July 25th, 2011

Serious Masterpiece Contemporary spoilers lurk ahead, among others things: I watched the second Zen last night; the provocatively titled “Cabal” was, indeed, about a vast criminal conspiracy, until it wasn’t, until it was again at the very end, to such a degree that much of “Cabal” ends up feeling like a well-meaning misdirection. I was to understand that these things are very possible in Italian society. Absolute corruption, the mob, or the Church could have their hands in the pot, or these imagined actors could be mobilized in the name of farce or low-class criminal prank. That’s the black humor and daily irony of Roman life which, we are to gather, is why the uber-stylish, over-sexed (even the hospitals stink of it), and frequently weightless Zen is nevertheless biting social commentary. Alas, it’s hard for the viewer to appreciate this hybrid state when the the ups and downs of the plot, the piques and deflations that would give it shape, lack assurance.

I bought Truffaut’s Hitchcock last week. Then I brought to the lake, which was a terrible idea. I’m glad, though, that I had it on the brain as I tried my hardest to really get into Zen. Hitchcock was the Selznick-proclaimed “Master of Suspense”; Truffaut viewed suspense as both elusive and essential, hence his frequently punchy defense of Hitchcock as a Serious Artist. If suspect is the act of loading up audience expectations—not unreasonably so, of course—then managing its transition out of the imagination is just as important as stirring up questions and dread.

Hitchcock understood this balancing act. He also practically invented the conversion rate of mystery to pay-out. Zen, as with so many shows structured as mysteries, fell flat once we start to find out what really happened. I’m not suggesting that any whiff of super-conspiracy must lead us directly to said plot (reviving it at the last moment is fair ineffectual). More that, if all that atmosphere and near-cosmic uncertainty is brought into play, the stakes have been raised, and the reveal is likely going to be a letdown. The resolution isn’t the proverbial “who did it?” but that first, decisive step away from the hypothetical and into what actually happened. For there to be continuity, it has to maintain the same weight, the same degree of substance and depth. Silly language, I know, but I can’t figure out quite how to explain it. In Zen, learning that it was all a hoax was like the bottom dropping out of the plot. The same story could have been done in a way that made this section really sting.

That’s why everybody loves Wallander and the new BBC Sherlock Holmes. Luther, character-driven to the point of self-obsession, cheats and yet it too works the formula quote capably. Granted, none of these series attempt the same kind of loopy inversions that, in theory, Zen depends on. But none of them are strangers to plot twists, cruelty, or truly nasty ironies. There is always more, and less, than initially expected. This is Hitchcock in a nutshell; from what I understand, it’s what pissed off anyone who bothered to stick with The Killing. In the defense of Zen, it’s not easy. Then again, that’s why a genre like mystery can be either light viewing or a walloping reminder of just why it has stuck around, a part of our psychology that we can’t shake loose.

  1. bethlehemshoals posted this