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Shining Surface, Hidden Depths – review of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Thursday, February 22, 2001

‘It looks great, I like the fight scenes, but it’s unbelievable and the story is really thin.’

Heard this judgement on Ang Lee’s ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’? Yeah, me too. It’s both right and so far wrong that it demands a closer look.

‘It looks great’

No argument there. From the gorgeous Michelle Yeoh to the serene forest scenes, and from the exquisite interiors to the epic scale of the desert, the film positively glows.

‘I like the fight scenes’

Thought you might. This is, after all, a genre movie – a homage to the tradition of martial arts movies, and with The Matrix’s fight choreographer on the case, we get combat that deserves the oft-misused adjective balletic. There’s a grace and precision that mocks the leaden clumsiness of most Hollywood portrayals of swordplay. ‘Gladiator’ might be stirring but most often you can’t tell who’s doing what to whom amidst the sweat and the sand (a bit like ‘Temptation Island’, come to think of it, but that’s another story).

‘It’s unbelievable’

The longer version of this argument goes, ‘It was fine until they started running across the rooftops. And when they’re standing on the branches of the trees? I mean, come on, that could never happen.’ Since when do movies have had to be believable in the strictly limited sense of what’s physically possible? 

It’s the movies. Luke Skywalker can use the force and no-one complains that that’s impossible. The kid who’s going to be King Arthur pulls the sword out of the stone, and that’s fine too, because it’s part of the story.

Maybe it’s a cultural thing. For a Western audience, the milieu of Crouching Tiger is so alien that we try to judge it by the rules we feel most comfortable with – like gravity. It shouldn’t have to work like that.

‘The story is really thin’

This inability to suspend disbelief is also at the root of the last criticism. It’s true that the story is simple, but that’s simple like a folktale, or a myth, and creating this atmosphere in a movie is a remarkable achievement. The big stories and ideas are simple and profound (God sends his only son to die for our sins; Boy meets girl; Why can’t we all just get along?).

These are often driven by the conflict between what want to do and what we must do: love vs. duty, family vs. country, passion vs. fate. The simple stories tell us about ourselves and the values that matter to us. And Crouching Tiger talks of beauty, grace, wisdom, discipline, love and humility – a long way from our more workaday values of logic, efficiency and reason.

So ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ is more than great photography and kick-ass fights. If we look closer, there’s a tenderness and depth you don’t come across very often.

Posted by David in • Square EyesFilm

Articles Life Modest Proposals Technology

Accidental Autobiography

Monday, February 19, 2001

Should you keep five year-old email messages? I’m currently tidying up the contents of various hard drives and floppy disks (remember them?) to prepare for the arrival of a new machine. But how much to throw out is proving a difficult question.

You keep photographs to remind of the things you’ve done, and the people you were with. To remind you never to grow your hair like that again, or for many other reasons. And it feels right to keep them. 

Maybe emails are in the same category, and by this I don’t mean every purely administrative work-related mail, or the newsletters you subscribed to, but the notes to your friends, the jokes, the abuse. 

Photographs and emails are part of your personal history. Every day you’re making memories, and this stuff marks the paths you’ve been down. Maybe burning old mail onto a CD is the equivalent of sticking stuff up in the attic. You don’t need it around every day, but you’re not going to throw it out either. 

And it’s the ephemeral nature of emails that makes them such good markers. It’s a truism in historical study that you get much better information when your primary source isn’t trying to tell you what happened than if you’re reading a considered history from the period. Documents that were written not with a view to posterity ironically live a longer life. 

So the stuff you dashed off to your mate when you were bored in the office one day catches you like a candid photograph. You might acknowledge at the time that this mail could be preserved, but you don’t write it like that. And unlike real letters, you get to keep the mail you send too. It’s an unmediated account of your preoccupations, your worries, your day to day life. An accidental autobiography. 

Some people might argue that you shouldn’t keep carrying this baggage around with you, that you are yourself only in the present, and all that stuff happened to someone else.  It’s certainly true that you can dwell too much on your former self. But if you maintain the right attitude to this personal detritus – a good-natured distance seems about right – then having it around is surely a good idea. 

But why, exactly? You keep all your photos, but you don’t look at them very often. And even when you do, it’s hard to explain what’s going on. 

Wordsworth argued that poetry is emotion recollected in tranquility. Scrolling through ASCII email archives is also recalling your old emotions and feelings at one remove. We can’t say why poetry matters but we do it anyway, and maybe the same is true of keeping and looking through our personal archives. 

So I won’t worry about all this crap I’m pouring on to CD, because in some way it’s poetry. 

(first published as a Modest Proposals newsletter, February 2001)

Articles Square Eyes Television USA

Survivor of the Fittest – Survivor 2 reviewed

Thursday, February 15, 2001

Forget the fly on the wall drama of The Hotel or The Airport, forget the social engineering of Castaway 2000, forget even the claustrophobic hype of Big Brother. You want reality TV? Survivor 2 is the real deal.

Two teams of gung-ho Americans are abandoned in the Australian outback with little more than the clothes they stand up in. As well as building shelters, trying to make fire and avoiding the scary bugs, the teams compete against each other for possession of the Immunity Idol. It sounds pants, but lose immunity and you have to vote off one of your own team.

Every three days, someone has to go, and at the halfway stage in the series, the two teams will combine, and the competitions become individual struggles for immunity. The denouement is perfect, since when the last two survivors remain, the final winner is determined by the previous half dozen folks voted off.

You might get muddy and hungry and more than a little uncomfortable in the outback, but the real challenge is to survive the machiavellian intrigue and chicanery of your fellow competitors. Too nice and you’ll not form the alliances necessary to get you into the last stages, but too nasty and no way are those people you shafted going to vote for you to get the million dollar prize in the end.

The original Survivor took the US by storm last summer, and TG4 are running the current series twice a week, while in the US, NBC has supersized Friends to 45 minutes an episode to try and compete with the show there.

No chance. The makings of another great series are there. Conflict is crucial of course, and the contestants have been carefully chosen to rub each other up the wrong way. But given the voting structure, everyone has to appear to be friendly (you never know when you’re going to need that support), while at the same time eliminating the competition.

The challenges are also designed to test individual abilities and the cohesion of the group. On Wednesday’s episode we saw Rodger, the mild-mannered Kentucky farmer, jump off a cliff into a lake, then wrestle with a huge crate as it and he went careering through the rapids. All the other survivors did that too, but Rodger can’t swim.

And then Kimmi the vegetarian New York bartender was forced to try to eat cow’s brain (CJD, how are you?) to win immunity for her team. She failed, but then got the chance to redeem herself in a sudden death eat off of foot-long worms. I didn’t see that on Big Brother.

So we’ve got intrigue, conflict and triumph over adversity, all carefully managed to heighten our viewing pleasure. Throw in sex – most of the competitors are beautiful bronzed people in their 20s sitting around in their swimming togs – and it’s a winning combination.

Posted by David in • Square EyesUSATelevision

Articles Square Eyes USA

Playing on the Wing – The West Wing reviewed

Thursday, February 08, 2001

Irish and British viewers seem to get more than their fair share of American TV shows. From the highs of Seinfeld and The Simpsons to the lows of Temptation Island and Jerry Springer, we know our way around US output as well as most Americans. 

Better in some cases. Over there shows such as Sex in the City and The Sopranos are only available on the premium cable channel HBO, so not everyone gets to see them. 

But surely not everything plays as well here as it does there? Take The West Wing, for example. Why would we be interested in a drama about the inner workings of the White House? There is nothing more uniquely American than its political system, and while a documentary might at least show us some facts, what benefit can there be in a fictional account of a non-existent president?

Well, good TV is good TV, and The West Wing is top drawer stuff. It’s intelligent (and assumes its audience is too), and it wears its cleverness lightly. A recent episode included a brief disquisition on the Latin phrase ‘post hoc, ergo propter hoc’, which was sharp, funny and relevant. You’ll watch a lot of Oprah waiting to see that. 

It’s also artfully constructed. The show’s creator, Aaron Sorkin, wrote the critically acclaimed but rather neglected comedy, Sports Night, which was set in a fast-paced TV studio. He’s expert at moving quirky characters around an office environment in quick scenes that are funny but also advance the plot. 

So how much is the programme about politics? Well, on the surface, not that much. It won’t tell you much about the structures or operation of government, or lecture you on policy issues. The characters know this stuff backwards, and the show keeps up the pretence that the audience is just observing, so no-one’s going to sit down and explain everything. (Unlike in medical dramas, where there’s a lot of technical stuff happening, but from time to time this has to be explained to patients or their families, and by extension, the audience.)

But underneath the character-driven storylines and the witty arguments is a very clear political agenda. President Bartlett, played with sharp good humour by Martin Sheen, is a Democrat, and there’s a prevailing sense that everyone in the administration is honestly trying to improve the lot of the country, and act in a fair and decent way. 

Bigotry and intolerance is treated in an impressively uncompromising way, as when leaders of the religious right are summarily shown the door after making insinuations about Jewish members of the administration. 

On occasion, however, the President can be a little too good to be true. While the camera jerks around following the officials down corridors, and nobody can say more than a few words without someone else cutting across them, when we see the President on screen, the pace slows down and the approach becomes more reverential, sometimes cloyingly so. President Bartlett mouths platitudes eloquently and with conviction – he’s a pre-lapsarian Clinton. 

And now, with a famously stupid President in the real White House, the show feels like a party political broadcast. Look what you could have won, it says: a bunch of attractive likeable intelligent young people and a President who does good work. Boy George and his team of Cold War re-treads look decidedly feeble by comparison. Gore is no Martin Sheen, that’s for sure, but the message is clear. 

So we should watch The West Wing for its shining script and great performances (Rob Lowe is surprisingly good as a policy wonk so intelligent and committed as be clumsily stupid in real life). But we should also watch it to remind ourselves that more than than half of the people in America would rather have a President Bartlett than a President Bush.

Posted by David in • Square EyesUSA