Thoughts on The Walking Dead/ Fear The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead is one of television’s most lasting phenomena. AMC’s post-apocalyptic zombie soap opera has been one of the, if not the, most watched shows globally for close to a decade at this point, and with each season passing by it becomes ever harder to discern why that is. Nostalgia, I’m sure plays a part in it; even I, long since having grown to despise the show for all its failings, continue to return to it every few months in hopes of finding it reinvigorated and reinvented, closer to its exciting, Darabont-directed roots. Never mind each one of my endeavors to give the show another chance has so far been met with overwhelming disappointment, I’ll keep trying as long as I still remember the excitement of those first episodes, of the introduction to the world and the dreams of what could’ve been but never came to be.

I’ve been through this whole spiel before, and if I were to indulge my disillusionment for just a moment I would once again end up ranting about the technical ineptitude of the crew, the horrendous quality of the script, and of course the cast’s increasing reluctance to even attempt to hide its overwhelming lack of enthusiasm at the prospect of being dragged into yet another season of a show that should’ve ended years ago. I have no wish to go over this for the umpteenth time; none the less, I will now do just that so that I can finally have an article to link to whenever mentioning The Walking Dead in one of my other TV-related works.

Season 8 followed the All Out War plot line from the comic books which focused on Rick’s group of survivors, now known as the Alexandrians, facing off against the Saviors, a rather large community ruled by wannabe authoritarian Negan. Authoritarians, as we know, are as authoritarians do, and Negan ends up using his military strength to subjugate nearby groups and communities, dragging their people into serfdom while murdering all those who misbehave and show signs of rebellion. Alexandria is one of those subjugated groups… not for long, of course, as plot armor has a tendency of giving its wearer superhuman strength and confidence in his or her abilities.

The final episode of the season was (sort of) dedicated to the titular All Out War, as in it was supposed to feature the long awaited confrontation between the two main forces in the story’s world, but once again AMC’s attempts to make as much profit off as small an investment as possible resulted in a laughable stand-off that featured all of 40 extras alongside the dozen or so main characters. The bad guys’ guns got sabotaged by an undercover good guy who won their trust before betraying them, the baddies turned out not to be baddies after all but just ‘people doing their jobs’, the good guys spared them and let them go in the name of some abstract conception of a better world, and Negan got his ass handed to him after allowing Rick to drone on about peace and all other manner of kumbaya shit rather than killing him on the spot in mano-a-spiked bat combat. Oh well, the idiot plot is one of the most common tropes in modern entertainment and one could scarcely imagine a big-name television show or blockbuster movie not utilizing it in order to both provide cheap thrills and appeal to the lowest common denominator in the name of commercial viability, but that’s to be expected, and it doesn’t always necessarily result in a sub-par product, so much as it just adds certain elements that are necessitated by the desire for dumbing down. The issue is that every single aspect of the show has deteriorated beyond comprehension at this point; there is not one facet of The Walking Dead that works, not so much as a minute of quality film making to be found not only in the finale, but in the entire season as a whole.

Where to start? It’s hard to decide what is the worst thing about the way the show presents itself nowadays. Is it the horrendous CGI that turns every supposedly serious battle into a schlocky snooze fest straight out of a cheap 80s knockoff movie you picked up at the local Blockbuster? No, it can’t be that; AMC pulled the same stunt with The Terror and that ended up being, surprisingly, one of the best shows to come out in more than a decade, meaning CGI, while integral, doesn’t make or break a show as long as it isn’t a constant presence on the screen (which it thankfully isn’t). Could it be the overly hammy acting that ruins even the brief moments of mediocre writing in an ocean of straight-up awfulness? It’s possible, but that’s more of a consequence than a cause.

No, for my money, the most infuriating part is the ridiculous faux-psychologism that the show runners have made such a huge part of the show over the past few seasons. A never-ending barrage of surface-level ruminations on morality in a collapsed world and the choice one has to make in order to keep one’s sanity and purity. None of this ever goes anywhere, there is no synthesis in sight, just more and more rehashes of the same few ideas, retold ad nauseum, with each iteration becoming slightly more melodramatic and shoddily thought-out; the show’s attempts at being intellectual are the cinematic definition of diminishing returns. Morgan switches his opinion more often than Maggie switches designer hairstyles during a zombie apocalypse – he’s either in ‘kill nobody’ or ‘kill everybody’ mode with no in-between and he seems liable to switch states at the drop of a hat, he’s already done it about three or four times and there’s no signs of him getting off this wild pseudo-philosophical joy ride that the contemptible dilettante Gimple’s decided is much too thrilling to put an end to. And then, of course, there’s the single most pretentious aspect of the show – its laughable attempts at mimicking Terrence Malick’s plot retardation and non-diegetic character monologues.

Malick’s late career is characterized by a certain type of slow-burning, almost poetical, character-driven drama that features long passages recited by the protagonists to the backdrop of scenes of nature going about its existence as it usually does, that is to say in a rather uneventful manner. These naturalistic shots are often purposely overexposed or feature overwhelming lens flare that gives them a very hazy, dreamy feel, and they are usually interspersed throughout the movie in order to cut up what little action there is, or to provide some manner of context to what is happening on screen in order to make explicit some of the themes that Malick wishes the viewer to explore while experiencing his work. Now, this works with Malick because the man actually knows how to write and how to meaningfully position these moments of extreme introspection and make all this enjoyable, despite its having halted the plot completely and taking the viewer out of the cinematic moment and transporting him into a completely different intellectual frame.

As one might imagine, the creators of The Walking Dead lack the expertise of one of modern cinema’s greatest directors, and their attempts at biting his style amount to less than nothing. What they instead produce is a mind-numbing series of back-and-forths between poorly paced drama, extreme close-ups of character faces while they repeat what amounts to unintelligible gibberish over and over again, and moments of inane dialogue for the purpose of performative character growth where there is no need for such. This is exactly the right use of the word pretentiousness – the parading of certain ideas that could potentially merit further discussion and analysis without engaging in said discussion and analysis, the equivalent of reading the intro to a Wikipedia article and presenting the knowledge gleaned from such a short summary as having been acquired through the consumption of the main source rather than the aforementioned watered down version.

Of course a critique of The Walking Dead wouldn’t be adequate without at least a passing mention of its horrendous editing and cinematography – the grainy 16mm picture was a nice stylistic touch in the beginning while the show was in the hands of Frank Darabont, but now it merely acts as a disgusting layer of slime that coats the camera’s lens and gives the story’s worst characteristics a fitting visual representation, aided by generic camera angles, frenetic editing during battles that befits an early 2000s action movie, some of the most boring and mistimed shot-reverse shot conversations I’ve ever witnessed in my years of watching film and TV, and above all else, a general lack of artistic flair. In that sense, it’s hard to even view The Walking Dead as quality escapism – it looks and feels more like a family drama set in a zombie amusement park, complete with the plastic-y sets and artificial environments.

There is still hope, though – Fear The Walking Dead has proved a much more adequate spin on the tired story, brimming with interesting characters, great performances (especially by the young Frank Dillane who somehow manages to impress me even more than his father did as Stannis in Game of Thrones), at least some degree of technical aptitude, and some decent to good writing that, while not exactly groundbreaking, doesn’t leave me scratching my head and scrambling to figure out why each and every single character behaves like an actual idiot. Season 4’s premier was rather promising, despite Gimple’s involvement – some tight editing, especially in the beginning of the episode during the montages featuring Morgan’s deliberations and consequent travels, decent bits and pieces of visual storytelling (especially as it concerned the passage of time and space as Morgan made his way out of Virginia), and a more competent hand behind the camera that added some cool movement and long shots that gave a better look at the post-apocalyptic world in the span of 20 minutes than the main show has throughout its past 2 seasons put together. Garret Dillahunt’s likeable character is also a breath of fresh air in a universe that has shifted too far into grim-dark territory with its protagonists and has become a self-serious nightmare of humorlessness.

In conclusion, The Walking Dead is absolute trash, but I’ll probably keep watching it out of habit. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me, fool me three times, I stop caring and accept the fate of a gullible fool.

Under 800: The Tree of Life (2011)

Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is quite possibly the most frustrating, uneven movie I’ve ever seen. It was also the most profound cinematic experience I’ve ever had.

As Preisner’s Lacrimosa crescendos, the dust finally settles. What started off as a slightly confusing sequence showing the birth of everything that is, turns into a visualization of the grandeur of existence. We see galaxies in their full brilliance from impossible angles that make the viewer feel immaterial, a ghost flying through the beauty of this finite Universe that we have found ourselves in. We see the clouds of creation, we move towards them, through them, despite their size, despite the physical impossibility of it all. It was at this moment, as Lacrimosa reached its very peak, that I felt The Tree of Life had achieved something unimaginably profound and meaningful – it had dwarfed the viewer. It’s a visual experience that beats even Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s art in its most raw, unfettered form, and it’s cinema as Tarkovsky saw it – no symbolism, no ideology or attempts to make a point, no place for rationalization or coherent thought. It’s an emotional experience that gives a sort of nebulous appreciation for the very essence of being and nothingness. It’s not something that can be precisely put into words, because it’s not meant to be. I urge everyone to watch at least the first 40 minutes of The Tree of Life.

And this is where the frustration sets in. The rest of the film focuses on the life of an American small town family in the 1950s. Mr and Mrs O’Brien have three kids and we see them growing up, but the story is mostly told from the point of view of Young Jack, the oldest of the children. He goes through multiple phases during his adolescence, from witnessing the death of one of his friends and questioning the existence of God at a rather tender age, to praying for his father’s death and even considering bringing it about himself. Sounds interesting enough, right?

Except it isn’t. What we get is a jumbled mess of poor cinematography and unlikable characters. Constant close up shots, dutch angles and poor cutting and editing make the experience a particularly jarring one, as the viewer struggles to understand what’s happening on-screen. The themes this latter part of the movie explores aren’t particularly hard to spot. There’s contemplation on the constant cycle of life and death (which is a recurring theme even outside of the family’s story, as evidenced by the frequent underwater shots of overhead waves, penetrated by rays of light, and the pitch black transition shots that linger long enough to make their presence known) and its effect on those of us left behind after a person’s passing; there’s religion, spirituality, a child’s realization that their childhood is slipping away from them and there’s nothing they can do to stop the process, innocence, anger, the list goes on. And that’s exactly the problem – while trying to tackle almost every single aspect of human nature, The Tree of Life fails to flesh out and truly explore any one of them. The result is the cinematic equivalent of name dropping during a rap song. It’s void of any sort of substance to the point where it’s almost insulting at times. I firmly believe that the only driving force behind this part of the movie is the viewer’s imagination and projection. I could definitely understand someone who grew up in the same environment enjoying this part of The Tree of Life, but it did very little for me. I appreciate what Malick wanted to achieve here, but it just felt like a complete mess, despite the interesting yet underdeveloped themes. Oh, and there’s Sean Penn’s part of the movie that is somewhat confusing, to the point where even he’s admitted he had no idea what he was doing.

And this isn’t to say I disliked this movie. If I were to compile a list of my ten favorite films of all time, The Tree of Life would be a strong contender for a spot in it. If only because the first half of it left me awestruck and managed to transport me into a place that’s both real and magical at the same time. In a sense, The Tree of Life suffers from the Full Metal Jacket syndrome. Kubrick’s film about the Vietnam war also starts off incredibly strong, a beautiful look into the way young men’s identities were subverted and replaced by predatory instincts. The main character of that first part is Pvt. Leonard Lawrence, who is out of shape and out of depth in the military world. He’s bullied, beaten and shamed into complete madness and, in his madness, kills Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, a vile man with no redeeming qualities whatsoever, before turning the rifle on himself in a haunting scene that showcased the cold determination of a suicidal man. Then the movie moves on to Vietnam and loses a lot of its steam, though the drop-off isn’t even close to being as steep as that of The Tree of Life. Are both of these movies worth watching? Definitely. But don’t be surprised if you’re left feeling that they could’ve been so, so much more.