Fighting the franchise funk

Over the last few years we’ve been watching the Harry Potter movies with a friend who lives abroad; every time she’s been over, we watched another one or two of the films, and over the holidays we saw the two parts of Deathly Hallows, in my case for the third or fourth time. As far as I’m aware, the first part fared less well with critics and audiences than the second one, and it’s clear why: it’s definitely the less crowd-pleasing film of the two. Its plot meanders, what big setpieces there are don’t feel as cathartic as the showdown against Voldemort, and a lot of the movie seems to be dedicated to Harry, Hermione and, with some interruptions, Ron hiking, camping and generally looking wet, cold and miserable.

Nonetheless, rewatching the two films, I found myself clearly preferring the first one. Deathly Hallows Part 2 largely works because it’s the end of a journey, but it feels (and felt even when I first watched it) perfunctory to some extent. We need to resolve the different plot strands, we need to bring closure to Snape’s story, we need to dispose of the remaining horcruxes and of Voldemort himself – but little of this feels like it tells us anything about the characters. We know that Harry is brave, Hermione is smart and Ron is, well, Ron, and we also know that the visual effects wizards are great at doing what they do, as are the designers, artists and everyone else responsible for the way the film looks and sounds. After a while, though, setpieces become interchangeable, and while the escape from a fiery Room of Requirement is exciting in the moment, it’s also strangely bland. It’s a Harry Potter movie, of course there would be some chase or fight involving pixel magic, derring do and last-minute escapes. It’s fan service to some extent, but fan service isn’t automatically bad.

It's quidditch time!

However, there are moments in Deathly Hallows Part 1 that are decidedly different, that are quiet and unexpected, that have nothing to do with crowd-pleasing 3D whooshery. The film already starts with some of these scenes, filled with foreboding and sadness, as Hermione for instance wipes herself from her parents’ memories so they’d be safe. It’s a largely wordless scene, not of teary farewells but of loss and poignant resolve. Another scene I found surprising and delighting was the animated Tale of the Three Brothers; and later, as Ron is temporarily off and Harry and Hermione are alone, Nick Cave’s “O Children” plays on the radio, and Harry engages his friend of many years in a clumsy, sweet dance. It doesn’t further the plot, and it doesn’t get the pulse racing with excitement and danger – but it surprised and enchanted this muggle here more than all of the final part of the final part of Harry Potter.

Obviously the Potteriad wouldn’t have worked, or at least been as successful, if all it consisted of were these quiet, unexpected, intimate moments (though it would be intriguing to see someone try their hand at creating the Before Sunrise of the wizarding world) – but for me it highlights both the shortcomings and the potential of big franchises. Many of the fans love the Harry Potter films for the magic and the world, the quidditch matches and firebreathing dragons and wizards’ duels, so obviously these are things by which later instalments are judged. We want what we know, what is comfortable, because that’s how we came to love the franchise. These expectations are reasonable, but they’re also a trap, keeping a franchise frozen like an insect in amber. It’s similar with something like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where we get some variation between the different strands – Iron Man isn’t the same as Captain America, whose pulpy WW2 first instalment and more sombre second film differ from Thor‘s sci-fi/mythology mashup – but we know what we’ll get, namely some good action setpieces, some snarky humour and a band of heroic characters that need to put their rivalries and disagreement aside and come together as a family to defeat some colourful yet dull villain – or, if you’re lucky, Tom Hiddleston.

Loki here!

Franchises are the storytelling equivalent of comfort food: when you want a plate of spaghetti, you don’t want it to surprise you with chopped coriander or shiitake mushrooms or a honey-aceto balsamico reduction with shavings of shock-frosted lamb’s kidney. The line between comfort food and tinned spaghetti is thin, though, and there’s always a risk of that exciting quidditch match or that bit where the Hulk goes smash getting stale, to the extent where you hardly know which particular instalment you’re watching at the time. Franchises thrive on constancy, on giving fans what they want, but they can’t be that and that only if they want to be alive and vibrant. They need scenes like Harry and Hermione’s awkward dance to Nick Cave, just like they need Trevor “I am (not) the Mandarin” Slattery. They need to be willing to withhold the simple, immediate gratification of More Of The Same” at times if they want to be good and not just safe. And there’s potential in exactly this: fans know what to expect, so you can surprise them by playing with the format. The most memorable episodes in TV series (which tend to be prone to becoming formulaic) are often the ones that, once the format has been established, play with the formula: Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s “The Body”or “Once More With Feeling”, House M.D.‘s “Three Stories”,  M*A*S*H‘s “The Interview”. It’s because people know the formula that they see how it’s played with, and if it works, it can create some of the most memorable moments a franchise can afford.

Doing that with an entire film is risky: people who go and watch a Harry Potter movie want to see an adventure for the whole family, with magic and special effects setpieces. Iron Man fans want an action comedy with explosions, flying metal suits and Robert Downey Jr. doing what he does so well. But the safety net of the franchise shouldn’t become a prison. By all means, establish a formula, make us fall in love with the flying brooms, the comic-book villainy, the TIE Fighters and Star Destroyers and light sabres. But use those things as a starting point. Don’t just give us what we already know we want: surprise us and win our hearts again by whisking us into a clumsy, earnest dance to the strains of “O Children”. Because being a franchise doesn’t mean we want to watch the same movie over and over again, forever stuck on repeat.

Shame I’ve already used “A Death in the Family”…

Anyway, it’s really two deaths I’ll be writing about. And the whole notion of family… well, let’s put it this way. It’s complicated.

I’m currently rewatching The Sopranos and I just finished season 3 (“… In which an old friend’s son is shot in the back of the head and Meadow interrupts a sentimental song with thrown chunks of bread and a rendition of a Britney Spears classic”). While the series dealt in ambiguities from the very beginning, season 3 is perhaps the first one where the audience’s complicity is brought to the fore. We root for Tony Soprano, paterfamilias to two families, but for all his charm and for all our sympathy for him (when he’s not being an asshole to the people around him) he is evil – if he is defined by who he is and what he does, he’s evil. Less so than the outright psychos in his entourage (I’m mainly looking at you, Paulie and Ralphie) and more self-aware, but he enables them and depends on them and their actions for his own success.

Up to the end of season 3, we’ve never seen him quite this manipulative and hypocritical, and now it’s seeping into his children more and more. Knowing quite well on one level that her idiot ex was killed because of the system her father upholds, she now defends it – to the face of idiot ex’s sister and with a degree of self-righteousness that is nauseating.

He's behind you!

The problem I have with rewatching The Sopranos, though, is that differently from, say, Deadwood, Six Feet Under or (most of all) The Wire the episodes and seasons are pretty much exchangeable. There’s very little character development – which may be the point, but if you could watch the episodes in pretty much any order and the only thing you can determine by whether it’s season 1, 3 or 6 is how old the kids are and whether Pussy Bompensiero is around? In my books that diminishes the lasting appeal and success of the series.

Talking of deaths in series: since Switzerland is a couple of months behind the States with respect to TV, we only got to see the House season 4 finale now… and what a downer that one was. Even though season 4 was the shortest season of the series ever, most of the episodes after House had chosen his new team felt like retreads (or, in fact, re-re-retreads), but the two finale episodes, “House’s Head” and “Wilson’s Heart”, were among the best and definitely the emotionally strongest episodes. I remember pretty much hating Robert Sean Leonard in Much Ado About Nothing, but together with Hugh Laurie he carries the series even in its most generic episodes. Give him material such as this and he absolutely shines. (And I don’t know what it is, but give me a well-acted man crying his eyes out in a series and I get a big lump in my throad…)

I still don’t think that Kate Beckinsale is talented or particularly beautiful, though, so there.

Give me Emma and Kenneth any time. Please.

Mother****ing House on the mother****ing plane!

Just in case you didn’t get the reference…

“Airborne”, yesterday’s episode of House, M.D., was fun. I like it when they shake up the format, even though the episode was a tad high-concept (“House on a Plane!” Well, you get it…) Seeing the doc try to deal with the situation without his lackeys was enjoyably snarky:

House: Can you say “Crikey Mate”?
12 year-old Boy: Crikey Mate.
House: Perfect. Now no matter what I say, you’ll agree with me, okay.
12 year-old Boy: Okay.
House: Nicely done. You, disagree with everything I say.
Foreign Man: Sorry, not understand.
House: Close enough. (to random woman) You get morally outraged by everything I say.
Sour Faced Girl: (about House writing on the movie screen) That’s permanent marker, you know.
House: Wow, you guys are good.

The editing between the two storylines kept the episode dynamic throughout – and I’ve started to feel sympathy for Chase since last episode (especially the glow on his face when he looked at Cameron’s photo). So far he’d been the blandest of the supporting characters, but there’s something genuinely sweet – if still not terribly deep – to his growing feelings for Cameron. She, on the other hand, is becoming somewhat grating: the combination of self-righteous and self-indulging may be credible, but I find myself thinking, “How about you keep your mouth shut and your pants zipped for ten minutes, girl…” (Yes, every now and then I guess I am a bit of a sexist. Sorry. Feel free to throw things at me.)

In other not-so-news: we started watching season 3 of Deadwood, and boy, is the air thick with ominousness… ominosity- ominiminy? Well, you know what I mean. Quite obviously, Hearst is not a good egg, nor is he the kind of moustachioed bad egg who keeps heads in boxes and whom we secretly like. I can’t really put my finger on it, but there’s something in the balmy frontier air, and it’s not Calamity Jane’s heady aroma. We’ll see where this’ll take us, but somehow I doubt it will be anywhere nice. Or perhaps the episode’s title was ironic: “Tell your God to Ready for Blood” might really be the prelude to a season of goodwill, cheer and fluffy bunnies in Deadwood (no state yet).

My, my… aren’t we meta?

One of the things that I find nerdishly fascinating about having a blog is this: what sort of search terms do people use to find my blog? Here’s a quick selection of the ones that I found most baffling, amusing or worrying:

“coen brothers communists”: Who’d’ve thunk? I can imagine some rabid right-winger looking for Coen Brothers hate pages and landing on my site. If so, welcome, Aryan brother! Stay around! Did I mention I’m a pinko commie foreigner bastard myself?

“House M.D. board game”: There’s money to be made from this, I’d wager! “Your patient is too heavy for the CT scanner – lose one turn!” “It is not lupus! Go back three squares.”

 “not irony”: To which I say, “Hah! And double-hah!”

“rape games for kids”: I don’t even want to know… 

“under trampoline”: This one baffles me, I must admit. As does the last one:

“elder panty sniffing”

At least it now has some relevance if someone, heart pounding and palms sweaty, enters “elder panty sniffing” and ends up here…

The pic is called “grenadeboy”, apparently. Eep.

P.S.: If you google “coen brothers communists”, this is the first picture you get. Creepy, huh?

Two deaths and three funerals… followed by two more deaths

Yesterday’s TV evening was marked by a high number of funerals. The deaths I sort of expected – after all, we did watch Deadwood – but I could have done without the ominous onslaught of funerals. House, M.D. managed to do without a death, as it pulled off its last-minute Eureka! moment, House saving the hard-done by Marc Blucas at the last moment. (As if his breakup with Buffy hadn’t already done enough damage…) Then we zapped into some series with Craig T. Nelson (I don’t know what he’s doing on telly anyway – shouldn’t Poltergeist have taught him to stay away from the flickertube?) and an epic African-American funeral, complete with gospel choir. This was followed by the quite heart-rending Deadwood episode “Let the whores come” (and only Al Swearengen can pull off asking the whore who’s giving him his daily blowjob whether she’s dyed her hair and almost seem considerate).

ep23_seth_coffin.jpg

But the whole thing was topped by the double-funeral, followed by double-death (très E.A. Poe) of Nikki and Paulo, Lost‘s most hated characters since… well, depending on who you ask, since Kate or Ana Lucia or Jack or Charlie or Boone or Shannon or practically anyone. Except Hurley. No one seems to hate Hurley. (Okay, not true. There are people who hate him – but there’s only one TV Hurley that everyone can agree to hate.)

Hurley by name…

It’s called Deadwood… What did you expect?

Okay, I know that there’s at least one reader out there who hasn’t seen Deadwood season 2 yet and is planning to do so. This is where I tell you, very politely, to come back tomorrow, lest ye read a spoiler.

Still there? I’m warning you, there be spoilers!

Well, that’s about all I can do. If you’re still reading, well, I won’t take any responsibility. So there.

Yesterday evening, after two middling episodes of House, M.D., we watched the pen-penultimate episode of the sophomore season of Deadwood, aptly entitled “Advances, None Miraculous”. In it, we were reminded (after several episodes that seemed to suggest differently) that Al Swearengen can still be the scariest mother****er in the Valley of Death, if he wants to be. And all without drawing a weapon.

We were also shown that when he needs to be, Sol Star is just as much of a badass. After seeing Al frighten Mrs Isringhausen – not exactly a shrinking violet herself – into signing a piece of paper, accepting $10’000 and getting the hell out of Dodge in a brilliant piece of Al-manship, we get Sol telling him in his face that he won’t stand for bad Jew jokes. Now that takes a pair… or stupidity, but I’ve always thought of Sol as the intelligent one in the Star-Bullock friendship. (Except occasionally, when he’s led by his privates rather than by his brain.)

None miraculous

However, the emotional centrepiece of the episode was the protracted death of William Bullock. It was quite heartrending to see Sheriff Bullock face a crisis that he can’t beat down with his fists. William’s dying was a moving counterpoint to the political wheelings and dealings about the coming annexation of Deadwood, affecting everyone in their own way.

Talking about affecting: I’ve gone on at great length about The Assassination of J.J. by the Coward R.F. before. Yesterday I made the mistake of checking out the Nick Cave/Warren Ellis soundtrack of the movie on Amazon.com. The dark, subtle elegiac tunes (or rather the 20-second clips that Amazon plays for free) got to me to the extent that I felt the pull of the movie all day afterwards. Tunes like “Rather Lovely Thing” or “Song for Jesse” wormed their way into my heart, making me feel sad for semi-fictional characters long dead for hours.

P.S.: When I read who’d composed the music together with Nick Cave, I had this momentary vision of the writer of Transmetropolitan scribbling darkly sentimental tunes on some sheets in between writing another tasteless, hilarious, biting chapter of his near-future satire. For all I know, it is the same Warren Ellis. Then again… No. Probably not.

It’s never lupus

Yesterday’s TV series evening was fun. First “Finding Judas” on House, M.D., then Lost‘s “Flashes Before Your Eyes”.

Slap the parents and House both, please…!

Actually, I tell a lie. The “Judas” episode wasn’t fun, though it was eminently watchable. For the first time, House really seemed to lose it completely, becoming a strung-out bastard who used his incisive mind not to help his patient but to hurt those who are on his side. If Tritter wasn’t so clearly a bastard himself, he would have proven that he has a point in much of what he says. House’s words to Cuddy, for instance, were cruel and his general behaviour shitty. His suffering from withdrawal explains it, but it doesn’t excuse it.

Obviously the episode was manipulative (even more so than most of House), but effectively so. I knew they wouldn’t amputate the little girl’s arm and leg, but part of me sat there thinking “Ohshitohshitohshit…” nevertheless. I’m curious to see where they’ll take the Tritter plot and Wilson’s friendship with House, as that storyline seems to be coming to a head. And I wonder whether it’ll ever be lupus…

“Flashes Before Your Eyes” was an intriguing episode of Lost, and a heavy focus on Desmond is always welcome. For all its meandering and self-indulgence, the series has been fairly good at introducing new and interesting characters: Ben, Mr Eko, Desmond. The episode also had some interesting twists, such as the Precog Scot trying to save Charlie (and not Claire, as it appears at first), and the clever use of the flashback convention.

It’s oh-so-British, innit?

I could have done without the fake Englishness of some of it, though. The series’ England feels as if its makers only know the country from bad movies and TV. Especially Fionnula Flanagan’s character felt fake, when she should have been eerie. Still, though, it looks like Charlie – possibly the character who annoys me most – is heading for a rendezvous with the Grim Reaper. Can’t say I’m going to be too sad. Then again, they made me kinda like Shannon and Boone just before killing them off. The Lost writers are obviously bastards.