Archive for the Television Category

Blue Sky Alice

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 8, 2020 by dcairns

“Blue sky casting” is a screenwriter’s trick — you imagine anyone you like, living or dead, in a role, and that hekps you find the character’s voice. If you’re writing for Jeff Goldblum or Michael Redgrave, different things happen. What you probably shouldn’t ever do is cast the person you were thinking of — there’s an exciting tension that happens if you cast, say, Joan Cusack, in a role written with, say, Myrna Loy in mind.

It’s also a fun exercise: here’s a fantasy cast list for Lewis Carroll’s Alice books. I found as i was coming up with it that it was tending to a mid-1950s feel, and naturally British. But it began when Fiona proposed Peter Lorre as the Dormouse.

It turns out I’ve been carrying in my mind various casting ideas for Alice, and they cam tumbling out and were joined by others…

It just seems crazy that Kenneth Williams never played the Mad Hatter. Put it down to typecasting — the Carry On films, though hugely popular, rendered all the actors uncastable in anything other than sitcom or sex farce. The two main productions KW would have been eligible for, Jonathan Miller’s rather wonderful TV Alice in Wonderland, and the execrable musical ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND, have excellent Hatters in Peter Cook and Robert Helpmann respectively, but Williams would have knocked it out the park.

It’s kind of obvious that Jimmy Edwards, extravagantly-tached comic actor, should be the Walrus, but I think Norman Wisdom is very close to Tenniel’s drawing of the Carpenter. It’s starting to look like this production belongs in the mid-fifties to sixties.

Not for any physical resemblance, but the wide-eyed dithering innocence John le Mesurier brought to his work in Dad’s Army seems to suit the King of Hearts nicely. And he practically plays the role in Gilliam’s JABBERWOCKY.

I feel that Irene Handl deserves a crack at the Queen of Hearts — though associated with working class roles (she argued with Billy Wilder about how to play cockney dialogue), she was actually quite posh, seemingly, and derived her characterisations from her observation of her family’s maids when she was young. And she’s the most versatile and surprising and funny of actors, seriously underused. (If you were doing it later, Prunella Scales would be immense, and she’s a lot like Dodgson’s own drawings.)

I’ve always seen Lionel Jeffries as the White Knight. He has such an air of melancholy. I can never read the Knight’s verse without tears springing unbidden to my eyes. Same with Lear’s The Jumblies: “Far and few, far and few…” an incantatory lament.

Okay, granted, Roger Livesey has to be a contender too.

Charles Gray as Humpty Dumpty, because.

When I look at Tenniel’s White Rabbit, I see Edward Everett Horton, which makes it odd that Paramount cast him as the Mad Hatter in the 30s version. They should have borrowed George Arliss for the Hatter and given Horton the rabbit. Fuck Skeets Gallagher. But if we’re going for anxious British players of the 1950s, maybe Alastair Sim? Or Alec Guinness, but there you’d be opening up a can of worms. Who could he NOT play? We know he’d make a magnificent Duchess:

And that’s a role which should really be done in drag, for compassionate reasons. Peter Bull was pretty perfect in the seventies abomination. Leo McKern would be good too.

Peter Sellers is maybe the only man to have played motion picture versions of the March Hare AND the King of Hearts, and he’s another can of worms if we let him in. But in the Miller piece he does the unimaginable, improvising Lewis dialogue in character, so he should be essential. Since this would be early, chubby Sellers, maybe we should be thinking in terms of the caterpillar, a somewhat shadowy figure in the illo.

If we’re having Sellers, then Spike Milligan would be a fine Frog Footman (see YELLOWBEARD for some exemplary footmanning from SM).

Based on Tenniel, there can be no question that the White King and Queen are Thorley Walters and Joan Sims. though Handl is another possibility for the latter. The Red Queen could be Flora Robson or Patricia Hayes, but I’m going for Yootha Joyce (energy) whereas the Red King, apparently dreaming the whole thing like in INCEPTION, doesn’t ever wake up and so it seems like wasted effort to cast a celebrated thesp. Might as well be John Wayne.

Miller cast Finlay Currie as the Dodo, an impressive feat — the only human actor to LOOK like a dodo. But he’s too old, since Dodgson based this didactic fowl on himself, incorporating his stutter — Do-do-Dodgson. Trying to find an actor not aged in the 1950s, with Dodgson’s sad eyes and an impressive beak, I stop at Richard Wattis.

Cecil Parker, arch-ovine, must be the Sheep, a rarely-filmed character but one with great material. I suppose the sheep should really be female, but drag is allowed. We’re through the looking glass, here.

The Gnat also has some really good jokes, and is never presented onscreen — perhaps because Tenniel didn’t deign to draw him. Another tutelary figure — you can really tell the author is a lecturer — he could really be played by anybody from Terry-Thomas to Robert Morley. The latter is more pompous, so he’d do, but then for heaven’s sake why not Noel Coward? Or Dennis Price, who quotes Lewis with relish in Mike Hodges’ PULP?

Of course, given the period, we can have perhaps Britain’s greatest child actor in the title role, Mandy Miller (MANDY, THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT), and by happy coincidence it appears she’s a fan of the author:

Randy Cook suggests Benny Hill for the Cheshire Cat. What are your thoughts? I presume that, like me, you have been carrying casting ideas for Alice around in your heads for decades.

Somehow he knows this

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , on July 3, 2020 by dcairns

My good friend Japa Fett introduced me to the work of Hayao Miyazaki, for which I’m forever grateful. This was back in the early nineties when I think only a couple of the master’s films had been translated. JF provided informal Benshi translations of TOTORRO and others. These were not super-detailed, but then the plotting in the films is fairly loose.

“Why does Kiki lose the power of flight?”

“Is not really explained.”

When it came to THE CASTLE OF CAGLIOSTRO, there’s a bit where Lupin III, our intrepid hero, discovers a treasure and suddenly expounds a bunch of phony history to explain it.

“Somehow he knows this,” said JF.

That’s a good phrase to keep in mind whenever you get an info-dump of exposition from a character who couldn’t possibly know it, or is inferring it from insufficient evidence. It’s a good phrase to keep in mind while watching season 3 of Dark.

Spoilers will be avoided as far as possible, but if you’re still to watch all of the last season you should save this for later.

Dark was a very enjoyable show, even if you did need to have some kind of checklist of characters by your side while watching. not only are there several interlinked families plus a bunch of outsiders, but nearly everyone is played by three actors, since they exist as kids, grown-ups and oldsters in the series’ multiple time periods. Season three adds to the potential confusion by introducing multiverse theory, so that you can have radically different versions of the same character at the same age. Fortunately for the viewer, they’re adept at applying different disfiguring injuries to their cast so you can tell them apart.

The show is almost entirely without humour — the only joke I can recall in twenty-eight episodes is a running gag about one particular injury, whose explanation is continually forestalled. The phrase “all fun and games until someone loses an eye” can be reversed, here: the eye loss is the traumatic event which lets comedy in, for an instant.

Now, my hero Ken Campbell always said to distrust anything that lacks humour, and he’s largely right, with some exceptions. In fact, Dark is absorbing and insanely watchable, and the high quality of every element, acting, writing, direction, photography and music, is sustained to the end. Critical responses so far have, accordingly. been very favourable. But it didn’t really satisfy me.

For a show so clearly influenced by Twin Peaks, the degree of closure supplied is quite high. There are a few things that weren’t clear to me, but I expect they’ll get covered by astute rewatchers. The big finish makes a lot of the smaller questions sort of irrelevant anyway — the gigantic Gordian knot of tangled plotlines are cut clean through in a way which is, essentially, consistent with story logic.

But Dark is a mystery, and the kind which promises a solution: the Lynchian ideal of a HANGING ROCK style non-explanatory denouement is not the goal. The show unquestionably gets to a solution, but does it do so fairly?

I’d identify three kinds of flaws with the conclusion.

  1. Is it fair to introduce the material required for a solution so late in the story? The second universe is introduced at the very end of season 2, but that just complicates the complications. The wrap-up is enabled by information supplied in the very last episode, without the benefit of real clues beforehand. Now, Dark may be a mystery but we’re far from Agatha Christie territory: I don’t think we can ask for total authorial fair-play here. I believe it was Asimov who suggested that science fiction and the whodunnit make uncomfortable bedfellows: the locked room mystery that can be solved by an s-f solution isn’t wholly satisfactory. So this isn’t a dealbreaker.
  2. But not only does the show hold back crucial information until it’s too late for us to guess ANYTHING, it executes a kind of genre-switch at the last minute. Writer Jantje Friese (think anti-freeze) drags in predestination and makes it the ultimate narrative problem the characters must solve. If flaw 1 is a kind of deus ex machina solution, hauled from the author’s ass with a flourish at the climactic moment, flaw 2 is the opposite, a deus ex machina PROBLEM. But maybe this is unfair of me: all through the series, the most active characters have been wrestling, across decades, with the fact that all their attempts to fix things go wrong. Friese, arguably, has just restated this problem in metaphysical terms. Still, it upsets me a little, the way that other time-travel show, Quantum Leap, explained itself quite early on with the idea that God was using its protagonist as an instrument. Having both divine intervention and time travel in a story struck me as a bad case of Double Voodoo.*
  3. And finally, we get to the “somehow he knows this” part. At the end of the penultimate episode, a character turns up to explain what’s been going wrong all this time. But she has deduced this solution from inadequate information. Somehow she knows this. Friese has to give her a monologue explaining how she arrived at her solution, but it’s transparently bullshit. A subdivision of this problem is the fact that the antagonistic forces in operation through the show, the Mabuseian manipulator figures, have ALSO based their ideas on bullshit with inadequate evidence to support it, though since they’ve got it wrong I guess that’s a justifiable narrative device.

I don’t have any suggestions as to what should have been done differently. Other than, I suppose, dripping the information in more gradually. The character with the ultimate answer should probably have been behaving more consistently all along, also, like someone working towards that answer.

It also feels like a nasty case of “the ends justify the means,” a moral approach that I would like to see avoided, like, forever.

But, you know, by the standards of most TV finales, it’s moderately satisfying. Which is another way of saying, TV has gotten really good but they don’t seem to have figured out endings.


The Glinner

Posted in Interactive, Politics, Television with tags , , , , on June 27, 2020 by dcairns

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Since I simply HATE sport, and Twitter insists on giving me sports headlines, I’ve set my Twitter location to New York, because at least that way I get notifications on sports I know nothing about and which don’t automatically annoy me.

I woke up this afternoon and found Graham Linehan trending, and knew it wasn’t going to be for anything good.

Graham Linehan has been banned from Twitter. He’s the one who actually got me onto WordPress and then Twitter, but we’ve only had one brief exchange in recent years. I was kind of concerned about his mental health, since the once-brilliant comedy writer who used to offer links to amusing things found online, was now obsessively monotopical, only able to talk about trans rights issues from the point of view that trans rights are bad.

I asked him why this subject devoured all of his entire attention and he replied in all caps that it was because nobody else was talking about it. I gently pressed him on this, and he admitted it was a slight exaggeration. I do try to maintain a civil tone online. It occasionally helps.

The Glinner’s pronouncements on trans rights varied from reasonable-sounding to frothingly insane. Reasonable people, I think, could respectfully disagree about whether trans women should compete in female sporting events or whether some kids are being rushed into gender reassignment procedures before they’re ready. I’m not trans, I’m not a parent, I’m not a child, I’m not a woman, I prefer not to force my way into these arguments, but for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, Linehan was certain this was his fight, his hill to die on.

He wrote an article about how he couldn’t write comedy in a world where expressions like “female penis” were taken seriously. Which is a weird thing to fixate on. My impression is that some trans people enjoy the apparent incongruity of the phrase, find it sort of humorous as well as useful, and anyway, so what? Words are always changing their roles (like people).

In a much earlier conversation, Linehan had talked about getting into production (I hoped I might get a job out of him one day) because he didn’t expect his creativity to last into late middle age — I’m not sure why he thought this, but it’s at least better than blaming a decline in comedy ideas on trans people. Any conspiracy theory that suggests that The I.T. Crowd is not as brilliant as Father Ted or that Count Arthur Strong, despite its wonderful central character, is not nearly as good as either, because of continuing advances in LGBTQ rights, seems to be operating (poorly) on a false basis, to say the least.

There was also the fact that Linehan’s entry into the debate followed a trans-based subplot on The I.T. Crowd, which seemed like the product of lazy, out-of-date thinking more than a coherent, retrograde or political stance. Linehan was criticised for it, and I believe admitted it was a mistake. (A character embarks on a relationship with a trans woman, having misheard her revelation that she used to be a man. When he finds out, he throws her out a window. It sounds worse on paper, actually, but it’s… not great.)

What made Linehan’s Twitter rants dangerous is that he could seem quite reasonable on the surface, at times, before plunging into transphobic vileness. A sincere, I presume, belief that women were being put in danger, could be used to justify anything — distorting what people said, for instance. When a teacher said that their grad students could bring up subjects in seminars that they couldn’t discuss with their parents, Linehan quote-tweeted this with the single word comment “Grooming.” Does Linehan know that grad students are adults or does this not matter to him? Likewise, how is it grooming if the students are the ones raising the subject? Why was Linehan following this person anyway?

At some point my attempt to believe Linehan was a well-meaning person who had different beliefs from me disintegrated completely. There seemed to be a toxic, Twitter-fuelled admixture of politics, ego, neurosis, anger — did the man’s surviving testicular cancer feed into this in some bizarre way? Or is it just the way the internet can turn everything into a war? The word “transphobia” certainly seems well-designed, because fear lies under the hatred, pretty clearly.

Twitter allows people to communicate together in an apparently consequence-free way, people who would not normally seek out each others’ company. It’s a bit like granting a populace the power of invisibility. Hi-jinks ensue. Then there are pile-ons and public shamings and these don’t typically transform the offenders into better people. Prejudices are fed.

Linehan would slide from sounding concerned about women’s rights being infringed, to making snide and nasty comments about specific trans people, reserving the right to deadname anyone he didn’t like, to sounding like a “harmless” fuddy-duddy who didn’t like the way society was changing… I imagine some were drawn in by the concern or “concern,” and ultimately seduced by the hatred. In a way, perhaps he was too. Twitter was slow to act.

There might be real places where trans rights and women’s rights are partially at odds, where some creative thinking might be required, where the natural tendency of people of all genders and sexes and persuasions to get excited about issues which deeply affect them might be stopping them getting together and building something positive that’s for the common good. I strongly suspect the solutions will not be devised on Twitter.

Linehan was always nice to me. I want to think that he’s redeemable. A man having a very protracted, public nervous breakdown rather than an evil bigot. This might be wishful thinking. But getting off Twitter might be good for him.