"Everything is as it should be."

                                                                                  - Benjamin Purcell Morris

 

 

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Brief Thoughts Before the End of Game of Thrones

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Estimated Reading Time: 4 minutes 14 seconds

When Game of Thrones first appeared on HBO I admit I was skeptical. In general I don’t watch much television except for whatever sporting event that isn’t golf I happen to stumble upon, but I do usually make an exception for HBO.

I prefer to watch HBO because their shows are not suffocated within what I call the “Network Box”. The Network Box is why most network tv shows suck…they are stuck in a box of creative limitations in terms of what they can say and show, and monetary limitations in terms of how much money they must generate in order for the network to stick with them.

On network shows the language is censored, the violence muted and the nudity non-existent. Because of this it all feels so…manufactured and phony. And because the network’s demand so much ad revenue for each show, niche programs stand little chance of surviving their early years when they are building an audience and creative momentum. So why watch network TV when it is all garbage and anything worthwhile will be cancelled before there is any resolution to the story. And so…I generally give HBO shows a chance because they have more likelihood of being good and of not being cancelled if they aren’t blockbusters right away.

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That said, I watched Game of Thrones originally more out of an obligation than out of interest for that first season. Then something completely miraculous happened…at the end of season one Ned Stark got his head chopped off. Stark, who was played by Sean Bean, the biggest star on the show, was the central character for season one, and when he found himself kneeling with the executioners axe poised over his neck, I watched with a bemused detachment.

As that scene unfolded I kept trying to figure out how Ned would be saved…who would swing in, or ride by, and in typical Hollywood fashion, somehow save the star. But then they actually cut Ned’s head off and I literally jumped up from my seat. I was startled, unnerved, exhilarated, agitated, excited and shocked. I was pacing my empty living room yelling aloud, “HOLY SHIT! HOLY SHIT!!”It was at that moment that Game of Thrones made its bones! Ned’s head was gone and it was on!

I never became a Game of Thrones superfan. I never read the books or delved into the maze of online fan sites and theories and such. I did watch every episode though, but if I am being honest, I rarely knew what the hell was happening or who half the people were, but that didn’t matter. The show as beautifully shot, wonderfully acted, well-written and was never miserly with violence or nudity. As I was fond of saying to friends about Game of Thrones, “come for the blood and guts, stay for the boobs and bush”…and that is exactly what I did.

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One of the great not-so-secrets of Game of Thrones’ success was that it would take the most mundane scenes, filled with nothing but expository writing on the political machinations or history of Westeros, and turn it into interesting eye candy by setting the non-action in a brothel or bedroom with beautiful women, and occasionally men, cavorting in the background in all of their Medieval naked glory. Game of Thrones seemed to understand the most basic laws of human nature…which are, in no particular order…people like to look at beautiful people, people like to look at beautiful people naked, and people like to look at two or more beautiful people naked and simulating sex.

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Besides the naked bodies and the consequence filled violence, the highlight of the show for me were the dragons. When Dany’s three fire-breathing, winged progeny grew up and took to the world, they were the most beautiful things I had ever seen on television. When the dragons were unleashed in battle, whether it be to save Dany from an assassination attempt, or to nearly kill Jaime, or to save Jon from the wights…they were glorious. When the undead ice dragon obliterated The Wall, it was simply stunning to behold. And when Dany went full Dresden and unchained Drogon to shock and awe in the battle of Kings Landing last week, it was absolutely spectacular. Remarkably well shot, with seamless special effects, the aerial destruction of Kings Landing was one of the greatest visual sequence ever seen on television.

In addition, when Drogon’s head came out of the darkness on the beach in last week’s episode to incinerate Varys…that was a truly delicious shot. It was also an example of creation through limitation…as the darkness wasn’t just visually striking…it saved money, as they only had to do a limited amount of CGI for the dragon head and not the whole body.

Which brings us to the budget issue. Game of Thrones has an enormous budget, the equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster, but it isn’t unlimited. As I wrote earlier in regards to the Battle of Winterfell, that episode’s dark and muddy visuals which so many, myself included, found annoying, could very well be a result of penny-pinching and cutting corners in order to save money for the Battle of Kings Landing. Sure enough, last week’s Battle of Kings Landing was everything that this season’s earlier Battle of Winterfell was not. It was crystal clear, visually coherent and cinematically gorgeous.

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Another complaint many have had, myself included, regarding the final two half seasons is that the narrative has seemed decidedly rushed, and thus less cohesive and coherent, especially in contrast with the pace of the earlier seasons. In my opinion, the story would have been better served had they done two full seasons instead of two half seasons, but again, the budget is probably the reason that didn’t happen.

If the producers had done two full seasons then the cast may have been up for significant pay raises and would have had a tremendous amount of leverage with which to get those pay raises. By doing two half seasons, the showrunners are only paying the cast for one full season, thus keeping them on their original “rookie” contracts and avoiding shelling out a big pay day.

The budget issue is a complex one and there are no doubt mitigating and complicating factors all the way around, including but not limited to people not wanting to be stuck working on this project any longer. Yes, Game of Thrones is undoubtedly the greatest thing most of these folks, be they actors, crew or producers, will ever be associated with, but working in TV is a grind, and working on a show in far off locales even more so. As successful as the Game of Thrones has been, I’m sure nearly everyone working on it is relieved it is over.

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This is just my opinion…and I am not the one writing the checks…but I would have preferred not only two full seasons but also a flipping of the Battle of Winterfell and the Battle of Kings Landing. To me, I think it makes more narrative and creative sense, at least in hindsight, to have the beautiful Battle of Kings Landing first, and then the Battle of Winterfell in the penultimate episode. Of course, I would also want to spend more money and have the Battle of Winterfell shot entirely differently and even have a different ending, as the one they went with was way to Hollywood for my tastes and out of character for the show.

Also, I would still have Jaime and Cersei die at the Battle of Kings Landing in each other’s arms, which was very poetic, but just not by being buried under rumble, which was not visually satisfying. I would have had them try to escape, then see Dany on Drogon, and Dany see them, and she and Cersei make eye contact, then Cersei and Jaime have their final goodbye conversation and hug and then…DRACARYS…and the Lannister twin’s charred remains would be frozen in an eternal embrace. But again…this is just my opinion and I am sure others have differing ones that are just as valid.

As for what will happen in the finale…I have absolutely no idea mostly because I am still not even sure what the hell has already happened. As I wrote before, the bottom line is this, we should enjoy Game of Thrones and the Game of Thrones phenomenon while is lasts because we will see nothing like it ever again. Sure, people will try to copy its success, but cultural forces will limit what other series can do in Game of Thrones‘ wake, and will no doubt make little more than cheap, watered-down, politically correct and tokenly diverse imitations on the original rather than improvements.

You only get one shot at ending something as epic as Game of Thrones. As of right now, the show’s creators, D.B. Weiss and David Benioff, have definitely faltered coming down the abbreviated stretch. That said, it is not impossible, but certainly not likely, that Weiss and Benioff could right the ship in the show’s final eighty minutes. Whether they stick the Game of Thrones landing or not, Weiss and Benioff should be lauded for having gone as far as they have with this show and having been as successful as they have been with it. Game of Thrones is a monumental television achievement and regardless of whether it ends as well as it began, we should be grateful of that fact and shouldn’t lose sight of it.

©2019

The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley - A Review

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****THIS REVIEW REVEALS SOME MINOR INFORMATION FROM THE DOCUMENTARY!! NOTHING MAJOR - BUT YOU’VE BEEN WARNED!!****

My Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

My Recommendation: SEE IT/SKIP IT. This documentary is mildly entertaining but lacks insight and depth. Not awful, but not transcendent either…if the subject matter intrigues you then check it out.

The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, directed and produced by Alex Gibney, is an HBO original documentary film that examines the meteoric rise of “inventor” Elizabeth Holmes and her health technology company Theranos.

There is nothing quite as enjoyable to me as a great documentary. I can watch truly great documentaries over and over as they feel like miniature master degrees in whatever subject they dissect. Film’s like Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job, Errol Morris’ The Fog of War or just about anything by Adam Curtis are films I revisit nearly every year and never regret it.

I was excited to see Academy Award and Emmy Award winning director Alex Gibney’s new documentary The Inventor, as he definitely has a knack for choosing fascinating topics. That said, Gibney, who won his Oscar for the profound Taxi to the Dark Side (2007) and multiple Emmys for the stunning Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, can be an uneven filmmaker who often explores intriguing topics in his movies but at times fails to adequately document his subjects to a deep enough degree to satisfy beyond a passing and surface interest.

The Inventor is one of those type of Gibney films that tackles an interesting topic but fails to do so in an in-depth enough and compelling enough way. The Inventor reminded me a little bit of his highly praised (it won 3 Emmy awards) film about Scientology, Going Clear. I liked Going Clear and found it to be engaging to a certain degree, but ultimately it fell well short of being an earth-shattering revelation. Similar to Gibney’s film on Wikileaks and Julian Assange, We Steal Secrets, a pretty shameless and embarrassing hatchet job on Assange, with The Inventor Gibney seems to be seeing his subject through a biased lens. With We Steal Secrets, Gibney’s was decidedly against Assange, but inThe Inventor he is most definitely biased in favor of Elizabeth Holmes….but more on that in a bit.

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With The Inventor, Gibney once again dives into a riveting subject, but only swims in the shallow water of it and fails to give viewers much to sink their teeth into beyond the headlines. Elizabeth Holmes is a character for the ages, but Gibney barely scratch the surface of who she REALLY is in this film. On top of that Gibney never gets deep enough into the weeds of what exactly Holmes was trying to create at Theranos and how she planned to do it, to ever make viewers feel like anything more than just another mark for her con.

The film, while entertaining to a certain degree, is problematic for a variety of other reasons as well. The most glaring of which is the blind spot the filmmaker has in regards to his subject. Yes, Gibney exposes Holmes’ fraud, but he never exposes HER for being a fraud. Instead, what Gibney does is cloak Holmes in a protective blanket which imbues on her with only the best of intentions and the inability to be consciously or maliciously deceptive.

In this way Alex Gibney is recreating the same psychological, mental and emotional gymnastics that Elizabeth Holmes’ targets did when they fell under her spell. Holmes weilded her femininity like a martial art against the patriarchal system within she worked. Holmes’ juijitsu turned the unconscious sexism and paternalism of the men she targeted against them. The paternalism, sexism and soft misogyny of the powerful men she conned, who are a Murderer’s Row of Hall of Fame assholes that include men like Bill Clinton, General Mattis, David Boies, Henry Kissinger and George Shultz (who proves what a ass he is by siding with Holmes over his own grandson) among many others, caused them to fall for Holmes’ lies for two reasons. The first is that they overestimated her intellect and value because, ironically, they wanted to be seen supporting a women in order to quell their fear of being labelled sexist. The secondly, due to their paternalism and sexism, they underestimated Holmes’ ability for villainy, and she exploited the weakness of these men to her benefit.

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The irony of Holmes’ epic story is that these powerful men treated Holmes different and held her to a different standard BECAUSE she was a women. The reporters and writers who aided her rise to the status of media darling and science and business genius did the same thing, failing to adequately doubt and question her simply because they never considered she was capable of straight out lying to them. Even the reporters who spoke with her AFTER her scam became public, men like Sanjay Gupta and Jim Cramer, didn’t hold her feet to the fire like they would have with a man. Holmes was able to keep her scam alive for so long because these men treated her with kid gloves.

Interestingly enough, Holmes’s scam almost never got started because of a women, Professor Phyllis Gardner, her advisor at Stanford, who basically told Holmes her idea was scientifically impossible. Instead of trying to change her advisor’s mind, Holmes changed advisors…which is a perfect encapsulation of Elizabeth Holmes approach to life. In my eyes, at best, Holmes’ suffers from a the most acute case of cognitive dissonance on the planet, at worst she is a conniving and manipulative criminal mastermind. For director Gibney, who refuses to consider that Holmes was driven by greed for money, power and fame, Holmes is earnest in intent but misguided in execution. According to Gibney, Holmes’ greatest sin is being too much of a zealot for her noble cause.

The reality is that if Holmes were a man, the idea that she wasn’t anything but a greedy and evil con artist would never even remotely be considered…and rightfully so. Think of all the Wall Street snakes who scammed Americans out of their savings with the housing bubble, nobody thinks, “oh gee…they just wanted everyone to be able to own a home”…no…people think that those pricks were trying to get rich off the backs of working people…because that is exactly what they were doing.

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In the case of Alex Gibney’s film, he seems to suffer from an unconscious bias that makes him hold Holmes to a very different standard and lets her off the hook for her nefariousness activities. An example of this is that besides lowering Holmes intent and responsibility regarding fraud, he also lowers the standard for her regarding her sexual relationship at work. Holmes started dating Sunny Balwani, a tech entrepreneur twenty years her senior, when she was 19 and he was married to another woman. Balwani was a key advisor to Holmes in the early development of Theranos and after he got divorced from his wife, Holmes moved in with him. Balwani eventually became second in command to Holmes at Theranos but when the sham was exposed and things went bad for the company, she broke up with him and fired him. If a man had behaved the way Holmes did in her personal life, it would have been a much greater focus of the story of The Inventor, and would have been used to establish the lack of moral and ethical fiber of the person running the company. But in The Inventor, the fact of Holmes questionable conduct with Balwani is reduced to nothing more than a throw away line near the end of the film.

At the end of the day, Holmes captivates our imagination because she is so representative of the surreal age in which we live. Holmes is emblematic of our scam culture where style overwhelms substance, the subjective trumps the objective, where shortcuts are the only way to travel and truth is a punchline.

Holmes is similar to Trump in that her con is so obvious that it is stunning that anybody falls for it. Like Trump with his signature (and ridiculous) hair-do and his never buttoned blue suits with long ties, Holmes literally wore a costume, all black with a black turtleneck, a cheap imitation of her hero Steve Jobs.

Her use of story and language was also absurdly obvious as to her dishonesty as she simply regurgitated and repeated the same origin story over and over again and then used pseudo-scientific/tech marketing talk to cover her lack of any substance. Words like “inflection point” and “paradigm shift” or the use of “chemistry” as a verb were dead giveaways to her deceitful intent.

The most glaring giveaway though was her voice. Good Lord that voice. Her voice is so phony and put on it is remarkable no one did a spit-take in her face upon hearing it. But the voice gives away the game that she is an obvious fraud and walking lie…and those that fell for scam did so BECAUSE THEY WANTED TO FALL FOR IT. These people, and they were mostly men, wanted Holmes’ story to be true so they convinced themselves that it was.

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In this way Holmes is also the symbol for today’s neo-feminism, which alleges to want equality but only accepts the diminishing of standards and the lowering of bars for women. Neo-feminism loves to demand equal opportunity but also loves to shirk equal responsibility. That said, it is pretty amusing that Holmes used the patriarchy’s literal and symbolic desire for her and their shameless politically correct yearning to be seen as “allies” to women, to advance her scam and sucker investors and big names to support her fraudulent project.

None of these types of subjects, like Holmes as symbol for modern feminism, or the ingrained sexism of the men who fell for her, or the soft treatment she got because she was a women being integral to her scam flourishing, are ever broached by Gibney in his film. Instead Gibney sticks to a very straightforward and very forgiving narrative that never gets too deep or too insightful and the film suffers because of it.

According to Gibney’s movie, Holmes’ scam is just something that happened that is not indicative of anything else and is not symbolic of the age of fraud in which we live. The reality is very different, as one glance at the news will tell you that Elizabeth Holmes is the poster girl for our times. Our charlatan president, the Russiagate hysteria, the Fyre Festival nonsense, the college admission payola scam, Jussie Smollett’s shenanigans and on and on and on including our fraudulent economy and political system…are all hoaxes, scams and frauds. This is why Elizabeth Holmes is the poster girl for our times and it is a shame that Alex Gibney did not have the insight, self-knowledge and skill to bring that much deeper and more important story to light.

In conclusion, while The Inventor is entertaining on a certain gossipy level, it lacks the insight, depth of subject and profundity to be considered a great documentary. The film is currently airing on HBO, so if you want to spend two hours being mildly amused at the absurdity of it all, then you should check out The Inventor, just don’t expect transendance.

©2019