Category Archives: What I’m Watching This Month

Njal’s Saga: Literature and Leadership

By Stan Pelkey

In mid-January, during the last few days my two children were home for winter break, my son and I began to watch the first season of Vikings (Michael Hirst, 2013–2018) on Amazon Prime’s streaming video service. We’d watched The Last Kingdom on BBC America in 2015, and we’re huge fans of Game of Thrones, so Vikings seemed like a promising choice, given our preferences for epic storytelling on television.

Now this post is not a review of Vikings, which I do enjoy very much. I may post such a review later. Watching the program, however, motivated me to go back to my bookshelf of medieval European literature (yes, that’s a real thing in my office at home), which I collected while working on my MA in European History, and I began reading the great Icelandic prose text, Njal’s Saga.

What began as an exercise in “how well did Hirst capture the sense of historical Viking society, culture, and attitudes?” (with some collateral “ah, there’s a bit of Tolkien!” thrown in) quickly morphed into an exploration of historical “mentalities” embedded in literature, a practice that was central to my training as a historian. And then my reading became the basis for this, my third blog post on literature and leadership.

Njal’s Saga is long enough and dense enough and has a large enough cast of characters that I may mine its riches over several posts this year. (As a comparison, think of the size and narrative style of Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, rather than his The Hobbit.) What I wish to focus on first is the importance—for a leader or would-be leader—of surrounding oneself with people of good character, being willing to find common ground, and using compromise as a tool for crafting the common good.

The events of Njal’s Saga take place roughly a century after the events depicted in the first four seasons of Vikings (i.e., the late 900s rather than the 800s). The first half of the saga focuses on four significant, recurring figures: the half-brothers, Hoskuld and Hrut; and the friends Gunnar and Njal. In each of those pairings, the latter individual is a wise man with powerful spiritual gifts who serves as a trusted advisor to the former man. Hoskuld and Gunnar rise to levels of great wealth and power by exhibiting the character traits that the Saga consistently celebrates in men: strength of arms (whether one is a farmer, trader, or lawyer); shrewdness; a core even-temperedness; reliability and loyalty toward friends; and ruthlessness toward enemies. (I think one could argue that these are also the character traits of Ragnar in Vikings, at least during the first two seasons, and perhaps even more so of his eldest son, Bjorn.  Likewise, John Snow and Daenerys Targaryen from Game of Thrones also demonstrate those characteristics, and one might argue that the lack of shrewdness was precisely the reason that the Stark men played the game of thrones so poorly.)

 

Hrut likewise rises to prominence and rightfully gains his place of power and influence beside his half-brother after spending time trading and fighting abroad and demonstrating those same character traits just enumerated. He’s motivated to go abroad, in part, because he is told early in the Saga that while his brother is a famous leader, he is unknown. In this way, Hrut’s rise from beneath his brother’s shadow could have been a model for the long narrative arc in Vikings in which Rollo continuously wrestles with his place and reputation in relation to his more skillful and successful brother, Ragnar.

Early in Njal’s Saga, Hoskuld’s family and Gunnar’s family are nearly swept into violent conflict. Hrut, however, urges his brother to resolve their dispute with gifts and pledges of friendship rather than by single combat, which he knows Hoskuld will lose. Hrut’s wisdom in pursuing a face-saving compromise between the two families is rewarded richly when Gunnar falls in love with Hoskuld’s daughter, Hallgerd – now widowed twice and a landowner in her own right. Through the subsequent marriage of Hallgerd and Gunnar—which Gunnar would not have contemplated but for the willingness of Hoskuld to settle their earlier dispute peacefully— the two families become bound by both promises of friendship and by blood.

In contrast to the valiant Hoskuld and Gunnar and the wise Hrut and Njal, the saga continuously introduces a cast of minor, villainous, and often short-lived male characters regularly referred to as “scoundrels.” Unlike the valiant and wise leaders, these characters are led easily into trouble; lead others into misfortunate with poor and even malicious advice; lie, even to their allies; and mouth off.

As the first of these “scoundrels” are introduced, the saga moves into a peculiar phase in which Gunnar’s family and household are, for several years, pitted against the family and household of his friend Njal. The conflict begins with an underlying jealousy between Hallgerd (Gunnar’s wife) and Bergthora (Njal’s wife), and the two women use the scoundrels in their respective husbands’ households to needle each other. Over a series of chapters, there is a cycle of tit-for-tat murders between the two families, starting with household slaves, then moving up the social scale from freemen, to minor kinsmen, and finally to close and important kinsmen. With each cycle of violence, more fighters are forced to take part in the respective revenge killings (to ensure numerical advantages for the “winning” side), until the spiraling cycles of violence and vengeance threaten to suck both households into open warfare.

With each cycle of violence, Njal and Gunnar also agree to pay appropriate compensation to each other (in keeping with Viking law) in order contain the threat of open warfare and to maintain their personal friendship. They make these decisions despite the bitterness of their wives and the seething anger of their respective collections of hot-tempered sons. Again, the leadership displayed by Njal and Gunnar is embodied first and foremost in a willingness to find an appropriate compromise that is consistent with their “institutional” policies / procedures / safeguards rather than allowing disagreements between their clichés or camps to spiral out of control – which would only benefit their mutual enemies. Real leaders are often tasked with holding the line for peace in the face of opposition from even one’s closest friends and relatives. By maintaining the common ground despite opposition within their own camps, Njal and Gunnar hold their alliance together, and after the cycles of violence subside, the two families find genuine peace and are ready to work together again to mutually protect each other from both the ravages of famine and the threats of far worse regional opponents.

This leads me to my second observation: leaders must be sure to have a close circle of confidents and advisors who are of good character themselves. Hoskuld and Gunnar have that in their primary advisors – Hrut and Njal – and Gunnar also has a brother, Kolskegg, who is valiant and trustworthy. But why are there so many men of poor character in their households? One has to assume that some of this is simply a function of the need for a certain level of man power to run their farms, manage their flocks, and look after their logging and fishing enterprises. (Of course, their presence also serves a fundamental literary function, driving the plot forward.) But it is clear from the narrative that Hoskuld, Gunnar, and Njal do not seek the advice of such men. Contrarily, their chief enemies, who are not men of noble character, do turn to the unscrupulous characters in their households for advice – which leads to terrible consequences.

Gunnar for his part goes further: his is not simply a passive avoidance of the advice of the “scoundrels” in his inner circle; Gunnar also actively urges those men to stay out of trouble and to avoid being led astray by the scheming of the jealous Hallgerd. Nevertheless, neither Gunnar nor Njal resort to micromanaging the behavior of every single person in their households. This would be impossible to do and is not the best use of any leader’s time or energy. Thus, if they cannot avoid all problems caused by the actions and decisions of the people who work for them, they are at least ready to contain the impact of the potential crises caused by those other men. That being said, even good leaders reach limits with the scoundrels in their midst, as when Hrut finally kills in single combat one scoundrel, Thjostolf, who keeps getting his niece Hallgerd into trouble with her first two husbands.

Now I’m certainly not advocating that we settle modern leadership / organizational problems by turning to violence. Far from it. But in reading this literature as a study in human ideas and behavior and of leadership ideals and ethical systems, some of which appear to have remained remarkably stable for the past millennium, we can distill several timeless prescriptions: Good leaders will minimize risks to their organization to begin with by developing cadres of folks of good character— and note, these are not simply those one most enjoys or gets along with best—who serve as primary advisors and agents. Furthermore, when conflict emerges, whether within the organization or between one’s organization and another, a good leader will seek and hold the common ground for the common good for as long as possible (which will likely be longer than most people want). But finally, a good leader must be willing to be decisive when circumstances call for it and to act to protect others in the organization from the malicious influence of “scoundrels”. The alternative is becoming trapped in a spiraling cycle of internal and external conflict and recriminations that can derail the mission of the organization and ultimately tear it apart.

 

What I’ve Been Watching This Month (November 2017): Gilligan’s Island (seasons 2 and 3)

Gilligan’s Island (seasons 2 and 3)

As the second season of Gilligan’s Island commenced (1965–1966), the adventures of the castaways began to be presented in color. Furthermore, composer Gerald Fried more consistently prepared the episodes’ underscores in both seasons two and three, and in the early part of season three, there are longer cues with fuller textures. Some cues are even jazzed up a bit, and Fried used additional musical quotations of tunes from beyond the Gilliganverse, such as “Rule, Britannia,” to good effect. Sadly, the richer approach to underscores did not persist through to the conclusion of season three. 

There are many episodes in season two that I can clearly remember watching (and enjoying) in the late 1970s, particularly “Smile, You’re on Mars Camera,” “The Sweepstakes,” “Quick Before it Sinks,” “The Chain of Command,” “Don’t Bug the Mosquitoes” (I still enjoy the women’s musical trio), “Not Guilty,” “You’ve Been Disconnected” (a telephone cable washes up on shore), “Gilligan’s Living Doll” (remember the robot!?), “Forward March,” “Feed the Kitty” (don’t you love that lion?), “Operation: Steam Heat,” “Ghost A Go-Go,” and the “Friendly Physician,” with its mad scientist, Dr. Boris Balinkoff (Vito Scotti), and bizarre body swapping. As I rewatched these memorable episodes this past month, I enjoyed them again after the decades-hiatus but felt that season two had less charm than did season one.

Indeed, as silly as season one gets with its numerous other inhabitants on the island whom the castaways just happen to keep discovering, season two episodes such as “Smile, You’re On Mars Camera,” “The Little Dictator,” and “The Friendly Physician” slide into the realm of the absurd. Furthermore, while I remembered the nuclear explosion at the end of “Forward March,” it was far more jarring to me now, as was the boat explosion (and could-have-been murder of the castaways) in “Ghost A Go-Go.” At least in that episode, Richard Kiel plays The Ghost / Soviet Agent in such an over-the-top manner that one gets the sense that we’re not to take any of this too seriously. The same can be said for Dr. Balinkoff.

But in terms of being jarring, no episode matches “The Hunter” from season three.

In that episode, big-game hunter Jonathan Kincaid (Rory Calhoun) arrives on the island in search of his next hunting challenge. After discovering that there is no game on the island (where did the earlier apes and gorillas go?), Kincaid announces he will hunt Gilligan instead. Despite its laugh tracks, “The Hunter” is profoundly dark, and the dramatic (and realistic) reactions by both Lovely Howell and the Professor to Kincaid’s announcement (see picture below), as well as the new suspenseful musical cues for this episode, leave no doubt in my mind: this episode reached a level of seriousness unmatched by any other episode in the series. Unlike Dr. Balinkoff and the Ghost, Kincaid is not played for laughs. Indeed, Kincaid’s reaction to Ginger’s standard (feigned), manipulative come-on is also the most realistic response in the entire series because the kiss that Kincaid/Calhoun shares with Grant/Louise is the only one that suggests it is grounded in genuine adult sexual passion.

(Compare the realism of Kincaid’s kiss to the typically bashful or naive responses of Gilligan or the Professor to Ginger.)

All this creates an all-too-real villain in Kincaid who is far more believable than are the various Cold War Soviets who show up on the island. In short, “The Hunter” is a very strange episode, and I am left wondering what 1960s viewers thought about this episode. Did they feel that the writers had crossed a line, abandoning innocent comedic mayhem for representations of human cruelty about which I have never wanted to laugh? And speaking of the 1960s, what did viewers of the day think of that nuclear explosion? 

Still, the comedic elements of season1 that I like so much—disguises and costumes, slap stick by Gilligan and the Skipper, and dream sequences—continue in seasons 2 and 3. And while I still found the dream sequence in which Gilligan becomes a life-sized (political) puppet in “The Little Dictator” emotionally terrifying, I laughed heartily yet again during Mr. Howell’s wild-west dream in “The Sweepstakes.” The line, “I haven’t had a bath in forty years!”, delivered by Mr. Howell as a gold prospector, still tickled me, but with much more experience during the past two decades watching 70 years worth of Westerns, I enjoyed the collection of parodied Western characters more thoroughly than I could have done as a child. 

I was surprised that season 3’s episodes felt less familiar to me. I certainly remember “High Man on the Totem Pole,” “The Pigeon” (with its huge spider, an effect which has not aged well), and “All About Eva,” which I appreciated far more now than I did as a little boy — Tina Louise shines as an actress in that episode — but season 3 did not radiate as much familiarity as did season 2. That said, I vaguely remember the episode “Up to Bat”—with its Hammeresque dream sequence during which Gilligan is a clumsy vampire; that episode has now become my absolute favorite in the series! The acting in the dream sequence is especially good for Gilligan’s Island, the haunted mansion set is quite fine for 1960s television, and the affection that the other characters express for Gilligan in “the real world” scenes come across as heart-felt and true. Here’s a cast that seems to have hit their stride.

Finally, with seasons 2 and 3 of Gilligan’s Island, the series is no longer haunted by World War II. Instead, the Cold War presses in on its stories, and Japanese stereotypes give way to Soviet/Russian ones. Was this the result of the escalating violence in Vietnam between 1965 and 1967? I find myself wanting to revisit other American sitcoms from the late 1960s to see if I can identify similar changes within their patterns of storytelling that might also point to the growing shadow of Vietnam on American life.

Stan Pelkey

November 14, 2017

What I’ve Been Watching This Month (September 2017)

What I’ve been Watching

September was a good television month: I watched some new programs and revisited some old ones. I also managed to complete quite a bit of new research and writing, sometimes while allowing those familiar, old programs to serve as sonic (rather than visual) companions, but that’s a story for another time. 

This Is Us

I know this is not exactly a “new” series, but my wife, Heidi, and I decided to catch up on this very popular program by watching all of season 1 in September. There are two features of this show that I consistently enjoy when they appear in television programs: an ensemble cast with many well-drawn characters; and well-deployed, non-linear story telling.

I’d like to spend some additional time considering the theme of parental-child conflict inThis Is Us. That is a consistent thread running through much contemporary TV, and it’s a topic I’ve been exploring and will be discussing in several conference presentations this fall. But it will have to wait for fuller treatment another time, because what I want to focus on in this review is non-linear storytelling. This is an effective tool for holding the ensemble story telling together, since the ensemble’s members — in the case of This Is Us, all members of a single extended family — exist across several decades, with some only appearing in scenes situated in the earlier or later decades. As individual episodes unfold, the storytelling shifts back and forth between decades to explore parallel moments in the lives of the family members. We see parents early in an episode revisited later as grandparents, and children transform into parents, then slide back to earlier familial roles. In the process of placing the parallel experiences side-by-side within the narrative, the episodes tease out broad themes — sibling rivalry, the stress of balancing career and family life, the search for happiness in love, the formation of adult personas in the experiences of childhood — even as the first season pursues an overarching forward thrust, at least in its scenes set in the present. (Scenes set in the past are more disjunct, and several different years in the past are revisited.)

This Is Us uses non-linear storytelling in nearly the same way that the first two season of Dexter, one of my favorite television shows of all times, did, though the premises and the overarching plots of the two series are profoundly different. Nevertheless, the two programs are bound by a significant commonality: both examine the long-range formation of the individual’s character, personality, and outlook on life, and both raise doubts about the ability of the individual to live his or her adult life as desired due to the formative power of childhood experiences and parental choices (and mistakes). 

Ken Burns’s The Vietnam War

The highlight of September’s television offerings for me were the ten-episodes of Ken Burns’s miniseries, The Vietnam War. I consider myself to have an above-average knowledge of American history, but I learned a tremendous amount from the miniseries. I particularly appreciated the mix of new interviews with American, South Vietnamese, and North Vietnamese veterans, citizens, parents, and children, who were eye witnesses to the decades of conflict. I also always appreciate archival footage. While there was ample footage of the principal politicians and generals, plus excerpts from classified documents and White House recordings, I appreciated being given access to the thoughts and experiences of people at many levels of the war’s events and at several levels of the decision making. History is an unfolding of decisions and actions taken by many actors, those remembered, those barely remembered, and those long-forgotten; it is precisely the fact that there are so many actors within any “historical moment” (let alone an historical era) that makes the unfolding of human history unpredictable, despite the efforts of leaders, bureaucrats, technicians, generals, and admirals doing all they can to plot the future.

I thought the series as a whole was compelling and that episodes 1, 2, 9, and 10 were particularly powerful. The focus on POWs in episode 9 was moving and illuminating, for many reasons. As I wrote on Facebook on the night of its original broadcast: “Grateful as allows for the fortitude of POWs like Senator John McCain, but also grateful to learn about lesser-known heroes, like Dr. Hal Kushner. Maybe if we reflect more on what these men and their families endured, we can find the inspiration to engage in more dialogue and less violent behavior, to listen to each other rather than just to react.”

My generally positive perspective is not shared by all: some people have expressed their opinion that the miniseries devoted too much attention to North Vietnamese perspectives and anti-war demonstrators. Of course, the telling of the past is always a matter of selectivity of evidence, and the stories we tell will necessarily be conditional. But more than that, every person comes to a story like this with filters and expectations. Some people may be more aware of those filters and expectations and attempt to watch both the miniseries and their reactions in light of that reality. Others may not do this. Given these expectations and filters, there inevitably was going to be disappoint (or worse) from viewers along the entire spectrum of perspectives and political persuasions. For me, the point of a miniseries like this is precisely to see past the American perspective(s), particularly those with less nuance that tend to be learned in secondary school; I, for one, believe that true peace between people and between nations (and within nations), if it has any chance of being achieved, can only come as people open themselves to hearing other perspectives, embracing other people, and allowing all stories to be part of the moral geography that is built up over time from the disparate and contradictory experiences of peoples on many sides of conflict. Yes, that is a political stance! But it is the only one that makes sense to me — as a historian and as a citizen — for an ethical and dignified way forward.

One last comment: During the first few episodes of The Vietnam War, we once again had non-linear storytelling as the narrative moved between parallel experiences of the French soldiers in the 1950s and the American GIs in the 1960s. The linking of similar experiences — past and present — highlighted common themes, but it also provided immediate access to the American part of the story for audience members who may not have known that much about the prior French experience in Vietnam and wanted the American experience in the 1960s and early 1970s to immediately take center stage in the miniseries. While I “live” in the 1950s as a fan of old TV and movies, and as I read voraciously from the critical and social science research of that decade for several current research projects, the 1950s probably feel like ancient history to those born after the Baby Boomers. Whether we recognize it or not, that past lives on, still shaping institutions, culture, and families.   

Gilligan’s Island (Season 1)

I used to watch old reruns of Gilligan’s Island back as an elementary student in the 1970s. As I recall, episodes ran in the hour or so before the local and national news programs each weeknight. There’s not very much non-linear storytelling in Gilligan’s Island, but I enjoy the mistaken identities and disguises; the occasional dreamscapes and elaborate hoaxes that shape plots; the performances of songs, dances, plays, and even a make-shift island orchestra; and of course, the slap-stick and physical humor (both Gilligan and the Skipper engage in it — I have to admire Alan Hale’s efforts, given that he was in his forties and literally threw himself into the physical demands of the part); the dozens and dozens of times the actors, and especially Bob Denver and Hale, get tipped into the water and even “quick sand”.

As a historian of American television culture, I certainly find interesting the subtexts of the program. While the series was broadcast in the 1960s, its peculiar gender dynamics are grounded in attitudes seemingly more at home in the 1950s. Nevertheless, some of the behavior of characters pushes well beyond that seen in the sitcoms of the 1950s. Furthermore, the series’ reflection of post-war American consumer culture exemplified in the representation of Ginger Grant and the Howells (just how many sets of clothes did the Howells really pack for a three-hour tour?) and its regular haunting by the memory of World War II draw my attention. But I’m most interested in the echoes of America’s post-war technological obsessions. As the first season of Gilligan’s Island unfolds, the Professor begins to construct ever-more elaborate appliances from bamboo! 

Gilligan’s Island is not 1950s television comedy, yet with its slapstick, body humor, and performance sequences, it is still closer in conception to I Love Lucy (both echo aspects of vaudeville) than it is to All in the Family from the early 1970s. This even includes the regular appearances of guest comedic stock characters from episode to episode, around whom individual weekly stories tended to revolve. That leads me to a final question: How big was this island, really? Three times in the first season, the crew discovery other people stranded on the island (who then become the comedic “guests”): a “jungle boy,” a World War I-era American pilot, and an artist seeking solitude. How in the world did these people never ran into each other, let alone not cross paths with the castaways much sooner? 

Stan Pelkey

What I’ve Been Watching This Month (February 2017)

It’s a busy time right now, personally and professionally, and I’ve been putting as much of my available “extra” energy and time into the ongoing development of new podcasts for “My Radio.” One result is that I’ve not been preparing as many blogs about my current listening, reading, and watching.

Let me just give a quick update now about shows I am following in the early part of 2017:

In January, I watched all episodes currently available of Star Wars: Rebels. I really like this series for a number of reasons, including the characters, the connections and continuities with established Star Wars canon, and Kevin Kiner’s music, which pays appropriate homage to John Williams’s themes and scores without being stuck to those materials or merely derivative.

I have also been watching Masterpiece Theatre’s “Victoria,” a period drama about the queen of Great Britain. The cast is outstanding (I am especially impressed by Jenna Coleman’s performance as Victoria, and Rufus Sewell’s as Lord Melbourne), and I also think the music is quite strong.

I recommend both series to you.

What I’ve Been Watching (November)

The recent Thanksgiving Break provided some time for much need rest and relaxation, but it also allowed me to catch up on some film viewing. Here are some brief reflections on current and recent films.

The family and I went to see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, J. K. Rowling’s latest film set within the Harry Potter universe, though without the “boy who lived.” This was an outstanding film, well-conceived, well-acted, and well-designed and implemented. Not only was I thrilled to have the chance to revisit Rowling’s magical universe, but there was so much new material (and just enough knowing glances toward the Harry Potter series) that I did not miss Harry, Ron, Hermione, and the rest at all. Go see this film and experience it on the big screen. Even if you are not a huge Potter fan, seeing the ensemble–mostly adults in this case–playing their parts so well (and clearly enjoying them) is a treat.

I also finally had the chance to watch The Nice Guys. Like Fantastic Beasts, which is set in the 1920s, Nice Guys looks back in time, in this case to the 1970s. That decade does not get the kind of attention that the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s do. Perhaps it has been “too recent” for current generations of film makers to revisit. But the familiarity and unfamiliarity of the 1970s makes for compelling storytelling, if done well. This film did it well. Not for the faint of heart (the themes are adult and there is a substantial amount of violence), The Nice Guys nevertheless offers witty dialogue, great pacing of plot, interesting characters, and another outstanding ensemble of actors. While not as visually spectacular as Fantastic Beasts, it is still very colorful — more so than action films from the 1970s!

Lastly, Kubo and the Two Strings is a magnificent, family-friendly film that celebrates family affection but also powerfully endorses creativity, storytelling, and music making. Indeed, music repeatedly plays critical roles within the plot itself, and the final resolution of conflict — true resolution, not violent suppression of one side or the other — is achieved through music itself. Kubo is a gorgeous production; one can appreciation it without knowing much about its artistic or cultural contexts or inspirations, though if you’ve seen some Japanese or Japanese-inspired animation, you will probably catch many subtle visual and situational references. My family was struck at times by subtle linkages to the Last Airbender animated television series, as well as classic Hayao Miyasaki films.

I also wrapped up watching Season 2 of The Leftovers in November, but my reflection on that series will have to wait for another post. Like so many of you, I cannot wait for the arrival of Rogue One in theaters. I will blog about that movie in December.

Happy holidays!

Stan

What I’ve Been Watching (And the Emmy Goes To…)

It’s September, and the Emmy Awards were given out this past weekend.

I am very pleased that three of my favorite current show — Mr. Robot (currently in season two), Game of Thrones, and VEEP did so well. (I am also pleased that The Good Wife received a few awards; it’s another of my favorite shows, and I will miss it.)

Surveying the nominees and winners lists, it is clear that the television that critics and audience most love right now is mostly being produced by and aired on pay channels and other platforms beyond the big three networks. I still watch a few comedies on the BIG THREE, but I’ve almost stopped watching drama on them (The Good Wife was an exception).

All that said, congrats to Rami Malek from Mr. Robot for winning Outstanding Lead Actor / Drama Series . That was well deserved. Malek’s character is complex and compelling, and he plays the part flawlessly. If you have not watched an episode of Mr. Robot, do so just to experience how expressive (and pained) Rami Malek’s eyes can be. Congratulations, too, to Mac Quayle for his well-earned prize for Outstanding Music Composition for a Series (e.g., Mr. Robot). I was not sure that a series that had such an amazing twist in season 1 would be able to sustain interest in season 2; but Mr. Robot is not just plot-driven and twist-driven: it has characters that I’ve really come to care about, even though I feel like we have nothing in common with each other. And who doesn’t like a good conspiracy show with a non-linear narrative?

I am also so pleased that VEEP won best comedy and that Julia Louis-Dreyfus won Outstanding Lead Actress / Comedy Series. VEEP is amazing: the writing is perfect, the ensemble cast is stellar, and  Louis-Dreyfus as lead is simply astonishing. She’s developed perfect timing for comic delivery, and when her petite character mouths off with the best of the male politicians on the show, it is stunning. There was a scene this past season when she absolutely crushed a stereotypical, holier-than-thou, midwesterner, and it was priceless! (And I saw that as a holier-than-thou midwesterner!) While I am not yet so cynical as to think there is no good in government, big business, or large organizations generally, the unrelentingly savage depiction of organization incompetence is exquisite if for no other reason than it is a powerful demonstration that we live in a society that protects the right of people to create a series that savages the incompetence of government, big business, and bureaucracy generally and the hubris (and stupidity) of the agents of those entities. It is therefore fitting and right that John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, which also received a number of nominations for awards, follows VEEP on Sundays on HBO, because that show also unrelentingly savages real-life organizational and governmental incompetence.

As much as I love Mr. Robot, I am pleased that Game of Thrones received the award for Outstanding Drama Series. This sixth season was tremendous. GoT received other awards, too, and numerous nominations — not surprisingly, many of those nominations centered on two of the most powerful episodes this season: “The Door” and “Battle of the Bastards.” Game of Thrones is also unrelenting (like VEEP) in refusing to whitewash the worst aspects of human nature, but at least it presents those worst aspects within a richly textured imaginary world that is a joy to see, with morally complex characters acted by a stellar cast, all accompanied by great music. Congrats to all the GoT actors and actresses who received nominations. You are tops in my book!

OK, back to the sofa for more viewing…. Tomorrow night is the season finale for Mr. Robot.

Stan Pelkey

September 20, 2016

 

What I’ve Been Watching: Star Trek!

Happy Fiftieth Anniversary, Star Trek!

I’ve been a Star Trek fan for a long time — not quite 50 years (I’m not yet 45 myself), but since the late 1970s, when the original series was being shown in syndication (probably on Saturday evenings). I also have a few memories of watching episodes of the animated series on Saturday mornings. I knew enough about Star Trek as a small boy that I played it with neighborhood friends, and I went to see the first movie, the infamous “Motion Picture,” with my DadStanPelkey@1977
(This is me, Stan, in kindergarten, in the Fall of 1977. This is about the age that I probably saw my first episodes of Star Trek.)

As a child of the 1980s, Star Trek was for me really the cinematic series of the original crew, plus the Next Generation television series, which first aired when I was a sophomore in high school. Both Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and especially Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home  were powerful movie-going experiences for me as a pre-teen and teen, respectively. Rosenman’s outstanding score for Star Trek IV remains among my all-time favorites. I also became a committed fan of the Next Generation. I can remember wondering as the season 3 finale’s cliff hanger unfolded whether or not I’d even be able to watch the season four premiere / resolution at college that fall. This was before cable TV was readily available in many college dormitory rooms! I was grateful that several of my new friends at college were also Next Generation fans, and even Heidi ended up watching a number of the later seasons with me.

StanPelkeyPiano@1989

(This is me in 1989 — late in high school: a serious piano student, and a committed fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation, as well as Doctor Who! I had also written my first fantasy / sic-fi novel by the time this picture was taken.)

I wasn’t a huge Deep Space Nine fan, but I loved Voyager. It remains my favorite series in the Star Trek collective. The ensemble cast of the Next Generation was amazing, but I liked the characters on Voyager just a bit more, and I thought some of the pairings among characters (often tense at that) gave Voyager a flavor reminiscent of the original series, with its ongoing tension between Spock and McCoy. I particularly liked the interactions and relationship between Kathryn Janeway and Chakotay (he is among my absolute favorite Star Trek characters); having been a huge fan of Spook, I also deeply appreciated Tuvok and his flawless portrayal by Tim Russ. By the way, can I admit that in my twenties, I had a huge crush on Captain Janeway / Kate Mulgrew? The “Chaotica” episodes were funny, though not my most favorite, but when Mulgrew portrays Janeway pretending to be Arachnia, the Bride of Chaotica, I am in movie-watching heaven!

And yes, I even liked Star Trek: Enterprise and was disappointed when it was canceled. True, some of the continuity issues bothered me a bit — I tend to be obsessed with continuity issues (and how, you might ask, can I be a Doctor Who fan given that admission?). But I enjoyed seeing into the pre-history of the Federation and, like the crew of Voyager, having heroes facing significant challenges far from the technological and political resources of a powerful space faring empire. But what do I know? I loved The Phantom Menace, too!

There are many reasons to like Star Trek. It taps into important tropes and topics within the science fiction traditions. Its endless optimism is refreshing, even for a fan, like me, of darker dramatic television (e.g., Dexter, Game of Thrones, Mr. Robot). Next Generation achieves a balance of plot, character, and reasonably sophisticated production values that was really revolutionary for television science fiction at the time. Doctor Who does much better today, but even 1980s Doctor Who was struggling to achieve more sophistication in terms of its effects. Star Trek made that leap much more convincingly and confidently in the 1980s. But I think what Star Trek has done admirably is to build dozens of characters over hundreds of episodes who are reasonably complex and keep rewarding our sympathy, our interest in them, and our time with them. Doctor Who does that, too, but its companions tend to stay on the series for less than half the time of most Star Trek ensemble members, and the trend since Tom Baker’s reign as the Doctor has been for the principal actor to also shift in less time that the average run of a Star Trek television series.

My personal favorite Star Trek characters:

Original series: Spock

Next Generation: Data

Voyager: Janeway and Chakotay

Enterprise: Trip

My personal favorite Star Trek episodes:

Original series: A Taste of Armageddon (1967); The City on the Edge of Forever (1967)

Next Generation: Yesterday’s Enterprise (1990); Cause and Effect (1992); Thine Own Self (1994)

Voyager: Unity (1997); Think Tank (1999); Endgame (2001)

Enterprise: Carbon Creek (2002); North Star (2003)

Perhaps my most favorite Star Trek episode of them all: Thine Own Self (1994) — and certainly the best and most nuanced story centering around Data. He ends up being so human without his annoying habit of trying TO BE human!

My favorite Star Trek movies (in order):

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)

Star Trek Beyond (2016)

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)

Star Trek Generations (1994)

Stan Pelkey

September 8, 2016

What I’ve Been [Re]watching (May): “Band of Brothers”

I cannot remember when I first became interested in the history of World War II, but I distinctly remember watching Richard Attenborough’s A Bridge Too Far (1977) on television as a child, and it had a lasting effect on me. So when Band of Brothers was first broadcast on HBO in the fall of 2001, I took notice though I did not watch it at the time. Instead, it entered my DVD library several years later (2004–2005) when I was building up my collection of war movies and Westerns in preparation for writing my first film music papers and essays. Since then, I’ve returned to Band of Brothers several times, re-watching the entire series from start to finish. Each viewing has rewarded me with new insights and appreciation for the overall production, and especially its writing, acting, directing, and music. In my opinion, the series stands up exceptionally well 15 years after its initial release.

 

Band of Brothers follows the real-life experiences of select members of Easy Company, a unit in the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, as they made their way from training to D-Day, Operation Market Garden, the Battle of the Bulge and their defense of Bastogne, and finally to the conclusion of the war in Europe. The series was based on Stephen Ambrose’s book of the same title, which was reissued in paperback in 2004 with a new cover featuring a group photo of the stars of the HBO series in full infantry battle gear. (Readers may also be interested in Ambrose’s much longer, more detailed, and wider-ranging Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany [1997].)

 

I wrote above that HBO’s Band of Brothers follows “select members” of Easy Company because a significant portion of the series actually focuses on the experiences of Richard Winters as a lieutenant in and then commander of Easy Company. This is not surprising, given the level of attention Winters deservedly receives in Ambrose’s source book. Furthermore, Winters was already an important figure in Ambrose’s understanding of the war in Europe before Ambrose wrote Band of Brothers: Winters had appeared several times in Ambrose’s earlier Citizen Soldiers, and Ambrose held up Winters as THE example of the kind of men who were on their way to hold the frontline against the German counteroffensive in the early days of the Battle of the Bulge (see Citizen Soldiers, p. 208). The war-time efforts and successes, leadership style, and character traits of Richard Winters clearly resonated with viewers of Band of Brothers, as other authors, including Larry Alexander (Biggest Brother: The Life of Major Dick Winters, The Man Who Led the Band of Brothers [2005]) and Winters himself (Beyond Band of Brothers [2008]), followed up the dramatic and pop-cultural successes of the series with additional texts exploring Winters and his war-time experiences. (One of the photographs reproduced in Alexander’s Biggest Brother shows Winters at his home, surrounded by war-time memorabilia and file boxes full of fan mail. Winters also discusses the volume of mail and attention he received after the HBO series and the publication of his own book in the preface and foreword to Beyond Band of Brothers.)

 

Given the centrality of Richard Winters to the story of Easy Company in World War II, the overarching structure of the television series is in many ways built around Winters and his journey—actual and philosophical. The arch of the plotting of the ten individual episodes follows the historical shape of the campaign in Europe: episodes 1–3 show Easy Company in their training days, then on D-Day and the days and weeks immediately after; episodes 4–5 focus on the Company’s experiences in Operation Market Garden; episodes 6–7 turn to their desperate days in Bastogne in December 1944 and January 1945 during the Battle of the Bulge; episodes 8–10 draw the series to a close, exploring how the men of Easy Company reacted to the their discovery of a concentration camp and the winding down of the war. At each of these points, Winters—who became a decorated warrior and respected military tactician— appears as a principal character, guiding, shaping, and protecting his men, crafting and executing battle plans, and regularly leading from the front (“Day of Days,” “Crossroads”), even if he does not dominate the action (and screen) in every single episode.

 

Overlaying this historical plotting, however, is a much more intimate, personal-scale exploration of character and theme, and here again Winters takes center stage. Each episode, while advancing the story of the Company as a whole, also zooms in to explore a specific man in Easy Company, and through that character, the emotional impact of warfare and the deepest fibers of human nature in the midst of extreme stress, danger, and want. Thus episode 3, “Carentan,” focuses on Private Albert Blithe (Marc Warren), who barely appears in the prior two episodes, but is used as a lens through which the writer and director investigate fear in the face of battle. At the same time, the contrasting leadership styles of Winters, Lieutenant Harry Walsh (Rick Warden), and Lieutenant Ronald Speirs (Matthew Settle) are also brought into relief both through their general interactions with the men (and each other) and their specific interactions with Blithe. Subsequent episodes continue this two-fold narrative structure: “Replacements” considers both the difficulty of new men entering established units (a theme reprised in “The Last Patrol”) and zeroes in on Bull Randleman (Michael Cudlitz), one of the leading soldiers in the company who is briefly left behind, wounded, during a skirmish in the Market Garden campaign. Bull’s steadiness contrasts with the unease of the replacements in his squad as well as the moral and soldierly unevenness of Roy Cobb (Craig Heaney). My personal favorite of these episodes that focus on characters other than Winters is “Bastogne.” In that episode, medic Eugene Roe (Shane Taylor) comes to the fore, providing an opportunity for an exploration of personal fortitude, grace, and a sense of duty under extreme pressure (including the pressure of repeatedly having to see, handle, and attempt to repair mangled human flesh).

 

To effectively and artfully pull off this two-fold narrative structure, with its interweaving of overarching historical plotting for Easy Company as a whole, and its individual stories addressing the personal impact of wartime experience on the human body and human psyche, Band of Brothers required a stellar ensemble cast, and it had just that. Indeed, this is one of the areas that benefits the most from repeated watching: one can begin to see how various characters less central to the series as a whole were visually “seeded” into earlier episodes prior to their rising to the surface as either the principal character of an episode or one of many minor characters who received more screen time in one episode than in others.

 

Nevertheless, it is Richard Winters, portrayed so effectively by Damian Lewis, and his journey that makes Band of Brothers a coherent, effective drama. He is one of only a handful of characters to appear in all 10 episodes, and he is the only character to be the featured individual “lens” more than once in the series, taking center stage again in episode 5 (“Crossroads) and episode 10 (“Points”). Indeed, it is easy to miss the two-fold narrative structuring of each episode early on in the series because Winters so dominates the screen in the first two episodes that it is easy to assume that his strong visual presence is primarily a function of his role in the plot as an extremely engaged and hands-on platoon leader and then company commander. But he is not simply commander in those first two episodes: he is also the lens through which the series immediately addresses leadership before considering Winters’s rapid transformation (at least rapid as portrayed on television!) from respected officer with great potential to actual, successful battle-field leader. Thus Band of Brothers repeatedly dips into Winters’s experience of the European campaign, not only showing his rise from lieutenant to captain to major as his military prowess was continuously proven, but also demonstrating his growth from a young student of human nature and apprentice officer to masterful teacher of men, healer of spirits, and (ultimately) lover of peace.

 

In addition to the screen time Lewis’s Winters receives, other components of the production as a whole point to Winters as the fulcrum or axis of Band of Brothers. He is the only character who speaks out of the diegesis via voice overs (“Day of Days” and “Points”). Indeed, it is Damian Lewis as Winters who narrates the details of the post-war experiences of representative company personnel in the closing scene of the final episode. His assessment of his own experiences in D-Day and at the end of the war book-end the diegetic arch of the series. Several of his episodes, including “Currahee” at the very start of the series, “Crossroads,” and “Points,” also make the most use of non-linear story telling, which enhances those episodes’ ability to draw connections and conclusions from Winters’s experiences in combat to his emotional, spiritual, and intellectual maturation.

 

“Crossroads” uses non-linear story telling most effectively and most thoroughly, repeatedly jumping during its first half between the “present” (mid-October, 1944)—with its portrayal of post-combat consequences—and flashbacks of an earlier combat episode in which Winters took great personal risks as leader, then sliding months forward into the narrative future (December 10, 1944) as Winters takes a much-needed break in Paris as portrayed in the episode’s second half. Even in that half of the episode, however, flashbacks to the earlier combat sequence, which had been completely explained during the first half of the episode, continue as a way to show Winters haunted by that combat experience. Indeed, Richard Winters acknowledges in Beyond Band of Brothers that decades later he was “still haunted by the names and faces of … young airborne troopers who never had the opportunity to return home…. I live with flashbacks.” (p. 3) In some sense, then, our viewing of those flashbacks experienced by a still-young Captain Winters offers us virtual access to the real man behind the television character still alive in 2001, while reading his words from 2006 remind us that the emotional impact on his life of that combat experience was not wrapped up neatly at some future moment, like the neat visual packaging that occurs at the end of a 60-minute television program. “Crossroads” then concludes on the roads into Bastogne as Easy Company makes its way to the front and the camera lingers on Winters’s face in the foreground, reminiscent of the attention Ambrose pays to him at this historical moment in Citizen Soldier.

 

Michael Kamen’s gorgeous soundtrack and the title sequence again paint Winters as the fulcrum or axis of Band of Brothers. “Crossroads” has one of the loveliest cues in the series soundtrack, “Winters on Subway.” Furthermore, the opening title sequence, with its (interestingly) triple-meter music theme­—neither too heroic nor too sentimental—makes use of the structure of the series theme to once more set Winters into relief. The opening title sequence lasts about two and a half minutes, enough time for the theme to play through twice (the second time more loudly and emphatically). The cast is listed during the first half, but in alphabetical order, which seems to minimize Damian Lewis’s lead role. But with careful viewing, one can see that Damian Lewis / Richard Winters dominates the title sequence. In the first moments of the opening title sequence, the camera presents general images of men preparing for battle and of aircraft (appropriate for a series about paratroopers). Individual faces are obscured by the blurry nature of the moving images or because of their distance from the camera. As the names of the cast begin to be listed on screen, however, the nature of the images change radically and the camera presents a clear shot of Damian Lewis / Richard Winters for several seconds. As the rest of the first rendition of the theme unfolds, images of Lewis Nixon, Bull Randleman, and Ronald Speirs then follow. During the second, more emphatic rendition of the theme, the remaining non-cast credits are posted on screen, and an increasing number of shots of the faces of other principal characters from the company are highlighted. As the sequence winds towards its conclusion, the camera returns to Winters in the plane heading for the D-Day drop before concluding with two iconic images of a larger groups of the “band of brothers” (one still, one moving). Thus, just as the voiceover narration by Damian Lewis as Richard Winters bookends the series’ diegetic universe, so his image bookends the title sequence. And the title sequence’s blend of images (“depersonalized” company action with hard-to-distinguish faces and highly “personalized” pictures of characters) mirrors the two-fold thematic-plot structure of each episode and of the series as a whole.

 

Finally, the on-screen interviews of the actual Easy Company veterans, which grace each episode of the series, highlight the real-life Winters yet again. “Points” concludes rather than begins with interviews, and in this episode, the names of the interviewees, which had not yet appeared on screen, are revealed. Just as the diegetic and nondiegetic Richard Winters (Damian Lewis) frames the series and the title sequence, so the real-life Richard Winters has the absolute final words of the production: “I served in a company of heroes.”

 

The quality of Band of Brothers as a television production is unmistakable. Its writing, acting, directing, and music are superb. Its mix of company history and personal storytelling is deftly handled and makes possible a greater sense of cohesion compared to its companion series, The Pacific (2010), whose narrative is more diffuse. (Likewise, compare the treatment of Operation Market Garden in the episodes of Band of Brothers versus in A Bridge Too Far, which has been faulted for trying to tell too many personal and unit stories.) Nevertheless, Band of Brothers is television and not documentary history, even with its dependence on Ambrose’s well-documented source work and the well-respected Dale Dye (Colonel Sink) as military consultant. Like so much other television, older men were cast to portray characters younger than themselves. For example, Winters, Nixon, and Walsh were all born in 1918; Winters had turned 26 as D-Day began; Nixon and Walsh were still 25. However, Damian Lewis and Rick Warden were 30 as the episodes were broadcast; Ron Livingston was 34. Donald Malarkey was 23 on D-Day; Scott Grimes who portrayed that part was 30. Colonel Sink was still 39 on D-Day; Dale Dye turned 57 in the fall of 2001. This observation is not to fault the production but rather to remind us that the front line troops in World War II were often boys no older than high school seniors or current or recent college undergraduates, a fact that we viewers should not allow ourselves to forget. Ambrose makes this point in a chilling observation:

 

“In launching an offensive, the German army in the first year of the Great War had been better than the German army in the last year of the Second World War. What was happening at the front [in the December 1944 counteroffensive] was exactly what Eisenhower had predicted—the Volksgrenadier divisions were not capable of effective action outside their bunkers. In far too many cases, however, they were attacking eighteen- and nineteen-year-old barely trained Americans. Both sides had been forced to turn to their children to fight the war to a conclusion. In this last winter of World War II, neither army could be said to be a veteran army.”

Ambrose, Citizen Soldiers, p. 207.

 

Ambrose’s words are, for me, a powerful reminder to keep approaching Band of Brothers as artful storytelling, as powerful testament to what a prior generation of young people endured and accomplished, and as a compelling warning about the cost of conflict at both the personal, organizational, and global levels.

Stan Pelkey

May 17, 2016

 

 

November 2015 Viewing

I started to re-watch David Lynch’s 1984 film version of Frank Herbert’s science fiction masterpiece, Dune, this evening. I’ve watched this film from beginning to end at least two times during the past twenty years. I couldn’t bear to do it again tonight. I dropped out after about an hour.

Have you read this amazing book? Have you viewed any adaptations?

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