Non-Blog | Channing Whitaker

What I've Been Reading, Watching and Listening To: Nov. 2018

Reading:
After watching the Netflix adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House, and thoroughly enjoying it (see last month's Watching) I decided to delve into Shirley Jackson's original book. Though I haven't quite hit the final page, I can comment on many sparks of delight, though overall I've not been as wowed as I was with the series.

Part of the difference, through no fault of the book, is that some of the shocking reveals of the book were telegraphed, or portrayed directly in the adaptation. Thus, I give the book a lot of credit for execution though my experience has been a bit flat. The other significant difference I've experienced is in the book's limiting the perception to mostly one character where the adaptation took time specifically to show each character's point of view. All the pieces of the puzzle only came together once we'd seen how each of the seven characters remembered the house. I have to say I found that variety more satisfying.

Perhaps the reason I haven't raced to the end is due to this lesser interest in the book than the series drew from me. In any case, it is a well written and eerie story, which if nothing else provided a superior foundation for the adapted story I enjoyed so much. I'll likely be giving it a 4 of 5 stars on my Goodreads.


Watching:

Turnabout is fair play. Last month I wrote about reading American Gods and watching The Haunting of Hill House, this month my reading is The Haunting of Hill House and my watching is... Season one of the Starz adapted series of American Gods.

I was excited to see this series. I've been aware of it for some time. After reading the first quarter or so of the book, indulging in all the unique and fantastic characters, and having some notion of the superior cast involved in the series — such as the always compelling and mysterious Gillian Anderson, the exuberant and undeniably talented Kristen Chenoweth, the scene-stealing Ian McShane, the eye-grabbing oddball Chrispin Glover,  and the iconic (and pride of my home state of Iowa) Cloris Leachman — I was eager to see this adaptation. I behaved myself and saw to finish the novel before queuing up episode one. However, I found the series fell short for me.

I can't say any character in-particular let me down, in fact, I felt like Pablo Schreiber, an actor I wasn't familiar with as the character Mad Sweeney, who only commanded a few scenes in the book, really stood out as intriguing in the series, but still, I've been left wanting. Maybe one issue is the scene sharing of all the cast. In the book, the characters are self-contained and only as deep or important as the author makes them. In the series, actors come loaded with expectations, and if they are only cast in a sparse roll, we viewers might feel slighted, when we readers did not. But, I think there is more trouble than that. I think the directing comes up short as well.

The series feels like it's reaching for the edginess of an HBO knockout but never quite gets there. Forcing grittiness that doesn't land.  For instance, the story begins with Shadow, the main character, in jail, and of course, the prison will be dirty, cold in color and motif, and tinny in sound design, but it seems that look and feel extend to every other location and scene. I didn't get that impression from the book.

I pictured Wednesday with more polish, he wants to trade out a crappy car for one more suited to his liking, hustles to get bumped up to first class, for me that means a cleaner, snazzier feel, not one just as gritty as the prison, at least not all the time. The story takes place moving across the country, so the locations vary greatly as well. I think this lack of cinematic variety robbed the character and location variety of individual uniqueness, producing a one-dimensional presentation when the book was thoroughly multi-faceted.

It seems a second season is due in order to complete the book's narrative, and I am interested in the series enough to give the next installment a chance, especially since we can assume the story will wrap up on one more season. I'm also interested to see some of the characters yet to be introduced, and who'll portray them. Still, I think with the resources at hand, the series could have been significantly better.

More Watching:
I've also just finished Westworld, Season Two (HBO). I really liked the first season and was excited for this one to arrive. However, while the first season was a bit confusing in jumping time and place, it had nothing on season two. That's the reason it took me half a year before I finished the season. Now that may sound like disparaging criticism. However, I really did enjoy this season as well, it just made it harder to watch, or to find the time to watch. One couldn't just throw it on after getting the kids to bed, and the dishes washed, hoping to get a full episode in before falling asleep. It wasn't a show one could pause halfway through an episode and pick up tomorrow. It needed a degree of focus to follow which I don't always have the time and energy to give.

Not to spoil but here's a tidbit of how confusing it could be.
1. We're following at least five characters' season-long storylines.
2. We have at least a half dozen secondary character's story arcs bridging the main ones.
3. We're jumping at least four story time periods, often without knowing which one we're in and whether it comes before or after what we recently saw of a character.
4. Did I forget to mention there are dozens of flashbacks? So that makes the story time periods more like 20.
5. We jump between reality, and at least two digital false realities, sometimes without knowing which, or that we've jumped.
And then, of course, there is...
6. We have characters who we aren't sure if they're human or android.

Now, all of this is done with good reason to create mystery and intrigue. In fact, if I try to imagine sorting it out into a more linear flow, it becomes clear rather quickly that many of the delightful revelations at the end of episodes or the end of the season would be tipped too early, so I think all this jumping and confusion was necessary. Plus, once I reached the end of the season everything (well mostly everything) fell into place for a complete picture, a better understanding of the whole, with many satisfying reveals. I loved it. What few questions remained unanswered seemed intentional to usher our attention to the third season.

Furthermore, this season explores themes of understanding one's self, of what truly constitutes reality, what free will means in theory and in practice, what darkness humans are capable of, and likely a dozen more existential questions, picking right up where season one left off and pushing these quagmires even further. This I also loved.

Thus, all totaled I give Westworld Season 2 a glowingly positive review, though you can see how it is far from casual viewing.


Listening to:
If you happen to have been following my listening section the past few months, you might want to brace for a hard turn. I've had Cardi B (hip-hop), Pillowfight (cinematic/dance/hip-hop), and Logic (hip-hop), but with the creeping of Christmas, and two small children nearly always with me in the car, my listening for November has grown dominated by Burl Ives Christmas tunes. 

That's right, a corny singer (and actor) who's popularity probably peeked more than 50 years ago, and long before I was born. I have to wonder if Cardi B would even know who Burl Ives was. But for her, and for those reading this who aren't familiar, you probably know his voice from the beloved stop-motion, animated classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) in which he not only voiced the snowman narrator, Sam but also sang the title song "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," as well as the songs "Holly Jolly Christmas" and "Silver and Gold."

Old Burl, of course, recorded several other Christmas carols in his many decades of recording, with about 30 singles and appearing on over 50 albums according to his Wikipedia discography. Now I'm not about to claim I'm a fan of his work in general, there's little edgy or challenging to be found there. But, at Christmas, when the mind turns to warmer thoughts, family memories, and nostalgia, I'm alright with Burl's Christmas collection on repeat.
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Repetition of Story (It's Christmas)


Christmas is nearly here and with all of it’s activities, I find it also a unique time to analyze the repeating, or perhaps recycling of stories.  Of course story ideas are recycled all the time not just at Christmas, however as a lover or originality I find myself more forgiving this time of year, and I must wonder why.
Simply take a look at TV programing schedules around the holiday and you’ll see what I mean. Be it reshowing of holiday classics, like A Christmas Story (1983) being shown for 24 hours straight; remaking holiday classics, like A Christmas Carol every few years; or recycling a narrow field of storylines into new, slightly parodied, stories, like your standard made-for-TV Hallmark holiday movie, everywhere you look you stand to see the repletion of a story.
One could argue that most stories released, be they movie, book, or other, are derivative of earlier stories in some way, but to me, at Christmas time it is far more prevalent, and far more transparent than the rest of the year.
Christmas is a time when those of us who observe the holiday tend towards that which is familiar. We like to see the same plays, the same ballet, and yes the same movies as we have for years, decades even. Perhaps it is our desire to relive our childhood, to relive and recreate memorable moments from our lives that makes us, or at least me, particularly receptive to the rehashing of a familiar story.
It’s also a time when we’re short on time. After the presents are opened and when we have an hour to kill before heading off to Grandma’s, we flip on the TV, and there we find that oh-so-familiar story. Maybe we missed the first half hour, and maybe we’ll have to leave before it’s over, but that won’t matter. We know the story so well; we’ll enjoy it just the same.
While they’re arguably not high cinema, I must admit to taking in a holiday-esque, overindulgent sized portion of them. They’re perfect for throwing on while engaging in other Christmas perpetrations – baking cookies, decorating the tree, wrapping presents, addressing holiday cards, or if you’re like me and my family, assembling our Lego holiday village for prominent display.  
When it comes to story, they’re typically very simple. That’s what makes them perfect for uniting with other activities. They set the mood, but if you have to walk out of the room a dozen times, you still never fall behind in the story. I personally praise originality to a fault, and strive for originality in every nook of my own work but this observation comes without an ounce of criticism, that is honestly and truly why I like them.
It may be true that the storylines lack on variety. In my estimation, holiday films generally fall into about five basic storylines. With the most popular being the main character has lost the Christmas spirit due to prioritizing their high-power career, sales at a store, or simply making money, over family, friends, and Christmas, (e.g. A Christmas Carol) only to have a twist of fate, and often a new romance restore their priorities and their Christmas spirit. Also popular is the main character’s loss of a loved one having soured their Christmas spirit, but through a twist of fate and yes, a new romance, their Christmas spirit is revived. (Note, I’ll admit that the more basically you describe a story, naturally, the easier it is to group a wider range of stories together.)
Our familiarity as viewers with the core storyline is in fact what allows us to so easily digest the stories, even when only casually paying attention, which I mentioned before is paramount to the enjoyment.
Is it fine cinema? No. But tree shaped sugar cookies aren’t fine cuisine and I’m still going to eat a few dozen before the New Year. So to shall I indulge in recycled Christmas tales, and worry about my mental-waistline in January.
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