Friday, June 16, 2006

Even in his heart the Devil has to know the water level

Sorry to let this slide for a few days, but real life became a priority.

Here are some coming attractions, as it were. . .

--I'm working on a big Joss Whedon post, in a vain attempt to get the people at Whedonesque to notice me.

--That ties in with something I'm hoping to write for The House Next Door about creating a new apparatus with which to perform television criticism.

--Season reviews of Lost and Deadwood are still forthcoming (I've gotta finish up Thief and 24 too -- don't spoil me!).

--I may revisit Doctor Who. So many of you have convinced me to give it another go, and I have most of the season on my TiVo anyway.

--I'm working on getting all of the new pilots for you young folk, that I might tell you what to expect.

--I'm reading Alex Epstein's excellent Crafty TV Writing, so I'll probably review that as well. It's not only a good manual on how to write FOR the medium; it doubles as a manual on how to write ON the medium. Perfect for any wannabe critic OR teleplay writer.

--I'm also working on a big Emmy post. The short of it: I don't think the Emmys matter as much as other awards do (in popular consensus, etc.), but it would still be nice to have awards that made sense.

--And I'm hoping to jump back into watching films. I should be restarting my Netflix account soon enough, and I want to kick back with some essential stuff I've never seen and some. . .nonessentials I've never seen (Libby swears by Hoosiers).

If you're a Sufjan Stevens fan like myself, you'll enjoy this interview he did with Pitchfork, where he admits his new outtakes album isn't all that great. Setting us up for disappointment so when he knocks us out with Oregon or Rhode Island or (dare I say it?) South Dakota, it makes us delirious. Canny man.

But before I go, I'll just let you know that I followed one of the people from the cafeteria today. Not only does she work at my organization, but she has her own OFFICE. Let the river run, working girl. Let it run.

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Tuesday, June 13, 2006

As High As a Kite on a Windless Night



Mission of Burma have all the makings of an odd story and a massive failure. Not many bands can go away for a decade plus, only to reemerge finding new success and a louder voice...but they have.With 2004's ONoffON they seemed to raise the bar set by themselves years before. With noise-laden riffs and sharply crafted layers, the album inspired a punk pathos that was even less predictable as an unhinged phonic portent, as it was the post-punk album arthritic pogoers had been clamoring for since Roger Miller's ringing ears ruined EVERYTHING.

As aged Boston Art Punks, MoB return once again with The Obliterati which, not only bests ONoffON, but seriously contends with the jubilent and melodic grandness of anything they've realeased in decades past. One can't really say they are a better band--it's impossible to judge. But, as a changed, matured outfit their presence is undeniable. Mastering the mid-tempo and the downbeat, every track has an identity and a purpose. Things can seem a little drawn out by the final third or so, but you are mostly sucked in by the album's sinister undercurrent. The Obliterati matches its namesake in such a way that ellicits those all too familiar pangs of regret for lost years and missed statements that are destined not to happen again. This is the dissonant loudness of a band with a planted existance.

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Nihilism as funhouse: The Sopranos, season 6, part 1


(A Note: If you're here because I sent you here via e-mail, it's easy to get confused. My posts are the ones in this font. The ones in the different font are by Daniel. He mostly writes about music, and we pretend to know what he's talking about.)

(A further note: I can't believe I'm playing along with HBO's plan to stiff the cast members of further pay by pretending this is "Part 1" of season six. The two parts were filmed with almost a year in between. They're two seasons. Nyah.)

Okay. So season six of The Sopranos wasn't, technically, nihilistic. But that title sounded good (did you like it? Did it roll off the tongue?), and nihilistic is close enough to the way many fans felt after seeing the season, so I'll let it slide.

So what's the deal? Does most of America watch The Sopranos on DVD, eagerly slurping up episode after episode, waiting for the next big spurt of violence to tide them through the more ruminative hours? Or do people just forget that The Sopranos is about 95% thinkpiece, 5% violence in the long stretches between seasons? Because, while season six wasn't as good as the masterful season five, it was still pretty darn good. And, what's more, this season FORCES you to confront the way you watch television, the way you consume the most dominant medium in America.

The Sopranos has always been in a tough place. What it wants to be is a grim little 70s film, a meditation on the cost of doing evil and the inability of humans to change. But, somehow, the show became a pop phenomenon. And pop phenomena are defined by different criteria. They have to fit into very broad categories and be instantly definable by the man on the street. While what The Sopranos ACTUALLY is is closer to what I described above, most people would say it was about a mobster and talk about their favorite "whackings" if you stopped them to ask about the show (a few might throw in the notion of the mobster in therapy, but that idea has mostly been discarded since season one).

But let's back up a bit. Season six opened with a supremely off-kilter hour, one that knocked off two characters and sent the main character to the hospital with a critical gunshot wound. The show burned through enough plot for a whole season in that one episode. Then, it spent the rest of the season showing just how little it needed a standard "TV plot." The closest thing the season had to a standard plot was our concern over whether Tony would get out of his coma (he did, after an extended journey through something resembling Purgatory that was one of the series' finest hours). After that, the main question was whether any of the characters could change, could become better people. If you've been paying any attention to The Sopranos over the years, you probably wouldn't have been surprised to find that the answer was no (though Tony showed glimmers of being able to rise above himself, he mostly fell back on his old ways with a few notable exceptions, which I will get to).

If the dominant theme of the season was the inability to change (this has always been a more pessimistic show than Deadwood, where people change and evolve with every episode -- some call that grim realism on the part of David Chase and his Sopranos writers, but I'm not that cynical yet), then the method the writers used to examine this idea was by presenting the characters with an alternate life that showed them that the universe needn't be an evil, evil place.

Tony's stint in Purgatory showed him how his life would have been if he had stayed on the straight path and been a business man (culminating in one of the most haunting scenes in the show's history where he argues with Steve Buscemi over whether he should enter a house that may or may not be Hell before he awakens from his coma). Vito got a chance to live in an almost impossibly idyllic New Hampshire town and be true to his sexuality. Carmela finally got to begin work on her spec house (mostly because Tony didn't want her poking around the Adriana situation) and also got a trip to Paris to revel in the art and culture there and begin to ask questions of herself about the darkness her life of luxury is built upon (the Paris sequences featured a nice visual rhyme where the beacon atop the Eiffel Tower recalled the beacon Tony sees in Purgatory which was obviously meant to represent Heaven). Meadow ran off to California with her fiancee, A.J. discovered that he could find some sort of self-worth through a life in construction, Christopher became a sober husband and father, and even Paulie discovered that his dear old mother was even more of a saint than before (though this revelation sent him into a tailspin of violence). Indeed, Paulie, born to a nun and raised by her sister, was the original Sopranos alternate life, and the fact that his alternate life ended poorly suggests that all of these alternate lives are just illusions.

And, just as any viewer could have predicted, these characters mostly fell back on their old tricks. It's too easy to take what you want when you've been doing that your whole life rather than stick to legal methods of employment, the show argues (and it's probably right). Only the family Soprano was able to make some of the changes stick. The Tony of old wouldn't have gone to his rival Phil in the hospital to work out some sort of deal when Tony felt his family was threatened. He would have reacted with violence. But the new Tony knows a heartfelt talk can work just as well. Similarly, Carmela is beginning to pull back the rug and see just how complicit she is in the life she leads, while the Soprano children are largely safe, away from The Life.

And that's where The Sopranos disappointed many. By and large, we watch television to see the same situations over and over again. In a mob milieu, the idea of becoming a better person just isn't that dramatically interesting. But it's narratively interesting. And that's where I think Chase throws down the gauntlet.

When we watch television, we expect something to happen in every episode. We expect some sort of narrative resolution. Most shows accomplish this by telling one story per episode (think of, say, CSI). Others have stories that are told through the whole season, but each episode features specific story points that are met and wrapped up in said episode to provide a feeling of both forward momentum and closure (look at 24, where a new part of the terrorist threat is neutralized with each hour). Lost seems to me to be about the slowest a story can progress and remain a big hit, and that manages to wrap in a full "story" in every episode thanks to the flashback device (though they usually have a corresponding story full of island hijinks).

The Sopranos has gradually slowed its storytelling rhythms way down. It WANTS to defy your expectations. It knows its audience will keep watching because they're hooked, and it tantalizes you with possible storylines (all-out gang warfare!) only to yank those away. It's more realistic this way, but it also forces you to step outside of yourself and ask yourself why you're even watching television.

Most of us watch television to be entertained, to veg out. But if you veg out in front of The Sopranos, you won't be entertained. It's only by fully engaging it, by pondering its often blatant symbolism and thematic structure that you can truly enjoy it. To be entertained, you have to stop wanting to be entertained. It's a cruel little paradox, but one of the central tenets of any serialized storytelling form. To my knowledge, it was the first show to force viewers to say, "Okay. I can't watch this like television. I have to watch it like a film or 'read' it like a book." Maybe Twin Peaks. But that's a big maybe, since most of that show's viewers were just tuning in for the weird and the central mystery.

This is not to say that season six was perfect. It had a tendency to hit you over the head with its thematic points, and the Christopher on drugs stuff got long and boring after five minutes (pity it stretched on through most of the season). As much as I appreciate what Chase is trying to do, even I have to draw the line somewhere.

But still, Chase has taken our expectations and thwarted them. We expected a big build-up to a huge climax, but we got tiny stories of personal struggle instead.

We may get our huge climax yet, but, to some degree, that climax has already been wrought in dozens of incremental steps within Chase's characters' souls.

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Clarity

In a rush, the course of the next five years rushed over me while I was sitting at work today. I could see everything, the way it would fit together, all of that. It was a little breathtaking. The pieces were all there, but my mind just hadn't put them together yet. When it did, I had to stand up for a second, a bit dizzied by possibility.

Then I filled my water bottle and got back to the long process of making whos into whoms through grammar magic.

It's a bracing thing, clarity. It makes you take stock of who you are, what you want. And that's a good thing.

Gotta get some TV pieces up for some folks who might be visiting the ol' blog, but I'll leave you with this observation.

At my job, the breakroom is sort of a cafeteria type setting, only rather small. Picture your school lunchroom cut into sixths and one of those sixths randomly migrating to a Southern Californian newspaper. Got it? Good.

Anyway, I don't go to the breakroom all that often, but when I do, the same two people are always there. One of them is a tall, thin man, probably in his mid-20s, wearing thick-rimmed glasses that give him a look of pseudo-intellectualism. He's constantly tossing back his long, greasy black hair like a horse. The other is a girl, probably slightly older than him, who always wears black. She's like the archetype they built the funny best friend of a million sitcoms around. He's always reading the newspaper, indifferent to her. She's always trying to make him laugh, to get his attention, to get him to love her.

EVERY TIME I go down there, these people are there. I've seen them as early as 9:30 a.m. and as late as 10 p.m. I mostly go down there in the afternoon, so that's when I usually see them. As far as I can tell, they don't WORK in the cafeteria, though I assume they work for some part of the paper, since they'd need a badge to get in the building anyway.

Until another possibility presented itself.

Are these two people just in a sitcom I can neither see nor hear? Am I just an extra in this sitcom, convinced I have my own life, but not really living outside of my occasional contacts with them? If I walk up and talk to them, will the person playing me in the sitcom get his SAG card? Will he cry and call his mother?

Or, if I talk to them, if I confront the fragile reality of my sitcom universe, will I simply cease to exist?

See, that's why I've gotta do what I've gotta do. At any point, I could be canceled.

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Monday, June 12, 2006

We Built This City!



Short and sweet: A few words on Sonic Youth by a (sort of) new fan, and a few thoughts on Rather Ripped

There has been a lot of talk about Sonic Youth's latest disc Rather Ripped being a real pop rock album, or a mainstream one with "Artisitic sensibilities." I can mostly agree with that assesment, but I don't like the idea that they've never done it before, or that it is is a BAD thing. For the last month I have been both revisiting and familiarizing myself with the noise-rockers expansive catalogue. I've come to the conclusion that they are one of, if not THE, most consistent rock acts in music history. Sure, everyone knows that, but I now FEEL it. And that's special to me.

On Rather Ripped you can get a distinct sense--or aftertatse--of Sonic Nurse lurking about, and I mean that as a good thing. Once again, for a group known for their drone/no-wave roots you get mostly guitar-driven post-punk without the meandering charm of the shoegaze or the urgent spectacle of the fuzzbox. Most songs clock in at under five minutes and prove perfectly crafted pellets of rocking goodness. That seems to be the problem. Whenever they try something like this it gets pegged as a "mainstream" effort, when--I'm sorry--anything as delightfully strange and monotonous as "Do You Believe In Rapture?" can never be seen as an attempt to break into the mainstream. It's an empty claim to begin with. There would be no mainstream rock if Sonic Youth hadn't opened the doors they did anyway. What Rather Ripped is is a marvel of control. Concise in its stumbles and erratic with its sensibilities, there is a constant aura of guidance that never seems quite as forced as it should.

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Cars: Beep, beep; beep, beep; yeah

I don't completely know or want to know what's in the water at Pixar, but it manages to make what would be a fair-to-middling effort from any other studio into a nice little exercise in audience goodwill. While Cars is undoubtedly one of the company's two least-developed features, it's still an enjoyable night at the movies and an almost graciously quiet rumination on loss (when it's not too busy telling you point-blank THIS IS WHAT AMERICA HAS LOST!!!!).

Most of the time, when Hollywood says that the small town way of life is better than the big city's fast pace, you don't buy it. The people making these movies tend to live with big city convenience. I just can't see them scrapping all of the wonderful things about the city to go live in the town I grew up in (and be unable to buy groceries after 10 p.m.). But Cars doesn't specifically argue that small town life is better than big city life (though it teeters close to it in a couple of scenes). It argues instead that we can blend the two types of life together, combining the sheer opportunity afforded in the city and the folksy pace of rural life. It's not immediately clear how one would do this without millions of dollars, but it's a nice sentiment.

Whether or not you like Cars is going to depend a lot on how much you warm to characters that are literally talking cars. Aside from plantlife, there's nothing organic in this world. The bugs are VW bugs, etc. This takes some getting used to (indeed, this is the first Pixar film that isn't recognizably set in OUR WORLD). While the characters display believable, recognizably human emotions, it's still hard to take anything they say seriously (the trailer for the next Pixar film, Ratatouille, plays before the film and you're immediately drawn in by the protagonist, who is a rat -- see, you think, here's something I RECOGNIZE). Eventually, you are able to look past this, but it takes some doing.

Besides that, the film looks gorgeous. This is easily Pixar's best work and the best computer animation to date. It's well worth seeing alone for some of the stunning visuals and the way the film uses lighting (nearly every scene feels as though it was shot at twilight, and the use of neon is stunning -- I literally don't know how they achieved that effect). The film uses the landscapes of the Southwest nicely, and even the characters are designed nicely, once you get past the idea that they're cars.

The film also uses music nicely. There's a James Taylor number midway through that's a nice little moment, and the scene where the cars go cruising is almost better. Still, there may have been a few too many montages (the one set to Life Is a Highway was probably unnecessary, even if that was my favorite song when I was 10), and Randy Newman's score is largely non-descript (though that describes a lot of his scores).

If there's one thing I find troubling, it's the films rather simplistic worldview. The best Pixar films are very obviously mainstream entertainments, but they blend in some unique themes and subtexts. For example, both Toy Storys work as lively ruminations on aging, and all of their films up until The Incredibles had some storyline about parents letting go of their children. Pixar's work is also incredibly witty, offering up character-based jokes rather than the pop culture jokes that have become so popular since Shrek. And Pixar is unashamed to pull at the heartstrings -- while Monsters, Inc. has its problems, the last five minutes of that film are some of the sweetest and most touching in the history of the cinema (and I mean that).

Cars, however, finally feels like a step back after The Incredibles, which was easily the most thematically rich Pixar film to date (Brad Bird kept so many symbolic and thematic plates spinning in that one that, honestly, anything would have felt like a step down). Its themes are pretty simple (sometimes you need to slow down; good friends are better than anything else in life), and they're stated overtly. At times, during the long section in the small town of Radiator Springs, it feels like everyone at Pixar forgot about subtext.

But the Radiator Springs sequences are so ingratiating that you eventually forgive all of these sins. The characters are archetypes, broadly drawn, but they're performed, written and animated with such warmth that it's hard to outright dislike the film.

So while this is a weak film, it's made stronger by the way Pixar somehow earns our goodwill. We trust them, and we know they care about their characters, so we do too. It, more than any other movie in recent memory, is a paean to the power of good brand-name recognition.

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I just had to share this



Just Awesome.

Also, I made some minor, but much needed, updates over at Satin in a Coffin. So, you could always check that out, if you get BORED.

Happy Monday!

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