Veronica Mars: Music, many Logans and fan service

This week I’ve been listening nonstop to Typhoon, an Oregon indie rock band I first heard in the Veronica Mars movie. I have mixed feelings about the movie, much like I do about the series, but there are two no-holds-barred recommendations I’ll make about all things VM:

1) The music is unfailingly fantastic. I’m really enjoying Typhoon’s “White Lighter” album, including the “Prosthetic Love” song featured in a pivotal movie scene. But I also spent a good half-hour last Saturday rebuilding an iTunes playlist of all the music featured during the series, above and beyond what’s on the official soundtrack. It’s everyone from Tegan and Sara to Mike Doughty to Neko Case, and in the past decade most of it has infiltrated my regular playlists. Like Life, another truncated TV show with fantastic musical selection and coordination, the pre-movie Veronica Mars sticks in my memory in part because I regularly listen to songs that it first introduced me to.

2) The first season remains an excellent television series, which holds up even ten years later on a rewatch. I unearthed my first-season DVDs in the weeks leading up to the movie’s release, and quickly went from “watching them in the background as I do household chores” to “must pay full attention to each episode.” I have an ambivalent-to-negative reaction to the rest of the series – I especially hated that the end of the second season reached back and retconned part of the first, and I stopped watching sometime in the third season. But the first season was and is engrossing.

Which isn’t to say that it’s flawless, especially when it comes to Logan Echolls, the “obligatory psychotic jackass/suspected rapist” turned “sympathetic abuse victim” turned “bad boy fixer-upper romantic lead.” I enjoy watching Logan as a character(s), the acting of Jason Dohring, and every separate incarnation of his relationship(s) with Veronica – I just don’t buy that the same character could transform so quickly, so many times.

Which brings me to my biggest problem with the movie, as embodied by yet another Logan Echolls: it tries to simultaneously please and critique its diehard fans, and it doesn’t entirely succeed at doing either. Back when the series was airing, Rob Thomas told me that fans sometimes influenced how he wrote the show, so the fact that he wrote the series sequel to the same audience wasn’t a surprise. Nor do I really object to that — even when you take out the fan funding that launched the movie, who else is really going to care about these characters ten years later, besides the people who had very strong opinions about Veronica, Logan, Piz et al? (Assuming that anyone can have strong opinions about Piz.) 

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Divergent, Dystopias and Murderous Children

Veronica Roth’s Divergent was a good plane read that started boring me, conveniently, right at the end of both the first book and the plane ride. I don’t care enough about what happens next to actually read the sequels; I might care enough to look up their plots on Wikipedia, though it’s been three days and I haven’t bothered yet. The book did make me slightly more interested in the movie, because Shailene Woodley is a better actor than the protagonist deserves, and the book certainly left her a gaping void of character to fill however she chooses. (Ditto Kate Winslet and the book’s villain, who was the victim of some weirdly specific authorial body-shaming. I look forward to seeing Winslet portray a woman whose characterization begins with “wears glasses to look smart” and ends with “pudge around the middle” and “stretch marks on her thighs.”)

Despite the somewhat obvious Hunger Games comparisons, Divergent reminded me much more strongly of Lois Lowry’s The Giver, particularly in its description of the colorless, repressed “Abnegation” society that the heroine rejects. I was sorry when she left it to go jump on and off of buildings and trains (that apparently never bother stopping, in this city that has a large caste of menial laborers but doesn’t bother employing any of them as commuter rail conductors … but moving on, pun not really intended.)

Divergent made me miss The Giver, and its emphasis on the quiet, seemingly rational horrors that the best dystopias perpetrate. I’m so much more interested in the world-building in these types of books, in the theory of dystopias than in their often over-the-top effects. (It’s why the second Hunger Games installment is my favorite; it opens up the world that created the child-gladiator rituals and shows us how it works.) The setup and evolution of these once-ideal societies, and the bureaucratic souring of those ideals, is generally so much more interesting than the killing that results.  At the very least, the killing has to be earned by the world-building — and that is definitely where Divergent fell down the most for me.

I’ve read way too many contemporary YA books that kill characters easily and en masse, which makes it pretty hard to like the protagonists who shrug at the deaths and move on with their hero-ing. Hunger Games gets a pass, because whatever other flaws there are in the books, the murder of children is sold from the very first pages and doesn’t happen lightly. Even early Harry Potter did a good job with not killing kids cheaply or as window dressing, before its eventual devolution into mass casualties and death-by-curtains. But Divergent throws a few kids off a train and then progresses to sociopathic bullying, suicides and casual maiming, all of which are really just a backdrop for our heroine to score a boyfriend. By the time Roth progresses to brainwashing, gun battles with distant parents and friends dying casually, it was hard to see any of the violence having an impact on the narrator — and so the only impact it had on this reader was to make me stop reading.

Favorites (and parentheticals) of 2013: Books, TV, movies, travel

Most lingering book read: A Visit from the Goon Squad, which I admired more than I loved — but I admired it a lot, especially Jennifer Egan’s ability to write a September 11 in New York novel by deliberately not writing a September 11 in New York novel. That day wasn’t an obvious plot device for Egan; it wasn’t recreated directly on the page, it wasn’t something the characters overtly spent pages and pages responding to. It was an aside, a memory of a breakfast meeting a few days before the restaurant fell from the sky, or the reality of a regular commute home now distorted by the hole in lower Manhattan. Egan let the aftermath, rather than the cinematic trauma of an event all of her readers lived through themselves, shape the stories elegantly, subtly, ordinarily, in a way that reflected life after September 11 much more than any other work of fiction I’ve read or seen trying to depict that day or its fallout. (Ahem, Emperor’s Children. Let alone Extremely Loud and Incredibly Manipulative.)

Best TV discovery: Orphan Black. Runner-up props to The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, which got me binge-watching YouTube in a way few regular TV or Netflix series have done recently, and Sleepy Hollow, which I expected to take the Revolution/Flashforward/generic-Lost-clone route to boredom and banality, but which became something much stranger and sparkier than I expected. (I still don’t pay much attention during the monster scenes, but the Abbie-and-Ichabod Show is worth infinite fake-history flashbacks and rejected X-Files monster-of-the-week masks.)

Best TV stride-hitting: The Good Wife, ad infinitum. Conversely, I’m still waiting for Elementary to live up to its potential this season. Bringing Moriarty back (yay!) just to make her more vulnerable — and vulnerable due to her feminine roles as mother and Sherlock’s girlfriend (sigh) — emphatically doesn’t count. Nor does having Watson sleep with Sherlock’s semi-estranged brother, though Sherlock’s reaction to that development (and the general notes they’ve been repeatedly hitting about trust and emotional intimacy and need for soulmates and other relationshippy words between the characters) seems like a strange choice for a show whose creators keep on vowing that their leads will never hook up.  I’m mostly indifferent as to whether that happens, though it seems hard to write a sustained drama about two intelligent, attractive people becoming professional, intellectual and emotional partners without turning it into a romance (or having your audience do that for you. Speaking of characters named Sherlock.)

Most memorable movie: Probably Frances Ha, which I saw late and after reading much of the hype, but which still surprised and delighted me in a way that Girls has never managed (and yes, do I feel guilty for preferring a movie that’s directed and co-written by a man to the series directed and written by a woman. Then again, I only had to tolerate Frances for 85 minutes. I gave Lena Dunham that time several times over before giving up on her characters.) I think The Pretty One also deserved more attention for doing a similar coming-of-age, girl-to-womanhood story with more whimsy and a wider view of its characters’ worlds.

Favorite travel experience: Out of a year that included trips to LA, DC, Miami, Chicago and western Illinois, South Carolina, Italy and San Francisco, I probably most enjoyed the pure vacation of my two weeks in Italy. But the immediate turnaround to San Francisco was my third and best experience in that city, which felt dream-like in the picture-perfect early October sunshine (and under the influence of nine hours of accumulated jet lag). I was a better explorer this time, spending more time outside of the tourist-trap hotel areas and the work meetings of the financial district (though I learned that not changing clothes between the work meetings and the exploring can lead to lots of questions about why exactly you’re thrifting in the Mission “so dressed up,” in what I thought was business casual). And I’m still not nearly as “elite” a traveler as I would like to be, but 2013 was also the year that I had fun scratching at the door of how to become one.

Joss Whedon’s Much Ado: “Were she an Ethiope.”

Oh, Joss.

—My expression after enjoying 95% of the new Much Ado About Nothing, even if the parts I really liked were pretty reminiscent of the Kenneth Branagh-Emma Thompson version, and the parts that were jarring in a modern setting made me nostalgic for the BBC Damian Lewis-Sarah Parish version, which ditched some of the more dated plot points (because turning your modern Beatrice and Benedick into bitter former lovers totally makes sense! But you can’t really do that while retaining Shakespeare’s emphasis on Hero’s literal virginity, or lack thereof, as crucial to the plot and something that’s expected of a woman in the same world where it’s totally fine for Beatrice to have drunken one-night stands).

Still, all of that I was handwaving, and I was really enjoying the movie, though the occasional extra would wander past the camera and make me wonder if Whedon would give any lines to any people of color — an omission all the more jarring because Branagh, a couple of decades earlier and in a more Ye Olden Italia setting, still managed to give Denzel Washington a decent supporting character role, while Whedon decided to depict an unusually, almost ludicrously white version of modern Los Angeles. And then Whedon went for the post-racial visual gag, bringing an unnamed, silent black woman momentarily into his frame just to have her (silently) react to Claudio’s declaration that he’d marry another mystery woman even “were she an Ethiope.” Cue audience laughter — aren’t we so much more enlightened from the days when Shakespeare used “Ethiope” as synonym for “hideous”? — and my facepalming.

Sigh. Siiiiiigh. This is what gets me about Whedon, even as I enjoy his work and admit that the man has a way with a quip or a meta visual gag -  he doesn’t always earn them. He especially doesn’t earn them when it comes to gender and racial commentary.  There probably is a way to make that joke, but it would involve having non-white actors on screen for longer than five seconds, or even giving them lines, or maybe even casting them in a main role or two. (Modern Los Angeles!) You don’t get to make that post-modern, look-at-us-aren’t-we-clever-and-post-racial joke if you’re not actually, you know, post-racial. It’s Firefly and its Asian appropriation all over again.

Sigh. But yes, Nathan Fillion’s Dogberry is delightful.

Questions About Star Trek Into Darkness

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(Pretty much my expression after the movie.)

So on the upside, Star Trek Into Darkness did a lot to win me over to the cult of Benedict Cumberbatch. But … (spoilers, and many questions):

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The Pretty One: “Something for the Ladies.”

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So this was irritating. Last night I saw The Pretty One, Jenée LaMarque’s California version of Amélie (sweet, funny, a feature-length Anthropologie commercial; not the irritating part). The screening, at the Tribeca Film Festival, was followed by a Q&A (also not the irritating part), with the (pregnant) writer-director, the star (Zoe Kazan), many of the other cast members, a handful of producers and other crew members, including the costume designer. Kazan, in heels and a Heidi coronet-braid, ran the microphone back and forth down the conga line of cast and crew to make sure everyone could answer audience questions.

Also not the irritating part: Of the impressive dozen-person lineup on stage, about half of them, including the main creative types and at least some of the money types, were women. The film was about a woman, trying to figure out this whole life/family/romance/career/friendship thing. (Note where “romance” came in that list - central but not exclusive or even primary.) The Tribeca employee moderating the event and asking the bulk of the questions was a woman.

This was the irritating part: When the Tribeca moderator eventually asked a question about the romance in the film, she felt the need to excuse it, or excuse her asking of it, or something: “It’s something for the ladies,” she added. Right. The romance. Something for us ladies, because the rest of the film about figuring out how to be a sister and a daughter and a friend and a twin who may or may not be “the pretty one” obviously wasn’t “for the ladies.” The lady writer-director, lady star playing a lady main character, lady producer and lady costume designer weren’t there for the ladies and hadn’t said anything up to that point that could be “for the ladies.”

I’m being harsh. I’m sure it was just filler talk, one of those things you say when you’re on stage with a number of semi-famous and/or accomplished people and nervous about sounding smart with them. But it was still pretty depressing. Romance is only the province of “the ladies,” really? And apparently you can make an entire movie about what it actually means to be a lady, with ladies in front of and behind the camera, but unless it has a romantic subplot, none of it is actually going to be for, about or by us.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. Probably my favorite romantic comedy of the last few years, starring: Frances McDormand, being awesome and broke and hungry and snarky and wise. Ciaran Hinds, proving that an older and thicker Captain Wentworth is still hot (at least until he turns into Bill Clinton). Amy Adams, wearing great clothes as she does her adorably ditzy thing.  Lee Pace, whose character I largely forget but who plays the younger romantic hothead hero with dash and aplomb.

I was reminded of it tonight, at an event where my every attempt to pick up a plate was foiled by something more interesting happening; there’s a running gag in the movie about Miss Pettigrew never managing to eat anything, like a reverse Brad Pitt from Ocean’s 11

It’s a wonderful, fizzy period costume piece with just enough sadness to make the happy ending earned. I love the set piece near the end, where McDormand’s Miss Pettigrew and Hinds’ Joe reminisce about the people they lost during the last war and brace for the new one, or the way the movie cares as much about the relationship between Miss Pettigrew and Adams’ flighty, well-meaning chorus-girl as it does about any of the romantic exploits. It’s worth a rewatch on the next snowy Saturday afternoon.

The Invisible War

“Those cases weren’t given to women [investigators]. … We were too sympathetic.”

The Invisible War is one of those documentaries that are hard to decide to sit down and watch. It’s about rape in the military, and systematic coverups of rape in the military. It has lots of women facing the camera and telling horrific stories, and sometimes crying, and quietly talking about their depression and their post-traumatic stress and their suicide attempts.

It’s full of infuriating details: more than one woman says that when she went to her commanding officer and reported an attack, she was charged with adultery – not because she was married, but because her rapist was.

One thing that I thought director Kirby Dick did especially well was defining the crimes in his film as violence, human-on-human brutality, disassociated from any relationship to consensual sex. The film is largely framed by the story of Kori Cioca, a Coast Guard veteran whose attacker dislocated her jaw before he raped her. Years later, Cioca waits in vain for the Veterans Affairs office to respond to her claim and fund surgery to treat her. Her story makes it more difficult to sweep the issues away as just a rape problem, just a woman problem, just a sex problem – it’s none of those. One U.S. military officer brutally attacked another, resulting in a lifetime of physical problems, and the U.S. military responded by punishing the victim.

For all of its justified outrage, The Invisible War is effectively low-key – it doesn’t try too hard to tug at your heartstrings, it doesn’t embellish its interviews with swelling music. There are moments of humor, if usually of the bleak variety. (The military’s victim-blaming “prevention” ads, which warned women not to walk around bases without a buddy, got disbelieving laughs at my screening.) It’s a sad and angry film, but not an unrelentingly grim one.

I also saw watched the Oscar-nominated documentary in one of the best possible environments: with an audience in New York, with a panel discussion afterwards, including the director and Jessica Hinves, one of the survivors interviewed in the film. She was funny and cheerful and poised, and quoted Martin Luther King, Jr. when an audience member asked if she ever “thought about taking justice into [her] own hands.” The panel discussion was a reassuring end to the movie in some ways – we the audience could have a cathartic moment, applauding the survivors and expressing our outrage to people we knew shared that outrage. I’m glad I saw The Invisible War that way, and that I saw it at all – I’m not sure I would have picked it out to watch at home, on my own, as a break at the end of the workday or over the weekend. But it is very, very worth seeing.

Katharine Hepburn and movie PR of a bygone era

"Advertise for ‘Iron Petticoats.’" "Use a double of Katharine Hepburn dressed in a Russian flyer’s uniform—provided one is available from local costumer." And my favorite, "Sponsor a Red Garter Contest in which prizes are offered for the prettiest, most beruffled garters made by feminine newspaper readers." — Some of the best suggestions in a two-page pamphlet MGM put together for movie theater owners in 1956, to help them sell the unhappy Hepburn-Bob Hope collaboration The Iron Petticoat.

This pamphlet was my favorite part of the New York Public Library’s “Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen.” The exhibition has a pretty great collection of trousers and dresses and the awful Maoist pantsuit things Hepburn decided to show off in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, plus set pictures and posters advertising her various plays and films. The show is almost exclusively devoted to Hepburn’s fashion sense and relationships with designers, with a weird lack of biographical information or context. (Spencer Tracy: A dude who shared the screen when Hepburn wore nine of these outfits.) But I was engrossed, more by the evidence of how the old Hollywood worked than by the clothes themselves. Go see it.

"It should not, after all, be a big deal that movies like “Bridesmaids” or “The Hunger Games” exist, perhaps because it should have been a bigger deal when such movies didn’t. In 1985, the comic-strip artist and memoirist Alison Bechdel first formulated what has since become known as the Bechdel test, which assesses movies according to a three-step formula. To pass the test, a film “1. has to have at least two [named] women in it 2. Who talk to each other 3. About something besides a man.” It is a stunningly simple criterion, and stunning how few movies manage to fulfill it. (Though a visit to bechdeltest.com suggests that things have been improving recently.)"

— So much to love in this A.O. Scott essay.