Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Ummm... pretend this is a clever title regarding Saturday Night Live.

As a nerd, I am very passionate about the pieces of media I do and don’t like. While I sometimes let my more embarrassing tastes go unmentioned, I still often have trouble ignoring a negative remark about a movie or TV show that I love, regardless of the situation or how I will be perceived for standing up for that given piece of media. Something that has likely been noticed by friends of mine is that this happens far more often with Saturday Night Live than it does with anything else.

SNL is easy to dislike, and tough to love, so I don’t necessarily have a problem with friends saying that they don’t like the show. Sketch comedy simply isn't everybody's taste. However, I take issue with how few people tend to actually have valid points when attacking the show. Invariably, people who don’t watch the show consistently will say something along the lines of how “it used to be funnier,” or even worse, "it just sucks." Luckily, I watch SNL enough that I can talk shit about it adequately, and then defend the show immediately after.

The show is not, nor has it ever been, consistently hilarious. If you get one show per season that features exclusively funny sketches, you’re getting lucky, and there are a variety of reasons for this. It isn’t necessarily the fault of the writers or the performers, but more Lorne Michaels’ desire to craft the show in a way that ensures there is something for every viewer. Michaels likes to front-load the show in order to get as many viewers as possible to stay with the show through to Weekend Update, which is why you’re getting a lot of character sketches in the first half. Keeping as many viewers as possible doesn’t mean necessarily putting your best sketches first, it just means putting the broadest sketches first. This creates a loose structure for each show: you’re going to get a political sketch as a cold open, the host monologue, an ad parody, a few character sketches, Weekend Update, and then the rest of the show is seemingly up for grabs to the writers. This desire to attract a wide range of people is what leads to the character sketch dilemma: when Michaels sees a sketch kill in the second half, he assumes it will kill again and another sketch starring that character finds itself in the first half of the show a few weeks later. While the show has always had character sketches, from what I can tell these characters began to recur much more often starting with Michaels’ return to the show in the mid-1980s. Upon leaving the show after its fifth season, Michaels attempted to succeed as a Hollywood producer and failed professionally for the first time in his life, which both lead him back to SNL and made him more willing to appease NBC executives when he returned. In the 1970s, the show was new and graced with incredible luck, so they could put on whatever sketches they desired and still find an audience. By the mid-1980s, however, the show had lost a lot of its audience and Michaels had to become more adept at appealing to wider audiences to keep the show on the air (SNL was perpetually on the verge of being cancelled for most of the 1980s). While I wish Michaels were less afraid to stray from this format, I realize that the television industry has undergone extensive changes since the 1970s, and that this is what is necessary to keep SNL alive in the modern television industry.

Another reason the show isn’t always great are, again, faults of the format: writing for the coming Saturday’s show begins on the Monday previous, creating a time crunch, and sometimes you just can’t write for a host who is not funny (if January Jones follows this, know that I’m talking directly to you). Again, I know it’s a flaw of the show, but at this point Saturday Night Live is the last remaining relic of the live variety show, and in order to keep it going you need to put up with its flaws. I love live sketch comedy, but don’t reside in a major city, where it can often be difficult to find live comedy that isn’t awful. While the massive budget behind SNL does take away some of the charm, if that’s the way it has to be for me to see live sketch comedy, then so be it.

The biggest thing working against how people perceive SNL, however, is time. It has been around forever, and almost nobody seems to be able to objectively judge the show because of this. I read a quote from a long-time writer on the show saying that, at any given time post-1980, people complain about the show’s current level of quality while saying how much better the previous cast was. I wish I could find the quote, because that is just about the most accurate statement I have ever read about SNL. Five years from now, Kristen Wiig and Andy Samberg will be well liked, but right now everybody seems to want Tina Fey and Will Ferrell back. As much as I love the latter two comedians, the writing on the show is better in the past two seasons than it ever was with Fey as the head writer and Ferrell as the star.

Sketch comedy rarely ages well, and as funny as most of the original SNL cast were as performers, the writing in the first five “golden” years of the show are no exception. There are plenty of sketches that are still funny, but a lot of the sketches aren’t because I am simply too young to understand the context. The show has always been current, and many sketches directly comment on events that have occurred mere weeks or even days before the show's airing. When I made a documentary on SNL about a year ago (links below), I watched much of the first few seasons and found that a lot of it simply isn’t funny. Like I said here a few months ago about people who claim movies are currently worse than ever, SNL detractors tend to have a similarly hazy memory: if a sketch doesn’t make you laugh or isn’t remarkably bad, chances are that soon enough it will be completely out of your memory. I remember watching Seth Rogen’s appearance on SNL a year ago with my then-roommate, and we recently discussed the hysterical Fast & Furious sketch, but I had a hard time remembering one other sketch from that show. I remember it was a fairly high quality show, but over the past year I have forgotten all but the funniest sketch. This same method of thinking can be applied to every SNL from years past.

After about five years of sporadically watching SNL, I started watching it more consistently, and have probably seen most of the shows in the past five years and all but 2 or 3 in the last few seasons. The current cast is unbelievably talented, and the writers and producers seem to have figured out how to best use everybody. Amy Poehler has finally left Update, allowing Seth Meyers to become the most clever and honest anchor since Norm Macdonald was fired for being too funny. The show lacks a breakout sketch star, but I think that allows for more creativity in the writing, as it can cut back on the need to write a sketch specifically to get a popular performer more airtime. Sketch comedy should be about the ensemble, and the current cast is representative of that. Just think back to a decade ago when it seemed like every other sketch was a popular Will Ferrell character, and I’m happy for the increase of variety the current cast gives us.

I guess I’ve said an equal amount of good and bad things here about Saturday Night Live, as I probably should. The show is incredibly flawed, but I still love it and feel that its existence is important for our media-saturated culture. The influence the show has had on the television medium is always mentioned by SNL defenders, but almost never adequately broken down (and this paragraph will likely be no exception). There are the obvious things like Update allowing the Daily Show to exist and all of the great writers and performers given a platform by the show, but the influence of SNL is far more impressive than that. Advertisers owe an incredible debt to the show, for adding humour to advertisements can be attributed at the very least in part to SNL’s penchant for parodying products that has been present since the show’s inception. We owe the same debt to SNL, for I’m happy to at least get an occasional laugh from advertising… imagine how frustrating our ad-saturated world would be if every advertisement was boring and awful (as opposed to just most of them).

Being influential, however, is not reason enough for the show to remain in existence now, and I think SNL is still important culturally outside of merely being influential. Chevy Chase says the initial idea behind Saturday Night Live was to be a platform with which to satirize the television format. As television has expanded, that satire has become both more necessary and more easily accessible through other shows that have followed SNL’s lead. Making fun of CNN’s political coverage may be an obvious joke to make, but that it is being made on such a big stage makes it valuable. I don’t believe that a piece of media has much power to enact any sort of real change, but SNL adds awareness to a lot of media-related topics that I like to see publicly addressed.

Finally, once or twice each season, a sketch or moment will stretch outside of the show to reach the masses (think last year’s “I’m on a Boat,” or when Jenny Slate accidentally said “fucking” on-air earlier this season). The show still holds a huge amount of cultural capital, and it is one of a small number of television shows that are so widely entrenched in our culture that a significant on air moment is a discussion-worthy topic to such a large group of North Americans. In a time-delayed mass media culture that tries to cover up anything deemed overtly offensive by higher-ups, I find it oddly comforting that I can still hear the occasional uncensored, albeit accidental, f-bomb on live television, and SNL’s decades of tradition is what allows it to remain one of the few truly live broadcasts on television. The show may use a format abandoned long ago, but what it uses the format for still holds cultural weight… even if it isn't always funny.

Live from Wall Street

Live from Wall Street. part one of four. from alex stephenson on Vimeo.

Live from Wall Street. part two of four. from alex stephenson on Vimeo.

Live from Wall Street. part three of four. from alex stephenson on Vimeo.

Live from Wall Street. part four of four. from alex stephenson on Vimeo.

Just for fun, here is a list of media products that would not have been possible without Saturday Night Live:
Ghostbusters, Fletch, Trading Places, Anchorman, Hot Rod, A Mighty Wind (The Folksmen debuted as an SNL sketch in 1984) and countless other classic comedy films either written by and/or starring SNL alumni
The Daily Show, and by extension The Colbert Report
30 Rock
Late Night with Conan O’Brien

And a list of things SNL certainly made more possible:
Mr. Show
The Office (US)
Office Space
Chris Rock’s success as a stand-up comedian
(Debatably) most of Judd Apatow’s career

*For the Seinfeld fans: Larry David once quit his writing job at SNL on a Saturday over a sketch he wrote not making it on air. By the next week’s Monday meeting, he had realized he made a mistake and showed up to work, pretending he never quit. If this rings a bell, it’s because George Costanza did the same thing when he worked for the Yankees. Other Seinfeld episodes were also inspired by David-penned sketches, and David first met Julia Louis-Dreyfuss when she was an SNL cast member.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010


Happy Oscar nomination day, everybody! Although I suppose it's not particularly happy, as to be honest, some pretty bad movies were nominated (especially for Best Picture). Obviously it would have been impossible to predict, but even if the Best Picture category had remained a 5 movie thing, I would still have trouble picking 5 out of this 10 that deserve to be in a shortlist for the best movies of the year. Avatar, District 9, Inglourious Basterds, THE BLIND SIDE?!!? Are you serious? I haven't seen Precious, but I have seen everything else and am comfortable saying that A Serious Man and Up are the only movies of the 9 that deserves any sort of real praise. You want me to nitpick and get my hate on for the Best Picture nominess, you say? Well, if I must.

The Blind Side - What? I acknowledge that Sandra Bullock is fun in this movie, but you have seen the movie before. Does Sylvester Stallone get royalties anytime a new sports movie blatantly steals the Rocky formula? To me it is telling that Michael Oher, the now-professional football player that this movie is about, has no intention to ever watch the movie about his life. He has said that it's a story that happens all the time, it just so happens to be that this is the one getting notice. That's a fairly potent metaphor about the movie: Friday Night Lights may have been an infinitely better movie (in that it was actually good), but it's the Blind Side that gets the love. Ugh. If I didn't inexplicably like Sandra Bullock as much as I do, I would be Avatar-mad about this one.

District 9 - I have always been a big fan of the fake documentary format, and thoroughly enjoyed its use in the first half of District 9. But somewhere in the middle of the movie, they drop the style completely and we are suddenly getting privileged shots that no documentary crew could possibly get. At least they keep the handheld aesthetic the whole time, I suppose. The idea of the movie is great, with the aliens/impoverished citizens being moved by the government, but that doesn't mean that the movie is necessarily as good as its idea. It's a decent action movie, yes, and I always want to see a good action movie taken seriously, it just so happens that the Academy is honouring the wrong one.

An Education - I like this movie. It was fun, it was funny, and Carey Mulligan was great. Best Picture? Probably not, but at least it is good.

The Hurt Locker - This is a great action movie, as scenes involving bomb defusing are always incredibly suspenseful, and the Hurt Locker does not change that. The problem I had with the movie is that it is little more than an action movie that features a fairly obvious message which is really drilled into your head by the time you leave. There is a 10 minute period of the movie that could have been completely removed and the movie would have been infinitely better. As it is though, it's a good movie, but not as great as it should be.

Inglourious Basterds - This movie looks gorgeous, has a number of Spaghetti Western references, and also features a great performance by Brad Pitt... Too bad the rest of it is painful to sit through. I have liked every Quentin Tarantino movie to date, but holy shit was this one awful. The endless dialogue scenes have lost their charm to me it seems, and the last line of the movie is a huge "fuck you" to anybody who likes the far better movies Tarantino movies Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs.

Up in the Air - Again, a good movie, but far from great. I love George Clooney, and as per usual he does his Clooney thing, but the movie is only good outside of one scene that I would put among my favourite scenes in the last couple of years. The rest, however, is just a good little comedy that, like Jason Reitman's previous film Juno, does not quite deserve the acclaim its getting.

Avatar - The movie looks very cool, and the 3D is outstanding. Whew, I'm happy that part of this is over. Ahem… Fuck James Cameron and his ridiculous haircut. His "pro-environmentalism" movie cost $300 million, creating who knows how much waste in merely the production stage. And when leaving the theatre I saw it in, I watched as an usher punched down into one of three full garbage cans next to him, so that Avatar's audience could throw more of their garbage into it. I recognize any multi-million dollar movie about environmentalism is a contradiction in some way, but at least some of them don't feature dialogue that sounds like it is being exchanged by Amidala and Anakin in Attack of the Clones. And as for the anti-capitalist message of the film? It is now the highest grossing movie of all time, and who knows how much of that goes right to Cameron. Go light a million dollar bill on fire for your own personal enjoyment, you fucking hypocrite.

So, how would I have handled things differently, you say? I do recognize that this has not been a great year for movies, and I would have trouble finding five movies that I would actually think should be remembered decades down the line. But fear not, for I will tell you what I liked the most anyway. I didn't do many categories, but I am singling out elements of certain movies that I feel deserve mention.

Favourite Movies
As I stated in my previous post, my favourite movie from the past year was the Brothers Bloom, but there are other serious contenders. A Serious Man is a truly great movie, and I can't wait for it to come out on DVD so that I can watch it again and try to decipher it some more. The Coens have shown in the last few years that they are capable of not only making great movies, but also making incredibly dense ones as well. Like No Country for Old Men, watching A Serious Man can lead a viewer to come to any number of conclusions as to what the film is about (A Serious Man even more so), and chances are the viewer is right. Here are some other movies I really liked this year, with mini-reviews:

The Road - This was a great, gorgeously executed movie that I think is better than the book (which I did happen to like quite a bit). It is unrelentingly depressing, yes, but I think there are potent ideas in there, even though the movie pretty much removes the environmentalism elements of the book. It felt like Terence Malick making a post-apocalypse movie with the way parts of it were shot and the voiceover work throughout. And while I am not a fan of Viggo Mortensen, he is unbelievable in this movie, and one of his scenes with Charlize Theron is unbelievably crushing.

Adventureland - I love a comedy that tries to be a little serious, as I feel that combination is the closest movies ever get to emulating real life. I get suspicious of any drama that doesn't feature any jokes, because even on the shittiest days of my life, I can recall joking around at least a little bit. Shit, the Road is about life after the apocalypse, and even it has a couple of jokes in it. Adventureland is a great comedy that is also a great movie, and that is pretty rare… I don't have much more to say about it other than "see it."

Away We Go - This is a fairly simple movie that is elevated by a number of good performances. While John Krasinski doesn't do much outside of his normal, he is really good at it so I don't have a problem with it. And as big of a fan as I am, I had no idea Maya Rudolph had this kind of a performance in her, as she is the anchor of the movie and does her job really well. The bit parts are also played perfectly, as both Alison Janney and Maggie Gyllenhaal are hilarious, and Chris Messina gets a great scene as well. Both Krasinski and Rudolph get a chance to show their abilities toward the end of the movie, and neither disappoints. I realize this is far from a great movie, and it is probably the worst of my choices, but something about it really gets to me, and I love it.

Fantastic Mr. Fox - See this movie immediately, for it is just massively enjoyable. It's hilarious, the stop motion is great, and Wes Anderson doesn't even have to tone down its Wes-ness. I'm not cussing with you, you need to see this movie.

Funny People - This was a decent movie that really should have been a million times better. It is very funny when it wants to be, and it is a great movie for as long as it deals with the friendship between Ira and George. The problem comes with another part of the plot, which totally derails the movie and forces us to literally watch the director's kid's ballet recital. Oh Judd, you'll make a great movie someday, I know it, but this one should have been it. I'm putting it on this list because what I liked about it, I liked a lot… It just so happens that it gets really bad at parts.

Favourite Performances
Joseph Gordon-Levitt's performance in 500 Days of Summer was… incredibly believable. Maybe it was just the character, but he was flawless, and there were multiple situations in this movie where his reactions struck me as remarkably similar to how I would react in the same scenario. He is also the king of subtleties, of which this performance featured many. The people will learn he's not just the kid from 3rd Rock eventually, I'm sure of it. This is the best performance I saw all year, and second place isn't even close in my opinion.

However, Sam Rockwell absolutely dominated in Moon. It was a role that allowed for him to have a lot of fun, and he did just that. I loved the movie, and he is pretty much the only character in the movie, so he must have done his job well. The scenes where he is interacting with himself are incredibly entertaining, and as the conflict gets more intense, his performance never gets worse.

Martin Starr deserves a mention for his very small part in Adventureland. He probably had no more than five scenes, but there is one scene towards the end that he positively kills. Comedies like Adventureland hinge on one or two key scenes in order to be taken as more than just comedies, and the scene that relies on Starr is perfect, and it is all because of how he is able to convey his lines. Small roles can be pivotal, and Adventureland is as good as it is in large part because of Martin Starr.

In a movie I really didn't like, and playing a character type that I really hate, Zoe Saldana somehow made me really like her in Avatar. While "white messiah" movies are always a little painful in their treatment of the people that the hero has come to save, Saldana made Neytiri a legitimate character as opposed to merely just another racial stereotype. This however, is assuming she did a lot of motion capture for her role… otherwise I have to give Cameron and crew some credit, for the way Neytiri moved was a big part of me liking Saldana. Her movements really separated her from the rest of the Na'vi, allowing her to be much better than a role as a racial stereotype might generally allow.

Rachel Weisz in the Brothers Bloom was without a doubt the most adorable character I have ever seen in a movie. She is obviously gorgeous, but in playing the perpetually confused Penelope she was both cute and somehow identifiable. Like I mentioned in my last post, the main three actors are flawless in this movie, but I think Rachel Weisz was the best of them.

Finally, Carey Mulligan was pretty great in An Education. I love a shit-talking teenager as much as the next person, which she did throughout the movie, and when it was time for her to show some range, she did it well. I'm officially excited for her next role (well, whatever she happens to be in after the Wall Street sequel).

Favourite Score
I may be biased because I've never seen a movie with a Nick Cave & Warren Ellis score that I didn't love, but their score for the Road was beautiful. Listening to it apart from the movie really brought the movie back into my mind, even more than a standard score does, and I think that's one of the better compliments you can give to a film score. Nathan Johnson's Brothers Bloom score deserves similar praise, but while the music in The Brothers Bloom features great themes, it isn't consistently great like the score for the Road is. Hans Zimmer's score for Sherlock Holmes deserves a mention as well, because it is really fun throughout.

Favourite Cinematography
A Serious Man was shot by Richard Deakins, who makes just about any movie he works on visually stunning. A Serious Man does not have many complicated setups, but there is something about the look of the movie that is perfect to me. There are multiple instances where the camera is actually tilted, and it doesn't just feel like a stylistic choice, but actually makes sense within the context of the story. What Deakins does with lighting is unbelievable by itself: for proof, watch the scene where Richard Kind's character opens the fridge in the middle of the night.

I love the look of digital video, and accordingly I loved the cinematography in Public Enemies (as I have for every Michael Mann movie since he started experimenting with it in Ali - it even makes Miami Vice watchable to me). I will more than likely do an extremely nerdy post about digital vs. film at some point in the future, because there is too much to touch on here. But for now just know I thought Public Enemies looked great and the visuals made up for a lot of the script's problems. So, credit to Dante Spinotti for making a biopic about the 1930s look modern.

Favourite Audio Edit
Yep, this is happening. I'm seriously picking out one audio edit to talk about. In the hippie dinner scene in Away We Go, the Stranglers' "Golden Brown" is playing throughout the scene, but once the argument kicks into high gear and Burt takes a stand, the volume of the music picks up and it goes from diegetic music to non-diegetic in about five seconds. While this is obviously not the first time this has been done, it really elevates the scene to have far more emotional impact than it may have otherwise, and I know at least for me it had a big effect.

Well kids, thanks for reading, and feel free to disagree with my choices below.