Saturday, September 18, 2021

Channingography, part 2: Jump Streets


I do faintly remember seeing a trailer for 22 Jump Street in cinema. My wife and I instantly knew that it was silly, stupid trash that we didn't need to watch. People drinking in college? How funny and entertaining. I'm not a party person, never were, and so, this movie wasn't in any way interesting to us. Getting 21 Jump Street and its sequel therefore in order to continue my Channingography project felt a bit like a chore. But as with Magic Mike, I was pleasently surprised. Quite a lot, actually. 
And that really is surprising, because the genre itself isn't usually something I like. I'd describe it as action comedy with a lot of parody elements. Let me give you a quick synopsis before we go into a discussion. 
In 2005, Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenk (Channing Tatum) pass High School. Jenko is a jock, Schmidt is a nerd. Both go to the police, and fast forward in 2012, they're at the lowest spot in the pecking order, still basically children if now in adult's bodies, and desperate to get ahead. After a fuck-up they get assigned to undercover unit 21 Jump Street and an assignment to infiltrate High School to flush out a drug dealer. 
In 2014, they do the exact same thing again, this time in 22 Jump Street (get it?). Only this time, they're in college, not in High School. But it's the exact same plot otherwise, a fact that the movie points out with alarming regularity. 
The humor in these movies is not exactly subtle. The unit commander, played by Ice Cube, resides in a cube. His name is Captain Dickson, and if you think the penis jokes stop there, you're sorely mistaken. Meta jokes also abound; the characters are all genre savvy. And so on. 
This should be a simple paint-by-numbers thing, using Hill's and Tatum's natural chemistry and charisma, but surprisingly, it's much more than that. A good deal of that comes from the fact that all characters are genre savvy, because this allows the movies to subtely subvert expectations of audience and characters alike, but it's also poignant in how it defies several of the more clicheed tropes that are harmful and instead try to say something of substance. Let's not get ahead of ourselves, though. 
The throughline joke of both movies is that it's utterly ridiculous anyone would believe these 30ish men could pass as High Schoolers or even College attendees. While everyone likes to point out how old they look, nobody ever seriously questions it (which basically extends to other characters as well, it's not like James Franco would look the High School part, either). 
The same is true about the ridiculouness of the Jump Street unit itself, which is treated as an utter joke (including a cameo by Johnny Depp in 22 Jump Street), while at the same time dumping on the idea of sequels that are doing the same thing, only bigger (EVERYONE in 22 Jump Street comments on this concept, and the whole credits are an extended riff on uninspired sequels). In that context, the biggest gag these movies pull is that there's no third one to fill up a trilogy. 
But there are subtler things going on than these enjoyable meta-jokes. They're very progressive considering their release dates in 2012 and 2014, respectively. Jenko, Channing Tatum's character, for example harangues everyone for making homophobic jokes or comments. Women refuse to play the parts these movies usually reserve for them (including a Walk of Shame for Schmidt!), and so on.
The thing I loved best, though, was the subversion of the jock-nerd-dynamic. While Schmidt and Jenko are introduced in a slightly antagonistic way - Schmidt is asking the hot girl out for prom and gets rejected to the laughter of Jenko - the two of them become best buddies in police academy, playing into their respective strengths and developing mutual respect. It's not so much that they were adversaries in High School; they just lived in different universes that practically didn't cross. 
But the genius comes when they return to High School. It's been only seven years, but everything changed. Jenko quickly has to realize that his attempts at teaching Schmidt how to be cool are utterly wasted, not because Schmidt couldn't perform, but because Jenko's jock coolness is out of fashion. It's the nerd's world now, full in the grip of Nerdstream, and while Schmidt is able to gain all the recognition from a new generation of students that he never got, Jenko is relegated to the sidelines - only to fall in with the geeks. They're not oppressed like Schmidt back in the day, more secluded.
That way, there are surprisingly deep character arcs, character arcs that feel incredibly true. I concluded the Germany's High School equivalent in 2005 as well, and I finished university in 2011, returning to school as a trainee teacher in 2012, so this feels incredibly personal for me - and true. There is a new generation of students, and the amount of bullying, shaming and exclusion has gone down considerably. I can feel for Jenko's experiences, because I can see them every day, but I feel A LOT for Schmidt - including the temptations he falls for. He has the chance to basically relive the final year of High School in an absolute dream state. This is a fantasy a lot of people can emphasize with, I guess, and the central conflict of the movie isn't to catch the damn dealer, it's to resist that temptation. 
The script is subtly flipped again in 22 Jump Street. Neither Jenko nor Schmidt went to College, obviously, so this chance is new. But defying expectations, it's not Schmidt who is tempted here, but Jenko. Quarterback Zoot (Wyatt Russell, of "Falcon and the Winter Soldier" fame) includes Jenko in the team, offering him a chance for a scholarship and a way out of the police into a better life - drug dealers be damned. This character conflict drives the action in the second movie, and it's once again played entirely straight. 
So is College. While there's a lot of partying, it still feels like a realistic experience, because it's clear that all these young people are torn between the urge to enjoy themselves as much as possible and taste the fruits of youth that Schmidt and Jenko pointedly missed and are now trying to recreate on the one hand and the realization of their live goals on the other hand. 
That way, the movies piognantly tell something about do-overs, nostalgia, High School and College. Below the veneer of unseriousness and screwball comedy that the trailers promised (and sold to great success) there's a surprisingly deep well of things to reflect.
The movies are also wickedly funny, though.

Saturday, September 4, 2021

Book report: Game of Thrones

Like most of you (I gather), I reread "A Song of Ice and Fire" about once per year, or near enough as makes no matter. For this reread, I want to focus on the structure of "A Game of Thrones", a kind of meta-analysis, if you will, and especially concentrate on "early installment weirdness". That term relates to the first volume of a series, or the first episode, or whatever your medium might be, and how it usually is a bit rough on the edges. Ideas are not fully formed yet, characters not really "there", and there are elements that didn't work and were consequently dropped.

There's a surprisingly big amount of that. It shouldn't really be surprising, given that Martin started writing this almost thirty years ago (in 1993!), but compared to the later novels or the (finished!) TV series, it is rather noticable. For example, there is Tyrion's artistic ability, never brought up again until Martin retroactively put a lid on it in "A Dance with Dragons" by explaining it as an artifact of his backstory.
Such details pale towards plot elements that stem from Martin's original outline. There is the groundwork laid for the later three-way-romance between Tyrion, Jon and Arya (mercifully dropped already by the end of the novel, but if you know that Martin planned for this, it's clear to see). Jon's relationship with Arya is strongly established and has little payoff in the novels following it; Robb is the much more important fixpoint for Jon's memories of home.
There's the groundwork laid for the later planned destruction of Winterfell at Tyrion's hands. The wolves' aggression towards Tyrion, his strong connection to the place, the tragic of his friendship to Jon - both in terms of the planned romance with Arya and the destruction of his childhood home - all point towards that direction.
There's the groundwork laid for Catelyn's journey beyond the Wall, as when she is the primary conduit for the dark premonitions about the Land Beyond the Wall, Mance Rayder and the Others. When she hopes that Eddard will have gotten her pregnant again after they had sex in her first chapter, we see an echo of the child birth that was supposed to be her death in that frozen wasteland (a plot thread that Martin returned to with alarming regularity since).
There are also many elements that, would he write "A Game of Thrones" now, would be there but are absent. The most glaring for me is the lack of references. Eddard Stark becomes Hand of the King, but no one compares him to Cregan Stark, which would be an obvious comparison, especially for Pycelle, Varys and Littlefinger. The behavior of people towards Eddard as the first Stark Hand since Cregan makes no sense at all now that "The Hour of the Wolf" is a thing, but of course, it was not yet conceived back then.
People instead tread Ned as a provincial, a bit unrefined and straightforward, much as he is written. But given what we know about Targaryen history by now, there should be a lot darker and much more concrete biases at work. The same goes for kingsguard, king and nobility in general, the Dothraki and the role of the Free Cities - none of it is grounded in the detailed history Martin has written since. One can debate, I guess, the wisdom of creating all that stuff afterwards.
The same is true of several regions: the Iron Islands are treated as an afterthought; they will be developed as a solution after Tyrion cannot destroy Winterfell anymore because his plot leads to King's Landing. Dorne is only mentioned in passing. The Tyrells likewise. There's no mention of the Crownlands. And so on.
The novel itself remains the weakest of the entire series when we talk about intricacy of plotting and depth of character. It is "only" an extremely well written political thriller set in a low-fantasy world. The main threads are Ned's investigation in Jon Arryn's death - a mystery that will only be solved in the finale of "A Storm of Swords"! - and the political fallout of the Lannister intrigue against Robert Baratheon.
What is very noticable is the tight plotting on the one hand - chapters are following directly on each other and deliver the consequences of the actions of the previous chapter much of the time, instead of following unconnected threads, with the notable exception of Daenerys' arc. But even Dany gets connected to the main plot via the murder attempt and the fears of Robert in a way that will not be true in the following novels.
It's even more pronounced with Jon's arc, which is so carefully plotted that each revelation comes just too late for Jon to take a different course, perfectly calibrated to play out his inner struggles with his dual identity between Stark and Night's Watch.
That is not to take away from an, once again, extremely well written novel. But especially compared to Feastdance, the lack of themes, the close interconnectedness of character arcs with the plot, and above all, the careful construction of the plot stick out. It is incredible on how many chances and coincidences the plot hinges. The fates in the person of Martin have their thumbs on the scales, HARD.
Once again, all of that is not take away from "A Game of Thrones". It makes it, however, the least "A Song of Ice and Fire"-y of all the novels. It's no wonder that Martin was able to write the first three novels so much faster than the last three. The main challenge here is to think about which character best to tell which event through, as to obfuscate and set up most effectively. But there is no question who is present where when; Martin only needs to choose. There is no Meereenese Knot, no question of which character will arrive when where to which effect, how to make time jumps and so on. It's almost quaint. And if you know "A Game of Thrones", you know what that means for the series at large. It's a breathtaking accomplishment. One can only stand in awe of Martin's abilities.