Archive for the 'Fil-um' Category

Upstairs Downstairs


Back in the 1970’s, my mother regularly watched this British television program. It drove me nuts because it was so godawful boring. I mean, if we’re going to watch British TV, why the hell isn’t it Monty Python? I guess Upstairs Downstairs served its purpose: it entertained my mother and scared me off to do more productive childhood activities.

Now that I have assumed the mantle of middle age, I decided to give it a try. After all, it’s kind of like an outdated Downton Abbey shot on cheap video tape, right? And everyone loves Downton Abbey.

Downton Abbey is so shiny and new!

All five seasons of Upstairs Downstairs are available on Netflix now, so I dug in. The first few episodes left me flat. Production quality was very poor (the BBC was suffering a crew strike at the time; some episodes were shot in B&W to save money). But I was beginning to understand what the writers were trying to do.

It was actually quite bold. They were framing a drama against the backdrop of much larger national questions and paradoxes of identity. The more I watched (and the more historical research it led me to), the more brilliant it became. By the end of the second season I was enthralled.

I wasn’t alone. Forty years ago, Upstairs Downstairs garnered seven Emmy awards and a Golden Globe. It has been viewed in 70 countries by over a billion people. How the hell did a tame, calm, very formal serial drama about Edwardian life in a London manor house capture the world’s imagination?

You really shouldn’t bang the help.

They did it with brilliant writing, lots of love stories and the inexorable march of history building tension about which the on-screen cast remains chillingly oblivious. I mean, why not hop aboard the Titanic? The bloody thing’s unsinkable, what?

Of course, the primary premise of the program was the strong distinction between the servant class (Downstairs) and the landed aristocracy (Upstairs).

The servant class was a peculiar rank in the British class system. While paid less than the working class, life among the sweeping stairways and colonnaded halls of the bourgeoisie placed the servants above the factory workers. It wasn’t money that determined class; it was placement.

Working as a servant has its privileges.

But perhaps the most resounding class theme in the program is the glass ceiling that kept the landed aristocracy eternally safe from the grubby mitts of the middle class. When a housemaid finds fame as an actress, no quarter is given. In the midst of childbirth, she is swept under the carpet as King Edward himself was dining at the house that night. Can’t have all that “creating new subjects” piffle interrupt a single puff of His Majesty’s cigar, can we?

The merchant class fares no better. They exist only to serve the house with goods and services. Even the ultra-wealthy Armenian magnate who has an eye for the daughter stands no ground. He is, after all, low born. End of discussion.

What’s most astounding is the inability of anyone to shift. It’s not about the money. What the hell is an uneducated servant girl going to do with a sudden windfall? Join the middle class? Is a successful merchant going to welcome an ex-parlourmaid to the family? Not bloody likely.

This may make you feel great antipathy toward the rich Bellamy family, but they are portrayed very carefully. The patriarch is tempered and wise and seems to have everyone’s best interests at heart. The matriarch is calm and elegant and handles the staff with sympathy. When they do show flashes of snobbery they are forgiven in our hearts.

Yet the nagging reality remains: how can they pay their loyal staff a goddamn pittance while living in such luxury? Now you are starting to see some parallels with modern society…

“Good luck, son! Don’t get blown up, what?”

Finally, as World War 1 closes in on the Bellamy family and all of Britain, a parallel series of breakthroughs occur. Young James comes back from the war a changed man. The sparkling playboy has seen enough. Even he – a conservative Tory  – found the war to be stupid, useless and unnecessary. He forsakes all veteran accolades. He is sick of all the bullshit and has finally discovered that life (and death) are not games.

On a macro scale, the shattering of the European monarchical powers opened the floodgates of populist socialism. Revolution consumed Russia while electoral pressure ousted conservative governments. The family patriarch finds himself elevated to Viscount and hurriedly shuffled off to obscurity and powerlessness in the House of Lords.

The servants below, however, will have none of the worker’s rights and strikes. There should be some balance, they reason. There is tradition to uphold. And the masters upstairs have been so kind these many years. No, none of this socialist revolution for them. After all, this is a battle for the working class, and they aren’t the working class!

Two friends say goodbye.

Of course, the program’s real strength isn’t its subtext but its dramatic appeal. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a better troupe of actors or more tightly woven scripts. Despite the stifling nature of Victorian mores, the program (and real life) is full of irrepressible joys and tearful losses. The house has its share of surprising deaths whose stark aftermath is handled in the Victorian fashion only by the Scottish butler, a true stoic. The rest of the family and staff soften their upper lips often enough to break your heart.

That’s the driving force here: the humanity. While great affairs swirl around the world, their impact is made visceral only when distilled in the context of family and community.

Master and servant, happy as clams.

And here is where I make my final point: in Upstairs Downstairs, the events that befall the classes are ultimately shared among the classes because they are largely thrown together despite the glass ceilings. In modern America, the classes are utterly isolated from each other. The moneyed class no longer sends its sons to war; that agony is left solely to the lower classes. When recession grips the nation, the moneyed class maintains its wealth with ease while the rest of us suffer. When the shit comes down, we don’t console each other or look out for each other. We turn on the TV and fume.

It isn’t Victorian morals that we’ve lost. It’s the technological isolation of our communities that has driven these wedges. We are more likely than the cast of Upstairs Downstairs to suffer in Victorian silence. They had each other, even when the stock market crashed and everything fell apart. One would think that in “class-free” America that we’d be more integrated socially. But we’re not.

At least we still have Leslie Anne Down!

Yes, we still have Leslie Anne Down. For that we should be eternally grateful.




Prometheus Unsound

In space, no one can hear you DERP.

My previous post was a litany of complaints about movie theaters. Thus, I feel compelled to review the new Ridley Scott film “Prometheus”. Why? Because it falls into a web of sci-fi gimmickry that Scott assiduously avoided in “Alien” and “Bladerunner”. These were great films whose few faults were easily overlooked and absorbed as suspended disbelief by all but the most anal retentive among us.

“Prometheus” is not like that. It had some dumb stuff that was so dumb it reverberates with dumbness long after you leave the theater. Before I draw out the long knives, I’ll give the devil his due: the film made efforts to address bigger questions (a rarity in Hollywood) and was epic in sweep, featuring stunning cinematography and CGI stuff. In fact, the opening ground rush sequences were so breathtaking I’d have preferred two more hours of that rather than two hours of the sci-fi stuff.

Now, the problems: the script. This was either the death of a thousand edits or some really lazy work. Unlike previous films where Scott likes to portray his cast as gritty and human (with all the foibles that entails), this crew really are a bunch of morons. Gone is the street-smart, wisecracking crew of “Alien”, replaced with a bunch of genuine idiots. Only the captain seems to have marginal competence; the rest are a bunch of brooding assholes I wouldn’t hire for a day job at the cannery. Their interplay felt forced and stilted and their vocabulary was carefully limited to Disney audience levels.

Remember how at ease you felt with this crew? Yeah, forget that.

And now, we descend into the truly irritating…

Hint: just because the air is OK in one area of a distant and potentially dangerous planet’s unknown atmosphere, that does NOT mean it’s OK to take off your helmet. This time-worn Hollywood staple of removing your helmet because “HEY! The air is OK!” is an idiotic and shallow excuse to allow the camera a better view of the Hollywood stars. Seriously, man: you’re going to remove your helmet and just leave it on the ground somewhere and walk all around an alien world that measured as poisonous just moments before? No. That’s some stupid shit.

Helmets? We don't need no stinking helmets!

Then there’s the the categorically dumb move of getting close to an alien monster and pretending it’s a puppy. And let’s not omit the fundamental cognitive disconnect of the film’s premise: that an alien species seeded Earth with the DNA that became humanity. Despite a childish CGI display that shows the DNA is a match, the question of how our DNA is nearly identical to chimpanzee DNA (as well as the other markers that show our obvious and indisputable location on the tree of Earth life) is debated for about 5 seconds in the film, then ignored. If I had to guess, the film’s producers didn’t want Christian fundamentalists leaving the theaters in droves because Darwinism was supported; instead, the film provides a few moments of cloying respect for the lead’s Christian faith in order to keep the Bible Belt goombah’s in their seats.

This whole “connection” to humans on Earth doesn’t even need to exist for the film to maintain its narrative. We could concoct ample other reasons to be drawn to that planet.

Finally: the cast. Michael Fassbender is so damn talented that he largely held this hole-filled film aloft. In portraying a monotone robot he had more depth than any other character in the movie. A tragically mis-cast Noomi Rapace has one look on her face – starry-eyed aloofness – that she maintains throughout. There is a nigh a furrowed brow in her oeuvre. I kept thinking that she could have been replaced by the equally aloof Audrey Tautou, if that’s what they were looking for. At least Tautou has more tools in her garage.

Dark-eyed aloof European chicks: we love 'em!

I’m not harshing on Rapace. I think she was selected for the “Girl With…” films specifically because of that aspect of her character and she was so good at it that no one can find fault with her portrayal. It was sublime. But we should face facts that she is not, and will not be, an epic sci-fi film heroine. Some reviewers have criticized her as weak sauce compared to Sigourney Weaver. This is unfair. Rapace has charms Weaver lacks; this was all a case of tragically bad casting, nothing more.

Which reminds me: Rapace grew up in Iceland and Sweden. Why is this film trying to pretend she’s British? Why name her “Elizabeth Shaw”? Every time she opens her mouth it’s obvious she’s Scandinavian. Why not just name her “Elisabet Lindholm”? Is that hard? Will audiences not understand that? And before I walk away from casting complaints: why did they include the very gifted actress Kate Dickie and then dispatch her to the background? Hell, she’d have made a better lead than Rapace, but I guess Kate’s nose is too big for American audiences. *sigh*

Alien planet investigatin' is serious bizniz!

Finally, the whole thrust of the story and the cause of the frenetic last half hour is left unexplained. Normally, this would be OK; good sci-fi leaves conceptual elements open for interpretation and allows you to make cognitive leaps on your own. But since the rest of the film is written and paced like a Disney flick, why can’t we be told why our forebears suddenly want us destroyed? The answer may appear in the follow-up film, but I’m kinda watching THIS film right now and would like to know why our Creators suddenly turned on us.

One theory being bandied about is that our outer space forebears are purposefully seeding planets with humanity so the evil aliens have planets to exploit for reproduction, leaving our forebear’s planet alone in the process. But then why warn us with archeological hints? I dunno. I just get angry when I think about it. Fuck this movie.  Suffice it to say my disbelief failed to be suspended. “Prometheus” had promise, but Scott let it run away from him. He shouldn’t have.