Friday, August 22, 2014
Last weekend, Erin and I caught up with our old friends The Polyphonic Spree at the Duck Room — a basement club here in St. Louis. We caught the massive group at the same place in 2012, and it was amazing to watch them cram so many people onto a small stage. Frontman Tim DeLaughter brought 14 to town on Saturday for a thrilling show that barely missed a beat. The Polyphonic Spree should be playing theaters; their sound is designed for that type of venue. Even so, the club setting works surprisingly well and brings an intimacy that you wouldn’t expect from such a large act. After breaking out in the early 2000s, The Polyphonic Spree have become more of a cult band with a smaller but dedicated fan base. This brings immediacy to their shows that you don’t feel with more popular artists.
Connecting this subject to movies, it’s easy to wish for a larger audience to see our favorite gems instead of the latest blockbuster. That idea doesn’t work for several reasons, however. A film like Snowpiercer is epic but too offbeat to work for the masses. If it was designed to draw huge crowds, it would probably be less inventive. There are exceptions to this rule. From what I’ve heard, Guardians of the Galaxy finds a common ground between originality and mainstream appeal. That’s pretty rare, however. Another challenge is keeping us from growing numb to the hype. Boyhood is a niche film, but I can’t go anywhere online without hearing raves about it. The hyperbole is way over the top, even if it’s one of the year’s best films. I’m not a person who wants to keep the sleepers to myself, but there’s the other side of the coin when our beloved little film becomes something else entirely.
Here are some interesting blogs and podcasts that are worth your time:
Ryan McNeil of The Matinee took the long trip to Missouri last week to visit our baseball stadiums. On Thursday, it was great to meet up with him in St. Louis at a local establishment. Ryan also hosts The Matineecast, and his latest episode with guest Adriana Floridia covered a trio of interesting films. Along with Woody Allen’s new release Magic in the Moonlight, they discussed The Brothers Bloom and Certified Copy. The two older titles are both intriguing films, and Ryan and Adriana did an excellent job delving into them.
The meet-up with Ryan also was the first time that I met fellow St. Louis resident John LaRue, who writes at The Droid You’re Looking For. A few weeks ago, John put together the “Seven Reasons to Go to the Drive-in”. I have fond memories of visiting drive-in theaters as a kid, and he explains why we should be giving those places more attention. There aren’t too many left anymore, but that doesn’t mean they’re obsolete. Beyond the nostalgia of visiting an old-school theater, they’re also a great value!
Amazon will premiere a new group of pilots next Thursday, including The Cosmopolitans from the wonderful Whit Stillman. It’s been on my radar for months and easily ranks as the most anticipated piece of pop culture on the horizon. Stillman directed three witty gems in the ‘90s but didn’t return to feature films until 2012’s Damsels in Distress. I love all four movies, and this new project seems right up my alley. It stars Chloe Sevigny, who starred in Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco back in 1998. Adam Brody and Carrie MacLemore from his last film also appear in this show about young Americans in Paris. This behind-the-scenes preview from Indiewire gives more details on this exciting potential series. I’ll be promoting the heck out of it next week and will post a review on Thursday night.
The awful situation in Ferguson has continued this week, and this community will be feeling the impact for a long time. There have been many intelligent pieces written about the aftermath, and one of the best is from Omer M. Mozaffar at Roger Ebert.com. His article “Ferguson, Missouri: Third World America vs. Atlas Shrugged” looks at the very different reactions to Michael Brown’s death and places them in the context of our history. Mozaffar reminds us there’s no easy answer and introduces questions that will be front and center in this country in the near future.
I’ll close with a reminder of one of Robin Williams’ greatest roles as a grieving widow in Homicide: Life on the Street’s “Bop Gun”. David Simon recalls in “Robin Williams: A Brief Encounter” how that episode saved the show during its brief four-episode second season. The ratings were not good, despite massive critical acclaim. Back in 1994, it was extremely rare to have a movie star of Williams’ caliber appear on a network drama. His most recent film at the time was the massive hit Mrs. Doubtfire. Simon’s anecdotes about taking Williams to see The Nutshell Studies and then watching him do an impromptu comic riff on set are fascinating. These moments reveal so much about a guy that could make us laugh while struggling every day. Here’s an excerpt from Simon’s wonderful post:
“His performance in that Homicide episode was brilliant and thorough, and when broadcast, the ratings assured that the NBC drama would run another five years. Yesterday, after the news broke, Jim Yoshimura wrote to me his sadness and reflected on the fact that he would be a starving playwright now or worse if not for Robin Williams. Me, I’d be on a newspaper copy desk somewhere. David Mills, too, would have departed this vale as something other than a dramatist. All of our lives turned because a very rare and talented man came to Baltimore for a week and a half to film a television episode.”
Thursday, August 21, 2014
My daughter Elise is five years old, and she’s fallen for the normal movies that kids love like Frozen and Despicable Me. Neither is her favorite, however. Her first choice is Mary Poppins, and the fandom is showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon. I’ve seen it many times without even trying, and it’s an entertaining movie. The 139-minute running time feels too long, and certain sequences lag on repeat viewings. Even so, my favorite shot doesn’t arrive until the final act. Last year’s Saving Mr. Banks made the case that what cracked the mystery for Walt Disney was discovering that Mary Poppins hadn’t come to save the children. That story line doesn’t take hold for much of the movie. It’s the final visit to the bank for Mr. Banks (David Tomlinson) that sells that point. His son incited a riot earlier by refusing to deposit his tuppence there, and it’s time for his dad to face the music. The once-proud employee knows he’s getting fired, and he mournfully walks to the bank.
Mary Poppins – Directed by Robert Stevenson; Starring Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, David Tomlinson, Glynis Johns, Karen Dotrice, and Matthew Garber
The pivotal shot happens when Banks enters the bank and sees his bosses waiting. It’s a gigantic room that dwarfs the little guy, who seems nonexistent. The set design feels more like Citizen Kane than a Disney musical. The stern bankers sit at the far end of the shot and also look tiny, yet they’re an imposing force at the end of his journey. The room is unnaturally large, and there’s little reason for them to meet in such a massive space. The red colors make the place Banks’ own version of hell, which he must endure to reach his salvation. This feels like the most depressing moment in the film, but it’s actually uplifting because it sets him up to succeed. Banks realizes that trying to please these petty guys is pointless. Mr. Dawes Senior (Dick Van Dyke under heavy makeup) is a relic of a different time, and his compassion is gone. When he finally enjoys a joke, it’s too much for his body to bear. The death is a strange moment yet corresponds to Banks’ own resurrection.
The build-up to this pivotal moment does a great job in setting the stage for this scene. Bert (Van Dyke again) gives Banks a subtle push towards realizing he’s a bad father. His song appears to encourage the guy about his current road, but it really helps to reveal his shortcomings. A man who sang earlier that “tradition, discipline, and rules must be the tools” starts to realize it’s a sham. If he doesn’t let it go and enjoy life, he’ll waste the precious time with the kids. He’s been doing the wrong things in hopes of running a proper household, but it means little without enjoying it. Bert knows exactly what he’s doing and is finishing the touchdown drive that Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews) initiated. Fitting lines about the children like "And all too soon they've up and grown and then they've flown, and it's too late for you to give" are phrased just the right way to push him forward. Despite their efforts, Banks needs to be the one who takes the last steps towards a different life.
One masterful use of the longer running time is not cutting from the house to the arrival at the bank. Instead, we spend time with Banks while he walks to his execution. It’s a mournful scene, yet there’s a hope that the guy who rarely listens finally understands his predicament at home. Banks needs the walls of his perfectly constructed façade to crash down around him. I love Peter Ellenshaw’s gorgeous matte paintings of London, which create the perfect backdrop for the story. They sell the fantasy yet maintain a connection with reality like the overall film. The shots from the rooftops during “Chim Chim Cher-ee” give the city such an elegant and romantic feeling. This atmosphere helps to lift the movie beyond similar Disney films of the time period. The music wouldn’t work as well in a more generic setting.
It’s been surprising to catch up with Mary Poppins as an adult and recognize parts that I missed as a kid. The animated sequences with the talking penguins and horse race are fun, yet it’s the emotional through line that pulls me today. When an excited Banks dances around the house and sings “Let’s Go Fly a Kite”, it’s an earned happy ending. I can’t help but smile, and the reason is that we’ve experienced his transformation. Mary Poppins gives the kids fun memories, but her presence truly saves Mr. Banks. David Tomlinson can play the goofball, especially in a movie like The Love Bug. His considerable stage work also helps him to sell the emotions. The story takes some extended detours, but it succeeds because it mixes fun and poignant moments. That combination is hard to pull off in a family film, but my favorite sequence hits all the right notes and delivers a remarkable film.
Wednesday, August 20, 2014
The racism of 1870s America rarely gets a mention in the nearly all-white Deadwood beyond a few cracks about Mr. Wu (Keone Young). He takes center stage this week and forces people to let their feelings about the Chinese residents be known. Some are not kind, especially Tolliver. When an angry Wu steps through the front door and into the Gem, the guys inside regard him like an alien. Barking out “Swearegen!” repeatedly, he’s going to be heard regardless of what they think. The impetus for the visit is the killing and robbery of one of his men, who delivers drugs to Swearengen. Someone must answer for the crime, and the culprit should face the pigs. The conversation between Wu and Swearengen provides great comedy since they share few words ("cocksucker!"). Despite the stakes in play, it’s an amusing look at an outsider who demands respect despite the societal forces against him.
Season 1, Episode 10
Directed by Daniel Minahan
Written by Bryan McDonald
Despite everyone’s claims that the government posts mean nothing, it’s not a surprise to see people taking on their roles. Bullock can’t help but get interested in public health; he’s that kind of guy. Farnum walks around like the king of the town as the mayor. William Sanderson is such a perfect comic sidekick to Swearengen. The boss’ clear direction to “steal none of this money” is priceless. On a related note, Deadwood seems a lot more crowded since the deal with the Sioux happened. Is this town big enough for all these folks? The masses of people in the breakfast area at the hotel are out of control. This influx should be great for local businesses, but it’s sure to lead to new challenges down the road. It’s harder to keep a grip on power when the population keeps growing all around you.
Titus Welliver has such a powerful screen presence, even when he’s playing quiet guys like Silas Adams. It’s hard to make this cast any better, yet he still brings such an interesting vibe to the mix. Welliver and Ian McShane play off each other so well and could form a strong partnership. Swearengen recognizes a kindred spirit and lets Adams join him while he resolves the Wu situation. He needs a right-hand man with more smarts than Dority, who’s effective as a straight-up killer. Adams works for the corrupt magistrate who’s bribing Swearengen, so there’s a risk in trusting him. He’s finding Tolliver more frustrating with each passing day. His limited thinking and inability to recognize the importance of allies creates problems. He’s also looking to grab power for himself and doesn’t want to share with Swearengen. This experience has revealed Tolliver’s real plans to take out his biggest rival.
If there is a tipping point in my thoughts about the Reverend, it happens this week. He’s the show’s least interesting character and gets way too much screen time. The one benefit is getting to see a new side of Swearengen, who’s uncomfortable with the guy in the Gem. I’m guessing there will be an interesting end for the Reverend, but we’re seeing the same things too often. I’ve also been a little disappointed in Ricky Jay as Eddie Sawyer. His plans to steal from Tolliver seem unwise, especially given their boss’ vindictive nature. Helping Joanie Stubbs escape is a nice gesture, but Sawyer better understand the risks. Tolliver enjoys inflicting pain, and their history won’t mean a thing.
In a different realm is Swearengen, who rigs the game to take out his own man. He’s concerned with maintaining power, and few benefit from a war with Tolliver. Adams wisely points out the possibility that the Bella Union leader is goading Swearengen into a fight. Jimmy Irons has no chance to come out of the bathhouse alive. This leaves the weasel Leon (Larry Cedar) alive and ready to do anything for Tolliver. Watching Swearengen drown a man with little remorse is chilling but not as shocking given his dilemma. This murder shows Adams his willingness to make the tough choice. It takes a guy who’s willing to do the dirty work to keep his power. It's interesting to connect this killing with Tolliver's murder of Flora and Myles. Despite the fact that Swearengen is taking out his own guy, it feels less sadistic. He needs a body to preserve his relationship with Wu, and Tolliver has him trapped. Their day of reckoning will come, but this move postpones it for a while.
Tuesday, August 19, 2014
I've spent a lot of time watching Disney films, but I knew little about their work supporting the war effort until a few years ago. Todd Liebenow of Forgotten Films was doing a series on forgotten Disney releases, and it gave me the opportunity to explore that blind spot. I wrote about the remarkable short film Education for Death, a powerful piece of propaganda about the way Hitler corrupts the German youth. Since that time, I've caught up with other examples from that era, including Der Fuhrer's Face and Reason and Emotion. I covered those titles yesterday, and both show interesting ways that Disney sold the war. Neither has the same ultimate impact at Education for Death, however. It packs quite a punch. With Todd's permission, I've included my 2012 review here of this surprising 1943 short film.
Education for Death: The Making of a Nazi – Directed by Clyde Geronimi
One of the lesser-known periods of Walt Disney’s career is his work producing films for the government and armed forces during World War II. The company was reeling financially despite the huge success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937. Disney used his most recognizable animated characters like Donald Duck to promote the war effort at home. Some of these short films were designed more for comedy, while others went further and took a more serious route to attack Hitler’s regime. Some of these pictures remain stunning today, especially when you consider the source. Disney’s movies and theme parks are successful because they masterfully deliver a specific message and feeling. His propaganda films were no different and remind us of his tremendous artistic and intellectual talents.
One of the prime examples is Education for Death: The Making of a Nazi, a 1943 release that depicts the ways Hitler’s regime indoctrinates kids from an early age. Based on a book of the same name by Gregory Ziemer, this 10-minute short provides a series of remarkable shots that strike at our hearts. Legendary animator Ward Kimball drives home the message with striking juxtapositions of characters in each frame. The shot of small boys giving the Hitler salute is effective and clearly delineates the point of this film. Director Clyde Geronimi is trying to show how the enemy is doing more than corrupting its adult citizens. They’re basically taking over their lives at birth and never letting go. The main character is a boy named Hans, and his parents must prove they’re pure Aryans right after he arrives. He never has a chance to do anything but serve Hitler and prepare for war. The shadow of the Nazi looms over them and takes up most of the screen as he grabs control of Hans’ life.
Art Smith narrates the story, which includes German dialogue and no subtitles. This is another purposeful move to avoid humanizing the Nazis by giving them clear communication. Having a narrator ensures there’s no doubt about the point of each shot. When Hans grows sick, the footage of his mom with her son reminds us there are humans living under Hitler. While they’re shot warmly, the Nazi soldier is presented like a monster ready to devour Hans. Smith calls him a “superman”, and his giant shadow fits with that over-the-top image of the villain. His teacher looks more like a regular guy, but he’s also a huge man who gets more imposing when Hans counteracts his message. He also ridicules the boy in front of the class — a clever way to show how peer pressure drives the German populace.
There are attempts at comedy with the much-different version of Sleeping Beauty that’s reportedly told to Nazi children. This is the only misstep of the movie and could easily have been removed. The joke of the very fat German woman and a goofball Hitler doesn’t work, and it takes Smith’s narration to explain the point. It’s a fairly short sequence and stands out because it feels tacked onto a generally convincing production. It seems designed solely to retain audiences who need generic comedy to stay focused. Once we exit this interlude, the remainder stays grim and on point.
The most convincing sequence is the final act, which shows Hans accepting and becoming a full member of the Nazi army. The hellish scene of book burning is enhanced when the Bible morphs into Mein Kempf. We also see the crucifix being replaced with a sword as the violent carnage ensues. While Hans quickly grows up and becomes completely shackled, it’s setting us up for the final shocker. The image of a row of gravestones as far as the eye can see is a definitive mission statement for the movie. Disney and the U.S. Government paint Hitler as a madman leading his people to ultimate destruction. It’s a classic piece of propaganda that creates a hyper reality from the worst elements of the Nazi regime. It might seem out of character for casual Disney fans, but they don’t really know the company’s namesake that well. He was a politically motivated guy who had more on his mind than creating fantasy. Education for Death is a surprising example from his past that is forgotten or unseen by most viewers. It’s a classic example of war-time propaganda and the rampant possibilities of the animated medium.
Monday, August 18, 2014
I recently finished Mark Harris’ intriguing book Five Came Back, which documents five directors’ experiences supporting the military during World War II. Some were directly involved in propaganda films, which others were focused on depicting what it felt like on the front lines. It seems crazy to think of modern filmmakers risking their lives and postponing their careers for a war. It was a much different time in the 1940s. The stakes were so high, and the battle to control the message was pivotal. That fight still happens today in the TV and online media landscape. Harris didn’t choose Walt Disney as a subject for his book, but he also played an important part in selling the war.
The On the Front Lines DVD release from the Walt Disney Treasures collection offers a wide range of remarkable material from that effort. Some were pretty hard to locate before this 2004 release, and they give a stunning look at effective propaganda. Two years ago, I discussed Education for Death in a guest post for Forgotten Films’ series on forgotten Disney movies. It’s a brutal look at the ways Hitler is leading the German people to their deaths. In this post, I’m focusing on two of the most interesting shorts — Der Fuhrer’s Face and Reason and Emotion. Both aim to deliver a similar message and paint the Nazis as cruel automatons who’ve forgotten the traits that make them human.
Der Fuhrer’s Face (1943) – Directed by Jack Kinney
One brilliant way that Disney made their points about the war was using familiar characters the audience loved. Donald Duck first appeared in 1934’s The Wise Little Hen and had already become a favorite by the start of the war. He starred in many short films to help this country sell the conflict and demonize Germany. The most famous example is Der Fuhrer’s Face, which depicts a terrible scenario of being a Nazi solider. Donald must constantly salute pictures of Hitler and work feverishly to help their cause. The ridiculous opening of Nazis marching to the Oliver Wallace title song sets the comic mood. They’re presented as large and misshapen guys with no warm characteristics to connect with the audience. Even the chickens must salute constantly, and there’s no fun in this single-minded totalitarian state.
Donald works at a factory that resembles hell with monstrous-looking machines controlling the action. Directions come from off-screen soldiers represented by knives to remove their personality. He battles an assembly line of bullets that keeps increasing his speed; it’s essentially the famous I Love Lucy chocolate episode. Donald’s vacation is looking at a photo of the Alps for a moment, and he’s immediately thrust back to work. The life of a Nazi solider shown here is pure hell and leads to madness. Donald enters a surreal nightmare with bullets and other objects saluting Hitler. There are plenty of laughs, yet they come from painting the enemy as a caricature. It’s a brilliant way to make them look utterly ridiculous.
It’s still amazing to consider the Donald we have today playing a Nazi, even in a propaganda film. The final scene reveals everything as a terrible nightmare, but the images remain. Donald wakes up in an American flag outfit and hugs the Statue of Liberty; could the point be any clearer? If that wasn’t enough, his last line is “Am I glad to be a citizen of the United States of America!” This ending nails home the contrast between our freedom and the German war machine. It blatantly makes the case yet disguises it behind a comic tale of Donald in a strange land. It's no surprise that it took home the Oscar.
Reason and Emotion (1943) – Directed by Bill Roberts
Another route to win the information fight was educating the public on how to react to bad news. Reason and Emotion takes a roundabout path to nail home the point that fear is our enemy. We may hear about losses, but we shouldn’t worry about the “Nazi superman”. That message comes at the end after a presentation on the conflict between the two sides of our brain. We begin inside a baby’s mind, where emotion pushes reason aside. The caveman inside each of us is dominant in the undeveloped brain. When we get older, our rational thoughts gain control. They’re represented by a well-dressed guy driving our mental processes. Of course, all it takes is an attractive woman to change the dominating force. The caveman is ready to act and go back to the simple emotions of a baby.
It’s a simple point that might be convincing if it wasn’t for the blatant sexism on display. The guy is shown as having a one-track mind obsessed with sex, and it gets even worse when we enter the woman’s mind. Her emotional side wants to eat a giant sandwich and chase down the guy. The rational part explains her case by stressing the importance for women to not get fat. We’re veering pretty far away from the main points. I realize it was a different era, but it’s still jarring to watch such an unfortunate look at gender dynamics. It’s played for comedy yet sticks with young longer than the war propaganda. The key theme is less impactful at the end despite the triumphant imagery about a future victory. It’s an intriguing look at a different way to present the message, despite the murky road to get there.
Interested in Disney? Check out my page compiling my writing about their movies and rides.
Friday, August 15, 2014
It’s been a difficult week to think positive thoughts about our future. Here in St. Louis, we’re seeing the dark side with footage of destruction and police brutality in Ferguson. The anger at a questionable shooting makes sense, but violence is harder to understand. Watching police treat the situation like a military conflict is equally troubling. I’ve seen friends risk their lives to cover the story for the St. Louis Post Dispatch and face serious danger. I recognize that it’s a complicated situation with seeds of anger growing over many years. This is hardly the first example, but it feels different because it’s close to home. My former workplace was a short drive from Ferguson, so I’m familiar with that area. It’s easy to criticize people everyone involved, but it’s hardly that simple. How close are we to utter chaos?
My daughter started kindergarten this week, and I was thrilled to watch her take this next step. I’ve been thinking a lot about the kind of world she’ll see. We live in a divided political country with an uneven economy that isn’t getting much better. I understand that we’re hardly alone in having challenges. Turning on the news for even a few minutes is all it takes to remind us about the conflicts in Israel and Iraq, and there are many other examples. Violence and struggles have been around since the dawn of recorded history. Of course, I can only directly compare this environment to my own experiences. The Internet gives us close access to what’s happening minutes after it’s occurred, and journalists place us right into the stories. This perspective is amazing, but it doesn’t allow us to push the troubling events from our minds. They’re right in front of us with no end in sight.
This week also saw the death by suicide of Robin Williams, who struggled with depression. Following the loss of Phillip Seymour Hoffman, it makes me wonder about the fine line between gregarious performers and troubled souls. I realize that both situations are very different, and the similarities mostly involve the affection they received from audiences. Williams intrigued me when he explored dark, anti-social characters in films like Insomnia and One-Hour Photo. He also was magnetic as a psychologist whose life was shattered by loss in Good Will Hunting. Williams brought a similar tragic sadness to a grieving father who watched his wife die in front of him in Homicide: Life on the Street’s “Bop Gun”. He could deliver great comedy, but these examples show a complicated man who understood these characters. Going to the darkness wasn’t difficult because he’d faced it in his personal life.
This week’s posts focus only on the Ferguson situation and Robin Williams, and there are plenty of interesting stories on both subjects:
I’ll start with the story of David Carson, a photographer for the St. Louis Post Dispatch who’s been covering the situation in Ferguson. This story documents his experiences and gives a first-hand look at both his courage and a chaotic environment. Dave’s a friend so I have a personal interest in this story, but it’s definitely a gripping read for anyone. You should also follow him on Twitter to catch his remarkable photos and get an up-close look from a journalist in the middle of everything.
After the initial shock of the riots, what’s been stunning is the behavior of police towards journalists and citizens engaged in nonviolent protests. It’s a complicated situation, and there are dangerous individuals out there. However, there’s a militaristic feeling to the way the cops have treated the situation. Alex Kane’s post on Bill Moyers’ site gives many examples of the evolution of a force set up to “protect and serve” the people. Titled “Not Just Ferguson: 11 Eye-Opening Facts About America’s Militarized Police Forces”, it should be essential reading for anyone questioning what’s changed with police tactics.
Another great example in a similar vein actually comes from Battlestar Galactica, which effectively shined a light back on our society. Devin Faraci at Badass Digest prints a fitting quote from William Adama that says quite a lot about the current state in Ferguson. He makes a convincing case that it’s living proof of this comment, especially when tear gas and questionable arrests come into play.
It seems like an odd transition to go from this discussion to recollections about Robin Williams’ career. There’s really no connection beyond everything happening during a single week. Despite being known as an over-the-top comedian, Williams made a huge impact on so many people’s lives. Alex Withrow of And So It Begins… talks about “Robin Williams and the Look That Changed My Life”. It’s a revelatory and emotional post that says a lot about what Williams could bring on screen in the right role. Alex consistently does great writing on his site, and this is one of his best pieces.
Christy Lemire offers another personal experience of seeing Good Will Hunting on Christmas Day just 10 days after the her mother’s death. His performance connected with so many and brings such heart of to the film. Her description of Williams as a “constant and reliable force” feels right. Even when he veered into less exciting comic material, he always gave it his all and found points of brilliance in the mix.
Matt Zoller Seitz does an excellent job summarizing Wiliams’ career in an obituary at Roger Ebert.com. He mentions roles that I barely remember like his brief appearance in Dead Again and illuminates so much about what made him so memorable. I’ll close with this quote from Seitz on the contradictions between Williams’ role in front of the camera and away from it:
“That was the most surprising and often haunting thing about Williams: that sense that when he unleashed the full force of his talent—chasing a spark of inspiration as it hopped from neural pathway to neural pathway like a speed-demon driver changing lanes; rattling off free-associative thoughts that were sometimes connected by shared words or images or vowel sounds; pacing or racing while yammering and gesturing as if his whole being were taking dictation from his subconscious—he was reaching out to the audience and running away from something.”
Thursday, August 14, 2014
It’s been remarkable to watch the change in our perception of television drama during my lifetime, especially lately. Once considered a minor league for actors waiting to become movie stars, it’s become a haven for filmmakers seeking more artistic freedom. This is especially true on cable, and more networks keep creating original content. Sundance made quite a splash with Top of the Lake, which earned great acclaim including a Golden Globe for star Elisabeth Moss. Its creative force is Jane Campion, who made her name directing films like The Piano and The Portrait of a Lady. Her early career included TV work, but she hadn’t worked in that landscape since 1990’s An Angel at My Table. Her movie experience shows in this gorgeous miniseries, though cracks start appearing by the conclusion.
Top of the Lake – Directed by Jane Campion and Garth Davis; Written by Jane Campion and Gerard Lee; Starring Elisabeth Moss, Thomas M. Wright, Peter Mullan, David Wenham, Holly Hunter, and Jaqueline Joe
This six-hour miniseries tackles enough subjects for a full TV season, though it’s refreshing to watch them resolved with a shorter period. Detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) goes through so much while investigating the disappearance of 12-year-old Tui (Jaqueline Joe). Did she run away or face the wrath of the unborn baby’s dad? Her fear of her powerful father Matt Mitchem (Peter Mullan) and his unwieldy behavior raises questions about his culpability in everything. Could he really treat his daughter that way? Matt’s clearly working outside the law, but few people are that evil. This story takes place in the fictional town of Lake Top, New Zealand, and the striking landscape offers a perfect backdrop for this dramatic tale. It makes the conflicts seem more epic and brings majesty to every new twist.
The early episodes are driven by the mystery and get more compelling with each added layer. Robin is doing more than searching for Tui and the truth. She’s dealing with the impact of resurrected memories from a horrible rape as a teenager. Her growing relationship with Johnno (Thomas M. Wright) is complicated by his presence at that event and the fact that Matt is his father. There may be too much history for Robin to even live in Lake Top. Moss does an excellent job showing the anger that’s boiling due to connections between Tui’s case and her own past. She’s able to sell inexplicable decisions by her character that would be laughable in lesser hands. Her scenes with Peter Mullan are filled with tension because both actors bring such a commitment to their very different characters.
What's surprising is the way the Tui story moves into the background during the middle episodes. Nearly everyone thinks she's dead, and Robin has more to face than this case. Seeing one of the guys who raped her is just too much to take. Who can blame her? This isn't the last moment that brings her down either. Matt has another reveal that could drastically alter her perspective on her life. We also spend a lot of time getting to know his eccentricities. Mulan sells every one of them, yet it pulls us further away from the main plot. The less-centered approach can work in the right case, and there are interesting scenes that barely connect to the search for Tui. That isn't the case across the board, however.
The challenges start to arrive in the second half and create too many loose threads for the finale to handle. The slow-burn approach brings elegance to the opening three hours that’s hard to sustain when the action intensifies. What’s strange is how the story becomes less interesting when the revelations arrive. Were my expectations too high because of the compelling beginning? It’s interesting that the same elements that were so intriguing eventually become frustrating. Holly Hunter’s GJ starts a colony for women called “Paradise”, yet she’s almost living in a different world from everyone else. Key characters arrive at this lakeside retreat, so she’s hardly inconsequential. Even so, there’s such a distance with her character that it’s hard to make a connection. Campion spends a lot of time with the women at Paradise that are facing their own troubling past. It’s interesting fodder for drama, yet it never really meshes with the main story in a cohesive manner.
What makes evaluating this project difficult is recognizing the missteps within quality material. The gorgeous cinematography and powerhouse acting nearly push those questions to the background. Even so, it’s too easy to marvel at the production and miss the issues. David Wenham plays Robin’s boss Al, who adores her yet subverts her investigation behind the scenes. He’s clearly trouble and even invites Matt on a boat for a dangerous moment that could lead to her death. What’s odd is that this scene isn’t referenced in her future scenes with Al. Robin’s self-destructive behavior makes sense when you consider her history, but she isn’t dumb. There’s another sequence where Robin and Johnno are chasing a friend of Tui’s and nearly locate her hideout. Instead of pursuing him, they start having sex in the woods, while two creepy onlookers start filming them. This detour feels more like a plot device to keep them away from Tui than any natural progression.
I cite these examples not to nitpick but to explain why it doesn’t falls short as a cohesive narrative. There are other moments where characters behave inexplicably, and it takes you out of the story. These issues are exacerbated in the finale, which piles on the reveals and doesn’t have enough time to give them breathing room. The final twist is a shock and subverts much of what we believed was true. There’s nothing wrong with that creative choice, and it holds up to scrutiny. What’s difficult is not allowing closure on the emotional beats the characters deserve. The final scene is a head-scratcher because it puts attention on GJ as a pivotal component of the story. Campion surely feels that she deserves that place because of thematic importance, yet it’s hard to connect with it.
Despite the frustrations, there’s still plenty to like within Top of the Lake. The actors bring such emotion to the material, with Moss and Mulan as stand outs. Campion doesn’t over play the melodrama despite presenting raw emotions and family tragedy. There’s a significant difference between this series and something like The Killing, which wears down the audience with such a dreary environment. There are few laughs within this story, yet it still contains more life than you might expect given the subject matter. The main reasons are the actors and the striking beauty of New Zealand. Shot on location in Queenstown and Glenorchy, the show feels like it occurs in the real world. We never get the sense that it’s happening on a soundstage. The mistake-prone characters rarely have the right answers, and that’s refreshing in a world of brilliant Sherlock Holmes-like detectives. The ultimate result is inconsistent, yet there’s still plenty of interesting drama to make it worth the time.