Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Pain from an old wound: MAD MEN, nostalgia and the end of an era

No spoilers.


In the first season finale of Mad Men, Don Draper – an ad man in 1960s New York – defines nostalgia, from the Greek, as “pain from an old wound”. He’s pitching a campaign to Kodak, who are trying to sell their slide projector wheel.

Nostalgia is delicate and potent, Don says. The carousel is about evoking memories, eliciting emotion. Nostalgia and the wheel arouse “a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone”.

Throughout the presentation, we see photographs of Don and his family – telling us more about their lives and their history, arousing emotions for a family at the centre of the series. A family we know that is slowly breaking apart.

The wheel "isn't a spaceship, it's a time machine. It goes backwards and forwards... it takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It's not called the wheel, it's called the Carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels - around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved."

Mad Men is like the Carousel. It’s a time machine. And it’s made me nostalgic for a time before my time. It’s a glimpse into the quickly changing society of America in the 1960s, told by people who are mostly don’t witness history. History happens around them, barely noticed, scarcely glimpsed.

The 60s is a well-documented era, especially when it comes to nostalgia. One of my favourite TV series as a kid was The Wonder Years, which was set between 1968 and 1973. Before my time, but also of my time. I was Kevin Arnold’s age as I watched that show. Nostalgic for an era I didn’t live through.

That decade, because of its political turmoil, its turning points in social change and epic moments of history like the Apollo missions and Woodstock, is always fascinating to me. Setting a TV series around an advertising agency in those years seems like a smart choice, but when it premiered in 2007, Mad Men was a risk on a small-time cable network.

And I didn’t stick with it, not the first time. I stopped watching halfway through the first season and I can’t tell you why. Honestly, even rewatching the first season, I cannot imagine how I could have stopped. The first episode is really strong, still one of the series’ best episodes. Don Draper is so clearly defined – he’s at the top of his game, but he’s also mysterious.

And the supporting characters are all great, even if the pilot only gives hints of their future greatness. It’s hard to imagine a show without Joan, who was originally only meant to be in the pilot. But we do get to meet Peggy, who is there to garner our sympathies, while Don Draper is difficult to like or love.

I tried the series again after the first three seasons had aired and I tore through those first thirty-nine episodes in pretty quick succession. Even rewatching the first season episodes didn’t feel taxing at all; it’s an imminently rewatchable show. Which is odd, because the style of the show is slow-paced and nothing too dramatic happens from scene to scene.

Somehow, though, over episodes and seasons, the depth of the characters and the complexities of their lives bring a greater weight and dimension to stories that could, on the surface, seem quite inconsequential.

In a show set when and where it is, with so much change happening – and these characters only peripherally aware of society shifting, one of the big questions of the series is, “Can people change?” Will Don Draper remain the eternally damaged boy with a secret? Will Peggy remain the put-upon secretary who always seems so lost? Will Joan continue to make poor choices in men? Will Roger ever find something more than hedonism? Can Pete learn to approximate an actual human being?

These questions are slight and reductive. None of these characters are easily pigeon-holed. None of their stories are so easily summed up. But, like the Kodak wheel, they are stuck on a carousel, travelling around and around, looking for a place to be themselves. Looking for themselves, even when most of the time they are just desperate to make the best of their time in advertising.

One of the most remarkable things about Mad Men’s seven seasons is its commitment to making you feel the passage of time. It might have been seven seasons for us, spread out over eight years. In the show itself, more than a decade passes – and you feel it in how they change and how the world changes. A lot of series last five to seven years, but many of them are eager for you to forget time is passing – or, at least, they don’t want you to dwell so much.

Breaking Bad ran for six seasons, but is set over only two years. Star Trek: The Next Generation ran for seven seasons, but Patrick Stewart looks the same at the end as he did at the beginning. Sure, actors age and kids grow up, but Mad Men ran with that – marking time and ageing its characters believably and sometimes quite dramatically.

For most of the first two seasons of the show, it’s hard to get a grip on when the episode takes place. There’s a March 1960 calendar in the first episode, but pinpointing exactly where in time you are is almost a game. Snatches of news heard on the radio. TV footage in the background. The march of time moves on, but you might not recognise it. Martin Luther King Jnr makes his “I Have a Dream” speech and these middle class white characters barely notice.

But as the series continues on, the weight of history starts to press down. Subtly at first and then harder and harder as the 60s progress. These characters, as oblivious as they are to the civil rights movement or first wave feminism, can’t help but notice when the country is at war and losing its grip by 1968. They might have missed King’s speech, but when he’s assassinated, they see. And when the American military gets bogged down in Vietnam, these advertising execs finding themselves pitching for work from Dow Chemical – makers of napalm.

Just as the country and the times change, creator Matthew Weiner is happy for the circumstances of the characters to change. They might all work together, fertile grounds for a lot of TV series, but that doesn’t mean some regulars can’t get fired or the business itself can’t be threatened with a hostile takeover or two. Characters divorce and remarry. Some disappear, never to be heard from again. Circumstances change, but do these characters?

Are their fundamental virtues and flaws the same at the end as they are at the beginning? You’d hope, from a dramatic point of view, that the entire cast of characters doesn’t tread water for a decade. You’d hope that one or more of them might see the light, change their circumstances. Or, as Don Draper once spouted, “If you don’t like what they are saying about you, change the conversation.”

Don talks about change, but is resistant to it. He’s still wearing a hat, while the rest of the characters embrace louder colours – and the women start wearing pants. It’s a long way from the first episode when Don doesn’t want to deal with a woman as an equal at work, and slowly, over a decade, that facade is cracked in numerous ways. But Don remains that hurt little boy, who has grown up to be a depressive and an alcoholic. Always on that carousel. Going around and around, trying to find a place he will be loved.

Don is a consumate ad man. He knows how to tell a story and how to spin a yarn. That’s what his whole life is, a story, a secret. He has to keep pitching to keep that lie going. And that narrative thread lasts longer and less time than you might expect. The truth comes out several times. Don must admit who and what he is over and over again, while trying to maintain the life he has built for himself and his kids. But the consequences of that first lie endure from first episode to last. Just as all our lies and doubts and insecurities endure. So do we change or do we figure out ways to deal with those insecurities? And is that enough?

I’ve talked a lot about Don Draper. He’s the main character, the spine of the story. He’s the first and last person we see on screen in the series. His fall (spiritual and emotional) is animated in the opening credits each and every week. But he’s not my favourite character. He’s not why I stayed watching the show. He’s a good introduction, but the show is so well populated by fascinating people across the decade – both at Don’s work and outside of it. Friends, family, colleagues.

Come for Don, but stay for Peggy and Joan and Roger and Pete and Betty and Sally. Meet Duck and Sal and Bob and Megan and Ken and Anna and Lane and... the list goes on and on. Mad Men is deeply populated with fascinating characters with complex inner lives. You want to know all about them, but sometimes you just scratch the surface before they are gone.

It’s hard to compare this show to any other. It’s almost like Six Feet Under, but not quite. I think both series were most interested in exploring how people live and work and love, without being too worried about where they go or where they end up. In both shows, each episode feels like a short story. Connected, sure. Adding up to something greater, definitely. But each week, in Mad Men’s New York and Six Feet Under’s Los Angeles, you just get to spend time with these people. Six Feet Under might have dealt directly with life and death, but Mad Men makes you feel like advertising has similar stakes.

Mad Men has just finished airing. Its final episode is a fitting end to ninety-two hours of television told over eight years set over a decade that was half a century ago. The characters might have been on a carousel, but the show kept moving in one direction. Forward. Another Don-ism.


The series is one of my all-time favourites, along with Six Feet Under and Twin Peaks and... on and on that list could go. Mad Men made me nostalgic for a time I never lived through and for a life I never lived. And as Don told us, nostalgia is pain from an old wound. Sometimes losing a TV series feels a little like that. But just like that carousel, at least I can hop on again. Not just because I want to go around again, but because it’s a time machine.

Friday, 1 May 2015

A Thing Isn’t Beautiful Because It Lasts: Avengers in the AGE OF ULTRON


The latest film in the Marvel Universe series feels like nothing so much as a season finale. And since Joss Whedon was once the master of creating season finales that were both emotionally satisfying and thematically resonant, it’s good to have him in charge for the second Avengers movie, Age of Ultron.

I’d like to compare it to the epic scope of Buffy’s “The Gift” but it feels more like Angel, if anything. Things change, the world moves on – and the best you can do is keep fighting. And embrace change.

Tony Stark has always been flawed, but by the third film in his own trilogy, he seemed to have found an emotional peace. But with that peace comes the idea that he can use his technology – his faith in machines being his tragic flaw – to create a replacement for the Avengers. He births an army of robots to calm the populace and fight alien foes.

Robert Downey Jnr’s Stark is such a towering figure in the Marvel Universe films – and to make him partly the villain of this new film is a strong dramatic choice. He creates the seeds of his own destruction, as Ultron later explains to the twins – the newly introduced to this series, Wanda and Pietro Maximoff.

But his egocentric schtick is getting slightly old. He is the only character we believe could make these choices, but when he keeps making them, as the narrative decides that he must, it makes little sense. Yes, I’m applying logic to a superhero film that contains a super soldier, a giant green man and a Norse God.

Luckily, though, in an ensemble film like this, other characters are allowed to shine – and Whedon smartly chooses to put a character or two at the centre that don’t have their own series yet. Much like Black Widow was the central figure of the first film, Hawkeye is the emotional centre of Age of Ultron. Natasha’s relationship with Bruce/the Hulk is a fine showcase for Scarlett Johannson and Mark Ruffalo, even though their subplot seems tangential to the main narrative.

And it’s the moments that don’t quite fit in this film that makes Ultron somewhat tricky to love. It is like a season finale, because you can’t appreciate this film without seeing where all the characters have been – and have some investment in where they are going. The main story is clear but the character motivations make sense only in the context of other films. Some plot machinations rely on Marvel Universe knowledge – and even then, I was confused about Thor’s visit to the plot resolution cave.

I described the first Avengers film as a character-drivenblockbuster. Ultron is definitely plot-driven, but it allows the characters to shine. And the contrivance of getting the gang to a farm to rest and recuperate allows Whedon the explore the characters in their down-time, while the villain formulates his next plan. And let it be said that James Spader is excellent as Ultron.

Age of Ultron is the longest Marvel Universe film and it has to be. It’s resolving plots that have built over 11 previous films and setting up stories for at least three future films (Civil War & Infinity War, Parts I & II). It has a cast of thousands – and makes that work most of the time. It’s amazing what multi-film contracts can look like on the big screen. Marvel Studios has figured out a way to bring back the classic Hollywood studio system, but in a way that the actors – and fans – win.

By the end of the film, change has come. The Marvel Universe will no longer be the same. The Avengers you once knew will be different the next time you see them, in the aforementioned future films. No one film can be everything to everyone – that’s an aphorism usually directed at the audience. In this case, this one film can’t be everything to every character – but it gives it a damn good go of it.

And now, because the Marvel Universe is everywhere, I guess it’s back to Netflix to keep watching Daredevil.

Thursday, 30 April 2015

See, Watch, Hear: April 2015

A monthly round-up of what I've seen, watched and listened to. This month I'll talk about the best-of-the-best in each category and then give a quick overview of the rest.

SEE

I binge-watched a bunch of stand-up comedians at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival early in the month, saw a show each at the Melbourne Theatre Company and Malthouse Thetare, as well as a little show called The Road to Woodstock at Chapel Off Chapel.


Spotlight on... Sara Pascoe vs History

I see a lot of theatre - plays and musicals, mostly. I love being won over by a piece of theatre. I go in with the attitude of "give me your best" and I really hope that happens. But when I watch plays or musicals, I can usually see the work that's gone into it. I watch and my brain tries to figure out how it works - whether as stage craft or just on the level of writing. If I'm loving a play, it can inspire me - to be better, to try new things. If I'm hating a play, I'm pulling it apart - trying to work out what went wrong.

Watching stand-up is, for me, like trying to understand nuclear physics. I understand the basic components. Or I like to think I do, but I don't think I could ever really explain it. Or replicate it. I could write a funny play or even a funny one-man show (I think I have done both). But stand-up? That's something I'm often in awe of. It seems so simple, but the degree of difficulty...

Sara Pascoe tells great stories, is consistently funny, ties her show to a theme - challenging our perception of womens' place in history - and entertains for a solid hour. She's open and honest - doesn't mind making fun of herself, but is never self-indulgent. And hilarious.

If a stand-up routine can make me laugh from beginning to end, that's all it needs to do. It doesn't need to be flashy. It doesn't even need to be smart. But if it is, if it has something to say. If it makes me see the world differently, good. Sara Pascoe did that. Just don't ask me how.

Elsewhere... Melbourne Theatre Company's production of Beckett's Endgame was hamstrung by Beckett himself and the insistence that his stage directions are followed to the letter. I like the play and there are superb moments. But in some ways it feels so dry, so mannered and so dated. After seeing the Triptych at the Adelaide Festival recently, I know I haven't become adverse to Beckett. But as much effort as director Sam Strong and his awesome cast put into the show, it still feels like the best play of 60 years ago.

The much more modern stylings of Meme Girls at Malthouse was entertaining but disappointing in the way it kind of felt thrown together. I know it was an homage to YouTube, but I only engaged (or not) with the show piece by piece and not by the whole.

I've seen a lot of Neil Cole plays, but his love letter to Joan Baez, The Road to Woodstock, is probably the best work of his. Petra Elliott is incredible in the role of Baez. It's on until Sunday.

WATCH


Spotlight on... Justified

When Justified started six year ago, I thought it might be a fun diversion. I like Elmore Leonard's novels and basing this show on one of his short stories is a solid basis for an ongoing series. The show is about Raylan Givens - a US Marshall who must return to his home town in Kentucky. The criminals who populate the show are typical Leonard creations, violent, verbose and - often - quite stupid. Givens is like a Sheriff from an old Western, so casting Timothy Olyphant after his turn in Deadwood was perfect.

There's a lot of talk about how TV is currently in a new golden age. And the shows discussed are often game-changers. The Sopranos, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad - they all changed the medium, whether or not I was a fan of them personally.

I don't think Justified changed the medium, but it was a solid show for six years - and it did what I need my favourite shows to do, remember its history and let its characters grow. Even just a little. It honoured Leonard's work and was a hell of a lot of fun.

Elsewhere...

One of the absolute best shows on television right now is The Americans - about a pair of Russian spies who are married and living in suburban America in the 1980s. Its third season was the best yet.

I also watched The Fall, which I loved. And Daredevil, which I am somewhat indifferent to. But I'll let you know what I think when I finish the first season.

And speaking of the Marvel Universe, I saw Avengers: Age of Ultron last weekend. I'll probably write a review of that this weekend. But just quickly - a lot of fun, but trying to do too many things at once.

Finally, the last season of Mad Men is airing right now. Expect a post about that when it wraps up in three weeks' time.

HEAR



Spotlight on... The Allusionist is a podcast about words - and sometimes about the spaces between the words. Its first episode was about puns, there's another about where the word bra comes from, one about crossword puzzles. My favourite is about fake words in the dictionary - words inserted into published dictionaries to act as a kind of copyright protection. If someone copies a dictionary and uses one of these fake words, it's easy for a dictionary publisher to notice.

Of course, once these words become well known, even for their fakery, they become words.

Other podcasts

Scriptnotes
 continues to be a great podcast about the creativity and business of screenwriting. On a similar topic, I've been listening to a lot of episodes of the Nerdist Writers Podcast - writers on Joss Whedon shows, writers on Friends, writers on Archer.

I've been sampling The Theory of Everything, which currently has an ongoing series called "New York After Rent" - which is about how AirBnB has changed New York in some strange ways. But it's also got some great stuff about the musical Rent and the real-life Life cafe (which no longer exists, but of issues with their landlords and, uh, rent).

Also check out Love + Radio and Strangers. Pick a random episode and listen.



Sunday, 5 April 2015

Making it up as we go along: writing for television


Let me let you in on a little secret – if season two of Sonnigsburg ever happens, we know where the story is headed. But if we only ever make six episodes, it’s a satisfying and self-contained story. It’s the whole first story we wanted to tell. We started with a premise, had a good idea of where episode six ended and worked our way to that ending.

Writer Javier Grillo-Marxauch, who worked on the first season of Lost, posted a lengthy essay on his blog recently – discussing the old accusation that the series’ writers were just “making it up as we went along”. For me, the essay went a long way to explain a fundamental truth – writing for television is nearly always being made up as it goes along. That’s the nature of television production.

Grillo-Marxauch does a great job at explaining the pressure the writing staff were under to build that first season on the back of an incredible pilot episode – a pilot that wasn’t necessarily written to begin the story they ended up telling. The premise of the pilot is low concept – people surviving a plane crash on a remote island. The TV series is high concept – it’s science fiction and melodrama.

There are elements in the pilot that point to those elements of science fiction and melodrama, but where the story was headed was not planned before the pilot. Planning began in earnest once the pilot was in production. I found Lost incredibly frustrating for the first season, enough that I gave up on the show. There were a lot of questions posed, but very few answers in that first year. The second season threw up a bunch of new characters, but the show – if the writers knew where it was headed – didn’t satisfy me enough. Not until the end of the third season, when the showrunners knew they had three more seasons left to wrap up the narrative did the writing and the characters come into sharper focus.

And I watched from there until the end, each successive season building on what came before. But year one was still shifting sands.

There’s a new documentary been released called “Showrunners” – about the men and women who create television series and oversee every aspect of writing and production. Joss Whedon is likely the most famous showrunner in recent memory – having made and run Buffy, Angel and Firefly. He also created Dollhouse and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which is run by his brother Jed.

A lot of avid viewers and fans are so engaged with TV series these days that showrunners have gained a level of fame that was unusual even ten years ago. Social media has allowed viewers to interact with these creators – and fans know they are the ones with the answers. Showrunners are more engaged with fans because they have to be – a lot of them go to ComicCon to sell their shows and new seasons to their committed audience.

The documentary focuses on the day-to-day running of TV series, mostly focused on Bones and the success and failure of TV new series (at the time of the doco’s production) House of Lies and Men of a Certain Age. What it mostly reveals is how time consuming the job of showrunner is, without any real insights into the creation of TV narratives.

But, it does prove Grillo-Marxauch’s point about making things up as you go along – given the time constraints and the long hours, once you’re into a production schedule that lasts ten months of the year, it becomes harder and harder to plan ahead. Especially on network series that produce 22 episodes a year, where writing might begin in June, but shooting will begin soon after and the showrunner must find the time to write and produce.

Even from my experience on Sonnigsburg, which we absolutely hoped to have written – at least to first draft stage - by the beginning of filming, as soon as production had started, writing had to take a back seat sometimes. Our showrunner and Executive Producer, Fiona Bulle, had to oversee casting and scheduling and location scouting. As well as having to write episode five, having already written and re-written the pilot to production quality.

Our series is only six episodes long, because we’re working with a small budget in our off-hours. Premium cable dramas – like Mad Men or Breaking Bad – are usually thirteen episodes per season. Having listened to a few episodes of the Nerdist Writers’ Panel recently, it seems these thirteen episode series have about the same amount of time as network dramas – giving them more time to get the script written and right.

BBC Dramas come in different shapes and sizes, depending on the stories they want to tell. I’ve just finished watching the first two series of The Fall – starring Gillian Anderson and Jamie Dornan. Series one was five episodes. Series two was six. The third and probably final series will be five episodes long. Creator/writer/director Alan Cubitt clearly knows the story he wants to tell and how long it will take to tell.

But is he just making it up as he goes along? Almost certainly. Is that a bad thing? Not really, but I think the series is a clear indication of the trouble with a lot of TV shows – they have great concepts for one year but aren’t sure how to proceed beyond that.

The first series of The Fall is tight and gripping – we follow the daily routine of both the detective on the case (Gillian Anderson) and the serial killer she is tracking (Jamie Dornan). The writing is smart and clever. The direction is stunning. And had it finished with episode five and never returned? I can imagine some people would have found it unsastisfying on a plot level, but in a way I was emotionally satisfied.

But I was glad there was a second series to watch. And, thanks to Netflix, I could just press play and keep going.

Because the first season of The Fall was so tightly plotted and well executed, the second season feels a lot more loose – trying to find focus with character and plot. There were a lot of threads left hanging after the first year, particularly as far as evidence the police hadn’t yet found, but the premiere of year two does a bit of regression to get the characters back to where they were before.

I think the second year of The Fall is great, but it had a lot to live up to after the first year’s success. But it also does things you expect from a crime drama, mines some old cliches and was rarely as surprising to me as the first five episodes. It was, however, a very tense cat and mouse game between Gibson and Spector.

No series, save Babylon 5, ever had the luxury of planning its entire series’ narrative arc before production began. Even B5 needed to switch horses midstream with a change of leading men, but most television is made up as it goes along. That’s the nature of television production.

I don’t mean to pick on The Fall. I think it’s extraordinary. Up there with the best of the best. When a show is so great from the beginning, even one step down can magnify its flaws. And, besides, it’s the last show I watched – so it’s at the forefront of my mind. I literally just finished series two when I started to write this.

I love the ongoing narratives of television series, but sometimes shows run too long and they lose what made them so great to begin with. I’ll be happy to see a third series of Stella Gibson and Paul Spector, but I hope it’s not dragged out too long – the story has ended really well twice. Let’s hope it can end well a third and final time.

As for the ending of Lost - I found it really satisfying, where a lot of people who watched and enjoyed from the beginning were upset.

And the ending of Sonnigsburg? So far, so good. If season two ever happens, let's hope we have a lot of time to make it all up as we go along.

Monday, 30 March 2015

See, Watch, Hear: March 2015

A monthly round-up of what I've seen, watched and listened to. This month I'll talk about the best-of-the-best in each category and then give a quick overview of the rest.

SEE

I went to Adelaide in early March for another season of my show Who Are You Supposed to Be, which got great houses and a 4.5 star review from the Adelaide Theatre Guide.

I love being in Adelaide at Fringe time - the atmosphere is great; so many shows, so many creative people, so many people I know from Melbourne putting shows on there.


Spotlight on... Bryony Kimmings: Sex Idiot & Fake It 'til you Make It

I missed Sex Idiot when it was on at the Melbourne Comedy Festival last year, so I was excited that I was going to get to see it in Adelaide. Such a fun, confronting, honest piece of theatre from someone I'd heard such great things about. It's fun to sit in an audience that has no idea what it's in for - I'd had some idea - and to be taken on a wild ride that is as hilarious as it is sexy as it is gutsy.

I'd heard great things about Kimmings new show, Fake It 'til you Make It, in Adelaide but I waited to see it back in Melbourne at Theatre Works. The show is about Kimming's boyfriend and his depression. It's an even more remarkable feat than Sex Idiot. For Fake It, her boyfriend - not a performer - is the focus of the show and on stage the whole time, hiding behind masks. And for a show about depression, it's delicate and considerate, hilarious and moving.

It's hard to describe Kimming's work without saying what's happening on stage. She's a performance artist, which makes her part actor, part dancer, part theatre-maker. The songs make it feel like cabaret and then they make it feel like a musical. And then it's something else entirely.

Fake It is on at Theatre Works as part of the Comedy Festival. And you will laugh. But the fact it's been programmed as part of MICF is a stroke of genius - because it'll sneak up on some people and give them something they never expected.

And the performers will be there at the end to make sure you're safe and looked after.

Elsewhere... Bec Hill's stand-up show was a great start to my Adelaide Fringe experience this year. She's hilarious. East End Cabaret was a smart and crazy show, too. Showgirl Addiction was a sexy night of burlesque. A Butterfly Effect was some clever improvisation, as was The Ronin.

Also in Adelaide, as part of the Adelaide Festival, I got to see the State Theatre Company of South Australia's Beckett Triptych - Eh Joe, Footfalls and Krapp's Last Tape. These productions were exquisitely realised, Krapp being the absolute highlight of the night. I'm so glad I got to see this production.

Back in Melbourne, the Comedy Festival has started - and so far, apart from Fake It, I've also seen Sarah Bennetto's Funeral which was some adorable lunacy and Innes Lloyd's Men of Your Dreams, which was clever and ridiculous - I'll leave it up to you to decide which part was Innes and which was Lloyd! Heh.

WATCH


Spotlight on... Netflix

I haven't actually watched much on Netflix yet - a bunch of episodes of Brooklyn Nine-Nine and, let's say, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. I recommend both highly, though their senses of humour are entirely different.

Netflix, of course, will revolutionise TV watching in Australia as it has done in the US. There might not be as much content on our version in comparion, but there's still more than enough to watch. I'm already eyeing off The Fall, Bloodline, House of Cards Season Three and, coming soon, Daredevil. Even just their original programming is enough to justify the monthly fee, but with the addition of shows I've just never gotten around to watching, Netflix is going to have me stuck to the couch a lot.

From traditional television...

There's been a few articles recently about how The Americans is the best show on television, but I'm not quite up-to-date with it, so I haven't actually read those articles. But, I basically agree with the premise. A+

Justified's final season is one of its best years and with only three episodes to go and no idea where it's headed, I'm so glad to see it going out on top.

Broad City is hilarious. Episodes' fourth season was a disaster. How to Get Away With Murder is downright crazy, but I love it. Looking's second and final season was a disappointment to me, but I'm glad to hear it will get a wrap-up special sometime.

And I seem to have taken a month off from my Wonder Years rewatch.

HEAR


Spotlight on... Radio Lab's Fu-Go

The less said about this episode, the better. It's an extraordinary piece of World War II history that is barely known, because word of it was suppressed by the US government at the time. Even now, the story - and its suppression - brings up great questions about what the media should and shouldn't report - and what effect reporting and not reporting can have. Can it make us safer or make us more prone to panic? Either way, it's a fascinating curio about a silent invasion.

Other podcasts

I listened to a lot of Radio Lab this month: Patient Zero, In the Dust of this Planet, For the Love of Numbers, Brown Box and - my favourite - Quicksaaaand!

The highlight of This American Life this month was Three Miles, though it was thoroughly depressing, as well.



Sunday, 1 March 2015

See, Watch, Hear: February 2015

A monthly round-up post of what I’ve seen on stage, watched on film or TV and listened-to podcast-wise.

SEE

Just like in January, I only saw two things on stage: WOT? NO FISH!! at the Malthouse – which is an exquisite little show about a Jewish family’s history in the east end of London, stretching from the 1920s through the 1980s and right up until now. Danny Braverman is an engaging performer, who brings his great uncles’ sketches to life in a charming and sometives very moving way.

I also saw Flesh Eating Tiger at the Owl & Pussycat. This is the first show at the Owl & Pussycat, under co-Artistic Directorship of Gabrielle Savrone & Thomas Ian Doyle. Previous artistic director Jason Kavanagh has returned to direct this new work by American playwright, Amy Tofte. Really great performances by Zak Zavod and Marissa Bennett. A solid start to a new year at the Owl & Cat.

Wot? No Fish!!


WATCH

Film

The Academy Awards were on this past week and I’d probably seen the least number of nominees before the ceremony than I ever had before. I’d only seen three of the Best Picture nominees – and I’m glad that Birdman won. Though I would have liked to have seen Boyhood take a prize or two.

I saw Julianne Moore’s Academy Award-winning performance in Still Alice just the day before she won. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Moore give a bad performance and not here, either. I just didn’t think much of the film, overall. Odd that she would be finally honoured for a film that is not a patch on the films she’s previously been nominated for.

Julianne Moore in Still Alice


Television

Parks & Recreation is over and it went out in an emotional one-hour finale. It used a clever structure to really pay off seven years of a sitcom that, at the height of its powers, was one of the best on television.

Agent Carter had quite a strong first season and wrapped up in solid fashion. I really hope it gets another season, because I’d hate to never see Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter again.

I caught up on Galavant, which was a bunch of silly fun. Better Call Saul started really strongly. Looking continues to impress. And The Americans & Justified have returned, and are still exciting in their own ways. Oh, and I hadn’t noticed Episodes was back – so I’m catching up on that.

And I must say that the fifth season of The Wonder Years on DVD is very odd – mostly because early 90s TV really doesn’t care much for continuity, plus it had sidelined most of its regular characters to focus on Kevin and a bunch of new kids. Weird.

Parks & Recreation - the final season


HEAR

This American Life is never dull – and their two-part episode “Cops See It Differently” is a fascinating insight into how police see recent news stories very differently than most of the general public. It’s engrossing and depressing.

Invisibilia’s “The Power of Categories” was a highlight from that series.

Scriptnotes’ interview with African American screenwriter Malcolm Spellman (who writes for the series, Empire) is incredible: he talks about the evolution of his career and they discuss writing black scripts and black series and how the landscape is changing. Highly recommended.

And I’ve started Pleasuretown, a serial drama podcast. I’ll have more to say when I’m done with the first season, I’m sure.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

"See, I'm Smiling": THE LAST FIVE YEARS from stage to screen

Jeremy Jordan & Anna Kendrick, The Last Five Years

When I wrote my review of Into the Woods, I thought a lot about adapting stage shows to film – and whether or not the musical genre, in particular, is next-to-impossible to translate to the big screen. If something is written with the stage in mind, sometimes it can be hard to open it up on film – and sometimes opening it up breaks the fragile reality created on stage.

Stage plays can suffer the move from stage to screen because plays are often static – a couple of scene changes or a small number of fixed sets. August: Osage County presented a large ensemble family drama on one set, but the film insisted on opening things up – and an odd tonal shift. God of Carnage benefited from the claustrophobia of one set; a film in one location is anathema to the form, but then the tension of the story can be lost.

Musicals, by their very nature, are theatrical. Singing the story isn’t natural, but it’s no more odd on stage than minimalist sets or a curtain or seeing a show in the round. This is not to say musicals can’t work on film, but as musicals have evolved, they are playing more and more with stage conventions – making the translation to film much more difficult.

The film version of Into the Woods struggled with a massive change in tone from Act 1 to Act 2. The film eschews the act break, obviously, but into trying to streamline the two parts into one whole, the shift is jarring – it doesn’t feel like a new chapter, it feels like a sudden left turn. Even some of the humour that works so beautifully on stage seemed to be missing in the film – a lot of the time it just felt like a joke played on stage just wouldn’t work the same in close up on a giant screen.

Today I watched the film version of another of my favourite musicals, The Last Five Years. In most ways, it survives the move from the stage to cinema. In many ways, it elevates the material – making a very rich film, indeed. 

Like Into the Woods, I’ve seen three productions of The Last Five Years – though I missed the Off-Broadway revival, and all three versions I’ve seen have been from amateur theatre companies. Though with varying definitions of what constitutes amateur. Just quickly: one production had a great Jamie, one production had a great Cathy and one production had an awful director. If we take it as written that Jason Robert Brown’s book, lyrics and score are stunning – and they really are – the show obviously relies on the other three pieces for it to work.

The Last Five Years is the story of Jamie and Cathy – their five year relationship, from beginning to end. Cathy’s songs tell their relationship from end to beginning. Alternating between Cathy’s songs are Jamie’s, which tell their relationship from beginning to end. They meet at the middle, when Jamie proposes and the two get married.

The film doesn’t struggle with the theatrical conceit of dual timelines, nor does it try to explain it. It just is how it is. It took me a few times of listening to the original Off-Broadway score to really appreciate how well-structured the show is and how everything fits chronologically. And when you have time and the inclination to think about it, it works – but the film (and the best stage productions) knows that you don’t need to understand how it all fits together, to realise it’s just about how these two characters are going in different directions.

On stage, the two actors are rarely on stage together. In the film, they are often singing to each other. My fear was that where the stage show isolates the two characters, seeing them together might rob the story of its power. It’s almost the opposite; the way the scenes are staged, we still see how isolated the characters become to each other, even when they are in the same room. There are scenes where it’s even more powerful than the stage version, because we can see how Cathy and Jamie really aren’t listening to each other.

In looking at Into the Woods, I was struck by the fact the film had some very well-staged songs – and some that were awful. Many of them were pedestrian. They might have been well sung, but they didn’t necessarily feel like great moments of film. Into the Woods might have been opened up, but it doesn’t transcend its stage origins.

The Last Five Years feels like one coherent piece. There are a couple of songs where I think the staging gets in the way, but most of them are strong – and the use of film language by director Richard LaGravenese, elevates the whole piece. 

Where minimalism works on stage, the fact that the director puts the show solidly into reality is a bonus. Where Cathy writes letters from Ohio in the theatre, in the film, she and Jamie Skype. This is partly due to the change in time since the show was first produced in 2002. But obviously Skype is much more visual. (There are a couple important letters still in the film – one of which bookends the film, the other appears as a post-it note.)

A lot of film musicals seems to fetishise the singing, over making it visually interesting. The film version of Les Miserables took this to the extreme – live singing on set, extreme close-ups on mouths. LaGravenese knows that we can listen to the lyrics, without having to see the actors mouth it. While I think the song “Shiksa Goddess” is a little bit too over-cooked with visual flair, remembering that we are watching actors means that Jamie can interact with Cathy without being bound by the fact the next lyric is coming along.

This happens throughout the film. LaGravenese isn’t worried about the audience, he trusts them. In some ways, because we are seeing things happening, we don’t need to hear every lyric. It’s fun to hear Cathy think/sing “why is the director staring at his crotch” – and this is one of those times where it’s also funny to see it. But early in the film when Cathy sings about “sitting on this pier”, it seems oddly heavy-handed to actually have them sitting on the pier.

Some lyrics have been changed because the references are dated. Some have been changed just to excise a few uses of the word “fuck”. On stage, there is very little dialogue. On film, there’s still very little dialogue – but the additional dialogue fits with the piece and most times even enhances it. Perhaps allowing LaGravenese to script the film meant he could break it open in a way that composer and creator Jason Robert Brown might not have been able to; sometimes you’re too close to your original conception. And Brown directed the recent Off-Broadway revival, so I’m glad the film got fresh eyes that enhanced the piece.

I haven’t even talked about the actors yet. And where to begin? The thing about a two-hander stage show is that both characters need to be equally strong and both actors up to the challenge. And a match for each other. The thing about the story of The Last Five Years is that every time I see it or listen to the score, I appreciate different things about each character. If you wanted to particularly analyse whether Jamie or Cathy is most at fault of their relationship breakdown, I could give you a dozen reasons from both sides of the arguement. Sometimes I come away thinking Jamie is the problem. Sometimes I think it’s Cathy. Seeing it on stage, your perception could change every night. Film seems like it might be a bit more fixed.

I’ve only watched the film once so far, but I cannot imagine a more perfect match than Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan. I went in expecting that Kendrick would be adorable and Jordan would be a bit jerky – because those are the parts I have seen them play so well before. I was worried that I would automatically side with Cathy over Jamie. And while who is at fault isn’t actually the point of the story, it’s part of what makes the show so rich. Sometimes you sympathise with him more than her. Or her over him.

A lot of people will talk about Kendrick claiming the mantle she has been working toward her entire career. And they aren’t wrong. She gives a layered performance in Cathy that is quite stunning. Sure, she relies on her charm and cheeriness in a few scenes, but there are dramatic depths here that I never expected to see. Not that I didn’t expect her to be a great Cathy, but she found moments that I had never seen in the character before. It may not be surprising that Kendrick shone, but it is surprising that she has made Cathy her own. This is a performance for the ages.

But the whole thing cannot hold together without an equally stunning performance from Jordan. If Kendrick claims a mantle she’s been striving toward, Jordan strides in and takes the seat alongside her. Not that he does it effortlessly. Not that the jerky self-confidence he’s shown in other roles allows him to slide easily into the role of Jamie. The character is I think harder to pin down; he shifts all over the place. Jordan does everything he’s supposed to and then does more. He’s a revelation, particularly with the song “Nobody Needs to Know” – it’s devastating.

I could probably break down this film from scene to scene, moment to moment and talk about all the choices they made – the director and his two stars. I could talk about costumes and sets. I could talk about musical orchestration and sound design. (Seriously, one of the great moments is when Cathy snaps her compact shut, just before one audition – another moment where the sounds of reality creep in, where in lesser hands we would have only focused on the song she was singing and the music underneath.)

Here’s the thing – if there’s a particularly high degree of difficulty in moving a stage musical to film, that’s probably more likely to happen with a two-act blockbuster than it is a two-hand, one-act chamber piece. The Last Five Years has all the songs from the stage show and it still runs only 90 minutes. There’s no “unnatural” break to fix or forget. There are two characters and their two stories and five years of their lives.

If Jamie is “Moving Too Fast” and Cathy is “Climbing Up Hill,” the film is neither - effortlessly bringing us into their world.

If Into the Woods was not good and not bad, but just nice, The Last Five Years broke my heart but kept me happy. See, I’m smiling.