Friday, 21 June 2013

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Mad Men: Fencing with shadows over "The Quality of Mercy" I keep on reading that the title of this season's penultimate Mad Men episode, "The Quality of Mercy," is "a phrase from Shakespeare" without any explanation as to what its significance might be. Todd's the exception, but his account of the play muddies his most pressing insight: one only appeals to the quality of mercy when dealing with people who don't deserve it because one wants it from that very same person. It only exists as a rhetorical tactic. But it doesn't work quite that way anymore. For contemporary audiences the quality of mercy is something granted through extra-textual means -- the play's antisemitism retroactively grants it to Shylock -- which is another way of saying that characters exist in history and shouldn't be judged by their actions in the moment so much as their reputation over the not-so-longue durée. This excuses nothing: Shylock behaves like a stock Jew because Shakespeare didn't think his character worth elevating. The same can't be said of Don Draper in a season in which his status as an unknown quantity's been highlighted by the presence of fellow professional liar Bob Benson. Or can it? The last two episodes have seen him turn against his wife (Megan) and his protege (Peggy) for reasons that aren't entirely clear but clearly aren't merciful. And yet the arrival of Benson mingles with his failing marriage and office foibles in a manner that makes him seem deserving of the mercy Shylock wanted to refuse Antonio. That mercy would've denied Shylock his "pound of flesh." Care to guess who we are in this analogy? That's correct: we're Shylock demanding a pound of Draper's flesh and we're the contemporary audience extending him mercy because we know that Shylock's been misunderstood by history. Which is about where we stand at this point in the series: Draper's a tragic figure made all the more tragic by the decisions he's making. He's an unforgivable human being widely recognized as a product of his circumstances. He's the man everyone envies until they see his substance is little more than strategically placed shadows -- particularly in this episode. But before I comment on that I should note how this episode begins: With Draper in the fetal position. I'm not going to go all Freudian on you because I don't do that anymore. What's more significant than any Freudian overtones is that this is the first time in this episode that one side of Draper's face is hidden from the camera. That Phil Abraham went with an overhead shot in order to accomplish that is a telling oddity: we don't normally see shots from this perspective outside of the opening credits. Make of that what you will. What I find significant is that the opening shot of the episode 1) informs us that Don's wounded and 2) suggests that he's hiding his wound by hiding his face. I know this isn't actually true -- you can't hide psychological scars behind turned heads or well-positioned shadows -- but...
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The Dark Knight Returns and The Zack Snyder School of Literal Filmmaking Not wanting to spend the entirety of my life figuring out how to put the entirety of my life into boxes and move it across the country, I decided to watch the animated adaptation of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. Directed by Jay Olivia and released in two parts in 2012 and 2013, it belongs to the Zack Snyder School of Literal Filmmaking, in which the idea is to replicate particularly stirring comic panels on the big screen by unwittingly mangling the elements that make them stirring. Consider Snyder’s adaptation of Watchmen. We don’t even need to venture past the opening credits to see where the film misses the point. But before we do that, I should note that I’m not complaining generally about a lack of faithfulness in adaptation. Comics and film are different media and ought to be treated as such. I don’t mind if changes are made that alter the narrative in an interesting fashion. But Snyder preaches fidelity as his ethos, so taken at his word, deviations from the comic in his films aren’t “interesting alterations” so much as the “necessary accommodations” of adapting any medium into another. These changes are being made by a lover of the source material who would never be unfaithful to the “spirit” of the original. For what it’s worth, I think Snyder’s dead honest about his commitment to accurately representing both individual panels and the “spirit” of the original work on screen — he simply happens to be terrible at doing so. Back to the opening minutes of Watchmen, in which Rorschach’s investigating the Comedian’s murder. Both the novel and the film begin with a close-up of the Comedian’s iconic image before pulling back to the skyscraper window from which it fell. Book: Film: I’ve turned on the subtitles in order to make the difference between the novel and the film clear. Although both pull back to great heights, in the novel the emphasis during the slow transition from the ground floor to the Comedian’s apartment is on the content of Rorschach’s journal. You can tell because it occupies a little more than a third of the first three panels and the other visual information is merely repetitive. This isn’t necessarily the case when a camera zooms out — and readers of the novel recognize that there is relevant information in the third panel — but in this case seeing some anonymous man walk through the pool of blood isn’t necessarily useful information. (Readers might associate the anhedonic tone of the journal and the callousness with which the redheaded man walks through the pool of blood, but who among us was that clever at eleven?) Point being: Snyder’s made the minor directorial decision to move the interior narration of the journal to when Rorschach actually appears: Same lines from the first panel of the comic, they’ve just been shifted forward to remove the mystery of their author. There’s just one problem: in the film, the implication is that Rorschach’s...

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