Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for January 2012

Touch, Luck, and the challenges of smart TV

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On Sunday, I did something that I rarely ever do: I watched the pilots of two new TV shows. Part of this was thanks to the realization that with a new series, I can watch just one episode and get a blog post out of it. (By contrast, I still have the entire fourth season to finish before I feel qualified to write anything about Breaking Bad.) I was also intrigued by these two particular shows, but for very different reasons. One is Touch, from Heroes creator Tim Kring, a writer best known for blowing up his own fanbase while running his previous show into the ground. The other is Luck, from David Milch and Michael Mann, two erratic geniuses whose best impulses are hard to distinguish from their worst, but whose involvement in any project is inherently exciting. And while I predictably liked one show far more than the other, both have interesting things to say about the pitfalls of trying to create good, reasonably intelligent television for a large popular audience.

Believe it or not, I was looking forward to Touch, and not just for the chance to hear Kiefer Sutherland say “Dammit!” again. While most of the reviews were negative or skeptical, they grudgingly granted that the show displayed a certain structural ingenuity, or, to quote Ryan McGee of the AV Club: “This is extremely well-made schlock.” Unfortunately, Touch turns out to be the kind of show that wants us to be intrigued by the Fibonacci sequence without ever explaining why. It supplies one of those narratives, familiar from movies like Babel, that present elaborate webs of coincidence as a reflection of how the world really works. The trouble with both Touch and Babel is that by the end, we aren’t looking at any version of reality, but at a system of contrivance developed by the screenplay. The show revolves around an autistic boy who can allegedly see the uncanny patterns underlying all of reality, but ultimately, he’s just privy to Kring’s script notes. The result is a slickly made show that is content to seem smart on the most superficial level possible.

To its credit, Luck takes the opposite approach: this is a genuinely intelligent show that doesn’t seem to care much about holding the audience’s hand. This doesn’t mean that it’s impenetrable. Some of the early buzz about the show’s alleged incomprehensibility made it sound like Mann and Milch were adapting Finnegans Wake, but this is simply a show that rewards close attention, and perhaps multiple viewings. (I ended up watching the first twenty minutes twice, and I’m glad I did.) Like many previous outings from Mann and Milch, it’s steeped in the arcana of a complex, mostly masculine world, in this case that of horse racing, and one of the show’s pleasures is its confidence that the viewer will pick up most of this material on the fly. It’s true that much of it seems obscure at first, but it isn’t because, as with Touch, that there’s no greater depth to be found: there’s just a lot going on here, and if we occasionally need to consult a cheat sheet, it’s a small price to pay.

As it happens, the two pilots have a plot point in common—a winning lottery ticket, or its equivalent—and it’s instructive to consider the radically different approaches they take. Touch has a lottery ticket that’s basically a callback to Lost: a string of mystical numbers that win on a particular day simply because the script requires it. Luck, by contrast, takes us through the details of a $2.6 million pick six ticket to the point where we can understand the strategy behind each choice, until the outcome, while in some ways equally contrived, feels inevitable. That’s the difference between these two shows: drill down at any point with Luck, and you uncover a whole world of texture, information, and experience, while any attempt to dig deeper with Touch just gives you Tim Kring and his laptop. And the funny thing is that both shows essentially succeed at what they’re trying to do—which should remind us that in television, as in life, you only win as much as you’re willing to risk.

Written by nevalalee

January 31, 2012 at 10:15 am

Quote of the Day

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January 31, 2012 at 8:00 am

The deceptive simplicity of The Artist

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Over the weekend, my wife and I finally saw Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist, the loving homage to silent film that has unexpectedly become the movie to beat at the Oscars. It isn’t hard to see why: this is one of those cinematic stunts, like Memento, that has to be done exceptionally well in order to be done at all, and from its opening scene, with the hero of a silent melodrama insisting to his captors that he’ll never talk, you know that this is a movie blessed with an abundance of ideas. Nearly every scene contains some kind of inspired visual or structural gag, from loving recreations of classic silent comedy routines to nods to Citizen Kane and Singin’ In the Rain, as well as the predictably clever, but still amusing, use of surprise sound effects. It’s so blissfully inventive, in fact, that while I was watching it, I did something I haven’t done in a long time, at least for a movie not made by Pixar: I settled in happily to see what it would do next.

It’s a little surprising, then, to realize that while the movie lavishes so much care on its individual scenes, the overall story is cheerfully formulaic. With a few small exceptions, the story unfolds precisely as we expect, tracing the rise of one star and the fall of another with a literalness that makes A Star is Born seem like the height of sophistication. Unlike the silent films to which it pays tribute, which often had a loose, anarchic sense of story, The Artist follows the Syd Field structure to the point where it’s almost anachronistic. With its neat division into three acts, complete with false crisis, real crisis, and all the other obligatory beats, this is a film that will be studied in screenwriting courses until the end of time, but perhaps not for the right reasons. The execution is seamless, and not without its pleasures, but it still left me wishing for more in the way of real suspense or surprise.

Later, however, I began to wonder if this apparent simplicity is more complex than it seems. For one thing, it was probably impossible for a film like The Artist, which asks so much of a modern audience, to tell anything but the simplest, most classic story. As I’ve said before, when a movie pushes complexity in one direction, it often has to give way in another, which is why the characters in a film like Inception, for instance, can seem so schematic: push complexity in every direction, and you risk of losing the audience entirely. In some respects, then, the classic structure of the plot of The Artist is as much of a stunt as its obvious technical feats. The movie is a clockwork device that has been cut away to show us its inner workings: even as its story plays on our emotions, it invites us to see how it does it. In that respect, it does what the third act of Adaptation tried valiantly but unsuccessfully to do, which is to comment on the nature of formula while working as a story as well.

Or perhaps I’m giving Hazanavicius too much credit. There’s one revealing moment, in fact, where The Artist is too clever for its own good, which is in its use of five minutes of the Bernard Herrmann score from Vertigo. While I don’t feel as strongly about this as Kim Novak apparently does, I agree with Todd McCarthy of the Hollywood Reporter: “It yanks you out of one film and places you in the mindset of another.” It isn’t quite a fatal misstep, but it’s a questionable one, especially when The Artist doesn’t engage the music in any interesting way: as an homage, it’s on the level of one of those novelty reels, with the music from Psycho spliced over a romantic interlude, that the Oscars uses every few years to demonstrate the power of music. Although Hazanavicius quickly recovers, with an inspired title card gag, it makes us wonder for a moment if he’s as smart as he seems. Which is too bad, because the rest of The Artist is the work of a director who is manifestly as smart as they come.

Written by nevalalee

January 30, 2012 at 10:41 am

Quote of the Day

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January 30, 2012 at 8:00 am

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“Cut boldly!”

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The tale is that Accius, or Attus Navius, a Roman augur, opposed the king Tarquin the Elder, who wished to double the number of senators. Tarquin, to throw ridicule on the angur, sneered at his pretensions of augury, and asked him if he could do what was then in his thoughts. “Undoubtedly,” replied Navius; and Tarquin with a laugh, said, “Why, I was thinking whether I could cut through this whetstone with a razor.” “Cut boldly,” cried Navius, and the whetstone was cleft in two.

E. Cobham Brewer, The Dictionary of Phrase and Fable

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January 29, 2012 at 10:00 am

A few simple rules from George Orwell

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1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive voice where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”

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January 28, 2012 at 10:00 am

Six weeks and counting…

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With less than six weeks remaining until the publication of The Icon Thief, I’ve been abruptly immersed in the details of initial print runs, bookstore placement, and other publishing arcana. The signs so far are good—my publisher has given the novel a commendable push, and I’m really happy with the level of support I’ve seen so far—but obviously there’s no way of knowing what the result will be until the book actually goes on sale. In the meantime, I’ve been doing my best to keep my head down, working on the outline of The Scythian and a few other writing projects, and trying not to obsessively check the rankings on my Amazon page. (In the meantime, I can distract myself with my missing copies of Darwin and Marx, which arrived in the mail this week.)

One bright spot has been an early hint of the potential critical response to the book, and it’s a good one: a starred review in Publishers Weekly, which appeared unexpectedly last Friday. I won’t be posting every review that the book receives, but I thought I’d make an exception in this case: although a review in PW probably isn’t quite as influential as it used to be, it’s still seen, rightly or wrongly, as a harbinger of the book’s prospects, and so a positive notice here is very encouraging. (If nothing else, it may prompt other reviewers to give the novel a closer look as review copies go out next month.) And if a “cerebral, exciting debut” sounds good to you, well, apparently there’s a book coming out soon you might like.

Written by nevalalee

January 27, 2012 at 9:31 am

Posted in Books, Publishing

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