Game of Thrones, Season 1

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I’d seen this season a long time ago and was uncertain about whether to continue watching the show. But by last Spring, I’d accepted that it had become a cultural phenomenon and that I should make an honest effort to see what it was about.

Because a friend had given me all of the books when he’d moved a few years ago and was cleaning his shelves, I decided that I’d read them over the summer rather than bothering with the adaptation. This plan was a bust. The books are well-written but, to my eye, are detailed beyond all reasonable bounds. Halfway through the first one, I realized that reading them would take all the effort and energy required to puzzle together a history of medieval England, but without the payoff of being true. So I dropped the series without regrets and without any nagging curiosity to pull me back.

I did have the first two seasons on my computer though, and so at the end of summer, I decided that I would start from the beginning, watch them both, and see what I made of them. And I’m glad I did.

The first season is much better than I remembered, and with the knowledge of the half of the book I had read providing context, I saw the places where the writers are making very clever choices about the adaptation. The omissions and elisions make the television series reasonable in a way the books struck me as not being. So absent a drastic change that pushes me away, it appears I’ve lined up my TV viewing for the coming winter.

The Dresden Files

summerknightI started Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files nearly two years ago, but as of spring I was still only through the first three books. Something about them was off, and I liked them but only in a very hesitant and uncertain way.

Then out of the blue, my mom told me she’d started a new series that was great, and yes, as you will have already guessed, it was The Dresden Files. So we talked. I told her I’d given up. She said it started slow. I said I’d read three. She said the fourth, Summer Knight, was the turning point.

Now this is a conversation that I’m familiar with from TV talk with friends. You say you don’t like something. Your friend says it’s great and gets better and, somehow, no matter how far you’ve pushed forward into the series, it’s always the next episodes or the next season that matters and that you’ve got to see. I’m never persuaded.

That said, I’d never had this conversation with my Mom and certainly never about books. She’s a voracious reader and has generous but reliable tastes. She also never pushes books on people, trusting that there are too many books to read anyway and people will find what suits them. But here she was telling me how much she liked this series and two things became clear: she genuinely found them fun to read and she was serious when she said everything gets better starting with the fourth book.

deathmaskscoverObviously, I agreed to read more and, to my surprise, when she came up to visit this summer, she gave me the next book as a gift. I read it immediately and discovered that, duh, Mom was right. (When is she not?)

It’s always risky to imagine what’s going on in a writer’s head but my sense of the fourth book was that it was written by someone who had discovered all of the sudden that what they were writing wasn’t awful and that they could enjoy making the story up. That’s a weird sense to have but I felt it very clearly and very strongly. This book seems to enjoy itself and that change makes all the difference.

So with Death Masks, the fifth book, now read (and yes, I liked it), I think it’s fair to say that I’ve found some winter reading.

Twitter Break

Dear Timeline,

First off, I just want to make it clear that this isn’t about you. We’ve had some rough times in the past, I know, but that was all about me and my bad judgement and we worked through it. I unfollowed those that needed it, followed those that did, even figured out your lists and used them to get my shit together. After that, we had a good run and good times. Real good times.

But ever since the conventions things have gotten pretty fucking intense and it’s to the point that I can’t take it anymore. You’re obsessed with the minute-by-minute back-and-forth of the most horrifying election in recent memory, and it doesn’t seem to shake you or wear you out, and crazy as it sounds, I love that about you. I do. It’s just that it never fucking lets up ever, and if I stay in the thick of it like this I’m going to wind up on blood pressure pills nursing an ulcer or worse.

And I’m not blaming you. I know I said I was interested in all this crap, that I encouraged you with likes and retweets, and more and more follows. Fuck, I even live-tweeted Republican debates in the primaries knowing I had maybe two active followers. It doesn’t get more “fuck yeah!” than that. You believed that passion was real, and I did too for awhile.

But now, months later and with the shit storm approaching category 5, minute by minute attention to the campaign is more than I can handle. I’m not cut out for it, and I need to step away, need a breather, need a break.

But please please please don’t get the wrong idea. This isn’t about something you’ve done and you know I can’t quit you. I’m just deleting you from my phone because I can’t say no when I’m looking at you there, and I need to say no for at least a bit.

While I’m gone, I’ll be checking the morning headlines and the magazines. Please don’t get the wrong idea. It’s not a statement and not a competition.

It’s just bye for now,
BC

September Morning

The woods on Mont St. Hillaire have darkened and dulled to the hard green of late summer. They are ready now to crack apart into the bright yellow and brilliant orange of Fall. And so it is in the fields below.

The hay has been cut, the scrub tilled under, the manure thrown down. Dry corn rustles in the breeze, and here and there, lime has been spread across freshly turned soil, dusty and white, an early echo of late autumn snow.

In my neighbor’s garden, tomatoes dangle from the leafless stalks of wilted plants, gloriously fat and gloriously red. A pumpkin vine, clutching a trellis, props improbable fruit high into the air.

And the ducks fly overhead. And the river runs cool and clear.

The Power and the Pathos

Over Christmas this past year, the Beav and I passed through DC and stopped to see a temporary exhibit of Hellenistic Bronzes called “Power and Pathos” at the National Gallery.

The show was great, full of large-scale pieces arranged in context, and I learned a lot. But overall it wasn’t the show I expected to see. Nearly all the sculptures were of noble politicians or worthy citizens or well-born children. Fine. What struck me as odd though was that the presentation also felt very carefully straight.

Saying that may sound willful—I mean, why should sexuality come up at all?—but I’m serious. This was a show with numerous male nudes. Yet, it felt constrained the way a group of friends are constrained when they are picking a gay friend up from work but they know that person isn’t out to co-workers and so they are on best behavior hoping not to give the game away. Everything here was proper and intellectual and sexless. Even the herms! And after a bit, the silence about the physicality of what we were seeing began to loom.

My consolation: someone among the curators—maybe all of them even—realized the problem. They must have. And I know this because of the presentation of the final sculpture in the final room of the show. The “Idolino.”

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He stood on a pedestal in front of a false wall hiding the exit, holding a familiar pose: head tilted to the side, weight balanced on one foot. His left arm hung loosely by his side, and the right was raised to his waist, palm out. The curators had lit him crisply from the front with two lamps, which cast two well-defined shadows on the wall behind him. And those two shadows stood there against the wall, one beside the other, holding hands. The effect was too perfectly achieved, too sentimental, and too gay for me to take it as anything but purposeful.

So standing there looking at the shadows and the sculpture and seeing them together as a whole, I thought: someone gets it and is offering art comment in the language of art.

Goethe on Annoying Others

Now there is nothing that irritates me more than when people torment one another, especially when young people in the prime of life, who could be most open to life’s joys, ruin the few good days for each other with antics and realize only too late that they have squandered something irreplaceable.

–Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, The Sufferings of Young Werther

Todd Haynes and the Woman’s Film

Over the past few months I’ve been watching Carol. Sometimes for the story. Sometimes for the photography. Once without sound. And it is as extraordinary as I‘ve come to expect all of Todd Haynes’s features to be. This is a dangerously high standard ripe for creating disappointment, and yet Haynes, who is to my mind the most consistently powerful filmmaker working in America today, consistently meets and even exceeds it.

Carol fits into that stream of his films that tells women‘s stories in stylistic terms that recall specific historical antecedents. This stream includes Safe, Far From Heaven and Mildred Pierce. (The other stream that I see in his work tells stories about men, deploys a fractured, self-consciously mediated narration, and is preoccupied with the circulation and cultural use of popular art signifiers. It includes Poison, Velvet Goldmine, I‘m Not There, and the early short works.)

Haynes’s women’s films have each been one of the very best films of its moment and have been his most commercially successful films. Like the other stream, they are experimental—their stylization is intellectual, historically rich and signifies—but that stylization is also easy to bypass or to dismiss with terms like “beauty.” Their narration is also less fractured than those in his other stream of films, recounting coherent stories organized in relation to recognizable genres. So it is possible for casual viewers to watch these films “simply for the story” or to celebrate the actors’ performances or to class them as homage to a golden age of the silver screen.

(This is not possible to do for the films in the other stream of films. Despite focusing on and even celebrating popular entertainments, each offers choreographed but heavily distanciated assemblages of narrative fragments, usually drawn from several disparate stories. Shifts in media format, wide-ranging and extended allusions, and, perhaps most famously, breaks in conventions regarding actors and performance create real obstacles to casual viewing. Concentration and attention to the question, “What am I to make of all of this?” is required. That these films make that question and the cultural subjects‘ efforts to answer it part of their content—these films are very much meta-fictions—adds an additional layer of complexity to an already daunting experience. As a result, first viewings of these films can feel overwhelming.)

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Carol is a perfect example of Haynes‘s approach to the woman‘s film. The photography, costuming and music are gorgeous; the story is subtle, nuanced and deeply moving; the performances create people and suggest entire lives; and the final cut, taken as a whole, evokes and breaths life into an earlier moment in American cinema. In other words, see above.

What I‘ve been thinking about though is the way that Carol reimagines and transfigures what a melodramatic drama might be. Genre is fundamentally a conservative practice. Even (especially?) when perceived as shared ritual, generic forms introduce difference or change in order to recuperate it as a new instance of the past or of an original. Ideologically, it is concerned with preserving a community. In his woman‘s films, Haynes seems to be exploring the extent to which generic conventions can be used otherwise.

The roots of that experiment can be found at least as early as Safe, a film that is organized according to the conventions of the melodramatic television genre Haynes has called “the disease of the week movie.” In Haynes film, the story of a woman‘s struggles with unexpected illness does not affirm the values of love and courage and family as it would in the ordinary televisual fare; it chronicles instead the way in which that illness makes palpable the woman‘s alienation from her social circles, and how that same illness offers a signifier that she may use to create a new social identity with other sick people. This film still feels to me like a first attempt to determine what‘s possible in melodramatic genres and how far they can be stretched.

Far From Heaven takes the experiment much further by grafting complicated and interlocking stories about racism, sexuality, and feminism together in a single film and by submerging them completely into a uniform and self-consciously anachronistic aesthetic. I love this film, and once I‘ve sunken into it, it’s moving and sincere. The fact that it is critical of the gay man’s assertions of masculine and racial privilege even as it offers sympathy for his struggles to come out in a homophobic world is incredibly powerful. But ultimately, although characters struggle to break free of their social cages, in the end, the community‘s norms prevail: the gay man disappears and the interracial affair ends in resolute tears. In this, the film feels more like a performance of a genre than its appropriation.

Mildred Pierce—the mini-series Carol builds directly upon—marks a departure from these earlier efforts. Mildred has history—it’s an adaptation of James Cain‘s novel and operates in relation to the classic Joan Crawford film of 1945—and yet it aims at something like a socially situated, melodramatic realism. Haynes claims in interviews that this realism is present in Caine‘s novel (which I haven‘t yet read); when I watched, it reminded me of Theodore Dreiser. (My initial response to the series captures how difficult I initially found this shift in tone.) This approach to melodrama is not alien to the history of the Hollywood woman‘s film–it‘s there in Stella Dallas and in the 1930‘s adaptation of Imitation of Life–but it is very different from the dominant form of the woman‘s film that reaches its peak in the opulence of Douglas‘s Sirk‘s work. So Hayne‘s recuperation of this strain feels like reinvention or transformation.

Carol picks up Mildred Pierce‘s experiment. In it, Haynes synthesizes the powerful melodramatic pleasures of Far From Heaven and the subtlety and historical specificity of Mildred Pierce in order to create a film that suggests an experience of the world. Navigating through the brutal details of this social reality, the film also discovers an authentic basis for it’s characters’ happiness and suggests the possibility of meaningful change. How is this achieved? Simple: the sound, the image, the montage, the production design and the script each contribute, all of them, in nearly all their details.

The result is a film that delivers both the emotional and ethical pleasures of socially conscious, realist drama and the aesthetic pleasures of philosophically (post-)modernist works. It suggests too that the viewing strategies appropriate for the meta-fictions may be necessary tools for viewing this movie.

Baldwin on the White City

She looked out into the quiet, sunny streets, and for the first time in her life, she hated it all—the white city, the white world. She could not, that day, think of one decent white person in the whole world. She sat there, and she hoped that one day God, with tortures inconceivable, would grind them utterly into humility, and make them know that black boys and black girls, whom they treated with such condescension, such disdain, and such good humor, had hearts like human beings, too, more human hearts than theirs.

—James Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain

Balzac on students

Indeed, a student can’t have too much time on his hands, if he wants to understand every theater’s individual repertoire, study the Parisian labyrinth’s intricate convolutions, learn how things are done, master the capital’s peculiar language, and grow accustomed to its special pleasures; he needs to explore both good and wicked neighborhoods, take all the interesting courses at the university, catalogue the treasures in all the museums. And the student needs to throw himself into endless idiocies, which seem to him important and noble. …And so, step by step, he strips off his babybark, raises his horizons, and in the end comes to understand the human layers of which society is composed.

–Honoré de Balzac, Pere Goriot

Warcraft

My brother, my sister and I have played World of Warcraft for years. It’s fun, but it’s also a way for us to find time to talk and to hang out despite living thousands of miles away from each other. So when the release date for Warcraft was announced, we knew that there was really no way we were not going to see this movie, reviews be damned. And yes, the reviews were absolutely awful.

Here’s the thing: watching the movie I understood the complaints of every single reviewer who found themselves sitting in a dark theatre watching the silly portentousness of it all. Their suffering must have been real and was surely terrible.

But the movie wasn’t for them. It was for me and my brother and my sister, who laughingly compiled our list of all the very cool (but yes, if you want to be a killjoy, also very silly) things we hoped we’d see. And I’m happy to report, almost everything was checked off our lists, including a sheep. Even better, we got to see a major scene near the film’s midpoint echo one of our favorite moments from the early storyline of the last expansion. So for us, this film was a complete and total win and we were ecstatic.

But once it was done and I was home, the film got me thinking about a couple things. The first is that, despite its budget and blockbuster sheen, Warcraft was a small film in the sense that it aimed to be nothing other than a niche product appealing unashamedly to the specific segment of filmgoers who were ready to enjoy it for what it was. And in this way it reminded me of Krull, my go-to example of an amazingly effective stab at pure-fantasy filmmaking.

And that target audience? They turned out and bought tickets to watch it. My theatre was full of men and women of all ages, all of them clearly gamers, all of them laughing and having a good time together, and all of them clearly chill (except for the Fury Warrior sitting two rows up with a snack ready to go in each hand). It was a great crowd, and crazy as it sounds, I kinda felt like, once the end credits were rolling, that we should all share our specs, guilds and realms so that we could hang out afterwards. I was attending a WoW party in my hometown, and I was a bit sad when we all got up and disappeared back into the world.

Second, I realized that this film does something at the level of production that was different from what I’d seen before. Films with product tie-ins or that adapt popular stories or properties are as old as cinema itself. So it’s easy to mistake Warcraft as more of the same. But I really don’t think it is.

Now I haven’t dug around or done the necessary research—so consider this bar talk slash intuition translated into print—but in every other example of a non-incidental tie-in or adaptation that I can think of, the Hollywood film operates as the hub of the cross-media and licensing strategies. In those cases where the non-Hollywood properties have seemed to have some level of independence and this hierarchy has begun to blur, I can’t think of one where either 1) the film didn’t flop terribly; or 2) a studio or conglomerate didn’t buy the property (or its owner) outright. In both cases, the priority of the film and studio in the cross-media story world is clearly reestablished.

Warcraft has not followed this pattern. Despite frenzied accounts to the contrary, the film did not flop and there will be sequels. But neither did it shift the story focus to a new film-driven franchise. Blizzard intended Warcraft primarily as a means to develop and to support the core game by providing backstory for the recent Warlords of Draenor expansion. They also aimed to support and generate interest in the next expansion, called Legion, by reintroducing ideas and themes from earlier expansions that the new game content would build upon. In support of these goals, Blizzard appears to have insisted on controlling the film’s narrative and its presentation from script development forward even though doing so reportedly put the project at risk more than once due to studio objections to their demands.

To my eyes, the film that came out in theaters this summer looks like the movie Blizzard wanted to make. It supports the emerging game story and fits seamlessly into the cross-media collection of supporting works being issued as book series and animated videos that develop and introduce that story to various audiences. The film is larger in scale than these other works, but in terms of narrative, it seems to be on equal footing with them.

Stated differently, the game and not the film remains the hub of Warcraft‘s story world, which means Hollywood is not in charge of this story machine; it is just one of the gears. I think that makes this situation something new and very much worth watching as it develops.

London Spy

London Spy Poster

This is the gay spy thriller the BBC put out last year and that has finally come to Netflix in Quebec. For celebrity obsession reasons, I liked it, but it is a dark and strange show.

The key early moment comes when Ben Whishaw speaks with his dead lover’s mother and she feeds him a very credible lie. Whishaw responds that “I haven’t read a lot of books or seen a lot of places, but I’ve fucked a lot of people.” He then exposes her lie and figures out a bit more of the puzzle.

In this moment, the series announces what I take to be an important but implicit project: to reimagine Sherlock Holmes in such a way that sexual experience supplants rationality and knowledge as the object and tool of deduction. As absurd as it sounds, Whishaw will peel back the lies and secrets hiding an MI6 plot simply by refusing to let go of his memories of the sex he had with his lover (and with those who came before) and by listening to the feelings these memories provoke. Because it’s Ben Whishaw suffering his way through this ordeal of emotional detection, I was on-board, but I wonder if that would be the case otherwise?

Ben with Big Ben

What was perhaps most shocking to me though was the image the series paints of government. This story operates in a world where agencies we don’t see or control are willing to discredit a critic by having a doctor purposely infect them with HIV. These same people kill a man by locking him into a luggage trunk and then leave him there to rot. They kill a different man and disguise his murder as a suicide, lighting the tableau in ways that remind me of a scene from The Silence of the Lambs.

The narrative does not however treat this brutality or the people who perpetrate it as if they were exceptional or fantastic or required explanation. In this London, the sun rises, the Thames flows downstream, and high-level government employees are psychopathic. Yes, Whishaw sees this and resists, but the very fact that he is so alone as he fights and that the others he meets are so oblivious to (or accepting of) what’s going on suggests that it is his sense of the world and not theirs that is the problem.

I’m guessing this paranoid world view is simply part of the spy genre, but by the end, the darkness of it was oppressive, and I’d had all I could take.

London Spy (Beach)

 

One final note: although the show is very well done, I think it missteps badly when it identifies the contents of the USB key that Whishaw finds in the first episode. The specifics of the contents are unimportant and when spelled out sound silly. In my opinion, let the MacGuffin be a MacGuffin.

De Profundis

De Profundis CoverNearly a year after reading it for the first time, this short book remains one that, when I’m sitting in my reading chair and glancing at my shelves, I find myself picking up, flipping through and reading a page here or a page there. Or if I don’t actually pick it up, I end up remembering bits and thinking about them as I sit.

Wilde’s confidence in the power of art and imagination is inspiring and his appropriation of history and the Christ narrative as a queer antecedent is wonderfully and deeply audacious. And the story of the love and the failures that brought him to prison reads like a novel. (The father’s persecution of Wilde reminds me of the diabolical officer in Billy Budd.)

There’s earned wisdom poured into this book, and, coming to Wilde as I did from the popular image that persists today on mugs and shopping bags, its seriousness was unexpected and a happy discovery.

Romeo et Juliette

TNM_Romeo_Juliette_photographe-Jean-Fran--ois-GrattonThe Thêatre du Nouveau Monde staged a translation of Romeo and Juliette this summer. Turns out the Beav had never seen or read the play and didn’t even know the story. (“C’est une historie d’amour…, no?”) So at the last minute we grabbed tickets and watched the final matinee.

The production presents the story clearly and directly, which, given this was the Beav’s first encounter with it, I was glad of. I could have lived without it being set in Mussolini’s Italy, but still, the core was there.

Serge Denoncourt, who was coming off his well reviewed A Streetcar Named Desire, was directing, and I’ve decided I don’t like his approach. He’s clearly caught up in the idea of sexual provocation and is willing to tinker with the text of the plays in substantial ways. Neither are necessarily problems—who doesn’t like a bit of sexual provocation?—but to my eye, he also seems intent on stripping away complexity and ambiguity as if insisting, bizarrely, that the play is accessible because it doesn’t actually have much to offer.

This production felt to me like a collage of imperfectly digested movie moments, and it was hobbled by wild and uncontrolled shifts in tone. The extremely tacky staging of the couple having sex on their wedding night (yikes) and the bumbling final death scene, during which a large part of the audience actually laughed (double yikes) are both good example of these missteps. The balcony scene—which seemed determined to establish that it was not (and yet was) a “Balcony Scene”—stumbled nearly as a badly by suggesting that the young protagonists were silly rather than falling into feeling. (Marianne Fortier’s Juliette comes out of the scene fine.)

Despite, all my complaints, the play survived, the Beav liked it, and as I left, I felt happy to have watched this story again. I was also happy to see it in translation because hearing Shakespeare translated is as unexpected now as it was to me last year when I watched Richard III. French Shakespeare is and is not Shakespeare in very strange and exciting ways.