it, not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity. Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, What you mean by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, while you who does it with a great fleet are styled emperor." -Augustine, City of God

One of the failures of Letterboxd is its exclusion of television. So, blog.

I've been watching The Sopranos over the past month. I'm an American. I'm a cinephile. Therefore, I'm necessarily an observer of Gangster Culture. Like most others, my entire experience of this breed of person is mediated through the motion picture experience.

The Sopranos is hyper aware of this backlog of film gangsters. And it is smart about its present moment, presenting the breakdown of culture and values and all connections. And of course this breakdown affects those who operate outside of the "law" as much as anyone else.

I've been interested recently in pirates, both as a reality and as a metaphor.

Pirates are a law unto themselves, not recognizing the "laws of the land" (because they are subject to no land). They are transnational in their transgressions. But lawless does not necessarily mean immoral or anarchic.

So, Tony Soprano. A true King, a man presiding over a real kingdom. What separates his kingdom from the NJ civil apparatus is a piece of paper and wider social recognition. Besides this, the two aren't so dissimilar. "Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies?," asks Augustine. And what are gangsters but land pirates?

One of the most fascinating moments in Season 2 is when Tony speaks to his psychotherapist about being a soldier. Soldiers take orders. Soldiers know the stakes. Soldiers do not harm civilians. Soldiers play by rules. He both intuitively and explicitly knows that he is part of a rival society. But most emphatically, it IS a society and not an anarchy of perverts and plunderers. There are rules in place and proper protocols, respect to be given and to be received. Tony Soprano is as lost as anyone else when these facts of life are no longer facts and the world is wild once more.

I've got mixed feelings about The Sopranos. I do think that it's clever and that it's entertaining. And it definitely hits at the social anxieties of a decade ago that are still very much with us. But it's also a soap opera. The strength of TV is its length and ability to explore vast internal and external spaces in that vast timeframe. Its weakness is also its length, that the themes and ideas that could be communicated in 20 minutes are now communicated in a thunderously repetitive 200 minutes. I'd be lying if I said that I wasn't enjoying the soapishness of The Sopranos, but I also already feel as if it's all disposable, that I've gotten out of it all that I will get out of it. Like Tony Soprano's dreams that end Season 2, all of the shows that make up the past ten years of the so-called Golden Age of TV Drama might be reckoned to a bad case of food poisoning. If, in the end, we also get some true insight out of these fever dreams, let's also not forget that it came at the price of a long night of heavy puking and wet farts.

One thing that's interesting about television is how it is engaging in the moment, but rarely lasts past that moment. At least, this is my experience. I was obsessed with Breaking Bad. I re-watched episodes and looked forward to each new one. Now, I've cooled off a bit and don't feel any need to return to it. Why the heck is that? What's different now that it's over? Could it just be that it is over? Lost was great fun to look forward to each week, even when it went off the rails, but I can't see myself ever re-watching it. And on and on with so many shows. Battlestar Galactica. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Parks & Rec. Part of this is related to the ending of each show, that whatever itch it was scratching was through the satisfaction of the open-endedness of it, that it was an open space that could always be explored further. Once it was closed, it became a finite thing and necessarily became smaller and no longer that world where anything could happen because now we know that, in fact, only one set of things happened. Now, the lulls and natural rhythms of a weekly show start to seem unbearably meandering. They always were so, but now it is so very noticeable. Those moments are no longer pregnant with likely meaning, though, and the twists and loose ends no longer shimmer with possibility. And maybe this is why most of us move on to other new TV shows and why some people watch four hours of television a night or whatever the numbers are. And don't even get me started on reality TV and the plethora of mediocre dramas and sitcoms that dominate the networks.

Anyhow, two TV critics have written better than I have on related topics. Check them out.

Here's MSZ on TV endings:

Here's VanDerWerff giving an evaluation of what is happening in the current phase of the ongoing "Golden Age": "The message seems clear — if the 2000s were all about breaking shit, then the 2010s are going to be about putting everything back together."


It's good to see a post from Brandon:

He held out on the blogs longer than the rest of us. But it's hard to do something like this alone, apart from any interaction. Which is the flip side of the fear of engagement that Brandon writes about in his post. It's good to be blogging again. This is a good kind of engagement and the best kind of verbal sparring is done among friends, iron sharpening iron and all that, or at least dull heads butting up against one another.

I really do think that these blogs are a much better platform than FB or Twitter or whatever. Both of those online worlds give me the creeps, FB more so, and I'm not sure how people manage to carry on raging debates in the comments sections. I never posted anything terribly controversial there because it is a wasteland of resentment and exhausting fighting for position and the worst part is that it never ends. That feed keeps getting updated and the comments keep coming and no one is the better for it.

I'm willing to sit and talk and argue about anything, but the past few years I've become more adamant that any sort of heated debate should happen face-to-face, preferably over a pipe and a few beers. It is very hard to hate someone sitting in front of you, no matter how much you may disagree with the person. It is only when dialogue ends that we're all in trouble. That said, I've even grown less interested in in-person arguing. Like Brandon, I used to literally "duke it out" with others, slapping someone to make a point and getting very much in-yo-face. Now, I'm more likely to be mellow and live and let live. I think that part of this may just be getting older, that I don't have so much to prove anymore, that I know that I'm just an average guy and that my responsibility is to my immediate family and those immediate needs. I don't need to change the world and there's nothing hanging on whether or not I can change anyone's opinion, especially about something as inconsequential as taste in movies. (Although arguing about meaning in movies and how the structure of the movie communicates meaning is very worthwhile in my opinion, and the best slugfests that we've had here were when we've all gotten excited about something very particular and started digging, closely examining and offering up examples instead of slinging poo; though the poo inevitably gets slung! ;-)

But the other point of Brandon's paragraph is also worth noting, that sometimes we watch lots of movies and don't have much to say about them. I liked 'em. Meh. Whatever. These are all valid responses and fine and I don't think that either of us are in danger of confusing these statements for criticism. It's a mistake to think that we have to offer our opinion on every last thing, especially when we're not willing to do the difficult work of supporting those opinions. So, yeah, not having anything to say is often better than blathering with no actual content (which may be where this post is headed!)

Valentine's Road sounds fascinating. As mentioned in my Sopranos musings above, I am very interested in the politics behind it, what justice is and how it is applied, if at all. I won't comment on the specifics in Valentine's just based on your post, but maybe I'll check it out. Abby loves documentaries and I've been thinking about watching more of them. Specifically, the Middletown series and maybe finally checking out some Frederick Wiseman. Documentaries are often less interesting to me than features; maybe I'll try to write sometime about why I feel this way.

Anyhow, it's fun to be blogging again. And it's actually kinda fun to have it be stripped back to just the two of us, like it was way back in 2008, when we were writing long posts just for each other. Good times.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

CR5FC Between Heaven and Hell

"You go talk to the Gargoyle Queen."

It is time to resurrect CR5FC. I am glad for the long break; indeed, I needed it. Now I'm ready to rejoin the wonderful world of film blogging.

Maybe it's appropriate that the first film I watched since creating this new blog was I, Frankenstein, a story about a dead dude stitched together trying to figure out who he is and what his purpose is, kinda like this blog.

Partly, I was inspired to watch it by Brandon's recent praise of Crystal Skull. His praise of Spielberg made me want to watch something trashy that was reviled by almost everyone. Because the only thing worse than the cynical hipster too cool for Spielberg is the cynical hipster who bravely defends I, Frankenstein. Alas, I am not that cynical hipster though I might play him on TV if we could get an At the Movies gig.

Mostly, I wanted to watch an action flick and I, Frankenstein was right there near the top of the Netflix suggestions. If I'd gone to a better video store, I might've watched a better movie.

I, Frankenstein definitely is not good. It's a bit of a slog at times and the plot is heavy with Important Things that are really very silly. After half an hour, I almost gave up on it and decided to write something dismissive about it. But then something happened. I kept watching. I found myself curious enough to want to know how this wreck of a film could have happened and I wanted to experience all of its parts. And as I kept watching I started being won over little by little.

The film is fascinating in its use and abuse of so much talent and money. The CGI Gargoyles and the practical effects Demons, the goofy death fires, the laboratories and bits of tech, the decent costume design and pretty decent fight choreography; it all adds up to a beguiling mytho-sci-punk aesthetic that is impressive in its excess. And even though I found the plot silly and the exposition drearily heavy-handed, I also kinda dug the fact that it was all explicitly theological, exploring what it means to be a Maybe Man, caught between Good and Evil, struggling to be a Soul. That this is done through clunky exposition and extravagantly excessive visual metaphor is in some ways, dare I say it, a bit charming in its very glaring imperfections.

Maybe I'm jaded by Marvel's slick products and weary of Whedonesque cleverness. It's a bit refreshing to see rough edges in this film that sticks so earnestly to exploring its central ideas. That the central idea is a cliche and no new ground is broken here is beside the point right now. Those things are true. And it's not at all a great or even a good film, but there are many little things worth praising in it. I think that anyone who worked on any crew on this picture has a right to be proud of it.

So, again, maybe I, Frankenstein is the perfect pick to start off this new attempt at blogging. Because overall it's a dud, but there's still plenty worth talking about, both good and bad. Because CR5FC was and is for celebrating motion pictures, the good ones and the bad ones, and for finding something worth writing about amid the trash, digging out the treasure and arguing over its worth. At its best, this wrestling with trash and treasure and most especially with each other makes us sharper and better. At its worst, it's always still a lot of fun. I'm glad to be back. Let's see how long this run lasts.


Good morning, boys. Let's chase some pictures.