Movies are Short Stories, TV Shows are Novels

This is going to seem counterintuitive, but it’s true.

A “Feature Length” film is one 60 minutes or longer, according to the Screen Actor’s Guild. Most movies are somewhere between 80-120 minutes, although some popular films, such as nearly all the Star Wars movies, are longer (The Last Jedi, the longest one, is 152 minutes, or 2 hours and 32 minutes).

So to watch a movie is to take 1-3 hourse out of your day. And that’s usually done in one sitting. Very rarely do you watch a movie, stop halfway through, and then finish the rest later. Halfway through a movie, you’re usually invested in the story, and want to watch the rest. Movies are dense, quick-structured, A-B-C storytelling. They have to be to get you to sit through them.

Short stories, are stories less than 7,500 words. That is a quick read, giving an author not very much time to:

  • Establish setting
  • Establish character
  • Establish conflict
  • Build conflict
  • Resolve Conflict

Hence, short stories are dense, leaving as much unsaid as said, and stripping everything down to the meat. There is no more description, dialogue, or anything else, than their needs to be. Raymond Carver is the exemplar of the form for this reason.

Hence, these are the forms of efficiency. You strap in and you take the ride. You expect the story to reward your attention with immediate payoff. Movies are short stories.

TV Shows, on the other hand, are episodic. An Episode is a self-contained story that takes place within a larger context. Each successive episode reveals more about the characters, because the pressure of writing demands it. Even a TV show that intends to repeat a situation ad infinitum – a “situation comedy”, for example – finds that in cannot. Each episode adds to the character.

In times past, this growth was largely incidental, a process of creating new scenarios for the characters each week. This had more in common with the old penny dreadfuls, in which new chapters were published each week, and writers paid by the word, increasing the incentive to drag out the story and add new characters. TV Shows are kept on the air until their audience starts to leave, then they are given a hurried ending that most people find unsatisfying. See everything I’ve written about How I Met Your Mother for further elucidation.

So the production of TV shows still leads to dragging plots out, but the rise of “prestige” dramas and “concept” comedies yields the concept of an overall arc over a show or a season. The whole of a TV program can now tell one long story, and the episodes are mere chapters. The advent of streaming, and therefore binge-watching, a show, correlates to this phenomenon.

The best way to think of something like Breaking Bad or Maniac is as a visual novel. The problem with this metaphor is that, unlike modern novels produced and sold as a discreet unit, TV shows are ordered by-season. This is a function of cost. A book publisher is willing to take the risk on a print run, because that’s peanuts compared to funding the batallion necessary to produce a TV show. Hence, while a novel is always finished, a TV show will only continue so long as it maintains an audience. There’s a tension between immediacy and narrative built right into the structure.

This explains the aforementioned habit of TV Shows to screw up their finales. Most of the time, as with Seinfeld, a show has nothing particular to say, and so a finale is simply a process of saying good-bye. But when there’s a concept, an overall narrative and arc, the need to give an ending reflecting an audience’s emotional commitment becomes paramount. But it’s impossible to give proper attention to everything, and the longer a show goes on, the more true this becomes. This is why the last season of Game of Thrones felt so rushed, why fans left it so unsatisfied (The tendency to gloss over realities from the published world of the books did not help). There were so many threads left hanging, so many interesting things that they could have done, but which were not.

Thus, my current mood with regard to TV shows. I’m more in a movie mood, so I can enjoy narratives properly built and executed, rather than meandering their way and then getting cut off like a sausage. I’ve born disappointments enough from the attempts to transcend the structure.

I Almost Saw “Tenet”, But Didn’t. Apparently I’m Not Alone.

My wife suggested we go see it, when we had a free evening. I was willing, but not enthusiastic. In the end, we ended up not doing that instead. The film had good word of mouth, and I know Nolan to be a competent director, but the excitement to do it wasn’t there. And according to Variety, my experience is microcosmic:

Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” willed itself past the $300 million mark globally this weekend even as the overall domestic box office appeared to be on the verge of collapse.

Disney’s “Hocus Pocus,” a Bette Middler comedy that flopped when it was initially released in 1993, but became a cult hit on cable and streaming, almost matched “Tenet’s” grosses in North America and beat those of “The New Mutants.” Re-released just in time for Halloween,” “Hocus Pocus” picked up $1.9 million from 2,570 theaters. “Tenet” earned $2.7 million from 2,722 venues, pushing its domestic haul to a paltry $45.1 million. “The New Mutants” eked out $1 million from 2,154 locations, bringing its domestic total to $20.9 million

Variety.com, “‘Tenet’ Tops $300 Million Globally, but Domestic Box Office Is in Crisis Mode

Getting beat by “Hocus Pocus” (a film whose charms have always eluded me), is newsworthy enough, but the deeper question is why? There’s a whiff of a suggestion in the article that the Pandemic is to blame, but I’m not buying it? If people are willing to come out for a re-release of a Bette Midler cult hit, why not a buzzworthy film from a seasoned director? Is this just Millennial Nostalgia choking off the roots of everything else, like a weed?

Or is this the Uninteresting Name factor, as with “John Carter” back in 2012? I for one wondered what “Tenet” was supposed to refer to? A tenet of what? For whom? What kind of movie is this? Arty? Action? Arty-Action? The name doesn’t tell you anything. All we have to go on is director-name-recognition. And it appears Nolan is no Tarantino in this regard.

It might be that the pandemic suspicion is correct, in a different way. It might be that the habit of Going To The Movies is fundamentally altered, and we don’t go to the cinema anymore unless we really feel it’s “worth it”. Things were moving in this direction anyway, and the lockdowns didn’t help. Sure, “Tenet”, whatever it is, might be good, but I don’t know, and do I want to pay $40 to find out? I’ll just wait for it to stream.

The consequences of this are real. If Hollywood can’t sell a big-name director, with a lot of buzz, then their business model is fundamentally flawed.

I Don’t Care If Cuties is a Good Movie

It seems that people have been left by their education unable to put values in the correct order. People who consider themselves intelligent and sober are defending twerking 11-year-olds for no better reason than to annoy conservatives, because apparently child exploitation doesn’t count if it’s done on the set of a movie in France.

Let’s just go ahead and stipulate that the film is well-made. Hell, let’s stipulate that the overall message is something on the order of “sexualizing children is bad and we shouldn’t do it.”. Let’s say it merits the Palm d’Or it’s now guaranteed to get.

It still sexualized kids in order to make it, and is therefore bad and shouldn’t have been made.

Let’s talk about values. On the one hand, there’s not exploiting children in real life. On the other, there’s making art. Which is more important? Think hard.

Just in case you need me to spell it out for you, Art has merit as an expression of ideas, or as entertainment. Entertainment isn’t bad, but it’s a lesser good than expressing ideas or values in a truthful way. And both of them are lesser goods than living out your values with choices and actions.

Charge of The Light Brigade, entertaining as it may be, is thus diminished by the number of horses that were injured or killed in the making of it. We prefer that the safety of living things not be sacrificed to make a military potboiler. That shows values out of proportion. No one says “Hey, let’s give Harvey Weinstein a pass because he bankrolled Tarantino’s filmography.” That’s ridiculous. Art does not excuse crime.

Charge of the Light Brigade, 1936. A trip-wire was used to make horses fall down at an appropriate moment. 25 horses died as a result. Eroll Flynn was so enraged at the ill-treatment of the horses, he nearly physically attacked the director.

A movie that salaciously depicts girls dancing inappropriately is thus not excused by the quality or truthfulness of its message. It’s still bad to do that. It should not be done. Everyone seemed to understand the importance of preserving the innocence of pubescent children when Stranger Things happened. And they weren’t being sexualized by the show they were on.

For the record, I don’t think most people defending this film is doing so out of a wish to normalize the sexualization of children. It’s just a pattern they’ve fallen into. A piece of risque art is made. Conservatives and other groups make a big noise about it. Therefore, they must be Phillistines who just Don’t Get Art. Don’t you see, you knuckle-draggers? Don’t you see the Nuance and the Bold Look it takes, you Satanic-Panickers, you?

Very filmmaking. Much Art. Wow.

And again, let’s say it’s all those things. That’s still not good enough to justify what is done to produce it. The industry that has a long and savage history of exploiting adult women (and men) does not get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to children. Maybe back when Free Expression was still argued as a Primary Good, you could have slipped this one by. But we don’t live in that world anymore. We haven’t for a while now.

Therefore, I do not care. To the void with it.

Whatever: The Vast Confederate Lighthouse

Initially I had planned to have a Content Blues podcast hosted here on the blog, but because I don’t have a WordPress Business Plan and don’t intend to shell out for one, that won’t be happening. Instead, I switched to Spreaker as a distribution service for both this and the Shallow & Pedantic Podcast. The point of Whatever: A Content Blues Podcast will be to collect all the shorter posts (Quick Reviews and such) into an audo format, and leave the rest of the blog to the longer, essayish posts.

The Vast Confederate Lighthouse Whatever.

A smorgasboard of an episode! We correct Twitter's History Department, Praise "The Vast of Night", discuss the pagan themes of "The Lighthouse", read some epic poetry and a sonnet, consider modern cassette culture, and give a shout-out to indie electronica band Validine Chronus.

It’s up on Spotify, Podchaser, and Deezer, and will presently be on iTunes, iHeartRadio, and Google Podcasts.

The Milennial Nostalgia Machine

Back in the 90’s, when concepts such as “youth culture” seemed relevant to me, I was known to lament the chokehold Boomers had over pop culture. Every time the same damn Beatles songs were repackaged into a new format, I got incredibly annoyed, especially when someone my age bought it.

Looking back, this exercise seems entirely natural. There are a lot of Boomers (hence the name), and naturally as they move from youth to peak earning power, their tastes will dominate the landscape. The Boomers felt the same way about the Hello Dolly/Vegas/Laurence Welk aesthetic their elders went in for. Plus, and if I’m being honest, that era had some quality cultural product. I’ve spent a lot of time exploring the Classic Rock era, and I’m entirely comfortable with saying that most of it didn’t suck. Neither did late 60’s-mid 70’s New Wave cinema, although I understand why it died. There isn’t any reason for any generation to not want to look back fondly on their youth.

But here’s the twist: When 80’s nostalgia started resting it’s head 20 years ago (just let that sink in), I didn’t like it any better. Mostly because I didn’t enjoy the 80’s all that much, or relate to it while it was happening. But at any rate, I found it boring: a strange, low-cal reproduction of an era, without any of the dark parts that balanced it out. Boomer nostalgia always paid homage to Vietnam and murdered Kennedys; the struggle between order and freedom, and the memory of playing their part in it, was an integral part of the story. But 80’s nostalgia has always seemed shallow; wistful, rose-colored escapism.

It’s been a steady lamentation for most of the past decade that movie companies are unable to move product unless it’s a remake or a film of an existing IP. The question must be why this is the case. Some of it must fall upon corporate inertia/laziness, the habit of the industry to exploit a trend until its dryer than the Red Wind in August. But that dynamic also leads to hunting for new trends, the next big thing, to exploit. Sure, New Wave Cinema had its successes, but that didn’t stop studios from greenlighting Jaws and Star Wars. For some reason, though, the current Nostalgia Well hasn’t dehydrated yet. It doesn’t seem to be the normal kind of trend. This seems to be where we are now, and likely to be for the forseeable future.

You could probably assign a thousand causes to this, and all of them play their part. Large historical trends are ever thus. Single causes yield single effects. But one thing that strikes me about ongoing 80’s nostalgia (which has absorbed 90’s nostalgia, which is wierd, as much of 90’s culture was a reaction to 80’s culture), is what the manner and the persistence of it has to say about its use. And that brings us to the generation that’s using it.

There are a lot of Milennials (which shouldn’t surprise us, as they’re mostly the Boomers’ kids), so their tastes are going to be dominant. In fact, you could argue that their tastes have been dominant since the late 90’s, when the crusty, wierd, ironic grunge aesthetic was replaced, almost overnight, by the Day-Glo Autotuned Bling aesthetic that rode hard into the new century. I felt that whiplash as hard as anyone of that era, and was shocked at the speed of it. I mean, for all of Nirvana’s legend, grunge didn’t come out of nowhere. It was seeded throughout the 80’s underground years, and the mainstream 80’s rock aesthetic wasn’t as uniform as memory suggests. Guns N’ Roses, for example, was a different beast entirely than say, Poison, for all they seemed at the time to be just variations on a theme. So were Motley Crue and Metallica. You can trace the connective tissue. The techno-pop, rap/rock late 90’s, on the other hand, seemed to just arrive from a spaceship and take over, apropos of nothing. It was an odd experience, feeling like you were already on the wrong side of the Generation Gap in your Early 20’s, but there it was.

But as time has gone on, the Millenials have become very protean in their tastes. The Spice Girls/Limp Bizkit era had even less staying power than Nirvana’s heyday. By late 2001, there was a Garage-Punk Riot going on. That gave us some good fun rock songs, but the whole hipster aesthetic that gave rise to it went mainstream as time went on and forced itself to become sillier and sillier to go on. Pretty soon it was impossible to embrace anything without irony, unless it brought some level of comfort.

And the experience of Millennials, by their own admission, seems to be a seeking after comfort. If you hit your teen years at the end of the 80’s, you became keenly aware of how wicked the world was, but also that it was full of hope. The combination of Crack Wars and the Fall of the Berlin Wall made an impression on me, that things that seemed to last forever could change, and that change could be good. But if you were too young to catch that lesson, history seemed to offer nothing but down notes. The Lewinsky Scandal shredded any faith in the Political Establishment. 9/11 shattered the idea that we had reached the End of History. And the 2008 Financial Crisis exposed the extent to which our economy has become a three-card monte game.

Who wouldn’t rather look back?

There are those who argue that this just opportunity. Unlike older generations, who had no capacity to indulge in the past, and younger generations, for whom the digital world has always been there, Millenials straddle the line between a pre-internet childhood and an online adulthood. They have the capacity to live in the past, so they can.

For our parents, and their parents, that was never an option. From childhood, all the way to adulthood, there was no internet — no easy access to the experiences of their pasts. For our children, the internet will always have been there. They’ll never know what it’s like to not be able to find a friend from summer camp or rewatch a TV show they loved. But millennials are somewhere in between — we remember a time when the past was out of reach, and we’re tech-savvy enough to make full use of the resources we now have to bring it back within our grasp.

Evie.com

That is as may be. But a crowning obsession with things past always hides a discomfort with the present, and fear of the future. Paradoxically, the very loss of tradition can feed this. When the future is understood to be some variation on the past, because we will do what we have done, then we can let the past be the guide it can be. But when all things are in flux, all understandings subject to disruption, the longing for Known can take over. The practical upshot of which is that there was a Baywatch movie precisely because Remember it? This is what Millenials want. The world is full of harshness and fear, and entertainment is escape (Oscar Movies are not entertainment). And it just might be that this is where we are right now, until another generation becomes dominant.

Why Movies Need Stars

Movies are a strange art form. They immerse an audience in a world that looks and sounds real, yet we can only access them through two-dimensional screens. We observe them as though we’re part of them, but the Fourth Wall is absolutely inviolable to us (not to the movie itself, mind). We can’t crash them or disturb them as we can a live performance. Movies are perhaps more product then they are performance. This isn’t to say the form has no artistry or craftsmanship. I rather think, with all the moving pieces involved, there’s more ways a movie can go wrong, and so more craftsmanship and discipline to do it right. But a greater part of that’s the responsibility of the filmmakers and their army, not the performers. There’s only so much even a brilliant actor can do if the director, cinematographers, editors, sound engineers, etc., fail at their jobs.

But the audience can’t see the filmmaker’s army. They can only see the performers. The filmmakers mediate how the audience sees the performers, which can be done a million different ways.

This differs from theater. A stage director puts together the moving parts of a show, rehearses it, builds it, tweaks it, sweats with his actors. And then he walks away, leaving the actor and crew to put together the show, night by night. Once this happens, the show belongs to the actors. I once went to a run of shows at a theater in Baltimore (Single Carrot Theater), where my wife was performing, and saw a performer give a different take of a single line every night for three weeks. It was just one line, but it differed by minor variations, each one communicating a distinct meaning. In a play, every show is different from the one before.

Movies don’t do that. Once the thing is “in the can,” it exists as an infinitely reproducible entity that will be exactly the same every time it is watched. In a film, it’s the actor who does his work and goes. In a very real way, film actors are almost entirely removed from the audience experience of the film. If an actor does ten takes of a scene, he’ll have no way of knowing which one the director will decide to use, or what it will look like. This explains the phenomenon of film actors not even bothering to see the movies they’re in. Such a thing could be an alienating experience.

This is not to say that none of the craft of performance goes into film acting. In fact, knowing from a shooting script and a treatment how to give the director and the camera something resembling what they want, and to give ten variations on that, cannot be easy. But it does present a challenge of a different order. It’s a challenge that will depend to a great degree on whether the actor looks like he fits in the world being built around him. This will depend on the kind of movie being made, and whether the actor steps into the world effortlessly or is swallowed up by it. So the movie actor needs to present a lifelike stability, a persona that the lens can interpret, that the director can build a world around.

And that’s why this quote from Rotten Chestnuts explains the 80’s far better than any nerd-sniffing ever has:

The reason you can’t make an “Arnold movie” without Arnold Schwarzenegger, the man, in a starring role isn’t because he’s such an indispensable thespian. It’s because Schwarzenegger doesn’t have an ironic bone in his body. Even when he’s doing comedy (and I think we can all admit, now that he’s in his 70s and effectively long retired, that he could be quite funny), he’s deadly serious. No matter how ludicrous the situation, he’s always 100% in it. No scriptwriter in the 1980s ever felt it necessary to explain how this enormous Austrian bodybuilder ended up being a colonel in the US Special Forces, or a small-town sheriff in Bumfuck, Idaho, or a New York cop, or a CIA agent, or whatever else.** He just went with it, and because he did, we did.

Insert John Wayne, Marylin Monroe, James Dean, anyone Warhol iconographed, and you get the idea. Schwarzenegger, above all else, was a known quantity: he shows up, commits to the bit, gets his work done. He’s a professional. You can build a movie around him and never have to worry about him not giving you everything he’s got. Arnold was never anyone’s idea of an actor, but the camera loved him. He made, over the course of his peak working years, a slew of films that not only were hits, but that are endlessly rewatchable, and will continue to be rewatched long after this year’s art-house cinema is forgotten by everyone except the Criterion crowd. Schwarzenegger made adventure films for the ages.

And those are the films studios relied upon to keep the wolf from the door. That army a director needs doesn’t pay itself. Star power, of the plodding, committed, Schwarzenegger kind, keeps people buying tickets. Once an actor becomes a star, he becomes a bankable commodity. That’s why Tom Cruise keeps making Mission:Impossible movies. More the point, it’s why he was hired for making the first one. Tom Cruise is a star: he’ll commit, he’ll get it done. What everyone laughed at in that leaked footage from The Mummy – Cruise yelling loudly at nothing – was precisely why he was there.

It sounds way less ridiculous in context, doesn’t it?

It becomes paramount, then for films to have stars whose personas fit the movies being made. Some actors will have greater range than others, and be able to make their work fit a variety of worlds. Others will be more limited, but that doesn’t mean they’re any less stars or that their work is any less valuable.

Take Harrison Ford. He was and is a star. But after his initial hit films, his career went on a weird tangent. He seems to have picked up the idea that he was, or could be, a Serious Actor, and so wasted decades of marketable time chasing roles that never suited him. Ford was, when all was said and done, the low-rent Clint Eastwood. If he’d had the balls to go truly counter-cultural, he could have made westerns relevant in the 80’s (and at what time in recent history would movie audience have loved Westerns more than in the 80’s?). Instead, we got The Mosquito Coast, a movie no one except Ford still cares about, and pseudo-emotional schlock like Regarding Henry. No one wanted that. We wanted variations of Han Solo and Indiana Jones, who were really just Harrison Ford, as much as John P. Chance and Rooster Cogburn were just John Wayne. “It’s not the years, it’s the mileage” was, if not a line for the ages, at least memorable and droll. Watching him yell about how he didn’t kill his wife (more than one film centered on this) had an unpleasant desperation to be liked. Even DiCaprio doesn’t sweat that hard.

{Also, not a great Jack Ryan. Jack Ryan isn’t an action hero; he’s a bookworm who has a Marine somewhere in his muscle memory. Alec Baldwin got that, and made his Ryan vulnerable, constantly trying to keep ahead of a world-historical devestation, so when he gets the drop on the KGB guy at the end of Hunt For Red October, and reveals that really, Ryan has seen death before, and isn’t just an analyst, it means something. Ford fulminating about “right and wrong” is not only boring, it’s words no one at Langley has ever said, ever. But there hasn’t been a good Tom Clancey novel since Red Storm Rising, anyway, so whatever.}

The result is, movies need stars, and stars need to know themselves as such, that they may understand their work. And critics need to understand what stars bring to movies, and stop judging them by theatrical thespian standards (Meryl Streep might be a star, but Elizabeth Taylor was a bigger one, and Taylor’s films are more rewatchable than Streep’s), the way the audiences already do. Then the art of cinema might finally understand itself.

Beyond Cowboys and Indians

{The following was first written for my defunct Medium.com account in 2012. In some sense it has been overtaken by events. The success of the indie film Bone Tomahawk, among others, in some sense supports my premise. And the points it has to make about the nature of the Western, especially as against the Noir, are worth reconsidering.}

I am an unrepentant fan of Westerns. I love old ones; I love new ones. I love John Ford and Sergio Leone. I appreciate them at their most romantic, and at their darkest. I enjoy it when they confound the genre’s expectations and when they play to them. And I weary of the contention that they are irrelevant.

People have been declaring the genre dead for decades. They said it in the Eighties. They said it in the Nineties, despite the existence of two big-budget films — one the truth, one the legend — about The Gunfight at the OK Corral (Everybody loves Tombstone, but it’s Costner’s Wyatt Earp that gets better on repeated viewings). Most recently, the utter collapse of the big-screen remake of The Lone Ranger prompted Atlantic writer Michael Agresta to offer an interesting premise:

If The Lone Ranger goes down in history as the last of the big-budget oaters, it’ll be a sad milestone for moviemaking—and for America. For a century plus, we have relied on Westerns to teach us our history and reflect our current politics and our place in the world. We can ill afford to lose that mirror now, especially just because we don’t like what we see staring back at us.

He goes on to craft a curiously incomplete history of Western films of the last quarter century, seeming to believe in the hype of Unforgiven as the “last Western”. He makes no mention in his piece of the 2007 remake of 3:10 to Yuma, of 2003’s Open Range, 2008’s Appaloosa, all of which were traditional westerns with known stars, and all of which turned a profit (a more modest one in Appaloosa’s case, but still better than The Lone Ranger’s utter commercial flop).

Agresta then praises The Lone Ranger on highly questionable grounds: for being a film with the courage to stare the subjugation of the American Indian in its face without blinking, thus faintly suggesting the film’s honesty made it simply too much for an American audience, clinging quietly to the white privilege of a conquered continent, to bear. He also suggests that such continued honesty might be the seeds of a reborn Western, heroically confronting the baggage of the past.

This is wrong for two reasons. In the first place, The Lone Ranger hardly broke new cinematic ground on the suffering of the American Indian. In the second, Western stories are not really about the Indians.

Indians are less important to the Western than they would seem. Most of the time, they exist as part of the backdrop — a threat that can irrupt, but may not. True, some films — John Ford’s 7th Cavalry trilogy, for example — deal with the conquest of North America directly. But even these do so with a great deal of moral ambiguity. The righteousness of white colonization of the West is rarely assumed, and often challenged.

The Red Man’s View, 1909

In fact, awareness of the injustice meted out to the American Indian is present in the earliest Westerns, from D.W. Griffith’s The Red Man’s View, to Buster Keaton’s The Paleface. Even 7th Cavalry films like Fort Apache and They Died With Their Boots On, make a point of portraying the natives as more sinned against than sinning.

This does not mean that those depictions of Native Americans are without their own problems — how could they be? And certainly, the Nations should be encouraged to tell their own stories, find their own voices (provided, of course, they want to do so). But collective guilt over the conquest of North America is a nonsensical reason to avoid our homegrown genre of romance. We can deconstruct it, and we have. But we can reconstruct it, too, and that must be just as legitimate.

In any case, most Westerns take place in a land where Indians are already gone, but the new civilization barely present. The reality that everything could come crashing down is the true driver of the plot. You can argue that this glossing over of how and why the Indians are gone is itself questionable, but it’s a problem of what it doesn’t say, rather than what it does. Every act of writing or speaking consists of saying one thing and not another. The existence of once voice does not preclude another.

Claudia Cardinale on the set of Once Upon a Time in the West, 1969

So if the Western is not really about the Indian, what does that leave us? A bunch of white people killing each other? How is the Western then any different from any other setting of shoot-em-up?

To answer this, I compare the Western with that other old-school genre of violence, the noire. In noire, evil triumphs, or at least survives. The rich bastard has the cops in his pocket and gets his way. Forget it, Jake; it’s Chinatown. No matter what happens, the powers that be remain the powers that be. They have been too long on the ground, they fulfill a need. They have become respectable. Noire takes place in the tight, square urban landscape: the only way out is through a door that only leads to another room. The city has been built, and you cannot fight city hall.

But the western takes place in the wide open, in untamed land. Possibility has not yet been closed off into concentric squares of concrete and steel. Have gun, will travel. Civilization is light on the ground and we can make up the rules as we go.

And as Deadwood points out, that’s not always a good thing. Natural man is remarkably un-free from exploitation; indeed, he makes exploitation his common coin. When the powers-that-be are still in flux, they are the more ruthless because of that.

James Caan, Robert Mitchum, Arthur Hunnicut, and John Wayne, El Dorado, 1967

But they can also be fought. The first Western I ever saw, Howard Hawks’ El Dorado, pits a ruthless, cruel cattle baron against a drunken sheriff (played with flinty brilliance by Robert Mitchum) and his gunslinger friend (John Wayne, showing a few small chinks of vulnerability in his usual heroic panoply). Indians are mentioned only once, in passing and already passed. The rich man employs thugs to push out competitors and acts as thought the law does not apply to him; the sheriff must see him punished. Law and wealth are directly opposed to one another, and it’s possible for one side to win, and for that victory to matter.

Or take Sergio Leone’s Fistful of Dollars, the jumping-off point in the Man With No Name Trilogy and at first glance, the polar opposite of a film like El Dorado (both were made around the same time). A reimagining of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo¸ Fistful depicts a border town under the uneasy dominance of two warring clans, one Anglo, one Mex. Both claim to be the true authority, both employ gangs of hoods and engage in an endless cycle of murder on each other. Our anti-heroic protagonist plays both against each other to put money in his own pocket. This would seem a brutal inversion of the law vs. lawlessness tale that El Dorado spins, in which the camps of good and evil are clear.

But it happens that the leader of the Mexican clan, Ramon, exceeds his opponent in cunning and cruelty. He is a man without scruple, who murders the innocent and forcibly steals a poor man’s wife. That the level of his corruption differs only in degree from his enemies does not matter. He is manifestly a bad man. He’s got it coming, and in the Wild West, one man with courage can make sure he gets it.

Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars, 1964

“What does it take to make justice happen?” is a common question in Westerns, from True Grit and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance to Shane. “What are the fruits of violence?” is another, found from The Magnificent Seven to Unforgiven and on and on. These issues are timeless, and they should be discussed at face value. Westerns are a good vehicle for discussing these issues precisely because the wildness of the backdrop puts them at the center of human existence, where they belong.

So I propose that we dispense with the notion that the Western needs to be “fixed”. It doesn’t. It just needs to do what it always does, spin tales of good and evil, of corruption and honor, of exploitation and heroism. And it will adapt itself naturally to the needs of our culture, if we let it. The Western is only as dead as we declare, and nothing that has to be declared dead ever really is.

Quick Review: Jojo Rabbit

Yes, I finally watched it. I’d had a hard time getting into it: first off-put by the banality of “LOL HItler” (World War 2 was eighty years ago), then by being bored during the first half-hour. Frankly, for a film that billed itself as a trangressive comedy, there weren’t nearly enough laughs (the most transgressive thing in it is the opening credits, which juxtaposes Nazi propaganda reels with a German-language version of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”). The funniest character is Sam Rockwell’s Captain K, a one-eyed drunk with deadpan lines and a silent humanity miles under the surface. He’s actually a character, unlike Rebel Wilson’s Nazi matron, who’s a parody.

One struggles to find laughs otherwise. The Hitler Imaginary Friend bit isn’t as funny as it wants to be. One gets the gag – Hitler talking like a ten-year-old – and it’s not bad for all that. But it’s a shade short of being brilliant, especially as the film’s hook.

I must pause here to make the Historian’s Grumble. What year is this supposed to be? There’s talk of The Allies Landing in Italy, which was 1943. But then Imaginary Hitler references the Von Stauffenberg plot as occurring “last year”. But that plot occured in 1944, a month after the D-Day landings. I suppose it doesn’t really matter, since the film ends in the Gotterdamerung of 1945. But it annoyed me, and prevented me from getting into it.

That said, the charms outweigh the faults. Scarlett Johanssen picks this film up and carries it on her shoulders. She’s easily the best thing in it: a performance light and nimble, yet utterly grounded. The film grows whenever she’s on screen, and her character’s arc provides meaning and heart to it. The character of Jorgi – Jojo’s porky pal, who ends up in the Volksturrm – is a delight, remaining entirely child-like as the world goes blood-mad around him. The relationship between Jojo and the Girl in the Wall gets better as it goes on, becoming less “LOL Nazis” and turning into something human. Both characters overcome distrust and establish grounds for social intercourse, which grow into a familial relationship. Elsa becomes Jojo’s long-lost sister (who is dead at the start of the film, for reasons that remain intriguingly unknown), and they come to rely upon each other. In that respect, the film is a human success.

Nazi Horror

Things I learned today:

  1. Roman Polanski experienced the Holocaust to a terrifying degree, losing his mother at Aushwitz, which puts his career as primarily a horror director into perspective (it doesn’t excuse his crimes and the bastard should have gone to jail – Fiat Iustitia, ruat astrum).
  2. There’s a whole sub-genre of Nazi horror cinema. I suppose I already knew this, but a blog calling itself Planet Auswitz analyzing it does rather Make It Official in a way.

For my money, the true Nazi Horror movie is Conspiracy. An HBO original from 2001, it gives you the other end of the monster. It takes place at a cushy conference in a lakeside villa. Not a drop of blood is spilled or a shot fired in anger. Nevertheless, it is a chilling meditation on human evil.

conspiracy-filmThe film is about the Wannsee Conference, wherein high-ranking Nazi officials planned the Endlosung der Judenfrage – the Final Solution to the Jewish Question, what Jews call the Shoah (“Calamity”), and what popular culture refers to as the Holocaust. Note this nomenclature. What we commonly consider a bloodthirsty pogrom on a larger scale, some bizarrely Teutonic irruption of anti-Semitic feeling, was in fact an entirely rational conclusion of bureaucratic logic. The Nazis came to Wannsee to sort out this Jewish business, once and for all. And given the status of Jews in the Third Reich, and the ongoing war, that business could only get sorted out one way.

The film makes this clear. If you’ve ever been in one of those meetings where all discussion is an illusion, the decision has been made already, and you are just being informed of the expectation to enthusiastically lend your support, then you will get this film. The meeting begins with a palimpset of discussion of alternative solutions – mass sterilization, primarily – but although it’s practicalities are debated it isn’t serious for a minute. With that camel’s nose inside the tent, the SS shove towards acceptance of what was already being done – mass extermination of Jews throughout Eastern Europe — in fits and starts. As having soldiers shoot them one by one is impracticable, poison gas becomes the obvious solution.

The dawning horror on mens faces as they realize what this meeting really is and that they’re really going to do it, that no real debate or discussion exists, that the fix is in, makes this film a favorite of mine. The verite aspect as well: the actual Wannsee conference took place in just about the running time of the movie. And it’s perhaps my favorite Kenneth Branagh performance. He plays Reinhard Heydrich, the Butcher of Prague, as a consummate politician, gemutlichkeit, but the iron fist slips out of the velvet glove when it needs to. The SS takeover of Jewish Policy questions from every other relevant government agency is the real purpose of the meeting, and Branagh plays that skillfully.

These men, highly educated, deeply civilized, allowed their reason to be corrupted by a premise — Jews are the authors of the world’s ills — that they never examined. Once accepted, this idea drives all before it, until not just humanity and sympathy, but even law, become unreasonable. Spiritual horror at the inversion of morality hit on an altogether different level than zombies, even if both are really about the same thing.

The Discreet Charms of the DVD

Since we’ve been locked in, I have taken it upon myself to rely a bit yes on the internet for the evenings entertainment, and to tuck into my ancient collecton of DVD’s and Blu-Rays. No chance of a failure of Net Neutrality (*snicker*) to deprive me of a viewing. Here’s what I’ve watched over the past week:

  • Waiting for Guffman
  • This is Spinal Tap
  • Ed Wood
  • Monty Python and the Holy Grail
  • Lost in Translation
  • The Wolf of Wall Street

All of these, except perhaps the last one, are old favorites, all things I know I like, but all things I haven’t watched in forever. It’s always easier to crumple down into the couch and be served up some New Hotness by our content providers.

I mean, I watched Tiger King like everyone else, and thoroughly enjoyed the madness of it. That was a delightfully Marlovian tale: vengeance and hatred and conspiracy, with a dangerous doomed animals in the mis-en-scene (If there are any tigers left alive in the wild when this century is half-over, my old eyes will be surprised to see them). Also, fundamentally American: puritanism vs. license. All sinners in the hands of an angry God.

But it’s been fun to kick it old-school, to appreciate the collection that I was long told would be obsolete. Not so, my lovelies. I’ve taken it as another opportunity to unplug from the Matrix.