Classes at Pepperdine begin today, but mine are not until tomorrow. It gives me a chance to type up a summer book report.
Except that it isn’t on books but movies and TV. This year marks the first time in six or seven years that I didn’t teach summer school (at Pepperdine or UC Riverside) or the spring quarter running into mid-June (at Cal State San Bernardino). I spent some of the summer on research, some on reading for new classes, some on catching up with the historical scholarship, some on blog writing, and, for the first time in years, some on catching on movies and TV series.
I haven’t been to a movie theater since the first Daniel Craig 007 flick eight years ago, and haven’t seen many online either. I hadn’t watched many TV series on a regular basis either, except for new episodes of Elementary each week, plus some episodes each season of family comedies like Modern Family, Blackish, The Middle, and Dr. Ken. It’s a far cry from my twenties in Seattle, when I saw a large amount of films, both classics and new runs, both foreign and Hollywood. There are new priorities, new obligations, and new interests, not to say new forms of entertainment.
Yet so much of popular culture today consists of music, movies, and especially TV series that references to them are inevitable in college. In fact, one of my fondest memories about teaching has to do with such a reference. It happened in one of my Great Books classes five semesters ago, as students and I discussed Kierkegaard’s Either/Or and Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. During a discussion of the latter, I asked a question about Kate, the neurotic cousin of the equally neurotic main character Binx. Several students went at it, then one of the more quiet students said that their relationship reminded her of the characters played by Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook. It was among the most astute comments I heard about The Moviegoer, and I remember it led to more interesting comments. If done well, there is an appropriate place for popular culture in the humanities.
L: Cooper and Lawrence in the movie. ~ pc the WSJ
R: Illustration of Kate and Binx in a special edition of The Moviegoer ~ pc pinstripepulpit.com
Moreover, as more than one person have shrewdly observed, television series today are comparable to the nineteenth-century serialized novel. I’d suspect that television and films now absorb the bulk of talented people who would have gone into creative writing one hundred years ago. Heck, even Walker Percy said that he’d have gone into screenwriting and the movies if he could have done it again. And he said that at least 40 years ago, probably more.
Because there are so many movies and shows produced each year, there are surely many duds out there. But so are many studs, metaphorically speaking, of course. When a channel like Lifetime – Lifetime! – could produce a not-half-bad series that makes fun of ABC’s The Bachelor (all right, at least for one season), one could figure that television’s quality has gone up a few notches since The Facts of Life and L.A. Law. Last but not least, the quality of film and TV criticism appears to have gone up as well, reflecting the overall quality of television in our time.
In two summer stretches, then, I caught up with the following flicks and shows: the movies in full and most but not all episodes of the TV series. Here are my summary judgments of them as listed in alphabetical order.
Hawaii 5-O. Probably the most traditional of all the shows I watched, plus the most outstretched premise. Given the scale and frequency of the crimes depicted, why would any tourists come to the Big Island? On the other hand, the acting isn’t bad at all and of course the seascape is gorgeous.
Mozart in the Jungle. Zany and amusing for the most part. I found Gael García Bernal merely passable as Rodriguez, but the minor characters, especially Uncle Bob, are consistently hysterical. (The other day, I realized that he plays the antagonist in the first of the Crocodile Dundee movies.) Looking forward to the third season.
Rizzoli and Isles. The family arcs for the main characters are hit-and-miss. But the banter between the lead actresses is hilarious even in the seventh season. (Yes, I watched most episodes.) Incidentally, tonight is the penultimate episode of the series. Good call to end the series even though the ratings are still respectable.
Silicon Valley. Funny overall, even hilariously biting on occasion. I think that there should be more movies and shows on Silicon Valley, given its enormous influence on America. This show is a move in the right direction.
Superstore. I didn’t know about this show until catching its special during the Olympics. It led to some enjoyable viewing while finishing the new syllabi. My favorite characters are played by Canadians, Lauren Ash and Mark McKinney. But the rest of the case don’t disappoint either. I’d point to this show as a sign of the overall quality about TV comedies today. If a network comedy could be this fun…
UnREAL. Enjoyable first season on the whole; less so the second season. The second season actually starts out with a great premise, plus a terrific if implied criticism of the ABC show regarding race. Unfortunately it goes downhill after a few episodes. I only read about the last episode and didn’t even bother watching it.
Veep. I’ve enjoyed watching Seinfeld, but always thought it was quite limiting for Julie Louis-Dreyfus. Here, she’s blossomed into a terrific comedic actress on television. It doesn’t hurt that the supporting cast is quite good. But do politicians and their staff really curse this much?
American Hustle. Along with Doubt, it’s the best of the six American movies that I saw. It also shows the best ensemble acting I’ve seen in a very long time – possibly since Ang Lee’s adaptation of Sense and Sensibility. If pressed, however, I’d say Christian Bale is best of the bunch, playing the lone introverted of the five main characters. (Strong too is K.C. Louis in another introverted if minor role.) Camera work, pace of story, use of contemporary music, production design, improvised acting, etc.: they seem to work seamlessly.
The Descendants. George Clooney could act! Based on a novel, it’s not a bad drama either: the sort about middle age and coming to terms with the past that should be made more often.
Doubt. John Patrick Shanley wrote a beautiful piece of work, and this film is beautifully adapted. From the playwright himself: Doubt requires more courage than conviction does, and more energy; because conviction is a resting place and doubt is infinite – it is a passionate exercise. You may come out of my play uncertain. You may want to be sure. Look down on that feeling. We’ve got to learn to live with a full measure of uncertainty. There is no last word. That’s the silence under the chatter of our time. I am not sure if these words are Pascalian, but certainly they aren’t Cartesian, ha!
Gone Girl. The worst of the lot! I don’t know if the novel is better (although I suspect that plot holes remain the same). That Amy got away with framing her husband is believable. That she got away with killing her former boyfriend is not. We’re living in a period of more and more sophisticated procedural police shows, and the fact the movie got away with major procedural problems is beyond me. I guess viewers were charmed by Rosemund Pike and Ben Affleck. She is quite good and he is bearable here.
Joy. I should have known that it’s very difficult to strike gold thrice in a row: in this case, David Russell after Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. There are moments, but it was mistake to pick this one over, gasp, Dallas Buyers Club. (I’ll watch it next summer.)
The Wolf of Wall Street. Martin Scorcese tries to do to Wall Street what he did to the Mob in Goodfellas. Sorry, it didn’t work. The sex and drug scenes – plus more f-bombs than even Casino – must have drawn many viewers. But they neither match the prowess of bloodshed inherent to mob movies nor compensate for the lack of an established subculture like the Mafia.
I also watched a couple of foreign films. First is Lust, Caution, based on a novella by Eileen Chang, filmed in Shanghai, and directed by that master of repression-themed stories Ang Lee. It is an outstanding film, and I may have to watch it again and write a separate post about it. Second is the Australian Mystery Road, a semi-haunting story that is beautifully filmed in rural Queensland. Except for a somewhat ridiculous shootout near the end, it holds up well tackling the common subject of personal redemption and the far more difficult subject of racism. Best-known among the cast, at least to Americans, must be Hugo Weaving: Agent Smith of the Matrix movies. But Aaron Pederson, the lead actor of Aboriginal descent, gives a quietly powerful performance. This film too is worth watching again.
Will any of these movies and TV episodes be referenced in class? Say, during a discussion of Descartes’ Discourse on the Method or Austen’s Persuasion? Or during a lecture on nineteenth-century New York City in the survey American history course? I’d guess that they will be – and sooner than later. The key is aptness and thoughtfulness in analogies, parallels, comparisons – and not overdoing them. Wish me luck; I’ll need it this semester and next.