Sunday, January 30, 2011

Along the Scenic Route

Y'know, I'm not even sure of where to begin with Stagecoach. It's one of those great movies that seems pretty straightforward on the surface, but gives way to bottomless depths once you begin to examine it. In some regards, it's like Citizen Kane or Persona, in so far as people have been writing about them since they first debuted, and yet people still return to them time and again. Its director, John Ford, used to introduce himself like this: "I'm John Ford. I make Westerns." He was being entirely too modest. The great period of the American Western movie begins with Stagecoach. You can pick any end point you like. Stagecoach encapsulates the Western in one sprawling, beautiful package. It has everything. No wonder Orson Welles screened it repeatedly when he was starting to make films.

So, I repeat: I don't even know where to start.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

“Mister, I was made for it...”

Film noir and the horror movie are kissing cousins. Both derive from the Gothic novel. Both derive their visual sensibilities from German expressionism. Neither sets out to reassure the audience or stroke their convictions that all is right with the world. Sometimes, as in The Leopard Man or Alias Nick Beal, the line between them is completely blurred. One of the movies from this twilight area between horror and film noir is Nightmare Alley (1947, directed by Edmund Goulding), one of the cinema’s blackest beasts. It's a film that plays like a lost Tod Browning film, with Tyrone Power in the Lon Chaney role. The film’s dramatic arc follows an irredeemable carny as he rises from the sideshow into high society, then back down as far as possible. Along the way, there are hints that there are sinister powers at work. Joan Blondell’s sideshow mentalist seems to have a real gift when she reads Tarot cards in private and Power’s Stanton Carlisle, a con-man in most respects, occasionally sees beyond what he can legitimately guess from cold reading of his marks. The film stages striking scenes that would work as horror set pieces were we not privy to the con behind them.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Feet of Clay

I've been looking for a way to write about Mary and Max (2009, directed by Adam Elliot) for a few weeks now. It's a movie that seems like it's universally loved--certainly my correspondents have sang rapturous praises for it--but frankly, I hated it. I've been puzzling through my reasons for a while now, particularly in the face of the near unanimous praise the movie has received.

The movie itself is a claymation account of the long correspondence between two miserable people. Mary is a lonely eight year old in Australia with a "poo-colored" birthmark on her forehead. Searching for friends, she picks Max's name at random from a New York phone book and writes to him. Max is an obese New Yorker with Asperger's syndrom, who gets panic attacks from Mary's letters. Even so, he writes her back. Mary and Max never actually meet. Circumstances conspire against this. Each goes through surprising life changes. Max is institutionalized at one point; the air conditioner of his apartment falls from the wall and kills a mime; he wins the lottery. Mary for her part grows up, marries a man who leaves her for a sheep rancher, writes a book on Asperger's Syndrome, and attempts suicide. The movie obviously goes into dark places, and it refuses an easy accommodation with audience expectations.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Mubi Roulette

So I was poking around on Mubi--formerly The Auteurs--today, and I was struck by the complete randomness of how it displays my preferences. If you'd like, you can see my Mubi profile here. Feel free to follow me and invite me to follow you if you're there, too. It's the location of my ever elusive list of favorite films.

What I'm seeing right now, having just clicked over to my profile, is four movies I've designated as favorites (out of a completely freely associated selection of 284 movies I've added to that list), ten favorite "auteurs," and ten "style" keywords.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Because a Boy's Best Friend Is His Mother

1968 was a watershed year for horror movies. Two events occurred that would shape horror movies for decades to come. The first was the release of Night of the Living Dead, naturally. The second was the trial of Ed Gein. Gein was apprehended in 1957, but was found mentally incompetent to stand trial at the the time. By the time of his trial, Gein had already made inroads into the horror genre--Psycho is famously based on Gein, and the children of Psycho are legion--but the Gein's trial shook something loose in the minds of filmmakers, and soon the grislier details of Gein's crimes began to filter into the genre. The supernova of films based on Gein is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre from 1974, of course, but another film based on Gein appeared the same year. Jeff Gillen and Alan Ormbsy's Deranged sticks closer to the facts of the case than any other film, and while it may not have the pile-driving horror of TCM, it has a weird ambiance all its own.

Sunday, January 23, 2011


Someone correct me if I'm wrong, but I recollect that the "look" of contemporary depictions of the middle ages originates with Terry Gilliam's Jabberwocky. Gilliam conceived of a great unwashed age, in which everything is covered in mud, shit, and blood. Even movies that still indulge in the mythology of chivalry and the romance of history seem to have adopted this aesthetic these days, and it's the main feature of movies that deliberately deconstruct them both. Mud and blood are prominent features in Nicolas Winding Refn's Valhalla Rising (2009). I'll assume that shit is a component, too. Fortunately, cinema doesn't convey smell to the audience.

Valhalla Rising is a period piece that presents history as a kind of terrifying dream fugue. It's not about facts. It's deliberately vague on the facts. It's about mood and texture. It's pretty damned creepy, actually. The story here is pretty simple: a one-eyed pit slave whose name we never learn escapes from his captors and exacts his revenge. Afterward, he falls in with a band of Christians bound for the holy land, but get lost on the journey and land, instead, in the New World, where they come to believe that they've actually landed in Hell. It's the way it's filmed that renders all of this portentous. Refn seems to be channeling an action movie through the sensibilities of, say, Michelangelo Antonioni by way of Apocalypto. This is all about figures against landscapes. Some of this film's shot composition have a kind of stately classicism about them. Every so often, these shots are interrupted by outbursts of outrageous violence. There's a stillness throughout most of the movie that amplifies the violence when it comes. It reminds me a bit of one of those Philip Glass pieces in which one note is repeated over and over again until it becomes a shock when it changes.

Friday, January 21, 2011

A Tale of Two Cities

The original film version of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974, directed by Joseph Sargent) is a pretty good genre piece that benefits greatly from the specific time and place where it was filmed. The plot is preposterous, but the way it was filmed displayed a kind of unforced naturalism that sold the whole enterprise. It's one of those rare gimmick movies (Die Hard on a battle ship!) in which the gimmick is almost incidental to the real pleasures the movie provides. It doesn't hurt that Robert Shaw and Walter Matthau aren't conventional movie stars. This has been a minor favorite of mine for a long time. I originally saw it on the late show with my mom back in (mumble mumble). Certainly, the circumstances of when I saw it influence my opinion of the movie, but when I saw it again years later, it still held up. What's really interesting to me at this distance is its portrait of a grimy New York in decline. The seventies were rough on the Big Apple and you can get a sense of collapse throughout the movie, a collapse accompanied by a tired sense of resignation among New Yorkers. This snapshot quality is something it shares with it's 2009 remake, retitled without spelling out the numbers as The Taking of Pelham 123 and directed by Tony Scott, but the New York of 2009 is very different from the New York of 1974. For that matter, the conventions of moviemaking are very different, too.

The plot of the remake is more or less the same. A group of four armed men hijack a subway train and their leader makes their demands to the dispatcher, who they insist stay as their contact rather than the police negotiators. They want ten million dollars (in the original, it was only one million; inflation, I guess) in one hour or they'll execute one hostage every minute. The lead hijacker is played by John Travolta in the new movie. The dispatcher is played by Denzel Washington. Washington is fine. Travolta's performance is seriously overripe. He should be quietly sinister. Instead, he's a ranter. It may be apropos, given the other changes they've made to the nature of the crime and the nature of the criminals--I'll get to that--but it's seriously annoying. The movie adds John Turturro as the police negotiator, James Gandolfini as the mayor, and Luis Guzman as the disgruntled ex-motorman who aids the criminals. It's not a bad cast, Travolta not withstanding.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Spice Must Flow

David Lynch's 1984 version of Dune is a magnificent folly. You can see the vast resources lavished on the screen in the costumes and the sets and in an absolutely stellar cast, but like most of Dino De Laurentis's attempts at grand-scale science fiction, this all turns to ashes in the end. Dune is one of the most interesting bad movies ever made. It's compulsively watchable. You can't take your eyes off of it, even when it makes you wince. I like to think that Dune is the movie equivalent of Afghanistan, in which great empires break themselves in spite of vast treasures pissed down the hole. That's appropriate, I think, given the ethnic model on which Frank Herbert based the Fremen of Arrakis. And somehow, some way, the film made it into the collective meme pool of pop culture. I saw a tee shirt a few years ago that modifies the mentat chant: "It is by caffeine alone that I set my mind in motion." Fatboy Slim samples the line "If we walk without rhythm, we won't attract the worm" for "Weapon of Choice." Dune is a weird, weird vortex in the meme pool.

The story in Dune follows the fortunes of the Atreides family, who in the movie's mythology have developed a new weapon technology and have a charismatic leader in Duke Leto. The Emperor of the Galaxy is afraid of the Atreides clan, and conspires with their arch rivals, the Harkonnens, to set them up as the governors of Arrakis, the desert world that produces the Spice, Melange, the substance that makes interstellar travel possible, with the intent to betray them and wipe them out. Unfortunately for the Emperor, the Bene Gesserit sisterhood has different plans for the Atreides. They've been selectively breeding humans for millennia in a quest to produce a superman, who they would of course control. Lady Jessica, Duke Leto's consort, gave birth to Paul in defiance of her sisterhood, who demanded that she only bear female children. Is Paul the end product of their plan? After the Emperor's plot plays out, Paul gets to test the idea. He and his mother escape and find refuge with the Fremen who shortly begin to think that Paul is the messiah promised by their mythology. Paul vows to lead the Fremen in revolt against the Harkonnens first, and then the rest of the galaxy...

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Same, Only Different

I was reading some of the reviews of Different for Girls (1996, directed by Richard Spence) last night after I finished watching the movie, and I was stopped up short by Roger Ebert's write up. At the beginning of his review he asks:

"The unexamined mystery at the heart of Different for Girls is--what, exactly, does Paul see in Kim?"

...which, to my mind is the wrong question. He should be asking, rather, "What, exactly, does Kim see in Paul." Unfortunately, given the subject matter, Paul is going to be the default protagonist, because Kim, a transsexual, is going to freak some members of the audience out. This, in spite of the fact that she's far more "normal" and sympathetic than the rootless Paul could ever be. I mean, in ANY other romantic comedy, Ebert would be asking MY version of the question, but that's cisgender privilege for you, I guess.

The story here finds old schoolmates Paul Prentice (Rupert Graves) and Kim Foyle (Steven Mackintosh) literally running into each other years afterward. Paul is a motorcycle messenger who seems perpetually on the verge of losing everything he has, while Kim leads a quiet life as a writer for a greeting card company. They seem like oil and water, but Paul finds that he feels...something...for Kim. Curiosity, maybe, or maybe a proprietary fondness, given that he is shown in flashback defending Kim--then Karl--from bullies at school. After suggesting that they "get together," he winds up having a disastrous lunch with her, then takes her to a club gig by the Buzzcocks (!!!), then teaches her to ride his motorcycle. Basically, he's trying to draw her out of her shell. Unfortunately, his good intentions lead him into a conflict with the cops (which terrifies Kim), and he needs her to testify on his behalf to get him out of his predicament. Kim, for her part, would rather not out herself to a courtroom.

This is a movie built on the bones of the romantic comedy, but there's always a wall of separation between its cool detachment and the passion you might want in such a movie. I think the mismatch between Paul and Kim is to blame for this. Graves and Mackintosh don't really strike any sparks, even though I can't really fault them for trying. Graves overplays Paul. For the first half of the movie he's kind of an annoyance. Mackintosh, on the other hand, gives a marvelously understated performance. The movie's conception of Kim Foyle is refreshing, actually. She's one of the few really convincing transsexuals to grace the screen. She's normal to the point of squareness, actually, and shy to the point of withdrawn. In a movie where most of the other characters have a forced exuberance to them, she's an island of calm. The hurts the movie does to her sting. You can hear the wistfulness in her voice when she answers Paul's "I'm straight, you know," with "So am I." There's a world of romantic disappointment in Mackintosh's line reading of this exchange, one that I know all too well myself.

The Darkseid of the Street

I have a bit of a beef with the animated Superman/Batman: Apocalypse (2010, directed by Lauren Montgomery). This can be summarized by the director herself, in an interview with AWN, in which she talks about projects she'd like to make:

"I would love to do a Batgirl: Year One. That would be my dream to do that as a movie. But they're not pushing for the female stories, because they don't seem to make money. It's a business. If they can't make money on female stories then they won't make them."

Except, of course, for the fact that Superman/Batman: Apocalypse IS a female story. Superman and Batman are NOT the leads in this movie, but they get top billing. That strikes me as wrong. I mean, I get it. As Montgomery says, it's a business and the marketers at Warner Brothers and DC know what they're doing, but it still strikes me as a raw deal that potentially cuts off a potential female market. Seriously, girls read comics, too.

The story in this finds Superman's cousin, Kara Zor-El, falling to Earth in Gotham bay, where she's found by Batman. Unlike Superman, Kara is a teen when she comes to Earth, and has no mastery of her Kryptonian powers. This makes her dangerous. Wonder Woman and Batman conspire to take Kara to Themyscera where the amazons train her to control her powers and use them to defend herself. Meanwhile, Harbinger has disturbing visions of Kara's future. Kara, it seems, has come to the attention of Darkseid, the dark god who rules the world of Apokalips. He has been searching for a new captain of his honor guard, the Female Furies, since the defection of Big Barda. He launches an attack on Themyscera to divert Batman, Superman, and the amazons, and abducts Kara. He entrusts her to the loving care of Granny Goodness for indoctrination. Superman will have none of this. He enlists Barda to take our trio of heroes to Apokalips to effect a rescue mission, but is it too late? Has Kara become a minion of Darkseid?

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Food Porn

One of the things that really bothered me about The Incredibles, Brad Bird's first feature for Pixar, was the muddled Randianism it takes as its theme. I mean, the superhero archetype is inherently fascist, so I'm not surprised to see it. I WAS surprised that it formed a dominant theme, with the film making a case for the exceptionalism built into the archetype. The film's refrain, "If everyone is special, then nobody is," is kind of stupid on the face of it, because it presupposes that "specialness" is uniform. This is an absurd proposition in a world where every creature in it has a unique genetic code and in which the "specialness" of individuals is the driving force in the evolution of life, civilization, and culture. In any event, it stuck in my craw, especially given that the movie is otherwise an amazement. I like to think that Bird made Ratatouille (2007) as a kind of explanation of his original meaning, because the thesis at the heart of it is somewhat different and more to the point: "Not everyone can be a great artist," the film says, "but a great artist could be anyone." Of course, it's possible that I'm giving Bird too much credit for influencing the message of the movie, given that the original driving force behind it was Jan Pinkava, who Pixar relieved in favor of Bird mid-production.

Friday, January 14, 2011

If You Can't Stand the Heat...

It's always a shock for me to see some of Glenn Ford's darker performances. I mean, my image of Ford is as Jonathan Kent, Clark Kent's dad in the 1978 Superman, and there are a lot of other movies that reinforce that image of the wholesome American dad. I don't know anything about Ford's biography, so I don't know how true it was to the man, but it doesn't matter, I guess. When I see Ford in something like 3:10 to Yuma or Gilda (surely one of the most homoerotic films of Hollywood's golden age), I get a case of cognitive dissonance. This is NOT the Glenn Ford I'm comfortable with, but he's certainly a lot more interesting. The film that really plays up this duality is Fritz Lang's brutal noir, The Big Heat, from 1953.

You get both sides of the coin in The Big Heat: the devoted father and family man, and the cold, relentless cop out for vengeance. The movie even codes it with its leading ladies. The light side is Jocelyn Brando's devoted, doomed wifey, while the dark is Gloria Grahame's gangster's moll (who, herself, has an interesting level of duality, one made physically manifest in the course of the movie). There's so much emphasis on dichotomies that it almost obscures the fact that the movie isn't so cut and dry. The Big Heat is good at hiding its hand.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A Baker Street Irregular

I have to admit that when I heard about the new BBC version of Sherlock Holmes--helpfully titled Sherlock--I was dubious. I mean, at this point, we have a century of re-interpretations and inheritors and after Guy Ritchie's "reboot" in theaters last year, I wasn't keen to see another one. Can anything new be brought to the party? It turns out that there can. The new series--the first season is a trio of hour and a half movies, really--brings us a thoroughly modern Holmes set in contemporary London, but changes almost nothing else about the character. Holmesians, who are notoriously picky about the character, honestly shouldn't have much to complain about. It's not particularly reverential, and it refuses to embalm Holmes and Watson, but it is certainly faithful to the spirit. It's a measure of the strength of Doyle's original that it has proven so easy to update. All of the pieces are in place: Holmes is still preternaturally gifted, but also kind of a prick about it; Watson is a returning vet from Afghanistan who blogs about their adventures rather than publishing them in the penny dreadfuls; Lestrade is still their contact at Scotland Yard; Mycroft is still in the background, as is Professor Moriarty; even Mrs. Hudson returns as the landlady at 221B Baker Street. It all hews very closely to the canonical description of Holmes, actually, and it works. It sets the hook (boy, howdy, does it!).

Monday, January 10, 2011

Put the Effing Lotion in the Basket!

I'm in low-content mode until I finish watching the first season of Sherlock (review to come in a day or two). In lieu of an actual post, here's a mathom I found a couple of years ago that convinced me that I had seen everything. I mean, can there be something beyond The Silence of the Lambs performed as a musical and animated with Legos? I think not:


Friday, January 07, 2011

Core Values

When I was in grade school, the Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptations that AIP and Amicus were putting out had a sky-high "gotta see that!" value. My friends and I saw the ads on Saturday morning television, and some of us even got to see these in the theater. I remember seeing The Land That Time Forgot in an aging movie palace that was entirely too swanky for the film. Such thoughts didn't occur to me then; I was a precocious child, but I wasn't THAT precocious. I think I saw The People that Time Forgot on cable in the early early days of HBO. I don't remember ever seeing At the Earth's Core (1976, directed by Kevin Connor), which is today's subject, but I might have. They all blur together in my mind, an effect exaggerated by Doug McClure's presence in all three films.

I never saw any of these films as an adult. Some things probably shouldn't be revisited. At the Earth's Core is pretty bad, but it is instructive, in so far as it demonstrates the wide, wide gulf between what fantasy films looked like in 1976 and what they looked like just a couple of years later. To put this into some context: At the Earth's Core, like the other two films in the sequence, was shot by cinematographer Alan Hume, who went on to shoot The Return of the Jedi. On the one hand, you have a paper mâché kid's movie, on the other, you have a fully-realized alien world. Of course, a lot of this is down to budget. Amicus were the low budget knock-offs of Hammer Films, and if you know how cheap the Boys at Bray were, then that should be saying something. This movie was cheap, and it usually looks it, from its over-reliance on rear projection compositing to its "suit-mation" monsters to its plaster and mâché sets. Not that The Return of the Jedi was above that sort of thing--just look at Luke Skywalker's battle with the Rancor, which looks a bit like McClure's battle with the dinosaur in the pit in At the Earth's Core--but there's a world, if not a galaxy of difference between the design sensibilities and effects techniques in these movies. At the Earth's Core appears at the cusp of two filmmaking epochs, and it plays a bit like a silent film made in 1932. Curious, but dated. Perhaps a better comparison would be to Saturday morning kids shows from the same period. At the Earth's Core looks a LOT like an elaborate episode of The Land of the Lost.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Witching Hour

During my various trips through the horror blogosphere, I always half-expect to stumble across a press release for some new film version of Fritz Leiber's Conjure Wife. There are already three film versions of the book, so why not one more? But then, I think, what's the point? A Hollywood filmmaker would likely remove the delicious ambiguity of the story. Also, some of the story is rooted in the sexual politics of the mid-20th Century and, thankfully, the world has moved on a bit. (I'll get to that shortly). Besides, there's already a pretty good film version.

When I wrote my ridiculously long piece on Night/Curse of the Demon for Horror 101, I mentioned in passing that one of the films immediately influenced by Curse of the Demon was Sidney Hayer's 1962 version of Conjure Wife, Night of the Eagle (retitled Burn, Witch, Burn for American release, a title I actually prefer). Burn, Witch, Burn reworks the basic situation of Curse of the Demon, in which a hard core skeptic is confronted by the supernatural, but instead of being a retread, it acts as a kind of revision. In Curse of the Demon, the audience knows from the outset that the demon of the title is real. Burn, Witch, Burn makes no such concessions to the audience. I mean, the movie certainly trades on the audience's overall acceptance of the supernatural--a paying audience is there to see a horror movie, after all--but it remains on the fence for almost all of its running time. The appearance of the demon so early in Curse of the Demon was a mistake. Burn, Witch, Burn does not repeat it.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Puzzle Box

I was a drama geek in high school. I'm actually amazed that I didn't follow that into some kind of career in the theater (or film, natch) as an adult. One of the plays I worked on in high school was Ira Levin's Veronica's Room, which is one of those plays where you confine a small number of characters in a limited setting and play all kinds of games with their reality. There are other variants, including Levin's own Deathtrap, but this was my first encounter with them. 12 Angry Men is an upscale version, for one example, while the grandmother of them all is Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap. These kinds of plays are puzzle boxes, and the fun is in sorting through the clues left for the audience to see if you can stay ahead of the game. I thought about all of this while I was watching Exam (2009, directed by Stuart Hazeldine), which would work perfectly as a stage play. It, too, is a puzzle box. Almost literally.

The set-up is simple: Eight candidates for a lucrative job with a shadowy corporation are confined in a room and given an exam. The exam's proctor (Colin Salmon) issues a very precise set of instructions, and who succeeds and who fails depends on how carefully they can listen to and, importantly, interpret those instructions.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Broken Hearts

One of my activist friends sat me down this weekend to show me Quanto Dura o Amor? (2009, directed by Roberto Moreira). I like that title better than its international title, Paulista, because it has some imagination and poetry behind it. Paulista refers to both inhabitants of São Paulo, Brazil, and the main thoroughfare through that city. Paulista, title and film, reminds me a little of Cameron Crowe's Singles, complete with musical sensibility. It plays as if that film had been filtered through a queer sensibility. The final act of Quanto Dura o Amor? severs that connection, mercifully, but I'll get to that in a bit. The film's Portugese title translates, roughly, as "How long does love last?" Love, in this film, is fleetingly brief.

The story in Quanto Dura o Amor? follows three twenty-somethings living in the same apartment block in São Paulo. They are: Marina, newly arrived in the city from the sticks. She's an actress, in the city for classes and auditions. She's staying with Suzanna, a lawyer who is falling for a fellow lawyer; she has a secret that he might not be able to accept. Their neighbor is Jay, a poet whose schlubbish appearance and lack of self-esteem leads him to find love in the arms of prostitutes, one of whom he has fallen for hard. All of these characters are defined by their longing for love. Marina falls for Justine, a singer at the nightclub just around the corner. Justine is a wild child and seems to still be attached to Nuno, the owner of the club. Justine is also batshit insane, which becomes increasingly obvious as the movie progresses. Suzanna wants to settle down with a husband, and Gil seems like an ideal match, but her secret causes her to withdraw from him. When she finally opens up, it's disastrous. Jay's obsession for Michelle, a prostitute who increasingly tells him that she's only in it for the money, leads him to humiliating lengths. At the end of the film, all three characters are alone and brokenhearted. If this sounds depressing, I suppose that it is, but the film is so much fun to watch that it doesn't matter. For that matter, the ending is perfect and satisfying for all its sadness. Sadness can be sweet.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Late Capitalism, Revisited

The wreckage of late capitalism is on display in Kiyoshi Kurosawa's creepy family drama, Tokyo Sonata (2008). One gets the feeling from this movie that the shock of Asia's financial crisis never went away. It haunts this film. The Japanese, it seems, are dealing with the same consequences of globalization as America: Jobs outsourced to China and India, youth with no prospects, a workforce beset with an existential crisis of faith. Kurosawa's movie is drenched in a striking anomie that all begins with economics. The world, it seems, is moving on.

The story here finds salariman Ryuhei downsized from his company. His boss asks him what his skill set is and what he can contribute if they keep him on, but Ryuhei can't even answer him. He's been a minor functionary for so long that he no longer knows what makes him valuable, if he even is. Shamed, he continues to dress in a suit and tie for work every morning as he lines up for unemployment, then hangs around a soup line where he meets another unemployed salariman who, like Ryuhei, puts on a great show of being a busy businessman. Ryuhei's family is none the wiser, though he seems a bit more high strung and testy. Megumi, his wife, dutifully keeps house in spite of her own dawning discontent with the role of housewife, while his sons have crises of their own. Their oldest son, Takashi wants to join the American military as a means of finding opportunity (this film posits a fictional, but plausible scenario where a recruiting strapped military takes volunteers from pacifist Japan), while their youngest son, Kenji, is not getting along with his teacher and wants to take piano lessons. Kenji pockets his lunch money and pays for the lessons on the sly, even though his father expressly forbids the lessons. The film gives more or less equal weight to the stories of all of these characters, especially once the whole facade of a traditional Japanese family comes crumbling down. That happens once Megumi spots her husband in the soup line one day. She keeps it to herself for a while until Ryuhei discover's Kenji's forbidden piano lessons, when she throws it in his face to rebuke his patriarchal authority.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Through a Glass, Darkly

"So why do you think this show is so popular?" my long-suffering partner asked while we were watching Dexter. "Is it because Dexter is the classic outsider?" I shrugged at the time, but I couldn't get the question out of my head. Lord knows, she has a point. Dexter IS a classic outsider. Dexter Morgan is 95 percent of the appeal of the show. Subtract Dexter himself, and what you're left with is a run of the mill cop show, and not a very good one at that. I don't think Dexter's status as some kind of archetypal "outsider" is the primary element that appeals to the show's growing audience, though. I think it's more that Dexter represents the id. Dexter's id is the motivating force of the show's story and he even has a name for it. It's his "Dark Passenger." More broadly, Dexter is the patron saint of anyone who has ever had a terrible secret, for anyone who has had to juggle internal demons with external responsibilities. Like most popular entertainments that strike some kind of nerve, I think Dexter is a Rorschach test of sorts. What you get from it depends on what you bring to it.

As a personal note, I TOTALLY identify with Dexter Morgan. Not the serial killing part, mind you, but the need to keep some horrible dark secret and the need to fulfill some dark compulsion. I kept a secret of my own from everyone I knew--it was my own "Dark Passenger"--for literally decades, so looking at Dexter is like looking at a mirror for me, showing my own secret sharer through a glass, darkly.