Author Archives: Chris Dobbins

A NARRATIVE ‘HOUSE OF CARDS’

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I’ve been waiting for a House of Cards remake since I saw the first of the three British miniseries back around 2000. It’s simply some of the most fun you can have watching evil work. It’s a grainy low-budget affair, but those are constraints the BBC has learned to thrive under since its birth, producing a body of work that shames that of the British film industry. While I was watching House of Cards on DVD people with better cable packages were watching The Sopranos and witnessing American subscriber TV begin its own amazing ascent in quality. It’s one that shows no sign of dropping off and which is trouncing Hollywood at everything from originality and artistry to social relevance and talent discovery. It’s doing it all with substantially lower budgets than Hollywood, and in the case of basic cable shows often with less money than the networks, which have yet to truly step up.

As Netflix attempts to leap fully formed into this new tradition of quality their first effort is a fascinating and often frustrating thing. It’s caught structurally, between the old weekly distribution model of the networks, and a new model more akin to modern video games, and also caught between its source material and its own strengths and desires. It’s fun, brilliantly acted and visually accomplished. But boy oh boy, that story…

(Your spoiler forecast is light, with a few scattered references to events throughout the whole of the season, and some implicit clues about the British series and its sequels. All in all it should be a pleasant trip for everyone regardless of what they’ve seen.)

The keystone of modern quality television is serialized storytelling and NetFlix’s Whole-Season-At-Once distribution model has the potential to be a uniquely elegant expression of the trust in serialization that’s been slowly and often excruciatingly developed between producers and viewers since the beginning of TV. With it we’re trusted not only to follow stories from episode to episode, but to pace our own premiere schedule and arrange our own re-reruns.

The best immediately obvious benefit of this is that we’re never asked to sit though a “Previously On” or squint suspiciously at a potentially spoiler laden preview of what’s coming next week. But aside from a couple of winks at the audience’s newfound power of instant gratification and the deliberately light touch it uses to develop its B-plots in the early hours, nothing in House of Cards gives a strong indication of having been tailored for this model. This is disappointing but probably inevitable since the show was originally pitched to the cable networks and not conceived as a season-length Netflix marathon. And so when the show’s writing fails it does so not through audacious attempts at a new sort of storytelling but from traditional weaknesses in the quality of its ideas and the skill with which it’s been adapted from its source.

I’m happy to give a pass to the one or two absolutely painful lines of dialog which seem to come with each episode, as well as the already old-fashioned “Blogs vs. Newspapers” sub-plot in the early going, and the fact that, when compared to the rest of the cast, Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood is speaking in not merely his own dialect or idiom, but in his own southern gothic novel. I’m not sure that the last is even a flaw. No; what’s immediately and persistently disappointing about the story is that it doesn’t pace itself well. It wastes time when it has it, short changes ideas it shouldn’t, and starts sprinting too late in the game to make up for its occasional losses of momentum.

The writers, lead by Beau Willimon, have taken as their basis a book adapted with acclaim into four hours of British TV and seemingly decided to expand its plot across this 13 hour season, and a second season already in production (although given that the plot of the second series of the British trilogy has no analogue in American politics they have to do their own plotting to set-up a third season).

For the most part, this expansion results in obvious seams and stretch marks. Some of it works beautifully however. In the British series the character of Francis Urquhart’s wife is largely a confidant, but here Claire Underwood is an individual who passionately assists her husband’s vicious style of politics while having the personal ambition and pride to occasionally be a dangerous competitor. It’s a bright move, and Robin Wright’s performance floats high above the writing’s occasional faults. (One of the show’s few unforgivable mistakes is to set up the impression that Claire and Frank are habitually plotting the details of his coup together off camera, then hinge a crucial plot turn on her feeling left out of his plans.)

Corey Stoll puts on an equally admirable show as Pete Russo, a congressmen whose vices quickly land him under Frank’s thumb. The role is analogous to the original series’ Roger O’Neill and here again the writers do a fine job of expanding the character’s scope. Some of what O’Neill is forced to do is much nastier and cruel than anything that falls to Russo, but Russo’s actions have higher stakes and they propel his story arc nicely as it helps to support the second half of the season. But neither of these much improved characters factor significantly in the final act of the original series and it’s there that its American cousin runs into its worst pacing problems while trying to deliver a meaningful climax modeled after the start of the original’s final act while still making time for characters it has expanded or invented.

Early on Frank tells us that ideology is for “armchair generals”. It’s something he says he has no use for it as someone trying to get things done in the halls of Congress. This is all spit out with Underwood’s usual grim verve during a rushing walk-and-talk soliloquy and so it’s easy to miss it for what it is: A statement of purpose that alternately guides and haunts the show. Because the biggest problem with the show’s story is that its politics are too simplistic to get away with being so toothless.

What does Frank want out of all his congressional knife fighting? He says that he wants power, as opposed to the money that comes from being a lobbyist, because power is what endures. The show doggedly references a metaphorical idea of power as a enduring building, without giving us any substantive idea of what Frank would do with the power he craves. One of the show’s best early hours has Frank going back to his home district. It’s an episode that screams PADDING!!! but it manages to be an effective and memorable episode largely because it provides one of the only examples of what Frank does in the world at large with his power. As the show’s favorite metaphor had already suggested: He’s built something.

Having once championed the construction of a water tower in the shape of a peach in his district in South Carolina he returns to stop the latest effort to tear it down (It’s a vividly feminine peach, shall we say, hence the objections). In the context of the episode it makes perfect sense that we don’t even fully understand why the peach was even built in the first place. It’s a marvelous emblem of pork barrel politics and as a part of the foundation of the political power Frank has built for himself it makes sense that he vehemently defends it. (Later we see Frank using this same foundational strategy by attacking the power plants a billionaire tycoon built his fortune with, even though the plants are merely a fraction of his current empire.) It’s a great character building moment but as there’s no strong ideological bent to the local politics of the peach we still don’t learn much about what Frank wants to do with the power he seeks.

This lack of ideology is pervasive. It’s not an exaggeration to say that past the second episode the Republican party functionally doesn’t exist in House of Cards. With a majority in the House and Senate it’s understandable that we see the Democratic leadership as confident and introverted but we should still expect some sense of their across the aisle wrangling in the Senate: Gathering Republican co-sponsors, guiding the education bill through committees, breaking filibuster attempts. As House Whip none of this would be strictly Frank’s concern, but having him ignore this side of the politics of legislation makes Frank’s reach, his challenges, and his ambitions, seem smaller. Worse it makes the show’s universe less real. And this is a show that wants to be seen as real.

It’s rare enough for a political show to explicitly identify its parties by name, and even rarer for a show to portray the Democratic Party not as ardent liberals, but as the center-right party of Clinton and Obama. These are decent stabs at reality. But the writers never challenge themselves to uncover the dramatic potential in their starkly centrist version of Washington. And with David Fincher establishing the visual tone of your series you better be interested in exploring heightened drama.

The original House of Card’s Francis Urquhart is one of the great screen villains. So far it’s hard to fear Frank Underwood. I wouldn’t vote for him, or let him pet my dog, but I wouldn’t start fortifying my house against FEMA Stormtroopers if he were sitting in the White House either. A Machiavellian approach to the political process doesn’t single-handedly make for a memorable villain and it hasn’t for at least 400 years. Perhaps as a liberal it might be impossible for me to loath a villain bent on creating some leftist mandatory utopia in exactly the same way I loathed the Tory authoritarian wet-dream that was Urquhart’s United Kingdom, but I’d have loved to see the writers try.

If the minds behind House of Cards are building something truly great it’s difficult to see its foundation here in this solidly entertaining but somewhat slight season. There are a few potential clues that Frank might be something of a foreign policy hawk, and so I’ll be happy if a future season ever has him dusting off Douglass McArthur’s plans to preemptively nuke the China seaboard, but anything as audaciously villainous as that would stand to work a lot better if it had been properly foreshadowed here. If we aren’t supposed to fear what Frank is going to do with the power he’s seeking then this show isn’t House of Cards, it’s something that’s already wasted a lot of talent trying to be House of Cards, when it’s more interested in being something else.

-Chris Dobbins

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OBSESSION- BY KATHRYN BIGELOW

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I have a friend with an obsession. It’s ok, we all have one or two. But my friend’s obsession is going to be examined here slightly because he called me just after I’d finally seen Zero Dark Thirty. He asked me how it was, but told me he wasn’t going to see it. He found the film’s existence offensive. He’d read a few reviews that confirmed his view and had put his foot down. And so after a brief skirmish, in what he imagined to be a complete change of subject, he started to tell me about his latest week’s worth of pouring over digital communications, piecing together criminal networks, and liaising with local law enforcement.

My friend is an animal welfare activist. Protecting animals was a slowly discovered passion that is presently a minor obsession for him. Unlike Jessica Chastain’s composited CIA agent Maya, my friend’s obsession has nothing to do with his day job, but rather like hers it can occasionally, and strangely, fall into the category of “Who gives a fuck?”. Depending on where you’ve been in life or what pets you have at home his work risks seeming trivial at times, or at worst a distraction from larger issues. Why focus on animal abuse while millions of farm animals are being slaughtered? Why care about one life when many are at stake? There’s no overarchingly rational answer to questions like that. But of course people do care.

Zero Dark Thirty is first and foremost a detective story. But while it goes into suitably deep and murky detail about how Bin Laden was located it plays a deeper game by resting this accomplishment on the shoulders of a character about whom we learn next to nothing. Why does Maya ultimately give a fuck about Usama Bin Laden? Many of us can remember the time when the answer to this sort of question seemed obvious, but the movie’s decade long search takes us well beyond those early days. I suspect we’ve all thought back to our first reactions, to our fear and rage, and gained some perspective. But we don’t see Maya’s moment of reflection. We see the pressures and tragedies of the job reshape her desire to capture UBL into an obsession, but we aren’t shown what nurtured that desire originally or how she relates to it. This choice denies the audience an insight which many seem to crave from the movie. How does she sooth her visceral reactions to the torture she’s expected to facilitate? How does she justify it?

No character in Maya’s story gives a moral condemnation of torture. However the movie’s visual depiction of torture is a conscientious choice. It places the history we didn’t see (The CIA’s black site torture program) within the all too familiar visual context of the past decade’s history of war. We know the wars have not been fought perfectly. I doubt many would even argue they’ve been fought well. Showing the torture program as a collection of scrounged plastic pitchers and athletic mats, rented cargo ships, and cells cobbled from 2x4s and barbed wire, marks it as a product of the same hasty desperate stumblings that produced those wars. Whatever anyone in the movie might think of torture we see it strongly depicted as a flawed tool.

Once this visual context is established the movie quickly makes clear that not only is it uninterested in dwelling on morality or on Maya’s backstory, but it’s not interested in dwelling on anything except the process of gathering and synthesizing the information used to capture UBL. In the course of this it suggests the CIA might have been able to locate him years earlier, perhaps without torture, and it portrays Maya’s singular drive and confidence as crucial to discovering and destroying his final hiding place. It casts its questions in relief. Why was any of it done? Why give a fuck? The notion that the county and its bureaucracy might have moved on to some extent is presented clearly and unremarkably as Maya’s obstacle.

To quote Bruce Sterling: “We can program robots and digital devices to generate images and spew images at our eyeballs. We can’t legitimately ask them to tell us how to react to that”. Sterling was talking about computer derived aesthetics, but while watching Maya and her colleagues pour over petabytes of algorithmically gathered terrorist chatter, recordings of drone feeds and interrogations, and documents from around the globe, I couldn’t help but think it applied. In the midst of the deluge of information summoned up by the war on terror Maya finds it increasingly difficult to swim back to the source, and increasingly difficult to justify to why she needs to do so.

What keeps Maya on her trail is not justice for her country, or even vengeance for the voices heard in the opening’s black-screened audio-montage of first responders and victims (which, since Fahrenheit 9/11, seems to be emerging as the traditional device for representing the day). What ultimately motivates her is vengeance for the colleagues she lost during the search, and the certainty that her lead is the crucial piece to the mystery. But Maya can’t be seen as a superhuman protagonist whose certainty flows from total mastery of the case. It’s another younger agent who discovers the identity of the courier that leads to UBL. Maya’s is a less than rational certainty, intertwined with the obsession we watch developing but can’t ever fully see.

Zero Dark Thirty is part of a growing tradition of modern work using the investigation of murder to explore obsession (David Fincher’s Zodiac is a key example, as is Alan Moore’s graphic novel “From Hell”). That this theme has such resonance in our ever increasingly info-dense society isn’t surprising. Mysteries may seem more solvable now, but as they move into the past and leave behind exponentially larger wakes of information to be tracked and indexed and reviewed the risk for any obsession with a mystery to become dangerously all consuming increases. We can all relate now.

The answers we find for ourselves about Maya’s motivations probably won’t be of much use in any political sparing matches, but anything that gives us insight into how we approach our own obsessions is worth caring about.

-Chris Dobbins

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