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Non-Review Review: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is not so much a set of stories about the Old West, more a set of stories about the stories that are told about the Old West.

To be fair, the anthology film wears this premise on its sleeve. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is by its nature an omnibus of short stories, drawing its audience’s attention to the format through the framing device of an anonymous hand leafing gently through an old hardcover book of short stories. Even within the individual stories, the Coen Brothers frequently nest smaller and more intricate narratives; whether stories shared at dinner, great works recited for an enchanted audience, or even just strangers in a stage coach making awkward conversation with one another.

The rifle man.

In the film’s final segment, The Mortal Remains, the self-described “distractor” Thigpen explains that he distracts his quarry through stories. “People can’t get enough of them,” he assures his audience. “Because people connect the stories to themselves, I suppose. And we all love hearing about ourselves. So long as the people in the stories are us… but not us.” In its own weird way, positioned at the tail end of the narrative, Thigpen seems to offer something of a thesis statement for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a story about stories. In particular, a story about certain types of stories.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is decidedly uneven, as anthology films tend to be. That said, the quality is high enough (and the stories disparate enough) that it’s easy to imagine that each story of the six might be someone‘s favourite. The Coen Brothers very cannily and very astutely ensure a great variety in tone across the six installments, which range from gleefully nihilistic, to sombre and withdrawn, to eerie and uncanny. However, they are connected by a series of recurring preoccupations about life of the frontier and man’s awkward relationship to both that wilderness and his fellow man.

No need to make a song and dance about it.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is not consistent enough to rank among the Coens’ best work. While the movie maintains a consistent perspective and philosophical vantage point across its two-hour-and-ten-minute runtime, the individual stories vary so wildly in terms of aesthetic and rhythm that the film never quite coheres as well as it might. At the same time, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs contains enough delightful details in its smaller moments that linger, suggesting that the film might best be remembered as a collection of inspired moments rather than as a satisfying whole.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is not so much a ballad as a concept album.

Don’t leave him hanging.

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Star Trek: Voyager – The Haunting of Deck Twelve (Review)

It seems strange that Neelix was not a larger part of Star Trek: Voyager.

To be fair, Neelix never disappeared into the ensemble to the same degree as characters like Chakotay, Kim and Tuvok. However, the series often struggled with how best to approach the character and how to make him work. It is notable that the production team went to the effort of writing Neelix off the show shortly before the seventh season finale, sending him to live with a colony of (very far from home) Talaxians in Homestead and consigning him to a cameo in Endgame. The character was often just there, his role hazy and undefined.

A Briefing With Death!
Errr, I mean, Neelix.

Of course, there were reasons for this. Neelix had been drafted on to the crew as an expert on the Delta Quadrant in Caretaker, and it made sense that this role would become increasingly redundant as time went on. By Fair Trade, Neelix was largely redundant, his knowledge exhausted. More than that, the early seasons of Voyager anchored Neelix’s character development to an abusive relationship with two-year-old. The toxicity of Neelix’s relationship with Kes in episodes like PhageTwisted and Parturition made it hard to invest in Neelix as a character worthy of attention or effort.

However, across the seven seasons of Voyager, there is a strange sense that Neelix is perhaps the single character most perfectly adapted to Voyager. He is the character who has developed in the direction that is perhaps most compatible with what Voyager has become, both in how it tells its stories and what it uses those stories to talk about. More than any other character on Voyager, Neelix is the character with the deepest roots in Delta Quadrant history and the character who is most firmly committed to oral traditions of storytelling, both recurring motifs within Voyager.

Smoke and mirrors.

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Irony, Thy Name Is Gump: “Forrest Gump” and the Art of Earnest Irony…

Forrest Gump is a movie that I’ve never quite been able to wrap my head around.

On one level, it’s an incredibly sacchrine and simplistic exploration of the first fifty years of the so-called “American Century”, the turbulent second half of the twentieth century as navigated by a dim-wit with nothing but good intentions to guide his way. The eponymous character floats on the winds of history like a feather, a metaphor that bookends the film in a manner that is incredibly cloying. There is something undeniably condescending and overly simplistic in the notion of history in Forrest Gump, as a force that sweeps up men and nations without any rhyme or reason.

As such, it’s easy to be wary of Forrest Gump and its approach to history. Forrest Gump presents a very clean and sanitised accounting of the second half of the twentieth century, one in which there is absolutely nothing happening beneath the surface of American life, and in which there is no point even attempting to comprehend the myriad of forces at work on the country and its inhabitants. In this way, Forrest Gump plays as a trite moral fable. There is no point in even trying to understand the chaos that is the modern world. It is enough to be decent and oblivious, and things will work out fine.

At the same time, there has always been something lurking at the edge of the frame in Forrest Gump, beneath all the folksy trappings and the simplistic history lessons. It is too much to suggest that Forrest Gump has an edge, but it certainly has a point. Forrest Gump in many ways presents an avatar of the final fifty years of the twentieth century in its central character. The eponymous character is an embodiment of a certain American ideal, a personification of the American public that has been bewildered and confused by the speed and pace with which history seemed to move in that turbulent half-century.

With that in mind, there is something vaguely self-aware in Forrest Gump, something that perhaps simmers beneath the surface of the film. Gump is a likable and charming protagnonist, brilliantly brought to life by Tom Hanks in a performance that (deservedly) won him his second Best Actor Oscar. However, there has always been something uncanny in the film’s presentation of Gump as the character most ideally suited to the twentieth century, in contrast to supporting characters like Lieutenant Dan or Jennie. Forrest Gump is a movie that argues the only way to survive the twentieth century is as a fool and an idiot.

There’s always seemed something very wry and very cynical in that idea, buried beneath the film’s cotton-candy exterior.

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Characters in Search of an Ending: Prestige Television and Literary Adaptation

The possibilities of prestige television seem limitless.

This is obvious just looking at the creative talent embracing the opportunities of the medium. Director Jane Campion observed, “The really clever people used to do film. Now, the really clever people do television.” It seems fair. Woody Allen has a television series at Amazon. Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon headlined Big Little Lies. Cary Fukunaga directed all eight episodes of the first season of True Detective, starring Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey. Quentin Tarantino reflected, “If ever there’s been a chance for somebody to truly do a filmed novel, it’s in this area.”

There is a sense that prestige television has come to occupy the space that used to be given to mid-tier mid-range movies, thrillers and character studies that were too small to compete with the blockbusters but also weren’t an easy fit for the traditional Oscar season. Television is arguably the place to go for smart character-driven narratives telling adult stories in a restrained and considered manner. It is an interesting shift that has in some ways redefined the relationship between film and television.

Part of this has seen an increased emphasis on book-to-television adaptations. In the past, the default path for audio-visual adaptations of successful novels has been from the page to the silver screen, cinematic takes on iconic and memorable pieces of fiction. After all, countless Best Picture winners have been adaptations of popular novels or short stories; No Country for Old Men, Million Dollar Baby, The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, The English Patient, Forrest Gump, Silence of the Lambs. A lot of blockbusters are inspired by comic books or young adult novels.

However, as televisual storytelling has grown more complex and ambitious, producers and writers have increasingly looked to the storytelling opportunities afforded by the smaller screen. Television offers more space for writers and directors to tell their stories, to expand out novels with complex mythologies or epic scope. The gaps that had existed between film and television, in terms of budget and talent, are rapidly closing. It is entirely possible for a televisual adaptation of a beloved novel to have a list of credible writers and directors, and recognisable on-screen talent.

Still, as much as this shift might represent an important step forward in the development of television as an artform, it also illustrates some of the problems that still exist in how producers approach the medium. While television shows can do a lot of things that novels can do, they still struggle in one respect. Television shows have yet to truly embrace the power of brevity and the weight of a proper ending.

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Final Crisis (Review/Retrospective)

This post is part of the DCAU fortnight, a series of articles looking at the Warner Brothers animations featuring DC’s iconic selection of characters. I’ll be looking at movies and episodes and even some of the related comic books. Later on today, we’ll be reviewing Superman/Batman: Apocalypse, so I thought I might take a look at a comic book tale which was heavy on Superman, Darkseid and Batman…

This epic elegy for a doomed civilisation, declining from splendor to squalor. This Final Crisis. This last ditch attempt to save creation itself from a loathing and greed beyond measure.

– Grant Morrison outlines the whole point of the book, in case you weren’t paying attention… in a narration which deserves to be read in the most pompously ridiculous style possible

Look, I could hitch a ride back with you. I have a real talent for gritty drama no one’s ever thought to exploit.

– Merryman makes a pitch for “relevance” in the hopes of escaping comic book “limbo”

Destruction or creation. Everything or nothing. A universe full or a universe empty. Life or anti-life. Grant Morrison certainly lives up to his reputation as a frustrating and challenging author – is Final Crisis the statement of a genre looking to make peace with itself, or nonsensical Silver Age surrealism repackaged for a modern world? Is it pretentious or profound? Insightful or devoid of interest? Can’t it be both, or are these mutually exclusive states?

We all knew Obama was Superman…

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So, You Want to Read Comics, Eh?

We’re a bit late to the party, but this week we’ll be celebrating the 75th anniversary of DC Comics, with a look at the medium, the company and the characters in a selection of bonus features running Monday through Friday. This is one of those articles. Feel free to look up the rest, they’re fully of nerdy goodness.

So, it’s the end of our week-long look at the comic book medium and what a week it’s been. We’ve looked at grown-up comics and superhero comics, the best of DC comics and the quirks of the medium. So I hope you might forgive the excess if I write this last blog post from an all-together more person perspective. I like the funny books, I do. I think the medium has huge potential to tell stories in a fascinating format, unconfined by budget or scope. I am fascinated by the intertextual elements, the notion that all of these different and unique titles can be drawn together as part of one giant meta-story. But what I really have difficulty understanding is why the medium insists upon making itself so damn inaccessible.

Sometimes Superman just likes be a douche...

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