Friday, June 14, 2013

Wild Palms: TV Takes a Surreal Look into the Future

Twenty years ago ABC aired a truly original and challenging mini-series - Wild Palms. With Oliver Stone as executive producer, the five-part series explored areas television had never explored before and rarely since.  If you combine the elements of a Sophocles, the Bible, Jacobin revenge plays, the poetry of Yeats, Whitman's Leaves of Grass, Phillip K Dick's science fiction, L.A. film noir, William Gibson's cyperpunk alongside a rocking 60s soundtrack and you get Wild Palms.  By exploring themes of virtual reality, mass media manipulation, drugs, polarized politics, and technology, the series put coherence aside in favor of a disjointed narrative.  As the series progresses each episode delves deeper into surrealism.   Kathryn Bigelow directed an episode ending with a dizzying, Peckinpah inspired shootout set to "House of the Rising Sun."  The costume motifs envision a future where every style's a retro.  Based on comic book series by Bruce Wagner, Wild Palms stand alongside The Prisoner for its willingness to question modern notions of politics, technology, drugs, and reality.

Wild Palms is set in a futuristic Los Angeles, and its not the dying metropolis of Blade Runner, but a sunny utopia.  Two shadowy groups known as "the fathers" and "the friends" are in a covert war over the use of technology.   Although Wild Palms did not anticipate the internet, it did foresee a society under increasing media consolidation. The "fathers" are corporate elitists
using technology as a means of mass mind control, while the Friends are an underground movement of libertarians trying to free humanity from its reliance on technology. While politics are one of the many themes in the series - it's interesting to compare with the present.  By my understanding, libertarians oppose the government, but not corporate power.  Occupy Wall Street's critique of the financial system, at least in their moderate expression, advocates more government regulation. The "Friends" oppose any kind of tyranny.  In Wild Palms, the "friends" use poetry as their mantra, primarily Whitman's "My Captain, My Captain."  They're keeping humanism alive.  I like the idea of an underground movement using poetry as the last defense against tyranny.

Jim Belushi gives the performance of his life as Harry Wyckoff, a corporate lawyer living an average upper middle class life with his wife Grace (Dana Delaney) and their two kids.  His life changes after a politician-media mogul Anton Kruetzer, played by Robert Loggia, in a totally over the top performance, offers Harry the chance to run a TV network.  That's the basic plot.  Through the course of the series Harry gradually finds out most of his reality is fiction.  Harry's character arc has a strange trajectory from an everyman hero to a new age media prophet.  Scientology also looms in the background with the the film's emphasis on spirituality and technology.

There's quite a bit going on.  Unlike modern television which uses linear storytelling (with exceptions of course), Wild Palms still looks (and feels) subversive with its use of vivid imagery and fractured narratives - thus standing as a unique moment in TV history well worth revisiting.




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Saturday, June 1, 2013

"I read the news today oh boy"

Forty-six years ago today the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.  Rock critics love to dismiss it's candy colored ideals.  Even the Beatles themselves had their misgivings over the years.  George Harrison openly scorned the idea of a "concept" album ( not to mention his secondary role throughout its genesis.)  John openly admitted Sgt. Pepper was mostly Paul's idea, and that he, under the haze of LSD, just went along for the ride.  Ringo recalls learning chess during the recordings.  Their previous album, Revolver seems more adventurous.  And The White Album continues to overwhelm all who encounter it.  Or maybe there's a Paul backlash going on?  McCartney developed the Sgt. Pepper concept and his voice appears on most of the tracks.  Some of the best moments are Paul's sweet songs about stalking meter maids or digging holes in the garden or fixing holes in the roof.  Paul's contribution to "A Day in the Life" adds a comforting contrast to John's dark surrealism.  Others find Paul's optimism tiresome.  Or maybe it's the album everyone outgrows as adult life locks it's hold upon you.  John parodied Sgt. Pepper on "How Do You Sleep," as a fluke - the song set the narrative for all who attack McCartney.  Or maybe it's the pop art cover which celebrates all those cult heroes ranging from the occultist Aleister Crowley to the 60s hipster Terry Southern.  They out Warholed Warhol.  Or maybe it's the music itself?  Cultured music theorists praise the arrangements on "She's Leaving Home," as something worthy of Schubert.  And "Within You, Without You", besides it's enchanting music, is a hynotic sermon against the ego (I totally see where you're coming from George!).  But melancholy undercurrents always accompany the masterful arrangements: the characters we meet are all sad and lonesome and looking for outlets to escape the pre-determined fates of Father McKenzie and Eleanor Rigby - even the Sgt. Pepper band laments going home on the reprise.  Or maybe it's the idea that piece of art can reach many people and bring about positive change simply by putting out some good vibes. Or maybe Sgt. Pepper still reverberates through the decades as a reassuring beacon saying: "hey, we know it can be rough sometimes, but it's ok , just keep going."