Friday, September 30, 2005

September Random Reviews

  • Swimming Upstream - Despite its familiar theme of athletic prowess and determination helping a man rise above his inauspicious beginnings, and its PG-13 rating, this Australian production is not a feel-good family film. It is a story of triumph glued together with harrowing shots of domestic violence and dysfunction. The film plays slightly like revenge against a cruel father, and while he seems to deserve it, I'm not sure the audience does. Click here for the full review.
  • I Am The Cheese - Watching this movie was possibly my punishment for being crass enough not to have liked or understood the bestselling book it was based on, back when I read it as a teen. I Am The Cheese is a loose adaptation of that book, taking liberties with the ending, so must stand alone as a film. Unfortunately, I had to stand with it. Click here for the full review.
  • And Then There Was One - Criticizing this well-meaning film feels like kicking a puppy—a sick puppy—but it's not a particularly entertaining hour and a half, when what should be a heart wrenching story is undermined by a script that treats its protagonists as saints instead of people. Unfortunately And Then There Was One is too dated and simplistic to bring anything meaningful to the AIDS on film canon, and it doesn't manage to be a compelling drama outside of the real-life tragedy of the disease itself. Click here for the full review.
Books in Brief:
  • A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews - Heartbreakingly, hysterically funny Nomi Nickel is the wry, confused narrator of Toews' novel about a 16-year-old Mennonite girl whose mother and sister have both disappeared, leaving her to live with her bewildered father in a town that suffocates her with its religious restrictions and limited opportunities. While the book offers fascinating insight into a community that has turned its back on much of the modern world, it's easy to identify with misfit Nomi.
  • Blackbird House by Alice Hoffman - Billed as a novel, this reads more like a collection of short stories, loosely tied together by a common setting. Imagery and symbolism overwhelm plot in the beautifully drawn but difficult to embrace character studies.
  • Eight Minutes Idle by Matt Thorne - I thought I liked this book, thought it was reminiscent of Nick Hornby, right up to the point where I started to hate it. I thought the narrator was a believably likeable cad, until the likeability was suddenly drained away and the main character's boring life revealed nothing but monotony. The writing is sharp and engrossing, but the plot and character left me cold.

"The world is not run by thought, nor by imagination, but by opinion."
- Elizabeth Drew

Would I lie to you?

Since I joined Blogcritics, I'm disturbed by how many times lately I've seen myself and other bloggers treated as official sources, journalists, people whose opinions carry weight because they are posted on the Internet. And when I read misinformation in a post taken as truth, I get angry not so much at the blogger, but at the reader who can't tell the difference.

I have opinions. I research. I write. As a blogger, as opposed to a journalist, there is no gatekeeper checking the accuracy of my facts or rationality of my opinions. Blogging offers a direct link from writer to reader, and I could write a post on what a wonderful opportunity that is for both sides, but this rant is about the danger of accepting anything I or my fellow bloggers say as truth without evaluation. And we all know - or should know - that even edited and published journalists can't be taken as absolute purveyors of truth.

Despite having said as little as six months ago that I couldn't see the appeal of blogging, I take this seriously. I have some basis for my opinions. I've been a newspaper editor, freelance writer, non-profit public relations person. My present day job is in corporate communications for a health care organization. In those roles, I've been exposed to topics from Mexican entertainment and culture, municipal tree bylaws, cancer, hospital administration, knitting, and much more. But I'm an expert in none of them.

I also have fun with blogging. My oh-so-useful English literature degree and lone film studies class help me shape my opinions into critiques, and I was a staff reviewer for DVD Verdict and wrote reviews for the newspaper where I was an editor. I love movies, television, and books, both the content and the industries that create them. But I'm not an insider.

The Internet presents us with instant information, from reliable and unreliable sources. I am an unreliable source. Most of what we read on the Internet is, but there are clues to spotting the unreliable.

Anonymity is a big tip off, said the hypocritical blogger who goes by a pseudonym. But then I've already said I'm no expert, and my anonymity, designed to separate the Googleable work me from the personal me, is imperfect. I stand behind my opinions. My name just stands a little further back.

Lack of sources is another clue. Where is the writer getting the facts? And if the opinion isn't based on fact, it's not worth any more than my Magic Eight Ball's opinions.

Checking those sources is important. Conspiracy theorists might not trust the typical reliable sources, but look at the reputation of the organization putting out the information. The Mayo Clinic is likely a better source of information about a drug than a pharmaceutical company, for example, and far better than one person complaining she took the medicine once and it gave her hives. Then use the gut feeling test to check the correlation between the facts and the opinion - in your now-informed opinion, is the author's take on the issue reasonable?

So please, don't believe something just because I tell you to. Unless I tell you that my favourite colour is blue. And even then, skepticism is a good thing.

(Cross posted to Blogcritics.)

"Trust no one."
- Fox Mulder

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

House, M.D.: "Humpty Dumpty"

After the emotional intensity of last week's episode, this week's "Humpty Dumpty" injected some welcome lightness into the doctor's demeanour. Dr. House (Hugh Laurie) is back to picking on Dr. Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein) instead of little girls with cancer, and making remarks like "I can be a jerk to people I haven't slept with. I am that good."

In another Six Feet Under-ish setup, the episode opens with a jogging Cuddy in obvious discomfort. She guilts her handyman, who wants to leave early before fixing her roof, into staying to finish the job before she heads inside to choke on some water. If I hadn't read the one-line description that was printed in the television guide and plastered all over the Internet, or seen the preview after last week's episode, I would have thought Cuddy was the patient of the week. Since I did, it was no surprise when Alfredo fell off the roof and Cuddy was fine. But the real puzzle is that his fingers are slowly turning purple, and the team must find out the underlying cause before he loses his hands or his life.

The episode cleverly uses the bait-and-switch tactic the show loves, making us believe initially that we are seeing a role reversal with Cuddy as the aggressive maverick and House as the cautious naysayer. Instead, administrator Cuddy is the anti-House, making decisions solely based on guilt and an emotional attachment to the patient. Typically, House asks dismissively: "Do I get bonus points if I act like I care?" and solves the puzzle through deduction not just of the medical clues, but by discovering what the patient is hiding.

Written by Matt Witten, "Humpty Dumpty" showcases some of the best elements of House and some of the worst: the best being character development, and the worst being character development. Confused? I'll start with the best.

Despite my misgivings that the character's purpose had already been wrapped up in the season one finale, the introduction of Stacy (Sela Ward) is used effectively here to humanize other characters, particularly House and Cuddy. We know that Stacy and Wilson were friends, and that Stacy and Cuddy shared some responsibility for making the decision that left House with a limp and Vicodin addiction. Stacy is the only one in the inner circle to call them by their first names, and here she acts as confidant to Cuddy and, to a lesser extent, Wilson, and voice of conscience for House.

Unlike last week's episode, which featured Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard) in a central role but revealed little about his character, "Humpty Dumpty" finally sheds some light on Cuddy's personality and her relationship with House, while introducing some additional mystery – much more than the "did they or didn't they" question House's team ponders, but more fundamentally how the events of House's own medical crisis linked them professionally and personally. House's deceptively simple episode titles often have dual meanings, and here, Alfredo is not the only egg man.

Now the worst. There's Cameron (Jennifer Morrison). I want to like her. I do like one of her. But like a reverse soap opera, it's as though the character has a sappy twin wreaking havoc in sassy Cameron's life. In previous episodes, we've seen an earnest Cameron unable to deal with telling patients difficult news, and unable to deal with her feelings for House without turning into the kind of 12 year old girl I used to make fun of as a 12 year old girl. Last episode, as she has been in many others, she was competent, compassionate, and funny without crossing those lines.

In "Humpty Dumpty," when the patient's mother complains that she looks too young to know what she's doing, Cameron replies very much not comfortingly: "There's five doctors working on the case. The others are older." This is not a med student, intern, or resident. This is a fully qualified doctor, who specialized in immunology and is now undertaking a fellowship for an additional speciality, who might as well have said "well, yes, I'm stupid, but the others are pretty smart." She then goes on to do a very stupid thing just to highlight the point - tells House the patient is dying while standing outside the door to the patient's room, in earshot of the patient's mother. Way to get over breaking bad news, Cameron.

And then there's the character development I'm undecided on. A circle of jealousy was revealed in "Humpty Dumpty," with Cameron quizzing Cuddy on her past with House, Cuddy calling her on her interest, and Stacy quizzing Wilson on the possible chemistry between House and Cuddy. It's amusing so far, and House's interactions with Cuddy and Stacy crackle with the possibility of entertaining attraction, though I worry about the romantic entanglements getting too, well, tangled. It's also a bit puzzling that it seems perfectly normal to me that every woman on the show might be attracted to a man who is so caustic, cruel, and only occasionally kind. But when that kindness is wrung out of him, as it is in this episode, its uneasy honesty is worth more than anyone else's easy platitudes.

For more of the best and worst, the plot entertained me, increased my love for most of these characters a little more, made me think, and frustrated me in equal parts. The patient of the week tied in to Foreman's clinic patient this episode to bring up questions of race and class, but more than usually, the case itself faded into the background. That in itself is not a bad thing, and neither is the show's uncanny ability to raise issues from different sides and let the viewers decide on a point of view for themselves. What felt dismissive this time was the enormity of these issues compared to the lack of time devoted to them, and the easy outs we're offered to let us dismiss their importance.

After enduring blatant racist remarks for more than a year – taken in stride because they are no more meaningful than House's blatant sexist, ageist, anythingist remarks that are designed to shock - Foreman (Omar Epps) accuses House of a more insidious, latent racism. There is truth in Foreman's speech, though House's actions that prompted it have their root not so much in racism but in his philosophy that all people are stupid, and his method to ignore a patient's autonomy when he thinks they've made the wrong choice.

Between that and the bitter truth House throws out to Cuddy when they are ostensibly talking about Alfredo (Cuddy: "He's not like us." House: "Can't work as a cripple?"), the writers have dropped a couple of elephants in the room and left the viewer to deal with them or dismiss them. Much as I love the grey areas the show introduces, and the complexities of the already complex central character we're discovering, sometimes I want it to either say something deeper about its issues, like race in medicine and the unfair privilege of class, or at least not treat them as minor throwaways in search of that admittedly wonderful character development.

(As with many Fox programs, House gets thrown off the air for baseball in October. The next new episode is scheduled for November 1 – but check your local listings. I will not be responsible if you miss it.)

(Cross posted to Blogcritics.)


"Guilt is the very nerve of sorrow."
- Horace Bushnell

Monday, September 26, 2005

An Evening with Salman Rushdie

Author Salman Rushdie is one of those people I'd love to have dinner with, in the expectation of having one of the greatest conversations of my life ... except that my half of the conversation would consist largely of dead silence or gibberish in the intimidating face of the master of wide-ranging intelligence and wit. So a better alternative for me was to see him give a reading and answer questions at a recent stop in Vancouver.

Rushdie read some comic and tragic passages from his new novel, Shalimar the Clown, before answering questions first from the moderator and then from the audience.

His comments gave a flavour of his writing process, which he likened to an uncovering rather than a creation, much like Michelangelo's theory of sculpture revealing the true form of the marble. “All writing is an act of discovery,” he said, before explaining that “the novel is about the construction of meaning” by shaping information into structure.

Rushdie lets his ideas solidify for years, sometimes decades, before turning them into the raw material for his stories, and often the final form differs significantly from his initial vision. With Shalimar the Clown, he had the central image of a murder, then had to “work out who these people were.”

He also drew on his Kashmiri background as inspiration, painting the now-wartorn area as a former utopia, ideologically and geographically. “It's one of those strange places in the world where people seem to have worked out how to get along,” he said, until it got “caught between the rock of India and the hard place of Pakistan.”

“I did often think of the metaphor of Paradise Lost,” he explained, except that the Kashmiris were not ejected from their paradise, but have rather lived to see it destroyed. “Paradise Trashed – not quite Miltonic, is it?” asked Rushdie, who favours independence for the area.

He spoke of his characters with affection, as though they were friends who guided him on the writing journey, and credited them with a life of their own. After reading an amusing bit about Olga Volga, a neighbour of one of the main characters, he stopped, bemused: “She's a secondary character and she's in danger of taking the book over. Stop, Olga, stop.”

Shalimar the Clown is dedicated to his Kashmiri grandparents, and while he feels his grandfather embodied traits of Kashmir in his diplomacy, “my grandmother was a ferocious, terrifying woman. That must be why there's so many ferocious, terrifying women in my books.”

As in his previous novels - such as Midnight's Children, my first and still favourite Rushdie novel - he uses elements of allegory and fantasy in his latest, though less than usual, he points out. When the moderator brought up the possibly-not-as-profound-as-he-thought point that Rushdie uses fate as a theme, and the author himself is in charge of his characters' fates, Rushdie's response drew one of the biggest laughs of the evening: “In the world of the novel, there is a god.”

Thanks to his essays on everything from politics to pornography, the audience questions ranged far beyond his writing. Asked to predict the political repercussions of Hurricane Katrina, Rushdie rejected the idea that he could foresee those repercussions any better than the questioner, or that he would want to try. “I've had some problems with prophets in my life,” he said wryly, alluding to the fatwa proclaimed by the Ayatollah Khomeini after the publication of The Satanic Verses, which was called blasphemous to the prophet Muhammad. Though he was in England promoting Shalimar the Clown when the hurricane hit, he recalled his horror at the images on the television screen. “This incredibly wealthy and powerful country couldn't look after its own people. ... It looked like Bangladesh.”

“What does it say about Homeland Security that four years after 9/11, they can't evacuate a city?”

With thought-provoking discussion like that on a range of topics, including the Arabian Nights and Air Canada, even a one-sided conversation with Rushdie was memorable.

(Cross posted to Blogcritics)

"A book is a version of the world. If you do not like it, ignore it; or offer your own version in return."
- Salman Rushdie

Saturday, September 24, 2005

What's in a name?

I don't really understand the desire to collect autographs, though I have some myself. When I was a teen and in love with the entire Edmonton Oilers hockey team, I got autographs of Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, Kevin Lowe, Jari Kurri, Andy Moog, Grant Fuhr, and many other stars of the Stanley Cup winning era. They're not just scraps of paper with their names scrawled on them, though – they're names scrawled on their pictures in the Official Edmonton Oilers 1984-85 Guide. Somehow that makes them more special: they're in a book. They're substantial.

Except now I don't know what to do with the book. I can't get rid of it because it once meant a lot to me, but now that I'm a level-headed, non-hockey-watching adult, it doesn't. I suppose I'll wait to see if my nephew or one of my friends' kids grow up to care about hockey history. And I'll feel ancient and sad if they end up saying “Wayne who?”

A tiny bit of my disinclination to collect autographs is lack of opportunity. Even though I live in a prime spot for runaway Hollywood productions, I don't run into a lot of stars in my cave. But it's more than that. A couple of years ago, I saw William H. Macy and a pre-Desperate Housewives but post-Sports Night Felicity Huffman shopping in Chinatown, and though I had to whisper to my companion what a big fan I was of each of theirs, I wouldn't have dreamed of bothering them. Part of me loves the allure of celebrity and values the opportunity to let people know their talents are admired, but a large portion of my brain realizes that acting talent does not make them superior human beings, or their privacy any less valuable, or their names on a piece of paper any more interesting.

So I'm both excited and embarrassed that I got Salman Rushdie's autograph tonight. It's in a book, too – his latest, Shalimar the Clown, which I picked up at a reading and talk he gave in Vancouver. It somehow seems more right to cherish the scrawl of a writer, whose talent lies in his intellect and wit, especially when it's gracing those intelligent and witty words. But it's still no more than a false connection to someone I admire – words on a page that are proof I met him, ever so briefly, but offer no more meaning to an encounter that had none. There's not even a "To Diane" or "Best wishes" to indicate that there was a human being on the receiving end of the scribble.

Still, it makes me smile to think he christened the book for me, and is a great incentive not to drop this one in the bathtub. So even though I don't understand my desire to have it, I'm going to appreciate it anyway. As one of my favourite authors wrote in his novel Shame: "The inconsistency doesn't matter; I myself manage to hold large numbers of wholly irreconcilable views simultaneously, without the least difficulty. I do not think others are less versatile."

(Check this post for slightly more about Rushdie's talk than what his handwriting looks like.)

"What is fame? The advantage of being known by people of whom you yourself know nothing, and for whom you care as little."
- Lord Byron

Friday, September 23, 2005

I don't watch Oprah, but ...

My friends mock me for many things – mockery's a sign of affection, right? - and one is my fear of being thought of as an Oprah watcher. A few too many times, I have told stories prefaced by "I don't watch Oprah, but I was flipping channels when I saw ..." and now I have a she-doth-protest-too-much reputation. I really don't watch Oprah, but I don't know why I care if people think I do. Occasionally. I mean, not all the time. Not that I do. I'm at work when it's on. It's just that sometimes I'm home sick.

OK, you get the idea. I'm an Oprah snob. And yet I was ridiculously happy that she's decided to revive her flagging Book Club by introducing contemporary authors again. Whatever my thoughts on her show – which I don't watch – this is a woman who used her tremendous influence to popularize reading, and reading quality books. And that influence translated into a huge surge in sales for these books, and a higher profile for the authors. Whatever my thoughts on her choices – and I don't love the sombre humourlessness of many of them – they are meaty reads, worthy of attention.

She did select a few of my favourite novels, Fall On Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, and The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (who famously refused to use her stamp of approval), which only caused a surge in my Oprah snobbery. I read them before she chose them. Really. I did. I didn't pick them up because Oprah told me to. I don't even watch her show.

Then in 2002, she claimed she couldn't find enough quality books to sustain the Club, a televised slap in the face to contemporary authors. So she disbanded the program, only to resume a year later with famous classics. Never as popular as the original Book Club, the classic Club had another downside for Oprah: dead authors make lousy talk show guests.

Now, after pleas from some living authors, Oprah's back in the present. On Thursday, she announced her first pick for the new Book Club, a lot like the old Book Club: A Million Little Pieces, a memoir of alcohol and drug rehab by James Frey, signalling her decision to include non-fiction as well as fiction this time around. By Friday, the book headed Amazon's Top Sellers list.

I haven't read it, and fear the potential for sombre humourlessness, but I just might check it out. But not because Oprah told me to.

(Cross posted to Blogcritics)


"I know for sure that what we dwell on is who we become."
- Oprah Winfrey

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

House, M.D.: "Autopsy"

I hate this show. OK, hate may be a strong word. Maybe the word I'm looking for is love. I love this stupid show that gave me emotional whiplash again tonight, making me sob inconsolably moments after I was laughing uproariously.

Damn Lawrence Kaplow for writing this episode, proving that Emmy award winning creator David Shore doesn't stand alone in writing thought-provoking, witty, heartbreaking scripts. Damn Hugh Laurie for proving once again how clueless Emmy voters are for not recognizing this role as the performance of a lifetime, never mind of a season.

After a frenetic season opener last week, "Autopsy" is more subdued, but even more gripping. When the patient of the week is a nine year old girl with terminal cancer, my cold dead heart's immediate reaction is: "manipulation." But if I've learned anything from watching this show, it's that the expected emotional heartstrings are not the ones that get pulled, even with this lesson in carpe diem we think we've seen a million times before. House makes its audience think without necessarily trying to be profound, but there is a real depth to its emotional core, and a willingness to risk offending some viewers to get there.

"Terminal kid trumps your stuffy nose," declares oncologist Wilson, who finally has a reason to hang around, to a sniffly House. He entices his friend to take the case of Andie, whose cancer should not be causing the hallucination she suffered, and who might have another year to live if they can cure whatever did cause it.

Since the plot veers once again from last year's formula of at least two to three wrong diagnoses and almost-deadly treatments leading to the correct diagnosis, it's probably time to stop calling that the formula. And the potential cure is as drastic as House can get: he must literally kill her to save her. But like last week's patient, a cure would put her right back on death row.

In "Autopsy," House surpasses even his high standard for shocking callousness. He scoffs at the bravery of dying children, and points out that odds are, some of them are whiny brats. "I'm not terminal. Merely pathetic. And you wouldn't believe the crap people let me get away with," he tells a flabbergasted Wilson. House is cold enough about Andie's case that even ever-patient Wilson is disgusted with him and tells him to go to hell.

But House is actually a most compassionate cynical bastard when he lets himself see her as a person rather than a case. He finally meets with his patient to encourage her to reveal what she really wants out of her short life, and as usual, the exchange reveals more about House than it does about anyone else. Andie may be the literal representative of living death in the episode, but as Wilson points out, she is more alive than House. Yet to young actress Sasha Pieterse's credit, she's never the cloying saintly child, and to the writer's credit, Andie won't let anyone condescend to her.

An episode about a dying child and depressed lead character may not sound like comedy gold, but a hysterically theatrical House shows up in several scenes, notably when he directs the operating room as his own personal Broadway production. Many of his choice witticisms are deliciously un-PC observations on our need to put tragedy on a pedestal, but there are the usual barbs directed at his team, distracting from the fact that he also reveals the depth of his trust in Foreman and refrains from mocking Cameron quite as much as he could.

Someone at House has cool friends. Elvis Costello recorded a version of Christina Aguilera's song "Beautiful" specifically for the show, and both versions play as bookends for the episode. House the show relies on music for mood too often, but I can never get enough shots of House himself absorbed in everything from opera to rock, shutting out the world.

There is an upside to the bittersweet Emmy results, which gave one to Shore for writing (sweet) but not to Laurie for performing (bitter). While everyone who owns a television – except, I suspect, the man himself – is convinced of Hugh Laurie's incredible talent and range on display in House, the popular criticism of the show has been that it is too dependent on that talent. It's been slammed as "generally formulaic" and "better at witty, intelligent dialogue and creating the character of House than overall plot, medical realism, and secondary character consistency." And that was just by me, who loves the show. But when we're tempted to focus solely on the marvel of Laurie's performance, now we're reminded that there's an Emmy standing behind the words he's speaking, too.

And "Autopsy," from script to direction to props, is another example that the show is laden with enough talent behind the scenes to support the obvious talent on the screen.

(Cross posted to Blogcritics)


"For man's greatest actions are performed in minor struggles. Life, misfortune, isolation, abandonment and poverty are battlefields which have their heroes - obscure heroes who are at times greater than illustrious heroes."
- Victor Hugo

Monday, September 19, 2005

Emmys: Revelling in irrelevance

The Emmys are over, and my euphoria of indulging in frivolous stargazing is tempered with my despondence that Hugh Laurie of House, M.D. didn't win his much-deserved award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series. I was grudgingly prepared to let him lose to Ian McShane of Deadwood if he must, but that's it. No one else.

Next year. Laurie will win next year. And I have that year for the intense therapy I will need to deal with this bitter loss, which I'm only justifying by thinking the two must have split the intelligent vote.

But this is not a round up of who won (James Spader) and who should have won (Hugh Laurie). The winners this year were often laughably irrelevant, neither critical nor popular favourites. So just what are the Emmys measuring?

As it turns out, the Emmys are much more entertaining when I don't care who wins in most of the categories and I can enjoy them as a television show. There were only two categories where I had an informed opinion, and I was half satisfied. David Shore won for Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series for the stunning “Three Stories” episode of House, one of the best hours of television ever, and the entertainment world is as it should be. Almost.

So until the cruel final moments, I was free to relax and enjoy it as a spectacle rather than taking it seriously as an arbiter of the best television has to offer. And taking the results of the voting out of the equation, it was an entertaining evening for us masochists who find three hours of self-congratulations and stilted humour an annual treat.

The theme seemed to be a recognition that the Emmys are about as unimportant as you can get when compared to world events, and to poke fun at the bloated egos of Hollywood. And that's exactly what makes the Emmys a guilty pleasure. If I want the depressing truth of what's going on in the world, I'll watch CNN. If I want to be transported to a world where Donald Trump dons overalls and sings the Green Acres theme song, I'll watch the Emmys. Tonight was a show that winked at us as it embraced all that is cheesy about awards shows and irrelevant about the entertainment industry, and gave us performers who let themselves risk humiliation for the sake of a laugh at their expense.

“Come on, if you don't win tonight, it doesn't mean you're not a good person,” said host Ellen DeGeneres, who was fine but conspicuously absent most of the evening. “It just means you're not a good actor. ... But seriously, I think overall in the scheme of things, winning an Emmy is not important. Let's get our priorities straight. I think we all know what's really important in life: winning an Oscar.”

There were some brilliant little moments where the presentation of the awards beautifully fit the category, such as the surreal Blue Man Group bit to present Outstanding Reality Competition Series, or the comedy bits to introduce best writing in a comedy.

Vindicating the outrage over the Emmys' initial decision (later reversed) to force winning writers and directors to pre-tape their acceptance speeches so they wouldn't take up valuable time getting to the podium, most of the best speeches of the night came from writers. Who would have thought – the people who write all those lauded shows are pretty good at writing speeches, too.

David Shore not only thanked Hugh Laurie for “making me look like a better writer than I am” and his family for helping him be well-adjusted enough to appreciate the award, but also “all the other people who have come into my life and made me miserable, cynical, and angry, because this character wouldn't be the same without them.” Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the writers of The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, gave a lovely, funny speech about the people who helped bring the story to screen, and the Arrested Development writers, Mitchell Hurwitz and Jim Vallely, noted: "We'd be remiss if we didn't point out the fact that the academy has twice rewarded us for something that you people won't watch.”

There were some not-so-brilliant moments, too, of utter boredom or sheer idiocy, most of which I will happily ignore because we expect them from an awards show. Among my most cringe-worthy moments is always the In Memoriam – a touching segment except that audience members should have their hands stapled together for the duration to prevent them from clapping for their favourite dead people and turning it into an afterlife popularity contest.

The Emmys did a good job of keeping an eye on the serious without letting it overwhelm the telecast. New Orleans native DeGeneres and many of the winners recognized the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, and the show encouraged donations to Habitat for Humanity. In one of my personal favourite serious moments, David Letterman gave a beautifully poetic tribute to his hero, the late Johnny Carson, with Jon Stewart then taking the stage to collect an award and remarking that how Dave feels about Johnny, comedians of his generation feel about Letterman.

The speeches were kept mercifully short by brutally enforcing the time limit, and most winners thankfully refrained from pulling out prewritten remarks – most entertainingly, S. Epatha Merkerson, who won for Outstanding Lead Actress in a miniseries or movie for Lackawanna Blues, and who fumbled in vain for the notes she lost down the front of her dress.

So except for the wrong choice in the Best Actor in a Drama category, the Emmys themselves fulfilled my expectations of what I want in an awards show – pomp and circumstance, lame songs and intros, pretty, sparkly outfits, and most of all, unabashed frivolity mixed with the recognition that frivolity need not apologize for taking us out of the troubles of the world for three hours.

(Cross posted to Blogcritics)

Previous posts:
"Very often the real world is a nasty, cruel and unjust place. It's more fun to make up a proper world for oneself."
- James White

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Sneering, cheering, and jeering at the Emmys

There's no question in my mind: Awards shows are bloated, self-congratulatory tripe. But I will be eagerly watching the Emmys on Sunday with popcorn and wine on hand, ready to cheer and jeer.

I feel as though I should sneer at the Emmys and other award shows, just as I sneer at IQ tests. They're both overrated assessments that measure something, but not necessarily what they pretend to measure. The Emmys are not really about the best television has to offer – even assuming it's possible to measure such a subjective thing. The Emmys are part popularity contest, part political process, part nostalgia, part truly acknowledging quality. The host is irrelevant, the presenters' scripted remarks are cheesy, the speeches are boring, I haven't seen the vast majority of nominees, but ... umm, wait, I know there's a but.

Oh, yes ... but even though I feel I ought to sneer at the Emmys – I even want to sneer – I can't, because I'm too enrapture by the spectacle of it all to remember to sneer. There's breathtakingly pretty dresses and ludicrously awful dresses and attractive actors stepping out of character. There's the rare glimpse of behind-the-scenes people when the camera accidentally lingers on them for more than a nanosecond ("oh, so that's what J.J. Abrams looks like!"). There's the illusion that I'm seeing Hollywood behind the scenes, a peek at their unimaginably glamourous lives where they waltz to the corner store in Armani and Vera Wang.

And as it turns out, whatever the Emmys measure, I desperately want my favourite showmakers and performers to come out on top. So I'll be glued to my set Sunday evening, waiting to cheer them on, and indulge in some cathartic remote control throwing if they don't win.

(Combined with "And the winner is ... conflicted" and cross posted to Blogcritics)

  • See the Emmy nominees here

"Awards become corroded, friends gather no dust."
- Jesse Owens

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

House, M.D.: "Acceptance"

There was some apprehension mixed with my excitement over the season two premiere of House, M.D. The season one finale saw Dr. House (Hugh Laurie) seemingly as low as he could get – broken heart re-broken, picking at his emotional scabs, testing his physical limitations, drinking, and downing Vicodin mournfully rather than defiantly. It was a suitably melancholy way to end off a season getting to know this beautifully melancholy character, but House the show is at its best when House the man brings on the despair wrapped in humour, and there's not a lot of humour in wallowing.

The finale also awkwardly inserted House's ex-love, hospital lawyer Stacy Warner (Sela Ward), into the show as a recurring character, leaving me with the fear of soapy residue eventually clinging to the character study and procedural drama I love, and dashing hope of more focus on the underdeveloped secondary characters by concentrating on a character who is theoretically not a permanent addition.

But Tuesday's premiere episode “Acceptance” brings back the almost manic wit, shows us hilarious drunk House instead of morbid drunk House, and leaves behind the threat of suds. Yet it doesn't abandon the revelations of last season, when we learned that not only did Stacy make the decision that cost him full use of his leg and sentenced him to chronic pain, but they still have feelings for each other that are complicated by the fact that she's married and he's bitter.

In this opener, House bargains with boss and frequent sparring partner Dr. Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein) to be assigned the case of Death Row Guy (aka Dead Man Dying aka Clarence - guest star LL Cool J). He then tricks Stacy into arranging his transfer to the hospital so he can diagnose his mystery ailment before shipping him back to prison to be executed (it's apparently the law – can't kill someone who's not healthy). When he tells her he's fine working with her as long as she keeps her distance, she replies: "I'm a lawyer. You're a jerk. There's bound to be some overlap."

House's easy banter with Stacy overlays an uneasy attempt to find a way to trust each other, or accept that they can't trust each other. Their conversations take on a poignant dual meaning without hitting us over the head with melodrama, as discussions of trust concerning the case at hand mirror knowledge of the betrayal that helped doom their relationship. "I had to do what I thought was right," she says at one point - about exposing a deception to Cuddy, but it's hard not to think about the decision that crippled him, too. "That's the only reason anybody does anything," he replies.

House rarely offers viewers the easy answers we expect, defying our expectations of Clarence without softening him, and shading Dr. Foreman's (Omar Epps) reactions to the murderer from his initial dismissal of him as a patient and a person to something like acceptance. “Acceptance” throws out ethical questions about the death penalty and whether one patient's life is worth more than another without answering them for us or making it easy to see things in black and white.

Dr. Cameron (Jennifer Morrison) is apparently over last season's crush on her boss, telling him so childishly when he focuses on Clarence the inmate and refuses to consider a case she brings to him. She is desperate to believe that her young patient, Cindy, might have something other than the cancer that oncologist Dr. Wilson (Robert Sean Leonard) told her was the obvious diagnosis. She also becomes emotionally attached to the case thanks to her martyr complex: “When a good person dies, there should be an impact on the world. Somebody should notice. Somebody should be upset.” That she thinks that somebody should be her is perhaps not the best trait in a doctor, a fact that Wilson tries and fails to impress on her.

House kindly delineates a theme of the episode on his beloved whiteboard, ostensibly in order to mock Cameron and her refusal to accept Cindy's diagnosis. But of the five stages of grief he writes - denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – by the end it's not clear that any of them, especially House, have reached the final stage, or have much hope of doing so.

There are some new writers on board this year, new looks for some of the characters, and a diversion from the basic formula of almost killing the patient a few times before coming up with the logical but unexpected diagnosis. But so far it's the same great House with the same sad problems: not enough Wilson and Cuddy.

(Cross posted to Blogcritics)


For after all, the best thing one can do when it's raining is to let it rain.
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Fame battles hurricane

I'm often impatient with celebrity cause celebres – the endless parade of issues latched onto by famous names, sometimes with little knowledge of or passion for those issues' intricacies.

I believe in a celebrity's right to voice an opinion, of course, but that opinion should have no more weight than yours or mine because of their fame. But in our celebrity-obsessed culture, they are given more weight through more exposure and a perception of more authority. There's no chance of a fair debate on the cattle industry when the influential Oprah Winfrey uses her talk show to give her unrefuted opinion (though like her high-priced lawyers - except without the high price - I'd fight for her right to have her say).

When Dr. Jeffrey Sachs talks about poverty in Africa, we don't even get to the point of saying “Who? Said what?” because the average person will never come across his opinions. But when he teams up with Angelina Jolie for the documentary The Diary of Angelina Jolie and Dr. Jeffrey Sachs in Africa, it not only gets aired on MTV, it ends up as a feature on Entertainment Tonight. So while I can wish that we didn't need to hear it from her, I have to admire her for her efforts.

With no ties to the area, I was no more or less affected by Hurricane Katrina than the Asian tsunami or earthquakes in India. It's another horrible reminder of our powerlessness in the face of nature.

But with last night's Shelter from the Storm telethon, the collective voice of the stars who aligned to raise money and awareness for hurricane relief spoke to CNN-fatigued viewers like me, telling us that we do have power.

Fame is a powerful force. It washed away my cynicism (for now) and leveraged an hour of primetime television on several major networks into A-list entertainment, creating a palatable platform to tell stories about the real stars in this story – the evacuees, the rescue and relief workers, and the everyday heroes whose stories we cling to for meaning out of tragedy.

(Cross posted to Blogcritics)

"We thought, because we had power, we had wisdom."
- Stephen Vincent Benét

Thursday, September 08, 2005

In praise of screenwriters

I've used the Internet as a tool for years, and my work has long involved some degree of web writing and development. But it's only recently that I've delved into the community of the Internet, through discussion forums and blogging. Not only has it allowed me to discover true friendships, which have evolved beyond the computer screen, but it's been unexpectedly educational about some of my favourite diversions.

I'm not an aspiring screenwriter. I'm not sure I'm an aspiring anything, but screenwriting is down there with astrophysicist and assassin and other intriguing things I know I'd be terrible at. But I'm an avid consumer of the screenwriters' product, and I've learned a lot through perusing various screenwriters' blogs and interviews at Television Without Pity, among other places.

Because what little I know about screenwriting comes from the movie industry, I was surprised to learn that on television, writers are in a much greater position of power. I had no idea what a showrunner was - the writer who, well, runs the show, much like a director on a movie set - or that the various levels of producer credits are designations given to writers.

So I was even more surprised when the Emmys announced several months ago that winning writers and directors would need to pre-record their acceptance speeches, so as not to take valuable screen time away from actors' interminable thanks to publicists, agents, managers, cast and crew, families, friends, neighbours, God, zzzzzzzz, etc.

Last month they reversed that decision, not because they regretted trivializing the function of writers and directors, but because it wasn’t going to save as much time as they thought. (Some pressure from the writers and directors guilds might have helped.)

Years ago, I saw an interview with William Gibson, who was asked about being a highly recognizable writer. He called a writer’s fame "homeopathic" - so diluted as to have no actual essence of fame left.

Fame seems to me a curse more than a reward, but when we’re celebrating the (supposedly) finest television has to offer on September 18, it shouldn't be a chore to give equal time to those who not only put the words in the actors' mouths, but shape the product we see on our screens from creation to completion.

And as fans, it should be just as rewarding to see the writing of our favourite shows acknowledged as the acting.

(Cross posted to Blogcritics)

"Yes, it's hard to write, but it's harder not to."
- Carl Van Doren

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Amazon Short, sweet and cheap

As eager as I was to leave and get on with the business of paying off student loans instead of accumulating them, I miss my university days. One of the primary reasons is that as an ex-English major, I no longer have that direct and forced access to books to feed my hunger for intelligent, entertaining literature, and it's more difficult to keep on top of what's out there that might appeal to me. So many of my favourite authors are either not writing fast enough to keep pace with my reading, or dead, and therefore not as prolific as they used to be. Now I must rely on the kindness of strangers and friends for their recommendations, which are often hit and miss.

A recent hit, and one of my new favourite books, is The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger (see August Random Reviews). So I was thrilled to discover that not only can I catch up with Niffenegger's other book, The Three Incestuous Sisters: An Illustrated Novel, but there's more, if you're in the know. Thanks to Amazon's new Amazon Shorts program, Niffenegger's short story “Jakob Wywialowski and the Angels” is exclusively available there in electronic format for the whopping price of 49 cents. (Well, 49 cents U.S., but still a bargain for Canadians, too.) For some reason – probably something boring and legal - these shorts are available only on the site, but there are no shipping costs to worry about. The file is stored in your “Digital Locker” at Amazon, but you can also save and print as a PDF or text file.

Of course, another great feature of Amazon (and really, they're not paying me for this public service announcement and I'm not an affiliate), is that I can see that customers who bought The Time Traveler's Wife also bought The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, which were also recommended to me by real-life people and are now on my to-buy list.

To give credit where it's due: It's quite possible that I live in a cave, but the only reason I stumbled across this treasure trove of bite-sized fiction and non-fiction is through the blog of screenwriter John August (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Corpse Bride, Go). His friend Daniel Wallace, who wrote the book Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions, is one of the writers with material available as an Amazon short.

(Cross posted to Blogcritics)

"The greatest gift is a passion for reading. It is cheap, it consoles, it distracts, it excites, it gives you the knowledge of the world and experience of a wide kind. It is a moral illumination."
- Elizabeth Hardwick