Archive for January, 2009

men in high castles

Frost/Nixon Interview

Frost/Nixon Interview

Frost/Nixon, 2008

“That poor poor man,” I said once to my wife, with tears in my eyes. “Shut up in the darkness, playing the piano in the night to himself, alone and afraid, knowing what’s to come.” For God’s sake, let us forgive him, finally. But what was done to him and all his men—”all the President’s men,” as it’s put—had to be done. But it is over, and he should be let out into the sunlight again; no creature, no person, should be shut up in darkness forever, in fear. It is not humane.

Philip K Dick, How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart in Two Days

Nixon just doesn’t seem so bad any more. Not after the last eight years, and not when he is up against the lightweight avatar of politics’ television-ruled future, trying to convince himself this is a worthy adversary.

Frost/Nixon is an uncomfortable experience. Our “hero” is a placeholder protagonist – the promo materials promise a flawed white knight who stalks, fights, and eventually slays the mighty beast, but it gives us a fluffy chancer who is driven only by a vague entrepreneurial greed and the petulant desire to have his face on telly. The devil himself is a miserable man in poor health who dreads the inactivity of early and ignoble retirement, who would trade anything for a return to the challenge, excitement, and stress of politics.

Is the dichotomy of cultural meta-narrative against the worth of characters purposeful? The infinitely annoying framing device – faux documentary cutscenes, with the actors still playing the roles – continually provide exposition and character motivation that has usually been imparted quite well by the actors (and if it wasn’t, it damn well should’ve been) or blandly trot out the well known myth.

(Seriously, Ron? Either leave it for the audience to learn on wikipedia later or directly stage it in an engaging manner. If all else fails, at least get in the actual people to have the stage, describing their place in history!)

The “interviews” tell us one thing – Nixon ruined America, man! – but the action presents a more complicated story, one that doesn’t exonerate Nixon but does kind of hate Frost-the-cipher and the men who passionately want to pillory the ex-president.

Of the characters presented, Nixon is a much better fit for a hero story: the disgraced and beaten former champion seeking redemption while battling the internal demons that ruined him. He is compelling in a way the other characters aren’t, a self-loathing and charmless intellectual who brutally forced his way into the one field that absolutely requires charm and bulletproof confidence. He’s fixated on his finances – after all, he can hardly count on the high-paying speaking and consulting milk runs an ex-president can usually expect. He envies the happiness and hedonism of his political and cultural enemies desperately, but can’t identify with it. His eyes may linger on the lovely body of Frost’s girl-of-the-moment, but when he tells Frost to marry her, it’s not so he can vicariously keep her nubile charms close but secure his fiscal future: she lives in Monte Carlo, where they pay no income tax.

Most painfully, this Nixon is intensely conscious of his flaws and their permanence. He muses with Frost that perhaps they should have lived each others’ lives: Nixon the brilliant, incisive interviewer and Frost the motivating, emotive politician. This character, though, could never have been happy with a career path that would leave him happy; he needs an outward doomed struggle to mirror his internal self-hatred in order to simply function.

This Nixon defends himself: every other president has done exactly the same things, but (it’s implied) had the savvy to delegate the dirty work. How much of Latin America was covered in Nixon’s fingerprints during his vice-presidency in Eisenhower ‘do-nothing’ era? He not only got caught masterminding the amateurish mess, but couldn’t bring himself to confess or deflect the fallout before this had eclipsed all other political matters in the country, as well as wiping his earlier accomplishments from the nation’s memory.

This is the Nixon that even Philip K Dick, author of VALIS and occasional Nixonian arch-enemy, could feel some compassion for.

His opponent, David Frost, is a man whose main talent in life is knowing what will bring the maximum number of eyes to television sets. He has talk shows in the UK and Australia and once had a third in the US, which he recalls as a fairyland celebrating his specialness. Frost wants to interview Nixon because it will draw a large audience, which would give him the chance to pitch another US show, which would allow him to once again get good tables in exclusive restaurants. He assembles a two-man research team, who are bent on taking down the devil, to provide him with information and strategy – and then ignores them. They pull endless material from obscure archives, pore over the details, and roleplay scenarios, gleefully embodying Nixon’s larger-then-life persona, while Frost chases advertisers and races to the opening of every envelope in LA.

It is difficult to root for this hero. Frost has no great goal, nothing he is burning to prove – when his team asks what he hopes to achieve in the interview, his face is blank with surprise. The thought hadn’t occurred to him; he had Nixon, they’d fill time, and people would watch. The end. He didn’t even review the material his team had painstakingly gathered until the final hours before the last recording session, and even that was only motivated by a shot of Nixon’s poisonous vitality in the form of a midnight drunk dial.

Even this montage is de-motivating for the audience. He’s gambled his career and savings on this one event, and he’s never glanced at the research he commissioned? It’s as if Rocky consisted of a somewhat successful boxer who’d been briefly on top, who spends all the time leading up to final his title fight gorging on KFC and chasing endorsement deals, finally hitting the gym during a break between rounds.

He could have put the slightest bit of effort into this interview, and all 8 hours would have been brilliant.

In many ways, to continue to film’s overt boxing metaphor, the final fight is before the last interview. Nixon, having uneasily accepting the premature praise from his staff at how well he’d managed the interviews, has a few drinks and calls Frost at his hotel room. He may be winning, but it’s against a pitifully overmatched opponent with whom he has no connection. There’s no satisfaction, no real struggle. He convinces himself he’s dealing with a worthy adversary based on a history of succeeding beyond the situations they were born into and because they both want to return to past success – wilfully ignoring the fact that he wants to wield real power again, while Frost just wants the warm glow of the limelight and better party invitations.

At least the call does level the playing field. Frost does his research, allowing Nixon to take a longed-for dive with some dignity.

This last interview session could be seen as the moment Nixon began to move out of the dark. True, he would never hold office again, and he would be forced to fill his time with inane retirement activities. But he did go on to give more interviews, write more books, and was even quietly consulted as an elder politician, allowing him some measure of influence. More importantly, though, it allowed him to take his place in the American pantheon as a timeless personality, like Elvis or his great rival, Kennedy. Years after his death, Nixon (…er, his preserved cranium) became a popular recurring character on Futurama, making a successful grab at the President of Earth slot, a position that suited his Machiavellian schemes.

David Frost reads the Sunday papers on television every week.

Futurama's Earth-President Nixon

Futurama's Earth-President Nixon

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an inconstant island – Lost Season Five

Lost Season 5.1 – 2: Because You Left / The Lie

Faith and science continue to tango in issues surrounding the island. We’re given shiny new pseudo-science chewtoys to work on – the “nearly infinite power source,” the survivors bouncing Billy Pilgrim-style through the island’s past, return of the universal bloody nose of time-sickness, the resilience of the timeline that refuses to allow the past to be changed, and the resistance of Desmond to that inertia by virtue of his timey-wimey key-turning specialness – but issues of faith carry the plot.

Faith is one step removed from the island’s miracles; here, characters need their loved ones and enemies to have faith in their unbelievable truths, to save the world, serve their own ends, or just rest their consciences. Ben needs to convince the group that knows he’s a compulsive liar and manipulator to return to their exile – while not breaking his inner imperative to never give a provable reason to support his demands. His poor wee skull would apparently break if he did that. Locke has to accept he is no longer King of the Others and rejoin the group that needs his skills and intuition – and somehow convince them to accept him, yet again.

Hurley, despite his stated intentions to screw over Sayid at the soonest opportunity, continues to be the dependable hero and finds relief in telling his mother the insane-sounding truth of his survival. Hurley, as well as being the audience identification figure and occasional Greek chorus, is often the overlooked centre of the cast and plot. He has a set of morals that it makes him sick to violate, and at the core of these is the simple “don’t hurt people.” The hatred of lying is a newly introduced mental foundation – that is a callback (and more suited) to the first season’s thematic establishment – but it fits with his character. In a twisted, multilayered situation, he follows his rules instead of believing his intended outcome with justify his means. Hurley connects and, to the best of his ability, protects; thus when he is in needs, others pull him through. The rest could do worse than follow his example. Not lead, as leadership is obviously not what he’s skilled or comfortable with – see Juliet and Sawyer, below for the opposite state.

Late and perhaps most interesting: Sun. Sun is playing her own game, connecting with those she will work with and those she plans to use in gaining revenge – but who is the former, and who the latter?

Juliet and Sawyer, the perpetual second-stringers step up to the role of leaders, and so far at least have slightly more success at it then Jack. Sawyer still attacks any situation with blunt force, but he turns that force on the people with information he needs to make even basic decisions that will affect the group’s survival. Juliet, finding herself more or less accepted into the group given their much larger problems than her origin, integrates her insider knowledge of the island with Faraday’s hypotheses and generally pushes the others to think instead of fight. Neither of them is hung up by Jack’s desperate need to prove himself, which helps.

Slate’s

Þ Time-sickness and the infinite power that causes it (hmmmm). I was embarrassingly moved by the sickness and resolution of The Constant, and fear continuing to play with the concept will weaken it, a la the Turok-Han vampires of Season 7 Buffy.  But the infinite power that cannot be safely harnessed, that powerful people will continually attempt to harness? Accessed by a donkey wheel? Interesting.

Supes and Bats in Bowling Shirts: Dexter’s Dark Avenger

the Dark Defender

the Dark Defender

Dexter, Season 2

Dexter’s season one self-image begins with the smug self-loathing of a monster, aware that only his conditioning allows him any place in society outside a jail cell. Confronted with two like-minded sociopaths he was unable to force into his mold, he began to see himself as a different and better breed of monster, one who may someday be able to genuinely connect with others as he is. He sees the crowd of curious onlookers as cheering fans, with Deb at his side, smiling and sharing in his applause:

Everyone else would probably thank me if they knew I was the one who drained [the ice truck killer] of his life. Deep down, I’m pretty sure they’d appreciate a lot of my work. This is what it must feel like to walk in full sunlight, my shadow self embraced.

While this is a mixed sign in terms of real progress – retreating into fantasy rather than approaching the issues that the second season will stagger through – the immediate effect is to question the modern heroic archetype: the vigilante superhero.

The show does suffer the requisite sophomore slump, abandoning some of the best first-season elements while deepening the concept’s reach and mythology. While the first season mined and transcended a pulpy beach novel, the second too often lived down to the potboiler source material. One plot thread is painfully predictable: OMG Crazy Hot Girl Is The Only One Who Understands Me And Thus We Must Fuck, which segues into OMG Crazy Hot Chick Is Crazy And Hot, In The Sense That She’s Really Into Emotionally Strategic Arson!

Urgh. Even Dexter’s long delayed leap into sexual puberty can’t justify the stretching of this from its one-episode premise through three-quarters of the short season.

A larger issue was the too-convenient resolution of Dexter’s various cliffhangers. Too often, he is a cipher serving only to bring together the awkward thesis and antithesis that independently resolve his crisis. The long-awaited confrontation with Rita about the real reason her abusive ex-husband was found with a heroin needle sticking from his arm (leading to his re-incarceration and fatal shanking) is derailed after Dexter has been forced to confess – when Rita conveniently jumps to the conclusion he must be an addict himself, apparently forgiving him. This leads Dexter to Narcotics Anon, where he is presented with the season arcs of aforementioned batshit insane hot chick and the addiction filter through which to explore his compulsions. The investigation into the Bay Harbor Butcher (ie Dexter) and the personal persecution of Sgt Doakes crash together, leaving Doakes the top suspect with Dexter’s blood sample trophies in his trunk. Doakes again, stashed in a remote cabin that’s about to be found by the FBI’s great white hunter – not to mention made a connection with Dex and nearly convinced him to turn himself in – is found and spontaneously killed by Batshit Crazy Hot Chick. Who then ties off her own loose end by very publicly demonstrating her insanity and fleeing the country, to be killed by Dexter at his leisure.

Dexter’s contribution to his crises and moral quandaries is little more than ethically facile mopping up. Following the insane woman’s version of the NA programme, he spends months attempting to quit his addiction – allowing Rita, Doakes, and Batshit Crazy Woman to believe he is struggling with heroin – and delve into his shadowed past, particularly the grimier aspects of his formerly sainted foster father. He reaches a breaking point when Doakes witnesses him murdering, and Doakes’ sickened reaction forces him to put together two memories he’d previously managed to keep separate: his father’s horror at witnessing Dexter happily dismember a victim picked according to “Harry’s code” and his father’s suicide soon after.

Dexter’s guilt and misery evaporate soon after when he realises God must approve of his actions, having rescued him from capture via a complicated spiderweb of contrivances; sadly, Dexter lacks to self-awareness to consider the possibility of showrunners sparing his viewers from having to make a real judgement on his actions and their own complicity in his actions, their attention literally continuing his existence.

The hints at superhero traits offered in the first season are laid out without subtlety. One local graphic artist has literally made a comic hero of the Bay Harbor Butcher: the Dark Avenger. (Dexter is fascinated by the image but only notes that dark leather would be completely impractical for Miami.) He enters the season thinking that ordinary people would cheer him on and indeed they do, as an abstract concept. When a face – Sgt Doakes’ – is put to the killer, the acclaim disappears.

As Dexter-the-killer, he exposes the childish morality of superheroes who get the bad guys without killing them. Batman and Superman are condoned by the police in their world, delivering criminals to Headquarter’s front door – although you have to wonder how their cases ever went to trial. Much like Dexter, their verdict of ‘guilty’ is the only law. The criminals who have to die for plotty goodness or the satisfaction of a network’s moral code generally cause their own doom, usually by refusing to grab the hand of the person who’s been whaling the life – nearly – out of them for the past several minutes and plunging to their comic-book death.

The show itself resolves the irresolvable in a similar slight of hand, having Lila (a self-deluding murderer-by-arson who seeks out vulnerable new victims) do the dirty work of killing Doakes (a self-confessed monster who admits to isolating himself for others’ safety). Dexter’s ‘code’ remains intact through others’ actions; while Doakes got a raw deal at the end, his obsessive bullying directly led there.

Dexter’s backstory riffs on two of the oldest comic book heroes, recognisable in any part of the world with any access to visual media. He is a superman hiding in plain sight – like Clark Kent, he is physically and intellectually stronger than most; like Bruce Wayne, he builds his ‘true’ persona with technological preparation and stringent training. His motivations…they are something of a different story, but not from a distant shelf. The motivations of the hero and the serial murderer may only be chapters of the same book.

The foundling is raised by a foster father who knows his beloved son is not like other children, who instils a rigid code and the need to hide his difference above all else. Ostensibly on the side of the angels – he wants his strange son to have something of a normal life, unmolested by authority, while using his abilities to make the world a better, safer place – the impotent father conditions him into a black-and-white worldview to further his own agenda. Isolated from other influences – to keep the dangerous secret of his difference secret, of course – the son sees his father as the ultimate, unquestioned authority and is kept from developing an independent personality and the ability to truly take responsibility for his own actions. When the father has died and the son begins a long-delayed maturation process, he’s initially faced with an either/or: continue following the father’s law to the letter, or reject all morality in favour of showy self destruction.

Or: the boy is orphaned by a gruesome murder that will haunt his psyche through adulthood. As a nemesis could later observe,  he had a bad day, and everything changed – he became a vicious freak, avenging that long-ago trauma on present individuals who are innocent of that crime, if not others. Only a personally enforced code keeps him morally separate from those he hunts.

Unlike Clark or Bruce, Dexter actively reminds himself that he is a monster – usually forcing himself into an emotionless archetype he doesn’t actually fit – despite his code. Those other American heroes cling to their codes as the thing that makes them the opposite of the criminals they use violence and intimidation to apprehend. Dexter knows he would still kill without the veneer of justice. The abilities and the need to use them precede any thirst for justice.

Would Bats and Supes do the same in a more realistic world? Where society – or at least its legal system – demanded that only the police force, with its flawed systems of oversight and restraint, use physical force to “protect” society and remove its worst elements?