Grizzly Man

When it comes to film, bears usually end up in a metaphorical role. Think about Bart the Bear, who played in such films as The Edge, and Legends of the Fall. Bears are typically portrayed as the powerful adversary who lurks just beyond in the tree line. The protagonist must muster up what strength he can, and eventually face the bear, lest his manhood be questioned.

In the make-believe world, the bear is the aggressor. In the Werner Herzog documentary Grizzly Man, the role of aggressor is left to another character: the fool. Grizzly Man recounts the life of Timothy Treadwell, a surfer-type turned amateur naturalist, who went to Alaska every summer to camp out with the grizzly bears. He observed, filmed, and talked to the bears without any weaponry. After 13 years of surprisingly close contact with the region’s grizzly population, Treadwell and his girlfriend were attacked and devoured by one of the very creatures he loved.

While the film doesn’t show Treadwell’s actual demise (there was an audio recording of the event, but Herzog tastefully declines to play it in the film), the descent into his own quixotic version of reality is well-documented through Treadwell’s video footage. In his mind, Treadwell was the sole protector of the bears. He claimed that the bears were in constant danger from poaching, and his presence there kept the bears safe from them.

In one clip Treadwell, hidden behind cover, filmed some of these so-called poachers — a group of fishermen who were simply taking photos of a bear while keeping it at bay by tossing rocks. Apparently, Treadwell saw anyone else who entered the bears’ territory as predators.

Legend has it that St. Francis of Assisi went out into the wilderness to preach the gospel to the animals. Timothy Treadwell went into the wild to preach himself. He saw himself as the bears’ savior, and boasted to the camera of how he “would die for these animals.” His prescience, evidently, was better than his judgment.

Timothy Treadwell was a fool, no doubt. His death, however, is not something to be relished. It is true that if you play with fire, you’re bound to get burned, but Treadwell’s story evokes sadness more than anything. For all his foolishness and Mister Rogers–like character, Treadwell was a uniquely gifted individual. When such giftedness should have caused him to give thanks to his maker, Treadwell became a god unto himself. A god which in the end was powerless to save him and the bear that killed him.

[Watch the Grizzly Man trailer]

Art Imitates Life…Sort of

Anthropologist Grant McCracken picks up on a changing trend in the programming of prime–time television:

Prime time TV is, as we say, episodic. Each show was supposed to be free standing and one-off. No prior knowledge was presumed. If we had seen the show before, great. If not, never mind. Narrative constructions like Rockford Files or Two and a Half Men are so structurally simple and referentially redundant, that prior introductions were quite unnecessary. (In any case, a car chase is, forgive me, not so hard to follow.)

Prime time TV was not about continuities. It was about episodes. The world that just kept starting over. Time didn’t happen. Events didn’t accumulate. There were no critical paths, no path dependencies, no differences that ever made a difference over the long term. Typically, people didn’t age. They didn’t change. They didn’t grow. Outside the narrow narrative particulars, prime time dramas were timeless and placeless. It was as if all the characters had a really terrible case of amnesia.

Clearly, this is changing. Shows like 24 are really unthinkable without a knowledge of the larger, overarching narrative. Lost the same. I am noticing that while House can be watched without a knowledge of narrative continuity, it makes a vast difference when this is in place. Even with the cheat sheets from Entertainment Weekly (to say nothing of the love notes), Lost remains daunting.

McCracken suggests that contemporary culture might be becoming more complicated, thereby forcing contemporary entertainment to follow suit. He asks the question, “Beyond the new media literacy, what drives the trend to offer TV narrative that replaces the old strategy (broad access to shallow narrative) with a much more demanding one (narrower access to deeper narrative)?”

The other night I had a conversation with my friend Tom Hicks in which we discussed the idea that in order for art to be good art, it must be true. It doesn’t necessarily have to be factual, but it must represent what is being depicted truthfully. Absractions, or even ugliness can occur within a work of art, but even these must serve to highlight some truth or another.

Such thinking might be helpful in explaining the shift in the nature of prime–time television. People have seen that the old, formulaic, episodic shows didn’t give a true enough depiction of the world. People’s lives really weren’t resolved in hour, so they stopped watching these episodic shows in favor of “reality TV.” More often than not, however, reality shows were less truthful than episodic television.

Enter the serials. While shows like 24, Desperate Housewives, Lost, and Alias are often just as fanastic as the earlier stand-alone shows, they exhibit one truth in that like lives of their viewers, these shows understand that there is a larger overarching story to a human life that doesn’t end with the closing of a day. This doesn’t necccesarily qualify them as art, but it could place some of these shows much further along the spectrum than a standard 1980’s cop show.

This doesn’t completely explain the reason for the success of such shows (the marketers would undoubtedly see other influences), but it’s certainly a plausible theory — these are, after all, the most popular shows on television. It also is very telling about contemporary culture that people are interested in larger, more complex stories rather than simple, self-contained ones.

I See Dead People

Pardon the Seinfeldian expression, but what’s the deal with all the corpses on television these days? It’s almost as if sex stopped selling, so now cadavers are all the rage. Just flash a semi-decomposed body on the screen and the viewers will flock.

Shows like Bones, CSI, CSI: Miami, CSI: New York, CSI:Mayberry, Law & Order (take your pick), and Criminal Minds all have their own versions of the “morgue scene.” In the morgue scene, the helpless and apparently odorless corpse lies exposed to the world while the cops wax not-so-eloquent above them. Meanwhile, the camera zooms inside and around their dead body.

Dead people, everywhere. And that’s just on network TV. It almost makes you want to ask, “Who will deliver me from this body of death?

House = Holmes: It’s Elementary

A while back, I noted the similarities between Fox’s House (pretty much the only television show I watch with regularity) and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. In Tuesday’s episode, the producers/writers bent over backwards to show the connection.

It may have slipped the notice of the casual observer, but surely didn’t slip by us here at TruePravda. In the opening scene, House and Dr. Wilson are exiting House’s apartment. For a moment, we see the address on the side of the building over House’s shoulder: 221B. I’ll bet he even lives on Baker Street.

Man v. Machine

If you’re a chess geek, or a wanna-be chess geek like me, I recommend the DVD Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine. It’s a documentary of the 1997 controversial rematch between world-champion grandmaster Garry Kasparov and IBM’s “Deep Blue” computer.

Kasparov handily defeated the supercomputer in 1996, but in ’97, Kasparov lost the match in six games. The controversy stemmed from the fact that the computer appeared to play more like a human than a machine — even making errors that wouldn’t be expected from a machine. IBM’s mysterious secrecy, denial of a rematch, and Kasparov’s bizarre mental breakdown under pressure turned what began as a friendly “experiment” into an intrigue-filled contest.

What’s amazing is that even if IBM didn’t cheat by secretly using human intervention, the fact remains that humans actually had to program the machine to play against Kasparov as an opponent. That is to say that we can’t even attempt to replicate the human mind without a human element to do the replicating. Logically, it seems impossible that we could create something smarter than ourselves. I’m no humanist, but I do believe that humans are the pinnacle of creation, made in the image of God. Not even humanity can improve upon that.

DVD Roundup

I haven’t done a DVD roundup in a while, so here are a few quick reviews of films I’ve seen in the last few months:

On a night when you’re feeling really comfortable, successful, and like you’ve got everything together, put Hotel Rwanda into your DVD player. Two hours and two minutes later, you’ll emerge in a shell-shocked realization that the rest of the world doesn’t operate as easily as the one just outside your living room. This is a difficult film to watch, even as it spares us the most gruesome violence. Does this type of thing still happen in our “highly evolved” society? You bet it does. 8 out of 10

Hostage was at best mediocre. The film, which features Bruce Willis trying to save an seemingly endless number of hostages, is like an introspective version of Willis’ earlier success, Die Hard. The Die Hard genre of cinema and introspection go together about as well as mayonnaise on pizza, and Hostage only proves the rule. The whole “kidnappers-are-people-too” idea grows wearisome, and while a sullen Willis worked for The Sixth Sense, it seems awkward in Hostage. 4 out of 10

Secondhand Lions: It’s been out for a while, but I’ll admit that I was surprised that I liked this film so much. Haley Joel Osmet pulls off a perfect sissy-boy who learns to grow up a bit when he spends a summer with his eccentric uncles played by Robert Duvall and Michael Caine. Duvall hilariously evokes the kind of “man’s man” that you rarely see anymore. 7 out of 10

Finding Neverland: First, bore me to tears, and then proceed to tell me that a man destroying his marriage in pursuit of another woman is a good thing in the long run. Peter Pan never did grow up, and neither did this movie’s plot. 4 out of 10

The Life Aquatic: This is the second time I’ve tried really hard to like a Wes Anderson film. This is the second time I’ve failed miserably. Something about Anderson’s humor either goes over my head or is just not funny to me. 3 out of 10

In Good Company: I liked this movie because it shows us that the new and idealistic isn’t always the best approach. It’s the most un-Hollywoodish portrayal of family life I’ve seen in a long time, and Dennis Quaid and Topher Grace both give outstanding performances. It’s one of the best movies for character development of the year. 7 out of 10

We Named the Dog Indiana

While Star Wars is currently the rage when it comes to all-things-Lucas, there have been rumblings in the background once again about Indiana Jones IV. Christianity Today’s movie website picks up on reports that the film is close to production.

I’ll believe it when I see it. The Indiana Jones trilogy, The Temple of Doom notwithstanding, have long been my favorite movies. While not necessarily the best films I’ve ever seen, they’re still my favorite for a variety of reasons—mostly just because they’re so much fun. I remember following the internet rumors about 10 years ago (take a look at the archives of this website) about a possible fourth installment of Indiana Jones. Back then, it was only a scheduling problem, which seems to be the major hold-up now. One would think that after so many years of speculation, the rumor mills would let this one die.

As a certain fedora-clad archaeologist once said, “It’s not the years, honey. It’s the mileage.”

Sherlock’s House?

Although I don’t watch a great deal of television, I’ll have to admit I’ve recently become addicted to Fox’s House. If you haven’t seen it (perhaps you’re one of those Amazing Race watchers), it’s about an eccentric-genius physician who solves medical mysteries that would stump the average M.D. Dr. House generally isn’t too fond of his patients—or anybody else, for that matter. He’s bitingly sarcastic, and unblushingly un-PC, so it’s no big surprise that I like the show.

Another reason I like the show is House’s striking similarity to Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous character, Sherlock Holmes. In addition to their shared powers of deduction, there are numerous other likenesses. For example, Holmes’ trusted friend was Dr. Watson; House’s best friend and confidant is Dr. Wilson. Holmes had an addiction to a “seven percent solution” of cocaine; House has an addiction to prescription painkillers. Holmes played violin to soothe himself; House plays piano. Holmes at times bent the law and allowed some criminals to go free; House at times bends the rules so patients can get better treatment.

More analogies can be drawn, but I found this post on the House message board (yes, I was reading the TV show’s message board, so what?) most interesting:

In general, however, I think Holmes is depicted pretty realistically through House. There are some obvious parallels-the artificial stimulants, the one friend, the all logic no emotion, inability to relate to humans, brilliance in his field, the ability to diagnose without seeing, and of course, the “House/Holmes” wordplay.
What i find most ironic:
Dr. House is supposed to be based on Sherlock Holmes. In one review, he was described as “Sherlock Holmes with a stethoscope.” However, Sherlock Holmes’s character was based on “author” Arthur Conan Doyle’s college professor-Dr. Joseph Bell, a brilliant doctor who was able to diagnose patients at a glance, without hearing about their symptoms. he was also described as rather distant, unemotional-a man of logic, not feeling…sound like anyone we know? (sic)

It’s good to see that the “game is afoot” somewhere in the landscape of television today. While House is thoroughly entertaining, I still long for the days of Jeremy Brett’s dead-on portrayal of Holmes that used to air on PBS.