Watching the Detectives

When this year’s Oscars are handed out on March 2nd, and Matthew McConaughey has deservedly picked up the Best Actor award, attention can finally shift to his actual best performance of the past 12 months: not on the big screen in Dallas Buyers Club, but rather on TV in the role of Detective Rust Cohle in HBO’s new “anthology” series True Detective, due to air on Sky Atlantic on February 22nd. In what is certain to be one of the biggest ratings and critical successes of the year, McConaughey stars alongside Woody Harrelson, playing Marty Hart – two homicide detectives investigating a murder with occult overtones in rural Louisiana.

Separate from the quality assured by the backing of broadcaster HBO, there are a number of striking elements that distinguish this series from the lumpy police procedurals that clog up TV schedules. First, there is a cohesion and coherence that stems from having one writer, Nic Pizzolatto, and one director, Cary Joji Fukunaga, responsible for, respectively, the story and its presentation. Secondly, there is the fact that the show is structured as protracted interrogations of the two detectives 17 years after the initial investigation, which we observe in lengthy flashbacks. As the mystery of the murder investigation is unspooled through recollection, there remains the present-tense mystery of what precisely is being pursued in the separate questioning of Hart and Cohle. The final distinguishing feature of the series, and perhaps the most impressive, is the outstanding  quality of the performances.

On a roll with meaty parts in films such as Killer Joe and Mud, McConaughey tests himself even further by seizing the opportunity to play Rust Cohle, a brilliant, world-weary nihilist, whose own personal tragedy has liberated him from the niceties and self-censorship demanded by civil society. His Texan drawl savours every syllable as, between pursuing leads and examining clues, he reflects and expands on what he sees as the illusion of the self and his belief that human consciousness is “a tragic misstep in evolution.” In an exclamation that might have the Iona Institute taking legal advice, Rust impugns Christian faith, saying “If the only thing keeping a person decent is the expectation of divine reward, then, brother, that person is a piece of shit.” The fact that his philosophical ruminations are suffered with head-shaking disbelief by a very grounded and unreflective partner, who advises him to “keep this shit to” himself, makes for one of the most entertaining onscreen odd couples of recent years.

In the less flamboyant role of the amiable, philandering Hart, Harrelson is every bit as impressive as McConaughey. Just as McConaughey’s voice relishes every beat of the great and grandiose dialogue he has been gifted, so too Harrelson’s face registers every emotion that courses below his good-ole-boy demeanour.  Harrelson will never achieve the prominence that McConaughey’s beauty has won for him, but, as actors, both men are cut from the same cloth. As McConaughey showed a long time ago with the derelict Wooderson in Dazed and Confused, and Harrelson similarly displayed in a delicious cameo in No Country for Old Men, both men are capable of taking the smallest of roles and making them a show-stopping delight. True Detective affords them all the time in the world to make the most of the strong material they’ve been given. It does not rush along a plot-driven course, allowing us to spend much more time in the entertaining company of the two men than would be accommodated by the rote three-act milk-run of most TV police procedurals.

Many critics will reach for “novelistic” – the adjective du jour in discussions of what is now often referred to as this “golden age of TV” – to account for the show’s less than frantic pacing and its other strengths, but that appeal to the respectability conferred by some other anointed art form is entirely unnecessary. While writer Nic Pizzolatto has published fiction and worked as a teacher of creative writing, he has himself acknowledged that shows such as Deadwood, The Wire, and The Sopranos…were actually filling my hunger for fiction as an audience more than the contemporary fiction that I was reading.” Indeed, some of the best features of True Detective find their most obvious source in these trailblazing HBO series. The procedural elements on show have more of the authentic workaday feel of The Wire than the flashy tech of CSI or NCIS. Marty’s infidelity and the attack-as-defence attitude he strikes at home to fend off his wife’s suspicions evoke the recurring domestic tensions between Tony and Carmela Soprano. Any fan of Deadwood will approvingly cock and ear when Cohle quotes a St. Paul verse that was also used in that earlier show to challenge the idea of the individual’s separateness from society.

If there is a novel, or rather series of stories, that informs the show, it seems to me to be a rather surprising one. At present, two TV series relocate the character of Sherlock Holmes to the present day. In the BBC’s more celebrated Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch embodies the great detective almost as someone on the autistic spectrum somehow edging closer to “normality” with each season through the improving influence of his grounded and kindly Doctor Watson. In the U.S.-based Elementary, Jonny Lee Miller is Holmes the recovering addict, with a female Watson (Lucy Liu) originally employed as his sober companion. Both of these versions have their fans, but True Detective might be the most inspired resurrection of the spirit of Alfred Conan Doyle’s consulting detective. Cohle is as insightful, knowledgeable and unconventional as Holmes, while Marty is very much the surprised, disbelieving companion, unable, or unwilling, to see past the familiar surface of everyday life to achieve the insight and acuity of his possibly unhinged partner. McConaughey gives us Holmes as a wounded pessimist with no time for the illogical pieties of respectable civilisation, whose only stimulation comes from pursuing a mystery to its explication. Harrelson’s Marty is the impressed Doctor Watson rooted to the ground by his appetites and ego. Despite the similarity to Holmes, however, Cohle never seem so unearthly as Holmes, as bound by the dictates of fictional superheroism. As we cut between the investigation and the interviews 17 years later, his decline is apparent. This is a man with a fascinating, perhaps tragic story, but not an archetype impervious to fear.

Despite all of its wordy pleasures and ambling storytelling form, True Detective is far from directionless. The show simply has a far greater tolerance for variety than, say, that evinced by the CSI franchise. Its occult elements, deployed minimally, evoke the dread possibilities once summoned up by David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. On a similarly visceral level, it knows how to handle thrills and spills. In fact, the fourth episode climaxes with one of the most exciting action sequences ever staged for TV, as Cohle becomes caught up in a confrontation between a biker gang and a drug dealers in a six-minute, single continuous shot that is already the stuff of TV legend. It is one part Michael Mann and one part Grand Theft Auto, a tour de force of staging that makes most TV shoot-outs seem like the pat-a-cake choreography of the preschool Christmas play.

Pizzolatto promises that any further series, as suggested by the anthology label, will focus on new characters and tell a different setting. This storytelling model has the benefit of avoiding the slow rot that sets in when success demands that a show stretch on into seasons that exhaust its initial inspiration. This anthology formula is already being used to interesting effect in FX’s American Horror Story, each season of which tells a different story using the same actors as a kind of repertory company. At the end of the first season of True Detective, however, McConaughey and Harrelson will be released from their TV captivity back into the cinematic expanse. Only half way through this opening series, we can not only recline luxuriantly into one of the finest examples of recent TV drama, but also already begin to wonder which great actors might possibly recruited to tell a story as compelling and rewarding as this one.



This film’s defenders and enthusiasts tend to insist that it needs to be seen in 3D, preferably in IMAX 3D, in order to be fully appreciated. What’s odd about such a claim is that it ultimately condemns the very film it seeks to praise, since arguing that the movie can only be fairly judged using parameters which fall outside those used to assess every other modern film, means admitting that this is not really, in the fullest and most commonly accepted sense, a ‘film’ at all. It’s more of a fairground entertainment of some sort, an immersive spectacle that seeks to offer more than a mere ‘moving picture’ but actually ends up delivering far less.  Leaving aside the fact that cinema has its roots in exactly this sort of amusement park ride, the fundamental question remains: should this entertainment even be considered for an Academy Award? And what will its future be, once the theatrical runs peter out and the larger portion of its historical existence on disc, or digital download, begins?

So in fact it makes much more sense to jettison the 3D gimmickry, and consider the merits of ‘Gravity’ as a plain old film. As such, it has a lot going for it: state of the art technology, top-tier stars, enormous budget, big themes. Sadly, none of these elements can raise the film above mediocrity. And the double meaning of the title – referring not just to the weightlessness of space but also the grave danger the characters find themselves in – also threatens to collapse inwards, since the potentially serious thematic aspects (man’s predicament, alone in a Godless universe) are ignored in favour of thrills and spills.

Some of the early scenes are promising. That’s not to say that the film starts well: although the visuals are good, the first couple of minutes of the soundtrack are given over to annoyingly inaudible conversation being exchanged between Earth, and the astronauts played by George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, as well as between those characters and a couple of hardly seen minor figures who will be conveniently killed off in short order, leaving us with a lot of cutesy chit chat between the major stars. The plot gets going about twenty minutes in, when the space shuttle around which George and Sandra had been working, is catastrophically damaged by space debris, leaving the two surviving astronauts stranded with diminishing oxygen supplies. George has a fancy new jet pack, presumably supplied by some sort of NASA version of James Bond’s ‘Q’, which allows him to go scooting around willy nilly; Sandra becomes detached and begins drifting helplessly into open space, spinning and tumbling and panicking as the remaining percentage of her oxygen supply heads into single figures.  Rescue is at hand, though, in the form of Jet Set George, who comes blasting out to reel her back in. Anyone who has an existing aversion to George Clooney will find him hard to stomach here; this is far from his most subtle performance.

Anyway, so begins a series of mini crises, little cliff-hangers in the heavens, with each seemingly hopeful step towards a route back to terra firma interrupted by obstacles which are then duly overcome, the characters all the while evincing a puckish sense of humour about their perilous circumstances. “Clear skies, with a chance of space debris” quips Bullock at one stage, whist struggling through a situation that would have most of us wondering about the arrangements for waste disposal within our space suits.

Bullock, though, is made of sterner stuff, and despite having 0nly had six months’ rudimentary training (she’s a doctor, not a career astronaut) she is able to open airlocks on a variety of Russian and Chinese space stations, and can read the manuals and operate the controls inside them. There’s a twist concerning George Clooney’s character, around the one hour mark, which turns out not to be a twist at all; after this, the already fairly credulity-straining plot spirals into utter preposterousness, probably peaking at the point where Bullock uses a fire extinguisher to propel herself between a redundant escape pod (wouldn’t you know it, the fuel supply has run out, despite the pod never having been used), and the latest in a series of ‘last chance’ space stations.

But so what if the plot is silly? There’s no reason for the film not to work as an entertainment. What would Hitchcock have said about accusations of implausibility? No, the reason for the film’s failure lies with the script. Woeful dialogue predominates, and the story is just too corny and repetitive to offer any real sense of immersion or suspension of disbelief. Scene after scene plays out far too slowly, with lingering shots of not very much following each segment of obstacle circumvention. The decision to cut all contact with Earth, and keep it cut, probably was intended to generate a sense of heightened isolation; what it does, though, is rob of us of dialogue in the latter segments of the film. Bullock is left talking to herself, and this becomes increasingly inane.

Overall, this is a film that relies not just on cumbersome presentation technology , but also on our pre-existting sense of wonder about space. This in itself is a further fatal flaw, since our wonder is exactly that: pre-existing. The film has nothing to add to the scenes we’ve seen so many times before: Earth viewed from space; vast emptiness; floating silence. As an entertainment, with all the thrills of IMAX, this may work well. As a film, it’s just ok. Bullock is fine; Clooney is slightly irritating. The script is under-written, the story is hokum. The running time, to be fair, is a pleasantly uninflated 90 minutes. There was an opportunity here to make a genuinely fresh movie set in space but foregoing all that dreary Sci-fi nonsense about aliens and evil empires, focusing instead on the much more interesting subject of the human race itself; that opportunity has been missed. The result is an ok entertainment, and a pretty poor film.




                “…Public streets blur into private forecourts. Seductive passages become corporate cul-de-sacs of soaring glass, steel and stone…These are offices built to look great in photographs…But in the end a city is not its buildings, it is its people and there is something salutary in the way Londoners fail to live up, or down, to the cosmetic gloss of their surroundings…To a newcomer the City looks impenetrable, like an oiled machine with a hidden logic. City folk might seem coolly efficient but it’s an illusion. Look again and many of them seem out of their element, as if caught between one air-conditioned sanctuary and the next. These are not employees ‘on message’. There is doubt and indecision in their gestures. Others are not dressed for the office at all but residents from the housing estates. Something of the essence of the City is visible here: the telling gap between official power and lived experience…”

Reading this mission statement from photographer Polly Braden, about her recent project London Square Mile, brought me back to Spike Jonze’s Her. I’ve been trying to put my finger on exactly what my problem is with what, on the surface at least, is an impeccably made, thought-provoking sci-fi love story for our times. And it’s this: it’s too seductive, too in love with its own ‘cosmetic gloss‘.

Jonze and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema have created a gorgeous near-future world of city lights and modernist apartments, coordinated fashion and hi-tech immersion around the lonely life of mild-mannered writer Theodore Twombly (Phoenix), a man mourning the end of his marriage and looking for consolation wherever he can find it. This turns out to be in the form of Samantha, the world’s first artificially intelligent operating system, a ‘consciousness‘ that mimics human interaction, learning and evolving at a frightening pace. Theodore soon finds himself drawn into a seductive relationship with Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) that grows into love and even sex.

So far, so interesting. After all, at the rate technological progress is annexing our lives it’s only a matter of time before it provides for sexual desire and emotional needs. It almost feels inevitable really, even now, twenty-first century manifest destiny. Her sets this moment in an unspecified future but it can’t be more than twenty or thirty years from now. Which makes the portrayal of the world around Theodore all the more pointed. This isn’t a distant sci-fi future we can dismiss as fantasy. This is, potentially, our world, in our life time.

Yet it feels like a particularly ravishing car advert in thrall to the lovely modernist shimmer of over-privileged ennui. Where are the poor for instance? There’s a scene where Theodore looks out over a public beach, people walking by on the boardwalk like the perfectly-spaced cars in old World’s Fair models of future traffic, pointillist figurines from a Seurat painting. In this future world there is no ‘doubt and indecision‘ in people’s gestures, no disorder, no outbreak of human vitality. It feels like a film made by people who are so immured in their world of privilege, social media and hi-tech toys they simply don’t see the poor any more, or they’ve airbrushed them out of the future so as not to spoil the pristine elegance of the shot.

I mean we’re supposed to worry about this man’s withdrawal from the real world but the real world around him is so sterile he might as well exist in a virtual cocoon of immersive video games and Samantha’s empathic voice. Why not? You could argue this is deliberate, that this background is mood music for Theodore’s state of mind, or a subtle dystopian warning of our future, but I don’t think so. The film is super proud of how beautiful it is, how tragically romantic it is, how clever and questioning it is about the future we’re heading for, yet it seems in love with that future.

When you take away the seductive cinematography, the Arcade Fire soundtrack, the fine, touch-sensitive performance of Joaquin Phoenix, what are you left with? ‘The past,’ Samantha tells Theodore, ‘is just a story we tell ourselves‘. So, of course, is the future. The story Her is telling us is not Romeo & Juliet for the twitter generation but this: technology will save us from the messiness of human interaction. It’s easy to mock a film that attempts to explore such things, of course, but it’s just as easy to fall under its state-of-the-art spell.

Ultimately, it does for computers what Spielberg did for aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It surrenders to emotional despair, to the mystical implications, the higher consciousness that will save us, teach us how to truly love. The fear is gone. Once we worried about HAL in 2001: a Space Odyssey (1968), or the rapacious Proteus IV in Demon Seed (1977), Skynet in The Terminator (1984), or the prophetic rabbit-hole of The Matrix (1999). Now we’re a generation in full fatal embrace of computers, just waiting for them to love us back.

Great Oscar Speeches Part 1 – Doesn’t Pussyfoot Around

Oscar speeches are, of course, one of the most potentially cringe-making occasions known to man. Classic examples of toe-curlingly bad speeches abound: who can forget Sally field’s “You really like me!” or Tom Hanks’s craven “God Bless America”? But there are plentiful counter-examples, if you dig back into the archives. And thanks to the wonders of Youtube, we can enjoy many of them all over again, at our leisure. In fact, these clips have become little mirco cultural artifacts in their own right. And so, as part of our Oscars count-down, Oomska will be running a series contemplating some of the best Oscar acceptance speeches.

We begin with an absolute corker: Bob Dylan picking up the statuette for a song that, for Dylan fans, seemed to come out of the blue, back at the start of the Noughties. Providing the theme tune for Curtis Hanson’s sweetly depressing comedy of dysfunctional academic manners, ‘Wonder Boys’, in 2000, Dylan’s ‘Things Have Changed’ richly deserved the acclaim it received, and brought a little magic to the 2001 Oscars ceremony – “live by satellite from Australia”.

Introduced by Jennifer Lopez – a singer who could not be much farther removed in style or sensibility from Bob Dylan, but hey, they do have in common the fact that they look good in leather trousers –  Dylan performs the song whilst seemingly peering out into total darkness, or possibly into overly bright lights. Maybe there’s little difference between the two?  The contrast between the performer and the audience – seen in sweeping wide shots, and in the traditional feature close up (Danny Devito munching on what looks like a carrot) – and the lyrics being enunciated by the performer, offer pungently sharp contrasts: “standing in the gallows with my head in the noose…”



Dylan’s performance is fine. But what’s truly fascinating is the speech, if only for its realness, the sense that Dylan (despite surely knowing he’d got it, after all why agree to perform from the other side of the planet?) actually is making his speech up as he goes along, a sense heightened by the typically characterful facial expressions Dylan pulls, notably when praising the Academy for choosing a song which “doesn’t pussy-foot around or turn a blind eye to human nature”. Amen.

Potential winners of 2014, please take note: this is how it should be done.



The Small, Bald Golden Man

If there were to be such a Borgesian thing as an industry award for industry awards, the Academy Awards would be a worthy nominee and would have every reason to begin composing an amusing, heartfelt, rambling, good-cause-invoking speech that takes itself very seriously and doesn’t stop for the cut-off music. The outstanding achievement of the Oscars is certainly not that they accurately reflect the best films in a given year or offer up a tasteful, compact or even mildly entertaining ceremony, but rather the quaintly odd fact that they retain a direct link with their original function of celebrating the film industry and showcasing its wares and players. This is truly anomalous within the field of televised award ceremonies with, for example, the Grammy Awards and VMAs surviving as floating signifiers with only the most vestigial connections to a feeble music industry.

The Oscars are effective not only in drawing in a significant television audience (40 million people in the United States alone in 2013), but also in increasing the audience for the films in contention. Until recently, commentators would blithely cite the fact that wins in the important categories of Best Actor, Actress, Director and Picture would provide a measurable box-office bump to the winners. In truth, however, from the beginning of October until March, cinemas and cinemagoers are already dominated by films vying for these awards. If you are blindly venturing out to the cinema during awards season, you’d better have a high tolerance for worthy historical drama, uplifting biopics, Meryl Streep, affecting epoch-altering speeches, the music of John Williams, and beautiful actors temporarily looking as godawful as the rest of us, or you’d better have an extra-strength EpiPen hovering in readiness just above your heart to deal with some serious anaphylaxis. Of course, some of these films are great, but many – and there seem to be many more of these pretenders each year – are not. It is only when the nimbus of Oscar glory has drawn out the very last of the taste-conscious laggards that cinemas change the fare and the variety of the awards season yields to the steroidal mass of the summer blockbusters, a new one arriving each week to strong-arm at least six screens per multiplex in a determined smash and grab before the next disappointing behemoth rolls in.

If we shift focus from the strictly industrial purpose of the Oscars to their capacity to discern quality, it is necessary to do a little throat clearing and swiftly make allowances for fallibility. Time has not been kind to many of the films chosen as Best Picture. In the last decade alone, we’ve seen the paint peel rapidly off Chicago, Crash and Million Dollar Baby. Last year’s big winner, Argo, is already looking like an unspeakable mediocrity, as unlovable as a month-old novelty record. Too often, the awards fall prey to the competing campaigns mounted by the studios vying for the prizes. The significant categories mentioned above (Best Actor, Actress, Director and Picture) end up reflecting wider debate and discourse, not strictly because the Academy is either sensitive or responsive to  trends, but rather because the producers and distributors trying to win support for their particular films often resort to modish and inflated appeals to make the case for their work. For example, in 2013, Bill Clinton was drafted in to introduce Lincoln for the Hollywood Foreign Press’s Golden Globe Awards, the former president obviously happy to embrace the association, but not necessarily doing his predecessor any favours.

Over the years, there have been rumours of behind-the-scenes dirty campaigning on behalf of, and against, certain films; such stories evoke nothing so much as the “ratfucking” of the Nixon White House, but, to my mind, the worst excesses of the campaigning are the out-in-the-open appeals made on behalf of the nominees. This year, for example, the contest reduces certain categories to whether you are an AIDS person (Dallas Buyers Club) or a slavery person (Twelve Years a Slave). The particular qualities of the films in question are sidelined, all sorts of exaggerated claims are made for the inspiring or improving effects or art, and producers and political activists meet in a mayfly coupling of shared self-interest that terminates abruptly when the credits roll on the Oscar broadcast.

Against these reliable-as-clockwork pieties stands the equally studied quirkiness of American Hustle, a lucrative vein director David O’Russell is now tapping for the second year in a row, on the back of the goofy and wretched Silver Linings Playbook. This kind of film harks back to the victories of other “leave-me-out-of-it” oddities such as The Sting and Fargo, which forsook the sobriety of the usual Oscar contenders and sailed above the fray on a chuff of whimsy. Argo almost took that route, being an equally vapid assemblage, but it also leaned heavily on its based-on-a-true-story blather and its setting in Iran during the revolution. In fact, Argo spanned a number of the perennial discourses, including satisfying sentimental requirements for a comeback by marking the completion of Ben Affleck’s return from years of J-Lo-assisted ridicule. Like this year’s Gravity, Argo also occupied a separate unspoken category, that of the studio-supported film that feeds the Academy’s desire to hoist up at least one strictly commercial feature as a stand-in for all the solid work it would like us to believe Hollywood produces: Such an avatar status also applied to Titanic, The Lord of The Rings: The Return of the King and, appropriately enough, Avatar.

Just to demonstrate how slippery the unspoken classifications that surround these films are, Dallas Buyers’ Club’s lead actor, Matthew McConaughey, is just as likely to profit from the Academy’s fondness for a comeback story. The line behind McConaughey’s campaign is that this is an actor who has seen the light after a lucrative decade of idling around in rom-coms, who has turned down the money to seek out better parts that demonstrate his gifts. The appetite for a comeback draws in Bruce Dern, who could also be said to profit from the Academy’s willingness to patronise the odd older actor with belated recognition: Jessica Tandy, James Coburn and, last year, Emmanuelle Riva. To apprehend the needless generosity of this gesture, consider the fact that Gloria Stuart was nominated for her bit part as old Rose in Titanic! A similarly schmaltzy impulse is apparent in the nomination of children, many of whom fade from attention when their cuteness expires. A more novel strain within the established order is the non-campaigning campaigning started by Joaquin Phoenix in 2013, on the way to being nominated for The Master, and vocally taken up this year by Michael Fassbender on his way to being nominated for his role in Twelve Years a Slave.

We shouldn’t watch the Oscars, however, just for the limited pleasure of snarking at the kitsch and conservatism, though it’s as reliable a spot to find those things as one could wish for. Now and again, something good slips through and snags a statue. The supporting actress and actor category is a good source of this surprise. There’s something satisfying in the thought that, given all the energy and money squandered by some very vain and wealthy people to secure this prize, someone as unaffected as Brenda Fricker could justifiably trump them with  her performance in  My Left Foot. There’s a similar joy in the idea that, under the creaking monumentality and worthiness of Oscar bait, down-and-dirty genre films could result in John Malkovich getting nominated, rightly, for In the Line of Fire, or Tommy Lee Jones winning, rightly, for The Fugitive. As for the show itself, amid the ridiculous musical numbers, the misfiring teleprompting and the long-winded false modesty of the winners, there is sometimes an acceptance speech as free of gloss and self-regard, and as short, as the one made by Joe Pesci when he won for his role in GoodFellas:

“It was my privilege, thank you.”