Sunday, February 24, 2013

2013 Oscar Extravaganza - Seth MacFarlane Presents Three Hours of My Most Flamboyant Nightmares

A big question for the cinema this year, presumably ignited here by Andrew O'Hehir, was whether or not it was dead. I say it is not. At this point in our lives, it is likely that our discussion of contemporary film has slowed, yes. This is all part of the simplification of the form: movies are, as capitalism demands, increasingly industrialized and thus visibly homogenized, but that didn't stop studios from releasing some surprisingly satisfying fare. It's just that most of it is juvenile and we aren't juvenile anymore. Between a spate of typically strong indie efforts, as well as numerous underrepresented and mostly unseen genre flicks, this was actually a decent year. Certainly nothing that merits the apocalyptic cries of Internet culture journalists.

Something that does not help this argument is the Oscars. In the last decade they have fallen somewhat out of vogue, their ratings considerable but still falling from previous peaks. They are routinely mocked by just about everyone watching, be they notable pundits and Twitter laymen. Once the most visible accumulation of notable events in the preceding year's film output, the glitziness of the Oscars has never felt less like a way to celebrate movies, but rather the increasingly burgeoning mantle of celebrity culture. Oscar has never been about the films, of course, nor the performances therein. The problem is that even in a year where the categories are relatively strong, the illusion doesn't hold up anymore - the ceremony is often too frothy and hokey and out-of-touch to accurately represent the championing of some Very Serious Drama. At a point in our lives where most of us are probably too grown up to derive much enjoyment from the Academy's three hour barrage of in-jokes and lame skits, it is increasingly up to us to develop our own film culture, which some simply don't have the time to do without the Oscars' guiding hand. No shame in that. I will probably always watch these goddamn things, because I love the formulas and analysis that go into championing a Best Screenplay, Actress, Picture. I just don't place much faith in them, regardless of the quality of their selections.


Thursday, February 7, 2013

Maybe give Community a chance to breathe, guys?

Who's missing?

Salvo 1

Salvo 2

Salvo 3

Salvo 4

Look at all of these proclamations of a slow death! Community's season premiere was tonight, and to hear some of the big critical voices tell it, the episode was the first horseman of what would be a disappointingly average season. The once-adoring fanbase, based on 320 AVClub ratings, bid it a similarly dismissive B-. "History 101" was a rough sit sometimes, don't get me wrong, but seeing a sitcom falter to find a new take on necessarily predictable characters is something typical to its fourth season. Parks and Rec did a little; Archer is feeling it right now; 30 Rock sure as hell did, especially in its sixth. Community itself was stretched a bit toward the end of its third season.

Let's not damn the genre, but the medium: nearly every show sustains these hallmarks of decay, especially considering how the very act of running and producing a show is such a volatile task. In a way, avid watchers of the show had primed themselves for a potential disaster right out of the gate. Dan Harmon was gone, Chevy Chase was pissed, and there was little satisfaction when we learned that the premiere would be something as trendy and cheap as a Hunger Games parody episode. When you love something long-running like a television show, you owe it to yourself to be objective about the changes that accumulate around it; losing its distinct auteurial voice and the illusion of interpersonal harmony were two that just didn't register well with most people. Harmon was crucial to the show's vision, and without him the best I was hoping for was a muted (at least relative to Community standards), sweet bowing-out.

This was not muted, nor was it particularly sweet. It was oddly loud and those end-of-the-episode affirmations, powerful if sporadically graceless, fell heavily here. The laughs were there, but minimal. The Hunger Games stuff was dire as expected, and barely had anything to do with The Hunger Games in the first place. The subplots accomplished nothing. Bearing all of this in mind, it's important to remember is that the show's season premieres, as Sepinwall points out in that second article, have never been its strongest episodes. Each season takes such a radically different perceptual tack from the one that precedes it that they need these episodes as a sort of readjustment time. What aired tonight was a public examination of the show's anxieties, an entity fully aware of the impossible space of satisfaction it must fill. Abed's regressions into his own mind, spurred by anxiety or disunity in the real universe, reveal a similarly pitched but entirely artificial multi-camera sitcom. We see the sort of show that Community was always concerned about becoming, a gradual distillation of something much smarter, and its recognition that a sitcom must broaden in order to become more commercially viable should shade the initial flatness as ground to grow upon. There are elements of an arc here, a multileveled examination of the necessity of change - hell, the episode is called History 101, begging for an understanding of the genre's failings - and that's enough for me to not write the season off as some thoughtless back 13 of a dying sitcom.

I understand the desire to take this attitude toward the show; it isn't a particularly flattering one, but it's common to just about everyone. Those who are able to systematically demonstrate why what they once loved isn't good anymore feel they are proving, simultaneously, both their love for the original show and their disdain for the assumed breach of principle that this new and inferior version has brought about. "Kill your idols," in this critical climate, has become a proving ground. Art evolves through criticism, but not through melodramatic proclamations of a show's death upon its first episode of a season.

Harmon is gone but not forgotten. Community still knows this. Let it have its say.

Sneaky July update: Season 4 was essentially a disaster, start to finish. Some cute moments, a few nice ideas, and exactly one big laugh. The rest is poorly-made, exsanguinated comedy flotsam. So you can disregard this entire entreaty, I suppose.