Sunday, January 30, 2011
I had a busy weekend, so here are some interesting links I've run across recently:
Wednesday, January 26, 2011
Over the past year or so, I've been making my way through seasons 2-6 of Lost. I watched the first season on DVD shortly after it came out, and after following along with the broadcast for a couple weeks of season 2, I resolved to stop watching until I had some indication that the show would actually end (i.e. I was worried the writers would continually make stuff up and withhold any answers indefinitely). I dutifully avoided most contact with the series until early last year. By that time, the writers had declared a definite ending point and from observations of friends' responses to new episodes, I gathered that the show was picking up steam, rather than bogging down.
As you might imagine, given the fact that I pretty much ignored the series for a few years there, I'm not a huge fan of the series. I didn't actively dislike it either, I was just never hooked or convinced that it was going anywhere interesting. But then there were some things I was able to glean about what was happening and then Netflix made all of the seasons available on their Watch Instantly service, at which point, I had no real excuse to keep avoiding it. I burned through season 2 pretty quickly, though again, I was pretty unimpressed. Season 3 was even more of a slog, though I had been warned that this was the case. Apparently during the course of Season 3, the writers/producers agreed on an ending (or at least, how many more seasons/episodes remained). There was an almost immediate improvement in the quality of the episodes, but again, I was not terribly impressed.
Don't get me wrong, I was enjoying myself. I had no issues burning through a bunch of episodes all at once, and having the entire series at my fingertips made that prospect all too easy. Nevertheless, I never really had a problem taking a break either. Last year, I gave up Television for Lent. Despite just having started season 3, I had no problem staying away for 40 days. Later in the year, when I had finished season 5, but season 6 wasn't available on DVD/Netflix yet, I wasn't all that broken up about it. If this was a show that I loved, such delays would have been quite frustrating. As it was, I'm lucky I even remembered to check for season 6.
Ultimately, I'm glad that I did. I still have a lot of issues with the series as a whole, and even the last season itself, but in the end, I found it to be a worthwhile venture. I've tried to avoid Spoilers for most of this post, but there are some things you may not want to know and there are definitely spoilers towards the end of the post. To summarize my thoughts, I found the ending of the series to be emotionally satisfying, but not intellectually satisfying.
This is actually an interesting reaction for me, because I usually respond in the opposite way. For example, a few years ago, I saw the movie Capote and thought it was fantastic. The writing, the acting, the direction, cinematography, just about everything about the film was extremely well done. On an intellectual level, I found it amazing. On an emotional level, I didn't connect with it nearly as well. I have no idea why. There were a couple of scenes towards the end of the film where I kept thinking to myself This is devastating! and yet, I never actually felt devastated myself. I only really recognized the devastation on an intellectual level. There are lots of other movies I feel similarly about, and it's a real shame, because that feeling (or lack of feeling, as it were) leaves those films feeling a bit hollow in my mind.
Lost (at least, the final season) ended up being the opposite, especially when it came to the "Flash-Sideways" sequences. Nothing seemed to make much sense intellectually, but it was emotionally satisfying nonetheless. I'm sure there are tons of people who hate those sequences. They're full of sticky-sweet sentimentality and schmaltz. I'm a guy who doesn't mind a happy ending, but lots of people seem to hate them. You often see these people excoriating Hollywood cinema for this sort of thing, and to be honest, they're not entirely wrong. But sometimes they are, and for me, Lost worked. At least, in that specific respect, it worked.
I think my problems with the series have primarily to do with a few early choices that the writers seemed to get away from in later seasons. First, the series initially seemed like a science fiction story. It is not. It is a fantasy. But the writers attempted to use tropes from SF to spice up their story (in particular, the Dharma Initiative and time travel subplots), and that does represent a bit of a problem because the explanation for a lot of the mysterious happenings on the island basically amount to something like "A wizard did it!" or "It was magic!" Even when it comes to the time travel stuff, there isn't really any science in that fiction - it's all fantasy. There isn't anything inherently wrong with that sort of thing, but leveraging SF tropes implies a certain plausibility that Lost could never really deliver. Once I realized this, I became a little more accepting of some of the more ridiculous aspects of the series, most of which can be summed up as: The island is a weird place and Jacob has weird powers. However, I think there were a number of times when the series established some convention or set of rules, then went ahead and broke them for no other reason than that it would, like, totally make for a sweet cliffhanger. I think this is, in large part, why the series is not intellectually satisfying for me.
This sort of inconsistency was especially frustrating from a characterization standpoint. Jack and Kate love each other, but then Kate loves Sawyer, but Sawyer's evil, no wait he's just a con-man with a heart of gold, but then he does something evil again, but he's really a good guy, but no, he's only out for himself, but then he gets married and settles down and now he wants to kill Jack, but Jack loves Juliet, but Juliet is married to Sawyer even though she really loves Jack, but they're divorced and did I mention that Sawyer is selfish and only looking out for himself but that he's in love with Kate, no, wait, I meant Juliet and then Ben loves Juliet but she doesn't really care, but Jack and Juliet are divorced and Kate and Jack are together but then they're separated and Jack wants to leave the island, but only until he wants to return to the island because it's his destiny, but no, really it's Hugo's destiny, but Jack still has some sort of destiny on the island and isn't meth awesome!?
Now, here's the thing: most of that is actually fine. I don't have a problem with a character who changes their mind or goes through something traumatic and is changed in the process. The issue is that many of these changes happen only because the plot requires them to, not because of a natural outgrowth or reaction of the character. Even worse, the plot often doesn't require such twists - they're only included to make for a snappy cut to commercial or cliffhanger ending. So you get these weird character reversals where Kate wants to leave the island, but she doesn't want to leave, but she does, but she doesn't. All within the course of, like, 15 minutes. I don't know, maybe I'm exaggerating. I didn't make a note every time I thought to myself: Wait, what? Why would this character do that? Oh dammit, end of episode, fuck! But I know I had such thoughts often. (If I ever rewatch the series, I will try to document these occurrences).
Perhaps towards the end of the fifth season and leading into the sixth, this issues seemed to straighten out a bit. I didn't have nearly as many problems during the sixth season. Maybe that's because my brain was so addled by the previous seasons that I knew what to expect, but still, things seemed more consistent. Of course, this only leads to my next question, which is: What the hell were the first 5 seasons for again?
I mean, there's a very basic conflict at the heart of the Lost universe. Jacob vs. Smoke Monster. Protect the magic golden light. That's really it. The rest of the series is basically just some messed up people trying to work through some personal issues. Some of them think the island can help, most don't, but in the end, the island brought them together and ultimately brought out the best in them (well, in a bunch of them). That's all background though, and the aforementioned central conflict? It isn't even revealed in the series until, like, late in the fifth season. We don't even hear Jacob's name until the third season, and even when we think we've seen him, we haven't.
I can accept the fact that it takes a good amount of time to establish characters and their backgrounds and the series is fantastically complex when it comes to that web of character interactions, on and off the island, in the future and in the past. But did we really need 4-5 seasons of that before we got on with the actual story?
Well, this post is turning into a bit of rant about the things I didn't like about the series, and that's not what I initially set out to do. None of the above is to say that the series isn't worthwhile. Indeed, much of it could be construed as nitpicks. I don't think it's possible to have a show air for 6 seasons and not have such nitpicks. Shit happens. A cast member want to quit, so you need to write a quick exit (bye bye, Mr Eko!). Other cast members demand way too much money and a couple others get a DUI so they all need to be written off. These things happen.
And even then, the writers managed to build a story with, like, a hundred main characters. That sounds like hyperbole, and I suppose it is, but it's not that far off. What's more, most of those characters are interacting, before, during, and after their stay on the island. The non-linear exploration of such connections is actually pretty impressive in its own way. If you're a science fiction type, you certainly won't be impressed because there's no real explanation beyond "Magic" or "Destiny" or "Fate" or something, but there is something admirable about the number of characters and the extent to which their stories were woven together. The "Flashback" conceit was something I was quite dubious about at the beginning of the series, but the writers managed at least one shocking twist in that respect. The "Flash-forward" was a brilliant idea, and it was quite well executed. The "Flash-sideways" of the last season was a little baffling, but quite resonant from an emotional perspective.
So we come back to my basic feeling about the series: satisfying on an emotional level, but not on an intellectual level. I have my issues with the series, but it's still a well produced, well written series that can get addictive at times (of course, I was able to stop when i wanted as well, but there were a lot of Dammit! Ok, one more episode! moments as the writers laid one of their cliffhangers on me - even some of the lame ones that break character are still compelling in some way).
Sunday, January 23, 2011
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher
One of the themes of 2010 cinema has been a question of reality. Is what we're watching real? Or is it a fabrication? Or perhaps some twisted combination of the two? Interestingly, this theme can be found in the outright fictional (films like Inception certainly induce questions of reality), the ostensibly true story that is notably and obviously fictionalized (a la The Social Network), and most interestingly of all, the documentary. Films like Catfish and Exit Through the Gift Shop are certainly presented as fact, though many questions have arisen about their verisimilitude. Joaquin Phoenix and Casey Affleck collaborated on I'm Still Here, a supposed documentary about Phoenix's strange transition from a well known actor to a crazy aspiring rapper that Phoenix and Affleck have since admitted was something of a hoax (I have not seen the film, but from what I can see, many of the events certainly did happen, even if they were manufactured). In most cases, audiences don't seem to mind the blurring of reality with fiction (this includes myself), so long as that blurring is made clear (that may sound paradoxical, but it is perhaps better understood as the main component of the Reflexive Documentary: movies that acknowledge the biases of the filmmakers and the subjectivity of the material at hand are more trustworthy than movies that claim objectivity). Indeed, one could probably make a case for the presence of fiction in most non-fiction stories. Bias, subjectivity, and context can yield dramatically different results depending on how they're portrayed.
It is in this frame of mind that I picked up The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective by Kate Summerscale. It was immediately obvious that I was in for something that blurred the lines between fact and fiction. As Summerscale herself acknowledges in the introduction (page XIII):
This book is modelled on the country-house murder mystery, the form that the Road Hill case inspired, and uses some of the devices of detective fiction. The content, though, aims to be factual. The main sources are the government and police files on the murder, which are held in the National Archives at Kew, south-west London, and the books, pamphlets, essays and newspaper pieces published about the case in the 1860s, which can be found in the British Library. Other sources include maps, railway timetables, medical textbooks, social histories and police memoirs. Some descriptions of buildings and landscapes are from personal observation. Accounts of the weather conditions are from press reports, and the dialogue is from testimony given in court.Even with the acknowledgement, the book is an odd amalgam of embellished factual accounts of a horrific murder, straightforward biographical information of the titular Johnathan Whicher and the family Kent, and a survey of mid-nineteenth century detective fiction. There are times when Summerscale follows one of these three tangential threads too far, but for the most part, she manages to weave them together in a deft and engaging fashion.
The mystery at the center of the book concerns a gruesome murder of three-year-old Saville Kent in 1860. Local police bumbled through the investigation, eventually leading the government to dispatch Scotland Yard Detective Inspector Jack Whicher to the small town to investigate. Whicher sized up the situation and quickly came to the shocking conclusion that the murderer must have been a member of the Kent household. Everyone from Saville's father to his nursemaids came under suspicion, though Whicher favored Saville's half-sister, Constance Kent. However, Whicher had been brought into the case nearly a week after the murder. The evidence was mostly circumstantial and most leads had gone cold before he even started the case.
And it was a very odd case. It's easy to see why fiction authors appropriated so much from the story in later novels. Every clue, every piece of new information, every close examination of the evidence at hand seemed to make the case less clear. Summerscale writes (page 75):
The family story that Whicher pieced together at Road Hill House suggested that Saville's death was part of a mesh of deception and concealment. The detective stories that the case engendered, beginning with The Moonstone in 1868, took this lesson. All the suspects in a classic murder mystery have secrets, and to keep them they lie, dissemble, evade the interrogations of the investigator. Everyone seems guilty because everyone has something to hide. For most of them, though, the secret is not murder. This is the trick on which detective fiction turns.Summerscale delves into the tricks of Whicher's trade from time to time, and it does make for fascinating reading. I love to read about the devils in the details on which something like this murder mystery hinges. For instance, one of the mini-mysteries the case presents us with is a missing nightdress. This sounds like a minor detail, but Whicher immediately seizes upon the missing clothing as a precious clue. Summerscale takes the opportunity to describe the origins of the word "clue" and why Whicher was so keen on solving the mini-mystery of the missing nightdress (from page 68):
The word ‘clue’ derives from ‘clew,’ meaning a ball of thread or yarn. It had come to mean ‘that which points the way’ because of the Greek myth in which Theseus uses a ball of yarn, given to him by Ariadne, to find his way out of the Minotaur’s labyrinth. The wirters of the mid-nineteenth century still had this image in mind when they used the word… a plot was a knot, and a story ended in a 'denouement', an unknotting.Summerscale then proceeds to detail several cases where Whicher himself managed to solve a crime due to the fortuitous discovery of unique or identifiable clothing, eventually concluding (from page 70):
The thread that led Theseus out of the maze was true to another principle of Whicher’s investigation: the progress of a detective was backwards. To find his way out of danger and confusion, Theseus had to retrace his steps, return to the origin. The solution to a crime was the beginning as well as the end of a story.I have a fascination with such details, so of course I wouldn't have minded if Summerscale indulged in more of such analysis, but it's clear that she was trying to walk a tight line. I would be easy to stray too far from her focus on the mystery and the man sent to investigate, and she manages to walk that line well enough.
Whicher is an interesting man in himself. Most of what we know about him is in his police reports and correspondence. I would have loved to read more about the man, but from what I can tell, Summerscale has unearthed every conceivable piece of knowledge about the man, and still came up a bit short. As a plain-clothes detective, he obviously avoided attention as much as possible, which probably explains some of the missing information - for instance, there doesn't appear to be any pictures or paintings of the main available. That being said, he's certainly a worthy subject for study. He seems to possess keen observational skills as well as a knack for finding holes in a story and clues. He appears quite confident in his perceptions, though as the subhead of the book notes, he is somewhat shaken by the mystery at Road Hill House. His initial investigation yielded no convictions and he returned to London a different man, though I think calling this his "Undoing" is perhaps a bit of an exaggeration. Indeed, after Summerscale establishes the central mystery, I feared that the subhead implied that no solution would really be found.
Fortunately, there is a closure of sorts, though I will not spoil the book by delving too deeply into that here. Suffice to say that by the end of the book, we are a bit closer to what actually happened, though the inherent difficulty of rebuilding a picture of the past is one of the themes of the book. In today's day and age, with TV shows like CSI showing what you can do with forensics in explicit detail, it's easy to forget how difficult it would be to figure out what happened in the past (and to be honest, even given the advanced forensic technology available, shows like CSI still gloss over the difficulties of a murder investigation). Mr. Whicher had no such forensic luxuries in his day and had to rely on his cunning and intuition, perhaps moreso than would be comfortable with modern populations. Indeed, one of the undercurrents of the book is how England was reacting to the notion of a "detective" - a concept that was somewhat new to the world. Many felt that detectives were too intrusive and seedy, in it only for the money or glory. Whicher does not seem like that type though. He's reserved and curious, confident in his prowess, but honorable in his manner.
Of course, I'm basing my opinion of the man on what could be argued is a partially-fictional representation of the man and his actions. This question of what is real and what is fiction is something that kept coming to mind while reading this book. Part of that might be the year in film, as previously mentioned, but I think other readers would find such questions arising when reading the book as well. Of the three main components of the story I mentioned earlier (murder mystery, biography, and survey of detective fiction), it is the latter that calls reality into question the most. There seems to be a general idea that quoting fiction in a formal argument is bad form, and as such I can see some people being taken aback by Summerscale's book. While impeccably researched and sourced, she does give the book a flare you don't normally see in non-fiction. As she mentions in her introduction, she uses many devices of detective fiction in her writing. She directly references detective fiction of the day, as well as authors like Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry James, and Wilkie Collins (Arthur Conan Doyle is not really referenced until later in the book, as Doyle did not start writing his Sherlock Holmes books until well after Whicher's heyday). Some of these references are to non-fiction - Dickens interviewed Whicher, for instance, and Summerscale includes many of Dickens' insights into Whicher and the case at Road Hill House - but some references are directly from detective fiction. Again, some might find that inappropriate, but I'm sympathetic to such techniques, and I think Summerscale does an exceptional job mixing fact and fiction, to the point where I don't think the book would be as informative or interesting if it didn't mix those seemingly incompatible components. Ultimately, I think this combination yields some insights that a traditional scholarly effort might have missed, and I quite enjoyed the book for the way it treated both real and fictional detectives (page 304):
Perhaps this is the purpose of detective investigations, real and fictional - to transform sensation, horror and grief into a puzzle, and then to solve the puzzle, to make it go away. 'The detective story," observed Raymond Chandler in 1949, 'is a tragedy with a happy ending.' A storybook detective starts by confronting us with a murder and ends by absolving us of it. He clears us of guilt. He relieves us of uncertainty. He removes us from the presence of death.It was a good read, and I would recommend it to any one interested in mysteries or the era. Special thanks to longtime Kaedrin reader and friend, Spencer, for giving me this book.
Wednesday, January 19, 2011
2010 Kaedrin Movie Awards: Arbitrary Awards
So we're finished with the formal awards, but there are always some other awards that don't really require a lot of nominees... and there are some movies that have something so uncommon that it's worth bringing up. Interestingly, some of these awards have actually become a yearly thing, despite never really being conceived as such. In any case, here they are:
* Sorry, I forgot. It's not a train, it's a missile the size of the Chrystler building! Please accept my humble apologies.
Sunday, January 16, 2011
2010 Kaedrin Movie Award Winners!
The nominations for the 2010 Kaedrin Movie Awards were announced last week. Today, I'll be announcing the winners of those formal awards. Later in the week, I'll cover less traditional categories in what we like to call the Arbitrary Awards, and at some point in the near future, I'll post my top 10 of 2010 (this will most likely happen in early to mid-February). So let's get this party started:
Wednesday, January 12, 2011
Just some links for your enjoyment...
Sunday, January 09, 2011
2010 Kaedrin Movie Awards
It's finally time for the 5th Annual Kaedrin Movie Awards! As of today, I've seen 69 movies that would be considered 2010 releases. This is on par with the past few years [Previous Installments here: 2006 2007 2008 2009], but a little less than last year. Regardless, this post marks the beginning of my end of the year recap (only a little more than a week late!) The categories are the same as last year, but will proceed a bit differently. I'll post all the nominations today, but I don't think I'll be announcing one or two winners a day (as I've done the past few years), instead opting to announce them all at once next Sunday.
2010 has been an unusual year for movies. In particular, the first half of the year was pretty disheartening. It wasn't until about mid-summer that things started turning around, and as I've been playing catchup for the past couple of months, I've been finding some diamonds in the rough from the first half. In the end, while I don't think it's been a particularly good year for movies, I think that abysmal first half has ruined the year's reputation. That or the endless parade of mediocrity that seems to be this year's theme. There are a couple of movies I'm still hoping to catch up with before I release my top 10, but there's no reason to delay the awards for that. Besides, one of the points of these awards is that they allow me to give some love to films that I like, but which aren't necessarily great or are otherwise flawed (as such, the categories may seem a bit eclectic). Some of these movies will end up on my top 10, but the grand majority of them will not.
The rules for this are the same as last year: Nominated movies must have been released in 2010 (in the US) and I have to have seen the movie (and while I have seen a lot of movies, I don't pretend to have seen a comprehensive selection - don't let that stop you from suggesting something though). Also, I suppose I should mention the requisite disclaimer that these sorts of lists are inherently subjective and personal. But that's all part of the fun, right? So here are the nominees for this year's awards:
It's been a bad year for villainy... I was able to fill the category, but only by putting some real stretches on the list. As with previous years, my picks in this category are for individuals, not groups (i.e. no vampires or zombies as a group).
Heroes, on the other hand, are having a much more badass year. There were so many choices, I had to actually cut a few people off the list and I still ended up with a very large list... Again limited to individuals and not groups.
Another lackluster year for comedy. I ended up pulling a few unconventional choices into the list...
Interestingly, this is a pretty decent year for young actresses, as the grand majority of nominees are female. As with previous years, my main criteria for this category was if I watched a movie, then immediately looking up the actor/actress on IMDB to see what else they've done (or where they came from). This sometimes happens for even well established actors/actresses, but not so much this year...
Sometimes even bad movies can look really great...
I'm a total genre hound, despite genres generally receiving very little attention from critics. This is a category normally dominated by Horror, but there's at least one solid SF nominee (and another two that are sorta mixtures). The list is still weighted more towards Horror, but a respectable showing for both genres:
A surprisingly long list of options this year (in each of the 4 years I've been doing this, there's only been 3 options). Now, at least one of these is a pretty bad movie, but I included it anyway.
Always a difficult award to figure out, as there are different ways in which a movie can disappoint. Usually, expectations play just as big a part of this as the actual quality of the film, and it's possible that a good movie can win the award because of high expectations.
This was a decent year for action, though not especially a standout year. This award isn't for individual action sequences, but rather an overall estimation of each film.
Not a particularly strong year for the plot twist either, though there are a few standouts.
This is always a strange category to populate because the concept is a bit nebulous, but nevertheless, there are a few interesting choices...
A 2009 movie I didn't get to see until 2010... This is always a problem for the amateur movie lover. Towards the end of the year, 500 movies come out, but they only play in New York or LA for a grand total of like 3 hours (enough for 2 showings at each theater!) Plus, there's always a movie I dismissed and neglected to see which I end up seeing a year later and loving. A few good ones this year (er last year, no this year):
It looks like there isn't a clear leader in nominations, but there are 4 films coming in at 4 nominations each: Inception, Kick-Ass, Machete, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Nipping at their heels is a whopping 5 films with 3 nominations each, including: True Grit, Winter's Bone, Triangle, The Millenium Trilogy Movies (perhaps an unfair advantage there), and, surprisingly, Paranormal Activity 2. Even more films have 2 nominations each, and more than that with just 1. Overall, 34 movies were nominated (not including the 2009 movies or the "disappointment" award), which is still a pretty good showing, I think. So I'm going to give it a week and then hopefully announce all the winners next Sunday, followed by some Arbitrary awards and (eventually) a top 10.
Wednesday, January 05, 2011
The Book Queue (Updated)
According to my records, I read 21 books last year. This is not a large number by any means, but it was an improvement over recent years. Earlier in the year, I posted my book queue, featuring 10 books that I had sitting on my shelves (an unprecedented number of unread books for me, as I usually don't work that far ahead of myself) and of course, I've only read 7 of those. So three of the below are repeats, and in looking at some other previous lists, there's a couple other repeat books as well. Then there are several new additions, meaning that somehow that unprecedented list of 10 unread books has actually grown despite my reading 21 books last year. Score. Anyway, for the record, these are the books:
Sunday, January 02, 2011
2010 Catchup Progress, Part 2
The year has ended, but the 2010 Catchup continues. Last time around, I had only seen about 5 of the movies on my original list, but I've been some pretty good progress since then, knocking about 10 more movies off the list (plus 2 additional films that weren't even on the list):
Where am I?
This page contains entries posted to the Kaedrin Weblog in January 2011.
Kaedrin Beer Blog
12 Days of Christmas
2006 Movie Awards
2007 Movie Awards
2008 Movie Awards
2009 Movie Awards
2010 Movie Awards
2011 Fantastic Fest
2011 Movie Awards
6 Weeks of Halloween
Arts & Letters
Computers & Internet
Disgruntled, Freakish Reflections
Philadelphia Film Festival 2006
Philadelphia Film Festival 2008
Philadelphia Film Festival 2009
Philadelphia Film Festival 2010
Science & Technology
Security & Intelligence
The Dark Tower
Weird Movie of the Week
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