Thursday, December 31, 2009

Best of the Decade: Albums

There’s a bunch of catching up to do with best of lists. Look for the best film and TV of 2009 tomorrow, but for now, here’s the best albums of the decade…

10. Justice – Cross - I like a lot of things about Daft Punk’s Human After All, but Cross seems a lot more like the second best Daft Punk album of the decade. Of course, Justice do have their own slightly harder aesthetic, crafting some of the most intense dance songs of all time on tracks like “Phantom” and “Stress.” But, they could still kill it on the best hipster dance anthem of all time, “D.A.N.C.E.”

9. Scissor Sisters – Scissor Sisters - The album leads off with a succession of instant classic hits, ranging from the glam rock of “Laura” to the rock stomp of “Take Your Mama” to the Moroder inspired neo-disco of “Comfortably Numb.” Those three songs alone would make a classic album, but the rest of the album doesn’t let up. It’s one of the all time great debut albums.

8. The Raveonettes – Pretty in Black - The Raveonettes are a strange case for me, I like everything they’ve done, but I absolutely love this album. They bring the hidden darkness of 50s pop to the fore, crafting songs that seem to come from another world. Rockers like “Somewhere in Texas” or “Twilight” are great, but the best song for me is by far the ballad “Uncertain Times.”

7. The Polyphonic Spree – Together We’re Heavy - On their first and third albums, the Spree generally played tightly structured songs, only on this album did they sprawl out for epics befitting the massive size of the ensemble. One of my all time favorite concert moments was hearing them open their 2004 Irving Plaza set with “We Sound Amazed,” with a sound so huge it literally shook their floor. This album feels very much of a piece, moving seamlessly through longer and shorter songs and culminating in an epic callback to the sun, that brings it full circle with their first album.

6. Junior Senior – Hey Hey My My Yo Yo - One of the greatest pop albums of all time, every song on here is an ecstatic, instantly catchy piece of musical candy. “Take my Time” is a great 80s style dance track, but the high point is the soaring tribute to music “I Like Music” which soars to Michael Jackson heights of pop greatness.

5. Phoenix – Alphabetical - Phoenix broke out with their fantastic fourth album this year, but I still don’t think they’ve topped the smooth synth sound of their second album. Very emotional, but still danceable, the album features the most consistently catchy songs of their career. “Run Run Run” is haunting, layered and totally danceable, and is always the highlight of their live set. If you’ve only heard their most recent stuff, dig back and check this one out.

4. Belle and Sebastian – Dear Catastrophe Waitress - A controversial album for many of their fans, DCW saw Belle and Sebastian shift to a more poppy direction, a change that obviously worked very well for me. Virtually every song on here is a joyous anthem, from the cheeky opener “Step into My Office, Baby” to the 80s inspired closer “Stay Loose.” The album features killer guitar solos on “Loose” and “Roy Walker,” but the high point for me is the anthemic “If You Find Yourself Caught in Love,” a pure piece of sonic joy.

3. Arcade Fire – Neon Bible - I loved many of the 00s’ anthemic multi-instrumental bands, but none of them matched the work that Arcade Fire did on their second album. Diversifying their sound from their already great first album, they crafted one of the deepest, most moving albums I’ve ever heard, full of incredibly beautiful moments. From the climactic crescendo of “No Cars Go” to the majesty of “Intervention” to the cathartic release of energy in “Ocean of Noise,” it’s an album of moments that will last forever.

2. Lovage – Music to Make Love to Your Old Lady By - I’ve tried to find more albums like this after listening to it, but nothing else has matched. Dan the Automator’s production lays a soft bed of strings and mood that perfectly accompanies the vocal interplay between Mike Patton’s animal growls and Jennifer Charles’ sexy purr. It’s an album that builds its own world, alternating between skits that poke fun at the very idea of a sexy album like this, and songs that deliver on the title’s promise.

1. Daft Punk – Discovery - You could make a very convincing argument that every trend in 00s pop music began here. Autotune’s roots lie in the vocoder on “One More Time,” and were catapulted to prominence when Kanye sampled “Harder Better Faster Stronger.” The 70s cheese synth aesthetic started out as weird here, but has now become pop, thanks to bands like Phoenix and MGMT. And, most importantly, the album made it cool for music to be fun and pop and cheesy without worrying about “authenticity” or “selling out.” Discovery is as pop as it gets, and that’s its joy! It puts a smile on your face, starting with the greatest album opening run of all time, seamlessly transitioning from the disco pop perfection of “One More Time” to the hard rock dance blend of “Aerodynamic” into the 80s synth cheese perfection of “Digital Love” into “Harder Better Faster Stronger.” No album makes me as happy as this one, and no album has influenced the past decade of music more than Daft Punk did with this masterpiece.

Best of the Decade: Songs

10. Annie – Heartbeat - A perfect example of the way that pop music crossed over to the indie crowd, this song has the impeccable production of the best 80s synth pop, and a great vocal performance cooed by Annie. The song’s hook is infectious, but its greatest coup is using the ever more intense drum line to mimic the heartbeat of the title. An 00s pop classic!

9. Phoenix – Too Young - Another blog classic, Phoenix has still yet to top the pure pop joy of their first big hit. It instantly evokes the joy and tinge of melancholy of a great night out coming to an end. It’s powerfully emotional, and wrapped in a beautiful 70s style soft dance rock production.

8. The New Pornographers – The Bleeding Heart Show - As with many New Pornos song, this one is like three songs in one. It opens melancholy than crescendos to a slightly Spanish flavored swing, all the while building and building going through an unspoken bridge section, and another killer breakdown before finally exploding into the chorus: “Hey La Hey La Hey La Hey La Ooooohh!” harmonized before Neko Case cuts in over it all. A cathedral of sound, and a perfect power pop song with more hooks than a coat room!

7. Justin Timberlake – My Love - I love songs that are simultaneously danceable and emotional, and this is a perfect example of that. It blends a nearly avant garde Timbaland beat with a great vocal to create an enveloping sonic world. It also features one of the best guest verses of all time when T.I. comes in to tear up the mechanical precision of the rest of the song. Perfect for the club or for sitting alone in your room!

6. Arcade Fire – No Cars Go - The song begins in a swirl of horns and strings, as voices chant and instruments swell and drive us forward to a kind of utopia. It’s an anthem of defiance, that reaches an almost religious level of transcendence in the instrumental breakdowns, before swelling back for one more call to action. The song is a battle, and by its end, you come away exhausted and exhilarated.

5. Cut Copy – Hearts on Fire - Like a lot of the songs on here, “Hearts on Fire” is a micro-symphony, to the point that you could ask someone what’s your favorite part? Is it the bubbling synth line that underlies the first occurrence of the repeated chorus, or the Moroder like bass that follows it. Perhaps it’s the NES sounding synths in the instrumental section? For me, it’s the absolutely killer sax solo that starts as a ghostly background presence and builds to a growling climax, capping off a flawless pop song.

4. Justice – D.A.N.C.E - The greatest Michael Jackson song of the last twenty years? The anthem of Williamsburg for the past three years? One of the greatest pop songs of all time? “D.A.N.C.E” is all of these songs, an impossibly infectious song that goes from strength, a killer bass line, a great falsetto lead vocal, that weird cutting string line. The call and response finale. It’s all great! I loved this song the first time I heard it and I still love it, many listens later.

3. Arcade Fire – Wake Up - Perhaps the best film of 2009 was the two minute trailer for Where the Wild Things Are, which only reinforced the near religious power of “Wake Up.” A churning emotional buildup, “Wake Up” is a musical catharsis, that explodes in beauty and power. When the entire band comes in for the chorus, it’s chilling. And, the song even caps it all off with an exciting dance-y outro. A beautiful cathedral of music.

2. Daft Punk – Harder Faster Better Stronger - It started as a humble song, then grew to be sampled by Kanye West for the massive hit “Stronger,” and was mixed with “Around the World” in Daft Punk’s live set producing spontaneous ecstasy wherever it was played. But, the original is still the best. Masterfully using vocoder to warp the vocals into a bass line, a guitar solo and more. It features one of the most perfect bass lines of all time, and a constant sense of technological ecstasy. It’s arguably the greatest dance song of all time, and contains the raw material for many future hits.

1. Daft Punk – Digital Love - A strange, joyous expression of love filtered through 80s videogame guitar sounds and vocoder vocals, “Digital Love” is sonic ecstasy through and through. The opening guitar riff draws you into the song, before it segues into a catchy dance groove. But, things start to get crazy when everything cuts out and we hop to the b section for the “Why don’t you play the game” breakdown. Here, they juxtapose the vocal and a fantastic guitar riff, before merging the two for an incredibly joyous 80s sounding guitar solo, then cutting it all off for another breakdown backed by the most over the top guitar solo of all time, then finally bringing it all together for a smooth conclusion. It’s the happiest song I can think of, just pure joy in sounds, it’s the song every synth pop band has been trying to make for the past four years, but Daft Punk did it first and best. An undisputed masterpiece to cap off a decade of fantastic music!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Best of the Decade: TV

Here’s the ten best TV shows of the decade. This was by far the best decade for TV in the medium’s history, and this list is pretty close to my best series all time list. There's a lot of great shows that didn't make it, these are the elite.

10. Angel
Best Season: Five
Best Episode: ‘A Hole in the World’

The most uneven show on the list, Angel veered from the boring standalones of season one and the endless, at times nonsensical season four arc to the morally ambiguous challenging heights of the Darla arc in season two, Wesley’s arc in season three and in particular the entire final season were fantastic enough for it to merit a spot on the list. What makes the show shine above its inconsistencies were the fantastic character development work done on Angel, Cordelia and Wesley. All three of those characters were fantastic, and anchored the show in a very real way. It’s a shame the show was cancelled at the height of its powers, but at least we got one of the all time best series finales.

9. Freaks and Geeks
Best Season: One
Best Episode: ‘Discos and Dragons’

Like its ‘cancelled too soon’ brethren Arrested Development and Firefly, Freaks and Geeks has become a legend of TV, and the massive success of virtually all its actors and creative team only enhanced the legend. But, despite the team’s massive success, nobody involved has topped their work here. The performances were fantastic, and the show did a great job of world building as it went on, and letting you watch the people grow and change in subtle ways. It’s the best depiction of high school life ever captured on film, and, as with Angel, even though it was cancelled too soon, it went out on a fantastic high note.

8. Doctor Who
Best Season: Four
Best Episode: ‘Parting of the Ways’

Far from the most consistent show, Who had probably more weak episodes than any other show on the list, but at its best, it hit me emotionally like nothing else out there. The thing I love so much about Who is the core of optimism about humanity’s potential and our place in the world. The Doctor sees excitement and joy everywhere he goes, and even when the show got dark, as it often did to great effect, it’s about him struggling to make things better and having to deal with the fact that he can’t. I particularly like the show’s reinterpretation of the hero’s journey, as we see that just being chosen and taken to a world of adventure doesn’t make all your problems go away. The show is spectacle on a scale never before attempted on TV, and when it succeeds, it blows your mind and breaks your heart at the same time. I’m excited to see the story resolve itself in the two part finale over the course of the next week.

7. Mad Men
Best Season: Two
Best Episode: ‘The Jet Set’

Mad Men is probably the best example of the new kind of shows that became possible thanks to shifts in the perception and consumption of the TV medium. The Sopranos pushed the boundaries of art in TV, but even as it plunged into subjective artiness and de-dramatized character stories in its later years, it still was based around action stories and had violence as the dramatic hook for viewers. Mad Men has no violence or action, but it’s still riveting in its precise exploration of a set of characters trying to survive or thrive in the 1960s. Visually, the show is unparalleled in its gorgeous production design and costuming, capturing all the glamour and narrative ambiguity of 60s European art cinema. It’s great to watch something on TV that feels like Fellini or Bergman, that uses our familiarity with the characters to explore complex issues and new storytelling methods. I’d be shocked if this show isn’t here when I do the best of the decade list ten years from now.

6. The Office (UK)
Best Season: Two
Best Episode: Season 2, Episode 6

The Office is the only comedy on the list, largely because it’s so much more than just funny, it’s got a core of sadness that is shockingly overturned by the show’s joyous Christmas finale. It’s also the most influential comedy on the list, pioneering the comedy of awkwardness that was widely adopted later in the decade, and influencing the documentary aesthetic of shows like Arrested Development, as well as obvious descendents like the American Office and Parks and Recreation. But, thanks to its short running time, the series makes no compromises, and is true to its characters and world. Thanks to the overall sense of hopelessness, the final scene between Tim and Dawn is one of the most romantic and beautiful in all of film. And, on top of all that, it’s the funniest show of all time.

5. John From Cincinnati
Best Season: One
Best Episode: ‘His Visit, Day Five’

I’ve seen John mentioned in a lot of decade writeups, usually in the context of the erroneous idea that Milch allowed Deadwood to be cancelled in favor of doing this show. One, that’s not at all true. Two, JFC was in many ways the continuation of Deadwood that they wanted, but for me, it refined all the things that worked about Deadwood and brought the dormant themes to the fore for a fascinating exploration of the way that communities form and what spirituality and the extraordinary mean in a contemporary context. The series blend of mysticism and verite was hard for people to take, but I loved it, few series had the religious awe this one carried, and moments like John’s sermon in the parking lot or the descent from the clouds that opened the final episode are among the most profound ever captured on film. I don’t consider this a qualified success, it’s outright one of the best series of all time.

4. The Wire
Best Season: Three
Best Episode: ‘Final Grades’

One of the most important and ambitious series of all time, The Wire has been praised extensively, and virtually no compliment about the series is hyperbole. It really is as good as people claim, both in terms of social relevance and in simple story construction. The show built an elaborate world and by the end of the series had nearly 50 regular characters floating through at any given time. And, it’s the characters who linger for me, particularly moments like the apocalyptic fourth season finale, or the operatic Avon and Stringer stuff at the end of season three. People will watch and analyze this series for years to come, it’s one of the most important documents of the aspects of our society that no one else is talking about. You need look no further than the fact that Crash won a best picture Oscar the same year as The Wire aired on TV to see where the real cultural dialogue was taking place this decade.

3. Six Feet Under
Best Season: Five
Best Episode: ‘I’m Sorry, I’m Lost’

Six Feet Under is a show that on the surface lacks the ambition of something like The Sopranos or The Wire, but it’s so brilliant in its character work, and its exploration of the search for meaning in everyday middle class life in the 2000s. All the characters were looking for definition, for a way to give their lives purpose and to find love and fulfillment in a world that often makes it hard to believe in anything. In a decade of irony and distance, this show forced its characters to confront their true selves, and the performances and writing crafted some of the most well rounded characters in literary history, Nate and Brenda in particular. By the end of the series, the accumulated experiences of all the characters led to a devastating series of events, and ultimately transcendence in the final montage that took us outside time to show that everything ends, but we all have to live first.

2. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Best Season: Six
Best Episode: ‘Restless’

The 00s featured the series’ best episodes, the two season arc that spanned seasons five and six, as well as my personal favorite season of any show all time, season six. But, it also featured some shakier stuff in season four and season seven. Still, take everything I said about Six Feet Under above and add it an epic hero’s journey and you’ve got what makes Buffy so special. The character work was phenomenal, and I’ve never been as completely addicted to a series as I was watching the later seasons of the show. New characters like Tara and Anya, as well as Spike’s rise to prominence kept the series fresh, and Whedon’s auteurial experiments pushed the show to new heights of visual greatness, particularly in ‘Restless’ and the dazzling ‘Once More With Feeling,’ which managed to simultaneously be a great original musical, and forward the overall season plot. I still love the show so much.

1. The Sopranos
Best Season: Five
Best Episode: ‘Long Term Parking’

The show that redefined what a TV series can be, The Sopranos is the greatest sustained examination of a single character in cinema history, and is also a fascinating look at the priorities and concerns of everyday people in a post WWII, post 9/11 world. While the show drew attention for its mob storylines, what jumped out to me was how much the characters’ world reminded me of my life, and how the relatability of what was happening. It was an intellectually riveting series, full of internal patterns and long reaching character arcs and symbol tracks, but it was also intensely addictive. Watching the last couple of seasons, I was desperate to see the next episodes, and upon rewatch, the series reveals more and more layers. If The Wire functions as a portrait of the poor and downtrodden in society, The Sopranos explores the troubles of people struggling to maintain their hold on the middle class, to continue living their lives in a world where the country slips into financial ruin and loses its status in the world. Tony Soprano is America, and his dream is ours. The instantly iconic finale only adds to the series status as fascinating, endlessly debatable entertainment.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Third Age: Episode Six - "The Spiral Path"

In this week's episode, Holly and Zinone catch up, while Jerrod meets some new friends. This episode is one of my favorites we've done so far, so give it a look, and let me know what you think of how things are developing.

And, if you haven't heard, The Third Age is a webseries I created and produce. It's been called "A combination of mad mythology and gritty verite," and takes a magical realist approach to classic mythological themes. If you like the kind of stuff I write about on here, you'll probably like the series. If you want to catch up on previous episodes, go here for an index.

Next week, the show is off, but it'll be back January 5th. In the meantime, prepare for the rest of the Best of the Decade posts, and some best of 2009 lists too!

And, if you've got a chance throw the show some support in the Streamys. We're targeting Best New Series or Best Experimental Series, but any votes would be appreciated!

Sunday, December 20, 2009


Avatar was discussed before its release primarily in the context of it being a ‘game changer’ for 3-D and CG world construction, with very little discussion of the story itself. As I walked into the theater, I’d read some advance reviews, but wasn’t sure what to expect from the film. Leaving the theater, I knew I’d seen a film that was at times extremely powerful, but also didn’t quite work on all fronts. Let me address briefly first the technology outside of the context of the story itself, then delve into a more thorough discussion of the film as a whole.

I’ve never actually seen a regular 3-D film in the theater before this one, so I’m probably not the best to assess this film as a jump beyond what’s come before. What I will say is that the 3-D functions differently than in something like Disneyland’s Muppets 3-D, which is obviously not typical, but featured a 3-D that was largely about stuff sticking out the screen, but not really a use of 3-D as a storytelling device. In this film, the 3-D is used in a way analogous to depth of field in 2-D films, drawing your attention to certain elements within the frame by popping them out towards the audience.

For the first 15 minutes or so of the film, I was in awe of the way that the 3-D worked to subtly direct your attention to elements within the frame, and worked to build the world of the film. The spaceship environments seemed much more expansive and fully realized than anything I’ve seen before, specifically because of that use of 3-D. The subtlely of the effects work was most notable during simple shots like Jake waking up in zero gravity with several crew members floating around him.

As the film went on, you start to just accept the 3-D elements. I’m not sure if it was used less dynamically or if I just became accustomed to it, but as the film went on, the 3-D became less key to my understanding of the film. Perhaps that’s a sign that I became wrapped up in the story and stopped caring about the technical aspects, or it might be more that I started to focus on different technical aspects.

I’ve spoken recently about the idea that CG that is used to depict things that can never exist in real life is going to be inherently unbelievable because our minds aren’t awed by the impossibility, they instantly assume that it’s CG and write it off in that respect. But, at the same time, there are things that just can’t be realized by current technology, and some of the coolest aspects of this film were the fact that the Na’Vi weren’t just blue people, they were on a totally different scale than humans, and the shots where Na’Vi and humans interacted were some of the most surprising and exciting in the film.

Who’s to say that aliens are going to be 5-6 feet tall, aliens might have already landed and been so small we can’t even detect them, or an alien race could be so big, we can’t even comprehend it as a lifeform. Either way, it was very cool to see Jake wake up and find himself in a body that doesn’t just look different, but seems out of scale with the world around him. The Na’Vi are some of the most convincing alien creatures rendered via CGI yet.

But, the question is, are they convincing enough? In the best moments of the film, I got wrapped up in the story and didn’t worry that I was watching CG stuff, but I’m not sure that the CG was good enough to be timeless and enduring.

While the Na’Vi are pretty solid throughout, the environments are the real photorealistic spectacle. The planet feels fully realized and logical in a way that most constructed worlds don’t. And on a purely aesthetic level, I love the bioluminescent feel of the life on the planet.

But, what of the film in general? It’s clear from the start that this is very much a James Cameron film. Cameron is almost totally unique among major filmmakers in that he’s been able to develop a very specific set of thematic concerns and character archetypes within blockbuster big budget films, and has been consistently rewarded at the box office as well as critically for his work. Cameron is analogous to a Spielberg who never “grew out of” blockbusters, or a Lucas who continued to make new and different kinds of films.

This film has echoes of a lot of past Cameron films, and expands on the humanist warrior character types seen in Aliens and Terminator 2 in interesting ways. Both Aliens and Terminator 2 position strong mother types fighting to protect their children from an all encompassing, consuming inhuman threat. It was that disparity between the innocent spirit of the children they’re defending and the coldness of the threat that made it so emotionally affecting.

Here, Cameron flips the dynamic by making the Na’vi the most ‘human’ characters in the film, and stripping the human characters of virtually all sympathy. It creates a very binary morality, one that’s sharply critical of the military industrial complex and a populace that’s complicit in the sins of its leaders. It’s by no means a subtle critique of the Iraq war or American imperialism, but it’s effective precisely because it’s cased in such simple fairy tale terms. You could argue that the military characters are not at all subtle in their approach to the war, but was Bush nuanced in his fight to invade Iraq? Does Dick Cheney have a sympathetic side? Maybe, but it’s not in what you’d see on the job.

So, the film is essentially about a marine recognizing the failure of the military industrial complex and deciding to forsake it for a different approach to the world, to try and protect an unclaimed world from people out to exploit and destroy its paradisial environments. In that sense, it’s a very Malick film, connecting to elements from both The Thin Red Line and particularly The New World. You could argue that the entire film is Cameron’s riff on The New World, substituting the dreamy meanderings of that film for a variety of action feats, befitting Cameron’s own means of personal expression in his films. In a Cameron film, characters fight together as a means of showing their love, and it’s appropriate that Jake and Neytiri would find love as she shows him how to fight like a man.

Most Cameron females have a strange mix of mother and warrior attributes, and Neytiri is no exception. In educating Jake in the Na’vi ways, she is acting like a mother and teaching him how to walk in the world and be a man. But, there’s also the sexual component of their relationship, which is equally valid. In Cameron’s worldview, the role of nurturer and warrior are one and the same. To teach someone to fight is to teach them to live.

And yet, this film comes down decidedly against war. I suppose his idea here is that you need to be able to fight to maintain peace. Only by showing the warriors that you can beat them on their own terms can you succeed in gaining a lasting peace.

Where the film falters for me is the fact that a lot of the story beats within the tribe feel like things we’ve seen before. Cameron is great at making all the sequences pop and flow in dynamic ways, but the core story of the film contains few surprises, and is definitely something we’re all familiar with. While the world of the Na’vi is decidedly alien, the way they behave feels very typical of the way native people are depicted in films.

What I did find really interesting was the notion of the planet itself as a means of transferring information, the idea that our existence echoes in the Earth long after we’re gone. It’s not that far removed from Grant Morrison’s idea that because all life comes from the same source, it’s all connected and we’ve just forgotten that. If we could become connected in dynamic ways, we could potentially look back in time up the life tree to our ancestors, or transfer our consciousness through other life forms. And, in general I really like the religious feel the work had at times, it was a very spiritual film, and even though all those elements didn’t work, enough did to make an emotional impact.

The finale of the film was extremely effective. Thanks to the time spent within the society, the destruction of Hometree has a very real impact, and provides the emotional catalyst for our engagement in the final battle. People knock this film for drawing on classic story telling archetypes, but so many blockbusters today just pile action sequence on top of action sequence, it’s refreshing to have a buildup and impetus for emotional engagement with what’s happening.

And, the payoff was fantastic, on both a narrative and thematic level. It’s cool to see birds fighting helicopters, or to look at the giant blue guys throwing people around. Similarly, the final Jake/Neytiri vs. Quaritch fight was extremely satisfying. I also love small touches like the way that Trudy’s helicopter and face are painted with the tribal markings, giving her a Bat For Lashes look as she goes into battle.

But, the thing I loved most about the ending battle was the uncompromised nature of the fight. Rarely have I seen humans, particularly those clearly identified as analogues of Americans get killed as we cheer. Virtually every film about the Iraq war or 9/11 to date has been so neutered and apolitical that it becomes amoral. The Iraq war was a terrible violation of human rights, and this film treats it that way. It takes the remove of genre to allow someone to finally vent the rage about what our nation has become. People can say that Giovanni Ribisi’s character is a cartoon villain, but if that’s the case, why are people like him controlling the health care debate? Why are banks getting all the money they want with no regulation? The individuals may not be as obnoxious as he is, but as an analogue of the military industrial complex, he’s spot on.

It’s cathartic to see the adventuresome, greedy American military get its comeuppance, and I think there’s something very subversive about putting that message in a blockbuster film designed to target the widest audience. Kids will see this film, and the morality will help shape their perception of what’s right and wrong, and instill a spirit of defiance against the terrible things our government has done, and continues to do. This isn’t just a Bush/Cheney problem, it’s a problem that persists today as we prepare to send more troops to Afghanistan in the hopes that will make them love us and not want to attack us anymore.

This is one of the few socially responsible films that really addresses the issues of post 9/11 America. Some of the comments might have been a bit on the nose, but with issues like this, maybe it’s best to remind people that this isn’t just a movie, we’re doing this in reality. That the most expensive movie ever made is an attack on corporate largesse may be ironic, but it’s an example of what Cameron is able to do as an auteur.

It’s also interesting to consider the film in light of what Lucas did with Revenge of the Sith. Both films struggle with some basic competency issues and could have used another script pass, but I also like that they’re both Trojan Horse critiques of the Bush administration. Sith in particular is underappreciated as a film that attacked the grievous sins our government committed. With filmmakers so scared of making a film that’s ‘anti-military’ or ‘un-American,’ the sci-fi blockbuster has become a place to voice those feelings in a way that’s not as loaded as setting them in the present day.

So, ultimately one’s point of view on the film comes down to what you focus on. I could just as easily savage the film for its very real flaws and ignore what worked, or praise it unjustly for what did work. The truth of the film is somewhere in the middle, but in general I’m very positive about it. It was a great viewing experience, and though I don’t know that it’s totally cohesive or timeless, I was wowed and emotionally engaged throughout, and left with plenty to think about. That’s what a film should do.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Third Age: Episode Five - 'Constructing Reality'

Here's Episode Five of my webseries, The Third Age! In this episode, Christopher Zinone seeks the help of an old friend, and Jerrod Woolf continues his quest for the divine. There's a lot of interesting elements in this episode, and it sets up a new character dynamic for the series. Exciting stuff.

And, stay tuned for more best of the decade stuff later in the week.

Best of the Decade: Film

It’s been a pretty wild ten years, I already discussed some of the larger trends in cinema, but now it’s time to discuss the ten best films of the decade. Yes, there’s still a few more key films to see, but I’m going to go ahead and put the list out now. Read on to find out the best on 00s cinema.

10. Ghost World - This film is the best kind of cross media adaptation. Most movies fail for not getting enough of the book, others, like the recent Watchmen film, failed for bringing nothing new to the table. Ghost World doesn’t try to replace the great comic book on which it’s based, it chooses instead to further flesh out the universe of the comic, and in the process functions perfectly as both a standalone film and as in tandem with the book.

And the film itself is one of the most probing explorations of the way that people in our irony driven culture struggle to express themselves and find meaning in a world where any sincere expression of feeling is considered uncool. Thora Birch seems to have vanished from films, but she was brilliant here, showing us the divide between Edith’s cold, cynical exterior and the lively, emotional person underneath. It’s one of the best depictions of the teenage experience in film, and even as loser heroes and a disdain for the mainstream became commonplace as the decade went on, few films managed to bring the insight and emotion this one did.

9. Waking Life - I’ve been happy to see this film pop up on a few other best of the decade lists, since I sensed a kind of backlash against it in recent years. I love it as a dreamlike meditation on a wide variety of interesting concepts and philosophical issues. I love works that force you think about the way you view the world, and give you new ideas and concepts to ponder. I first saw this movie shortly after reading The Invisibles for the first time, and it was a great followup, bringing me more philosophy and ideas to ponder.

And, despite its non-narrative nature, there is an interesting build and emotional engagement in the film. When Wiley floats away at the end of the film, there’s a sense of transcendence, of surrendering to the dream that may be our entire reality. All this is even without commenting on the film’s strikingly varied visual approach. As one of the speakers says, the most transcendent experience is discussion between two people, to share a part of ourselves with others, and become something more.

8. Donnie Darko - Another film that’s gone through a wave of critical praise and cultural backlash, I watched the film again a few months ago, and while it was clumsier in some ways than I remembered, with a lot of awkward dialogue and some odd plotting choices, it’s still a phenomenal work, an exquisite fusion of the Tibetan book of the dead with a twisted John Hughes universe. It’s a film that elevates the everyday into a transcendent struggle and features a myriad of visual elements that have already become iconic.

On top of the endlessly debatable philosophical elements, the film has a great soundtrack, including fantastic moments set to The Church’s “Under the Milky Way,” and Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” Kelly hasn’t quite fulfilled the promise of this film, but as it is, it’s one of the strongest debut features of all time.

7. Inglorious Basterds - I haven’t loved a movie the way I loved Inglorious Basterds in a long time. The film snuck up one, I love Tarantino’s previous work, but weak Cannes buzz and a premise that didn’t thrill me meant I went in with mixed expectations. But, I left with total love for the film. Tarantino’s rambling, episodic narrative style has never been used to better effect, with each chapter building on the next, and altering tones and subject matter while maintaining an intense mastery of suspense.

It’s the final chapter where the film ascends to the level of the sublime, drawing together the film’s many disparate threads into a perfectly staged action climax. The high point for me, and one of the most haunting and beautiful images in cinema was Shoshanna’s post mortem message to the Germans who killed her and her family. The cinema screen igniting as she laughs is an image loaded with endless metaphors, but most importantly is pure emotion in the moment. People talk about the 90s as the decade of Tarantino, but for me, his 00s output is vastly superior.

6. The New World - Terence Malick was hailed as a master after only two films, and it’s amazing that in his twenty year absence from filmmaking, very few people even attempted to make the kind of dreamlike, beautiful films that he specializes in. And, with The New World, he made his masterpiece, an articulate distillation of the themes that consumed his previous films. First off, The New World is as beautiful as any film you’ll see. The way the sun cuts through trees, or reflects off water is astonishing, he manages to so thoroughly immerse you in the edenic world of pre-colonization America that when we finally get to the British civilization at the end of the film, it feels like an utterly alien culture.

But, it’s not just the visuals yet. The romance between John Smith and Pocohontas becomes an allegory for the European romance with the idea of America itself, and in the passage of men like Smith from the world, we see the way that America changed from a blank slate world that could be anything, to an extension of the European society that Smith fled. Smith is someone who crosses between worlds, and through his eyes, we become part of a society that seems initially alien, but is quickly welcoming and beguiling. Colin Farrell is fantastic in the film, but the real star is Q’Orianka Kilcher, who gives one of the decade’s best performances and embodies the spirit of the world Malick created. This film is practically a religious experience, a communion with a world far removed from our own, a dream that echoes down across time and calls us back to an eden long gone.

5. Before Sunset - The second Linklater film on the list has the most of the strengths I discussed earlier with Waking Life, the interesting philosophical concepts and fascinating discussion, but it adds an intense emotional element to the proceedings, so that you’re fully engaged on both an intellectual and emotional level. Sequels have such a bad track record, and particularly with a film as time capsule perfect as Before Sunrise, it seems like there’d be nowhere to go but down. But, in exploring the impact of Jesse and Celine’s meeting in a very real way, the film itself functions as almost a meta comment on our fear that the sequel will ruin what came before. They want to preserve that moment in amber, and let it stand as was, even as they’re drawn back together again. And, so are we, and thankfully, the film eclipses even its stellar predecessor with its probing examination of the way that a great experience has become a haunting emblem of what could be for these characters.

For a film that’s literally just two people talking, it’s extremely intense, winding its way from surface pleasantries and general discussion of themes and issues to an intense examination of what their relationship could be and whether it’s worth the risk for them to try to be together. And, the film’s final moments are a perfect ambiguous coda for these characters, at least until a few more years pass and we hopefully check in with them again.

4. 2046 - Another sequel to an arty film about a man haunted by a brief, but potent love 2046 takes a less direct approach than Before Sunset, but is similarly powerful in its examination of the ghosts that haunt us all. Most people are hailing In the Mood for Love as Wong Kar-Wai’s best film of the decade, and I love that movie too, but for me, In the Mood for Love misses out on a lot of the things that make WKW’s movies so great. It’s much more controlled and unified than his work typically is, a far cry from 2046’s jumbled chronology and mix of allegorical future segments with its period setting.

The whole film is gorgeous, but the future segments in particular are just unbelievable. Faye Wong walking through the train her shoes lighting up as she goes is one of my favorite images from the decade in film. Ultimately, the film is a perfect distillation of WKW’s aesthetic, drawing in elements from all his previous films. It’s such a perfect summation of his talent, he had basically no choice but to do something different after, this is his greatest hits tour, and it’s one of his most enduring and brilliant films.

3. Irreversible - There are some films that are talked about more as endurance tests than as enjoyable experiences, and films like Requiem for a Dream or Fat Girl pushed the boundaries of what an audience can tolerate. But, even those films can’t match the reputation of Irreversible, a film infamous for its ten minute real time rape scene and gruesome fire extinguisher assault. And yes, those are brutal sequences, but just focusing on those scenes ignores the film’s greatest strengths.

Those scenes are brutal on a spectacle level, but they become even more heartbreaking, and powerful, after you see the relationship that Alex and Marcus shared before her assault. Thanks to the backwards narrative structure we watch them going through their daily lives, oblivious to the terrible events awaiting them. Every choice they make puts them closer to the spiral that will destroy their lives, and as you watch, you can’t help but ask what if just one thing had changed. I don’t think that Noe is interested in punishing the audience, so much as upending our typical approach to a revenge movie. Seen in chronological order, the film would be a nihilistic, but emotionally satisfying film. But, seeing it in reverse makes clear how hollow revenge is. Marcus and Pierre’s quest for revenge dooms them and does nothing to heal Alex.

But, in the final moments of the film, you also get some of the most tender and emotionally authentic moments between a couple in any film. Real life couple Vincent Cassel and Monica Bellucci are fearless throughout and make the film so much more with their performances.

And, I also have to comment on the technical virtuosity of the film. The one take sequences are like nothing ever seen in cinema to date, with virtually every shot in the film featuring some kind of impossible camera move that enhances your experience of the narrative. Noe pushes boundaries, but primarily with the goal of making you feel the story, not just watch it He immerses you in character subjectivity so strongly that it makes people uncomfortable, but it’s also what makes the film a masterpiece.

2. Mulholland Dr. - As I discussed with Wong Kar-Wai and 2046, Mulholland Dr. functions as a career summation for everything Lynch has done to date, incorporating the 50s style and naïve heroines of the Blue Velvet era and blending it with the experiments in narrative subjectivity from Lost Highway to create a perfect Lynch greatest hits film. That’s not to say that it’s redundant though, it’s a refined version of what he’s done before, and comes across as his most well realized film to date.

The ingenious narrative structure has been widely dissected, but it’s notable that even as he plunges through layers of subjective reality, he keeps a coherent emotional throughline so that you can have no idea what happened, but you can understand exactly how it felt. The rambling narrative structure allows for some great vignettes along the way, and the post box sequence manages to cohere them all into a really satisfying single narrative. I love analyzing the film, but ultimately what I love most is Lynch at his best, crafting classic scenes like Betty’s audition or Club Silencio, the scene of the decade. INLAND EMPIRE is brilliant in its own way, but if Lynch never made another film after Mulholland Dr. this would be a perfect coda for his career.

1. Kill Bill Vol. 1 - All this talk of narrative structures and themes is great, but ultimately what we go to the movies for is the experience of singular moments, and no movie was more of a rush or featured as many perfect cinematic moments as Kill Bill Vol. 1. Yes, it’s not as ‘substantial’ as Tarantino’s other films, but it’s such an amazing in the moment experience that you don’t care about substance, you care about the perfect song choices for every scene, or the astonishing action sequences that are so much more satisfying than the typical bunch of cartoon characters fighting sequences we saw in many of this decade’s films.

Kill Bill for me hits that same place that Star Wars does, it’s mythic and archetypal, and a distillation of everyting that you want from a genre film. Most kung-fu movies disappoint you, they’re better in idea than conception. Kill Bill is the greatest kung-fu movie you can imagine and more, mashing up elements of countless other films into a thrilling new whole. I’ve seen the film seven or eight times at this point, and it’s still thrilling every time, best of the decade material for sure.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The Third Age: Episode Four: 'Cranial Sample' and More Grant Doc

Stay tuned this week on the blog for the first best of the decade lists dropping. Hopefully I'll be able to write up Best of songs, albums, TV episodes, TV shows, Comics and Films for both year and decade before we hit 2010. We shall see.

In the meantime, here's a couple new videos from me and Respect Films.

First up, episode 4 of The Third Age...

In this episode, Jerrod Woolf receives a mysterious message, and Morning begins to recognize her purpose. It's the shift from the show's 'Blue' period to the warmer 'Red' period. What does that mean? Find out for yourself! And, as always your comments and feedback are much appreciated.

And, if you didn't catch it on various outlets around the web, here's the new trailer for my Grant Morrison documentary, now officially titled, Grant Morrison: Talking with Gods...

This trailer spotlights the many interesting collaborators and peers of Grant's that we interviewed at San Diego Comicon and elsewhere. This week, I'm off to LA to do a few more interviews for the documentary, then into more serious editing.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Geoff Johns Under Consideration

I’ve been reading a lot of Geoff Johns comics over the past few months. At this point, I’ve gotten through the first six volumes of his Teen Titans run, the first two volumes of his recent Superman run and the first four volumes of his Green Lantern, with the Sinestro Corps War waiting next. The success of Blackest Night has brought John even more to the fore of comics discussion than ever before, and has also started a fairly serious backlash against him and his work.

Blackest Night, which quite literally resurrects barely living DC characters in the service of a gory, over the top nostalgic, but violent superhero epic seems to embody all the characteristics that critics of his work point to as his weakness. I haven’t read the work, I’ll check it out once I catch up to that point in his Green Lantern run, but let must just address some of the general criticisms surrounding the series.

One is the incompatibility of superheroes and the dark, violent subject matter of Blackest Night, previous Johns works like Infinite Crisis, or even Morrison’s Final Crisis. I think Morrison’s strong reputation within the critical community makes critics take a moment like Talky Tawnie battling an evil cat soldier of Darkseid of Final Crisis and embrace it as an encapsulation of the absurd joy of the DCU, as filtered through their own perception of Morrison as a cool writer who isn’t bound by nostalgia. Johns scripting the same moment would likely be criticized for dragging a ‘children’s character’ through the dirt and grime of realistic, or over the top, violence.

I think that’s a valid criticism, I love DCU stuff, but sometimes I’ll look at a serious scene consisting of a bunch of people in outré costumes standing around and it feels off. The goal of the writer should to wrap you up in the world of the story so that you accept it, but then I’ll be like why is there a woman with green fire popping out of her head here? It’s goofy, and when played poorly, superhero comics can feel like the adolescent males power fantasies of personal empowerment and scantily clad beautiful women that critics claim them to be.

And, I think the reason that Johns is so often criticized for his work is that unlike virtually all the other big names out there, he’s never done a significant creator owned work. Because Morrison does works like The Invisibles or We3, we realize that his whole world isn’t the DCU, and the superhero work is just one of his many interests. But, Morrison never denigrates the superhero work that he does, and it’s just as thematically central to his overall worldview as his creator owned stuff. But, other creators, like Warren Ellis or Garth Ennis, make a big deal of only doing superhero work as a way to promote their more serious work, to pay the bills. That means that even if Ellis uses the same characters and situations as Johns, there’s an inherent ironic distance to the work, we know he’s not being totally emotionally sincere or invested in the work, and so we’re not either and can appreciate it as “just a bit of fun.”

But, Johns is fully invested, he’s crafted a series of large scale epics in the DCU, and personally overseen the rebirth of a wide variety of characters. And, I think more notably, he’s created a very personal, auteur feeling body of work over the course of his time there. Johns has carved out of his own corner of the DCU in the same way that Morrison did, and it’s exciting to read all his titles as part of one continuum, to recognize the way that Infinite Crisis played out in Teen Titans, or seeing the way that stories from 52 led into his Superman stuff.

There’s people who like stories to be short and self contained, who view a season long box set of a TV show as a burden to be slogged through, rather than a joy to watch unfold. I love massive stories, and the DCU is one of the longest running single stories in the history of the human race at this point. I’m seeing Johns reference stuff that I read in Showcase Presents Legion of Superheroes in his Superman stuff, and that’s exciting. But, Geoff has also carved out his own corner of the universe, telling one long story over the course of his DC work. Geoff’s work all links together, and that makes it a much more rewarding experience than if he’d just written a bunch of disparate stories.

I think one of the core fallacies of art criticism in general is the idea that the most personal stories are the ones set in the real world, with characters who resemble the author, and events obviously drawn from real life. ‘Realism’ is synonymous with emotional authenticity, but I don’t think that a verite approach is necessarily the best way to represent our emotional experience of the world. If you look at someone going through a breakup or other traumatic event, it’s not the outside that’s interesting to watch, it’s what’s going on internally. And, genre, particularly over the top superhero epics, can be a great way to represent traumatic emotions in a dynamic way.

Grant Morrison talked about doing this with All Star Superman, using it as a way to process his own feelings about getting older and processing the death of his father. Is that your immediate take away from the book? No, but it’s that grounding of real emotion and experience that makes the book work and feel real in a way that most Superman stories don’t. I think that’s the best way to do genre stories, to infuse them with something real and then spin that real emotion into something wild and exciting.

I think it’s a mistake to assume that just because Johns is writing with other peoples’ characters, his stories aren’t personal. There’s a consistent set of themes, and worldview, set up throughout his work, a belief in strong, self dependent heroes who will stand up to corrupt authorities and reassert a strong morality that seems to have been lost in society. People accuse his work of being nostalgic, but I don’t think it’s necessarily nostalgic for another era of comics, it’s nostalgia for another era of heroism. For all the violence of his comics, Johns is essentially reaching back to a pre-Alan Moore era of DC, when heroes were heroes unambiguously.

This desire is represented in two characters, Superboy Prime and Hal Jordan. In Infinite Crisis, Superboy Prime is railing about exactly the stuff I was talking about earlier, that desire to return to a more pure era of heroism. Johns presents him as the voice of DC readers, but based on his work, he’s the voice of Johns himself. It’s just that Superboy Prime is a corrupted character, he doesn’t have what it takes to be a hero, and that failure corrupts him into the insane character we see at the end of Infinite Crisis. He’s not meant to be a hero, therefore he has to become a villain.

Hal Jordan, on the other hand, is meant to be a hero, that is his destiny, so Johns configures an elaborate scenario with Parallax as a way to absolve Jordan and return him to his rightful place as the force of will that drives the DCU. Jordan has done things as terrible as Superboy Prime, but that wasn’t his true self, and when he’s returned to life, he feels like a person out of time, a hero in a world that’s grown corrupted and weak. So, he shines as a beacon to the other heroes, and thanks to the way Johns writes him, is continually able to flaunt the rules and still maintain his favored status, because he’s just that good.

What separates Jordan from Superboy Prime? It seems to be the ability to overcome fear via willpower. Superboy Prime is corrupted because he doesn’t have the inner strength, Jordan has that strength and it makes him a hero. But, they’re both essentially reaching for the same thing. All of Johns’s stories take place against a backdrop of legacies, of heroes struggling to live up to the legends that came before them.

His Teen Titans depicts a new generation of heroes trying to live up to the storied reputation of their predecessors, and by extension, you could argue it’s Johns trying to live up to the legacy of Perez and Wolfman. He’s playing the same riffs, and continually referencing those old stories, seemingly as a way to show that this new generation of heroes can do their own version of Terra or Trigon just as well as the original.

Teen Titans is in some ways his most forward thinking work. His recent Superman run feels very conservative, a deliberate evocation of the iconography and setup of the Donner films. Admittedly, All Star Superman uses a similar classic setup and works, but reading “Last Son,” it felt very run of the mill, very much back to basics in a boring way. I liked that I knew what was going on, but on some level, I feel like it’s a testament against the strength of a comic if you can pick it up and find nothing at all surprising in the status quo or approach, no change.

But, Teen Titans did a good job of building a new set of characters and letting them grow and change over the course of the run. And I think it’s a perfect example of the way that a crossover should work. Crossovers have gotten such a bad reputation because they’re overused, and generally disrupt plans for a title rather than enhance them. But, seeing Teen Titans link into the overall Infinite Crisis gives the story so much more scope. The entire fifth trade has a sense of apocalypse hanging over it, an imminent doom that is hitting these characters very hard. Because the series doesn’t have to carry the primary narrative strain, it can focus on the characters, and the Connor/Cassie stuff there was fantastic, a great culmination of their relationship. It’s a story that couldn’t have been executed as well if it wasn’t part of the Infinite Crisis crossover.

And the reason that it integrated so well is that it’s all part of the Geoff Johns corner of the DCU. Morrison has his own pet characters, Rucka has his, and Johns most definitely does. And, within the world he’s carved out, there are very specific authorial tendencies. You can argue that Johns is not as strong a writer because he doesn’t do creator owned work, but you can’t argue that he doesn’t do personal stories.

Teen Titans has a lot of retro elements, but feels more progressive than Green Lantern. At that point, he probably didn’t have the authority to resurrect Barry Allen, so he’s got to work with the new Flash, and he makes him into a compelling character. But, it feels inherently conservative to bring Hal Jordan back and have him show the new guys how it’s supposed to be done. The stories are generally solid, but I take issue with the politics of the book on that level.

But, again, I think people who say that it’s evidence of Johns as a nostalgia guy might be ignoring the fact that these characters are personal to him, to resurrect Hal Jordan is not just about bringing back a character, it’s about bringing back an idea that matters to Johns. His morality and notion of personal responsibility may have been heavily influenced by Jordan and Barry Allen, so wouldn’t bringing them back be the most personal story he could tell?

I think that it’s perfectly reasonable to criticize Johns, I go back and forth between really liking Green Lantern and thinking it’s just a bunch of nonsense aliens shooting colors at each other with no emotional component. Similarly, Titans can be great in its low key moments, but get bogged down in boring fight scenes. So, you may ask why even read superhero comics in the first place if I don’t like fights? It’s not that I don’t like fights, it’s that the fights have to mean something beyond simple spectacle. The act of fighting in a superhero comic needs to be a way for the characters to express what they’re feeling and to play out the emotional conflicts that plague them at their core. That’s what the best superhero comics do, and Johns isn’t always there, but he hits enough to make his stuff worth reading. He's nowhere near a Moore or Morrison, but his work has a lot of exciting concepts and the kind of craziness you can only get from comics.

Next up for me from him is The Sinestro Corps War, the end of Teen Titans and some more Superman stuff. Then, in a little bit, I’m going to go back and tackle his JSA run. Anyone have any particular recommendations on where to go next with his work?

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The Third Age: Episode Three: 'Static' and More Self Promo

Sorry for not posting much substantive content in the past few weeks. I've got a bunch of Decade and Year wrap up stuff in the works, but for now, it's time for more about the projects I'm working on. First off, the third episode of The Third Age...

This is my favorite of the first three, and if you haven't checked it out at all yet, this is the perfect time to go back and watch from the start, since the first three form something of a unit.

Also, you can check out a writeup of the upcoming Grant Morrison: Talking with Gods on Wired. Enjoy some words from me, as well as a couple of exclusive clips of Grant speaking about our world vs. superhero worlds, and the George Bush administration. Exciting to see it getting so much publicity, it's always weird to see yourself turn up on the sites in your RSS feed.

What he says about the Bush administration is particularly relevant in light of the rapid deterioration of the Obama administration and his insanely misguided decision to send more troops to Afghanistan. We as a nation cannot have it all, we have to prioritize and it's sickening to watch people prioritize spending billions more on killing people in a futile war when we can't get a health care bill, or to go to war in service of 'freedom' with an army that doesn't allow openly gay people to serve for a country were gay people can't get married. Really strange stuff, and Obama is making no effort to be a leader and make a change happen. With this decision about Afghanistan, he's ensured that I'll be seeking out a third party candidate in the 2012 election.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Story of the 2000s: Film

As in the previous media I discussed, this has been a tumultuous decade for cinema. For one, film has lost its position as the preeminent visual medium in culture. Through a variety of forces, TV rose up to take the lead role in discussing societal issues and telling the most artistically ambitious and challenging stories of the decade. But, where did that leave cinema on an artistic, and commercial level? Read on to find out.

Look at the box office this weekend and you’ll see a prime example of the way that response to film has shifted over the course of the 2000s. New Moon opened to an absurdly high box office total, with people storming the multiplex to see the film and experience it on opening weekend. People weren’t going based on anything they knew about the film itself, and its quality, they were going because of the pent up demand that built up through the lengthy marketing schedule of trailer releases and actor appearances at events like San Diego Comicon.

The release of the movie is something of an anti-climax, that’s not the story, it’s the build up to the release that’s the real story. Next week, the box office numbers will plummet and the culture will move on to talk about something else. The film’s place in the news cycle ends with its release, and the obligatory news story about its massive box office take.

What this has done on a cultural level is make the quality of the film irrelevant. When people will turn out for sequels to films that were outright terrible, like Transformers, it’s clear that the real art behind those movies is the marketing, of saturating the culture to the point that you feel you need to see Transformers 2, if only to be part of the cultural dialogue. That’s made it a lot tougher for films to succeed on their actual merits, since even if a movie built an audience and grossed a respectable tally over many weeks, that’s not going to be what people are talking about.

Take as an example Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a film that will likely be one of the most listed films on Best of the Decade recaps. Everyone you know has seen the film, right? Yet, it made less money in the theater than notorious bombs like Catwoman and Taxi. People did not go to the best movies in theaters, they went to the ones that were most promoted. That’s fine, that’s probably how it’s always been, the problem is that the rise of DVD meant that the window for theatrical releases radically shifted, and movies didn’t build into hits much anymore. That meant that it wasn’t a wise investment to make smaller or mid-level movies, you’ve got to swing for the fences, or go for cheap schlock you know will have an audience.

Let me talk a little bit about the impact of DVD because, even as it moves towards its own obsolescence, it really did reshape the way we view films over the course of the decade. In 2000, DVD was still far from a mass medium, and the jury was out on whether it would be the next VHS or the next laser disc. But, it quickly rose to popularity, and for the first time in cinema history, it was possible to view films in great quality, in the aspect ratio they were meant to be viewed, at home. It’s crazy to me that ‘pan and scan’ existed in the first place, but thankfully it’s a thing of the past now.

This was perhaps the biggest film story of the decade. We saw almost every important film of the past come out on DVD, and with services like Netflix, it became easy to watch anything you wanted any time you wanted it. That’s a massive shift, and it’s hard to imagine that as little as 25 years ago, you just couldn’t watch movies from the past, outside of revival screenings or TV broadcasts. Now, we have the entirety of film history available to us.

But, on a production level, DVD has changed the way that the theatrical business works. With windows shrinking, the importance of the theatrical experience was diminished. There were still massive films that became cultural events, but a lot of smaller films were hurt by the fact that people knew they could wait three months and watch them at home for much cheaper. That meant that smaller films, that weren’t in the cultural dialogue, generally didn’t get the theatrical business they would in the days when you could only see a movie in theaters. For me personally, I love to go to the theater, but at the same time, I’ve let movies slip because I can watch them in almost comparable quality at home.

All of this has enforced a conservatism in film production, with studios almost entirely abandoning movies based on original screenplays, and instead drawing on existing properties as a way of guaranteeing their investment and limiting risk. It’s sad to look at sequels to remakes coming out, but I can understand why they do it. Put out a movie called Transformers and all the work is done for you, people know what it is and there’s a built in fanbase. Put out a comparable original film and the movie itself has to do the work. Watching the failure of huge budget original films like Australia is harrowing because it makes it less likely that studios will back similar films in the future.

But, I can’t really worry about business stuff. Most movies are going to be bad, that’s a bottomline thing, but there’s also always going to be some great films coming out. That said, I think what defines a ‘great film’ has been irrevocably changed by the storytelling approaches of TV shows. Would a film like The Godfather have the same impact after The Sopranos has aired? Can Scorsese’s many years in the works Gangs of New York stack up to the rich world of Deadwood?

Movies struggled to address contemporary issues in post 9/11 America, leading to a lot of wishy washy movies about the Iraq War that made no real statement, while shows like The Wire and Battlestar Galactica made bold statements about what America was becoming. What movie is the definitive document of the Bush era? This man was the worst president in the history of the nation, what’s the movie future historians will look at to sum up attitudes about the era? In today’s instant media world, we can’t wait decades for movies to step up and document the world, it needs to happen now, and film didn’t do that.

Getting back to story, for me, the purpose movies changed. They couldn’t match the story and character scope of TV series, so my tastes moved more towards the avant garde and experimental, movies that used techniques and style that could not be sustained on a TV budget. This could mean the precise style and hyperpop aesthetic of Quentin Tarantino’s 00s work, which pushed genre to the limit in the service of creating movies that are just saturated with joy. Nobody was as consistent as his work this decade, and I think his 00s work is much stronger than his oft lauded 90s work.

Also notable was the stylistic experimentation of post MTV generation filmmakers like Gaspar Noe and mid 00s Tony Scott. Noe’s Irreversible is the single most technically dazzling film of the decade. As the decade progressed, CG effects were horribly overused in virtually every blockbuster film, Noe pointed to the way that seamlessly integrated CG effects can be used to change the possibilities of what the medium can do. His filmmaking was intense, making the movie something you experience, love it or hate it, Irreversible was unlike any other film ever made. He’s rereading the grammar of cinema. Scott didn’t go as avant garde as Noe, but he applied avant garde editing principles to mainstream entertainment on films like Domino and Man on Fire, films that push the boundaries of how fast and how crazy you can get on a mainstream movie. I love Domino, I think it’s a perfect example of pop action cinema, totally abandoning narrative in favor of creating a mindset and experience. It’s one of the most underrated films of the decade.

That’s something that TV shows can’t do. Similar in purpose, but totally different in approach, Wong Kar-Wai and Terence Malick created masterpieces of subjective cinema, that told stories in different ways. I guess that’s ultimately what I’m looking for, films that engage in ways that go deeper than just the typical three act structure, that pull you into a world and way of perceiving that changes your state of consciousness.

And, unfortunately, not that many films tried to do that. The obsession with replaying the same stories of the past is pushing us towards a strange terminal situation. In twenty years, what films will be made, remakes of remakes? Or maybe we’ll bottom out and return to original material.

Again though, it’s not so much the narrative subject matter that’s important. The New World and Miami Vice aren’t telling new stories, but they offer us new ways of seeing the same stories. Vice in particular is a blockbuster that on the surface seems to suffer from the lack of creative direction and inspiration that I’m complaining about, but because the film is so well executed, and so emotionally real, it feels new and fresh. But, of course, the film was seen as a failure.

So, the medium is at something of a turning point. In a digital age, with theatrical distribution become exclusively about the biggest movies. Will there be revenue streams for smaller movies, and will there even be an audience for those films? I guess we’ll see. But, I’m confident that good movies always will be made, it’s just a question of how many.

The Third Age: Episode Two - 'Static'

Thanks to everyone who checked out the first episode of the show last week. If you liked that one, press on with the exciting second episode! And, as always, I'd love to hear what you think. And, if you like the episode, please post on your blog/Facebook/Twitter/tell your friends. We're trying to build an audience and every little bit helps!

And, if you didn't see the last post, The Third Age is a weekly webseries that I created and showrun. It's a magical realist story, a modern reinterpretation of mythology that should appeal to people who like the kind of stuff I write about here. Give it a look!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Third Age: Episode One Now Live

The webseries I've been working on for a while is finally live! Check out Episode One of The Third Age, embedded below.

The show has been called "An acid trip in web video form" by Tubefilter, so give it a look, and let me know what you think!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Doctor Who: 'The Waters of Mars'

Watching “The Waters of Mars,” it’s hard to believe that it’s been eighteen months since “The Stolen Earth” aired because this episode gets you right back to the mental space of being totally wrapped up in the show. It’s a hard episode, one that gets darker and more intense than most Who episodes to date, and one that does a fantastic job of setting up the themes and conflicts that will presumably play out in the two part special that will close out Tennant’s run as the Doctor.

The previous Who work that this episode was closest to is definitely the recent Torchwood: Children of Earth miniseries, which had a similar apocalyptic vibe, showing us characters struggling against their situation, and trying hard just to survive a seemingly inevitable doom. The most powerful thing about Children of Earth was the way that the sheer weight of events was made apparent on an individual level across the large, well developed supporting cast. Davies does a great job of figuring out the individual emotional hooks for a large scale conflict, so that scenes that could play as pure spectacle feel very grounded and real.

I think the reason for that is that he always uses genre material to address real emotional issues. A show like V is just doing genre riffs with no sense of any personal investment in the characters or scenario. It’s like they decided, you’ve seen all this before, you know what’s going to happen, so here it is. Compare that show to Children of Earth, which takes a similar scenario, but makes it feel fresh and exciting by emotionally investing in it.

As with all the best episodes of Who, the sense of apocalypse hits on an emotional level, not just an intellectual one, and the visuals and narrative combine to create an emotionally wrought second half of the episode, as the individual story of this episode becomes a stand-in for all the failings we’ve seen over the course of the entire series.

That really becomes clear in the fantastic sequence where the Doctor walks away from the Mars base, abandoning the surviving crew to their fate. He is in the role of observer, watching events, but unable to change them. The call back to the Pompeii episode reminds us of Donna begging him to alter the timeline there, and his insistence that it can’t. And, hanging over this episode again is the fate of Donna, who suffered worse than any companion the Doctor has taken.

At the time, I had some real issues with the way Donna’s story ended, but it’s cast such a long emotional shadow over these specials, I have to commend Davies. It’s still painful to think about, and that’s a testament to what a powerful twist it was. The Doctor’s helplessness at the end of that story drives him here, and is what’s running through his mind when he walks away from the base, fires burning all around him in this red, hellish landscape.

That’s a scene where the visuals contribute so much to the emotion of the scene, we can see the rage the Doctor is feeling made manifest all around him. And, the viewer has a conflict about it too, because we’ve already heard his justification for why they have to die, the sacrifice here sets in motion a series of events that will bring humanity to the stars. But, the Doctor is sick of sacrificing the present for the future, he doesn’t want to compromise and let people die. I’m reminded of Eccleston’s Doctor back in the first season’s “The Doctor Dances” exalting at finally saving everyone. I didn’t really get it then, but in retrospect it’s clear why he’s so happy, because normally people will die on his missions, and he’s powerless to do anything about it.

So, it’s a major, dangerous shift when, at the end of the episode, the Doctor decides to stop obeying the rules of time and sets out to rewrite the time continuum. It’s interesting to see him shift from the idea that he’s the survivor of the time war, to being the winner. Where even the Dalek refuses to mess with a human’s place in the time continuum, the Doctor decides that he has the authority to.

The final moments in the Mars base are staged in a dynamic way, with low shots emphasizing the Doctor’s power, even as flames burn all around him. This leads to the dramatic peak of the episode, the conversation between the Doctor and Adelaide, as he sets out his new mission, and she rebukes him, and decides that history has to complete as planned.

In that moment, we see the Doctor more unhinged than ever before, he’s spent most of these specials depressed at the core, still the guy we saw standing in the rain outside Donna’s house, facing the realization of how alone he is. He’s put on his manic energy, but it felt hollow earlier, and here it crosses the line towards craziness. The Doctor has never seemed so dangerous, and in his vision of an Ood standing in the street, he seems to plunging into insanity. I’m excited to see a Doctor coming to the end of his time, facing the consequences of everything he’s done and struggling to deal with it, struggling to maintain his mind.

When seeing big budget films, I’m often really taken out of the story by CGI, but I forgive it a lot more on this show, and TV in general. I think the reason is a film like 2012 is just about the CGI, it exists as pure spectacle, and in that sense, it’s hollow. But here, if the CGI is less strictly realistic, it’s used in service of the story, so it feels more real and impactful. You’re emotionally engaged and look at it less objectively. I think this episode looked outright great, and the effects were top notch throughout, but even if they weren’t, the story was strong enough to carry them.

Ultimately, I think this was a powerful, intense episode on its own terms, particularly in the second half centering around the dissolution of the base, but it was even more interesting in terms of setting up the Doctor for the final two episodes, and the farewell to David Tennant. Davies has his share of haters out there, but I’m not one. I think he’s done an absolutely amazing job with the series. More than anything else, I love the optimism at the core of it. Hearing the Doctor talk about exploring other worlds and the way that Adelaide will help inspire others to venture out into the stars, it’s powerful because no other show on TV dares to be so blindly optimistic. Yes, terrible things happen along the way, but it’s always in the service of reaching something better, and no other show articulates as well as this one.

Monday, November 09, 2009

TV Power Rankings: November 2009

With a few new shows having premiered, and one on the way out, it seems like an opportune time to do another TV power ranking.

1. Mad Men – By far the best show on TV, it’ll be a long wait until next season. I didn’t love the backhalf of the season as much as I liked the first half, but it closed on a great note, with a vast array of possibilities for next season.

2. Parks and Recreation - The best comedy on TV, the recent Halloween episode was a series high point, and last week’s library battle was another classic. This is better than the American Office has ever been, if it keeps up this level of quality, it could be an all time comedy classic, a Seinfeld or Arrested Development level series.

3. Bored to Death - I haven’t seen the season finale yet, Mad Men took precedence, but I just like this show more and more. It does have that weird HBO comedy feeling of not really being funny, but I love the atmosphere and the characters, and the past couple of episodes have been really top notch, particularly the mission to retrieve the sex tape. It’s great to see so many New York locations on screen, and I’m glad this is coming back for a second year.

4. 30 Rock - A lot of the buzz this year has been about how 30 Rock is going downhill. This season has had some issues, but the trip to “real America” last week was consistently hilarious, and I don’t think there’s been a full on clunker in this batch of episodes. I think the show might have been overpraised a bit, so it’s logical for things to even out. I think the bigger issue is that the characters have become so familiar that jokes that might have been funny earlier have become tired. But, Jack and Liz still work well together, and there’s enough material each week to keep it on the higher end of the Thursday comedy lineup.

5. How I Met Your Mother - This is another show that’s struggled with balancing the wacky and the emotional side of things. The Barney/Robin relationship has had some strong jokes, but I haven’t felt that emotionally engaged with them as a couple. Maybe I’m just expecting too much of the show. It’s still been pretty sharp and relatable, and perhaps the groundwork is being laid for some more substantial stuff down the line.

6. The Office - Another show I’ve had mixed feelings on. This most recent episode was one of my least favorite of the show’s run, not working on an emotional level, and balancing a maudlin, pointlessly cruel A story with a pointlessly dumb B story. Still, the previous week’s episode worked well, and the supporting cast gets better and better. I’d be happy if Jim and Pam disappeared and we got more time with Andy and Erin.

7. Community - The show has done a better job of balancing its goofier side with its emotional side, particularly in the standout Halloween episode, which featured some great surreal imagery and an ability to be absurd but still smart that is the hallmark of many great sitcoms. Some of the storylines still feel too rushed or sitcom cliché, but it’s getting better, and that’s one of the best things you can say about a freshman show.

8. Curb Your Enthusiasm - After a very strong start to the season, things have dipped into boring and predictable in this last batch of episodes. I think the problem may be that I’ve never loved the show, and this Seinfeld reunion hype got my hopes up about it becoming something that it’s not. The scenes with Jerry are great, but the rest is just Curb by the numbers, and when you’re expecting more, that’s not going to cut it.

9. Glee - The show hasn’t aired an episode in a while, but the last one was fairly strong, and even though there’s still a lot of things that bother me, I’ve got a better feeling about the show going forward. If it gets out of the rut of just hitting the exact same beats every episode and lets the characters grow and the situations evolve organically, not through terrible, imposed plots, it could become a very strong show.

10. Modern Family - This show is wearing on me a bit. The central issue is that it has the appearance of a slightly edgy, irreverent show, but is a traditional sitcom underneath, and the “awww” moments at the end of each episode are getting tiresome. It also feels like there’s no real evolution going on at all. I know it’s a sitcom and things aren’t going to change much, but I want a greater accumulation of feeling and events than I’m getting. It’s funny enough to be worth watching, but could slip off the radar if it doesn’t improve.

11. Dollhouse - Sometimes I feel like I’m watching a different show than people online because the one I’m watching is not very good. I’m sticking with it because of Joss, and it seems like there’s only a few more to go, but the show is so totally nonsensical and emotionally impenetrable, it’s hard to believe it came from the guy who managed to skillfully poke fun at the sort of absurdity that Dollhouse is mired in, and was able to find the emotional in for even the most absurd storylines on Buffy or Angel.

12. V - This was a pretty terrible pilot, with no defined characters and the most perfunctory telling of a potentially great premise. I’ll give it one more episode just because I’d really like to love the show, but the pacing on the pilot was horrendous, the whole thing felt like one long “Previously On…” section, skipping over a huge amount of potentially interesting story for no apparent reason. A real clunker so far.

Mad Men: 'Shut the Door, Have a Seat' (3x13)

Another Mad Men season is in the books, with a season finale that opens the door to a wildly changed status quo for the fourth season, with the two foundational elements of the show, Sterling Cooper and Don’s marriage both destroyed, and Don faced with the question of finding out who is Don Draper when the reason he was created is no longer around.

The episode reminded me a lot of last year’s Friday Night Lights season finale, which ended on a similar note of reinvention, closing out one chapter and opening another. I think that’s probably a smart thing to do at this point because the show had kind of backed itself into a corner with Don losing his freedom and getting backed into a corner by both Betty and Sterling Cooper.

That’s one of the reasons that I was a bit down on the backhalf of the season in comparison to the incredibly precise and evocative first half. The storyline I’ve found most consistently interesting on the show is Don’s quest for identity, which kind of culminated in his trip to California last year, but was echoed in his encounter with the hitchhikers earlier in this season. Midway through the season, that searching seemed to be cut off, as Don signed a contract to work at Sterling Cooper and seemed a bit more committed to Betty.

Even as he embarked on an affair with Suzanne Farrell, it felt like he was getting more and more locked down at home. His involvement with Hilton became an excuse to escape, but Farrell wasn’t the same as Midge or Bobbi Barrett, she had a very maternal presence, far from the independence of those other women. To some extent, it felt like Don was reverting to childhood, exploring the Dick Whitman persona in a different way by becoming his father and sleeping with his mother. That connection was reinforced by the dialogue where she speculates on what Don was like as a child.

It’s notable that his attempt to escape with Ms. Farrell was interrupted by Betty discovering the truth about Don’s past. The affair with Ms. Farrell was a secret life, the chance to engage with the Dick Whitman part of himself, and what Betty finds out is even worse than the affair, it’s not that he wants to be with other women, it’s that he wants to be another person entirely, and to her, that’s the ultimate betrayal.

It means that the life he built is a lie, a lie built to please her, but only a piece of himself. She wants all of him, and he’s not ready to give that up. The contract he signed, the relationship with Betty, it’s all locking him into a specific identity, and we’ve seen constantly how much he likes to play at being someone else, as in the trip to Baltimore in the first episode of the season.

The whole season has been about the increasing suffocation Don feels in his life, and his inability to maintain the freedom he cherished so much. Then, this episode flips everything and tears apart the things that imprisoned him. It becomes clear that Betty really does want to leave him. For Betty, it makes sense. She’s found a man who seems more enamored of her, and she proves to herself and Don that she doesn’t need him. She had to take him back last year because she was pregnant and had nowhere else to turn, but with Henry Francis so devoted to her, she gets a kind of affection that she hasn’t gotten from Don in a long time.

The question for her is, does Henry Francis really love her, or will he grow sick of her once he has her? Is it the chase he loves or the woman herself? Potential problems for Betty are set up when she says she doesn’t want Don’s money, without Don’s money, she becomes just as dependent on Henry Francis as she was on Don earlier.

For the show, this leaves Betty in a strange position. Will she carry her own stories, disconnected from Don, or will she and Don be drawn back together again. The obvious parallel is the end of the fourth season of The Sopranos, when Carmela and Tony split up. Then, we saw that Carmela was unable to make it on her own and got drawn back in. Will Betty go the same way? She seems strangely more astute than Carmela in her plan to break it off with Don, but the interest of the show would seem to lie in bringing them back together. Of course, the show does seem to be reinventing itself and seeing Betty in this new situation could be a good way to explore new issues next season.

I’m particularly interested in seeing how it affects Sally, who’s become my favorite character, other than Don and Peggy, this season. She’s portrayed as a mix of a child’s naivete and a shrewd insight into the adults’ behavior that makes them uncomfortable. The most memorable moment of the season for me is still Sally watching a monk immolate himself after being told off by her parents. She knows that Betty has pushed Don away, and hates Don for reneging on his promise.

She longs so much to have Don there, to love him, and now he’s being taken away from her again. I think the tough thing for Betty is that Betty is there for the kids, she’s the one who really raises them, but they’ll never love her as much as Don, and that makes her resent them a bit. The kids will likely serve as the bridge to keep Betty in the story and her and Don connected. We get hints of a custody battle here, but I couldn’t imagine Don wanting to raise the kids on his own. That would be a way to put the character in a different position, but I don’t see it happening long term.

Elsewhere, Don is relieved of another burden as he instigates a reboot of Sterling Cooper, and tries to reclaim his business destiny. Don clearly fears being just a ‘cog in a machine,’ he likes the human element of his job, and knows that the more corporations buy each other up, the less room for that is. In any purchase, he becomes just another asset, assigned a monetary value and paid for accordingly. In the sale of Sterling Cooper, he sees a chance to reclaim his destiny, to shake off the contract that he signed so reluctantly and start again.

In a sense, what Don and his crew do is analogous to what Don himself did when he abandoned the Dick Whitman identity and became Don Draper. Sneaking into the office at night, they steal the guts of Sterling Cooper and leave behind a shell. Rather than deal with a problem, he went outside the system and chose to reinvent himself and just run away and take on a new identity.

I liked most of the scenes of them creating this new business, but the only one that really hit on an emotional level was Don’s visit to Peggy’s apartment. Peggy hasn’t had that much to do in the back half of the season, which is frustrating for me because I think she’s the show’s most interesting character behind Don. I loved the moment last episode where Duck saw that Kennedy had been shot and decided to unplug the TV just so it didn’t interrupt him having sex.

But, here we get a strong emotional beat, as she struggles to build her own identity outside of Don’s shadow. We saw with Kinsey how people believe that she only does well because she’s Don’s favorite, while she feels that Don actually takes her for granted. Don is her father figure in this business, he indulges her at times, but can also be cruel and abusive. Ironically, to break away and go with Don is to take the safe route, to stay with her mentor and know that she’ll have a place, but never be fully appreciated. Could she have more success with Duck? Perhaps, it’d be riskier, she could be a star there, but she could also fail, and at this point, she’d rather stay with Don than risk that.

For Don, the new company is a chance to reinvent himself and reclaim the freedom that he had taken away from him as he became more entrenched at Sterling Cooper. As a partner, he can control his destiny, but at the same time, he’s been humbled by what happened with Hilton and knows that he can’t do everything himself. He needs Roger if he’s to succeed in his new business.

In the end, Don gets what he’s ostensibly wanted the whole series, the freedom to be his own boss, and freedom from the suburban life he built for himself. But, is that what he still wants at this point? Is he happy that Betty left him? I don’t think he is because it indicates a failure on his end, a failure to live up to the role he had taken on.

It also shifts an interesting burden on to him. He could toy with women before because he was married and always had that as an excuse to run away from them. But, what does he do now if he gets together with women like Ms. Farrell, does he seeks a real connection, or just continue to drift from person to person? I don’t think what stings him about Henry Francis is so much the fact that Betty cheated on him, it’s that she is one step ahead of him, she’s got her liferaft ready and is reinventing herself leaving him in the dust. He doesn’t know how to deal with that, he’s always been the one who walked out on people.

The season ends on a hopeful note, an era is over and a new one is beginning. The American Dream, as represented by a good stable job, a wife and 2.5 kids in the suburbs is dead. It died with Kennedy, and all the characters are pushing forward into a new, uncertain era. People we thought were relics of an older era, like Sterling and Cooper, are willing to change, and Don acknowledges that they need to be ahead of things, they need to think of new ideas and reinvent their business. Will all the people who seemed doomed to failure at the beginning of the series actually find a way to evolve and survive? It’s not quite clear yet, but Don seems to have taken the right first step.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Story of the 2000s: TV

Previously, I discussed the way that the internet caused vast changes in the distribution and consumption habits of music. But, did it really change the way the artistic quality of music itself? A little bit, but not in the way that the internet, and a number of other factors, contributed to a radical shift in the artistic quality of television.

Ten years ago, it was common to praise a TV show for being “more like a movie than TV,” the implication being that TV was an inherently inferior medium, a sentiment reinforced by HBO’s classic tagline “It’s not TV. It’s HBO.” Today, I feel like you’d be more likely to see a film praised for having the depth and narrative scope of a good TV show. TV as a medium dominates the cultural dialogue in a way that movies haven’t, and the most memorable and socially important works of the decade were almost all on TV.

What did these works, like The Wire, The Sopranos or Mad Men, have in common? They were all intensely serialized, assuming that the viewer will have seen every episode and will be doing the work to make connections that aren’t easily spelled out. This kind of seralization wasn’t as common before the 00s, and I’d argue a big part of why it came about, particularly on network and genre shows, was the way the internet facilitated viewer discussion of individual episodes. Before the decade, it might have been easy to assume that viewers drift in and out and references to continuity would go over peoples’ heads. But, the internet made it clear that people do remember and do care about continuity and are willing to go in depth analyzing TV.

The nature of the internet, with its focus on up to the moment coverage and endless discussion, makes it ideal for writing about a TV show. The internet writes about movies before they come out for months, but there’s very little actual writing on films after they’re released. An article about Inglorious Basterds written now would feel ancient, the hype and discussion cycle burns itself out rapidly without new material to cover. But, a TV series always gives us something more, a new episode to analyze and chew over each week. In the print era, it was impossible to cover a show on a weekly basis, so it made more sense to write about movies. Now, I finish watching an episode and hop online to see what others are saying about it.

This change helped pave the way for more complex shows, but the biggest single catalyst for the artistic shift was the rise of the season long DVD box set. Some shows released select episodes on VHS, and big fans would have VHS collections of an entire series taped off TV, but it wasn’t until the release of the first season of The X-Files that the idea of putting out an entire season for commercial release was broached. I remember when it happened, how excited I was to be able to go back and watch a show from the beginning, in order, and catch up on the seasons I had missed. Until then, it just wasn’t possible.

The DVD box set quickly became a must for every series, and a huge revenue stream for the studios. As a viewer, it changed the way I perceive shows. I’ve always been a completist when it comes to watching things, and I don’t like to start something in the middle. So, rather than jumping on to an acclaimed show in the middle, I’d pick up the first season and catch up on the series to date before picking the show up in progress. That’s how I watched The Sopranos, The Wire, Angel, Veronica Mars, Battlestar Galactica and many other shows over the course of the decade. I’m more likely to watch a show from the start now, simply because I’m more involved in the critical community surrounding shows, but that’s a consequence of having been so voracious in consuming many series.

This shift in viewing patterns encouraged intensely serialized shows because it meant that your only revenue source wasn’t the initial airing. There was the sense of creating something historical and permanent with an episode, not a piece of disposable entertainment that was only there to sell a few commercials. TV has never been better than this decade, and anyone who doesn’t agree with that statement is delusional.

That’s not to say that you could just turn on the TV and find something great. Reality TV is generally terrible, but it’s not exactly a new terrible. Those shows are descendents of shows from the 50s. But, at this point, you don’t just need to turn on the TV and watch whatever’s on.

The DVD box set made it easy to always have a good show available, but we’ve also seen the rise of the DVR, which even more than the VCR changed the way that people view TV. Hulu was perhaps the final blow to the live broadcast. With so many commercials in each episode, it really makes no sense to watch any scripted show live. That’s hell for the network’s ad model, but great for the viewer.

TV has ascended to a cultural peak, becoming the dominant medium in the cultural dialogue. The Wire was a systematic examination of the issues facing the urban poor in America, and the vast flaws in our infrastructure. It was one of the few Bush era works of art that really examined what was happening in our world. The Wire was more powerful than a hundred rote “unbiased” Iraq dramas cranked out by the Hollywood system.

The Sopranos explored the lives of the middle class and wealthy today, struggling to maintain status in a society that seemed to be shifting rapidly downhill. The Sopranos may be best known for its mob action, but I found it to be an incisive look at the mentality of your average suburban family and the pressures and dreams people have today. The show depicted the world I lived in in a way that no film came close to.

But, where do we go from here? Hulu was a fantastic success, but it’s threatening to become a pay site, and even with some minor internet revenue streams, can shows like Lost ever happen again on the broadcast networks? The ad model is changing rapidly, and it’s unclear where money will come from in the future. The next decade will likely be as tumultuous as the previous.

My guess is that we’ll see a continued stratification, as the networks increasingly produce cheaper, unambitious shows to fill out the bottom line, while investing in a few signature shows. Cable channels will continue to make great shows as a way of justifying their place in the channel lineup, but in ten years, the very notion of cable TV could be a relic of the past as content increasingly moves online. Where does the money come from then? That’s the question.

I just hope that the longform TV series isn’t cut off in its artistic infancy. People have a desire to watch these shows, to experience these stories, and I just hope there’s a way to make it financially viable going forward so that we can continue to see shows like Mad Men push the boundaries of what a TV series can be.