On the watch

Posted on January 9, 2016


Looking back at my vacation viewing, which included heavily intellectual entertainment like… um, ‘Downton Abbey’.

What does a film critic watch while on vacation? I was surprised people even thought this was a question worth asking, but then someone explained why. With “normal” folks (a category I clearly do not belong to), holidays are a time to catch up with films, but when your work is itself day after day of catching up with films…? Anyway, I’d like to report that I used the time away from work to watch seven-hour black-and-white epics by the Hungarian auteur Béla Tarr, but alas, I am made of much shallower stuff. Among my indulgences: the new Star Wars movie, and a back-to-back marathon of the still-entertaining Back to the Future trilogy, the second film of which takes place in 2015. In other words, a year that’s supposed to be the distant future just became part of the past. I felt really old. Imagine. We are now far beyond the “future” imagined in 2001: A Space Odyssey, even if our world looks little like the one Kubrick dreamt up.

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As for the past, I ended up, as I always do, re-watching some of my favourite older films. I saw Laura again, the 1944 noir directed by Otto Preminger. It has one of my favourite characters, the suavely venomous newspaper columnist Waldo Lydecker, who’s made from the same mould as Addison DeWitt, the theatre critic from All About Eve. The film revolves around the murder of the titular character, and in an early scene, a detective named McPherson interrogates Lydecker. Just see how cracklingly clever the dialogue is. McPherson asks, “Were you in love with Laura Hunt, Mr. Lydecker? Was she in love with you?” Lydecker replies, “Laura considered me the wisest, the wittiest, the most interesting man she’d ever met. And I was in complete accord with her on that point. She thought me also the kindest, the gentlest, the most sympathetic man in the world.” McPherson asks, “Did you agree with her there, too?” Lydecker replies, “McPherson, you won’t understand this; but I tried to become the kindest, the gentlest, the most sympathetic man in the world.” McPherson asks, “Have any luck?” Lydecker replies, “Let me put it this way. I should be sincerely sorry to see my neighbors’ children devoured by wolves.” Who writes lines like these anymore?

Another re-re-re-watch: East of Eden. Of the three movies James Dean made, Rebel Without a Cause is the one I like least, the ultra-Bollywoody Giant the one I like most. This one’s somewhere in the middle, an oddly constricted slice of the sprawling Steinbeck novel. Speaking of literary adaptations, I also saw Room, which is based on the excellent book by Emma Donoghue. The film is very good (as is Brie Larson, as the mother kept captive in the titular space), but I must say I preferred the book, which invites us into that room, to gaze at the things inside that room through the eyes of five-year-old Jack – he makes the ordinary just a little bit off with his insistence on referring to things by their name. (“Hello sink,” “Hello TV,” “Hello rug.”) But here’s the thing with the movie, with its visuals. We see the sink. We see the TV. We see the rug. It’s different from the book, where we saw, through the mind’s eye, the sink, the TV, the rug that the boy saw.

The most fun I had was wasting many, many hours on Downton Abbey. (Rather than keep tracking weekly episodes, I prefer to watch entire seasons at one go.) Everyone’s been telling me to watch this series about the aristocratic Crawley family negotiate a series of upheavals in the post-Edwardian era – and I was hooked right from the opening episodes, thanks mainly to two great female characters. One, the peerless Dowager Countess, played by the peerless Maggie Smith, who keeps mouthing the most peerless lines. (“One can’t go to pieces at the death of every foreigner. We’d all be in a constant state of collapse whenever we opened a newspaper.”) And two, Mary Crawley, whose fascinating mix of virtues and vices kept reminding me of Scarlett O’Hara – she’s selfish, vain about her effect on men, mean to her sister, and yet, kind to and genuinely concerned about the ones she loves, even if they are servants. Another great character: Mr. Carson, the butler. The sight of this starched man letting his hair down by the beachside is one of the happiest images from last year.

At first, I was a little disappointed with the series. When you think “great TV,” you think Breaking Bad, Dexter, Mad Men – shows that have redefined what television can show and do. So imagine my surprise when, after all that you-don’t-know-what-you’re-missing talk, Downton Abbey turned out to be a… soap, the kind of thing where you see a man speeding in a car and you know, just around the corner, there’s a truck speeding towards him. It’s one breathless cliffhanger after another. I don’t have a problem with soaps – it’s just that I wouldn’t actively seek one out. And yet, after a bit of mental recalibration, I found the show quite addictive, even as I kept rolling my eyes at some of the plotlines, like the one around the illegitimate child of one of the Crawley daughters or a murder investigation that goes on and on. At the end of the day, despite our striving to be above certain things, I guess we’re all suckers for a good yarn.

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