“But I am beginning to explain, which is a violation of a rule I lay down whenever I teach a class in writing: ‘All you can do is tell what happened. You will get thrown out of this course if you are arrogant enough to imagine that you can tell me why it happened. You do not know. You cannot know.’”
Every artist is attempting to show the rest of the world his particular perception of the world, in all its splendorous, tragic glory or to show how he wishes the world was, or how it once was or where we are headed. In the realm of film, the most prolific of all media today, artists are given the ability to create entire worlds that artists in other mediums can only dream of. There are visionaries and there are prophets, there are geniuses and there are mistakes, there are creators and there are commentators. There is someone in the film industry that does not fall easily into any of these alone, but fits snugly in them together. He has garnered various awards from prestigious film festivals and academies that recognize greatness in filmmaking, has achieved modest to moderate financial success and is hailed by his peers and contemporaries as a director with a serious vision and style. His name is Paul Thomas Anderson. He has made five feature films (four of them released theatrically) and two short films. His shorts are “The Dirk Diggler Story” from 1988, a prologue of sorts for his first major feature film, and 1993’s “Cigarettes and Coffee”.
A central theme in both his films and in modern life, as well as throughout history, is the disconnect due to generational differences and temporal ideas between father and son. Every father was once a son and was once attempting to try to adhere to his particular generation’s idea of what a man was while trying to reject the definition of what a man was for his father’s generation and his father himself. This constant, circular struggle is an undeniable aspect of growing up as a male in society with a father who thinks he is doing right by his son by guiding him the way he was guided. The only problem with this is that the father does not remember being a son and what it was like to be told what to do, so he does not accept his son’s resistance as individuality, only as meaningless angst and rebellion.
The fathers, or guardians, in every one of Anderson’s theatrically released films follow this blueprint, which will be discussed after his shorts.
His only non-high profile feature film is “Sidney”. The studio behind this film wished that the film be called “Hard Eight” and Anderson was not pleased. The film was released as “Hard Eight” and Anderson has, since then, made fun of the situation that at the time drove him to much discomfort. “Sidney” was released in 1996 and in the following year Anderson revisited a character he had made a decade before (Dirk Diggler) in the form of an ode to the 1970’s (most notably the culture of excess in every way imaginable and the porn industry) “Boogie Nights”. The main character of “Boogie Nights” is Dirk Diggler, a young man from the Los Angeles area whose mother does not accept his wish to be in the adult film industry and whose father is not present. The ideals of the previous generation have impeded Diggler’s personal life by not allowing him to be accepted for having a fantastic gift in his chosen field- a fourteen inch penis. Despite it not being a traditional skill, it is something that is undeniably helpful in his chosen career. To quote Diggler: “I have so many good things, Ma, and I’m gonna be a big bright shining star”.
After being labeled the next big thing, Anderson decided not to go the route of so many promising young filmmakers and instead he went to work on what would be considered a masterpiece by many, the troubling and challenging “Magnolia”. The film, which follows the causes and effects of one particularly eventful day in Los Angeles, premiered in 1999 to polarized reviews and reception. Some say that he was overindulgent with his three hour and eight minute opus and never really pulled the trigger, such as the New York Observer’s Andrew Sarris who said “In the case of Magnolia , I think Mr. Anderson has taken us to the water’s edge without plunging in.” Rob Gonsalves„ of eFilmCritic, chose a more blunt approach in his review: “If I were to begin this as a normal movie review, and then it went on and on for thousands of words, full of sometimes dazzling paragraphs that didn’t relate to each other, and if this review then somehow turned into a haiku written in German about squirrels, how would you respond to it? If you were feeling generous, you might allow that it’s fitfully interesting — after all, nobody’s ever attempted this before — but you also might point out there’s a good reason nobody’s done it before.”
Many critics agree that the tale of coincidence (or lack thereof) and randomness (or lack thereof) is off-putting and that Anderson was merely being self-indulgent and, to quote Gonsalves again, “lov[ing] the bullying control of being a movie director”. However, there were those who took their stand on the complete opposite side of these critics while giving their take on the sprawling film that covers no fewer than eight major characters. One such critic is rather a collective of them, the Time Out London film guide who says about the film’s climax “As the lost souls make their way towards - what? - redemption? - a deus ex machina plot development occurs, as contrived, ludicrous, bold and grandly imaginative as any Biblical flood or plague.” and “it’s also one of the most enthralling and exhilarating American movies in ages…For all the humour, it’s a dark portrait of loss, lovelessness and fear of failure in contemporary America”. As far as the ending’s “deus ex machine”, they speak, of course, as anyone who has seen the film will speak, of the frogs. Always the frogs. When I first saw the film a few years ago, I was furious and confused at the frogs. The film had taken me on a journey of deep pain and sadness as well as quiet beauty and brilliance, even humor, and then, at the two hour and fifty minute mark the book of Exodus began to take place on screen. I had been betrayed, and after so much emotional investment. I watched the film again a while later and began to notice the details and themes that would make this an acceptable (somewhat) event, but it was only recently that I saw a detail that made it seem fitting, logical even.
At one point in the film, a child whose father has forced him to exploit his intelligence for his own monetary game on a game show (that another character, now middle aged, had been on 30 years prior and whose father had taken his money as well) needs to use the bathroom. He is told he cannot and must wait in agony while answering questions that most adults could not. In the audience is a man holding a sign reading “Stanley” (the young boy’s name, as he has become a semi-celebrity due to his near record breaking performance on the show), there is also another sign in the audience. It reads “Exodus 8:2” (the umpteenth time those numbers appeared in the film). I paused the film and got my roommate’s bible. I thumbed to Exodus and then to the passage which read: “And if thou refuse to let them go, behold, I will smite all thy borders with frogs.” The man holding the sign is quickly spoken to by a man in a suit (presumably either security or an executive) who takes the sign from him and walks away.
The character portrayed by Tom Cruise is a misogynistic motivational speaker named Frank TJ Mackie who says his father is dead, and has been for decades, but in reality he is only now just dying of cancer. Frank’s mother died of cancer and his father was no where to be seen so he has become the antithesis of the traditional gentleman.
No one listens, and so the rain comes. Everyone in the film is stuck in a position they regret or wish to change, and since none of them are able to get out of those positions (due to the failure of their parents and their subsequent failure) the rain (water) stops and the rain (ribbet) starts. When the frogs are falling, we see a caption on a picture in Claudia’s apartment, “but it did happen”. And it did. This happens when storms pass over a lake teeming with frogs, picks them up and drops them somewhere else, such as in the town of Villa Angel Flores in Mexico after a tornado picked up a cluster of toads and dropped them over the town one evening in June, 1997.
For three years Anderson did not make another film and limited his creative output to directing an episode of Saturday Night Live in 2000. Then, in 2002 he released his shortest, oddest and most openly (unfathomably darkly) comedic film- “Punch-Drunk Love” starring Adam Sandler and Emily Watson as the most unexpected romantic couple in recent memory. If for nothing else, the film should be applauded (or more accurately, Anderson should) for bringing one of the most eye-roll inducing actors in movie history, Sandler, to the height of restrain/explode performance. He is excellent, and is able to carry a film about an awkward 30 something with a penchant for bottling up anger until it turns to rage who is exploiting a company’s frequent flyer mile giveaway (while feeling guilty about it) and working at a plunger warehouse while courting an odd woman and playing the harmonium. His sisters recount a story form their youth where they called him “gay boy” until he was so distraught that he was found holding a hammer. His sexuality being questioned, and therefore his masculinity in the traditional sense, he was without fatherly guidance and so he lashed out. At the party where the story is recounted, Sandler’s character kicks in all the glass doors in the house and honestly does not know why. Yes, it is odd, but it is truly remarkable.
Five years after proving that Sandler can act and the romantic comedy is still alive, Anderson made a decisive turn. He chose to adapt Robert Sinclair’s story “Oil!” into a film, the first time he had not created the source material. He did not take much more than an oil man in the beginning of the era of oil men who rises to the top by sinking lower than anyone else would dare to for his “There Will Be Blood”. Featuring an all-time performance from Daniel Day Lewis and released during the height of oil obsession in America, “There Will Be Blood” spoke to everyone who saw the film and found themselves falling for the tricks of this oil man, despite knowing that he was an evil man. He had worked hard for his fortune, very hard, as the film’s wordless opening act shows us. After an accident alone at his first big strike in a silver mine in the wilderness leaves Daniel Plainview (Day Lewis) with a broken leg at the bottom of the shaft, he must climb out and drag himself on his back back to town to reap what he has sown. The next time we see him he is taking the business by storm and giving his memorized speech to the next group of suckers he is going to take for all they have. He has made it, and just like the oil executives of the present who spent a long time learning about business and taking huge risks while they climbed the corporate ladder, he is unfathomably wealthy. He is above the little people, the common folk, but he relies on their need of his product to stay that way. As the title hints, or rather declares, this will not be a peaceful journey. He fights for his name, he fights for his son, he fights for land, for money, and he fights for his soul, whether or not he believes in it.
At the end of the film, he has just cast his improperly adopted son out of his house for asking for his blessing to start his own oil company in Mexico. Plainview, instead of being happy that he has a son who has followed in his footsteps, sees this as new competition and proceeds to tell this young man that he was not only not his biological son but that he was a sales technique, a “pretty face” to rope in customers. Plainview is alone in his mansion, with nothing but his fortune for company when an old enemy (who is also responsible for the majority of his wealth) comes calling. After an incredible confrontation, Plainview bashes his head in with a bowling pin and our title is no longer a liar. Plainview, exhausted, sits and stares, until his servant calls his name. Then, he delivers the enigmatic line that precedes a black screen with the title in gargantuan letters and a gorgeous string accompaniment: “I’m finished”, and we know he believes it, and we know it is true. He fights until he is finished, and has burned to nothing. He would rather be ashes than dust, and he lights the match himself.
Anderson is, if anything, unapologetic about his films and his decision to include this motif in every one of his works. His trademarks (like Jim Jarmusch and Wes Anderson and to a lesser extent Quentin Tarantino) include “a hipster-epicurean soundtrack, an episodic structure, a permeating sense of isolation, and a pan-global vision of the people on America’s margins”, to quote Chris Norris of Film Comment. He has a distinct, unique vision and uses his knowledge of film and storytelling, handed down to him from his father (known on television as Ghoulardi) who hosted a late night television show devoted to “B” horror films in the Cleveland area, to present original and fresh stories to a new audience who needs them more than ever. The two had a very close relationship which makes the fact that P.T.A.’s films all deal explicitly with absent or abusive fathers even odder. “Mass culture is a machine for showing desire, it’s also a machine for expressing resentment, a frustration of desire” said Roland Barthes. That statement was never more true than in the late nineties when mass culture became an unstoppable, inescapable force as the world shrank from the explosion of the internet and other forms of media and communication. Culture became an antiquated word which no longer held its obsolete meaning. We were never more connected and never more alone at the same time. Our parents unable to connect with us because we are too connected to things and not each other, their parents too connected to work, religion, war and their own selfishness/hopefulness to connect to them, and our children will need these films too because we will make similar mistakes.
Anderson sees all off this, puts it right in our faces, and some of us just don’t get it. We are too busy counting money to hold family, too busy being polite to express ourselves, too afraid of others opinions to have our own, and too surrounded by loneliness to know unity, but he shows us that despite (and in conjunction with) all of this it is still beautiful, wonderful, magical, unexplainable and completely insane in the best way. Cue the frogs, but Anderson is not finished yet. Anderson’s next project is about a man who starts a religion in the fifties that is ridiculed and is only respected by its followers, devout believers all. It is tentatively titled “The Master”, is based loosely on scientology’s start, and will star an Anderson regular, Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman is playing the titular role and will be betrayed by one of his flock after being a father figure with different ideals than his surrogate children. He appears to have gone a bit mad with power according to early reports regarding the plot of the film. Once more, the son and the father figure will do battle in Anderson’s arena, family will be questioned and shattered back down to its foundation, its core, and the rubble that is left will no doubt be another accomplished work from the director /writer.
He lives with SNL alumni Maya Rudolph with whom he has two children, both girls, of course.
Understandably, this being a site dedicated to writing regarding film and the various cultural pools its tentacles have managed to dip into, the entirety of my previous posts have centered around said medium. I enjoy uniformity when dealing with a specific subject and have always maintained that this particular web page should be reserved for propagating the appeal and urgency of motion pictures. However, an unsettling mindset has prevailed throughout American popular culture that simply cannot be ignored any longer and I must break my streak of consecutive cinema-centric posts: Hockey isn’t worth our time.
In North America, more specifically the United States, there are four major sports – let it go, season ticket holders to the MLS and NLL, all 5 of you will have your time to thrash all the way into your death throes soon enough- with specific demographics, appeal and levels of economic and cultural success. In descending order of market share and cultural saturation/infiltration they are football (whose flagship organization is the NFL), baseball (the MLB), basketball (the NBA) and hockey (the NHL). The vast majority of children in this country participate in youth recreational sports, with the highest participation being overwhelmingly in the games of baseball, basketball, and football, with hockey an outlying minority. The sport demands a rink, ice time, pads, training, travel, expense beyond the norm, and relentless physical activity just to make it possible for a single player to be ready to compete at any level above pick-up games. Now try to field a line, then a team, and then a league. It is astronomically more difficult and the odds are stacked outrageously against anyone attempting to instill a passion for hockey in young people versus virtually any other sport.
For the better part of a century, an ubiquitous blanket of nostalgia and perpetuated semi-patriotism wrapped the citizens of these United States up in baseball and refused to let us even stick a toe out to breathe in the dog days of July and August. Due to the seasonal demands of an outdoor sport played in a park, the summer belonged to those who called the diamond home. Summer means free time and walking-around money. Those two factors combined with a consistently pleasing and comfortingly lax mindset from those involved in the game made the game a natural fit for a hundred years. On top of criteria built into the game, it also had a sizeable head start having become an officially recognized professional sport during a time when Civil War veterans were reaching middle age.
In the last few decades, the juggernaut of violent spectacle and territorial conquest known as American football – again, sorry to soccer fans as we have usurped “football” as a word – has shoved and injected its way into the spotlight, wrestling the crown from the boys of summer and securing it atop the heads of the titans of the gridiron. A $9 billion dollar a year industry whose (hilariously, impossibly) threatened work stoppage and dreaded year-off grabbed headlines for months and illustrated just how much we love us some foo-baw. They are, let’s be honest, nearly uniformly using and abusing performance enhancing drugs to such an extent that the average lineman has increased in size (height and weight) by almost 25% since the 1980’s. Any other sport with a drug abuse track record this size would be tarred and feathered in the court of public opinion, and in the case of baseball, in the halls of congress.
We all felt cheated and deceived when that list of players was released and heroes were destroyed in front of our eyes. First ballot, no question, all time players were reduced to head-shake-prompting, teeth-sucking, it’s-a-crying-shamery. Bonds went from a god to a demon, Clemens from a flame throwing freak to a juiced-up, overweight fool and countless current players were forced to lay low or beg for forgiveness. Why? Why is the double standard so starkly clear and yet embraced by us all. We like our football impossibly big, fast and loud. We like it this way so much that we are willing to look the other way as a 6 foot 6, 340 pound monster runs a sub-5 second 40 yard dash (impossible sans Balco tested, Balco approved products) and then hit rewind every time he knocks someone’s helmet off in a game. Careers were ended in baseball when the era of PED’s was brought to an abrupt close, while careers do not begin in the NFL without them.
Now, basketball, ah, basketball. My personal opinion of the sport is not overwhelmingly positive due to my inability to understand that what is or is not a foul or a violation has less to do with the transgression and more to do with the players involved in it. Anecdotally, Michael Jordan is the king of this. He was almost never reprimanded for his blatant travelling because he was the face of the sport and needed to be protected. See: LeBron James and Kobe Bryant today who spend their time on the court free from fear of penalty or citation and therefore free to play basketball their way and be successful. Despite this glaring problem with the sport and the NBA especially, the past few seasons have been remarkably entertaining, particularly the past three post-seasons. Heavy in overtime and buzzer-beater moments, series with rich, engaging storylines of “good” versus “bad” teams, stellar individual performances and a perfect mix of old-guard teams pitted against the young bloods they have provided viewers with dramatic and entertaining runs to the championship despite their secure standing as the third biggest traditional sport in the country.
The three aforementioned sports are all in their respective places in a very secure way, with no real argument available to attempt to reorder them in terms of overall control of the athletic zeitgeist in the United States. People have their complaints about each sport and have had similar ones for decades, and we have all heard them. Baseball is too slow, basketball only gets good during the last 2 minutes, and football is too expensive and the games too few and far between. Hockey, however, has a myriad of complaints from non-fans that run the gamut far beyond a negligible, superficial difference of taste which come together and form a damning indictment of the sport from its fundamental principles to its bells and whistles. Chief among the complaints against professional hockey are the aversion to fighting and the quintessentially American complaint that a game played at 30 MPH on ice in an arena of engaged fans with some of the most exciting moments in all of sports is “boring” because the scores are low.
Excitement is not directly proportional to points scored. A 140-128 basketball game could be mind-blowingly boring as the Phoenix Suns proved for years and years while one of the few non-NHL Canadian sports stars of the era, Steve Nash, put on a dazzling display night after night to no avail. Our xenophobia and ironic, simultaneous fascination with foreign players (Yao Ming, David Beckham, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Dirk Nowitzki, etc.) is made crystal clear in the fact that we routinely refer to foreign sports as silly or simply refuse to acknowledge their existence at all. Even with this stance we expect our NFL games in London to be massive cultural events that will show those Brits what a real sport is. It is this reason that I believe is most responsible for the inability of an exciting game full of the American values of violence, speed, might making right, pageantry, tradition and moments of transcendence which galvanize all fans to, well, galvanize all fans. Having just shy of one quarter of your teams call Canada home (7 of the 30) may have something to do with it, but it shouldn’t. The Yankees of hockey are the Montreal Canadiens who have almost a century of winning tradition. Established “Empire”? Check. The Heat of hockey are the Vancouver Canucks, an organization with a smattering of success in the past now revitalized by a cherry-picked team of skilled players who play a specific and obnoxious type of game with mascots who are hated anywhere outside of their home city, the Sedin twins. Established “Villain”? Check. It’s got more underdogs and Cinderellas than you can shake a stick at every season, in huge markets. Established “Darkhorse”? Check. Why, then, does no one outside the provinces seem to acknowledge the fact that this sport is still alive when the puck is dropped?
It has become the cool thing to do for owners to cry poverty while planning stadium expansions or major roster acquisitions in basketball (the Sacramento Kings), baseball (the L.A. Dodgers) and football (nearly every owner using this excuse during negotiations for the most recent collective bargaining agreement while at the same time refusing to release financial records to back up or refute these claims) during relatively healthy to record-breakingly fit economic periods for their respective industries – especially the NFL - with no teams actually facing a fate worse than structural reorganization or new ownership. The league itself has been unable to find common ground amongst itself three times during the reign of a single commissioner, a feat unmatched by all three other sports combined during the same period. Since 1995, in the NHL three teams have moved to new cities and been given new names compared to two NBA, one MLB and two NFL teams. Hockey is actually affected by economic down turns enough that there is a correlating effect to the shape of the league itself. Without a strong revenue sharing system such as the one that the MLB employs, the fickle nature of a lottery draft, and the confines of a salary cap in a league rife with parity (no team having repeated as Stanley Cup champions since 1998’s Detroit Red Wings), there is no denying the NHL is flawed and seems almost designed to fail. Despite all of this, the game, the thing that should matter most to fans, is still electrifying.
Any 60 minutes of professional hockey is host to a remarkable amount of “must have” sports moments. Stunning scoring plays, even more stunning denied scores, bone shattering contact, outspoken and clearly defined personalities on the ice and the bench, rivalries strengthened, destroyed, and born, and the final uniting moment where teams have victory and defeat bestowed upon them. This is not enough for hockey to live off of. They must resort to promotions and gimmicks. Some of them are bad, like, minor league bad; multiple bobble-head nights a year, corporate sponsored everything, ads projected on the plexiglass (in Madison Square Garden, no less!), and more activities and contests between periods than at the hokiest summer camp in existence. Another of the worst offenders in the gimmick department is the fact that every regular season game that is still tied after regulation goes to an overtime period which takes one player off the ice for each team. If the game remains tied after said period, then we go to a shoot out. Wait, what? Why? How does the ability to shoot one-on-one at the goalie indicate the better team? Because, silly, that ensures a victor and a higher score at the end of the game, both of which non-fans cite as a major desire they have for the game they are still not watching.
A great gimmick that the NHL has installed into the season is the Winter Classic. The Winter Classic is a regular season game played on New Year’s Day between two rival teams in an outdoor stadium or ballpark. These have been consistently among the highest rated (and highest quality) games of each season they have taken place in, but are still outshone by The Rose Bowl, a college football game which also happens on New Years and trounces it in the ratings department. Granted, it is a championship bowl game, but, remember, it is also an amateur event. No matter what the NHL does to tailor its sport to the demands of the public while retaining its intangible properties which make the sport what it is, it is not enough.
I hope for hockey not only to simply be taken seriously as a sport, but for it to be welcomed into the fold and celebrated as part of our national culture just as much as any other game which consistently supplies a thrilling product at an affordable price in obscenely varied markets and regions across two continents with a rich history, a riveting present and a promising future.
As I am writing this, the first round of the 2012 NHL playoffs are under way, and the beards are growing quickly. The first few games of each series have been all you can ask for as a fan of any sport. They have been physical, tight games with big stars like Sidney Crosby, Pavel Datsyuk, Alexander Ovechkin, Tim Thomas and Henrik Lundqvist shining, rookies and unproven players announcing their arrival on the biggest stage in their field such as the Washington Capitals’ Bradon Holtby becoming a star overnight in goal and storylines developing in real time as we collectively barrel towards the Stanley Cup.
And that’s another thing, the Cup. The king of trophies, the Stanley Cup is the oldest trophy in professional sports in North America, hoisted over the grizzled, tired and triumphant heads of every player to ever be called champion in the history of the NHL, with each new victor’s name carved in to its side every year. No one keeps the Cup; it is passed on, a unique detail of hockey that further separates it from the big three above it. Perhaps it is this tradition that I have identified with so dearly that made me a fan in the first place and has never allowed me to stop being a fan. That’s why it’s so fitting that the players names are dug into the very trophy itself, because this sport has resided on the edge of obsolescence for nearly the totality of its existence and so any champion should be celebrated and specifically counted by name for having survived one more year. They know they could go at any minute, and there have been years without a single puck dropped, but that doesn’t stop them from giving us a hell of a show and making sure we knew they existed in case one day, they don’t anymore.
A sporting world without hockey as a vital and appreciated game is something I cannot abide by because I’ve been in the arena. Once is all it takes and you’re a fan for life. A baptism in chants and a rebirth in the jubilant chaos of fog-horns and flashing lights awaits any uninitiated who are lucky enough to find themselves among 20,000 people who have already seen the light. Whenever trying to persuade someone, avoiding sentimentality is difficult, and I won’t try to. I have no shame in using the intangibles, the je ne sais quoi (further alienating the average American sports fan with frog-talk, sorry) to sell my side. There is no postseason like the NHL’s where seeding doesn’t matter and the regular season is truly gone forever. What happened during the 82nd game of the season is no longer relevant and no longer going to work. A regular season game in the NHL is an event in itself and there are no guaranteed wins, no matter the matchup. Seasons are made and lost every play during months and months of grinding, debilitating play until the top 16 teams are seeded and set. Then, everyone starts over, hungry and driven.
Lockouts, shortened seasons, cities with a seemingly revolving door on their arenas as teams move from place to place, none of these things have been able to quell the passion with which hockey fans wear their title as true fans. There’s the easy way of accomplishing, in part, what I hope to see accomplished by bringing up the names of the legends who have come and gone and enriched the history and legacy of the game. Gretzky, Orr, Richard, Hasek, Roy, Lemieux , Messier, Hull. You know them and they weren’t enough to make you a fan. Fine. But you are doing a disservice to yourself by marginalizing a wonderful game which never disappoints, never falls short, and never gives up. The NHL has been holding on for years by its finger nails, but those nails have only grown stronger and dug deeper. I invite anyone who isn’t already among the faithful to initiate themselves in the next few weeks while the quality of play and the intensity of each game increase exponentially because they all want the cup, they all want to play, and they all want to say “I told you so.” They might be inches away from total irrelevance in the United States, but, if you watched hockey you’d already know that they’re never going to give you a single one.
I finished the first draft of my original screenplay “This Place is Going Crazy” tonight at 4:22 AM. It is 99 pages, 42 of which were written today, which is a new record for overall length and for single day writing productivity. Very happy, and cannot wait to start revision on it.
Terry Gilliam has been trained in the art of the ridiculous for decades. As the only Yankee in the inner circle and oft-used lineup of Monty Python’s seminal comedic films and television programs, he solidified his status as a comedic genius whose skewed perspective and uncanny ability to use animation and composition to tell a story or get a point across were recognized immediately. Gilliam even co-directed one of the most acclaimed and beloved films of all time, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”.
After his abilities were tested and he proved himself, he made a few films and then he made “Brazil”, an incredible, insane film which Universal (the studio which produced the film) insisted be cut and edited according to their parameters, to supply a happier ending for audiences. Gilliam did not take this news well and the ensuing battle over the final version of the film would produce a horror story for the ages for filmmakers. With the advent of home video and the increased power of the consumer, the studio-approved version was not the only cut of the film to reach shelves. The up-beat, Universal cut is jokingly referred to as the “Love Conquer’s All” version. The original cut is simply called “Brazil”, so one can see what Gilliam’s vision originally called for.
A decade later, Terry Gilliam made “12 Monkeys”, starring Brad Pitt (hot off the success of the trifecta of “Legends of the Fall”, “Interview with the Vampire”, and “Se7en”) and Bruce Willis (at the peak of his career) as, well, it’s complicated. The near-steampunk nature of the dystopia of the near future and the present in his films is grotesquely magical. “12 Monkeys” is no exception, as we follow the story of James Cole (Willis) as he tries to prevent a super-virus from being released and decimating the human population of the planet. To attempt to explain the plot would be a disservice to the expertly crafted film in which it resides and would spoil some details that truly send the mind spinning off its axis on first viewing.
Pitt was deservedly Oscar-nominated for his manic, accelerated, certifiably insane performance as the believed leader of the army of the 12 monkeys which is blamed for releasing the virus. He and Willis play off each other in delightful ways, watching the cold, confused, determined Willis attempt to keep his sanity while Pitt literally bounces off the walls in defiance of the commonly accepted norm.
This movie can go from mundane to bat-shit and back again in a single scene, but it is so imbued with that intangible “Python” honed sensibility, and an auteur eye trained on the frame that we never feel lost and never complain. A bleak, pitch-black comedic sci-fi is a hard sell, but so was knights using coconuts as horse hooves. When you’re damn good, everyone buys it, even Universal, who produced “12 Monkeys” and gave him final cut, no questions asked.
In the realm of modern nerd-dom there are few cultural founts as deep or visited as often at the mythos of Battlestar Galactica. In such rarefied air as the likes of The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Mad Men and a precious few others in the post-millennial resurgence of magnificent dramatic television series, Battlestar has nestled itself in as the token Sci-Fi representative among the more popularly and uniformly accepted heralded and embraced by the culture shows mentioned previously. Some may argue that another Sci-Fi show is a worthy competitor for the crown, this is of course Joss Whedon’s “Firefly”. Having heard these two pitted against each other, and mentioned in tandem consistently in any dicussion in the same ballpark as this one, a viewing of the first season of “Battlestar” was no longer merely optional.
After getting through the always cringe-inducing crash course openings of shows that are shooting for grandiose scope and are going to be dealing with themes that are rarely any less than larger-than-life (using “archetypal” to describe these characters in their earliest scenes would be a criminal understatement), you are a welcome visitor to a completely enveloping universe.
Starting the series (a reboot of sorts of an earlier series of the same name debuting in 1978) as a two part miniseries and continuing on episodically after that is a brilliant choice as it minimizes that awkward adjustment period where you learn names, tendencies, history, mythology, intentions, stakes and become intensely invested into two doses rather than 3 or 4 episodes. During this period many viewers drop off and ratings plummet (one of the Achilles’ heels of “Firefly”, combined which resulted in its early cancellation).
Once we learn the rules of the world and are brought up to speed, the remaining 13 episodes of the first season of “Battlestar” is as satisfying, thrilling, entertaining, and as finely crafted as any show on television in recent memory.
Having the luxury (dramatically speaking) of portraying societal life in a vacuum following the near destruction of the human race by an age-old enemy with new-found evolutionary attributes, Ronald D. Moore, the creator of “Battlestar” has managed to bring us a show which explores sexuality, religion, belief beyond the religious, politics, philosophy, war and the nature of being human.
Dismissed as a “nerdy” show, or a guilty pleasure, many people have missed out on the experience of a masterfully constructed series which does not limit itself by its classification as a Science Fiction show. It works stories which grip and engage the viewer for their entirety, with effects and design to rival many feature films, centered around universal themes and debates, pulling no punches and holding nothing sacred, it just also happens to take place in the future in an apocalyptic war against an enemy known as Cylons.
With three more seasons remaining, I will treat every minute with care. Knowing that there is a finite ending, and a clock ticking, all the stories over, everything resolved - somehow - makes it even more of a cultural experience. Having missed the show while it was on the air, and having participated in other television phenomena as a viewer before, I cannot wait to see “Battlestar” continue to earn its place among the legends of the tube. If you are willing to disregard these miniscule, shallow and petty reasons to deprive yourself of an excellent piece of television history and you come aboard “Galactica”, you will not be disappointed. You will be frakking hooked.