Scott Ellington's Blog

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Public Enemies

Michael Mann’s commentary for this film is the definitive example of authorial intent exceeding the elastic limitations of the cinematic medium.  Public Enemies is an excellent film, but the commentary tenders layers of context that did not (probably could not) be brought to the viewer’s attention within the 2hour limitation and the cost constraints of the film.  Delivered by an expert filmmaker whose phenomenal familiarity with the material presented is nearly unsurpassed makes for magical depths of association and knocked me on my ass.  It didn’t hurt to find that Mann’s encyclopedic creative sensibilities pulled meaningful parallel speculations out of plausible places.

A drunk midwestern, middleclass kid robs a grocery store for $50 in 1923.  He’s sent to prison for 10 years, leaving it with a graduate degree in bank robbery courtesy of a mentor named Walter Pierpont who imbues the kid with a kind of sophisticated, methodical, rigorously military discipline that will elevate the student to the exalted national status of Public Enemy Number One for the 13 months of freedom on which the movie concentrates.  And yet the day of the independent career bank robber (just like Butch and Sundance) is absolutely done, not only because J. Edgar Hoover and the Bureau of Investigation says so, but because the end of prohibition means that the smartest elements of organized crime have moved beyond their ususal suspect activities (like harboring the high-profile gangs of independent bank robbers) to various forms of low-profile legitimate corporate criminality.  So the extra-ordinary audacity and public relations acumen embodied in the Dillinger organization is threated in its prime from both sides, leading directly to an historic outcome that’s related in a film about it 70 years after the fact and lovingly mirrored in the gangster movies Dillinger loves to watch…one of which makes it into Mann’s movie.

It crossed my mind as Mann described Hoover’s appointed Dillinger-ender, Melvin Purvis, that that very Southern gentleman’s Gman career and cultural tradition were profoundly mismatched, especially in context of Hoover’s mandate to get Dillinger by any means necessary.  While the film and commentary go so far as to strongly suggest that Purvis’ misgivings about the job and its executive director (later in the film) prevent him from doing the job to the fullest extent of his native ability, I’d like to go a step farther.

The threat Dillinger posed to national security justified Hoover’s strategies; arrest the target’s relatives for indeterminate periods of unlawful detention while subjecting those persons of interest to cruel and unusual forms of interrogation and exercise whatever forms of information gathering and monitoring of American citizens may be deemed necessary to achieve the agency’s goals.  So the movie was an interesting biopic about the end of Public Enemy Dillinger, but the realer public enemies were Hoover and Purvis.  And, thinking back, it seems that a remarkable variety of threats to national security are cited fairly continuously as ample justifications for extra-legal activity by heroic SuperPatriots who turn out increasingly swiftly to be incredibly slimy scoundrels.

I’d like to see Purvis and Dillinger team up to rid the world of Hoover, McCarthy, Nixon, Reagan, Rumsfeld, Bush, the FOX News Team and Bush…Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson and whoa.

Maybe that’ll be Luck.

And nobody contextualizes network neutrality (and cocksuckers) as clearly as Tim Wu, in my experience:

Crudely paraphrased:  Google’s approach to wireless internet is like America’s approach to the imposition of democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq; noble-sounding motives devolve into unlawful detention and torture.

25 Sep 10 Posted by | Uncategorized | 4 Comments

I, Spartacus LOST

Having now completed my second pass through the inital season of Spartacus:  Blood and Sand, I know that there are two commentary tracks (kinda hidden on disks 2 & 4) for episodes 5, Shadow Games, and 13, Kill Them All .  These tracks contain quantities of information that provide fragments of exactly what I was looking for, helpful indications of the intents of the storytellers.

I’d like to thank Sam W for posing questions of my last post that led me to look for more interesting answers to the uncertainties we share regarding this television show.  Some of those answers emerge from the commentaries, and lead to more interesting questions.

I think Sam’s primary objection to this television history was the frequency of incidental carnage visited on people whose casual placement in the narrative is uniformly insignificant.  Perhaps I overstate Sam’s case by saying the show’s wanton and computer-enhanced exhibition of contempt for human life is a very reasonable objection that earmarks an entertainment aimed at vicious morons.  Maybe that’s an understatement.

I had faith in Steve DeKnight that greater value was embedded in this tale than that.  I still think so.

In Gossford Park, the hierarchical order of relationships between masters and servants is central to the revealed development of characters.  In this television show, the hierarchical inequality of all mankind is gradually revealed to be in bitter conflict with values expressed in the narrative, composition, lighting, score and with the ever-expanding, labyrinthine personal agendas of each of the major and minor characters.  And the deeper I venture into the complexities of this version of Spartacus, the greater and more interesting are, to me, the embedded references within the tale to trials of conscience, the development of consequences, interpersonal agendas in conflict; and exterior references/riffs/homages to putatively-objective versions of history, previous versions of this story, I, Claudius, Paradise Lost, The Sopranos and Angel:  Not LOST, which I find more than merely interesting.

Let’s Get To Work and Kill Them All before the next round of informal negotiations with the AMPTP.  Perhaps I’m overreaching, slightly.

25 Sep 10 Posted by | Uncategorized | 5 Comments


“On steroids!”  “Industrial Strength!”  That’s two ways of indicating that Spartacus:  Blood and Sand contains more graphic violence, sexuality and profanity than your average television show.Ever!  Three really.  The title of this post plays on the profanity scripted into the language of the show to highlight the sanitized lamenesses that shocks and awes the modern television audience into watching televison.

Just behind the spectacular visual delights (for every taste in every segment of the cult and casual audience) tendered in the frequent display of boobs, copulation, violence and male nudity and slowmotion bloodsplatter-by-the-pint, there are abundant verbal pleasures to be derived from the high level (but accessibly sub-Elizabethan) of elevated speech, by Juptier’s cock, and nuggets of arcane and timeless profanity welled up from far too many decades of  Standards&Practices beating the freaking heck out of broadcast versions of adult reality.

And under the XXXpletive level of engagement are fascinating instances of artistic license that intentionally join the graphic novel to moving visual storytelling with classy restraint and hightech abandon — to sublime effect, from time to time.

And under those strata of evolving visual and narrative sophistication is a layer of reasonably-subtle moral ambiguity in which Power flip-flops constantly while rolling downhill in consequences that reverberate in all directions, something like this:

Crixus’ secret love for Naevia (while he’s recovering from his encounter with his legendary destructive, very-nearly-lethal nemesis, unretired Theokales) has significantly damped the pleasure Lucretia’s always taken in Crixus’ fucking enthusiasm — so Lucretia’s is less-resistant-than-ever-before to Batiatus’ reluctant contemplation of dumping an over-the-hill Crixus (former champion of Capua) on the even-more-minor-league market, somewhere else in the Roman world.  Naevia, overhearing management’s disturbing ruminations, and putting two and two together, and dreading separation from Crixus, persuades her secret lover to redouble his customary efforts in the satisfaction-guaranteed bouts of fucking of Lucretia, despite Naevia’s profound distaste for Crixus’ sexual and romantic duplicity.  Chicks!?! The thing here is that each and every character  has a reliable moral compass that points constantly in whatever direction happens at the moment to seem reasonably warranted. 

 There are no moral absolutes nor completely-inflexible codes in a brutal universe of Power, domination, appeasement and betrayal — which makes for fascinating character development, situations and complex, multifaceted, provisional resolutions, alliances and fusible bonds that burn at a variety of rates.  This is the soap opera layer of Spartacus:  Blood and Sand; a layercake composed of beefcake, cheesecake, graycake (homoerotic), angel&devil’sfood, poundcake(as in thump), techcake, cusscake, naughtycake and miscellaneous forms of fetishcake…it’s adrenaline&thought-provoking pornographic entertainment for the entire family, designed to stimulate every taste and every demographic.  Pornography (to my mind) is utilitarian entertainment.  It’s primary objective is to addict those who partake in it, so a pornographic motivation exists everywhere in entertainment, education, religious worship, political engagement…and political expediency leads to confrontation with moral order which is only beginning to emerge at the end of season one as a counter to the numerous and contradictory exigencies that have dominated the beginning of the story of a legend in the making.  Until I learn otherwise, I’m predisposed to call that legend Steve DeKnight.

If Mad Men mirrors contemporary American culture from the distant, politically incorrect remove of 50 years, Spartacus:  Blood and Sand does something very similar, but it mirrors “our” modern liberation from the oppressive, arbitrary lowest-common-moral-denominator confinements of broadcast television.  Whether the soul and conscience of the era depicted (about 100BCE) will be Julius Fucking Caesar of Jesus Fucking Christ, has yet to be specified, but this show is clearly designed to give every possible segment of the viewing audience massive chunks of delight, family-style.  Jumbo!  Full-on!  Balls-out…!  To the max?  Not yet, but I’ll bet DeKnight is working on it.  Hence, my  emphasis on “our” liberation; content creators and audience, paying intense attention together on the same very same page, because we’re all in this together.

The 4-DVD set became available from NetFlix last Tuesday.  Having streamed the season weekly last spring, I wanted to experience the series again more continuously and immersively.  And I’d hoped to explore the horse’s mouth for clues to the show’s intentionality — Special Features reserved to Disc 4 — no commentaries, but several interesting features.  Clearly, the first job of a showrunner is to keep flying.  You can’t teach much with a show that can’t stay on the air.  I think that misson was accomplished, but now I need to look into old rumors of the unavailability of Andy Whitfield for health reasons.

Datelessly, per IMDb: 

  • “Production has been halted on the Sam Raimi-produced show while heading into its second season, due to star Andy Whitfield being diagnosed with cancer. Whitfield has been diagnosed with early-stage Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma and will begin undergoing treatment immediately. With the first season of Spartacus completed, production will be delayed on the second season.”

24 Sep 10 Posted by | Uncategorized | 9 Comments


Alfred Hitchcock’s first film as an independent producer in 1948 was based on a play that was based on a book that was based on the infamous crime of Leopold and Loeb.  It’s a remarkable film for several reasons, and frequently cited for the unusual experiment it undertook; to photograph the action without the use of conventional edits. 

There’s also no insinuating musical score and (except for the early and later intervals, surrounding titles and credits) all of the music that appears in the film is explicitly made by an actor at the piano or the turn of a nob on a radio. 

Less explict is the very-similar tonal pitch of all the actors’ voices.  Even the three women in the film are resonably-deep contraltos, and their voices interact and blend with those of the men (including the upper register of the booming Cedric Hardwick) in an almost-continuous patchwork (foreground/background/multichannel) of dialogue that very rarely ceases (except conspicuously) and culminates at the end of the film in some  electrifying crescendos; vocal, philosophical, kinetic and emotional.

Rope, Smith and Mad Men are three very different entertainments that happen to have in common absolutely zero characters that appeal to me, no characters with whom I sympathize/identify and automatically like.  And yet, despite that formulaic “oversight”, in sticking with those stories I was led to appreciate the use of other elements/devices that justified the investment of my attention.

Rope‘s nine characters range (in my opinion) from the purely-loathesome to the merely-avoidable kinds of people I might meet at a party; elitist, classist, privileged, and fundamentally contemptible…but by the middle of the second act, the vapid conversations and self-important posturing began to peel away — revealing fascinating, human complications that are tucked inside of all of us.

The most-notable thing about Rope is the considerable number of conventional cinematic devices and cheats (filmmaker priviliges) it doesn’t utilize in telling a story about bullshitting.  (Hitchcock also cheats.)  On the other hand, the 1948 Technicolor camera was an enormous machine that could not move without drawing attention to itself in wobbles and bobbles and various conceits that the viewer isn’t meant to notice.  And the camera’s point of view in Rope (as usual) belongs to nobody.  I  tried pretending (on my third pass through the film) that it belonged to David, the guy Brandon and Phillip killed, but that very clearly wasn’t the (pure cinema) story Alfred meant to tell.

Rope is a fascinating film on many levels, and riveting for many reasons that culminate in a ripping of scabs off the fundamental socio-philosophical question that emerges quite pointedly through the telling — How should superior wealth and privilege get along with the rest of us?  I think Hitchcock’s hero in this tale is Mrs. Wilson, and his answer is that the elite had best behave with redoubled efforts at compassion and civility. 

I think think superior wealth and privilege purchased mainstream media along about 1945 and have beaten us senseless with it, ever since, complicitly. 

The film ends with an interesting, implict comparison between Old Testament capital punishment and Nazi euthanasia, mediated by civilized government’s  willingness, readiness and aptitude to kill.  That’s a bone of contention that doesn’t quite fit in the film.

Hollywood’s late-40s experiments in visual storytelling (Rope, The Lady in the Lake, Dark Passage…) might have been provoked by studio-anxiety over the embryonic giant of television.  I think that notion gives undue credit to the presience of studio executives — whose eventual solution would be to buy (or be bought by) broadcast networks; they joined what they couldn’t beat.  I think it’s high time I studied Hitchcock as a means to understanding the history (and future) of mainstream media as Alfred Hitchcock Presents…it.

The primary byproduct of all systems is irony.

(SIDEBAR:  Generation Kill is a fascinating miniseries without insinuated score.  All the music is made by characters onscreen, with layers of vocal communication set behind the brilliant foreground conversations, rants and diatribes in an alpha-male environment dedicated to constant contention which is reminiscent of some notable functions of communication exhibited in Deadwood and Stage Door, the 1937 chickflick with the deepest all-star bench and the wittiest conversations since Eve slew Lilith with (and Edna Ferber spurned) false immodesty.  I love Generation Kill, partly because it elaborates on American lore/myth broached in The Killer Angels about heroism, patriotism, sacrifice, blood and privilege.  And I’m steeply and steadily warming to Nathan Fick’s One Bullet Away, for very similar reasons.)

20 Sep 10 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments