Watching the Detectives

When this year’s Oscars are handed out on March 2nd, and Matthew McConaughey has deservedly picked up the Best Actor award, attention can finally shift to his actual best performance of the past 12 months: not on the big screen in Dallas Buyers Club, but rather on TV in the role of Detective Rust Cohle in HBO’s new “anthology” series True Detective, due to air on Sky Atlantic on February 22nd. In what is certain to be one of the biggest ratings and critical successes of the year, McConaughey stars alongside Woody Harrelson, playing Marty Hart – two homicide detectives investigating a murder with occult overtones in rural Louisiana.

Separate from the quality assured by the backing of broadcaster HBO, there are a number of striking elements that distinguish this series from the lumpy police procedurals that clog up TV schedules. First, there is a cohesion and coherence that stems from having one writer, Nic Pizzolatto, and one director, Cary Joji Fukunaga, responsible for, respectively, the story and its presentation. Secondly, there is the fact that the show is structured as protracted interrogations of the two detectives 17 years after the initial investigation, which we observe in lengthy flashbacks. As the mystery of the murder investigation is unspooled through recollection, there remains the present-tense mystery of what precisely is being pursued in the separate questioning of Hart and Cohle. The final distinguishing feature of the series, and perhaps the most impressive, is the outstanding  quality of the performances.

On a roll with meaty parts in films such as Killer Joe and Mud, McConaughey tests himself even further by seizing the opportunity to play Rust Cohle, a brilliant, world-weary nihilist, whose own personal tragedy has liberated him from the niceties and self-censorship demanded by civil society. His Texan drawl savours every syllable as, between pursuing leads and examining clues, he reflects and expands on what he sees as the illusion of the self and his belief that human consciousness is “a tragic misstep in evolution.” In an exclamation that might have the Iona Institute taking legal advice, Rust impugns Christian faith, saying “If the only thing keeping a person decent is the expectation of divine reward, then, brother, that person is a piece of shit.” The fact that his philosophical ruminations are suffered with head-shaking disbelief by a very grounded and unreflective partner, who advises him to “keep this shit to” himself, makes for one of the most entertaining onscreen odd couples of recent years.

In the less flamboyant role of the amiable, philandering Hart, Harrelson is every bit as impressive as McConaughey. Just as McConaughey’s voice relishes every beat of the great and grandiose dialogue he has been gifted, so too Harrelson’s face registers every emotion that courses below his good-ole-boy demeanour.  Harrelson will never achieve the prominence that McConaughey’s beauty has won for him, but, as actors, both men are cut from the same cloth. As McConaughey showed a long time ago with the derelict Wooderson in Dazed and Confused, and Harrelson similarly displayed in a delicious cameo in No Country for Old Men, both men are capable of taking the smallest of roles and making them a show-stopping delight. True Detective affords them all the time in the world to make the most of the strong material they’ve been given. It does not rush along a plot-driven course, allowing us to spend much more time in the entertaining company of the two men than would be accommodated by the rote three-act milk-run of most TV police procedurals.

Many critics will reach for “novelistic” – the adjective du jour in discussions of what is now often referred to as this “golden age of TV” – to account for the show’s less than frantic pacing and its other strengths, but that appeal to the respectability conferred by some other anointed art form is entirely unnecessary. While writer Nic Pizzolatto has published fiction and worked as a teacher of creative writing, he has himself acknowledged that shows such as Deadwood, The Wire, and The Sopranos…were actually filling my hunger for fiction as an audience more than the contemporary fiction that I was reading.” Indeed, some of the best features of True Detective find their most obvious source in these trailblazing HBO series. The procedural elements on show have more of the authentic workaday feel of The Wire than the flashy tech of CSI or NCIS. Marty’s infidelity and the attack-as-defence attitude he strikes at home to fend off his wife’s suspicions evoke the recurring domestic tensions between Tony and Carmela Soprano. Any fan of Deadwood will approvingly cock and ear when Cohle quotes a St. Paul verse that was also used in that earlier show to challenge the idea of the individual’s separateness from society.

If there is a novel, or rather series of stories, that informs the show, it seems to me to be a rather surprising one. At present, two TV series relocate the character of Sherlock Holmes to the present day. In the BBC’s more celebrated Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch embodies the great detective almost as someone on the autistic spectrum somehow edging closer to “normality” with each season through the improving influence of his grounded and kindly Doctor Watson. In the U.S.-based Elementary, Jonny Lee Miller is Holmes the recovering addict, with a female Watson (Lucy Liu) originally employed as his sober companion. Both of these versions have their fans, but True Detective might be the most inspired resurrection of the spirit of Alfred Conan Doyle’s consulting detective. Cohle is as insightful, knowledgeable and unconventional as Holmes, while Marty is very much the surprised, disbelieving companion, unable, or unwilling, to see past the familiar surface of everyday life to achieve the insight and acuity of his possibly unhinged partner. McConaughey gives us Holmes as a wounded pessimist with no time for the illogical pieties of respectable civilisation, whose only stimulation comes from pursuing a mystery to its explication. Harrelson’s Marty is the impressed Doctor Watson rooted to the ground by his appetites and ego. Despite the similarity to Holmes, however, Cohle never seem so unearthly as Holmes, as bound by the dictates of fictional superheroism. As we cut between the investigation and the interviews 17 years later, his decline is apparent. This is a man with a fascinating, perhaps tragic story, but not an archetype impervious to fear.

Despite all of its wordy pleasures and ambling storytelling form, True Detective is far from directionless. The show simply has a far greater tolerance for variety than, say, that evinced by the CSI franchise. Its occult elements, deployed minimally, evoke the dread possibilities once summoned up by David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. On a similarly visceral level, it knows how to handle thrills and spills. In fact, the fourth episode climaxes with one of the most exciting action sequences ever staged for TV, as Cohle becomes caught up in a confrontation between a biker gang and a drug dealers in a six-minute, single continuous shot that is already the stuff of TV legend. It is one part Michael Mann and one part Grand Theft Auto, a tour de force of staging that makes most TV shoot-outs seem like the pat-a-cake choreography of the preschool Christmas play.

Pizzolatto promises that any further series, as suggested by the anthology label, will focus on new characters and tell a different setting. This storytelling model has the benefit of avoiding the slow rot that sets in when success demands that a show stretch on into seasons that exhaust its initial inspiration. This anthology formula is already being used to interesting effect in FX’s American Horror Story, each season of which tells a different story using the same actors as a kind of repertory company. At the end of the first season of True Detective, however, McConaughey and Harrelson will be released from their TV captivity back into the cinematic expanse. Only half way through this opening series, we can not only recline luxuriantly into one of the finest examples of recent TV drama, but also already begin to wonder which great actors might possibly recruited to tell a story as compelling and rewarding as this one.


Xan Brooks Interview

Oomska talks to: Xan Brooks

Xan Brooks is a film critic, and Associate Editor, at The Guardian newspaper.

Thanks for talking to Oomska, Xan. Can you start by telling our readers a little bit about your current job, as a film critic, and how that came about?

According to my press card, my current job is an ‘associate editor’ at the Guardian, which is a catch-all title that covers a multitude of sins. I write reviews and news and features and I also pitch in on podcasts and video. I’d say about 90% of that is film-related, and that’s obviously where my main interest and experience is, but I also dabble a bit in books and sports journalism and in general feature writing.

Yes, I’ve enjoyed your Wimbledon reports. What proportion of Guardian arts writers fit this ‘multitude of sins’ mode? 

Is it the Chinese who conflate crisis and opportunity into one word? Journalism is going through its own mini ‘Reformation’, staff are being cut and those who remain are often required to double-up and multi-task. Obviously this means a greater workload, at times painfully so. But in terms of the tennis coverage, it’s been a blessing. I’ve loved tennis since I was a kid and it’s lovely to be able to write about it. Writing is writing, whatever the genre, so long as you have some knowledge and appreciation of what you’re writing about. But you’re right, not many others seem to stray far beyond their specialist area, even now. It was me who asked to cover the tennis and the sports-desk agreed. I’m grateful they felt able to take that gamble.

As for how I arrived at my current role, I blundered into it. I worked for five years at the Big Issue magazine in London, which was an exciting and eccentric place to work as well as being a wonderful environment in which to learn about journalism; to experiment and fail and sometimes get it right. From there I started to freelance for the nationals, and was then offered the chance to edit the Guardian film site, which I wound up doing for eight years.

How would you compare the Film Site now to how it was at the time when you started? Has the balance shifted, in terms of the perceived importance of the Film site, compared with the print version? With the explosion in online newspaper access, the readership must be much more digital now; certainly more people must access the site now than read the paper?

Oh yes, the film site was such the poor cousin to print when I started. Very hard to be taken seriously, very hard to originate decent stuff and turn it into something more than a weird elephant’s graveyard archive for old film content. But I think even then there was a sense that this was the future. The Guardian was always happy to fund and nurture the website, so the support was always there. In the broadest terms I think the audience and the perception really began to change after 9/11, during the so-called ‘War on Terror’ when the Guardian began picking up an American readership who perhaps felt they weren’t being well served by the main US news sources at the time. These days there’s a general acknowledgement that print (at least as we know it) is on the way out and that the audience is predominantly international and digital.

How did you first develop an enthusiasm for cinema? What were some key films?

My dad has always been a great film enthusiast. I remember him telling me about antique 1930s monster movies (‘Dracula’, ‘King Kong’, etc) when I was barely old enough to speak.

Even when I visit him now, there is usually something he has stored up to show me on DVD. So perhaps it all started from there.

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And the award goes to…

As Homeland wins a record six Emmy awards, we ask what such an award means if it isn’t actually about the relative quality of the competing TV shows.

What do the Emmys tell us about anything? This year, Homeland was the big winner, scooping a record-equalling six prizes, including best actress for Claire Danes, best actor for Damian Lewis and outstanding series. At the same time, Mad Men not only missed out on winning its fifth outstanding series award in a row, but also failed to convert one of its 17 nominations into a win. From this evidence, one might be tempted to imagine that Mad Men has entered its terminal decline, while Homeland represents some creatively inspired bolt from the blue. For someone who has enjoyed Mad Men’s rejuvenated fifth season while slogging through Homeland’s uninspired and overly twisty-turny first season, this interpretation is patently wrongheaded.

It is safe to say that the Emmys are no useful guarantee of quality, and never have been. During its five-season run, The Wire—now frequently described as the best TV series ever—did not win a single Emmy. In fact, it never even made the shortlist of nominees for outstanding series. It took five nominations before The Sopranos—another contender for the increasingly debased title of “best TV series ever”—finally won: In the meantime, it had lost four times to The West Wing. In 2005, Lost beat Deadwood offering definitive proof that standards of excellence were not the metrics being applied in this contest. One could ask then, if the Emmys are no mark of quality, what function do they serve?

Quite practically, the most significant measure that the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences responds to is commercial success. In 2006, 24—almost past its use-by date with critics, but still a ratings juggernaut—won the top award, beating the Sopranos. The Emmys won by Homeland this week are a similar ratification of that show’s popular appeal: By the end of its first season, it had amassed just under twice the number of viewers as Mad Men had secured by the end of its fifth, and highest-rated, season. Giving the top award to a ratings success puts an official stamp of approval on an anointing already carried out by the viewing public. The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences is not in the business of alienating its base by making ivory tower gestures to unfashionable and frequently inscrutable works of TV drama. Awards made to shows such as Homeland offer a retroactive assurance that to be a viewer is to be someone with an effortless, unstudied and  instinctual grasp of quality.

Like the Oscars before them, the Emmys were created to bestow a legitimising gloss of respectability on a suspect industry and product, born into an oppressive environment of political witch-hunts and moral crusades. Just as Hollywood instituted self-censorship through the Hays Code and created its own measure of quality via the Oscars as inoculation against the more frightening disapproval of outside forces, television also took institutional measures to affirm its decency and capacity to take care of its own affairs. Part of this initiative involved staging an event that could generate pictures of TV people in evening dress, comporting themselves respectably while receiving shiny statuettes.

Television has long overcome its initial existential insecurity and the Emmys now have a momentum of their own, but these awards stay true to their origins by continuing to publicly proclaim American TV’s opinion of itself. For one thing, the whole event wafts a sanitising air, perfuming some less confounding genre hits, but leaving the irredeemable outlying genre reaches of TV untouched. Game of Thrones can be nominated and is fit to dominate in technical categories, but there is a suspicion that its fantasy-fiction origins eliminate it from serious consideration—or at least until it has an assured audience and has reached its lap-of-honour final season.  The actors of Breaking Bad are also awards-worthy, but Academy voters haven’t chosen to acclaim the show itself, perhaps put off by its subject matter.

Another way in which the awards still speak to the medium’s current anxieties is the impulse to celebrate popular shows that actually draw viewers at a moment when there is fierce competition from alternative broadcasting streams (the Internet) and alternative uses of TVs (gaming).  Homeland’s Emmy could be read as a pronouncement: “Look, here is exciting, popular, quality TV drama. Please continue to tune in!” Perhaps next year—by which time Homeland’s fundamental resemblance to 24 should be even more apparent—this series will no longer serve as a suitable vehicle to advertise television’s implacable currency. A faltering second season, or a ratings success that is confirmed in its predictability may not be able to adequately respond to whatever anxiety will be troubling TV’s digestive system 12 months hence.

Just don’t expect the prize to be awarded to something truly outstanding.


Justified: The strong, not-so-silent type.

In an age when “quality” television is celebrated for its literary qualities, ‘Justified’ takes aim a little lower—at entertainment—and bullseyes its target.

Exiled from a prestigious posting in Miami for killing a criminal in a quick-draw gunfight, U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) is transferred back home to Harlan County, Kentucky, forcing an unwelcome reacquaintance with his past, with the greatest discomfort arising from encounters with his ex-wife, Winona (Natalie Zea), his criminally inclined father, Arlo (Raymond J. Barry) and, most significantly, Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), a Somerset Maugham-reading troublemaker given to both violence and philosophising.

Raylan is like a movie cowboy in a number of ways. He wears a cowboy hat, regularly finds himself in gunfights and is played by an actor who hasn’t shied away from cowboy parts, including supplying the voice of the very (Eastwoodesque) Spirit of the West in ‘Rango’. Even his friends, enemies and frenemies—in the case of childhood-pal-turned-criminal Boyd Crowder—frequently comment on Raylan’s cowboy traits and trappings, but, like any good cowboy, he does not openly reflect upon his own masculine role-play.

An incapacity for self-reflection has always been an important feature of the movie cowboy, forming part of an overarching reticence that permits only pith of the “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do” flavour. Aside from this trademark lack of self-absorption, however, Raylan talks a little too much to be a movie cowboy. He may be strong, but he is definitely not silent. Granted he preserves a laconic air, but he has an obvious weakness for anecdotes, both delivering and receiving. This isn’t too surprising, really, in light of the fact that the character was created by Elmore Leonard, who writes stories populated by characters who enjoy telling stories. In the world of criminal dim-wittedness Leonard tends to describe, it is important for his heroes to be able to amuse at least themselves as they go against the flow of a kind of general atmospheric stupidity.

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Future of Photography Q&A No.12 – Nick Morrish

Oomska’s ‘Future of Photography’ Series continues…

We presented our interviewees with a set list of questions, and left the matter of in what format and at what length they should answer entirely up to them. Here are Nick Morrish’s responses.

1. How and when did you first become interested in photography? What was the trigger which led you to take a serious interest? How different would that trigger be now, with all the changes – technological and otherwise – in photography during the intervening years?

When I was 18. I was in college, and a friend handed me a camera and asked me where the shutter button was. I didn’t know; but the camera felt like an extension of me. Almost like my hand had been made to fit the camera perfectly. I grabbed my Dad’s old kit, and a proper retro book and spent my time photographing bricks and close ups of tree trunks.

Really, though, I was much younger, less than 10 years old – I’m not sure when. I was given a Kodak 110 by a relative. According to my parents, I took it everywhere with me. I just wish I knew what happened to the images. I still have the camera somewhere.

With all the changes, the hook is still the same – to capture what I see in people in an aesthetically pleasing way. Also, I remember being addicted to the excitement of wondering how the images have come out, which has now disappeared; but the trade off is the ability to show off your image to all of the 2billion+ people who can dial up the internet.

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