mediocre has many names

There’s absolutely nothing new in Grey’s Anatomy. From the very first scene of the very first episode, you can check off the plot points in a kind of screenwrite-by-numbers game that you can follow along with at home. Hmmm — the main character has a one-night stand right before her first day of work? I wonder if the one-night stand will show up again, possibly as her new boss. (That one’s been around at least since Top Gun.) Hmmm. She’s going to visit her legendary doctor mother and talk about her day — but wait, something’s wrong. Where are they? Could it be that her mother is… yeah, she’s got Alzheimer’s. I bet it’s a cinch she’s going to try to cover up this part of her life. (The recurring visits to a mentally broken relative are handled with much more juice in Showtime’s Huff.) Izzy’s boyfriend is coming to visit the same night that she has an opportunity to take part in an important surgery — which will she choose? The obnoxiously impatient lover, or the thrilling career? (Gosh — I wish I hadn’t watched so many seasons of West Wing.) And then there are the doctor-show cliches — ah! a patient with a DNR order… what’s the likelihood that the intern who’s grown attached to her will try to go against that order and save her when she codes?

Ugh.

But there are pleasures in it that make up for the obviousness of the plots — chiefly Patrick Dempsey as the charming fling/boss and Sandra Oh, who makes everything she says and everything she does fascinating and real. Perhaps it’s an unspoken conspiracy between her and the writers — that happens sometimes, and a character just pops. (But when it does, it only highlights the ordinariness of everything around her.)

Isaiah Washington and Chandra Wilson are also a lot of fun, if underused, and the show has a great, bouncy soundtrack of smart sub-pop songs, and the occasional Chicago Hope-style oddball medical case (the patient who has his friends shoot him to make cool scars, the psych consult who may or may not be psychic) or sweet directorial flourish (the camera falling into bed with the exhausted Meredith). So if this is 90% ER retread and 10% underdone House, it’s still completely watchable and often enjoyable.


The opposite is true of Hal Hartley’s latest, The Girl From Monday. Hartley’s been wandering in the wilderness a bit since his masterwork, 1997’s Henry Fool, a delicious, deliberate look at the relation between talent and teaching. That film’s careful construction, its dry comedy mixed with spontaneous outbursts of feeling and imagination, its overly articulate but deeply guarded characters, and its beautiful photography of ordinary places, apotheosized an aesthetic approach Hartley had been polishing for a decade. After Henry, it soon became clear, he didn’t have much left to say in that vein. 1998’s The Book of Life (produced for the excellent French TV series “2000 As Seen By…”) featured several of Hartley’s great muses from previous films (Thomas Jay Ryan, Miho Nikaido, Martin Donovan), but already it marked a departure from prior work — first, in featuring supernatural or science fictional elements, second, in the delivery of dialogue, which had become more programmatic and less a spontaneous manifestation of character, and third, in being shot on digital video, often using low shutter speeds to achieve an almost continual motion blurring.

I didn’t like that movie or Hartley’s next major release, No Such Thing, chiefly because I thought he had given up the warmth and humor of earlier films without getting much back. But I did believe, at least, that he was still working in an original way. If the emotional content seemed thin and watery and the formal style was cold and distancing, still, at least the magical-realist content represented a new narrative element for Hartley, and I kept hoping he’d be able to bring his humane impulses back to bear on these strange, alienating stories.

You can’t doubt Hartley’s humaneness in The Girl From Monday, largely because he keeps beating you with it. The “concept” (and, increasingly, his films seem to revolve around concepts rather than stories or characters) is that in a near-future dystopia corporations have taken over in an ersatz “revolution” and instituted new rules of life designed to maximize consumption and minimize unpredictable human elements. Human beings are now considered stock and assigned value. One can have sex or reproduce to increase one’s value, but not for love or pleasure. Likewise, acts of charity and kindness, which have no market value, are deprecated. Young people, meanwhile, are all medicated into submission and educated by video games. There are, of course, revolutionaries struggling against the “dictatorship of the consumer” by having sex outside the system and by refusing the barcode tattoos. Inevitably, the revolutionaries are largely overcome, and the spirit of individualism is largely crushed.

Even as you read the above, you maybe feel an oily discomfort in your gut — there is not one original idea here. It’s Huxley by way of Orwell by way of Gilliam and Stoppard, and pushed through a Michael Moore lens. The bar code idea has long been a shorthand among paranoid libertarians as “the next step” in government intrusion, and the idea of passionate sex as an act of social defiance goes back at least to Hawthorne.

On the other hand, dystopian tropes keep cropping up for a reason — they haven’t lost their power because the threat is not entirely gone — and it’s entirely possible to construct a resonant and affecting story around them, even today. But Hartley here seems, for the first time in his career, lazy. He lays out vast huge chunks of his scenario in expository narration with mildly (but not really) interesting visual illustrations. He lays out the evils of corporations and the commodification of human beings in long verbal essays, but these are not connected to anything remotely convincing in the narrative.

The biggest evils we actually see committed in the corporate world are selling tacky and inappropriate clothes to children and caffeinated sodas to high school students — both, I grant, somewhat noxious, but hardly earth-shattering. These are the kinds of coporate evil that you would expect to see in a Jim Carrey or Tim Allen vehicle, one where he would ultimately stand up to his boss and propose some more positive and wholesome alternative product line. As for the black-clad shock troops with the Cylon eyewear — they’re omnipresent, but somewhat ridiculous, with weapons that look suspiciously like Super-Soakers spray-painted gloss black. No rules are established in the story to explain how they get their information about deviators and counter-revolutionaries, and their renditions of citizens, which should be frightening and chilling, come across instead as arbitrary plot-movers.

After one main character is arrested for her passionate activities, the tone shifts uneasily to a broader satire that begins to feel like bad sketch TV — she is tried and sentenced to “two years hard labor, teaching high school.” Throughout, the satire (so-called) is either too stupidly broad or too vague and soft to prick us. Literally nothing works — joke after joke, no matter how drily presented by actors of extraordinary caliber, comes off as painfully, wincingly obvious.

There is a single element not covered in the standard dystopian scenario — an alien from a race of purely spiritual beings who comes to earth in the person of a beautiful young woman. Hartley gets some mileage out of this idea, both narratively (in one very funny scene, she learns how to pee) and visually (stunning recurrent images of her nude body splashing down into the ocean). But ultimately, this, too, feels fairly derivative — the ancient fish-out-of-water story, traceable from selkie legends to Hans Christian Andersen to Splash and Starman. Again, these archetypes still have a charge, but Hartley does nothing with them we haven’t seen to the nth iteration before — the outsider, who is innocent and truthful, shows us how morally bankrupt our ways have become. Got it. Check. Except it’s not even convincing on that basic fairy-tale level, because the reality she is supposed to provide contrast to is so lazily constructed as to be, basically, absent.

And here is the real crime of Hartley’s film — not only are his ideas largely banal (true of Grey’s Anatomy as well), but he doesn’t have the courage or decency to present those ideas straightforwardly, or to give them the customary dressing that might make them palateable. Where Grey’s at least gives us fun music, “good acting” in the conventional sense, and satisfying if utterly predictable character arcs, The Girl From Monday offers no such compensating pleasures. We can grant that its videography (Sarah Cawley) is frequently gorgeous, but nobody ever went to a movie just for its image-making. And its canted compositions, nonstop motion blur, and oddball editing, which ought to be fascinating, are instead off-putting, distancing in the extreme, and with no good ideological justification for the alienation. (Godard, an obvious influence here, at least gave you something intellectual to chew on when he refused to let you get close to the emotional heart of a story.)

And here is an unfortunate argument for the Hollywood style of filmmaking: that even when it is lame and conventional, a standard Hollywood television product will often still yield at least minimal pleasures, because Hollywood production is geared toward pleasure, and that desire to please almost never fails completely. But when an independent and highly stylized film is full of everything we’ve seen before, and all done badly, the result can be a total disaster, leaving the viewer with absolutely nothing to grab onto.

I believe Hartley may pass through this phase, just as Godard passed through his ultra-Marxist phase in the early 70’s and started making interesting, pleasurable films again. But it’s painful watching in the meantime.

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