Mar 162019
 

I hadn’t seen this film since the early 90s and so, despite some pretty clear memories of scenes and shots, I wasn’t sure what I was going to be seeing. Interestingly, the things I remembered were there as I remembered them, which surprised me, because memory is a tricky thing.

What I wasn’t expecting though were all the superimpositions and overt analogue collage aimed at creating in-frame montage. These don’t exist in today’s cinema, and when they do—meaning, when images read as “assembled”—I can’t think of a case in which they aren’t read as failures of continuity or polish. Here though, they read as discursive and meaningful. Watching the film was a different and deeply satisfying experience for this reason alone.

A quick note for later: the photo-chemical image provides a basis for collage. Does the digital? Or, as an image more closely related to animation—i.e. an iconic signifier—or even perhaps writing—i.e. a symbolic signifier—is the digital image, that string of stored 1s and 0s, however disparate it’s referent’s part, always itself, fundamentally “unified” making the notion of non-illusion or collage non-functional?

Feb 282019
 

A really great monster movie that’s focused, brief and doesn’t bog down with world building. More importantly, it avoids cliché apocalyptic tropes. Think for too long and there’s a lot we don’t know about this situation. But none of it matters. We care about the family and we follow their story through to the movie’s efficient and early end. Great work.

Oct 262017
 

I more or less randomly watched this movie on Netflix and was happy to discover that it was shot in Montreal and is full of beautiful images of the skyline and the mountain.

The film isn’t great—only a few minutes after watching it, the story is fading, and I don’t remember much from the performances—but scene after scene took place in recognizable places around town and it was great fun to location-spot: the Olympic stadium, the Lachine canal, Old Montreal, Parc Lafontaine and others were on display.

Seeing the city on screen, I suddenly realized how much of its beauty I’ve come to take for granted.

Mar 062017
 

The show has been changing bit by bit each season, and at this point it’s become something completely different from what I first started watching.

Stylistically this season draws on steampunk and medicalized horror for its aesthetic. The steampunk worked and, when combined with a cleverly deployed flickering camera effect, was genuinely creepy. The horror element turned around medical experiments being performed on various kids by reckless pseudo-scientists bent on “improving” their subjects. The kids don’t understand and are often unaware of what is being done to them, and the resulting story, which I think gestures toward contemporary debates about the medicalization of youthful behaviour, was disturbing and, at times, unpleasant.

Thematically the show is preoccupied for a long stretch with the challenges (and attendant dangers!) of literacy. The scary center of the core plot is a book. Anyone who reads it has their mind opened to reality. Because reality is so different from what the young readers think it is, the change they experience makes them feel nuts. This is an unbelievably perfect allegory of the risk students accept when doing homework.

The anxieties resulting from the medical and educational plot lines often play out in the school’s library, which appears as an important setting for the first time this season. Members of the pack keep finding themselves there, and nothing good ever happens when they do. It’s just violence, mayhem and death.

Feb 252017
 

This show proposes that a story might emerge from a mash-up of the popular sensations alluded to by its title and of the familiar monster tales evoked through its choice of characters. However it resists inventing that story. Instead it turns the raw material this way and that considering the initial premise’s possibilities in the light of the various, endless options, and only ever settles on the narrative’s path forward when it absolutely must.

The result is not unpleasant and can even be beautiful if you like late-20th century Goth-influenced takes on Victorian furniture and clothing. The wallpapers are gorgeous. There is velvet and lace galore and even smatterings of glossy leather. Corsets and vests are de rigueur. Everything is cut and coloured—like the actors hair—to read as cool and everything at every moment is macabre.[note]The one exception are the scenes of Frankenstein’s monster at work or at rest backstage at Le Grand Guignole. They are sentimental enough to turn me impulsively against the character and by extension against the entire Frankenstein subplot. They are nearly unbearable to watch.[/note]

The narrative however goes nowhere, lurching from one subject to the next and one genre to the next until the sprawl begins to place a sizeable burden on the “Previously on Penny Dreadful…” introductory montages. I remember one montage that worked through previous events three different ways before things had been sorted out enough to make some sort of sense, and then incredibly—and this says everything about how the series operates—the episode that followed had nothing to do with any of what had come before!

The result is a sense that things are being made up episode by episode, that anything can happen, and that we are expected to watch not for the story but for the style, which is to say, the spectacle of the style and of it’s presentation in ostentatious poses drawn from fashion photography. Any resulting pleasure is a product of the moods this style and these poses conjure, which means the show’s appeal rests squarely in the domain of taste: you either like these moments or you don’t, and if you don’t, there’s very little for you to hold onto.

For my part, I found the stretches between the moments I loved—even though there were many of them—bleak and long. So the season was heavy going.

Feb 202017
 

After a season where they were only incidentally students, the kids* are back in school. They meet incoming freshmen, discover a (gay) werewolf playing for the Lacrosse team’s ‘cross-town rival. They also have to figure out how to deal with a mysterious figure hiring assassins to knock off supernatural teenagers, cope with some kind of were-jaguar or something, and also, Berserkers.

The big news though is that Scott gets a beta, a major event that rejuvenates the established theme of masculinity by introducing questions about mentorship and about boys’ relationships to their fathers. The whole thing works because the young werewolf, Liam, is so convincingly frightened and so desperately needs an older brother/father-figure to help him cope. The moment near the end of the season when he saves everyone by trusting that Scott hasn’t become a monster is pretty great.

Teen Wolf isn’t Sophocles, but at this point, it has established its terrain and generates serious and genuine turmoil under the surface.


* The promo image shows what high school “kids” look like in Beacon Hill. Gotta wonder if a few of them weren’t held back a grade or five.

Jan 032017
 

This is the season that broke my binge.

The script and direction are under control in a way they weren’t in the weirdly wonderful first season. As a result, this season manages to gather up loose ends and weave them all tightly back into the fabric of two main story arcs.

In the first of these, Scott becomes an alpha wolf (read: real man). In the second, Stiles overcomes and banishes a mischievous trickster spirit that operated as a second personality. Both arcs signal that fun time is over, and by the end of the season, the group of guys has broken up into a gang of three straight couples (some real, some potential), and the gay characters have either left town or dropped out of sight.

This shift is obviously a let-down and more than earns Teen Wolf a spot on my long list of those TV series in which I have over-invested by rooting for off-story readings that cannot possibly pan out as the show develops.[note]”In a show like House of Cards or Damages, first seasons, which are powerfully suggestive but also necessarily fragmentary, are like traps. When later seasons make choices about what was not said previously, the contradictions between them and what I loved—which is necessarily an amalgam of textual detail and the products of my imagination—make later seasons a real disappointment. In pre-internet days, water cooler talk might have regulated my fancy, but in the world of Netflix, I watch seasons quickly and alone and love what I love on my own terms without check. And that makes later seasons hard to swallow.” (post)[/note] Unlike these previous series though, the disappointment I feel this time around is friendly and free from frustration. I like the cast, like the set up, and still like the show.

And yes, if I’m honest, I knew all along that the fun couldn’t last: a mainstream show directed at adolescents, especially one with a break-out star with a budding movie career, cannot (or at least will not) pick apart the seams of contemporary masculinity for very long, even if it’s fun to pretend otherwise while binging. The best that can be hoped for, I think, is for the show to be “cool” and to signify that coolness by being “cool with” gay people.

And that’s what’s happened here in spades.

Jan 022017
 

On the surface, Season Two throttles back on the guys-in-the-locker-room gayness of the first season, while doubling down on Scott and Alison’s romance plot. There’s also some kind of killer lizard on the loose, a menacing grandfather up to no good, and a dive into lore through subplots that lays the groundwork for future seasons. Which is a lot of ground for a single season. Of all of this, my favourite sub-sub-plot involves a mid-teens rich kid giving his girlfriend a key to his parent’s place. It’s a silly but sweet fantasy vision of what it’s like to be a grown-up that turns out to play a vital role in the resolution of the central storyline.

That all said, no matter how far you pull back on the throttle (and the writers are clearly trying to do so), it’s hard to quell the anarchic, queer connotations unleashed in the first season in one go. And it’s going to be that much harder if you make the villain a frequently shirtless Abercrombie model who also happens to be one of the guys. Or if you let a running joke be about how Stiles knows everything about how Scott looks. All of which is just my way of saying that this season remains ripe for willful misreading even if the low-hanging fruit is gone.

The season’s highlight—and when googling for images I discovered it is a scene that has driven the internet into a frenzy—takes place in a pool and involves Stiles, Derek and the lizard monster. The lizard is afraid of water (don’t ask), so Stiles treads water for hours at the center of the school’s pool holding a helpless Derek in his arms and saving them both from the increasingly frustrated lizard.

The internet believes this is love, and I concur.

Writing this post (and the last one as well), I realize how ridiculous everything about this show sounds. And it is. But is also too much damn fun. And “Sterek” must be celebrated.

So:

(You’re welcome. But enjoy it while it lasts. I’ve seen the next season and there is trouble on the horizon.)

Dec 222016
 

I have a complicated history with this show. I over-invest in the best parts, and gripe about the rest.

The best parts are easily identified: anything centering on the gloriously bitchy Pam or on Eric or on Lafayette (*snap*) or on Jessica (“I’m a virgin again!”) qualifies. These characters represent (or in some cases aspire to) a sophisticated and fashionable cosmopolitan ideal that I love.

Across the seven seasons of the show, this ideal has survived in a narrative space nestled between two other strata of society. Above the cosmopolitan, sits the soulless bureaucratic, commercial and political interests of the Vampire Authority, the Fellowship of the Sun and the various Senators and Governors that come and go. These interests operate like weather. They set conditions the cosmopolitan characters work around and cope with. Occasionally they kick up a storm and do damage. The cosmopolitans can’t escape this strata but keep their heads down and try as much as they can to do their own thing and to stay out of sight.

Beneath the cosmopolitan ideal are the provincials. They’re Bon Temps and they know little about the world. They mistake folksy common sense for wisdom and often wind up tolerating the inevitable ugliness of ignorance.

A folksy character like Sookie is, at her best, open-minded and full of unspoiled life. At her worst, she is just the small-town outsider’s version of open-minded and acts like a square and a scold. The show, which is deeply Rosseauian in its approach to noble Bon Temps (a stance that comes from the source novels) usually doesn’t distinguish between these two ways of being and treats them both as “spunky.” This is deeply annoying. [note]The purity of Sookie’s natural state of mind and view of the world—she’s a romantic ideal—is allegoraized by her fairy light, which is slowly corrupted and dimmed across the series by her repeated exposure to dark, worldly vampire blood.[/note]

The provincial is not simply a function of place though. Bill is, to my mind, the worst of the rubes and nearly unbearable to watch. He’s seen the world, and yet he rejects it, choosing instead to embrace folksy values (from a previous century) and weds them to extensive political ambitions. Worse he speaks continually about love. He’s awful.

The cosmopolitans are nothing like Bill. They know how to live (even those who are dead) and aren’t fooled by the folk or sucked in by the organizational tools. They are fabulous.

 

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m rooting for Sookie, Jason, Sam, Tara and the rest of the gang. And I adore Arlene. But face it: she lives in a small world, and she and her friends are all convinced that remaining small is a kind of victory.

In my True Blood, a series that exists only in my head, events take place in the bigger world we’d find if we followed Jessica after she got over Hoyt and left Louisiana or if we visited Pam and Erik in their new digs in Tokyo or maybe Hong Kong.

In that world, I am Ginger.[note]ps—thanks to whoever made the gifs I found floating on the inter webs.[/note]

 

Dec 202016
 

I’m not a fan of teen or young adult fiction. I’ve got nothing against it, but it has never been my thing. So imagine my surprise when MTV’s Teen Wolf shut down my life with a bout of binge watching that spanned three seasons and lasted the better part of a week. How could this happen?

Well, what I discovered after watching the first episode is that Teen Wolf is the gayest straight show I’ve seen in years and it is howlingly, talk-out-loud-to-the-TV good. Sometimes I even have to stamp my feet and clap.

I mean these guys—and it is relentlessly, undeviatingly a show about guys—seem to live in their school’s locker room, and when they are overcome, born down, and need to have long deep conversations about the troubles in their lives, they prefer to have them bare chested in towels with the other guys on the team (although sometimes older guys in leather coats also drop by the school to talk with them in the locker room). When the guys get dressed and go elsewhere, which they sometimes do, it’s usually to class, but even there, they have long deep conversations, usually about very secret things that no one else must learn. And while they talk—and they talk at length, spun around in their chairs and hunched together—the teacher goes on and on, clueless, at the front of the room and the nearby students pay no attention at all.

Ostensibly the show is about Scott Macall’s struggles to adapt to his new life as a werewolf, which we are made to understand is complicated and difficult because of all the excitement and adventures it forces him to deal with.  But this is just window-dressing. At it’s core, this show is a gloriously off-kilter exploration of 21st century masculinity and the problem of becoming a man.

The show’s model of successful masculinity is a minor recurring character, a gay man named Danny who is handsome, does well in school, has a job, has a fake ID, goes to parties (and knows what to do when he’s there), has an older boyfriend (not from school), and most importantly (given the frustrations of his classmates) has sex without being hung up about it. In short, he’s an openly gay high school student leading a secret life as an adult. Everyone in the school knows it, everyone likes him, and even the popular kids text him. What’s a straight guy to do when faced with this paragon of masculine success?

If you’re Stiles—Scott’s best friend and the best thing on the show—you worry about whether or not Danny finds you attractive.

If you are Scott you fall for the new girl in school, Alison. Scott has a problem though: when he becomes excited, especially when he becomes emotional, he risks turning into a flesh-eating monster. So what happens if he and Alison get serious? Fortunately for Alison, it’s the guys on the lacrosse team that get Scott’s heart racing, so they are the ones forced to deal with the violent, hairy beast. Scott wants to keep things together out on the field though, so he needs a way to stay calm even when the other guys are giving him a hard time. Enter Alison! It turns out that if Scott thinks of Alison, sweet perfectly coiffed Alison, his heart slows, the heat fades away, the beast retreats. She is his anchor, his true love, his cold shower.

This is so perfect I could die.

Camp aside, I think this first season is still fascinating stuff.  It sets out to be a boys-becoming-men tale but the content of the masculinity they’re after is up for grabs and largely unpoliced which makes everything a bit like a fun-house mirror: familiar but out of whack. The show is not a revolution or a political intervention. It’s carnival, an old-fashioned critical concept, but apt I think. Teen Wolf is a grotesque and it’s full of (or at least provokes) a laughter that eats away at the powers that be. In later seasons, I think it begins uneasily to realize it. But more on that later.