Saturday, September 29, 2007

"I expect you boys to execute."

"Friday Night Lights" isn't really about American football. But then again, it is, and it renders that game with skill and knowledge and a sure feel for the unavoidable cliches of the portrayal of any sporting contest in a fictional narrative, but it isn't solely about American football. Its a portrait of a Texan town in all of its knotty complexity, and it takes the High School Football team as its entry point into the life of that town. Its my favourite of the new American dramas I've seen this year - I say this without having yet seen either "Heroes" or "John from Cincinnati" - and in its way, its one of the most important shows on tv at the moment.
That may seem a silly claim, considering the subject matter. But what "Friday Night Lights" is really concerned with is the way people live in America today, and it attempts to tackle that massive and difficult subject matter honestly and with an emotional generosity in terms of its fairness of characterisation reminiscent of "The Wire".

Based upon H.G. Bissinger's non-fiction book recounting a season with a single High School football team on their way to the State Final backed by a rabidly partisan town, Peter Berg's 2005 film "Friday Night Lights" was that rare thing - an American sports film that avoided sentimentality and dealt in the reality of what a simple game can come to mean to people, or indeed a whole community. Its a great little film, filled with good performances and well-written characters. Berg's a protege of Michael Mann - he appears briefly in "Collateral" (2004) and Mann produced his most recent film, "The Kingdom" - and he shows off some stylistic chops influenced by his mentor in the football scenes - choppy and handheld for maximum visceral impact - and in the haunting passages where Explosions In the Sky's guitars fill the soundtrack and the camera glides over the bleakness of endless Texan wilderness and suburbia. "Friday Night Lights" was his third film as director, following the excessive, misjudged black comedy of "Very Bad Things" (1998) and The Rundown" (aka "Welcome to the Jungle" (2003)), a slightly quirky action film starring the Rock. Both those films suggested in their different ways that Berg might have some talent behind the camera. His acting career had never really gotten any bigger than supporting parts in "The Last Seduction" (1994) and "A Midnight Clear" (1992), altough he was good as one of the lead characters in the tv hospital drama "Chicago Hope".

Working on that show gave him his first serious experiences as a director, and he remained in television to create his own series for ABC a few years later. "Wonderland" (2000) was a blackly comic drama set in a Psychiatric Hospital, following the lives of both doctors and patients. It possessed a high quality cast featuring the likes of Ted Levine, Patricia Clarkson, Martin Donovan and Michelle Forbes, tackled an unusual subject with bravery and humour, and premiered to a barrage of criticism from pressure groups who accused it of insulting the mentally ill. Bowing to political pressure, ABC cancelled the show after only the second episode, and Berg returned to cinema. Heres a brief trailer for that curtailed series:

The modest success of "The Rundown" enabled Berg to direct "Friday Night Lights", which was a project Richard Linklater had been struggling to bring to fruition for years. When the movie was adapted for television, Berg obviously played a major role - he directed the pilot show, and the series follows the visual and musical template of the film slavishly. A character even shares a name with Forbes' character in "Wonderland". While from a distance, it may appear to be in the same vein as the likes of "The O.C." and "One Tree Hill" (especially given the prettiness of the cast), "Friday Night Lights" is decidedly different. Berg's appreciation for black comedy (evident in his first two films and "Wonderland") and the shows emphasis on the blue collar side of American life make sure of that. The pilot copies the structure of the film's first act, but then the show picks up the ball touched down by the movie, and it runs with it. Only four of the football players are major characters, and their character arcs rise and fall over the course of the first season. Perhaps the biggest change from the film is the fate of the team's Star Player. In the film, that character is the cocky black running back, his career ended by an injury early in the Season. His character remains in the series, but the injury instead befalls the team's starting quarterback and leader, the school and town's Prince, Jason Street (Scott Porter). His struggle with life in a wheelchair and the effect it has upon his girlfriend, family and team-mates is one of the major continuing storylines, and is always dealt with in the most clear-eyed and realistic fashion.

This is another feature differentiating "Friday Night Lights" from many other superficially similar shows. Whilst it is clearly a soap opera, with storylines mainly concerning romantic entanglements and friendships lost and found, it does not shy away from unglamorous, difficult subject matter, which it then renders without sensationalism. Street's injury shifts the focus of the team onto the 2nd string quarterback, Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford), a diffident and sensitive teen who had expected to coast through his time on the team, never really having to play at all. His growth as a person and player is brilliantly-handled, with Gilford perfectly capturing the character's stuttering nervousness and eventual growing confidence. Perhaps the shows greatest strength is in the attention it consistently pays to supporting characters such as Saracen's best friend, Landry (Jesse Plemons), and his Grandmother (Louanne Stephens). Indeed, by the end of the 22 episodes, it seems as if almost every character has been given depth and motivation, and the political and social networks that bisect the town seem impossibly complex and truthfully personal. This ability to meander and follow tangents allows the show to address a series of subjects vital to America itself, from the treatment of the Iraq War (Saracen's father is serving there), to racism (in a two-part story detailing a rift in the team), through to the everyday presence of religion in the life of the town and the constant awareness of the pressures upon these young people.

They are pressured by a town expecting success upon the football field but also by the future rushing up to greet them, represented by academic options and the looming spectre of the economic depression Dillon seems to permanently exist in. There are references to the death of the old industries, specifically oil, and many of the characters yearn for escape or bemoan the fact that its too late for one. These are teens working in fast food restaurants, with absent parents and few prospects beyond football. There are also the usual teen pressures, each of them present and correct, if generally viewed from an interesting perspective by a show which never went for an easy answer: its treatment of teen sexuality is almost sweet, especially in the portrayal of the relationship between Saracen and Julie (Aimee Teegarden), the Coach's daughter. It also touches upon bullying, mental illness, rape and substance abuse.

All of which makes it sound like an insufferably heavy show, unremittingly serious and pompous. But its often tremendously funny, particularly in the scenes of the arguments between Coach Taylor (Kyle Chandler) and his wife Tami (the brilliant Connie Britton), and in the scenes of geeky comradeship involving Saracen and Landry. Indeed, the relationship of the Taylors is perhaps the true heart of the show, as their conflicts, struggles and warmth reflect those experienced by the town and the team. It is, however, a show which is forced to return every episode or two to its central immediate plotline - the progress of the Dillon Panthers in their quest for the State Championship. It occasionally goes a whole episode without any footage of the team playing or even training, but always must circle back to detail the next game. This means the show has to be inventive to avoid becoming overly repetitious, and it uses just about every variation on game narratives it can come up with, holding back on its best moves until the epic confrontation in the final episode. The games are always well-shot and gripping, focused as they invariably are upon the fortunes of one of the players we know intimately, or upon some tactical gamble taken by Taylor. If the usual dramatic arc in a sports story is that of the victory snatched from the jaws of defeat, then "Friday Night Lights" avoids this trope when it can without ever denying the audience the undeniable rush it provides. But generally, especially early in the Season, the football matches are notable more for the light they shed upon different aspects of the characters involved than for the results. The players find themselves and discover weakness on the field. While this may sound cheesy or mawkish, the drama and characterisation is always well-handled so that it never feels anything other than beautifully done.

If there is any other barometer for its artistic success, than it may be "Friday Night Lights" lack of commercial popularity which best attests to its quality. While identikit shows like the "CSI" and "Law & Order" franchises and their sundry medical and legal procedural stepchildren dominate US ratings, "Friday Night Lights" was only granted a second Season due to its network's belief in its worth and the fawning critical notices it had received. Its ratings were paltry, but then it has the courage to say difficult things about America, and that is seldom a crowd-pleasing activity in times of political and economic anxiety. For that if nothing else, "Friday Night Lights" should be praised.


Saturday, September 22, 2007

"An aged man is but a paltry thing"

I love this poster. And its brother and sister are almost as good.


Monday, September 17, 2007

arf arf sigh

"I guess what Judd Apatow is to me, is what Terrence Malick is to David Gordon Green. They're just good friends. And David said to me the other day, 'Guess what Terrence Malick's favourite movie of the last 10 years is?'"
"Zoolander! He knows every word, watches it every week. Which just goes to show, you never can predict these things."
- Seth Rogen, The Guardian, 14th September 2007

...which made me think about the humour in Malick's work. There isn't much, frankly. A little comes in his first two films - its there in the unexpected and distinctive juxtaposition of image and voiceover and the ironies created by that, some of which are blackly funny. Martin Sheen's brilliant performance in "Badlands" (1973) crackles with humour, among other things, and Malick is obviously aware of it. His first film and student project, "Lanton Mills" (1969) is reportedly a comedy, but his two most recent works, "The Thin Red Line" (1998) and "The New World" (2005), seem utterly without any humour, beautiful and profound as they both are.

Which I suppose is not so strange. Just because an artist generally works in a serious register does not disqualify him from a sense of humour. Its the thought of Malick - whose work is so poetic and often ethereal - chuckling at "Zoolander", which I can't really assimilate. "Zoolander" is not a bad film and its got its share of funny moments, and it uses Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson better than most films do, but still, it seems so far from Malick's own work...

...Which may be the point. Stanley Kubrick was a massive fan of Albert Brooks' great "Modern Romance" (1981) and Richard Rush's "Freebie & the Bean" (1974), two films which seem to have absolutely no resemblance to anything in his own body of work (unless you look very hard at the cynical conclusions Brooks draws about relationships, which are echoed in "Eyes Wide Shut" (1999)). But Kubrick explained that he loved most the films which he felt he would have been incapable of making himself, and it is hard to imagine his sensibility brought to bear on either of those films. Just as it is bizarre to imagine a Malick version of "Zoolander", though that is a film I would pay to see.

What it really suggests is the subjectivity of humour. I've had a problem recently discussing comedy, and I think its this level of subjectivity that creates the difficulty for me. I believe it was Roger Ebert who wrote about what makes you laugh and what turns you on as the two most subjective things in life - no two people are the same, and it is impossible to truly explain what you like and why to anybody else. Is this the reason I've written little about comedy here? I watch comedies, obviously, I go to comedy movies, watch comedy TV shows, I used to go to lots of stand up comedy, but its not something I'm keen to examine too closely. I've seen 3 comedies over the last few weeks, but I have no interest in writing about any of them here, much as I enjoyed two of them. Which isn't like me. I tend to analyze the things I like, to try to see what makes them work. Not with comedy. I just like to laugh, and not think too hard about why afterwards.

I had a conversation in work about a year ago that informs this subject and my view of it. Channel 4 had just run their "100 Funniest Comedians" list show, and 4 or 5 of us were discussing it. What quickly became apparent was the ferocity and confidence of opinion. Everybody was sure they were right. Everybody knew that they knew what was funny, and what wasn't. Somehow, if this had been a conversation about drama, these same people wouldn't have been quite so certain, or quite so invested. But comedy brings that out in people. Because everyone wants to think that they have a great sense of humour. Most people even seem to want to think that they're really funny. And most of my colleagues were quite funny. But not about comedy. About comedy they were all so serious, and so sure that Bill Hicks is funnier than Billy Connolly and Lee Evans isn't funny at all and why wasn't Russell Brand lower? And after a while, it just seemed like a vaguely unpleasant, pointless conversation.

I was the same. I saw myself as qualified to have these conversations, too. To tell people with certainty that "The League of Gentlemen" just isn't funny. I've seen Bill Hicks live, and quite a few of the other guys on that list, as if that means anything. But it doesn't. It just means that I know what makes me laugh, just like anyone else. I have a friend who loves to tell me how much better than "Friends" "Seinfeld" was. And he may be right, but I never really liked "Seinfeld" all that much. I know it was funny, but something about the tone bugged me, so I never watched it consistently. Whereas "Friends", for all that it was pink and fluffy and smug and schmaltzy and about unreal people in a universe of wish-fulfillment - it made me laugh. Which is all I ask of any comedy.

The only outright comedy I've written about here so far has been "Idiocracy". But what was interesting about that film wasn't the humour, but the subtext and the circumstances of the release. I didn't have all that much to say about the actual comedy itself - some of it made me laugh, some didn't. The only comedy in my top 10 list last year was "Borat", and the little I wrote about it is all about how much it made me laugh. Because that has to be the barometer for any comedy, surely? Yes, "Borat" and "Idiocracy" might have had other things going on beneath the surface, but that surface, for both films, was all about making an audience laugh.

I don't really have a concrete point here. I once emailed a friend telling him that "I don't do comedies". Which was a joke, but one containing an element of truth. Few comedies live up to my expectations, is the problem. They make me laugh out loud a handful of times, and thats not enough for me. I want my sides to hurt, my face to ache. That doesn't happen enough. So if "Zoolander" does that for Terrence Malick, then he's right to watch it every week. Because its a rare and precious thing.


Tuesday, September 11, 2007

One More Chance to Get it All Wrong

Too many YouTube videos of late, I think. But I just can't resist this one. Because its an advert, and I've run a few adverts here before, when I think they're good enough. And because its directed by Michael Mann. Anybody who knows me knows how much I love Michael Mann. American Football I can take or leave, but of its two most dependably compelling recurring instants - the ball spinning in the sky having left the hand of a Quarterback, and men barrelling heads down into one another at top speed like stags - this advert focuses entirely on one, and shows it over and over and over. The soundtrack, full of impact sounds and fevered breathing and fingers scrabbling on padding and warcries and noises of pain - is fantastic. The music? From the Last of the Mohicans, and somehow, it works.


Thursday, September 06, 2007


Even when he was working in the mainstream, working right in the centre of the Marvel Universe, drawing a book featuring the holy trinity at the centre of the Classic Avengers line-up, even then, he never felt like a mainstream artist. There was always something different about his work, something which meant that he never quite fit in. He was almost too good. His storytelling was absolutely seamless, flowing and perfectly paced, his layouts brilliant. His art always seemed more observational than any of his peers. When he drew a man sitting in a room, it looked like a man sitting in a room. He never seemed out of his depth drawing the mundane or realist scenes even Superhero books occasionally demand from their artists. Many artists always seem like they want to be drawing men fighting, muscles flexing, mouths open. Not David Mazzucchelli. But when he did draw a fight, he made it look real. His figures moved like people, they had weight and correct proportion, and that combined with his ability with framing and storytelling makes his action scenes more visceral than a thousand identikit scenes from genre hacks. His obvious joy in depicting the figure in motion means that these scenes are often beautiful, too. Observe these panels from Batman: Year One:

But Mazzucchelli could draw anything and make it look beautiful. His line changed over the course of a career that took him from his early Marvel work, which seemed distinguished only by that excellent grasp of anatomy, to his later independent work, which he wrote as well as drew. The Marvel material obeys the house style of the era to a certain extent - that anonymous competence that disfigured hundreds of Shooter-era Marvel comics and meant that the genuine talents were too often encouraged to seek employment elsewhere is aped by Mazzucchelli, but there are flashes, even in that early work, of a different, rare sort of talent. That talent began to emerge while Denny O'Neil was writing "Daredevil" and Mazzucchelli was inking his own pencils. His inking allowed him to indulge himself, and so the line became a little sloppier and more expressive, the work more distinctive and original.

He made a breakthough with the arrival of Frank Miller as writer on "Daredevil" and one of the greatest - if most short-lived - writer-artist teams of the modern era was born. Miller had announced his own talent with his work as Writer-artist on "Daredevil" years before, redefining and energising the character during his run. He surpassed that work when he wrote "Born Again" for Mazzucchelli to draw. Mazzucchelli pushed his art and it became looser and took more risks, in terms of design and linework. The sequence where he renders Ben Urich's face as a steadily sharpening little caricature to express his constricting terror is fantastic. The many splashes are all beautiful:

And when Miller finally allows the narrative to explode in the final few issues, Mazzucchelli gets to draw Captain America and Thor and Iron Man, and Daredevil fighting the kind of city block-levelling battle so familiar from the superhero genre, and he does it without losing himself. He maintains that realism and doesn't sacrifice any of his coherence to spectacle. That scene is also one of the rare instances when Marvel characters are afforded the same kind of tonal treatment DC's big icons routinely receive. DC books often look at Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman as if they are gods - seen from below, by the mortals. But the Marvel Universe is more down and dirty, more informal in its hierarchy (its most famous Icon is the far more "street", indeed "friendly neighbourhood"- Spiderman) and so the big Marvel characters are rarely seen from ground level. But they are in that scene from "Born Again", as we see them the way Ben Urich does. Miller's narration sums up Captain America thusly: "A Soldier with a voice that could command a God--and does." Mazzucchelli's awed shot of a silhouetted Thor, hammer aloft as lightning shatters the sky behind him, gives that character a gravitas and sense of awe too often denied him by his treatment in the Marvel universe (where he generally comes across like a smack-talking wrestler). Iron Man, standing in the rain before a flaming helicopter, raises his hand towards Daredevil, and Miller describes the power of his armour in one panel : "Theres a soft hum as computer circuitry generates enough power to level a building-- and holds it, waiting." Its a great scene, enhanced by the sense of writer and artist in the middle of an exciting, intuitive collaboration.

If "Born Again" is the best Daredevil story ever (and it is), then Miller and Mazzucchelli next tackled a bigger, more iconic character, and created what is arguably the greatest story in his long history, too. "Batman: Year One" came out not as a special, prestige format miniseries, as "The Dark Knight Returns" had, but was a continuing storyline in "Batman", the monthly DC series. But it was a radical departure from anything ever seen in that comic before, both in narrative and visual style.

Here Miller used the device he had perfected on "Dark Knight Returns" of multiple narrators. Hence we see Gotham from the points of view of two characters, Lt. Jim Gordon, transferring into a famously corrupt, troubled Police force, and Bruce Wayne, returning from his years of wandering the globe training for his personal war on crime. "Year One" is barely a superhero story at all. We only see Batman in costume for a page or two over the first two issues, and Gordon is as much the protagonist as Wayne. This plays to Mazzucchelli's strengths - most of the scenes take place in the "real world", concerned with real people, and his Gotham is a seedy, dirty, crumbling Noir City, filled with shabby characters. Colourist Richmond Lewis finds a beautiful pallete to do justice to Mazzucchelli's work (one weakness of "Born Again" is the tendency of the simple colouring techniques to cheapen the sophistication of the actual linework beneath), and it is a sombre and dark one. Where there are unexpected splashes of colour, they work perfectly. Again, Miller delays unleashing the narrative, but when he does, Batman is cornered in a tenement by a murderous SWAT unit, and Mazzucchelli shows again what a fantastic action artist he is:

His linework was getting progressively rougher and more minimalist at this stage, without compromising the beauty or integrity of his work. Indeed, it was getting more and more beautiful in its simplicity as it seemed less and less at home in the mainstream. No other artist - at that time - would dare draw a Batman as roughly as this, with so few lines:

Thats an image reminiscent of Alex Toth, which is the highest praise I can muster. Mazzucchelli's use of shadow and silhouette in "Year One" is also truly masterly, and his brilliant design sense has never been better evinced than in the series' covers:

Reading it now, "Year One" stands up brilliantly, far better than "The Dark Knight Returns", with which it shares many characteristics. But "Year One" is less pretentious and far tighter than its older brother. Its probably the best thing Miller ever wrote, and the peak of Mazzucchelli's art for the mainstream superhero field. In his afterword (in the form of a comic essay) for the 20th Anniversary edition he discusses the differences between the two works - the "fortissimo, operatic" Dark Knight
in contrast to the more "mundane" and "credible" Year One, "grounded in a world we recognize". That edition also includes lots of his preparatory sketches, thumbnails, paintings, promotional illustrations and comparisons between colour and black & white versions of his pages, all of which only shows what a great artist he is.

Its the combination of factors that makes his art so outstanding. He had the goods in every department: line, storytelling, composition, layout, pacing, design...many comic artists make good careers on the basis of competence in one or two of those areas, but Mazzucchelli was brilliant in each of them. After "Year One", he more or less turned his back on mainstream comics, and followed his muse, editing, writing and drawing what would be published in the three annual issues of "Rubber Blanket" from 1991 - 1993. These stories were more personal and experimental than anything he had illustrated as an artist before. In the third issue he unveiled what I think is probably his masterpiece, a two-colour, 40 page fable called "Big Man".
Rendered beautfully with a brush, "Big Man" tells the story of an isolated farming community which discovers a giant tied to a raft washed up upon their local beach. They take him in and he becomes almost a part of a local family before tragedy strikes, as it inevitably must.

The first time I read "Big Man" was in a bookshop in Paris, in French. My French is not good. C'est merde. But it didn't matter, because Mazzucchelli tells this story so simply and with such strong visual instincts that it was all utterly comprehensible. What little dialogue there is generally I understood, and what I did not understand did not prevent my understanding of the wider narrative. Much of it is utterly wordless - pure visual storytelling, with quite masterful use of the two tones. Long stretches are captivating without any dialogue, such as the scenes of the Big Man helping the men to farm and the scene where he lifts a tractor off an injured farmer. The rough line afforded by the brush is perfectly suited to the simple nature of the story and the archetypes and morals Mazzucchelli is dealing with, and his art seems more expressive, more emotional due to this thcker line he has adopted. The story can be seen as a reading of the "Hulk" story but it feels almost like a fairytale in its simplicity and beauty. It is, finally, very moving.

After that third issue, he worked on an adaptation of Paul Auster's novel "City of Glass" with Paul Karasik. It features his mature style at its cleanest and clearest, its most intellectually bold, in response to the artsiness and tricks of Auster's narrative. But all the qualities evident back in his Marvel work are still there, and its a lovely piece of work. Since then he has contributed stories to Drawn & Quarterly anthologies (including the brilliant "Rates of Exchange" in 1994) and illustrations to the New Yorker. He teaches in New York, and is reportedly working on a new graphic novel. Its a comforting thought, that there is more work to come from him. The artform cannot really spare somebody with his talent.