Monday, November 20th, 2006, 12:11 am
When you’re reading a really good book, and you turn that final page, read that last sentence, there’s a fleeting moment of melancholy. The book may have been funny or sad, uplifting or maddening; it may have changed your life, or it might only have brightened a rainy afternoon. Perhaps my favorite final sentence appears at the end of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, one of my favorite books, and it goes like this:
No doubt all of this is not true rememberance but the ruinous work of nostalgia, which obliterates the past, and no doubt, as usual, I have exaggerated everything.
I always liked that phrase, “the ruinous work of nostalgia”. Never thought as I read that book that someday I’d see Michael Chabon getting into a brawl on The Simpsons. Which I did tonight.
Likewise, a great movie can leave you wishing that there was just one more reel, even one more scene. Casablanca, for example. Ilsa and Laszlo fly away, and Rick and Renault march off to continue the fight against the Nazis with the Free French. Almost hurts to see the credits roll. Although, reading about the film at Wikipedia I see that there WERE plans to film an additional scene, but David O. Selznick said that changing the ending would be a “terrible mistake”. Mr. Selznick was quite correct.
You don’t often get this sensation with television programs. The vast, vast majority of TV shows don’t choose the moment of their demise. Either they don’t survive their first few underwatched airings, or the corporate suits decide during the summer that the ratings just weren’t good enough to justify another year. TV shows can really mess with your head, because a show that you LOVE might end up in a sort of dramatic Purgatory, as characters and a story you care deeply about go forever unresolved. I’m still haunted by the fact that we don’t know what happens to FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper after the final episode of Twin Peaks. Now, I concede that TP went completely off the rails in the second season, but there was still a lot of great stuff there and I wish they’d could’ve had an episode or two just to give me some closure.
Of course, there wasn’t any closure in The Mysteries of Pittsburgh or Casablanca, but at least the stories ended as the artists intended. Even those TV shows that DO get to end on their own terms tend to end with a whimper, not a bang. The stories lose their power to surprise, the characters no longer amuse. The actors want to make the jump from the small screen to Hollywood, where a series of uninspired romantic comedies await.
I’m in this retrospective mood because I just watched the final episode of Prime Suspect, the remarkable British police series starring Helen Mirren. I remember watching the first series back in 1992 and thinking it was pretty doggone fantastic. Gritty, disturbing, nothing about it cut and dried. Jane Tennison is one of the great fictional characters of our time, and how fortunate there was an actress like Mirren to bring her to life.
The ending was just magnificent, with the killer standing in the dock, having admitted his crimes…and then informing the judge that he was pleading not guilty. And that last shot of Tennison, looking both satisfied and disgusted.
That’s a bit how we see her for the last time, as the final episode of Prime Suspect 7 aired tonight. She walks out of the police station, skipping out on her going-away party. It’s a sad ending, as a woman who sacrificed everything for her career walks off alone into an uncertain retirement. And after resolving a case that showed exactly what she gave up to have that career. Even though I figured out whodunit early on, and even though the apprehension of the culprit was quick-cutted faster than a music video, it was a worthy end for Jane Tennison.
I actually didn’t see Prime Suspect 5 or 6, but I got them from the library the other day so I’ll watch them over the next few days. So I haven’t seen quite all of Tennison yet. I don’t think knowing how she ends up will change how I look at them.
Maybe the Brits have it right about TV–you don’t crank out 22 episodes every year until the show gets stale or the audience abandons you. You do six, maybe eight shows. Or you do a 4-hour miniseries every other year. I guess you can afford to do that if you’re subsidized by the government. Is the BBC still subsidized by licensing fees? Think so. I guess this is just the market at work–the best TV shows seem to be on cable, who have to put out high-quality content to get you to subscribe. As opposed to the networks, who don’t care what crap they put on so long as enough viewers tune in to justify charging advertisers high rates.
I’m a big Helen Mirren fan, she’s just a fabulous actress. Enjoyed just about everything she’s been in, and as I perused her IMDB list there’s a lot stuff I haven’t seen that she’s been in. I’d like to see The Queen, where she plays Queen Elizabeth II. I haven’t seen Elizabeth I, where she played, uh, Queen Elizabeth I. She was great in Gosford Park. One of my favorite movies is the extremely weird The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, which she was fantastic in. One thing about Mirren–she’s never been afraid to take, ah, challenging roles. Though she did appear in Caligula, a film that threatened to set pornography back 100 years.
Speaking of pornography (and when am I not in that mood?), one night a few years ago I was sitting in my den flipping through the channels looking for something that might amuse. The on-screen listing showed a movie on Showtime titled Age of Consent. Mmm, that sounds promising, heh heh heh.
Well, yes and no. The film, which was made in 1969 (already limiting it’s possible sexiness) stars James Mason as this famous painter who decides he’s tired of being rich and famous in New York. So he runs off to this island off the coast of Australia to, I dunno, recharge his artistic batteries. So he goes Down Under and meets this blonde Aussie teenager who inspires him to…paint pictures of her. There’s no conflict, as it were, beyond the fact that the girl’s mother (who is totally bonkers) doesn’t like her child hanging around with a bearded and late-fiftyish James Mason. And this deadbeat loser friend of Mason’s comes all the way to Australia looking to borrow a few bucks. But this is more comic relief than anything else.
Much of the film is Mason sitting on the beach painting this gorgeous girl as she swims around and collects pearls, which is how she plans to pay her way off the island. Now, as I watched this blonde girl swimming around topless for about 90 minutes, I had a hell of a time believing that I was looking at Helen Mirren. I knew from the credits that it WAS Helen Mirren, and I knew that when she first took to the London stage she was renowned for her beauty.
Still, when you’re used to seeing a person as a hard-bitten London homicide detective, and instead you see her as a semi-nude pearl diver who looks a hell of a lot like an Aussie Anna Kournikova, well, it’s a bit of a shock. Actually, I recall during the movie that I didn’t quite buy Mirren’s accent, it was a bit too broad for my taste. As if I have any taste.
There’s absolutely zero sexual tension between Mirren and Mason until the very end of the movie, when suddenly she’s upset that he isn’t in love with her, but he is, and I guess we’re to believe that they live happily ever after. Which isn’t quite as good an ending as Casablanca. But one thing that really stuck with me was the credits that rolled at the end of the film. We see James Mason’s name, we see Helen Mirren’s…but underneath Mirren’s name was an additional qualifier, which read, “Ms. Mirren appears with the Royal Shakespeare Company”.
So don’t get the wrong idea about her! True, she’s been splashing around topless in the surf for 75 minutes, but she’s a member of the goddam Royal Shakespeare Company. She’s a serious actress, so put those lascivious thoughts away! She’s not just a pretty girl with a seriously restricted wardobe! She’s played Cleopatra! She’s played Cressida, for cryin’ out loud! You don’t even know what that IS but you know it’s heavy!
Of course, Mirren appeared nude in Calendar Girls, which she made when she was 58. So she’s shown consistency over the years. And even though Jane Tennison has walked off into retirement, Helen Mirren certainly hasn’t. I have my two Prime Suspects to watch this week, and then I have a huge body of work to enjoy if I want to see more of her work. Though I think I’ll pass on sitting through Age of Consent again. Not that I have anything against a pretty face, but that’s not what interests me most about Dame Helen.
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