July 27, 2010

iMacGuffin: Portable Infotech and Suspense Cinema

Every espionage movie is essentially a treasure hunt. You need a valuable trinket in play to get your spies in the game. More than weapons or money, information -- which in turn allows you to build weapons, or make money, or otherwise manage the fate of the world -- is the most sought-after commodity. For the viewer, the vessel used to smuggle that information is often the coolest thing about it.

Alfred Hitchcock popularized (but did not invent) the term "MacGuffin" to describe a spy flick's motivating object.
(1) And in almost every discussion, including his famous interviews with Francois Truffaut, he talked about it in informational terms: "In the writings of Rudyard Kipling, any spy story written around that kind of period or atmosphere concerned the stealing, always, of the plans of the fort. ... Stealing, quote, 'the papers,' unquote."

Who uses paper anymore? The migration of data from print to magnetic storage to digital encoding opened up a whole new range of MacGuffins for filmmakers to exploit, but along the way it also endangered the existence of the MacGuffin itself.

The video series below tries to address data-storage MacGuffins (2) in four different incarnations. In its larval stage -- microfilm -- the iMacGuffin carries information that's important, but we seldom know what it is. Operatives of the 1950s were always after tiny spools of film hidden in shoe soles, in false-bottomed attachés, in shaving cream. And on the microfilm ... what? It's classified, it's top secret, what else is there to know? Hitchcock would say, and did say, "It doesn't matter," but this approach also reflects the authoritarian attitude of the '50s: If your government said it was bad, it was bad.

After Watergate, the paranoid '70s were concerned with overhearing and comprehending, so the audiotape became a spool of raw intrigue. When sound is committed to tape, we grow more intimate with it -- it's murmurs and screams captured for our listening pleasure, over and over again. But can we believe what we hear, and are we really hearing what we think?

The floppy disk and the CD and the DVD-ROM are the coolest things ever, until you've migrated the same information across a dozen of them, at which point they become landfill or drink coasters.
Mission: Impossible went high-end in 1996 by packing a list of all the world's spies onto one Zip disk, with no way of knowing the magnetic format was doomed. Fourteen years later, optical data discs are such a commonplace in our homes and offices, how could the one up there on the screen be special? When a trope is satirized by the Coen Brothers, who turned a pathetic spy's CD-ROM into a punchline anti-MacGuffin, its shelf life is nearing the end.

The flash drive, memory stick, whatever you want to call it, makes information pocket-sized. The wee thing represents the powerful modern ease of data transfer, devaluing electronic "secrets" as plot motivators the same way printed newspapers are devalued as informational carriers. It's practically a sideline whenever it appears on the screen, cropping up like a footnote to the main action.
Everybody in the audience has one on their keychain, so hammering home its role as an informational lockbox is a non-starter. Sounds like a metaphor for Hollywood, embracing the latest digital technology without realizing that its own business cycle (creation, exhibition, in-home sale) would be disrupted by the movies' new high-tech format (bootleg DVDs, workprint leaks, BitTorrents).

I'm sad to see the suspense/action genre drift away from MacGuffins
, digital or otherwise, but it's time. The secrets that spies and grifters once plumbed for can no longer be sealed in an envelope. They're dispersed and existential, like Jason Bourne's identity and memory, for instance -- he's not seeking blueprints or software or a network virus, but the subtracted qualities that will make him a whole person. As filmgoers gain better infotech and our computing moves to a distributed "cloud" model, the motivations for onscreen espionage will have to shift into a new realm of ether. Maybe Inception points the way ...

(1) Isaac Niemand's outstanding video "
MacGuffin By Hitchcock," with animation by JealousGUY, spells out this concept for newbies way better than I could in any medium.

(2) These are all media for transferring data, not components of a computer per se. There's a separate piece to be written on the way action movies and TV fetishized the microchip for a time, valuing the means to process information over the information that gets processed. That's what IBM did too, and it allowed Microsoft to grow

(3) You should've overheard my internal monologue as I debated whether to include photography, cinema's other great recorded-media touchstone, in this overview. I soon decided that art form is so much its own beast that the way we convey it from one user to the next -- David Hemmings teasing Vanessa Redgrave with a film canister in Blow-Up, for example -- is all but irrelevant. In the case of photography, the image matters, but the frame doesn't.

(4) Worth noting, perhaps, that the spelling of "MacGuffin" that has passed into the culture is not the one Hitchcock laid out for Truffaut. He spells it with an E instead of an I.

Update: Find below the entire video essay in one big viewable chunk.

July 21, 2010

To Go Among Mad People

Mad Men's third season was a narrative list of bad choices. (If you haven't watched it ahead of Sunday's Season 4 premiere, that's your bad choice, and there are spoilers ahead.) Not that Matthew Weiner's characters have ever been what you'd call right-thinking in their personal lives, but by season's end they'd torn down everything they valued. Betty Draper chose what she believed was her only option to flee suburban ennui, pursuing the same ennui with a different man she barely knew. Peggy Olson went to bed with Don Draper's direct competition. And Don, leading with his chin, fell in with violent drifters and poached his latest extramarital partner far, far too close to home.

Maybe the creators were tired of the Sterling Cooper cloister, and wanted new sets. So assume that Season 4 will open in a new corporate space for the new Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce -- the only good choice any characters made last year, if you discount Don's coming clean about his past and Sal Romano's stand against sexual harassment. But Don's confession was forced, and Sal's
act went hand in hand with his denial of self; if only he'd sought help from the openly gay EuroSmith! (I'm not suggesting the two should have become lovers, the most obvious, tired dramatic path possible -- just that Sal might have found support in coming out to his workplace, if he'd only asked for it.)

I just pray that my favorite character, the
Mad Men camera, continues to make perfect choices as it's done all along. This video essay first appeared on this blog last year, on the eve of Season 3, and contains spoilers for Season 2. That said, if you're still worried that two-year-old plot points from a TV drama will burn your toast and poison your dog, I don't know what to do with you.

Thoughts/wishes/expectations for this new season? Did you find the third season unfocused, and hope for balance to be restored? What's the best way to mix an Old-Fashioned?

July 19, 2010

News, Everyone!: "Futurama" Season 6, Part I (6.1 - 6.5)

"Futurama"'s sixth season began with the Hypnotoad--and, theoretically, it should have been a welcome sight for any fan eager to celebrate the show's triumphant return to the airwaves. However, this immediate retreat to a familiar gag was enough to give me pause. Not only did this sequence forge uncomfortable parallels to Fry's old complaint about "Everybody Loves Hypnotoad" ("This show's been going downhill since Season Three!"), but the iTunes version of this bumper even features a stern warning from Bender: "This has been a test of the Emergency Hypnotoad System. Had this been an actual hypnosis, you would go limp and watch whatever crap comes on next. Comin' up next, 'Futurama'!" It immediately reminds of The Simpsons Movie and its prologue--you know, the scene in which Homer mocks the viewer for paying to see a television show lazily brought to the big screen.

The first thing you have to mention here is that an unavoidable seam exists between "Futurama"'s original broadcast run on Fox and the first few episodes on Comedy Central--they feel much more distant and impersonal than any of the first seventy-two episodes, or even any of the four movies. But there are minor indications that this is distance is intentional. Just compare "Futurama"'s two "triumphant returns": when the show came back to conquer the direct-to-video market, Planet Express had just been rescued from its own premature cancellation; this time, as the series proper starts up again, nearly every member of the crew has been violently killed and reduced to a skeletal corpse. Could this be a metaphor for the creators' ultimate opinion about the movies that brought them back in the first place? Find the answers you crave as Fry questions the Professor's methods in bringing his crew back to life:

Fry: Fetal stem cells? Aren't those controversial?
Farnsworth: In your time, yes. But nowadays, shut up!

It's a moment that clearly demands the viewers' respect. This is where "Futurama"'s sense of self-deprecation differs from that of its yellow-skinned counterpart: where The Simpsons Movie calls attention to its own faults and fails to defuse them, "Futurama" actively silences you by stating that its logistical intricacies are not yours to dictate.
It's a reboot, after all! I'm the boss here, damn it, and we're doing this my way! It's undoubtedly an attempt on the writers' part to start anew, to bring "Futurama" back to a comfortable status quo on their own terms--and, perhaps most importantly, to cast off the shackles they imposed upon themselves with Into the Wild Green Yonder. Endings? Resolutions? Death? Several characters "[go] all Blade Runner"* in order to find new ways to invalidate them all, because death is for suckers in this brave new season on cable television. When Leela falls into a coma following her rebirth, the heartbroken Fry creates a robot that is written over with her personality--which causes all sorts of confusion when the genuine article reawakens.


While "Futurama"'s meta-resurrections are calculated experiments meant to bring back old friends, not all of them are accomplished quite so literally. Bender is equipped with one of the Professor's doomsday devices to replace his damaged power supply; in order to work off the excess energy, he must "party" 24/7, lest he explode. "Partying" is applied here strictly in the physical sense, a perpetual disco-dance that hardly aspires to the heights of debauchery for which Bender is so famous. But this minor subplot does well to quickly re-establish his personality in the compressed half-hour format: rude, callous, and gleefully self-absorbed. No character development necessary. All of this points to the real reasons why "Futurama" saw limited success in feature-length--movies have to establish a singular purpose, whereas individual episodes of a television series are always pieces of a larger puzzle. They can make minor additions to a long-established theme, they can forge new rivalries and friendships, or they can be silly asides that provide a much-needed break from the big picture.

Unfortunately, "Rebirth" cannot overcome all of the obstacles set before it--namely, that "tender display of tonguesmanship" that ended Into the Wild Green Yonder. Based on how its first "last episode" ("The Devil's Hands Are Idle Playthings") ended, I used to argue that a theoretical resurrection of the series would find Fry and Leela on the rebound from a failed, off-screen romance. After all, Leela knew how much Fry loved her, but she also knew why she couldn't love him back--his innate immaturity--and "Playthings"' final moment was a clear step forward that was, in turn, destined to fail. Even when dancing around this idea, Bender's Big Score reinforces it: Fry couldn't compete for Leela's heart when pitted against an older, wizened version of himself--and that, too, ended tragically. But now, here we are. Their feelings are out in the open and they became a couple, more or less... and it just feels so empty. We have yet to see if this is a case of "Moonlighting" syndrome, but whenever Fry and Leela share a tender moment in these new episodes, I'm overcome by a distinct sense of awkwardness. To its credit, "Rebirth" acknowledges that awkwardness and attempts to rewind a little--the events of that episode leading to a half-spoken hiatus on their relationship--but it still feels forced. Maybe the simple truth is that "Futurama" can't overcome those final moments of Into the Wild Green Yonder. There's just no way to erase the impertinence with which this new relationship was thrown together. No backsies.


The second episode of Season Six, "In-a-Gadda-Da-Leela," is certainly intended to represent that new status quo--and, as far as such things go, it's not too bad. At the very least, it reminds us that not much has changed since the Great Hiatus: no doubt through a Watchmen-like grab for power, Richard Nixon's head is still the President of Earth (and West's "werewolf" non-impression is still delightful--"Aroooo!"); Zapp Brannigan is still a childish, manipulative jerk; Kif is still his exasperated second-in-command. Zapp and Leela are sent on a "one-man" mission to destroy a death sphere satellite "censoring" obscene planets, only to crash land and re-enact a Garden of Eden scenario. Meanwhile, everyone else at Planet Express attempts to drive the satellite away by convincing their fellow man to ease up on their sleazy ways. It's cute and it's breezy--it's just not very funny. Maybe that's because the episode's allotted twenty-two minutes are so evenly divided between "A" plot and "B" plot that neither one has much time to forge a point. Left to their own devices, the "V-GINY" satellite (inexplicably voiced by Chris Elliott in the episode's final moments) could have been a sharp satire of media censorship (or, as it seems to intend, a satire of human debauchery), and Zapp and Leela's time in Eden could have been a reasonable parody of the Bible; smashed together, they don't boast anything of much worth. The best bits here are the interludes that reinterpret the plot as "The Transcredible Exploits of Zapp Brannigan," a send-up of '30s serials that perfectly captures their cheapo special effects and overt racism. In fact, this episode might be best described as an excuse for Billy West to exercise his Brannigan voice--the stalwart baritone that so often descends into a girlish whine.

Episode 6.3, "Attack of the Killer App," can only be described as a shrug-worthy attempt to appease that ever-elusive creature called "relevance." Monolithic corporate head Mom becomes the stand-in for Apple as she foists iPhones and Twitter on a universe desperate for the cutting edge of technology--and it all ends with a zombie-related metaphor for mindless consumerism that is, somehow, more obvious than Dawn of the Dead. Fry and Bender engage in a war for "Twitcher" followers, filming various moronic stunts for the amusement of the internet, which comes to a head when Fry discovers one of Leela's horrible secrets: a singing boil named "Susan" (Craig Ferguson...?) growing on her butt. There's something admirable about how this episode combines the two intended purposes of viral videos--star fuel and schadenfreude--with its version of Susan Boyle, but the whole thing still smacks of desperation. Don't forget that these were the guys who were writing about the distant future in 1999, and they were making references to CD players. "Life as a video game," as written in 2002 (3.18, "Anthology of Interest II"), mostly featured references to games produced before the industry crash of 1983. Methinks technology is creeping along even faster than they anticipated, and they're scrambling to think of ways to keep up. As such, their potshots at social networking and digital entertainment tend to feel like the old-man grievances that we dismissed a long time ago. (See also: the reappearance of minor character Scoop Chang, once of the BEIJING BUGLE, now the "NEW NEW YORK TIMES online podcast blog comments editor.") Sure, everyone had their misgivings about Twitter, but find yourself a pack of great writers and artists to follow and you have no idea how you got along without it. Of course, there's a lot of detritus to wade through, and this episode definitely aims its sights at the breakfast-and-weather Tweeters, along with the YouTube sociopaths--problems, both, that need to be addressed. But in a series that has often equated evil with excess and waste (even in this episode!), it feels like a knee-jerk dismissal of everything that new media has to offer.

We live in a world where advancements in technology--the kind of stuff that comes straight outta science fiction--always seem right around the corner. (I did appreciate the quick cameo from Flexo, stating that even sentient machines will become obsolete... but then, we've already talked about that in "Obsoletely Fabulous," haven't we?) But "Futurama"'s most effective jokes about the future always dabble in the impossible. Somehow, our descendants will utilize their unheard-of science to absurdly logical ends. Don't forget that these were also the guys who celebrated their second episode ("The Series Has Landed") by putting a chintzy theme park on the moon--is there any better way to encapsulate the human lust for adventurism, and how it inevitably leads to convenience and laziness? For all intents and purposes, "Attack of the Killer App" talks about instant sharing and social networking in the same way we've been talking about them for a while now. The willing surrender of your privacy... ridiculous apps... being hit up by Apple for more unnecessary upgrades... surely there's more to say beyond those old chestnuts.


There's not a whole lot to say about "Proposition Infinity" (6.4) except that it suffers from most of the same problems as "Attack of the Killer App." Amy breaks up with Kif over her predilection for bad boys--which leads her into a relationship with the ultimate bad boy, Bender. I have to admit that I felt a wave of relief when Kif left the picture, if only for this one episode--because it allowed Amy's personality to flourish in a way that it hadn't since she first committed herself to him: it's much easier to recognize the coy and flirtatious façade, and how it betrays a naïve sweetness. Unfortunately, whatever character development could be culled from this trial separation was overruled by another issue that all the kids are talking about. Bender soon proposes to Amy, and they become passionate advocates for robosexual marriage.

Gay marriage is going to be a hot-button topic in the United States for a long time to come, but "Proposition Infinity" practically acknowledges that it's preaching to the choir. I appreciated the lampoon of the "slippery slope" argument, not only for its carefully-built punchline--I suspect that I will carry the phrase "ghost and horse" with me for a while--but because it mentions that, in the far-off year of 3010, gay marriage itself has been long accepted into law and society.
And then there's frequent "Futurama" guest star George Takei, who appears here, without comment, as a debate moderator. At the very least, this episode clearly sees a day when we won't have to make such drastic distinctions between lifestyles. However, 2010 has already seen deep tonal shifts in the way we talk about the controversy surrounding gay marriage and the relevant laws. Prop 8 is almost two years out, and in many ways--or at least, the ways that concern this episode--the lines have already been drawn on either side of the issue. Parodies of the infamous "Gathering Storm" ad have already run their course (and we all remember that one featuring Takei) and there's nothing to gain by pointing out the hypocrisy of those who fiercely oppose marriage equality. Is it too obvious to say that this episode would have played a lot better in July 2009?

After this string of clunkers, I still had to admit my skepticism--it's far too tempting, far too easy, to say that "Futurama" was just getting used to the half-hour format again; that they needed a little time to shake off the rust. But "The Duh-Vinci Code" (6.5) is the first episode that actually justifies the excuse, primarily because it doesn't give a shit about being relevant. The pop culture references are dated, but not in a way that matters. At last. After a parody of "Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?" brings Fry's limitless stupidity to the forefront, the plot works its way around to The Da Vinci Code as the Planet Express crew investigates the centuries-old clues hidden in Leonardo's work. But the road eventually leads to a long-lost region of space and a much more earth-shattering discovery than the identity of Christ... It turns out that Leonardo da Vinci is not just an immortal alien, but also the dumbest person on his native planet, eager to take revenge on those who scorned him. It's a wonderfully roundabout way to demonstrate that intellect is relative (notice, also, the apparent throwaway about Zoidberg's doctorate being in art history), and that the iconic geniuses of the past probably had just as many moments of pettiness and vindictiveness as the geniuses we know more intimately.

It's pretty easy to pick apart, and it may not seem like much ground is being broken here, but "The Duh-Vinci Code" is bound to become a vital chapter in "Futurama"'s history of irreverence. Religion isn't half as important to the writers as art and science, and for them, the "conspiracy" that they cooked up--the father of invention was a fraud and a fuck-up--has greater theological ramifications than anything in The Da Vinci Code. (Indeed, the fact that Fry and the Professor are literally sent into the heavens to find da Vinci makes a fine metaphor for the idols we worship--better than a similar gag found in The Beast with a Billion Backs, anyway.) It's a slightly nihilistic view of mankind's achievements, but it's also a mind game that reinforces the bare essentials. Like the opening strains of "Rebirth," "The Duh-Vinci Code" is trying to live up to its own standards and no one else's. Subsequently, it's the first complete episode that doesn't feel rushed, malnourished, or obligated to address any points that it doesn't want to make. Best of all, linking that mindset to Fry's "brain thing" has finally resulted in an episode that expands on years of characterization. Time and again we have been told that Fry is the Chosen One of the "Futurama" universe because he lacks the "delta brain wave," but this is the first time his lovable idiocy is directly responsible for saving the day. It begs the question: what makes a great man?

It's pretty fantastic, but right now, "The Duh-Vinci Code" represents a moment of cautious optimism--the moment you can tell yourself that maybe, just maybe, "Futurama" can move past its failures and make this sixth season worthwhile. Here's hoping.
*Blade Runner is a wonderful comparison to make--not just as a reflection of the robotic-clone plot, but also a reference to "Futurama" as a property that has seen numerous endings and reinterpretations.

July 17, 2010

Meme Streets

So, It's out.

What'd you think?

Here's a meme to fill in as you're formulating a response:

1. Stupid movie for Stupid People: ________
2. Smart movie for Stupid People: ________
3. Smart movie for Smart People: ________
4. Stupid movie for Smart People: ________

an example:

1. Grown-Ups
2. Inception
3. There Will Be Blood
4. Evil Dead 2

Yes? And, expanding that, which of these four is most likely to make a bajillion dollars? I mean, isn't Avatar a prime example of #2? But Titanic is #1, right? And where does that leave Star Wars? #4 says my nostalgia, but, eek, #1?

Oh - and the new trailer for The Social Network? It was better the first time I saw it when it was the Parallax Test.


July 05, 2010


With the impending, inevitable demise of BLOCKBUSTER VIDEO fast on the heels of it being kicked off the NYSE for allowing its stock to plummet to, oh, around .18 cents/share, wanted to take this opportunity to allow us all to share our shadenfreude or - perish the thought - our regrets at the passing of this monolithic enterprise.

Best moment with the franchise? When Ethan Hawke's Hamlet does his soliloquy in its aisles; the most brilliant re-imagination in all of a brilliant film. You know what we don't see enough of? Michael Almereyda. Can't wait for his upcoming Jonathan Lethem adaptation TONIGHT AT NOON.

Also sort of like when the Fight Club boys break in and electro-magnet-erase all the tapes because 1999 = longer ago than you think.

Worst moments? The pricing, late fees, generally apathetic and ignorant staff, ridiculous stocking policy, legacy of closed mom & pops?

Here's my personal fave: when they took a poll to see what people wanted to see in the movies with the idea that they were influential enough an entity (like Wal-Mart, fer instance) to directly affect the content of films yet to be released. Call it a test audience without a screening. Chalk one up for the good guys.