Mar 312017

I loved the seasons of Justified that I’ve watched, and reading this novel is like hearing the TV from another room. So the writers and producers must be doing something right when it comes to the adaptation.

Ultimately though, however much I might enjoy watching something like Justified, my head just doesn’t work when it comes to reading the source fiction. Names don’t stick. I don’t notice the details that stitch together the ins-and-outs of what the bad guys are doing. Worse, I don’t care that I’m not able to make the links. For me, reading crime fiction means pages are flipped, words are read, but the plot just happens in a buzzing, oddly narcotic haze populated by shadows.

I think that the pleasure hard-boiled crime novels—like this one, like The Maltese Falcon—offer their reader is a chance to watch a blank figure of archaic masculine virtue struggle to do a difficult job in a modern world. This man is thrown about and put in danger, but he survives and eventually wins, and he does this through force of character alone. I imagine this is a fairly obvious observation about the genre.

What’s odd though is that, while I dislike reading this kind of crime fiction almost as a rule, I often enjoy watching it when it’s adapted to film or television. What’s going on?

My hunch is that the relevant difference is this: ogling a stylishly photographed strong, silent type of the sort offered up by crime fiction is good fun but identifying with one (which is what reading positions me to do) isn’t. In other words, I enjoy desiring Timothy Olyphant but find no pleasure in desiring to be a tough guy.

Feb 272017

A tightly scripted and beautifully photographed western set in the America a subset of Trump’s voters think they’re living in. Maybe they are.

The only part of the film that felt off was Chris Pine’s performance. Viewed in isolation, it’s strong. But viewed without blinders on, it comes across as an uncannily accurate impersonation of Timothy Olyphant playing Raylan Givens—his hair, size and posture, even the pacing and intonation of his line delivery—and that echo is distracting.  You can see the visual aspects of what I’m talking about in the poster image above.

The resemblance caught my attention enough times to have “What?!? Oh, it’s just Chris Pine” running through my mind like a refrain as the movie played.

Feb 262014

These are late in coming, but over the holidays I watched the third season of Deadwood. It was a season where the main characters hunker down and try to figure out how the winds are blowing so they can survive the storm. What follows is a compilation of various rough notes and impressions I wrote as I watched.

Different Lighting

This season the light is brighter and clearer than the first two. The town seems to exist in a real world of sun and air and not in the delirium and memories of a mad man or in a fever dream.

New Power Struggles

In the second season, characters struggled to control themselves or others in the face of personal weaknesses or improbable alliances. These weaknesses were legion: every major character of the season–Swearengen, Bullock, Mrs. Ellsworth, Joanie, Hearst’s man–were deeply flawed and these weaknesses were varied enough that the season can be seen, overall, as a study of weaknesses overcome (or not).

The third season is different because the battle for Deadwood has been lost. Hearst owns the mines, the hotel. Those who came to the Black Hills only for money get it from him and leave. Those who came to build a life–not just to stake a claim–are all that’s left. The question they struggle with is simple: will their town remain their town and will they have a say? Or will they dance to the tune called by their corporate master, Hearst.

Critique of Corporate Capital

Hearst is corporate power personified, a power the locals are struggling to understand, adjust to and survive. (This is made explicit in dialogue: he cannot even be killed because he will be replaced by the board.) So what is this corporate power like?

Well, Hearst cries over his wounded humanity and vaunt his connection to the earth, but he acts coldly like a violent and dangerous animal. He sleeps on the floor, he spits and kills for the pleasure of demonstrating his power, he squashes unions. He acts how he will, destroying for his own reasons in response to his own whims without every improving what he touches. The walls he tears down in his rooms are an overt symbol of this. The hotel–and Deadwood–are worse for him being there.

It’s telling that after all the threats and dread, the only major character Hearst actually kills is Ellsworth, the most gentle, honorable person on the show, and also the one who knows the most about Hearst’s history.

So if Hearst is corporate power, does Swearengen stands in as a kind of small-business, (mom-n-pop store?) trying to fight off Wal-mart? If so, that’s funny but also seems true to the ethos of the western.

Narrative Deadends

This is a season of narrative possibilities the lead nowhere. Again morphine addiction? (Or maybe not.) The Doc has TB? (Or maybe not.) The theatre troop arrives because…? (Who knows.) And Hearst’s cook…? These and other narrative possibilities never come to anything. They are the stuff of real life, but under Hearst’s reign, they whither.

Nov 012013

I watched the season in a rush, disappointed but not hating it either. I typed up my thoughts on what followed the first episode as I watched. Everything’s included below.

  • The gay killer with chapstick sucks. Because. But also because it’s such a lame No Country for Old Men rip off.
  • Timothy Olyphant is dreamy. And yet, there’s a problem: his character is vague. He’s supposed to be ambiguous and we’re supposed to be wondering “is he a good guy or a bad guy?” But I’m just asking “Who is this guy?” This is a writing problem.
  • Episode after episode feels like the writers are figuring things out as they go. And the results feel improvised and short-sided rather than spontaneous or unexpected. The constantly returning characters are not a positive solution to dramatic problems.
  • Ellen (the actress and the character) is horrible and anorexic. She is pouty, often thick, and generally useless. If Patty were the character I am supposed to believe she is, she would be fired immediately.
  • Episode 7 seems to be the place where things are settling out and getting rolling. The pieces seem in place, Patty is back where she needs to be. Episode 7 out of 13. First episode of the second half, things begin…
  • Biggest, dumbest most annoying Ellen moment yet: the stupid, obviously not honest, FBI agents are revealed to being fakers; their investigation is a shame. Ellen’s response? “You guys better be real” and then she turns and stomps out of the room. She is an idiot.
  • I would LOVE for Patty to hire Marcia Gay Harden’s character for her firm. And to send Ellen to jail. MGH should be on this show forever. She’s that good. And a great counterpoint to Patty.
  • Patty’s outrage over her husband’s affair measures this difference between this show and House of Cards. In HOC, the marriage is about loyalty, trust, faithfulness, and shared dreams. The affairs—and both men and women have them–are not betrayals of marriage, they are something else, operating in a different arena, and subject to rational (rather than societal) judgment. Here though, the affairs are presented as obvious violations of marriage; any other possibility is taken off the table. So when Patty doesn’t care about the adultery, only her reputation, she’s manifesting as ruthless and amoral. This seems like a profoundly old-fashioned and patriarchal approach to promiscuity and was a disappointment. I felt like the writers couldn’t rise to Patty’s position (the position I imagine her character inhabiting) and so they lessened her by sketching out a miserly sexual politics for her.
  • Every single plot point involving Ellen is stupid.
  • Glenn Close’s boobies being perky and assertive in a tan turtleneck sweater are the sexiest things I’ve seen on TV in a long time. She too is dreamy.
  • I hate the final episode’s reconciliation between Ellen and Patty. Partly because I have been rooting against Ellen for the entire season, but also because the lead up to it makes no emotional sense.
  • Yet, that final scene also did what the season as a whole should have done. That last episode should have been unpacked and developed across the season. Grrrrr.

….so I’m disappointed, and yet, I have hope for this show still. If the writing can be sorted out and Patty’s character unleashed, this could be a good show.

Aug 072013

The density of language, the intensity of tone, and the paucity of action define Deadwood for me. I’m on edge, missing stuff and yet nothing is happening. This season I realized how much this show is about politics: fighting for and allocating power in a field with multiple independent actors. It is smart, exciting, and exhausting.

Feb 112012

The last week of winter break I watched the first season of Justified. It was on Netflix, so the price was right and the renting was easy. And after a bit of googling helped me figure out what order to watch the mislabelled episodes in, I got sucked into this big time.

Two things grabbed me. First, Timothy Olyphant. I watched him in Deadwood and thought he was extraordinary. From there I’d wandered briefly into the movies. On the one hand, there was The Girl Next Door. This movie is funny. It also introduced me to Emile Hirsch, definitely a plus. But also, it’s not really my thing. On the other hand there is Hitman a movie I shut off after the first hour. What a big stinking turd. So, my thought was: here’s an actor I like and with potential but with nothing to see him in worth watching. Enter Justified. Olyphant is a character actor and this series is tailored to show him at his best. It’s good enough even that, after listening in from in front of his computer for a few days, the Beav sat down on the couch and actually watched a couple episodes directly.

The second thing that grabbed me was the landscape. This is a police procedural that doesn’t happen in police departments or in crime scenes. Instead, it’s very much an on-location visit-and-chat show à la Murder She Wrote or Castle. But with grit. The thing is that the landscapes they move through are the familiar southern woods of my childhood. I simply loved watching the scenery in this show.