Thursday, May 22, 2008

Bava Book Wins IPPY Award

I'm pleased to announce that my book MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK has been awarded the Bronze Medal in the "Performing Arts" category of the 2008 Independent Publisher Book ("IPPY") Awards. This article will give you the particulars about the award and our fellow finalists.

I was surprised and also pleased to discover that this year's Gold Medal recipient, RETURN TO THE CAFFE CINO, is a history of the off-off-Broadway night spot where Andy Milligan got his start as a dramatist. In fact, the book contains a number of the gay- and S&M-themed plays originally produced at Caffé Cino, including (surprise of surprises) "The Brown Crown," written by my friend and former Milligan repertory player Hal Borske! I guess I'll have to buy it now. Anyway, major congratulations to Hal for being part of the IPPY Awards' #1 choice.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Last Three Hours of 24:1

Dennis Hopper and Kiefer Sutherland in 24: SEASON ONE.

We finished watching the first season of 24 last night, which was very exciting if also somewhat disappointing. The finale brings to mind all the reasons why most drama doesn't go the "real time" route. As Alfred Hitchcock realized after making ROPE (1948), cutting is necessary to drama; I would add to this that, while real time is an engaging complement to suspense, a certain degree of time manipulation is necessary for drama to achieve its fullest potential, and suspense cannot exist without dramatic content. The real challenge of drama is not to subvert its rules, as this show does quite brazenly, but to find ways in which to innovate within their perimeters without being so crass as to break them.

In 24 SEASON ONE's final couple of hours, we discover who the second mole at CTU is (the truth is actually tipped-off in the opening montage of every episode). As the commentaries confess, the answer was improvised pretty much as that episode was being prepared, which meant that the actor had no idea that he/she had been playing a traitor for the bulk of his/her performance. This upset the actor, and it does result in a performance that doesn't work quite so well in hindsight as it did when it was in progress, through no fault of the performer's own.

A major character also dies just minutes before the end, an infuriating death that was dealt into the game for -- the creators admit -- no better purpose than to inform the viewer that all bets were off where future seasons were concerned. Anything could happen here, and they had better learn to expect the unexpected. Apparently the actors had no idea how the show was going to end either, because an alternative version was shot (included in this set as a bonus), in which this character survived. Oddly enough, this alternate version isn't particularly satisfying either, for the simple reason that the preceding wrap-up took so much screen time that both endings had to be rushed through. So one is left with the feeling that the storyline simply stops, in keeping with its internal clock, rather than draws to a satisfying conclusion.

My friend Michael Schlesinger wrote in response to yesterday's blog, and his engaging remarks warrant sharing in full:

You're absolutely right about the repetition of certain phrases (my favorite, which came in later seasons: "Chloe, I'll upload the data from my PDA and explain everything when I get back to CTU!"), but you danced around the more telling point: to paraphrase FDR, Bauer is an SOB, but he's our SOB. The right-wingers who make this show clearly see him as a hero, but most of us at home see Bauer as basically a bad guy who just happens to be working for us, and much of 24's brilliance is getting us to root for him instead of booing him.

Season #1 is rather uneven--they don't really understand the cliff-hanger concept, often ending the show with the take-out instead of delaying it till next week. But it greatly improved as it went along, reaching its pinnacle in the absolutely remarkable fifth season. So stick with it.

And most importantly: you're exhausted from watching several episdoes in a row? You're not supposed to watch several episodes in a row!! It's a goddamn serial! One chapter a week--just like the good old days. Where's the delicious tingle of suspense if you see the resolution two minutes later? I'm allowing you one episode a day, no more. I have spoken.

Unfortunately. watching one episode per day from a boxed set release is a luxury beyond the means of DVD reviewers, who are obliged to jump into the deep end and gulp down almost as much water as they swim in. Also, if the real viewing mandate is one episode per day, what's with the "Play All" option on each disc, which indicates a covert encouragement from the show's producers to watch as many as four episodes in a sitting? It doesn't really matter: any progress I make with subsequent episodes now will probably have to be limited to one episode per evening, if I intend to get anything else done. But Mike's endorsement of Season Five is tantalizing indeed.

As my comments have shown, we agree that Season One is uneven; a number of plot threads are dropped without closure (for example, Kim never learns about the fate of her girlfriend) and I also noticed that a couple of episodes cheated themselves of better cliffhangers, which sometimes appeared at the end of the first act in the next episode. But real time is a hugely difficult challenge for any dramatist (Beckett excepted, perhaps), and this group of episodes meet that challenge far better than most. It's one of the most impressive feats of construction I've seen in a TV show, maybe the most impressive; I also find myself looking fondly back at some of the throwaway characters, like the woman cop who takes a bullet in the alley or the fed-up, due-in-court-on-a-DIY-charge waitress whose car Jack commandeers, the latter played by Kathleen Wilhoite (a welcome return by a likably quirky actress I used to see often in 1980s television).

I have my quibbles, but I can't argue with the commonly held belief that 24 SEASON ONE is riveting television.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

24: If 6 Was 16:9

Streeting today is a metal box "Special Edition" of the first season of the acclaimed TV-series 24, starring Kiefer Sutherland. The seven-disc set includes new audio commentaries for the first and last episodes, and an entire disc of new supplementary materials, including deleted and alternative scenes.

Donna and I watch as little commercial television as possible these days, so, while we were vaguely aware of the 24 phenomenon, we didn't actually give the show a spin until this box set came into our hands. I don't know how well the subsequent seasons hold up, but the first season episodes are fairly addicting and seem tailor-made for marathon viewing sessions. I think we've done as many as seven in a day, which is, of course, nothing compared to what Jack Bauer (Sutherland) and company are going through. However, watching a show this suspenseful, actionful and unpredictable can take a certain toll on one's psychological health; I personally hit a bump a little more than halfway through the season where I was feeling so emotionally exhausted by the whole thing that I had to take a break. Your mileage may differ, but I would recommend maybe a few episodes a night, tops. Beyond that, believe it or not, it can begin to tear at you.

The series was photographed by Rodney Charters (whose name I first noticed on the old FRIDAY THE 13th series, when he shot David Cronenberg's "Faith Healer" episode) and other Canadian cameramen in a widescreen format, and is presented here in mostly handsome 16:9 with semi-muted color. However, it appears that the series was shot wide in consideration of its future DVD release and domestic/overseas HD broadcasts, and initially shown (and indeed framed) in standard ratio. In the course of viewing, I noticed a couple of glaring camera gaffes that turn the old "boom mike" shots we used to see in unmatted VHS releases topsy-turvy; 24 ushers in a new era of unmatted widescreen transfers that expose area not meant to be seen in the periphery of the image.

Example #1: Here's an image from episode "7:00am to 8:00am," found at 12:40 on Disc 2. Here, Counter Terrorist Unit agent Nina Meyers (Sarah Clarke) finds an abandoned building and phones headquarters, and the silhouette of a camera operator edges not once, not twice, but three times into frame. I've brightened the image slightly to better accentuate the little red bead on the camera, which was very noticeable on my TV display.

Example #2: In the Disc 3 episode "11:00am to 12:00pm" at 21:59, acting CTU chief Alberta Green (Tamara Tunie) questions her subordinate Tony Almeida (Carlos Bernard) in a supposedly empty interrogation room. However, as we see from this shot, the CTU apparently uses the room to store camera dollies. The scene is cut in such a way as to keep the camera looming into frame offscreen as much as possible, but it does appear twice -- this time, the second time, actually edging further into frame than it did at first glimpse. In essence, here we have an example of a show that has been released in widescreen because 16:9 transfers now have a certain consumer cachet, though it was clearly not framed to be viewed in this format.
As wrapped up as we've become in the show, 24's Season One is not without its little annoyances. It sends some very mixed messages, the major one being that it's okay to break rules where country and national security are concerned as long as it's for the good of one's own family. The (teenage) kids in this show, for whom their parents act so dangerously and unselfishly, comport themselves smugly and insolently because they have grown this way from years of parental neglect. There is not a single character in the program who seems entirely above-ground in a moral sense; everyone is compromised by their work, their ambition, their arrogance, their selfishness, or their own ignorance. The role of family so central to the character arcs of Jack Bauer, Senator David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) and Victor Drazin (Dennis Hopper!) gets to seem like a cheap ploy to excuse their questionable behavior, especially when each little victory scored for family seems to do nothing to bring them closer together. The tired issue of family is even dragged into issues between minor characters, like the stoner sociopath kidnapper Dan (Matthew Carey) and his "he's worse than the other one was" drug dealer brother Frank (Eduoardo Ballerini).
Another thing we've noticed about the show is that there are certain catch-phrases that become worn out with overuse. For example, it would make a fun (if potentially toxic) drinking game to toss back a shot every time someone began a sentence with "I need..." -- "I need back-up," "I need you to do this for me," "I need you to do what I tell you," "I need you to do this one thing for me," "I need to speak to Jack" (this one's heard several times per episode), "I need this number traced," "I need you to back me up on this." (If this is how these adults talk, with everything so predicated on prioritized personal need, it's no wonder their kids turned out the way they did.) There is also a lot of "we'll get through this if we just stick together" blather, always spoken without a hint of irony by those characters best described as free agents or loose cannons. Finally, there's no shortage of (mostly empty) promises being made -- "I promise you, we will get out of this," "I promise I will kill you" -- all spoken solemnly for dramatic effect. Another frequent line is "I'll explain later." I'm presently three episodes from the end and no one has, yet.
Yes, I'm critical, but I'm also firmly in this show's grip and don't deny it. 24 is a classic example of why "enervating" rhymes with "entertaining."

SIGHT & SOUND June 2008

My latest SIGHT & SOUND review, of four new DVD releases by filmmaker Chris Marker (La Jetée, Sans Soleil), is now available for public consumption on the magazine's website here. It also appears in the current June 2008 issue, now on newsstands everywhere. The focus of this issue's feature articles is on New European cinema (works from the former Eastern bloc countries), including an interview with Andrzej Wajda (also available online, but more beautifully illustrated in print) and a very interesting Richard Combs piece on Jerzy Skolimowski (which isn't); here's a general overview. The issue's always generous assortment of reviews include VW's Kim Newman on Steve Barker's new zombie opus OUTPOST.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Robert Heinlein on Blogging

"In the absence of clearly-defined goals, we become strangely loyal to performing daily trivia until ultimately we become enslaved by it."

This Robert Heinlein quote appeared as "Quote of the Day" over at the House Next Door blog's "Links for the Day," today. It was given no citation or context, so I cannot say what brought this prophetic insight about, but, to me, it says very concisely what I was trying to say about the dangers of blogging a week or two ago. The irony of announcing that I intended to step back from blogging, only to redouble my efforts here, has not been lost on me, I assure you, but over the past week, this blog has been valuable to my personal decompression. As for my goals, I'm working on them.