Thursday, August 30, 2007

"They is, they is, they is"

Tobias Wolff was at the vanguard of the so-called "dirty realist" movement in American fiction in the 1980s, alongside the likes of Richard Ford, and the grandaddy of them all, Raymond Carver. All three of these writers specialised in Short stories, altough Ford and Wolff have since found greater fame and success in the novel and memoir respectively. Wolff's "This Boys Life" and "In Pharaoh's Army" are both beautiful memoirs of distinct phases in his early life, notable for the grace and clarity of his prose. These same qualities are evident in his short fiction, which he continues to publish in The New Yorker and periodically in collected editions. "Bullet in the Brain", a two page story, was published in his last collection, "The Night in Question" in 1997. It has an impact disproportionate to its length, and an absolutely beautiful and poetic conclusion.

David von Ancken became best known as a jobbing television director, working on shows like "Oz", "Numb3rs" (is anybody else really irritated by that 3 replacing an "e" in that title?) and "The Shield", before he made his feature debut this year with "Seraphim Falls", a fantastic little Chase-Western which demonstrated that he has the talent to make a name for himself on the big Screen. He first came to prominence, however, when he wrote and directed a short adaptation of "Bullet in the Brain" in 2001. He does it about as much justice as could possibly be done, displaying a visual lyricism in the final minutes that captures to some extent the poetry of the story. He is helped by the great Tom Noonan in the lead role and the lovely voice of George Plimpton reading the narration over those closing images, which comes straight from Wolff's story. Its a great short film, and combined with "Seraphim Falls", it suggests a flexible, multi-faceted talent, which makes me very excited about what von Ancken could go on to achieve in his career.

"Bullet in the Brain":

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Shuffle : Strawberry Letter 23

Possibly the greatest psychedelic soul single of the 1970s - and thats against some heavyweight competition - Shuggie Otis' "Strawberry Letter 23" was written when he was 17. Its about a girlfriend who sent him letters scented with her strawberry perfume, and its light and mellow, tender and funky, beautiful and exciting all at once, in the way any song about teenage love should really be.

Shuggie was the kind of musically polymorphic genius who could master any instrument and, accordingly, he plays most of them on "Strawberry Letter 23". Worse, he plays them beautifully. He had first emerged as a virtuoso guitar prodigy, playing in the band led by his father, Johnny Otis, from the time he was twelve years old. He released his first solo record, "Here Comes Shuggie Otis" in 1970, and it rested mainly on the strength of his guitar technique, which was so good that The Rolling Stones asked him to join them to replace Mick Taylor in 1976. He refused, having had enough of being a sideman in his years with his father. He had left the sort of music the Stones played behind in his teens, anyway, and continued to develop his own style and vision, resulting in a second record, "Freedom Flight" (1971), which sounded unlike anything else being released in mainstream soul music at that time. Its the record containing "Strawberry Letter 23".

I've only ever asked a DJ the name of the song he just played, and that was this song. At that time it wasn't available on CD, and he had it on a battered old vinyl copy of "Freedom Flight". A few years later, David Byrne' Luaka Bop label issued Shuggie's third album, the amazing "Inspiration Information" (1974) on cd for the first time, including a few tracks from "Freedom Flight" as bonuses. "Strawberry Letter 23" was of course amongst them.

Shuggie Otis - Inspiration Information

Its strangely textured - acoustic guitars, very lightly strummed, piano and a soft drum sound, with timpani and bells handling much of the melody for the first verse. Then backing vocals come in for the second verse, almost whispered. The whole thing is dreamlike, gossamer-light, until the guitar solo, a lovely circular figure spiralling endlessly around those sighing backing vocals as the entire sound is distorted and compressed until the fade. The chorus passes by just about unnoticed. This song doesn't really need one since the verses are so catchy, so beautiful. The lyrics are a naive list of psychedelic imagery: "west purple shower bells and tea" and "Blue flower echo from a cherry cloud", though the first line establishes that this is a love song: "Hello, my love, I heard a kiss from you" and Shuggie returns to the subject of the song for its climax after the first verse, when he sings of flying free in his baby's arms. That naivete works in the songs favour - its singer is so earnest, believes in what he is singing to such an obvious extent, that it is hard to remain unconvinced by him.

Shuggie was a famous perfectionist in the studio, and you can almost hear that, the effort required to make a recording so fragile and delicate out of such a strong melody. But that was his hallmark - "Inspiration Information" in particular is full of songs that are intricate and subtle, many of them instrumentals which sound surprisingly modern. They often sound more like sketches than fully realised works, and the influences are obvious but eclectic - here was an artist who was into soul and jazz and the blues and rock and pop and was interested in electronic and even ambient sounds. The fact that he tried to combine all these interests into his own work is what makes it so quietly thrilling, allied with his songwriting talent. Its probably also what sentenced his career to the category of cult artist. The melancholy and delicacy of his best material - even a song as filled with joy as "Strawberry Letter 23" is tinged with a specific, if hard to pinpoint, sadness - is most likely the major reason he never made it big. Though the fact that he took so long to make that third album that his label lost patience and dropped him can't have helped, either. A Quincy Jones-produced "Strawberry Letter 23" was released by the Brothers Johnson in 1977, sold a million copies, and gave Shuggie Otis some sort of immortality. That discofied version of the song - also excellent, but lacking the joy and strangeness of the original - has featured in "Jackie Brown" and a Coke advertising campaign, while Shuggie's has been given greater exposure by the CD reissue of "Inspiration Information" and a recent sample by Beyonce. After retiring, disillusioned, from the music business in 1974, Shuggie went back on the promotional circuit for the release a few years ago, playing on such shows as Letterman and Conan O'Brien in the US, and doing a couple of small gigs too. No footage of any of that on Youtube, but there is this:


Tuesday, August 21, 2007

"Nobody gets out alive, Doc."

I just finished watching Season 3 of "Deadwood". Last night, in fact, I watched the last two episodes. "Deadwood" is HBO's second-best show, after the incomparable "The Wire". Which means that "Deadwood" may well be the second best television drama ever made. It is fantastic. I could write a lengthy post about whether it better suits the description "Dickensian" or "Shakespearian", but I'll settle for saying that each is true at different moments. Its scripting is so consistently brilliant that I struggled to choose a single quote for this post. I would have struggled to choose a single quote from any random episode, it was so full of clever, hilarious, perfect lines. Spoken by some great actors, each at the top of their game. The dialogue is so stylised that it took a few minutes at the start of each season for me to tune in, to catch the peculiar rhythms and constructions favoured by David Milch and his gifted team of writers. Its somewhat archaic, baroque and tortuous in its often long-winded detail, and famously peppered with the saltiest profanity. Much of it is spouted by Al Swearengen, fabulously played by Ian McShane, and a character of such charm, terror and complexity that he makes Tony Soprano look like the Fonz by comparison. Swearengen is surrounded by a host of grotesques and eccentrics, psychotics and innocents, each of them shaded with depth and realism by the writing and performances. Its worth saying again: It is fantastic.

Its a Western, obviously. But at the same time, its so much more than a simple Western. Its an investigation of the Western myth, a study of the establishment of civilization in all its beauty and ugliness and complexity. Men head West to the frontier in search of gold and wealth. They put down roots and they come into conflict with one another. They struggle to introduce and uphold the law. Its also a soap opera which details a panorama of the titular township, or "the camp" as the characters tend to call it. From Seth Bullock, the Sheriff and the closest thing the show has to an old-fashioned Western hero (albeit one with a hair-trigger temper and a propensity for ultra-violence) to the tubercular doctor, Swearengen's many whores, the world of the Chinese who fill the towns backstreets, the shop-owners, telegram operator, newspaper publisher, the miners and gamblers and actors and politicians and soldiers who drift through the town, the show was filled with an array of the staple figures and icons of the genre. Only "Deadwood" never handled them the way any other Western ever has. Wild Bill Hickock, who is a major character in the first half of the first season, is a man weary from dealing with his own notoriety. Wyatt and Morgan Earp are young and opportunistic in their search for wealth. The single American Indian we glimpse is a function of the plot and no more, almost as if Milch is commenting on the genre's (and the Nation's?) misrepresentation of that people. The Indian shows up and attacks our hero and is killed after a fight notable for its brutal violence.

Indeed, "Deadwood" dispenses with most of the cliches of the genre. There is a single gunfight in the first season, brief and almost cursory, and after that the violence is always unpleasant. Swearengen likes to work with a knife, and his murders are necessarily followed by scenes of many scrubbing blood from floors. People are beaten and stabbed and shot in the head. There is little or no heroism, only cynicism and compromise, exploitation and weakness. Good and evil are utterly relative, especially in the third season, where Swearengen leads the resistance to Hearst, a millionaire prospector who seems bent on destroying the town itself, and whose presence is positively satanic. The frank treatment of the nature of prostitution is also almost shocking in relation to the kind-hearted whores familiar from the Westerns of the 1950s.
That third season is to be Deadwood's last. Creator David Milch moved on to another HBO show, "John From Cincinatti", which just finished in the states after enduring some bad reviews and disappointing viewing figures. Milch stated that he would finish "Deadwood" with a pair of television movies, wrapping up loose ends and ending storylines, but they have yet to be scheduled (though the recent cancellation of "John From Cincinatti" may just spur Milch on).

Considering "Deadwood" got me thinking about what I like, and how one thing leads you onto another and how eventually - or in my case, anyway - you can't keep track of what you liked first and what brought you to where, and it all seems a big bright web of interlinked culture. There is a joy to this, I think. For example, one of the writers on "Deadwood" and the co-creator of "John From Cincinatti" is Kem Nunn, an American crime novelist. Nunn's area is Surf Noir, novels set against the background of the Californian surfing community, rife as it is with bikers and drug dealers and outsiders. "John from Cincinatti" is also Surf Noir to a certain extent, but the defining work in this weird little sub-genre is Nunn's debut novel, the terrific "Tapping the Source", which follows the arrival of a young man from a desert township in L.A. and his efforts to find his vanished sister among the dark waters of the surfing community. I first read Nunn six or seven years ago when I came across "Dogs of Winter" marked down to 50p in a Virgin Megastore which was pulling out of the book market, loved it, and have kept an eye out for his name ever since. It was a surprise to see it among the credits on "Deadwood", and re-energised my interest in is work, prompting a recent reading of "Tapping the Source".

What "Tapping the Source" most reminded me of was Kathryn Bigelow's "Point Break". The detailed, atmospheric portrayal of the milieu, in particular, but also the relationship between two of the major characters. "Point Break", in fact, played as if somebody had read Nunn's book and been inspired but turned it into an action film halfway through production. Which is sort of what did happen. "Tapping the Surce" was optioned and over a decade or so in production and a dozen or so rewrites later, it had somehow become "Point Break", losing all of its plot and most of its characters (in the Sundance episode of "Entourage", Vince is close to signing up to work on an adaptation of the Nunn book, to be shot in Australia) but gaining some brilliant Kathryn Bigelow action scenes and a peroxide Patrick Swayze instead. Bigelow is an interesting director, always liable to smuggle a self-parodic strain into a big dumb macho blockbuster - from which "Point Break" greatly benefits - while also excelling at the cinema of action spectacle. I always appreciated that she admitted her debt to directors such as Walter Hill. Hill was the post-Peckinpah poet of Action Cinema in the late 1970s and early 80s, and also a man with an abiding love for the Western genre. He made the best Western of the 80s with "The Long Riders" (1980), a fierce and beautiful reading of the Jesse James story. But he struggled after that to disguise his Westerns in various genres, from his modernised remake of "The Wild Bunch" in "Extreme Prejudice" (1987) to "Another 48 Hours" (1990) and "Streets of Fire" (1984). In the 90s, the critical and commercial success of films like "Dances WIth Wolves" and "Unforgiven" made the production of actual Westerns feasible once again, and Hill made three in a row: "Geronimo" (1993), "Wild Bill" (1995) and "Last Man Standing" (1996). "Wild Bill", of course leads us back to "Deadwood". In his film, Hill adapted and conflated two sources: Pete Dexter's brilliant novel "Deadwood" and Thomas Babe's play "Fathers & Sons". His film is tightly focused on Wild Bill Hickock and his friends and circle and barely pays any attention to the town beyond them, but when David Milch was searching for a director to make the pilot episode of his new HBO show in 2004, he called on Walter Hill, and Hill subsequently won an Emmy for his effortlessly cinematic work. He was to return to the Television Western in 2006, directing Robert Duvall in "Broken Trail".

"Deadwood" is a far greater work than "Wild Bill", and indeed it owes much more to the aforementioned Dexter's novel than Hill's film does. Dexter is a writer with a foot in each camp - his work flirts with genre while remaining firmly literary, as in the crime story elements to be found in "Gods Pocket" and "Train". Dexter has worked as a screenwriter as well as novelist, and even here this divided aspect of his work is evident. "Mulholland Falls" (1996), which he wrote for director Lee Tamahori, is a crime film with pretensions, and as such it feels like a neutered attempt at filming a James Ellroy novel, albeit one with a great cast and some good moments. It is always interesting searching for trace of a favourite writer in their work for cinema, whether they are working as a hired gun or have allowed their own books to be cruelly mistreated by another hired gun. Dexter's work as a screenwriter is frequently baffling to anyone who knows his novels - "Michael" (1996) staring John Travolta as an angel, anyone? - but the two adaptations of his own work have not been horribly unfaithful. Stephen Gyllenhal's "Paris Trout" (1991) is if anything too faithful to the book, and as a result is lacking in energy and cinematic verve.

I've been thinking about Dexter because another writer I love - Gerorge Pelecanos - mentioned him in a piece on his own website in relation to "Deadwood" and another novel I'm currently reading, Oakley Hall's "Warlock". I bought "Warlock" about 6 months ago after reading an article in Salon about modern Western literature which mentioned it as a seminal work. A little research revealed it as the source material for Edward Dmytryk's 1959 film of the same name, starring Richard Widmark and Henry Fonda, and also told me that the New York Review of Books had just released it in a lovely new edition with an introduction by Robert Stone, making it even more alluring. Pelecanos mentions that it may be the main influence on Milch's "Deadwood", above and beyond the Dexter novel, and I suspect he may be right (his opinion may be an informed one, given that he is a stablemate of Milch's in his role as a writer on "The Wire"). It shares the HBO show's mix of epic and intimate and some of its clear-eyed realism, as well as many similarities in the characterisation and conflicts which power the narrative. Its basically an analogue of the Wyatt Earp story, and Hall adds to this elements of the Johnson County War and a few other Western legends, before rendering it all realistically and with a commendable psychological acuity. His prose style is clear and simple, never affected or overwrought, and in its quiet way, "Warlock" may be the definitive statement on the classical Western story.

The movie is the kind of old-fashioned technicolour Western shown on saturday and sunday afternoons, the kind of thing my Dad loves. But it takes some of the novel's ambiguity and casts Fonda (revisiting the role of Wyatt Earp he had already attempted in "My Darling Clementine" (1946) under another name) as an almost-villain, which is probably where Sergio Leone got the idea of doing the same thing for "Once Upon a Time In the West"(1968). It also features in Martin Scorsese's "A Personal Journey Through American Movies"(1995). Scorsese is attracted to its complex idiosyncracies and convoluted moral scheme, but also to its distinctive look - the town in "Warlock" doesn't look like the stock studio-lot Western towns in the majority of the genre films at that time. Added to that, there is a definite homoeroticism implied in the relationship between the Earp and Doc Holliday characters played by Fonda and Anthony Quinn and Richard Widmark's hero faces a consciously existential dilemma in choosing which side to align himself with.

I love Westerns, though I haven't written much about them on this blog. This year is another year where the Western seems semi-fashionable again, what with the Coen's "No Country For Old Men" (which I have written about), Andrew Dominick's "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" and James Mangold's "3:10 to Yuma". All three of these films are adaptations of Western books, and all three I await with feverish anticipation. "3:10 to Yuma" is an adaptation of Elmore Leonard's terrific short story, already the basis for Delmer Daves' tight little film from 1957 (which Mangold referenced in his "Copland" (1997) by naming Sly Stallone's principled lawman character "Heflin" after Van Heflin, star of Daves' version). The trailer suggests a defiantly old-school Western in the vein of "Open Range" (2004), and any adaptation of Leonard's Western work has as its basis brilliant source material. Leonard is mainly famous for his crime novels, but his Westerns are arguably superior, each full of memorable characters, taut, airtight plotting and great writing. He utterly renovated his style when he began working in the crime genre, and his sharp, precise prose was a victim of a shift to books which are genrally dialogue-led.

Dominick's film is based upon Ron Hansen's novel, and is by all accounts a Western by way of Terrence Malick, the suggestion of which only makes me more excited, and which seems to have terrified its studio into delaying release by almost a year and vacillating between three different cuts (one of them reportedly 3 hours long). The novel is dense and rich with the fruit of Hansen's research into his subject, and brilliantly vivid in its evocation of period, whereas the trailer for the film instead suggests a dreamy mediatation very much in the vein of Malick. It is notable for an impressive cast including one Garrett Dillahunt (who also features in "No Country for Old Men"). Which brings us back to where we started. Dillahunt is obviously a favourite of David Milch, having feaured in "John from Cincinatti" and playing two memorable characters across "Deadwood"s first two seasons. In Season 2 he was James Wolcott, psychopathic envoy for Hearst and no friend to the ladies of Deadwood. And in Season 1 he was Jack McCall, the man who would come to be known for killing Wild Bill Hickock by shooting him in the back of the head. That event stemmed from tension at a poker table, most notably the following exchange between the two men, which would have been unimaginable on television even 5 years ago, but is part of what makes "Deadwood" so distinctive and unusual:

Wild Bill Hickok: Sure you wanna quit playing, Jack? The game's always between you and getting called a cunt.

Tom Nuttall: Meeting adjourned, fellas, take it outside.

Wild Bill Hickok: That dropped eye of yours looks like the hood on a cunt to me, Jack. When you talk, your mouth looks like a cunt moving.

Jack McCall: I ain't gonna get in no gun fight with you, Hickok.

Wild Bill Hickok: But you will run your cunt mouth at me. And I will take it, to play poker.

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Sunday, August 12, 2007

Screengrab - The Funk of 40,000 Years

I don't remember Jennifer Garner from "Felicity". But then, I never watched it fanatically, and theres a good chance I missed the episodes she appeared in. It was a show crowded with young and beautiful characters, anyway, in the manner of all post-"Dawson's Creek" teen tv drama, and Garner may just have been another pretty face in the crowd for me. She appeared in my consciousness in the way many actors do - suddenly, in a matter of months, she seemed to be everywhere. There was a new US tv show, created by one of the guys behind "Felicity", which sounded like a spin on that show, only given an injection of genre. It was called "Alias", and from what I read about it, I had a feeling I'd like it. Then she showed up in "Catch Me If You Can" (2002) before taking the sacrosanct, crucial (to comic book geeks) role of Elektra in "Daredevil" (2003).

She was fine in a small role in the Spielberg film, but I didn't much like her in "Daredevil." Her character is something of an enigma in comic book form - sometimes hero, sometimes villain, shes most often anti-hero, generally unpredictable and not always likeable - and the film translated this into a series of cliches. Its a bad film anyway, and though she looks fantastic in her leather costume and breezes through the action scenes on the back of all the training for "Alias", Garner just fitted right in with the shortfall in quality surrounding her. But I caught up with "Alias" on dvd, and that was when I began to appreciate Garner.
For starters, shes obviously beautiful. But not beautiful in an obvious way - she is somewhat gangly, her face almost too strong, those cheekbones almost comically prominent, her lips so full. And she can act. In "Alias" she made Sydney Bristow a believable character in a cartoon universe. Sydney feels pain and fear and suffering and Garner delivers it all, despite the silly formulas and the endless mcguffins of the plotting and the often flimsy characterisation, with truth and what feels like emotional authenticity. She is the key factor in what makes those early seasons of Alias work so well. The audience believes in her, cares about her, and that allows the show to get on with everything else.

The strangest thing about seeing her in Gary Winick's "13 Going On 30" (2004) is how much of it she spends smiling. If you have grown accustomed to seeing her in "Alias", where she spends much of her time crying or tense or sad or lonely or worried, that long face creased with lines of pain, it is almost shocking to see her beaming with such full-bore brightness. And her face seems built for smiling - she is all teeth and dimples in best movie star, Tom Cruise fashion, every inch the Texan cheerleader. The film is a girly teen comedy and and a blatant "Big" rip-off, full of terrible dialogue and scenes that have been better done in other films and overused 80s songs. But it has a few elements that elevate it, chiefly Mark Ruffalo and Garner. Ruffalo may just be the best actor of his generation, with the greatest range and sensitivity, and hes steadily building an interesting career. But he'll never be a movie star, no matter how many romantic comedies his agent persuades him to do. He's almost too interesting and too complex for the singularity required by stardom.

In "13 Going On 30" his Matt is sweet but baffled, wary of Garner's Jenna and yet charmed by her. Yet Ruffalo never lets him off the hook, and we can see Matt's anger at Jenna and his hurt, and understand how it effects his decision at the film's end. None of which would work without Garner's performance. Is it an indictment of her career to say that "13 Going on 30" is easily the best thing she's ever done? She throws herself headlong into her performance without any vanity, and she carries the film along in her wake, just as she did "Alias". In her first scenes, after 13 year old Jenna has awoken to find herself somehow transported into the body (and life) of her 30 year old self, Garner gurns and gawps for fully ten minutes. She walks differently, imitating the awkwardness of an adolescent adjusting to an adult form. She delivers her lines in shrill shouts and rushed mumbles. And she makes it all work. Just as Tom Hanks did so brilliantly in "Big", she makes us believe in the wonder of a child in the adult world. She begins to enjoy her grown up life, for a short time, and she seems to wander through a 20 minute spell in the film grinning at everything, constantly delighted by the world and her place in it. As her sterling work on the many action scenes in "Alias" proved, Garner is a great physical performer, and she here demonstrates that shes also a gifted physical comic, as she makes her gangly way through Jenna's many pratfalls and double-takes.

My favourite scene is one of those scenes that shouldn't work, but somehow does. Again, thats mainly down to Garner and Ruffalo. Jenna works at a style magazine, and ordered by her boss (Andy Serkis) to enliven a damp squib of a party, she asks the DJ to play "Thriller", drags Matt onto the dancefloor so that they can run through the routine they learned together from the classic video for the song, and after an awkward beginning, soon the entire crowd is copying them. Its an undeniably cheesy scene, but like the film generally, it succeeds despite this, Garner and Ruffalo playing it both for laughs and some sort of nostalgic tingle. They both seem to be enjoying it, too, always helpful in a musical number. I love the gawky hesitance in Garner's earliest steps, the way she communicates Jenna's desire to dance and unease at doing so before this crowd, then her utter surrender to it, her "come on, Mattie!" and delight at the response. She manages to pull off being physically funny and yet sexy too, one of the best things about her performance. It means that the sequence becomes genuinely euphoric - the mass happiness of a dance combined with Jenna's personal triumph and the reunion with Matt. Plus, its to "Thriller", a great pop song, ridiculous as it is.


Tuesday, August 07, 2007

"Fortune pisses on me once again!"

"Rome" may just have been HBO's most underrated show, for a variety of reasons. Its massive budget brought massive expectation, as if it would play like a more beautiful, more epic, equally well written and acted period "Sopranos" every episode. Early reviews compared it more closely to "Deadwood", and there were superficial similarities in the foul-mouthed, ultra-violent, sexually frank make-up of the shows. It deliberately courted the "I, Claudius" audience, and that show is one of the the most acclaimed and beloved in the history of the medium. Any pretender to it's throne was bound for criticism. But "Rome" was its own beast, and what an entertaining, fullblooded beast it was.

I remember its early promotional slant was as a ground-level portrayal of Roman history, and so the first episode introduced us to Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) and Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson), two Legionaires fighting under Mark Antony and Julis Caesar in Gaul. And "Rome" was always, at its heart, the story of their lives and their friendship, as they became involved and embroiled in the military and political upheavals of the era. Those upheavals were the meat of the plotting - Caesar's rise and fall, the struggles between Antony, Octavian, Brutus and Cassius after his death, the role played by Cleopatra in all of this, the effects of the many political changes upon Roman society, particularly among the elite, who were generally engaged in their own struggles for rank, privilege and sexual gratification. "Rome" skipped across decades, its characters - Octavian, who grew from boy to man within 3 episodes, aside - never visibly ageing. It could be almost comically Epic in its throwaway depictions of massive armies on the move, of Great Men in the quiet moments between the historically significant moments. It tended to skip the big battles - its budget, though immense by television standards, did not allow for the kind of spectacular carnage modern audiences have been taught to expect by the Lord of the RIngs films and Gladiator - and come in with a shot of a field of the dead, the survivors retreating, bruised and bloodied.

It was, I suppose, schlock. The plotting crammed in so much history and accomodated so many betrayals and reversals that it often became silly. In one episode, Pullo and Vorenus wound up shipwrecked upon a desert island. In another, they found themselves in the arena, fighting as Gladiators. But it was never silly when it counted. The writing was always good, communicating enough depth in the characterisation and nuance in the drama to lift it beyond the sometime awkward plotting. The acting, mainly by a crew of British stage luvvies, was generally superb. It may also be HBO's funniest show - full of brilliant one-liners and hilariously excessive acts, it more often relied upon the strength of that characterisation for its humour. Pullo - whose combination of levelheaded decency with an ability to tap into homicidal fury made him perhaps the most compelling figure in the story - was given to a deadpan response to the most bizarre and horrific circumstances which made him consistently funny. His recurrent comment whenever things seemed to be at their worst: "Good bread, this." made me laugh on every occasion. The gladiator episode is a good example of the show's strength. Pullo, depressed at the emptiness of his life without the army, having been turned down by Erene, a slave he loves (she turns him down because he has killed her husband) and having fallen out with Vorenus, is reduced to working as an assassin for a local gangster. When he is arrested for murder, he is sentenced to death in the arena. With Vorenus watching, hidden in the crowd, Pullo refuses to fight, sitting on the ground and telling the gladiators to kill him quickly and get it over with. They want a show, as does the mob, and soon realise that offending his beloved 13th Legion is the best way to provoke a response in him. Suitably provoked, he kills a series of them, steadily becoming more badly injured himself as the fight goes on and the gladiators keep coming. All the while he shouts "13th! 13th!" while Vorenus can barely watch from the crowd. Finally a giant carrying a skull-headed club emerges, disdainfully preparing to end Pullo when Vorenus enters the arena, shouts "13th!" and fights the giant. He seems to be losing until he cuts off the mans leg just below the knee, then buries the club in his chest cavity through his shoulder. He and Pullo limp out of the arena together. The scene includes beheadings, limbs lopped off and a couple of excrutiating impalements, is bloody, nicely shot, and after so many episodes have established the odd friendship between the two characters, strangely moving. It is also woven into the fabric of the wider political storyline, with Pullo and Vorenus' status as folk-heroes increasing Vorenus' political value to Caesar.

The politics - which made for most of the meat of "I, Claudius" - are also crucial to "Rome". Characters plot against one another constantly. Someone is always using somebody else, power changes hands every episode. There are dozens of conversations where people smilingly threaten one another, where insults are exchanged disguised as pleasantries.
Eventually, every political squabble ends in violence, and it is here that "Rome" most resembles its stablemates "Deadwood" and "The Sopranos". Political necessity leads to murder, to shankings in backstreets, to torture in cellars, to men given a final moment to compose themselves and pray to their gods. The violence is generally unblinking and often shockingly gleeful.

One of the shows chief qualities was the coldness of its characterisation. Aside from Pullo and Vorenus, most of the major figures were unsympathetic or unlikeable. Many of them were monstrous. Yet the writing and acting were so consistently good that it barely mattered, because they were always compelling. Attia of the Julii, played wonderfully by Polly Walker, is a fine example. She is, for the most part, a scheming, machiavellian villain. She lies, orders innocents murdered on her whims, orchestrates incest between her son and daughter, constantly plots to maintain the position of her family, tortures, and treats her family and servants with contempt and disdain. Yet she is also an energetic, hilarious, charismatic figure, always worth watching, and at times she seems to even have moments of morality and pureheartedness. By the end of Season 2, when she has aged and endured heartbreak, Attia has become an almost heroic character. Her suffering, inconceivably, invites and even demands that an audience feels for her. Her final verbal dismissal of her daughter-in-law , Livia, is a great moment, and one in which we feel ourselves firmly siding with her. Her "evil" is even contextualised somewhat by the portrayal of Roman society. We are shown a culture of great sophistication, with beautiful architecture, a unique military science based upon ahead-of-their-time principles, a complicated interlocking of various religions, an extremely well-developed political system, where the people keep (and abuse) slaves and are frequently barbarously murderous. Attia is chiefly a survivor, and she is motivated by the need to protect her family. The best way to do this is to advance it, and so she aggressively pursues social and political influence. Her religion seems amoral, and so morality is irrelevant to her.

James Purefoy's portrayal of her sometime lover, Mark Antony, is just as complex. First seen merely as Caesar's military sidekick, he gains in narrative and psychological complexity and importance as the two seasons progress. He is a great soldier and charismatic leader who has to become a politician, and, without the right mentality, finds he hates it. But in the aftermath of Caesar's murder, Antony is as close as the show has to a clearcut hero. He faces Brutus, Cicero and Cassius and their plotters and with some help from a young but cunning Octavian, he outmanouvres them. Purefoy plays him as a brute, always ready to explode, brazen and full of animal cunning, always close to his needs and desires. He is the kind of man who kills a slave for laughing at him, who jumps off his horse in the middle of a march to take a peasant girl by the side of the road, who slits an enemy's throat in broad daylight, outside another enemy's house. But the final arc Antony undergoes is moving and sensitively handled - his Kurtzian decline in Egypt, his love for Cleopatra, shame at his betrayal of Attia and eventual fate are all played by Purefoy with a sure sense of his character's past and personality. He gets some of the shows best and most ribald dialogue, from his recurrent "On Juno's cunt!" to "I'm not rising from this bed until I have fucked someone" to his lines to Vorenus after Octavian's navy has defeated him: "All my life I have feared defeat, but now that it has come, its not as near as terrible as I had expected. Sun still shines, water still tastes good. Glory is all well and good, but life is enough, aye?" He's a great character in a show full of them.

That is the strength of "Rome". Like "Deadwood", it gives even its smallest characters moments to shine, and the writing is good enough so that those brief moments can often speak volumes. Slaves who have hovered in the background for five episodes are suddenly given gravitas and personality in one conversation or a few facial expressions. A character is redefined by the way they respond to another. This is supported by the depth of detail, the little touches which make the world portrayed fascinating and authentic-seeming. From the Roman grafitti showcased in the main titles to the many religious rites and practices observed over the course of two seasons, to the food served at banquets, the orgies, brothels, markets, temples, laundries, taverns, the contrasting worlds of Egypt and Turkey, the battlefields and encampments, everything is detailed and seems lived in. "Rome" feels alive with research and expertise, and it is a rare production where we feel we can see all of the money up onscreen.

One of HBO's most famous advertising slogans is "Not just TV. HBO." "Rome" is one of the shows which can be used for justification of this. Like "Deadwood" and "Carnivale", it always looks fabulous. When HBO does period, it pulls out all of the stops. The sets and locations used on "Rome" are beautiful, the costumes and design always arresting and visually stimulating, the music sweeping and epic. Its generally quite stylishly, cinematically directed, too, by directors like Michael Apted, Mikael Saloman and John Maybury. It is also the kind of production only HBO could really pull off. So Epic, so funny, so adult and complex, it, like much of HBO's output, demanded that an audience had some patience with it, give it 3 or 4 episodes to sink its hooks slowly in. In an era where drama on the big US Networks can last only a handful of episodes before being unceremoniously cancelled, this is a great luxury for a television series. And "Rome" made good use of that luxury, telling a massive story over its two seasons, full of beauty, great characters and terrific writing and acting. Television will probably never see its like again, due to the prohibitive cost and niche audience for the subject matter, which is a great shame. But if there must be a last Roman tv drama, then I can't imagine anything doing a better job than "Rome" did.

"Its only hubris if I fail." - Julius Caesar