Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Paid by the Hour, Paid by the Job

The Wire, Season Five (2008)
rating: 5 out of 5 cravats
on VHS from ELO

Two nights ago, Elizabeth and I watched "Pangs," the Buffy episode where the vengeance spirit of a bereaved Indian tribe manifests itself as a black bear in Giles' living room and wreaks havoc on Thanksgiving. It's hard to see something so silly and still try to argue that a show like The Wire is historic television, in part because the further TV like Buffy strays from reality, the less I feel that The Wire needs to approximate "real life" to be good. And if we aren't arguing a vision of The Wire as nothing less than the modern American city - and why should we, when it's not? - then can't we forgive the contrivances of the final season for all the things the final five episodes do so well?

Dateline: Sapsville

The truth is, there are lots of plotlines and dei ex machinis in seasons 1-4 that look ridiculous in hindsight (Sobotka sunk by an anonymous FBI agent on the inside? Come on!). But if The Wire can't be more than a well-plotted fiction, it is never, in the end, less than a king stripping some gangster of his gun. Enough five-out-of-five moments and you can field yourself a team. Clay Davis can play. Slim Charles can play. The newsroom stays benched for the season.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

4 Kinds of Light

The Jewel in the Crown (1984)

Passion (1982)

Citizen Kane (1941)

Pierrot le fou (1965)

In a provincial town near modern Pakistan, there is a shrine, believed to be haunted, built near a sidewalk inside the Bibighar Gardens. Passersby hurry home, and lovers meet beneath the eave on rainy evenings. The night of one particular consummation is the sad presage to all fourteen hours of The Jewel in the Crown, but the scene is so personal that it persists in my memory as a spirit guide - a wisp of blue flame - altogether separate from the sickle-specter metaphor of state-making on so misguided a scale.

There is a heart to the heart of the matter, and if one were walking past the garden on a night in July, would there be any difference at all between the two people waiting there, sitting near to one another, and the ghost stories told in nearby cafes and homes? Can one be a ghost merely be looking out from the window of a haunted room?

With our knowledge that the Bibighar Gardens are haunted, the lovers become phantoms even in their moments of ecstasy. And it is memory that makes so lonely a scene from the sidewalk - the actualization of sad stories we remember, or the suggestion that even the physical act of love is reduced to memory, and then nothing, with time.

And yet, we are not ghosts, nor always, like Hari, at the end of our long summer evenings. I do not believe that Jean-Luc Godard is playful in Passion, like some say, but Passion is still a playful film. Characters are caricatures of their own disdain, and even the women are unremarkable except as specimens of youth or the countless browns of the centuries' painters' models' hair. Too much bitterness, even if it is funnier than Godard's critics give him credit for.

It is the images which stand irrefutably, reviving dead tableaux, dead flowers, and the pleasures to be found in the anonymous faces and figures at our heels and our toes in a whole future lifetime's worth of open eyes. Here is how we begin to see again, and not how we compare everything new to what we already remember.

At the moment in Pierrot le fou when Jean-Paul Belmondo impersonates Michel Simone, I thought the voice sounded most like sad Snoopy’s. Belmondo chews cigarettes like toothpicks, which is my own dog’s approach to anything. When I thought how beautiful Anna Karina looks in her pink dress and ballet flats, she reminded me of Elizabeth, who reads Vogue not because she watched movies like Pierrot le fou in high school or college, but because she played with Barbies at age nine.

“In sixty years, when we’re dead,” Ferdinand says, “we’ll know if we were always in love.” The affirmation of a single lifetime as “always” is a romantic assertion, insofar as it resists the legacy of things we think of as permanent or enduring (the paintings by Velázquez that Ferdinand reads about, say, or the book he reads from). At the moment of death, there is no such thing as “timelessness” for a romance of flesh and blood. Life is over; if nothing matters except for the life lived, nothing endures. Except the movie, of course, there to convey its heart imperfectly.

So the shot of the two young women playing tennis that opens Pierrot le fou cannot help but recall François Truffaut’s Les Mistons, at least for me: great movies are a girl with a tennis racket in the sun. But the women are like the rest of it – the neon, the American cars, the comic books – and they are all a feint. The feint implies color and speed, like the oils of the Italian Futurists. Like the Futurists, everyone dies. Marianne has “the eyes of both Aucassin and Nicolette,” says Ferdinand, and if she’s both male and female lover, then Ferdinand makes three. More than three is always a crowd, which is how Godard must have felt by the end of it. So he kills Marianne and Ferdinand, leaving us with only ourselves.

You and me and the birthday cake on the kitchen table - the reassuring, great ideal of today.

As for Orson's part, Citizen Kane is the room filled with silhouettes, smoke, and the light of a newsreel projection, not the girl on a boat from New Jersey. He and Toland made such a team because when the room couldn't accommodate them, they cut holes in the floor and climbed through.