J. & C.'s Movie Reviews

Our Notes on Movies Made Public

Archive for January, 2008

The Office (American TV Series)

Posted by J on January 28, 2008

A thought-experiment we recently encountered: What performers, artists, directors in popular culture are worth our serious attention in the last 10 years? The criteria for this question’s answer are that the artist/cultural production must be technically competent and also have an overall positive influence.

If you are like us, you had a hard time coming up with an answer.

Sadly, The Office would not fulfill the requirements. When we began watching Seasons 2 and 3 recently, we believed it might have a chance, hilariously refracting as it did at least two previous work experiences we’ve had. Yet the show is awash in foolish sexual talk–gradually increasing it throughout the third season–and has a fixed hierarchy of idiotic cultural caricatures. It’s no surprise to us that the show’s one Christian is supposed to be funny because she’s an uptight jerk, and that the one farm boy/nerd is funny because he’s a farm boy and a deranged nerd. They both, of course, are having a secret affair.

While the show is filmed documentary-style, including in-character interviews and movements only a handheld camera would make, it does not play equally with every character. Jim Halpert, the suburban fratboy who plays pranks on Dwight Schrute, the aforesaid countryboy and nerd, gets off easily. Everyone else is the subject of subtle jokes rooted in social criticism, made solely by the show’s mockumentary tone. Halpert, however, gets to be at once in and out of the world of the office. His casual, “who cares?” demeanor, combined with his frequent glances at the camera, given as the other characters say something stupid, make him the show’s hero of sorts. His frequent flirtations with the office secretary are constantly forced upon us, as their friendship-slowly-turning-into-romance is a constant, trite subplot (the fact that’s she’s already engaged does not keep the morally-challenged Halpert from wooing her by “being her friend”).

This is all too bad. Otherwise, the show blisters many of the stupidities of modern-day white-collar work, while charitably respecting the characters caught up in them. It is something like Herman Melville’s short story Bartleby the Scrivener, but whereas Melville’s narrator sighs “Ah Bartleby, ah humanity!”–conjoining Bartleby’s ethical issues related to work with humankind’s–The Office doesn’t bemoan the tendency for the business world to create isolated individuals. Instead, it smirkily sympathizes with the attempted forging of human communities–located in the modern office, in this case–among people who seem to want them but don’t really know how they work.

The workplace–here, the regional office of a dying paper-supply company–is a poor but necessary substitute for traditional, closely knit social groups, such as families and churches. It has to be, since none of the characters seem connected to anything else. The young MBA student, who is dating the Indian (Asian) girl addicted to fashion and gossip columns, seems taken off guard when the girl’s traditionalist parents ask him what he’s saving his money for. “Uh, I’d like to travel. Oh, and an XBox.” They had expected the answer to be a dowry and child-related expenses (1). No one in The Office seems future-oriented, except Stanley, who admits to grudgingly showing up for work solely in order to retire. The office itself is the place for social bonding (demonstrated by the frequent parties and gatherings that seem to coalesce for different reasons), though these bonds are tenuous and superficial.

The boss of this office, Michael Scott, is a typical fish-out-of-water, but in an intriguing way. Handicapped by political correctness and business management-speak, Scott constantly fails the systems he thinks he’s constrained by. Not that he minds being constrained by them, but he cannot help breaking the ethics of political correctness while trying to be politically correct. The joke is that any boss like Scott would be fired instantly, but in the world of TV fiction everyone puts up with him, proving still that silly comedy is the last refuge for anti-P.C. thought. Though the show sometimes involves him in nonsense–such as when he engages in an affair with his female boss, and the two enact a role reversal whereby Scott takes on typical feminine qualities– Scott is a great exemplar of a modern American dolt. (Watch him, for example, try to buy a condo or conduct a safety seminar).

Though we cannot give our full recommendation, we’ll list several particular episodes (see the comments section) that serve well to demonstrate what we’re trying to get at here. Our one caution is that The Office, like just about everything else today, is flippant about sex. However the episodes we list generally avoid the topic altogether.

(1) See the episode in Season 3 titled Diwali, maybe the best one of all.
— Also, Netflix subscribers can watch this show online instantly.


Posted in Clever but Immoral, TV Series | 3 Comments »

On the Death of a Young Celebrity

Posted by J on January 24, 2008

We didn’t know who he was until we looked him up. “Oh yeah, that guy,” we said.

Other people were not ignorant. They showered him with accolades and paeans. He made the lead page of papers. They say it’s a tragic loss, a cute young guy dead in his prime.

Decades ago, another actor died young too. He grew up in a small town not far from where one of us is from. That town has a museum in his memory. It advertises this museum in tourist brochures and on highway billboards. The dead actor is this town’s lone claim to fame. It is a dying town.

Maybe this guy will get a museum. Maybe he can have a monument in the midst of a dead place too.

Posted in Brief Commentary | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

No End in Sight

Posted by J on January 11, 2008

The American army might stay in Iraq for one hundred years, says Republican presidential nominee John McCain. But according to No End in Sight, it only took about one hundred days for the occupation to be bungled by administrators and decision-makers, which will make the next hundred years of occupation constantly difficult. Ignorance of this history, the movie argues, will lead future administrators and decision-makers into greater folly. In fact the present situation–early 2007, in terms of the movie’s release date–has turned into a problem with no good solutions, no matter what military action has or will be taken.

We’re just reporting what the movie says. Video essays like this are assembled and edited collections of soundbites, juxtaposed with other soundbites to make a point. In terms of rhetoric and argument, watching this movie is more emotional and less thought-provoking than reading a well-crafted book on the same subject. No End in Sight musters forth a number of arguments that go by quickly in the 1 hour, 40 minute running time. Rather than sustaining and flushing out the consequences of those arguments, the movie seeks to make its points most strongly by presenting credible witnesses. Of course No End in Sight is a prosecutorial case sans defense, but with its roster of military officers, ex-soldiers, and bureaucrats (including key people once in charge, such as Jay Garner, Paul Hughes, and Richard Armitage), No End in Sight makes it seem impossible for any great defense to be made without calling George W. Bush and Dick Cheney to the stand. By the end, it seems that they’re the only people who might defend the decisions made and the actions taken.

The movie does not exactly make a case against the initial arguments to go to war against Iraq. That decision already made, No End in Sight moves quickly to its central topic: post-war planning. Essentially there was none, and what little was done resulted in a series of bungled moves: failing to stop post-war looting, failing to guard Baghdad’s numerous weapons caches, walling up the Green Zone, hiring college students to make major civic planning decisions, firing all the former Ba’ath party members, and firing the entire Iraqi military (resulting in a estimated half-million young men unemployed and disgruntled). Each of these moves subtracted from the initial joy and goodwill toward America of liberated Iraqis, resulting in a hostile population ready to join the insurgency. With 40-50% unemployment, approximately three million refugees, and an unknown number dead, Iraqis needed immediate help they never got. So they turned to the mosque for social and civil leadership, and then to violence against their occupiers. Thus the results of the last three years: thousands of Americans dead, tens of thousands of casualties, and an estimated 1.8 trillion dollars spent. So much for staying 100 years.

As we mentioned, the movie’s conclusion is that the Iraqi population is mostly splintered and hostile. Shi’ites fight Shi’ites, Shi’ites fights Sunnis, Kurds fight whomever, in a scenario that makes the final scenes of Lawrence of Arabia look like a political utopia. America is in a double-bind, the movie says. Any new plan or military action is too late, because the existing population is war-weary and ticked off. But leaving Iraqis to fend for themselves will likely result in chaos. In its title, the movie is not claiming there is no end in sight to the occupation of Iraq, but that instead there is no end in sight to this unresolvable problem of staying or going. We’ll pray that it’s wrong in its prophetic implications, but No End in Sight is a fine refresher for all of us four years removed from the fall of Baghdad. Bombarded by new news constantly, which encourages us to have very short memories, we need to take a longer view of the past, remembering what we were once told and evaluating its truth and outcome. This documentary gives you a partial opportunity to do so, until a more fully researched version of the war is available.

Engagement: 8
Intelligence: 8
Morality: — (two or three curse words)

Posted in Documentary, Pretty Good | Leave a Comment »