Scott Ellington's Blog

Just another weblog

Stir of Echoes

This is a remarkably good film!  It’s very-faithfully adapted (if Richard Matheson is credible) from a Richard Matheson novel by David Koepp, who also directed it.  The special effects are almost-entirely not digital, but practical, and the commentary is phenomenally transparent.  Keopp explains, lucidly, insightfully, humorously and with considerable eloquence, almost everything I wanted to know about everything I wanted to know about lenses, shutterspeeds, sounds, intents, contexts and sensibilities — often going out of his way to be uncommonly clear about tricks, failures, prostheses and gimmicks.  Like Tony Gilroy, he seems to think the old line separating filmmakers from audiences is imaginary, stale, and counterproductive of better audiences and filmmakers.

The most interesting aspect of the film, for me, is the way it opens.  A 5year-old boy named Jake is taking a bath while his father sits fixedly noodling on a guitar several feet away.  The kid is talking directly to the camera as titles roll and the father ignores the child’s blather, BUT I CAN’T because the kid seems to be talking directly at the completely bewildered ME who isn’t particularly comfortable with this strangely-intimate, 3dimensional approach to the start of a horror movie.  The father’s more mundane reality intrudes for several seconds as he asserts the bath is done, so father and son negotiate which pajamas are to be worn, but the moment the father (Kevin Bacon) leaves the room, the kid’s talking to me again, asking me if it hurts to be dead.

Jake’s actually not talking to me but to an inaudible Samantha, an adolescent who disappeard six months earlier — and Koepp maintains a respectable pace of continual contextual bewilderment throughout the course of the film that moves briskly between significant moments that very clearly explain all of the disquieting stuff that made bizarro-negative sense from the moment the film began.  Koepp’s commentary, however, doesn’t even allude to the tremendously-impressive violation of the fourth wall with which the story starts.  He mentions that (the almost-uncredited) Brian De Palma was a wonderful consultant, offering a torrent of excellent ideas.  So it looks like I’d do well to leap headfirst into a pile of De Palma, while poring over the hugely-successful writing and directorial work of David Koepp.  It’s an interesting way (not unlike The Social Network) to jack up the viewer’s head and overcrank it into your movie:  “What the fuck just happened?!”

I don’t know that the subjective-camera effect could have been advantageously employed beyond that first scene, but I think it worked brilliantly to announce the presence of an unusually-organized movie that just might be a great film.  As I cruise through the commentary, I’ll be looking for opportunities to envision the camera’s point of view as belonging to Samantha — with no real expectation that Koepp intended the disembodied observer to be instrumental to the tale beyond the initial moments of the film — still, that’s the approach I really wanted to discover in Rope, in which the (generally-invisible) dead person’s perspective adds several invaluable layers of meaningful interaction to the presentation of events that unfold before the viewer (who is [just like a dead person] intimately disconnected to those events).  Samantha’s POV is used as a plot device to move the story forward, but an ice-blue gel (for example) might have been used to differentiate it from every other camera angle in the film, providing an immensly powerful accelerant/detonator/visual-shorcut.  The counter-revolution (of “the lost art of the master-shot”) against the disorienting jiggle-cam and MTV-style rapid cutting might have begun in 1999, when this film was released.  What the Neil character (the black cop in the cemetary) adds to the story is a verbal explanation of Samantha’s agenda and an impression of its urgency (which would have been [according to Koepp] communicated far more memorably and efficienty visually).  Neil’s second appearance contributes an impression that the psychic community in Chicago like a kind of gay underworld in which everybody’s closeted, paranoid, cranky and warped.

Koepp surprised me with Ghost Town by bringing an unexpected depth of humanity to the incisively-comic, witty tale of a shockingly-sympathetic lifelong misanthrope.  He brought Kevin Bacon’s character into the real world the moment the father confesses that he never expected his life to be so…ordinary.  That line is delivered in the second scene.  And it only gets better.

Yesterday was my inadvertant Richard Matheson Day.  I cruised through the Twilight Zone movie, hit What Dreams May Come and went to sleep during the Stir of Echoes commentary. Some days you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting something written, ghosted or influenced by that guy; most days, actually.

31 May 11 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Panic in The Golden Age of Television

It was largely over by the time I was old enough to watch any of it, but Delmer Daves’ commentary for Marty  (The Golden Age of Television: The Criterion Collection [1958] — Amazon-sale-priced presently at just $25) reminded me that the ragged edge of panic characterized live broadcast performance in realtime continuity — making movie versions necessarily quite/profoundly different from the TV versions.  Gotta love NetFlix.

Patterns is the most intriguing offering I’ve seen thusfar.  In that I own a copy of the Heflin-based film, I look forward to viewing both simultaneously for variances — and bearing in mind that Serling’s pre-Cook original construct had Staples crush Everett Sloane’s incandescent performance, by flatly leaving New York (and the exquisite challenge of life at the tippy-top of his chosen career) in a righteously-indignant huff.  Fuckit!  I just placed my order, adding $10 for The Velvet Alley.  It’s Ramsie’s industrialist’s rant that I wanted from PureFold, to bring the voice of the Chief (Brand-)Culture Officer out of the inferrential opacity of the conference room and into the unblinding transparency of sunlight for natural disinfection.  I think that’s a major chunk of what Rod wanted too.

Now let’s see where I can download ancient screenplays.  Long time, no feeding frenzy.  This intoxicated rush is sorely missed.

Also on the devout media-freak front, there’s this:

Oh yeah:

Oh well.


28 May 11 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Green Zone

This film is a very entertaining thriller.  It simplifies the reasons for the second American invasion of Iraq so that even I can understand them.  It fastens a jittery window of heroic clarity on Matt Damon as the leader of a squad of soldiers explicitly charged with the search for weapons of mass destruction.

They don’t find them.

What I found in looking through this window was a ridiculously-complicated vision of two corrupt regimes in conflict.  That conflict would have been neatly resolved if (as a last resort) caches of WMD had been planted and detonated by the Bush administration appointees, who evidently were not True (enough) Believers fanatically-dedicated to preserving the illusion that the administration wasn’t pathetically incompetent.  If the immediate objective was to justify war and to inspire allied confidence in W, then releasing weaponized “Iraqi” biotoxins was THE means.  How’d they miss that?  The perspective from this window doesn’t shed new light on the intelligence failures leading up to the terrorist attacks on 911, but it contextualizes them a little more distressingly.  (I’d also have liked seeing Osama bin Laden captured alive and remanded to Saudi custody for criminal prosecution under international law, along with the entire B’ushist network.  I’ll strike that notion off my wishlist and toss it into my Hurt Locker.  “War is a drug.”  Fuck you!)

Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke details the Bush administration’s failure to manage the New Orleans emergency catalyzed by Hurricane Katrina.  The documentary goes instructively out of its way to indicate that several corrupt political administrations (since 1965 &/or 1927) have been responsible for catastrophic conservation/meteorology-based disasters visited on that city/region/nation.  It also casts multiple shadows of primal doubt on the practical efficacy of the experiment of American democracy, and shamefully-hypocritical national will.  It’s a film that tastes like scathing honesty.

Green Zone plops a popular actor into the role of crusading protagonist at the head of a body of Americans cast specifically for the legitimate, authoritative authenticity of their real-life combat experience.  In the commentary, Damon frequently remarks on the intimidating challenge of fitting himself into the part as leader a group of guys who actually are the real deal.  Other people compliment Damon for rising to that challenge.  I can’t help noticing that the Hollywood treatment of the Sgt. Roy Miller profile is reminiscent of the cockeyed theatrical conceits that made W president.  Mission Accomplished! — not exactly.  And not unlike the movie, the target of the mission kept moving through subtle redefinitions:  Osama/vengeance-for-theoretical-complicity/WMD/victory!/democracy/stability/exit.  The movie simplifies all of that stuff to WMD/book/al Rawi/Truth/wtf!/curtain.  The more often I sit through this film, the more it seems movie-like, which means it doesn’t stand up to repeated visits, unlike Casablanca, which never gets old or less complicated, no matter how often I watch it (and which, I think, was a story retold [with a happier ending] as Sabrina, and could easily have been a remake of The Philadelphia Story, had Grant [swapping Hepburns] not been replaced by Bogart shortly, before commencement of principle photography).

I think this movie really should have been shot from the point of view of Freddy the translator, who, throughout the film, is one step behind Damon, intimately involved in every conversation, and pivotal in the ultimate resolution of a thrilling, suspenseful potboiler conventionally shot in Greengrass-style, which looks an awful lot like the so-called “innovative” (find-the-action) dynamic manner attributed to Friday Night Lights, NYPD Blue and good old Leslie Dektor.  The actor who portrays the crucial role of high-ranking Ba’athist General Muhamed al Rawi is said to have made the interesting point that Power can’t be convincingly acted, it has to be implied by the deference shown it by the actors surrounding Power.  Camera technology has come a very long way since 1947 and the failed experiment of The Lady in the Lake.  Some films seem to me to demand that the camera be cast as an emotionally-reactive, rational, realtime, participating member of the performing company, an actor; not exclusively as a jittering, magical, semi-omniscient, invisible non-presence.  Let the camera act!  Enough already with this jiggle, jitter, zoom-in, zoom-out, wobble, short cameraman, tall cameraman, editeditedit moron-convention bullshit!  These conceits perpetuate storytelling cheats.  Show me…the story.

The identity of the camera-as-Freddy would have been infinitely more informative (for the audience) if cast-subordinate, unAmerican Freddy were ideologically-incapable of gazing boldly into the commanding eye of al Rawi’s obvious Power, when, eventually, they meet, both times. The POV thing I harp upon would have made loads of “necessary” scenes simply impossible, like the first 24 minutes of the film, Kinnear and Gleason’s policy spat, al Rawi’s early (expository, badly-subtitled) meetings with his staff, where Freddy (Farid Youssef Abdul Rahman) wasn’t present, and Miller’s acceptance of the redefined mission proposed in a confidential meeting with CIA… but the situational complexity of Freddy’s point of view, I think, would have been significantly beneficial to the viewer’s understanding of events as they unfolded before a one-legged, bilingual, Iraqi national “on the ground”, surrounded by dangerous American innocents and criminal incompetents versus his Iraqi “peers” and the real, traditional, culturally-contextual personal Power of al Rawi.  Maybe that’ll happen in the sequel or the remake.  And maybe war movies are the sincerest form of sarcasm.

“Calm down.”  “Get your fuckin’ game face on.”  “Don’t be naive.”  Hamza’s dying word was, “Jordan.”  Michael?  Thrillers play fast&loose with key bits of information.  Movies and (corrupt) governments do the same thing with truth.

–A note from 11JUN2011– In a special feature of The Studio One Anthology, E.G. Marshall makes an interesting comparison, that Worthington Miner, producer of Studio One on CBS and Fred Coe (Playhouse 90) on NBC had differing perceptions of the proper role of the television camera.  Coe’s preference was for a static POV in which scenes were blocked to move action and speech toward an objective, immobile spectator.  Miner’s cameramen, conversely, were instructed to “find the action” by moving their cameras like subjective enquirers noticing things on the set (like a mysterious letter placed beside an entry door in The Storm) as the actors discover them, for example.  Miner (more than Coe) wanted the camera operator to be an independant, silent participant in the telling of the story.  Marshall used the same literal expression, “find the action”, about teleplay presentations broadcast in 1949 that was re-coined and re-invented by the producers of Friday Night Lights sixty years later.  I think the best place to stand when re-inventing the wheel is on the shoulders of giants, and that the lessons taught in The Golden Age of Televison desperately need revisiting by audiences criminally deprived of access to valuable pieces of the jigsaw puzzle of media literacy:  Crimes against culture in the interests of commerce, ignorance and bliss aren’t victimless.

Ask the Amazon search engine about “Rod Serling”.  You’ll get more than 30 pages of Twilight Zone references and almost nothing about the three Emmy-winning teleplays he wrote (Patterns, Requiem for a Heavyweight, The Comedian) before resorting, exhausted, to science-fiction/fantasy in 1959 to successfully slip 95 of 156 of his own incisve, socially-relevant, morally-challenging efforts at storytelling past the censors, sponsors, advertising agency representatives, networks and rednecks.  Nobody in 1965 anticipated the kind of popularity, syndication and marathons The Twilight Zone has enjoyed for a half-century, least of all, Rod Serling, or he’d have died one hell of a lot wealthier.   And the teleplays written or refined by Reginald Rose include 132 unavailable episodes of The Defenders from the early/middle 60s, along with long-forgotten Studio One presentations of The Remarkable Incident at Carson Corners, The Death and Life of Larry Benson, An Almanac of Liberty and Dino.  This stuff ain’t just television.  It ain’t just HBO.  It’s primitive, powerful, moving, inspiring, sorely-missed and probably necessary.  Next stop, The Paley Center, one station after Willoughby.

22 May 11 Posted by | Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Friday Night Lights — End

It isn’t every television series that’s afforded the opportunity to ripen, mature and end gracefully in an honorable act of thematic and theatrical sepuku.  Most aren’t produced, and many are abortively cancelled.  Friday Night Lights managed its termination nicely.  It’s interesting that both commentaries on the final DVD disk for the fifth and final season are delivered by producers who happen to be relentless stammerers; “uh.  uh.  y’know…the uh, uh reason for this — y’know thing is almost self-evident.  It’s that y’know uh uh uh…” and listening to them yammer is unbelievably annoying.  On the other hand, several interesting points about the show were made, generally anecdotally.

Lead actor Kyle Chandler’s part (as Coach Taylor) in a given scene (according to the commentator) was beautifully written to provide the actor with wonderfully poetic and philosophical talking points that were intended to be delivered verbatim at an extended crucial moment.  And the actor spoke privately with the writer/producer asking for permission to slough the words in order to ddliver the information nonverbally.  They tried the actor’s approach, and printed it because the nonverbal approach was significantly better than the scripted, wordy alternative version.

The point I’d like to make here is that the television medium is loaded with powerful, influential verbal-communicators.  It’s the platform that celebrates writers (whose scripts are customarily regarded as inviolable) because showrunners, producers and writers are the creative power in television — unlike cinema, in which money and directors generally rule supreme, and writers are valued like toilet paper.

I have a number of qualms and misgivings about the 3cameras-constantly-shooting scheme of Friday Night Lights.  This “performance-based” storytelling design requires camera operators to work handheld, and insists that operators “find the action” in the scene.  Despite my skepticism, every season of this show has delivered moments of intense emotional tension and release that make it difficult to argue against an innovative design that has worked admirably.  Nonetheless, I’ve never enjoyed looking at the unfocused backs of actors’ heads, the jiggle, the interminable seconds that pass as the camera moves past posts, lampshades and irrelevant objects before “finding” the face of the person who’s been speaking all along.  After four years, I ought to have known that this show was never really about football, and the ways they photograph/edit games illustrates constantly how little the sport matters in this context. 

Perhaps someday somebody else will noticed that every important problem in every season invariably revolved around the choices and eccentricities of female characters in a layered, overlapping subtly-misogynist show ostensibly devoted to the primarily-male enterprise of Texas high school football.

I think television writers have a tendency to hammer home their points in words, rather than trusting actors and directors to stress necessary connections for their not-particularly-perceptive audience.  It’s a point that’s made in the commentaries for season one of Treme, that standard network approach to televised storytelling is significantly more didactic and on-the-nose than the ways Simon says it, and the cast of Treme appreciates the respect both they and the audience are accorded.

One last point gleaned while watching Robin Hood; the prince of thieves last night.  It’s that the physical action and stunts are recognizably, ridiculously improbable/impossible…and despite the obvious intention to make Kevin Costner appear to be wonderfully deft, they can’t give him a fraction of the charismatic virulence of Errol Flynn, who generally lacked the gravitas of Russel Crowe.  The most  (perhaps only) delicious line in the Costner version was that nobility isn’t a birthright, it’s what you do with what you’re given. And television’s artistic nobility depends on a small minority of gifted writers who trust their audiences and the actors who play to them more than they trust blather, network executive notes and the forces that counsel scaled-back ambition. 

Actors are louder than verbs.  Arrested Development‘s narrator is measurably louder than its dialogue.  Maybe that’s a meaningful observation, Maeby not — but the place where experienced and admirable practitioners of the various and sundry skills necessary to successful crossmedia production of radio, cinema, gaming, comics, literature and televison entertainment talk to one another is damned hard to find.  If it ever does appear, I’ll happily shut up and listen as they debate the theoretical and practical parameters of telling/showing stories across platforms.  I suspect those platforms aren’t as fluidly interoperable as transmedia evangelists theorize.  And that the obvious proprietary barriers that prevent Wonder Woman from joining the Avengers (transnarrative collaboration) also throw phantom blocks at transmedia narrative — as though corporations that own IP simply can’t own cultural archetypes, and that actors who move from role to role are the realest adversaries of transnational media conglomerates.

I think Star Wars is an excellent model of oldschool transmedia (merchandising) narrative, perhaps Arab Spring is a better model of the new one in which an unexpected audience rises to participate in the production as though the membranes separating news from fiction from means from will from commodities from people were old habits in need of change.  What if unsubstantiated rumors of revolution fomented hopes that resulted in a North African snowball?  What if the most powerful human force on Earth were inadvertantly unleashed by evolving technology’s crossing an unanticipated threshold of instantaneous global communication?  What if that force were the normally-adversarial/contradictory will of The People for whom cohesive, coherent action becomes possible through interactive communication?  What if FDR and Churchill broadcast better shows than Hitler — remember to consult Nielsen — no don’t.

A few nuggets of coincidence from Vince Gilligan; dated one day later than the junk I wrote above:

Were there particular things that Carter taught you?
Well, I became a better writer, and things that he taught all of us that I still carry with me are: Show your story, don’t tell it. Try not to depend too much on dialogue. Try to remember that it’s very much a visual medium and that sometimes more can be said with a look between characters than a whole spate of words. I also learned how to tell a story economically. If they’d shot the first draft of my first script for The X-Files, it would have cost 20 or 30 million dollars! So, all the tools that I have in my toolbox now, I got them on The X-Files.

What show do you wish you had created?
The Twilight Zone, and I wish Rod Serling hadn’t died so young. That’s a man I truly would love to have met. He was the first showrunner whose name the country at large actually knew.

How much do you care about what fans think?
I care greatly. We wouldn’t have a show if not for the viewers. But having said that, I don’t think that equates with a need on my part to constantly check in with what the fans are saying. I hear about it anecdotally at best. Because on the Internet, you get what are often, I think, unrealistic responses — you get the highs and the lows; the people who love something enough to type something into their computer about it, and you get the people that hate it, but you don’t get the great vast middle. So, it’s an interesting gauge, but not necessarily an accurate one.

Can fans ruin shows?
I don’t think fans are capable of ruining anything. I think only the showrunner and their writers and actors are capable of that. If a showrunner logs on to the Internet and a fan’s telling them to add a lovable robot to his or her ensemble, they’ve only got themselves to blame if they take that kind of advice.

…and in the same series of New York Magazine interviews with showrunners:


 Mike Schur:
Episodes would vary in length from week to week.

I’m not sad that there are commercials, but every episode of our show has to be exactly 21 minutes and 17 seconds long. It’s unlikely that the optimal length of every episode of our show is exactly 21 minutes and 17 seconds.

 Carter Bays:
No more notes from the networks.

Oh God, please don’t let me be the only one who says “No more notes.” If that’s the case … ha ha, just kidding, guys. I’m not Spartacus. I’m just some gladiator. Hail, Caesar!

 Vince Gilligan:
Take more risks and assume the audience will go along.

 Dan Harmon:
In a world where everyone can watch anything all the time, and where we spend all this money making lots of shitty pilots, why don’t we have special website events where all the pilots are aired and people vote for their favorites? Make this populist medium genuinely populist.

Shonda Rhimes:
The wonderful Mad Men, in its first four seasons, has made as many episodes as we made in seasons one and two of Grey’s Anatomy. After twelve episodes, I’m tired, the crew is tired, everyone is tired. The break of a few months that cable shows get would be amazing.

Jason Katims:
Thirteen-episode cycles twice a year would also allow the writers to write all their scripts before shooting starts. It would raise the level of storytelling, you’d have more time to prep, and that would make the show less expensive to produce. And you should be allowed to say “Jesus” and “goddamn.” How offensive is it? I guess it is. I guess I don’t understand it all.

Graham Yost:
More patience.

Don’t be so quick to cancel shows.

Kurt Sutter:
Stop making decisions based on research data, and hire development executives with degrees in art, literature, and theater instead of marketing, business, and law. If people followed those two rules, TV would be a fuckload better.

Here’s a little Roseanne Barr-based razor-edged (holy crap, this is almost exactly what I was asking for!) bonus:

15 May 11 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | 1 Comment