Previous month:
February 2016
Next month:
April 2016

buffy and school

Steven Rubio's Online Life

 


blu-ray series #30: my darling clementine (john ford, 1946)

At least until his 1960s films, I’ve never disliked a John Ford movie. And I don’t mean to damn with faint praise. It’s just that Ford is one of the most revered of directors, and he isn’t quite that high for me. But My Darling Clementine has always been my favorite John Ford movie, and one of my favorite Westerns of all time. (Rio Bravo is my favorite, with The Wild Bunch a close second, but Clementine certainly belongs in their company.)

The question is, why do I like this one so much compared to other Ford movies I’ve seen? For comparison, my other favorites of his films are The Searchers, Young Mr. Lincoln, and The Grapes of Wrath, with only 7 Women and How the West Was Won being pretty stinky (he can’t be blamed entirely for the latter, of course).

Ford had things he liked, and he was never shy about going back to the well. Most famously, he placed many of his Westerns in the Monument Valley (including Clementine), even when the result didn’t match the “true” story (including Clementine ... Tombstone is about 500 miles from Monument Valley). One can hardly blame him ... it was indeed a beautiful setting, and he made the most of it. Ford also relied on a stock company of actors that served him well over the years. But he had other habits I find more irritating than enjoyable. In particular, his rambunctious comic scenes are always more rambunctious than comic, at least to me. It is this, more than anything else, that makes me rank The Searchers just a bit below the best of the classics.

My Darling Clementine mostly avoids this. The humor is quieter ... Wyatt Earp just wants a shave, and keeps getting interrupted in his quest, and there’s a nice bit where the barber (proprietor of “The Bon Ton Tonsorial Parlor”) sprays some cologne on Earp and everyone mistakes the smell for the wide-open spaces.

Another thing Ford loved was dance scenes. My Darling Clementine has one of his best ... it is, in fact, one of the two key scenes in the film:

There may be no sweeter movie scene that brings the classic Western theme of burgeoning civilization on the frontier than this one.

Of course, the other key scene is the shootout at the OK Corral, and it’s tense. But it doesn’t come until near the end of the film ... Ford trusts the picture to lead us gradually to the big moment.

For me, My Darling Clementine features the best parts of a John Ford Western, while minimizing the parts that I don’t like. Which I guess is why I like this one so much compared to his others. #141 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 10/10.


downton abbey, series finale

I binge-watched the first season of Downton Abbey just before Season Two started, giving in to the good reviews. I liked it OK. By the end of Season Two, my grade had fallen to the “B” range. By the end of Season Four, it was more clear that by “B range” I meant “B-“ at best. I made it through six season kinda like I did with The L Word: habit. But I wasn’t getting much out of it by the end, and if my wife didn’t watch it, I might have given up long ago.

Julian Fellowes gave us a very careful finale that allowed everyone on the show to leave with a happy ending, or, in the words of the Dowager Countess, “happy enough”. Everyone who had feuded made up. Everyone had their health, except Carson, who still has Mrs. Hughes, and even Carson’s illness meant a triumphant return for the reformed Barrow. Babies were born or were expected, people with lives in flux found direction, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. It was in all likelihood exactly the kind of ending the show’s fans wanted.

I never figured out why I was a fan, and my central concerns, even when I liked it, never went away. Fellowes humanized the rich upstairs and the working downstairs, and he gave equal time to servants and royalty alike. The gradual progression of time meant we got a lot of talk about how we had to accept the future, which for the rich meant taking better care of their crops and starting new automotive businesses. But progress for the downstairs servants was always limited. Barrow was the most ambitious of the servants when the series began, and he was the most outright unlikeable character on the show, as if wanting to improve himself was a bad thing. In the finale, Barrow got what he had always wanted: he became the butler. He didn’t become rich, he didn’t gain any power beyond the walls of the Abbey. But that was enough to fulfill his ambitions.

More problematic was Tom, whose social position leaped far beyond Barrow’s paltry desires. As the show began, Tom was the chauffeur, involved in socialist politics. He was quite the firebrand. Eventually, though, he marries Lady Sybil, and by the finale, he has long been established as one of the family, entrusted with Lady Mary to the managing of the estate, his socialism a thing of the past. His co-option makes the Crawleys seem liberal for their class, but they make no real concessions outside of accepting this one person. The class structure remains.

I could watch any random episode with at least some pleasure ... the dialogue was often entertaining, and much of the acting was excellent. But I had to turn off my brain, because if I thought about the show for more than five minutes, I always returned to the way Fellowes took the side of the upper class.

So yes, the finale was nice and tidy, and in the future, I’ll remember the better things about the show, and hopefully forget about the endless legal problems of Bates, or the pointless cattiness of Mary against her sister Edith, or any of the other plotlines that served only as digressions designed to get us through another season. Downton Abbey is not the worst show that I stuck with for six seasons, but it is far from the best.


what i watched last week

Whiplash (Damien Chazelle, 2014). A well-made movie that wallows in masochism. On the surface, it might seem to be focused on sadism ... J.K. Simmons won an Oscar for his role as Fletcher, the abusive music teacher. But we experience Fletcher solely through his student Andrew. Andrew wants to be the best drummer, so he does what Fletcher tells him to do, until he can’t take it anymore. The happy ending comes when Fletcher’s methods are proven right: Andrew becomes a great drummer. On the way to that accomplishment, Andrew drums until he bleeds ... and Miles Teller, the actor who plays Andrew, bleeds along with his character, as if real blood could stand in for real acting. That’s not entirely fair to Teller, who is fine. But we never lose the feeling that the blood, as much as the drumming, proves Andrew has what it takes. And we can thank Fletcher for the blood. It should go without saying that Simmons offers an award-winning performance, even if for me, he will never top Schillinger from Oz. There is nothing wrong with Whiplash except that I don’t buy its message. #212 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 7/10.

Hot Fuzz (Edgar Wright, 2007). We were looking for something rather mindless to watch, something where we didn’t have to pay too much attention. We decided on a movie none of us had seen, Hot Fuzz. We thought it would be good because some of us had seen and liked Shaun of the Dead, and my wife I loved the related-in-spirit Attack the Block. Hot Fuzz was a lovely combination of parody and homage, always erring on the affectionate side. This is not a film that looks down on the dozens of movies from which it borrows heavily. It is also quite funny, with a knack for setting up jokes that pay off down the road. Finally, it features, in full roles or cameos, what seems like every living “Hey, it’s that guy” British actor. A partial list: Martin Freeman, Bill Nighy, Billie Whitelaw, Timothy Dalton, Jim Broadbent, Paddy Considine, Olivia Colman, Edward Woodward, Stephen Merchant, David Threlfall, Cate Blanchett, Steve Coogan, and Peter Jackson (OK, I admit I missed him). In sum, I liked Hot Fuzz quite a bit. But later, when I checked it on the IMDB, I found that I had indeed seen it before (on Halloween 2007, to be exact), and given it 7/10. I’m tempted to up that rating, except if I didn’t even remember seeing it before, it must lack that memorable something. #669 on the Best of the 21st Century list. 7/10.


lexa

I don’t know if I have anything original to add here, but I’ve been thinking about it for about 24 hours now, and I’m having trouble thinking about anything else, so maybe writing about it will clear my mind. I am guaranteed to ramble.

Thursday night, after watching “Thirteen”, the latest episode of The 100, I went on Facebook and posted, “That moment when what happens in fiction is so affecting you can't feel the real world for awhile.” If a TV show can conjure up such intense emotions in its audience, it is accomplishing something. The 100 is not the best show on TV ... that might be The Americans. But for all its greatness, The Americans interests me for the quality of the writing, acting, and directing. I have an emotional attachment to the characters, but it’s a shallow attachment, based as much in suspense as anything else. And the moral quandaries that arise in The Americans are more likely to waken my brain than my heart.

Among other things, The 100 is a very smart show. But the characters inspire a kind of connection that I rarely feel for TV characters. It is akin to Buffy the Vampire Slayer or, to a lesser extent, Battlestar Galactica. I commit myself to those characters, I invest time into thinking about them, and I’m sad when things don’t go right for them. (The Walking Dead tries hard to place its characters at the center of the series, and for most people they succeed, but I’ve never felt that kind of attraction to those characters.)

The closest equivalent in my experience to what happened on The 100 last night was the episode “Seeing Red” from the sixth season of Buffy. Tara Maclay, played by Amber Benson, had joined the show in Season Four, when the gang graduated from high school and went to college. Tara was excruciatingly shy, but gradually, she made a connection with Willow, a regular from the beginning. Eventually they fell in love, and they became one of my favorite TV couples. In “Seeing Red”, Tara was killed by a stray bullet. Like many others, I was ripped apart by this event. My fandom came out in odd ways ... when Amber Benson began a real-life relationship with Adam Busch, who played the character who killed Tara, I found it incomprehensible. There was also the larger cultural context ... Willow and Tara were one of the few out lesbian couples on TV, and when Tara died, it was seen by many as an example of “Dead Lesbian Syndrome”, where no lesbians can ever be allowed to live a happy life. I felt awful when Tara died, but I did not have the experience of being marginalized the way lesbians and other minorities are, so I didn’t have that same connection.

The 100 version of Willow and Tara is Clarke and Lexa. The 100 is a darker show than Buffy was, and the “Clexa” relationship was always secondary to the events surrounding them. Mostly, their relationship was a bit of a tease ... actresses Eliza Taylor and Alycia Debnam-Carey had such electricity with each other that you knew eventually they would get further than the one brief kiss we’d seen earlier. The anticipation drove some fans crazy, but the potential was always there.

And finally, in “Thirteen”, Clarke and Lexa had sex.

And almost immediately after that, Lexa was killed. By a stray bullet.

There were reasons why Lexa was killed off, reasons related to the direction the story is going. But in all honesty, the main reason was that Debnam-Carey was also a regular on Fear the Walking Dead, which is far more popular than The 100 will ever be. Also, that show moved production from Vancouver to Mexico, making it impossible for Debnam-Carey to keep working both shows. Basically, she was always on loan to The 100.

Everyone knew this. We all figured Lexa would die, even if we didn’t know how or when. We hoped that Clexa would find each other before that happened. But to have Lexa die in a seemingly random manner brought out the feelings of Dead Lesbian Syndrome.

Many fans were so pissed off, they have said they will no longer watch the program. And it’s here that I want to move sideways, into what is really fascinating to me about this.

For The 100 has a very strong presence on Twitter. Fans make frequent use of the “#the100” hashtag as they discuss the show. There is fan art, lots of guessing about future episodes, and plenty of interaction with the artists behind the show. Showrunner Jason Rothenberg is always tweeting, and each new episode is accompanied by live tweeting (both East Coast and West Coast showings) with Rothenberg, the writers, and often actors. Adina Porter, who plays the warrior Indra, is almost like a mother to the fans, answering question after question with more patience than I could muster.

So you have the Twitter presence. You have fans with a strong connection to the show and to the characters. You have Lexa, a fan favorite, and Clexa, for many the most important relationship on the show. This all came to a head when Lexa died.

I’m sure this happens all the time, but I don’t usually watch the kind of shows that are so entwined in social media. So I was overwhelmed with the responses of the fans. Everyone was crushed. Some came online searching for solace. Adina Porter received many, many tweets asking her for advice, or just reaching out as a way to have some contact with the show they loved. And many were understandably upset at the renewal of the Dead Lesbian Syndrome.

As usual, Mo Ryan had a well-written commentary:

I will certainly never sit in judgment of anyone who feels that a development on a show fits into part of a larger pattern that is painful to not just them but a group they are part of. The Clarke-Lexa story line was one that engaged many gay, lesbian and bisexual viewers on a number of deep levels. For people to say last night or today, “Just get over it, they had to kill her off, the actress had another job” — please don’t rush to minimize others’ objections (as long as those objections are stated in ways that do not wish violence on other human beings, of course).

The point is, these angry and disappointed reactions are rooted in reality. The way a character leaves a show is important. If you choose not to see the larger context of how gay and lesbian characters are treated on TV — just be aware that your lack of awareness is a choice. Not all of us have the luxury of being able to ignore or wave away a larger context. This is one of those cases in which it’s helpful to listen to others extensively and not start in immediately with recommendations on how they should think and feel. That rarely helps in general, and it certainly won’t help viewers of this show now.

Lexa is gone. And as I said on Twitter, I’d feel better if I liked Fear the Walking Dead more.

I’ll give the last word to Alycia Debnam-Carey, who wrote the following:

Thank you to those who banded together to create an incredible and inspiring character. She could have never burst into fruition without such a flux of creativity, passion and collaboration that extends greater than a singular autonomy of my own. To the writers, directors, crew - hair, makeup, costumes, stunts, actors and Jason who helped me capture her essence. Thank you to all the fans for bringing her further to life, your passion is everything. It has been an honour to portray her. To envelop myself in her skin. To be given the freedom to represent a moment in our cultural and social zeitgeist - she has left a great imprint on me. I will miss her. May we meet again.
X
adc

music friday: the 1930s

Behind on this ... OK, I’m still processing last night’s episode of The 100. Here’s a quickie list of songs from the 1930s (I hope I’ve got the dates right).

Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra, “I’m Gettin' Sentimental Over You”.

Judy Garland, “Over the Rainbow”.

Robert Johnson, “Hellhound on My Trail”.

Josephine Baker, “J'ai Deux Amours”.

Bunny Berigan, “I Can’t Get Started with You”.

Lydia Mendoza, “Mal hombre”.

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, “A Fine Romance”.

Bing Crosby, “Learn to Croon”.

Solomon Linda’s Original Evening Birds, “Mbube”.

Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys, “San Antonio Rose”.


macbeth

Last night, we attended the Berkeley Rep production of Macbeth. There are basically two things that get us to the theater: famous actors, and our friend Arthur, whose plays we try to attend whenever possible. The famous people this time were Frances McDormand and Conleth Hill (the latter, who lacks name recognition, is always described as “Varys from Game of Thrones”).

It was my first time seeing Macbeth on stage, so my comparison was to film versions, which is a bit unfair. I watched Polanski's Macbeth last week, and so was always thinking about the blood and gore that he placed on the screen, but which here was off-stage.

Whatever disadvantages created by the restrictions of a theater production next to a film version, this production was impressive. The set design provided a bigger scale that you might imagine, and while the use of photos and videos was hit or miss, it added a distinctive touch.

My wife and I are the worst star-chasers ... we attend every play at Berkeley Rep with famous actors (Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, Mandy Patinkin, Anna Devere Smith). In this case, we came because of McDormand and Hill, but Hill was so unlike Varys that it was easy to see him as just an actor, and McDormand has done so many different roles that it was also easy to see Lady Macbeth as just another of those roles (she also doubled as one of the witches). Which is to say, the stardom got us in the door, but the skill of the actors is what drew us into the play.

The acting overall was a bit inconsistent, but not enough to be a problem. I've always thought Shakespeare turns Lady Macbeth insane too quickly, but McDormand played her "damned spot" scene brilliantly. It was one of the only times a well-known piece was highlighted ... at other times, it almost seemed like a conscious decision had been made to swallow famous speeches into the norm, which if true is interesting but admittedly off-setting.

Among the actors was James Carpenter, a highly-regarded local favorite ... I wouldn’t be surprised if we’ve seen him before, but if not, we’ve seen him three times now, as he played Duncan, the porter, and Lady Macbeth’s doctor. Each was distinct ... it didn’t feel like stunt casting, or even an inexpensive production saving a few bucks.

Frances McDormand was “better” than Francesca Annis in Polanski’s film, which is no knock on Annis or her performance. But, again, unfair as it might be, Polanski’s movie (which, as I wrote, was more “movie” than “Shakespeare play”) was still fresh in my mind, and since I am such a big fan of that movie, this stage version, which was indeed solid, didn’t quite displace my thoughts about the film.

Finally, I couldn’t help but reflect on the ways I’ve experienced Macbeth over the years. Polanski’s version came out about the time I became a film major, and given my lack of knowledge about Shakespeare, my sense of the play was a bit warped. (Another Macbeth I saw and loved was Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood.) Twenty years later, I was an English graduate student taking a course taught by the noted Shakespeare scholar Janet Adelman. I was way out of my league ... the best I could offer in terms of my past connection to Shakespeare was to say I’d seen Forbidden Planet many times. Still, when I want to learn more about Macbeth, as often as not I turn to Adelman. Now, of course, I’m just an old fart with a blog.

One last anecdote, unconnected to Macbeth. One of the times we saw Arthur was in King Lear. The actor who played Lear did a good job ... his name was Jeffrey DeMunn, which meant nothing to us. Well, a few years later, we started seeing DeMunn once a week, for he had grabbed a regular part on The Walking Dead. Man, I hated his character, Dale ... not the actor, of course, although the better the actor, the more extreme our response might be. Anyway, Dale died near the end of Season Two, and I was very glad (it was actually one of the most emotional scenes ever in the show, which I might have missed because of my silly feelings about the Dale). The reason I bring it up here ties into my point above that we tend to see either plays with famous actors, or plays with Arthur Keng. It turned out King Lear combined both, but we didn’t know it at the time. In fact, we didn’t know it for a long time after that. It was only many years later, when Arthur pointed out that “Lear” and “Dale” were the same actor, that we understood the connection. DeMunn was so good in both roles, we never thought of them as the same guy.