Monday, June 30, 2008

P.O.V. | Election Day by Katy Chevigny | PBS

Saturday, June 28, 2008

An Unfocused Imagination
Defining art isn’t easy—it’s like pornography in that you know it when you see it, or hear it, or experience it, as the case may be. I’ll be the first to fess up to the core fact that I don’t always know what art is, since the term is thrown around like discarded tissue. I knew an “artist” in the eighties who actually said if he puked on the sidewalk, and called it art, then it was art, since he, as the artist, defines art. Truth is, puking on a sidewalk, no matter how you rationalize it, is not art. It’s puke on a sidewalk.

The problem with artists defining art is it turns the entire process into an opaque little box of self-congratulation, where like-minded sycophants convince themselves that everybody else just isn’t hip enough to understand that sidewalk barf is art because the artist said so.

The indie film Imagination doesn’t take its pretensions that far, but it does take itself very seriously as “art.” And therein lays its fatal flaw. Ostensibly, Imagination is a film about the varying perceptions of reality—a favorite subject for philosophers, quantum physicists and stoners alike. Co-written by brothers Eric and Jeffrey Leiser, Imagination is the story of twin sisters, one autistic, or actually suffering from Azperger’s Syndrome, and the other, legally blind, fated to be totally blind at some indeterminate point. Being twins, though, they of course share a telepathic bond and a form of communication known only to them. What their parents don’t see is that their daughters are linked by the power of imagination, which in no small part leads to the dissolution of the family—the father runs away, retreating to the local speakeasys, and the mother is killed while driving on the freeway during a conveniently timed earthquake. The twins, effectively orphaned, are taken in by the kindly psychotherapist at his institution, where things take an “unexpected”, if telegraphed, turn.

To say the story is thin is being charitable—the basic premise of linked twins has been done many times before, and usually better, most recently in the indie production Brothers of the Head. The acting here doesn’t fare any better, either—the performers walk through their lines bereft of any semblance of emotion, disconnected from the characters they are supposed to portray. Even though the script doesn’t offer the actors many opportunities to emote, and the direction in the live sequences is reminiscent of a 1950’s educational film, the cast, admittedly mostly first-timers merely recite their lines.

The story in Imagination, though, is an incidental anecdote to showcase Eric’s animation skills and Jeffrey’s music composition talents. In those regards, the brothers show a great deal of promise. It’s in the animation sequences that Imagination shines, even though it’s heavily influenced by the work of Czech surrealist Jan Svankmajer. The music backdrop shows traces of Philip Glass, but with a bit more meat to it. It’s here that the brothers work seamlessly together, and come close to achieving the avant garde piece they sought out to make.

The problem with Imagination is that the elements of storyline and surreal animation never quite gel. The result is jarring—on the one hand is a terribly played live action drama, and on the other, a lyrical bit of animation illustrated by a haunting score. As much as the brothers Leiser would like us to accept Imagination as an enigmatic piece of art, it emerges more as an animation portfolio. That being said, the brothers Leiser may well be players in the future of cinema. Once they get over their art for art’s sake fixation, they may make a cohesive film.

Imagination is a nice try, but doesn't quite make it.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Traces of the Trade: Examining an Uncomfortable Past
2008 marks the bicentennial of the United States’ abolition of the slave trade on its shores. That’s a landmark event in the nation’s history, and yet, it’s been largely overlooked. Maybe it’s because we like to pat ourselves on the back about the quantum leaps we’ve made in the two centuries since, or perhaps it’s because old wounds leave ugly scars best left unmentioned in polite conversation. It’s more likely a combination of the two, made all the more muddled by mythologies on all sides regarding the evolution of race relations in the United States.

Traces of the Trade, the season opener of the PBS acclaimed documentary series P.O.V., looks at some of these issues from a uniquely personal perspective. First-time filmmaker Katrina Browne, discovers that her privileged life is linked to her lineal ancestors’ business in the slave trade. In fact, her Rhode Island ancestors, the DeWolfs, were the largest slave-trading family in United States history.

The news is something of a shock to Browne, considering the DeWolf name is revered in the family’s hometown of Bristol, Rhode Island. The family has a prominent place in history, with a lineage of professors, philanthropists, legislators, Episcopal priests and bishops. Slave trade was hinted at in the family annals, brushed off as poor relations in the family.

As she looks deeper into the family’s slave-trading roots, and learns more, she embarks on a journey with other DeWolf descendents, to retrace the routes of the infamous Triangle Trade—from Ghana, where the slaves were bought to the family’s sugar plantation in Cuba, where the slaves labored in the sugar fields, to make it into rum, to Rhode Island, where the product was sold, and the cycle began anew.

While Traces of the Trade falters in parts, veering dangerously from objective history into moments of white guilt and overly intellectual rationalization, it manages to point out that the history of race relations in America has been drastically altered over the generations. In so doing, it points out many of the myths of our history. In the end, we find that it wasn’t a matter of North versus South. It was more a matter of regional economic interests, wherein everybody was more complicit than textbook history suggests. There are wounds in our history that need to be healed, and the most expedient way to do that is to accept that history, as we were taught it, has some serious flaws.

As much as it drips of white guilt, and as much as it focuses on one family’s attempt at forgiveness for the sins of the fathers, Traces of the Trade: A Story of the Deep North forces us to look at look at our sometimes unsavory past.

Traces of the Trade
, part of the PBS series P.O.V., premieres on PBS Tuesday, 24 June, at 10P EST. Check your local listings, of course, but make it a point to view it.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Coming Convergence of Media

It’s another hot and muggy June night, and I’ve been working all day, dealing with what I’ll politely call “the public.” I get home, thumb through my mail, and discard the three no interest for six months credit card offers and the 75% discount magazine subscriptions, save the various bills, filing them in my mental rolodex with the idea I’ll pay them immediately, knowing I’ll wait for the “friendly reminder”, at which point I’ll overpay 20 cents, just to screw up their automated bookkeeping. After all, the most miniscule protests are the ones that fuel revolutions.

Anyway, it’s been a rough day, and all I want to do is kick back with a glass of red wine and the soothing tones of the television. Don’t misunderstand—I don’t want to be sedated by “unscripted” shows that feign reality by placing misfits together in a controlled environment, or so-called game shows that offer the promise of millions if the contestants make a lucky guess, or even formulaic sitcoms still retreading premises that were already shopworn by the early seventies. Even the news programs seem like they’re in reruns.

No—I need something else on nights like these, something to remind why I loved TV in the first place, why I rushed home from college classes so as not to miss the early anime Starblazers {known in Japan as Spaceship Yakamoto), why I fortified myself with copious amounts of caffeine to see those episodes of The Prisoner (which never aired before 3AM), why I left work early to make sure I didn’t miss an episode of 24, why I shuffled my schedule to recap Dexter.

Nights like these also remind me why broadband Internet is a wonderful invention (does anybody even remember dial-up?), and why I watch more and more TV on my computer. It’s not that it’s edging out TV As We Know It, but it is adding much-needed flavor to a broadcast soup that’s gone stale. Go to any of the Big Four’s websites—CBS, NBC, ABC, or FOX—and the homepage is decidedly more splashy than it was this time last year. They offer full episodes of their more popular series (as well as their struggling ones), and pepper their site with trivia, games and sundry items to entice viewers to watch their network, which, after all, is the most cutting edge of the four.

What it really means, though, is the Internet is making the traditional networks increasingly uncomfortable. As much as they like to say New Media is an unknown commodity (which was a large basis for the Writers’ Strike), they’re furiously circling their wagons for the invasion of a new way of watching TV. That new way is still climbing out of the primordial ooze, but it’s already evolved legs. And it’s learning, adapting the better TV of the past as it learns, inexorably carving a niche for itself in the evolutionary food chain. YouTube was arguably the first Internet network to capitalize on the cyberspace factor, and it remains entrenched in the Zeitgeist as the eminent force of New Media.

I certainly don’t want to diss YouTube. But its “citizen journalism” approach is sort of like a scattergun. There’s a lot of great content there, and it undeniably is a major force in our culture, influencing politics, entertainment, and even legal proceedings. It allows almost anyone to be a star, if even for the proverbial fifteen minutes. On the downside, it’s often a breeding ground for would-be paparazzi and tabloid gossip. All in all, though, it’s the perfect medium for our short attention span society. Whether a broadcast genius emerges from YouTube doesn’t matter. That it provides a possible platform from which that genus may rise is what makes YouTube important.

At the other end of the spectrum are sites like Hulu, which was gobbled up by Universal (NBC) and News Corporation (FOX) by the time it uttered its first cry. As such, it’s already become a promotional wing of the two behemoths, mirroring the content of the two parent sites, right down to full episodes being viewed “with limited commercial interruptions.” What bothers me most about Hulu at this point is that it’s full of promise, but it’s mostly a tease. You get full episodes of shows like Heroes and Arrested Development, but only enough to whet your appetite—they’re in random context, supplanted by clips. There’s a very small library of full-length movies, but there again, the movie collection consists mostly of promo clips. Hulu has potential, but right now, it exists as a marketing tool for NBC and FOX.

Somewhere between the two extremes of corporate self-promotion and citizen journalism are sites like Joost, bridging the chasm between Old and New Media. As I mentioned in an earlier article, Joost is a commercial venture, and it has inked deals with CBS, Sony, and Warner (among others) for content. A major difference, though, is that Joost shows its content with “limited commercial interruptions.” Sure, you occasionally get a little pop-up ad in the corner of the screen, but that’s not nearly as annoying as full-fledged commercials. In fact, I’d say the content far outweighs the minor annoyances.

Since I last wrote about the site, not even a month ago, Joost has added some impressive content, certainly not the least of which is the entire series of David Lynch’s cult classic Twin Peaks. The bizarre murder mystery serial was nothing short of a national phenomenon in the very early nineties, and it’s still ahead of its time, nearly eighteen years after it was cancelled. If you’ve never seen it, you’ll find yourself addicted to it. If you remember it, you’ll remember why America wanted to know “Who Killed Laura Palmer?” Unlike other mysteries, where clues unravel the mystery, each episode of Twin Peaks complicated the mystery even more.

As cool as it is that current viewers don’t have to wait an entire week to see what twists the next episode will bring, Twin Peaks isn’t the only retro series Joost has to offer. You can also, if you’re really a cultist, watch the entire run of Beverly Hills 90210, or view choice episodes of the highly stylized animated adventure Samurai Jack. In fact, you can a lot of TV here. More importantly, though, is that Joost offers European content, short indie films, global news, and music videos you won’t find on—say, MTV (as if you’re ever going to see videos on MTV these days.)

With the exception of YouTube—where anything goes—Internet television is wrestling with its own potential. At this point, it’s serving more as a promotional tool for the networks and studios. The networks are even airing original series on their websites, some of which are actually pretty good. While none of these series have actually made the television cut, it’s easy to imagine a time in the not too distant future when that may be how series are test marketed. It’s also not too difficult to see how the Internet, through actual viewing, and not silly save-the-show campaigns, might turn Nielsen on its ear, and set a new model for programming.

The Internet has already usurped the power of the once impenetrable fortresses of the studios. The upcoming 305, a Mad magazine send-up of 300 had its origins on YouTube, and is now the first viral video to be slated for a major studio production. Traditional television can’t be far behind, especially since it has a history of taking its cues from the movies. Now they’re faced with a new challenge—with the wealth of original programming on the Internet, anybody with any concept could be The Next Big Thing.

And that is going to force a rethinking of how business is done in La-La Land. It’s not that television is going to be swallowed up by the Internet. What will happen is that the Internet, with all its faceless minions, will become a major player in how the networks shape their programming. The computer and the television will meld into one entity, and it will be so painless, we won’t even realize it.

Let’s hope we don’t screw it up this time.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Lives Without Borders: Weeds and Secret Diary of a Call Girl
There’s really no such thing as an “alternative lifestyle” when you think about it, since every choice we make in life is an alternative to another choice, and they all end up being a lifestyle. It’s only when we justify, or make peace with, our own choices that we smugly label other people’s decisions as somehow deviant. Sure, some choices may not be as well thought through as others, borne as they are of desperation or fantasy, but they’re no more “alternative” than making that decision early in life to fit into the norm as it’s currently viewed at any given time. Those kinds of choices, though, are the stuff of dreams, though, and we live our lives vicariously through them. Deep down, there’s a little bit of outlaw in all of us, and we all dream about the what ifs in our life choices.

Admittedly, a lot of choices are thrown at us haphazardly, and we have to make the best of them. It’s doubtful Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker) would have traded in her soccer mom lifestyle to deal pot in the suburbs had her husband not unexpectedly died. It’s also doubtful she could have known how many twisting paths such a choice would take her. But being the resolute woman she is, Nancy dove into her new lifestyle with a verve that any American could appreciate. It all seemed so natural, so suburban, after all, that we forgot that peddling pot is actually frowned upon by the constabulary.

All that’s behind Nancy as Season Four of Weeds (premiering 10P EST on Showtime) opens. She’s literally leaving her past behind, as the comfortable suburb of Majestic is consumed by wildfire. Family in tow, she heads south to the border town of Ren Mar, California. It’s not all fun at the beach, though. She’s branching out, and soon launches into a new career of drug smuggling. In the meantime, she has to deal with her ex-father-in-law, Lenny (Albert Brooks) while dealing with the rigors of keeping her family a cohesive unit.

Season Four of Weeds promises to delve more deeply into issues of immigration, border security, and good old-fashioned pot smuggling, all played out in a series that’s becoming more and more absurdist drama than dark comedy.

If some choices that Nancy makes are haphazard, the choices that Hannah aka Belle de Jour makes are carefully calculated—it’s all part of doing business as a high-priced London call girl. In Secret Diary of a Call Girl, immediately following Weeds Monday night, Billie Piper, of Dr. Who fame, acts as a tour guide to the world of happy hookers. Already something of a hit in the UK, Diary looks at the world of upper end prostitution through the eyes of Hannah/Belle, who leads a double life. By day, she’s an international legal secretary, and by night, a very expensive date. It’s all done with a wink and a nod, not to mention a one camera style.

Belle has no dark past—she tells us from the outset she was not abused as a child, has no children to support and has never done drugs. Her motives are simple: she enjoys sex and she likes money, so why not make a living combining the two?

Considering the subject matter and time slot, Diary is surprisingly pedestrian. There are flashes of nudity on the level of a Victoria’s Secrets fashion shoot, and there are sex scenes that barely go a step beyond PG fare. But sex is not what the show is really about—it’s more about one woman’s quest for liberation and independence. Consider it as the alternative version of Sex and the City, with all of the glam and more of the sleaze. It’s all veddy, veddy British, and all done with a nudge-nudge sense of humor.

What both Weeds and Secret Diary of a Call Girl illustrate above all else is that once it’s all broken down, we’re all in the same skin. None of us know what we’d do to protect our families or our dreams until we’re presented with the right set of circumstances. That both these series presents life in a series of absurdities is at the very least reassuring. There’s always a way to overcome obstacles. . .isn’t there?

It really doesn’t matter if you have Showtime. You can view the first two episodes of both these series here.

Thank whoever’s in charge for media convergence.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

The Alternate Realities of The Dead Zone

TV series adapted from hit movies walk a very thin tightrope, especially when they’re based on movies that were based on genre novels or comic books. Generally, writers are either faced with altering the original concept, or backtracking to fill in the “gaps” the source material omitted. Especially in works based on fantasy, it entails a great deal of fleshing out, usually with very uneven results. It more or less worked in Beastmaster, in which the episodic version actually surpassed the rather lame movie, a reworking of a novel by Andre Norton. The Crow: Stairway to Heaven didn’t fare as well in its attempt to reinvent Eric Draven as a really cool Hulk, sans the green skin and such.

Every once in a very great while, the TV guys, enamored with the source material, get it right and make a series that actually transcends its origins. USA’s series The Dead Zone, inspired by the movie of the same name, which was, oddly enough, inspired by the Steven King novel of the same name, was one such rarity. While the original material focused on the premise of what would you do if you knew in advance a person of power would bring about global destruction, the series honed in on coming to grips with such a dubious talent. It had a phenomenal six season run on USA, and can still occasionally be seen in syndication markets.

Casting Anthony Michael Hall in the Johnny Smith role originally played by Christopher Walken was in itself a risky proposition. It required transforming the protagonist from a character mired in mood to a guy next door using his powers for good. What made The Dead Zone so successful as a series was that, with the exception of a few transitional episodes, it was largely episodic. Instead of welding itself to the premise that Vice-President Stillson will eventually bring on the Apocalypse, the series wisely dealt with more pressing day-to-day visions of changeable futures.

That approach made it possible for The Dead Zone to remain engaging throughout its six season run. It was by no means a rehash of the movie, or even the novel—it was about inalterable pasts, and futures with infinite possibilities. That being the case, The Final Season peppers its standard formula (bad thing may or may not happen, depending on how Johnny reacts to one of his visions.) This allowed the writers and producers rare latitude in the strorylines, with often unexpected plot twists. I won’t bore you with the teasers of each episode— suffice it to say that every episode of this season work as mini-movies, stand alone episodes that subtly weave more intricacies into the overall theme of the show.

This approach gave the production great latitude in presenting individual stories. Resultantly, every episode was a surprise—going from family drama to noir-inspired romance to puzzling mysteries to light-hearted adventures. At its core, though, The Dead Zone was the best kind of science fiction, making alternative realities a backdrop for the more important issues of the human condition.

This 3-DVD set features all thirteen episodes of the final season, presented in 1:78:1 aspect, enhanced for 16:9 screens. Sound is Dolby 5.1. The transfer on this set is flawless, both in picture and sound quality. It also includes a few special features, mostly in the form of featurettes:

“A New Home For The Dead Zone- After nearly a two-year hiatus. "The Dead Zone" returned for a sixth season and moved the production from Vancouver to the other side of Canada - Montreal. Join members of the series as they discuss the new challenges everyone faced with remounting the show.;

“All Aboard: Filming The Dead Zone On a Train”- Go behind the scenes of the episode "Switch" and discover how cast and crew tackled the difficult task of filming on a train and produced an episode that became one of the season's fan favorites;

Audio commentaries (4 episodes)

The Dead Zone was a rarity among science fiction TV series. It immersed the viewer in the concept, and then moved along as if its reality was a matter of course. It never pounded the audience over the head with the premise. That is the benchmark for not only science fiction, but fiction in general. That The Dead Zone was able to present engrossing episodes continuously for six seasons is a testament to the idea that good television drama exists. That it ended on an ambiguous note reinforces the idea of limitless futures.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Midnight Sun : A Thin slice of Brilliance
This much is true.

On 25 May 1928, returning from her third expedition to the North Pole, the airship Italia crashed on the Arctic icepack, killing one crew member on impact, and stranding nine more. The remaining six members of the crew were carried off in the envelope of the airship, never to be found. An international rescue effort ensued, but because of apathy and political considerations on the part of the Italian Fascist government, it took more than 49 days to find the survivors.

For whatever reasons, the crash of the Italia has become a footnote in history. Truth to tell, I was completely unfamiliar with the incident before happening, quite by happenstance, upon Ben Towle’s quietly brilliant graphic novel Midnight Sun. This is a work firmly entrenched with what makes historical fiction work when done properly, using the details of the event as a backdrop to tell a tale that touches the human condition.

History means precious little until it’s placed in the context of how its participants view it in their own lives. In Midnight Sun, we view the crash through the eyes of a reporter only identified as “A. J.”, an alcoholic whose last chance at redemption is covering the final fate of the Italia survivors. His paper books him passage aboard the Russian icebreaker Kasspin, headed to rescue the Italia survivors. Meanwhile, the survivors of the Italia grapple with survival on an ice flow moving inexorably north.

The ice flow is a metaphor for the story, to be sure—it represents salvation and death on several levels. And it works admirably, due in no small part to Towle’s storytelling gifts. What really hooked me on Midnight Sun, though, was the way he illustrated the story. His style is stark, simple, a bit reminiscent of Herge, but with atmospheric details that call to mind the detail work of Eisner. Towles refers to himself as a cartoonist—not an artist—and that modest attitude about himself leaves him free to concentrate on telling his story.

At its heart, Midnight Sun isn’t about a desperate rescue mission, or about coming to grips with one’s mortality or even about a final shot at redemption. It’s more about how events, seemingly unrelated, converge and influence each other, making for larger, equally unrelated events. Towle paints the story in stark lines, accentuated by minimal gray washes, creating an effect that reflects both the growing desperation of the stranded explorers and the edgy boredom of the rescuers and the reporter.

Midnight Sun isn’t a bombastic graphic novel—in fact, I’d liken it more to a cinema verite than a graphic novel. In the confines of a 6.5" X 5.5" format and a mere 136 pages, Ben Towle has managed to bring a historical environ to life. His ear for dialogue and his eye for little details make Midnight Sun a rare treat not only for comics fans, but a remarkable little piece of storytelling.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

In Plain Sight Premieres Tonight

Basic cable network USA isn’t exactly known for groundbreaking programming. You’re not going to find a Sopranos or The Wire or Dexter or Weeds here. By the same token, USA doesn’t subject its audience to mindless game shows like Deal or No Deal or puerile comedy like Big Bang Theory. USA is more subtle than that.

What USA does best is take familiar TV themes, run them through a blender, toss them with contemporary spices and deliver a storyline that’s somehow nostalgic, yet fresh. Take Monk, for instance. The character is a little pinch of Inspector Clouseau, a large jigger of Columbo and a healthy portion of neurotic angst. Psych harkens back to sixties and seventies buddy shows like I Spy and Starsky and Hutch, sans the Grand Torino of the latter.

In Plain Sight (premiering on USA, Sunday 10P EST) loosely follows in that tradition. Mary Shannon (Mary McCormack) is a U.S. Marshal assigned to the Witness Protection Program, or WITSEC (Federalese for Witness Security). That premise has been mined quite a bit in recent years, usually focusing on unsavory characters that the Feds must protect, usually portrayed as an unsavory task at best. This being a USA series, though, In Plain Sight twists the formula, humanizing the entire process.

Much of the premiere episode establishes the characters that drive the series. Mary Shannon is introduced as the embodiment of Gretchen Wilson’s “Redneck Woman,” hard drinking, tough as nails, equally comfortable as a seductress or as a barroom brawler, as conditions demand. Her partner, Marshall Mann (Fred Weller) is her counterpoint, is generally cool and collected, and has the annoying trait of seeming to know just a little bit about everything. He also has a penchant for black designer suits paired with open shirts. Mary, being more practical, favors tank tops and jeans, as the duo tear around their Albuquerque home base in a purple Ford Probe that’s seen better days.

That would be enough to drive most cop shows, but Mary’s life is complicated by familial subplots—her ditzy mom Jinx (Leslie Ann Warren) and her deadbeat sister Brandi (Nichole Hiltz), both of whom have taken up “temporary” residence at Mary’s home, languidly drinking and lounging at the pool and flirting with Mary’s casual Dominican boyfriend Raphael (Christian de la Fuente).

Sure, we’ve seen these plot devices before, but they’re used here to keep what would be another otherwise dry procedural drama lively, and more importantly character-driven. There are mysteries in Mary’s past, and in her relationships with her family, and though they’re an integral part of the show, they’re woven subtly into the main story. The ongoing subplots are played as comedy, by and large, but they yield clues to Mary’s personality. Consider them a diversion to break up the action.

What really makes In Plain Sight compelling is how it turns the episodes into character studies of the people involved. Beneath all the action, the sarcastic dialogue, the comedic turns and the overt sexuality, each episode focuses on how singular events alter one’s future. It’s all about cause and results, and the circuitous routes of life.
In Plain Sight is deceptively simple, an old-fashioned, albeit retrofitted,
cop show, that melds mystery with comedy, and leaves us refreshed for the work week.
And don't forget, to enter our In Plain Sight Giveaway, for your chance to score some pretty cool swag. (Scroll down for details.)