Sunday, October 31, 2010

TV on DVD: Dexter (Season One, Disc One)

Episodes covered:  Dexter, Crocodile, Popping Cherry, Let's Give the Boy a Hand

For years I've heard nothing but good things about Dexter.  (Well, almost only good things:  I know that season three has its detractors).  The show is not merely a critical sensation or cult hit, but a ratings sensation by premium cable standards, and the most popular of Showtime's original series to date.  It even did well when CBS, the #1 network in The United States, broadcast edited versions of the episodes to fill time during the 2007-2008 Writer's Guild strike.  It's won multiple Emmys and a Peabody award.

So when does Dexter start getting good?

Don't get me wrong.  There is a lot to like in these first four episodes.  Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall), a bloodstain pattern analyst by day and a serial killer by night, is an interesting character to build a show around. James Manos, Jr. and his writing staff oversell the idea that Dexter doesn't have normal human emotions, but Hall's magnetic performance conveys a dead-on-the-inside quality without making the character seem robotic.  The show makes fantastic use of its Miami location, and the rich cinematography marks a striking contrast to the drab look of the average crime show's grim East or West coast locations.  And the flashbacks to Dexter's past, with his adoptive father Harry (James Remar) teaching him to act like a normal human being despite his being a sociopath, play out like a compelling superhero origin story (one that is actually progressing a lot faster than the show's present-day storylines).  There is a lot of potential in a show about the ways that various personal relationships could threaten to unravel Dexter's double-life.

But the other characters are so uninteresting.  I couldn't care less about whether Dexter's adoptive sister Debra (Jennifer Carpenter) earns her lieutenant's (Lauren Velez) respect, or whether detective Angel Batista (David Zayas) gets back together with his estranged wife, or whether detective James Doakes (Erik King) settles his personal vendetta with a local mafia kingpin (though this last plot seems to mercifully come to a conclusion in "Let's Give the Boy a Hand").  Since each episode's narrative is propelled by Dexter's voiceover narration, it tends to be painfully awkward when the show occasionally leaves his side to follow these generic cop show storylines.  I haven't read Darkly Dreaming Dexter, the Jeff Lindsay novel that Dexter is adapted from, but I'm guessing that these subplots were added by the show's writers as a way to fill time.  The season's overarching storyline - about Dexter's pursuit of the "Ice Truck Killer," who dissects his victims so neatly that he rarely leaves any blood or bone exposed - is developing at such a glacial pace that it hardly seems worth mentioning at this point.

Dexter also has a girlfriend, Rita (Julie Benz), whose past as a victim of domestic abuse has caused a deep-seated fear of even the most benign expressions of sexuality (which is perfect for Dexter, who claims to lack sexual desire and romantic feelings).  I could see Rita being an interesting foil for Dexter in the future, assuming that she ever starts snooping around and learning about his murderous tendencies.  But at this point their relationship is far too cutesy-quirky.  This aspect of the show seems phoned in from one of those annoying indie film romances.

The overly quirky tone is one of Dexter's biggest problems so far.  If the show is ever going to get into the moral implications of what Dexter does - murdering "bad guys" - then it is going to need to go to some dark places that the goofy feel of these early episodes can't sustain.  Granted, The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, which are perhaps the two bleakest show's ever to air on television, started off with wacky high-concepts before settling into their explorations of the most uncomfortable aspects of humanity, and the early episodes of any show need viewers to get on their protagonists' side before they can pick them apart.  But so far Dexter has stacked the deck too far in the titular character's favor.  He kills a child molester early on in the pilot, an unrepentant serial drunk driver in "Crocodile," and a hateful nurse who poisons her patients in "Popping Cherry."  "Popping Cherry" does have a nice moment where Dexter realizes at the last moment that he is about to murder a kid who has only killed as a form of self defense, but for the show to fully get into Dexter's twisted form of morality, I think it is going to have to incorporate a storyline where Dexter either mistakenly murders an innocent, or where his violent desires cause him to intentionally kill someone who is at least somewhat sympathetic.

Considering its subject matter, Dexter is fairly squeamish when it comes to actually portraying violence.  Sure, there is a certain amount of blood each week, from the (terrific) opening credits to the final scenes of any given episode, but the murders themselves are not as disturbing as they should be.  Dexter always covers his victim's genitalia with saran wrap, and the camera tends to cut away whenever he's doing any actual cutting.  Granted, a series of grisly, graphic murder scenes would be hard for most viewers to stomach week-to-week, but whitewashing what the hero is actually doing seems like a cop-out.  This is one case where depictions of graphic violence might make a show more ethical rather than less, even though going that route would probably sacrifice the show's hit status.  Which makes me wonder if the concept of Dexter as a weekly TV series is even artistically viable.

Quick Thoughts

- Despite the "TV on DVD" tag, my wife and I are actually watching episodes of Dexter through Netflix's Instant Streaming service.

- The wig that Michael C. Hall wears during the flashbacks to Dexter's almost-adult years is the best thing about this show so far.  I'm not saying that as a knock against the show; it's just a really awesome wig.

- I'll stick through the first season of this show just out of curiosity, but at this early point I'm not hooked enough to commit to watching the entire series.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Understanding Auteurs: The Coen Brothers (Raising Arizona)

Despite its many flaws, Blood Simple (1984) earned The Coen Brothers the respect of many critics and gave them a nascent cult following.  The duo's follow-up, Raising Arizona (1987), provides the first indication that they did not intend to rest on their laurels.  Where Blood Simple was a fairly straightforward (if stylish) noir drama, Raising Arizona is a live-action cartoon that playfully views a typical domestic comedy through the prism of a wild action movie.

The Coen Brothers' first two features have so little in common that I am having a hard time spotting many recurring themes or stylistic trademarks at this point.  One of the criticisms of the duo that I'm sympathetic to is the idea that they tend to look down on their characters.  This is a perfectly valid complaint that applies to both Blood Simple and Raising Arizona, which are united by a worldview that could be summed as "people are stupid."  But Raising Arizona has a much more dynamic emotional range than Blood Simple, including a layer of sweetness that the earlier film's grim tone couldn't possibly support.  There are unmistakable elements of redneck minstrelry in Raising Arizona's trailer park fantasia, and The Coens are clearly uninterested in understanding the Southern culture that they offer up for mockery.  But the cynicism is tempered by the mostly affable performances of the cast, most of whom are allowed to display more personality (and deliver more colorful dialogue) than the cardboard cutouts in Blood Simple.

Nicolas Cage stars as a gentle convenience store robber (his guns are never loaded) whose frequent stints in prison introduce him to his future wife, a patrol officer played by Holly Hunter.  After the baby-crazy couple realize that they can't conceive, they hatch a plot to kidnap one of the quintuplets recently birthed to hardware tycoon Trey Wilson.  Hell's Angel Randall "Tex" Cobb offers to track down Wilson's missing baby, in a plot point that is not dissimilar to the business arrangement between M. Emmet Walsh and Dan Hedeya in Blood Simple (though the execution of this aspect of the plot is one of the few areas that makes Raising Arizona seem like a step back from the earlier film).

The observations that The Coens' story is built around - men value personal freedom, women are domestic, marriage and work are boring, in-laws are annoying, salesmen are hucksters - are stale sitcom cliches.  But even if the film's conception of Southern culture is a little too Joe Dirt, the elaborately detailed construction of the characters' milieu is something to behold.  Every frame is packed with oddball details, and The Coens display a remarkable dexterity with the camera.  The film reaches its high point with a masterfully silly chase sequence that begins with Cage stealing diapers at gunpoint and ends with a store clerk, several policemen, a random citizen, and a pack of dogs chasing the thief through what seems like an entire city block.  (This scene also features the return of the dog's-eye-view shot briefly introduced in Blood Simple).

Raising Arizona works as long as The Coens keep the pace antic and lively.  Unfortunately, the film doesn't consistently keep up the breakneck pace of its funny, economical pre-credits sequence, which gets most of the exposition out of the way through clever use of repetition and character quirk.  Whenever the film takes the focus off of Cage's wonderfully gonzo lead performance it seems to lose its way, especially during the interminable scenes of the Hell's Angel looking tough on his motorcycle.  But overall Raising Arizona is a fun, modest comedy that demonstrates that The Coens are versatile filmmakers with an increasing command of their craft.

UP NEXT  Miller's Crossing

Sunday, October 24, 2010

TV on DVD: The Shield (Season One, Disc Two)

Episodes covered:  Blowback, Cherry Poppers, Pay in Pain, Cupid & Psycho

Coming out of disc one, I had some concerns about the creative direction of The Shield.  Shawn Ryan & co. did a great job of presenting their police office as a complicated environment with many factions using different methods to pursue similar goals, but the wide scope of the show left a few important characters feeling undeveloped.  And while I like the idea of the police station as a hub of furious activity, with several different cases going on at any given time, the collision of the show's serialized and procedural elements occasionally made the show feel scattershot and uneven.  I'm happy to report that the episodes of disc two correct many of the lingering flaws of disc one, with cases that involve the entire department pulling together the show's many individual strands and bringing a greater sense of focus and momentum to the plot, while also deepening the investment in the characters.

Toward the beginning of "Blowback," Captain Aceveda insists that Vic's Strike Team bring along some uniformed cops on a drug bust.  Aceveda's right to be suspicious:  in a wonderfully economical pre-credits sequence, we get a step-by-step look at how the Team bends the law to get the information they need about the Armenian gang involved in the drug deal.  While the show still hasn't done enough to establish the personalities of Vic's Team members - they basically seem like his henchmen at this point - simply seeing the work they put into illegally bugging the apartment where the deal goes down, then virtually kidnapping an Armenian translator, then manipulating a sleazy higher-up into writing up a warrant, gives us an invaluable look at how they work as a unit.  The Strike Team's smooth operation depends largely on their autonomy within the department; they can't risk outsiders seeing the crooked means by which they get their results.  The eventual bust goes down seemingly without a hitch, but afterwards Julien (one of the uniformed cops the Team takes along) clandestinely observes Vic and his cronies taking a portion of the drugs for themselves. 

Julien seemed too far disconnected from the series' main concerns in the earlier episodes, where the time spent on his struggle to reconcile his closeted homosexuality with his Christian beliefs felt out of proportion to its importance in the series' ongoing narrative.  But setting this inexperienced, gentle man of conviction against the corrupt veteran Vic is a plotting masterstroke that simultaneously brings two elements of the story into greater focus, but also deepens our understanding of Julien and Vic's characters by contrasting them to each other.  Naturally, Vic finds out about Julien's secret (in a somewhat contrived scene at the end of "Pay in Pain," Vic finds Julien with the pseudo-boyfriend who first appeared on the previous disc) and uses it to manipulate Julien into rescinding his testimony about the drug bust, thereby slowing down Aceveda's investigation of the Strike Team.  The portrait of Julien as a man caught between Vic, Aceveda, and the Bible is very compelling.  It will be interesting to see if Julien's denial of his own nature winds up corrupting him further, although now that he has so many enemies I wonder if he'll even make it through the entire first season.  The scene in "Cupid & Psycho" where Julien insists to Vic that he's not gay, but has urges inside him that he wishes he had the strength to suppress, may be the most devastating moment to date in this always-tense series.  Michael Chiklis gets a lot of deserved praise for his portrayal of Vic, but Michael Jace may actually be the strongest link in this excellent ensemble.

Or maybe Jay Karnes is giving the series' finest performance.  Dutch gets a fine showcase in "Cherry Poppers," which centers around his continuuing efforts to capture a serial killer targeting young prostitutes. There is undoubtedly a certain amount of arrogance and overzealousness in Dutch's desire to close a major case, but he also has a genuine desire to right wrongs and bring criminals to justice, and he is clearly putting all of his intellect and all of his emotion into solving this case.  Karnes manages to show all the sides of Dutch's personality simultaneously, which makes his arguably the show's most lived-in performance.  Dutch often has a sarcastic demeanor, but it slowly melts away as he becomes more and more unhinged throughout "Cherry Poppers," leading to the point where he nearly assaults a suspect, trading in his cerebral approach for some Vic-style violence.  It'll be interesting to see if Dutch's intense commitment to this seemingly unsolvable case will ultimately corrupt him, or if the show will choose to contrast him to Vic by showing him overcome the odds with some old-fashioned police work.  Either way, this storyline could potentially carry the character through the rest of this fascinating, exciting series.

Quick Thoughts

  - I know that Shane is beloved by fans, but his character is not nearly as well-rounded as the other cops at this point (though he has at least been given more personality than the other non-Vic Strike Team members).  He seems incompetent and corrupt to the point that I have a hard time imagining Vic putting up with his antics.  While I have no doubt that there are a lot of people who want to be cops just so they can feel powerful and beat people up, it seems like a smart, cautious guy like Vic would only want good detectives on his Team.  The underdevelopment of the Strike Team remains The Shield's biggest flaw.

  - Between the dead prostitutes, the underage porn ring, and Vic punching his coked-out hooker informant in the face to help her corroborate a story, "Cherry Poppers" may be the bleakest episode of television I've ever seen.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

In Defense Of Chinese Democracy

On November 23rd, 2008 Guns N' Roses finally released their heavily hyped, nearly mythical album Chinese Democracy.  After over 15 years of leaked tracks, pushed-back release dates, lineup overhauls, and cancelled tours, the album had become a punchline in the mainstream media.  There was literally no way that Axl Rose & co.'s 70-minute opus could possibly justify the amount of time and money spent on it, and the best that most people hoped for was an entertaining trainwreck.

But the actual response to the album was strangely muted.  Early reviews were largely mixed, with many critics damning Chinese Democracy with "its surprisingly good" praise, and the more negative write-ups predictably focusing more on Axl Rose's craziness than on the music itself.  The general consensus was that the album was neither the masterpiece that some people hoped for or the disaster that it could've been.  Guns N' Roses didn't manage to rewrite rock history, but they also didn't embarass themselves by aiming for an instantly dated nu-metal sound or by trying to recapture the bluesy hard rock of their glory days.  Listeners wanted an album that either rose to ecstatic heights or fell to an extreme low, but what they heard was an okay album that they'd listen to once or twice and then discard.

But GNR's troubled LP deserves better than that.  Two years after anyone cares about it, Chinese Democracy holds up as a truly strong modern rock record, boasting an eclectic group of tracks that (mostly) cohere into a satifsying whole.  Few recent pop releases can match this album's scope or level of ambition; even if Axl Rose only accomplished half of the things he set out to do on Chinese Democracy, the sheer audacity of some of the choices he made ought to be applauded.  But the album seems likely to be forgotten, for regretable reasons that are, in some cases, only tangentially related to its actual content.


Axl Rose
Nobody likes Axl Rose.  Even if he was as talented as he seems to think he is, Rose would still be a walking embodiment of the worst excesses of old-school rock stars, which is frankly not a good look for anyone over the age of 40.  His lyrics suggest that he thinks of himself as the last paragon of virtue in a corrupt world where everybody is out to make him conform.  Unlike self-pitying superstar Eminem, Rose lacks the lyrical wit to make his relentless misantrhopy and paranoia compelling.  It isn't uncommon for rock vocalists to lack a sense of humor about themselves, but Rose's persecution complex is impossible for anyone but himself to relate to.  It's hard to feel sorry for someone whose biggest problem is finishing an endlessly delayed album, but virtually every lyric on Chinese Democracy is either a triumphant "I told you we could finish this!" kiss-off, or a bratty dis to an unnamed collective of haters (critics, former bandmates, ex-girlfriends).  Rose's persecution mania reaches its nadir (or height, depending on how ironically you are enjoying his album) in the middle of the track "Madagascar," when he throws samples from Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech into a song that is otherwise about how Rose won't be swayed by detractors.  Here, Rose somehow conflates his struggles to get an album off the ground with the decades of oppression faced by an entire race of people.

And yet, Rose is undeniably an astonishingly talented vocalist.  I can't think of a single other rock vocalist who could cover the range that he does on these 14 tracks.  Aside from the usual post-Robert Plant yelping, we get some operatic emoting, some weird deep growls, a few hints of Rose's choirboy past, and everything in between.  I wouldn't say that Rose's vocal abilities justify his megalomania, but they do largely make up for his lyrical deficiencies.

Confounding the Notion of Art as Commodity
In our instant-gratification media world, where even unreleased intellectual property is often only a click away, we feel that we are entitled to listen to our music the way we want to, when we want to.  The emergence of music downloading that occured during the recording of Chinese Democracy only increased listeners' feeling that Axl Rose "owed" us a finished product.  Rose probably did owe Geffen an album; if the rumors of a $13 million recording budget are true,  then Rose and his associates were certainly behaving irresponsibly and showing disrespect to their benefactors.  But why should listeners care about this business matter?  Artists do not have a responsibility to give their fans what they want.  Besides, the only original member of Guns N' Roses involved with Chinese Democracy was Axl Rose, so it isn't as if long-time fans had any reason to expect, much less demand, a return of the sound they loved. 

The Baggage of Guns N' Roses
Guns N' Roses were one of the most popular and critically acclaimed bands of the late-'80s and early-'90s.  They occupy an odd place in the pop canon, being too hard-edged to fit in with the hair metal crowd yet too enveloped in old-fashioned rock excess to seem relevant after Nirvana.  Looking back at the Appetite for Destruction era group now, they seem like a competent but juvenile rock band with an unusually versatile lead singer, an above average lead guitarist, and an occasional knack for writing catchy arena rock songs.  Appetite was overrated by the mainstream press back in 1987, but the band clearly took the praise to their heads.  They were certainly taking themselves too seriously when they released the monstrously ambitious twin Use Your Illusion albums in 1991, where they attempted dramatic multi-part suites that pushed their glorified bar band chops past their breaking point.

There was nowhere else for the original group to go artistically, so it's probably for the best that the rotating cast of musicians on Chinese Democracy doesn't attempt to mimic the expected "Guns N' Roses" sound.  For the most part, the new sound reaches a satisfying middle ground between the Use Your Illusion group in "November Rain"/"Estranged" mode and a more daring and adventurous entity.  No one can take the memorable riff of "Sweet Child 'O Mine" away from Slash, but he couldn't come close to pulling off the thrilling avant-garde guitar pyrotechnics that Buckethead, Robin Finck, and Ron "Bumblefoot" Thal deliver on nearly every track of Chinese Democracy.  For better and for worse, the new group does not play it safe. Would anyone actually rather listen to Velvet Revolver than this?

The Critical Bias Toward "Authenticity"
Music critics tend to place more value on the immediate pleasures of songs (melody, vocals) than on their more esoteric virtues (tone, musicianship).  One of the biggest criticisms of Chinese Democracy is that it has a studio-constructed, Pro Tools-assisted sound.  While it is true that a more direct, "live" sound can have a visceral impact that a more overdub-heavy, processed sound can't achieve, there is no reason beyond personal preference to value one over the other.  Setting aside the fact that "authenticity" is a nebulous concept to begin with, there is arguably more skill involved in constructing an artificial sound world than there is in simply capturing a "live" feel.

Much of the pleasure of Chinese Democracy is found in sorting out the details of its dense, elaborate arrangements and mixes.  This isn't the kind of entertainment that settles in on the first listen; it requires more attention than many people give music in the IPod era, and it doesn't really work as background music.  It also isn't the easily accessible, instantly hooky heavy blues-rock that old-guard GNR fans are used to.  But the thick layers of electric guitars, multi-tracked vocals, electronic elements, and occasional unexpected details like flamenco guitar form an overwhelming tapestry that is often over-the-top but rarely less than interesting.  Sure, there aren't many songs here that are as immediately memorable as the Guns N' Roses singles of old - no jukebox surfer is going to choose "Riad N' the Bedouins" over "Paradise City" - but the new sound is infinitely more ambitious, and repays repeated listens in a way that the old music doesn't.

The Guilty Pleasure Factor
A lot of Chinese Democracy is silly.  Every track is overblown and epic, as if Axl couldn't think of anything that he didn't want to try, and then couldn't figure out which details did or didn't work.  "Scraped" sets an earnest cry of "believe in yourself" against a goofy funk-metal backdrop.  The dis track "Sorry" sounds like it was recorded in the mansion in Sunset Boulevard.  "Madagascar" contains a credit for "additional orchestra."  "This I Love" is so melodramatic that Meat Loaf would be embarrassed to sing it.  Rose's insistence on including everything he enjoys about music in every track is consistently laughable, but it's surprising how often Chinese Democracy comes close to living up to its insane ambition, especially on its superior first half.

Cultural Misinterpretations of Perfectionism
Perfectionism in art is often misunderstood.  Stanley Kubrick's incredibly lenghty film productions were viewed as the actions of an indecisive control freak.  Miles Davis' gnomic instructions to his collaborators made some people suspect that he had no idea what he wanted to achieve.  On some level, Kubrick probably was a control freak and Davis probably couldn't have explicitly spelled out what sound he was looking for, but these aren't the same things as artists having no direction.  Kubrick and Davis were trying to surprise themselves, to go above and beyond what their intellects could imagine.  Their collaborators, having been exhausted from endless retakes or bewildered by ambiguous instructions, would sometimes come up with things that were more interesting than anything Kubrick or Davis could've possibly imagined on their own.

No one could reasonably argue that Axl Rose is as talented as Kubrick or Davis, but, all proportions aside, Rose's perfectionism is rooted in similar reasoning.  Rose may not have known exactly what he wanted Chinese Democracy to be, but he was reaching for something even bigger and better than he could've imagined.  In many respects, he overreached - his ambition to create an album's-worth of "Bohemian Rhapsody"-esque ultra-songs gives the album a sense of creative constipation - but it is exciting to hear him go for it anyway.  Even if it isn't an artistic landmark like 2001:  A Space Odyssey or In a Silent Way, Chinese Democracy is a very interesting rock album that deserves some respect.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Understanding Auteurs: The Coen Brothers (Blood Simple)

Though they've racked up an impressive amount of hit films and cult favorites, Joel and Ethan Coen have always been divisive figures in the critical community.  Fans argue that the brothers have built up a thrillingly diverse oeuvre full of ambitious, impeccably crafted films that defy Hollywood convention while still meeting basic entertainment requirements.  Detractors claim that the Coens' films are all style and no substance, and that they use their snarky postmodernism as an excuse for their empty, misantrhopic worldview.

Both sides seem to be making equally valid points, which is why I've always been a little on the fence about The Coen Brothers' work.  I almost always find myself looking forward to their next project (True Grit is probably the movie I'm currently most excited for) and even when I'm disappointed by their films, I rarely feel like I've wasted my time watching them.  I've always been impressed by their ability to create distinctive, rich worlds that look and sound like nothing else in theatres.  They also usually manage to coax great performances out of their top-notch ensemble casts,whether they are working with established movie stars or unknown stage performers. 

But for whatever reason the brothers' films tend not to stick with me, and I wonder if this is because there is little going on beneath their films' always attractive surfaces.  My memory tells me that the Coens started their career with relatively straightforward genre pictures, but that their more recent films, made after they gained the favor of the mainstream media, tend to have pretentions to deep meaning that actually detract from the visceral pleasures of their filmmaking.  For example, I found No Country for Old Men highly successful as a tense action-thriller, but thought its allusions to the two Iraq wars and its vague ramblings about the nature of evil were putting up a front of depth that the film couldn't support.  And I don't think anyone can deny that the Coens often do seem to be looking down on their characters.  As J. Hoberman said in his review of Blood Simple, the filmmakers "seldom miss an opportunity to suggest theirs is a movie made by evolutionarily advanced life-forms touring a primitive planet."

I can never decide if I'm over- or under- rating The Coen Brothers, which is why they make an ideal first subject for the "Undertsanding Auteurs" series.  I've seen all of their feature films, with the exception of Intolerable Cruelty, but I've never watched them in chronological order or thought all that deeply about their common themes and stylistic traits, which may be why I have trouble coming to a clear verdict on their filmography.  Fortunately, all of their work is readily available, and, though they work at a fairly fast pace, their oeuvre is small enough that watching all of their films won't be an endless chore.  Ideally, I'd like to finish reviewing all of their films up through A Serious Man before True Grit hits theatres this Christmas, but it may be more realistic to set the film's DVD release as an endpoint for this project.  Either way, I hope that I'll be able to come to a better understanding of what the filmmakers are trying to say and how they are trying to say it, so that I can better appreciate their work and come to some sort of conclusion about whether they are brilliant auteurs, smart-ass posuers, or both.

I'm glad that we had that four-paragraph introduction to fill up this article, because frankly I don't have much to say about The Coen Brothers' debut feature, Blood Simple (1984).  Tavern owner Dan Hedeya suspects that his wife Frances McDormand is having an affair with barkeeper John Getz, and hires private eye M. Emmet Walsh to kill them both.  Walsh hatches a scheme to double-cross all involved parties, killing Hedeya and taking his money, while essentially framing Getz and McDormand for the murder.  The plot gets more complicated from there, but it never become much more than a variation on The Postman Always Rings Twice.

There are hints that The Coen Brothers are using a standard plot and stock characters to send up the cliches of the film noir genre, but the humor is too dry for Blood Simple to qualify as parody.  They also don't do enough to set their film apart from other examples of the genre for it to work as a deconstruction of the genre.  Sure, they are applying an American indie aesthetic to the classic film noir story, but long takes, minimal dialogue, and method acting had become staples of the genre after The Long Goodbye, Chinatown, Night Moves, and Cutter's Way (the last of these being the greatest unacknowledged inspiration for the Coens' later The Big Lebowski).  Fans point out that Blood Simple is contrasting its everyman characters with the extreme situation that they're in, but film noirs dating back to Double Indemnity have always been about common people getting in over their heads, so the Coens really aren't doing anything new here.

And the characters don't seem enough like recognizable human beings to qualify as "common people" anyway.  Hedeya is literally defined by his loathsomeness, so it is impossible to believe that he and McDormand are a couple, even an estranged one in the last days of their marriage.  McDormand and Getz have no chemistry together, with the latter being by far the blandest lead in any Coen film.  Walsh is at least allowed to have some personality, but, while his amusement at his own sleaziness is intermittently entertaining, he mostly comes off as a one-note hillbilly.  The film is tightly plotted and smartly executed in many ways, but the total lack of investment in the characters severly undercuts the Hitchcockian tension of even its best scenes.  As a result, Blood Simple is surprisingly dull (not an adjective I expect to be using very often in this series).

Perhaps the film is best appreciated as a stylish genre exercise.  Joel Coen shows more flair as a visualist than as a storyteller, and he manages to at least make a generic story interesting to look at.  The staging of a long, virtually dialogue-free sequence in which Getz attempts to dispose of Hedeya's not-quite-dead body is masterfully executed, with the atmospheric nighttime cinematography perfectly complimented by the eerie quiet of the soundtrack.  While the film's level of flashiness seems out of proportion with its modest story, Coen still manages to make the most of splashy touches like a dog's-eye-view tracking shot, or the interruption of a door-side conversation by a newspaper loudly hitting the screen.  And the thick atmosphere of sweaty, dirty small town Texas is well-constructed, even if the misanthropic tone that it contributes to can feel a little suffocating.  But these are ultimately embellishments to a too-familiar story told with characters that we have no reason to care about.  Blood Simple demonstrates that The Coen Brothers know how to make a movie, but now it's time for them to show that they can make a really good one.

UP NEXT  Raising Arizona

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

TV on DVD: The Shield (Season One, Disc One)

Episodes covered:  Pilot, Our Gang, The Spread, Dawg Days

What restrictions do we want to place on the people who are assigned to protect us?  How far do we want them to be able to go to stop the "bad guys?"  These questions are at the forefront of many cop dramas, and they gained more resonance for many Americans after 9/11.  The Shawn Ryan-created series The Shield, which premiered on FX in March of 2002, attempts to tackle these moral issues head on, by portraying the adventures of an experimental Strike Team unit who will stop at nothing to capture criminals in the most dangerous areas of Los Angeles.

The leader of the Strike Team is Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis), a veteran detective who has used some dubious tactics to ramp up his impressive arrest rate.  Like many cops in popular culture, Vic is not above circumventing the rules to get results.  But where most movies or TV shows go out of their way to make their protagonists unquestionably in the right - thereby supporting the conservative fantasy that the world would be just if there only weren't so many regulations protecting the rights of criminals - The Shield presents Vic as someone who is constantly operating in the greyest areas of justice.  Vic seems to genuinely care about the well-being of several of his informants, and is shown selflessly saving an infant in "The Spread," but he also spends a lot of screen time torturing suspects and ends the pilot episode by shooting a fellow officer who threatens to expose his corruption.  When Vic tells a suspect he's interrogating that he's not playing good cop or bad cop, and that he's a "different kind of cop," the line may be a bit on the nose, but it is virtually the thesis statement of the character and of the show.

We actually see many different kinds of cop throughout these first four episodes.  Captain David Aceveda (Benito Martinez) is a "desk cop" who made it to his position through test-taking rather than street work, and who seems to be motivated equally by an emotional desire for justice and by his more pragmatic political ambitions.  He is proving to be Vic's greatest foil at this point in the series, and the show is already doing a great job of ramping up the tension between these two very different men.  Halfway through "Our Gang," Acevada has already figured out how and why Vic killed detective Terry Crowley (Reed Diamond), and by the end of "Dawg Days" he's seen that exposing Vic's corruption could give him a political edge as a voice of justice should he ever run for office.

Claudette Wyms (CCH Pounder) and Dutch Wagenbach (Jay Karnes) are detective partners whose by-the-books mixture of basic detective skills and in-the-criminals-heads psychology seems to be nearly as effective as Vic's more violent approach.  They balance each other out nicely as partners, with the practical, seen-it-all Claudette often bringing the self-righteous Dutch back down to earth, even as the younger man's more intense need to solve a case gives the duo the energy that they need to solve their most challenging cases.  Pounder and Karnes are my two favorite supporting players on the show thus far.  They both give very lived-in, three-dimensional performances and they have great chemistry whenever they're on screen together.  Pounder gives Claudette a sense of humor that this type of character (think Morgan Freeman in Seven) usually lacks, as well as a general feeling that Claudette is able to separate her work life and her personal life in a way that the other officers can't.  And where a character like Dutch would be a mere punchline or obstacle for the main character on another show, Karnes depicts him as a very talented detective whose knowledge of his own skills can occasionally make him act like an ass.

Another team on the show consists of Danielle Sofer (Catherine Dent), a talented patrol officer who seems to have had some sort of romantic past with Vic, and a rookie named Julien Lowe (Michael Jace), whose gentle demeanor makes him an outcast in the macho atmosphere of the police department.  I like both characters and actors, but so far Julien's storyline - he is struggling to reconcile his deeply closeted homosexuality with his devout Christianity - is so disconnected from the series' main concerns that it registers mostly as a distraction.  TV storylines are marathons, not sprints, so it is entirely possible that Julien will head in some interesting directions that haven't occurred to me, but at this point it isn't clear why we occasionally leave the main characters to focus on him.

Oddly, the least-developed regular characters after this first batch of episodes are the other members of Vic's Strike Team.  I love that The Shield has already depicted its police department as a complicated environment with many different factions using different methods to pursue similar goals, but it seems dramatically counter-intuitive for the show to develop its ancillary characters before the people closest to the main character have been properly introduced.  Curtis "Lem" Lemansky (Kenneth Johnson) has made little impression so far, other than as a loyal member of Vic's team.  I actually had to check Wikipedia to see whether Ronnie Gardocki (David Rees Snell) had appeared on the show so far (he had); I couldn't tell you anything about him, and the only reason I had any recollection of his character was that I vaguely remembered there being four members of Strike Team.  I'm familiar enough with the show's reputation to know that Shane Vendrell (Walton Goggins) is going to be one of the show's most interesting characters (and one of its standout performances) but all we really know about him so far is that he has a hard time keeping his emotions in check, and that the Strike Team's corruption ways more heavily on his conscious than it does on Vic.  Interestingly, Shane's loss of patience with the arrogant, drug-dealing basketball star in "The Spread" brings his character into sharper focus than the scene in "Our Gang" when he is being interrogated by Aceveda, even though the latter scene is the one of the two that's directly connected to the show's master plot.

So far the drama surrounding Vic's attempts to cover up the murder of Terry Crowley is far more compelling than any of the individual cases presented in these episodes, though the show does do a good job of balancing out its serialized and procedural elements.  Some of the one-off storylines - like the one in "The Spread" about a sperm-collecting rapist - are sensationalistic to the point of being stupid, as if the show needs to shove its network's relative lack of content restrictions in your face without bothering to have anything to say about its controversial subject matter.  The tale of feuding rappers in "Dawg Days" feels like one of those ripped-from-the-headlines (of 1997) storylines that Law & Order lazily specializes in.  In general, the show's look at the criminal underworld of Los Angeles lacks nuance, especially when compared to The Wire, which premiered at around the same time as The Shield.  The lack of depth given to the one-off cases may be the downside of the show's otherwise satisfyingly breathless pace.  But the show has me hooked, and I'm hoping that its few flaws will be smoothed out by the time we reach the end of season one.

Quick Thoughts

-  Now that we've introduced the characters, I'm hoping that these articles will be a little shorter from here on out.  If they become too dense, I may have to cut back and do two episodes or so at a time rather than an entire disc's worth.

- I generally like the work that Clark Johnson and others have done directing these episodes so far, but I found the staging of Terry Crowley's shooting (which I assume is the most important scene in the entire series) a little awkward, both because I don't like Kid Rock (whose music is playing in the background) and because the camerawork in that scene is a little cheesy.

- I haven't mentioned Vic's family life yet, mostly because I'm waiting to see where the storyline about his son's apparent learning disability is going.  But I think the slow development of the family characters is more dramatically sound than the slow development of the Strike Team.

- Part of the reason that I'm interested in watching The Shield is that I'm a big fan of Sons of Anarchy, a show created by Shield writer Kurt Sutter.  So I was excited to see on Wikipedia that he has his first Shield credit on one of disc two's episodes.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Film Festival Review: Milwaukee Film Festival

2010 hasn't been a great year for movies.  The arthouses are mostly showing the same movies as the multiplexes, a situation that has prevented all but a small handful of foreign or independent films from breaking through to a decent-sized audience.  While the past couple of years have been banner years for blockbuster entertainment - producing ambitious and smart entertainments such as The Dark Knight, Inglourious Basterds, Where the Wild Things Are and Up - this year has only produced a handful of interesting wide-release features.  Even the always-reliable Pixar studio rested on its laurels a bit this year, offering up a sequel (Toy Story 3) that, while entertaining, was a step back from their usual commitment to innovation.

Under these circumstances, The Milwaukee Film Festival is the one of the few platforms in Wisconsin for interesting and groundbreaking films from around the world.  The second annual festival did not disappoint, offering up its best and most diverse selection of films to date (even taking into account the fact that the festival is a kinda/sorta continuation of what for several years was called The Milwaukee International Film Festival).  Perhaps even more exciting than the films themselves was the reception that the festival received in general.  Even a year ago it would've been practically unthinkable that Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives - an avant-garde Thai film that defies easy categorization - would've made it to Milwaukee the same year that it was released worldwide, much less that it would've virtually sold out the main auditorium at the Oriental Theatre. 

Below are brief reviews of most of the movies that I saw in theatres at this year's festival.  I'm not reviewing the rerelease of Metropolis simply because most people reading a recap of a film festival are probably already familiar with that classic (the newly restored footage is cool, but not essential) and I think it would be too awkward to review the animated shorts program I saw (though I will say that the new Don Hertzfeldt short, Wisdom Teeth, is hilarious), but everything else is here, in alphabetical order.

About Elly
The winner of the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival's Award for Best Narrative Feature begins as a lighthearted chronicle of a weekend getaway on the Caspian Sea, develops into a tense thriller when one member of the party goes missing, and finally settles in as an intense exploration of male-female relationships in contemporary Iran.  There are a few notable flaws here – the script backs itself into a corner and just kind of stops instead of coming to an end, for example – but the cast has great chemistry, and director Asghar Farhadi handles the shift in pacing and tone very well.

The Art of the Steal
A surprisingly engaging and entertaining documentary about the struggle for control of the Barnes Foundation, a priceless private art collection that the now-deceased founder intended as an educational institution but that a number of his personal and political enemies want to turn into a tourist trap.  Director Don Argott keeps the pace fast and the talking head conversations lively, and editor Demian Fenton deserves credit for giving this potentially dry story the feel of a tense conspiracy thriller.

Blue Valentine
Derek Cianfrance's simultaneous telling of the beginning and end of a relationship arrived in Milwaukee with a lot of advance praise, having already won over a number of critics at Cannes and Sundance.  The film doesn't exactly reinvent the wheel when it comes to chronicles of troubled relationships – in some respects it feels like a less raw, more slickly-directed version of Cassavettes' A Woman Under the Influence – but it isn't hard to see why so many reviewers have been raving about this it for a better part of the year.  The storytelling device of continually flashing back and forth between the tender early days of a relationship and its bitter final days is very well handled, and the incredible performances by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams as the couple prevent several moments from feeling as false or clich├ęd as they probably should.

A lot of the fun of this exploitation film comes from the simplicity of its outrageous premise:  a truck driver working in Iraq (Ryan Reynolds, in what will probably be the performance of his career) wakes up inside a coffin, with only a cell phone and a lighter, and spends 95 minutes trying to get back above ground before he runs out of oxygen.  Considering the sheer amount of suspension of disbelief required to accept the film's plot, the only way to make this material work is to turn it into a dark comedy.  Fortunately the script is essentially a morbid parody of the horrors of modern bureaucracy, such as call centers and contracts designed to eliminate a company's responsibilities to its employees.

Freedom Riders
Stanley Nelson's Jonestown: the Life and Death of Peoples Temple was one of the most gripping and harrowing films to screen at the previous incarnation of the Milwaukee Film Festival, so it's a shame to report that his new documentary about the black civil rights movement is a generic telling of a very familiar story.  There is some interesting material about the ambivalent attitude that the Kennedys and Martin Luther King had toward the Freedom Riders, but for the most part this film isn't telling us anything we don't already know.

His & Hers
70 Irish females, ranging from very young children to very elderly women, discuss the most important men in their lives, whether they be their fathers, husbands, or sons.  Each woman is only on screen for a minute or two at a time, they never mention the men's names, they appear in similar domestic settings, and they appear in order from youngest to oldest, which gives the viewer the impression of one coherent story instead of 70 different ones.  Veteran short filmmaker Ken Wardrop's formal experiment yields mixed results – it sometimes feels like a pre-feminist tribute to the "traditional woman," but there are also a number of genuinely touching and amusing moments, and the gimmick doesn't overstay its welcome at 80 minutes.

Katalin Varga
British ex-pat Peter Strickland's debut feature isn't necessarily original – the story has a bit of The Virgin Spring in its DNA, and the audio and visual aesthetic brings to mind Andrei Tarkovsky and Bela Tarr.  Yet this menacing fairytale couldn't stand further apart from everything showing in theatres today.  The economy of the storytelling, the painterly beauty of the cinematography, and the consistently unnerving sound work give this tale of a raped woman's revenge the feel of a folk tale that has been with us for a long time.

Last Train Home
This documentary is ostensibly about the world's largest human migration – as 130 million Chinese migrant workers return to their homes for New Year's - and the strain that it places on one family.  But part of what makes Lixin Fan's debut feature so special is that it manages to use its seemingly limited perspective to give a broad and multi-faceted overview of what life is like in China today.  What emerges is an epic yet focused depiction of the distance between the working class and the wealthy, between the older and younger generations, and between rural and city life.

Greg Olliver and Wes Orshoski's documentary about legendary Motorhead frontman Lemmy Kilmister feels like something that would be a bonus feature on a DVD rather than something you'd watch in a theatre.  But it's still kind of awesome, mainly because Lemmy is such a singular, bizarre, and charismatic figure that he seems to have actually earned the adulation that he receives from the film's many famous talking heads (including Ozzy Osbourne, Henry Rollins, and, most incongruously, Billy Bob Thornton).

After being beaten into a brain-damaging coma by five men outside a bar, amateur artist Mark Hogancamp returned to consciousness with substantial memory loss.  He retreated from the world at large and began to focus his energies on Marwencol:  a one-sixth-scale, WWII-era Belgian town populated entirely by dolls representing Hogancamp's friends and family.  This documentary is at its best when it simply allows Hogancamp to explain the elaborate, intensely pulpy personal mythology of Marwencol and at its worst when director Jeff Malmberg gets in the way of his fascinating subject by cutting to uninteresting commentary from Hogancamp's friends or silly stop-motion sequences with the dolls.  Luckily, the good heavily outweighs the bad, and this was one of the unexpected highlights of the festival.

Both halves of this two-part film open with a disclaimer that this is only one interpretation of the life of notorious French gangster Jacques Mesrine.  But the filmmakers seem to have gone out of their way to avoid coming to any conclusions about Mesrine's life.  What we get instead is simultaneously a standard rise-and-fall crime saga and the type of biopic that reduces an actual person's story to a series of major events.  The film doesn't linger on anything long enough to establish a consistent sense of tone or pace, and the talented cast (including Vincent Cassel, Gerard Depardieu, and Mathieu Amalric) is stranded by the overall lack of direction.

My Perestroika
I'm not sure that this documentary about the social and political changes that took place over the last 30-odd years in Russia tells us anything we don't already know, but it does do an excellent job of personalizing those changes.  Director Robin Hessman follows several Russians in their 30s as they explain how seismic events such as the collapse of the Soviet Union have affected them personally and professionally.  The subjects are lively and interesting, and propaganda films, old news footage, and home-movies are integrated seamlessly with the new interview footage.  The festival jurors awarded this the Best Documentary prize.

Night Catches Us
First-time filmmaker Tanya Hamilton has a nice feel for period, place, and community in this bicentennial-set exploration of the Black Panther Party's conflicted legacy.  The story involves an ex-Panther (Anthony Mackie) who returns to Philadelphia for his father's funeral, only to discover that many of his old associates (including several cast members of The Wire) are adrift in a haze of directionless anger, without the direction of the Party to guide them.   There are a few problems with the script – some of the dialogue is a bit on the nose, and a few seemingly important characters simply disappear, but the atypical subject matter and the excellent cast mostly make up for it.

The Red Chapel
A Danish theatre troupe infiltrates North Korea, entering their intentionally ridiculous (and partially subversive) vaudeville act into a cultural festival.  The premise of this documentary makes it sound like a Sacha Baron Cohen stunt, but what the filmmakers are after is less a full-front assault on North Korean fascism than an inside look at the psychology of a fascist society.  The troupe is assisted by a group of Korean handlers whose job is to make sure that the Danes don't do anything inflammatory in their act or in their day to day activities, and the ways that the handlers attempt to modify the actors' behavior is often more illuminating than funny.  And while the filmmakers do get a few laughs in at the expense of the North Koreans, they also offer a surprisingly multi-faceted – and at times even sympathetic – portrayal of the people who spend their lives propagating the insane doctrine of Kim Jong-Il.  This is by far the finest and most insightful film I've seen about North Korea, as well as being one of the most purely entertaining films of the year.

Sons of Cuba
Aside from having an interesting subject – a Cuban boxing school for 9 year old boys – there isn't much to say about this very standard British-produced documentary.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
Even though I've seen several of Apichatpong Weerasethakul's previous features – Mysterious Object at Noon, Tropical Malady, and Syndromes and a Century – I feel like I have virtually no critical context in which to place his new film, which won the top prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival.   But for once the eccentricities seem purposeful and tied to a specific mood, so that the proceedings can be enjoyed on more than a scene-by-scene basis.  The film follows the titular character during the last days of his life, as he encounters ghosts of people from his past (some of whom appear as creatures that look like a cross between Chewbacca and a Jawa), who help him remember his past incarnations (though it is never made entirely clear who Boonmee was in these flashbacks).  As the film goes on, the distinction between the living and the dead, and the spiritual and the everyday, evaporates completely, and the effect is quite moving even for someone who knows nothing about the Thai culture that the film is playing off of.  This is the kind of film where inexplicable moments – such as a scene involving a catfish seducing a princess, or a mostly wordless trip through a dark cave, or a memory of a violent situation told entirely through still photographs – rattle around in your brain for weeks afterwards.  The best and most original pure filmmaking I've seen anywhere all year. 

Johnnie To's bizarre, highly mannered version of a violent Hong Kong shoot-'em-up suggests a simultaneous deconstruction of Jean-Pierre Melville and John Woo, although I can't imagine what point To thinks he's making.  The purposely (?) outrageous story involves a French chef (Johnny Hallyday) who travels to Hong Kong to avenge a gang hit that left his daughter in critical condition and killed her husband and children.  Along the way he hires a trio of gangsters to help him navigate the Hong Kong underworld and to help him recover his rapidly fading memories.  The film works best when To lets his fantastic visual sense take over, as in a fantastic park shootout timed to the flickering light of the moon.  But too often the film returns pointlessly to odd semi-parodies of action movie conventions, which isn't enough to sustain a 2 hour film.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

They Are All Equal Now: Kubrick's Barry Lyndon

This is a revised and much-shortened version of my captone essay from several years ago.  It assumes that the reader has seen Barry Lyndon, and may be somewhat impenetrable if they haven't.

The major recurring theme in the work of Stanley Kubrick is the conflict between the ambitions of man and the laws of the natural world.  Kubrick's protagonists tend to put their faith in some sort of humanly constructed system which they believe will give their lives concreteness and infinitude in the chaotic uncertainty of the natural world - a world in which the role of humanity is unclear.  The thieves in The Killing (1956) spend months planning the "perfect robbery" only to see their scheme crumble when a combination of personality conflicts and sheer chance prevents any of them from winding up with the money.  A military contigency plan, designed to protect the United States in a time of crisis, ultimately triggers the apocalypse in Dr. Strangelove (1964).  A fool-proof computer system that has never made an error develops a mind (and emotions) of its own and endangers the lives of the space shuttle passengers whom it was built to protect in 2001:  A Space Odyssey (1968).  In these cases and others, Kubrick explores the dangers inherent in basing one's actions and beliefs around products of the faulty human intellect.  Barry Lyndon (1975) is Kubrick's most dramatically profound exploration of this theme, because human civilization itself is the flawed social system which its characters tragically put their faith in.

In Barry Lyndon, Kubrick takes his career-long fascination with the binary opposition of civility and barbarism to its logical extreme by depicting one Irish peasant's attempt to infiiltrate the ultra-formalized world of eighteenth-century English nobility.  Formally, the film puts forth a highly mannered surface that instantly brings to mind the trappings of the more recent Merchant-Ivory school of tasteful, "high art" productions:  rich camerawork that catches every detail of elaborate scenery, fancy costumes that seem to have been plucked directly from the past, new arrangements of famous chamber music pieces, a narrator who would not sound out of place reading William Makepeace Thackeray's novel (upon which the film is loosely based) on a book-on-tape.  These common aspects of costume dramas typically exist to give the "refined" viewer a false sense of his own classiness by allowing him to escape into a world of powdered wigs and corsets.  Barry Lyndon sets itself apart by insisting on its formal civility so aggressively that the paraphernalia of high society is made to seem strange and grotesque.  The film is so overpoweringly formalized that formality in and of itself begins to seem like a denial of the complexity of the world, which refuses to conform to human values of good taste.  As the illusion that prosperity and taste puts one above the laws of the physical world becomes increasingly harder for Barry to maintain, the film suggests that civility itself can be a form of barbarism.  Barry finds out too late that it is impossible to use the tools of a man-made society to escape from the fateful march of time that ultimately renders all men equal.

The film's commentary on history could be summed up thus:  those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it, and those who learn only from the values of the present will have no future.  The worst fate is to be locked into a scope of reference that only accounts for the temporary values of a specific society and does not account for the unstoppable forward motion of time, and all of the social and natural changes that that forward motion entails.  (In this respect, Barry Lyndon is not dissimilar in theme to AMC's Mad Men).

While Barry Lyndon's sheer length (185 minutes) and prominent use of lenghty scenes may make it appear to be long and slow by conventional narrative film standards, the fact is that the film covers nearly three decades (roughly 1760-1789), and makes some rather dramatic leaps in time from scene to scene.  Even as the narrative becomes more staid in the film's second half, rapid chronological shifts govern the lives of the characters.  But of course the characters do not have the luxury of historical perspective, and there is no indication that they have any knowledge of past or foreign social values to which they could compare their own.  By giving his characters a limited frame of reference, Kubrick proposes that they are tragically unconscious of the artificiality of success in a society whose conventions do not account for the complexities of a world which keeps moving forward, without concern for preserving the mores and beliefs of individual societies.

Kubrick's most compelling method of exploring Barry Lyndon's themes comes through the film's cinematogrpahy.  Where traditional films tend to begin their scenes with establishing shots that give a general impression of the environment that the scenes take place in, Barry Lyndon's scenes tend to "begin with a small fragment of mise-en-scene from which the camera zooms back to reveal the whole scene through a long shot" (Luis M. Garcia Mainar, Narrative and Stylistic Patterns in the Films of Stanley Kubrick [Camden House, 2000], p. 163).  These reverse zoom shots, which are used frequently throughout the film, function to present the viewer first with a view of the specific narrative worlds of the characters (the close shot), and then to ultimately show that the characters and their concerns take up a miniscule part of a much wider frame (the long shot).  This visual shift from particularity to generality, often beginning with the characters in close-up and ending with them in long shot, suggests at first that the characters and their narratives are of the utmost importance, and then reminds the viewer that the characters' affairs are merely small parts of the bigger picture. 

By continually recontextualizing the narrative events of Barry Lyndon, Kubrick asks viewers to question the importance of these events in the grand scheme of things.  The film manages to account for the larger story of English society, even as it follows its titular character through a relatively standard narrative trajectory.  Kubrick's narrative proceeds by playing the story of Redmond Barry (the close ups) off of the story of the world at large (the long shots).

In part one ("By What Means Redmond Barry Acquired the Style and Title of Barry Lyndon"), the film's dramatic leaps in time are highlighted by an episodic narrative that finds the protagonist in a variety of settings, dealing with a number of small conflicts.  In about 100 minutes, the film explains Redmond Barry's family background; details the struggle for Nora Brady's hand; finds Redmond in trouble with a highwayman on the road to Dublin; depicts his experiences in the Seven Years' War (in both the English and Prussian armies!); includes an account of his successful gambling collaboration with the Chevalier;  and introduces the major players of part two. 

The sheer amount of narrative in the film's first half suggests that Redmond is living in a state of constant flux, without the means to control his position in a world that is constantly hurtling him from one dangerous situation to another.  Redmond's name and nationality change several times as necessary responses to the danger that surrounds him.  Redmond's desire to rise in society could be read as an unconscious attempt to achieve a sort of permanence in a world in which his well-being is constantly threatened.  However, it is worth pointing out that this half of the film begins with a poor man (Redmond's father) dying and ends with a very wealthy man (Sir Charles Lyndon) dying, an indication that men of status - whose ranks Redmond is quickly joining at this point in the film - can look forward to the same fate as men who are not remembered in history books.

The title of part two ("Containing an Account of the Misfortunes and Disasters which Befell Barry Lyndon") indicates in no uncertain terms that Redmond's newfound status will be short-lived and empty.  Redmond's new comfort is reflected in the stable mise-en-scene of his surroundings, but increasingly great leaps in time in the film's narrative subtly reinforce the fact that the world is moving on outside of the tomb-like world of Castle Hackton (a space that is equivalent to the Overlook Hotel in The Shining [1980] or the mansion where the orgy takes place in Eyes Wide Shut [1999]).

Barry finally achieves a measure of free will and moral perspective late in the film, when he refuses to fire on his son (and most vocal adversary) Lord Bullingdon during a dual.  But this newfound ethical dimension is not enough to save Barry from the bullet that Bullingdon clumsily fires into Barry's leg.  Barry has reached a level of status that his father could only dream of, yet, like his father he still winds up with a bullet in his body.  Redmond Barry's moral redemption has come too late.  All of the characters in Castle Hackton seem to have devoted their lives to posing for their portrait, but Barry is the only one who is frozen in time (in the film's only freeze frame).  Yet, his face does not even appear in this freeze frame portrait, and his body is gracelessly deformed from the shooting.  Barry Lyndon is the story of a man who ran out of the time needed to reconcile his existence with the operations of the natural world.

But Barry Lyndon is not merely the story of its titular character.  The film does not end with the freeze frame of a disgraced Barry leaving the castle, but instead follows said shot with a dialogue-free scene in which Lady Lyndon and her male handlers sign bank notes.  The papers they sign are dated to 1789, an allusion to the impending French Revolution and the dawn of a new era in the civilized world.  The final zoom out depicting Lady Lyndon and her handlers enveloped by the paintings and furniture of their society is a vision of the last moments before barbaric physical violence would enter the civilized estates of Europe and introduce their upper-class inhabitants to the grim hand of fate that they had inadvertantly fooled themselves and each other into ignoring.  The elegant man-made structures of this society will outlive its people - a point made more visceral by the extra-textual knowledge that much of the film was shot in genuine eighteenth-century castles.

Even after this final shot, Barry Lyndon makes time for its final and most radical temporal leap with the eloquent brutality of its epilogue, in which the phrase "good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now" brings the movie from 1789 to the present day.  The story of the film is turned into a grim but poignant allegory for the human inability, or unwillingness, to see the actions of the present in the larger context of history.  Barry Lyndon is the story of humanity's limited perspective, which allows us to do irreparable damage to ourselves and others simply by following the dictates of our society.