Westworld debuted this Sunday and if anyone is not familiar this is HBO’s newest big budget extravaganza that they are hoping is going to dovetail into the spot left by Game of Thrones when it concludes in two years. I’ve done episode by episode reviews of the sixth season of that show, which was exhausting but a lot of fun and I wanted to keep that magic going with this new hotness. I even resurrected my GoT ritual of snacking on some fresh baked bread, olive oil and balsamic and a dash of salt and pepper and a glass or four of wine while I watched the premiere episode The Original. I only had one thought at its conclusion. I usually watch these kinds of shows at least twice, once for the ride, a second time for the craft, for the little nuances and thematic…thingies that lurk right below the surface in these types of adult dramas but I haven’t done that yet because of how unsettling the whole experience was.
Undeterred, I jumped on the old QWERTY and tried to put together a generic review with some wacky gifs added along for humorous effect but the whole first effort ground to a halt because, to be completely honest, there is no levity whatsoever in Westworld. It was light years easier to joke around with the subject matter of Game of Thrones which should indicate how much more intense this new show is. “Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?” What a fucked up thing to say to someone, even an android. Just the fact that you’d ask implies that I should and that’s a perfect way to ruin an already crappy Monday morning. If you’re not familiar with the basic premise, Westworld is an amusement park/role playing game populated by nearly perfect humanoid android characters that visitors pay a huge entrance fee to hang out with. There is a narrative to the experience and also, like Fallout or GTA, an open world for you to explore and destroy as you please. You can kill the android ‘hosts’ but you can’t kill other ‘guests’. There is no morality or police or rules. And most disturbingly, the androids don’t know they aren’t real people, which is where the underlying conflict or theme of the show presents itself: if you program a machine to think it’s a real person, at what point does it matter whether or not it was a machine to begin with? At what point does it become something more?
Further, at what point does that machine that believes it’s human get tired of being shot, stabbed, sexually whatevered ad nauseum? And what does that say about the guests who perpetrate said abuse? Is being inhuman to something that is designed to look human a reflection of some dark desires or just innocent fun? I’m dropping more Q-marks than The Riddler over here and that’s why this episode and ultimately, I believe, this show is so very good. It’s intelligent and thought provoking, there is no denying that, but I have a concern that it might be too smart for it’s own good and will not connect with a large enough audience to sustain itself. I am also sincerely curious as to how the show can be extended through an entire season. Somehow I am the only person I currently know who has seen the original film and The Original covers about a third of that story already. I don’t want to spoil anything here but lets just say Michael Crichton is most famous for his other little yarn about an amusement park called The Jurassic Park. Which we know ended with a laugh and a milkshake for all.
One of the most unsettling aspects of the show is the portrayal of the hosts as animatronic robots. The already impressive acting is augmented with subtle digital effects to make them seem just this side of the Uncanny Valley, both believably fake and heartbreakingly real all at once. Because of how effective the performances are it immediately begs the same question of the audience that Bernard Lowe asks of Dolores Abernathy. Are you sure what’s real and what isn’t? And I held my dog a little closer. I almost linked the dog scene from I Am Legend to that sentence but I don’t want to accidentally see it and also I am not a monster. Will Smith is. Speaking of monsters, Ed Harris is a terrifying man. I don’t have anything else, just that that is a true fact and his portrayal of the man in black is going to be legendary. There’s one more character that also deserves acknowledgement and that is Westworld itself. Filmed in the famous and iconic Monument Valley, the cinematography is absolutely breathtaking, and I say that without fear of hyperbole. As a fan of the Western genre in general, this first episode was like landscape pornography. The town as well feels like it would be perfectly at home in another more grounded series, Deadwood a show that was critically lauded but never brought the audience it needed to sustain its budget. But where Deadwood was bleak and filthy and real, Westworld is more…I guess the word is lush, it’s more of a fictional take on what the Old West looked like.
There is a lot of nudity in Westworld and I’m expecting the same observations to surface about HBO and it’s rampant sexposition. But presenting the hosts as nude during their interrogation sequences is not sexual. More than that, it’s degrading and dehumanizing, I think it serves to keep a distance between the engineers and employees of the park to prevent them from viewing the androids as anything other than objects. There is definitely sexuality in the park itself but that’s just human nature. I mentioned once about a similarly themed film Ex Machina that answers the age old question, how long after we invent convincing Artificial Intelligence will we try and have sex with it? According to Alex Garland and, if that AI looks like Alicia Vikander, me, it’s not very long at all in case you were wondering. Westworld is the extension of that question: how long will it take us to create Artificial Intelligence in order to have sex with it. I have a feeling that the sexuality and violence is only going to get worse, and by worse I mean less about titillation and more about the dark corners of the human heart. Supposedly there are four or five seasons already planned out ahead of time, which leaves a lot of room for debauchery.
That’s a start, hopefully next weeks episode will shed a little more light on the recurring cast of characters and that mysterious glitch Dolores has at the end of this week but for now there are too many unanswered questions to keep track of. What exactly did her father whisper into her ear? Who is the man in black and what is he even doing? All I know is if someone actually said to me, “Hell is empty and all the devils are here” I don’t care if we are sitting at an IHOP, this is my next move.
I’ll be keeping up on this blog more in the future but likely with more personal or smaller pieces. Until then I will be contributing most of my efforts to Monkey Goose Magazine in various forms. Here’s are a few of my first contributions:
The Return of The X-Files:
Top Of The Lake:
Director Profile- Zach Snyder:
As always, thanks for stopping by.
True Detective is noir. It’s the absence of morality or traditional heroes, it’s flawed idealists struggling to make sense of the world. It’s the place in time when the hero is returned to reality, after battles were fought and won but the war rages on. When the good guys have come and gone and still the demons run amok. This is one of my favorite genres, from Brick, to LA Confidential, and even Sin City, it’s interpreted in different ways but has one common theme running throughout. A flawed protagonist is doing the right thing out of some reflex, some compulsion to right the wrongs of the world if only in one small corner of it, in spite of the inherent futility they all are too aware of, having stared too deeply for too long into the eyes of one devil or another.
Marty: Past a certain age a man without a family… can be a bad thing.
There is a feeling you get when you encounter true art, a sensation that envelopes your mind and quiets the voices that are trying to make sense of the world. It’s what beauty is, it’s order interacting with chaos, it’s a viewpoint into a world that is only accessible in fleeting glimpses. It’s the establishing shots in True Detective, it’s the writing, the directing, the cinematography, the performances. It’s the perfect storm of gifted people giving birth to a vision of nihilism and noir, vanity and viciousness, played out in anthology format; an amalgamation of the bitterness and depravity the world visits on the innocent and the men that unravel trying to make sense of it all.
Hart: You wonder ever if you’re a bad man?
Cohle: No, I don’t wonder, Marty. The world needs bad men. We keep the other bad men from the door.
The truth is Marty Hart and Rust Cohle are not as bad as the men they hunt, but in some ways they are worse, demonstrating time after time a kind of vicious hypocrisy. Where Marty is a self-described victim of the Detective’s Curse, the inability to see the answers when they are in plain view, Rust is a horrifying emotionally detached executor of his own brand of objectivity, a force of nature obsessed with unraveling what he believes is the illusion of the human soul. In this way he is a gifted detective and an interrogator without peer because he ultimately does not see a human being, only pathos and impetus, weakness and fear. It’s these emotions that he draws out with sympathetic, hypnotic platitudes, like infected blood from a guilty heart. Afterwards he is remorseless, unmoved and emotionless again, smoking cigarette after cigarette with the kind of focused intense drags exclusive to smokers who are more interested in the poison than the satisfaction. Marty requires a less complex assessment: he’s a son-of-bitch, a cheater, a classic chauvinist taking his beautiful family for granted and then exploding with insecurity and misogyny when things inevitably fall apart.
Hart: You know the good years when you’re in them, or you just wait for them until you get ass cancer and realize that the good years came and went? Because there’s a feeling – you might notice it sometimes – this feeling like life has slipped through your fingers. Like the future is behind you, …like it’s always been behind you.
There is some criticism of the machismo on display in True Detective and the lack of strong female characters, most of whom are victims in one respect or another. It’s true the show does not pass the Bechdel Test in any way that I have noticed but if this is an indictment of the show as a whole, it’s misplaced. It thoroughly and mercilessly dismantles the main character’s masculinity every step of the way, demonstrating how warped and archaic this way of thinking can be. It’s as celebratory of testosterone and male virility as Fight Club, shining a stark light on the realities of emotionally maladjusted cowboys desperate to protect every unknown woman and child they can find while at the same time being completely incapable of maintaining a stable, healthy relationship with the ones in their own lives. And when their families and homes fail them they turn with fanatical resolve to the only thing that they can: the job, the case, the victim. Rather than evolve, they cling harder to thing they still feel control over with bitter, self destructive determination.
Cohle: I can’t say the job made me this way. More like me being this way made me right for the job. I used to think about it more, but you reach a certain age, you know who you are.
I’m committing to this final piece on True Detective before the last episode because I realized I have developed a bad habit of analyzing every episode along with the internet and it was eviscerating the pure joy of discovery, the personal experience the listener is supposed to be having with the storyteller. I don’t fault the blogosphere with breaking down every clue and detail episode by episode but it takes some of the fun out of just experiencing the story as a whole. No true raconteur wants to be interrupted and critiqued verse by verse, some things are intended to have meaning, some are meant to meter out a rhythm, a cadence that only the author knows perfectly in the life of the mind. It’s a lesson I learned from Breaking Bad, from the surprisingly subtle closing scenes, that the death pools and fan theories only detracted from what was really going on in the plot, from the real beauty of a patiently constructed denouement.
Cohle: The newspapers are gonna be tough on you and prison is very…very hard on people who hurt kids. If you get the opportunity you should kill yourself.
Television culture has been trending towards the anti-hero recently, towards Don Draper, Walter White, and Frank Underwood. These are brilliant and engrossing characters worthy of the critical adulation but I can’t help but wonder where all the good men have gone or why we are so obsessed with the darkness of late. Maybe it’s always been that way and time is just like that crushed Lone Star can that Rust has been on and on about, that flat circle. What he’s describing, flourish and eloquence aside, is Hell: a place where our actions are repeated ad infinitum, without meaning or purpose. Which is where these characters belong but I also believe it’s where they choose to be. Morality may or may not be objective and although differing opinions of what its true definition is have been the source of all kinds of trial and misery throughout history, maybe it really comes down to choice, if there truly is such a thing. Choice and, ultimately, if there is still time to change the road you’re on.
Cohle: In eternity, where there is no time, nothing can grow. Nothing can become. Nothing changes. So Death created time to grow the things that it would kill…and you are reborn… but into the same life that you’ve always been born into. I mean, how many times have we had this conversation, detectives?
Dedicated to my buddy, Tim.
Netflix Suggested Viewing #11
Being an avid baseball fan it was a sort of shocking to some people that I only saw this film for the first time a week ago. I understand the incredulity but I’m also glad I saw it as an adult and fully established lover of the sport, it makes so much more sense to me now than it would have years ago. I’ve tried writing about the game before but it always escaped my grasp because I was trying too hard to find a feeling that only exists if you really love the experience of watching it. I’ve also failed to find a film up until this point that really touched on all the unique aspects of what makes baseball so much like life, previous examples have failed in one respect or another. For instance, I was thrilled with the first 30 minutes or so of For Love of The Game but grew to hate it so much in the second and third act that my piece transformed into a kind of exercise in loathing Sam Raimi for all he is worth. After seeing Bull Durham, I finally understand now what he was searching for, the model he was trying to follow and it makes me despise the movie all the more. As blasphemous as it is, Field of Dreams escaped me completely outside of the emotional finale but it still makes utterly no sense to me. This leaves a few other examples that are mostly fun to watch but treat the game as a backdrop for situational comedy with the exception of The Sandlot, which, if you don’t love in your heart of hearts you can leave right now. Don’t come back. ForEVer. FOREVER.
Bull Durham is about love and baseball. It’s about a boy becoming a man and a girl becoming a woman. It’s about a man becoming something else entirely, an adult, maybe. I don’t know. I’ll come outright and say I think this film would have been better, nay, truer without the last three minutes. Although this is a movie and movies love dem happy endings, without that coda this story would transcend the medium the way that real art always does. Call me a cynic but the people who change your perspective and open you eyes to who you really are rarely come back, if ever and this is a good thing in many ways. Change is traumatic and painful, like surgery or a car accident, it makes little sense to hang out with your surgeon or have a beer with the other driver after the fact. But saccharine sins aside, Bull Durham gets it right: you can’t talk about baseball without talking about love. I have no qualm with people who dislike the game, I get it. Sports are entertainment, you want something to happen and you don’t want to wait three hours for it. The simple fact that a game where nothing happens can be the most thrilling and rare experience in the history of the game must seem like insanity but to the initiated it can be a Zen-like meditation on perfection, on the meaning of everything. For example, the only number that has been retired completely and will never be worn again is 42, in honor of Jackie Robinson. The answer to Life, The Universe, and Everything is 42. Coincidence?
Yes. Also, it’s a bad example. But you think about that kind of thing in the 4th inning with no score in 90 degree weather with a ten dollar beer in your hand and a five dollar hot dog tumbling around recklessly through your digestive system like some recalcitrant and vindictive toddler that feels like you have wronged it in some deeply personal way. The point is, you’re thinking about things, everything or nothing. You’re looking for connections to what’s happening and dreaming about whatever, you’re willing that player to see pitches from left handers, praying that your pitcher will find the damn strike zone, and that the obnoxious guy in front of you will quit standing up every time the bat meets the ball. It’s a foul tip, dude. Calm down.
This is in contrast to every other major American sport, where thought and sober reflection are for the post game commentary. I like football but it’s the antithesis of those things, where 22 guys are slamming into each other for 6 seconds, then we cut to some commercial that has found new and innovative ways of screaming “WHY ARE YOU NOT BUYING THIS BEER, THERE COULD LITERALLY BE BOOBS FLYING AT YOUR HEAD RIGHT NOW“. I’m not judging football, I do enjoy the sport and if there were a beer that could keep its word I’ll take two, please. At the end of the day, I’m just a man. But when it comes down to it, the action is all there is to it. It’s a series of climaxes over and over without any of the slow build up, the intimate tension involved where you aren’t sure what’s going to happen and all you can do is feel and focus and breathe that makes the actual payoff so much more rewarding, so much more cold shower, exercise, thoughts about baseball.
It’s hard to tell a true story about baseball, the suspense of the game is lost if you know what’s going to happen. It’s hard to tell a fictional story about baseball, because who cares (see For Love of the Game,… actually, don’t) This is what makes the Minor Leagues the perfect setting, great things can and have happened and no one would ever know about it except in small enclaves. Small town heroes, stories of the week, moments of brilliance, this is what it’s all about in the day to day, there is this incredible futility to it that makes it so much more inspiring. In baseball terminology The Show is the big leagues, the Majors. It’s an aspiration, the ultimate ideal, but the harsh and unrelenting truth of the game and life itself is that graduating to that place isn’t the end, it’s not easier or kinder or deserved. It’s harder, less forgiving, and more demanding. But my god, it must be a lot of fun.
Bull Durham is just a good movie. It’s hilarious and it’s got a lot of heart. It’s a also a good reminder that even if you’re stuck in the Minors you can still have a good time and that ultimately, it’s a gift to be able to play the game in the first place. For those of us who are fans it’s a gift to be able to watch it on a beautiful summer day, even when you’re sweating buckets with a warm flat beer in your hand, because at one point that joker in front of you is going to get it right. When that unmistakable sound of a batter making contact brings you to your feet, you’re going to have a high-five ready for who ever wants it.
This is one of my favorite experiences I’ve ever had with a film. I saw it in theaters after selecting it at random, based on the wording of certain critics without any knowledge of what it was about. The Oscar buzz had not started to ramp up, which is the perfect time to check out a movie before the hoopla and rigmarole eclipse the film itself. If I hadn’t seen it when I did I might have missed the profoundly personal connection I have with it, I might have only heard the rabble, the generic din of praise for a perfectly written, acted, and directed film while discounting the thing about movies that make them more than just brightly lauded ponies in a horse race for statues and box office receipts. In a period piece about the Duke of York in the mid 20th century I found a sort of hero and a kindred spirit; I was reminded of how much I love language in general and how it changed my life; it’s easy to forget how beautiful and inspiring it can be while we live in an era when the New York Times is written at a 10th grade level and politicians speak monosyllabic, party vetted, pre-polled speeches that rarely inspire and never offend. I have a great affinity for legendary orators, for Lincoln and Churchill, who applied their own humor and eloquence to their addresses in ways that made their words timeless and inspiring. I can go back and read about their experiences and the words they used to describe some of the most epic and turbulent periods of modern history and I find humanity redeemable again, if only for a few minutes at a time.
There is a version of this film that was edited to reduce the amount of profanity when some words are used as part of the therapeutic process and I fully understand both perspectives of the small controversy it created. Most adults recognize that language, however profane, is only that, a vehicle for communicating ideas but there are some words that parents and teachers do not want shared with children of a certain age, children with speech problems who may be encouraged and inspired by a story like this. I’d argue that the material might be a little dull for a child and that a young adult is probably going to be more comfortable with both the content and the language itself but whatever gets a story like this out to more people, without undermining the essential message on display, is perfectly alright with me. Although I trend more towards a purist, towards supporting an artist’s right to create and hew his work as closely to their vision as possible, sometimes the message itself is more important than how it’s being said.
Recently, I discovered that I still have a stammer. Close friends of mine might consider that an impossibility given my tendency to ramble for hours on end about any and every passionate subject I happen to stumble on but it’s cropped up recently because of a career change that requires me to talk to strangers about complex problems all day long. It’s not debilitating, I don’t want to give the impression that I am some kind of hero myself for completing a sentence but it’s a part of my childhood that I’ve completely forgotten until the other day when I found myself mute, frozen in space while a customer waited in suspense for me to finish what I was saying. It’s hard to describe the moment when your mind tells your body to do something very basic and it simply does not cooperate. It’s scary and frustrating and embarrassing, which has a tendency to make the issue worse. As a kid I retreated into books and comics. I discovered and built a vocabulary that I didn’t know how to use at first and this helped me move past my stammer by distracting myself with synonym, metaphor and simile. I found new ways to express myself when the words I wanted wouldn’t come and in this I was improved for the experience: I found my confidence in losing my stammer. The strange thing is that I don’t know that there is such thing as a cure, it’s something that’s always a part of me. Which is an idea that I found so compelling about The King’s Speech.
I’ve seen Pride and Prejudice as well as Bridget Jones’ Diary (why are you looking at me like that) and I never found Colin Firth to be anything other than capable, if bland. I accept that he is considered handsome but why, I do not know. But I never considered him a gifted actor until this film. It’s hard to explain how authentic and compelling his performance is if you haven’t experienced the frustration that his character is going through. There is so much beauty and complexity in his facial expressions, the clear undercurrent of emotion that is swimming through his mind as he chains together word after word. Fear of public speaking is pretty common and although it should be difficult to relate to an English Duke assuming the mantle of responsibility for his country during the build up to the second World War, somehow, with a brilliant and clever script, Tom Hooper and company tell a pretty lovely story about friendship that is accessible and endearing. Even though this is a film about stammering, they achieve a steady confident rhythm that draws the viewer in, visiting the personal fears and insecurities of each character with perfect tone. And it’s a wonderful thing to see a film that has no action or violence to speak of, that is purely about two souls connecting or not connecting, about a loving marriage, or a scary father, about a brave but tormented person struggling to outgrow his demons.
It’s a well reviewed and deservedly awarded film like The King’s Speech that is able to imbue a sort of kinship between two people with vastly different backgrounds and upbringings. That I found a way to work around my small impediment feels so insignificant when compared to a man who had to work around a much more severe impairment while the entire world, in its darkest hours, waited and listened to every word. But the kinship is still there, the feeling of not being alone, of sharing with a stranger that irrational and primal fear that this voice has fled forever, and that we didn’t deserve to have it in the first place. It’s often, but not always, some kind of emotional trauma at a young age where it starts and just like the stammer that trauma never goes away, not really. It informs and affects. Arrests and influences. But it doesn’t have to rule if you don’t let it. To paraphrase one of my favorite and possibly apocryphal speeches from Churchill himself delivered in lieu of a prepared statement, never ever ever give up. Because in the end it’s more about what we do than what we say. Or how we say it.
This is a film I went into completely blind. Having heard some of the praise and critical acclaim I decided to go in with a virginal perspective, as clear of expectation as possible. I recommend this approach to those rare dark horse Indie films that come out of nowhere, riding a tide of glowing reviews and positive word of mouth. As much as I enjoy an interesting or compelling trailer, sometimes it’s nice to just dive right in and allow a film to sweep you along with no real certainty of where you’ll end up. That being said, here is one perspective, free of plot points or spoilers, cobbled together from the emotions and impressions that are awash through my mind, that will continue to echo around for some time to come, I think. I hope.
Once in a while, maybe a few times in my life that I can recall, you’ll see a film that doesn’t feel like a film at all. Instead, it feels like a fevered dream that’s come alive on screen, populated by people rather than characters, that hums along with less of a narrative and more of a thrumming heartbeat. It beats out its own unique rhythm, confidently spilling out details of a personal and distinctly different Universe that is too strange to be anything but real and too beautiful to look away from. It’s this kind of film that is, for lack of a sufficient descriptor, kind of magical if only for the fact that it shows us what the world looks like through someone else’s eyes with vivid enthusiasm. Beasts of the Southern Wild is like living in someone else’s imagination for a little while, someone who lives outside the civilized world, beyond the levies that hold the wilderness at bay. It’s the imagination of someone who can peer into our fishbowls and scratch their heads in bewilderment but have absolutely no interest in doing so.
This little community of people we get to follow seem psychotic at the outset, like a nightmare to anyone who has grown up accustomed to running water, electricity, hygiene but as they become more familiar there is a better word to describe the population of The Bathtub: alive. Alive in a way that is different to anyone capable of using the Internet but entirely alive and full of passion for every thing that the word means. This is the fascinating ideal of human beings who still live off the land they live on and eat with their hands and have no interest in a retirement plan or health insurance or when the next season of American Idol will start.
Quvenzhané Wallis was six years old when this was filmed and is the youngest person to be nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award. I’ll be completely direct about this, I don’t understand her. I really don’t. And I don’t mean I couldn’t understand her words or her performance, I’m saying it’s beyond me how this young woman occupies the screen with so much integrity and depth. Not only does she carry the film during its exposition and narration with incredible presence, no, what floored me were the truly dramatic moments, it’s the most challenging ones where she owns this story. I love a film with a great emotional climax or a perfectly delivered piece of dialogue, a moment that burns into your mind as the signature feeling that the film evokes but the most impressive thing a performer can do is create that feeling without a word. She does this with uncanny skill and describes the tone of the entire film with her eyes alone, it’s remarkable. I can recall the moment in my mind where the arc reaches its conclusion because of her angelic poise, her defiant gaze, like the melody of a favorite song from that one time in your past that immediately recalls the sensation of being there.
I want this little girl to disappear and live a good life in obscurity. I want her fame to be appreciated and then forgotten. I want Hollywood to keep their poisoned hands off of her and any pressure of repeating this performance to evaporate. I want Hushpuppy to grow up with the strength and wisdom she so ably displays in this film far away from the warped values impressed on so many child actors. And I typically loathe child actors with rare exception.
So here it is, Beasts of the Southern Wild is bottled lightning. It’s about courage, real courage in the presence of real fear. Because that’s what heroism is, not the denial of the things that frighten us but the acceptance and maturity to hold fast while still standing face to face with the end of the world.
I love it when a film or a story feels like it is speaking directly to me, sending me a personal message that only I know about. It’s what keeps me coming back, keeps me writing and thinking and talking about the medium. This is the kind of story that I want other people to watch so I can ask, what did you see? What did it tell you? What did you think?
The final message delivered by this story is lovely and it’s all yours to consider, it’s not my place or within my skill to invoke. All I can say is how much I enjoyed being in that place, at the ragged edge of everything, and how badly I want to go back there where I know I am a small part of a much bigger Universe.