Posts tagged ‘80s’

dreams whipping by: Coffee and Cigarettes

Coffee and Cigarettes

Jack Shows Meg His Tesla Coil: Coffee and Cigarettes

Coffee and Cigarettes is a film that is better to have watched than watch, both irritating and enthralling, an impatience I’ve experienced with other Jim Jarmusch projects. It particularly suits this collection of vignettes. though, because it’s a feeling shared by nearly all of the characters. Wanting nothing more than to contemplate the pleasurable minor vices of the title, they are forced instead to interact with other people, to navigate through shared antipathy and neediness.

There’s something painfully nostalgic about these spaces, pre-smoking ban cafes and diners and bars. They offer at their best a luxurious anonymity, somewhere to pause for the price of bottomless coffee with only a pack of cigarettes, a book, or one’s thoughts for company. These places were going extinct when I fell in love with them, uniquely uncool places with an accumulation of calcified locals. It felt like trespassing in another decade, one with real adults, and being tolerated rather than welcomed, a surprisingly fruitful atmosphere for in-depth navel gazing. The drink-up-and-get-out anonymity offered by the chains that replaced these joints (along with their significantly better coffee) just isn’t the same.

Meeting for coffee is defined as undefined, lacking the commitment of a meal or even a drink. Someone’s late, someone’s waiting, someone has someplace better to be, someone really doesn’t. It’s the dentist’s waiting room of sociability, one eye always on the door and wishing the liminal uncomfortableness will mercifully end, wishing for enough time to somehow make it end well. Chess patterns lurk in every vignette, reflecting the patrons’ inability to simply converse or share the quiet, perpetually competing for the upper hand, to be interesting or admired or just the first person to leave the table. Offenses are passed back and forth like sugar jars, but no one has the gumption to fight, cringing at the formica instead. No one comes off well (I found myself really disliking Tom Waits, in fact, who I otherwise admire very much), but they are all too familiar, mapping onto personal memories and tingeing them tragicomic.

It’s a film of fleeting pleasures (dipping into the light nonsense of a conversation shared en masse by everyone with a cup in one hand and a cigarette in the other) and punishing self-awareness amid the impossibility of truly meeting anyone else, blindly focused on how we’re coming across ourselves. We’ve met, we’ve conversed, going through the steps of the dance without ever getting to our feet. Are we friends? Why don’t I enjoy your company, when I want to, when I’ve made the effort to see you? Why can’t we share something as meaninglessly solacing as coffee and cigarettes?

Strange to Meet You: Steven Wright and Roberto Benigni

Strange to Meet You: Steven Wright and Roberto Benigni

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childhood’s refugees: Goodbye Lenin!

Goodbye Lenin!

A hilariously touching coming-of-age story, Goodbye Lenin! not only places the protagonists at a contemporary transitional threshold of very late teens/early twenties but also defines modern adulthood as taking control of the lie you live.

Germany’s unification is shown as something driven by youth who first fear an empty adulthood perpetually waiting for poor-quality necessities but are then left adrift by a first surge of capitalism that offers no adulthood at all, only menial jobs that fund ephemeral childish entertainments. The focus is on one family who, since the father’s defection into the West (and the arms of a western mistress), have been defined by their mother’s passionate Socialist activism. Ariane, a young mother, is forced to give up studying for an economics degree and experience the business world directly as a fast-food worker. Her little brother finds a job mocking his youthful dreams of following the East German cosmonaut Sigmund Jähn into space, selling satellite tv door to door. The wonder of outer space has been replaced by the capitalist utilitarianism of bringing massive spectator sports events to the dull-eyed masses, each in their separate boxes.

The speed of this change is striking. Their mother, Christiane, lies in a coma for only eight months (caused by the heart attack she suffered, seeing her son arrested for striking against the state she’d devoted her life to), but her children struggle to comprehend, let alone recreate, that former world to protect her fragile health. “I can’t believe we used to wear this shit,” Ariane complains, already missing her gaudy new clothes. All the food brands their mother requests have disappeared from shelves, driving Alex to dumpster-dive for old jars to sterilise and re-use.

Despite being set a generation behind the present, this film captures a very contemporary feeling better than any film set recently: how do young people grow up when the world they’ve been prepared for is wiped away in – seemingly – moments? My own generation, awkwardly perched between X and Y, was pushed to embrace technological education (with all the debt that brings) and specialise in order to be valuable as part of a well-paid, globalised, free-moving world workforce, and when we are at the age of these siblings, that crumbled with the same finality as the Cold War Eastern Bloc.

Despite the frantic improvisation required to keep his mother (possibly) convinced her beloved state is still functional, Alex comes to see the tiny world he’s made as a quiet haven from the chaos of change outside – just as his mother is able to get out of bed and takes a stab at reclaiming her independence by going outside. There she finds a riot of advertising, consumer goods, and most bizarrely telling, a statue of Lenin being airlifted out of the city (presumably to the scrapyard), seeming to wave solemnly to her as it passes. Does she realise now what has happened, is that why she is able later to tell her children that their despised father did not run away with another woman but emigrate, expecting her to follow with his family? Deeply frightened by the police interrogation and the likelihood of losing her children if she applied for a visa, Christiane had created and wholeheartedly embraced a fantasy that made the feared communist state a beloved protector that required her constant support. This gave her a meaningful life as the go-to person in their area for help with every small problem, but deprived her children of even their father’s letters, let alone presence, and she does not know whether she truly made the right choice.

Passing this burden on to her offspring is – along with Ariane and her partner’s new attitude toward being a parents rather than reluctant babysitters – a first indication they’ve become real adults. Christiane is able to die somewhat contented, even accepting someone else’s comforting fantasy, because Alex proves he can carry it. In order to camouflage the markers of change he couldn’t hide, he’d enlisted first his cinema-mad work partner and eventually an entire circle of friends to create fake newscast videos. The first claimed Coca Cola had been discovered to be a socialist invention of the 1950s (hence why the building across the way suddenly sprouted the iconic red banner); the second explained the world Christiane had wandered into as populated by West German refugees, desperate to escape the miserable life suffered under capitalism; and his final pièce de résistance incorporated both his childhood hero (once cosmonaut, now a taxi driver) as the new East German leader and actual footage of the Berlin wall being torn down – as West Germans poured into the city to embrace the potentials of socialism while rejecting the soul-killing goals of mindless consumerism.

Christiane drifts away while fireworks and celebrations break out in the streets below, letting herself believe they celebrate a humanitarian socialist unification (not knowing that newly united Germany’s football team had just won the World Cup). Her children will not achieve their dreams of space travel, but they have synthesized from East and West their own compassionate meanings to guide them through the chaos of change. It left me feeling quite sad, actually, seeing this just after the historic US healthcare bill finally passed, among a flood of reflexive selfishness and fear-mongering. Unlike this family, my own generation seems to have claimed a much darker and short-sighted set of meanings as our guiding star.

Gonna fly now, or not: Rocky (I)

"Rocky" is one of those words that looks unwordlike if you see it once too often.

It’s difficult to hear the name ‘Rocky’ and not picture cheesy training montages and patriotically homoerotic boxing clinches, with the grimacing visage of Reagan forever looming over the spectacle.  They were the Sunday-afternoon staples of an 80s childhood, famous lines interspersed with commercials urging parents to Buy American every fifteen minutes.  They were live-action cartoons for grownups who needed a little pro-USA comfort as the junk-bond moguls…er, I mean Commies…gobbled up and excreted the small companies that offered Middle American providers stable, lifelong employment.  Until recently, I’d never seen and entire Rocky movie in one sitting, and that was Rocky 4, the most painfully jingoistic of the bunch.

But before Rocky became an unironic Real American Hero in the 80s, he was born in a small guerrilla-style film of the same name that was firmly rooted in the gloomy American Dream Denied tradition of 70s cinema.  There’s a triumphant sports story in Rocky, and its name is Apollo Creed – a member of the oppressed minority group throughout United States history who’s risen through brains, ability, and sheer guts to the pinnacle of success.  In his triumphant career high, he claims the nation’s bicentennial for himself, staging a show fight on New Years’ Day and entering as the embodiment of America in stars-and-stripes shorts and a George Washington wig, throwing money to the mostly white spectators.  And he’s cheered for this, accepted as the new king signifier of the country that’s a bare generation away from regular lynchings of other black men who got above their allowed station.  Apollo Creed is at the forefront of the nation’s new ascendant force – and how painful it is now to see that confidence, before the crack epidemic and mass exodus of semi-skilled jobs to come all but gutted the civil rights advancements of those decades!

But this isn’t Creed’s movie.  As fleshed out as he is, given limited screen time, and clearly the traditional A-story, the narrative focuses on the B-thread, the ethnic white population painfully transitioning from the disappearing ‘working class’ identity to simply ‘poor.’  Rocky, a never-was prizefighter eking out a living as a loan shark’s muscle, clings to the lowest rung of this strata, sharing that humiliating space with the painfully shy pet shop clerk on whom he nurses an inarticulate crush.  They also share the crippling disadvantage of minimal self-awareness, unable to effectively shield themselves against and with the continual stream of insults each neighbour neurotically spews in a social scene as bleak as the post-industrial waste it resides in.

Far from the caricatures of the sequels, these characters are sensitively observed, all struggling under the same basic character arc – the need to keep up a reputation, usually when everything else is lost – but in individual ways.  Rocky provides the film’s thesis in a rambling stream-of-consciousness lecture to a neighbourhood girl.  He doesn’t speak of her potential for a happy future or successful career if she doesn’t waste her youth committing misdemeanours on the mean streets; all she can hope for is to not be remembered as a whore, or a bum.  Once safely deposited on her doorstep, she blows him off: ‘Screw you, creep-o!’

True connection, or even basic politeness, is impossible in a shifting cultural scene with no wholly respectable positions to occupy.  Nearby people are only comparisons to measure oneself against and a target to lower the bar on that competition.  The loan shark’s out-of-shape driver compulsively berates the muscle-bound prizefighter from behind the shield of their boss; the boss humiliates Rocky for not breaking a debtor’s thumbs because not carrying out threats hurts a loan shark’s reputation, calling Rocky an idiot for offering a reasonable explanation: if he ruined the labourer’s hands, he’d be laid off, and unable to earn the money to pay him back.  The shark takes a hit from an inhaler mid-rant, the show of weakness inspiring an angrier finish as cover.  Rocky’s humiliated again in the gym, losing his locker for being, as the owner announces to the young fighters surrounding them, a bum who’s wasted his talent as hired muscle.  In fact, no one has a civil word for Rocky; perhaps his longing for the clerk comes from the fact that she only freezes when he attempts conversation.

The breakthrough in Rocky’s inertia comes from two completely external sources haphazardly shoring up their own implied worth.  He gets a date with Adrian because her brother Paulie, who hopes Rocky will set him up as muscle with the loan shark and liberate him from the drudgery of the meat-packing plant, wants to do him a favour while making his sister a little less visibly weird.  It’s assumed she’s a virgin, a safe reputation in a world that’s yet to hear of that Sexual Revolution craic, but that means she’s also a dried-up spinster, a dangerous stereotype in any culture.  (Later, unable to admit his jealousy at her unexpected happiness and confidence, he rejects her as ‘busted,’ a theoretically ruined reputation rather than potentially the contented spouse of a suddenly successful local boy.)

At the same time, Rocky is plucked from obscurity by the media-savvy Creed solely for his nickname, the ‘Italian Stallion.’  Creed’s opponent in his career-crowning show bout has dropped out, and he knows he needs a white boy in the ring with him, ideally one with a clear ethnic identity.  If he fought one of the boxers in his class, who are all black, he risked his big event being rejected by the majority of working-class fans, but given someone they could identify with who had a golden-ticket shot at the title, Creed knew the fans would love him more than ever.

Rocky, pathetically, is keenly aware that both of these are set-ups most likely doomed to failure, and attempts to duck out of each.  He’s shepherded back into line, and begins to go through the motions, dully anticipating humiliating failure.  First, with Adrian, he stumbles through the least smooth first date committed to film, culminating in a problematic seduction scene.  To the script’s credit, it knows this is a horrible situation and neither character is coming off well, but it’s the only, shamefully inadequate, script their culture gives two people to come together.  I experienced this myself many times, growing up 80 miles west of Philly – the guy is expected to push, wheedle, guilt, and subtly threaten the girl to come inside, to sit close, to kiss, to submit to sex; the woman, if she is worth anything, is to appeasingly resist with all her might, but not escape.

(What a difference a generation makes; I was able to leave, to drive or walk home on my own with confidence the fella could – and would – slander me in retaliation, and no one would give a damn.)

Both characters look ill as Rocky bars her way out and announces he’s going to kiss her, and she doesn’t have to kiss him back if she doesn’t want it (it probably didn’t hurt that Talia Shire was fighting the flu as they filmed the scene).  Then, relief, they are suddenly both on the same passionate page, breaking through mutual incomprehension!  But the spectre of how horribly wrong it would have gone if they weren’t lingers through their new relationship even as Adrian begins to flourish under the genuine affection.

There’s no such connection anywhere else in Rocky’s life.  He’s suddenly got friends, all of whom want a bit of the shine (and payday) he’ll have in the ring with Apollo.  Rocky knows they’d still consider him a worthless bum otherwise, they know he knows, and it’s horribly awkward all around how they suddenly grovel for his stamp of approval on their worth.  Lunk that he is, Rocky can’t even properly reject any of them, and accepts the cut-rate friendship on offer.  By the end of the movie, with a genuine connection to Adrian counterbalancing the sub-par Machiavellian efforts of the others, Rocky is able to forget the embarrassment of being used and claim them as friends who happen to be deeply flawed.  One of the few benefits of the sequels is to show that this attitude has fruit, forging meaningful relationships on both sides.

What the sequels get desperately wrong is that they make winning the climactic fight Rocky’s high point.  In the original, though, Rocky’s triumph is when he loses himself in his training, like Albert Camus’ Sisyphus happily pushing his rock uphill, the overwhelming effort freeing him from the torture of thought.  No longer tormented by the potentially brilliant athletic career now that he’s finally putting his heart into the attempt, Rocky is both joyful and high on endorphins.  Here, he escapes from the paradigm that allows only a few winners and many losers.  Despite the heady hopes of those close to him, he knows he’s terminally outclassed.  With no chance of winning, he can only lose if he doesn’t make Creed work for it.

Through sheer ‘heart’ (a boxing term that seems to mean ‘too desperate and stupid to fall down before permanent brain damage sets in’), Rocky denies Creed a clean victory, losing by points rather than a KO.  Even as the tv cameras clamour for the image and quote that will cement his reputation, he seeks only Adrian, who’s travelled a parallel path of realising she doesn’t have to live down to her brother’s insults when she’d rather be someone’s beloved tomboy in a kicky beret.  Rocky’s won not because he’s beaten Creed, Mr T, or a monosyllabic slab of Russian beef to the mat but because, with his new self-esteem and life partner, his success will be a contented little life with nothing to prove ever again.

At least until the sequels.  Dammit.

Midichlorian-free: The Men Who Stare At Goats

ewan mcgregor tries to make his skull pop out his eye sockets

As a kid I was a sucker for the patriotic or counterculture fist-pump, the humanised enemy representative who receives a grand rescue by White America Man, who is raging against the machine of Evil White Men Who Won’t Listen To Humanistic Reason And Probably Smirk A Lot, thus signifying that White America in the audience was ok after all – because they’re certainly represented by the good guy, not the suits, right?  Didn’t our soulful proxy just save the doe-eyed enemy, making us realise we’re really One World, Together?

Unfortunately, I grew out of that happy fuzziness into retching at smug self-effacement and wishing we were following the enemy’s story instead, getting into their head.  And I can’t help but wonder that these portrayals aren’t salt in the wounds of real individuals represented, first abused and then symbolically rescued by the dominant culture attempting to wipe out theirs.  So, based solely on a triumphant rescue scene that liberates starving, tortured, orange jumpsuit-clad Iraqi prisoners to the desert with no supplies, I can’t entirely recommend The Men Who Stare At Goats, despite this being what supposedly happened to journalist Jon Ronson in the course of investigating the US military’s experiments with New Age techniques well after the most credulous hippies had abandoned them.

Aside from this problematic thread, The Men Who Stare At Goats is an often fascinating black comedy exploring a (somewhat true) recent iteration of humanity’s continual need for mythic superhumans, those whose mental and physical abilities breech – just slightly – the limits of human possibility.  It’s satisfying to hear of warriors and sages who can, after years of esoteric study, leap great distances or see beyond the range of their eyes.  This superman defines the human by providing both a clear dividing line and the inspiration to achieve full potential by trying to leap beyond it.

The needful human relationship to myths officially goes skew-wiff, though, when people start believing they’ve achieved magic abilities themselves.

Goats brings together people of two modern eras when Americans en masse felt they’d lost the national narrative and were susceptible to magical thinking, the beginnings of the 1980s and 2000s.  Based on the real-life First Earth Battalion and the Stargate Project, which ultimately only contributed to the psychological warfare tactics of the US military, the film follows a man rocked primarily by divorce and obligatorily by the cultural turmoil following the 2001 terrorist attacks who connects with a former Jedi Warrior / test subject who believes he’s been reactivated.  Like many young adults in September’s immediate aftermath, Bob feels his personal problems should be taking a back seat to those in the larger world he’s suddenly aware of.  Unlike most of them, who attended protests and blogged furiously and ultimately realised that horrific world events went on whether they paid attention or not, Bob went to Kuwait and tried to get imbedded with troops in Iraq.

Instead, he meets Lyn – a name he knows from interviewing a local crazy / former First-Earther who claimed to have psychic abilities – and plunges into two decades of flashbacks detailing a Vietnam War vet’s immersion in post-sixties counterculture and his attempt to forge “Jedi Warriors” out of soldiers.  The soldiers themselves are mostly the typical waifs and strays that drift into military life, looking for connection, discipline, and meaning, and one spoon-bending huckster.  It’s an obvious train wreck waiting to happen, with surprising moments of sweetness along the way.  Bob tags along, unsure whether he’s uncovering a tale of classified governmental insanity or true superhumans, but sure either will establish him as a serious journalist and impress his ex-wife.

There’s a core of sadness running through the dark comedy, and the film itself would fail if it was merely a Dr Strangelove-style satire.  Only the awareness that this is based on real madness, that the potential for paranormal warfare was embraced by two presidents – one enamoured with astrology and the Star Wars movies, the other drawing strength from a mystical evangelic tradition – provides the stranger-than-fiction hilarity.  Underneath the self-delusions, however, are lonely people looking for an explanation that forces some sense onto the randomness of life.  Bill Django, severely wounded by a single foe his troop of green soldiers fail to hit, has the revelation that even trained soldiers, new to the battlefield, will avoid killing another human being.  Revering this ‘gentleness,’ he doesn’t leave the army but instead counter-intuitively seeks to bring it into the military paradigm as a combat advantage.  It’s as if being part of that system is imperative to his identity, even as his values move in direct opposition to the business of killing.

The soldiers brought into the program embrace the warmfuzzy self-actualisation exercises, despite the divergence from their military training.  They also prove to be mentally flexible enough to encompass both the military setting that has given them a recognised niche in life and the silly activities that feel good and garner them praise from authority.  There’s a snake in this doomed garden, of course, the huckster mentioned above who might believe in his own advertised powers but is far better at cynically manipulating his superiors using real-world leverage.  After a series of embarrassments, he stages a coup and pushes the old guard out of the program, which he changes to focus on practical methods of undermining and killing the enemy.

Here lies the film’s most simple and genuine journey – the mildly brainwashed Lyn, leaving the military, is ‘cursed’ by his enemy.  He feels he left himself open to that by impulsively using his powers to kill an innocent being (the stared-at goat of the title), thus perverting the life-affirming philosophies on which his new identity of a Jedi Warrior are based.  Years later, dying of exposure in the Iraqi desert, he’s saved by a goat who leads him first to an oasis, then to rescue.  He repays this implied forgiveness by rescuing a flock of military goats destined for painful experimentation (and, in the process, the tortured prisoners mentioned above, but they are a conceptual afterthought), and is able to face the end of his life in peace, with his mentor at his side.

These are men sifting through their lives for a core, heroic narrative, as evidenced by unironically taking on the identity of fictional space samurai.  They attempt to take the occasional flashes of brilliance that make mundane life interesting or just bearable and force them to become something controllable and permanent.  The constant tease of the movie is whether they’ve managed to do so, in any way, or if their belief that they have supernatural powers merely allows them to sometimes pull off impressive stunts attainable by meat and nerves.  Perhaps Lyn and Bill have, taking the long way, attained a sort of wu wei, accepting that where they are is where they are meant to be at that moment, and accomplish what anyone could without the cloud of pointless anxiety fogging their decisions (instead of a massive dose of psychotomimetics, which apparently fixes all ills).

The film ends anticlimactically, with Bob’s exposé of cruel and unusual prisoner torture and military experimentation receiving only the smallest, pettiest media coverage (that prisoners were forced to listen to Barney the Dinosaur).  Inspired by the First Earth principles, however, Bob vows to soldier on and achieves the trick all others had failed, phasing through an office wall.  Or, retreats into a hallucination of doing so while he actually smacks himself unconscious.  (Why, exactly, must they keep attempting this at work, with witnesses?)  Whether they actually succeed is a moot point; only that the potential they might have becomes a fantasy-sustaining myth for the rest.

the men who stare at goats

prozzies and other respectable women

Ashes to Ashes 1.03

Ashes to Ashes continues, hitting many of the same notes as Sam’s stint in Gene Hunt’s world.  Since the pilot, Alex has reliably featured moments of headdesking stupidity in the presence of her mother and her mother’s law firm partner (in 2008, the godfather of her daughter).  Abandoning her ‘you are all figments’ stance, she alternates between amazed gawping and craven attempts to elicit approval.  Rather than backing away slowly from the crazy woman, they offer brief but meaningful insights into their perspectives that inadvertently guide Alex through her hallucinatory new world.  Again like Sam, the gang surprisingly takes her lapses of cranial continence in stride while being horrified by her minor futuristic faux pas…but I suppose without this contractual genre blindness (or just plot-induced stupidity?), the show would be called Special Woman Is Instantly Institutionalised and Spends Thirteen Episodes Heavily Sedated.

Still, it bugs me.  Almost as much as Alex’s club-appropriate workwear, set in a time when a female professional, let alone a detective, would have been strapped into restrictive chin-to-knees pseudo-Victorian armor, heavily featuring those awful high-necked blouses with sewn-in bows and boxy pleated wool skirts.  A few years later, she’d be clad in a solid-color power suit with shoulder pads up to her ears.  Professional specifically did not equal sexy, outside of fetishes similar to those surrounding schoolgirl uniforms (and bearing as much relation to the reality).  A white-collar female was an impenetrable tank.

Margaret Thatcher

Despite this incongruity, the show is starting to play with a more complex morality.  Along the lines of the impenetrable tank…after subtly hitting on Gene and being shot down, Alex lets herself be picked up by a red suspender wearing Thatcherite, who she drunkenly boffs to the energetic beats of Bucks Fizz.  Her coworkers start out teasing her when she drags herself into work the following day, hungover and exhausted, but she reacts the way a modern woman working in a chauvinist environment should: yes, I’m dead tired because I was up all night shagging a total stranger, and it was bloody fantastic.  No shame, no cringing, just one of the boys.

Unfortunately…1981 wasn’t quite modern enough for that, or at least for these blokes.  No matter what Aaron Spelling and his Starsky & Hutch taught us in the late 70s, a confident, pretty woman interested in getting laid wasn’t a great girl but someone who should be far more discrete.  The men are uncomfortable, Gene is furious and offering the hard truth that she won’t be respected if she’s known to have sex—part advice for someone working beneath him who needs the respect of his crew, part fury that a woman who’d made herself ‘his’ in some vague but definite way by hitting on him had flipped over to someone who wouldn’t look after her.

This is set in an episode focusing on prostitutes, specifically whether one can be raped, as she claims.  Gene & Co display the sentiments that continue to linger in many minds today—prostitutes, as people who sell their bodies for sex, cease to be properly human.  A woman who doesn’t strenuously resist having sex with men, let alone chasing them for her own pleasure, becomes something closer to a prostitute.  These aren’t rational preconceptions, by any means, but divisions usually instilled before a child hits puberty and are rarely challenged.

Ray, however, possibly the thickest member of Gene’s squad, does rise to the challenge.  He befriends a traumatised young woman and, while he’s obviously disturbed by her revelation that she’s a ‘lady of the night,’ it leads him to the second moral quandary of the episode—framing the man who raped and assaulted her for cocaine possession.  Ray is now unable to accept that a man could go unpunished for violating just a prostitute, and betrays the law he is sworn to uphold in a satisfying but disturbing way.

Even more jolting, this takes place during the denouement, and Alex and the police watching the rapist being arrested on an obviously bogus drug possession charge applaud and congratulate Ray.  None of them acknowledges Ray’s legal violation or suggests there was a better, legal way to go after him—ideally by following the bugger and establishing relationships with the local prostitutes to catch him repeating his crime, rather than bunging him up on a charge that will likely fall apart in court.

This department feels that, together, they can answer to a higher morality than the law when the law fails them.  What terrifying disaster awaits this crew of celibate ersatz Dark Knights if they continue to follow this ‘higher’ calling?

fire up the quattro!

Ashes to Ashes:1.01
2008

The spin-off from the acclaimed (if sometimes excruciating) Life on Mars is self-consciously extreme, with both the drama and dark humor ratcheted up to the appropriate 80s excess.  This year’s timetraveller-slash-madman is DI Alex Drake, a police psychiatrist and single mother who has been investigating the suicide of Sam Tyler.  Familiar with Sam’s fantasy world and characters that suddenly surround her after being shot in the face by druglord-cum-vagrant Arthur Layton, she believes she’s having an elaborate hallucination in the seconds before she dies, but still fights to wake up from it and return to her demanding, impulsive daughter.

Ray Carling, who BBC informs us is now “The Bear,” tells her with regret that her acquaintance Sam Tyler died with the 70s a year earlier, crashing his car into a river after leaving Gene behind on a police chase.  His body was never found, allowing speculation on his Schrödingeresque state to rampage on.  He tells Alex that they key to surviving is to stay with Gene, not only expressing his own philosophy of life but possibly offering a key to why the two officers have been drawn back into the past.

The pilot was a conscious retread of the Life on Mars pilot.  Set-up of current life in the present, spotlighting the few personal connections?  Check.  Introductory Make Ass Of Self scene?  Check.  Enigmatic flashbacks in old-film filter?  Check.  Parent issues centring around that year?  Check.  There’s even similar avatars of hostile knowledge in the form of different childhood icons (which, lacking a UK childhood, had no more significance to me than ‘sort of like Sesame Street’ and ‘some freaky Euro-clown’).  The subject is partly aware of this reality—or only thinks she is—and seeks out the missing signifiers from Sam’s reports.  Unfortunately, phones, radios, and tvs give her nothing; her only communications come in dreams and visions.

Most of the direct communication from the hostile avatars in fact goes over her head, couched in subtle visuals only the viewers see—such as the clown’s head on a shelf in Layton’s junk store, or its reflection looming over her shoulder in a shiny interview table.  While Life on Mars followed Sam’s point of view, DI Drake of more an active object of the mystery than an identification figure.  The audience has more pieces of the puzzle.

Alex thus far seems to be a less sympathetic character than Sam, but a more confident timetraveler-slash-madman, hopefully less likely to likely to commit the forehead-smackingly boneheaded moves that Tyler’s run included at least once per episode.  Instead of acting generally unhinged in a manner that would leave most professionals escorted by security carrying a box of personal belongings, Alex calmly treats the others as both people and figments in turn and with equal sangfroid expects to be treated with respect while stuck wearing uncomfortably revealing clothes.  She also gains a few points by getting drunk with the team and groping Gene on her very first night in the past, thus ensuring they’ll overlook a greater proportion of weird behaviour than if she’d remained in the remote and dismissive pose Sam initially chose.

This spinoff so far seems to retain the parent show’s flaws, particularly in the imbalanced drama/comedy tone.  Particularly, scenes and setups still misfire as often as they catch.  The “A-Team”’s emergence in the gunfight via speedboat with machine guns, while a good visual gag, destroys the delicate dream vs time-travel question.  That could only be a modern person’s fantasy moment.  When scenes catch, though, they really really catch.  When Ray tells of Sam’s death, he is a man more comfortable with his place in life than the resentful demoted DI of the earlier decade.  Gene’s frustration while on the phone to his superior shows a big man who’s time has passed, and knows it.  And entire shows could take place in their new hangout, a wine bar where a long-suffering Magical Italian possibly takes Nelson’s place as the wise bartender.

There is one unbearable bit, though.  I don’t know how I’ll get through a season of an entire cast in those terrible pleated trousers and white jeans.  For the love of Oxford Street, let no lazy designers take those on as this fall’s new look!