Sunday, January 17, 2016

Untrue Crime

Fargo the tv seriesis entertaining, but ultimately does not work as well, I feel, as the original movie did. Where the movie needed only William H Macy's character to be a singular incompetence to spread out like a contagion, the first series of fargo needed multiple incompetent characters to screw and counter screw up everything for the prolonged duration of the series. Same same but to a lesser extent with season two.

That said, Fargo is entertaining, the one thing that annoyed me everytime is leaving in the affectation of 'This is a true story, out of respect for the survivors the names have been changed, out of respect for the dead everything else has been told exactly as they happened' which was not true of the original film, and is not true of the fargo universe. Painting Minnesota as a place more dangerous than cartel controlled territories in Mexico.

Hannibal, is also entertaining enough. But those lauding a golden age of television needs must keep in perspective that a golden age of television is still far short of a golden age of cinema. There is a great show in Hannibal, it spans from midway in season 1 to midway in season 2.

Having never seen the movie 'Hannibal' as in, the third of Harris' novels, nor read said novel, I can't really tell if anyone ever did a good job of turning Hannibal into an anti-hero, or 'Dexterising' him.

But (spoiler aler - Hannibal does what is in the book) in the latter half of the second season, that tells the backstory of Mason Verger, we find a typical device of writers dealing with an anti-hero. Create somebody worse.

So we have the tasteful and elegant Hannibal, who by this stage of the series has done some evil things set against Mason. Who upon entering makes a child cry and absorbes his tears with a piece of paper. Which he collects. His history as a peadophile and abuse of his sister are alluded to, but not shown. Presumably due to it being a tv show.

Then he does more horrible stuff to his sister, and in steps Hannibal. Whom partly through self defence abducts Mason, disfigures and cripples him. We are as an audience at least, invited to feel conflicted, in part some visceral satisfaction that somebody did something horrible to horrible Mason, but also that that horrible thing is quite horrible.

But still, I struggle to enjoy or engage with Hannible, or Harris' greater universe of FBI profilers. Malcolm Gladwell wrote a great article of how the profession of profiler is essentially reducible to that of psychics, and indeed based on the same 'cold readings' that clairvoyant charlatans use. The article is much more worth a read than this blog post if you can find it in the New Yorker, or get yourself a copy of 'What the Dog Saw'.

The other is that it much like Dexter, celebrates a portrayal of serial killers that makes them seem like eccentric artists. If you watch any serial killer documentaries, they are generally not at all admiral, captivating or even really interesting beyond the gruesome details of some of their crimes.

And as one tumblr feed of one of the more activist artists I follow once pointed out, in TV and movies if crimes are being committed by a white person, they become an 'anti-hero' somebody for audiences to try and identify with and root for. Sympathise with even, but not for people of colour. The closest we've ever been invited to sympathise with african american criminals by the post - was the Wire. Even then while The Wire brilliantly frustrates the viewer with all the short sighted frustrations within our society that block simple and viable solutions to crime, and makes the problem of drug related violence in Baltimore (and presumably, places like Chicago, Phillidelphia et al.) as a never ending multi-generational cycle, the ultimate rewards of the drug trade, for any individual gangster are prison or death.

Which brings me to Walter White of Breaking Bad. And here, there'll be spoilers galore. Thus if it's taken you longer to watch the finale than me, perhaps you should just go and watch it.

Thing is, that Vince Gilligan I believe set out wanting to do a series on the 'unmaking' of a man. Something like 'Mr Chips into Scarface' was the ultimate story arc. An interesting thought experiment, made for an entertaining narrative.

For me the last time I felt sorry for Walt was when he found out he was in remission and was going to live. He had a form of breakdown at that moment realizing his desperate measures to secure his families finances, were undertaken in vain.

After that I never really felt challenged about whether I was rooting for Walt or not. Walt had to die. Logic told me he would make it to the finale though.

There's a bunch of problems with Breaking Bad, non of them writing, directing, acting or even cinematography. But rather, the 'true crime' aspect. For example, the numerous arguments Walt and Jesse have about the people that get hurt from the conduct of their business. These people are never the numerous end users of their product. Though there are some episodes where the impact of meth on individuals and communities is portrayed. Jesse for example, is more concerned with the peripheral people in his life that get hurt by Walt and others (via poisoning and what not) or various other players they've had to kill.

Part of what makes Walt so evil, is that he does not operate exclusively in the criminal world, like most of the people he kills throughout the series. But is living a double life so we get to see the impact his choices have on people the mainstream audience presumably can identify with.

Otherwise, the main offended by the actions of Walt and Jesse, are kept at quite a distance. Though Jesse himself struggles with addiction, he also receives fat stacks of cash through his illicit activities. Thus his struggles with addiction are more reflective of a rock star's struggles than those whom are not in a socio-economic position to sustain their habit.

My understanding, is that Meth is horrible. I've read a few articles by one Australian journo that demonstrates how quickly one can descend into delusional psychosis while using meth. Louis Theroux's documentary on meth is pretty illuminating as well.

Much as we may have felt some sense of satisfaction as Walt found a way to use his old friends turned billionaire owners of Gray Matter that Walt sold out of, amusing. Where Walt used his gritty street smarts to convince them their lives were in constant danger should they not deliver his cash for him to his children. A fat cat Meth cook being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for producing a product that does as much damage as meth is probably far more reprehensible than overpaid CEOs actions that indirectly impoverish peoples or reap economic devastation on communities.

I feel Walt ultimately does take responsibility for his choices, and he feels a lot of pain resulting from the consequences. But Gilligan also used the 'someone worse' device to make Walt into a finale anti-hero. Introducing Todd and his Uncle, a gang of white supremacist bikers that don't just hurt Hank (like Walt and Gus did) but kill him. And don't just manipulate Jesse into being a cook, but actually imprison him. And don't just poison someone Jesse cares about to motivate him, but kills them in front of him.

After 6 months to a year (whatever the Time-skip is) it allows Walt to cruise in as a relative hero, a much lighter bad guy to rescue Jesse.

I can't help but feel that if it were the Wire, the series would have ended with Walt's arrest by Hank. Being stripped of his wealth, family, freedom and made account most of all to Jesse.

Instead, we have this extra bit tacked on, with extra bad guys, that Walt tidily resolves as a lone gunman against a crew of Bandits. Getting back everyone who fucked with him and granting Jesse his freedom.

Just before he dies. No good. No good at all.

At least Marlow was left in the Wire with the promise that his thug nature and personal ego virtually ensuring he would wind up in prison like his predecessor Avon Barksdale.

There's a place for crime in entertainment. Under a limited scope, a place to glorify it. I don't want to see nothing on TV but CSI Miami, where bad one liners and sunglasses acting result in proving criminals can't get away with anything, ever, anymore.

Just that criminals that do often get away with shit, pay a tremendous personal cost - which the Wire did brilliantly and Breaking Bad did well up until it's finale. Despite the fact that you run a tight criminal operation, the risks have to be ratcheted right up and this makes you constantly vulnerable (or fragile) to your whole world falling apart. Game over needs to be game over, and more or less the only things that fucked up Walt's attempt to retire and walk away, was that he was a family man, with a brother heading up the DEA.

Tomorrows future cooks can watch breaking bad, dream of turning some barrels of chemicals into millions of dollars, and the fact that they are young unattached university students means they don't have to worry about having their brother in law snoop around their house and discover a crucial batch of evidence.

Lacking from Breaking Bad, where the 'three men can keep a secret if two of them are dead' wisdom of Ben Franklin that would inevitably lead to any of the various arrangements the two get going coming undone.

Same goes for Hannibal, that while set in the modern era, doesn't appear to have him encumbered by all the various public surveillance that might prevent somebody from moving their people dismantling equipment into somebody elses basement, or even basic precautionary risk management from their FBI captain, deciding to pull everyone from future cases that has an existing relationship with an agent that is incarcerated pending trial for a series of murders.

The suspensions of disbelief are getting subtler. You have to notice how ludicrous it is that Gus would let Walt or Jesse into his home where he lives by himself. Or talk on mobile phones to any of his business associates. Or that the Cartel would bring their entire membership together to meet with one distributor from New Mexico. Or that Gus could walk into a nursing home and repeatedly visit one of the most distinctive residents and not be noticed or known. Or that Billy Bob Thornton can repeatedly walk in and out of his crime scenes, on foot. Or that it's possible to drive away from any crime scene without hitting some kind of police cordon.

Increasingl, the audience is required to notice an absence, in the implausible, rather than the presence of the implausible. Which is good writing, but if you are writing a show with criminal anti-hero's and you wipe away some of the commonplace things that would render their activities untenable in day to day life, you are to some extent being emotionally and socially irresponsible as a writer.

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