Small, striking moments: The Corner and The Wire

I am periodically re-publishing the posts that I want to preserve from the previous incarnation of this blog, just in case I ever lose control of that site or it vanishes. What follows was originally published on 15 August 2010 on betweensympathyanddetachment.blogspot.co.uk.

The HBO ‘miniseries’ The Corner (2000) is now predominantly viewed and marketed as a warm-up or sketch for The Wire (HBO, 2002-8). When we enter for the first time the fictional world of the prior series (in its first episode, ‘Gary’s Blues’), the presentation of that world employs aspects of the rhetoric of a documentary. A handheld camera travels backwards to keep in frame its subject – a black man in early middle age (Gary, played by T K Carter) – as he hurries along an alleyway and then across a street. Offscreen, a voice asks him questions.

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Small, striking moments

I am periodically re-publishing the posts that I want to preserve from the previous incarnation of this blog, just in case I ever lose control of that site or it vanishes. What follows was originally published on 3 April 2010 on betweensympathyanddetachment.blogspot.co.uk.

This is the comment I wanted to leave on Girish’s latest blog entry, which has the same title as this one, but there wasn’t enough space in the comment box!

I’ve been working on Hitchcock’s Rope for some time now. It’s a film full of striking moments (like the moment, already discussed by V F Perkins, where a swing door’s movement is synchronised with a character’s actions, perhaps suggesting complicity between the director and the murderous protagonist). There are two great moments that sprang to mind after reading this blog. Perhaps I thought of them because they’re arresting moments, moments of thought, for the characters as well as for the viewer.

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I love that moment near the end of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog

…where the newly-triumphant, newly-tragic Dr. Horrible (having, through the same act, gained membership to the Evil League of Evil and killed the woman he loved) strides through a bar, receiving as he does kudos from various villainous patrons.

Dr Horrible

The bar is full of movement, but not the movement of conviviality or of joy. Instead, the pumping, almost hydraulic, up-and-down movement of the patrons – which, in the case of the cowboy trio with their stetsons and handlebar moustaches, tips over into the grotesque – has an edge of franticness, and of insistent hedonism that has left behind pleasure. The artificial lights, the looping lo-fi music, and the alcoholic drinks, abundantly visible, and aggressively brandished by the cowboys, complete the impression of seediness.

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Robin Wood (23 February 1931 – 18 December 2009)

Over the next few months I am re-publishing the posts that I want to preserve from the previous incarnation of this blog, just in case I ever lose control of that site or it vanishes. What follows was originally published on 31 December 2009 on betweensympathyanddetachment.blogspot.co.uk.

If one wished to show a person outside the academy how films can be discussed and attended to intelligently, in a manner that goes beyond the swapping of prejudices in conversation, and the journalistic practice of summarizing a film’s plot and awarding a number of stars between nought and some other number, but that does not alienate a non-academic audience through its style, theoretical apparatus and/or unstated assumptions, then one would do well to recommend any of the numerous books written by Robin Wood, a film critic who participated in the creation of film studies as an academic discipline and critically chronicled its evolution, who died earlier this month.

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I love this one shot near the end of ‘Who Are You’…

Context: ‘Who Are You’ is the the sixteenth episode of season 4 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s the episode where Buffy and Faith switch bodies (well, the switch happens at the end of the previous episode, but this is the episode where we see how it plays out). Faith is a wanted criminal, so Buffy-in-Faith’s-body is first arrested by the police, and then intercepted by muscle working for the Watcher’s Council. In the time it takes her to escape from her incarceration and return to Sunnydale to reclaim her body, Buffy has received a taste of how those who know Faith feel justified in treating her: she has been called trash, and her/Faith’s face has been spat at. Meanwhile, Faith-in-Buffy’s-body has received her own novel taste of what it is to be treated with love (both maternal and romantic), gratitude and respect. The two Slayers come face to face with each other/themselves once more when both independently learn that vampires are holding a congregation hostage in a church, and go there on a rescue mission. Once the vampires have been dispatched, Buffy and Faith fight it out on the church’s altar. Faith-in-Buffy’s-body gains the upper hand, and straddles Buffy-in-Faith’s-body while she directs blow after self-loathing blow and insult after self-loathing insult at her own face. What she does not know is that Willow and Tara have conjured Buffy a doohickey that will reverse the body swap. Buffy interrupts Faith’s onslaught by clasping her hand (in a gesture with the appearance – appropriately, given the location and aspects of the pair’s relationship – of communion). There is a glow, a shudder, and a rushing sound effect to confirm that the reversal has worked.

The shot

Faith

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Jonathan Franzen’s description of a memorable teacher of his

His eyes gleamed with excitement and pleasure if a student said anything remotely pertinent or intelligent; but if the student was altogether wrong, as the six of us in his seminar often were, he flinched and scowled as if a bug were flying at his face, or he gazed out a window unhappily, or refilled his pipe, or wordlessly cadged a cigarette from one of us smokers, and hardly even pretended to listen.  He was the least polished of all my college teachers, and yet he had something that the other teachers didn’t have: he felt for literature the kind of headlong love and gratitude that a born-again Christian feels for Jesus.  His highest praise for a piece of writing was ‘It’s crazy!’  His yellowed, disintegrating copies of German prose masterworks were like missionary Bibles.  On page after page, each sentence was underscored or annotated in Avery’s microscopic handwriting, illuminated with the cumulative appreciations of fifteen or twenty rereadings.  His paperbacks were at once low-priced, high-acid crapola and the most precious of relics – moving testaments to how full of significance every line in them could be to a student of their mysteries, as every leaf and sparrow in Creation sings of God to the believer.

Jonathan Franzen. The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History. Fourth Estate, 2006.

Happy 50th birthday Joss Whedon

The 50th episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was, it just so happens, written and directed by Joss Whedon.  ‘Doppelgangland’ showcases many of the key strengths of Whedon and of his most fully-realised, successful story-world: a tightly-plotted, fantastical scenario, revolving around an established ensemble of eloquent and witty characters who are manoeuvred into a series of dramatically effective constellations, is used to create situations in which characters feel deeply, respond emotionally, and are placed in life-or-death situations, as a way of tracing out some of the contours of personal identity via interpersonal interactions.  This makes it a good episode to discuss as a way of marking its maker’s 50th birthday.

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Helen Fielding, Bridget Jones’s Diary: Mad About the Boy

This review contains spoilers.

As I suspect it was for many people, the publication of an unexpected further instalment of Bridget Jones’s Diary (after the first two novels came out not far apart in 1996 and 1999, having been preceded by a newspaper column) was for me a literary event.  I purchased the book as soon as it was released (something I hardly ever do), and started reading it as soon as I had purchased it (even more unheard of: my shelves and my conscious alike sag under the ever-growing weight of unread books, making me feel like Gatsby, telling myself with each new purchase that tomorrow I will be able to run faster, and catch up with all this stuff)!  My original plan was to get through the book within a few days so that I could post a timely review of it on this blog.  Unfortunately, this plan was frustrated partly by a stomach bug working its way through the members of my household, and partly by the various demands of the start of term…  This, with its reference to the plans we enthusiastically make, the always time-consuming and unpredictable and often messy demands of everyday life, and the gap that opens up between these two things, is already taking us deep into Bridget Jones territory.  Indeed, for me, this may be at the heart of the genius of Helen Fielding and her most famous character.  Bridget is a dramatization of how time feels when one has goals, demands, distractions and desires – and the particular ones that modern middle-aged middle class Westerners have: writing deadlines; an inbox that rarely sleeps; a work life and a sex life and a family life; communications devices, social networking profiles, search engines, and fridges full of food that all lure you with their promises of connection or consumption.

I have dipped my toe in the online critical response to the novel now that I have finished it, and I agree with those people (of whom there are a fair few) who point out that there is quite a lot wrong with Mad About the Boy.  It lacks the elegant plotting of the first instalment (and it is not to qualify Fielding’s achievement too greatly to observe that that elegance derives from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which, as most people will know, lends the first Bridget Jones’s Diary not only the name of its male romantic hero but also its overall plot structure).  But I also enjoyed the novel hugely.  Given that I found its pleasures to be many, and miscellaneous, I thought that a good way to approach this review would be to write in a series of bullet points, rather than to try (much as the novel does not appear to!) to do something more neat and well-wrought, and in this way try to give appropriate weight both to the novel’s great successes and to its major flaws.

  • At the level of plot structure Fielding is certainly more than a little shaky, but her sharp eye for details and her gift for prose that is descriptive and humorous is hard to beat.  There are countless examples of acute distillations of bits and pieces of lifestyle that other popular media texts offer as things to aspire to and emulate (one example I enjoyed is Bridget’s desire to have a ‘mixy-matchy “capsule wardrobe” so that getting dressed becomes a calm joy instead of hysterical scramble.’  There is also the phenomenology of everyday frustrating activities.  I could identify with this one, for example: ‘Managed to get Mabel […] into the car, leaning over in the traditional body-wrenching movement […], fastening the seat belt by waddling my hand in the mess between the seat back and booster seat.’
  • One can also marvel at and savour the poetic terseness and expert tonal modulations of individual sentences.  Simply by dropping articles, pronouns, and so on, Fielding has created a mode of speech that is instantly recognisable as Bridget’s, helping us to enter her mental universe.  On the subject of modulation: the comic effect in the following sentences derives from the way in which a familiar complaint about technology gradually becomes more and more hyperbolic and baroque: ‘Why does turning on a TV set these days require three remotes with ninety buttons?  Why?  Suspect designed by thirteen-year-old technogeeks, competing with each other from sordid bedrooms, leaving everyone else thinking they’re the only person in the world who doesn’t understand what the buttons are for, thus wreaking psychological damage on a massive, global scale.’  (Just one more example in this vein – Bridget’s flights of fancy when extrapolating the consequences of her actions are also marvellous rapid accumulations of evocative and humorous details: ‘If I shrivel and become bitter, then what use will that be to the children?  They will become child-centric, demanding King Babies: and I a negative, rasping old fool, lunging at sherry [that clause is especially good], roaring “WHY DON’T YOU DO ANYTHING FOR MEEEEEEEEE?”‘)
  • This gift for the thumbnail sketch is also put to use in moments where Bridget remembers her life before Mark is killed, and some of the difficult moments of her widowhood.  For example: ‘Did not want it to end up like last year, with me trying to stop my heart from breaking into pieces at doing Santa without Mark and sobbing behind the kitchen counter, whilst Mum and Una squabbled over lumps in the gravy and commented on my parenting and housekeeping, as if, rather than inviting them for Christmas, I had called them in as Systems Analysts.’  The book reduced me to tears (albeit only briefly) on more than one occasion.
  • Bridget remains as vivid as ever, but many of the other characters are unsatisfying.  Of the recurring ones, it is Daniel Cleaver who is most disappointing, as he has been reduced to a one-note sexaholic.  Of the new characters, it is the ones at ‘Greenlight Productions’ who are least well-realised.  It is in the passages where Bridget attends meetings at Greenlight where Fielding’s grasp on her material feels least assured.  As one person whose review I read pointed out, correctly, the subplot involving Bridget’s screenplay is almost entirely redundant.
  • This lack of cohesion even extends to the two main male characters.  These are ‘Roxster’, the 30 year old whom Bridget spends most of the novel with, and Mr Wallaker, who watches Bridget with Darcy-like loving chastisement from a distance for most of the novel before revealing his warmth and love for Bridget towards the end.  It is hard when reading not to view characters and events through the lens of Pride and Prejudice.  In the first Bridget Jones, Daniel was the Wickham character, and Mark Darcy was, of course, Mr Darcy.  And this schema is partially repeated in the new novel.  Like Wickham, Roxster is the more immediately charming, but ultimately the more unsuitable.  Like Darcy, Mr Wallaker is stand-offish but ultimately utterly noble, and a red hot lover to boot.  One effect of the second-guessing that the echoes of Bridget Jones’s Diary and, in turn, Pride and Prejudice encourage is that we are likely to spend most of the novel waiting for Roxster to turn out to be a louse.  In the end, this does not happen.  Bridget and Roxster part amicably, without blame on either side.  (Eventually the age gap of twenty years between them is the deciding factor, which raises a whole other set of issues that I won’t try to address here.)  There are some instances where the pre-judgment of the Wickham character or equivalent is used in a principled and interesting fashion – Lost in Austen being the best example I can think of – but here I wasn’t sure how I felt, or how I was meant to feel, about Roxster.
  • Bringing together these two issues of lack of cohesion and slightly misfiring Pride and Prejudice echoes: in Pride and Prejudice and in Bridget Jones’s Diary, Wickham and Darcy/Cleaver and Darcy hold deep yet concealed grudges against one another, which propel the story along for most of its duration.  In Mad About the Boy, the same is not true of Roxster and Mr Wallaker, which further contributes to the novel’s episodic feel.
  • I wasn’t quite satisfied with the Wallaker character either.  This is the one aspect of the novel that I would say was both over-done (he’s so like Darcy that we can see the end coming) and under-done (Roxster is too present and too good for too long, I would suggest, for us to be completely satisfied by his replacement).  Having said that, the (again, not-subtle) comparisons with Daniel Craig in Skyfall and Russell Crowe in Gladiator did deliver me to the correct model of masculine desirability very efficiently, and made me wonder if the same trick could be pulled off with Daniel Craig in a film adaptation as was pulled off with Colin Firth in the first Bridget Jones movie.

I will end here, despite feeling that I haven’t quite done justice to the novel or to my experience of it.  The above strikes me as more negative than positive, whereas my experience of reading Mad About the Boy was definitely more positive than negative.  Which is to say that getting public acts of criticism to match up with the moment-by-moment, private experience of reading is difficult.  The things that are easiest to talk and write about afterwards (the overall shape of the plot, the depth of characterisation) are the things that this novel does least well.  The things that are hardest to capture after the fact, in critical prose, are the things that it frequently excels at.  Perhaps, then, that is why I liked it as much as I did.

All rocket launchers, no emotional resonance

(Next day update.  The below was written immediately after watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. for the first time.  Tonight I re-watched the episode, and warmed to it a little.  My understanding of the plot and the purpose of each scene certainly benefited from a second screening.  I still maintain that the agents feel like discrete plot functions – and somewhat lacklustre ones at that – rather than interacting characters, which is unusual for a Whedon pilot.  Usually, he deftly establishes not only a plot but a world and a set of relationships, as I suggest below.  ‘We’re not exactly a team’, Coulson tells its newest member at the end of the first episode, and he is about right.  However, perhaps as the series proceeds, we will see the ensemble knit together…)

What follows is a very personal response to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (which felt to me like a very impersonal programme).  In composing this blog I’ve repeatedly drafted then deleted a list of my Whedon-based activities over the past three years – drafted because it seemed necessary to give an idea of my massive investment in Whedon’s output; deleted because it felt like I was listing credentials and sounded like I was gearing up to whine about being betrayed.  I’ll just say that I’ve seen most of the stuff that Whedon has had a major hand in since 1992, and I’ve explored every televisual corner of the Whedonverse, much of it in a lot of detail (partly because I’ve been teaching it for three years).  On the other hand, whilst I have of course seen Avengers Assemble, I haven’t seen Iron Man, Captain America, etcetera, and have limited interest in – though certainly no hostility towards – Marvel superheros.

What I have to say against Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is, I recognise, a version of an argument, or rather a series of arguments (about budgets and spectacle and characterisation and so on), that have been made many times before, and often with the person making the argument perhaps not being justified in demanding of a given text the thing it is deemed to lack.  It is, nevertheless, the argument I want to make, the one that I think is right and called for, and I will make it as carefully as possible.

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