Quick Review: Mindhunter Season 2

TV tropes are a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they exist because they work: they create a kind of structural shorthand that writers can use to keep producing content reliably. On the other hand, used at the wrong time, or in the wrong show, they can smother any unique voices or angles.

I believe this is what has occurred with the second season of Mindhunter. What follows will constituted spoilers, so if you haven’t already binged it, you are accepting responsibility for this by reading any further. So, *SPOILERS* begin now.

The dirty secret of Mindhunter is that we don’t need the main characters to have full and rich emotional lives displayed on screen for us. The characters are not really characters so much as they are proxies for the exploration of darkness and the historical account of how the FBI codified the demonology of serial killers. That’s the hook; that’s what we want to see. Holden Ford and Bill Tensch and Wendy Carr are all more or less normal people, and the interest is watching normal people confront the void. Who they date and how much golf they play is of no interest unless it informs that confrontation.

No one found Holden’s girlfriend Debbie from Season 1 more irritating than I did, because watching him spend so much time with someone who could not stop belittling him and condescending to him got old fast. However, their relationship, at least in the early stages, did inform and inspire his thinking about what he was doing in the FBI. It was relevant. But Wendy’s relationship with a bartender this season was relevant to nothing, because it was the only thing we saw her do. All it serves is the trope of “we’ve revealed she’s lesbian, so we need to explore that, so she can *grow as a character*”. No. We don’t need to explore that, because Wendy Carr is not a teenager. She is who she is, and if we don’t know what we can do with her while Holden and Bill are chasing the Atlanta Child Killer, then do we need to see her at all?

The same with Holden’s psychology. Watching Holden have a massive panic attack at the end of Season 1, as he confronts the reality that the void, in the form of Co-Ed Killer Ed Kemper, has also gazed into him, was a strong way to close Season 1. We spend time with it in the early episodes, and it seems as if it’s going to matter, as both Wendy and Bill feel obliged to look after him. But then it goes nowhere, until it’s played off as an almost-joke at the end of the season (Bill telling Holden “You look anxious. You should take a Valium”). I don’t watch this show for lame cliffhangers.

I’d like to say that the breakdown of Bill Tensch’s family is better, but it isn’t. The creepy little boy is still a creepy little boy, and the incident involving the toddler feels like cheap drama. It seems to be so important, and yet it’s only Nancy not wanting to stay in the house that blows everything up at the end. It felt obligatory. A toddler died, and the result is Nancy packing everything up and moving out without leaving (so far as we can tell) so much as a Dear John letter. This isn’t where the emotional weight of the series should be. It’s not a character show, it’s a content show.

Meanwhile, the actual draw of the season gets almost short shrift. You’ve got BTK, who was mere shadowing in Season 1, suddenly landing on the Behavioral Science Unit’s radar, but by the end of Season 2, we’re back to watching him for a scene at the beginning or end of an episode acting weird. Which isn’t unreasonable, as BTK wasn’t caught until 2005. But other than a quick trip to Wichita for Bill, they seem oddly blase about the whole thing. Is this really the best use of the material?

The season works best when dealing with the Atlanta Child Killings of 1979-1981. The tantalizing mystery of this, with so many dead children, and so few leads, and a community deeply suspicious, is top-shelf stuff. More, it serves as a great challenge to the whole concept of “profiling”: although Wayne Williams fits the profile, physical evidence tying him too the dead children remains elusive. The story builds logically off of what we’ve seen them do in Season 1, but everyone except Holden treats it as an irritating distraction. The conflict between theory and reality should occupy the center stage, and everything the characters are doing should build off of that. Instead, we have conversations about authenticity and real estate but nothing about why Holden is so certain about the kind of man he’s trying to catch. He doesn’t get to make his case. It’s like the show just wants him to be wrong.

Fincher says he plans to do five seasons. I’m not going to wait with such anticipation for the next one.

Quick Review: Ingrid Goes West

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Weird little quirk of a film that somehow manages to condemn the age we live in, and the Matrix that we detest and fear and and cannot bear to be apart from (there’s no paradox there, the second thing leads inevitably to the first).

Meet Ingrid. Ingrid is unhealthy. Ingrid obsesses with people she only knows on Instagram. Ingrid lives on her phone. She’s almost (not quite) incapable of forming normal human relationships, because her entire reality is external to herself. She doesn’t have a self. She has no dreams, no goals, no real personality to speak of. She is a void that cannot be filled.

After an incident with one of her InstaFriends lands her in the boobie hatch, she takes a pile of inheritance and crosses the country to form another emotional codependency with a brand new girl who’s InstaFamous. Hilarity and tragedy ensues.

It has a comic sensibility, without really trying to be funny. Such, of course, is how the younger generation speaks the truth, in sly, awkward self-mockery. So it’s really geared for them, but the yearning to live an artful life, a not-mundane life, a beautiful life, is not something that only Generations Y and Z know. The methodology for conceptualizing that life has changed, become more democratized, and way more addictive. Ingrid seems more healthy when she’s drinking a beer on her couch, or even doing a line of coke in a parking lot, than when she’s compulsively liking every photo on her InstaFriend’s feed.

Aubrey Plaza is so perfectly cast for this that’s almost too on-the-nose. O’Shea Jackson, Jr. takes a charismatic turn in a part that could have been nothing. He makes it something, because he’s got something. Everyone else is blonde, and almost part of the landscape. They don’t quite feel real, which is sort of the point, so I can’t fault the performances.

Literary sidebar: the movie focuses on Joan Didion novels as a hipster vintage passion of letters, and it did inspire me to google her and then grab a copy of Play it As it Lays at my library. I suspect Joan Didion got or is getting an uptick as a result of this. I wonder if authors hope for such things. Probably not.

Bottom Line: Skynet doesn’t need to blow us up. It has us by the brain already.

Quick Review: Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile

extremely-wicked-shockingly-evil-and-vile-549dda557f5e5c9f5632a216886432b2 I detest serial killers. By which I mean, I detest the attention paid to them by popular culture. There is a sickness in being as aware of them as we are, something concupiscent in our fascination with twisted pyschopathy. That being said, I am hardly less guilty. I regard From Hell (the graphic novel, not the movie) as a work of art. I have rewatched Mindhunter (in fairness, this series is largely about the FBI’s early exploration with the phenomenon of the serial killer, and is as deeply ambivalent with the fascination with them as I am). And I watched this, despite never giving a damn about Ted Bundy. He was a beast in human flesh, and he got what was coming to him. More than that need not be said.

But this film, like Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street, does an admirable job of explaining the fascination with the evil character that sits at the heart of it. The mafia was a way for immigrants to break the rules and get paid. Wall Street is a way to manufacture wealth out of nothing by selling people the promise of wealth. Extremely Wicked doesn’t have the ambition to explain why Ted Bundy murdered 30+ women in the 1970’s – what explanation, really, could there be? – but it does go a long way towards explaining why his case haunts us, forty years after he was finally caught.

Everyone says Zac Efron is great in this, and he is. The camera still loves him, and he makes every use of it. But what makes this film worth watching is its mis-en-scene. We don’t see Ted Bundy as a killer. We don’t see him cut a swath through innocent co-eds. We see a handsome fellow pulled over in his VW Beetle by a cop and arrested. We see him stand trial despite maintaining his innocence. We see him intimate to his longtime girlfriend that someone is out to get him. We see him withstand prison with stoic spirit and determination. And gradually we get wrapped up in his worldview, his frame, until we find ourselves perversely believing that he’s the protagonist, despite knowing full well that he’s everything the title says he is. It’s a marvelous exercise in structuring a film to drive home the real story, which is that this man was a handsome and charming shell, capable of pulling people into his orbit, and successfully hiding the demon underneath.

But only for a time. Reality will out, and eventually even Bundy is no longer able to maintain the pretense. The climax of the film is the moment where Bundy’s almost self-gaslighting persona cracks – not fully, not in the spittle-flecked Hollywood way – but enough to confirm for us that what we know to be true really is. And that’s both satisfying from a film point of view and deeply sickening from a human one. As with MacBeth, this film about a killer has a weird way of condemning all of us.

Quick Review: The Highwaymen

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This little NetFlick represents the third time Kevin Costner has played an historical lawman up against a famous criminal. In 1987, he did the Hollywood version of Elliot Ness, playing a bright-eyed young crusader forced to get rough to take down Al Capone. In 1994, he did the opposite of that, giving us the grim dirty reality of Wyatt Earp as a thoughtful counterpoint to the previous year’s Tombstone. 

Both of these roles depend to a certain degree on Costner’s trademark flintiness. One of my favorite moments in The Untouchables is when Ness, having been suckered by a bum tip on his first bust, cuts out the headline “Crusader Cop Busts Out”, and pins it to the corkboard behind his desk, then turns around and stares down the rest of the Chicago PD squadroom, a sea of hostile faces silently watching him. His face says “You wanna laugh at me? Go ahead, laugh. I haven’t even started yet.” Underneath the law-and-order, square-jaw good intentions is a quiet fury, which will break loose over the course of the film and throw men off of buildings. He gets his knuckles dirty, because that’s the Chicago Way, and that’s how you get Capone.

Wyatt Earp takes this theme to extreme. The film spends a good hour giving us Earp’s failed first life as a young husband and businessman, who loses his mind when his wife dies, and heads west a jump ahead of a possy, never to return to the land of his birth. Something in him died, the film tells us, and this made him precisely the kind of iron man needed to impose order on the chaos of Dodge City and Tombstone. There is no sign of the killer with the heart of gold, as in True Grit, or even the man haunted by his sins, as in Unforgiven. Wyatt Earp feels neither joy nor remorse in violence. He does what must be done. He’s as cold as a pistol in the rain, and the film is relentless in telling us that by men such as this, and no other, was the wilderness tamed.

In The Highwaymen, the theme encounters variations. First of all, in the story of Bonnie & Clyde, the men who caught them are virtually unknown to the public at large. Frank Hamer has never had a movie or a radio show about his exploits, and previous Bonnie & Clyde films have had the law as a faceless entity, a nemesis that catches up with the romantic pair as it eventually must. Much of The Highwaymen is a reversal of this trend. In fact, we hardly see Bonnie or Clyde in the film, and when we do, we tend not to see their faces. In this film, they are the shadowy enemy, the thing that strikes unseen. Instead, we see Frank Hamer and Maney Gault (an excellent Woody Harrellson), two old Texas Rangers in an era that has ceased to appreciate them even as they make a desperate call for their skills learned, occupying center stage.

On one level, Frank Hamer is as storied a lawman as Wyatt Earp or Elliot Ness, and as feared for his toughness (he’s credited with saving 15 Blacks from lynch mobs and the Ku Klux Klan). But there’s a reversal here. Hamer is hard on the outside, but inside has moments of vulnerability and understanding. His conversation with Clyde Barrow’s father in particular is a moment of confession and of near-empathy. But he does what must be done.

As with the 1967 Bonnie & Clyde, the film leads up to the young criminals death by bushwacking, and does not spare the audience the reality of that shooting. But if Bonnie & Clyde was all “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”, the bright Rebel Yell of the New Hollywood, this film is as dour in tone as its protagonists, and seems to take as its soundtrack Johnny Cash’s “Someday God is Gonna Cut You Down”. We recognize the humanity of Bonnie & Clyde even as we know they’ve got it coming, and we feel a certain horror at the men who gunned them down even as we appreciate their efforts. Nothing is ever as neat and clean as we want, which is why sometimes containing evil requires methods extraordinary.

Quick Review: Velvet Buzzsaw

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People always make the mistake of thinking art is created for them. But really, art is a private language for sophisticates to congratulate themselves on their superiority to the rest of the world. As my artist’s statement explains, my work is utterly incomprehensible and is therefore full of deep significance.

-Bill Watterson

Modern art is good for nothing so much as the joy you experience in hating it. A trip through MoMA in New York is a wonderful opportunity to sneer, and it is a merited sneering, because most people not in the modern art scene have intuited that the singular mood of that scene is one of sneering at them. Whether modern art has any aesthetic merit is a separate question. The bulk of it doesn’t, as it is driven by the sneering to produce anti-art more than anything else.

There is thus something disturbingly satisfying to the Netflix film Velvet Buzzsaw, which inflicts horror-movie tropes upon art-scene stereotypes. Horror is largely a genre of Judgement, and one of its unspoken messages is that the victims deserve their fate because of their ignorance. The drunk girl who swims out into the night ocean at the beginning of Jaws is a fool tempting fate, and fate devours her. To see this applied to the brokers and curators and critics, to see them killed, as all of them are, by Art, cannot but evoke a knowing nod of the head.

And yet, it doesn’t quite work. The other unspoken rule of Horror is that the Dread Thing, the Monster, have clear rules, thereby giving characters an opportunity to escape. At some point, late in the second act, it is traditional for some Outsider possessing knowledge of the Monster to explain to our protagonists how to avoid it. This never fully happens in Velvet Buzzsaw (some underdone investigating occurs), consequently, the Monster is never fully seen, and can pretty much do whatever it wants whenever it wants. The film thus devolves to an indie version of Final Destination; Death comes when it needs to, for no particular reason.

Probably there are two many characters in the narrative, each traveling their own arc, to give the Monster enough development. One of the reasons its handy to put horror protagonists in a single Place (an island, a cabin in the woods), is that we don’t have to give time to exploring their unique lives, and can so focus on the encounter with the Monster and so figure out how to escape it. But Velvet Buzzsaw is so determined that we find these snobs execrable that they end up without the advantages of a bunch of teenagers in a Slasher flick.

Bottom Line: fun mis-en-scene, almost rises to satire, but incomplete. On the other hand, it’s on Netflix, so watching it won’t cost you anything you haven’t already spent. That’s more than most Modern Art can say.

Quick Review: The Favourite

the-favourite-image-credit_-yorgos-lanthimos-rachel-weisz-olivia-colman-e1532374834538One of these days, I’m going to write one of these that’s not about the Stuart dynasty in some way.

Queen Anne reigned briefly at the beginning of the 18th century, and spent most of her reign at war with France over who got to sit on the throne of Spain (that Hapsburg penchant for cousin marriage caught up with them). She is not well-remembered. Fat, sad, gouty, and childless, she seemed largely at the mercy of court favorites, especially the Churchills (yes, Sir Winston’s ancestors, the 1st Duke of Marlborough and his wife). Her 17(!) pregnancies resulted in 4 live babies, none of whom made it past the age of 11. When she died, the very Glorious Revolution that put her sister and then her on the throne decreed that a Hanoverian clod named George should occupy it instead of the surviving members of her family. In short, in an unlucky dynasty, she was perhaps the unluckiest, almost certainly the saddest. Even her grandfather’s grandmother Mary, in her proud, defiant exile, never approached that level of melancholy.

Now, historians will quibble over how true that really was, and point out counter-narrative facts, like how Anne presided over Cabinet meetings far more regularly than her predecessors or successors. But this is the movies, and the movies will print the legend. So Queen Anne becomes a cipher controlled by other women.

And more than controlled. Because this is a 21st century film, we must treat 18th century gossip-rag rumor (the Gawker of its day) as Gospel truth, and believe that Her Majesty was giving away more than her trust to her favorite women. We will leave utterly unexplored the relationship between her and her husband, Prince George of Denmark, the father of those 17 pregnancies, nor give any credence to the widely-reported rumor that she loved him deeply and was heartbroken at the loss of him. That kind of film won’t give us a chance to see Emma Stone naked.

That being grumbled, did I like the damn thing? Yes. It aspires to a kind of Barry Lyndon feel, and it gets there. Rachel Weisz, as Sara Churchill, is at least as much fun as Glenn Close in Dangerous Liasons. Actually, more so, because Sara Churchill has a depth to her that the Marquise de Merteuil does not have. Churchill doesn’t play the game just to be Queen of the Mountain, she actually cares about the politics. She favors the vigorous prosecution of the war with France, even at the risk of her husband, the great general Marlborough. She labors against France just as her descendant Sir Winston would labor against Germany, and for the same reason. Louis XIV was no Hitler, but he was the head of the strongest state in Europe with a habit of bullying smaller states and seeking to make himself the arbiter of Western Civilization. The War of the Spanish Succession was in this respect as epoch-defining as the Napoleonic wars were a century later. And the film focuses on this, brings it right front and center. The script gives Weisz a chance to elevate Sara Churchill from mere schemer to stateswoman.

By contrast, Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) has no interest other than not going back to the scullery. Which, who could blame her, but the cynical disinterest in policy, the refusal to even countenance that her actions will have consequences, is not driven home until the last scene, when it becomes clear what she has bought herself. The ending is dour to the point of being anticlimactic.

But that’s what happens when you try to do history, which gives us very few third-act turnarounds. In real life, the Churchills were disgraced, the war party-Whigs sent packing, and peace with France was negotiated. The Churchills lost, and Anne died a few years later. That was how it was, and the film finds a poignant if irretrievably current way to express that. Peace to all of them, and to the shades of them we conjure up on film, just for good measure.

Not-So-Quick Review: The Man in the High Castle and the Gotcha Problem

I actually finished Season 3 of The Man in the High Castle, which I had been seriously anticipating for a while. People who were also fans told me it was something of a disappointment, and actually a chore to get through. This proved to be right: I watched the season in shortish binges and the whole time found myself wondering why anything was happening. There was a general lack of overarching narrative/conflict, such as Season 2 had. Now that I’ve watched all 10 episodes, I have nothing but questions, and not the cliffhanger kind, that you want answers to. These are the kind of questions that I suspect all have the same answer.

I should also point out that I have a copy but have not read the novel by Phillip K. Dick. I’m thinking I might read it now. It’s long, but I can do it pretty quickly.

So, before I continue, let me just leave a big old banner that says…

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  1. Why did we bring characters back from the point of death just to kill them off gratuitously? Was Joe Blake’s death supposed to mean something? Was breaking him on the wheel and then having Julianna slit his throat supposed to be a commentary on the Reich? Like how there’s really no room to not be a monster in the Reich? Yeah, I kind of knew that. We kind of all knew that. Finding bad guys in the Reich is not a surprise. The whole point of the John Smith character is that he puts a human face above the jackboots.
    But whatever, something had to be done with Joe. But nothing needed to be done with Frank. You could have left Frank dead at the end of last season. For that matter, I don’t know how he was supposed to be alive, hundreds of miles away. And why do that just to kill him off? Was that scene in the desert between him and Kito supposed to underscore Kito’s very Japanese sense of obligation? Again, we already knew that. As for Frank’s narrative this season…
  2. Am I really supposed to believe that the guerrilla art campaign is going to amount to something? Like, I get it, a symbol of hatred. Make the People Woke or whatever. But there’s been a resistance for 20 years. People know this. Their rulers are hateful. People know this. So like…is that it?
  3. Is there a point to John Smith’s promotion to Reichsmarshall of America? Dude’s an SS general when we meet him, the American equivalent of Reinhard Heydrich (and may I just say that Smith besting Heydrich last season to get the key data point necessary to prevent nuclear war was a marvelous high point at the end of last season). And yes, the cloak-and-dagger between him and Rockwell and Hoover (cute historical touches both), proved an interesting plot for the first half of the season. But when it’s over and Smith is now Reichsmarshall, he remains essentially the same, a dude taking orders from Berlin. There’s nothing showing how his duties change, how the political aspects of his job elevate him. He’s still chasing the Man in the High Castle and interviewing suspects. He doesn’t even inherit Rockwell’s goofy baton. So why have that happen at all?
  4. Is Julianna a completely different person now? She is one of those characters who’s all over the map. Last season she was trying to escape, even hobble the Resistance to save Joe Blake; this season she’s killing Blake and leading guerrilla operations to blow up superweapons. Are we planning on having some kind of atonement with the capital-R Resistance? Or are we just going to keep having her do whatever the plot needs her to do so that Surprises can happen?
  5. Are we ever going to get an explanation of how “Moving Between Worlds” works? We saw Trade Minister Decent Guy do it with some joss sticks. Julianna’s sister did it… somehow. Dr. Mengele has a machine that sort of does it through an anomaly, but not well or reliably (yet). And now Julianna can do it by… magic? Electroshock? Guys, this is the premise of the story. If you’re going to have the titular character understand it, can we just do the exposition dump already?

I think the problem lies in two elements: 1) the economic need of TV to fit Content to More Seasons, and 2) the habit of High-Concept dramas to use Gotchas.

As I discussed here, the economics of TV, requires that storylines get stretched out over longer and longer seasons, because successful TV shows need to keep going so they can make their producers money. This is what happened to How I Met Your Mother: a concept and ending that would have worked well enough had the series closed after 6 seasons became completely unbearable after 9. So probably High Castle is in a busywork/stretching phase, giving characters “something to do”.

The other thing is a habit that Prestige Television likes to do to viewers, which is to say, sucker-punching with a sudden development or death. Just when you think you know what’s going on, boom, here’s an assassin or explosion or tap at the shoulder and NOW EVERYTHING’S DIFFERENT WHOAAAA.

Hence, Joe Blake and Franks’ death. Hence, Helen’s abandonment of John Smith in the last episode. Hence, pretty much everything.

Hopefully Season 4 will be better. For now, I’m gonna read the book.