Monday, August 29, 2016

BSN Mini-Review: "Deme"

There’s characterization in “Deme,” there’s plot in “Deme,” and there’s certainly plenty of humor in “Deme,” but the primary aim of the episode seems to have been to convey the subjective experience of being a particular kind of high. As in “Bryn” and “Nicky,” we spend the entire episode in the titular character’s head. Unlike Bryn and Nicky, Deme is “off [their] face,” as they put it, so getting inside their head isn’t in any way a cerebral experience. Every moment we spend with Deme in this episode is immediate; we’re not learning about their past or their relationships so much as we’re feeling what they feel.

Unsurprisingly, The Candle Wasters are extremely successful in that endeavor. The feeling you get watching “Deme” is probably as close to the feeling of being pleasantly drunk as you can get without actually consuming alcohol.  The swaying close-ups, the fuzzy pink light, the wandering music, the way certain sounds and sights suddenly overwhelm everything else. Even the way Puck suddenly appears in the background of the shot, with no fanfare announcing their presence, while Mia appears with a thunderclap. It all feels right.

Of course, because Deme is high, we have to take everything with a grain of salt. Being high can feel like being in love, but it’s not the same thing. We feel what Deme feels, in this episode, but Deme’s feelings can’t be trusted. Only time will tell if they’re truly in love with Lena. (If you’ve read a plot description of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, you probably have an idea, but there’s nothing in Bright Summer Night to tell you.)

Which also means that, although we get inside Deme’s head, we don’t learn very much new about them. Every other episode that Deme’s been in has given the sense that, with the exception of their infatuation with Mia, they have their life pretty much together. They’re both confident of and happy with their place in the world. They know what they want, and they have no qualms about declaring and pursuing that. “Deme” doesn’t alter that idea at all. It gives Deme a different person to pursue, but it neither challenges nor changes anything else about them. Which is fine, because Deme’s doing okay for themselves.

Zander, on the other hand, gets some development here. The Idleness actually makes Deme feel like they’re in love with Lena, but it’s pretty clear that it doesn’t do the same for Zander. He feels affection for Lena—who’s quietly taking care of him—but his declarations of love are driven by his competition with Deme and his unhappiness with Mia. The exact nature of that unhappiness remains somewhat unclear, but this episode repeats and expands upon Zander’s claim in “Zander” that Mia is “too much” for him. Combined with his breathing exercises, you start to get the idea that Zander’s an anxious person, and that Mia touches that anxiety off somehow. With the Idleness breaking down some of his inhibitions, he fixates on Lena because she’s quiet and kind and she doesn’t push. Mia pushes.

It’s a good thing Mia’s episode is next up. After an episode’s worth of people talking about her, worrying about her, reacting to her, I’m ready to get inside her head.

Random Bits

As far as I can tell, there’s no particular plot or thematic reason to put Puck in this episode, but Puck accounts for about 97 percent of the best moments, so who cares? (It also lets Puck do some pointing and laughing, as called for by the source material.)

What is it with TCW and bathtubs?

That bathroom must have been a nightmare to shoot in: Confined space, four characters, tricky lighting, and there’s a mirror that I imagine prevented filming from certain angles, lest the crew’s reflection show up on-screen.  They did a good job with it, though.


Monday, August 22, 2016

BSN Mini-Review: "Nicky"

“Nicky” is more dreamlike than any of the episodes before it, not just because of the music and editing—though the last two minutes lean hard into the dream-like music and editing—but because the entire narrative hangs together like a dream. Nicky floats in and out of different scenes, and people float in and out of her proximity, with little or no explanation. Her friends disappear in the blink of an eye. Puck pulls her away toward an unclear destination, for no reason they’re willing to say aloud. Awhina flags Puck down and then immediately moves on. Puck hands Nicky a set of pajamas and then leaves the room without saying goodbye. She passes by Bryn being sick in the garden, Poppy and Thea looking after Awhina in the bedroom, Puck laughing at Deme and Zander in the hall. More of the cast shows up in this episode than in any other, most of them for less than a minute.

The episode therefore works to the extent that you can deal with uncertainty. We’re entirely inside Nicky’s head. There’s no cheating—no camera angles or music or lingering shots that emphasize anything Nicky wouldn’t find important. The camera keeps its distance. We see only what Nicky sees, and by and large, we learn only what Nicky learns. Why is Awhina looking for Bryn? The answer isn’t in this episode. Why does Bryn blow up at Puck? You might be able to tell from information in “Puck” or “Bryn,” but nothing in “Nicky” will tell you. Why does Puck latch on to Nicky? Nicky herself has no idea, so the episode provides no obvious clues. These questions have answers, and they take only a little thought to figure out, but that little bit of thought is important. It aligns the initial viewing experience of “Nicky” with the experience of Nicky, who doesn’t know most of these people, and who has no context in which to understand Bryn or Puck or Awhina’s actions.

In contrast to the impenetrability of the plot, much of the dialogue in “Nicky” is pointed. Nicky and Puck basically speak in nothing but thematic statements (digressions on the fashion of rock stars excepted). Neither teenage nihilists nor teenage activists are known for keeping their life philosophies quiet, so the conversation doesn’t read as particularly forced or unrealistic, the way it might if two adults met at a party and immediately started arguing about the meaning of life. But we’ve already seen Nicky and Puck have this argument, in “Petra,” and their conversation here covers no new philosophical or personal ground. Nor is it as funny or tense as the conversation in “Petra.” In fact, it drags a little, something no other scene in Bright Summer Night has yet done.

Tellingly, the most interesting—and revealing—part of Nicky and Puck’s conversation has nothing to do with philosophy. Puck, trying to elicit a reaction from Nicky, steals a drink from a passerby and splashes it on Nicky’s shirt. Nicky leaves the room, and Puck follows her, saying, “Are you angry at me, Nicky? Tell me that you hate me.” “It’s okay, Puck,” Nicky says. “I forgive you.”

It’s been clear from the start that Puck intentionally alienates people to cover up their real desire for connection, and here’s a concrete example of that: Puck antagonizes Nicky, spills a drink on her, but also follows her from the room. And though Nicky’s speech in the wash room about kindness mattering more than being cool tells you something about her, her reply to Puck tells you the same thing much more convincingly. One character’s actions match their philosophy, and one’s don’t. Puck talks a lot about nothing mattering and no one watching, but when it comes down to it, they want to matter to others. But Nicky both speaks and performs kindness, and the giraffe pajamas prove pretty well that she doesn’t care about being cool. There’s no artifice to Nicky. She’s not covering for anything.

Nicky knows who she is, and she’s bursting with things to say, but she has no one to say them to. That’s the story of “Nicky”: a girl wandering through a confusing world, looking for someone who will listen to her. Perhaps that’s why the tone shifts when Puck disappears. For the first time in the episode, Nicky is alone, and the music turns “eerie” and “unnerving,” as the closed captioning accurately puts it. Then she stumbles across Awhina, who’s high out of her mind, and is perhaps the one person at the party who’s happy to sit and watch the girl in the giraffe pajamas rap about climate change. The music clears—still dream-like, but now pleasant, almost triumphant—and Nicky finally gives her performance. Now that Nicky’s story is resolved, the camera leaves her for the first time in the episode, pulling away in a series of jump cuts until she’s just a blur in the background. The music turns eerie again as Deme and Zander and Lena run by, Puck laughing behind them, heading straight toward the next episode.

It’s an incredibly effective sequence, of a kind with the endings of “Lena” and “Bryn,” with its moody, off-kilter open-endedness. Some of the most memorable endings in film and television are questions; they leave you in the middle of a thought, with the unsettling feeling of having run off a cliff. Think of the spinning top in Inception, or Jack and Ana Lucia staring at each other in Lost’s “Collision,” or Dawn’s hand reaching out to but not quite touching the cadaver in Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s “The Body.” None of BSN’s endings are quite that good (“The Body” is in the running for the best episode of television ever made, so, y’know), but they’re in the same family. They stick in your mind the same way. The Candle Wasters know how to end an episode.

Random Bits

Still no water, hmm?

I laughed for a full minute when Nicky put on the giraffe pajamas. If TCW were really committed to transmedia, they’d have had a note thanking Beatrice Duke for her contributions to costuming. (Although I note that Harriett Maire and Jake McGregor are credited as Beatrice Duke and Benedick Hobbes, which is kind of hysterical in its own right.)

“And I shall sing that they shall hear, I am not afraid!”

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

BSN Review: First Five Episodes

The first five episodes of The Candle Wasters' Bright Summer Night, a webseries inspired by Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream set at a modern-day New Zealand house party, are sharp, funny, painful, and wildly inventive--and if trends continue, the next five will only improve.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

BSN Mini-Review: "Zander"

Like “Bryn,” “Zander” is a little hard to pin down. The basic story is fairly straightforward: Zander tries to have sex with Mia, but fails because of some inhibition; Deme needles Zander about his inhibitions, then takes a drug; so Zander takes the same drug, which loosens his inhibitions.

It takes a little more work to locate the source of those inhibitions. There are two possibilities that comply with what we see on screen. Either Zander’s trying to drink/hook up with Mia because other people want him to, and he fails because he doesn’t want to. Or he’s doing these things because he wants to, and he fails because he’s scared (or nervous or intimidated).

Either way, Zander’s arc aligns nicely with Lena’s. The lovers can be split into characters who are confident in themselves and their place in the world, and characters who aren’t. Deme and Mia are on one side, and Zander and Lena are on the other. Everything Zander does is just a little bit off, a little bit awkward, and like Lena, he finds the world of people who know what they’re doing to be intimidating. The difference is that Zander is more embedded in that world than Lena is; Lena fades into the wallpaper, while Zander stumbles his way through the center of the party.

All of this is new information, which goes to show that “Zander” has its share of detailed character work. We learn a lot about Zander from it. He’s kind of an undercover dork; he’s deeply in love with Mia; and Deme gets under his skin like no one and nothing else.

In particular, Zander and Deme’s relationship shines. They’re friends, but obviously friends who have never totally gotten along. Deme needles Zander relentlessly, and Zander lets it get to him every single time. Even when Deme tries to let up on him (“You don’t have to do it,” “You good?”) Zander keeps up the competition on his end. Despite that, Shane Murphy and Dani Yourukova have a wonderful, easy chemistry that keeps the characters’ friendship and obvious history present, even when they’re sniping at each other.

That said, there’s a vagueness at the center of Zander’s character that puts me on uncertain footing. It all comes back to the question of what it is, exactly, that he wants. Is he uninterested in drugs and sex, and just wants the approval of the people around him? Or does he actually want to try all the things that he’s scared of?

I tend to think that the latter is the more likely option (it makes the drug into something that loosens Zander’s inhibitions, rather than something that totally reinvents his desires, and it makes Puck’s little speech about worries and inhibitions relevant), but I’m not sure, and there’s something offputting about that. Not knowing a character’s backstory, not knowing what they need, not knowing where their story is heading—those are all manageable gaps in the audience’s knowledge. But when you’re not even sure what a character wants, it’s hard to access their story.

Random Bits

“I’m gonna pull your hair out.” “Don’t pull it out. Do pull it, though!”

Deme and Zander take drugs off of the Quince family photo. I do love a good visual juxtaposition.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

BSN Mini-Review: "Bryn"

“We all know a Bryn,” says the description of Bright Summer Night’s fourth episode, and it’s right. Bryn Alberich is a type. He’s personable and popular. He’s charming and charismatic. He’s a good guy, everyone’s friend, and always willing to help you out if you’ve got a problem—unless helping inconveniences him in any way. He might care about others, but he cares about himself more, and he’ll do just about anything to make his own life easier. And he mostly gets away with it, because of how personable and popular and charming and charismatic he is.

“Bryn” spends a lot of time demonstrating these things about its titular character, but these aspects of Bryn have been clear since the very first episode. Like the description says, Bryn is someone you’ve met before, in fiction and in life, so it doesn’t take much work to get across the broad strokes of his character. A little goes a long way, and in the 11 total minutes of Bryn’s screen time so far, BSN has given us more than a little. Bryn’s type has been well solidified.

But there are a few sequences in “Bryn” that seem to be complicating, or at least elaborating on, that type. The desperate, stumbling search for a quiet room; the total meltdown, after Awhina leaves; the runaway jump cuts and chaotic camera angles all point to the idea that something is off-kilter in Bryn’s life. He’s unhappy, he’s overwhelmed, he wants everything to just shut up and stop for a moment.

But in these all-important sequences, BSN’s generally searing character work suddenly becomes murky. Something is off with Bryn, something is making him unhappy, but anyone trying to figure out what that is has little to go on. (I have theories, but they’re mostly drawn from a general sense of where the theme of BSN is going, not from anything we’ve actually been shown about Bryn.) It’s possible—perhaps probable, given Awhina’s parting shot—that Bryn himself doesn’t even know, and that that revelation will be the culmination of his arc. Which is a reasonable story to tell, but I’m starting to get anxious to see beneath the surface of Bryn’s type. I don’t mind being a little ahead of the character on this one.

Both Bryn the character and “Bryn” the episode make me feel unsettled, like The Candle Wasters are trying to say something that I’m not quite hearing. His basic character type is so clear that when something works to complicate it—like his unhappiness, or his still frustratingly unclear relationship with Puck—I’m left to wonder whether TCW are hinting at something, whether there’s a mystery there, or whether I’m reading into things. Or, perhaps, not reading enough into them.

I suppose we’ll find out one way or another by the end of the series. In the meantime, though, the uncertainty undercuts the efficacy of “Bryn” as an episode. The final shot, with Bryn sitting in silence and just breathing after six minutes of chaos, is clearly designed to cut deep. And there’s a degree to which it does. But it would cut deeper if we understood more.

Random Bits

I have few expectations when it comes to game theory even on very good shows, but surprisingly and happily, Bryn and Awhina’s discussion of the prisoner’s dilemma is totally reasonable. (Not particularly nuanced—they are 19—but reasonable.)

The sequence where Bryn “accidentally” lets Awhina snort too much Idleness is so well executed. It’s a great example of how to tell a perfectly clear story with no dialogue.

It just felt right, hearing Sheepdog & Wolf at the end, there.

“I love you.” “What does that do?” Ouch.