Archive for the ‘TV’ Category

A Song Of Ice and Fire and Television

Never underestimate the power of television: It’s amazing to see the sales and popularity of the A Song Of Ice and Fire books shoot up to the stratosphere following the HBO excellent adaptation of Game Of Thrones, the first book in the series, leaving all long-time fans in a “told you so!” mode. I wonder if the new readers are genre fans or just book fans. It seems to me ASOIAF has broken through the genre stereotype and has become so mainstream it’s a little annoying. It causes my geeky snobbishness to emerge (“Oh, NOW you like fantasy!).

But it’s just me being snarky. I’m hardly a long-time fan myself. I only started reading the series a few years ago following constant recommendations. Just to put things is perspective, Game Of Thrones was published waaay back in 1996. But once I started, I never looked back. These books are immensely compelling, and hard-core fantasy elements like spells and magical creatures – the elements that make the genre seem silly in the eyes of most readers (and often justifiably so) – are very minor and subtle here. They seem to be a a part of the ancient history of the world rather than its present, which actually make them even more awesome and “magical”.

I remember going through the same process with Watchmen, the groundbreaking Graphic novel by Alan Moore. I read it years ago, and was well-aware of its high-status in the world of comic book fandom. But only when the movie came out a couple of years ago did you start seeing people reading Watchmen on the subway in such quantities you’d think you’re in Tokyo and not in Toronto.

I cannot say I’m not happy to see other people getting exposed to the books I love, people who would probably never have read them otherwise. I see old women reading Game Of Thrones, for crying out loud. Usually you would see them holding a Daniel Steele book or somethin’. But no, they read Game Of Thrones, with all the sex and brutal violence. I would be honest, I’d say it makes you feel a little less special about yourself, but also a little less geeky. Now, says the Ego, you have to go and find other obscure book to love and cherish to help you feel special! until, that is, they make a movie or a TV show out of it too. The supremacy feelings that make your inner geek all warm and fuzzy inside were apparent as book readers watched in cruel joy as watchers of the TV series, new to the world of ASOIAF, were shocked again and again by the twists in the plot.

But enough with all the labels (although it’s fun. If we lived in a world where everybody likes everything else that everybody likes, how boring would that be?)

So A Song of Ice and Fire went mainstream. It was considered a high point in the genre for years, but if you didn’t read SF and/or Fantasy, you probably weren’t aware of that. To be honest, it makes sense ASOIAF has been “liberated” by TV. The books may not be great literature (how many books are?), but they’re certainly great entertainment. Martin is an accomplished screenwriter as well, and his chapters in ASOIAF read like TV episodes. Short and sweet, full of twists and turns, and usually ending with a cliffhangers. The very definition of a page-turner which usually applies to thrillers and not 1000 pages long fantasy novels… It’s a very easy read on the one hand, but also very demanding – trying to keep up with all the names of people and places, but it’s well worth it.

Book 5 is out today after a looong wait. Welcome to Westeros, everybody.

Snack-o-rama

I knew it was just a matter of time until I work for The Man, but here it is: Me and some friends made a “Doritos commercial” for the Doritos Viralocity contest. It started out as three separate videos but then was combined to create one epic story about a man tormented by his dreams (okay, it’s not as dramatic as it sounds).
Anyway, the trick in the contest is to share your video as much as possible, that is why I am using my blog, who usually concerns itself with topics as Why Are We Here and What Is The Meaning Of It All as a shameless plug-in to promote our little snack-o-rama (TM) masterpiece, which was, obviously, shot in snack-o-rama.

Enjoy!

When saving the world was simpler

adventures-of-captain-marvelRecently I watched my first ever bona fide serial, Adventures Of Captain Marvel, which is actually the first time a comic book super hero was shown on screen. 12 chapters full of hair-raising adventures and ridiculous plot, and this serial, considered one of the finest ever made, sure gave me appetite for more.

Serials were short programs which ran in American cinemas during the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s before the main feature, just to wet the audience’s appetite. They usually had between 12 to 15 chapters and each chapter ended with what came to be known as a “cliffhanger”, a situation which left our heroes in some nasty trouble, and if you wanted to know how they escaped it you had to watch the next chapter.  A synonym for a serial is a “chapterplay”.
Indiana Jones and Star Was were hugely influenced by the old serials, and those movies in turn gave rise to a host of imitators and countless other pop culture phenomenon like the Lara Croft game series, for example.

The Sylvester Stallone film Cliffhanger has nothing to do with serials, though.

I sit and ponder (as I am fond of doing) the naivety of the old serials. Just like a child, the art of film was in its infancy back in those days. Today, especially following films like The Dark Knight and Iron Man, it’s hard to imagine a superhero story which concentrates solely on action and doesn’t bother at all with inner conflict of any kind or different shades of gray. AOCM tells the story of Billy Batson who, after a meeting with an old Siamese wizard (don’t ask) gets the power to turn into Captain Marvel in times of distress and danger. All he needs to do is say the word Shazam aloud and puff! Captain Marvel appears to save the day.
If this story would’ve been done today, surely the writers would have explored the way Billy Batson handles life with an alter ego about three feet taller than him and wearing tights. What does this do to his ego, to his social life? Does he see the world differently as Captain Marvel? What are the psychological ramifications of this new change in his life?

But do we really want to know all this? Let me quote Lt. Bookman from the classic Seinfeld episode “The Library”: “I remember when the librarian was a much older woman: Kindly, discreet, unattractive. We didn’t know anything about her private life. We didn’t want to know anything about her private life. She didn’t have a private life.”

This serial’s aim is to deliver escapism. In some ways, it makes it endearing and most importantly, fun. After being used to complex storytelling in film and especially TV, there’s something refreshing about it in a dated sort of way. Nothing is too complicated. There are one dimensional bad guys and one dimensional good guys and they all beat the crap out of each other. And the bad guys are great. Fantastic villain and superb evil henchmen. And when you’re doing a superhero adventure, it’s only as good as your villains. Some great stunts and effects in this one – this serial, done in 1941, preceded the famous Superman serial by eleven years – and Captain Marvel is no Superman, and I mean it in a good way. There’s a scene in which he grabs a machine gun from a couple of Bad Guys. When they turn to flee he… are you ready? Shoots them in the back! Yeah, he’s not superman. He’s mean and violent, he cracks their heads and throws them through windows. He’s almost like Superman would’ve been if he was Batman.

So I miss it sometimes. I miss simplicity. Really, being an adult is so complicated these days. Everything is so fucking complicated. One of the reasons I love old adventure films so much is because many of them were so straightforward.  In this day and age that wouldn’t fly (pun intended). We have become much more cynical, jaded and sophisticated viewers, just like the world we inhabit.

True, many of the old serials have retained their nostalgic value and not much else, but still, AOCM has a place in film history just for the reasons mentioned above. Its influence, and serials’ influence in general, can still be felt in current Hollywood popcorn movies.

Reality blogging

Is the blogging phenomenon actually an offshoot of the reality craze that has swept popular culture in recent years? I basically abhor reality TV, as it’s just a big fat lie. There’s nothing real in reality television, no genuine reality can exist where there’s a camera. The presence of the camera changes reality. People don’t act around a camera the way they would have acted if it wasn’t there. Reality TV is a manufactured reality built to satisfy our voyeuristic needs. Survivor is manufactured drama using real people instead of actors. The Bachelor and the likes trivializes love and deep human emotions. American Idol is just an excuse to see sad wannabes make a fool of themselves.

Granted, there is something very addictive and entertaining in Reality TV. The voyeuristic impulse is very strong. Come and watch other people, who are presuambly like us, try and become famous singers, or join their quest to find the love of their lives (and plenty of cash along the way), or just get a not-to-sneak-peek into their lives in a big house riddled with cameras. Naturally, if it was real reality, it would be boring. No one wants to watch other people’s lives without some… well, editing.

Hitchcock said that drama is life without the boring parts. It is true for storytelling, and it is true for Reality TV. Reality TV is just drama, but it involves non-actors. That’s all there is to it. Reality shows DOES have writers, who come up with possible scenarios and conflicts. Why does Reality shows considered “real” while scripted drama is considered “make believe”? Do people actually think of Reality TV as real life? Bullshit. It’s as phony as is gets. I’d always prefer scripted drama, with great storytelling and acting, over the cheap sensationalism of the reality shows. Reality TV was basically created so that people like you and I could have our 15 minutes of fame. The allure of such a possibility can cause even has-been stars like Silvester Stallone and Paula Abdul to get in the game. Hey, maybe it can be the beginning of a beautiful comeback.

And that brings me back to blogging. Isn’t sharing your life with other people you don’t even know is no better than those pseudo “reality” shows? Are blogs just another way to satisfy voyeuristic needs? Is the person represented in the blog is actually the same person in real life? Or is it just a mask, another persona? Is a blog just another way to achieve those 15 minutes of fame?

I think not. While I’m far from being an exhibitionist, I think that sharing  your thoughts, ideas, and your life with the whole wide world is a viable way for self expression. Some bloggers tell more about themselves, some tell less, and some tell nothing, creating a “topic” blog about wine, cars, computers, or whatever. I think the need to write a Weblog is first and foremost a personal need, the need to “get your stuff out there”, to be heard. while the need to share your life on TV is based on the desire for quick fame and fortune, and possibly stems from of low self esteem.

Writing a blog, even one that concentrates solely on your personal life, is far from being an easy task. It takes time and effort, and at the end you’re not even sure you’ll be read at all. So basically, you do it first and foremost for YOURSELF, and I think therein lies the big difference between these two popular forms of self exposure.  

In conclusion, I want to address the issue of possible generalization on this topic. Sometimes there’s a fine line between Reality TV and documentaries. I want to stress out that by Reality TV I primarily refer to shows like the ones mentioned above. For example, although labeled sometimes as a reality show, I consider HBO’s Project Greenlight as more of a documentary series. So what’s the difference between Documentaries and reality shows, you might ask? Well, docs usually don’t have panels of judges and fancy chateaus as backdrop for forlorn lovers. There are much bigger differences, naturally, but that, as they say, is another story…

Got yourself a gun

In the beginning, there was Martin Scorsese.

With films such as Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, Scorsese brought to the screen a new kind of crime drama: tough, realistic, unflinching. You could see it all: All the misery, all the human pettiness, all the violence, in all their horrible glory. That wasn’t done for shock value, but to serve as an honest portrayal of time and space. Scorsese grew up in a tough neighborhood in New York and knew violence and crime from first hand. Scorsese doesn’t lie. He tells it like it is.

And then came Goodfellas.

Scorsese’s masterpiece from 1990 about a rising star in the ranks of the Irish mob in New York had a very big influence on one David Chase, a TV writer and producer for shows like the Rockford Files and Northern Exposure, who wanted to create a series of his own which will tell the story of a New Jersey crime boss in the Italian mafia. At first, Chase tried to sell the idea to the networks, but failed. Then he tried it with the the premium cable network HBO, which was interested in developing more original content of its own.

I’m quite certain that if The Sopranos would’ve ended up in one of the networks, it wouldn’t be what it is today. The cable venue allowed Chase to create his series as realistic as possible, and was given creative carte blanche by HBO to develop his vision as he sees fit.

And so, on january 10th, 1999, The Sopranos appeared for the first time on HBO subscribers TV screens. And the rest, as thay say, is history.

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Even those who don’t watch The Sopranos (but aren’t clueless when it comes to television) know the general premise: Tony Soprano, mob boss and family man, struggles to balance his business life with his family life. He is a working man who happens to be a criminal, and when he suffers a panic attack, he starts seeing a female shrink. But The Sopranos is so much more then a blurb or a logline.

Thanks to James Gandolfini’s masterful portarail and the sharp, exquisite writing of David Chase and his team of gifted scribes, Tony Soprano is not only one of the greatest characters on TV, but one of the greates characters in filmed entertainment. 

A man of startling contradictions. He can be soft and gentle one minute, and violent and furious the next. His inner struggles with his demons – his domineering mother, the influence of his occupation on his children- among many others, are dealt with honesty and realism almost unparalleled on TV.  Surrounded by a great host of supporting characters, each one of them rounded, each one of them with its own set of dilemmas, conflicts and quirks, The Sopranos boasts some of the greatest characters on TV, with fabulous actors to portray them. The acting on this show is so natural, so unobtrusive, you quickly forget these are actors and not real people.

Some have trouble with the violence. That’s a valid claim, but one must consider a very important thing: The Sopranos is not a show about tough mafia guys who enjoy killing. Murder Is all just part of the business. It’s nothing special, nobody particularly likes it. With the exception of maybe Ralph Cifarretto, there are no sociopath hoodlums on The Sopranos. (Although Christopher Moltisanti sometimes teeters on the brink).

The extremley violent scenes on this show are few and far between, but like in scorcese’s case (who basically did very few violent films throughout his carrer, but these are the films everyone remembers), their reputation far exceeds them. In actuality, much of the violence in The Sopranos is done off camera, although that doesn’t make it any less disturbing.

The story arcs are weaved through each season meticulously and ingeniously, creating a rich tapestry of Shakespearean proportions about the most basic human emotions and staples: love, honor, revenge, friendship and loyalty, to name a just a few.

It is a show about family, about doing the right thing for your family. One of the most interesting subjects of the show is Tony’s continuous effort to shield his children from his world, which is quite a herculean task. Tony’s wife, Carmela (an amazing Edie Falco) loves and hates her husband at the same time. Her role alone could merit a whole lengthy post of its own.

In terms of visual and style, The Sopranos is far from run-of-the-mill TV fodder. It is shot and directed in a highly cinematic way. It utilizes the best of both worlds: The ability to develop stories and characters in a series format, and the cinematic style of films like Goodfellas. Again, This is not the romanticized mafia family of The Godfather (a movie which Tony and his friends love, naturally, and even quote from extensively, especially in the first two seasons), but the gritty, realistic world of the Scorcese crime drama.

The last season of The Sopranos (or the second half of the sixth) will air on April, putting the cap on this marvelous journey. In a world where FBI informers are the lowest life form there is, where people can order a hit because of an insulting joke, where a mafia boss goes to a shrink but can never really tell her everything about him, where mistresses (or goomas) are part of the norm, and murder is part of the business, The sopranos live in a parralel universe which we find facsinating to look at, but would never want to be a part of.