a possibly too long explanation of why this isn’t a review of inside out

In the Star Wars: The Force Awakens reel released for Comic-Con a couple of weeks ago, Mark Hamill narrates on the significance of this new Star Wars chapter:

You’ve been here, but you don’t know this story. Nothing’s changed, really. I means everything’s changed, but nothing’s changed.

It’s reminiscent — maybe on purpose — of the common notion that a good movie just reformulates an already-familiar truth, kind of like a song that feels like a classic even on first hearing. (I feel like I’ve heard this idea floated before, but I can’t find a web reference for it. Take me at my word? )

This is not at all unexpected, but it does remind me of an ongoing reservation I have about even the best of popular entertainment: I feel like movies shouldn’t be so comforting that they could double as a warm blanket. The best of film is too fresh, too hard to process to ever let you feel like “nothing’s changed.” I suppose what I’m saying is that even when perfectly executed, a movie whose purpose is to refeed you what you’ve already been fed before is a movie that needs a different reason for being. A movie whose goal is not to put on the screen a new vision of art, but to return us to somewhere we think we already know, well that’s art that is aiming too low.
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windows without a house

In Robert Asprin’s Myth Adventure books, which I read in middle school, the boy wizard Skeeve lived in a magical tent that appears to be of humble size but actually contains an entire elaborate house inside. It managed this by having its inner halls and rooms sit in a separate dimension from the entrance, effectively annexing space in another world.

I thought of this when I moved into one of my first adult apartments, a carriage house in St. Paul, Minnesota that was something like an apartment posing as a standalone home. Squeezed into my bedroom, I felt as though I’d found a secret chamber, and it felt as though, looking from the outside, you would never guess there was even really a room there. The building was just 20 feet from a major four-lane artery, but my little room felt like it was parked just outside of our dimension.

photo by Ron Cogswell https://www.flickr.com/photos/22711505@N05/, via cc https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

photo by Ron Cogswell via cc

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dear popular entertainment franchises

Dear Entourage, the motion picture

To be fair, I saw you and I watched every episode of the show leading up to your worthless existence. But at least that means I know what I’m talking about.

You suck, Entourage, and not just for the terribly obvious reasons, like your gross objectification of women, your fatphobia, or your adolescent narcissism. These aren’t news to anyone.

Less obvious but still damning: You are an unimpressive and dull movie about how impressive and flashy your protagonist and his milieu are. Vincent Chase is put forward as a bad-boy paragon of virility and charisma. Unfortunately for you, Entourage, to convey this would require snappy dialogue and probably an actor more inherently magnetic than Adrien Grenier. When Vince strides the red carpet in slo mo with his crew, we ought to have already firmly established how irresistible and glamorous he and they are. As it is, the scene just trades on credibility you haven’t earned: You are asking us to believe that celebrities trotting around like show ponies are worthy of our attention just because you trotted them out like show ponies, whereas the reverse ought to be true, and they ought to have earned our fascination. With the red carpet, you are using shorthand to suggest that we’re seeing sexy Hollywood, while it actually feels as though we are merely in the presence of entertainment industry also-rans.
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kill bill and what great films and terrible films have in common

My favorite parts of the Kill Bill movies come in the time between Budd showing up in Vol. 2 to just after his death.

The Budd parts of Kill Bill show what I like about Quentin Tarantino and what he seems to specialize in: Being weirdly ambivalent about what tone he’s trying to strike, often even within a single scene. Tarantino movies will shift from highly stylized and theatrical one minute to undermining that theatricality the next, or they will celebrate excess but follow it with a heartfelt moment that’s almost sentimental, then throw in a streak of zany for good measure.

Take Budd’s death scene. He’s just collected a cheap little suitcase full of hundred-dollar bills from Elle Driver, his fellow assassin. (In case you can’t IMDB it: He’s played by Michael Madsen and she’s played by Daryl Hannah.) Budd starts pulling out the money and finds, buried there, one very angry black mamba.

15-06-08 snake in money
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mad max, the sopranos, and moralizing monsters

One night a few days ago, around 2 am, half-asleep, I became convinced that it would be intellectually fruitful to contrast Mad Max: Fury Road with the Sopranos.

Now, fully awake, I’m not sure there’s any connection between the two except that I watched them both this past week. But by looking for excuses to compare them I found a rather good one – a parallel between two scenes that seem, on the face of it, somewhat unremarkable.

mad max and moral defeat

You can glean pretty much all you need to know about Mad Max’s dusty hell-future from the preview. In Mad Max: Fury Road, a scene that stuck in my mind – and the only one that I can link tenuously at all to anything regarding the Sopranos – arrives in the first 15 minutes, even before Mad Max gets on the road. It’s an early way to show you the the twisted moral universe of the movie’s prime villain, Immortan Joe. (He’s the frighteningly pale, long-haired hulk with the breathing mask which, strangely and confusingly, features its own set of gums and chompers.)

Joe might be described as half medical nightmare, half despot. He rules over a clan of withered peasants and psychotic warrior boys, whom he’s fed a makeshift religious mythos that he’s at the center of.

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the good wife: how close are we to the inside of her head?

I’ve more or less completely savored the 6th season of The Good Wife, so it was in a defensive crouch that I read Sonia Saraiya’s recent critique of the show. Even with a modicum of objectivity, I think it’s hard to fault the show overall: Rather than retread an established style and tired plots from earlier seasons, recent episodes have often been formally inventive and touched on real issues — and not only of the ripped-from-the-headlines variety. Next to these facts, the odd lackluster character arc or ill-conceived plot point don’t matter so much. Give the thing credit: A show that could easily skate by on its prestige is actually taking risks. Last week’s episode used innovative sound tricks, and a plot this week revolved around the mechanics of systematic civil rights abuse. What more do you really want from a popular show?

This past season, I was especially taken with an episode that might have been the most experimental of the series, “Mind’s Eye,” which is primarily composed of scenes taking place entirely in the imagination of lead character Alicia Florrick (the eponymous Good Wife). In season 6, Alicia is running for State’s Attorney in Illinois and the episode establishes in the first few minutes that she’s facing a major interview in a few hours. At the same time, she has to prepare, at least mentally, to fend off a lawsuit from the exceptionally clever and unscrupulous Louis Canning, played by Michael J. Fox.
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the left hand of darkness: epistolocity unleashed

Last month, for book club, I read Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic sci-fier The Left Hand of Darkness. Set on the planet Gethen, the novel takes the form of several documents brought together as a kind of report, including the observations of an interplanetary envoy, the diary of a native, and bits of recorded Gethenian mythology.

This sort of novel is called “epistolary.” As a word, “epistolary” usually refers to snail-mail correspondence, but as far as I can tell, the category of epistolary novel is not so literally about letters: Included in this class is any novel that presents itself as a series of ordinary documents, like journal entries, e-mails, or even encyclopedia articles — not exclusively letters. So, for example, Bram Stoker’s Dracula “is told in epistolary format, as a series of letters, diary entries, and ships’ log entries, whose narrators are the novel’s protagonists, and occasionally supplemented with newspaper clippings relating events not directly witnessed” (per our friends at Wikipedia).

picture by via cc

photo from thomas munter via cc

What’s important, it would seem, is that the epistolary novel purports to be a literary fragment taken right from the imaginary world it depicts. It is not given to the reader as a normal narrative, but as though it were a bit closer to being documentary evidence.
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