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Daily Reads: ‘Narcos’ Subversive Voice-over, Black Lives Mastered, and More

Daily Reads: 'Narcos' Subversive Voice-over, Black Lives Mastered, and More

Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.

1. “Narcos” Uses Voice-over to Subvert the Antihero Narrative. 
The new Netflix original series “Narcos” follows famous drug kingpin Pablo Escobar and the Medellin drug cartel’s rise to power, and the DEA agents trying to capture them. It’s garnered some critical acclaim for its fast-paced narrative and some solid performances, but many critics have both positively and negatively highlighted the series’ voice-over. The A.V. Club’s Kyle Fowle discusses the series’ voice-over and how it subverts the antihero narrative.

Initially, “Narcos” uses its voice-over as setup. Murphy introduces himself, and then details everything that’s led to him being in Colombia. It’s an extensive account, moving from his hippie-busting days to the Nixon and Reagan administrations, finishing with his move to Colombia, where he’s on the frontlines of the war against the cartels. The show creates the assumption that Murphy is the antihero, the guy who may have to cross a few lines to get the job done. But if that means Escobar is captured and the cartel is destabilized, then it’ll all be worth it. It’s a narrative that’s familiar to anyone who’s been watching TV the last 10 years. Perhaps “Narcos” recognizes how tired these types of stories are because from there, the show completely subverts the formula and uses the voice-over to not only question Murphy’s actions and beliefs, but also critique the War On Drugs.By essentially positioning us “inside” Murphy’s head, “Narcos” make us complicit in everything the DEA agent does, however immoral, and also gives us insight into Murphy’s thinking. Initially, that means we see Murphy’s side of the story, and understand why the cartel and Escobar need to be taken down. The cartel is destroying Colombia, and shipping drugs into the U.S. only further substantiates their power, both politically and financially. As the season goes on, and Murphy’s actions become more questionable and innocent lives are lost, the DEA’s brand of rah-rah patriotism and justice comes under scrutiny. “Narcos” asks us to question Murphy and, more specifically, the toll of the Unites States’ War On Drugs in Colombia and at home. What “Narcos” achieves across its 10 episodes is a critique of form and subject matter, exposing Murphy not as a hero, but as a tool of the United States government. As many critics have pointed out, Murphy is a flat character with very little personality in his voice, but that only underscores how twisted his perspective is, and how much he’s influenced by the hyperbolic rhetoric of the do-no-wrong U.S. government. That twisted perspective peaks through in the earliest episodes, with Murphy lambasting the Communist M-19 group for “reading too much Karl Marx.” It’s one of the first signs we get that Murphy’s view, and therefore that of the government he serves, might be more complex than just wanting to control Escobar’s operation. After all, his throwaway comment about the Communists reading too much Marx would fit right in with the McCarthy witch hunts. Murphy is a product of his surroundings, which includes decades of questionable foreign policy.

2. Black Lives Mastered. 
Lionel Rogosin was a independent American filmmaker who worked in political cinema and docufiction. After participating in the United Nations’ film “Out,” a documentary about Hungarian refugees, right after graduating Yale University, he devoted himself to promoting peace and confronting important issues. Though he faced trouble with distribution and financing, he continued to make films despite limited success in the United States, including films like “Black Roots” and “Black Fantasy” that focused on the social hardships of Black America. Over at Keyframe, Steven C. Boone explores Rogosin’s “Black Roots” through a short video essay and how he decided to focus on individual existence rather than group actions.

When Ralph Ellison wrote “Invisible Man” in 1952, he was describing a race of people rendered virtually invisible in the land that enslaved and terrorized them. By the 1970s, after the storm of the 1960s, invisibility was no longer possible. A comparably truthful novel written in the seventies and beyond would have to be called “Conspicuous Man.” Or to borrow from a Chris Rock album, “Born Suspect.” Yet, for all the cameras that suddenly turned our way, how accurately were we actually seen? For all the microphones thrust into our hands, what was it that others actually heard?There I go again. “We.” “Us.” “Our.” It’s not that Rogosin doesn’t consider the group. He often picks his subjects out of a crowd, and the film’s central talking-heads segments feature a gathering of musicians and activists sharing their common experiences of Jim Crow terror. Yet the crowd always recedes, the way it might in a stage drama, where the floodlights fade on the background, and a spotlight stealthily rises on one person offering his or her monologue. (Florynce “Flo” Kennedy, the legendary cowgirl-outfitted activist-lawyer of Muhammad Ali-scale charisma, emerges as the star.) In “Black Roots,” the verbal monologues happen to be about the terror and injustice these folks lived through, but the visual emphasis is on distinct personality — the essence that terror and injustice seek to deny. Many of the still frames I’ve captured here are from musical montages between the monologues, and the shots I’ve stolen them from constitute another kind of visual monologue, one not about suffering or deprivation but about merely, proudly, wearily, sheepishly, demurely, brilliantly, angrily, joyously, absent-mindedly, arrogantly, adorably existing — not “mattering,” not having to produce, like identification papers at a border crossing, any evidence of mattering, not having to justify an existence that, through Rogosin’s lens, simply is. An individual existence too vast for a slogan, a demand, a group action or an apology. The filmmaker’s delight in watching so-called black people live, even as they contemplate all the ingenious ways they’ve been invited to die…reduced me to tears, from beginning to end. This is what happens when a filmmaker chooses to regard his subject not as an enemy but also not as a beautiful object, not as a pitiable reject, not as a hot commodity. Rogosin simply chose to open his eyes.

3. Glenn Kenny on his Venice Film Festival Roundup. 
The 10-day Venice Film Festival ends tomorrow and many of the critics providing coverage have ended their roundups as “festival coverage” moves to Toronto. Over at RogerEbert.com, veteran critic Glenn Kenny provides his final dispatch about films “Anomalisa,” “Blood of My Blood,” “Heart of a Dog,” “11 Minutes.”

“Anomalisa” is a beautifully rendered stop-motion animation film, enacted by what look to be computer-graphics-enhanced puppets. In the initial scenes of this meticulously structured 90-minute film, one is apt to wonder why it was made in this format. Aside from the fact that maybe Kaufman is preoccupied with puppets — recall the failed profession of the protagonist of Spike Jonze’s “Being John Malkovich,” written by Kaufman. In any event, all becomes clear, at least if you’ve keyed in to the unusual and varied metaphors the film trucks in. One clue lies in the faces of the characters. Not the eerie sameness of every face except for that of protagonist Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis), a British business consultant of such popularity that when he enters the lobby of a Cincinnati hotel conventioneers whisper his name like he’s a rock star or something. It’s in the way the faces are constructed, in sections, with foreheads that clamp on the top and leave a smooth line leading from the middle of each eyeball and around the temple. In Michael’s case, it makes him look as if he’s maybe wearing wire-rim glasses. And then there is, yes, the similarity of every other face and of every other voice. Michael’s a miserable fellow, seemingly unloved by his wife and son in L.A.; looking up an old lover from his dismally efficient hotel room winds up makes him even more miserable after they meet in the dismal hotel bar. On his way back to his room, Michael hears in the hallway a voice that’s very distinct from every other one he hears. That voice belongs to Lisa, a shy young woman (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in whom Michael takes a very strong interest. Their tentative liaison grows into something more furious as Michael charges into Lisa’s heart, and by the next morning he’s ready to leave his entire life for her, which she can scarcely believe is true. And as it happens… Well. This is a movie I went into relatively cold, and I think it’s the best way to do it. It really is a staggering achievement: the whole thing is steeped in Kaufman’s sardonic, surreal sense of humor but there’s a new dimension of seriousness and artistic gravity here, and it’s because of the way the film’s form is inextricably knotted to its themes. This is, I suspect, one of those rare Perfect Films, and also a perfectly sad one, one that’s executed with remarkable conviction by everyone involved, including third major cast member Tom Noonan, whose role is best not described here. A landmark picture.

4. “Key and Peele” Was Always a Show Built to Last. 
“Key and Peele” ended its five-season run on Wednesday securing its place in the comedic pantheon in a relatively short amount of time. Since then, critics have come out of the woodwork to offer their thoughts on the show’s legacy. Yesterday, Daily Reads highlighted Wesley Morris’ piece on race. Today, we highlight Matt Zoller Seitz’s piece on the duo’s commitment to craft.

Key and Peele’s real legacy may turn out to be one of sheer craft. They and their co-writers were masters at devising sketches that were simultaneously about two or three things without relinquishing the simple pleasures of comedic character-building and storytelling. One of my favorite examples is “Scat Duel,” in which two jazz singers feuding over a woman bring their animosity onstage. The ensuing showdown is impressive in at least four ways: (1) Via scat-sung nonsense syllables and playground taunts, it tells a between-the-lines short story about a love triangle; (2) It shows off the fact that Key and Peele have musical as well as comedic chops; (3) It demonstrates their willingness to go beyond what was necessary to create a decent sketch, as evidenced by the time-and-date stamp (New York City, 1963) — both the scat style and the music are accurate-to-period (“Fee-fi-foe-fum / What do I smell but some fat next to me?”); (4) It proves that nobody in TV sketch comedy is better at ending a sketch in a way that’s at once surprising and inevitable. (“McFerrin vs. Winslow,” a sketch in the same vein as “Scat Duel,” is less subtle but more amiably silly.)
Key and Peele proved time and again that they knew exactly where to start and end a sketch — a lost art in a medium that’s been defined for too long by “Saturday Night Live’s” epic displays of half-assed cue-card reading, and by viral videos that tend not to know when to quit. Just look at last night’s sketch about the Nazi fetishist. It’s a marvel — a cleverly coded working-through of confederate-flag apologies that builds and builds and peaks, then signs off with Key casually shooting his arm straight up in the air, his hand out of frame. That’s Python-sharp.

5. The Colbert Rapport: Steven Colbert’s Late Night Struggles. 
“The Late Show With Steven Colbert” premiered this week to mostly positive critical reviews, but some mildly negative critical reception regarding Colbert’s inability to transcend the staid late night talk show format. The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum reviews the new late night series and expresses mild dismay about its prospects.

But, while I adored the nimble satire of “The Colbert Report” and was crazy about Colbert on “Strangers With Candy” — heck, I thought Colbert was great in the musical production of “Company” — I can’t pretend to instantly love “The Late Show.” Late-night network TV is a different platform from what Colbert had on Comedy Central: it’s rigid, square, corporate, dull. It has become impossible to separate any show of this type from the so-called “late-night wars,” the model of media coverage that — even more than the usual coverage of network television — conflates ratings and ad dollars with the question of whether a show is any good. (That is, funny or interesting.) I’ve written before about the monotony of late-night’s maleness, and now all four of the once-open job spots have closed again, leaving four more guy hosts. It’s an issue that Colbert himself hinted at in one gag, when he and Jimmy Fallon joked about seeing one another in the locker room. In the TV business, this is what’s known as “hanging a lamp on it.”
And yet I want to believe — to imagine a version of this show that might be just as cerebral and decent and innovative and daring as the imaginary version of Stephen Colbert that has been built up in my head over the years. (What is it with these middle-aged male comics being received by our culture as philosopher-gurus? It’s no good for anyone.) Last night, Colbert was a charmer: he was confident and seemed delighted to be there. He danced onstage as the band played, spinning like a little kid. He did a nice throwaway about his desk being “carved from a single piece of desk.” And he did many very Colbert-y things: a nerd bit, a humility bit, a musical bit. He was strikingly Dad-like, emphasizing patriotism with diverse montages and the band playing “Everyday People,” accompanied by a joyous Mavis Staples. (He even opened with a nationwide rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner”!) Although Colbert gave credit to David Letterman as an influence, he only faintly resembled him: the new Colbert was a uniter, not a divider.

6. Terrence Malick, Theologian: The Intimidating, Exhilarating Religiosity of “The Tree of Life” and “To the Wonder.” 
Terrence Malick’s new film “Knight of Cups” is set to premiere in March of next year and, like his last three films, it will sure to divide both critics and the public. Malick is known for making meditative films that operate against traditional narrative rhythms, and thus his films are plenty ambiguous and draw a vast number of interpretations. Over at Mubi, Josh Timmermann wrote a piece a couple of years ago about the religiosity of “The Tree of Life” and “To The Wonder.”

In “The Tree of Life,” Malick seemed to ask (himself and his audience), “What is the relationship between individual memory, collective memory, the past, and history? Between remembrance and recovery? Where are the points of connection or intersection between these elements, and where do they diverge? How can the experience of any single human life be meaningfully situated within the context of not just human history, but the existence of the universe?” Of course, Malick does not, in the space of 139 minutes, fully or directly answer all of these pressing points. But in his intense seriousness of purpose, Malick is closer to, say, Augustine writing his “Confessions” than he is to most of his contemporaries. Near the end of the fourth century, C.E., Augustine wrote, “Great is the force of memory, exceedingly great, O my god, a spreading limitless room within me. Who can reach its uttermost depth? Yet it is a faculty of my soul and belongs to my nature. In fact I cannot totally grasp all that I am. Thus the mind is not large enough to contain itself: but where can that part of it be which it does not contain?” This introspective passage from the tenth book of the “Confessions” sounds remarkably akin the poetic musings of Malick’s characters, whispered in voice-over and as if in prayer, on the film’s soundtrack; the sense of perplexed wonder that Augustine expressed with regard to the elusive power of memory is right in tune with Malick’s wonder-struck, partly autobiographical memory narrative.Similarly, Augustine’s complex, problematic doctrine of grace seems, perhaps, to inform the film’s central dialectic of “nature” and “grace” at least as importantly as the views of Hegel, if not Heidegger. Augustine’s fierce contention that, in short, grace was granted to the worthy few by the wholly mysterious election of God, never earned through individual, voluntary action is — as much as God’s cruel challenge to Job — a bitter pill of Christian dogmatism for theologically-inclined thinkers (like Malick) to swallow, and I strongly suspect that is one of the many difficult ideas that Malick was grappling with in “
The Tree of Life.” In arriving at this controversial position, Augustine specifically scrutinized 1 Tim. 2:4 (“[God] Who will have all men to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth”), deliberating on what exactly Paul meant when he wrote “all.” Malick, for his part, is as interested in the second half of the verse as the first: What is “knowledge”? What is “the truth”?

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