Thursday, November 22, 2012


"Now it all started two Thanksgivings ago-- two years ago on Thanksgiving, when my friend and I went up to visit Alice at the restaurant. But Alice doesn't live in the restaurant, she lives in the church nearby the restaurant, in the bell-tower, with her husband Ray and Fasha the dog. And livin' in the bell tower like that, they got a lot of room downstairs where the pews used to be in. Havin' all that room, seein' as how they took out all the pews, they decided that they didn't have to take out their garbage for a long time.

We got up there, we found all the garbage in there, and we decided it'd be a friendly gesture for us to take the garbage down to the city dump. So we took the half a ton of garbage, put it in the back of a red VW microbus, took shovels and rakes and implements of destruction and headed on toward the city dump.

Well, we got there and there was a big sign and a chain across across the dump saying, "Closed on Thanksgiving." And we had never heard of a dump closed on Thanksgiving before, and with tears in our eyes we drove off into the sunset looking for another place to put the garbage.

We didn't find one. Until we came to a side road, and off the side of the side road there was another fifteen foot cliff and at the bottom of the cliff there was another pile of garbage. And we decided that one big pile is better than two little piles, and rather than bring that one up we decided to throw ours down.

That's what we did, and drove back to the church, had a Thanksgiving dinner that couldn't be beat, went to sleep and didn't get up until the next morning, when we got a phone call from officer Obie..."

Happy thanksgiving to you dirty hippies, mother stabbers, father rapers and all the rest of you mean, nasty, ugly, unrehabilitated kids! May you and your very own Alice and Ray and Fasha have a lovely day!


Tuesday, November 20, 2012


Well, the best of intentions and all that...

Simon Abrams and I are entering the final stretch of our extensive look at Season One of American Horror Story,  and the ball has been in my court to return Simon's initial volley on episode 10, "Birth," ever since it was posted here this past Thursday. Truth be told, I think I can speak for Simon as well as myself when I say that the series is wearing on us a little bit. I'd already seen all but two of the episodes at least  twice before, but Simon didn't need even that previous exposure to be driven to distraction by around episode six. And as I've only semi-facetiously mentioned before in our published exchanges here, I've come to believe that since we began this series in August we've probably put more thought into at least the artistic intent of the series than maybe even Mssrs. Murphy and Falchuk have themselves.

Truthfully, it's been an exhausting process, and I think both Simon and I are looking forward to wrapping it all up. But in order to do that, I need to hold up my end of the bargain and this week has not been a good one for obligations of bargain fulfillment. I've been scrambling to get ready for a much-needed Thanksgiving vacation, and the prep for that, not to mention the actual travel to get to the colder climes of Southeastern Oregon, from whence I'm currently posting, has taken up most every spare minute of the past few days. My only breathers have involved gnashing my teeth and mourning the Oregon Ducks' non-arrival at Autzen Stadium on Saturday for their contest against a victorious Stanford team and a little pre-Thanksgiving feast with the Los Angeles branch of the family on Sunday.

So I'm here to let you know, those few of you who are still with us at this point, that I'm going to cede to my surroundings, hang up the keyboard on American Horror Story for this week and enjoy the company of family and friends whom I haven't seen in far too long. I'll be back next week (around Wednesday time) with not only a response to Simon's characteristically articulate and agitated musings on "Birth" but also a recap of the season's final episode, "Afterbirth," which will initiate the closure of our time spent with this fascinating, maddening series and allow at least me to uncork the DVR on Season Two. (Simon is going to take a longer break from the Murphy-Falchuk madness, I suspect.)

I'll be back tomorrow with some random thoughts before the holiday. But as far as AHS goes, please stand by. We will resume our regularly scheduled programming after a short, tryptophan-laced break.


Friday, November 16, 2012


I wish I could have come out of Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master flush with excitement at having seen The Great American Movie so many seem to think it is, because I really respected Anderson’s attempt to work out the poetry and intricately rendered character observation of a novel into a unique, specifically cinematic voice. But for me this “story” of a man’s shattered life (and, by extension, a generation’s)-- the quest to recapture a past that swirls and churns away helplessly out of our grasp, like the turquoise turmoil in the wake of a ship chugging straight into the future, and the perilous master-mentor/father-son bond between that man and the imperious charlatan who takes him under his wing-- finally became belabored, monotonous, too eager in its obliqueness to ever find the true emotional underpinnings of this central relationship.

I put “story” in quotes because whatever story there is happens to be told not so much in the conventional narrative sense but in the close-ups of Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell, searching for some sort of mooring in the aftermath of an (unseen) experience in the Navy during World War II, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Livingston Dodd, self-described writer, doctor, theoretical philosopher and “hopelessly inquisitive” renaissance man (“Just like you”) who seems to promise the access to a more stable, saved life through the nascent machinations of his brainchild, The Cause, a pseudo-religious cult of personality (whose resemblance to Scientology is, in the end, irrelevant, by the way). Those close-ups, as seen in the 70mm format in which the movie was mostly shot (camera malfunctions necessitated the occasional indulgence in 35mm), are presented with an almost hyper-real clarity and intimacy through the guidance of cinematographer Mihai Malaimare, Jr., and they invite us to indulge in the epic battle of wills, atavistic confusion versus calculated dominance, that is being waged on the landscape of these actors' fascinating faces.

The problem is that after a while the expressive nature of that battle, as Anderson frames it, ends up tapering off into a repetition of points on the elusiveness of organized enlightenment without an apparent urgency to dramatize those points in a stronger, more effective (the garlic buzzword here might be “conventional”) way. After a while the movie begins to feel turgid and listless, as if it were caught in the churning water behind that navy boat, endlessly cycling deep and back up toward the surface without ever breaking through to air. 

However, the alternative to The Master’s clinical seething doesn’t seem to offer much more reward. The movie’s big moments consist of Hoffman’s sudden violent eruptions against those—a sneering skeptic; a believer who notices a strange word replacement in a new edition of writing that seems to alter everything that has come before; and of course Freddie in his irrational explosions—who suggest that Dodd and his Cause are something other than what he passive-aggressively insists they are. These moments hint at a more conventional route toward the same sort of interior drama—Dodd, as placid and friendly as he seems, will harbor no dissent-- but even these scenes, as bold as they are against the backdrop of the movie’s reticent formal control, don’t add up to much more than momentary shout-downs, a chance for the actors to blow off steam. 

Again, the anger exploding out of the cells where Dodd and Freddie find themselves incarcerated after Dodd is arrested for fraud and Freddie resists arrest on his behalf is a kissing (or yelling) cousin to Jake La Motta’s inarticulate rage as he punches the walls of his own jail cell, but here it doesn’t signify much more than two actors and their director playing at being big, self-important blowhards who like the sound of their own raised voices. To my mind that confrontation between the smug, opportunistic sway that Dodd holds over his flock and the articulate resistance to that sway is where the real meat of the matter is found. Yet by structuring the conflict as one between Dodd’s slick manipulations, his unquenchable desire to absorb those around him, and Freddie’s mumbled half-responses and flailing physical acting-out, his inability to decide whether or not absorption would be death or a step up, the real electric charge between them gets tamped down, muted, and finally dominated by Dodd’s demands-- his refusal to back up his theoretical philosophizing becomes disturbingly similar to Anderson’s own tightly controlled aesthetic. The Master is capped by a perverse denial of catharsis that feels “real” and suggests a satisfying repudiation of the sort of randomly imposed order of personality that Dodd represents, yet what it offers in replacement of that catharsis seems empty.

I’m sure this confession will tag me a Luddite in terms of the evolution of film grammar and style, but I walked out of this movie respecting Anderson’s unwillingness to play the game while simultaneously longing for the sense of a journey completed that is the hallmark of the more conventionally well-made film. (I’m not talking about Freddy’s journey, but my own with him.) The comparison is undoubtedly unbalanced and unfair, but I kept thinking how different The Godfather Part II would be if the story of Michael and Fredo had ended not with a kiss and one last fishing trip but instead a grim stare-down, a tear and Michael singing “On a Slow Boat to China” to his defeated, exhausted brother, followed by Fredo going off for a life-affirming fuck far from the shadow of the Lake Tahoe compound.

The Master is full of portent, misplaced, misplayed and even occasionally fulfilled, and its actors are certainly game. Phoenix commands attention and keeps us riveted through natural magnetism and at times sheer perversity, and Hoffman, whose self-satisfaction is sometimes indistinguishable from that of the characters he plays, finds an apt balance between the narrow purposefulness and the necessary gregariousness that cult leaders must possess. He makes the viewer understand what draws people, especially people like Freddie, to Dodd’s flickering flame even if he can’t quite get at what keeps them fluttering near its heat. For single-minded intensity, Amy Adams makes an almost subliminally powerful impression as Dodd’s blunt, non-nonsense wife, the relatively silent support system for his psychological charade. The story of this proverbial woman behind the man might have ended up being the most fascinating of all had Anderson made room in his hermetically sealed conception of the narrative for more of her than just her icy stare. 

I also liked young Jesse Plemons, a ringer for Hoffman who plays Dodd’s dutiful but unimpressed son Val. Plemons, who was the sole point of amusement in this past summer’s god-awful Battleship, mostly hangs around the periphery, suggesting an indifferent heir to what might end up becoming an empire of psychological ephemera. “He’s making it all up as he goes along, you know,” he tells Freddy at one point regarding his father’s methods. It’s a singular and great moment of clarity that Freddy is of course not ready to hear, and in it Plemons mixes up a truth-teller’s burden with a barely suppressed degree of delight that this nugget is coming from the one person on whose support his grandiloquent charlatan of a dad ought to be able to count but cannot.

I have suggested above that there might (might) be an uncomfortable parallel between Dodd’s methods and those of Paul Thomas Anderson, but one thing’s for sure-- I don’t think Anderson is making it up as he goes along. There was a Q&A following last night’s screening at the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, rather artlessly moderated by a woman whose name I did not catch. Among the guests were the movie’s editor, Leslie Jones, legendary production designer Jack Fisk, and Amy Adams. One of the points suggested, by both Jones and Adams at separate points in the conversation, was that as Anderson has matured (their word) as a filmmaker, his on-set methods have loosened up and he’s become more open to ideas that seem conjured on the fly or through production discussion with his collaborators. But one thing has struck me most profoundly about Anderson since Punch-Drunk Love, which I loved and which in retrospect seems more like a crucial transitional film rather than the lark many took it for at the time—whether or not his methods have become looser, more all-encompassing, the actual aesthetic of Paul Thomas Anderson has become ever more controlled, airtight, prescribed, weighty, figured out to within an inch of its life.

Anderson is hardly a joyless filmmaker—I don’t think even at their most grim the visual palette of There Will Be Blood or The Master suggest anything of the sort-- and neither could he be credibly accused of lacking humor. But his latest movies never feel like they could take off, arrive as somewhere other than a predetermined destination, could act the fool, in the way that Magnolia or Boogie Nights, to their mutual credit and detriment, often did. The Master doesn’t seem as alive to myriad possibilities and happenstance as those admittedly uneven, unwieldy, infinitely more entertaining movies do, or certainly those of Robert Altman, Anderson’s declared mentor and inspiration. It’s mounted as sober, weighty, an art film with high-profile Oscar hopes (this is a Weinstein Company release, after all), and though I would never discount the seriousness with which it is being received by a lot of people I know and read and respect, that weighty quality doesn’t bear out with the sort of philosophical grasping at straws and strained elusiveness which I saw as, to paraphrase Vin Scully, The Master’s bread and butter pitch. 

I fully expect I’ll live with The Master for a while, Lancaster Dodd (and PTA?) insinuating and demanding and shouting at me, trying to break down my resistance, and maybe my initial dissatisfaction will morph into something more accepting, more appreciative than what these initial sketchy observations have yielded right now. (Such a thing has been known to happen, and heaven knows my initial less-than-rapturous response has already gotten me into trouble at home.) But I’ll reserve judgment on Anderson as the filmmaking savior of his generation for now, if this film is Exhibit A or even B, in the hopes that he makes more movies which feel like flights of life lived and observed and less like a boat adrift on waves of rhetorical questions about the same.


Tuesday, November 13, 2012


One of the purest pleasures to be had watching movies is when your preconceived notions and prejudices get upturned unexpectedly. For years I’ve avoided Helen Hunt, having been well put-off by the smugness that’s crept into her work ever since she won the Oscar for As Good As It Gets. That was the first strike I held against The Sessions. The other was that over the course of recent years I’ve tried my best to avoid the sort of maudlin, Sundance-style helping of misty-eyed humanity, of which The Sessions seemed to be a high-profile specimen. (The genre is as much garlic to this vampire as the words “coming of age.”) But, surprise, surprise, writer-director Ben Lewin (The Favour, the Watch and the Very Big Fish) has fashioned a movie, suggested by the late poet Mark O'Brien's article detailing his encounter with a sex surrogate, which is humane in the best sense, never denying the essential humor of its protagonist, never tipping over into bathos.


O’Brien, the subject of Jessica Wu’s Academy Award-winning documentary Breathing Lessons, was six years old when his body was overtaken by polio, and he was 36 when his desire for intimate human contact led him to pursue the counsel and services of a professional surrogate. The story Lewin’s movie tells is full of potential ways in which the storytelling might go wrong, almost all of which are avoided thanks to the graceful restraint of its actors. (The movie features, as Dana Stevens correctly observed in Slate, the year's best sex scenes.)  As Cheryl, the surrogate who commits to six sessions with Mark in which they will explore the facets of physical intimacy he has never experienced before, Hunt uses her tensile physical appearance to play off both her ease with her body (she’s fully naked throughout), the detachment she has to call up to do her job, and the ambivalence she begins to feel when she unexpectedly responds to O’Brien’s escalating infatuation with her. Hunt’s copious nudity does invite the question as to why, during a crucial scene, the filmmakers play coy with the opportunity to balance the scales, when Cheryl holds up a mirror to Hawkes so that he might see his own body for the first time in 30 years. The reflection is framed and angled so that the audience is denied the same sight that is so important to O’Brien, and it feels like a breach of faith, a crucial misstep. It’s all the more curious when you read what O’Brien himself wrote about the moment: 

“After she got off the mattress, she took a large mirror out of her tote bag. It was about two feet long and framed in wood. Holding it so that I could see myself, Cheryl asked what I thought of the man in the mirror. I said that I was surprised I looked so normal, that I wasn’t the horribly twisted and cadaverous figure I had always imagined myself to be. I hadn’t seen my genitals since I was six years old. That was when polio struck me, shriveling me below my diaphragm in such a way that my view of my lower body had been blocked by my chest. Since then, that part of me had seemed unreal."

But despite this lapse, the movie isn’t shy elsewhere, and it’s John Hawkes as O’Brien who seems to dictate the playful grace and strength at the heart of The Sessions. He’s our tour guide through the naked honesty which O’Brien exemplified about himself. Hawkes never invites our pity or overplays the bitterness that underlies O’Brien’s humor, yet he draws us in primarily through his eyes and invites us to understand the frustrations, the need, the patience and the fears that lay with Mark every moment, whether inside his iron lung or outside it, constantly sucking on an air tube to survive. Together Hawkes and Hunt do a particularly delicate, but never precious dance, and the movie never scores points off of her for being “emotionally paralyzed” the way a lesser movie might, just as we’re not invited to cry for Mark as some sort of saint in a useless, polio-afflicted shell. Yet the tears the movie inspires are well and honorably earned, a tribute to a life most difficult yet lived with energy and resourcefulness and spirit, all of which is reflected back through this movie in the most unassuming, bracingly unsentimental and refreshingly honest manner possible, which O’Brien himself might have well appreciated.


Flight is anchored (in good ways and bad) by Denzel Washington’s acting too. It’s not exactly a fearless performance in the way Hawkes’s is (or certainly Hunt's), but Washington fascinates throughout and his movie-star gaze, gravity and good looks hold you through some patchy storytelling. The movie is remarkable in that it never invites you to give Washington’s character, an alcoholic pilot who lands a crippled passenger jet through sheer skill despite the fact that he was drunk, high and exhausted from a three-day bender while flying, any undue breaks because of his skill. But the movie also never regains the highs it achieves during that white-knuckle disaster, and for all intents and purposes it’s a pretty square chunk of work. Director Robert Zemeckis, clearly a master technician, never finds a way to ignite the fear and disillusionment the story of this broken man clearly revolves around. He underlines almost every scene with thudding literal-minded classic rock that reflects his points with embarrassing bluntness, a holdover move from the ghastly offenses committed in this arena in Forrest Gump. We get Joe Cocker "Feelin' Alright" when Denzel snorts up before his flight, and "Sympathy for the Devil" to introduce John Goodman's Dr. Feelgood character, etc., etc., ad infinitum, yet somehow George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone” is avoided. (I’d complain of missing the days of raucous Zemeckis comedies like I Wanna Hold Your Hand/1941/Used Cars mold, but what’s the point? Zemeckis seems far too complacent to ever access that hunger and boldness now— his late movies are those of a fat, sassy, complacent cat.)

Flight is never less than watchable, even when it’s slack and perfunctory-- the subplot involving Washington’s tentative romantic relationship with an attractive junkie going through AA leads nowhere; and a crucial backslide the character experiences near the end of the film is a huge howler in terms of believability—Washington trashes a hotel room just hours before a hearing before the NTSB, and yet the agent assigned to guard his room in order to prevent just such an event never hears any of the terrific noise that would have accompanied such a blowout. The actors can’t be blamed for the movie’s missteps: Bruce Greenwood as the pilot’s union rep and Don Cheadle as Washington’s lawyer are both magnificent, treading moral lines as blurred as the one Washington walks, but they’re never turned into cartoon villains, and even though his role is a silly conceit John Goodman gives the movie a shot of adrenalin to match the cocaine buzz he’s there to deliver to Washington’s addled pilot. And of course Washington is magnetic. The problem is, as engrossing as it is, Flight never strays from the plan, and it never takes the viewer anywhere that isn’t telegraphed a mile away. The movie encourages us to be impressed by how bad Washington’s character is (and by extension how bad Washington is), but it never seriously undermines the foregone conclusion of his redemption. 


I nearly walked out of Cloud Atlas after 10 minutes, so impatient was I with its fractured sense of time and place, so sure was I that I’d never get my bearings. But this strange, impassioned, epic seduced me with sinuous weaving of its multiple story lines, interconnected as they are in sometimes obvious, sometimes offhand ways, and populated by actors playing multiple characters that cross boundaries of race, gender and some truly mind-bogglingly bad make-up. There are lots of conventions, like those strange make-up jobs, which I could have either accepted in deference to the emotional pull the movie exerts, or I might also have allowed them to throw me out of the movie. But the literally splintered vision of the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer's adaptation of David Mitchell’s popular 2004 novel held me, never bored, alive to its possibilities for the length of its three-hour running time. I’m not 100% convinced that the writer-directors have found a way to crack the code of how to tell such a complicated mélange of narrative threads that make up the book-- one friend likened it to a relentless session of channel surfing-- but it's a thrilling attempt nonetheless, and I'm grateful for the blissful result of the effort. 

It’s not accurate to describe the movie’s editing rhythms as metronomic, but Cloud Atlas is fascinating in the way it manages to build tension and narrative drive from snippets of stories told simultaneously that, taken as a vaguely theological/political argument about the interconnectedness of the universe, I’m not sure I’d buy in another format. And it turns out I'm a lot more forgiving of a movie whose real pulse I can feel, a movie that is actually shooting for a target it may not even have the means to achieve. One thing is for sure--it’s a movie that isn’t afraid to appear foolish in reaching for ways to effectively translate the interlocking poetry of six stories about personal revolution and transformation, about the ways that our lives are not our own, the vast connections over time and space that we unknowingly forge. Once I surrendered to the movie’s odd rhythms, and gave up on trying to play spot the actor—Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, Hugh Grant, Doona Mae and Hugo Weaving all appear in the guises of various races and genders through the movie’s multi-century time span—Cloud Atlas cast a completely unexpected spell over me, and I’ve barely been able to stop thinking about it since I saw it. It misses the target more than once, but this one-of-a-kind movie never once made me regret its ambition, the sort that many often pine for from Hollywood yet are put off by when a dribble of it finally comes down the pipe. I’m with Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir, who wrote:

“I can understand why some people will back away from Cloud Atlas because it seems overloaded and pretentious and sentimental and infused with a spiritual vision that resembles the wise sayings found on the walls of organic-food cooperatives. It is all those things, but so (even more so) is Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, and I’m way more likely to want to watch this one again. It’s funny, violent and prodigiously romantic; it has immense heart and more gorgeous cinematic moments than I can describe.”

In Speed Racer (uh-oh, here he goes again) the Wachowskis experimented with telling simultaneous story strands, often within the same frame, all of which now seems like ample training for the sort of tonal, narrative juggling that goes on here. The movies are quite dissimilar in overall approach and effect, two distinct pieces of evidence that the Wachowskis may be our most outré, formally challenging mainstream filmmakers. (Though in the world of Hollywood, where you’re only as good as your last flop, one has to wonder how much more slack major studios will be willing to cut these two—it’s been a long time since The Matrix.) Cloud Atlas may not be another Speed Racer, but it’s a moving, silly, baffling, beautiful, unique beast all the same. I can’t wait to see it again.


The biggest surprise of the weekend, however, was Skyfall, which despite all the advanced praise turned out to be a dud almost as profound as Quantum of Solace and quite a few notches below Craig’s initial triumph in Casino Royale. It’s not visually incoherent like the previous Bond film, but it’s flat and unimaginative and almost totally lacking in wit or surprises of the good kind. This marks the third Daniel Craig Bond film propelled or at least informed by the specter of personal tragedy and/or vengeance, and it’s high time the franchise stopped ringing this particular dinner bell. The wheezy, shopworn, illogical script is full of cues about Bond’s tired methods-- would that it was as winkingly critical about its own jokey attitude toward the franchise’s creeping status as a cultural dinosaur— but it’s aiming for emotional rewards here that seem imposed on the material rather than earned by it. Considerations of Bond’s age and anachronistic status in an age where field-work espionage has been reduced to savvy computer manipulations are all well and good, but the way in which they’ve been dramatized here seem hoary and lazy, further symptoms of the replacement of meaningful movie action with people staring fearfully or with awe at banks of computer monitors.

Worst of all, this is the Craig movie that feels least like a Bond movie—the swatches of the Bond theme on the soundtrack feel like sops to an audience the movie doesn’t believe in anymore. It’s pretty shocking, and not in a delightful way, that we’re cued to feel more anger about a replica of that famous Aston Martin being riddled with bullets and exploded than we do the death of a major character. And that’s to say nothing of the minor characters—Javier Bardem’s gay villain is amusing as far as he goes, but that’s before the movie turns him into a rote stalker, and eventually a mewling mama’s boy, for its reductive, disappointing Straw Dogs redux finale. And Skyfall hits a real low point of the entire Bond series in the Bond girl department—Naomie Harris is given little to do beyond the movie’s inexplicable stunt opener, and where her character ends up has to be as big of a letdown for her as it is for us. But Harris draws aces compared to the lovely Berenice Marlohe, a beauty in the Claudia Cardinale mold, whose presence in the movie is not only inconsequential but ultimately humiliating—her death (it’s no spoiler) is one of the ugliest moments in the entire series, fodder for a cheap joke and the shocking indifference of our hero. How can it possibly be a good thing for the evolution of James Bond that halfway through this movie I started pining to see Tomorrow Never Dies instead? Though it’s my favorite Brosnan Bond picture, it’s by no means distinctive, and yet I’d see it again in a heartbeat over this one… and Michelle Yeoh does make up for a load of sins, particularly of the sort perpetrated on these newest Bond girls.

By the time the movie has devolved into its “this time it’s personal” mode, Skyfall has succeeded in making James Bond, and the very idea of a Bond movie, seem puny, laboring with increasingly meager returns within the shadow of the Bourne franchise and the increasingly unbearable heaviness of Bond in the Daniel Craig era.



Here we go with a recap of American Horror Story episode #10, entitled "Birth." There's little doubt where this one is headed, and it seems equally clear that my AHS viewing pal Simon Abrams is headed for some serious distraction vis-a-vis this series as well as being more than relieved that the end is nigh. Simon?


Hi-diddly ho, Dennisirino.

We're now down to the wire with our American Horror Story recaps as we tackle "Birth," season one's penultimate episode. And while I would gladly tackle season two with you (heck, I'd recap most shows recap ashow with ya), I gotta say, I really need a break from this show before I go anywhere near it again. There's some things I like about "Birth" but I'm starting to think that Falchuk and Murphy are relying on a crazy last-minute Hail Mary punt to score big points. I'm sure there's going to be an explanation for some of the gaping, man-eating chasm-sized plot holes that still plague the show. For example, something's gotta give with Ben's cluelessness. It's just gotta! Once again, I find myself exasperated by AHS's writers' need to gracelessly stack plot points upon plot points. The show is now a crazy Jenga tower of moronically inter-related plot points. These individual plot points necessarily support each other, but for no good reason other than that they were made to be stacked onto each other. I don't really think this needs saying but: this is not a good organizing principle, Dennis. It's's just not!

Ok, let's get things rolling: "Birth" starts in 1984. Nora Montgomery tells a young Tate, who accidentally wanders into the Murder House's basement, that she'll protect him whenever he needs help. This is after the Infantata attacks Tate, dragging him under some piece of furniture obscured by the shadows that apparently no DP was encouraged to capably illuminate. It's spooky, ooh, you're not supposed to be able to see anything, oooh, ooooh. Nora offers to protect Tate thusly: "If Thaddeus [ie: the Infantata] comes to see you again, just shut your eyes and say: [in funny voice] 'Go away!' [end funny voice] You understand,Tate? He'll mind you. Because I'm going to protect you." Sounds like a plan! So shit gets real, time marches on, Tate grows up and he remembers something Nora says to him: "Life's too short for so much sorrow." But now, in the present, when Tate repeats Nora that line, she doesn't remember it. This is like that one Modest Mouse song that goes: "I never thought that the words you said to me meant more to me than they ever did you!" Nora tries to get Tate to help divest Vivien of her unborn children. Tate says he can't, trying to keep it so that Violet doesn't know that he, uh, raped her mom.

Then, we move on! Violet is dragged into the family car by Ben, who understandably wants his manically depressed teenage daughter to visit her manically depressed mother in the hospital. Violet feels ill and stomps her feet and says she can't go. We know why: she can't leave the premises of the Murder House. Violet's hoarding this little nugget of information to herself because like Tate, she wants to spare her loved ones the pain of knowing the truth: she's a ghost. So enter another giant fuckin' plot hole: car pulls away, Violet's ghost re-emerges, as an ostentatious crane shot shows us, looking out from a bay window or some shit. She's trapped, Dennis, she can't get out. But why doesn't Ben notice this? Better yet, why don't the show's writers expect us to notice this? Once, twice, maybe three times we can ignore Ben's forgetfulness. But if you (meaning the show's writers) take great care to remind us that this is just one of the show's loose-goosey ghost rules, but then don't even give us a tentative explanation for Ben's latest bout of selective amnesia, you're just fucking with me. Because at that point, you're relying on the fact that there's so many plot points and subplots and criss-crossing narratives and tangential anecdotes that the main ones don't even need to matter anymore because shut up, that's why, this is American Horror Story.

So Ben doesn't notice Violet's gone. Meanwhile! Violet talks to Tate, who tells her that she eventually needs to spill her undead beans to poppa Ben. "You can't control it forever, Violet. I mean, it is what it is." See, Dennis, it is what it is, so just do it, like Nike. Violet then panics some more, angstily talking about how scared she is of staying in the Murder House for-ev-er. She explains this in typically mawkish dialogue: "We'll be like all the others here: prisoners in a windowless cell. Who's going to show me the new ways of the world? Nobody here's happy, Tate." Tate replies, "Yeah, but they're not like us. They're all lonely. We have each other." Ah, young undead romance, blech, ptooey.

Then: Chad and Patrick return. Violet stumbles upon them as they gussy up a crib and decorate the room for Vivien's babies. You see, like Nora, they want Vivien's babies. This tidbit of information is of course only important now that the show has played its ludicrous Antichrist baby hand (superior to a Royal Flush but inferior to most other hands) last episode with its bizarre Vatican anecdote. Never before was it apparently important to know that Chad, Patrick, Nora, whoever-the-fuck, wanted Vivien's babies or had planned to do something to Vivien or the twins. All we, the audience, need to know is that somebody raped her and that's spooky, ooh, mystery rape. Yes, I know how petulant I must sound right now but damn it, I like it like that, and it suits the show, and raspberries to you! 

Back to my recap: Chad and Patrick razz Vivien that they're gay and they're ghosts and they will steal her mom's baby...sorry, babies. Violet tries to make a deal with Constance to get her to get Billy Dee to come back so that she can get rid of Chad and Patrick. Constance meanwhile makes a deal with Chad and Patrick: they can keep Ben's kid, just let Constance have Tate's kid. Why exactly Constance is going to them to do this and not Tate is unclear. Presumably, it's because Tate got mad at her in "Smoldering Children" and now there can be no alliance between ghost son and psycho-biddy momma. Anyway, Chad and Patrick plan on smothering the babies with "hypo-allergenic pillows" at about 1-1.5 years old so that they can be cute forever. This scheme is simply diabolical, especially after the show flaunts how jaded it expects its viewers are by teasing us with Constance's insouciant gay-bashing taunts ("What you're doing is unnatural!" "So is deodorant!")...I honestly have no idea how we're meant to be shocked on this show when we're never seriously given half a chance.

Anyway, Billy Dee arrives, says that she can't just banish that kind of negative energy easily, says it's "pure physics," and does some dancing around the Laws of Energy Conservation. She says some mumbo jumbo like, "Like the way a battery restores energy," and "Negative energy feeds on trauma and pain," as in asylums and prisons. And hey, did you know season two is set in an asylum? What a ka-winky-dink. Billy Dee then says one way to get rid of ghosts is, uh, well, she's got a story. It's the story of the lost American colony of Roanoke, here recast as a stupid ghost story. As if it weren't fucking spooky enough that a WHOLE GROUP OF PEOPLE DISAPPEAR WITHOUT A TRACE AND ALL THAT'S LEFT IS THE WORD CROATOAN. THIS IS APPARENTLY NOT SCARY ENOUGH. NO, WE HAVE TO...sorry, the show's writers have to trivialize this true story by suggesting that a seance was held and that the Pilgrims were banished by Native Americans who destroyed the personal belongings of the Roanokens after uttering a magic word: "Croatoan." This gives Violet an idea. Good, somebody oughta be thinking around here...

But first, Ben visits the hospital. He makes no comment about Violet not being there, not even a, "Damn that girl, she appears to have escaped out of the car while I was not looking or something!" Before he can say, "Continuity Editor," the next canned shock is open him: Vivien probably needs an emergency C-section. Dr. Markazy says, "Don't go on that trip, pregnant lady, stay here, you could hurt yourself." I'm paraphrasing, sue me. Emotionally unbalanced Violet says, "Nah, let me out, please." Sweaty but poorly-defined Ben says, "Yeah, yeah, wait, maybe this one time I should at least pretend to give a shit and slow down and ask what Dr. Markazy means, an emergency C-section, golly!" And Markazy's all like, "Uh? Look one baby, the Alpha, is taking all the nutrients and stuff that the other, now-sickly baby needs. That's bad."

After that, Violet and Tate try to get "talismans" that belong to Chad and Patrick so that they can burn them, then say, "Croatoan," thereby banishing the show's gay wannabe baby-napping ghouls. Tate works on this by trying to seduce Chad or at least get close enough to him so that he can steal something of his. Because this show's narrative is determined more by convenience than functional logic, Tate's seduction of Patrick ends with Chad wailing on and then at Tate about how he doomed Patrick to a fate of living with Patrick forever but only when Patrick is standing riiiiight behind Chad. But whatever, apparently we need to be reminded YET AGAIN by Chad and Patrick's story that they can't change. Get it, Dennis, there will be a quiz: sometimes we can't forgive each other, and sometimes we can't allow each other to turn over a new leaf. Cynicism wins, Dennis. Can't change, won't change. Make a note.

Then Violet gets a tchotchke too, this one belonging to Patrick. But then Ben comes home with Vivien and they try to leave but just as he's dragging Violet out, Constance is trying to drag Vivien into the Murder House. Ben at least remembers to ask, "Hey, Violet, where were you and stuff?" And Violet sputters out how she killed herself. But woops, hang on, Vivien's giving birth, all the ghosts come out and try to help. So since the story's events are speeding up here, I'm going to do the same. Okay, here's the short-short version: Vivien gives birth with the aid of the ghosts, including Dr. Montgomery. She flashes back to when everything was hunky dory with Ben as he blows on her tortured face (it's soothing, I guess). She likes him now, she never wanted to lose him, aaaand she's pooped out Thing #1. Then there's more vaseline-covered, bottom-of-the-beer-bottle-goggles flashbacks and Thing #2--the Alpha!--comes out. We don't see the Alpha. Nobody reacts to the Alpha's appearance. Constance absconds with that baby but is stopped at the 10 yard line by Hayden, who also apparently wants this kid. Meanwhile, Vivien dies. Yeah, sad, huh, and not at all predicta--oh, excuse me, sorry, yawning--predictable.

But before that happens, Violet tries to banish Patrick with fire and by saying, "Croatoan!" But it predictably does not work. Why they had poor Zachary Quinto even attempt a fake-out and spazz out before laughing mockingly at Violet and saying, "That does not work, baby puppy," is anyone's guess. We're so jaded, Dennis, laugh harder, jaded guy. I mean, one minute the audience is assumed to be as jaded as the day is long, the next as naive as Pollyanna. What gives? Feh. Look: Patrick tells Violet about Tate's raping Vivien, then Violet confronts Tate. Tate bawls at her, says he doesn't know why he'd do that, he really doesn't, no, no. For some reason, Violet believes him. I personally don't believe this, but hey, it's convenient, and there's only so much time in the episode so again, shut up, why don't you? And so there's a lover's quarrel as only American Horror Story can do it, complete with abysmal dialogue like:

Violet: Mimimimi, at first I thought, "That you were attracted to the darkness. Tate: you are the darkness."
Tate: "You're the only light I've ever known. You've changed me Violet."
Violet: "I believe that. I love you, Tate. But I can't forgive you. You have to pay for what you caused, all the pain and the sorrow."

Talk about your overheated crap. In case you can't tell, I'm kinda P.O.ed with the AHS guys right now. Me and them, we don't really see eye-to-eye on what is and isn't playing fair with your viewer (ie. me). I don't like the tonal flip-flopping that has characterized this show thus far, and while I do like the tender moment between Vivien and Violet that ends the episode, I continue to wonder what the point of thinking critically about this show is given how mindless and incoherent it is. Does it get better?

Catch up on the American Horror Story conversation between Simon and me by clicking on the following links:


Thursday, November 08, 2012


Turns out Simon Abrams and I see pretty much eye-to-eye on the "Smoldering Children" episode of American Horror Story, and in this post he gets into lots of the reasons why, including how the sad story of Larry managed to worm its way under his skin this week. Good to have you back, Simon!


Hi, Dennis!

The high-highs and low-lows of this series sure are something, huh? If we were talking about any other show, I'd question my emotional stability just because I ardently love one week's episode roiiight after strongly disliking the week prior's pick'ns. But hey, that's where we are, I guess. 

"Smoldering Children" treated me considerably better than "Spooky Little Girl" for a number of the reasons that you've already hit on. I agree with a lot of what you wrote, as usual, though weirdly enough, Constance's admittedly weak subplot didn't bug me as much as it did you. I agree with much of the reasons you had for being down on her story this week, particularly the way that she's treated like a tragic shit magnet and not an active agent of emotional tumult. 

I think that that's especially true of two weak scenes you've already mentioned: 1) The interrogation, where Constance is grilled but for the sake of narrative contrivance, the cops focus on Constance's children, not the actual crime at hand. This is irritating not just because it makes these cops look really stupid (don't they realize that her lawyer's on the way? Quick, quick, time's of the essence, while she's in a chatty mood, say something, do something!), but also because, as you wrote, it shows how the scene in question is narratively driven by providing new shocks/material (ie: stuff that apparently wasn't important with regard to establishing Constance's past). I get that a lot of AHS's main ideas--on repression and forgiveness, particularly--are dependent on the slow doling out of information. So there's always more torrid secrets that to be revealed, but only when the time is right. Still, this interrogation scene is illogically silly. 2) The way that Constance's carving knife conveniently plops out of her purse. This is just dopey on a level that I didn't expect from the AHS bunch. I mean, come on, I get that it's a joke, but really? Even as a MacGuffin, that knife is stupid.

But! As in "Halloween, Part 2," I feel like artful execution was more important than the concepts and soapy melodrama that were being established. It's not the story that got me this week or the characterizations, which are shot through with inconsistencies when you compare them with previous week's events. But as a stand-alone episode, there were real hints of heart-ache and sudsy pathos. I'm thinking particularly of Larry's story. I never really liked Larry until "Smoldering Children" but there were two scenes that really made me care about a character that for the most part, has been defined as a goofy, desperate stalker whose backstory, as it's recently been revealed, was never really substantial. So he had an affair with Constance and then torched his family. This might be less snooze-worthy if it were, y'know, executed with some skill. But because there's only so many minutes in an episode, and that many more skeletons that apparently NEED to come out of various characters' closets, Larry's recently revealed past never really stuck with me. Until "Smoldering Children," that is.

First, let me say that I don't think Larry's story, as it wraps up in "Smoldering Children," is flawless or even especially thoughtful. I still chafe at the thought that there are apparently gender-specific ghost rules. I hate that women ghosts are only visible to men once the planets align and the time is right, blah bleh barf.

Allow me to sidetrack this conversation for a moment: I recently argued with a friend about a similar issue, regarding the use of the word "mansplaining." I don't object to the sentiment behind this neu-speak term, but rather to its expression. If you want to talk about how chauvinist men speak/talk down to women and minorities as a sign of the power that they have, let's do it in a way that acknowledges the complexities of the issues at hand. I brought up Gayatri Spivak's "Can the Subaltern Speak?" for illustration's sake. That's a wonderful essay, one that I don't necessarily agree with all of, but I nevertheless think is a rich and complex consideration of a subject that is very difficult to parse. "Mansplaining" is too glib, for my tastes, and while I realize now that calling for a categorical ban on the term, as I half-jokingly did yesterday, was dumb, the crux of my disagreement with my friend Andreas was a matter of execution rather than of essence. 

Likewise, I don't like that Ben and other male characters see a young, lustful version of Moira when they look at Frances Conroy's character and not, well, Frances Conroy. Double likewise, I hate that Larry was only able to see his two daughters and the wife that he abandoned until now because, as his wife's ghost says, "You're ready're on the cusp." That sentiment makes sense given how Larry's story concludes in "Smoldering Children." But gosh, come on! Is this really how we're going to address the oppression of women on this show, with an unflattering smirk? I can't help but be nettled when Murphy and Falchuk practically fall over themselves trying to poke me in the eye.

But hey, Larry's story in "Smoldering Children" is infrequently rather moving. There's something kinda haunting about the moment where Tate flicks a match at Larry and sets his surrogate papa on fire. Maybe the moment in question's just gotten more imposing as I think about it, but I swear that the short time it takes for that little tinder, whizzing across the room on a small bit of fishing wire, felt like an eternity in retrospect. It reminded me of the scene where the private dick falls down the stairs in Psycho, actually! Samewise, the scene where Larry hopefully relates how a paltry three words from Constance will put him at ease, and then extends his hand to hers? That made me want to care, Dennis! I was ready! I was on the motherfucking CUSP! I think episode director Michael Lehmann, most famous for directing Heathers, is to blame, really. He's obviously a very talented filmmaker and he paces and shoots this scene so well, and within AHS's house style of crash-zooms, jump-cuts, jagged extreme C.O.s, too!

Another aspect of "Smoldering Children" I really enjoyed was seeing Violet's romance with Tate finally start to blossom into more than just teenage bathos. Watching Violet realize for herself that she can't (meta)physically escape the Murder House was pretty neat, as the scene in question could have also just come across like a bad Marx brothers routine. Duration and timing is the key to making this scene work here. Lehmann did a very good job of taking just enough time to make Violet's revelation believable. This revelation can't just be another rug to be pulled out from under her, a fact that Lehmann acknowledges by minimizing the use of flashbacks during Tate and Violet's subplot. There's a brief cut to Violet's death in the tub, but Lehmann trusts the dialogue and the performances, and the lighting! Hoo boy, loved the scene where Tate returns to the attic after he dispatches Ben. So creepy, as if he were quietly emerged from the shadows.--to do the work here. And they do, thankfully.

I thought I had more to say, but really, the ephemeral pleasure of "Smoldering Children" are the ones that stood out the most for me. These isolated scenes made me want to believe that the show's clunkiness were at least deliberate, and sometimes even semi-thoughtful. So yeah, I'd call that a victory for this show, wouldn't you?

Catch up on the American Horror Story conversation between Simon and me by clicking on the following links: