Archive for March, 2011

I’ve ended up as this strange devotee of the television. It started early, I suppose (cue A&E special music) with a childhood almost completely devoid of friends. Now, that sucked at the time, but it also offered me a unique perspective on media. Rather than developing say, real relationships, everything I needed to know was piped in straight from a wide variety of old shows, new games, and a voracious appetite for literature. And as I’ve grown older (read: more elitist) I’ve become a particular champion of PPV and the Home Box Office Network. So I’d like to take a brief moment to herald that network – but also question my own attachment and to offer a few thoughts on the nature of Network television.

Things started off with a bang. I have, and will continue to herald The Wire as my favorite (and the greatest – which, mind you, are often argued as the very same thing) show ever to grace the airwaves. Filled with a complex cast of over 60 characters, a startling recall for events within the timeline of the show, and an occasionally brutal lack of compromise for the audience – it’s some of the best television has to offer.  I’ve frequently hailed the show for artistic liberty, for being able to detail the Baltimore drug trade in unvarnished detail. More than that, I adore the fact that The Wire (like Six Feet Under) worked to make political and social statements in a contemporary setting, rather than the (finely crafted, mind you) period dramas of Band of Brothers or Deadwood.

Yet it’s a statement by (I seem to recall) Tom Fontana of Oz fame that gets me thinking. He mentioned in one of the interviews for the show that while he enjoyed having the ability to say, include a rape scene or crush someone with an elevator, the true beauty of HBO was in a dedication to uncompromising long-form storytelling. Clearly the freedom in terms of content was used and abused by the creators of Oz, but it’s not in the least shocking to see others handle things better with such a striking template. The evolution of HBO in itself says a remarkable amount about our developing need for entertainment, and the way television and art have courted commerce.

But right now I’m watching Homicide: Life on the Street, and the interplay in this television show (a funny little link to the David Simon shows that would help define modern television) between storytelling and viewer needs is something I find myself grappling with more and more. Twin Peaks and Lost helped set the scene for high-minded Network TV, while Homicide would never quite catch Law and Order or NYPD Blue. But mimicry isn’t the goal here (although it is, unfortunately, the frequent result) and with that in mind it becomes remarkable how much creativity Homicide exuded. Not just as a deliberately independent piece of art, but also as a direct statement about the need for restriction and the powerful results it can produce.

You know Run-D.M.C.? How about Nick Drake? These two artists exemplify the sort of resourcefulness I’m getting at. If you’ve ever listened to Run’s debut album or Drake’s third – Pink Moon – You’ll know they’re both bastions of sparsity. Run-D.M.C. is sort of the same minimalist beat played out over the course of the album. This isn’t that different from any new-wave album from 1984, but it says something potent about their mindset. Self-focused raps, social commentary, the power of motivation? Hard-hitting music and idealized words gave a voice to the muted. Not a simple, lyrical voice either, but a sharp one struggling and rasping to be heard in a way hip-hop artists had yet to (and wouldn’t for some time). Likewise, Drake sunk into depression after being rejected a second time and finally commenced recording a barren eleven tracks. While his first two albums were bold and musical (if unsteady and dour) this one was almost comatose. But the beauty of Pink Moon is in the minute, that we’re listening to the plaintive soul of a young man aided only by his guitar and the slightest tinge of piano. The minimal, then, can be beautiful.

A professor of mine named Peter Davis once off-handedly mused about the fact that a movie can be made for millions of dollars… and suck royally. And so many do – like every day! So maybe the secret isn’t big-budget salaries, but embracing the abandon that Homicide so beautifully courted. Perennially in danger of  being cancelled, the show embraced the magic that is trying the unexpected. Criticizing the wealthy and bloated isn’t anything original, but even the well-meaning can produce inhuman art if they embrace complacency. It would seem the producers of Homicide helped curb this problem by rarely resting on their laurels, and by embracing a new season as a unique challenge rather than a convenient reward. A proto-Oz episode, an episode from the eyes of the killer, forcing their most powerful cast member to crumble while simultaneously managing to address the revolving door of minor cast members – it’s almost magical that a show with so few resources was able to channel so much storytelling mojo. The season one episode “Three Men and Adena” remains one of the greatest episodes of television I’ve ever witnessed (and will receive a write-up eventually) and could have been filmed for next to nothing. It’s literally three men in a room – but ingenuity can draw incredible results from impractical conditions. Allowing great actors to act out great scripts, great storytellers to adapt to the moment – that’s magic. We need less phoning in and more risk, fewer one-shots and better arcs, in short – artistic ambition.

The older I get the more I’ll develop the reputation of a bitchy critic. And rightfully so – even I realize I’m awfully opinionated. But I also think I can watch these older shows, see the way they graph relationships or encourage story to unfold naturally, and want that for generations to come. I’m not saying I’m going to write the next Wire and I’m not nearly cool enough to record another Pink Moon, but I do want to make something real. Something that speaks to our now, to the complexity of real people and real life, and mostly something with a hint of flutter. You know? That ache of realness that the best art has on a fundamental level. When I make something, I want it to be grounded in the truth of our experience, to ring with the wisdom of experience. That’s not to say that fantasy or the unreal don’t have a place for us, in fact I think the alien is especially important, but I do think the things which stick with us manifest in the shudder of reality. It’s not gimmicks, it’s not laugh-tracks, it’s a dedication to the sketches we paint as storytellers. Truthfully, I don’t know that I’ll ever make something that grand, but as Feiffer’s People noted – “I have to try… don’t I?” – A.R.

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La Vie En Rose – 2007

I’ve always struggled with foreign film. Not because I’m uncomfortable with foreigners (although as an American I presume that is my right), but because it’s especially difficult for me to read all those blasted subtitles! Thankfully, as I settled in to watch La Vie En Rose (which stuck out in my mind primarily because I can still recall the surprise at the relatively unknown French actress Marion Cotillard winning an Oscar way back when) on a big-screen, I was able to enjoy the fantastic and unique portrayal of an icon of French history, and was privy to what remains a distinctive and awe-inspiring piece of acting.

The film, tracking the life of the French singer through a variety of flashes forwards and backwards, also surveys the illustrious rise of Piaf’s career. Beginning with her humble origins and peculiar relationship with a group of religious prostitutes, we get a sense early on of Piaf’s ability to command an audience with her voice. The camera focuses for a few brief moments on Piaf’s beautiful and mysterious mother who, while she eventually succumbs to her demons, provides the early archetype for Piaf’s tragic rise. Slowly swept closer and closer to fame, we watch Piaf combat her own artistic limitations and personal fears in an effort to develop her own voice.  Fame brings new opportunity for the young chanteuse, but also danger and isolation. Her connection to the men and managers of her life probe her innermost needs, and the often terrifying ways in which fear and desire can manifest in the most uncertain circumstances.

A variety of themes and ideas stood out to me and highlighted the film. Piaf’s sense of spirituality and her occasional conversations and interactions with her guardian spirit make for a beautiful and aching sense of divine struggle. As Piaf’s body crumbles around her, her faith as a performer remains iron-willed. Beginning as a nuance of her youth, her connection to her faith as she grows and develops in her ability make for a fascinating emotional arc. Likewise, the troubled romances of Piaf’s career make for the sort of bi-opic drama which never fails to entertain. Piaf is fragile, however, and it’s natural to feel for the woman as she edges closer to her final song.

The film isn’t always bullet-proof, though. The jumpy plot and similar settings/lighting can make deciphering the story-line on a first viewing ( without the aid of some Googling/interpretative reading) a legitimate feat. Particularly in the scenes with Piaf’s lover/husband, things take on an acid-washed vision that seems a bit too jarring for the generally straightforward storytelling style. Playing hop-scotch with timeframes and settings can occasionally make things a struggle for the audience to keep pace. And while strong performances abound, and much was deservedly made of Cotillard’s performance as the woozy Piaf, the film itself never clicks as succinctly as the lead would suggest.

That’s not to discount the powerful mysticism of the story or curiously gorgeous film style. The austere sense of faith and occasionally archaic French touches give the film a defined sense of time and history. The sets are truly beautiful, and a moment of dimly let elegance in a hotel reminded me distinctly of the period detail in Mad Men. And a quirky, kaleidoscopic view of America adds an amusing level of historical detail and an interesting vision of America provided by outsiders. Tiny details, perhaps, but they truly give the film a sense of breadth and scope.

With a few key elements which truly distinguish the film and a crackling lead performance, there’s a striking film in here amidst the jumpy narrative. See it, and immerse yourself in the beauty of a proto-icon and musical diva who established herself long before the trope became cliche. A little less enamored, a little more whimsical, La Vie En Rose makes the case for the outsider bi-opic and the continued relevancy of our artistic giants. And in the midst of Piaf’s destructive behavior, watching her inability to portray anything less than an absolutely honest performance, she is the supreme performer. Her struggle to find an outlet for her ability and a place to truly call her talent home speaks volumes on the nature of performance, difficulty of celebrity, and ultimately celebratory dedication to our art. In the midst of everything, some of us are compelled to create – and some are blessed to sing. – A.R.

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