Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Three Thrillers (STL 55)

So far this young year I've read a book, finished a TV series, and saw a movie that each could be called a "thriller" even though they're all quite different from one another.

First up, I finished watching 24, season three. I'm late to the party on this, I know. I remember watching the first episode with my wife, and remember that right after it ended we agreed we wouldn't keeping watching b/c Jack's heroin addiction and his daughter's employment at the elite task force both seemed ridiculous contrivances. Not that the former couldn't happen, but we sensed that watching the high-functioning agent wrestling with addiction while kicking terrorist ass could get silly. (The latter just couldn't happen. She's a ninny.) We were right, but the way the show careens along you hardly have time to be disturbed by the inconsistency. Based on the nature of the show, I thought that watching it in huge batches on DVD would be great, but the illogic of the plot, the presentation of the false threads, and the expository dialogue all got annoying. The show is well-made in accounting for the audience's gradual forgetting from episode to episode, but doesn't hold up that well on concentrated viewing. What really came out to me was the show's conservativism. They do superficial things to mitigate it (black president, non-Muslim villains) but it's world-view is strongly conservative, neo-con even. The "noble man" does "whatever it takes" to "protect America" from irrational "evil doers." These bad guys don't have any justifiable historical motives; in fact, history doesn't exist in 24--there's only right now. If the bad guys are irrational, it's even worse for the good guys who all go by their "gut"--they don't play by rules, but go off the grid, off protocol, off whatever-you-got to get result. What drives me crazy about the character's behavior is what drives me crazy about neo-cons--they don't actually care about any collective America, but just the perceived freedom and well-being of their immediate families. I've only watched three seasons, but the show has already used the "we've got your (fill-in loved one) so you must do as we say" device several times. I'd like to see some truly selfless, stiff-upper-lip Queen-and-Country nobility for a change, you know? There's a highly touted British show MI5 that I think covers some of the same ground. I'd like to compare it with 24 sometime.

The second thriller is a classic, one of Graham Greene's "entertainments," Loser Takes All. I read the entire book in one two-hour sitting--I guess that's why they call it a page-turner. There's a particular kind of thriller--normal guy thrown into extraordinary circumstances, his mettle is tested, and he returns to normality. This book fits that formula, though it's all done believably--he's unexpectedly thrown in with the very wealthy, is nearly broke without his expected source of money, but through his resourcefulness gets some money. He could exact revenge with this money, but instead preserves his marriage and is on his way back to quotidian life at the end of the novel. It's really well-done and enjoyable, and I look forward to reading some more of his entertainments like The Stamboul Train, A Gun for Sale, The Confidential Agent, The Ministry of Fear, Our Man In Havana.

In scratching out these two uninspired paragraphs, I've come across a thesis that "thrillers" are inherently conservative: there's something bad out there, and we want to go back to the way it was before. The third thriller I'll talk about is a good deal more complex than either of these, and though it clearly desires to "go back" from where things are at the start of the movie, I don't think dubbing it "conservative" would be very accurate. I was quite taken with the detail and technique of this movie, so plan on seeing it again. It clearly recognizes itself as an important work of art--even the screen-filling title card at the end says as much. The set pieces--two car chases and an amazing battle sequence--are amazingly well done, and the soundtrack, which incorporates a high tone evoking tintintabulation, mentioned in the movie as a dying frequency, supports the subject of the movie. I'll watch these details more closely on my next viewing.