Treme: s01 e08 – All on a Mardi Gras Day


I make no apologies…

Something that I’m not immediately able to define has taken over me at the end of this episode, something that in a single instant stilled all the warmth and buoyancy of what came before. Not merely stilled it, but undermined it. A moment of chill, a moment of emotional shift that ran backwards across everything and everyone there had been, and left the feeling that it had always been there, and had been the only true underpinning of the day.

For this was Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, the first Carnival since Katrina, and everyone’s going to give themselves up to the day, because it’s Mardi Gras, because it’s what New Orleans is. Little snapshots of everyone preparing in their own way.

Not everyone. Big Chief Albert Lambreaux’s going to miss it. Vindictively, the Police are keeping him in until Ash Wednesday, as punishment for last week. Delmond’s not into it, arguing that the effort and energy should be going into clean-up instead of something he’s emotionally distant from – though it doesn’t stop him getting laid.

LaDonna’s bearing the burden of her secret, but her face is growing ever more drawn, and before the day is out she’ll need support from her ex-husband, Antoine, protecting her from the angry builder she sued, helping stock the bar, massaging her tense shoulders, kissing her deeply.

And Creighton Bernette’s not feeling it. He takes Sofie for a walk, shows her some of the disaster areas, injokes The Big Easy (an Easter Egg I had to have explained for me). The Bernettes dress up in blue, costumes, masks, wigs, it’s all fun, but Crei can’t feel it. He’s going downhill massively. He has lost faith in New Orleans. It is dead, and it’s future is to be a ghost of its past.

Annie wakes up to find Sonny about to go. They were going to do Mardi Gras together but this is do what you want day, and he wants to do it without her. He wants to get high. And he does, and he gets a fuck. Annie goes alone, in costume, a pirate wench, and I know I say it every week, but she looked gorgeous and had I been at that Mardi Gras I would have followed her around all day just to enjoy the sight, except she bumps into Davis, who’s dressed as Jean LaFitte, and they spend the day together, and have a good time, and he isn’t an arsehole once (and I couldn’t believe it either) and sees her off in a taxi, alone, after midnight, with no more than a goodnight kiss.

And there is a treatise to be written about the sexist assumptions that create scenes like that, where the woman is the good one, who retains her purity, preserves her relationship-virginity in the face of her man shagging about unheedingly, a bit of a cliche in itself, but it would not apply here because we already have a sense of Annie as she is, and this is not simplistic good girl and bad boy, Annie as she is, as the person we understand her to be, and what we foresee happening.

Janette splits the day between work and play, her mobile grill going great guns then a change into white, tight fairy-top and short skirt, purple tights and wand, and bouncing around getting drunk, until she’s singing ‘Iko Iko’ at night, but she’s still on her own.

Antoine gets back late. What happened in the bar, after? Crei reads all his recent writing, rejects it. He gets pissed and sleeps on the porch. Toni has a cow at him, in case Sofia sees him. Albert gets released. The music’s been hot and loud wherever you go. It’s been a small Mardi Gras, but it’s been Mardi Gras, without defiance or bluster, at least so it seems. New Orleans is still New Orleans.

And we close on LaDonna, a close-up, first thing Ash Wednesday morning, the Catholic mark on her forehead, smoking. First thing. Carnival is over. At the Mortuarists. A body to reclaim, to bury, a secret to be shared. And that one undemonstrative moment on which we fade is the moment of all that dominates this episode and casts everything in the minimal light it throws.

I wish I didn’t have to wait,under the terms I’ve set myself. I wish I could binge the last two episodes, here and now. Get it over with. I am dreading what is to come.

A Manchester Memorial


A year on.

I wasn’t there. I only know one person who was there, a work colleague, who has still not returned to work. But it happened here, to us, and when you attack one of us we all stand against you, to show you that we will never let you win. You cannot beat Manchester. To steal the title from the Treme season 1 box-set, Won’t Bow Don’t Know How. We look after our own, we come together, we sing and laugh and dance and you cannot make even the slightest dent against that. And we will honour and remember our own until the world’s end.

Deep Space Nine: s06 e22 – Valiant


A new crew

Well, that was a weird little experience. With the main cast squeezed into inessential cameos at the beginning and the end, this episode played like a backdoor pilot for another spin-off series: Star Trek – Babies.

The set-up is simple: Nog’s on a diplomatic mission to deliver a McGuffin (a secret message for the Grand Negus), with Jake along for the ride but not-so-secretly out for an interview. They bump into a fleet of six Jem’Hadar ships, one of which breaks formation to blast them into atoms, but are saved by the fortuitous appearance of the Valiant, a Defiant-class ship, which teleports then (but not the McGuffin) aboard before destroying the Jem’Hadar ship.

The sting is that the ship’s crew consists solely of cadets, albeit Red Squad cadets, i.e., the best of the best. There were sent on a training mission, to circumnavigate the Federation – this is what you get for trying to betray it, in season 4 – only to get into a fight that kills all the Commissioned staff. Just before he died, Captain Ramirez promoted Cadet Watters to Captain, and Watters has promoted other cadets in that wake.

Like I said, Star Trek: Babies. The cadets appear to be a fully functional crew, loyal, strong, adept. ‘Captain’ Watters certainly seems to be the epitome of a Starfleet Captain, confident, decisive, fully-prepared. He takes advantage of the new arrivals to promote Nog to Lt. Commander, make him Chief Engineer, and appoint him Red Squad.

Nog wavers, but only for a moment. His common sense tells him he isn’t ready, but his ambition, and his Ferengi-ness overrule him. Nog buys wholly into the fantasy of Watters, and his principal lieutenants, “Commander” Farris and “Chief” Collins, and Watters’ determination to fulfil the Valiant‘s last chosen mission, to track and scan a new Jem’Hadar battleship.

Not so Jake. Jake’s there to see things from the outside. He sees how crazy it is. These are cadets, not fully-trained Starfleet officers, by definition unfinished. True, they’re performing to a high level, but these are cadets who’ve been operating behind enemy lines for eight months, without proper command, and without the experience that brings inner resources. Watters may be in full command and looking like a future Kirk or Picard, but he’s not sleeping at night and he’s popping pills like a parka-clad Mod to stay awake. Farris is turning into a paranoid fanatic. Collins breaks down after only a minute’s talking about her home on the Moon. This is not a healthy ship, and Nog’s rapidly turning into one of them.

With Nog’s assistance, the mission is completed. They can all go home. But instead, Watters, who has bought too deeply into being a Starfleet Captain, and into the self-taught myth that Red Squad can do everything, commits the crew to destroying the Jem’Hadar ship. It will be their glory day, it will go down in history.

Only Jake, who is seeing things from a different perspective, demurs. It’s crazy. His Dad wouldn’t attempt this in the Defiant with a full crew and if Captain Benjamin Sisko couldn’t get away with it, nobody could. So he gets slung in the brig, to prevent his defeatism affecting the crew. Oh yes, we’re starting to see the shape of it,aren’t we?

The plan is a rip-off of Star Wars and Luke Skywalker’s X-Wing firing a bomb down a garbage chute or whatever it was. The Valiant takes heavy punishment. Crew are being killed. But the Delta radiation torpedoes hit their mark, the plan succeeds, the mission is fulfilled, all hail Red Squad, see, told you I could do it, ner ner, ner ner, ner.

Only the Jem’Hadar ship doesn’t blow up. They hit Watters’ target but it didn’t do the damage he expected. Watters orders everyone back in, even though it’s now obvious to anyone not sucked up into their own myth of invincibility that there’s not a hope in Hell of achieving anything but everyone getting killed. And the next hit does for him. Farris wants to obey orders but she’s killed too. Suddenly, Nog in senior officer, but he’s snapped out of it and orders Abandon Ship. Only one escape pod escapes, to be picked up by the Defiant. The only survivors are Jake, Nog and Collins.

The episode ends on a sombre debate over how Jake will write this up. Collins maintains that Watters was a great man, and that he didn’t fail, the crew let him down. Nog wants the ship honoured, the crew seen as they were: good, very good, loyal and of the highest quality, a true loss. But he’s seen through the miasma of arrogance and overweening ambition. The truth was, as he tells Collins, that Watters may have been a hero and a great man. But he was a bad Captain.

And Nog hands back to her his Red Squad insignia.

It’s a powerful ending. And I’m indebted to Memory Alpha for telling me that this is more or less the identical plot to the first J.J. Abrams film, except that DS9 is considerably more realistic in having the cadet’s plan fail. Fitting, of course, because DS9 was and is conspicuously better for its darkness, even if that darkness sometimes is only a shade of grey.

It’s nevertheless a bubble story, as opposed to a bottle story. Then again, looking at the outline of the next episode, I might be better off watching this one again. At least it was very well made, and very pertinent.

The Infinite Jukebox: The Archies’ ‘Sugar Sugar’


One of the things I love about pop is that from time to time and far more often than it ought to in a properly ordered Universe, the pursuit of pure commerce results in the creation of great art. Not High Art, save in exceptional circumstances, but of Art nevertheless.
Some of you, having already registered which song I’m writing about, will be looking at me in bewilderment, and a possibly larger fraction of you will have signs of disgust on your face. How can I possibly describe the ultimate bubblegum pop record, a song so light and fluffy that it’s singers and players were a bunch of animation cels, moving in a very limited fashion, as art of any kind, even with a small ‘a’?
But ‘Sugar Sugar’ is a gem, a pure pop gem, and for once one recognised more clearly in this country, where it was number 1 for eight weeks, than in its parent land, where it only topped the Billboard chart for four weeks.
Never forget that there is an art to pop, as well as a craft. The Archies existed because Don Kirshner got fed up dealing with the Monkees who, being human beings and musicians themselves in their respective fashions, had opinions of their own about the music they wanted to be represented by. Cartoons don’t refuse to record tracks, especially not the wholeseome Archies, smalltown boys and girls next door.
And The Archies’ records are perfect bubblegum, simple, expressive, bright and clear. They offer melodies, and tunes and choruses that insert themselves into your head and have you humming them, often unconsciously.
No-one realised just how good ‘Sugar Sugar’ was. It was tucked away on side two of an album, track four. But it’s bounce, its quasi-electronic pulse and its danceable rhythm made it the epitome of this simplistic, but tuneful strand of pop, and a herald for danceable music to come.
The lyrics are, like all true bubblegum, simple to the point of simplistic, even infantile. And why not? Love cannot only be expressed in subtle, carefully-composed lines. Lyrics are an important part of songs – without them, they become instrumentals, which are a whole different barrel of monkeys – but they’re not the whole thing and they rarely ought to be the most important thing. The best songs are a balance, or even an opposition between words and music, and there should be a place, and not a despised place, for that unlearned explosion of love, the one you don’t have the words for yet, but which still makes you want to sing about it. Sugar, ah honey honey, you are my Candy girl. And you got me wanting you.
Besides, this is the Sixties, that decade that mastered the simple surface beneath which are the things you might not wanna talk about in front of your mother. Just what is this Sugar that Ron Dante and his backing singers is going on about. Pour a little sugar on me honey, he’s asking. Pour a little sugar on it baby. And she promises she’s going to make his life so sweet.
Well, that’s up to you to decide. The music doesn’t push the issue either way. It’s straight down the middle cute and bouncy, it’s the girl in the centre of the dancefloor, bouncing up and down in her mini-skirt, aware that everyone is looking at her but not giving any indication that she’s noticed.
Weirdly, when this was slowly descending the Top 30, into January 1970, ‘Tracey’ by The Cufflinks, another piece of bubblegum, was heading for the Top 10. I was a musical simpleton, still learning everything, but at that time I actually recognised, without knowing, that Ron Dante was singing both. And even though ‘Tracey’ is pure bubblegum too, it’s words are more complex, more overt, it’s world is wider. It is, if you need to define such things, a better song. And just as bountiful and commercial.
But ‘Sugar Sugar’ is the more deeply felt music, precisely because of its shallowness. It’s one-molecule-thin, and it says everything we are capable of saying when we’re one-molecule-thin. Ah, honey honey. And we bounce up and down to that rhythm again, the rhythm we’re going to find out about one day soon. Not today. But soon, oh yes, soon.

Friday SkandiKrime: The Bridge s04 e02


out of character

So.

As always, there seemed to be considerably more than an hour of story in this hour of television, and much happened. And already, the show is delighting in setting up an array of questions, some of which appear to be red herrings. Such as the guy who appeared out of nowhere last week to clonk Richard Twin over the bonce? Nothing to do with Red October, who deny murdering Margrethe Thormod, but rather the jealous boyfriend of the girl who slept with Patrik Twin under the mistaken impression he was Richard.

Or the mysterious, distant, gated community to which Frank takes Sofie and Cristoffer. It’s creepy as hell and the old woman with the long white hair who owns/leads it doesn’t like having her decisions questioned but it’s a place for idealism: be good people, be the best you can be.

Or is it? The problem with red herrings is that sometimes they’re not red at all, it’s down to how you look at them.

Take the open. A young girl, Ida, walks slowly through a busy area before suddenly collapsing. Whilst concerned shoppers gather round, a slightly older girl, Julia, picks pockets. The girls live on the street. They didn’t seem to have anything to do with anything, except that one of the phones they steal turns ooutto be connected directly to the Thormod case.

How many of you, like me, took one look at the girls, assessed their age, and thought, Henrik’s daughters?

Their ages are right. So is their respective hair colours and curliness/straightness when you see the little girls of Henrik’s visions, eight years younger. So, are they Henrik’s missing daughters? Or are we merely meant to think that?

Ah, Henrik. I mean, Sofia Helin gets all the plaudits for her performance as Saga, and doesn’t she just deserve them? But Thure Linhardt, especially on the evidence of this episode, is every bit as important to this series as she is. In The Bridge 3, he sometimes came over as a bit of a pretty boy, but there’s none of that here. Both actors are creating miracles of subtlety by the most minor of facial expressions.

Anyway, let’s get to the facts. Beyond a mention that Saga was lucky, last week’s cliffhanger is swept aside in the most perfunctory of manners. After a brief spell in hospital, she’s up and at them, back to work, re-admitted by Linn the Troll even if her gun practice isn’t up to her usual levels. There’s a moment, during that, when Saga raises the gun, that her eyes betray complete panic.

And she’s back to business, assigned to the Thormod case and immediately hitting the ground like the Saga of old. Her old clothes – the white t-shirts, the leather trousers, the long green coat, the Porsche – are re-adopted like a uniform, and she and Henrik immediately reform their partnership. Which seriously puts the nose out of joint for Jonas, who is still assigned to the case, but who is now relegated to doing no more than be let behind to grow disgruntled. And whilst he’s still an unreconstructed bugger, the glory of the show is that he has every right to be pissed off: he is being treated badly.

Saga’s temporarily staying with Henrik. After an exhausting screw, she can’t sleep, so she gets out the file for Alice Sabroe and her missing daughters and, being Saga and, more importantly, a woman, starts to get some information out of Alice’s old female friends, who’ll tell her what they didn’t tell Henrik: that Alice was unhappy, he was too much the policeman, she talked to someone (male) at work…

There are developments. Taariq the deportee saves the two girls from being attacked outside the restaurant where he washes dishes. They give him a mobile as thanks. He’s shopped by the bastard of the restaurant owner (anything to get out of paying a week’s minimum wage). He explains that Margrethe disagreed with the decision to deport him, offered to help smuggle him away, but she was interrupted by an urgent, worrying call. From the phone that the girls gave him, which has a tracking app on it, for Thormod’s phone.

Now that’s one implausible coincidence and I have to fault the show for that, even as the overall quality mandates me to forgive it. It leads to a hunt for thegirls, who decide to relocate to Malmo.

Meanwhile, Saga and Henrik question Niels Thormod about this new development, but he knows nothing. Except that, after they leave, he phones someone to assure them the Police know nothing, and the plan will proceed. And at the end he collects a secret delivery of police photos of his dead wife…

Oh, and Patrik and Richard Twins? Patrik is a hospital clown, entertaining sick children, except he bursts into the room of one girl who’s terrified of clowns. Accident, of course. Except that he knew to avoid her. At night, he savours the outside heated jacuzzi until distracted by a mysterious, darkened trespasser, who refuses to leave. He has a flashing red dot on him. But when Patrik grabs the rails to get out of the jacuzzi, they are electrified…

That’s the second murder. Everyone assumes it was planned for Richard, who is distraught. Mistaken identity. The Swedish Police place him in protective custody, under guard in a hotel. But when Henrik and Saga go to question hiiim, the guard’s gone. And so’s Richard.

Ah, Saga. Saga is back, as she always was. Except that she’s not right. Spilled paperclips give her a flashback of last series’ killer gouging his arm with a paperclip to open a vein. She’s going off into short fugues. And on the Bridge, behind the wheel, she has a sustained panic attack. Something’s not right. Something’s very much not right. Somewhere in all this tangle, of angles and leads and red herrings and lives that seem to interconnect, there is an answer. Like Henrik, hearing what Alice thought about their marriage, I think we are very much not going to like it.

Film 2018: The Prestige


I don’t usually tend to watch films based on books I know, partly because the kind of books I like very rarely get adapted to film, but more often because I find it very hard to sink into the film and enjoy it for itself because a distinct part of me is continually assessing the mechanics of the adaptation: what’s left out, what’s been compressed, how they handled that scene, aaahh, how they dealt with that bit: no, didn’t like that at all.

As you’ll already be aware, I’ve been a long-term follower of Christopher Priest’s work (curious irony: an Amazon pre-order for his newest novel was in my in-box when I logged on today, before watching this film again) and it took me a long time to test what everyone, including Priest himself, had said, namely that this was good, indeed very good.

Re-watching it this morning, after a long break, I found myself oblivious to how the film is structured to adapt the novel, and more concerned to read how many clues there are to the essential mysteries of the film, which of course I knew from knowing the book.

What The Prestige is about is the rivalry between two late-Nineteenth Century stage magicians, Robert Angier (The Great Danton) (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (The Professor – Le Professeur de la Magie in the novel) (Christian Bale). It focuses on their enmity: Borden is responsible for Angier’s wife’s death on stage, is the better magician to Angier’s superior stagemanship, both try to sabotage each other’s acts, spy on each other, etc. Primarily it centres on one trick, The Transported Man, by which each magician disappears in one place and reappears in another almost instantly.

Borden invents it, Angier tries to duplicate it. Each has their own method but it’s not enough to have their own successful act, each has to know the other’s secret.

Director Christopher Nolan, working with a script adapted by his brother Jonathan, takes an achronological approach to the story, working within a frame-story that deals with the aftermath, in which the meat of events is presented as at least two series of flashbacks, and these are not themselves wholly chronological. We begin with a shot of a field full of identical black top hats, which is crucial to one strand of the plot but whose significance is not understood until much later.

Then we find Borden on trial for the murder of Angier, who, as part of the trick, falls through a trapdoor into a locked cabinet of water, where he drowns.

Then we watch John Cutter, Angier’s ingenieur or stage engineer (a lovely, warm performance by Michael Caine) demonstrate a fairly basic magic trick to a little girl, setting up the concept of the three parts of a magic trick: the Pledge, the Turn and the Prestige, a three-act structure that the Nolans apply to the screenplay.

I’m undecided as to how much of the film’s secrets or revelations to discuss here. I mean, the novel’s been available since 1995 and the film appeared in 2006, so it’s not like I’m risking significant spoilers, but on the other hand the film does tie itself into quite complex knots to preserve its mysteries to very nearly the end, and I feel under a certain obligation to give in to its obsession. For spoilers, read this.

So, knowing in advance what revelations await, how does the film work? Quite simply, superbly. The film incarnates the period, and Bale and Jackman in their contrasting roles are both outstanding and utterly convincing. The supporting cast are also excellent: Rebecca Hall in the rather understated role of Borden’s wife, Sarah and Scarlett Johansen in the more obvious part of Olivia, mistress and assistant too both Angier and Borden are equally natural, and their duality is, for those aware of the true situation, a vital key to one of the revelations.

Indeed, duality (as opposed to Priestian Unreality) is a key element in The Prestige. Though the film avoids those parts of the book where the same events are described in differing ways according to which magician is seeing them, its objective approach is wrapped up in duplicated experiences on each side. To take one blatant example, at different times each magician obtains possession of the other’s diary, pores over it extensively, and learns that each diary is a plant, ending in a direct address to its intended reader, exposing itself to be a complex manipulation.

Once you begin to understand the extent to which duality is a factor in the presentation of the story, it shouldn’t be too difficult to see into the realities that Chris Nolan wants to withhold until the end. In fact, with foreknowledge, it can be seen that the film overflows with minor clues.

I’ve mentioned the film’s primary cast, though Rebecca Hall is actually a supporting actress, and mention must certainly be made of David Bowie’s mildly-extended cameo as the science/electric pioneer, Nikolai Tesla (with Andy Sirkis, blessedly motion-capture free, as his assistant). Bowie, in a neatly underplayed performance, makes Tesla into a strange, near-alien presence, lending a psychological credence to his producing, out of nowhere, the only genuinely magical element of the entire film, even as it is paraded as not Magic but Science.

This is the other mystery that Nolan wants to withhold until the very end. We’ve seen it in action at the outset, or rather one esoteric aspect of it, and it spurs the film into action as the explanation for why Alfred Borden is on trial, is convicted, is hanged. Put the field of top hats together with the man in the locked cage of water and you can understand the magic without needing the last, final, horrific shot to render explicit what the film has long since given away. All things are duplicated.

Actually, the end is the only disappointing thing about the film. Borden, who has died for killing Angier when he hasn’t killed him, kills Angier (work that one out) but not before the two have a final, cryptic conversation that is far too long and slows the film to a crawl just when it needs to stay taut.

I do have one further complaint about the film, or rather my DVD copy of it, which has the soundtrack mixed so low that, given that so much of it is conducted in whispers, or lowered voices, it was impossible to make out what was being said on many occasions, even with the laptop volume cranked up to 100.

But this is still a great film, and despite its differing intentions, it’s a worthy companion to Christopher Priest’s novel. Different but equal: no better thing can be said about an adaptation.