Feel this: Sense8 and the power of pulp

Sense8 is probably most exciting show in the Netflix stable: flawed as it may be, it combines pulp with thematic ambition and gives the Wachowski sisters’ career a revitalising jolt.

The Netflix series Sense8 is not a perfect show. First of all, its ambitious — and doggedly international — scope exposes it to some infelicitous short-cuts. Perhaps the least problematic of these is a recourse to wooden, melodramatic dialogue. Of course, there’s little time for nuance when you have to cut to characters spanning various continents in any given episode, and when these same characters have to project their qualms and dramas as quickly and forcefully as possible before their allotted time is up.

With respect to one particular mini-universe in this ensemble of eight — that of the Mexican B-movie and telenovela hunk Lito (Miguel Ángel Silvestre) — this has the unintentionally amusing effect of blurring the lines between the deliberately corny dialogue Lito spouts on his day job (which we’re clearly meant to laugh at) and the dialogue of the show proper, which is quite often just as cringe-worthy in its earnestness.

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Make believe: Lito (Miguel Angel Silvestre)

But what’s more problematic is the show’s unquestioning approach to national stereotypes; again, something we can almost justify as a necessity due to time constrains but only up to a point, especially in light of the fact that a ‘right-on’ message of interconnectedness and empathy also appears to be the raison d’etre of the show.

And so Wolfgang (Max Riemelt), the German sensate, reminds us that his folk are not as prudish about nudity as the rest of the world, the Icelandic Riley (Tuppence Middleton), not only has a fey look and predilection towards music (here’s to Bjork and Sigur Ros!), but also has a ‘hex’ hanging over her head — tapping into the Nordic ‘forest elf’ stereotype.

Worlds apart: Doona Bae and Aml Ameen

Worlds apart: Doona Bae and Aml Ameen

Meanwhile, the South Korean big business heiress Sun (Doona Bae) is an expert in martial arts, while the Nigerian van driver Capheus (Aml Ameen) has to remain plucky and resourceful in the wake of his mother’s AIDS diagnosis and the country’s incorrigible drive towards corruption and violent crime. And the Mumbai-based chemist Kala (Tina Desai) is inevitably rent apart between tradition and modernity, as her devout Hindu beliefs clash with the familial pedigree of (the undeniably charming and decent) man she’s about to marry, but whom she doesn’t love.

However, there’s two American characters — the ‘one per country’ quota doesn’t apply to them, it seems — and while Will  (Brian J. Smith) doesn’t stray too far from an ingrained blue collar cop going the extra mile trope, Nomi (Jamie Clayton) is a transgender hacktivist who clearly gave space to the show’s co-creators — the Wachowski sisters — to explore themes dear to them.

Damsel (temporarily) in distress: Jamie Clayton as Nomi

Damsel (temporarily) in distress: Jamie Clayton as Nomi

Taken together, Will and Nomi represent a wide-enough spectrum of American society, at least when compared to the show’s otherwise piecemeal approach to depicting the social context of their globe-scattered cast. Will is the son of a cop in his twilight years, with a clearly working class pedigree which he’s chosen to carry through, while Nomi — formerly ‘Michael’ — comes from an upper middle class stock whose comforts, conventions and trappings she has had no choice but to abandon in pursuit of her own happiness.

But at the same time, it would be disingenuous to accuse the Wachowski sisters and their co-writer on the show, the veteran J. Michael Straczynski, of chauvinism. For flawed as it may be in parts, the length of its reach can only be admired, and its fitting together of disparate characters and emotional journeys shows off a masterful exploitation of the serialised storytelling idiom.

The Matrix has you, but it’s not what you think

For better or for worse, The Matrix trilogy remains the hallmark of the Wachowskis’ career. The Keanu Reeves-starring cyberpunk pastiche was one of those ‘once in a generation’ things: a pair of barely-tested filmmakers were given the chance to realise an ambitious (that word will keep popping up) project in a move that paid off handsomely, and in the Wachowskis’ case even resulted in the birth of a franchise.

That the Matrix sequels proved to be bloated and ultimately unsatisfying affairs has now become common knowledge, but the core of the Matrix lay in the Wachowskis’ successful harvesting of cyberpunk literature and culture in a way that renders it palatable to a new generation which — crucially — had  just begun to experience the phenomenon that the genre itself prophesised: the Internet.

Will love tear us apart? Brian J. Smith and Tuppence Middleton

Will love tear us apart? Brian J. Smith and Tuppence Middleton

Fast-forward to 2015, and Sense8 refines that commentary further, by telepathically linking its global cast through a shared hallucination-cum-memory and forcing them to empathise in mind, body and soul with their fellow sensates. For us digital natives, the constant communication among the global cast does not feel at all alien: it’s no different than toggling from one browser tab to another (or better still, one chat window to another). To reinforce the point, Nomi’s partner Amanita (Freema Agyeman) actually describes the process as being like Facetime, only without any devices to facilitate it.

But the body wins

However, just like The Matrix showed us that what happens in the eponymous virtual reality has a real stake in the physical world, so Sense8 takes our for-granted approach to global communication that one step further by allowing its characters to physically inhabit and influence the world of other senseates. While this allows for other shortcuts and convenient ‘here comes the cavalry’ moments (more on that below), the Wachowskis are also clearly invested in exploring the power and impact of physicality for its own sake.

Nowhere is this made clearer than the infamous orgy scene from Episode 6, ‘Demons’. It was of course much talked-about on release for obvious reasons, and certainly makes for titillating television even on its superficial merits. But I would like to suggest that the decision to ‘bond’ the characters in this way is far from a random choice.

Sure, in a lot of ways it ticks some necessary promotional and narrative boxes — it gives the show a spike in viral visibility, and helps bring the disparate narratives together for a brief but memorable sequence — but the crescendo that it builds and the framing choices the Wachowskis employ in presenting it suggest that with this scene, the show is after more than just Game of Thrones-style clickbait-headline-grabbing.

Zoning in on the characters already engaged in some form of physical activity — the bulk of it being sex, of course, but Will gets in on the action simply by dint of spending some time at the gym, while the oft-nude Wolfgang ‘hosts’ the entire party at a sauna — the scene ramps up the passion not by focusing on pornographic money shots and a linear drive towards orgasm. Instead, it makes it a point to concentrate on the pleasure of all involved, and the Wachowskis are careful to give an identity and purpose to each of the participants.

To bring the point home that this is about the body first and foremost, and not about sex in particular, poor Will has to keep a straight face while lifting weights at the gym when he suddenly finds himself driven to orgasm by his newfound telekinetic brother-and-sisterhood.

Conflicted: Tina Desai

Conflicted: Tina Desai

And the fact that not all the sensates participate in the scene is further evidence that this is not just a cheap attempt to get a rise out of the audience. Because at that point in the story, Riley, Sun and Kala aren’t in the right emotional place to partake in a joyous orgy.

The virginal Kala — crucially, she waves off sex ed advice from a fussy aunt by invoking the wisdom of “the Internet” — is fending off both an unwanted marriage and a sudden attraction to fellow sensate Wolfgang, so that participating in the orgy in which he’s present would make little sense in her arc. Sun, while certainly no stranger to physicality owing to her — subsequently quite handy — combat skills, is biding her time with monk-like patience after making a heartbreaking sacrifice for the sake of her corrupt brother.

Emotional centre: Tuppence Middleton

Emotional centre: Tuppence Middleton

But while Riley’s harried state of mind — the narcotics-happy DJ has fallen on the wrong end of a drug deal gone wrong — also excludes her from the seratonin-spiking get-together, this doesn’t mean that the character, calibrated masterfully as the show’s emotional centre by a tender, raw and vivid performance from Middleton, has no claim on physicality.

But rather than sexual congress, it is childbirth that marks the most significant blot on her emotional journey, and another attention-grabbing scene depicting a live birth confirms the Wachowskis’ commitment to depicting how the physical nature of life will always trump arbitrary, remote connection.

In way, it’s almost a direct affront to a strong and consistent strand in one of the Wachowskis’ key influences for the Matrix trilogy: William Gibson’s landmark work of cyberpunk fiction, Neuromancer. In Gibson’s 1984 novel, hackers — or digital ‘cowboys’ — often derisively refer to our bodies as being simply “meat”. With Sense8, the Wachowskis appear to be determined to reinstate the value of what goes on inside our meat-containers while still operating in a genre that taps into the cyberpunk modus operandi.

Binge-watching towards empathy

But there’s another way in which the mechanism of Sense8 works to put the Wachowskis’ humanist message forward… though in this case, it’s probably Straczynski who can take the bulk of the credit for putting his vast experience of serialized writing into play.

In a way that’s both counter-intuitive and shrewd, the creative team behind Sense8 tapped into the pop culture reservoir originally opened up by Marvel Comics’ X-Men and their various multi-media iterations, by uniting a group of ‘special’ individuals under the tutelage of two sage renegades — Angelica Turing (Daryl Hannah) and Jonas Malicki (Naveen Andrews) — partly as a warning shot that their ‘kind’ is in danger, and being pursued by an errant member of their erstwhile species, ‘Whispers’ (Terrence Mann).

But for the bulk of the series, this isn’t the main motor of the narrative; it’s more like a ghostly nudge that turns into a bona fide push as the first season accelerates towards its climax. What hooks us instead are the individual narratives of the various characters, and when they interlace it feels like an added bonus.

The Great Joiner: Daryl Hannah

The Great Joiner: Daryl Hannah

An ancillary — but certainly not trivial — side-effect of this structural choice is that it places all of the various questions on an almost equal emotional footing; so that a romantic discord between Lito and his beloved Hernando (Alfonso Herrera) is placed side-by-side with the comparatively much harsher realities Capheus has to contend with.

Intentional or not, this has the wonderful effect of reminding us that, while the characters day-to-day situations and national, cultural and economic context vary greatly, we can come to understand their emotional priorities and respect them accordingly.

In a world where discourse is dominated by the — sometimes blinkered — drive to “out” who is more privileged than whom, and where empathy is limited to either dry facts or sensationalised sob stories, Sense8 reminds us that the way to understand someone is to first understand that, just like you, they have a day-to-day life in which they reckon with things wonderful and mundane, life-altering and life-threatening, at nearly every turn.

Say hello to my little friend: Max Riemelt

Say hello to my little friend: Max Riemelt

And while the Wachowskis have left details about the sensates‘ overall purpose and mission tantalizingly open to interpretation (read: ripe for exploration in subsequent seasons of the show), perhaps one thing we can assume about the reason why they exist, is simply to remind us that it is in fact possible to tap into something resembling a common wellspring of humanity… but that taking the importance of the flesh into account — as life-giving, pleasurable, deadly and prone to death and termination as it may be — is crucial to this process.

Just like you can’t hashtag your way into social justice — as recent developments all over the world have shown — so you can’t truly appreciate the value of other human beings without doing your damnedest to quite literally walk a mile in their shoes. Or, you know, temporarily possess their body to vanquish evil henchmen thanks to the martial arts skills you happen to have, and they don’t.

The rudiments of story win, too

Of course, there’s another reason why the conceit of interconnected body-hopping humans is handy for Straczynski and the Wachowskis. To wit, it’s a clever way of legitimising deus ex machina. They don’t always get away with it: there will be points when you’ll ask yourself why a sensate manages to interfere in certain instances, and not others.

But on the whole, it works in tandem with viewer expectations and makes for great moments of catharsis. This is particularly evident in the climactic episode, where the story slots into the kind of ‘chase’ sequence that you expect from X-Men-style narratives of marginalized super-powered beings fleeing from, the confronting, those persecuting them.

Inciting incident: Daryl Hannah and Naveen Andrews

Inciting incident: Daryl Hannah and Naveen Andrews

In a lot of ways, Sense8 works despite its niggles because it meshes form and content in a way that other shows don’t. The very idea of the sensates suddenly forced to come together and reckon with each of their individual life stories, and feed on each others’ abilities, works perfectly with the serialised television format, where multiple character arcs are not only possible, but actively encouraged.

It’s also clearly in line with the Wachowskis’ own ambitions, which have often resulted in stillborn feature film productions, but are finally given space to flourish in a 12-episode format.

Sense8 is a heady, febrile tumble that does suffer a few bumps and scratches on its breakneck descent. But it’s also a positive flip-side to the Wachowskis’ narrative sincerity and ambition; where their cinematic output has all too often revealed how such an approach can backfire. How a second season fares is still up in the air, of course, but the fact that its course remains touch-and-go already makes it a more exciting prospect than your usual TV fare.

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Swords v Cthulhu read-a-thon #5 | John Langan

As outlined in an earlier post, in the coming weeks I will be dedicating an entry to each story in the upcoming anthology Swords v Cthulhu, edited by Molly Tanzer and Jesse Bullington and published by Stone Skin Press. My reviewing method will be peppered with the cultural associations that each of these stories inspire. These will be presented with no excuse, apology or editorial justification.

Swords_v_Cthulhu_DRAFT_COVER_350

The Savage Angela in: The Beast in its Tunnels by John Langan

Langan’s story opens the collection, and in some ways it’s a no-brainer because it appears to have the swashbuckling swords-and-sorcery spirit of the works of Fritz Leiber (who comes highly recommended in Tanzer and Bullington’s backmatter).

But as befits my own introduction to Langan’s rich and satisfying short fiction his contribution here plays with the expected references to the beat of his own drum, getting mileage both from the immersive, ‘innocent’ elements of the genre while simultaneously playing a postmodern game with them.

Our protagonist, Angela, needs to slay a beast and she sets about doing so with the help of her talking sword — the significantly monikered Deus Ex Machina. With an archetypal-as-can be premise, it’s becomes clear from early on that Langan is more concerned with exploring just why the swords-and-sorcery genre continues to interest us, instead of simply replicating its tropes.

Like other stories in the collection, there’s a whiff of the coming-of-age narrative to Langan’s tale too, with Angela being a novice who’s only just learning to make the best use of her powerful weapon. A prevalent meme, to be sure.

Arya Stark and Syrio Forel -- Game of Thrones, Season 1

Arya Stark and Syrio Forel — Game of Thrones, Season 1

But more importantly, the schematic set-up of the story — coupled with the fact that it’s all baldly archetypal: the monster serving the role of Minotaur — reminded me of how ‘mapped out’ fantasy narratives often are.

This is why Dungeons & Dragons is such an important touchstone for both fans and practitioners of the genre. In a similar way to writers who are conscious of the formal and historical make-up of fantastic literature in all its forms — here I’m thinking of the likes of Italo Calvino — Langan reminds us that the rules exist for a reason.

One reason being that we will always rationalise what we don’t understand, and that the mechanics of slaying/solving the monsters that emerge from the abyss of uncertainty will always make for compelling reading. Because we are hungry for answers, even those we know will never be forthcoming.

Read previous: Remy Nakamura

The Joker Is Wild: Celebrating 75 Years of the Clown Prince of Crime

The Joker by Brian Bolland

The Joker by Brian Bolland

We celebrated the 75th anniversary of the Joker with a small conference dedicated to the Clown Prince of Crime’s ‘life and works’ last Saturday, and it served as a good reminder of how refreshing academic inquiry could be when placed actually outside an academic context.

Organised by Euro Media Forum and chaired by my good friend Krista Bonello Rutter Giappone  – who also gave an lucid an insightful paper on the Joker and Batman as a comedy double-act  – the event may not have been terribly well attended, but it did inspire an convivial atmosphere of open discussion and debate which wasn’t about intellectual one-upmanship but genuine passion for the subject matter, and a desire to get at it – him – from as many angles as possible.

 Jack Nicholson at The Joker in Batman (1989)

Jack Nicholson at The Joker in Batman (1989)

Running the gamut from conversational ‘geeky’ presentations and more scholarly insights into the Joker as a key character of Batman lore across various media (comics, film, animation and video game), we heard presentations which delved into Joker’s design history, evil clowns in pop culture, and how the Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger film-Jokers compare to each other; as well as the idea of the Joker as a demiurge, the Joker’s smile as a traumatic ‘wound’ (with all the symbolic weight that the image implies) and the socio-political imagery of both the Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger Jokers (that would be me).

Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight (2008)

Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight (2008)

It was an unabashedly geeky way to spend a Saturday, of course, but a part of me felt very proud of the fact that we got together to pay tribute to the Joker – one of my favourite characters in fiction – in such a concerted and dedicated way. The main take-away insight from it all – if we could reduce it to just one – is that the Joker’s familiar-but-amorphous nature is what makes him such an enduring – and enduringly scary – villain. He is equal parts prankster, psychopath, terrorist and trickster – sometimes embodying just one of those characteristics at a given time, other times (more often than not, it seems) amalgamating all of those things in garish and dangerous brew.

Illustration by Greg Capullo

Illustration by Greg Capullo

In short, I think he’s secured himself the role of an archetype worth remembering, celebrating and returning to.

Red Right Hand | Hellboy & Crimson Peak

Nick Cave and PJ Harvey

Nick Cave and PJ Harvey in the video for Henry Lee (1996)

Not quite a case of cover versions I prefer to the original, but the recent trailer for Guillermo Del Toro‘s upcoming Crimson Peak (yay!) showed us how Nick Cave’s haunting ditty Red Right Hand is etching itself into the Mexican director’s oeuvre as a musical placeholder, albeit as ventriloquised by different musicians.

A version by Pete Yorn was heard in the original Hellboy (2004), also directed by Del Toro. Something of a logical choice given the subject matter, even if the connection is a shallow one (i.e., limited to the song’s title). Yorn’s jauntier version certainly strips the song of its atmospheric sense of foreboding. Which is just as well in this case, because even though Hellboy – and Del Toro’s films in general – may have its creepy gothic touches, it remains a quirky superhero romp at the end of the day.

PJ Harvey’s version, originally commissioned for another audio visual project – this time the British gangster TV series Peaky Blinders – feels right for gothic melodrama Crimson Peak, at least insofar as the trailer suggests. Harvey’s pained vocals offer a nice contrast to Cave’s hard, stark imagery.

It’s a dynamic that matches my expectations of Crimson Peak itself. It appears to be a ghost story of the Victorian variety and as such, one that would by definition rely on subtle scares, rather than the outre, primary-coloured flourishes Del Toro is known for, and which he doesn’t appear to be shying away from here. I anxiously await to see how the twain will meet – if it does at all – come October.

Better the tropes you know | Gotham, The Musketeers and Black Sails

The premiere of Better Call Saul got me thinking about how the shows I enjoy now, post Breaking Bad folding, tend to fit more easily into the mold of romance rather than realism, and that this probably has a lot to do with how the ruse has now been rumbled on the supposedly ‘bold’ grittiness of the shows that have been lauded with both praise and generous ratings over the past few years.

"Have you grounded yourself?" Better Call Saul is off to a strong start

“Have you grounded yourself?” Better Call Saul is off to a strong start

You know, shows like The Wire and, indeed, Breaking Bad itself, with the latter admittedly conceding to a few Tarantinoesque stylistic flourishes every now and then.

This article illustrates the point better than I ever could, but the point remains this: there’s very little actual innovation or subversion happening in these shows, and this kind of storytelling is always better when its embraces its ‘genre’ roots. Because straining to do otherwise often results in nothing but kitsch. I enjoyed Breaking Bad and The Wire as much as anyone, but shows like Boardwalk Empire felt like brittle attempts at the same: spread thin by the half-assed attempt at historically accurate drama, it felt neither here nor there.

Ben McKenzie as James Gordon and Robin Lord Taylor as Oswald 'Penguin' Cobblepot in Gotham

Ben McKenzie as James Gordon and Robin Lord Taylor as Oswald ‘Penguin’ Cobblepot in Gotham

These days I’m quaffing shows like Black Sails, The Musketeers and Gotham – they don’t bother to hide their roots in firmly trodden narrative ground, and any ‘grit’ is by-the-by, acknowledged as just another stylistic detail rather than a willful attempt at – ultimately hollow – innovation. Hell, they simply can’t hide their derivative nature: all three shows are explicitly sourced from clear antecedents. Black Sails is a very loose prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island with a liberal sprinkling of ‘historical’ pirates thrown into the mix, The Musketeers is yet another adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ enduring piece of swashbuckling proto-pulp fiction, and Gotham is a shamelessly opportunistic but also refreshingly goofy series about Gotham City 20-odd years before Batman arrived on the scene.

Santiago Cabrera as Aramis in The Musketeers

Santiago Cabrera as Aramis in The Musketeers

It’s particularly telling that the first two shows in are sourced from Stevenson and Dumas, writers historically associated with the aesthetic of ‘romance’. The BBC’s own Musketeers may not be the best iteration of that story – and it’s certainly the weakest show of this particular triad – but it’s telling that it reared its head just now, as if in direct opposition to the prevailing trend. Black Sails may have the same levels of sex and violence you’d expect from the likes of Game of Thrones*, but its main MO is adventure and intrigue, not some half-baked exploration of moral ambiguity. And while Gotham, being a prequel to an established comic book property, appears to play in the same sandbox as most of the reboot-and-remake happy mainstream, it resists the urge to ‘grimdark’, giving us a Gotham Cityscape that is less Nolan, more Burton.

John Hamm as Don Draper in Mad Men

Jon Hamm as Don Draper in Mad Men

This is of course not to say that I won’t be tuning into Breaking Bad spinoff Better Call Saul – the pilot of which I found terrific – nor that television can’t be anything except pulp. But I’m finding more pleasure in taking in this kind of genre fare at the moment. Mostly because the likes of Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Mad Men et al have proven themselves to ultimately be all about dissatisfied and/or stifled macho men eager to live out their machismo, and largely succeeding in doing so. There’s very little about that I find profound, and the fact that we’re treating it as something novel and worthy of our time all on its own is a bit disconcerting.

I would rather have my macho men as flat archetypes, to be taken with a pinch of salt. Better than than being lured into contemplating their aggressive contours as something to take in fully and even – the implication being – to be emulated.

*Game of Thrones is an interesting exception that proves the rule: by presenting us with a fantasy world that is directly informed by episodes from ‘real life’ medieval history, it blends both realism and romance.

READ RELATED: We Need to Talk About Genre

Sailing

Clara Paget as Anne Bonny in Black Sails

Clara Paget as Anne Bonny in Black Sails

“Any mention of pirates of the fair sex runs the immediate risk of awakening painful memories of the neighbourhood production of some faded musical comedy, with its chorus line of obvious housewives posing as pirates and hoofing it on a briny deep of unmistakable cardboard. Nonetheless, lady pirates there have been – women skilled in the handling of ships, in the captaincy of brutish crews, and in the pursuit and plunder of sea-going vessels.” – Jorge Luis Borges 

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Read previous: FUSCHIAING 

Fuschiaing

'Fuschia' by Mervyn Peake

Fuschia by Mervyn Peake

“The fuschia is shallow-rooting and hence requires frequent watering, so drainage must be fast enough to carry away all excess. A mulch of peat or sawdust will keep roots cool and supply moist air when watered frequently. You cannot overwater fuschias if the drainage is good … Growing fuschias in bush form is easy. You control shape of the plant by regular pinching or pruning. Shortening of the main branches and pinching back of shoots produces a busy, stocky plant. Leave the branches fairly long if you want a plant with a loose open habit of growth” – Joseph Buttigieg

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Read previous: HUMANING

Gotham Nights | Top Three Batman Adaptations

Carmen Bicondova as soon-to-be Catwoman Selina Kyle in Fox's Batman prequel series Gotham

Carmen Bicondova as soon-to-be Catwoman Selina Kyle in Fox’s Batman prequel series Gotham

The Fox network’s Batman prequel series Gotham looks to be a solid but unremarkable bit of hokum, if this week’s pilot is anything to go by. An otherwise competent-enough police procedural, it relies far too heavily on Caped Crusader brand recognition, hoping that none-too-subtle “a-ha!” moments revealing an early version of Batman’s rouges gallery will be enough to make us sit up and pay attention for longer than a couple of episodes.

Still, its inaugural episode made me look back at some of my favourite Batman stories in non-comic book media. I’ve narrowed it down to a top three – a top three of features I don’t mind re-visiting on occasion.*

3) The Dark Knight (2008)

The late Heath Ledger as The Joker

The late Heath Ledger as The Joker

There are only a handful of films I’ve watched in my life time that were bona-fide ‘events’ at the cinema. Not even a handful… off the top of my head I can think of two, maybe three films, tops, that weren’t just successful genre blockbusters but long-awaited, almost social events by dint of their pre-screening buzz and subsequent pop culture impact.

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999) was the first. Despite the fact that it disappointed me even though I was an easy-to-please kid at the time, George Lucas’ return to the sci-fi/fantasy world that made him a Hollywood pioneer felt like some kind of watershed moment: never mind its intrinsic worth as a film – it was a monumental gesture on Lucas’ part that bridged two generations of fandom, right at the cusp of the internet revolution, which lent fuel to the fire of its many detractors.

Following closely on its trail was a far less controversial film – though its sequels proved to be a fast-tracked mirror image to the disappointment caused by the Star Wars prequels ­– which I won’t hesitate to call a modern masterpiece: The Matrix; a cyberpunk collage which wore its homages proudly on its sleeve but which was also animated by a pioneering energy.

The Dark Knight was the third and final one that comes to mind – the only example I can think of from past adolescence.

There are several reasons why Christopher Nolan’s sequel to Batman Begins (2006) struck a chord with me (along with many, many others worldwide). Its escalating tempo perfectly mirrors the chaotic, all-pervasive nature of a terrorist attack (relentlessly topical for all of us post-9/11), with Nolan perfectly balancing blockbuster friendly action with what is now referred to a ‘grimdark’ approach to superheroics. But instead of coming across as too sombre for its own good, Nolan’s seriousness is both gripping and infectious. He commits to the material in a way that doesn’t feel preposterous or disproportionate, in a way that’s been justifiably compared to Michael Mann’s Heat (1995).

But it’s unsurprisingly Heath Ledger’s performance as the film’s key antagonist, The Joker, that keeps me returning to the film. Over and above the tragic romance of Heath Ledger being reported dead soon after the shoot wrapped, there’s something magnetic about his performance that makes it a joyous thing to experience.

Yes, it’s disturbing and dark – like his director, Ledger grabs the role by the collar and doesn’t let go, diving head-first into the nihilistic psychosis of his character. But despite being the orchestrator of the film’s panic and chaos, he’s above all fun to watch, a spirited grotesque in the spirit of Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow who is enjoyable to experience even in isolation, as his introduction to the parliament of Gotham mobsters amply displays (and rewards in repeat viewings).

2) Batman: The Mask of the Phantasm (1993)

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

The Paul Dini/Bruce Timm Batman Animated Series – as transmitted (and dubbed) on Italian TV – was one of the defining cartoons of my childhood. Apart from bolstering my love of Batman lore, it also imbued in me a love of film noir and Art Deco.

It gives us a Batman origin story beyond the my-parents-were-murdered sequence, as well as an uncharacteristic and finely fleshed out romance. There’s no bimbotic Vicki Vales here; in Andrea Beaumont Bruce Wayne gets a mirror image of his traumatic obsession. Also packing in a great Joker story, the feature-length ‘Phantasm’ exquisitely built on the foundations set by the animated series.

Playing into Batman’s noir appeal while remaining kid-friendly, it also maintains a certain decorum absent from subsequent – and concurrent – movie adaptations. It certainly has none of the camp excesses of the much-maligned Joel Schumacher films, and neither is it particularly close in tone to the comparatively toned down Tim Burton opening salvos.

That’s not to say it doesn’t have a flair for the theatrical ­– just wrap your ears around Shirley Walker’s theme tune for a rousing introduction to this inspiring labour of love.

1) Batman Returns (1992)

Feline fling: Michelle Pfeiffer and Michael Keaton in Batman Returns

Feline fling: Michelle Pfeiffer and Michael Keaton in Batman Returns

Nolan gets all the accolades and Schumacher gets all the hate, but it’s Tim Burton’s second (and final) sequel to his soujourn in Gotham that stays with me to this day – to the point that I re-watch it every Christmas (the period in which the film is set, all the better to amplify its Gothic excess).

It is the only Batman film in the franchise that takes on the core absurdity of the DC Comics character and runs with it.

But it doesn’t run with it in the same way that Burton’s successor Joel Schumacher ran with it; turning it into a camp carnival of steel bat-nipples and shiny gadgets and architecture. In pitting Bruce Wayne/Batman against the double-menace of feral jewel thief Selina Kyle/Catwoman (the never-sexier Michelle Pfeiffer) and the orphaned freak-cum-underground mobster Oswald Cobblepot/The Penguin (the never-uglier Danny De Vito), Burton showed that he understood the inner workings of Batman and his rogues’ gallery.

It’s about watching mad people in costumes tearing each other apart (which is as far as you can get from the moralistic, dead-serious drama-thrillers of the latter-day Christopher Nolan trilogy).

The snowy pall of Christmas time over Gotham city only reinforces the stylistically-heightened panorama: a truly Gothic sight if there ever was one, and a more than apt rehearsal for that other Burton-sponsored classic, The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993).

*This, incidentally, remains the ultimate litmus test for me when it comes to deciding what is a ‘favourite’ – particularly in this day and age when daisy-chain social media gimmicks keep requesting us to make a favourite list of this or that. If you truly love something, you’ll keep coming back.

Why I love NBC’s Hannibal – Part II

Not a spoiler: In a typically bold move, the first episode of the second season of NBC's Hannibal opens with a far-reaching and action-packed flash-forward

Not a spoiler: In a typically bold move, the first episode of the second season of NBC’s Hannibal opens with a far-reaching and action-packed flash-forward

Read Part I

It’s been a while since the second season of NBC’s Hannibal has wrapped up, I know – well, ‘a while’ in today’s always-constantly-updated online world anyway – but I had neither the time nor the inclination to pen this follow-up to my initial post straight away.

First off, it’s fun to just luxuriate in an intense, contentious season finale before commenting on it; to let the swathe of online commentary wash over you and even, perhaps, share in some of it.

Of course, those who have seen it will know what I’m talking about, and I doubt there’s a lukewarm opinion on how the blood-soaked and – though the final outcome remains teasingly to be seen – tragic final reel of what was a superb season of television plays out.

You either love the tortuous downward spiral (oh, but doesn’t it look so exquisite!) Bryan Fuller has put you through or you don’t, and this season in particular, I think, urges you to take a final decision on how you feel about the overall raison d’etre of this unapologetically baroque show.

Because while the first season had as its commercially-friendly ballast a ‘monster of the week’ structure – with the Will-and-Hannibal storyline unspooling in increments in the background – Fuller and co. have clearly been given carte blanche this time around.

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Style over substance? Hannibal is unapologetically baroque

Style over substance? Hannibal is unapologetically baroque

This is not a smoothly calculated show. It’s a show that grows and develops, contorting to fit its shape – sometimes its development is fractious and misjudged but it’s certainly moving towards something. The fact that it’s a prequel to an established book-and-film property already gives it a final end-point, but Fuller is also mining deeper into Thomas Harris’ Hannibal mythos in a way that feels both daring and appropriate.

I’ve mentioned the danger of overstretching a storyline beyond its limits in the previous post. But in taking the risk to ‘gild the lily’ of what was previously established by Harris and his cinematic forebears, Fuller actually ends up giving us something more; and yes, in this sense more is more because it builds convincingly on the beguiling psychological bind that the Hannibal stories are bound by.

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With the right tools and the right brains at the wheel, the idea of a cannibalistic serial killer not only aiding a ‘consulting detective’ – let’s acknowledge the intertexual link between Will Graham and Sherlock Holmes, please – with the crimes he’s charged with, but also seeking a bona-fide relationship with him, is rich dramatic pickings whichever way you slice it (hur, hur).

A friend of mine pointed out how Fuller’s Hannibal is more of a Freudian creation, as opposed to the ‘Jungian’ archetype we see in the Harris novels and their accompanying film adaptations.

I tend to agree, not only because NBC-Hannibal is still a slippery figure in every sense of the word, as he’s not had a chance to solidify into the kind of antagonist-consultant role he occupies in the canon narratives. (Going by a sort-of Proppian definition of his archetypal role in the source material, could we perhaps say that he’s both central antagonist AND wise old man figure? Both Darth Vader and Obi Wan Kenobi?)

NBC-Hannibal is harder to define in those terms, but he is of course also the show’s organising principle and thematic core at the same time (note that he is not, however, the protagonist – that journey belongs to Will – even though the show is named after him).

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In captivity, in therapy: Hugh Dancy as Will Graham

In captivity, in therapy: Hugh Dancy as Will Graham

Here’s the crux of it all: this is a show about therapy; or, at least, it’s a show that takes the raison d’etre of therapy and applies it to a dimension none of us would have dared to venture, given the choice.

This isn’t just because Hannibal Lecter himself happens to be a therapist (and a good one at that). Having therapy as a conceit – and it’s a consistent one for the show – means that the show is about the unravelling of the self, about a constant attempt to cut through the confusion and dross of everyday consciousness to arrive at some deeply embedded truth about yourself.

This is of course evident in Will’s zig-zagging psychological journey across the show’s two seasons, but in a coup of form vs content that elevates the show to what feels like a bona fide – though almost accidental – work of art, it’s also matched in both the narrative structure and cinematographic landscape of its second season.

Whereas Hannibal’s diabolical mentoring of Will came in fragmented drops in Season One – due to the rat-a-tat rhythm of the one killer per episode structure – come the second season it gets a broad sweep, largely owing to Will’s uncomfortable – and highly vulnerable – predicament.

To be concluded

‘Do you really want to be normal?’ | Penny Dreadful

Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) is asked a tough question in the final moments of the first season of Showtime's Penny Dreadful

Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) is asked a tough question in the final moments of the first season of Showtime’s Penny Dreadful

Spoilers for the first season of Penny Dreadful ahead

“Do you really want to be normal?”

That question, delivered by a seemingly benign Welsh priest (though given the particular show’s propensity for sneaky evil presences, one shouldn’t be too sure) concludes the final episode of the first season of Showtime’s Penny Dreadful, fading to black before the show’s erstwhile protagonist, Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) can respond.

It’s an apt question to ask – even an apt question to end a season on – considering we’re dealing with a show about characters who are either grotesque, extraordinary or a mix of both. But it’s also pertinent to the show’s structure itself. Like the critically lauded but structurally uneven True Detective before it (also a moody slow-burner entrenched in the history of horror fiction, albeit the two shows picking two separate – Transatlantic, even – branches of the tradition), Penny Dreadful had eight episodes in its first season.

Apart from being somewhat atypical in the current trend of ongoing ‘prestige’ television dramas, whose seasons generally take in at least 10 and up to 13 or 14 episodes, Penny Dreadful – perhaps contrary to its title and the associated cultural pedigree that that implies – opted to unspool its story in slow drops, instead of at a frenetic pace, with a twist and/or “shocking” character revelation at every corner.

In addition to this, the show also kept its cards to its chest – and still has quite a few, it must be said, even after the season one finale – so that while it was hoped that the viewers would remain intrigued by the mystery, it was never quite certain which parts of the story had the most urgent implications for our characters. And to make things even harder for itself, the show dedicated two whole episodes – precious time, for such a considerably brief season – to flashbacks.

This begs the question: is Penny Dreadful just slow, or have we been ‘spoiled’ by a certain degree of acceleration in the way TV series tend to be delivered?

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Indeed, Penny Dreadful has nothing like the immediate (and sustained) hook of Breaking Bad, which works because it’s striking, simple and also workable over the long term: Walter White’s cancer is a looming portent of doom, while his gradual transformation into a drug baron can be enjoyed episode-to-episode (or perhaps more accurately, it can be charted from season to season) because it’s precisely that: a transformation, a journey, an element of the story that yields new developments by its very nature; and in this case, it’s a particularly seductive element as it promises to transform our protagonist from hero to villain. Penny Dreadful Neither can Penny Dreadful boast of the huge cast of characters and intersecting story-lines one finds in Game of Thrones which, unlike Penny Dreadful, can satisfy a large and varied swathe of viewers with each episode, as George RR Martin’s vast, medieval-fantasy world can flicker from one sub-plot to another in the blink of an eye, with each sub-plot practically catering to its own mini-genre (political thriller, domestic drama, picaresque journey, fantasy actioner… even horror of the ‘torture porn’ variety).

Penny Dreadful – perhaps by dint of its title alone – can’t even claim to be ‘above’ genre television, necessarily. It can’t afford to luxuriate in the longueurs of a Mad Men without consequence, because its premise, and the cultural milieu it pastiches, demands a certain amount of genre-familiar action: an expectation corroborated by the memory of the literary characters it has adopted (who are, at the very least, a century old, which increases the expectation we have of them substantially).

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Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) and Dorian Grey (Reeve Carney)

Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) and Dorian Grey (Reeve Carney)

Am I suggesting that Penny Dreadful is faultless, or that any faults it may have should be forgiven because we appear to have been ‘spoilt’ by accelerated storytelling (even in long-haul drama) in this day and age? No.

Come the conclusion of season one, a couple of things about the show still rankle me slightly, namely:

1) The season’s primary plot engine: Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) and Vanessa’s quest to retrieve Mina Murray (Olivia Llewellyn). It just feels a little thin. Though there’s enough simmering interpersonal drama between Malcolm and Vanessa to spare (as we learn about half-way through the season), and though of course the supporting characters also do their part in filling up the episodes leading to the climax, the sweep of it just doesn’t feel epic enough to justify an entire season. (I wonder if a plot reshuffle would have worked better… if, say, Mina is actually retrieved earlier on – even as early as the third or fourth episode – but it turned out that she is still gripped by whatever evil she appears to be possessed by. The rest of the season would then progress much in the same way, but it would also be free of what is essentially a threadbare ‘final destination’. As it stands, it feels as though the story will only get going come season; and

2) The fact that Dorian Grey (Reeve Carney) appears to have been thrown into the fray to elicit sexual tension and titillation and little else. His character arc will doubtlessly pick up come season two (we weren’t offered a glimpse of his infamous portrait after all), but it was sloppy of the writers not to leave any breadcrumbs for us at all. Come the final episode, he’s a cipher – and not a tantalizing one, at that.

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But you’ll be hard-pressed to deny that Penny Dreadful is a sumptuous, atmospheric and impeccably photographed show, despite all its faults. This isn’t just cosmetic praise: its production value works towards creating its atmosphere of gloomy dread and, ultimately, menace. And I think this is far more worthwhile a dramatic pursuit than endeavoring to create a ‘monster-of-the-week’ type show, which this easily could have become, and which even I suspected it may have been (and I probably wouldn’t have minded one bit if that were the case, I must admit).

Like Hannibal – a show I love and admire even more than Penny Dreadful – it shoots everything in a gloomy chiaroscuro, reinforcing the sense that, if there’s a light at the end of the tunnel for these characters, they’re going to have to work through plenty of gloom to get to it. But more than just being a trick of cinematography and production design, this prolonged sense of foreboding helps the story.

Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) and Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton)

Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) and Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton)

Because it’s a story about how evil is incredibly hard to beat. Though we were promised Dracula, and though some kind of vampire mythos is most certainly at play here, the suggestion is that the old Count (or some version of him), is being helped, or is subservient to, an ancient Egyptian deity who appears to be channeling powers we’d normally associate with Satan (at least in pop culture lore).

Eva Green’s Vanessa is of course the fulcrum of all this: because this demonic presence appears to have taken a liking to her, she’s also made to serve as bait for Mina – or, at least, as a tracking device. In a show as restrained as this – restrained, at least, within its genre – Vanessa’s moments of demonic possession were the key set pieces… and it’s commendable that the ‘wow’ factor of the show depended not on shocking key character deaths (Red Viper, anyone?) but rather, on an actress’ talents, necessarily OTT as those particular moments were. Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) The adage ‘force of nature’ is one of those hateful phrases that are tossed around too easily, but Green certainly gives the show her all: she can switch from beautiful to horrific, from formidable to crushed, in the blink of an eye.

Her effective martyrdom, powerfully rendered by Green, points to one thing above all: there is no talisman or magic charm, no arcane incantation that will drive this malevolent presence out for good (though our boy Ethan (Josh Hartnett) surprised everyone with his spot of impromptu exorcism, which saved Vanessa’s life in the season’s penultimate episode).

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The chosen tone of John Logan’s show – which has thankfully been confirmed for a second season – makes perfect sense for the kind of property (the word is crucial here) that it is.

Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway)

Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway)

Save for Vanessa, we know a lot of these characters from their source material (that includes Malcolm Murray, who is H. Rider Haggard’s Allan Quartermain in all but name), and the show can’t play too closely to that. Instead of exploiting its Gothic and supernatural pedigree for effects-laden gimmicks and sensationalist shocks, it’s playing the long game, and keeping us guessing.

Or would you rather it were a “normal” show, after all?

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Questions:

1) Do you think that the eight-episode arc is proving to be a real challenge for TV writers?

2) Genre historians! Would you say that Penny Dreadful follows an old-school model of storytelling? Did the original penny dreadfuls have a similar structure? Haven’t had a chance to research this myself, so I’m really curious about this.