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Thursday, September 03, 2015

Narcos(television show) (2015) Netflix Season 1



Narcos(television show)
(2015)
Netflix Season 1

  Are we living in the age of television the same way the 19th century was the age of the novel and the 20th was the age of the film?  Specifically, is long form television cable series- the format shared by shows on HBO, Showtime and AMC, the contemporary equivalent of the 90 minute feature film or the triple decker novel?

 The answer to this question must be an increasingly unqualified, "Yes."  All the signs are there: an explosion of critical interest mixed with wariness at the increase in artistic product "worthy" of notice;  an increase in the actual size of the audience for a particular worth of art, whether one looks at multi-platform viewings of basic cable shows, or the debut audience for the first episode of a particular show;  weakness in the audience for competing popular art forms.

   I've seen it here- the most popular post was something I wrote about the amazing Vikings show on History Channel.  Eleven thousand page views?  That is some popular television.   And, when I wrote the post it was just with an eye towards saying, "Hey, this is some creditable narrative television about an interesting historical period."  Vikings wasn't and isn't, the greatest thing ever, but it is something more than mindless pablum, the traditional measuring stick for the narrative quality of scripted television drama.

  Like all narrative art forms of the last three hundred years, television has an enduring fascination with crime and criminals.  You could argue that the three best television shows are ALL about the crime, if you take The Wire, Sopranos and Breaking Bad as your top three shows.  As a criminal defense lawyers, I've stayed away from The Wire and Breaking Bad as simply being too close to my daily experience.  Practicing in Federal Court, I've learned plenty about international drug trafficking between Mexico and the United States, and the internal distribution of drugs within the United States, and the street level sale of drugs inside the United States. 

  Narcos is distant enough from my every day experience to be interesting, but it's not quite as good as your top crime driven television shows.  The narrative is a conventional blow-by-blow of the rise and fall of the Medellin Cartel and Pablo Escobar, told largely from the perspective of an embedded DEA agent, a man who brings his wife to Colombia with him.  High points for narrative accuracy and newsworthiness, fewer points for style.

  There is none of the moral ambiguity that characterizes the criminal heroes of The Sopranos and Breaking Bad.  Escobar is a charming bad guy, but he's not a tragic hero.  Nor is the element of surprise much at play.  I'm sure there are people watching this show on Netflix who have legit never heard of Pablo Escobar, but if you have, you know how the story ends. 

  Narcos has plenty of sex, plenty of violence, plenty of stereotypical behavior from Latin Ameican drug lords.  The Medellin Cartel is so far in the rear view mirror that we can begin to treat that time as an absurd fantasia.  Narcos itself hints at this possibility by opening with a voice over quote about how Colombia is where the literary form of "magical realism" was invented.  It's a hopeful note to sound at the beginning of the ten episode first season, but magic in the script or execution is in short supply.

  Another winning element is the inclusion of the Colombian Communist guerrilla groups and, later in the series, a Basque bomb maker imported from Spain.  The struggle against Latin American Communism is a very strong secondary theme all throughout Narcos.  A major break through in terms of escalating American government support is a photograph of Escobar unloading cocaine on a Nicaraguan tarmac with a top Sandinista during the height of the 80s Cold War.

  If any of this sounds intriguing, I would at least recommend giving Narcos a one or two episode test drive.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Arcanum 17 (1944) by Andre Breton

Andre Breton, founder of the surrealism movement and author of Arcanum 17.

Book Review
Arcanum 17 (1944)
by Andre Breton

  French poet, author and thinker Andre Breton is the person who receives formal credit for inventing surrealism in its original sense.  He lived and worked in Paris, France  EXCEPT for when he fled France during World War II for the majestic vistas of the Canadian Atlantic sea coast.  This made him suspect in the eyes of the people who followed in his footsteps- people who were doing so decades later.  He wrote the surrealism manifesto in the mid 1920s, and I can personally testify that the appearance of surrealism or even characters who were even aware of surrealism in any meaningful way is zero up to and including the mid 1940s.  Like many ideas that are slow to be accepted by western aesthetic culture, Surrealism was originally one of a number of indigenous movements that were active from Russia to Spain that played with existing narrative and artistic convention in the early 20th century, but it has indubitably emerged as a victor, relegating would-be competitors like Dadaism, Expressionism, Constructivism and Futurism to the proverbial dust bin of history.

  Today, the appellation of "surreal" is practically a synonym for "weird" or "strange" when in fact the original concept was more along the lines of trying to derive artistic inspiration from dreams.   In this way, Surrealism in its original sense is deeply linked to the advances by Freud and Jung in the area of psychology/psychiatry around the same time.

  One rule of them when looking for "real" surrealist literature is that it should be by a European author, in the 20th century and it shouldn't make any sense, because the whole point of surrealism is to conjure imagery from dreams that don't make any conventional sense.  That's surrealism, you interpret the symbols.

  Along those lines, Arcanum 17, in the words of the Kirkus Review, "combines poetry, memoir, philosophy, a journal, social commentary (criticizing France and the rest of Europe from the safe harbor of America and Canada), a cautionary tale, mysticism (verging on automatic writing), and a political treatise. "

   Sooooo....yeah.  Is this one of one thousand and one books you need to read before you die?  Arguably not.  Why not make people read Freud or Jung?  Or maybe just rest on Nadja, written by Breton in the late 1920s and inarguably a novel compared to Arcanum 17.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Brideshead Revisited (1945) by Evelyn Waugh

Anthony Adams and Jeremy Irons in a film version of Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh- it is heavy on the barely suppressed homosexuality.

Book Review
Brideshead Revisited (1945)
by Evelyn Waugh

   Despite being a small minority, English Catholics have an outsized presence in English literature of the first half of the twentieth century.  Graham Greene is the writer most associated with the English-Catholic point of view, but in Brideshead Revisited Eveyln Waugh takes a swing at the English-Catholic novel.  The subjects of Brideshead Revisited are the Marchmain family, Catholic English aristocrats who suffer from many of the maladies seen by other characters in Waugh's other novels: lack of focus, alcoholism, unacknowledged homosexuality, divorce, and a distinct fin de si├Ęcle malaise.

  Unlike the other Waugh novels I've read as part of the 1001 Books project, I found Brideshead Revisited memorable indeed, perhaps because of the use of the flashback framing technique employed by the narrator (Captain Charles Ryder) or perhaps because of how well drawn I found the characters.  Both Ryder and the Marchmain family members come vividly to live during the course of the book, which covers roughly from school days to the present.  Charles Ryder isn't there simply as a narrator, Brideshead Revisited is his story, and it is the Marchmain family who play a role in his book, not the other way around.

 

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