Let me start out by saying that I am fully aware of the extreme popularity of AMC’s new show THE WALKING DEAD. However, popular does not make it good. I will also say right up front here that I consider myself a huge zombie film fan. How did that happen? Well, it was probably seeing NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD in a theater by myself when I was only 9. It was on a double bill with THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK. I was traumatized and thrilled, all at the same time. Ever since, zombies, when done well, have scared the living crap out of me. And no one does zombies better than NIGHT director George Romero. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be done well by another. That’s why I had such high hopes for the Frank Darabont/Gale Anne Hurd-produced series THE WALKING DEAD.

About five years ago, a producer I was working with (not a particularly honorable fellow, but a lover of horror films) handed me the first two graphic novels in THE WALKING DEAD series. He knew I loved zombie films and he thought these graphic novels would make a great series. I read them and felt, ultimately, that the characters were too thin and the plot too, well, tired and simple to be of much interest to me. I found the idea of a zombie series exciting, but if we were going to do something like that, I couldn’t see starting out with such lightweight material. Not that it wasn’t entertaining on a certain level, it was, but it was never truly engaging. And it certainly wasn’t thought-provoking. And contrary to studio belief, a story needs to be both if it is to be successful on more than just a monetary level. And while I do love me some money, it is almost never my main motivator.

So I passed on pursuing that particular avenue. When I heard it was finally being made into a series and that Darabont was attached, I had seriously hoped that he would bring something special to it; elevate it beyond its graphic novel roots. But four episodes in, I have to say, while mildly entertained, I’m more disappointed than anything else. There was a time when this might have been hailed as “ground-breaking” TV, maybe even daring. But the bar has been raised so high by cable shows like THE WIRE and DEADWOOOD, THE SOPRANOS and AMC’s own MAD MEN that, by comparison, THE WALKING DEAD is almost rubbish.

“But it’s just a zombie show! It’s not supposed to be MAD MEN!”  Wrong attitude. Was THE WIRE just another cop procedural? Was DEADWOOD just another western? THE SOPRANOS just another mob flick? No. So THE WALKING DEAD had a chance to be more than just another zombie film (or series, as the case may be). But it’s not. The writing is average, nothing memorable or revealing, nothing elevated beyond the depths of a CSI or COLD CASE episode. Not that those are terrible, mind you, they’re certainly entertaining, but they don’t strive to be anything more. Even George Romero, over 40 years ago, recognized that his subject matter was ripe material for social commentary. And just as importantly, he knew how to make his zombies scary, and that’s another area where THE WALKING DEAD fails miserably.

One of the things that always made Romero’s zombies so vastly unsettling and downright terrifying, was that we recognized them. If not on an individual basis, then as types. They were our neighbors, our teachers, our friends, our children, ourselves. Any random image of a zombie in a Romero film would strike a chord, reach inside and mess with some part of our collective psyches. The zombies in THE WALKING DEAD are defined by “this one has a hanging jaw, this one isn’t wearing a shirt, this one is crawling, this one is limping.” They are “effects” not characters; mere background, not players. The filmmakers here have failed to allow the zombies to be us. Even when our hero takes a moment to identify and honor the body of a walking dead member of society whose guts he’s about to smear all over himself, it’s an intellectual exercise, not an emotional or visceral one. We never see the face of this once-person. He represents nothing to us, the viewer. There’s only one moment so far in the entire series when a zombie is actually disturbing and scary, and that’s in the first episode when one character must face the fact that his wife, now turned zombie, is wandering around outside the house with some vague memory, some basic instinct, to return to the house where she had once stayed. But in THE WALKING DEAD, she’s one zombie in a thousand. The rest are extras in makeup, nothing more.

Ironically, while it’s the zombies that should be societal archetypes in THE WALKING DEAD, it’s our main characters that are written as such instead. The Hick. The Cop. The Wife. The Best Friend. The Old Man. The Racist. The Smart Kid. The Son. The Crazy Guy. Tired melodramatic scenarios borrowed from too many other series are used here with little originality or invention. Secondary characters given special attention during an episode’s opening teaser, will most certainly meet a gruesome demise by that same episode’s close. The plots are predictable, used. They lack inspiration. The action is borrowed and rehashed from other zombie genre entries, with the characters never for a moment attaining three dimensions. Even the teaser from the very first episode was lacking in surprise or meaning; it was an unnecessary moment that seemed to have more to do with trying to “shock” the audience instead of engage it. It was poorly executed, devoid of character, sorely out of place in the chronology of the storytelling and, sadly, set the tone for the rest of the episodes to come. It felt as if the filmmakers didn’t trust their own audience right out of the gate.

It’s unfortunate. I had sworn off watching new shows before they were complete and available on Blu-ray. I’m not a fan of the wait between episodes or, even worse, between seasons, a gap that has grown so wide I find it takes me half a season just to remember the previous! But THE WALKING DEAD lured me out of my self-induced exile from currently-running series. It will also, unfortunately, send me back.

I will watch the remaining episodes of the first season out of some vague hope that it might get better, and out of some misguided allegiance to the genre. I suppose that makes me a zombie of sorts myself. But now that the show has been picked up for a second season, it’s gonna take a lot more than good word of mouth to lure me back in. I’m looking, hoping, to find something to hang on to here. But so far, I’m just coming up empty.


Articulating Bergman

In my constant reading of the writings and musings of my favorite directors, filmmakers, etc., I sometimes stumble upon a paragraph (or in this case an entire essay) that articulates my own feelings on filmmaking better than I myself have been able to express or, oftentimes, understand. In my ongoing exploration of the film and work of Ingmar Bergman, I stumbled on this essay written by the man in 1959. The following is shorter than the one that initially captured my attention in the Taschen INGMAR BERGMAN ARCHIVES, but it covers the basics of what Mr. Bergman expressed (for the more detailed version, you’ll just have to get the Taschen book!). Suffice it to say, when I read something so well articulated and so close to my heart, I feel an urge to share it with anyone who may also find it of interest. I am borrowing the following text from The essay is titled “Each Film Is My Last” and is broken up into three sections:

I. The script

Often it begins with something very hazy and indefinite – a chance remark or a quick change of phrase, a dim but pleasant event yet one which is not specifically related to the actual situation. It can be a few bars of music, a shaft of light across the street. It has happened in my theatrical work that I have seen performers in fresh make-up in yet unplayable roles.

All in all they seem to be split-second impressions that disappear as quickly as they come, yet nevertheless leave an impression behind just like a pleasant dream.

Most of all they are a brightly coloured thread sticking out of the dark sack of unconscious. If I Begin to wind up this thread and do it carefully a complete film will emerge.

I would like to say that this is not the case of Pallas Athene in the mind of Zeus, but an unconnected phenomenon, more a mental state than an actual story, but for all that abounding with fertile associations and images.

All this is brought out with pulse-beats and rhythms which are very special and characteristic of the different films. Through these rhythms the picture sequences take a separate pattern according to the way they were born and mastered by the motive.

This primitive life-cell strives from the beginning to achieve form, but its movements may be lazy and perhaps even a little drowsy. If in this primitive state it shows itself to have enough strength to transform itself into a film I decide to give it life and begin work on the script.

The feeling of failure occurs mostly before the writing begins. The dreams become merely cobwebs, the visions fade and become grey and insignificant, the pulse-beat is silent, everything becomes small, tired fancies without strength and reality.

I have thus decided to make a certain film and now begins the complicated and difficulty mastered work. To transfer rhythms, moods, atmosphere, tensions, sequences, tones and scents into words and sentences in a readable or at least understandable script.

This is difficult but not impossible.

Thus let us state once and for all that the film-script is a very imperfect technical basis for a film.

In this connection I should draw attention to another fact which is often overlooked. Film is not the same thing as literature. As often as not the character and substance of the two art forms are in conflict. What it really depends on is hard to define, but probably has to do with the self-responsive process. The written word is read and assimilated by a conscious act and in connection with the intellect and little by little it plays on the imagination or feelings. It is completely different with the motion picture. When we see a film in a cinema we are conscious that an illusion has been prepared for us and we relax and accept it with our will and intellect. We prepare the way into our imagination. The sequence of pictures plays directly on our feelings without touching the mind. There are many reasons why we ought to avoid filming existing literature, but the most important is that the irrational dimension, which is the heart of a literary work, is  often untranslatable and that in its turn kills the special dimensions of the film. If despite this we wish to translate something literary into filmic terms, we are obliged to make an infinite number of complicated transformations which most often give limited or no result in relation to the efforts expended.

I know what I am talking about because I have been subjected to so-styled literary judgement. This is about as intelligent as letting a music critic judge an exhibition of paintings or a football reporter criticise a new play.

The only reason for any and everyone believing himself capable of pronouncing a valid judgement on motion pictures is the inability of the film to assert itself as an art form, its need of a definite artistic vocabulary, its extreme youth in relation to other arts, its obvious ties with economic realities, its direct appeal to feelings. All this causes the motion picture to be regarded with disdain, the directness of expression of the motion picture makes it suspect in certain eyes, and as a result any and everyone thinks himself competent to say anything he likes in whatever way he likes on film art.

I myself have never had ambitions to be an author. I do not wish to write novels, short stories, essays, biographies or treatises on special subjects. I certainly do not want to write pieces for the theatre. Film-making is what interests me. I want to make films about conditions, tensions, pictures, rhythms and characters within me and which in one way or another interest me. I am filmmaker not an author, the motion picture is my medium of expression not the written word. The motion picture and its complicated process of birth are my methods of saying what I want to my fellow men. I find it humiliating for my work to be judged as a book when it is a film. Such is to call a bird a fish, and fire, water.

For a very long time I have wanted to use the film medium for story-telling. This does not mean that I find the narrative form itself faulty, but that I consider that the motion picture is ideally suited to the epic and the dramatic.

I know, of course, that by using film we can bring in other previously unknown worlds, realities beyond reality.

II. The Studio

It happens when I stand there in the half-light of the film studio with its noise and throng, the dirt and wretched atmosphere, I seriously wonder why I am engaged in this most difficult form of artistic creation.

The rules are many and burdensome. I must have three minutes of useable film “in the can” every day. I must kept to the shooting schedule, which is so tight that it excludes almost everything but essentials. I am surrounded by technical equipment which with fiendish cunning tries to sabotage my best intentions. Constantly I am on edge, I am compelled to live the collective life of the studio. Admist all this must take place a process which is sensitive and which really demands quietness, concentration and confidence.

I mean working with actors and actresses.

There are many directors who forget that our work in film begins with the human face. We can certainly become completely absorbed in the esthetics of montage, we can bring together objects and still life into a wonderful rhythm, we can make nature studies of astounding beauty, but the approach to the human face is without doubt the hall-mark and the distinguishing quality of the film. From this we might conclude that the film star is our most expensive instrument and that the camera only registers the reactions of this instrument. In any cases the opposite can be seen: the position and movement of the camera is considered more important than the player, and the picture becomes an end in itself-this can never do anything but destroy illusions and be artistically devastating.

In order to give the greatest possible strength to the actor’s expression the camera movement must be simple, free and completely synchronised with the action. The camera must be a completely objective observer and may only on rare occasions participate in the action.

We should realise that the best means of expression the actor has at his command is his look. The close-up, if objectively composed, perfectly directed and played, is the most forcible means at the disposal of the film director, while at the same time being the most certain proof of his competence or incompetence. The lack of abundance of close-ups shows in an uncompromising way the nature of the film director and the extent of his interest in people.

The director should not deluge the actor with instruction like autumn rain, but rather should make his points at the right moments. His words ought rather to be too few than too many. For his performance the actor is little helped by intellectual analyses. What he wants are exact instructions at the moment and certain technical corrections without embellishments and digressions. I know that an intonation, a look or a smile can often do far more good to the actor than the most penetrating analysis. This mode of action sounds like witchcraft, but it is nothing of the sort; it is only a quiet and effective method of control over the actor by his director. Indeed the fewer the discussions, talks, explanations, the more the affinity, silence, mutual understanding, natural loyalty and confidence.

III. Professional ethics

Many imagine that a commercial film industry lacks morality or that its morals are so definitely based on immorality that an artistically ethical standpoint cannot be maintained on anything so lacking. Our work is assigned to businessmen, who at times regard it with apprehension as motion pictures have to do with something as unreliable as art.

If many regard our activity as dubious, I must emphasise that its morality is as good as any and so absolute that it could almost cause us embarrassment. However, I have found that I am like the Englishman in the tropics, who shaves and dresses for dinner every day. He does not do this to please the wild animals but for his own sake. If he gives up his discipline then the jungle has beaten him.

I know that I shall have lost to the jungle if I take a weak moral standpoint or relax my mental punctiliousness. I have therefore come to a certain belief which is based on three powerful effective commandments. Briefly I shall give their wording and their meaning. These have become the very fundaments of my activity in the film world. The first may sound indecent but really is highly moral. It runs:


This means that the public who sees my films and thus provides my bread and butter has the right to expect entertainment, a thrill, a joy, a spirited experience. I am responsible for providing that experience. That is the only justification for my activity.

However, this does not mean that I must prostitute my talents, at least not in any and every way, because then I would break the second commandment which runs:


This is a very tricky commandment because it obviously forbids me to steal, lie, prostitute my talents, kill or falsify. However, I will say that I am allowed to falsify if it is artistically justified, I may also lie if it is a beautiful lie, I could also kill my friends or anyone else if it would help my art, it may also be permissible to prostitute my talents if it will further my cause, and I should indeed steal if there were no other way out.

If one obeyed one’s artistic conscience to the full in every respect then one would find oneself doing a balancing act on a tight-rope and one would become so dizzy that at any moment one could fall down and break one’s neck. Then all the prudent and moral bystanders would say, “Look, there lies the thief, the murderer, the lecher, the liar. Serves him right”. Not a thought that the joy of creation, which is a thing of beauty and a joy for ever, is bound up with the necessary fear of creation. One can incant as often as one desires, magnify one’s humility and diminish one´s pride to one’s heart’s content, but the fact still remains that to follow one’s artistic conscience is a perversity of the flesh as a result of years and years of mortification and radiant moments of clear asceticism and resistance. In the long run it is the same however we reckon. First on the point of fusion comes the area between relief and submission, which can be called the artistic obvious. I wish to assert at this point that this is by no means my goal, but merely that I try to keep to the compass as well as I can.

In order to strengthen my will so that I do not slip off the narrow path into the ditch, I have a third good and juicy commandment, which runs:


Some may imagine that this commandment is an amusing twist of phrase or a pointless aphorism or perhaps simply a beautiful phrase about the complete vanity of everything. However, that is not he case.

It is reality.

In Sweden film production was interrupted for a whole year some years ago. During my enforced inactivity I learned that because of commercial complications and through no fault of my own I could be out on the street before I knew it.

I do not complain about it, neither am I afraid or bitter, I have only drawn a logical and highly moral conclusion from the situation that each film is my last.

For me there is only one loyalty. That is loyalty to the film on which I am working. What comes (or fails to come) after is insignificant and causes neither anxiety nor longing. This gives me assurance and artistic confidence. The material assurance is apparently limited but I find the artistic integrity is infinitely more important and therefore I follow the principle that each film is my last.

This gives me strength in another way. I have seen all too many film workers burdened down with anxiety, yet carrying out to the full their necessary duties. Worn out, bored to death and without pleasure they have fulfilled their work. They have suffered humiliation and affronts from producers, the critics and the public without flinching, without giving up, without leaving the profession. With a tired shrug of the shoulders they have made their artistic contributions until they went down or were thrown out.

I do not know but perhaps the day will come when I shall be received differently by the public, perhaps together with a feeling of disgust in myself. Tiredness and emptiness will descend upon me like a dirty grey sack and fear will stifle everything. Emptiness will stare me in the face.

When this happens I shall put down my tolls and leave the scene, of my own free will, without bitterness and without brooding whether or not the work has been useful and truthful from the viewpoint of eternity.

Wise and far-sighted men in the Middle Ages used to spend nights in their coffins in order never to forget the tremendous importance of every moment and their transient nature of life itself.

Without taking such drastic and uncomfortable measures I harden myself to the seeming futility and the fickle cruelty of film-making with the earnest conviction that each film is my last.

(Translated from the Swedish by P.E. Burke and Lennart Swahn.)

Articulating Bergman

The Old West in Hi-Def: DEADWOOD comes to Blu-ray.

Another stunning HBO series finds its way to Blu-ray. DEADWOOD, loved or hated by many, is for me one of the best-written and most engaging shows ever to find its way onto our advancing boob tube. Right up there with THE WIRE. Yeah, I’ve heard all the complaints about its use of contemporary profanity, and there are arguments supporting and condemning that, but to all those who take issue, I say get over it. This is some of the most compelling storytelling you’re likely to see on television (or anywhere, for that matter) and DEADWOOD’S cast turn in performances no award show could do justice to. Hey, if you don’t like Westerns, great acting and vivid dialogue–of both the poetic and barbaric variety–then do stay away. But if you’re genuinely interested in something outstanding on just about every front, then rent the Blu-rays of all three seasons of DEADWOOD. It’s true that the show was cancelled before Milch could bring the story to a full close, but since DEADWOOD’S characters are based on real-life individuals, there’s no story-line a quick trip to Wikipedia won’t bring to a satisfying (and downright historical) close.

To elaborate more on the show itself, I’ll let‘s Kenneth Brown tell you more as he has summed it up better than I. But you’ll have to visit the web site itself for Mr. Brown’s full review of the Blu-ray transfer and what it has in store for you. In the meantime, here are some of Mr. Brown’s thoughts on DEADWOOD the series:

Entrenched in real history and teeming with notable men and women who lived in the late 19th century, Deadwood tells the unsavory, at-times explicit tale of a crime-infested South Dakota boom town that experienced a rapid economic and cultural expansion during the Black Hills Gold Rush of the mid-1870s. The town, of course, is Deadwood (a settlement deemed illegal by the U.S. government because it was established on land promised to Native Americans in a 1968 treaty), and its diverse denizens come from all walks of life. Amidst the greed and madness rise two men — Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), a former lawman who finds himself wearing a Sheriff’s badge once again, and Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), a temperamental entrepreneur, crime lord and pimp who holds enormous sway in the community — stubborn adversaries struggling to bring very different brands of law and order to Deadwood. But Bullock isn’t just a true-blue do-gooder and Swearengen isn’t the inhuman monster he first appears to be. Both men are far more complex creatures of habit whose destinies are intertwined.

Between them, a string of opportunists, killers, immigrants, prospectors, vagrants, thieves, gamblers, Old West icons and honest family folk, each one vying for a piece of the Black Hills’ riches. People like Sol Star (John Hawkes), Bullock’s business partner and faithful friend; Trixie (Paula Malcomson), a prostitute fighting to survive; Cy Tolliver (Powers Booth), a Swearengen rival; E. B. Farnum (William Sanderson), Deadwood’s mayor; Alma Garret (Molly Parker), widow and available bachelorette; Whitney Ellsworth (Supernatural‘s Jim Beaver), kindly prospector and all around good fellow; Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine), legendary gunman and feared quick-draw; Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert), compassionate scout and frontierswoman; Doc Cochran (Brad Dourif), Deadwood’s physician; Mr. Wu (Keone Young), a foul-mouthed Chinese power player; and a slew of others (played to perfection by Garret Dillahunt, W. Earl Brown, Anna Gunn, Titus Welliver, Jeffrey Jones, Ricky Jay, Kim Dickens, Dayton Callie, Leon Rippy and other notable character actors), some loyal to Swearengen, some desperate to see Bullock prevail, some simply hoping to stay above the fray.

And oh, what performances Milch’s impeccably cast actors deliver. Olyphant draws strength from stillness, and his perceptive stare and unshakable stance lends his presence palpable authority (with or without a badge tucked beneath his jacket). McShane is as vile a devil as television has known, but the fragility and humanity that beats within the Deadwood demon’s heart is as deftly developed as it is masterfully portrayed. Malcomson’s fearless resolve demands respect even when her character’s decisions demand otherwise; Parker’s reserved demeanor and genteel spirit masks the conflict and addiction coming to bear on Alma’s soul; Boothe is arguably more vicious than McShane, bringing with him suitable menace and gravitas; Beaver is a breath of well-intentioned air in a dank and dangerous world; Carradine infuses his episodes with a sense of no-nonsense wisdom and nobility, even if his time in Deadwood is woefully brief; Douriff is a delightful jumble of nerves and knowledge; Weigert’s initially bullish masculinity soon softens and reveals something far more substantial; and the whole of the ensemble, regardless of the size or breadth of the individual actors’ roles, exudes calculated charisma and slow-brew intensity. Each one grabs a hold of Milch and his writers’ material as if it were Shakespeare’s finest, and their classically honed, meticulously refined performances are akin to those of a sprawling stage play born out of a bygone age.

Shakespeare’s name is haphazardly invoked in many a critical analysis, but other comparisons between Deadwood and the Bard’s work hold tremendous weight. Milch’s dialogue, though laced with near-gratuitous levels of modern profanity, is confidently constructed and crucial to whatever blessings or curses befall Deadwood; its Midwest rhythms, dense diction and gold-rush colloquialisms as poetic and lyrical as they are gruff and unseemly. (Don’t misunderstand: it isn’t difficult to keep up with the characters’ conversations, but the sheer complexity of the language employed makes second and third viewings a rewarding experience.) His characters, bristling with unkempt tempers and violent dispositions, are an unlikable band of strangely endearing riff-raff; each one an intriguing human being defined and warped by their volatile environment and the lawlessness of the era. His exploration of the politics, socioeconomics and cultural realities of the late 19th century are inexhaustible; his team’s attention to detail is overwhelming and the series’ ever-evolving production design is breathtaking and authentic; the themes he tackles and the questions he poses have no easy answers; the misfortune that unfolds and the victims that are discarded along the way elicit genuine emotion; and the stories that emerge are as mesmerizing and engrossing as they are unsettling. From beginning to end, over thirty-six episodes, Milch’s mind concocts a maze of moral ambiguity that turns the traditions of the genre on their ear, weaves a fascinating tapestry of bleak history and smart fiction, and suggests the once-stalwart TV Western could still one day make its triumphant return.

As for Deadwood‘s three-season lifespan, have no fear. While Milch certainly didn’t have the opportunity to go as far with the show as I’m sure he would have liked, the story is still a satisfying one, many of the various character arcs come to some manner of fruition, and the series’ conclusion, despite a number of loose ends, wraps things up nicely. Whether by foresight or design, Milch’s tendency to focus on more singular aspects of Deadwood life — be it business, politics or the changing tides of power — makes each season feel complete unto itself, and each successive season a welcome extension of an already full and generous tale. Rome and Carnivàle (an unexpected surprise I would love to see released on Blu-ray) weren’t so lucky, mind you, and the ramifications of their early cancellations are more readily felt in their final seasons. In other words, there’s little reason to avoid Deadwood: The Complete Series. It may not have been able to sustain itself in the cutthroat world of ratings, but it deserves as many chances as newcomers are willing to give it.

The Old West in Hi-Def: DEADWOOD comes to Blu-ray.

Kieślowski’s DOUBLE LIFE Goes Blu.

Krzysztof Kieślowski’s THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE, one of my favorite films of all time by what I consider one of contemporary cinema’s greatest filmmakers, is coming to Blu-ray courtesy of the amazing folks over at Criterion. Months ago I purchased a Blu-ray version released in the UK by Artificial Eye. The transfer looked great, but truth be told, I prefer the color-timing used by Criterion on their DVD release. Now there’s been some back and forth on which version offers a more accurate depiction of the 35mm experience and, though I did see the film theatrically when it was originally released here in the States, my memory is just not good enough to make that distinction. And since Criterion’s Blu-rays have been overwhelming in all the best ways, far superior to any other transfers I’ve seen to date (or, at least, neck and neck with the best out there), I’m gonna be trading my Artificial Eye Blu in for the Criterion version. I did the same with my BFI version of BLACK NARCISSUS, which looked stunning, but the Criterion’s is even a notch above that (again, to this viewer’s eye).

For anyone who has not seen this film or simply wants to see it again in the best transfer possible, I have a strong suspicion that the upcoming Criterion Blu-ray is gonna be the way to go. However, it doesn’t hit the streets until February 1st so we’re just gonna have to sweat it out till then. In the meantime, anyone want to buy an Artificial Eye region-free Blu-ray?

Here is a beautiful scene from the film that will not ruin anything for you:

Kieślowski’s DOUBLE LIFE Goes Blu.