Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Avengers: a non-spoilery consideration of its pacing issues

This isn't a spoiler; it's the premise: The Avengers are a bunch of super-heroes that team up to fight global threats. That means the structure of the film is pretty reasonable:

Act One: In which a Threat emerges and some characters are introduced
Act Two (First Half): In which we witness a series of decidedly awkward encounters between characters
Act Two (Second Half): In which some stuff happens, and we observe the aftermath of that stuff.
Act Three: In which some further stuff occurs.

Here's my review of the movie:
The Avengers (2012) ***** Holy. Shit. Pacing issues don't detract from splendid characterisations and great action scenes. The bar is raised.
It's in the first half of Act Two that the majority of those pacing issues occur. And I think it comes down to this: the role of an antagonist is to force characters to change. Now, I think the antagonist in The Avengers (who, now I think about it, could be considered to be Nick Fury ... but that's a discussion for another day) does force every single character to change - and in ways that really reinforce one of the film's main interests: the nature of teamwork.

However, when you're watching it, notice what the antagonist does and doesn't do during the first half of Act Two. Ask yourself what their goals are, and whether they achieve them. Ask yourself: what is the immediate threat that the Avengers are dealing with? That's certainly what I'll be doing during my second and third viewing of the film - and it's the answers to those questions that created the intermittent bursts of slow pacing for me.

... Also: it's one of the funniest blockbusters I've seen in years.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

I'm going to make a submission on the MMP review

Here's what I need to think about:
  • The 5 percent party vote threshold for a party to be eligible for allocation of list seats;
  • The one electorate seat threshold for a party to be eligible for allocation of list seats;
  • The effects of population change on the ratio of electorate seats to list seats;
  • The effect of a party’s candidates winning more seats than the party would be entitled;
  • The capacity of a person to be both a constituency candidate and a list candidate;
  • A party’s ability to determine the order of candidates on its party list and the inability of voters to rank list candidates in order of preference;
  • The capacity of a list MP to stand as a candidate in a by-election;

The deadline for making a submission is 31 May 2012.
Make a submission at

I've collected a bunch of links that make for relevant reading. I'll work through these over the next week:

Sunday, April 22, 2012

I’m rewatching Mulholland Drive (2001) ****

I really didn't like Mulholland Drive when I saw it at its premiere at the NZ Film Festival in 2001/2002, and this is the first time I’ve been back to David Lynch's film.

So I’m coming at this (very literal) review as someone who’s seen it before, has utterly vague memories of how the story plays out (there’s a blue box and a crazy director and a Lost Highway ‘reality’ twist in it), and who remembers the audience (and me) being profoundly alienated by the movie after it finished. What you're about to read are my real-time reactions, as I re-watch the film.

The movie starts with an upbeat highly stylized green-screen dance number. I have absolutely no memory of this. And no idea about how it thematically relates to the rest of the story. I do notice however, that for some reason it starts to become disturbing after about a minute – but I have no idea why (there are some discordant notes in the music, and possibly some subliminal images in the background, and – possibly – some disturbing facial expressions or body language from some of the dancers).

When we cut into the movie proper, I expect to see Naomi Watts (newly arrived to LA) leaving LAX in the middle of the day with an elderly couple: that’s my memory of how the movie starts.

Instead, we cut to the middle of the night and a violent noir based car crash and hunt for a missing person. Who is the beautiful woman I remember first appearing in the middle of the film. This stuff is perfectly executed: there’s a Lynchian off-centre quality to it, but it’s tight, makes me car about the as-yet-unnamed character, sets up a world surrounding her, and even has a lovely ending (showing how she plausibly sneaks into an empty house).

And from there we cut to something I also remembered happening in the middle of the film – so I completely throw out my assumptions that I have any idea what’s going to happen next – another perfectly executed sequence in which a man sitting in a diner describes a nightmare he had, and then we see him experience it in real life.

There are lots of nice techniques used in this ‘real nightmare’ sequence: camera angles gradually rising above the head of the man having the nightmare (to put him in a weak, vulnerable position); a threatening hum growing louder in the score; dialogue seeming to cut out as the panic in the scene increases (very reminiscent of the arrival of David Bowie in Fire Walk with Me).

At the moment, none of these three things seem to have anything to do with each other. My working hypothesis, then, is that Mulholland Drive is a movie of very cool, slightly-connected short films.

And now, 18 minutes into the film, Naomi Watts (who plays what I remember to be the main character) shows up.

Over the course of the next 50 minutes, the movie continues to present what appears to be great self-contained short films (a really funny casting meeting between a film director and two Mafioso; a series of pratfalls involving a hitman with really bad luck) – but we keep cutting back to Naomi Watts (Betsie), who is now interacting with the beautiful car-crash woman (Rita). The tone of their scenes and plot details that emerge establish Mulholland Drive fairly firmly as a noir (a bag full of thousands of dollars; a beautiful woman with amnesia; the sense that powerful forces are hunting for them).

However, there’s another tone that’s being layered in as well: horror. It comes from the scenes that surround the Betsie-Rita plot; from music cues; from events that happen to Betsie (a possibly psychic woman delivers a dire warning). In the cleverest use of subtext to deliver horror, Betsie and Rita have a conversation in the same diner where the man from the start of the movie relayed his nightmare. Without using any overt camera angles or musical cues, Lynch is effortlessly able to create tension – and the dread that the mysterious figure from the man’s nightmare will suddenly appear here.

There’s also the subtlest (and, then, increasingly slightly-less-subtle) hints of romance flickering to life between Betsie and Rita. I remember this becomes more important as the film goes on.

All the while, though, the film is knitting together the ‘short films’ into an over-arching plot: the unlucky hitman is (a) possibly working for the two Mafioso and (b) searching for Rita. The film director (Adam) has been forced to cast a woman in his film – a woman who looks a lot like Betsie. If he does cast Betsie, however, that will be the wrong woman – and very bad things will happen.

It’s the anticipation of that that’s keeping me interested in the film at the moment. The rest of it is good: coherent, funny, idiosyncratic and sexy – but I want to see how the Adam and Betsie sides of the plot collide.

And all the while, I’m remembering that at some point in the future there’s going to be a scene in a nightclub, and that the consequences of that scene will totally shift the tone and storyline of the film. I’m fascinated to know when that’ll happen, how much story will be left afterward (an epilogue? an entire act?), and whether I’ll be invested in that ‘reality twist’. I can certainly remember feeling betrayed or alienated by it last time I saw it.

Anyway, back in the moment: the film spends the next 20 minutes directly addressing all of the questions I’m interested in, and in a really fascinating and oblique way. There’s a audition, yes – but it’s both a fake-out (in that it’s revealed to be a different movie than Adam’s) and filled with really interesting subtext: about exploitation in Hollywood, about the different ways performance can be used to affect the emotional presentation of a script, and it also demonstrates that Betty actually has talent – something the film to date has been a little shy about dealing with, preferring to show her as a na├»ve country girl who might be a big shot in her hometown but who is out of her depth in LA.

(Speaking of which, Mulholland Drive also shows us a lot of different economic and geographic facets of LA. It has a real sense of place and feels complex.)

The Adam and Betty meeting also doesn’t go how I expected (instead of a sitcom misunderstanding there’s a complete capitulation), but it gives us something better: an attraction or connection between Adam and Betty that I want to see more of.

And from there, the movie hits its strongest streak of sustained narrative: following Betty and Rita through an investigation, a break-in, a discovery, sex and love, returned memories, a surreal performance, a disappearance, an amazing performance of Roy Orbison’s Crying (which really feels like we’re saying goodbye to our characters and the status quo – seriously, this is a transcendent moment in the film) and finally the truth about the blue box.

It’s during this streak that a bunch of overt optical effects start getting used: multiple images of Betty and Rita layered over each other while they panic; some odd lens flare en route to the performance; an almost Evil Dead camera push-in outside the mysterious Silencio club.

And then the twist.

I actually wish I was struggling to interpret what was going on: is this the afterlife? A flashback? Did Betty never really exist at all? Was the first 110 minutes of the film just a dream?

But at the moment, eight minutes in to the revelation of what’s on the other side of the blue box, the interpretation seems pretty obvious: what we’ve just watch is an idealized version of Diane’s love and life, and it’s either a dream or the final moments before she shoots herself.

However, rather than feeling betrayed by that (as I now remember I did during my first viewing), I can make the argument that the structure of the film so far has prepared me for this. I’ve spent a lot of time feeling like I was watching a series of short films. This section is also like a short film, but with a massive switch in tone: from horror-noir with a dash of romance to a piece about depression with a dash of the craziness and jealousy of a failed relationship.

(And to be fair, the film does lay in a lot of hints throughout the first hour and a half: among others, Betty describes the apartment she’s staying in as a “dream place”; when she arrives in LA – and there’s a lot of cute dialogue like that.)
The biggest problem with this “It was all a dream” structure is that the storylines I was invested in and wanted to see closure in won’t happen. I’ll never find out how Adam resolves his problems with the Mafia (although I can assume that everything ended happily after he chose ‘the right girl’ for his film). The unlucky hitman may not have a place in this new reality, so he’s a tangent. The man with the nightmare either doesn’t relate to the film or becomes a massive commentary and early hint about the nature of the film. This is a variant of what I call the ‘John Locke’ problem (from Lost): we think we’re following one character around, and then it turns out we’re actually following another.

Now, as the film continues, and shows me the close-to-the-starting shot of a car driving driving up a hill at night. What is Mulholland Drive trying to do now? Loop us back to the start of the film but with Betty/Diane in the car instead of Rita/Camilla?

No. It’s giving us a magical experience of Diane and Rita/Camilla apparently in love and going to a party hosted by Adam, … and then taking it all away from us in a wave of jealousy, loss, insecurity, not fitting in, barely repressed anger.

And then what the fuck?

The film cuts away from the party – an incredible hard-cut on Diane’s utter anger and the first frame of an emotional clusterfuck – into … another reality? That’s my first thought: that now we’re in the ‘real world’, one where Betty/Diane has become (or was all along) a hooker we saw incidentally in a previous scene, hanging out with the hitman.

And this hard-cut has taken us into the diner where the nightmare took place again – instantly raising a sensation of impending dread …

… this is, actually, pretty great stuff …

But it’s not another reality – it’s a flash-forward, to Diane putting a hit on Camilla.

Which gives me everything I need to (roughly) figure out the film’s true structure:
  • When we first enter/wake into this ugly new reality (after opening the blue box), that’s at the end of the timeline
  • Dianne and Camilla are friends
  • Camilla leaves Dianne
  • Dianne discovers Camilla is dating Adam, and that those two are getting married
  • Dianne orders the hit
  • Dianne, depressed (this is where we first switch into her reality)
  • The hit happens (perhaps it’s the failed murder attempt at the beginning?)
  • Dianne kills herself after being haunted.

I was going to rewatch the last 20 minutes of the film, to confirm this, but while I was putting the finishing touches on this post, Film Critic Hulk did it for me, in a great piece from someone who’s watching the film 11 times:

This is a insightful critique that confirms a lot of what I thought, but it's also given me a lot more to think about (including the role of the Cowboy). To my surprise, I now think I'll be rewatching this film again.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

What if we treated political parties like short-term projects (with a clear end-point)?

The default assumption is that a political party is a permanent part of the political landscape until it:

  • bleeds away enough voters to not exist anymore
  • collapses due to internal dysfunction
  • can't survive the de-election or loss of its leader

In an MMP environment, do we have to have permanent political parties? Especially if the results of the MMP review (which I'll contribute to soon) mean that the threshold for election is lowered from 5% of the vote to 2-3%.

Under those conditions, I think you could create a party that had a single clear objective (Write off all student loans; Implement an emissions trading scheme; whatever). A single objective allows you to promote your ideas clearly; it gives you something specific to achieve if you're negotiating to form a coalition government; it gives voters a clear sense of your decision-making priorities and what you're likely to do in government.(*)

(*) Well, it does as long as your project-based party clearly outlines 
what its principles are by which they will make decisions.

A project-based party would then exist in one of two states:

  • Dynamic: it's promoting its ideas, getting into government, implementing its ideas
  • Static: it's achieved it's ideas and is now sticking around to either consolidate its ideas into the political landscape or because it likes the idea of staying in power for the sake of it.

There are two advantages to a project-based party:

  • It's clear what the party stands for
  • It can advocate for ideas that are more extreme (shifting the Overton window).

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Rewatching West Wing Season 1

"One victory in a year stinks in the life of an administration."
                                                                Toby Ziegler

I used to think of The West Wing as a show about political geniuses who were inspiring in the way they overcame all obstacles to advance a progressive agenda.

One thing that my rewatch of the show is hammering home is how not true that is. Really, The West Wing is about a bunch of very smart characters who are in a little bit over their heads. They understand most of the rules of the game, but they don't have a plan. Instead they get distracted by the details, the everyday distractions, and the personal scandals they (often inadvertantly) create.

By the time episode 19 ('Let Bartlet be Bartlet'; the source of the Toby Ziegler quote, above) rolls around, we've seen one genuine achievement (getting a nominee onto the Supreme Court), and two or three minor legislative achievements (including a weak gun-control bill). The team is disenchanted with politics and their ability to make a difference and stay true to their values: a disillusionment that's been growing over the course of the series to date.

But at this point the series turns everything around and fires up the team. It's a really stirring  moment, and I'm looking forward to seeing what comes next - mostly because I know it doesn't last: Season 5 (after the re-election) is defined by a sense of 'drift' and aimlessness in the administration; Leo's return to the staff later on is marked by him setting up a chart identifying what they want to achieve in the time the team has remaining in the White House (a focus that is abandoned as the show continues). Even in the turnaround that's shown in this episode, there's no sense of objectives being set - as a result, the show seems to exist to illustrate various aspects of Washington DC political life, rather than show how a team advances their agenda.

However, these last episodes of Season 1 and opening episodes of Season 2 are great, as they remind us why these characters are an impressive team we want to root for.