Welcome to my adventures and experiments in creativity. Where writing is like running: sometimes I know where I'm going, and sometimes I see where the mood takes me.

Monday, 31 January 2011

Max Bauer - Eight Days of Jack (part 1)

The following takes place between October 10th 2010 and January 2nd 2011.

Events do not occur in real time, but spoilers abound.

Day 1

It is fascinating to wonder how it felt working on the creation of 24. Surely, nobody knew what a unique, startlingly addictive television show they had on their hands? Certainly it was a creation for which the possibilities were completely unknown – that much is clear from watching each series in succession and seeing it evolve over a short period of time.

But what is also noticeable – and more impressive with each subsequent viewing* – is that right from the start, from the very first chime of midnight, the character of Jack Bauer is nailed on. The ex-army man of principle, devoted to his family, willing to operate on pure instinct, and always proved correct even when lesser mortals are either working against him or simply not operating on his level.

When you combine those traits with the realism (a relative term, but accurate given much of what follows in later series) that stems from the show’s inherent naivety, you have 24 at perhaps its most compelling. It may not always offer the same constant ‘high-octane’ thrills of its successors, but the first series maintains a fairly simple premise for its entire duration with only a few stumbles in its otherwise impressively measured stride.

That realism manifests in one brief but notable moment – the only instance in 196 entire episodes! – of Jack falling asleep. He may not be exempt from moments of vulnerability, but this truly is one of a kind. For all the criticism occasionally levelled at the show for repeating itself over eight years, some might argue that Jack will never look quite so human again. That alone is sufficient to set series 1 apart from the rest, whatever heights the other series may attain.

The counterpoint to Jack’s travails is the walk-in wardrobe of skeletons lying in wait for Senator David Palmer as he negotiates the threat of assassination on “the day of the California Presidential Primary”. It says a lot about how gripping Jack’s story is, particularly on first viewing, that the Palmer family dramas can feel as though they’re getting in the way a little. Now, however, they are a part of the 24 tapestry that is every bit as fascinating as anything Jack has to face.

Maybe that swing in attitude is a sign that this viewer has matured over the years, and can value character drama just as much as straight action. However true that might be, what is beyond doubt is how the context of later series benefits the Palmer storyline – the reappearance of key characters over the years, and the part they play in later stories, is a validation once again of just how well they were drawn in the first place.

The same applies at CTU as well – Nina Myers, Tony Almeida, George Mason. Even Ryan Chappelle. Watching series 1 with the knowledge of what happens to some of these people (yes, yes; they’re not real. So what!) only serves to make you appreciate the quality of the writing even more.

* Maybe this is not something for such public admission, but series 1 has been through my DVD player probably more times than all the other series put together.

Day 2

Equally fascinating might be to consider what a problem the creators were faced with in producing a sequel to a series brimming with raw emotion (arguably demonstrated most effectively in Jack’s van-based assault on the Drazen hideout and discovery of Nina’s ultimate betrayal in the final episode). Robbed of the ability to surprise the viewer quite as effectively with elegantly woven mystery, series 2 instead ups the ante from the start – it literally goes nuclear.

While this serves Jack and CTU perfectly well (if, “I’m going to need a hacksaw…” doesn’t have you shouting, “Jack’s back!” at the screen then you simply aren’t alive), it leaves the other characters struggling somewhat. The now-President Palmer soon weighs into the action once the political conspiracies kick in, but the Warner family are left to stare moodily at each other and generally mope about in their over-pampered existence for a good few episodes until the main story finally beckons them into the fold.

Which just leaves Kim Bauer. Leaving aside the thorny issue of her actions at least in part leaving a young girl orphaned (though everyone should raise a cheer that pantomime villain Gary Matheson is eventually dispatched with Jack’s best advice ringing in his daughter’s ears), Kim is unfortunate enough to be saddled with one irrational character after another to interact with once she finally escapes the confines of Los Angeles. Maybe not quite as unfortunate as her boyfriend though, who won’t be doing any more roundhouse kicks for a little while…

It always seemed easy to justify Kim’s post-nuclear detonation storylines as attempting to reflect a variety of reactions to such a monumental event. But in the same way that some aspects of series 1 improve with time and repeated viewing, so the cast of loners she comes into contact with seem increasingly out of place in series 2. Matters aren’t helped when the man with the most irritating voice on American television* turns up at a supermarket wanting supplies and refuses to leave.

Focussing excessively on the negative is unfair, however, because when series 2 is good it is gob smacking. Bombing CTU, the Nina Myers reveal, the Coral Snake team and its rogue member, the torture of Roger Stanton … and that’s all in the first half! Series 2 really starts to mould the template for every future incarnation of 24, and while it might start to wear a little thin in the second half listening to people speculate on, “What if the recording is fabricated?” “It’s not, we’re going to war,” the race against time never lets up in its intensity.

Jack Bauer even dies. It’s hard to know how to feel when it happens, because in terms of ‘throwing the kitchen sink at it’, having the main character’s heart stop is about as extreme as it can get. (Isn’t it? Hint: see ‘Day 3’). Whatever the rights and wrongs of the script going that far, it does allow the fantastic moment of Jack – lying on a bed, struggling to breathe, just wrenched back into the land of the living – telling the doctor treating him, “I’m the only chance you’ve got.”

Compared to the shock ending of series 1’s penultimate episode (“It’s Yelena…”), series 2 opts to go in a different direction at the finale and have every one of Jack’s leads either imprisoned, arrested, abandon him, or (in many cases) die. Going into the final hour it is unavoidable to question just how events may resolve in a favourable manner; in the ultimate contrast to the personal vengeance of series 1, it takes some redemptive actions from certain characters for Jack to get the help he needs in the conclusion of series 2.

And then, just when you think it’s safe to go out, an old friend turns up. Never again will a series of 24 end on quite so stark a cliffhanger.

*He did a very similar act in an episode of Without A Trace and it was no easier to put up with then.

Day 3

Viewed so soon after the first two series, there is something oddly amiss with the third of Jack Bauer’s televised days. It feels so unbalanced at times – even David Palmer plays no significant role until the final third of the series or so, and what he is burdened with until that point is surprisingly dull.

“Surprisingly”, because series 3 has always been fondly remembered by this viewer. It certainly helps puts in evidence my long-held theory that while story-telling elements are re-used with great frequency in the 24 universe, there is always enough of a twist for them to feel fresh. So it is here, where Gael Ortega is shown to be a mole right from the first episode … only for it to all be a double bluff and a means of getting Jack back undercover with the Salazar brothers.

While Jack’s descent into a personal hell continues (he is now a heroin addict) and works very much in the show’s favour, working less well is Kim’s frustrating insistence on telling her father about her relationship with Chase Edmunds. The same writing that allows Ramon Salazar a neat line about Jack not needing to take drugs to maintain his cover (going on to ask, “What pain are you hiding?”) also allows Kim to repeatedly distract her father with something that could wait a day or two, despite the imminent threat of biological terror.

The quality of Jack’s storyline is again to the fore, and it needs to be with some of the melodrama going on elsewhere (though the presence of a baby at CTU somehow adds a bizarre humour to proceedings, and Lord knows this series needs its light relief). The Salazars are entertaining characters in their impulsive, unpredictable ways, and there are genuinely tense moments when Chase shows up at the Mexican ranch in pursuit of Jack; suffice it to say that Chase must go down as one of the most unfortunate characters in 24 history, which to an extent sums up the mood of series 3.

Where the presence of a nuclear bomb required some ‘means to an end’ torture, here the cruelty goes up a few notches, not least when the Salazars are duly dispatched and their position as ‘the big bad’ taken by Stephen Saunders. The release of the virus into a hotel, ensuring the slow and painful death of nearly everyone inside (and forcing CTU to hand out suicide capsules to the unfortunate guests) is swiftly followed by an order for the execution of Ryan Chappelle. It is not an easy watch, and in terms of what the writers are prepared to put on screen, nothing else in 24 gets quite this extreme (with the possible exception of some moments in series 8).

Is it any wonder Jack cries at the end of this series? At least he is still alive, which is more than can be said for a number of former characters who all make final appearances during the course of these twenty-four episodes, thus bringing to a close the first ‘trilogy’ of series and paving the way for ‘Day 4’…

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Next stop - The Ritz! (in Belper...)

Principles. It’s good to have a few by which to live life. They help you feel like it’s possible to make a difference, if only in the smallest of ways.

Not buying bottled water unless your life depends on it.

Avoiding shopping in Tesco.

Ignoring any new novels written by Dan Brown.

Essentially, anything that allows us to assuage that terrible, inherent guilt we all possess as human beings.

(Or am I the only one feeling that? After all, anyone who knows me might recognise all those examples as being little rules of my own invention…).

A recent addition to that (very much abridged!) list is an undertaking to try and support independent cinemas when possible. It has been a long-held and ever-increasing bugbear that modern multiplexes are gradually sucking the life – the very soul, even – out of the pleasure of ‘going to the movies’.

Cynical attempts to encourage the purchase of their over-priced confectionary, an unwillingness to show pictures that won’t appeal to a mass audience, and ticket prices that long ago stopped reflecting the level of care and interest taken in showing a film – all of these (and other reasons less pertinent to the topic in hand) help explain why I went from sometimes seeing two films in a single afternoon to only watching two films in two years.

But then, in November 2010, something happened to make me realise there is an answer to these irritations. Frustrated at having let Inception, Scott Pilgrim Vs The World, and Toy Story 3 all slip by without setting eyes on them, I was determined to ensure the same fate did not befall The Social Network. In making the necessary arrangements, my good friend James offered to show me his new favourite haunt – the Quad at Derby.

It might be hard to describe the place without sounding like an advert; suffice it to say that even on a quiet Wednesday evening, with a cold drizzle falling on the deserted market place outside, the Quad instantly felt like home. It had the kind of atmosphere that few public venues are able to achieve, offering with open arms an opportunity to indulge creative aspirations of any sort without being intrusive or overbearing.

That it also had a programme of films across two screens sufficient to shame a mainstream ten-screen cinema (in terms of both quality and depth, while also offering introductions to selected screenings by local film experts) was simply the icing on the cake. Leaving Derby that night, I recognised the epiphany that had taken place and went home with a contented soul.

More recently, when my better half suggested she would like to see The King’s Speech, it seemed like the ideal opportunity to try and sway her in the direction of an independent cinema. Naturally, the Quad came to mind instantly, but a quick bit of research revealed a whole world of previously unknown possibility. Sure, none of the cinemas were a truly convenient distance away, but there were some within an acceptable car journey. Reading the list as a cinema equivalent of the Michelin restaurant guide, it seemed reasonable to assume there was a good reason for their continued existence in the age of the multiplex and a ‘detour’ would therefore be worthwhile.

Hence the decision (albeit a somewhat unilateral one!) was made to try the Ritz Cinema in Belper (a town not a million miles away from Derby, as it happens). Unfortunately, they weren’t showing The King’s Speech on the day we wanted, and so it was to the Quad we went instead. Frankly, it was a wonderful feeling knowing that was our alternative, and I still intend to try the Ritz Cinema sometime if only to see what else the independent world has to offer.

The reason for recounting these recent experiences is to reflect on the situation of my hometown. Leek is the semi-rural home to 20,000 or so people, but has little in the way of entertainment facilities. For the most part, anyone wanting to enjoy leisure activities goes down the road to Stoke. There used to be a cinema in the town, and barely a week goes by in the local press without a lament for its appalling decline and eventual demolition (a block of flats, of uninspiring design, now stand on the site).

Throttled by the indecision (and, at times, incompetence) of just about every Local Authority administration that has held office in recent times, Leek has variously been promised a theatre, a cinema, both, or one facility combining the two. Half-hearted ideas tend to lack detail, and it is therefore impossible to establish exactly what the people of the town are being offered. The latest idea, which assumes a theatre will be developed separately, is a cinema and bowling complex built over a car park.

It is perhaps wrong to be pessimistic – after all, many would argue we should be grateful for anything we can get – but that sounds worryingly ‘mechanical’ and ‘by the numbers’. Would it be wrong to ask for a little ambition?

Given everything above, it will come as no surprise that I’d like nothing more than for Leek receive its own independent cinema. It wouldn’t have much in the way of history, but everyone has to start somewhere (and you only have to listen to the good doctors Kermode and Mayo broadcasting on Radio Five Live from the Phoenix Cinema in East Finchley to grasp what can be achieved with time and a little passion).

Whether an equivalent of the Quad (or, maybe, a scaled down version) could ever be made to work in a town like Leek is the million-dollar question. Perhaps an independent venue needs a mainstream opposite to swallow the demand for Transformers sequels and Jennifer Aniston romantic comedies. Could one facility do both? Or shall I just let the council get on with whatever they want while I keep travelling to our well-kept secrets?

You can find James on Twitter: @Jimvincible

The Ritz Cinema in Belper: http://www.ritz-belper.co.uk/