Friday, September 19, 2014

All That Is Old Is New Again: On the Current State of Doctor Who

Peter Capaldi as the Doctor, in BBC's Doctor Who

This past winter, my wife knit a Tom Baker-era Doctor Who scarf as a birthday gift for a friend. It turned out my friend has been wanting one since he was a kid, and could not have been more thrilled with the gift. He proudly wore the 12-foot scarf, its colourful tassels dragging along the streets of Washington, D.C., for the remaining cold days of the year, and even beyond them. Recently he told me a story: while walking to work on one such day, he crossed paths with a young boy (perhaps nine-years-old) and his mother. The boy, on seeing my friend, began jumping up and down and pulling at his mom's coat, yelling with delight: ""Doctor Who Scarf! Doctor Who Scarf!!!"

I tell this story, not only because of the profound pleasure the incident provoked in my friend, but because it reveals something I've long believed about Doctor Who as a televisual and cultural phenomenon. Even after 50 years and over 34 seasons, the show appeals across cultures, continents, and generations. (Tom Baker stopped wearing that scarf more than three decades before that young American boy was even born!) I loved the show as a child, when episodes of Peter Davison's Doctor aired on my local PBS channel, and as an adult the relaunched BBC series has topped my list of favourite shows since the show appeared in 2005.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Tainted Love: FX's You're the Worst

Chris Geere and Aya Cash star in You're the Worst, on FX.

The summer television season has come and gone, and it was a season of surprising, if ambitious misfires: Hollywood stars couldn't make Crossbones any less absurd or Extant any more compelling, and the less said about the return of Games of Thrones' much-lamented Sean Bean in TNT's painfully derivative Legends the better. But the show I'm already missing (even though it still has two episodes remaining of its 10-episode order) is the one I didn't see coming: FX's dark relationship comedy You're the Worst. Created by former Weeds writer Stephen Falk, the series doesn't come with any super-spies, worldwide apocalyptic events, or mysterious – possibly alien – pregnancies. What it does have is charm, humour, and a delightfully dark undercurrent that it plays without shame.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Saint Joss: Amy Pascale's Biography of Joss Whedon

James Marsters & Sarah Michelle Gellar in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

"TV is a question, movies are an answer."
– Joss Whedon, from Joss Whedon: The Biography

Amy Pascale's biography of Joss Whedon, published as Joss Whedon: The Biography (Chicago Review Press, 2014) in North America, has a far less urbane, and in fact more honest, title in the UK: Joss Whedon: Geek King of the Universe. Pascale unapologetically approaches her subject from an initial position of awe, and the book often verges on the hagiographic. It is comprehensive: the book traces his early years, the impact of his mother and college professors, his long relationship with Kai Cole (his now-wife), along with the many frustrating false starts to his career as a screenwriter and script doctor in the 90s, through Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, Dr. Horrible and The Avengers, up to this fall's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.DVery little, in fact, of his IMDB page doesn't make the cut, along with innumerable ventures (like his famously dropped Wonder Woman project) which never saw the light of day – more than enough to quiet any criticisms from those who may feel a person that is just barely 50, and whose career is far from over, is deserving of an almost 400-page biography. There is a lot to tell and Pascale tells it – unfortunately at the expense of the man himself, who often gets lost among the details and anecdotes Pascale collects about his many beloved projects.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Old Country: Starz' Outlander

Caitriona Balfe stars in Outlander on Starz.

Last night, Starz – the cable network most famous for Spartacus (though in my opinion should still be best known for Party Down) – broadcast the first episode of Outlander, and fans of the network were in for a bit of a surprise. Based on Diane Gabaldon's best-selling book series (the first book was published in 1991 and the most recent, Written in My Own Heart's Blood, came out just this past June), the first hour of Outlander sets the stage for a cross-genre epic: historical drama, time travel/fantasy, with a heady dose of romance. Set primarily in 18th century Scotland (and filmed on location), Outlander has already exhibited something recent ambitious television rarely offers: patient storytelling. Though it may come with some 21st century sensibilities regarding violence and sex, the tone of the show feels like a refreshing trip back in time for the viewer – ethereal music, lush scenery, longer scenes, and a comfortable pace that makes the series novelistic in more than its origins. Set for a sixteen-episode first season (with eight episodes airing now through mid-September and the remainder scheduled for 2015), that sober, languishing pace that is currently its most interesting feature may turn out to be its greatest weakness. Still, its first hour is well worth your time, especially if you are still recovering from Game of Thrones' fourth season.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Unpacking an Inherited Past: Arnon Goldfinger's The Flat

Director Arnon Goldfinger and Edda Milz von Mildenstein in The Flat

Memory is a tricky business, all the more so when the memories involve the Nazi Holocaust. Hundreds of academic texts have struggled with the complicated dynamics of inherited memory, but Israeli filmmaker Arnon Goldfinger's The Flat (Ha-dira, 2011) dramatizes the messiness of familial memory without pretense, building to a complex portrait of the said and the unsaid things that contribute to our family narratives. It is Goldfinger's second documentary feature – his first, the widely-acclaimed The Komediant released in 1999, documents a family of American Jewish vaudeville performers from the 1930s onwards. With The Flat, Goldfinger moves closer to home, in the most literal way. A cross-generational tale of history, mystery, and trauma (both personal and historical), The Flat never fails to hold the viewer's attention. It is a deceptively small story with world historical scope.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Arab Springs Eternal: G. Willow Wilson's Alif the Unseen

Author G. Willow Wilson (Photo by Amber French)

"They're marching together," said Alif, half to himself. "All the disaffected scum at once. I probably know a lot of them."
"We did this, akh. Computer geeks did this. We told these ruffians they could all have a voice, but they had to share the same virtual platform. And now that the virtual platform is gone--"
"They have to share the real world."
"In real life."

– G. Willow Wilson, Alif the Unseen

The classification of speculative fiction is self-consciously broad – including within it straight fantasy novels of the classic sort, hard and soft science fiction, alternate history, magical realism, and probably modes of storytelling still unimagined. And yet there is probably no book better suited for the label than G. Willow Wilson's Alif the Unseen (Grove Press, 2012). Winner of the World Fantasy Award and the Woman's Prize for Fiction, both in 2013, the novel tells the story of Alif – a skilled young hacker of mixed Arab-Indian descent who is more at home online than on the streets of the unnamed Middle Eastern city of his birth. Our hero – his self-given name taken from the first letter in the Arabic alphabet, which is nothing but "a straight line—a wall," he tells us – is young, naive in the way only someone who lives primarily that unseen realm of cloud servers and 1s and 0s can be, a citizen of everywhere and nowhere... but mainly nowhere. Alif's relatively safe world in front of his keyboard explodes into the streets and beyond when the love of his life – a beguiling woman of means and status who he could never, except in the anonymous world of chat rooms and aliases, be with – puts an ancient book in his hands. Dark forces from all realms – some very human, and some very much not – want the book and Alif goes on the run, compelled to peer into the city's shadowy mystical history and even shadowier political realities.

Set against the background of the Arab Spring, Alif the Unseen weaves Muslim theology, contemporary political realities, and the unmoored life of a computer coder into a compelling modern fable that transcends its geographic and religious content. Wilson – an American-born convert to Islam – successfully mobilizes her own singular background with a simple talent for storytelling to create a novel that effortlessly crosses cultural and spiritual boundaries. A delightful and often horrifying mixture of legend, religion, history, and politics – including a genuinely affecting love story – Alif the Unseen is the kind of book you will be recommending to friends even before you finish reading it.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Tinghir-Jerusalem: Songs from Dislocated Hearts

A scene from Tinghir-Jerusalem: Echoes from the Mellah

Tinghir-Jerusalem: Echoes from the Mellah (Tinghir-J√©rusalem: Les √©chos du Mellah, 2013) is the first film by Moroccan-French filmmaker Kamal Hachkar, and seemingly a product of a journey he's been on for much of his adult life. In Tinghir-Jerusalem, we join Hachkar as he travels from the foothills of Morocco's Atlas Mountains, to Israel, and back again. Born in Tinghir, Morocco, of Muslim Berber descent, Hachkar emigrated to France with his parents at the age of 6 months. Growing up, mainly in France, he was inculcated with strong ties to his birth place, but when he sought to flesh out those stories himself, one recurring and unasked question haunted him: What, after millennia of living side-by-side, happened to the Jews of Tinghir? This is the question that drives him – and the movie – forward.

The film has been honoured at numerous film festivals, including winning Best Film at Morocco's Rabat International Film Festival for Human Rights and Best Documentary at Israel's Jewish Eye Festival, both in 2012. (This diversity of acclaim is the first and strongest indication of the sincerity of the young filmmaker's voice.) Armed with a cameraman, a book of published photos, and a seemingly uncharted wealth of natural charm, Hachkar knocks on doors and in minutes finds the kindred exiled hearts of his subjects. (One unplanned encounter with a Jewish Berber woman specifically will live long in your memory after viewing. Her pleasure, and her anguish, in recollecting her Muslim neigbours – from Casablanca in her case – is palpable and affecting.) Like the best film documentaries, Tinghir-Jerusalem paints a powerful portrait of a complicated historical and political moment, with humility and without didactism. Hachkar is as much a subject of his film as the numerous individuals he gathers together: a searching voice more interested in bringing people together than in resolving any big questions of history.