I’m one of those people who finds it hard to pick a movie to watch on a Friday night. Growing up, the family’s weekly excursion to Blockbuster became a lengthy, leisurely affair. Despite my family’s frustration, I doubled down and took my time, knowing how important it was to select the right movie for the right evening. A movie was the perfect complement to a long day of being subjected to my peers. These days the choice is made harder by the fact that I’ve seen hundreds of them.
So, when I found myself in Woodbridge Library on a day off last week, I thought I would take a gander at their DVD and Blu-Ray collection. For my first post on Hot Off the Shelf, I wanted to extol the virtues of what I found there, as well as some other DVDs I’ve borrowed from the library recently.
Woodbridge is where I found Press, a PBS Masterpiece series with woefully few episodes. Masterpiece (Theater as it used to be known) on PBS is something I imagine the younger generations have absolutely no idea exists. It’s a series of shows on PBS on Sunday evenings, often featuring actors dressed in empire waists, rigidly riding horses, and declaring how “drole” everything is. I tease because I love – fan as I am of everything romance, including Austen.
Press is something different altogether, though. On the surface, a blatant warning about the future of journalism in Britain (and the world in general) told through a parable about two papers on opposite sides of the political spectrum in London. Duncan Allen is the editor of The Post, a right-leaning tabloid-leaning sensationalist paper that puts narrative above all else, even the truth. On the other side of the coin is Holly Evans, deputy editor of The Herald, an earnest daily that adheres closely to the journalistic code. Despite this — or perhaps because of it — it’s on the way out.
Episodes are divided between the two newsrooms, and there is a clear winner as to which is more interesting to watch. No surprise there. Infuriatingly, Ben Chaplin’s portrayal of Duncan Allen is gripping. Somehow, he makes Allen someone we want nothing and everything to do with. Morally, there is nothing ambiguous as to Allen’s shortcomings. Yet, he sees himself as working towards a better society, “A Better Britain,” as it says on The Post’s stark red wall. Luckily, the other characters are intriguing too and infuriating in their own ways. Case in point, Holly Evans makes a decision that is both incredulous and somehow feels inevitable toward the end of the six episodes. Although you may inhale them all and spend the rest of your life pining for more, like hunger pangs in your stomach, it will have been worth it. It’s better to have loved, they say.
At some point the documentary Gimme Shelter was recommended to me by a family member. Like many other recommendations I’m sure, I promptly forgot about it. I hadn’t seen a trailer or anything, had no idea what I was missing until I came upon it in that same DVD/Blu-Ray collection at Woodbridge Branch. Gimme Shelter is a superbly filmed collection of edited footage. There are no talking heads, no lower thirds, no interstitial shots letting us know where we are, who, or even what we’re looking at. All we know is that it’s the winter of 1969 and The Rolling Stones are on tour in the US. We know from the beginning that the free concert The Stones put on at the Altamont Speedway in California was a disaster, a calamity of sorts. We hear two numbers. Or, rather one number with two statistics attached. Four people died. Four people gave birth.
This is all the information we’re given. Instead, we see and hear some of the best music that’s ever been made. One (beautifully remastered) song precedes the next, moving from one concert venue to another. We know what happens eventually, but we don’t know how the film will take us there. The answer is fairly straightforward. There are some flashes forward to members of the band watching footage shot by the documentary’s creators (the Maysles brothers and Charlotte Zwerin) weeks in the future — not that we are explicitly told this. The expressions on Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts’ faces transfix you, as they in turn are transfixed by themselves on screen.
The Blu-Ray comes with a booklet of essays by journalists and figures who were around the band at the time. A quote from film critic Amy Taubin struck me when I read it, “There is a multiplicity of truths in Gimme Shelter; putting them together is up to us.”1 I think I would go one step further and say that there is a multiplicity of impressions and images, but they all raise more questions than they answer. There is something incredibly refreshing and ironic about a documentary that does that.
The Good Wife
The Good Wife is either one of your favourite shows or it missed you entirely. If you’re a member of the latter group, it might be time to change that. I recently began the massive undertaking that is the re-watch. Averaging over 40 minutes an episode, 20 episodes per season, seven seasons in total, to say the show is bingeable would be an understatement. Listen, I get it. It’s not much of a premise. Julianna Margulies is the wife of a disgraced State’s Attorney embroiled in a sex scandal. Automatic failure of the Bechdel Test, that’s for sure. However, soon Margulies’ Alicia Florrick has bigger things to worry about. With her husband in prison, she goes back to work as a defense attorney. Now, the story can venture into more interesting arenas.
Each season adds more layers of complexity and interest, especially as more and more time is devoted to the private investigator for Florrick’s firm, Kalinda Sharma (the role for which Archie Panjabi received her Emmy). Panjabi makes acting look like finger painting (that being said, it’s hard to get the brushstrokes right sometimes). Why is it that Kalinda didn’t get her own spin-off? Something I would’ve watched in a heartbeat. The first season had growing pains, with Kalinda (the cynic) and Alicia (the naive, idealistic lawyer) often playing the same opposite sides of every debate. Eventually, Alicia begins to see the subtle tints of morality her firm operates in — as opposed to black and white — and Kalinda starts to accept that not everyone is out to get her.
The creators moved on to a show with a darker, grittier tone. I think that move was an evolution. In many ways, The Good Fight is a superior show. We have them both in our catalogue, both heartily recommended in case you were wondering.
The Lady in the Van
Whenever Maggie Smith tilts her head indignantly, I marvel at her brilliance. Ever since her days playing an irritated professor at Hogwarts (and long before I’m sure), her performances have been pitch perfect, her craft a perfectly-tuned piano. The Lady in the Van is no exception. It’s based on a true story, or as the film says, “A Mostly True Story.” The narrative recounts a 15-year relationship between Smith’s Miss Shepherd — an elderly woman living in a van in 1970s London — and the playwright who allows her to park on his driveway. Shepherd is quite literally hiding from the figures in her past (part of which includes being a concert pianist).
The film is deceptive in its storytelling. Many will discount the plot as simple or sentimental (that fatal association with the evil that is feelings). Some of the best screenplays make the whole thing look easy. Unassuming in the way they make you laugh, selflessly carrying on, from one scene to the next. We take these things for granted sometimes.
I have to admit, this film is first and foremost about writing. I do think some of it would be lost on people who just happen not to be writers. That being said, there’s plenty left for the rest of audiences to choose from, a breakfast buffet of charms, to sustain their interest. Alan Bennet is the writer at the centre of the film. He’s the screenplay writer, real-life subject, writer of a play on the same subject, author of the memoir the movie is based on, and even cameo performer at one point. Despite all that, Dame Maggie Smith is its substantial core. Her performance makes up the bulk of the film’s weight and tangible credibility. Part of her adept embodiment of the role must have come from having played Miss Shepherd before. When the play was first staged in London in the late nineties, she originated the role.
Speaking of writing, to be honest it’s been a while since I’ve felt the creative impulse that drives a person to spend hours and hours alone, tucked up with a computer or notebook, trying not to scare away strings of words that sound like chords next to each other on the page. Piano keys pressed simultaneously to produce dangerously adequate music. The right combination of movies, TV shows, novels, artworks, YouTube videos, any and all signs of intelligent life can have a remarkable impact on creativity. When you see it done well, it’s like it reminds you of what is possible. When you have the patience and the time to go looking, there are reminders everywhere of what’s possible. The DVD section of the library might be a good place to start.
- Taubin, Amy. “Rock-And-Roll Zapruder.” The Rolling Stones, Altamont & Gimme Shelter. Irvington : Criterion Collection, 2000.