Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel, a Review

Charming. Delightful. And possibly more than that.

Synopsis: a nested series of framing devices move us from the present day back to the fall and winter of 1932, in a fictional country of Zubrowka in what appears to be eastern Europe. The eponymous hotel sits atop a mountain like a giant pink pastry, reached (via stop motion animation, it appears) by a tram that itself is built like a series of steps to accommodate the extreme angle of the mountain.

The interior of the hotel is gorgeous as well:

In 1932, the hotel is run to exacting standards by M. Gustave H (Ralph Finnes), a man with fanatical devotion to detail and a willingness to provide sexual comfort to the wealthy elderly ladies who come to the hotel precisely for M. Gustave.

Prominently featured is Madame D (Tilda Swinton) with a bouffant swirl of white hair perched like a Dairy Queen ice cream atop her head.

 Her devotion and reliance on M. Gustave is quickly sketched, and then suddenly, she is dead. Gustave takes newly hired Lobby Boy Zero (Tony Revolori, one of the few actors not already hugely famous) to her estate and arrives at the reading of the will. Madame D has left him a priceless painting, and her grasping son Dmitri (Adrien Brody) accuses Gustave of murdering her.

Imprisoned and awaiting trial, Gustave continues to bring his full personality to the job of wheeling a "meal cart" to the cells, offering the mush as if it were a carte de patisseries. He endears himself to a group of four men who are plotting their escape. Gustave manages to obtain "digging tools"--the most delicate and ridiculous looking tiny items--by having them smuggled inside the pastries made by Zero's fiancée, Agatha (Saorise Ronan).

One Great Escape later, Gustave and Zero are pursued by the ruthlessly murderous Jopling (Willem DeFoe) who leaves a trail of bodies in his wake. Upon their return to the GBH, they see it is being converted to military use by the the fictive ZZ, the proto-Nazis of this movie.

 No surprise, Dmitri is apparently a high ranking member. (And Owen Wilson cameos as the Quisling concierge.)

After Dmitri and Gustave accuse each other of murdering Madame D, a second will comes to light (to be executed only in the event of Madame D's murder) which leaves her enormous fortune to Gustave, including the Grand Budapest Hotel. Gustave has a few years to enjoy his new wealth...

 ...before being shot by the military. Agatha dies a couple of years later of the "Prussian Grippe" with her infant son. The hotel remains open, but becomes drearily "updated" with plastic chairs and wood paneling in 1968.

The story of the hotel, told by "Author" becomes a classic in the country, and the Author's headstone is a pilgrimage site, where people hang their hotel keys in homage.

The plot, of course, is in some ways an excuse for the extravagant visuals, which are themselves meticulously planned. Each of the three time periods (present day, 1968, and 1932) are shot in a different aspect ratio as one way of conveying the passage of years. And even a non-visually adept view like I am began to giggle at Anderson's resolute insistence on framing everything symmetrically. Forget any "rule of thirds"--everything was placed as close to the exact center of the frame as possible.

On the surface, then, it's a comedy murder/caper film, gorgeously staged and highly stylized. In some ways, The Grand Budapest Hotel nails the tone that Muppets Most Wanted tried and failed to achieve. Cartoon villains, stylized violence with some real emotional power (what happens to Jeff Goldblum's character is surprisingly upsetting), and a stylized visual vocabulary constructed in large part via forced perspective--all in service to a story with some heart constructed around an unlikely protagonist: a green felt frog or a sexually ambiguous concierge.

Except--Nazis? Sure, technically, they are "Zig Zags," their logo two lightning bolts forming the letters, and they are brutish, violent, but ultimately easily vanquished.  Still--it seems like the presence of even ersatz Nazis would be a serious tonal misfire.* Can comedy Nazis even exist?

Which brings me to the humanity at the core of this highly artificial work. M. Gustave is a clown in a circus created by Wes Anderson, but he is also a man of fundamental values. He embodies hard work, attention to detail, treating everyone around him with respect and dignity. Over and over again (and almost always played for laughs) he treats others weight deep respect, regardless of their situation. Madame D, while incredibly elderly and ridiculous looking, is mocked as an object of sexual desire by everyone except M. Gustave. His performance of fine dining that he brings to the job of passing out prison gruel creates a bond between him and the giant inmate. The gracious way M. Gustave offers the mush--"it needs a bit of salt" he says, seasoning the bowl and then handing it over to the physically intimidating man--embodies the values of hospitality and graciousness. It is paid back to him when the giant's cellmate spots the jail break and tries to raise an alarm. The giant silences the man, and allows Gustave to escape.

Similarly, the mix of high and low is what allows him to enter into the escape plan. He appears at the visitors' station with his face beaten up. He reports that "Pinky" got the worst of the fight, "and actually now we are quite dear friends." Later, he shares his Mendl's pastry with Pinky and the cell mates, using "the throat slitter"--a fairly disturbing switchblade--to divide the dessert. He brings the imperative of running a hotel--welcoming everyone who crosses the threshold--to prison life, and the respect he grants is repaid to him.

And in a world descending into brutality--the ZZ--it is these small graces that make living possible. Literally, when the favors M. Gustave does are repaid, but also to save the world from becoming merely horrific. It is the small pastries, the proper manicure, the spritz of the signature cologne "L'Air de Panache" that provide the means for continuing in the face of destruction. These gestures stand for the larger virtues--loyalty, honesty, humanity. These are not small things.

The trailer does give a taste of what the whole movie is like. I recommend it!

*Speaking of tonal misfires:

In what may be a signature gobsmacking move, offers a slide show of characters from the film, followed with sourcing for a similar look. For M. Gustave, they chose his prison wear--as if that is a look one would want to emulate--and the total cost of the purchasable version is in the vicinity of $2000. Because of course! Who doesn't want to drop two grand to look like a Middle European convict? (Or, more disturbingly, like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas--a concentration camp inmate?)

Rochas striped silk trousers, $1,073
The Elder Statesman monster seed cap, $500
The Row Amautio top, $990
Escadrille striped seersucker espadrilles, $125

And, to be pedantic--M. Gustave doesn't wear espadrilles. He very obviously wears wooden sabots. Do your research!


Some boring context and disclaimers.

I have seen several Wes Anderson movies, and I see some common threads, but I can't say I have any systematic understanding of his work. Grand Budapest Hotel has what appears to be some stop motion animation that feels like it grew out of Fantastic Mr. Fox, but I saw that movie so very many years ago, and at the time watched it as a movie to see with my kids rather than as a "Wes Anderson film" so I have certainly missed lots about what was going on there.

Similarly, The Royal Tennanbaums was my introduction to his work; I saw that even longer ago. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou I have only seen parts of, and thought of as a Bill Murray movie. Probably the closest I have come to watching a Wes Anderson movie as a Wes Anderson movie was seeing Moonrise Kingdom when it first came out. This is how I approached GBH.

My thoughts here are also influenced by the conversation lead by Dana Stevens on the Slate Spoiler Special podcast, which started scratching at the larger meaning behind the movie. Stevens was disappointed by this film, because she felt that Anderson failed to connect with the emotional content of the subject he was playing with. My understanding of her point is that he failed to acknowledge the import of the killings and brutality. To her mind, the movie failed. I don't agree, although I think I understand why she felt the way she did.  I think Anderson is actually saying something, but the message (such as it is) is embedded in the exquisite production design. Looking for meaning and emotional power is to kind of miss the point of this movie.

There is a tendency for critics to address the object under review as if the critical assessment is objective, and the missed connections and the flaws exist in the movie (or book, or whatever). The participants in the Spoiler Special make statements like "the movie failed to connect with the emotion." My experience was very different--I felt that the emotion was there, but was deliberately underplayed. Which leads me to believe that the movie and the watcher attempt to meet somewhere in the middle, between the director's intention and the watcher's expectations and readiness. When the two fail to connect, it is a missed communication--what the director was trying to say and what the audience understood of the message may not line up. It is not the "fault" of either party, it is the random nature of human attempts at connection.

So while I may fall into some habits of "the movie did this" or "the director did that," what I am trying to do is to communicate what my experience of the movie was. I may well have gotten it wrong. I may well be so entirely idiosyncratic that I am not a fair measure of whether anyone else will enjoy what I saw. I can say that I believe that Wes Anderson is both seriously playful, and playfully serious, and that there is more than mere surface decoration to this movie. The surface beauty of the film might well have been enough for me--but there is more than that to be had.

I Got My 'Batches and Cookies

Because Lizzo predicted this?

Time to make some Cumberbatches of cookies? Anyone?

(You can buy them from here.)

And Lizzo here:

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Separated At Birth--Make This Happen Edition

Hello, have you met Your Captain America?

Yes, that is Chris Evans. Looking like a younger, but equally soulful Bill Nighy.

Now I want a movie in which they play son and father, or perhaps the same character at different ages.

Somebody make that happen for me, mmmkay? Thankx.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Things I Am Eating Even Though I Am "Not Hungry."

  • The last 6 1/2 Triscuit crackers. The bottom of the box has come unglued, as if it is recycling itself.
  • The last two ounces of fat free pretzel twists.
  • The salt in the bottom of the fat free pretzel twists bag, after I lick my finger so the salt sticks.
  • Quite a few Tostios Hint of Lime chips, because they were probably getting stale.
  • Baby carrots because there are no more SnakCarbs (™) around anymore, because I ate them all.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

True Detective--The Internet Response and What I Wanted

I predicted a lot of disappointed reviews of the finale (like my own), and to be honest, I was surprised by how gentle the disappointment was. In those reviews which were of the "disappointed" variety--there were plenty I found early on that were entirely satisfied by the series.

Even the disappointed reviews were surprisingly shouted down in the comments--Dustin Rowles on Pajiba, Alyssa Rosenberg on the Washington Post and Linda Holmes on Monkey See/NPR have a fair number of commenters calling them wrong, misguided, or fundamentally stupid. 

So--people liked the series. I guess that shouldn't be surprising, because the series was a stylish serving of comfort entertainment. People like Rowles, Rosenberg (who I find to be extremely insightful and intelligent generally) and Holmes (who I want to have as my new best friend) were disappointed, I think because like me, they saw the series promise to be more than it turned out to be.

Here's the thing--there are plenty of entertainment options which revel in the presentation of unspeakable acts perpetrated on women. Naked women, beautiful corpses, exploited children, ritual posing, and sexual objectification are everywhere in our culture. This series did plenty of that--creepy sexual murder scene, nekkid gorgeous females, spooky music, in-bred yokels as the bad guys/monsters that get decisively defeated via gun violence, some buddy repartee and a happy ending where the good guys win. Add in a substantial portion of Rust Cohle intoning pretentious philosophy, and we have a horror-film lite--all the gruesome, none of the gore, with premium cable levels of nudity. It's almost by the numbers.

Becky Banks has a alternative take on this--she posits the Venn Diagram of Southern Gothic cliche: (Too) Close Family Relationships, Weird Sex, and Malicious Rednecks. Check, check, and check!

Which is really too bad, because it could have been so much more, and it kept seeming to gesture to greater ambitions than a stylish retelling of a story we already know. And that's why it was so disappointing. Not because I'm a spoil-sport feminist who can't watch a show without complaining about the lack of substantial female characters, or because I object to nudity, or because I was waiting for the tentacle-faced Cthulu to make an appearance. No, I am disappointed because the show seemed to promise that it was going to really do something new, and then it resolutely refused to.

I offer exhibit Number 1, Your Honor: Marty Hart's video interview.

While being questioned and taped by the investigating cops Papania and Gilbrough, Marty Hart mentions "The Detective's Curse": the occupational hazard of overlooking what is right under your own nose. He's talking about it in the context of his family--that those kids, that family, that life, was what he was looking for and he couldn't see it in front of him. And that would be poignant enough, right on the surface, especially if we ever saw him understanding what he had done to lose that family, and actually regretting it. (Maybe this is the cause of his sobbing in the finale, when his estranged wife and kids come to visit? I'll entertain the motion.) But by this point, in 2012, while talking to Papania and Gilbrough, he doesn't exhibit much regret at all. Nor do we see any recognition that he had anything to do with the breakup of his family.

Furthermore, the creepy staging of that comment is done in voiceover as the camera pans across the deeply disturbing scenario Audrey has set up with her dolls--a naked barbie doll likes on the rug, surrounded by four standing (and clothed) male dolls, while a fifth one kneels between her legs, his/its hand covering near the belt buckle. It loos like a gang rape at best, the murderous aftermath of gang rape possible. Marty's gaze sweeps across the room, fails to stop at this disturbing scene, and he leaves.

Now that is a provocative set up, and we ate it up like dessert: what exactly is Marty looking at and failing to see? Obviously, he looked right at this set up, he looked right at Audrey's drawings of naked people, he looked right at his goth daughter and her sexual adventuring with boys in cars, and all he could see was his own self-righteousness. Thus were born a thousand internet theories: Audrey has been abused; Audrey was a victim of the cult; Audrey is going to be the next victim. 

It turned out--that we gave the show too much credit for being smart. We thought it was smarter than it was. Because rather than being a profound comment, or an indication of a subtext, Marty only meant exactly what he said--he didn't see the value of his family when it was right under his nose. This is basically what Dorothy says at the end of The Wizard of Oz:

If I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, I won't look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn't there, I never really lost it to begin with! Is that right?

Surely we can be excused for thinking this show was doing something more than this, right? The 2012 edition of Marty regrets the family life that 1995 Marty took for granted and threw away with his tomcatting, and that's what he means by "The Detective's Curse?" How very. . .conventional. How predictable even. How disappointing, really.

Let's go back and talk about the Woman Issue. Again, here was the series telling us that it was doing something admirable, and then resolutely failing to do so. Rust specifically challenges his CO about a systemic failure to account for missing women and children. When it comes to the horrific snuff video, Rust tells us he refuses to look away. The series tells us that he "stands witness" to disappearances and violence that others conveniently refuse to see. Rust Cohle, seeking justice for the disempowered and the disappeared!

Except--then he doesn't. Or more to the point, the show doesn't. Rust keeps working to solve Dora Lange's murder, which is pretty darn heroic. The lengths he goes to--including returning to his undercover narcotics persona--are excessive and risky, and seem to be the show making the point that Dora at least will not be forgotten.

But then the show goes on and marginalizes and objectifies and uses women and children for shock value without making them anything more than props to the "enlightenment" of the two male leads. Nic Pizzolatto even gave interviews insisting "I am not interested in serial killers" and the point of the series is the character study of the two men. To which I say--then why make it a serial killer story? Why sexualize the series to such a degree if there isn't any narrative point to it? Why make the mystery such a huge, showy, lurid, naked, sexualized, ritualistic, and degraded murder if that isn't the point? Because we won't watch otherwise? Because we won't care about Rust and Marty unless they are investigating the most lurid murder imaginable?

Obviously, not true--we all watched Broadchurch.

I won't go over all the appalling ways women are treated by this story, because I don't think I can do better than Emily Nussbaum did for The New Yorker. I will say that, like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, you can't have your cake and eat it too--you can't wallow in the objectification of women's bodies and escape criticism for it by proclaiming that your story is "against that!" Because you are using those women's bodies exactly the same way as the objectionable characters do.

Just take a look at the opening credits, for example. Then count how many female characters are represented ("characters" used here to mean "women with names and actual lines of dialogue"). My quick count is--zero. Next, count how many times women's naked body parts are represented, and ask yourself--were those even in this show? The naked buttocks resting lightly against the spiked black high heels? The curve of the naked back and buttocks that visually echoes the slide on the playground it frames? The dark haired topless woman with the neon cross superimposed on her hair? Sure, the woman in the American flag bathing suit does appear in the show, briefly--because she's dancing at a bar where the detectives go to interview someone else entirely.

(I will give props to the writer of the article at that link--Daniel Walters does a very nice job recognizing and articulating how the themes of the series are laid out in the credits. I am particularly fond of the way he describes the images of the detectives: "Most shows could illustrate loneliness with an abandoned landscape containing a solitary man. But here, in these credits, solitary men contain the abandoned landscapes." Well done, sir.) 

Honestly, at this point, I am simply going to take such visuals as warning signs--"This show is not for you." Because Nic Pizzolatto is completely entitled to write what he wants to, and if he wants to write a story that starts off with the sexualized ritual murder of a drugged prostitute and the provocative posing of her naked body, and he wants to further expand on the theme with serial murders and pedophilia snuff porn, he sure can, and I can spare myself and not watch it. It's like how poisonous plants and bugs in the wild are vividly colored, and those colors warn animals not to eat them. Naked female body parts are a good sign I'm not going to want to consume this media.

Shall we talk about the lack of resolution of the mystery here? Sure, technically, it was solved, in that Dora Lange was (probably) murdered by some combination of Errol Childress and his flunkies, Reggie and Dewall LeDoux. Childress was also probably the perpetrator of the 2012 St. Charles murder as well. But those were not ordinary murders. There were elaborate "paraphiliac maps" with signs of "Satanic worship" and "anti-Christian crimes." They were thick with allegorical references--black stars, Carcosa, the King in Yellow. The very reason these murders are interesting is because they invite our curiosity. Why would somebody do this? Why paint those symbols the body? Why build an elaborate altar? What does it all mean? 

These are not the questioning of hyperactive imaginations. These are the questions the show itself asks. The cops in the CID office speculate as to the Satanic nature of the murder. Reggie LeDoux talks about the black stars right before he is killed. Charlie Lang, Dora's ex-husband describes the spiral brand in LeDoux's back. These aren't just details, they are motifs. And then--the script refuses to explain any of it, other than that Childress is one sick mofo. 

So, HBO and Nic Childress (and Cary Fukunaga), why put all that in if you aren't interested in it and you aren't going to address it? This is not an idle question. If the series was only ever going to be a character study of Rust and Marty, why make the murder such a big showy piece of razzle dazzle? Why not just make it one more murdered prostitute, whose body is just found somewhere mundane. Rust could be obsessed with it for no other reason than it was his daughter's birthday and he was already vulnerable because of it. There could be some detail, some oddity that would link a 2012 murder, and cause Rust to re-investigate the case, purely because it was a way of staying connected with his daughter. It could really have shown us a Rust Cohle whose nihilism truly was a mask, a form of armor to mask the pain of her death, rather than Rust Cohle the badass philosopher whose atheistic anti-humanism slips only at the end of the 8th hour. That would have been a character study.

Matt Zoller Seitz talks about how TD is "about" many different things, including good versus evil. Maybe. But who is "good" in this series? To Pizzolatto's credit, there are no truly "good" characters. However, there are Evil ones. So we get complicated humanity versus Evil--and that robs the Evil of it's believability. Even Erroll Childress had to have some story he told himself about why he killed all those people, and why he was justified in torture, or what he intended to achieve, but we aren't ever privy to it. So that shifts the entire balance of the series--Rust and Marty were men who had a lot of demons, but when it turns out the person they were chasing is himself a demon (in that he has no redeeming qualities) the story flattens out into Good v. Evil.

Rust has a transcendent experience, and finds some hope in a feeling of love from his dead daughter and father. Has he really changed? Doesn't this just show us that all his cynical and nihilistic talk was a serious front he was putting up to avoid feeling the loss of his daughter? Also--spending a decade completely drunk in Alaska--same thing.

How serious was Billy Lee Tuttle's effort to get the Lang murder transferred to his hand-picked task force? We didn't see any real pressure on the 1995 CO to turn it over. In fact, the CO seemed to see it as attractive mainly as a way to save his budget. Do we think that Tuttle took one look at the lead detectives and decided that he didn't need to worry about it. "Eddie's going to be real pleased with these detectives" he says, or something close to that, and if you decide he's being sarcastic, then you can understand why the task force never actually took over--there was no need to.

Did we actually get verification that the Sheriff Childress who shut down the Marie Fontenot case ("Reported in Error") was actually Errol Childress's father--and thus was also the corpse kept bound on the bed in the family estate outbuilding? Was that official misconduct the act of a father covering up his son's misconduct, or did they have a more attenuated relationship? I actually find the idea that this was a twisted case of family covering up for each other in the hopes that they could protect their monstrous offspring much more interesting and complicated than a "rape cult" or "pedophile ring." (To say nothing about the nearly unbelievable report Charlie Lang gave of "some real good killing down south" as if this were a Louisiana version of "The Most Dangerous Game.")

If we had even an instance of seeing complicated family relationships among the Tuttle/Childress clan, the whole Audrey mini-plot ("almost plot") would have resonated more powerfully. Children do unfortunate things, are sometimes sexually inappropriate, and not all parents see the situations clearly, nor do they always react appropriately. Marty's overlooking Audrey's creepy doll display--how different is that from "overlooking" Errol's oeuvre? If the show had made the connection that way--Marty is a small-time version of the Tuttle/Childress parents, protecting their children in unhealthy ways--the story would actually have been creepier, because you could see how small the distance is between the psychopaths and the average people.

I've decided to make it head canon that Maggie got her divorce from Marty, and met a lovely doctor at her work. (We saw Marty accosting her at what appeared to be a hospital after she kicked him out following his affair with the court reporter, so I assume she was at least a nurse.) That big house, the Lillian Bluth wardrobe, and the ostentatious wedding rings she had in 2012 were the signs of how her life improved after Marty. She (and the girls) are better off without him financially, and I have decided that they are also better off emotionally. Dr. Sawyer (head canon!) is maybe an anesthesiologist, who keeps regular hours, makes plenty of money, and has been a terrific stepfather to the girls. So much so that he is the reason they are able to forgive Marty and visit him in the hospital in the last episode.

Odd choice--from 1995 to 2012, Rust gets haggard and scraggly, growing untidy hair and mustache. In the same period, Marty goes bald and gains a substantial beer gut, as well as gets far more furrowed. But Maggie Sawyer--looks exactly the same. I felt this actually served to undermine her character--she hadn't matured in any way, which made her seem oddly insubstantial in the 2012 scenes.

Writer's fatigue? Rust's big revelatory soliloquy, in which he finds cosmic meaning in feeling love from his dead daughter and father is the moment toward which the entire series has been driving, according to Nic Pizzolatto. So does that excuse this? "Beneath the darkness, I felt a further darkness, like a substance." Seriously? Like a substance? Umm, sure--like that's a useful description, dude. I'm sure that's exactly the feeling that would cause a hyper-articulate nihilistic synesthete to entirely change his world view. Because, wow--a substance.

I'm waiting for the YouTube recut, where someone turns all this atmospheric angst into the buddy cop romp that it is at heart. Let me know when that happens.

Monday, March 10, 2014

True Detective--How Very Conventional Of You

Atmospheric music, creepy ambiance, masterful acting by Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, and non-linear storytelling elevated this serial killer story from the utterly predictable, but it never managed to fully leave the cliches behind.

One of the things I am expecting to see by tomorrow morning is the True Detective backlash--the internet outrage that the story didn't follow through on it's own promises. I never expected this to take a turn into Lovecraftian horror, and I never expected a cameo from the Elder Gods or Cthulu. But I did hope we were going to get a bit more resolution, a bit more explanation of the tropes that were invoked here. I wanted things to pay off more than they did, even as I cynically expected that they wouldn't.

Let's just make a list, shall we? We'll start with the things that just got

  • We never got an explanation for the cats that were nailed on the doors of the African American church from episode 1.
  • What church did Dora start attending, and why did she think she was going to be nun (like she told her friend at the bunny ranch)?
  • What was "The King in Yellow" anyway? Anybody? Bueller?
  • What about the black stars? And the devil catchers--why were they found where they were?
  • The "green ears" on the "Spaghetti Monster" were literally green paint? How green do you suppose those ears actually were? I much prefer the internet conclusion that it was a green noise canceling headset.
  • Maggie's father wasn't implicated at all? 
  • Audrey's precocious sexuality wasn't related? The creepy rapist doll set up, the dirty pictures she drew, the goth phase and the sexual acting out--were just challenges for Marty to handle, and not clues "right under his nose"? That was sure a missed opportunity.
  • Who did Maggie marry after leaving Marty?
  • Who were the five men we saw in the video (and echoed in the photo at Dora Lange's house, and in Audrey's doll diorama, and Rust's tin men cut out of beer cans)? 
  • What caused the scarring on Errol's face anyway? What was the relationship between Errol and everybody else?
  • Why paint antlered figures on the church wall back in episode 2 (IIRC)? Who did that, and why?
  • Why did Errol (and the others?) pose Dora in the cane field in the first place? Then why do it again from the bridge in St. Charles? What was the logic behind their practices anyway?
  • "Death is not the end?" Where did that come from? And why did the old lady domestic servant know about "Carcosa?" What role did she have?
  • What was the point of the spiral tattoo/brand/paint marking? Did it have some meaning--like at all? Or did it just tie things together so the plot seemed to make some sense?
  • The pharmacy shooter who killed himself in prison--who arranged for that whole scenario? I gather that there really was a phone call, from the pay phone out in the middle of nowhere, and that the means he used was provided by the police officer who was also named "Childress," but who was involved?
  • So instead of any kind of explanation of the "paraphiliac map" and the meaning of the murders, we just get some vague handwaving around "Satanic worship" and "voodoo mashup" and unresolved daddy issues? That's just lazy storytelling. 
  • What was the deal with Errol's accents? And why did he keep that woman/half-sister around?
  • If there is no record of Errol (birth records, newspaper birth announcement, etc.) and no evidence of his existence in the business records--how was he getting paid for mowing the cemetery and abandoned school properties?
  • Who's corpse was that in the outbuilding that Errol went and talked to and why wasn't that body ever missed?
  • How did Billy Lee Tuttle--the incredibly successful creepy evangelist with the schools--reconcile all that creepy stuff with his professed religion?
  • Who was drugging the preschool kids and how? Were the teachers involved? Why?
  • Why was Dora's abdomen knifed? Was there some significance to that, that it was limited to that and not more general mutilation?
  • Where did the giant wreath around the hollow in the tree come from? 
  • What the heck did "making flowers" and "can you smell the flowers" even mean--I get that it was a metaphor for sex between Errol and Betty, but why that one?
  • Who shot the dog at the end? Why?
  • Whatever happened to the "Anti-Christian task force?" That was quite a McGuffin--showed up once, referred to a second time, and then disappeared entirely. It was never a threat, and it should have been if the Tuttles were trying to cover up their involvement. 
  • Maybe the Tuttles were just trying to keep their creepy cousins from getting into trouble, but weren't themselves actually involved, so they were only willing to go so far? Then who were the other two men?
  • What was the deal with Rust tasting "aluminum and ash" on the way to Errol's place--he did the same thing in episode 1 (I think). Was this supposed to be synesthesia? The taste of the "psychosphere" he pissed Marty off about early on? Are we supposed to take this seriously as a real thing?

Shall we talk about the cliches?
  • Seriously, Rust has a religious near death experience?
  • The final manhunt in "Carcosa"--they seriously didn't call for back-up? As soon as Rust said "this is the place" and they had no cell phone reception--they didn't just drive away and get backup? That's fundamentally stupid. 
  • The stupidity is compounded by Rust chasing Errol through the woods and aqueduct (seriously, what the hell was that?) without waiting for Marty to provide back-up? Dumb.
  • How did the cops know to show up--when, where, and with that much support? Did Rust's bar owner boss send off all the packets to news outlets and police departments? So Marty and Rust were lying there in Carcosa for two days (minimum)? (Twenty four hours before the boss sent the packets, and another 24 hours estimated for mail delivery, reviewing the packets, and mobilizing.) They didn't even have that location confirmed when Rust made up the packets.
  • Seriously--they shot the perp AGAIN? Seriously? With no blow back, since they aren't even actually cops anymore either?
  • Also--could we load any more Sooper Speshulness onto poor Rust Cohle? He's got mad detective skillz, knows snipers, can headbutt a guy to submission while impaled on a knife, demonstrates, formidable B&E (breaking and entering) talents, suffers from LSD flashbacks, has synesthesia, and articulates "deep" philosophical insights into the insignificance of humanity in the cosmic scheme. Oh wait--he also looks like Jesus in the hospital and even get a wound in the side, and is apparently immortal.
I'm sure there are more things that will turn up, either I will remember, or they will be hashed over on the internet. In the end, the script was fundamentally the same story we have heard many times before--sadistic and flamboyant serial killer with a taste for naked female corpses. Also, a weird predilection for arts and craft projects--the antlered crown, the devil catcher, the paintings on the walls of abandoned churches and his own outbuildings. A lot of nihilistic bloviating about stark cosmic "truths." A cop with an explosive temper and a bad marriage. Vague handwaving at the killer's motive--what was done to him, mixed with "devil worship" references but no real explanation. 

The most interesting thing about the script was the nested time frames. The most watchable part of the series was the acting by Harrelson and McConaughey. The thing that gave it gravitas was the atmospheric music. 

The disappointment I felt in the resolution of the plot came from the piling on of specific details (The King in Yellow, the Black Stars, etc) that meant nothing and went nowhere. Possibly, in the context of a novel, those kind of specific details serve to ground the story in a material world, to give it the patina of plausibility. In a visual medium, however, the "real world" is already present--embodied even, in the locations and the actors. So the details that need to be included in a novel to create that illusion of reality, tend to stand out too obviously in the television version. So the internet goes nuts, taking the inclusion of specific details as more meaningful than they end up being.

And there were some very interesting theories that I saw, posited in the last week. "The Yellow King" was a boat, not a person. The missing women were used to breed the line of Tuttles/Childresses, and then murdered when they either failed to conceive the first time ("He only liked them the once") or after they gave birth. The Munchausen by proxy mother was a victim of the cult. Audrey was exposed to the cult. Maggie's father was connected to the cult. The Wellspring schools project was a feeder of victims to the cult.

None of these ideas were definitively addressed, one way or another, including all the open issues I set out above. I expect we are going to see some very disappointed commenters in the next 24 hours.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

True Detective--It's All About The Man Pain

Look. I get it. Nic Pizzolatto wrote a study of two very different men, thrown together involuntarily, who had to work through their antagonism to solve a mystery. This was really only about the two of them, and the murder case was more or less just the mechanism through which to test their characters against each other.

Knowing that, it's certainly understandable to answer the feminist criticism of the work (so ably articulated by Emily Nussbaum in the New Yorker) with the completely true statement that "other than Rust and Marty, none of the other characters is fleshed out. It's not just the women that are two dimensional."

And I can't argue with that. Pretty much every body else in this series is about as cliched and two dimensional as you can imagine. The religious folk are hypocrites or disillusioned. The women are mostly prostitutes, except for Marty's wife and daughters, and even they exist primarily to illuminate Marty's (lack of) character. Steve Gerasci is a coward and a bully of a cop. The murderer is a seedy hick in a hoarder house with an unsavory sex life and an elaborate lair that he decorates in "Shabby Creep." Nobody has much of a life agenda or interior life outside of the two headliners.

Yet, the show is still virulently, rhizomatically, systematically guilty of erasing women except as they accessorize men. Here's the example that encapsulates this.

In episode seven, Rust shows Marty a horrific video tape of what was done to Marie Fontenot, a girl that had gone missing back in 1990, five years before the start of the True Detective narrative. The audience doesn't see what is on the tape, except for a few seconds of men in masks and a young girl in a white dress and crown made out of antlers (I think?) walking blindfolded through some woods. There is a fractional view down her spread legs as the masked men approach. After that, we only see Marty's face as he watches the rest of the film, and his horrified reaction. And he is horrified, turning and smashing his hands on a table as he howls.

Then, early in episode eight (the final), Rust forces Steve Gerasci to watch the tape. Marty walks out of the room, unwilling to see it again. The shot cuts away, to show the boat the men are on in the middle distance as Gerasci screams.

What do these scenes have in common? They have as their focus the pain of the men forced to watch this scene. In both cases, the camera returns to these now traumatized men, as they struggle to make sense of what they have seen and what they are going to do as a result. It is about their emotional distress, their sense of violation. Or, as the internet has dubbed it, their man pain.

Now, I'm not saying they shouldn't be horrified by what they saw. In fact, I am glad they were. But this is where the storytelling sells women's stories short. No one takes even a second to express their sorrow or pity at what happened to Marie Fontenot. Neither Rust, nor Marty, nor Gerasci express even a cursory regret about what Marie went through. There is no heartfelt "Jesus Christ, that poor girl." The story moves immediately to "what are these men going to do about it?" Marty agrees to help Rust chase down the guilty men. Gerasci immediately shifts blame away from himself. It's a macho display of power--Rust stays in the room, doesn't turn his gaze away. Gerasci abases himself, trying to distance himself from the fall out.

No one acknowledges Marie--her suffering, her death, her humanity. She is merely a plot device to propel the actions of the men.

This is the problem with this series, and what fundamentally pisses me off ( and probably Emily Nussbaum as well). It's not that the women are any less thin than most of the men--it's that the women's experiences are given zero empathetic response, while we linger on the man pain.

There is another example--the boy who disappeared in the bayou, and only his pirogue was found. "They said it was gators" his father says when interviewed by Rust. The father reports that the boy's mother thought she could hear him calling from under the water. Where is this mother? Where is her story? Why did Pizzolatto have this be reported by the man, second hand, rather than first hand by the woman herself? Dramatically, it's not the strongest way to tell the story, but once again, it privileges the man's pain--he lost a son and his wife went mad. Which is more important narratively than the woman who lost her son and herself?

So now, in the final chapter of this story, we finally enter "Carcosa," the lair of the "Spaghetti Monster" man. There are wrapped corpses--presumably the bodies of the missing women and children. (Remember, back in the early episodes, when the CO told Rust that there could be no murder charges without a body? Here are those bodies.) But they aren't treated as the remains of human beings who here murdered--often horrifically. They are just set dressing, the creepy props of a scene that builds to the bad guy literally jumping out at Rust from a dark corner.

I'm not really asking for very much--honestly. I'm not asking for the fleshing out of women't characters. Im' not asking for gender equity in the storytelling. I'm not asking that the story be told from the perspective of women instead of Rust and Marty. All I am asking for is for the victims, the prostitutes, the wives and daughters, be treated--just for a second or two--as people who had their own stories, their own hopes and dreams, their own agency and agendas, who lost those lives in the course of this investigation. The small recognition that these women would have liked to live, would have liked to not be tortured and murdered and posed in a sick display. That they had other dreams, other paths, that they were denied, and that loss was sad in its own right--not just because it furthered the plot for some men.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Oscars--Final Prediction Tally

How did I do? I got these ones right:

Best Picture: 12 Years a Slave
Best Actor: Matthew McConaughey for Dallas Buyers Club
Best Actress: Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Best Supporting Actor: Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club
Best Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years a Slave
Best Director: Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity
Best Animated Feature: Frozen 
Best Original Song: "Let It Go" from Frozen
Best Original Screenplay: Her
Best Adapted Screenplay: 12 Years a Slave
Hair and Makeup: Dallas Buyers Club
Visual Effects: Gravity
Cinematography: Gravity

What I got wrong:

Costume Design: I predicted 12 Years, it went to The Great Gatsby
Production Design: Again, predicted 12 Years, it went to The Great Gatsby

So, 13 out of 15 predictions were right? Wow, I've never been that accurate before. Or maybe I have, I don't think I ever had the guts to actually write down my predictions before.

Oscars, Part 5

Glenn Close--in another really elegant black tailored dress. These ladies of a certain age know how to dress. And now, it's the In Memoriam, which makes the dress really especially appropriate. And they have silenced the applause--good move.

Bette Midler changed her dress, and I really like this one--elegant and tasteful, and with a subtle use of color so it's not funereal, but it's very appropriate for her role to sing after the In Memoriam segment. "Wind Beneath My Wings" isn't my jam, but I'm sure this is going to get favorable reactions.

(Okay, I'm not gripped by her performance, so now I'm thinking about all those translucent Oscar statue figurines--what happens to them afterwards. I'm sure they were not cheap to produce, and I don't imagine that they have much of an afterlife. So--do they get auctioned off, donated to the AMPAS museum, presented to winners (if they want them), or just melted down?)

(Checking in on time--it's been 2 1/2 hours, there are at least 8 more awards to give out--so we have another hour and a half at least?)

Goldie Hawn is also wearing a dress that shows Julie Delpy how to do it. And she's got to be about 25 years older than Delpy, so maybe the secret is undergarments? And maybe we really would prefer to be French for precisely that reason?

Excuse me, John Travolta--who is singing this song? It didn't sound like "Idina Menzel" or any combination of syllables that could be close. Maybe it was an anagram?

And fashionwise--I much prefer the softer hair, and there is kind of thematic snowiness to the gown. And magpie that I am, I adore the curtains of crystals decorating the stage. "The cold never bothered me anyway"--that was a drop the mike moment, and she kind of mimed that without actually doing that.

Nice acknowledgement of the musicians who are -- offsite I guess?

Original Score
I did not make a prediction.
Winner: Gravity. Which makes sense, because there was so little dialogue, music did a LOT of work in that film.

Original Song.
I predict: "Let It Go."
Winner: "Let It Go" The co-writer has just joined the EGOT ranks. Robert Lopez, congratulations.

That pizza gag just keeps on giving--as does Pharrell's hat.

Penelope Cruz in a lovely pink dress with a black ribbon belt. Is she pregnant again? There is a slightly suspicious wobble to the line of that belt, and a carefulness to the way she is holding that wrap around her left arm.

Adapted Screenplay:
I predicted: 12 Years a Slave
Winner: 12 Years a Slave

Original Screenplay:
I predicted: Her
Winner: Her  (Wow, I am on a roll!)

Angelina Jolie and Sidney Poitier. Interesting mix. Definitely some serious effort to make the Oscars less purely white tonight. She's also wearing one of these silver sequined/skin tone illusion dresses. That is the theme tonight, much more than "Heroes."

(Interestingly, it appears that the winners get to keep their statues for at least the night. Lupita Nyong'l has hers in her lap. Back in the day, they used to have to leave them backstage to be engraved.)

I predict: Gravity
The winner: Gravity (In so far as Best Director rewards technical achievement, this was really quite an achievement.)

I need to go back to and tally up my predictions, and then go find out if Nate Silver had already made the same predictions that I did.

Best Actress:
I predict: Cate Blanchett
Winner: Cate Blanchett

Best Actor:
I predict: Matthew McConaughey
Winner: Matthew McConaughey (and glad to see he's put a bit a weight back on)

Best Picture
I predict: 12 Years a Slave
Winner: 12 Years a Slave

And that's all, folks!

Oscars, Part 4

And we're back, but people aren't in their seats.

Ellen actually ordered three pizzas, and she's passing them out. At least, she brought them out. Love it. This is so much fun in a generous way!

"I don't have any money--where is Harvey Weinstein?"

Ellen is really giving this such a good vibe.

Bill Murray is being generous and expansive too.

I predict: Gravity
The Winner: Gravity

(I did post my predictions yesterday in a different post--this looks suspicious, but I promise that I'm not cheating.)

(Actually, I'm cheating because I only picked the big awards, and punted on foreign and technical categories. I had entered an Oscar pool, those would be the ones that would separate the winners from the losers, so I'm not actually doing all that well00some of these picks are pretty expected winners.)

Gabourey Sidibe looks awesome in purple. She and Lupita Nyong'o sure know how to rock color!

Does Julia Roberts recognize that Whoopie Goldberg is wearing her horrible--was it Golden Globes look? But I think Roberts didn't add striped stockings and ruby slippers.

Pink singing a tribute to the Wizard of Oz--not a predictable choice, that's for sure. The ruby ball gown, though, is quite on point.

So of course--Ellen comes out as Glinda. Because, of course.

Jennifer Garner has a great fringed dress. And Benedict Cumberbatch!

Production Design:
I Predict: 12 Years a Slave (I was predicting more or less a sweep)
The Winner: The Great Gatsby (That was a beautiful movie!)

Chris Evans introduces the fictions Heroes tribute. Lots of comic books and fantasy movies. Not sure these segments add up to anything in particular, but I guess it's always fun to see a bunch of clips.

Who is Emma Watson sitting with? Does she have a boyfriend? I hope so!