Mothers, Whores and a Drug-Addled Draper: A Mad Men Rumble

Mad Men The Crash

Following the latest, delightfully crazy episode of Mad Men, ‘The Crash’, Joseph Lavelle Wilson and I slug it out over tap-dancing technique, the use of flashbacks, Peggy’s office romances and Don’s long, sordid history with the ladies. Let’s Rumble!

Joe: My god. What an episode. I thought things were weird when Ken Cosgrove started tap-dancing, but that was just the beginning! Aside from the drug stuff, which I think was pulled off spectacularly (as in the LSD episode – one of my all time favourites), this episode stood out for delving so deeply into one of the key elements of Don Draper – his oedipal obsession.

Don tries to get two words in on the phone with Sylvia – ‘Just listen to me!’ but she hangs up, shutting the door between them and he flies into a rage, smashing the telephone through his glassware. As the episode unfolds we realise that this frustration is based on his lost connection with his own mother, whom he never got to say anything to as she died in childbirth. Once Don takes the blue pill in the form of an unspecified drug and plunges down the rabbit hole, his desire for a mother’s love consumes him.

It is this desire which forms the crux of his relationship with Sylvia – why it means so much to him and why he wants so badly to fix it. He never got to fix anything with his mother, and his stepmother was an awful, abusive horror (did you notice how she looked a bit like Sylvia as she was brandishing the wooden spoon over young Don?). And so we get to the meat of the episode: Don’s drug-fuelled quest for some strand of history, signified by a half-remembered soup client, and a well-remembered first sexual encounter also involving soup. With all the false clarity stimulants can bring to the brain, he feebly believes this is the key which will enable him to recross the chasm which has opened up between him and Sylvia. It is the same chasm which exists between him and his mother. The ‘shared history’ Don perceives in his fever-dream links Sylvia to Amee, the prostitute who cared for him while sick, ‘took his cherry’, and then left him to the clutches of his stepmother. Don’s sense of abandonment is palpable, and chillingly echoed in this episode by his inability to care for his own children.

This episode took a lot of risks and I think for the most part they paid off. A wondrously executed leap of faith gives us so much insight into the perpetual enigma of Don. I’m only disappointed we didn’t get to see Pete Campbell high.

Stuart: Oh Don. You summed up his character’s personal trip down the rabbit hole this episode almost perfectly. That said, I’m not sure I enjoyed that aspect of the episode nearly as much as you did. Mad Men‘s flashbacks have been a mixed bag, and it’s always less than satisfying when a character’s behaviour is whittled down to a few signposts in the past (Dead Mother. Abusive Stepfather. Whorehouse. Got it.) Even as I appreciated the way we slipped in and out of Don’s feverish headspace, I can’t say we learnt anything new from that flourish about who Don is today. Don may have a fluid sense of identity and a fixation on the ability to remake oneself, but I don’t think he’s a mystery to us anymore. Don has become less an enigma and more a Tony Soprano-esque figure, re-enacting the same destructive patterns that he’s too comfortable (or not self aware enough) to break away from.

In that vein, I think your Sylvia/Mother comparison absolutely nails a constant in Don’s (illicit) relationships with women, where he is attracted to strong, maternal figures with whom he is able to bare himself and show weakness, but at the same time cannot resist demeaning with aggressive power plays or sheer selfishness – last episode’s hotel room scenes were particularly excruciating.

What I loved about this episode was simply how it played. Cosgrove’s tap-dance was utterly spectacular. I’ve never laughed so hard, or so often, at a Mad Men episode; at times, it teetering on the cusp of self-parody. Don’s “inspirational speech” to the creative team was particularly brilliant – especially when Peggy deftly undercut Don’s proclamations with a simple “So, what’s the idea?” In fact, it was an exceptional night for Peggy, who has somehow become the most sensible character on this lurching pirate ship of an ad agency.

The lack of Pete Campbell made sense. Pete may be consistently immature in his personal relationships, but he’s always pushing for office decorum and professionalism, and I don’t think he’d have had a bar of it. Same goes for Joan, who didn’t even deign to show up this episode to make an early exit. Although what the hell was Roger up to?

Also, I’m curious what you thought of “Grandma Ida” and subplot with Don’s actual children (who were, appropriately, in actual danger whilst Don was navel-gazing)?

Mad Men

Joe: I think it’s fair to indulge the show its flashbacks – they can be a little cliche and clumsy but I don’t think don is being reduced to a few signposts. Maybe you’re right though that the show uses his mystery as a crutch – 6 seasons in how many extra things can be hidden in his past? We’ve had the abusive father, the mystic hobo, the dependent brother, the identity theft, the secret friendship with the identity theft victim’s wife, etc. In the show’s defense, I think most of these flashbacks have rounded out and helped to explain an enigmatic character. It shows us how important our personal histories are and how they can form a kind of prism or lens for understanding how we are now. In fact, I’d argue this is a big part of what the show does as a whole: holds up the mirror of history to its viewers – we get outraged at the racism and sexism, and we’re warned against complacency when terrible things are happening.

I agree this was one of the funniest episodes, but I barely had time to laugh because something new and ridiculous would happen every five minutes. And yet it all made sense somehow – Peggy’s personal strengths are everything Don isn’t. I can’t wait for her to whip SCDPCGC into shape.  Frank’s flower child finding her way to Stan was a beautiful conceit – two people unable to process their grief seeking relief in sex. I like to imagine Roger spent the episode writing a follow up to Sterling’s Gold called Drugs and Why They are Awesome.

The best thing about the grandma Ida subplot was how much venom January Jones was able to inject into about 12 seconds of screen time. But yes it served as a crucial crisis to pull Don back into reality, as his family so often does. I liked that it was a coming of age episode for both Don and Sally, and Sally showed that even though she’s young, she isn’t easily outfoxed – just like her dad.

Stuart: I’m not necessarily against flashbacks on Mad Men, but this week they felt out of step with the rest of the episode. Sure, they’re integrated thematically, but given the subjective storytelling in the modern day sections (the camerawork, the sound design, the little absurd flourishes), it was odd to jump back to some fairly staid segments from the 1930s. I’d have found those far more interesting if they were wrapped up into the episode’s style and tone more – instead we just cut over to them every time Don had a coughing fit. I feel the show missed an amazing opportunity to look back at these moment’s with Don’s drug-addled gaze, and really get inside his head, seeing how he perceived his past, as opposed to dropping in flashbacks that simply fill out Don’s backstory. I’m just not sure at this point Don needs any more explaining. Losing his virginity to a prostitute is hardly a surprise.

Part of it is that, these days, I’m far more excited about Peggy’s story than Don’s. Don’s been playing footsie with a full-blown existential crisis for a few seasons now, but Peggy is actually going out and getting things done, and every episodes seems to toss up a new dynamic or a new relationship for her to play off. Her scene with Stan was gorgeous, and definitely the non-tap-dancing highlight of the episode for me. That said, I didn’t see anything beautiful in the Stan/Flower Child pairing – absolutely in character, but it certainly cheapened Stan’s sentiments.

And I have to say, despite January Jones’ miniscule screen time, I feel this season has been strong on rehabilitating Betty. She has actually been – god help me – a pretty good mother this season, and she had every right to unleash on Don and Megan for their negligence. Remember when Don married Megan because he thought she’d be a good mother to his kids? Well, that didn’t last long. Plus, I’m sure January Jones appreciates being out of that fat suit at long last.

I doubt that the experience will pull Don back into reality in the long run – this isn’t the first time, and certainly won’t be the last, that Don has resolved to be a better husband and father. He’s great with new beginnings.

Mad Men Angry Betty

Joe: I meant the venom comment as a compliment – it was a remarkable performance. And yeah – it is great to see Betty getting some storylines that don’t make me groan with boredom/frustration. I liked the fact her hair reverting to blonde didn’t need to be a major plot point and I’m looking forward to seeing how she handles the return to trophy wife role when Henry goes on the campaign trail. I fully agree she was within her rights to unleash on Don and Megan – indignation is a really important part of the show’s moral compass.

The flashbacks I agree weren’t stylistically clever, but I liked that they provided a counterpoint to the experimental stuff happening in the rest of the episode. It was so much to take in already – Don’s hazy memory-hallucination might have pushed it too far for me. And no, it isn’t a surprise Don lost his virginity to a prostitute but as I said the value of this episode was in exploring the Oedipal theme of don’s relationships, and this provided some important context for that theme.

The scene between Peggy and Stan was very strong and really drove home that Peggy is the character who has done the most developing on the show. What sentiments do you feel Stan expressed? To me he was in grief and wanted to drown out the feeling with drugs and sex, and while the more experienced Peggy knew the value of letting grief be felt, Frank’s daughter was presumably of a like mind with Stan.

I hope Peggy’s flirtation with Ted doesn’t cost her too much professionally. Incidentally, the pairing I’m most interested in after last week’s episode is Joan and Bob the grovelling cyborg. I love the thought of Pete Campbell losing his shit over them dating.

Stuart: By “Stan’s sentiments” I didn’t mean the impulse to drown in drugs and sex (hey, the man said that’s what he wanted, and who am I to disbelieve him?) – I was thinking of his tenderness towards Peggy. At first it seemed to come from a place of earnestness, as if he was divulging a crush he’d been nursing for a while, but on reflection, given he was throwing an office party for two with Frank’s daughter five minutes later, perhaps it really was just a play for sex. I think we’re more likely to see a Peggy-Ted fling than a wild weekend with Stan after that. And given Ted is one of the only other characters on the ‘decent human being’ roster right now, I don’t have a problem with it. Although perhaps I should, given Peggy’s office romance history (Pete? Duck?!).

Of course, Peggy admonishing Stan over resorting to drugs and sex to numb his grief could easily have been directed at a certain partner prone to afternoon naps in his corner office. I have no doubt that Peggy’s attitude towards grief is, like so much of her life and work, somewhat defined in opposition to Don’s. It’s remarkable how far she’s come. When we saw Don visiting Peggy post-pregnancy in the hospital in Season 2, his advice that she forget about the ordeal and remake herself seemed profound. At this point I think Peggy’s grown out of Don’s lessons, and rejected them for their deceptive simplicity. She’s one hell of an audience-identification character, come to think of it.

“Bob the grovelling cyborg”. I like that. After weeks of standing around as though he was an extra intent on photo-bombing every second shot of the season, I felt he came across as a pretty decent guy last week. Which, in Mad Men, means another shoe is about to drop. And hey, it just wouldn’t be the Mad Men we know and love if Pete isn’t indignantly losing his shit about something every week, would it?

2012: The Year in Film (Part 2)

And we’re back for Part 2 – the countdown of my Top Ten Films of the 2012!

There’s a huge American/British slant to my choices this year. It’s not a reflection on world cinema, as much as it’s a reflection on what I have and haven’t seen. I’ll blame Australian release dates for films like Armour, still yet to screen. Others, like Holy Motors, I’m just flat out ashamed about. But nonetheless, I feel like I saw a hell of a lot of great films – enough to make whittling down ten its own struggle.

10. The Master

The Master

“I do many, many things. I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher, but, above all, I am a man. A hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you.”

I debated long and hard about whether I should put The Master on this list. Simply put, as an entire experience (on first viewing at least) I didn’t feel the film added up. Towards the end it loses focus and meanders, fading away rather than finding its climax. And yet, I appreciated the idiosyncratic pace, and each of the film’s parts – the performances, the cinematography, the production design – are flawless, and often quite brave. The Master felt like the work of a great artist, but one who hadn’t quite settled on what he wanted to say.

9. Argo

Argo

“You need somebody who’s a somebody to put their name on it. Somebody respectable. With credits. Who you can trust with classified information. Who will produce a fake movie. For free.”

I’d say Affleck is now three for three. He’s chosen a fantastic story, and pulled it off in such a way that you’re clutching the armrests despite the ending never being in doubt – the surest test of a great historical thriller. The shifts in tone and location are deftly handled, with a script that jumps spryly from the easy-going comedy of the Hollywood build-up to the oppressive, set-piece heavy final stretch as the astounding rescue scheme is carried out.

8. Beasts of the Southern Wild

Beasts

“For the animals that didn’t have a dad to put them in a boat, the end of the world already happened.”

Beasts boasted some of the most euphoric moments I experienced in a cinema last year. I haven’t quite parsed out how I feel about the film’s politics yet, but I feel they’re less important than the weird, often magical journey of Hushpuppy in her upended world. And what a world. Zeitlin builds a stunning sense of place, and a warm, if alien, sense of community in the Bathtub. Cannot wait to see what he does next.

7. Moonrise Kingdom

Moonrise Kingdom

“That’s very eloquent. I can’t argue against anything you’re saying. But then again, I don’t have to, ’cause you’re 12 years old.”

Another film that tackles the gulf between the expectations of childhood and the world beyond, marrying Wes Anderson’s undaunted, singular style to a story that welcomes it. The two young lovebirds spend the film attempting to construct a relationship with all the trapping of intimacy gleaned from the adult work, whilst endearingly defiant in the face of practicality – the perfect subject for Anderson’s own over-composed aesthetic. I’m still floored by how many laughs the man can wring from framing. I loved the cast of fundamentally good-natured characters, peopling Anderson’s most earnest and heartfelt work since Rushmore.

6. Skyfall

Bond

“What makes you think this is my first time?”

I’d rate it amongst the best Bond films ever made – deferential to the franchise’s history even as it deconstructs it. The loaded, ‘this-time-it’s-personal’ story is anchored by fantastic supporting turns by Barden and Dench and gorgeous cinematography by Roger Deakins. It’s a Bond film that actually aspires to be about something, whilst still remembering to throw an insane chase sequence and sultry theme song our way.

5. Looper

Looper

“This is my life now. I earned it. You had yours already. So why don’t you do what old men do and die?”

I loved Looper because it had genuine balls, and played its hand so superbly close to the chest on what it was really about. Although I know some viewers didn’t embrace the film’s brazen shift at the midpoint, its transformation from cat-and-mouse chase film to mediation on the legacy of violence gives the narrative purpose and soul. It’s also the best use of Bruce Willis in many, many years (well, apart from Moonrise Kingdom – man has had a good 2012), using his star power to make a troubling character shocking, whilst still letting him loose with a machine gun in the final act to do his thing. The time travel mechanics are deployed adroitly – enough to fire the plot and inspire some astounding sequences, but without letting the mechanics overwhelm the story. And an inventive, clever piece of work that goes towards confirming the promise Rian Johnson and Gordon Levitt showed in Brick nearly a decade ago.

4. Django Unchained

Django

“You silver tongued devil, you.”

Django sees Tarantino on the attack. Whereas has last visit to the past, the stunning Basterds, is an almost hopeful revisionist jaunt, convinced in the power of cinema to alter the past, Django embodies a profound anger at the injustices of the past, on and off-screen, and manages to confront it with a stunning combination of rage and humour. In spite of the subject matter, this may be Tarantino’s funniest script. His handling of the tonal shifts in this film are extraordinary, weaving between the horrific physical and emotional violence of slavery to the zany, triumphant violence of Django and Schultz’s quest at the drop of a stetson. He manages to both viciously lampoon slavery’s champions – stupid klansmen and faux-cultured southern ladies and gentlemen – whilst making the insidious system and the ideas that underlie it utterly terrifying and immediate (take the phrenology speech by DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie, or power consolidated by the reprehensible Stephen). Tarantino delivers his message with overwhelming force, but ensures that along the way we can delight in the iconic partnership of Django and Dr King Schultz roaming the south, collecting bounties and dolling out justice.

3. Cabin in the Woods

Cabin

“An army of nightmares, huh? Let’s get this party started.”

Cabin was easily the most fun I had in a cinema last year. Joss Whedon may have catapulted into the blockbuster firmament with The Avengers, but his greatest achievement this year was writing and producing this brilliant paean to the horror film, directed by Drew Goddard. The film doesn’t hide its revelations behind a shock twist, but rather parses out its reveals, slowly drawing back the curtain on the operation that has brought five teenagers to an isolated cabin to act out a very familiar story. What initially feels like a satire of the genre (and it is rarely anything but hilarious) shifts into a reconstruction and reevaluation of the form, growing more and more expansive with every minute until an astounding, mad climax.

2. Lincoln

Lincoln

“I wish He had chosen an instrument more wieldy than the House of Representatives.”

Spielberg and Kushner should never be separated. Between this and Munich, their partnership seems to be pulling the best out of Spielberg, while reigning in its excesses. Lincoln is a film about democratic leadership, and its action is all talk talk talk, but it offered up some of the most thrilling hours of film last year. Lincoln’s stories and monologues are magnificent, and his calculated confrontations with friends and opponents in hope of passing his Constitutional amendment reveal a brilliant, calculating political mind. And what a cast – even the walk-on parts are stacked with some of America’s finest character actors. It also feels like a film for this very moment – it’s no accident that Spielberg’s long-gestating project at last came together with a script in which a divided, obstructionist congress struggles to pass a major civil rights reform. It re-enforces that politics has always been a messy, difficult business, a personal business, and yet carries the hope that, with leadership married to a strong moral vision, change can happen.

1. Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark

“You can help yourself by being truthful.”

I struggled long and hard over my top three – all exceptional films, maybe even masterpieces. Ultimately, I gave the top slot to Zero Dark Thirty, for the simple reason that no other film from 2012 has inspired me to argue quite so often, or quite so passionately. The procedural style recalls Fincher’s Zodiac, but its visceral power is all Bigelow, and I fell hard for this problematic portrait of a country sacrificing its soul for a quest for revenge.

Runners Up: Wuthering Heights, The Raid, Wreck-it-Ralph, The Avengers, The Sapphires.

That’s it for me on 2012. Now onto Oscar Night!

What were your favourites for the year?

2012: The Year in Film (Part 1)

Southern Wild

With Oscar season coming to a close, I feel it’s the perfect time to look back on the films of 2012 – only a month and a half late!

2012 ended up being a fantastic year for wide-release films. It got off to a shaky start, with a mid-year raft of disappointments (led by the much-hyped Prometheus and Dark Knight Rises), although the jubilant extravaganza of The Avengers buoyed the season. The 2nd half brought a hell of a lot of auteurs out to play – new films from Tarantino, Anderson (both Wes and Paul Thomas!), Spielberg, Lee, Haneke and Bigelow. Megan Ellison redrew the rulebook with the sudden intrusion of patronage into the insular, profit-driven world of producing – I hope someone willing to throw money at controversial films like The Master and Zero Dark Thirty is going to remain in the industry for a while yet. We saw the line between film and digital fade, to the point of seeing Roger Deakins handling an Alexa and creating some of the most beautiful images of the year in Skyfall. There was a stellar run of films that cast a critical eye back on key scars on American History – Katrina, the Civil War, Slavery, the War on Terror – and made their concerns feel vital and immediate.

But onto the lists! Here in Part 1, I’m featuring my Characters of 2012 and Scenes of 2012. Part 2 will count down my Top Ten Films of 2012.

The usual disclaimer – my choices aren’t necessarily a measure of ‘best’, as they are a mark of what I responded to. I’m not a huge fan of accolades like “best director” or “best actor” (especially given I don’t have any trophies on hand to dish out). How, after all, can the director’s work be separated from the finished film, the fruit of dozens of collaborators? A screenplay’s effectiveness is tempered by how it’s rendered on the screen. By the same token, I prefer to single out Characters rather than actors – the most memorable and indelible figures of light and shadow up on screen this year. A great character is the product of an actor, script, direction, make-up, wardrobe, editing and sometimes even VFX. Better to celebrate the work than the individual.

Characters of 2012

5. Bruce Banner / The Hulk (The Avengers)

The Hulk

In the year’s great superhero team-up, one character stood head and shoulders above the rest. Joss Whedon clearly loved the Hulk, enough to give him the most triumphant action beat of the year and the hilarious take-down of the film’s villain (“Puny God”). But Ruffalo makes the character just as compelling in human form, a man terrified of the power that he holds and wearied by the years of fighting it. The “I’m always angry” moment works so well because it marries the culmination of a swift character arc to, well, punching a giant space monster in the face. Ruffalo’s chemistry with Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark was a wonderful surprise, and, if there’s any justice, should spawn a spin-off or two of the geniuses hanging out and doing science.

4. Joe (Looper)

Joe

It’s a testament to the skill on show in this film that you can buy Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis playing the same man. Yet there’s a profound enough difference between the two incarnations to speak volumes about the journey Old Joe has endured. Johnson uses our presumptions about Willis’ star power to devastating effect, creating a moral quandary at the heart of what was, at first glance, an action film.

3. Abraham Lincoln (Lincoln)

Lincoln

This on-screen Lincoln is riveting not just for the miraculous re-incarnation via Daniel Day Lewis, the best medium in the business, but for how he brings to life the complexities and travails of leadership itself. The film revels in the trapping of Lincoln’s charisma – the folksy storytelling and gentle affability and moral zeal – but it never loses sight of his calculating mind and sly manipulation of every person in his life, from wife to cabinet (ever a lawyer). Day Lewis’ speeches, littered with anecdote and parable, are entrancing. And the film never builds a monument of him, dwelling on his failings as a father and personal uncertainty on questions of race and equality.

As a fantastic counterpoint, the film offers up Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), a man whose views on race are far more modern, but who must fight a personal war between the absolutist ‘right thing’ and political expediency in order to see the amendment he has spend decades fighting for survive in the cesspool of congress.

2. Freddie Quell (The Master)

Quell

It’s great to have Joaquin Phoenix back. Freddie is his most spellbinding work – a wreck of a human being, a collection of lurches and violent tics fueled by poisonous moonshine, given new purpose by “The Cause”. We are never shown what, beyond ‘the war’, so destroyed Freddie, nor whether he really can be helped. But it is riveting to see him fall into the circle of Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman) and chafe against the restrictions of his new life, susceptible to being used and yet incapable of being controlled. There is a man beneath that collapsing facade, one desparate for love, for acceptance, for meaning. It’s hard to imagine he’ll ever find them.

1. Maya (Zero Dark Thirty)

Maya

While I discussed Maya and Zero Dark Thirty in details in my last post, it still feels odd to celebrate a character who we only see pieces of. Maya is a half-formed human being, with her backstory and inner life communicated only in fragments, but I found this indirect road made her only more fascinating. You search for who she is beyond her identity as “the motherfucker who found this place” in the small moments – the way she messages her colleague or scoffs her oversized burger. The disturbing thing is that, ultimately, there isn’t much else to be found. It’s been stripped from her. And once Bin Laden is on the slab, she has nothing left.

A bonus mention to Michael Fassbender as David in Prometheus. Want to see a great actor fighting to stay above a poorly written part? Fassbender manages to make a character whose motivations are left in a muddle utterly captivating.

 

Scenes of 2012

10. The Klan (Django Unchained)

I confess, in a film full of cathartic bloodshed and some of Tarantino’s finest drawn-out suspense sequences, I got the most joy from its biggest lapse into all-out comedy – the Klansmen arguing over their impractical uniforms, with the eyes cut into the wrong spot in the bag. As Tarantino will do later with DiCaprio’s southern dandy, this hilarious scene (and its appropriately explosive climax) makes the racist purveyors of this wound on the American psyche not only feeble, but patently ridiculous.

9. The Assault (Zero Dark Thirty)

For all the virtuousity of the procedural bulk of Zero Dark Thirty, there’s no doubt that the most powerful, visceral moment is the sustained Navy Seal assault on Osama Bin Laden’s compound. Rather than heroic derring-do Bigelow shows us a stark, clinical assassination conducted in whispers. Haunting for its small details – the way the team members whisper the names of their victims, or a glow stick in the hands of a crying little girl.

8. The Hallway Fight (The Raid)

The most impressive action film of the year. I’ve never heard so much applause and hollering throughout a screening – and the theatre wasn’t even half full. The Raid is almost on-stop action after the 5 minute mark, but if I have to pick one sequence, it would have to be the hallway fight. Death via fists, a baton and a jagged piece of wood in a door-frame.

7. Taken to Pieces (Looper)

A man on the run is slowly taken apart via his younger self. As he tried to traverse the city, first an address appears, carved into his arm. Then fingers begin to disappear. Then his nose. Then… It’s some mortifying body horror and certainly the scene most likely to have given me nightmares. A great example of a film using its confounding time travel conceit put something I’d never seen before on the screen.

6. The Opening (Beasts of the Southern Wild)

“One day, the storm’s gonna blow, the ground’s gonna sink, and the water’s gonna rise up so high, there aint gonna be no Bathtub, just a whole bunch of water. But me and my daddy, we gonna stay right here. We’s who the earth is for.” A magical rush of music (huge props to Behn Zeitlin and Dan Romer), voice-over and jubilant imagery, creating an entire world in a few short minutes, and ensuring we care about this little girl and her mad, dysfunctional community before the forecast fall.

5. Nightmares Unleashed (Cabin in the Woods)

Absolute, hilarious madness. With the push of a rather conspicous red button, Drew Goddard unleashes a tsunami of iconic movie monsters to wreak utter havoc on the buttoned-up workers of the underground bunker. It’s delirious in its excess, offering up dozens of references whilst never buckling under the weight of the bloody frenzy on screen, and littered with hilarious tangents – I’ll never look at unicorns the same way again.

4. Dreamed a Dream (Les Miserables)

Whereas the closeups and lurching camerawork manage to diminish a number of the riveting musical numbers in Les Mis, for the iconic “dreamed a dream” Hooper captures Hathaway in a single, locked-off closeup. It’s a gutteral, animal cry of a number, with an wounded ferocity that is impossible to resist.

3. Legalities (Lincoln)

Spielberg’s restraint in Lincoln is laudatory, and never more impressive than when he fixes the camera on Day Lewis and ever-so-slowly pushes in over the course of an astounding monologue, as he tries to unwind the legality of his Emancipation Proclamation, teasing out the limits of his own war powers against the political realities of the day with a transfixing deployment of circular legal logic.

2. Shanghai Skyscraper (Skyfall)

This is why you hire Roger Deakins. Bond ascends to the bare floor of a Shanghai skyscraper lit by the neon of adjoining buildings, and silently watches an assassination unfold. The subsequent fight scene takes place largely in silhouette, in a single shot. It’s lyrical in a way that is wholly without precedent for a Bond film – exhilarating, gorgeous and alien.

1. The Audit (The Master)

No other scene last year came close. Anderson keeps his camera right in the faces of Dodd and Freddie as they lean in over a small card table. Dodd hits Freddie with a barrage of increasingly personal, loaded questions, drawing him in closer and closer, tearing down the man’s defences and perceptions of himself. He pulls us in too. And, like Dodd, we are only inches away from Freddie’s face when he’s given the instruction to answer again without blinking once, watching for the slightest movement. The climax is euphoric, but terrifying. We just saw a snake worm its way into a man’s psyche.

A Children’s Crusade: Thoughts on Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty

The key to Zero Dark Thirty comes within the first few minutes. Not the much-discussed opening torture scene itself, no, but the brief interaction in a hallway that follows it. Noting the youth of the Pakistan station’s new analyst, Maya (Jessica Chastain), Dan (Jason Clarke) offhandedly laments this “Children’s Crusade”.

The Children’s Crusade was a strange chapter of history, a conflation of events which quickly slipped into myth. After the failure of the Fourth Crusade, tens of thousands of children were swept in a religious fervour (led, it was said, by a child prophet) to reclaim the Jerusalem themselves. They marched through Europe, swelling in number, only to reach the Mediterranean. When the seas did not part as promised, they were sold into slavery by the monks that guided them, or drowned, or starved to death on the shore. None of them saw the Holy Land.

Kurt Vonnegut recounts the tale in Slaughterhouse Five, taking it as a symbol for the sordid hopelessness of war itself, if “only slightly more sordid than the ten Crusades for grown-ups”. It has long been a byword for the injustice of conflicts borne by the innocent.

It seems like an odd reference for a remorseless torturer. But of course, it’s part of what makes the morality of the events in Zero Dark Thirty so slippery. Dan isn’t an idiot or an autonomous grunt. He is a smart man who genuinely believes that putting a leash on another human being and hanging him from the ceiling is the right thing to do. And the entire CIA machine stands behind him.

The narrative propulsion of Zero Dark Thirty is the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, and it’s a riveting basis for a film. But I’d argue that it’s clearly not what the film is about. To accept that the hunt for Bin Laden is the film’s only purpose is to mimic the “ends justify the means” mentality of its CIA characters. Viewed through that lens, then the torture issue is problematic. Although there’s a lot of smoke blown around it (and, importantly, despite hundreds of detainees, the film never once shows actionable intelligence gained from a prisoner through torture), torture is part of the causality. In a methodical, journalistic film, more Zodiac or All the President’s Men than Black Hawk Down, it an intrinsic part of the process by which Maya tracks down Bin Laden.

But Bigelow’s film isn’t about Bin Laden. It is about Maya, and it’s about the transformative effect of the 9/11 on the American psyche. The mention of a ‘Children’s Crusade’ is Mark Boal’s script tipping its hand. Maya, we are reminded, has no friends outside the workplace (and barely any within it). She lives alone, gorging herself on burgers and soda, protected by an armed guard and bullet-proof glass.

A lunchtime conversation between Maya and James Gandolfini’s CIA Director initiates the film’s final act. He wants to know the source of her unerring confidence that the compound in Abbotabad houses Osama. In a stilted conversation, he asks about her recruitment out of high school. He asks what else she has done. The answer? She has hunted Osama bin Laden. A fanatical quest is the only life she knows.

It is not triumphant. It’s heartbreaking. Maya may not wield a rifle like the Navy Seals who storm Osama’s compound in the virtuoso assault sequence, but she is no less a solider, taken by the government in her youth and engineered for war.

Sound familiar?

Al-Qaeda and their extremist allies around the world have always been righteously denounced for their indoctrination of children, and willingness to put innocents on the front line or to death. Zero Dark Thirty portrays an America that, to fight evil, has been willing to plumb its own depths. But it’s also a film that doesn’t come out and say it. There’s no easily relatable character walking the halls of the CIA in Pakistan denouncing torture and advocating a higher moral ground to clarify any confusion about what you should be feeling. Instead, we are in the company of men and women who believe that torture works (otherwise, why would they do it?), and we watch just how quickly Maya is pulled into that “pretty fucked up” world.

Bigelow and Boal don’t end with a victory celebration. There’s no press conference, no champagne. No cut to Obama’s “the arc of history bends towards justice” speech. Instead, we are left with a woman staring at a corpse in a black body bag. The body is already less important than the paperwork and hard drives secured in the last minutes of the assault. Then, she sits alone in an airplane. She is finally free. The pilot informs her that she can go anywhere. And, in a devastating closeup, Maya begins to cry.

I think the film’s detractors aren’t wrong, per say. But they’ve nonetheless accepted the primacy of the Hunt for Bin Laden over character and theme – they worry that the film (in which they unquestionably reacted, as they were clearly meant to, with revulsion at the torture scenes), advocates torture because it is a part of the procedural puzzle. They would prefer a counter-myth that affirms that Bin Laden was caught and executed (and make no mistake, the Navy Seals are painted as executioners, courageous or no) ‘the right way’. Yet, whatever the veracity of the details of how exactly ‘UBL’ was finally found, it is impossible to ignore the fact that the hunt saw America and its representatives resort to the cruel and the monstrous. They initiated their own Children’s Crusade.

Zero Dark Thirty has no illusions about the cost of the War on Terror and the hunt for Bin Laden – in lives, and in souls. And over Maya’s tears, the filmmakers are asking us loud and clear – do you think it was worth it?

Zero Dark Thirty is a masterpiece because it refuses to answer for us.

In Praise of the Episode: Why Your Television Show Will Never Compare to a Novel, and Shouldn’t Even Try

Homeland

It is conventional wisdom that we’re now living in a ‘golden age’ of Television. Dozens of fantastic, challenging series have risen from an increasingly fragmented media landscape,  buoyed by the censorship-free ethos of cable and guided by impassioned showrunners. They have transformed what we expect from television. When we reach for a comparison for this new generation of on-screen storytelling, with its series-spanning story arcs and rich depth of character, we inevitably alight on novels. “Television today is better than the movies!” we trumpet. Perhaps – just maybe – it’s even as good as a book.

Yet, beyond the obvious fallacy of trying to build a hierarchy of art forms, I feel there’s something reductive about this line of thinking. As I caught up on Homeland this week, it occurred to me that this comparison often blinds us to the strengths and very real limitations of television as a medium.

Spoilers for Homeland and many more great television dramas follow!

Homeland has the flavour of a high-octane Le Carre novel, with a hint of Graham Green, and each of its two seasons have endeavoured to tell their own, reasonably complete, story. Season 2 offered up an ending of sorts – a grisly clearing house of the cast, and the conclusion of the hunt for Abu Nazir. The boldness of this last episode, for all of the second season’s missteps, had me excited about the future.

Homeland 5

However, the showrunners of Homeland don’t have the freedom of John Le Carre. Le Carre could put George Smiley at the forefront of one novel in his Karla series (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), and place him in the background of another (The Honourable Schoolboy). He can jettison any character and conjure them back at will, or shift the action to Hong Kong. But even at the risk of contrivance, how can Alex Gansa drop an Emmy-winning leading man like Damian Lewis, or abandon the expensive sets and contracted supporting cast? The man with the million-dollar budgets can only dream of the freedom of the author alone behind his typewriter. While I would love to see a season of Homeland that put Saul at its centre, followed Carrie as a Station Chief in Asia or kept Brody in hiding, it may be a risk too far.

Despite how dramatically the television form has opened up in recent years, it has its limitations. The way television is made won’t allow for a second draft. We brandish Dickens’ serialised stories as a model, but even Dickens would edit his works before they were collected and published as novels (which is the form they’ve been handed down to us in today). ‘First Draft Syndrome’ has struck at almost every series that has attempted ambitious, multi-season story arcs, especially those trafficking in mysteries. Homeland’s once-tight plotting swung headlong into wild implausibilities its latest season, whilst the ever-expanding mythologies of Lost and Battlestar Galactica sprang leaks and soon ran aground on audience expectations.

Lost

“Making things up as they go along” is often deployed as a criticism, especially by scorned fanbases, but it also reflects the reality of making television. It isn’t born of laziness, but necessity. Too many elements are in play for the writers, even the greatest auteurs, to set a story in stone before the cameras have rolled without the series suffering. To reject it is to reject the highly collaborative nature of the medium. The input of directors, cinematographers, designers and actors will inevitably transform what’s on the page. A fascinating performance by guest star, like Michael Emerson in Lost, can spin a story in an entirely new direction. Michael Slovis’ cinematic vistas plunged Breaking Bad headlong into the territory of a modern-day Leone western, and the writing staff followed. By the same token, life can happen – key cast or crew may depart the series or pass away (ala Nancy Marchand in Season 3 of The Sopranos), upending carefully-wrought plans. And sometimes a plot or character just doesn’t play with audiences, or collapses in the execution.

Whereas viewers expect sitcom writers to retool away, as with the miraculous reinvention of Parks and Recreation after a dismal first season, it’s doubly difficult for drama writers to right plots already well in motion. Not every show can pull a Walking Dead and set ravenous zombies on redundant cast members.

By nature, then, television can be slipshod. It’s almost impossible to avoid a bad episode, failed plotline or go-nowhere character. And yet the ability to see what works, retool and draw on a huge creative team lends good television a vivacity that’s missing from a slick and polished film or novel. While the feel of art-in-progress can sometimes be a storytelling weakness, it’s also part of the medium’s strength.

The Sopranos

I still don’t feel any show has co-opted the unique tool set of television like The Sopranos. David Chase’s seminal family saga embraces serialisation, yet resembles less a set of novels than collections of short stories. Many of the most loved episodes – ‘College’, ‘Pine Barrens’, ‘Employee of the Month’ – tell their own contained story, even as they enrich the wider world of the series. The Sopranos is rarely plot-heavy, instead letting the character’s day-to-day interactions and misunderstandings drive the storytelling. Time marches forward and the status quo can shift, but ultimately each episode of the series is built around its own thematic point – from parental betrayal to addictive behaviour to, hell, that one about boredom. Chase uses the repetitiveness of the form – the repeated settings, the stable cast – to drive the overarching ideas of mid-life and middle-American malaise and the inability, or unwillingness, of people to change.

We end up spending more time with the lead characters in a long-running television series than we do with the protagonist of even the thickest Russian novels. What this time buys us, most of all, is a chance to observe character. The plot of Homeland may have disintegrated, but the season was consistently a compelling portrait of the unmoored Sgt. Nicholas Brody. Similarly, it’s common to find that fans who lamented the Church-bound finale of Lost or Starbuck’s vanishing act in Battlestar were still largely satisfied with the emotional journey for the characters they’d stuck with throughout all that uneven plotting.

Buffy Hush

A great writer can use that time to test and grow characters in hundreds of unexpected, compelling ways. Joss Whedon, like Chase, is a master of using the looseness of the form to play. Buffy could sustain a musical episode (or a silent one) and Angel could see its cast transformed into muppets, just as Chase could strand Tony Soprano in an episode-long dream. And they can do it without sacrificing the whole – something a show as intensely serialised Game of Thrones or The Wire can’t.

Games of Thrones and The Wire do, however, make for an important counterpoint.

The Wire is something of a miracle. Whereas every other series on television offers a dozen illustrations of why the rich plotting of a novel cannot be replicated on television, David Simon and Ed Burns somehow do just that. I could type until my fingers bleed about all the wonders of this series, but I’ll try to encapsulate the ‘how’ in a few words – they play it smart. The series embraces a genre – the crime story – which allows each episode to organically feature its own goal (be it as simple as a stake-out or running down a lead). There is rarely a ‘mystery’ to speak of – the storytelling tension instead is born from process, as characters build steadily towards conflicting goals, steeped in the conventions of well-telegraphed tragedy. Each season tells a new story, linking to new settings and characters (whereas Homeland is unlikely to spare Damian Lewis, The Wire boldly jettisoned its leading man for most of the fourth season in favour of a quartet of street kids). Simon and Burns also took advantage of the HBO development timetable, which in the latter seasons allowed each episode to be completed as a block prior to airing, giving space to retool the whole.

The Wire

Games of Thrones is unique in being an extraordinarily faithful adapted work, lending it a spine (and bypassing those ‘first draft’ issues) that other series lack. However, the series took some time to find its footing. In Season 1, episodes flit haphazardly between story threads and end about as elegantly as a bookmark thrust between the pages as you dart for the train door. The structure is well-suited to DVD binge-viewing (and detracts very little once the plot has caught fire in latter episodes), but it sacrifices some of the individual power of the television episode. This is part of why I believe Season 2 is often stronger (even as the forking plotlines made it more and more unwieldy), as the writers became more willing to diverge from the books and line up events episode to episode thematically, rather than being wedded to George R.R. Martin’s chapter order. ‘Blackwater’, junked the chapter-based structure entirely to tell a single story, and was indisputably the season’s highlight.

To ask television to be like a novel ignores the fact that we still consume novels and television in vastly different ways. The gap may be closing, with the increased consumption of DVD box sets and on demand viewing, but the episode, given individual form by its opening credits, ‘previously on’ and end titles, still matters. The limitations of the episode – to give viewers a chunk of storytelling that can both stand on its own and satisfy as part of a whole – has encouraged today’s writers to do some amazing, out of the box work.

House of Cards

But the times may be a-changing. Netflix, in particular, is trying out a new model with  House of Cards where each episode has been released in one dump. Watch as you will – no wait, no weekly installments. One story, and it either works, or it doesn’t. The same model will be used for the upcoming Season 4 of Arrested Development. Binge on the Bluths from Day 1. It’s not television as we know it – indeed, it could be the start of a new form altogether. That’s exciting, and it’s a model that some series, like Homeland, could benefit from. We shouldn’t forget, however, that this exceptional era of television didn’t come about because the form changed – it exists because hundreds of talented creatives discovered that the medium’s limitations don’t have to be limitations at all. Television shows aren’t novels, and we’re better for it.

‘Not To Yield’ – Bond, Britain & the Job

I don’t know if Bond has ever been quite this good. Even in the glory days of Connery, were the visuals this sumptuous, the performances this solid or the scripts this assured? With his first (and hopefully not last) ride at the helm of the relentless franchise, director Sam Mendes manages to find something new to say about the spy who’s been shooting and sleeping his way across cinema screens for 50 years.

Mendes and his team offer up a great Bond film that also succeeds simply as a film. Skyfall is more than just a jumping off point for a series of impressive action sequences and pithy one liners. It boast all the beats of a classic Bond film – stunts, beautiful  women, eccentric villains, martinis – including some that had been lost in the Daniel Craig-era reboot. And yet it feels resolutely apart form what has come before. The screenplay by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan embraces the hard questions of the spy trade that the series has resolutely shied away from since the early days of From Russia With Love. The moral murkiness that comes with sending men out to kill and die for Queen and Country gives the story its spine and makes for an unromantic, and yet emotionally ripe, review of Bond’s world.

Spoilers are a-coming.

A basic tension underlies Skyfall – the balancing act between its deconstruction of the Bond mythology and celebration of the character’s 50-year-old history. Mendes simultaneously revels in the character’s past – how could a Bond fan avoid grinning from ear to ear at the classic theme firing up on the reveal of the Aston Martin DB5? – while making conscious breaks from it. The grand old car goes up in flames along with the titular manor of Bond’s childhood.

Skyfall‘s resounding success is to re-establish 007 in the modern world, and make an argument for his continuing relevance. Just as Casino Royale brought James Bond back and rebuilt him (Quantum of Solace barely rates a a feeble epilogue), Skyfall rebuilds his world and his purpose. The notion that Bond is a relic isn’t just paid lip-service (as in Goldeneye‘s oft-quoted ‘sexist, misogynist dinosaur’ take-down), but is wedded to the script. Throughout the film we watch Bond and MI6 consistently remain one step behind – outmatched in a new world, culminating in an assault in the heart of London. Time and technology have made the original superspy the underdog. And he isn’t the only one.

Britain looms larger in Skyfall than in any previous film in the series, drawing an undeniable line between the character and his country. Just as the film celebrates the franchise’s history, it draws on Britain’s own glory days, down to MI6’s retreat to Churchill’s WW2 Bunkers in a time of crisis. When Ian Flemming wrote the original Bond novels over fifty years ago, Britain was still a major player, even as its Empire crumbled. Today, it must settle for being a middle power with a ritzy capital.

The film’s villain was born in the transition into this post-imperial world – the product of M’s utilitarian commitment to a peaceful handover in Hong Kong. Silva is a fascinating monster, imbued with such wounded, maniacal energy by Javier Bardem that it’s a shame that he isn’t given more minutes to rampage on screen (or justify his rather convoluted revenge plot). This isn’t the first film in the series to pit Bond against a dark mirror image of himself – 006 and Red Grant spring to mind – but Silva’s history, rooted in the moral failure of the spy community and its avatar, M, makes for a genuine challenge to Bond’s already-shaken faith in his job and his superior.

In between sexual advances, Silva promises Bond the chance to be a “free agent”. While his sincerity is certainly in doubt – does Silva exist for anything but vengeance against M? – it is a tantalising possibility, even as it is decisively rejected. Action and espionage films over the last decade have become dominated by “free agents” with similar origin stories to Silva. Think of Jason Bourne – fighting not to save the world, but to be free from M’s kind of Machiavellian double-dealing.

Yet in the film’s intimate final act, Bond stands by M. It’s a stunning piece of restraint for a series that often explodes in scale at the climax (laser battles anyone?), but a reminder that, for all the budget bumps, Craig’s Bond’s stories have been resolutely personal. Despite all our inbuilt affection for Judi Dench’s spymaster, the script leaves enough space to read her as a monster to the end – a woman hard enough to have no qualms about taking a young man with nothing to live for and putting a gun in his hand. While this is the first time Bond’s past has been evinced on-screen, Mendes refuses the temptation to sentimentalise. There are no tears to be shed – when M asks Bond how old he was when they died, he responds “You already know that.” M nods and adds, by explanation but far short of an apology, “orphans always make the best recruits.”

She falters only once – to lament “I fucked this up, didn’t I?” It’s in Bond’s answer that we can see the culmination of the arc that began with Daniel Craig as a new recruit in Casino Royale – “No. You did your job.” He has come to accept the job itself and, for all its ugliness, his violent part in it. After all, who else is going to take on the sideshow of maniacs and madmen? He may lose M, but the indelible shot of Bond standing out over London, as evocative as Batman perched on a Gotham City gargoyle, leaves no doubt as to what he has left to fight for now.

Earlier in the film, before the Security Committee, M quotes Tennyson’s poem Ulysses. It’s a slightly jarring moment for a Bond film, and I’m still not convinced that it works. But the sentiment stands -

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Today’s Britain is weaker than it once was, yes, but Bond remains the champion of his homeland. Instead of running from the charge that Bond is anachronistic – a shooter and a brawler in the digital age – Skyfall ultimately embraces it. He’s a spy who stands for something, and who will fight on down to the last shotgun round and hunting knife.

Despite spending much of the film toying with real-world issues of moral compromise and culpability, the conclusion reminds us that we’re not quite in the real world. In the battle between deconstruction and celebration, celebration wins out. It may be the easy answer, but I defy anyone to resist the thrill of seeing Bond once again stride past Moneypenny into M’s leather-doored office to accept a new assignment. He may be old-fashioned, but that doesn’t mean he can’t save the world now and then.

Star Wars – Mythology for Sale

Today, George Lucas sold Star Wars.

In retrospect, it feels inevitable. The real story of Star Wars for a long time now has been the story of a business enterprise (Lucasfilm, to be more precise). It has been the saga of merchandising rights, of toy lunch boxes, of animated spin-offs, of poorly-conceived prequels. So of course the end of this chapter would be its sale for a staggering amount of money ($4 Billion, if you’re counting). Has one story ever made an artist as rich as Star Wars has made George Lucas?

I don’t know how to feel about this news. While Star Wars has transformed into an enormous, sprawling franchise, we still care about it. I know I do. That’s because, at its core, there is a great story there. A young warrior, an impossible quest, a charming rogue, a beautiful woman, a wise teacher and a fallen hero turned villain, set in a universe that was unique and inspiring. Star Wars has been THE mythology for our times – it’s as omnipresent in our culture as the Labours of Hercules or the Trojan War were for the Ancient Greeks and Romans. We care about Star Wars because, at a certain point, we’d begun to think it was ours.

Today is a reminder that it isn’t. Hell, perhaps it never will be, given how determined the copyright lobby (led by Star Wars‘ new owners, Disney) are to prevent proven money-makers ever entering the public domain. Star Wars is a commodity to be bought and sold, and now we’re guaranteed new films to ensure the money keeps rolling in.

On one hand, it’s hard to imagine Disney could commodify the saga any more than George Lucas already has. How many more animated parodies or toy lines could they possibly create? The sale does open up a door that I thought would have remained shut until Lucas passed on – other filmmakers will have a chance to play in the Star Wars sandbox. A glance at Disney’s stewardship of Marvel, who have operated with relative independence and have been increasingly open to collaborating with exciting talent (Joss Whedon, Kenneth Brannagh, Shane Black, Edgar Wright, to name a few directors on Marvel’s books) suggest this might not be a bad thing.

And there will be no shortage of filmmakers ready to raise their hand to make a Star Wars film. It will remain to be seen whether they have a worthy story to tell. Is there anything more to be said in the saga of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader? Would they be brave enough to use the universe they’ve been given to try something daring and new?

The sale of Star Wars is a stark reminder of how art today, and especially blockbuster filmmaking, has become about certified franchises and continuing revenue streams. In that sense, it feels like we’ve never been further away from sharing stories over a campfire. And yet part of me can’t help but hope that, by freeing Star Wars from the clutches of its creatively-waning creator, the possibilities for exciting storytelling in this world built on lightsabers, cooky eastern religions, planet-destroying space stations and unapologetic heroism have never been greater. Despite all the times I’ve sworn off Star Wars, I know I’ll be eagerly watching what happens next. Which is, of course, what the money-men are counting on.