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It's been a while since THE WEST WING was real essential zone-of-silence 'sssshhh-not-now' viewing (well, for me, at any rate: it got to the stage with the whole latterday 'Vinick v Santos presidential race' storyline that the previously unthinkable occurred and I happily missed whole episodes); but I tuned in this weekend, for sentimental reasons, to watch the final two episodes and a few of the old repeats that MORE 4 ran yesterday.

At its best, along with a few other shows, it reminds me why I find most Hollywood movies such hard going these days. With the latter, most of us are reduced to scrapping around in the bins behind Blockbuster franchises, trying to scare up enough good nutritous meat for a slender SUBTEXT nibble - whereas something like The West Wing proudly wore its intelligence upfront, combining in one continuum the virtues of a good bitchy but informative political blog, oldtime Hollywood Screwball dialogue, scarily informative realpolitik feed and just plain old fashioned week-2-week SOAP addictiveness. Good TV these days all but makes big time cinema redundant. Some TV critic recently - whilst praising his incredible new role in THE SHIELD, said something along the lines of - 'Why can't Hollywood find anything for Forest Whittaker to do when he is this good?' Which is to miss the point somewhat. Why pay good cash money to sit in an over heated over amplified cinema, and watch one more over formulaic Good Guys v Bad Guys plot, when you can relax at home and watch genuinely adult fare? (Post 9/11, too much Hollywood product has been scared of straying into ambiguity or moral grey areas, whereas American TV - From DEADWOOD to THE SHIELD - has gone the other way and embraced difficulty and complexity.
(Plus: with Tv you get Forest Whittaker and Ian McShane; with cinema there's always the dreadful prospect of having to sit through a Tom Cruise or Colin Farrell performance...)

In a way, THE WEST WING reversed the oldest Soap meme - the Sirk-ian/Dynasty/Dallas meme - where the world of the rich and powerful is revealed to be merely and messily and bitchily primal (booze, bedhopping, manipulative behind the scenes scene making, war by other cocktail party means). Like I say, this was reversed and the world of THESE rich, powerful people was shown to be ten times more interesting than you ever thought it could be, ten times more intellectual and humanist and ethical and caring and deep. Which was also the series besetting problem...

Whilst I dont think it's fallen off as much as series snobs say, the writing never did quite regain the sharpness pioneered by creator Aaron Sorkin - and when you werent distracted by the sharpness of individual subplots, it was easier to get just a WEE bit irked by how essentially ridiculously CLOUD 9 the whole thing was. When Sorkin left, the Democratic Wet Dream factor kinda went into overdrive. When Sorkin was still there, the scripts werent frightened of showing a lot of the peachy dramatis personae at their basest and most compromised and just-scraping-through, as well as their shiniest and sassiest and most impregnably immovably principled. I mean - the final Presidential race just took the STAR TREK factor too far: not only did you have the first ever Latino Presidential candidate (improbably good looking, virtous, principled, strong, etc, etc, i.e., everything no Democrat has been within sniffing distance of for decades) but here in this Wizard of Oz version of American politics, even his Republican foe was improbably virtuous, principled, strong, etc, etc - things which would actually get you kicked out of the GOP if you were even suspected of thinking about them on a lazy Sunday off.

President Jimmy Smits then offers ex foe Alan Alda a job in his administration fer crissakes .... meanwhile, in the real world, even bloggers of vaguely different stripes can't get along, never mind politicians. And the Democrats are so scared stiff of Being Not Liked by the electorate, that they just blithely and spinelessly go along with every next proto-Fascist move the Bush administration inititiates. (HOW ON EARTH could they not have made more of New Orleans, and the various other mis steps by the Bushies?) At such times the West Wing - compared with the horrors and hates of real life - felt like ludicrously mushy fantasy; which it always was, but when it didnt have the balast of snappily cynical hard-wiring in the dialogue, then it could start to feel just a tad TOO unreal. At a time when America was divided by so called 'Culture war' issues, it could seem almost TOO all-out designed to comfort Democrats and piss off Republicos ...

In real life, the REAL face of American politics would be someone like ... KENNETH STARR.
... Incredible documentary tucked away on on ITV 4, Friday, 10.00: THE HUNTING OF THE PRESIDENT [2004] - again, not that it was anything one didnt already know or suspect, but pretty devastating to see it all presented in one place. A far far superior and far more damning indictment of the Republican party than anything the overrated Michael Moore has put sloppily together, but anyway ... let's not get sidelined.

I could write more in this vein - different views of what TWW was trying to do, and what it actually acheived. But I missed my moment really, as it's been a while since I truly flat out loved it. Although it was worth tuning in to the pen-ultimate episode, just for a scene between my ALL TIME FAVOURITE character, Toby [Ziegler], and CJ [Craig], where - more with looks than with the actual words used - the lineaments of their friendship were surveyed for one last time. Toby was like a heterosexual Gore Vidal - a more rabbinical Jon Stewart, a decent scotch drinking, decent book reading, but fascinatingly flawed character. Toby sorta became the default fallback compensation for all us ferrety nerdy intellectuals who grew up loving Jewish and especialy Jewish American culture/ethics, in a time when Israel and Jewish-American hawks broke our hearts.

A lot of The West Wing at its best was about friendship - which, along with talk about abstract issues by very literate people, was just one of the crazy things that distinguished it from 98% of sloppy make-do pop cultural product these days. Mostly, in even good-ish TV, the 'relationships' centre around sex, or love, or family, and people are either falling in, or falling out, of same, in classic Soap Opera fashion. (Emmerdale Farm does this sort of thing really well at the moment - probaly better than most other soaps. Altho I say this on the rather slim evidence of having watched ONE Emmerdale omnibus edition and NO other soaps for a few years.) Whereas I just realised that one of the things that distiguishes and unites my favourite TV at the moment (West Wing, the glorious repeats on ITV 3 of both later-series ROCKFORD FILES and the fantastic LOVEJOY, certain bits of The Shield, certain bits of Homicide: Life on the Streets) is its interest in the mechanics of friendship ... and, within that, memory, passing time, ageing. Some of the best Rockford Files concern old friends Jim knew from prison, and the sometimes awkward, sometimes fateful fallout from the 'debt' of such friendship. In LOVEJOY (I'd forgotten just how much I love this programme!), if he ever falls for a woman most viewers are subconsciously muttering O, come on, get it over with! - so we can get back to Tinker and Lady Jane and the lovely pulse within the strange zone of unspoken Albionate freindship they represent.

Actually, before I forget: I didnt set out to write any of this...!

I only really logged on to note one detail in the final WEST WING episode - which was 85% borderline way too tacky and sentimental and mushy. The giveaway were the references to JFK - batted back and forth between Smits and Sheen on the way to the inauguration. (Like, if the Democrats could only merge the essence of Smits and Sheen - they'd get the JFK mk 2 they so desperately need, or think they need, or think they remember, etc.)

But in amongst this treacle fest of piety and improbable goodness and long teary eyed stares at empty rooms, etc (altho, unusally, I didnt cry once - a bad sign, given that I cry at anything these days, I cry at certain adverts ...) there was one little conceptual letter bomb slotted in by writer or director. In the midst of the inauguration, the removal men come in to take away the family possessions and distinguishing marks of the Bartlet family/administration, and replace them seamlessly with those of the incoming Santos family/administration. Now, many viewers would miss the detail, or even if they caught it, it wouldnt have meant anything much to them... but there was a mili second CLOSE UP, where a removal man is taking Bartlet's books off the shelves in the Oval room. We only get to see the spine of one book - and even then, not the title (I dont think so, at any rate, altho younger, more eagle eyed readers/viewers might like to correct me). And it's not TOM CLANCY, or a JFK biography or Maya Angelou poetry, or Whitman, or Machiavelli or anything you might expect....

Readers, the name on that spine was ... MICHEL FOUCAULT.

Now, I think that's something for a squishy prime time TV show.
Especially as, if you take the reference seriously, what it seems to be saying is a corrective to the remaining 99% sentimentality of the episode/series.

I.e., what the reference seems to be saying is of the order of a kind of PLUS CA CHANGE about the institutionalisation of Power.... like, OK, BIG FUCKIN DEAL, one Nice Guy is leaving, another is coming in, but whats really changed huh? Power doesnt care, Power just keeps rolling noiselessly seamlessly on ... or, at any rate, that would seem, to me, to be the only point in going to the trouble of putting the spine of a MICHEL FOUCAULT book up there on the screen at such a crucial (& literal) juncture of the plot. Final episode no less.

It was almost like - POP! wake up from your dream, children! Back to the real world now...! Where the US administration is not having smoochy conversations with idealistic young black men, but is arming Israel to bomb the shit out of humanitarian aid convoys, etc, etc, etc ... O, dont get me fuckin started...)

(ON which note, two points and then I'll shut up. More because my heart is weary and I cant take much more than anything else, but anyway...

Point One. Get beyond the sheer obscenity of what the US/Israel has been doing the last few weeks and there is also ... how STUPID an example was it to set? How many very very UN benign dictators and would-be dictators around the world have been sitting giggling to themselves like schoolgirls the last fortnight, thinking, 'We-hell ... the next time I want to bomb or machete or torture the shit of of some paltry ethnic minority either within or just bordering my country who the fuck's gonna stop me? The US? Yeah - RIGHT! How hypocritical will THEY look? The UN? Dont make me laugh ...'
This example could haunt the US for decades - not that they give a shit, but still ...

Point Two. Uh - I've forgotten point two. I'm sure it will come back, but meanwhile, prize for most mealy mouthed piece of nonsense spoken (outside of diplomatic and political circles) this week goes to Oliver Stone, talking up World Trade Center: "It's not about the World Trade Center, really. It's about any man or woman faced with the end of their lives." Yeah, right. This is one end of an peculiarly American hypocrisy/sentimentality, the other (loaded) end of which means any atrocity committed in the name of the spectral War on terror can be spun as, at base, really, about the triumph of Good over Evil.

posted by Ian 7/30/2006 07:46:00 AM

Comments:
I do agree that US TV seems to be taking the chances movies shy away from these days (Sopranos may well be the best gangster narrative EVER). I never quite 'got' West Wing though - all that walking and talking smart became a stylistic distraction for me. Excellent acting, 'skillfully' written, but it left me cold.

As for the politics - their world was as fantastic as Middle Earth. Michel Foucalt indeed! These guys probably find Marvel comics too morally ambiguous. Fact: EVERY US president has been a murdering sack of shit of varying degrees since 1776. The Democrat party only started to protect Southern plantation oligarchs.

And I'm sooo sick of hearing yet more liberal eulogies for JFK (even my adolescent hero Richard Pryor fell for it). The fucker brought us ALL to the brink of extinction, started the Viet Nam war (Nixon ended it, remember?), and couldn't even honour the deals he made with his rich daddy's Mafia buddies. The only reason there's so many theories about his murder is because he managed to alienate everyone he used in his clamber up the greasy pole.

Which reminds me - everyone should check out 'The Fog of War' about Robert MacNamara. One of the best 'political' films ever made, I reckon. No Democrat smugness, no moralising, no Loachean sermonising - just a very powerful man musing over what he did with that power.

Whenever I see the smug peurility of Jon Stewart and the Daily Show, or Al Franken, or the mawkish Michael Moore (excuse me while I puke) I can fully understand why the god-fearing hard-working midwesterners hate these people. Not unlike the feeling I get when I watch public Bremner, Bird and Fortune.
p.s.
Does anyone remember Spike Milligan and John Bird's disgutingly racist sitcom 'Curry and Chips?' Even early 70's ITV found it too much...)
AGUIRRE
 
1. Bush did attempt to have a smoochy conversation with idealistic young black men, via the NAACP. They told him to fuck off.

2. Talk about revisionism. I remember when Ian McShane was a byword for naffness, like David Dickinson mated with Jeremy Clarkson. Wasn't Lovejoy just Bergerac with added Valium? I await your dewy-eyed retrospective on the later oeuvre of Su Pollard (with particular reference to You Rang, M'Lord? with keen interest.)
 
Anyone remember the infamous Lovejoy episode called 'Slave To The Rhythm' - in which he has to track down a rare Georges Bataille first edition? I was in that one, as an extra, you know ...
 
"i remember when [xxx] was a byword for naffness" = "i remember when i laughed at the clueless and the old; now the young laugh at me, and nothing makes sense in a cold confusing world"
 
ps ian has been raving about lovejoy for 20 YEARS by my clock
 
Also, McShane is the major underrated center of SEXY BEAST. The Sir Ben Kingsley character - 40 seconds of that and, Joe Pesci stylee, you'd just smash him in the face with the nearest heavy object, take him out into the desert and leave him there. But the character McShane plays (to purrrrfection) - he's so scary you can't move, can't think, can't make a move.

YEs - I jave only "revised" my opinion of Lovejoy inasmuch as I have revised it UP. Lovejoy = a kind of impossible Norfolk Warhol. Everyone else in programme sports awful Eighties lapels, shoulderpads, hair, etc. Lovejoy/McShane = cryogenically fluid in his black pea coat, black Levis, Chuck Taylors etc.
 
i liked 'lovejoy' without a smidge of anything even RESEMBLING irony when i was too young to have heard the word 'irony'.
 
Wasn't McShane in 'Sexy Beast' playing an aged version of the characeter he played in a cheap nasty film I dimly remember called 'Villain'? He was pretty terrifying in that, too.
I quite dig the idea of actors re-playing their young personas at an older, bitter age. Examples: Jack Nicholson in 'About Schmidt' as a 'sequel' to 'Five Easy Pieces'. Or Clint in 'Million Dollar Baby' as the conclusion to his Orang-Utan trucker character. Nick Nolte's monstrous cop in 'Q & A' as the a cynical, darker development on '48 hours'... etc.
 
How could I forget Villain? Not only do I have it on VHS I have two copies of the paperback by one James Barlow. But the screenplay was by Clement & Le Frenais - and it was Le Frenais who came up with the idea of adapting the Lovejoy books for TV. Yes - Villain and Sexy Beast share that crucial homo erotic thing, too, dont they? Except that the McShane character(s), so to speak, goes from bottom to top in the intervening years...

Well spotted, Anon.
 
ALSO: Jeff Bridges in Cutters Way ... Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski. Sort of.
 
is it "well known" that harvey keitel the cop in BAD TIMING is actively mimicking peter falk as columbo? once you see it you can't unsee it

there's a ton of secret growy-uppies in twin peaks (half the cast were child stars or 60s beach or biker moves) (or west side story)
 
It doesnt matter how many times you repeat it, Mark - I'm not buying this Columbo/Keitel thing!
 
*points to the NILE and smiles confidently to self*
 
Do what?
 
Have you read Afflicted Powers? Israel as the nightmare mirror of the US - the US can't get out of its relationship with Israel, 'cos it sees itself there...

Re: Syrian minister and 'History didn't begin six days ago...' I DO want that on a goddamn t-shirt. There is a great Foucault quote (can't remember which book) about the fact that we are always so arrogant as to think that the history we are living through is the most important that has ever been, and the History that will be remembered.

Sometimes I do think that, despite his sometimes Little Englander mealy-mouthedness and undoubted misogyny, Orwell Was Right. The memory hole gets more voracious every day...
 
In the college I work in there was a couple of fifteen year olds who thought World War 2 ended in Viet Nam! Apparently all war movies represented one long, everlasting US war. i couldn't help but think their Hollywood history was strangely accurate in a way. Piaget may have had a point... AGUIRRE
 
Or: howabout harvey keitel the cop in BAD LIEUTENANT is actively mimicking peter falk as columbo?
 
that would be silly and wrong and false
 
Lest we forget in 'Sexy Beast' that McShane gratuitously blows James Fox's brains out at the end - just like Fox did to Mick Jagger in the even more homoerotic 'Performance' ... The shooting at the end of that is rather pornographic, and also seeps with class resentment coming home to roost...
What is it with ultra-vicious gay gangsters in the UK? We all know a couple of real-life examples - but why did it become so prevalent in UK movies and TV? American gangster stuff never seems to have this 'vibe'.

There's a class/crime/sex metafictional thread here that connects Pinter, Bacon, Carry On movies, Michael Howard (anyone heard about HIS relatives?), Malcom McDowell's movie roles, Crowley and Jack-the-Hat having that knife shoved in his head by a gay twin (like some prehistoric ritual).

Iain Sinclair has touched on this elsewhere, but it does seem to form some murky thread in British society - where alienated public schoolboys find symbiosis with alienated wideboys. Does the homoerotic aspect (as motif, as meme) form an 'interzone' between traditional adversaries? Or is our culture just the province of posho's looking for a bit of rough? Better not mention Guy Ritchie... AGUIRRE
 
Lest we forget in 'Sexy Beast' that McShane gratuitously blows James Fox's brains out at the end - just like Fox did to Mick Jagger in the even more homoerotic 'Performance' ... The shooting at the end of that is rather pornographic, and also seeps with class resentment coming home to roost...
What is it with ultra-vicious gay gangsters in the UK? We all know a couple of real-life examples - but why did it become so prevalent in UK movies and TV? American gangster stuff never seems to have this 'vibe'.

There's a class/crime/sex metafictional thread here that connects Pinter, Bacon, Carry On movies, Michael Howard (anyone heard about HIS relatives?), Malcom McDowell's movie roles, Crowley and Jack-the-Hat having that knife shoved in his head by a gay twin (like some prehistoric ritual).

Iain Sinclair has touched on this elsewhere, but it does seem to form some murky thread in British society - where alienated public schoolboys find symbiosis with alienated wideboys. Does the homoerotic aspect (as motif, as meme) form an 'interzone' between traditional adversaries? Or is our culture just the province of posho's looking for a bit of rough? Better not mention Guy Ritchie... AGUIRRE
 
WELL: '“It has always seemed to me,” wrote Christopher Isherwood in the early 40s, hitting on the perfect metaphor for eternal Queer subculture at its most radical, “that these is in fact only one Turkish Bath – an enormous subterranean world, a delicious purgatory, a naked democracy in which the only class distinctions are anatomical. And that this underworld merely has a number of different entrances and vestibules in all the cities of the earth. You could enter it in Sydney and emerge from it to find yourself in Jermyn Street.”' (ok this is me quoting me quoting isherwood)

the interzonal attraction was (back in the day) criminality itself: being actively homo before 1967 was of course ITSELF illegal

but the well-born and the gangster were brothers in one very particular thing: being able to get away with it -- it was illegal for them too but (by virtue of their status, and their flamboyant shamelessness) they were able to game the system better than their sad trapped suburban or middle-class gay cousins

how did it become a meme? well, reason one is probably whichever kray it was; but reason two, which is surely stronger, is that the brit gangster movie has since the 80s become very cannibalistic, very mannerist

BUT there's also a (late 60s) dynamic of escape from the meme-confines of kitchen sink mannerism*: london not the north; self-made crim not self-made salt-of-the-earth; dandyish not inarticulate; weirdly queer not hysterically straight; and metropolis class-fluid not industrial class-tribal**

(*if.... is the prequel to performance) (as i keep arguing and will one day write up properly)

(**interesting counterflow: in the long good friday, the first london gangster to be murdered by the ira influx is cruised by his assassin -- the mark of the new politicised ruthlessness being that the assassin's sexuality is an instrumentalism only)
 
"how did it become a meme? well, reason one is probably whichever kray it was"

Reggie was the famously gay twin - but it was only after Ronnie died that it was (finally) widely reported that Ronnie was himself bisexual. Not quite sure why this was suppressed for so long - but presumably even with him banged up people were too terrified to put their name to this going into the public domain...
 
Apologies for the horrific syntax at the end there - it's been a LONG day...
 
I'm not sure that kitchen sink dramas were as 'hysterically straight' as you claim.
Lyndsey Anderson's documentaries with those very stylised/fetishised teddy boys, and especially 'This Sporting Life' - Richard Harris used as meat, full of homoerotic frustrations (as well as a sports team that operates like a crime syndicate).
What about 'Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner' or anything featuring Lawrence Harvey?
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning was very 'hetro' and John Osborne was hysterically mysoginist, but there's a lot of fruitiness in British cinema/theatre (often the same thing) since WW2 at least. Morrisey's whole image seems based on it!

It's post-60s self appointed 'voices of the working class' like Loach, Bleasdale and McGovern who are hysterically hetero - their class reductionism rendering everyone cardboard stereotypes of macho pride vs. effete, machiavellian middle-class oppression - capitalising on tidy tough-guy tragedies like strikes, Hillsborough or Bloody Sunday. No ambiguities, no POSSIBILITIES. Did anyone see these tossers on TV recently, acting like the guardians of the nations conscience? You can tell Loach doesn't associate with the working class he claims to love - none of his characters say 'n*gg*r' or 'p*k*'... or even smack their children. For these guys, there's no such thing as a poor homosexual either...

These 'vulgar marxists' don't seem to realise that the 'proleteriat' (to which I grew up in) may prefer to watch Dennis Potter, Nicholas Roeg or even Hammer horror than listen to the bleedin' obvious (which to them is the only 'real' drama).
I actually went to the school McGovern taught at - how our class laughed as this innefectual, patronising, indifferent clock-watcher wrote a drama about his heroic crusade against a corrupt education system - fighting for 'the kids'!
I tend to partly blame their condescending approach and righteous self-congratulation for the ascendancy of the right in a way... only Alan Clarke seemed to have an impact in my neck of the woods (one snarl from Ray Winstone carried more political weight than any number of polemic from Loach et al)
Here endeth the tangentical rant. AGUIRRE
 
I saw a screening of This Sporting Life just the other day. The funniest bit was when Frank Minchin (Richard Harris) and his pal were splashing about in the hot tub after a match, very friendly indeed. 'Hurry up and get out, you two fags', says the team trainer.

Even the beat up Dover paperback Fifty Classic British Films (published 1985) comments that 'beneath the macho surface of these rugby players' lives there is a hint of latent homosexuality.'
 
aguirre i think we are actually more or less agreeing here, tho i wz unclear: by "hysterically" i meant hysteria-as-symptom (ie not just "hilariously") -- the apparent straightness in KS is under a LOT of strain pre-67, esp.as we look back at it; and post-67, as you say, it splits into a dour het-prole wing and, well, all manner of other more interesting and ambiguous stuff

the theatre wing of kitchen sink, which was largely based at the royal court and largely predates the films, made a LOT of ideological noise abt 'kicking the buggers off the stage" (ie noel coward; terrence rattigan) (recommended source: dan rebellato's book "1956 and all that") -- i think CONFLICTED is the word for a lot of it!
 
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