Hooray for Whatshisface!

There are the stars, the big names, the recognisable faces, the Brads and Georges and Scarletts. Then there are those actors who may not be gorgeous and glamorous but who are great actors and win awards. And then there are those actors whose faces you recognise, whose names you may not remember immediately but seeing them always makes you like a film that little bit more, because it’s got Whatshisface and Whatshername in it. Unless, of course, you are a film geek and sigh contentedly whenever you see good old Whatshisface, mouthing the man’s IMDB link to yourself.

One of the actors that I always enjoy seeing, even in middling and even decidedly dodgy films, is Richard Jenkins. He is probably what is called a “character actor”, which more often than not seems to translate into “We want to say something nice about this guy but he’s not a hunk nor is he a tortured genius.” He can be utterly amazing, as in The Visitor, a film that could have been unbearable Oscar bait but ended up subtle, poignant and quietly devastating, an achievement that was in no small part due to Jenkins’ performance.

However, as good as the actor was in The Visitor, it’s Six Feet Under that best encapsulates why I love Jenkins. He’s good at playing dignified, often melancholy and sometimes stodgy everymen, but when given the chance to let loose he has a goofy, subversive energy, a Coenesque quality that is unmatched. (He’s been in three of the Coen brothers’ films, but what I best remember him for is his turn in The Man Who Wasn’t There: “Riedenschneider!”)

Jenkins has the face of a slightly disappointed man exhausted by life, but he has that gift of pulling off quirkiness without that precocious, grating quality that indie quirk often takes on. There’s a scene in the first season of Six Feet Under, where main character Nate finds out that his deceased father Nathanael Fisher Sr., undertaker and proprietor of Fisher & Sons, had a secret room above an Indian restaurant that no one in his family knew about. As Nate imagines what his father may have got up to in this room, we see several scenarios: Nate Senior playing solitaire, Nate Senior shaking his booty to a groovy record, Nate Senior having it off with a hooker, Nate Senior shooting at passers-by with a sniper rifle. It’s a tricky scene, and I can’t imagine anyone other than Jenkins pulling it off as he does, deadpan and perfect.

The AV Club, as so often, has a fun and informative interview with Jenkins in their “Random Roles” series – well worth checking out for anyone who finds themselves to be quite a fan of Late Nate.

Empathological behaviour

On most message boards, forums and online communities that I’m a part of (all… let’s see… 3 1/2 of them) I probably post most frequently in threads relating to films, TV series, novels, plays, comics and other media that are largely dedicated to storytelling, characterisation and the like. One recent discussion I took part in was about the HBO series Game of Thrones, and while many of the topics were predictable (OMG sexposition! Just how much does Tyrion rule? Is there such a thing as posting that animated GIF of Joffrey being slapped too often?), one caught me by surprise: a poster criticised that there’s barely anyone in the series to root for.

The reason for my surprise was this: I realised that ‘rooting for someone’ has never been a measure of whether I enjoy a story or not. Of course I root for the Indiana Joneses and John McClanes, the Bastian Balthasar Buxes and… I’m actually finding it difficult to come up with more examples, which is quite telling. Some kinds of stories necessitate a ‘good guy’ to root for, but this isn’t anything I’m looking for in storytelling. On the other hand, what I am looking for is the potential to empathise with the characters whose lives I’m following. And that’s something I find quite easy – you could go so far as to say that I’m a bit of an ’empathy whore’. I’ve never really rooted for Tony Soprano, Richard III, even a Darth Vader – or, for that matter, a Cersei Lannister, not exactly one of the nicer characters in a series that isn’t exactly famous for its many loveable protagonists.

It’s one of the reasons why I’ve greatly enjoyed series whose protagonists do questionable, petty, selfish things all the time, from the characters in Six Feet Under (as the series goes on, Nate becomes more and more selfish in his actions, yet that never makes me care about him any less), to the shades-of-grey cast of any season of The Wire (yes, I even care about Rawls, while fully acknowledging what a dick he is) to the moral monsters of The Sopranos. Which is also why the flip-side of rooting for a fictional character is something I very rarely do – I often read about other forumites wanting this or that character to die horribly, to get knifed in the back or thrown off a cliff or get a bullet in his head, which I just don’t get. I don’t get the vehemence and sadism with which these things are often formulated (and yes, I do understand that wishing death on a fictional character is not the same as wanting a real person to die), but more than that, whether a character is morally reprehensible or not doesn’t have anything to do with whether I want to continue watching them. Al Swearengen is a Machiavellian monster, happy to kill, or have killed, anyone who stands in the way of his plans, yet I can think of few characters who are as enjoyable to watch as him. Tony Soprano made The Sopranos must-watch TV for six seasons, even in the worst episodes. Even generally likeable characters like The Wire‘s Bodie or Rome‘s Titus Pullo do horrible, heinous things. It’s not just that I don’t get why or how the moralities of their actions would influence my wanting to watch them: it’s that their flaws, their ambiguity, often make them more interesting characters for me. (Obviously my enjoyment of the characters also has a lot to do with how they’re written and acted – I want to watch an Al Swearengen at least as much because of Ian McShane’s performance as because he’s a fascinating, complex character, and the same’s definitely true for Breaking Bad‘s Walt White and the fantastic acting by Bryan Cranston.)

However, there are characters – very few, but they exist – that don’t evoke any empathy on my part. There are some that I dislike so much I wouldn’t mind something horrible happening to them. I’ll admit it right here and now: every time I watch One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I hope that McMurphy will succeed in strangling Nurse Ratched to death this time round. I guess that while I’m a bleeding heart of the worst kind when it comes to fictional characters as well, there’s still a tiny little reactionary inside me wanting to get out and flip the switch.

Vale of Tears, HBO style

My tastes probably tend towards the dark and tragic somewhat. For a while David Fincher’s Seven was my feelgood film (and I’m only exaggerating slightly). I’m not particularly into comedies, mainly because I don’t tend to find them funny – but I think that Shakespeare’s Richard III and John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi are both rich in humour, though of the blackest sort. I tend to label things as “bittersweet” that my Significant Other would call “depressing as hell”.

Imagine my surprise when we finished watching season 2 of Oz… and my reaction was pretty much this: Whoa. This series may be too negative, too pessimistic, too “everything is going to shit” for me. By comparison, the last two seasons of Six Feet Under were light tragicomedy, The Sopranos is Analyse This! and Deadwood is Paint My Wagon. In the season 2 finale, Oz gives us a pedophile ex-priest getting crucified by Arians, a Latino guard’s eyes getting stabbed (with disturbing visuals of the damage) and one inmate’s arms and legs being broken. (I can still hear the snapping sounds…) When an old Nigerian gets stabbed to death, it almost feels like a relief: Thank god, they could have put his arm down the garbage disposal and then fed him his own kidneys!

Oz is open to allegations of being gratuitous in its use of violence, at least in this episode – but then, I can think of scenes of Deadwood, Rome and indeed Six Feet Under (elevator bisection!) that are as visceral and gory. So what is it, if not the gruesome depiction of violence? Is it that the characters are by and large doing evil things? Hey, Al Swearengen could pull off as many as six evil things before breakfast, without breaking into a sweat. The Soprano mob was no bit more angelic than the inmates of Oswald Penitentiary. So, again: what is it that makes Oz less bearable?

I think it’s this: Oz is about a world where hope is mostly dead, and what hope is left is killed over and over again. All these other series, for the pain, suffering and evil acts they depict, they haven’t killed off hope. Goodness can exist and survive and sometimes even thrive. In Oz, the only way that goodness can avoid being trampled is by hiding away, making itself smaller. There are sparse moments of light, but they are so exceptional and all the characters seem to know it that you almost dismiss them as a mere distraction from the doom and gloom. And yes, there is humour, but most of the time it’s grim as hell. Even the world of The Wire is more hopeful. Consider that: The Wire is more hopeful than Oz.

Arguably, that’s the world the series depicts: its version of the American penal system is Hell, an institutional hell where goodness is weakness, and the weak get their arms and legs broken. But if a series is that relentlessly negative and nine out of ten times something good happening is just occasion for the characters to fall from a greater height, it becomes wearying. And it’s the first HBO series where I’m not exactly eager to get started on the next season as soon as possible.

Perhaps I need to recover with something lighter.

Blood Wing? True West? Something along those lines…

Since Switzerland is behind the rest of the world in all things pop culture, we’ve only just finished watching the first season of True Blood. Now, for those of you who have been following my HBO fetishism for a while, this will come as a bit of a surprise, but… I thought that True Blood was nothing much to write home about. It was entertaining enough, but I wouldn’t give the best episode of the series for the worst of Deadwood, The Wire or Six Feet Under, that other Alan Ball series. (I might be willing to exchange any episode of True Blood for that episode of The Sopranos where Tony meets his father’s mistress. Shudder…)

One major problem with the series, at least from my point of view, is that the main characters are much less interesting than the side characters that wander in for a couple of episodes. Bill and Sookie (or “Sookaaah!”, as Bill might put it) are okay, as are Sam, Tara, Jason and all the others, but I never really cared all that much about what was going to happen to them. On the other hand, I cared about poor, shlubby, gay vampire Eddie, I cared about psychotic, sexy hippie/murderess Amy, and I definitely wouldn’t mind seeing more of Kurt Kobain lookalike Eric (a charismatic performance by Alexander “Iceman” Skarsgard) or the Magister as played by Zeljko Ivanek.

At the same time, True Blood is almost perfect fare for a tired evening after a day at the office. It’s fun, it’s nice to look at, and that title tune always gets my toes twitching. Now, if only it was on offer as a downloadable track for Rock Band

We’re also almost at the end of the first season of The West Wing. It took me an episode or two to forget that the guy playing the President had also been Greg Stillson in David Cronenberg’s film version of The Dead Zone, i.e. not a man you’d want anywhere near the White House, but now I’m okay with Prez Jed Bartlett sitting in the Oval Office.

So far I’m enjoying the series a lot, although it’s pretty much the opposite of True Blood – intelligent writing, heavy on words and ideas, and very little in the way of graphic sex, fangs, shapeshifters and blood. It does, however, have Allison Janney, an actress who I’ve come to like a lot. If I had to single out one of the characters from the series as my favourite one, it’d be her C.J. Gregg. Janney is as pitch-perfect with scenes of political drama as she is with understated humour and outright goofiness.

It’s amazing, though, how bad most of the characters on the series are when it comes to interpersonal relationships that aren’t primarily defined by work. They make great colleagues (when they’re not making vicious fun of you after a root canal) – they seem to make for lousy boy- and girlfriends (though mostly boyfriends). D√©formation professionelle, I guess.

He may be easy, but he’s a prince

What makes a video game enjoyable? It’s obviously different things for different gamers: some like non-stop action, while others prefer games to be slower, more cerebral experiences. Some are graphics fetishists, while others say that gameplay complexity trumps visuals every time. Myself, I like a good narrative in a game, but I also want the gameplay and storytelling to be intertwined.

In the end, however, what it boils down to for most people, and in the most circular fashion at that, is that most people want games to be fun. They want to be taken out of their everyday lives for a while. Obviously that’s one of the reasons why so-called ‘casual games’ have been a major success in the last few years. Whether it’s Peggle or Plants vs. Zombies, or indeed one of the gazillion variations on the theme of Mah Jong, they’re all making money compared to what they cost that make most ‘non-casual’ games cry into their DVD boxes.

Is it just me, or is casual gaming more sexy than sweating, bespectacled nerds hunching over their gamepads for whole weekends? Or is that just evil advertising messing with my brain?

Now, old-school gamers like myself, who remember the times when a pixel was bigger than your head and the height of gaming was yellow pill addicts running through mazes and frogs crossing the street… Many of those gamers have nothing but disdain for casual games. Why? Because they’re easy. There’s little to no challenge in Puzzle Quest, they claim, so even your grandmother can play them and succeed. The most embarrassing examples of such old-school gamers will then go on a rant about the evils of instant gratification and those horrible people who feel entitled to winning a game every now and then without serious training.

Myself, I like a challenge every now and then – but to be honest, next to working 100% and having a relationship, I definitely see the appeal of games that are not punishingly hard. I see the fun in games that you can pick up, play for 15 minutes and drop again feeling that you’ve had a good time and cleared your mind.

However, there is such a thing as a game being too easy. I’m currently playing Prince of Persia, a reboot of a reboot of a classic gaming series back from the days when computers were big as houses and joysticks had one button. It’s a beautifully crafted game: it looks and sounds gorgeous, and it tells a nice story to boot. But, honestly: if I wanted a game that practically plays itself, I’d watch a DVD.

Behind every weirdly dressed man there's a woman with glowing hands. Or something.

It’s a real shame, because the game could easily have been as much fun or more while still providing a bit of a challenge. As it is, you never feel like you’re controlling your character – and for me, that’s one of the big things when it comes to good games. If it’s there, you never think about it, but the moment that control is taken from you, you can’t help noticing. In previous incarnations of the Prince of Persia series, your character performed the most amazing free-running acrobatics, but the controls were tight enough to make you feel that you were the one making the Prince run along walls, parkouring his way through Arabian Nights-inspired worlds. In this game, however, it’s enough to run roughly in the right direction and press a button at roughly the right time, and hey presto! you’re running along walls as if gravity was completely optional.

Without a bit of a challenge, without the feeling that you’re actually controlling your character, the gameplay actually becomes a bit of an annoyance much of the time. It’s like watching a film on DVD (or Blu-ray, of course!), and every time you get to a new scene you have to play Tic Tac Toe against an idiot. You’re sure to win, but it breaks the flow of the game. At what point does a game become so easy that it might as well consist of one button: “Press X to watch the next cutscene?”

But yeah… the game is oh so pretty. Behold (and if you’re a fan of the final episode of Six Feet Under, you may want to brace yourself for a tune you know very well – once you’ve accepted this as something other than utter blasphemy, it actually works quite well):

Late Nate and the Swedish vampires

While I still don’t see why there needs to be a US remake of Let the Right One In, it seems that at least they’re getting an interesting cast. Richard Jenkins, Nathaniel Fisher Sr. (and Walter Abundas, Scarlett Johannson’s narcoleptic dad in The Man Who Wasn’t There – “Reidenschneider!”) himself, will be playing the old man who is the girl vampire’s familiar. My problem is that when I look at him, I see sardonic Late Nate, always just a moment away from an inappropriate remark – but at least they’re getting someone who has repeatedly proven himself to be interesting and different.

But will they be able to match the sheer horror of all things Swedish?

P.S.: When I read the headline (“Richard Jenkins cast in Let Me In“), I was sure it was either a romantic comedy or an indie drama. Perhaps both. Obviously child vampires and indie rom-com can go together pretty nicely. Or something.

More series business

How many different series can a person watch and still keep them all apart? Right now we’re watching Angel, House¬† M.D., Carnivale and Heroes and Grey’s Anatomy, I’m rewatching Six Feet Under, Battlestar Galactica and Life on Mars, we’ve just finished Fringe and we’re waiting to continue The Sopranos and Buffy. Well, at least no one can accuse me of being a total elitist snob when it comes to telly series…

I enjoyed Fringe because it fulfilled my post-X-Files FBI-investigating-weird-shit cravings. Is it a good series? Not particularly – it’s repetitive, some of the acting is dubious and with half the episodes I think that I’ve seen them before, only Mulder and Scully did them better. It’s great turn-off-your-brain TV fast-food, though, and I’m looking forward to more Leonard Nimoy in season 2. “It’s all lies. But they’re entertaining lies. And in the end, isn’t that the real truth?” (Damn you, YouTube, for not having a clip of that scene!)

The answer is, "No."

Grey’s Anatomy has been something of a guilty pleasure of mine, and throughout much of season 4 it wasn’t all that much of a pleasure, to be honest. The series’ problem – well, main problem – is that they’ve got a number of very good actors and even the middling actors know their parts by now, but the writing (especially with respect to character development) covers the whole range from maudlin to obvious to plain bad, with the occasional strong scene. If the series could decide to be a comedy, it wouldn’t matter that most of the characters are written to be highly unprofessional so much of the time (typical example: some patient is dying and needs urgent care, and doctor X decides that this is the right moment to ask doctor Y why they didn’t have sex the previous night – remind me not to get ill in TV Seattle…). It takes very good writing to make the constant jumps from quirky comedy to serious (melo)drama work if the characters aren’t to come across as nincompoops at the mercy of the script. Season 5 had many of those weaknesses, but it had enough strong moments to keep me watching. Still, there are some developments and storylines that just annoy the hell out of me: a resident at a big Seattle hospital going more or less bankrupt from one day to the next because Daddy cuts her trust fund? Swapping one interesting lesbian character for cute but eternally bland blondie because you want eye candy rather than an actual character? Derek Shepard yet again going all pompously self-righteous, and still no one takes one of those circular saws to his perfectly coiffed head?

If we all gang up and stab him with scalpels, it shouldn't take too long...

In the meantime, I’m rather enjoying where Angel season 3 is taking us. Yes, there were a couple of false steps – Gunn and Wesley going all mooney over Fred wasn’t cute, it was just annoying, and having it go on for several episodes made me want to go Angelus on them all – but it’s fascinating to see how Angel, Cordelia and especially Wesley develop during the season. Just 2-3 more episodes to go until season 4 – and I’m ignoring all those people who say that it’s one of the worst seasons ever in the Whedonverse, because it’s something we have to get through before season 5 and “Smile Time” and the (wait for it) bitter-sweet finale. (Yes, Lucy, I put that there just for you…)

Oh, before I forget: gotta love this recent article in The Onion: Next Tarantino Movie An Homage To Beloved Tarantino Movies Of Director’s Youth.

Fight, fight, fight, fight, fight, fight, fight. How many fights is that? A lot.

And finally: I’ll be writing a weekly entry at The Best Shows You’re Not Watching, alternating between Six Feet Under and Life on Mars. You can find the first one here. Let me know what you think!