“Mr. Robot” And The Golden Age Of Television

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Mr. Robot Golden Age Of Television

The silly, ham-fisted poster for Mr. Robot. Image via IMDb.

The word ‘re-action’ implies that something has already come. Let’s ignore, for a moment, what that something is, and just focus on the final knot of the rope:

Appraisal. Or rather, what the act of valuation does and does not entail — at least in the long run — for an object. Sam Esmail’s Mr. Robot (2015), for instance, has been praised virtually without exception, with much of it revolving around the show’s technological accuracy. In fact, while the harshest critics nit-pick this very thing, few mention ‘frills’ like narrative, visual depth, and writing, as if the world begins and ends with their desires, first.

Look closer, however, and Mr. Robot is stuck between a cliche at the show’s start (“What I’m about to tell you is top secret…the top 1% of the top 1%…the guys that play God without permission”), and a predictable narrative arc at the show’s end, with a riddling of bad moments in between. It is pointless to dwell on every mis-step, but there’s the ripping off of the Enron logo for the show’s monolithic E Corp (“they’re everywhere…the ‘E’ might as well stand for ‘evil’”); the stereotype of the Indian pervert, who gets busted — surprise, surprise — for child porn; the stereotype of the ‘prophetic’ homeless man who quips on things others will never understand; the lonely, disaffected youth who is in fact ‘better’ than everyone around him; a Fight Club-level rant against Facebook, prescription pills, and consumer culture delivered to a therapist too stupid to really get it; and, of course, the laughable, clunky shift from Mr. Robot’s use of E-Corp to ‘Evil Corp,’ thus cementing the idea that much of this is happening in Elliot’s mind, and ONLY Elliot’s mind. So much, I guess, for being a ‘psychological thriller,’ as you’re given the key so early that you can’t help but turn.

Yet the mainstream valuation is still there, for just as my words will not change others’ reactions to Mr. Robot, these valuations, in turn, have little to do with the show itself. They bring in too much of the percipient, then assume the perception — whatever it may be — is the outgrowth of something bigger.

To see this in action, one merely needs to go back to the original assertion: that there’s a ‘something’ that’s already paved the way for Mr. Robot and many shows like it. After all, the last few years have been termed a Golden Age Of Television, on par with the last half-century. And while it’s good, I guess, to see that folks aren’t merely pining for the world of yore, let’s review the evidence, piece by piece, so that we’re not merely adding to the noise:

Breaking Bad (2008) was a mere assemblage of cliches rounded off with the sort of camp irreality that could have only hoodwinked (and did!) the very … Continue reading →

Review Of Errol Morris’s “The Unknown Known”

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Errol Morris Donald Rumsfeld The Unknown KnownErrol Morris’s excellent 2013 film, The Unknown Known, will indubitably be compared to 2003’s The Fog Of War, and many — for reasons irrelevant to the films themselves — will not like this. They’ll point to how ‘slippery’ Donald Rumsfeld is, vis-a-vis Robert S. McNamara, and how difficult it was for Morris to tease out the answers that he (and his audience) wanted. They’ll point to the facade that Rumsfeld erects, and use that impenetrability as a means of keeping the film from greater company. And, of course, they’ll note that Rumsfeld’s charisma — at least here — and his well-placed pauses, the odd philosophical quips, the memorable phrasings, are quite at odds with the man’s total lack of integrity. In fact, they will probably hate him (and the film by proxy) for it, since Rumsfeld is unwilling to provide the sort of resolutions that they, as beings with moral biases, absolutely need. If un-exacted, there is a feeling that something is, for lack of a better phrase, not quite ‘whole’. And given that we’re dealing with a film — that is, a work of art — it’s all too easy to extrapolate this lack of ‘wholeness’ with an aesthetic one, for while The Fog Of War is clearly a superior film, it is superior for reasons almost 100% contrary to those typically given, even as both films are far more alike than not.

The short answer is that The Unknown Known does less with more, and while it is an error to merely expect answers from an art-work, the answers that Morris’s latest film provides are not only more tame (which is forgivable), but often limited to base political queries that have already been much dissected elsewhere, as opposed to Fog Of War’s more transcendent ones. In the earlier film, for instance, Errol Morris extrapolates “11 Lessons” from McNamara’s life, thus allowing the former Secretary Of Defense to opine on things beyond war or the details of some now-hazy political event. By contrast, The Unknown Known has a stellar first half — as good as anything Morris has ever done, really — with great poetic visuals, memorable little quips from Rumsfeld that get polished and inverted at the narrative unfolds, and a controlling metaphor that subtly posits his tens of thousands of internal memos as pointless, even duplicitous exercises forced upon the White House staff over many decades. The image of “snowflakes” (Rumsfeld’s affectionate term for these documents) only adds to this effect by twisting our normal associations with snow into something altogether different — sinister, even — as the film moves through wintry scenes. But while Fog Of War keeps this sort of thrust for the entirety of its 107 minutes, The Unknown Known’s second half devolves into a far more ‘informational’ film that, ironically, doesn’t offer any more information than we’ve already learned in the past decade, making its utter dependence upon context (as opposed to what’s on the screen) frustrating. Yes, … Continue reading →

On The ‘Lost Films’ Of John Cassavetes

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In preparation for my John Cassavetes panel discussion from a couple of weeks back, I decided to look into the director’s less-celebrated and/or actor-only efforts, just to see if I’d missed any lost gems. Now that the much-lauded Love Streams is simply out of the run as a potentially great work, perhaps there’s something else out there that qualifies?

Saddle The Wind John Cassavetes Robert Taylor

Saddle The Wind. Image via Wikipedia.

Saddle The Wind (1958)

Directed by Robert Parrish and written by Rod Serling, Saddle The Wind is an odd little film that, in 1958, was notable for starring Robert Taylor, but today is strictly remembered due to the names Rod Serling and John Cassavetes. The titled lured me in with its sense of poesy, and with Rod Serling (of Twilight Zone fame) as writer, I was hoping for a neglected classic. Yet the film is poorly scripted, cliched in parts, features a bad, tacked-on ending, and mediocre acting from all involved, except John Cassavetes. In fact, from the first shot of Nick (Cassavetes) in the sun, the viewer simply sees a different caliber of acting that subtly predicts Nick’s character arc without giving too much away. The way Nick blinks, or moves his hands nervously; the tiny, easy-to-miss gestures; the disappearing smiles or slight shifts of mood — these are all hallmarks of character realism, and present Nick as a real entity with an accumulating, psychotic streak as opposed to a mere symbol of this or that. There’s little Nick can stand for, and despite the script’s issues, it’s a credit to Serling that Nick is simply a villain transplanted to the Old West, as opposed to the heavy-handed ‘commentary’ that the Western genre had become known for by this time. Sure, the decision also strips the film of depth, but a few subversions of genre tropes, like this, keep Saddle The Wind from being in worse company. An OK work, overall, but one of Rod Serling’s minor efforts, even as it’s one of Cassavetes’s best performances from the 1950s.

Too Late Blues John Cassavetes

Stella Stevens as Jess. Source.

Too Late Blues (1961)

Of all of John Cassavetes’s ‘meddled-with’ productions — these include A Child Is WaitingGloriaBig Trouble, and 1 or 2 others — this is no doubt his best, and retains more of his characteristic style and vague character resolutions that manage to keep a few possibilities open. It begins with a jazz musician, Ghost (Bobby Darin), and an aspiring singer, Jess (Stella Stevens), seemingly falling in love, then trying to figure out what to do about their careers. Ghost is idealistic while his band-members are ready to compromise, but, as with so many other artists with potential, Ghost’s personal lacks (physical cowardice, irresponsibility) feed into the art, as well, thus stripping it and ruining both his chances with Jess as well as art. He leaves the band, makes some money as a sell-out (via a patron who sees right through him), and finally returns to his band, only … Continue reading →

Review Of John Cassavetes’s “Love Streams” (1984)

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John Cassavetes Love Streams Gena RowlandsIn looking at John Cassavetes’s films a quarter-century after his death, a dilemma emerges. No, I don’t mean this in the silly, cliched sense that there’s a ‘problem’ (ugh- that word!) with the films, themselves. I simply mean that Cassavetes is still close enough to OUR time that he could provide a glimpse into the critic’s psyche, and the sort of trends most art-goers are utterly shackled by. This is because Cassavetes went from writing and directing 3 or 4 neglected masterpieces — often booed and hissed out of movie theaters — to being given the sort of love and adulation that is the inevitable due of most great artists. In this way, quite a few people in the industry probably feel stupid — that is, if they’re even remembered, now — and feel the need to make amends. And what better way to atone for such than to praise everything Cassavetes has done (as Ray Carney does), and push the director higher, higher: precisely where he belongs?

Except there’s just one problem. A reaction to one extreme with yet another is not exactly helpful, for — being a kind of mirror image of the same, original stupidity — it still disrespects the art, the artist, and the process which lets one become the other. (Cassavetes, after all, is gone. You had your chance, folks.) The fact is, for every masterpiece John Cassavetes had made, there was at least one mediocrity. Faces, Opening Night: classics, both of them. This just can’t be reasonably argued against. Husbands, too, is an interesting watch, with brilliant moments, albeit quite flawed. A Woman Under The Influence is similar in this regard. As for Minnie And Moskowitz? An oddity, to be generous, even if saved by 2 or 3 flat-out great scenes. Shadows, little more than a young man’s first, solid exercise. The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie — one of the greatest films ever made, by any director, in any time period or genre, and my own personal favorite, as well as my vote for cinema’s most ‘enigmatic’ creation. Then, there’s 1984’s Love Streams, another interesting movie with a handful of brilliant parts — the equal of anything else in the man’s output, really — nonetheless marred by lots of fluff, weak editing, and a too-prosaic end. Yet it’s Cassavetes’s final film, and, what’s more, feels like it, too: a fact that encourages film-lovers to love it, now, especially since they were unable to support Cassavetes at a time when he could have really used the help.

Love Streams opens with Robert Harmon (John Cassavetes) getting yelled at by his secretary — likely over some bit of bad behavior — and interviewing a number of young women, most likely for “a book about nightlife,” about what it means “to have a good time.” The girls are all quite nervous: a nice touch, for he’s already distant and unapproachable just a few minutes into the … Continue reading →

Review: Hirokazu Koreeda’s “Still Walking” (2008)

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Still Walking Hiroshi Abe Yui Natsukawa Koreeda

It’s often thought that the best way to create a film — or any work of art, really — is really to write drama: to craft a conflict, first, and then deal with its natural outgrowths. In most cases, however, this is quite backwards, for true ‘adult’ drama begins not with the energies immanent to it, but to their architects: that is, people, and all the little details, the sums and parts, that help make such energies real. In this way, drama is not a thing that merely happens, but is demanded by the specifics of character, and feels almost inevitable. Few films have shown this better than Hirokazu Koreeda’s Still Walking, a work that begins and terminates with its characters, whose whims, personal beliefs, quirks, and mannerisms not only build their conflict, but come to justify it as well.

The film’s narrative follows a day in the Yokoyama family, a (subtly) needling clan not privy to the extent of their own destructiveness, and their shared mistakes. It opens with vistas of an anonymous town as a couple of guitars play (from Japan’s GONTITI) and domestic scenes unfold. These include food preparations — less for a meinichi, we’ll come to learn, than a bitter, self-serving ritual that simply recapitulates their own problems — small-talk between the aging mother, Toshiko (Kirin Kiki), and her daughter, You (Chinami Kataoka), that lulls that viewer into a sense of complacency that will soon be dispersed; and, most interesting of all, shots of Kyohei (Yoshio Harada), the film’s doctor and patriarch, seen in one of the film’s only tender moments as he laughs with a patient. Now, it may be impossible to tell just yet, but this is a clue that he’s not so much aloof as he is aloof from his own family, for reasons we’ll come to know and others never stated.

Kyohei’s role in this dynamic is evident early on, in one the film’s most arresting shots. One sees the parents’ son, Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), his wife, Yukari (Yui Natsukawa), Yukari’s son, Atsushi (Shohei Tanaka), You, and her husband, talking to one another as Kyohei enters, unseen by the viewer, but clearly there given the family’s sudden — perhaps even fearful — reaction. It is a great acting moment and one that encapsulates the talent of pretty much everyone involved, subtly taking cues from each other and responding to them. The group immediately moves to bow, yet Ryota merely looks on with an aloofness that Kyohei returns. This is not really spiteful, merely proof that the relationship is at its end, with the rest of the film focused not so much on how it unravels — for it’s already quite unraveled, in interactions we do not see but can guess at — but on new insights into the same basic conflicts that must have trended through their lives for much too long.

Thus, there are no massive revelations, no melodramatic secrets that are uncovered to help the … Continue reading →