Saturday, January 26, 2013

Recent Movie Roundup 17

'Tis the season for lots and lots of interesting movies to finally make their way to the movie theater, and for me to glut myself in preparation for the long hot months of box-office friendly summer.  Weirdly, though, almost every film I've watched recently has been a lush, visually adventurous and not entirely successful novel adaptation.  Must be something in the water.  There are some more straightforward films coming up (Argo, The Silver Linings Playbook, Flight, though also fare like Les Miserables and Holy Motors), but for the time being here are my thoughts on this strangely similar group of movies.
  • The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) - One of the things I most admired about Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy was that the films felt less like straight-up adaptation of the book and more like a synthesis of the material into a new form.  I liked some of the choices expressed in that synthesis more than others (and there were others still that I just plain disliked) but I appreciated the sense that Jackson was creating his own entity, one that was clearly connected to the book, but could still stand on its own.  The example I like to give is a scene in The Fellowship of the Ring in which Boromir speaks longingly to Aragorn about the beauty of Minas Tirith, his fears for it and his desire to return to it.  It's a crucial scene in the film's process of humanizing Boromir, making him a more sympathetic figure, despite its tragic flaws, than he is in the book, and it also plays up Aragorn's own ambivalence about taking his place as king by opposing it to Boromir's devotion.  What I didn't realize until I reread The Lord of the Rings, however, was that though that conversation isn't in it, Boromir's dialogue is, as a bit of description of the White City.  By putting that description in Boromir's mouth, Jackson not only brought a bit of Tolkien's language into the film, but used it to humanize and complicate both Boromir and Aragorn in a way that Tolkien never intended.  There's nothing as wittily subversive as this in An Unexpected Journey, an adaptation that, if I can't quite call it slavish--there is too much extraneous material here, and too much deliberate shifting of the novel's themes and tone, for that term to apply--seems to be trying to replicate the novel on a page-by-page basis.  The result, given that Tolkien's original takes the classic children's book form of a series of episodic, nearly self-contained adventures, is a movie that feels shapeless and meandering, and whose tone shifts seemingly every half hour, from comedy to melodrama to farce to horror to action, and back all over again.

    And yet for all that, I found myself enjoying An Unexpected Journey very much.  I suspect that for viewers who haven't read the original book, the film will be a slog, because it lurches from one set piece to another with not only no end in sight, but no overarching structure that might give a sense of where its stopping point might come.  If you know the book, though, and are able to recognize that now we're doing chapter 5, it's a lot easier to sit back and let the film wash over you, and having done that I found it utterly charming, and for the most part successful in capturing the tone of the book and knitting its world believably to the darker one of the Lord of the Rings films.  So scenes like the dwarves' arrival at Bag End, or their capture at the hands of three dim-witted trolls with culinary pretensions, are as funny as they are in the book, while Bilbo's encounter with Gollum is suitably creepy and horrifying, and the various action set-pieces or eye candy are thrilling and breathtaking.  Tying it all together is Martin Freeman, who, for all of An Unexpected Journey's flaws and self-indulgence, justifies this project all on his own, the role of Bilbo being perfectly suited to his combination of bumbling fussiness and iron-hard core (for all my complaints about Sherlock, it can't be denied that that show gave Freeman the perfect platform from which to demonstrate how well he can embody this combination, so much so that An Unexpected Journey may very well owe a debt to Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss).  Even in its most shapeless and seemingly pointless moments, the film is at its strongest when it focuses on Freeman's Bilbo and his mingled joy and horror at what he discovers when he steps off his doorstep, and his slow growth towards the eccentric, high-spirited adventurer of the Lord of the Rings films is, as it was in the book, the film's heart.

    Less successful are those scenes in which Jackson and Co. try to tie The Hobbit together with The Lord of the Rings, both tonally and plot-wise.  These range from the harmless--a scene in which Gandalf and Galadriel worry that the enemy is growing stronger, which features a surprise guest appearance that I am stunned the production managed to keep secret--to the tedious--Elijah Wood was apparently flown to New Zealand and put in full Hobbit makeup solely so that he could unnecessarily tie together Bilbo's reminiscences and the opening scenes of The Fellowship of the Ring--to the silly--Sylvester McCoy as Radagast the Brown, who races around on a sled pulled by giant rabbits and gives CPR to animatronic hedgehogs, might have worked in a more lighthearted film, but given that it's Radagast's job to sound the first alarms about Sauron's return the contrast between his character and the story he's placed in is jarring--to the utterly tone deaf.  In the last category you'll find the entire sub-plot about Thorin's interim antagonist, Azog the Orc (if this is ringing no bells for fans of the books, that's because it's almost entirely an invention) and the parachuted-in theme of the dwarves' longing for home following their dispossession by Smaug.  As I predicted when I reread The Hobbit a few years ago, these are both attempts to get around how unromantic the dwarf characters are, the fact that their motivation is not honor or homesickness, but a simple desire for wealth.  But the film's attempts to recast the dwarves, and particularly Thorin, as heroic figures is brought short by the sheer mass of trite cliches it employs--Thorin is being pursued by the one-handed Orc who killed his grandfather; Bilbo feels unappreciated by Thorin, who derides him for his softness and lack of martial abilities; Thorin is tortured and angsty, often striking heroic, manly poses against the skyline while the other dwarf characters exposit his manpain.  Richard Armitage gives it his best shot, but the scenes that focus on him hew so closely to most hoary and oft-derided tropes of the epic fantasy genre that they often slide into unintentional comedy (the rest of the dwarves, who are allowed to be intentionally comedic, fare better, and the film even goes some way towards giving them their own quirks and personalities).  It's at these points that An Unexpected Journey's slow pace and meandering structure feel most onerous, and I'm a little concerned that as the story approaches the confrontation with Smaug and the Battle of the Five Armies, the films will sink even further into this po-faced, cod-Lord of the Rings mode.  For now, however, I'm content to be satisfied.  If An Unexpected Journey lacks The Fellowship of the Ring's coherence and epic sweep, it feels sufficiently of a piece with it, and, equally, sufficiently its own, more lighthearted creation, to be worth watching, and maybe even feeling cautiously optimistic about this new trilogy.

  • Life of Pi (2012) - Personally, I've always found Life of Pi, the Booker-winning novel, to be wildly overrated.  It's a fun adventure, but to my mind it belongs on the same shelf as The Hobbit, as a YA-friendly story that adults can also enjoy, not the weighty philosophical treatise that its critical reception would seem to suggest.  Ang Lee's film of the novel is visually stunning, both in the early scenes depicting young Pi's life in India, growing up in his father's zoo and embracing three different religious creeds, and in its long central segment, in which Pi is shipwrecked and left adrift on a lifeboat with only a Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker for company.  Lee's images are both surreal--as when a young Pi reads a comic book about the Hindu pantheon, and a panel about Shiva containing the universe in his throat opens up and swallows the viewer--and hyper-real, especially when he focuses on the wild creatures that define Pi's early life and his struggle for survival on the lifeboat.  In both cases, his visuals are masterful (and, as many reviewers have noted, make expert use of 3D--Life of Pi is one of the few films I've seen where the 3D feels essential to the film and its enjoyment), and even go some way towards justifying the novel's more egregious set pieces--I've never, for example, been able to work out the point of the interlude on the carnivorous island, but Lee realizes it so well (particularly the bemusing behavior of the massive herds of meerkats that populate the island) that in this version of the story it didn't rankle as much.  In its best moments, Life of Pi uses visuals to create the sense that Pi is in another world that is nevertheless part of ours--that he is seeing manifestations of nature, the ocean, and its creatures that hardly any human ever sees.  The tradeoff for all this beauty, however, is that the movie never feels very urgent.  In the novel, despite the framing story that reveals that Pi survives his ordeal even before we know what that ordeal was, there's a sense of tension stemming from his seemingly impossible situation, trapped on a lifeboat with a creature that will soon see him as a meal.  The methods Pi devises to not only survive but ensure Richard Parker's survival are clever and engaging, but the film treats them almost perfunctorily, clearly more invested in its visuals than in the business of Pi's survival.  When he experiences setbacks, such as when a wave washes away all his supplies and fresh water, there's no real sense of danger, and when he accomplishes some task necessary to his survival, there's no sense of accomplishment.

    This slackness is forgivable in the film's middle segment, however, since the visuals make up for any lack of urgency on the storytelling side. Less successful is Lee's handling of the novel's famous twist ending, in which Pi is challenged by representatives of the company investigating his shipwreck to give them a believable story, and after a moment replaces the tale of survival alongside a tiger with a gruesome, depressing story of cannibalism, murder, and man's inhumanity to man, asking them to choose the story they prefer.  I've always found that ending--and particularly its insistence that it represents a meaningful statement about religious faith--glib and supercilious, but what I did appreciate about it was that Martel played fair with his readers.  He never insisted that everything we'd been reading about for hundreds of pages had been a fantasy, and that the more horrible story had to be the truth, which made it possible for people like me, who didn't care for the facile moral that belief in God is nothing more or less than choosing the more appealing story, to continue to enjoy the novel for the tension it creates between two equally unlikely, equally fantastic survival stories.  Lee's Life of Pi, perhaps as a way of giving Suraj Sharma, who plays the teenage, castaway Pi, something to do after several hours of rather blank green screen acting (and, it must be said, very trite dialogue as he "converses" with Richard Parker), replaces the somewhat matter of fact, unadorned manner in which the alternate story is delivered to the insurance investigators with a long, detailed and emotional monologue that leaves no doubt that Pi is telling the truth--no one, much less a boy who has been deprived of human contact for months, could invent, from whole cloth and a moment's notice, such a gruesomely detailed story, and deliver it with so much emotion, grief and guilt (or, to put it another way, to believe that Pi, having lost his family so horribly, could invent an even more horrible way to have lost them, is to make the character almost monstrous).  Sharma nails the scene, in which Lee steps away from his visuals and simply remains fixed on his lead's face, but that accomplishment also means that the film leaves all its thematic eggs in the "choose which story you prefer" basket, which as I've said I find unsatisfying.  I suppose I can't complain that Lee has remained true to the spirit of the novel, even if I didn't care for that spirit, but I would have liked it if he'd left me the same escape hatch Martel had.

  • Cloud Atlas (2012) - By the time I got around to watching the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer's gonzo, impossibly ambitious adaptation of David Mitchell's novel, the negative verdict on it had already been so decisively rendered that my expectations were buried somewhere beneath the Earth's mantle.  This turns out to be a good way to approach Cloud Atlas, which, while undeniably an unsuccessful mess of a movie that fails even to come close to doing justice to Mitchell's stunning novel, is nevertheless watchable and, for a film that is nearly three hours long and switches almost frenetically between six different plotlines, time periods, and genres, surprisingly fleet-footed (in that sense it is strangely similar to The Hobbit).  Some of that feeling of lightness no doubt stems from the fact that the film dispenses with Mitchell's nested structure, in which each of his six narratives begins, is interrupted--sometimes mid-sentence--by the next narrative, which is interrupted in its turn, and then all six narratives resume, in opposite order of their beginning, in the book's second half.  Instead, Cloud Atlas switches between its six plot strands with what feels almost like randomness, but if that description conjures up images of Magnolia-style mosaic movies transitioning leisurely from one narrative strand to another, it fails to do justice to Cloud Atlas's mayfly-level attention span.  It's only rarely that the film will remain with one of its plotline for more than a single scene, and sometimes it switches from one to the other for only a few lines of dialogue--at times, even interrupting an intense chase or action scene in order to check in on the more sedate goings-on in another story.

    What this means is that Cloud Atlas is a movie that is hard to get bored in, since if one of the stories, or even some part of it, doesn't interest you, it can be counted on to switch to another before long, and piecing the various strands' together requires enough effort to keep the viewer engaged (to the extent that I found myself wondering whether viewers who hadn't read the book wouldn't find themselves a little lost).  But the constant switching between storylines also has the effect of leaving some of them feeling underpowered, and of compounding what is otherwise an already quite powerful sense that the filmmakers themselves find some of their stories significantly less interesting than others.  It's not entirely surprising that these are the plot strands that don't lend themselves easily to high-octane, action storytelling--the Pacific journey of the young lawyer Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) in 1849, as he befriends an escaped slave and is slowly poisoned by the ship's doctor, the self-satisfied ramblings of Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) in 1938, who attempts to stave off financial and social ruin by becoming the amanuensis of an aging composer, and the misadventures of Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent), a publisher who in 2012 escapes his creditors only to be entrapped into checking himself into an old age home from which there is no escape.  Cloud Atlas is a great deal more interested in the stories of crusading investigative journalist Luisa Rey (Halle Berry), who lands in hot water when she discovers irregularities at a soon-to-be-opened nuclear plant in 1970s San Francisco, of "fabricant" Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae), a genetically engineered fast food server in 22nd century Seoul who learns to think independently and becomes a figurehead for the anti-corporate revolution, and of post-industrial tribesman Zachry (Tom Hanks) who, hundreds of years in the future, helps Meronym, one of the few humans who still remembers history and technology (Berry again), to reach a communications outpost from which she hopes to signal Earth's long-lost colonies.

    Even here, however, the Wachowskis and Tykwer none-too-subtly skew Mitchell's original stories more strongly towards the adventurous and the action-filled.  The Sonmi story is particularly prone to this, as if the directors saw the production designers' sketches of a squalid, neon-lit urban jungle and couldn't help but reach for a sub-Blade Runner type of story, but in the Zachry plot as well there is a tendency to lose sight of the story's center--which is Zachry's struggle with his evil urges, whom he anthropomorphizes as a devil figure he calls Old Georgie (Hugo Weaving)--and instead to glorify martial ability, so that when Zachry fails to heed a warning from Sonmi (whom he reverse as a goddess) not to kill a helpless enemy, that moment, which in the novel is a failing that haunts him for the rest of his life, is quickly forgotten as he and Meronym join forces to fight off other marauders.  Even in the moments--such as most of the Luisa Rey strand--in which Cloud Atlas hews to the events of the novel and resists the urge to embroider or intensify them, it loses sight of Mitchell's playfulness, his quite deliberately tongue-in-cheek use of genre.  Mitchell's Cloud Atlas is a heartfelt novel, but not an earnest one.  The different tropes of genre that it employs in each of its narratives--and which it calls attention to by having each of its protagonists consume the previous narrative as a piece of fiction, a device that the movie employs only haphazardly and with little emphasis--have a distancing, skeptical affect that Cloud Atlas the movie lacks, and which in turn makes its message--about the universality of both suffering and kindness--come off as trite instead of meaningful.  Similarly, the choice to hammer in and literalize Mitchell's theme of reincarnation and repetition by having the same actors recur, sometimes crossing race and gender lines, in different plot strands runs the gamut from distracting--watching the film sometimes feels like a scavenger hunt, an attempt to spot a familiar actor under tons of makeup--to deeply problematic, in the scenes in the Sonmi segment in which Sturgess, Hanks, and Weaving are made up to look (unconvincingly) Asian.

    There are things to watch for in Cloud Atlas, but they are more in the way of moments.  Whishaw shows yet again that he is incapable of delivering a performance that is less than entirely magnetic, managing to make the self-absorbed, self-destructive Frobisher almost compelling despite the film's relative lack of interest in his plotline, and Bae ably conveys Sonmi's transition from naivete to steely resolve, and feels in many ways like the heart of the film.  Broadbent, meanwhile, manages to imbue a character that even in the novel felt the least thought out with humanity, and in his turns in the other plot strands--as a sadistic sea captain, or as Frobisher's employer and eventual nemesis--he is equally compelling and believable.  But for almost every good point in the movie, there is an equally bad one--Hanks is too old to play Zachry, who in the book is an inexperienced young man, even if you accept the film's reconfiguration of his relationship with Meronym as a romance, and though Berry is perfect for Luisa Rey, she's got too little to do as Meronym to be anything more than a font of information with which to torment and confuse Zachry, while other actors, like Weaving or Hugh Grant, are lost beneath bad makeup and even worse accents.  It's hard not to admire the film's scope, and as I've said it is by no means onerous despite its length and multiple storylines, but what it amounts to is a messy, admirable, often very ill-considered failure.

  • Anna Karenina (2012) - The only one of these films whose original novel I haven't read (I know, I know), Anna Karenina is also the first of Joe Wright's lavish, hyper-melodramatic adaptations starring Keira Knightley that I've come to without having read and loved the original work.  Which might be an advantage as far as this film and I are concerned, since I found Wright's Pride and Prejudice and Atonement hopelessly overwrought, and hobbled by a tendency to file away anything spiky or unsentimental about their original works and turn them into a sweeping tearjerker.  For all I know, Wright has played the same trick on Anna Karenina--I somehow doubt Tolstoy's novel would be such an enduring classic if it were merely the tragic romance that Wright makes of it--but even taken as a tragic romance, his version of the story outstays its welcome.  The story of the eponymous heroine's irrational, obsessive love for the dashing but weak-willed cavalry officer Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who I kept expecting to turn into Tom Hiddleston, perhaps because I've been reading about Hiddleston's turn as a very similar character in the well-received The Deep Blue Sea just recently, and perhaps because Taylor-Johnson's efforts at conveying just the right mix of passion and selfishness falls short of what I know Hiddleston is capable of), to which she loses everything--her family, her place in society, and finally her life--loses steam about halfway into the movie, and by the end of it I felt most interested in, and sympathetic towards, Anna's husband (though I have to say it rather depresses me that we've already reached the point where Jude Law is playing the stolid, unromantic, less attractive corner of the love triangle).  Where Anna's descent into drug-addled neurosis feels inaccessible--it's impossible to sympathize with her all-consuming infatuation with such a callow crumpet as Vronsky--Karenin goes from cold, ineffectual correctness, to injured seething, to transcendent forgiveness, and finally to incomprehension at his wife's determination to destroy herself, and comes away from the film seeming--almost impossibly given that he represents the very patriarchy that has sold Anna like chattel and now expects her to abide by its rules--like its most decent character (in the Anna plotline, anyway; a secondary plot involves Anna's sister-in-law and the man who is in love with her, both of whom are quite positive figures, but which though well done feels, in Wright's version of the story, disconnected from the main plot).  By the film's last quarter, Anna becomes the epitome of a tragic heroine, so reduced as a character that even if I hadn't known about her fast-approaching date with a train, I feel certain I would have expected it, since there's nothing left for her to do but die.

    What does work about Anna Karenina is Wright's choice for the film's visuals.  He shoots the film in an old theater, with major scenes taking place framed by the proscenium arch and the footlights, and characters moving from one scene to another by cutting through the backstage and catwalks.  And if Wright's Anna Karenina is a play, it often feels like a musical, with musicians appearing to set the mood (in addition to the omnipresent musical score, which as is typical in Wright films is lush to the point of being overpowering) and characters all-but dancing into and out of their roles--the clerks at Anna's brother Oblonsky's (Matthew Macfayden) place of work, or the servants dressing Anna and other women--like cogs in a well-oiled machine.  Wright's point is no doubt to stress the artificiality of the society in which Anna, Karenin, and Vronsky move, and the theatricality of the film is never so obvious as in those scenes in which the characters attend balls and dance with one another, stressing the carefully laid out steps that proscribe their lives.  But to me the film's overt theatricality also does more than a little to counteract the staleness that tends to afflict period novel adaptations.  It feels like a wink to the audience, an acknowledgment that all this--the costumes, the mannerisms, the social mores--is an affectation not only of its own time period, but one that has been put on to entertain us, the 21st century audience eager for stories about forbidden love and tragic heroines.  Much like Anna's character, however, the theater device loses steam about halfway into the film--after a scene in which Wright manages, quite impressively, to simulate a horse-race on his stage, the film stops stressing the theater set.  Perhaps the idea was to allow that device to recede in order to leave space for the story's grand, tragic ending, but if so this represents Wright putting too much faith in his script and actors' ability to make us care about a rather melodramatic story.  I do plan to read Anna Karenina at some point, and I expect to find it a great deal more subtle and interesting than what Wright has made of it.  I only wish he had had the courage to stick with, and even intensify, his visual device all the way to the film's end--if he wasn't able to make a genuinely worthy adaptation, at least he could have made a truly interesting comment on the kinds of adaptations he's made a career out of.  As it stands, he's done neither.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Winter Crop: Thoughts on Midseason Shows

It's long past the point where new shows are a fall thing--long past the point, in fact, where I ought to have been making this sort of review a quarterly business.  But somehow this winter season seems particularly fecund, possibly as a result of the fall's disappointing crop, possibly because British TV seems to take the end of the year as its time to launch new shows, which means this report covers series from both sides of the pond.  So far, I can't say that the winter crop is making up for the fall's disappointments--the only 2012 show I'm still following is Elementary--but I suppose I watch too much TV anyway.
  • A Young Doctor's Notebook - A funny little project from Sky, this short (four half-hour episodes) series is based (rather loosely, it from what I gather) on Mikhail Bulgakov's novel of the same name (sometimes also translated as A Country Doctor's Notebook).  In 1934, a successful Moscow doctor (John Hamm) is being investigated for writing fraudulent morphine prescriptions, and reminiscences about his first assignment in 1917, as the only physician in a remote country hospital, where he's played by Daniel Radcliffe.  It more than strains credulity to believe that Radcliffe might grow into Hamm (and the show doesn't even seem to be working very hard to sell this argument--a scene in the first episode even takes advantage of the twenty-odd centimeters of difference between their heights), and it's hard not to believe that the actors were chosen first and foremost for their name recognition--if nothing else, casting John Hamm as a suave, sophisticated ubermensch who turns out to come from humble, uncouth origins and whose worldliness is revealed as a hollow charade is more than a little on the nose.  But the two actors have a winning rapport, which the show takes great advantage of, since Hamm appears in Radcliffe's part of the story to needle and advise his younger self, to the extent that it's not clear whose story we're seeing, and who the point of view character is--is it Hamm, who cringes at his bumbling, youthful inexperience and puppyish enthusiasm, or Radcliffe, shuddering at his future callousness and growing increasingly suspicious of Hamm's drug-seeking?

    The show is mainly worth watching for the interplay between these two characters, and the actors more than hold their own against each other (Radcliffe in particular shows how wasted he was as an epic hero--he's made for comedy), but what's lost in the shuffle is the actual country doctor's experience in revolutionary Russia.  The show pays lip service to the notion that the patients Radcliffe deals with are superstitious, ignorant peasants whose disgusting sicknesses and injuries are matched only by their unwillingness to trust his new ideas about medicine, but in practice his and Hamm's characters obscure the one-off patients.  The show's half-hour format, though a wise choice in light of the fact that its brand of comedy, a combination of humiliation humor and body horror, would be hard to take in larger doses, also means that the patient characters get short shrift, though the hospital's staff--including Adam Godley as a tedious orderly and Vicki Pepperdine and Rosie Cavaliero as nurses--are more finely sketched-in, and allowed their own comedic moments in response to Radcliffe's obvious terror at being asked to treat actual patients.  Without a more powerful sense of the unique place (and time) in which it's set, there's a chance that the show's humor will wear thin, and it's possible that the writers are willing to let that happen and rely solely on their two leads' star power to drive the show, but for the time being A Young Doctor's Notebook is unique and weirdly compelling.

  • Ripper Street - This show, on the other hand, is just plain weird.  Set in the East End of London in 1889, a year after Jack the Ripper terrorized and inflamed the city, the show concentrates on a police force struggling to rebuild their reputation and the public's trust.  The main character, Detective Inspector Edmund Reid (Matthew Macfayden), is an actual historical figure, who worked with Frederick Abberline to try to apprehend the Ripper, but he's presumably heavily fictionalized, since everything else about Ripper Street fairly screams that fact.  Reid is flanked by his thuggish sergeant, Bennet Drake (Jerome Flynn, best known as Game of Thrones's Bronn) and a former American Pinkerton and army surgeon, Homer Jackson (Adam Rothenberg), and the script is littered with the occasional burst of flowery language that presumably indicates it was written with a continuous loop of Deadwood playing in the background, but the fact that Jackson is a forensic savant who produces CSI-like results with 19th century tools and techniques is but the most blatant indication that Ripper Street aims less at historical drama and more at dressing up the standard police procedural.  The show seems to take a particular pleasure in porting or presaging 20th century developments into its setting--the first episode opens with tourists being taken on a Jack the Ripper walking tour whose guide's gruesome and well-rehearsed patter would be familiar to anyone who has taken its modern day equivalent, and when the victim of the week turns out to have been involved in a dirty pictures ring that is taking advantage of that newfangled moving pictures contraption to produce pornography and even snuff, Jackson portentously announces: "this is the future of smut!"

    This puts Ripper Street very much in line with the quasi-Steampunkish attitude that has permeated 19th century-set film and television since at least Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes (and presumably also informs BBC America's companion series to Ripper Street, Copper, which takes place in 1860s New York, though I haven't seen any of that show), in which the familiar is dressed up in fancy outfits and photogenic grime.  Unsurprisingly, women in this story are exclusively wives (Amanda Hale, who was brilliant to the extent of stealing Romola Garai's spotlight in The Crimson Petal and the White, plays the so far thankless role of Reid's patient and supportive wife), whores (MyAnna Buring as a madam who is Jackson's business partner and obvious love interest, though she protests her hate for him in the pilot, and Charlene McKenna as a young prostitute who catches Drake's eye), and murder victims.  The men, meanwhile, get to kick ass and take names with even less regard for civil rights and due process than you'd see in a present-set cop show, and then walk away with their natty period greatcoats billowing.  There's room for a genuine look at the origins of policing in the 19th century, as well as the social issues in recently-industrialized London that would have made policing it such a challenge.  And there's room for shows like Deadwood, which fantasize the past, but with such poetry and breadth of vision that they use it to tell a universal, timeless story.  Ripper Street is neither of these things.  It's a surface show in which the look of things, whether period, as in the costumes and set dressing, or modern, as in the soundtrack and camerawork, are all that matters.

  • Banshee - Coming from the same home as this fall's Hunted (whose well-made first season devolved into silly conspiracy theories towards its end), Banshee sees a recently released convict (Antony Starr, whose character's real name we never find out) switching identities with the sheriff of the improbably named eponymous small Pennsylvania town when the latter is killed the day before he takes up his new job.  That's a tenuous enough premise as it is, but the show piles on top of it additional complications for our hero--he's arrived at Banshee on the trail of his former partner and lover (Ivana Milicevic), who has made her own fresh start, reinventing herself as a law-abiding wife and mother, potentially bringing the mobster from whom they stole $10M worth of diamonds to her doorstep--as well as introducing several tangled and idiosyncratic plotlines surrounding Banshee itself, including a college-age mayor, a creepy local mobster with his finger in every pie in town, tensions with both the local Indian tribe and the local Amish community (a prominent member of the latter is the father of the aforementioned, and now shunned, mobster), and a full sheriff's department including one member who is suspicious of our hero, another who is being set up as a blatant love interest for him, and a third who is, uh, black (other than this character, the only people of color on the show are a local bartender who is the only person who knows our hero's true identity, and a former criminal associate of his who directs him to Banshee and helps him cement his false identity, and who on top of being a hacker is a cross-dressing hairdresser, and while both characters are vividly drawn it is problematic that our white hero has not one but two non-white sidekicks who go to great lengths to help him for reasons that are at best flimsy).

    As might be imagined from this description, Banshee's pilot has a lot of table-setting to do, and if nothing else the fact that it manages to set all these plotlines up without feeling incredibly rushed and busy is impressive.  Like Hunted, the show's style stresses visuals and atmospherics over dialogue, with much of its affect and plotting achieved through wordless inferences, and though, as in Hunted, there is a sense that this represents the writers making a virtue out of necessity--when the characters do speak, the dialogue runs the gamut from forgettable to overbaked--a lot of the show's visuals, and particularly its action scenes, are impressively kinetic and well-made (though, as with the show's premise, often straining credulity--the cold open sees our hero pursued through the streets of Manhattan in a chase that ends up causing massive mayhem, including an overturned tourist bus, as well as bystander fatalities, and yet somehow doesn't result in his face being plastered on the evening news all over the country).  If you add that refreshing visual adventurousness to the show's impressively ambitious plotting (and subtract some points for the gleeful way in which the pilot showcases naked female bodies), you get a series that feels worth following at least for the sake of seeing whether all that ambition leads to triumph of collapse, and yet I find myself feeling strangely cold about Banshee.  In the end, for all the quirkiness the show piles on its characters and plotlines--and despite Starr doing a good job of mingling toughness and vulnerability, and of conveying barely-suppressed glee at his realization that he is getting away with his scam--Banshee's story feels too familiar, boiling down to a simple antihero lawman vs. charismatic villain template that we've seen many times before, and the pilot is too busy setting up its many plotlines to establish how the show itself might be different or better from all the iterations of this story that have come before it.  That doesn't mean Banshee won't be worth watching--if I weren't already following too many series I'd be tempted to keep going for a week or two and see how it shapes up--but it has failed to grab me on its first try.

  • Deception - Say what you will about J.J. Abrams--and I have said quite a lot in my time--but there is one point in his favor that I don't think he's given nearly enough credit for, and that is that he is, to date, the only television creator to work out how to use Victor Garber to the best of his abilities.  Garber's turn against type in Abrams's Alias as the heroine's dour, emotionally withdrawn and utterly lethal father should have been a starmaking performance, doing for him what Lost would go on to do for Terry O'Quinn, but instead it only made him a higher profile character actor.  Which might have been good enough, but every show to cast Garber since Alias went off the air has failed to capitalize on his ability to convey both suppressed menace and suppressed warmth, leaving him to play a string of unctuous, gabby elder statesman types with not a hint of edginess or danger to them.  Case in point: Deception, in which Garber plays the patriarch of a wealthy New York family whose eldest daughter Vivian dies, apparently of an overdose, in the pilot's opening minutes.  Vivian's former best friend Joanna (Meagan Good), whose mother worked for the family and who is now a cop, believes that there's more to her death, and insinuates herself into the family in order to find out the truth.

    This is but the latest in a stream of shows about the dark secrets of the rich and famous, the most successful example of which is Revenge, which Deception is clearly trying to ape, but the show that Deception most reminds me of is the unfortunately titled and short-lived Dirty Sexy Money.  Both shows center around an everyperson protagonist who becomes the hanger-on of a rich, self-involved clan in order to suss out the truth about a mysterious death (in DSM, the hero's father, who held the job of consigliere and fixer before him), and both field a similar array of types--the ice-queen matron, the seemingly genial patriarch who will do anything to get his own way, the sardonic, self-loathing older son who has made it his business to protect the family from what he believes is the protagonist's parasitism, the child who has been in love with the protagonist since they were young, the party girl.  Deception does little to complicate these types or make them seem in any way human, even as they cope with the terrible tragedy of Vivian's death, and this begins with Garber, whom the pilot depicts as a fond teddy bear.  No doubt later episodes will reveal that he has a ruthless streak, but the reason that I have no doubt about this is that I know how this kind of story is supposed to go, not that Deception's pilot has done any of the work that would suggest that there is more to Garber's character--or to any of the characters--than meets the eye.  Deception wins some points for having a black heroine who is motivated by her friendship with another woman, but unlike Revenge it lacks the hook of an escalating and increasingly convoluted scheme of vengeance (which anyway has yielded diminishing returns on Revenge, whose second season has bogged down as it throws increasingly implausible obstacles in the heroine's path), and absent that, it's harder not to notice what obvious types all of the characters are, and how little tension or urgency there is to the show's central mystery.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

The Bug by Ellen Ullman

We live in a world that has been--is still being--profoundly transformed by technology, and yet you'd hardly know that to look at our fiction.  Sure, there's a whole genre devoted to inventing outlandish--albeit, sometimes, plausible and rigorously thought-out--technologies and using them, and their effects on individuals and society, as jumping-off points for stories.  But science fiction rarely turns its eye on the present and on existing technologies, and when it does--usually in the form of outsider SF--the result is rarely to imagine change and transformation, as authors plump for the familiar standards of apocalypse, collapse, and the end of human civilization, if not the human race.  Somewhere in the interstices between these two extremes, however, is a small cluster of novels that make technology their business--novels that look at the present through SFnal eyes, like William Gibson's Blue Ant trilogy, or Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon (and, far less successfully, Reamde), or novels that take an anthropological perspective on the technological industry and its effects on society, like Allegra Goodman's The Cookbook Collector.  As someone who works in the technology industry, who loves science fiction's affect and would like to see it extended past the genre's boundaries, and who is fascinated by fiction's ability to capture a world at a moment of flux, this is the kind of writing I'd like to see a great deal more of, so Ellen Ullman's 2003 novel The Bug--in which programmers and testers battle against a mysterious software error--seemed right up my alley.  But The Bug left me curiously unsatisfied, and for reasons that I hadn't anticipated.  It's a novel that is, at one and the same time, too familiar to me, and too foreign.

Ullman, who worked as a software engineer in Silicon Valley in the 80s and 90s and wrote a well-received memoir, Close to the Machine, about her experiences (as well as being lauded just this last year for her second novel, By Blood), sets her scene in the early 80s, at a start-up company that is just beginning to test the new and unfamiliar waters of personal computing.  Telligentsia's project is something that we take so much for granted we may never have considered it as its own piece of software--a networked database with a windowed user interface.  That interface is the purview--and bane--of The Bug's two main characters, software tester Roberta Walton and programmer Ethan Levin.  When one of Roberta's routine tests uncovers a hard-to-reproduce, hard-to-describe bug that freezes the system, Ethan's initial reaction is to dismiss it.  But as the bug keeps cropping up at the most inopportune moments (customer presentations, a meeting with the venture capitalists funding the company), he is compelled to investigate it, and finds a problem with no rational source, whose seemingly random appearances create the impression of a malevolent intelligence, rather than a simple software error.

I think that that description on its own should be a point in Ullman's, and The Bug's, favor, because reading it back to myself it's hard to imagine how anyone might be interested in an entire novel on so trivial a subject.  And yet, for all the reservations that I will go on to discuss, I found The Bug not only engrossing and hard to put down, but genuinely poetic, and containing a persuasive argument for the grandeur and meaningfulness of its characters' work in general, and their struggles against the bug in particular.  A lot of that is down to the fact that Ullman is an excellent writer, adept at rendering the technological into literary terms.  When Roberta, a former linguist who transitioned to quality assurance when her academic career dried up, learns that the name of the function the allocates memory is "malloc," she muses that "by the implicit structures of the English language, everyone pronounces it "MAL-loc."  Mal, loc.  Mal: bad.  Loc: location.  Bad location!  But of course they'd have trouble keeping track of memory when they'd named their tool so stupidly!"  Ethan, meanwhile, waxes poetic about the dangers of just that function:
She didn't understand: the compiler didn't watch over you.  Once you spoke to it in syntactically correct C code, it was willing to let you kill yourself, if that's what you wanted to do.  You could suck up memory like a glutton, and the first you'd know about it would be a crash.  Malloc, free.  Malloc, free.  It was up to you to keep them paired, release memory when you were done with it.  Maybe you really wanted to fuck things up, as far as the compiler knew.  So many things in the C programming language were dangerous, but legal.
Even more than Ullman's poetry, however, what brings The Bug to life are its characters, her delicate examination of the kinds of people who are drawn to programming and the computer industry, and the effect that working there has on them.  Roberta starts the novel quietly disdainful of programmers like Ethan, imagining them as narrow thinkers capable of only the most mundane tasks, but when she learns how to program herself she's quickly seduced by the programming language's simple building blocks and the seemingly endless programs that can be constructed from them.  "[C]oding was too compelling," she muses.  "It was all about creating a separate, artificial reality inside the machine."  Ethan, meanwhile, is deep into that obsession--he's introduced to us playing a game of "one more compile" while his girlfriend waits for him to give her a ride to the airport--and the bug exposes his other limitations, the other ways in which life at software companies has stunted and limited him: the compulsion to always be right, the inability to admit fault, the temptation to rush headlong into the next problem, the next task, instead of testing your work and making sure that it will stand the test of time, and the tendency to to become so consumed with the puzzle of solving a neat coding problem or getting to the bottom of a simple but satisfying bug, that all other, more challenging, less straightforward tasks become easy to ignore and put off.  Like many programmers, Ethan's stores of knowledge float on a vast ocean of ignorance about whatever happens outside of his area of the code (and particularly what happens below it, in the lower-level routines that interact with the computer's operating system and hardware), and he is self-conscious to the point of neurosis about being exposed in that ignorance.  When Roberta is finally able to produce the bug's "core"--a printout of the machine state at the moment the bug occurred--Ethan, far from being overjoyed, is terrified, because he's never learned to read most of this information.  This isn't unusual--I've been programming professionally for six years and I've never used register values or program counters to solve a bug, and probably wouldn't know how if I needed to--but his response to being put in this position is at the same time pathetic and terrifyingly familiar: "He knew this would happen someday: twelve years of faking it, and one day, an illiterate pretending to read, he'd get caught."

That this is an accurate portrait is something that I can confirm first-hand (which is to say, both from my interactions with other programmers, and from my own experiences), but on the other hand, it also points to my core problem with The Bug.  The truth is, if I wanted to know what it's like to bang your head against an impossible phantom of a bug, if I wanted to experience the contemptuous back-and-forth between programmers and testers who are each convinced that the other is an idiot who doesn't know how to do their job, or the mingled rage and triumph of discovering that someone--someone who is not you--has checked in bad code, if I wanted to be put on schedules so impossible that the only reasonable response to them is rueful laughter--if I wanted to experience any of these things, I would just go to work.  For most of The Bug, Ullman's anthropological impulse is satisfied with describing and cataloging a world that I know very well, and explaining it to those who don't know it--she spends paragraphs spelling out what a compiler or a debugger do, and when Roberta learns how to program Ullman takes the readers through a crash course on the basics of programming languages.  It's to Ullman's credit that these segments of the novel are both readable and, from my admittedly biased perspective (I spent a whole semester learning the programming language that she sums up in a chapter, after all), comprehensive and easily comprehended, and towards the end of the novel, her devotion to the technical aspects of her story--as she begins to unravel the bug, she includes not only segments of code, but diagrams and graphs--is impressive, especially in a literary novel not obviously geared towards tech-heads.  And I certainly can't deny that there are moments of recognition in The Bug that I haven't experienced in other novels--when Ethan was told to prioritize the bug because it's appeared to the venture capitalists and the company president "is acting like he never saw a bug before," I nodded in commiseration.  But I went into The Bug hoping for something a little more complex than a portrait, hoping for some contemplation of what this new field and the habits of thought it encourages mean.

There is some of this in The Bug, especially towards its end when Ullman has gotten the basic concepts out of the way and feels more free to embroider around them.  It's at that point that she starts building more complex metaphors out of the difference between the way computers experience the world--as a sequence of discrete steps, mindless and memory-less, each altering their state in some minute way--and the way humans do.  Ethan has for years been tinkering with a program that simulates a natural environment, whose denizens behave according to simple rules that govern their feeding, mating, and movement, in the belief that it and programs like it can teach us about the foundational rules that govern human behavior.  But even as he lights upon a change to the rules that creates more natural-seeming, sustainable behavior, Roberta's investigations into the bug reveal the gulf between the way computers and programs behave and the way humans think that they do--the ultimate cause of the bug's flakiness, for example, turns out to be the fact that what a human sees as the continuous movement of a mouse pointer is actually a series of discrete points, rapidly sampled.  What I found more compelling, however, and what I wish Ullman had paid more attention to, were her discussions of the disconnect between a programmer's work and how it's experienced once it's set free in the world.  In the novel's framing story, Roberta--returning from vacation on the day that the dot com bubble finally bursts and her portfolio, heavy with stock options accumulated during a decade and a half as a consultant, melts away--realizes that the immigration officer who greets her is using Telligentsia's database software, and that the delay in processing her passport is due to a bug she reported and that the programmers never dealt with, leading her to muse about the years that have been lost to that 30-second delay, simply due to a failure to imagine them.  Later in the novel, Ethan, flying to a training course, sits next to a tester for the airline industry, and complains to him about the bug.  Expecting sympathy and reassurance, Ethan instead gets a kick in the pants:
"Failure?  You feel like a failure?" said Wheatley.  "Look, kid.  It's not about you.  Who the hell really cares about you?  The failure is in the system, and the fear should be not for your ego but for the people who'll use the system.  Think about them.  Be afraid for them.  Forget about yourself for a while and then you'll find it, then you'll fix your bug.  Not because you're ashamed, but because people might be in danger and you have to."
This is good advice for any programmer, any engineer who is too far separated from the real-world applications of their work to treat its failures as anything more than an intellectual puzzle or an annoyance.  But it's advice that Ethan doesn't heed, and far too much of The Bug, to my mind, is spent explaining why, and showing how his failure to look past his own ego and insecurity eventually leads to his downfall.  Not that this character arc is badly drawn--the scenes in which Ethan twists himself into knots of insecurity and desperate desire for approval, neglecting his girlfriend in order to keep to his schedule (he's the only programmer in his group who isn't desperately behind and he clings to this achievement like a life vest), alienating his colleagues with a standoffishness born of his crippling sense of inadequacy, and stewing in the "humiliation" of not being able to fix the bug, have a certain queasy horror to them.  But as the novel draws on and Ethan's instability grows, he comes to seem less like an exaggerated portrait of a programmer's mingled ego and insecurity, and more like a parody of them, a person who literally can't function away from a keyboard.  If Ethan were alone in his dysfunction, we might assume that he was uniquely mentally unbalanced, but Ullman peoples all of Telligentsia with these unpleasant, ego-driven, childish people, who can't have a professional conversation without lapsing into semi-coherent cries of "it's your problem!  Your code!  Yours!" 

There are a lot of things about the culture in my industry that I dislike, and a lot of them are rooted in the one-upmanship and ego-stroking that Ullman captures in The Bug.  But I have never experienced the kind of consistent lack of professionalism and passive-aggressive maliciousness she describes (one possible reason for this difference is that I don't work at a start-up company, and neither I nor any of my colleagues have stock options that might make us instant millionaires if the product ships on time--but then, none of the programmers in The Bug seems motivated by money either).  We've all heard enough stories about the workaholism that goes on in software companies for the portrait that Ullman draws to make some kind of sense, but the more she stresses the nastiness and resentment that exist between Ethan and his colleagues, the total lack of support, or anything resembling congeniality, the he experiences, the way he is allowed to go crazy right in front of his colleagues and no one notices or cares so long as he's trying to track down the bug, the more it felt to me is if rather than capturing my industry, Ullman was grossly exaggerating some of the more extreme stereotypes about  it.  Telligentsia, as Ullman describes it, is the kind of company that will literally let you kill yourself if that's what you want to do, where an employee can go missing for more than two weeks before someone even thinks to call their house, much less the police.  Maybe that's true to Ullman's experiences, though I hope not.  It's not true to mine, however, and in a novel that otherwise recalls them so perfectly, this sudden deviation is jarring.

But then, there's another reason why I find it hard to read The Bug as the tragedy Ullman clearly intended it as, and that is the simple fact that the bug, that famous, malicious, random, incomprehensible bug that the characters anthropomorphize and fear and let themselves be driven to desperation by, is, well, easy.  It's obvious.  I literally predicted what was causing it and where it came from less than a third of the way into the book.  What's more, Ethan's approach to tracking it down is nonsensical.  When he finally gets the bug's core dump, Ethan--who otherwise is shown to be a conscientious, thoughtful programmer, careful about writing maintainable, well-documented code at a point in the industry's history when this was by no means the standard practice--obsesses over his inability to make sense of the computer's nitty-gritty, but dismisses the straightforward information that tells him what function the program was running when it failed, because there's no reason for the program to be in that function at that point.  Surely any programmer worth their salt would realize that this is, in itself, a huge indication of what's gone wrong?  Just by saying this, of course, I'm validating Ullman's point.  I'm behaving exactly like one of her programmer characters, obsessed with being the one to get it right (and with crowing about that fact) and utterly lacking in patience towards anyone to whom the solution isn't as obvious as it was to me.  But on the other hand, Ullman wants us to believe in a story in which a bug destroys its programmer's life.  Maybe readers who aren't steeped in the computers field will be able to accept that (honestly, I'm starting to wonder whether even this review will be comprehensible to someone who doesn't have that background), but for me, Ethan's failure to take the obvious steps out of his predicament short-circuited his alleged tragedy.

On the day that I wrote this review, I went into work.  I had a bug, something I thought I'd solved several times, but which kept cropping up.  "It's a black hole from which there is no escape."  I announced.  "It's a minefield," said my officemate, who was working on the same area of the code, and then we debated whose metaphor was better.  I spent most of the day repeating the same tests, staring uncomprehendingly at their results.  Some time in the afternoon, though, everything started to make sense, and I felt like an idiot for not seeing days ago what was so obvious now.  I wrote a fix, which turned out to have a mistake in it, which I fixed, only to find another mistake, which I fixed, and then everything worked, and I left work feeling pretty pleased with myself.  I've had much worse days, days when I've felt frustrated and ill-tempered and behaved in ways that I'm not at all proud of, and The Bug captures a lot of that, as well as the high of wrestling a problem to the ground, and making a program do what you wanted it to do rather than what you've told it to do.  But it's also riddled with a foreignness that I can't accept or get a handle on, an insistence that at the root of my profession there is not simply dysfunction, but disease.  Especially in a novel that cuts so close to how I experience my life, that alien perspective is too much for me to accept.