murder, she wrote: homicide as wallpaper

I’ve sometimes thought that it would be great to see a show devoted to an ingenious detective who only solves decidedly minor mysteries, but with all the gravity and dedication normally reserved for homicide investigations. In this show, a missing stapler might occasion a full forensic analysis of the surrounding desk, exhaustive analysis of fingerprints, and all-night interrogations.

In part, I just love absurdity, but I also conceived of the show as a kind of response to the incredible preponderance of foul play in the world of prime-time TV. Murder is so frequent on TV, so deeply baked in to multiple genres, that it seems almost preposterous to me that shows don’t regularly address the unlikelihood of it all.

Alan Cleaver

Photo by Alan Cleaver via cc


I had never seen Murder, She Wrote until this week, but from what I can tell, the show is the acme of the near-ubiquity of murder on television, as lots and lots of people have already noticed. The sheer number of murders in Cabot Cove, Maine — the tiny town that Jessica Fletcher calls home — is enormous, and to watch the show on anything but a completely incredulous level, you need to accept the fantastical statistical anomaly that is the town’s murder rate.
Continue reading

the sopranos: the means justify the ends

This week, it was sort-of-but-not-really revealed that perhaps Sopranos creator David Chase believes that Tony Soprano ended up surviving the end of the show, though probably not, or maybe yes, or whatever.

I’ve known about the ambiguous ending of The Sopranos since the finale aired in 2007, but I’m only actually watching the series for the first time right now – I’ve just finished season 3. In theory, the series has been “spoiled” for me since the beginning.

And yet I’ve savored the series – a fairly grandiose way of putting it, but not really much of an exaggeration. The pleasure of watching The Sopranos far outweighs, for me, knowing what’s going to happen to some or almost all of the characters. In light of what I get out of the series, it seems a little upside-down to me for anybody to get up in arms about the lack of a definitive ending for Tony Soprano. Continue reading

rififi: lighthearted when it’s not busy being utterly despairing

If you read anything about Rififi, the classic French film noir, it’s likely the author will mention the perfection of its famous jewelry-store heist, which defines the movie for many people.

There’s lots to love about this centerpiece of a scene, it’s true. Instead of being hurried, it’s extraordinarily drawn out, showing us step-by-step the effort and ingenuity that goes into the execution. It’s a powerful slow boil of a sequence. Rififi doesn’t make crime seem easy or effortless; Jamie Hook (writing for the Criterion Collection) rightly observes that “at its heart, Rififi reveals itself to actually be a paean to work.” The crime feels real, in part because it combines specialist techniques with practical know-how. If an umbrella gets the job done, use an umbrella, they say.

As good as the heist scene is, however, it’s not the beginning and the end of the movie, at least for me. What has stayed with me more in the days since I’ve watched it is Rififi‘s greater mood and message, which seems to be that things are hopeless. This is, after all, a film noir, so that’s not surprising, but it’s especially poignant and discouraging here, I think.
Continue reading

the major details of michael mann’s heat

It’s one of my big beliefs that a great movie or piece of art is not born out of a single genius idea but a million smaller ones, each almost insignificant on its own but accumulating to make up something that takes you a while to really digest. Or maybe I’m just trying to say, execution counts and small details count, and that’s one of the few ways I can explain why Heat, Michael Mann’s 1995 heist thriller, has a special place in my heart.

As a kind of random sampling, I decided to confine myself to the first several minutes/scenes of the movie:

1. the change-up

The film begins with Robert De Niro dressed as a paramedic, on foot and headed for a hospital. He crosses a parking lot, and we get this shot:

13-11-05 heat birds eye

This isn’t terribly notable by itself. But it’s a nice bit of photographic composition, and it’s an angle that changes up the pattern of expected shots ever so slightly. Not a huge artistic leap, but a nice little touch.
Continue reading