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Culture Briefs

- - Sunday, March 13, 2011

Too weird

"There was a time before HBO's drama 'Big Love' devolved into ridiculousness, when it was one of television's strongest dramas, delivering compelling drama and interesting story lines as it explored polygamy in Utah. But even at its creative pinnacle, 'Big Love' never managed to rise into the top tier of great television. And the reason came down to a surprisingly simple element: compassion.

"It was difficult to have any for Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton), the polygamist husband who found out that three wives were a lot but not exactly enough. Part of the blame might be that the Henrickson character never gives a compelling argument for plural marriage. Paxton plays him with a certain strictness that doesn't allow anyone to embrace him. Beyond that, the biggest problem might be that polygamy does not elicit sympathy. People think it's 'weird,' and, well, it's not legal either.

"How is it, though, that Tony Soprano — gangster, killer, philanderer, etc. — became so likable? Bill Henrickson believes in his faith, teaches kindness and morality and spreads the love around — but you never worried if he got caught and went to jail. Or died."

Tim Goodman, writing on "Sisters Wives: TV Review" on March 10 at the Hollywood Reporter

Blame the work

"Artists are not saints. We all know this. What we can't decide is when to dole out punishment for their actions. Is it enough to prosecute them when they're alive? Or should we continue to persecute their reputations after their deaths?

"Say the name Knut Hamsun, on the other hand, and the first thing in your head is probably 'Nazi.' Not 'Hunger.' Not 'brilliant Norwegian writer,' but 'Nazi.' And while our reaction should be one of disgust … Hamsun was in his doddering old age showing signs of mental decline even before he went all rah-rah Hitler (he was 80 at the time Germany invaded Norway). …

"When Norway recently tried to honor its native son, the response was immediate and furious: How dare you, after what he's done? … we saw in Hamsun after the war a refusal to admit he had been wrong. Even after the revelation of the death camps, even after the evils of Norway's collaborationist government. Perhaps it was his refusal to back down and retract that sealed the fate of his reputation. His body was spared — it was decided he would not be tried for treason, due to his advanced age. They took it out instead on his oeuvre."

Jessa Crispin, writing on "Canon vs. Creator," on March 7 at the Smart Set

Ordinary people

"Here is the world according to Johnny, the bilious antihero of Mike Leigh's 1993 film 'Naked.' Johnny is a restless drifter on an odyssey through London's nocturnal underbelly, his feverish ranting a furious response to an alien and indifferent society. 'Humanity is just a cracked egg.' he insists, 'and the omelet stinks.'

"Johnny is Leigh's most caustic — and hyper-articulate — creation, but he's reacting to an endemic sadness that forms the emotional backdrop for most of the British writer-directors nearly two dozen films. Over the past four decades, Leigh has trained his lens on a series of desperate characters, typically working or lower-middle class, as they grapple with family responsibilities, economic pressures and the breakdown of relationships. His films elicit sudden, gut-wrenching glimmers of recognition and yet, as actor Timothy Spall has put it, they focus on men and women 'that most other people are thankful not to be.' In this middle ground between identification and detachment, pity and compassion, Leigh reimagines those intimately familiar yet strangely exotic creatures known as 'ordinary people.'"

Will Di Novi, writing on "Extraordinary, Ordinary People: Another Year and the Films of Mike Leigh," on March 8 at the Rumpus