Screenwriting has always been a thick game. Despite the dalliances of Faulkner and the curiosity of Fitzgerald, major literary figures have – to some degree – distanced themselves from Hollywood business. Most of the active filmmakers who consider the medium capable of art both write and direct — P.T. Anderson, Ethan and Joel Coen, and Terrence Malick to name a few popular examples. So rarely is the cinema greeted by self-sufficient literary genius. Enter Charlie Kaufman. Now, I don’t want to suggest that he is a genius yet. He has written and made a few extraordinary films, but time is necessary to judge the type of thought and ambition that Kaufman has begun to practice. Charlie Kaufman is without comparison in contemporary popular filmmaking — a screenwriting auteur and an artist willing to confront literature and creativity as the object of his own literature and creativity. It is easy to get lost in a forest of postmodernist nonsense when considering his films and I’ll do my best to avoid most of that.
Kaufman is responsible for writing Being John Malkovich, Adaptation., Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. With his script for Synecdoche, New York, he made his first attempt at directing. Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine are both clearly Kaufman’s scripts, but they are also his most juvenile. They are dense stories that attempt to assess how our memories shape personal relationships. They also use gimmicky business models as a way to justify their density. To be relative, though, either of these films has room close to the top of their respective years. Juvenile for Kaufman is 300 level philosophy for us. But it is in Adaptation. and Synecdoche that he lets go of those tricks. We’ll focus on those two pictures as examples of Kaufman’s importance in keeping the movies vital.
Adaptation. is, among other things, about the process of adapting a novel into a screenplay. Kaufman was tasked with turning “The Orchid Thief,” a book by Susan Orlean, into a movie. When he became blocked, he wrote himself, a fictional twin brother, and his own experience into the film. Nicholas Cage, in his finest screen appearance this side of Face/Off, plays both Charlie and Donald Kaufman. Charlie is trying to adapt “The Orchid Thief” and, in combatting his writers block, comes to terms with the demands of Hollywood and his twin brother. We can imagine that the film is really just a grand fictionalization of Kaufman’s own experience writing it. Adaptation. gives us immediate evidence towards Kaufman’s importance. Since he is actually willing to write himself and a make-believe brother into a screenplay, he brings the audience closer to the artifice of movies. This ties in with an even more critical point that I’ll get to with Synecdoche, but Adaptation. allows the audience an additional layer of awareness. He inserts Cage into behind-the-scenes footage on the set of Malkovich and constantly references previous events in the film (like the creation montage) as Cage’s character writes them into the fictional screenplay. The astonishing thing about this is that the film doesn’t lose mobility with this awareness. Kaufman isn’t asking us to just be aware that we’re watching a movie — he’s asking us to see how dirty the process can get, but still deliver an engrossing, beautiful product. That’s why, in the final image, we pass through a week of time on the L.A. street while watching a single bed of flowers stay the same. He’s drawing an important comparison between the creative process and natural process. And much of the film is really about his own adaptation to the “rules” and “principles” of Hollywood. Many critics claim that the final 30 minutes destroy the entire movie, but it seems like, shrewdly, Kaufman intended it as a sly send-up of the way so many Hollywood films jump off the ledge. Unlike others who have tried to reveal this extra awareness with cheeky nods to the camera, he uses it as a way to dissect creative experiences and capitalize on his own writers block.
With Adaptation., Kaufman first allowed himself to experiment with creativity as the actual subject of a narrative. He wasn’t trying to answer the existential questions people believe him to be obsessing over. I don’t believe it is fair to say that Kaufman is obsessed with a subject any more than any other writer. The difference is that he doesn’t stop himself where most writers decide to stop. What does it mean to “put it all on the page”? With Synecdoche, Kaufman still seeks truth in the creative process, but uses death instead of Hollywood as his “portal.” Phil Seymour Hoffman plays an aging theater director (Caden Cotard) who engages in a number of relationships and marriages during the second half of his life.
Synecdoche, Kaufman’s directorial debut, is full of more visceral and emotional moments than Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry were ever able to pull from his scripts. For instance, Caden watches his estranged, grown-up, tattooed daughter dance naked in a glass box — he screams her name but she can’t or won’t listen. Much of Synecdoche works on a simply cinematic level, ignoring intellectual pursuits for a moment. It functions as a moving portrait of parenthood with Caden’s relationship with Olive. It does not ignore the way men float through marriages, often choosing very similar women. And the finale is a gripping abstraction of a moment in life that no viewer can have experienced. Just recognizing it as a movie reveals some decade-defining performances from Hoffman and Morton and a dynamite make-up job as well.
But the magic of Synecdoche is derived from its astonishing intellectual ambition. No words can relay the gravity of what Synecdoche attempts to accomplish. With death as its obsessive motif, the film is more clearly an illustration of all life and the way we try to process it. After his wife and daughter leave him, Caden receives a MacArthur “Genius” grant and decides to make a “truly uncompromising” theater piece that shares the same ambition as the film. In a massive warehouse, Caden and his enormous team slowly erect a life-size facsimile of New York City — ultimately, it even contains the warehouse in which the facsimile is built. Caden’s theater piece functions in the same way that the script does in Adaptation. Both are attempting to discover larger connections while deconstructing creativity. Synecdoche does make some progress in demonstrating how we compartmentalize all the people in our lives. It’s really a window into the narcissism of which we are all guilty. We all build our own warehouses and store our relationships in them. We expect certain things from certain people. But we don’t stop to understand that they have built their own warehouse, too. We can’t share that space.
Caden’s theater venture does reveal the greatest strength in Synecdoche and Kaufman’s most profound cinematic revelation — the binding intimacy between art and life. We watch Caden search for the meaning of his life through art. His wife’s work becomes infinitely smaller as his becomes infinitely larger. Most potently, Caden casts a man who has been following him for 20 years to play himself in the play. Some scenes are acted out, only to eventually be revealed as a rehearsal for the play. Ultimately, there is no difference between Caden’s art and his life. We can easily quote Shakespeare here, but Synecdoche is something else.
As the film relates to Kaufman himself, it is really a continuation of the subject he began to pursue in Adaptation. – creativity. The film sometimes reads as a criticism of the very questions it seems to be asking, balanced so confidently between pretense and unintelligibility. Synecdoche is what happens when a writer “puts it all on the page.” It doesn’t solve any of the riddles that Caden sets out to understand. In fact, it’s as much of a movie about the limits of genius as it is about the capabilities of one. Kaufman is saying that rabbit holes exist. Endless loops exist. Dead ends exist. He is beginning to understand that some of these questions we all want to ask are really just too much. There’s no answer.
And it’s Kaufman’s audacity to confront his own creativity and its limits in clear sight that makes him vital to Hollywood’s literary climate. Instead of just settling for sly self-reference or fleeting moments of meta-textuality, he fights the creative battle on the page and for everyone to see. His grace reminds me of David Foster Wallace, a martyr of 21st Century literature who was able to transcend “postmodernism” by confronting it without an attempt at irony or wit. Kaufman, likewise, is capable of great literary accomplishments. Thankfully, he makes movies.
In a time where many are reconsidering the shape that violence takes in the media and entertainment, Natural Born Killers makes a statement. Directed by Oliver Stone in 1994, it’s a stylized road movie with a startling amount of violence – even for a contemporary audience. Though Stone directed and manipulated the script, it was originally conceived by none other than everyone’s darling, Quentin Tarantino, which couldn’t be more obvious. NBK tells the story of Mickey and Mallory Knox, newlyweds who become mass murderers. The film is not for the weak stomached for two reasons: 1) it’s a two-hour bloodbath and 2) it’s filmed in a way that despises right angles, celebrates the psychedelic, and rejects the tripod. It offers a strong visceral experience with almost no emotional or intellectual payoff.
Natural Born Killers tries very hard to join the lineage of You Only Live Once, Bonnie & Clyde, Pierrot le fou, and Badlands. Stylistically, it is under the influence of Arthur Penn and some other drugs. The edits are like lightning. Some sections play in bold, tinted colors – like we’re seeing the film through Mickey’s red glasses. The second half is not as relentless as the first and the style becomes more palatable. However, the intellectual aim of NBK never blooms. Drawing broad connections between the media frenzy surrounding violence and the act of violence itself resonates especially well today, 8 days after the massacre in Aurora, CO. But NBK is a commentary so far removed from reality that it loses strength. This is a common problem in Tarantino’s films. There’s no danger. There’s no vigor. In fact, there’s nothing in them that hasn’t already happened in a movie, which is how QT has come to understand the world. As a result, his own movies fail to communicate anything except as a vague meta-commentary on cinema. I can only pray that this changes someday.
The troubling thing about NBK is that Oliver Stone’s involvement should have been the perfect ingredient. A veteran of the service, he has proved himself able to translate the terrifying realities of violence to a rewarding cinematic experience in Platoon and Scarface. But here, it is so wrapped up in its own intoxicating style and inertia that it follows through on Tarantino’s ailment. There are so few moments of genuine danger in NBK. It could be argued that this exactly is the point – to make a film of enveloping psychosis that we actually buy into the populist frenzy surrounding Mickey and Mallory. But all of that has already been said with eloquence and grace in Malick’s astonishing debut, Badlands. NBK shares a lot of DNA with that film. We can imagine someone handing the same one sentence premise to a Harvard philosophy graduate and a video store clerk with Badlands and NBK as the products. See the difference? NBK is also in the deep shadow of David Lynch — specifically Wild at Heart. Tarantino makes no effort to conceal Lynch’s influence and it lies heavy on this film. There’s plenty of shade in Lynch’s shadow, but NBK is definitely in it.
NBK does have a spectacular ability to reveal how trauma influences memory and experience. Through the radical style that Stone develops, he is allowed to engage in visual surrealism that would be taboo in most other discussions of the subject. The predictably damaged pasts perpetually haunt Mickey and Mallory, most often during moments of sex or violence (which also happens to be the entire movie).
By the end of the film, it is clear that the authors are trying to comment on culture more than violence. But what good is it to show violence as a plaything in order to comment how violence is a plaything? Natural Born Killers lacks contact with actual consequence or fear and it fails to reveal anything that we didn’t already know. When we’re done congratulating ourselves on understanding that the media has a negative impact on the plague of violence, we can work on getting that to stop. But hey, maybe I’m just really missing the boat on this one.
After a dizzying initiation to the world of Wong Kar Wai with his portrait of urban isolation, Chungking Express, seeing In the Mood for Love almost felt like watching a different filmmaker altogether. Thematically, these pictures are not far apart. But Wong proves himself capable of shifting his style dramatically while retaining his magnetic pull on the eye and his impeccable taste for composition.
In the Mood for Love has a simple narrative. Two neighbors discover that their spouses, who are often away on “business,” are not faithful. They develop feelings for each other. Wong is right to only give them one fleeting moment of physical contact. In doing so, it has the impact of an atom bomb. Much of the romantic gestures — glances, smirks, subtext — are imbued with seismic force by making the relationship impossible in the context of 1960′s Hong Kong. The ending of the film is a poem of politics, architecture, romance, and loss. We aren’t necessarily heartbroken — life goes on. But we understand these characters.
Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung turn in brilliantly repressed performances. Their hushed tones and calm gestures are in direct contrast to the surprisingly urgent visual textures created by Wong. Netflix reviewers might praise its slowness, but there is nothing slow about In the Mood for Love. For example, one sequence where Cheung’s Su attempts to visit Leung’s Chow in a hotel before backing out at the last minute is comprised of a series of startling jump cuts. It adds to the romantic haze. These characters are in love and we know because the camera tells us. As in the enamored mind, time is an elastic band. Some moments seem to skip like a record while others are slowed like lunging molasses. There is a whole series of musical interludes featuring a few repeating tracks. The music starts — Chow and Su slow down.
It is essential to recognize the outstanding employment of negative space and framing. Wong is capable of moving the camera while maintaining excellent composition in a way that recalls Ozu or Ophuls. And his keen eye for depth is a crucial element in his organization. In the scene where Chow and Su acknowledge their feelings for each other, standing outside in the street, we only see Chow’s back as he talks. And Su, only feet away from him, is just barely obscured by shallow focus. When Chow turns and directly faces her, orienting his erotic yearning, she becomes clear — no longer an obscurity.
In the Mood for Love is particularly indebted to a pair of filmmaking masters — Hitchcock and Kubrick. Wong has acknowledged the influence of Vertigo on his film, seeing a kindred darkness in Scottie and Chow. The screen makes it clear. Hitch’s belief in the erotic magnetism of cinema translates well to Wong’s evocation of his understanding that the best love scenes are played with little contact. And Kubrick’s influence inhabits every corner of this film. Released just after Eyes Wide Shut, it shares many common themes — a narcotic, dreamy intoxication; sexual repression; infidelity and its psychological impact; repetition of only a few, small musical cues. Kubrick’s plastic perfection is represented in almost every frame, tamed by Wong’s capable eye. In the Mood for Love takes great risks in imitating these inimitable styles, but Wong proves himself as a skilled apprentice en route to his own masterly touch.
Plenty has been said about Kenneth Lonergan’s second feature film, Margaret. It sat in development limbo for five years before finally being released in 2011. Even then, it garnered little publicity and recognition from the critical community. Thanks to an enthusiastic British response, a few loud critics, and a large-scale Twitter campaign (#TeamMargaret), Margaret was finally given a new, longer, more experimental cut and released on Blu and DVD this month. After waiting a year to see it, I finally got my copy and watched both versions back-to-back. Margaret is as complicated as its biography.
The movie is clearly a reaction to 9/11. New York could be considered Anna Paquin’s co-star. Margaret takes great pride in its city, providing a wealth of admiring images as much about the millions of people who call it home as it is about the buildings and roads and traffic lights. We follow Lisa, played by Paquin with astonishing virtuosity and vulnerability, a high school student attempting to cope with the emotional burden of having been partially responsible for a tragic bus accident. The title references a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem which is read at Lisa’s private school, only one of the several settings that Margaret inhabits. We step in myriad plot holes and long strands of operatic drama are ultimately left dangling in the air. But the disorientation (better articulated in the rocky “extended” cut) is the point and Lonergan’s numerous opera references are deliberate — articulating the narcissistic agony and ecstasy of every moment after a tragedy while the world outside never stops spinning. The final scene is at a performance of Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann where Lisa and her mother share a moment of connection amidst an enormous sea of heads, all feeling and enduring their own drama.
Lonergan’s script is a masterpiece. As pure drama, it succeeds brilliantly. More than one scene forces deep discomfort into the audience. Margaret is inhabited by characters (some drawn better than others) who share extraordinarily complex connections with each other. The amount of emotional baggage that Lonergan manages to distill into brief conversations is startling. And, luckily, the script is backed by a slew of inspired performances. J. Smith-Cameron’s Joan and Jeannie Berlin’s Emily are powerful characters in a story where, refreshingly, women dominate the screen. There isn’t a single shallow performance. Guilt, fear, discomfort, and urgency are explored in a rich theme & variations with Lisa and everyone connected to her.
Strictly as a drama or literature, Margaret is nearly perfect. But as a film it is less convincing. Lonergan is clearly a director who was brought up in the theatrical tradition. He has a tendency to utilize flat middle shots with surprisingly little depth. This is particularly upsetting because as he pulls away into a wide shot or pushes in for coverage the images become arresting, angular even. Some of his close-ups, like the one on Lisa in the shower washing the blood off of her body, are framed with exquisite imbalance — just enough to signal a crooked psychology. The same is true of his wide shots, like when Lisa and her friend are seen smoking pot in the park. Much of his facility with these wide shots comes from a willingness to experiment with sound. As Broderick’s Mr. van Tassell is walking away from the girls, we hear them quietly making fun of him. But it is made hyper-sensitive by the sound mix as the camera cuts away to only him. We hear what he is imagining. This experimentation is abundant in the “extended” cut — probably its biggest advantage over the theatrical release. Nico Muhly’s score mostly accompanies the New York montages (including one with particular impact showing a plane, high in the sky, passing behind the buildings in the foreground) and some later dialogue sequences. The music is capable of quality but rarely influences the drama.
Regardless of Margaret‘s visual shrug, it is a story of enormous force written with breathtaking control by Kenneth Lonergan. What some may misinterpret as messiness is really an example of precision that approaches genius — a one-of-a-kind portrait.
A mysterious and ballsy picture like Taste of Cherry defies my usual ‘capsule review’ style. It’s mystery is derived from an apparent disregard for convention that is made obvious every few minutes. However, no subversion can match the poetic coda — a weird nod to itself as a critique of cinema. It’s a gutsy move on the part of Abbas Kiarostami, the Iranian director who carries a reputation today that isn’t far from Godard’s in the 70′s and 80′s. It’s a pleasure to add that, no matter how good or bad the film, it came out of Iran, a place with a politically desperate climate and a crowd of creatives with electrifying imagination.
Most of Taste of Cherry takes place inside of Mr. Badii’s Range Rover. Kiarostami fills the final third of the film with pretentious long takes of undeniable beauty but little force. The most arresting images come from inside that car. In addition, it provides a source of marvelous drama in a gimmicky picture. Badii roams the countryside looking for someone to bury him after he commits suicide. We don’t start out with that information. Roger Ebert famously took issue with this, but I found it to be the source of urgent drama – What is this guy doing? The performances, by non-professional actors, conjure the ambiguous spirit of Italian Neo-Realism. Most importantly, we are given a striking portrait of Iran through the windows of Badii’s Range Rover. Especially as a Western viewer carrying unavoidable baggage in regards to anything Iranian, this was especially poignant. Everything from workers looking for labor to out-of-focus portraits of the Iranian countryside provides an arresting critique of how we see things — and, above all, cinema. This is made very clear during the coda, but most of the imagery deftly awakens our cinematic awareness. Always looking in on something or out at the world, Badii functions as our surrogate, desperately trying to find evidence of something in an enormous world.
But there is ample evidence against Kiarostami as a prophet of the movies. His avoidance of dramatic convention (after we discover what Badii is looking for) is, at times, deliberately subversive in a silly, rebellious way. Especially toward the end of the film, we are expected to stare at relatively static imagery and be overwhelmed by its beauty. Kiarostami has an extraordinary gift for silent storytelling, but his own awareness of this talent makes him approach pretense. In addition, Taste of Cherry isn’t particularly creative in exploring the tired subject of suicide. The seminarian and old man deliver well-treaded arguments against death. His first passenger, the shy military trainee, is most convincing in his rejection and fear of the subject. The old man, Mr. Bagheri, is like a ghost. His introduction is magnificent, appearing in the car after a startling jump cut. And his words haunt the entire ending — a strangely weightless affirmation of life and living.
Is it all pretentious trash? A stunt? I wholeheartedly encourage you to see for yourself. The New Iranian Cinema is producing some work of ecstatic vigor and subversive intellect. No matter the storytelling value, Kiarostami’s images are composed with thought and taste. They’re amazing to see. Sublime, even. Taste of Cherry walks a strange line between masterpiece and dirt. But it is an undeniably evokative modern poem about cinema and those who watch it.
Either 92.5 or 39.3333, I’ve yet to decide.
La Nuit Americaine was an inevitability. Like its big brother, Godard’s Le Mépris, it allowed a fixated cinephile to decompress. It reveals some sour opinions. It airs cheeky grievances. Above all, it is an exuberant investigation of the filmmaking process.
In more ways than one, La Nuit Americaine is a cop-out. The film sometimes hides behind thick meta revelations that lead down the road to nowhere. In addition, Truffaut, visibly tired and possibly even jaded, throws himself into a substantial acting role. It is hardly a surprise that he took a two-year sabbatical immediately after its release. Neither is it a surprise to believe that it is some sort of culmination for Truffaut. Spending his entire life ensconced in cinema, he must have been relieved to finally open a parcel full of books on Buñuel, Hawks, Lubitsch, and the rest. He even gives them a healthy close-up, as arbitrary as they are.
To be fair, it’s hard to think of a disingenuous movie in all of Truffaut’s oeuvre. No matter the age, he brings such a youthful exuberance to the screen. Where Godard strikes some viewers as cold and theoretical, Truffaut fills the same space with a wistful longing to remake the films he saw during his childhood. One of the most striking moments of La Nuit Americaine comes when Truffaut’s director is dreaming of his younger self stealing Citizen Kane stills from a local exhibit. Certainly, he is one filmmaker who understands the psychological power of cinema at the most basic level. It’s not merely an element of his existence, it’s a dream that he tried to find. This may be exactly what makes La Nuit Americaine so recklessly spotty at times — made by a man who loves and understands film so deeply that he overestimates its potential. Nevertheless, Truffaut manages to breathe ecstasy into a film even when he is ready for a break.
Portions of the film succeed with silly but ambitious deconstructions of the filmmaking process. One scene deals with a troublesome actress and her trouble with memorization. Not only does the sequence dissect various levels of the cinematic fantasy, it also makes earnest acknowledgments of the hyper-emotional world of acting. The second half of the film is particularly astute in washing away the line between fiction and reality in regards to actors and their relationships and connections with one another. Visually, La Nuit Americaine demonstrates the absurd talent in Truffaut to make pivotal decisions the same way that we decide to wake up in the morning. It’s in his nature to effortlessly block scenes and choreograph camera work that is essential to the storytelling. At the same time, it also shows us how easily he is sucked into an exclusive reality. There is little evidence of a universe outside of Truffaut’s film.
If there is one word to describe La Nuit Americaine, it’s playful. An always-youthful tribute.
Having just finished an abbreviated re-watch of Friday Night Lights, it’s impossible to deny that it is anything less than astonishing. It is a television show that doesn’t outwardly reach for artfulness, but certainly achieves it. In an age of Mad Men and Breaking Bad – with The Soprano’s, The Wire and The Shield just in the rear view mirror — anti-heroes are all the rage. What is it about Friday Night Lights that allows it to be so universal? So American? So heartfelt? It is a show with indisputable heroes, yet it is often referred to as “down-to-earth” and praised for its realistic depiction of rural America (specifically, West Texas). How?
Friday Night Lights accomplishes this with faith. Not blind faith, but a kind of faith we don’t hear about in this country very often — rational decency. Churchgoing citizen or not, it is clear that these characters walk the walk. Proponents of Secular Humanism emphasize morality over faith and encourage a moral code derived from the Golden Rule — do unto others and whatnot. But Friday Night Lights demonstrates how much effort is lost in the debate over faith. Despite the fact that Christian scriptures lay out a meticulous system of rational decency, the debate has shifted. Rather than focus on leading a life of basic respect, we all try to prove or disprove God.
Friday Night Lights passes from extraordinary to transcendent by subverting this maxim. The show espouses a centrist ideology that American politics no longer support. In that way, the show couldn’t be less American. But by tapping into the lost belief in universal respect, Friday Night Lights (FNL) manages to deliver a one-of-a-kind critique of American ignorance and obsession. And, unlike Sorkin’s American fantasies, the show manages to avoid didacticism. Mistakes (the Landry/Tyra plot of season two, for example) that remove the show from its footing seem more painful because of the consistent realism that FNL usually observes.
Much of FNL’s realism stems from its audacity. It may not be immediately clear, but the show takes regular risks. No other show is so earnest about underage drinking. Tim Riggins is rarely seen without a beer in his hand. He is 20 at the end of the series. Much of the time it isn’t even acknowledged. Characters go to a party, get drunk, go to football practice and get on with their lives. Hardly ever is it the source of drama. In fact, in “It Ain’t Easy Being J.D. McCoy,” Coach Taylor coaxes Tim into taking J.D. out for a good time. After J.D.’s domineering father finds out, he is forced to apologize directly to coach. In this case, underage drinking is even aligned with the most heroic figure in the show — Coach. Most corners of reality involve high schoolers drinking and still managing to succeed.
The same type of risk is taken with Julie’s character. While off at college during season five, she begins an affair with her married TA. Julie often functions as the “result” of Eric and Tami’s parenthood — which, on paper, isn’t encouraging; underage drinking, losing virginity at 16ish, and striking up extramarital affairs. But she maintains respectability. I would argue that this is true of most of the characters. They are rendered as flawed humans. And we are far more likely to project our flaws onto fictional characters. If they were made too heroic, we wouldn’t buy it. Just like the show seems to typify America by being un-American, the characters are made heroic by being un-heroic. Take a moment and think about the moral problems that are built into FNL — The Landing Strip, steroids, infidelity, just to name a few. It’s not easy to find a show that would allow Lyla to sympathetically wind up with Tim — remember how she cheated on wheelchair-bound Jason with him? There are so many examples of characters that might seem more flawed than good, but through understanding their humanity we are allowed to trust them.
This is the reason Eric and Tami possess the most believable marriage in television history. Their struggles are numerous and not trivial — their relationship dense with sacrifice. But the audience is able to believe in their steady affection because it is always tested. Of all the characters on television with whom I would want to buy a drink — Don Draper, Walter White, Roger Sterling, Meadow Soprano, Ron Swanson, etc — I would invite Coach. We attach ourselves to these characters because we believe that they’re not impossible archetypes. Sam Fuller once said that a hero needs to be flawed so that we can see ourselves in the Final Heroic Act.
This brings us to the series finale, “Always.” Eric Taylor had been telling us how to be a real man for four years at the time of that episode. He had endured subversion and job insecurity (that did lead to the most successful reboot of any series that I’ve ever seen — would anyone argue that seasons 4-5 are less enchanting than 1-3?) to reach State once again. However, of all the plots to wrap up in this season finale, the primary one was with Tami. Offered the position of Dean of Admissions at a school in Philadelphia, the Taylors are faced with a big decision. I can hardly imagine what it would have looked like if they stayed in Dillon — then again, that outcome was never possible in this universe.
Fairness is a hard truth in FNL. Almost invariably, characters pay for serious indiscretions — often emotionally. Tim’s jail term is a great example. His anger towards Billy is made complex through our understanding that Billy has undergone serious emotional strain and has tried to give back by coaching football. The finale shows them both working on Tim’s house together. In fact, the entire final montage is in the business of settling issues of equality. Jess is coaching in Dallas. Vince is the star quarterback of the Panthers, wearing his ring. Luke is headed for the military — an honorable choice when we understand that he was not the best student and couldn’t play Division 1. Finally, we see Eric coaching in Philadelphia. Tami comes on the field before they walk away together and the lights turn off. FNL has never used football as a grand metaphor. It functions dramatically and is depicted as a way for boys to be crafted into men of good character — and in the final season, with Jess, girls into women.
The final montage works as drama and moral tool. Each character is finding success but also making sacrifices to enjoy that success. Vince is playing with the superteam that they fought so hard to avoid. Becky and Luke’s issue should be clear. Jess was forced to move to Dallas. And Coach is not in Texas anymore. The only segment that doesn’t fit this concerns Matt and Julie. However, their separation from their respective families is both necessary and sacrificial. FNL always traded in sacrifice and fairness. It ends that way as well.
Friday Night Lights is a rare example of a television show that doesn’t preach or advance a political fantasy. Rather, it displays characters who encounter difficulty and attempt to solve problems — sometimes successful, sometimes not. Most of the characters are practicing Christians, but the show is not interested in conversion. Rather, it tries to hand us a mirror. Every show tries to do this in one way or another, but FNL is incredibly good at allowing us to project our own triumphs and anxieties on its cast of characters. It’s this relationship that makes the show both great drama and great social argument.
[Ryan Douvlos (@rdouvy on Twitter), a great friend and fellow fan, will be joining me on these Season 5 recaps. Welcome to the Family! Parts of this conversation were edited for clarity]
MZ: So your ricin cigarette made an appearance.
RD: Yep. Suspected it would. Most important part of the episode is what’s behind that picture.
MZ: I think it was an address to an offshore bank account. Like Cayman islands. But it could be anything. What was the crucial scene for you?
RD: Aside from what i’ve just mentioned, the flash-forward. Walt was 52 and had a new last name — Lamberg. In the back of the vehicle he had purchased in the bathroom was an M-4 with plenty of ammunition. It’s apparent that Walt has unlimited disposable cash, as he tipped the waitress $100.
MZ: I thought that was the Big Scene. At least a year later — Walt’s birthday contrasted with the pilot where he eats veggie bacon. The waitress says “Free is always good,” which obviously means a number of things for Walt, who appears to be on the lam. (Lamberg?) In addition, we got a peak at the placemat underneath his breakfast and it was a bright pink milkshake — matching the color of the infamous teddy bear. I’m assuming that was deliberate. My favorite thing about that scene was how long they lingered on the breakfast plate before showing anything else. That happened one other time in the episode — Skyler visiting Ted in the hospital. We see her reaction and it’s pretty devastating to watch. I thought that scene was particularly heartbreaking. How about you?
RD: Very sad scene. We see the relationship between Ted and Skyler still exists on some level, as he tells her that he said the trip and fall was an accident and that he’s not going to say anything. I’m not sure the milkshake symbolizes the teddy bear. I realize that the teddy bear is thematic in that it displayed the grief and tragedy Walt had caused those around him earlier, and also that the half-burned, one-eyed teddy bear also symbolized Gus, but i’m not sure the meaning and importance of it is much deeper than that.
MZ: I agree that the milkshake is not a symbol. I was merely pointing out that it’s probably a deliberate reference. Walt will not be killed by a milkshake or anything. The interesting thing about Ted’s scene and all of these people connected to Walt is that we’re starting to see casualties of Walt’s business. Obviously there have been serious ones in the past, but the death and pain is creeping into his family and into his loved ones. That scene where Skyler and Walt Jr. come home is arresting because we are all thinking about the fact that Walt is a genuine murderer and Bryan Cranston plays Walt with so much kindness towards his daughter and wife. And there’s absolutely no music or street sound or anything in that scene. The calm that has washed over Walt and his family is still filled with some deep anxieties. Also, since we know that opening scene is so far in the future and Walt is at such a low point, we’re allowed to enjoy all of this season — even the triumphs — without worrying that Walt won’t get to some desperate position again. The shape of this episode was particularly nice, I thought. Calm, but still caper-esque.
RD: ”The calm that has washed over Walt and his family is still filled with some deep anxieties.” Absolutely, Skyler said it herself that she is scared of Walt.
MZ: Not only her. Saul is as well. And Mike is only working with him because they’re both in the same deep shit. And his relationship with Jesse is based on a string of increasingly serious lies. The function of all of that — the scenes with Skyler/Walt and Saul/Walt — seems to show that Walt is enjoying and feeding on his new power and control. He is victorious. He just outsmarted his mortal enemy. He’s hungry
RD: Saul absolutely. That was the first time that we see Walt threaten Saul in a way. Usually, Walt is begging Saul for help. The tables have turned, and Walt has pulled Saul down with him. Everyone, for that matter. You’re wrong about mike. Mike still has trust for Walt and Jessie and that’s important. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have participated in their stunt. He would have skipped town and not looked back. He trusts Walt and that’s why the three of them will continue to have a fruitful relationship.
MZ: Are you joking? Were you in the bathroom when he was about 2 feet from filling Walt with bullets? “Because I say so?” in the car. That was sincere. Every scene that they had together was a standoff. The only way they got Mike into that gig was because Walt told him that he’d be on that footage as well. Mike isn’t a stupid person. The only reason Walt isn’t dead right now is because Jesse hopped between them and Walt said that they’d both get caught. If we just disagree, that’s fine; but I think the audience is supposed to understand that Mike is not with Walt on anything.
RD: I agree that there is serious friction between Walt and Mike, but all I am saying is he trusts him enough to work with him. Even if it is to save his ass.
MZ: That said, what did you think of the whole caper sequence — the three of them wrecking the evidence — ?
RD: It didn’t quite go according to plan. The truck was left behind. That’s bad for several reasons — the possibility of fingerprints, being led back to the junkyard, et cetera. Did Walt have gloves on? Because they zoomed in on the device Walt used to increase the magnet.
MZ: It seemed to me that they were being pretty careful. And Walt was confident about not leaving things behind. The fuckup seems to have been that they revealed the Cayman bank account in the picture inadvertently. Finally, what do you make of this premiere in terms of the future of the series? Breaking Bad premieres have had pretty complex and interesting relationships with their ultimate context in the past. Any predictions?
RD: An obvious prediction would be that he called the guy Saul recommended that could make him “disappear.” So my only prediction is that Hank finds out – and Hank finding out means everyone finds out. He’s not going to be a little bitch and flee unless he gets caught, somehow.
MZ: He does need a machine gun for whatever trouble he’s in.
RD: Serious trouble if he’s not with his family on his birthday.
MZ: Good point. I absolutely agree that Hank will find out. That’s always needed to happen. He’s also taking some medication during that intro. Do you think his cancer could be back?
RD: Yep! he coughed. He took medication and the cough came back, which was gone for, what, 2 seasons? Did you notice that he put that poisonous flower in his car? It’s still in there.
MZ: That cough! Haven’t heard it since the end of Four Days Out, the great episode in season 2. And yes, the lily of the valley is laying right next to a garbage bag full of all of his bomb-making, Gus killing chem lab equipment.
We’re in for a great season. First episode delivered with some great suspense and excellent form. Perfectly ambiguous introduction that sets the stage just as well as we’re used to. And that chilling final line and telling look from Skyler. It’ll only be getting better if the show follows its standard trajectory. Thanks for joining us on the recaps! See you next week.