Filming everything

The Jinx: HBO, 2015

Behind the Curve – The Jinx (Chapter 5: Family Values) (2015)

If you haven’t been keeping up at home, know that this is the episode where things get really interesting. I don’t want to give anything away, but let’s just say that the filmmakers find something. An important something. And thank God the cameras were rolling when they found it, because they might not have been if I were making the film.

Up until the end of episode 4, The Jinx had been a fairly straight-forward, subject-driven documentary. It mainly presented the known facts behind Robert Durst’s situation and the feelings of the people around him. There was no hint of the crew appearing onscreen as characters until the very end of episode 4, when the man interviewing Durst suggests they take a break. After that, we feel focus shift in a major way that continues through the next episode. I wouldn’t say episode 5 is heavily focused on the filmmakers, but they certainly become major characters in the continuing story of Robert Durst.

The Jinx: HBO, 2015
The Jinx: HBO, 2015

We see the crew making phone calls, having meetings and reaching out to persons of interest. It’s all pretty standard stuff when it comes to making a documentary, but what’s impressive is that they had the foresight to film it all. And with pretty good audio, too.

Another large section of the episode revolves around an excursion to Time Square, which I’m almost certain was supposed to be just a B-roll shoot. However a handful of unscripted moments, where the camera and microphone were not turned off, turn that segment into an major turning point in the story.

Understand that if they hadn’t found that thing I hinted at, The Jinx could very well have been a purely subject-focused documentary. It was impossible for the filmmakers to predict that they’d have to be onscreen in the final piece. Those shots of the crew could just have been taking up space on somebody’s hard drive.

The Jinx: HBO, 2015
The Jinx: HBO, 2015

It just goes to show you: if you’re making a documentary, film absolutely everything. Film yourself. Film your friends. Film your cameraman if you can pull that off. You’ll have an obnoxious amount of footage to piece through, but you never know which bits you’ll need to pull the story together.

 

Coming up:

  • Movie: Deadpool (2016) – Monday, March 7
  • Game: Lego Lord of the Rings (Traveller’s Tales, 2013) – Monday, March 14
  • Documentary: An Honest Liar (2014) – Monday, March 21
  • Book: One Day I Will Write About This Place: A Memoir (Binyavanga Wainaina, 2012) – Monday, March 28
  • Wild Card! – Monday, May 30

Part of the story

The Jinx: HBO, 2015

Behind the Curve – The Jinx (Chapter 4: The State of Texas vs. Robert Durst) (2015)

There’s a school of thought in documentary filmmaking that says the filmmakers should not be a part of the story. They should remain as invisible and unobtrusive as possible. It’s a philosophy I don’t necessarily agree with, at least not in a hard-line kind of way. I think it really depends on what kind of story you’re trying to tell.

Roger & Me: Dog Eat Dog Films, 1989
Roger & Me: Dog Eat Dog Films, 1989

When I was at UpNorth Media Center in Traverse City, I worked on several documentary pieces on poverty and economics. After on shoddy first cut, my supervisor actually encouraged me to put more of myself in the piece. He pointed me towards Michael Moore’s Roger & Me as an example. It’s an excellent example of how an artist can naturally incorporate himself into the story he’s trying to tell. Michael Moore isn’t a distraction when he speaks directly to us in Roger & Me. It works because his personal experiences seem to crystalize the story he’s trying to tell. He’s our guide through a broken, down-on-its luck Flint (which back then was only being poisoned economically).

Of course, that approach isn’t appropriate for every documentary. There are times when having the filmmakers onscreen would seriously detract from the piece. For example, it would make no sense for the makers of Dinosaur 13 to insert themselves. They were telling a story that happened decades ago, and none of the filmmakers were there.

In general, I like when the filmmakers put themselves in the documentary to some extent. I believe it adds personality to the film and prevents what I call “History Channel syndrome.” That is, it saves a documentary (which should be an entertaining story before anything else) from turning into a dry regurgitation of facts, figures and opinions.

The Jinx: HBO, 2015
The Jinx: HBO, 2015

But like every supposed “rule” in art, this is just another suggestion for filmmakers to take or leave. That’s why it bothers me when people make blanket statements like “all video games need X” or “no movie should have Y.” I want to tell them that they’re missing the point. Art is all about pushing the boundaries and seeing what works. Any piece of advice you’ve ever heard can be safely ignored if the artist is skilled and experienced enough to make the piece work without it.

There’s no such thing as rules in art. It’s like Pirate’s Code in that they’re more like guidelines.

 

Coming up:

  • Movie: Lazer Team (2016 – I can break my own rules!) – Thursday, February 18
  • Book: Wool (Hugh Howey, 2011) – Monday, February 22
  • Documentary: Cowspiracy: The Sustainability Secret (2014) – Thursday, February 25
  • Show: The Jinx (Chapter 5: Family Values) (2015) – Monday, February 29
  • Game: Lego Lord of the Rings (Traveller’s Tales, 2013) – Monday, March 14

Organized crime in popular culture

The Godfather: Paramount Pictures, 1972

Behind the Curve – The Jinx (Chapter 3: The Gangster’s Daughter) (2015)

This episode of The Jinx concerns Robert Durst’s friendship and possible murder of Susan Berman. Susan Berman is the daughter of a Las Vegas mob boss, which is my slim justification for focusing this article on our culture’s relationship with organized crime.

Normal people (those who are just trying to get by, not be murdered and eke out a decent living in our unforgiving, capitalistic society) tend to agree that crime is not a good thing. In fact it’s often a very bad thing. Humanity has worked very hard to create a society based upon rules and laws. So when some jerk goes and ignores those rules, we typically view him with contempt and mutter something disparaging under our breath.

The Jinx: HBO, 2015
The Jinx: HBO, 2015

But I rarely see that reaction when it comes to organized crime. For some reason we give the mob a free pass, at least in popular culture. We don’t see mobsters as contemptible, but as stylish and stoic tough guys with a code of honor and respect. But that’s not really the case. In reality mobsters are amoral psychotics, just as depraved as the next criminal. Perhaps even more so, because you know at some point they sat down and decided they comfortable enough with killing to make it a career. Whereas for other murders it’s just a hobby.

Susan Berman idolized he mobste papa and wrote books about him. El Chapo, the notorious Mexican druglord who escaped from prison, became a minor celebrity. Rolling Stone even printed an interview! Why aren’t we more iffy about glorifying professional murderers?

It kind of reminds me of our depiction of pirates. Whenever pirates are depicted in popular culture, they’re usually the good guys. We admire their roguish charm and rebellious spirit. But historically, pirates were monsters. They were dirty, malnourished criminals who’d pillage and rape innocent people. We gloss over that in modern stories (it certainly would have changed the tone of Pirates of the Caribbean), a tendency I always attributed to the passage of time. Can you imagine if someone from the 1700s watched Pirates of the Caribbean? It would be like someone today watching a movie about Johnny Depp playing a lovable, bumbling ISIS fighter.

And organized crime is still very much a contemporary problem. Sure, mobsters are no longer the societal threat they were in the 20s, when Al Capone basically owned Chicago. But gangsters still murder with the best of them.

Al Capone mugshot, from FBI.gov
Al Capone mugshot, from FBI.gov

Perhaps it has something to do with the mob’s rise to power in the 20s alongside Prohibition. Most Americans agree it was stupid to outlaw alcohol, and the mob said “too right!” and helped us “fight the power,” as it were. Well, technically they were capitalizing on the circumstances to gain power. But they had booze, so beggars can’t be choosers.

Does are culture retain fond memories of mob-run speakeasies and bootlegging? Is that why organized crime gets respect? It’s hard to say. But let me go on the record as saying that I love all members of organized crime, so there’s absolutely no reason to “whack” me.

 

Coming up:

  • Movie: National Treasure: Book of Secrets (2007) – Thursday, February 4
  • Game: Gears of War 2 (Epic Games, 2008) – Monday, February 8
  • Documentary: Meet the Patels (2014) – Thursday, February 11
  • Show: The Jinx (Chapter 4: The State of Texas vs. Robert Durst) (2015) – Monday, February 15
  • Book: Wool (Hugh Howey, 2011) – Monday, February 22

To be Evil

Star Wars: Lucasfilm, 1977

Behind the Curve – The Jinx (Chapter 2: Poor Little Rich Boy) (2015)

I was just listening to a very interesting episode of Radiolab concerning the concept of evil and what makes people do bad things. They come up with interesting answers to that question and I highly recommend checking out the podcast, but today I’d like to talk specifically about the affect of evil on storytelling.

The Jinx: HBO, 2015
The Jinx: HBO, 2015

Since I was a little kid, I’ve always liked the good guys. I’m someone who’d rather go as Luke Skywalker for Halloween rather than Darth Vader. But I’m the minority. Generally, people like villains. They’re more interested in evil characters like Vader, the Joker and Robert Durst. And I can’t blame them. Villains tend to be more nuanced and complicated than the heroic meat-head they’re pitted against.

Case in point: Batman. It’s true that most big superheroes are defined by their villains, but Batman seems completely upstaged by them. People aren’t watching The Dark Knight over and over again because they care about Bruce Wayne’s romantic struggles. No, we watch The Dark Knight for one reason: the Joker. Unlike Batman, the Joker is charming, funny and completely engaging. Mystery shrouds his past. His actions, though alien to us, are guided by a twisted yet interesting philosophy.

The Dark Knight: Legendary Pictures, 2008
The Dark Knight: Legendary Pictures, 2008

And they’re proactive actions. The Joke initiates events, whereas Batman simply reacts to the situation. As much as I love the Caped Crusader, he’s a totally one-dimensional character. “Murdered parents” is the only character trait he has.

All of this may contribute to why we love villains. Why actors consistently state that it’s more fun to play the bad guy. But I don’t think it’s the whole answer. I believe there’s something darker going on. Secretly, I think we feel somewhat voyeuristic when it comes to villainous characters. We secretly envy their moral flexibility, their willingness to kill and steal. I’m not saying the average Vader fan secretly wants to murder someone. All I’m saying is that we’ve all thought about it.

 

Coming up:

  • Movie: Kill Bill: Vol. 1 & 2 (2003 & 2004) – Thursday, January 22
  • Book: On the Road (Jack Kerouac, 1957) – Monday, January 25
  • Documentary: Super High Me (2008) – Thursday, January 28
  • Show: The Jinx (Chapter 3: The Gangster’s Daughter) (2015) – Monday, February 1
  • Game: Gears of War 2 (Epic Games, 2008) – Monday, February 8

Preconceived notions

The Jinx: HBO, 2015

Behind the Curve: The Jinx (Chapter 1: A Body in the Bay) (2015)

By the time I watched the first episode of The Jinx, I knew Robert Durst was almost certainly guilty. I knew he had been arrested last year, and I’d seen specific clips from The Jinx that were pretty incriminating. As such, I began this show with many preconceived notions.

The Jinx: HBO, 2015
The Jinx: HBO, 2015

I find this happens increasingly often these days. It’s difficult to approach anything with objectivity or even a relatively open mind. Part of it is the way we consume media nowadays. Gone (or at least dying) are the days when we would stumble upon something. When we’d pick up a random book, or flip through channels to find something to watch. These days we are more proactive in our entertainment decisions. We seek out things on Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, etc. And due to the proliferation of advertising and internet media discussion, we are guaranteed to have at least passing knowledge of a film or TV show before we see it. Scripts are leaked. Blogs report on casting decisions that used to happen behind closed doors. And because most films are adaptations or sequels, some audience members are already familiar with the plot and characters..

In some ways this excess of knowledge is a positive thing, especially if you look at entertainment as a product. Capitalism has shown us that companies allowed to operate in secret will generally produce inferior products, with sometimes dangerous outcomes. Whereas an attentive, well-informed public forces corporations to produce superior products, thereby improving the overall worth of the industry. Right now the entertainment industry enjoys one of the most well-informed consumer bases of all time, and I think it’s showing. For the most part, this is a new golden era for movies, TV and video games.

However, entertainment is not like any other product. It’s also an art (or at least it can be). Entertainment is a crafted experience, and I’m not sure more information is necessarily better in that context. When writing a story, the creator must make assumptions about what preconceived notions the audience brings with him to the experience. You need to know what the average person will think, what they’ll understand about the subject matter. What will surprise them or excite them. Today, that’s almost impossible. You can’t count on what audiences may have heard on talk shows, panels and podcasts. You can’t know what articles they’ve read on the film’s production. Hell, if you work for a big production company, you can’t even control the trailers and what they may be spoiling for the audience.

The Jinx: HBO, 2015
The Jinx: HBO, 2015

Case in point: I started watching the Jinx because I heard people praising it on a podcast I listen to. The host said that Robert Durst was certainly guilty, and described some interesting bits from the show. I took that description with me into the first episode, and it colored my personal bias. Is that fair? Perhaps not. Do I blame the podcast host? No. In this new world, it’s the responsibility of each individual to isolate him or herself if they want the ideal experience from their entertainment.

 

Coming up:

  • Movie: Léon: The Professional (1994) – Thursday, January 7
  • Game: Amnesia: The Dark Descent (Frictional Games, 2010) – Monday, January 11
  • Documentary: Super Size Me (2004) – Thursday, January 14
  • Show: The Jinx (Chapter 2: Poor Little Rich Boy) (2015) – Monday, January 18
  • Book: On the Road (Jack Kerouac, 1957) – Monday, January 25

Why society needs death

Star Trek The Next Generation: Paramount Domestic Television, 1988

Behind the Curve – Star Trek: The Next Generation (S01E26: The Neutral Zone) (1988)

Sometimes writing about Star Trek episodes feels like cheating. With things like Sopranos or Inside Out, I have to mull over the stories for a while before coming up with a blog topic. Star Trek is courteous enough to scream the topics directly at my face.

In other words, the show can be a bit heavy-handed. But we love you anyway, Star Trek!

In this episode, Data finds 3 frozen bodies on an old derelict ship. They’re all humans from a time suggested to be around present day. Each died of a malady that was incurable during their time, but the Enterprise is able to easily correct the problem and revive the individuals.

The episodes revolves around their old world values clashing with the more advanced Federation society. For example, one of individuals is a financier who wants to check on his investments, but money as we know it is basically nonexistent in the Federation. Classic Fish-out-of-Water plot. And at the end of the episode there’s the mandatory “how far we’ve come” moment where the bridge crew reflects upon the greed and ignorance of the past.

Star Trek The Next Generation: Paramount Domestic Television, 1988
Star Trek The Next Generation: Paramount Domestic Television, 1988

But what’s interesting to me, and what seems to go unremarked through most of the episode, is that the ancient humans’ greatest ignorance was their lust for life. The fact that they froze themselves in the first place demonstrates a greed for life and fear of death that seems primitive.

The idea of immortality has probably been around since humans first became conscious of their inevitable doom. Since then, nonexistence has been our biggest fear. It’s why the idea of an immortal soul is so popular with religions around the world. Bodily death is less frightening if it’s not the end of consciousness. But the fear of death is powerful among secular society as well. Scientist and futurists talk about extending the human life indefinitely, either through medicine or cybernetics or virtual storage. Some futurists believe human death will disappear within the next century.

While I certainly see the appeal, such immortality has always struck me as greedy and shortsighted. A dream born of primitive fears.

Think about the problems that arise if nobody dies. First of all, you create a shortage of some kind of resource. It might change depending on the nature of the immortality. For example, it consciousness were digitally stored we’d eventually reach a shortage of hard drive space. There’s ultimately a finite amount of raw material in the universe that can be used to make hard drives. It’s a big number, certainly, but it’s finite.

Star Trek The Next Generation: Paramount Domestic Television, 1988
Star Trek The Next Generation: Paramount Domestic Television, 1988

However, I suspect the resource crisis will be something more mundane. Imagine if every person who’d ever existed was still alive here on Earth. It wouldn’t be long before the problems popped up. Food shortages, over population, runaway pollution and greenhouse effects from all the people using energy. Some countries have these problems today. We could stave off the problem for a good long while if we begin exploring the universe, but not forever. Nothing is unlimited.

And then there will be the cultural impact on younger generations. Human growth has always fundamental been a process of stepping up the social ladders as you grow older. This happens in all organizations and all family units. Take for example a police force in a large city. You start out as a lowly patrol officer. Eventually you work your way up to detective. When your captain retires, you’re chosen to replace him. Eventually the Chief of police retires and you take over the position. As you move up the ranks, you’re bringing with you new ideas and modern attitudes. The man who was Chief before you couldn’t operate a computer. The man before him hated black people. You’re a more efficient Chief for the modern era.

But that only happens when people get older, weaker. If people retire and die. If not, the old people in power will stay in power forever. That’s not a good thing. It means that archaic ideas will never be challenged or revised. And if the young people are robbed of their opportunity to move up the social ladders, that means each new generation will simply occupy the lowest rung on the ladder. We’d have to keep adding rungs lower and lower.

In my opinion, attempting to live forever is selfish and unfair to the younger generation. But the desire is understandable. Everyone fears death. It’s the ultimate unknown. We don’t know what happens, and it represents a point of no return. But remember that death is also a natural and necessary part of being human. By dying, we make room for a new generation of with fresh ideas. Overcoming our primitive fear of death will be challenging, but I believe it’s critical for humanity’s intellectual growth.

 

Coming up:

  • Movie: Big Trouble in Little China (1986) – Thursday, December 24
  • Book: Jurassic Park (Michael Crichton, 1990) – Monday, December 28
  • Documentary: Dinosaur 13 (2014) – Thursday, December 31
  • Show: The Jinx (Chapter 1: A Body in the Bay)(2015) – Monday, January 4
  • Game: Amnesia: The Dark Descent (Frictional Games, 2010) – Monday, January 11

Tone juxtaposition done poorly

Star Trek The Next Generation: CBS, 1988

Behind the Curve – Star Trek: The Next Generation (S01E25: Conspiracy) (1988)

This episode of Star Trek has a very gory scene. God knows I’m not above a spot of gore in my entertainment. Just last month I watched both Aliens and Hellraiser, and I enjoyed every flesh-ripping and bit of both. But then again, I knew what I was getting into with those movies. There was an expectation of gore. Star Trek had no such expectation. It has always been a relatively tame, family-friendly affair.

Which is why I found it surprising when Picard and Riker blew up a dude’s head. And then an alien burst from his chest. And they blew the alien up. Uh huh. Isn’t this supposed to be an all-ages show?

Star Trek The Next Generation: CBS, 1988
Star Trek The Next Generation: CBS, 1988

It’s a bizarre juxtaposition of tone, a concept I find myself thinking about more and more these days. In my opinion, tone is a woefully underestimated component of storytelling. Subtle, nearly invisible, and yet it can have a profound effect on how audiences experience the story.

Essentially tone establishes an angle from which the audience approaches a show. Let’s look at Arrow and The Flash for our examples. They are two CW superhero shows that share a universe, but they have completely different tones. Arrow takes place in Starling City, a gritty, Gotham-esque place full of crime and poverty. The show is mostly grounded in reality, with few powers or advanced technology. It’s color palette features many dark tones of green and yellow. The characters are serious and melodramatic. The bad guys are brutal and violent, and so is the hero. He has a somewhat wobbly moral compass, often using torture and murder to get the job done. The Flash, conversely, is much more optimistic. The hero and villains both have powers, so our color palette is bright and vibrant. The characters, while maintaining some of Arrow‘s melodrama, are goofy and humorous. Their hero has a strict moral code: he does not kill or torture. His main priority is civilian safety. And even though some bad guys do kill, the fact that they’re using powers and comic book technology to do it lessens the blow.

In other words, the two shows could not be more different. And that is painfully apparent when they do crossovers. The visiting characters end up feeling just a little bit off, like an alien walked on to the set and everyone independently elected to ignore it. The episode actually finds itself forced to address this juxtaposition in the plot, like when Flash finds himself in a moral crisis as he witnesses Arrow torturing a witness.

Arrow: CW, 2014
Arrow: CW, 2014

My point is that Arrow‘s tone was not crafted to fit the Saturday-morning-cartoon characters of The Flash, just as Star Trek‘s tone is ill-suited to an Aliens-style death scene.

Not that juxtaposition is necessarily a bad thing. Last month I praised the Fallout series for their masterful use of juxtaposition to create a beautiful, unique feel. The difference is that Fallout has clearly thought it through. Audience’s can always tell whether something is intentional or just a screw up.

 

Coming up:

  • Movie: Inside Out (2015) – Thursday, December 10
  • Game: Bioshock (Irrational Games, 2007) – Monday, December 14
  • Documentary: Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010) – Thursday, December 17
  • Show: Star Trek: The Next Generation (S01E26: The Neutral Zone) (1988) – Monday, December 21
  • Book: Jurassic Park (Michael Crichton, 1990) – Monday, December 28

Don’t get me wrong – dramatic misunderstandings

Sopranos: HBO, 1999

Behind the Curve – Sopranos (S01E13: I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano) (1999)

This episode of Sopranos, in addition to the crappy CW superhero shows I’ve been binge watching, has made me think about dramatic misunderstandings and how they play into fiction. The scholarly term for it is “dramatic irony,” but I prefer “dramatic misunderstanding” since the word irony has been badly cheapened in recent years. It’s the dramatic device in which an audience knows more about the situation than all or some of the characters in the story.

This idea has been around for centuries. Shakespearean plays like Hamlet and Othello are practically built on a series of dramatic misunderstandings. Sopranos is actually similar to Othello in that these misunderstandings are intentionally sown by a malicious manipulator pitting characters against one another from the shadows. In this case it is Tony’s mother, Livia, who tricks Junior, the current boss, into trying to kill Tony by suggesting his capos are plotting against him. The confusion is thickened by the fact that the capos are, in fact, meeting behind Junior’s back, but not to kill him. They’re meeting because Junior is nothing but a figurehead and Tony runs everything from behind the scenes. Whereas in Othello, there was no basis to Iago’s whispers of infidelity.

Sopranos: HBO, 1999
Sopranos: HBO, 1999

Iago’s manipulation were also much more calculated. With Livia Soprano, we are constantly unsure how much of what she says is malice compared to genuine mental instability. At one point she sends Artie Bucco into a rage against Tony by revealing that Tony burned down Artie’s restaurant. Tony did, in fact, burn it down. But I don’t know how Livia would know this. I suspect she was just lashing blindly against Tony since Junior had failed to kill him.

It’s interesting how nuanced this dramatic misunderstanding can be and how much mileage a good writer can get out of it. Compare its implementation in Sopranos to a show like Arrow, a re-envisioning of DC Comic’s Green Arrow. In the first season, there’s an episode featuring a dark archer going around and killing people whom our hero had previously taken down. I expected that the Hood (as he’s know to the city) would be blamed for these murders and would suffer renewed negative sentiment in the public eye. But Detective Lance, who is established from the start as having almost irrational hatred for the Hood, pronounces it to be a copycat at the very first crime scene. We kinda see the Hood take some heat when Lance’s boss lies to the media, but nothing really comes of it. The opportunity to utilize dramatic misunderstanding is completely ignored.

Arrow: Warner Bros Television, 2012
Arrow: Warner Bros Television, 2012

In a way I found it refreshing. As much as I admire the way Sopranos creates tension out of misunderstandings, I also find it very stressful as a viewer. When I watch a character about to do something stupid because they don’t know what’s going on, I get antsy. It makes me cringe in discomfort. I appreciated the craft that goes into that reaction, but that doesn’t mean I want it all the time.

Arrow and The Flash may be somewhat lazily written as evidenced by this and certain other aspects, but the relative blandness makes for a nice change of pace. Sometimes you just want something fun and unambitious.

 

Coming up:

  • Documentary: Man on Wire (2008) – Thursday, December 3
  • Show: Star Trek: The Next Generation (S01E25: Conspiracy) (1988) – Monday, December 7
  • Movie: Inside Out (2015) – Thursday, December 10
  • Game: Bioshock (Irrational Games, 2007) – Monday, December 14
  • Book: Jurassic Park (Michael Crichton, 1990) – Monday, December 28

Making depression interesting

Sopranos: HBO, 1999

Behind the Curve – Sopranos (S01E12: Isabella) (1999)

Depression is one of the most serious mental illnesses. The struggle can literally be life or death, and that’s reflected in the way in which we talk about it. We say that a person is “battling” depression. And speaking as someone who has had at least tasted this illness, I think it’s an apt descriptor.

Sopranos: HBO, 1999
Sopranos: HBO, 1999

Depression is a fight, but it’s an internal fight. The battlefield is mindset and motivation, which I think is why we don’t see it portrayed very often in mainstream entertainment. When they do feature depression, the audience is usually bored out of their minds. Or the creators need to use flashy fireworks, such as the magical realism in Birdman, when making depression interesting.

Depression is a fairly common experience in the modern world, so why doesn’t it make good storytelling? I think it’s because one of the primary symptoms, loss of a person’s motivation and will, flies in the face of fundamental story theory. Protagonists are ideally supposed to initiate action and not just respond to it. As an audience, we admire heroes who are proactive, not reactive. That’s especially true in America, where strength and assertiveness are highly valued.

That’s why this episode of Sopranos is so clever. They’ve managed to craft a very accurate portrayal of depression while still keeping it interesting. In the episode, Tony has difficulty even getting out of bed. Things happen around him, but Tony can’t bring himself to do anything about it. This is pretty true to life for victims of depression, but would normally make for an uninteresting character. The writers and director of this episode came up with a brilliant workaround. While Tony is dealing with his depression, the audience knows that Junior put a hit out on him. Tony moves through his scenes at a painful, agonizingly slow pace. All the while the audience is kept tense. We see the assassins, expect the sword to fall at any minute. That keeps us invested in what’s happening, invested in Tony overcoming his struggle with depression.

Sopranos: HBO, 1999
Sopranos: HBO, 1999

I’d say that other creators should look to this episode as a how-to, but the effect may be difficult to emulate. This episode has an advantage in the 11 episodes that came before it. We already know and are invested in Tony from previous episodes. We’ve seen him be a proactive protagonist. If this episode were examined in a vacuum, it features a passive, whiny protagonist whom I don’t think the audience would find engaging. I’d be interested in seeing more self-contained stories that have both an active protagonist and an accurate depiction of depression without having to dip into magical realism to make things interesting. Maybe Catcher in the Rye, but that’s the only example I can name.

 

Coming up:

  • Documentary: Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011) – Thursday, November 19
  • Book: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (Dave Eggers, 2000) – Monday, November 23
  • Movie: Aliens (1986) – Thursday, November 26
  • Show: Sopranos (S01E13: I Dream of Jeannie Cusamano) (1999) – Monday, November 30
  • Game: Bioshock (Irrational Games, 2007) – Monday, December 14

The Working Girls – Legal Prostitution

Sopranos: HBO, 1999

Behind the Curve – Sopranos (S01E11: Nobody Knows Anything) (1999)

This may seem like a strange part of the episode to pick up on, but I agree with Tony and Meadow: Sex should not be a crime. Why is prostitution still illegal in the United States?

Right now, Nevada is currently the only state in the US with legal prostitution, and even there it’s tightly controlled. Counties can restrict or downright outlaw the operations as they see fit, do the point where it’s a lot less hassle to operate illegally. There are only about 20 legal brothels in the state, mostly situated in remote areas. And the business they get is maybe a third of what illegal prostitution rings make in Las Vegas and Reno.

Sopranos: HBO, 1999
Sopranos: HBO, 1999

Criminalizing prostitution made a certain kind of sense back in the 1800s, if only because lax separation of Church and State made us a quasi-theocracy. And given the state of medicine at that time,  it likely did wonders to limit the spread of STIs and unwanted pregnancy. But attitudes towards sex are more practical these days. Less prudish. We have all manner of protection, tests and birth control to the point where pregnancy and disease could be a non-issue.

Now, I’m not saying this because I’d partake in prostitution if it were legal. I do just fine on my own, thank you. I’m not even saying that prostitution is good. It’s certainly not something I’d recommend young women aspire to. But honestly; what’s the harm? Why can’t consenting women (and men!), people who are comfortable with their sexuality and know the risks, safely rent out their bodies in our free market system? We’re talking about basic capitalism, here. This is something the Republicans should be all over!

Obviously, this won’t happen. At least not anytime soon. Undeniably prostitution has a bad rep these days, what with it being tied to organized crime, drug use and human trafficking. Legislators have no reason to fight for this industry. There’s no significant pressure from the public, so making prostitution your campaign issue just paints a target on your back. And if I’m completely honest, I’d rather our elected officials focus on more pressing concerns, like climate change.

But I’d support an attempt to legalize prostitution. Surely, most of the drug, gang and trafficking problems will disappear when we bring the world’s oldest profession out of the underground. Legalized prostitution might even have unexpected benefits. In the video below (start at 1:55), Bill Maher pointed out that many of the mass shootings in recent years were committed by sexually frustrated young men. I’m not going to boldfacedly claim that lives might have been saved if the wannabe Rambo had popped down to the local brothel every other week for a quick blowjob to take the edge off. All I’m saying is that it’s an unexplored factor and potential deterrent. And as difficult as it would be to legalize prostitution, I bet it’s still easier than passing gun regulation in today’s political climate.

 

Coming up:

  • Documentary: Food, Inc. (2008) – Thursday, November 5
  • Game: Fallout (Interplay Entertainment, 1997) – Monday, November 9
  • Movie: Hellraiser (1987) – Thursday, November 12
  • Show: Sopranos (S01E12: Isabella) (1999) – Monday, November 16
  • Book: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (Dave Eggers, 2000) – Monday, November 23