Our most precious resource, beyond health, is time.
So…when you’re reading or watching a film or television show filled with unlikable characters, do you stick with it?
I get it — conflict and drama are essential to almost all compelling narratives, in whatever form. Without it, it’s all puppies and rainbows.
Baddies add spice and darkness and intrigue.
But how much of it can you take?
I’m prompted to ask this after watching four recent TV series here in the U.S.:
Succession, Sharp Objects, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Insecure.
The first, on HBO, follows the fortunes and chicanery of the media mogul Roy family (pretty clearly modeled on Rupert Murdoch), with three weird adult sons and a serious bitch of a daughter; when one’s nickname is Con (Conor) and another Shiv (Siobhan), there’s a clue! The plot line focuses on the four adult children and their endless maneuvring for power, attention and approval from their terrifying father, Logan Roy, who manages to spit “Fuck off!” to each of them fairly regularly. And to anyone within range.
These are not people you’d want to have lunch with, that’s for sure. They alternate between spoiled, wealthy, entitled charm and knives-out ambition, manipulating those around them as need be. So, why watch? I stuck it out to the end, and, yes, it’s worth it!
Even as horrible as most of these characters are, you can also gin up some sympathy for them with the brute of a father they’ve all also endured.
Sharp Objects is based on the book by Gillian Flynn, and follows an alcoholic female reporter sent back to her small Missouri hometown to cover murders of local teen girls. The direction and cinematography and dark and moody, and the characters challenging — the reporter Camille Preaker is a cutter who slurps vodka all day from a water bottle while her mother swans about in pastel nightgowns and her teen half-sister swings between wildness and demure behavior.
I’m glad I read the book because the series’ slow pace is losing me, given the consistent ugliness of the people involved.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel came highly praised and, in some ways, appears easy to like — a feel-good story about a wealthy 1950s NYC housewife, at 26 mother of two young children, determined to make it as a stand-up comedian after her husband has an affair. It’s fun to guess which New York City locations were used, and all the 50’s fashions and all the old cars, but the very premise seems bizarre to me, and the more I watched it, wanting to like it, the less I enjoyed the characters — whose wealth insulates them from tedious realities (like taking the subway or finding and paying a babysitter. When she loses her enormous apartment, Mrs. Maisel simply moves upstairs into her parents’ enormous apartment.)
Her mother is anxious, her father a semi-tyrant, her husband thoroughly unattractive — and Mrs. Maisel? She’s not that funny and her “journey” through some really bad evenings with audiences who hate her? How could she possibly fail? They all feel too entitled for me at this point.
Insecure, the creation of Issa Rae, is heading into its third season and I’m trying to like it. Rae is charming and funny and totally relatable. And yet, at 30, her character is still making disastrous choices in her life.
Her passivity annoys the hell out of me.
I may just be too old (or too white) to appreciate what a great show this is.
Have you seen (and enjoyed) any of these shows? What am I missing?!
I’m also obsessive about watching opening and closing credits, for television and for film.
The opening credits — and carefully chosen music — carefully set a tone for the show that follows. Anyone remember the joyful opening hat-toss of the late Mary Tyler Moore in The Mary Tyler Moore Show?
And its girl-power theme song: “You’re going to make it after all.”
I’ve been watching three dark and powerful TV series this summer — Happy Valley, set in Yorkshire and Succession and Sharp Objects on HBO. In all three, the opening credits, for me, are part of the pleasure, physically and emotionally setting us up for what happens next.
I even got a story out of this obsession once, after watching the final credits for The Namesake, a lovely 2006 film about an East Indian family living in the U.S. The credits revealed that the movie had been shot on location in a town about 10 minutes’ drive from where I live, in a suburban area north of New York City.
I sold a story about the making of the film to The New York Times, and learned all sorts of movie-making arcana, like how difficult it was to find the right hanging dishrack for the kitchen and why so many films and TV shows are made in or close to New York City — thanks to union rules, (and the high cost of paying overtime), if it takes more than an hour to reach a shooting location, door to door (or close to it), it’s deemed too costly.
My father, now retired, is an award-winning documentary film-maker — here’s his Wikipedia entry — so watching movies and TV shows was a normal part of our lives.
I got another story idea when I noticed how many recent films had long lists of Hungarian (!?) names in the credits — and discovered that one of the newest and largest film studios is just outside of Budapest.
Variety, which covers the business side of Hollywood, wanted me to do some reporting when I was there in July 2017 but the pay was poor for way too much work, so I just had a good time with my friends instead. (If you’ve seen “BladeRunner 2049”, one pivotal scene is shot inside the city’s former stock exchange and many others were shot on their sound stage there, as was “The Martian.”)
I’m mad for movies, and usually see at least one or two every week, sometimes more — old ones, new ones, watching loved ones over and over. (Just re-watched “The Post” last weekend for the third or fourth time. And, every time I do, I pick up a few more details I missed before.)
I watched “It” on TV recently and was hooting with laughter within the first few frames at a quaint street scene set in a fictional American town — which was in fact Port Hope, Ontario, whose landscape I know very well since my father lived there for four years and we had visited often.
They used to be so long there was an intermission — with a word on-screen saying “Intermission.” One even had an overture, Dr. Zhivago, as if the audience were seated at the opera or a classical concert.
Today we watch movies in the palm of our hands.
My father made documentary films for a living and one feature film, King of the Grizzlies, for Disney. (How do you control a grizzly bear? Jelly donuts and electrical wire lining the path you want him to walk.) So I had been on-set as a little girl and when we went to the movies we usually walked in half-way through. It was years before I saw a film as it was meant to be seen.
You know, from the opening credits.
I also grew up with very little access to television, between boarding school rules and life.
So if I wanted — and who doesn’t? — to disappear visually into another world for a while, movies were it.
The two films then that left the most powerful impression on me were two I still happily re-watch, Dr. Zhivago and 2001.
Dr. Zhivago, all 3 hours and 20 minutes of it, was directed by the late great British director David Lean (who also directed the classics Lawrence of Arabia and Bridge on the River Kwai) and featured Omar Sharif, Geraldine Chaplin (grand-daughter of the great comic Charlie Chaplin), Rod Steiger, Tom Courtenay and Julie Christie.
It’s the eighth-highest grossing film, nominated for 10 Oscars (and won five.)
There isn’t a thing I dislike about this film. I love its specific color palette — grey, black, white, red, lavender and bright yellow. I love the extraordinary panoramas of landscape (Alberta, Finland and Spain subbing for Russia), the music, the underlying love stories.
Despite one online critic calling it “cinematic comfort food” I still think it’s worth a look if you’ve never seen it.
I wonder how many of today’s viewers could tolerate that.
The film posits the existence of a black monolith that reappears after millennia, its role unknown, and focuses on a space mission to Jupiter controlled by the spacecraft’s computer, Hal 9000. I won’t explain the whole thing (the Wikipedia entry is super-detailed) but I never tire of it, especially the final scenes, filled with dazzling color and a trip to the edge of infinity. (It was made in the late 1960s — very much of its times.)
I’m in awe of the many talents and skills it takes to create a film, from the book or musical (or original screenplay) to the Foley artist, (the geniuses who find and create sound effects), to make-up, hair, lighting and cinematography.
While directors (still overwhelmingly male) and actors get 99% of all our attention (except for cinephiles and Oscar night), making a film is truly a team effort.
My dream movie job? Location scout!
A brief and selected list of my favorites below, which somehow includes no films from the 1930s, ’50s or ’90s.
Some other films I love:
The Devil Wears Prada
So fun! Younger viewers may think the main character is a total bitch. She is, but with a purpose. Older viewers might find her younger assistant a bit whiny, and she is, but she smartens up. I love the snappy dialogue, the astonishing clothes and accessories, the journalistic ambition that underpins the whole thing. Besides, any movie with Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci gets my vote! 2006
I mean the 1946 version, starring Cary Grant and Ingmar Bergman, who travels to Brazil to infiltrate a gang of Nazis. That’s enough for me.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Paul Newman and Robert Redford, pure eye candy, play these real-life 19th century bank robbers, and Katharine Ross (better known for her role in The Graduate) plays their sidekick. Gorgeous scenes of galloping across Western landscapes, humor and drama and a final scene that gets me every time, partly because I recognize where it was filmed, with the distinctive twin volcanoes that mark it as Mexico. I was living in Cuernavaca then, where it was partly filmed, so there’s some serious nostalgia in it for me. 1969
Three Days of the Condor
Robert Redford again. Nuff said! OK, it’s about a guy working for the CIA who comes back to work to find all his colleagues have been killed — and has to figure out how and why. 1975
The Bourne films (Identity, Ultimatum, Supremacy)
I love how these films create a world where a solo actor, played by Matt Damon, races across the world fleeing execution by the agency that created him as a murderous monster. These films have it all: fantastic scenery (Thailand, Tangier, Berlin), lots of action and insanely complicated chase and fight scenes, and a love story. Not to mention their pure escapism — Damon never does anything vaguely normal and boring, like laundry or grocery shopping or sitting in a cubicle. Nope, it’s one desperate dash to a plane/boat/train/ferry after another.
If you’ve never seen this one, rent it this very instant! Starring Ingmar Bergman and Humphrey Bogart, it’s a love story complete with Nazis, Paris, trench coats, that song (“Play it, Sam”) and flashes of delicious humor and pathos. 1942
Aguirre, Wrath of God
If you’ve never seen any films by the great German director Werner Herzog, make time to explore a bit of his oeuvre. This 1972 film stars the wild man Klaus Kinski as Aguirre, in one of his five (shouting, screaming, exhausting) collaborations with Herzog. Filmed entirely on the Amazon in Peru, it’s a lush, crazed story of a 16th century conquistador. The final scene is unforgettable.
The Motorcycle Diaries
Based on the true story of Che Guevara’s ride around South America with his best friend, a once-wealthy medical student, it shows his transformation and political awakening. Starring Gabriel Garcia Bernal, this 2004 film is moving, beautiful to watch and a powerful insight into a legendary figure in history.
McCabe and Mrs. Miller
This Western film, made in 1971 by American director Robert Altman, was shot in Vancouver and Squamish, B.C., starring Julie Christie and Warren Beatty. Although it sounds seedy and weird — a pimp sets up shop in a 1902 town — it’s well worth seeing for the plot, characters, cinematography. The final scene…The soundtrack features another Canadian, Leonard Cohen. In 2010, McCabe & Mrs. Miller was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant”.
As a career journalist, I love films that explain what we do and why it still matters a great deal. This fantastic 2014 film — partially shot in my hometown, Toronto — details the true story of the Boston Globe’s investigative team, Spotlight, into Catholic priests’ sexual abuses. Starring Mark Ruffalo, Jon Slattery (of Mad Men) and Toronto actress Rachel McAdams, this is a must-see. I blogged about it as well; here’s the post.
One of those films whose every visual reference — like 2001 — informs many later works that are better-known. Based on a Philip K. Dick story, this futuristic dystopian love story features Harrison Ford, (long before his breakout roles in Star Wars and Indiana Jones) as a “blade runner”, a retired cop charged with running down wayward replicants. Directed by Ridley Scott, (later famous for his Alien films), it’s a cult classic, with all the Scott-isms we’ve come to know and love — sudden terror, lots of bright lights and dripping water, dark crevices filled with menace. 1982
Rocky Horror Picture Show
“It’s just a jump to the left…” This 1975 piece of insanity stars Susan Sarandon as Janet, lost on a dark road with her fiance Brad. Arriving at a castle filled with (at the time wildly transgressive idea) transsexuals and transvestites, they quickly lose all control. It’s a musical with classics like Time Warp. Tim Curry, in corset, plays Frank N. Furter, with sidekicks like Magenta, Riff Raff and Columbia. You either hate it or love it.
Too funny. 2011
Even funnier, pairing Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock. A 2013 buddy cop movie, it should be stupid but is funny as hell and occasionally even moving. 2013
Why do we love Jason Bourne? Why does this brooding nobody command our immediate allegiance? Because his mission is not to take down a cartel, destroy an undersea fear factory, or cripple a billion-dollar interstellar weapons system. It’s not even to save a beautiful woman. His mission is the essential human mission—to find out who the hell he is.
Plucked nameless from the Mediterranean, a floating corpse, by the crew of an Italian fishing boat (water: mother-element in the Bourne movies); rebirthed on the wet deck, his twitching hand eliciting gasps of atavistic wonder; tended to—healed—with gruff inexhaustible charity by the ship’s doctor (“I’m a friend!” insists this heroic man, as a panicked Bourne rears up and starts choking him. “I am your friend!”); recuperating on board, at sea, strengthening, doing chin-ups, tying fancy seaman’s knots and asking himself who he is in French and German—indications of hidden skill sets, strange aptitudes and attainments …
Here’s the Wkipedia entry explaining Bourne and his backstory.
I’ve watched these films so many times now, I know scenes, dialogue and the theme song off by heart.
Why, exactly, are the adventures of a desperate black ops asset of such compelling interest?
I can shoot a Glock 9mm quite nicely, thanks to my weapons training while researching my first book, about American women and guns. But I’ve never been chased across the rooftops of Tangier or had to throttle someone on a kitchen floor or evade very determined and well-paid bad guys across multiple continents…
I have stayed in some really cheap and seedy hotel rooms, in Granada and Copenhagen, as Bourne often does.
I have had to fling myself into stranger’s lives for succor, as I did when rescued by Gudrun in Barcelona, dizzy and sweat-drenched when I arrived at her home after a train ride from Venice.
I have been alone, ill and afraid in foreign countries — Turkey, Portugal, Italy, Denmark — where only my wits, cash and passport kept me safe and sound. That theme, repeated in every Bourne movie, also resonates deeply for me.
As Bourne does, I’ve also had some spontaneous romantic encounters in far-flung spots — Carlo in Sicily, Zoran in Paris, Pierre in Montreal; you’re never more open to such possibilities as when you’re single, traveling solo far from home and with no ties restraining you.
But you never see Jason Bourne having the sort of normal life most of us lead most of the time: waiting at the carousel for his luggage, (he never seems to carry any!); ordering another mimosa at brunch, (Bourne definitely doesn’t do brunch) or even waiting, really, for anything — beyond the arrival of the latest asset with orders to terminate him.
His life is one of urgency, forever using his lethal skills to save himself and whichever woman he’s with. He bristles with competence, switching passports and languages, finding whatever he needs as he rustles, injured and bleeding, through a Russian medicine cabinet or distract the Moroccan cops chasing him by tossing a can of hairspray into a brazier so it explodes.
“Real” life doesn’t exist for him.
I suspect all of us are, in some measure, running fast and away from something: a fear, a hope, an unrealized goal, an unrequited love, or racing toward a future we can’t quite see, but which we hope lies on the other side of a border we haven’t yet reached — whether the Greek island where Bourne re-finds his love, Marie — or something closer to home.
Here’s a terrific movie-focused blog, organized by decade. This blog, Cinema Style, explores how films reflect, or lead, design and fashion.
I got the coolest email this week, from the programmer for the Vancouver Film Festival — it’s on today at 12:20 for those of you who live there — asking about my Dad, Ron Kelly, whose early films about that city in the 1960s are being honored. (It’s where I was born.)
One of them, about violent youths, was never broadcast by the CBC because of its content. Here’s his Wikipedia entry. He’s alive and healthy at 83, just back from Turkey and heading off to Chicago then Asia in the next month.
In 1962, he won the Palme D’Or at Cannes for “The Tearaways”, another film about misspent youth, this time British, which the BBC also refused to air. Love it!
So when I spend my career looking for tough topics others shy away from, I have a role model for it in him. (My mother also worked as a radio, TV and print reporter, once smuggling tapes of the Chicago 8 trial north to the CBC.) I grew up watching my parents make a nice living digging under intellectual rocks going “Ooooh, look!”
It never really occurred to me to think otherwise, that being polite and obedient and deferring to authority was normal behavior, as it is for many people. I’m hardly a 24/7 hellion, and I’m conventional enough to have a mortgage — but I’m usually most attracted to stories that will piss someone off.
I think far too much “journalism” today is lightweight crap meant to please advertisers and amuse readers, instead of telling truth to power.
I think the world is filled with tough, difficult stories that need to be well-told.
I think many people are too scared to piss off the wealthy who increasingly own our democracies.
My husband, a lovely, gentle man who has worked in the same place for almost 30 years, is pretty much my polar opposite in this regard. He’s a PK, a preacher’s kid, and PKs are typically raised in a bubble of high expectations, docile/polite behavior and the need to get along with everyone. He learned it from his Dad.
But Jose has also has done his share of mixing it up, as a news and sports photographer for The New York Times, telling amazing and difficult stories, like covering the end of the Bosnian War. The way he managed to get a photo of General Manuel Noriega is so insanely inventive it makes me think he missed his calling as a spook. His sangfroid on 9/11 also helped the Times win a Pulizter.
People who go into hard news journalism tend to like poking sharp objects at things. In that respect, it’s a terrific field for a woman like me, who’s nosy, pushy and rarely satisfied with pat answers. It rewards brass-balled women, otherwise generally socialized to “be nice.”
I’d rather have front page above the fold, thanks.
I love going to the movies, even when I am disappointed. It gets me out of the house, off the sofa and into the current cultural conversation.
Even when I’m not loving the movie, there’s usually something worth my cash. It’s not all or nothing.
I recently saw The Deep Blue Sea, a new film made from a 1952 play by British playwright Terrence Rattigan.
I mostly hated it, because the central character — Hester — is one neurotic mess. I couldn’t, ever, work up much of a head of sympathy for her, even though she’s married to a boring man with a nasty mother. When she runs off with a hottie named Freddie and shacks up with him, we all wait to see if passion beats out duty.
I love the actress Rachel Weisz. I really enjoyed the costumes and production design. Freddie is delicious. One can see why she’d flee to his wiry smooth arms.
But, over the course of the film, it’s immediately clear that:
— this is a period piece. What was emotionally compelling in 1952 is, in this case, much less so
— women, certainly those without children, have more choices now, so watching one who is arguably educated and intelligent make an utter fool of herself over a ditzy-but-cute boy isn’t terribly attractive
— the post-war British period feels too distant and hard to empathize with
— this is a play, with theatrical timing, dialogue and structure. It’s not sufficiently cinematic to make an effective transition to film
I don’t resent the difference between my $11.25 worth of expectations and the $7.63 value, or so, I feel I got from this film. “Value” is pretty subjective whether we love, like or meh a film, book, play, song or concert.
One reviewer on amazon.com slammed my new book by saying she’d only read about 64% of it (on the Kindle) before giving up in disgust. Hey, better than 21%!
Do you ever just walk out of films, concerts or shows you find disappointing?