Tuesday, October 23, 2007
So, a perfect storm of school, a new job and my general laziness have conspired to cause my unplanned 2-month retirement from blogging. But, much like Jay-Z's, my retirement was short.
And what could motivate me to come out of retirement? What else but the one topic that I swore never to speak of again: David Chase and The Sopranos. Take a look at this. I will give you a minute to digest it . . .
. . . .
OK, wow. What the hell? Is it possible that David Chase could really be that big of an ass? "There was a war going on"? That is the best you can do?
Why don't you just admit that you freaked out and didn't know how to end the show? That you were afraid that if you gave us a definite ending it might not go over and that your genius would possibly be questioned. That an indefinite ending would allow sycophantic critics and fans to praise you and call anyone that didn't "get it" an ignorant philistine. This show has made you enough money that you will never have to work again, so please, David, just be honest and admit that even you know that you are not the genius you claim to be. Your continued douchbaggery is doing nothing but casting a shadow on the show's achievement. It will be lucky to survive that god-awful Jersey Boys montage at the Emmys, so you don't need to hasten its resignation to the dustbin of TV history.
Friday, August 24, 2007
Wednesday, August 15, 2007
If this had simply been another case of an elderly, sheltered intellectual rambling, Grampa Simpson-style, about the confusions of the modern world, it would have made for good comedy. However, what takes it from comedy to ire-inducing insult are the last few paragraphs, in which Fish complains about having to pour his own cream and sugar: "And worst of all, what you're paying for is the privilege of doing the work that should be done by those who take your money."
This would be offensive enough if it were coming from any run-of-the-mill septuagenarian with a six-figure salary. But it has special resonance coming from Fish, who famously chaired the Duke English department during its heady rise to the forefront of Theory. Duke perfected gameplan of the Theory department: hiring highly-paid "star" professors, letting them do whatever the hell they want, and shifting the burden of dirty jobs like actually teaching to low-paid TAs. In other words, having the bourgeoisie espouse Marxism while exploiting the proletariat.
So, to summarize: Fish, public face for a group of academics who refuse to do the jobs they get paid to do, is complaining about Starbucks baristas making him stir his own sugar. Of course, if Fish ever bothered to teach an undergraduate class at whatever university is employing him this week, he would most likely recognize those baristas as his students, and realize that they are working at one of the most demanding service industry jobs available (you have to memorize a recipe book roughly the size of Paradise Lost-remember that book Stanley?-and be almost sickeningly chipper and energetic 8 hours a day) in order to keep from being buried in student loans for the rest of their adult lives. And where does that student loan money go? To Stanley Fish, who, instead of doing his job and teaching, is busy complaining about them in the pages of the New York Times.
Saturday, August 11, 2007
I was throughly impressed with the show, but then I made the mistake of listening to Simon's commentary track on the DVD. The commentary is half great insight and half self-congratulatory pretension in which he talks, without irony, about "deconstructing the mythology of the police procedural" and congratulates himself on challenging the audience by making them pay attention to small details in order to understand the story. He uses the classic argument of the creator of the low-rated critically-acclaimed show that they are victims of the Pavlovian lowered expectations of the TV viewer.
Simon does not seem to be aware of other serial dramas such as Lost and their HBO mate The Sopranos, which have attracted large audiences while demanding that the viewers pay attention. Now that TiVo and DVD can allow us to watch TV the way we would read a book, picking it up whenever we want and not having to be home every week at a specific time, we finally can dedicate ourselves to more complicated stories.
But I digress. The point I am coming to here is that, in his self-praise, Simon compares the show to a novel, in order to separate it from "mere" TV, which must be wrapped up neatly in an hour. This goes to the heart of an idea that I have been kicking around since the finale of The Sopranos and which finally crystallized itself while watching The Simpsons Movie a few weeks ago.
During the run of The Sopranos, critics often praised it by comparing it novels and films, once again to save it from the epithetic designation "TV show". The problem is that, somewhere around the show's fourth season, David Chase began buying his own hype and set out to create something that would not just be a great TV show but would be the 21st-century version of the Great American Novel.
And that is the exact moment the show went off the rails. Why? Because The Sopranos cannot be a great American Novel anymore than The Great Gatsby can be a great work of Elizabethan theatre or Hamlet can be a great work of epic poetry. In other words, Chase was suffering Medium Inferiority Complex. Just like the novel and the theatre did before it, TV is still fighting the stigma of being a deliverer of mindless entertainment as opposed to true art. He wanted his work to be associated with more respectable forms, so he emulated them.
However, a work cannot be truly great unless it fully understands and embraces its medium. Elizabethan playwrights tried to emulate epic poetry, and we got Troilus and Cressida. Hamlet stands as the masterpiece of theatrical art because it can be nothing but theatre. It is both a philosophical examination of the nature of man and a bloody good revenge tragedy (which, of course, subverts the conventions of the revenge tragedy). The Great Gatsby works in a similar way. It can be nothing but a novel.
Which is why The Sopranos will go down as a great experiment, but not the masterpiece of the television medium. No, for now that title still belongs to The Simpsons. The Simpsons not only understands its medium, it seems to have digested the entire of history of television and the 20th-century pop culture to which it is inextricably linked. The Simpsons Movie solidified this impression. It is an enjoyable celebration for the fans, but would not be a great movie without the 18 years of history we have with these characters. That is because The Simpsons has embraced TV's greatest asset - the ability to create complex characters that we get to know like our own family - and taken it to new heights, making us care about a group of crude, yellow-skinned drawings. It succeeds as a TV show while subverting everything we know about TV shows.
Monday, July 30, 2007
In atonement for the picture of that idiot Ward Churchill that has been disgracing the page for the past few days, today we bring you a tribute to two truly brilliant men who have left us in the last 24 hours: Ingmar Bergman and Bill Walsh. These are two guys who made it cool to be a nerd before Rivers Cuomo was born. Both were unabashedly intellectual men working in mediums not know for rewarding intellectualism. They redefined their jobs and influenced all that came after them, raising the collective IQ of their chosen professions.
Bergman, of course, was one of the last surviving members of the great generation of post-war international art film directors who created the idea of cinema as a means of personal expression. Bergman was the most cerebral of the bunch, typically not going for the genre film action of Kurosowa or the decadent carnivals of Fellini. But that doesn't mean his films were boring. His major works, such as The Seventh Seal and Persona, grabbed you with their compelling visuals and intense acting, leaving you enthralled even if 90% of the Big Ideas were going over your head. He was more daring than Kurosawa and more consistent than Fellini, and he opened up narrative cinema in the second half of the 20th-century and the early 21st to experimental new directions. All of the most important films of the last decade, from The Matrix to Fight Club, would be impossible without the marriage of philosophy and experimental filmmaking with conventional narrative storytelling that Bergman pioneered.
Walsh did something similar for the sport of football. Until Walsh came along, football coaches from Knute Rockne to Vince Lombardi to Tom Landry fashioned themselves at Patton-esque generals whose power derived from their ability to discipline and inspire large groups of men. Walsh was passed over for NFL head coaching jobs for more than a decade because it was thought he lacked the toughness to be a coach. But when he finally got the chance to take over the lowly San Francisco 49ers, he unveiled the wild experiment he had been tinkering with in his years as an assistant and college coach. His West Coast Offense was built on strategy and precision, with the players as interchangeable moving parts. The personal mythology Walsh built around himself fashioned him as more Bobby Fisher than Patton, winning with innovative strategy rather than brute force. He didn't believe in inspiring "Win one for the Gipper"-style speeches, but instead spent practice and locker room time drilling his playbook into his players' heads. Like Bergman, Walsh's influence has spread everywhere in football. His pass-heavy style has entirely changed the way the game is played, and his quiet cerebral persona is aped by current coaches such as Bill Belicheck and Tony Dungy.
So, in a world where it seems like we are getting dumber and dumber everyday, especially when reading the Chronicle or Inside Higher Ed, let's take a minute to remember two people who made it cool to be smart.
Thursday, July 26, 2007
A) Had somehow become a tenured professor and chairman of the Ethnic Studies department with a six-figure salary despite only holding an M.A. in communications from from a hippie-dippy experimental college that did not assign grades.
B) Could not prove any of his claims to membership in three different Native American tribes. His claimed Indian heritage had been part of the reason he had got his job as a diversity hire, but the closest he came was an honorary membership from the Keetowah Band, which has since publicly disavowed him.
C) Had plagiarized his work and falsified and misrepresented his sources on multiple occasions.
It is this last point that finally got Churchill fired after two years of committee hearings and faculties reviews. But the first two points make it clear that he never should have had a job to begin with.
But that is neither here nor there. Because, as his well-intentioned but misguided supporters have frequently pointed out, this is "not about Ward Churchill". No, it is about the assault on academic freedom that it represents. According to his supporters, Churchill was not being fired because of his shoddy scholarship, but because of his political views. If he had not written his essay about 9/11, the investigation would have never began. If he is fired because of the investigation that his controversial statements started, it will discourage other professors from speaking truths that make people uncomfortable. . .
You know what, screw this. I was seriously trying to present the pro-Churchill camp's views in a serious manner before refuting them, but I can't do it. I really want to understand the pro-Churchill people, I really do. They include many people that I know personally and deeply respect, and I have spent the past two years trying to see what they see that I don't. But I simply can't do it. What is the lesson of Ward Churchill, what is his legacy in academia? Simply this: if you are lucky enough to hustle your way into a cushy, well-paying job you clearly are not qualified for and get by for fifteen years doing terrible work, keep your mouth shut. This is not about a scholar being punished for his controversial views. This is about a charlatan's idiotic statements finally drawing attention to his lack of credentials and bad scholarship and a University Board of Regents finally doing a job it should have done a long time ago.
Academics should be outraged about this story, but about its beginning, not its end. It should anger every honest, hardworking professor and graduate student that, in world where tenured jobs are increasingly hard to come by, this con man was able to steal a job from someone who was actually deserving of it. We should be on the case of the Colorado Board of Regents and the university administration, but instead of accusing them of being puppets for the vast right-wing conspiracy, we should be accusing them of incompetence in ever letting this idiot get by with his scam for so long.
And one final comment about that essay the essay that started all of this. All of the anti-Churchill people have frequently repeated that the firing was not about his political views, but about his shoddy and unethical work. However, it should be, at least in part, about that essay. Not about the position that it ostensibly represents: that U.S citizens should take a long hard look at the things our country has done to create the dangerous climate we live in today. That is an important and potentially unpopular position that should be explored. But it should be done by real scholars, and "Roosting Chickens" proves that Churchill is not a real scholar.
Anyone who has waded through the tortured prose of "Roosting Chickens" can see Churchill's lack of intellectual honesty. That essay proves that he is not about opening minds, but closing them inside of his ideologically-driven agenda. He is not a martyr to academic freedom, which is about protecting open and honest inquiry, but instead he is just the left-wing version of the anti-intellectual Bush administration neocons, who let no amount of reality interfere with their ideology.
Academia has too many problems facing it today for scholars to waste their time on idiots like Ward Churchill. He, as an American, of course has the right to say any idiotic thing he wants to, and his notoriety from this needlessly-prolonged nonsense guarantees that he will make a good living doing so, preaching to the far-left choir and being hailed as free-speech hero at Campus Green Party events and Rage Against the Machine concerts around the country. Good for him. But the rest of us, who aspire to be real scholars, need to work to protect our institution, from the likes of both David Horowitz and Ward Churchill.
Monday, July 16, 2007
So, I have let my summer relaxation get out of hand and not been by here for awhile. But, I was stirred back into action by my outrage over this Simpsons Top 10 list over at Vanity Fair. While I highly recommend their excellent oral history of the show, timed to coincide with the release of the movie on July 27, the accompanying Top 10 needs correcting. While I agree with several of their choices, they inexplicably left many other classics off and included several duds. So, here is my Top 10. Thanks to The Simpsons Archive for the episode details.
10) Behind the Laughter (Season 11, May 21, 2000)
The token late-seasons entry. I include this episode because it shows how the show, even in its declining years, could still be daring and experimental. Styled as a Behind the Music episode detailing the off-stage life of the Simpson family, it combines two of the shows great strengths: pop genre parody and self-deprecating meta-humor.
9) Treehouse of Horror V (Season 6, October 30, 1994)
The crown jewel of the famous Halloween specials, featuring the Shining parody that gave Homer one of his greatest lines of all time ("No TV and no beer make Homer something something" Marge: "Go crazy?" Homer: "Don't mind if I do.") You also get Homer's time machine toaster and Principal Skinner going all Soylent Green.
8) I Love Lisa (Season 4, February 11, 1993)
Lisa gives a pity Valentine's Day card to dim-witted Ralph Wiggum and then must figure out how to let him down gently. The show's inspired silliness and ear for comedy can be heard in Ralph's reading of the card ("You choo-choo choose me?").
7) You Only Move Twice (Season 8, November 3, 1996)
Homer gets a new job working for a boss who is a cross between Steve Jobs and Dr. No. He moves the family to a prefab community that is stultifying in its cutting-edge appeal. This episode is even funnier in today's post-iPod, Starbucks-besotted world than it was ten years ago.
6) Cape Feare (Season 5, October 7, 1993)
The first one VF actually got right, and it's easy to see why. It is hands down the best Sideshow Bob episode, and that is saying something, as several others could easily make the shortlist (especially Sideshow Bob Roberts and Brother From Another Series). But this one takes the cake with its Cape Fear parody, Homer trying to learn his new name, Bob performing H.M.S Pinafore and, of course, the reinvention of the rake gag.
5) 22 Short Films About Springfield (Season 7, April 14, 1996)
The show's phenomenal success and animated medium have given it the creative freedom to attempt things no other show would do, such as do an entire episode with no narrative. A collection of vignettes about various Springfield denizens, this episode gets points for creativity and daring, but it makes the top 5 because it gives so many of the characters some of their funniest and most memorable moments. What puts it over the top is Principal Skinner and Superintendent Chalmers, with Skinner trying to pass off Krusty Burgers as homemade "steamed hams".
4) Marge vs. the Monorail (Season 3, January 14, 1994)
The late Phil Hartman created two of my favorite characters, Troy McClure and Lionel Hutz, but this was his tour-de-force, as the Music Man-esque monorail salesman Lyle Lanley. The monorail song remains the best of the show's many showstopping musical numbers and Leonard Nimoy is wonderfully strange in his cameo. Of the show's many satirical jabs at the cornerstones of American society, the most persistent and irreverent is the idea that democracy doesn't work, and this episode makes that point in the guise of that most American of art forms: the musical comedy.
3) Homer Phobia (Season 8, February 16, 1997)
One of the signs of the show's late-season decline has been the increasing preachiness of its topical episodes. When the show was at its peak, they could take an issue like homophobia and make you feel bad for the homophobe. Added to that is John Waters, in what is possibly the best celebrity cameo ever. Where else can you visit a gay steel mill and see John Waters chasing away killer reindeer with a mechanical Santa Claus? All that and my favorite Homer quote of all time: "You know me Marge, I like my beer cold, my TV loud, and my homosexuals flaming."
2) The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show (Season 8, February 9, 1997)
Speaking of the show's decline, at least they declined in style. This episode, which marked the show surpassing The Flintstones as the longest-running animated sitcom, is, naturally, about long-running shows in decline. To reinvent Itchy & Scratchy, the network creates a new, desperately "cool" character voiced by Homer, while a new, desperately "cool" character named Roy moves in with the Simpsons. Poochie speaks not only to artists forced to take orders from no-nothing suits, but also to every young person who has ever been condescended to by Hollywood and corporate America.
1) Much Apu About Nothing (Season 7, May 5, 1996)
Another episode that is even funnier and more relevant than when it first aired. The opening "Bear Patrol" sequence is the show's funniest and most true-to-life representation of the Springfield mob mentality. It is probably the height of the show's satiric brilliance. Amazingly, the rest of the episode keeps up this pace. Whenever I read about the current immigration debate, I always hear Chief Wiggum, preparing to enforce the town's tough new immigration policy: "First we round up your tired, then your poor, then your huddled masses yearning to breathe free".
Sunday, July 1, 2007
It is summer and I finally get a chance to read for pleasure. So what do I do? Buy another book about Shakespeare, of course. But not just any Shakespeare book, but Reduced Shakespeare, by Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor, heads of the Reduced Shakespeare Company.
Everyone knows and loves the Reduced Shakespeare Company, creators of the The Compleat Wrks of Wlm Shkspr (abridged). Having skewered Shakespearean performance, they now set their sights on Shakespearean scholarship with this. The book's thesis is explained in this quote from the book jacket:
So what do you need to know about Shakespeare? Just this: The entire Shakespeare industry consists of people simply guessing about who Shakespeare was and what he wrote. Not knowing much about Shakespeare’s life hasn’t stopped everyone from cashing in, filling in the blanks with scholarly supposition when they can, and simply making it up when they can’t. It’s a shocking record, and we’re proud to be part of it.
While they destroy the Greenblattian school of Shakespearean biography and criticism with their typical style, they also cut through the bardolatry to provide a good deal of information, both on the plays and the biography (having hashed through the biographical details, they sum up Shakespeare's three primary preoccupations as "money, social standing, and money"). They also skewer bardolatry in their criticism of the plays. Explaining that some critics interpret Kate's speech at the end of the extremely misogynistic Taming of the Shrew as ironic, they ask, in an "Essay Question", "How much in denial are they?"
For all of their humor, anyone who has seen an RSC production know that they are seriously in love with the theatre, and the chapters on Shakespeare in performance are more serious (relatively speaking). The book's best chapter is the overview of Shakespearean films. It is in fact one of the best run-downs of Shakespearean film available for the casual viewer. Going play by play, they review and rate all of the classics, and also give serious consideration to offshoots ranging from 10 Things I Hate About You to Vincent Price's Theatre of Blood. If you are a Shakespeare fan looking for a rental, it's the best guide you can buy.
Friday, June 29, 2007
Wrestling's decline coincided with my going to college, and I quit watching, though I still kept up with the business through the websites of pro wrestling's two major legitimate news sources: Wade Keller's Pro Wrestling Torch and Dave Meltzer's Wrestling Observer. Why did I do this? Because I knew something like the Benoit case was coming one day. It was amazing to me that a publicly-traded company like the WWE could get away with rampant abuse of its employees and never be called out for it. I knew one day things would hit the fan, though of course I never imagined it would be in such a tragic way.
WWE was allowed to get away with such foul business practices for so long because wrestling occupies a peculiar space in American culture unlike any other cultural product with the possible exception of pornography. It is a multi-million dollar business that everyone wants to pretend doesn't exist. The mainstream media can pretend wrestling doesn't exist and more or less ignore the premature deaths of 60+ wrestlers in the past two decades because they have convinced themselves that wrestling is only of interest to toothless hillbillies and hyperactive children and that the wrestlers who die don't deserve their pity because they are nothing more than roid-raging circus freaks.
However, thanks in large part to Vince McMahon, wrestlers are no longer performing at county fairs for the toothless hillbillies and on Saturday mornings for the hyperactive kids. WWE's primary show, Monday Night Raw, is consistently one of the highest-rated prime-time shows on cable. Raw airs on USA, the country's most-watched cable network. USA and its sister station Sci-Fi Network, which also airs WWE programming, are both part of NBC Universal, which is of course famously owned by GE.
So, wrestling is not a county fair sideshow, but a major show on a major cable network owned by a major entertainment conglomerate. Now, let's play with a hypothetical situation for a moment. What if several stars of Law & Order, another NBC Universal show, had died prematurely during the close to 20 years that show has been on the air? Additionally, what if there was strong evidence that the horrible working conditions on Law & Order, which included near-mandatory drug use in order to keep one's job, had been a major contributing factor in these deaths? Do you think NBC Universal would have allowed this to continue for such a long period of time without at least sitting Dick Wolf down to discuss the situation? Do you think the media would have allowed NBC to stick its head in the sand for so long?
This is exactly what has happened with WWE. NBC Universal and WWE's other corporate partners, which includes CBS Corp. (whose CW network airs WWE Smackdown), all major cable and satellite systems (who carry WWE's pay-per-view events) and a myriad of other video distributors, toy manufacturers and arena operators, have allowed McMahon to operate unchecked because they don't want to admit that they are making money off pro wrestling. Meanwhile the media, which doesn't want to acknowledge pro wrestling's existence, is silently complicit.
And we all know why. Because wrestling is strongly associated with the last group in America that it is socially acceptable to discriminate against: poor rural whites. Wrestling is perhaps the loudest and most embarrassing example of white trash culture. This somehow makes it acceptable for the media and corporate America to try and pretend it doesn't exist, even while they are quietly profitting from it.
Well, now that a young child and his mother are dead, it appears things might actually change. There are reports of WWE programming being cancelled in international markets and there is even talk of the board (remember, WWE is a public company) ousting McMahon as chairman and demoting him to stictly creative role. I don't ever see this happening, given McMahon's own history of steroid-fueled erratic behavior, but there will be major changes. It is a shame that class prejudice made it necessary for such a horrible tragedy to set these changes in motion.
Wednesday, June 27, 2007
So, with all that said, I must question their use and abuse of the Cine Capri name, which reaches a new level with the opening of their newest Tempe theatre this week. A little backstory: the original Cine Capri was an old-style movie house in Phoenix that was demolished in 1997. Harkins owned the theatre at the time, but not the land it was located on, and led an impassioned campaign to save it. Dan Harkins, the chain's chairman, vowed to resurrect the Cine Capri. And he did, sort of. He placed a 500-seat theatre with a screen the same size as the original Capri -the largest in the state-in a new multiplex located in the farthest northeast corner of Phoenix. I had a problem with Harkins using the Cine Capri name back then, but it seemed as if his heart was in the right place, wanting to preserve a piece of history, if only in name.
Then, quietly, and without many people in Arizona realizing it, Harkins began expanding the Cine Capri name to other states. Three of the four other states Harkins has expanded to now have their own Cine Capris, all denoting the biggest theatre in the area.
Now, this weekend, Harkins continues its branding of the Cine Capri name by opening one, with a larger screen and seating capacity the one in north Phoenix, in its new Tempe Marketplace multiplex.
Part of me is excited about the opening of this theatre, as the other Cine Capri is too remote and Harkins has vowed to convert its other Tempe theatre -Centerpoint - into an arthouse. But something bothers me about the conversion of Cine Capri from a physical place with a particular history to a brand name denoting bigger and better.
Thursday, June 14, 2007
Also, before I get started on today's topic, a little note from the Reinforcing Arizona Stereotypes file. It pretty much speaks for itself, but one important note is that Russell Pearce, one of the key players in this tragicomedy of 50s era paranoia, is also kind of a white supremacist. Pearce's city, Mesa, also still refuses to flouridate its water because it may be some type of evil U.N. plot.
OK, onto the business of the day. I have been reading alot about Shakespeare and pop culture lately and mulling over the typical academic definitions of pop culture and mass culture. Most academics' ideas about mass culture still derive from Adorno's idea of the culture industry. This idea holds that mass culture is essentially no different from any other capitalistic product, homogonized to appeal to the lowest common denominator and please the largest number of people possible. This distinguishes it from folk culture - culture by and for the people - and high culture, which is not meant to please the masses, but challenge a cultivated audience. Nevermind that this idea was formulated before the birth of television and rock & roll, the twin forces that created modern pop culture and has therefore been outdated for over 50 years. I believe that this idea has become even more outdated, and possibly unworkable, in the past decade.
Why do I think this? I am thinking of one of my favorite TV shows, The Office. The Office is a quirky, original, critically-acclaimed show with several awards and a devoted online cult following. It finished this past season at 68th in the overall Neilsen ratings. In other words, it has all of the markings of a cult hit.
However, it has one big difference from other cult shows of the past. It is a cash cow for its network. NBC, which nearly did not bring the show back for a second season, has turned the show into its workhorse. It is the anchor of its Thursday night schedule, one of its producers has just been given a network executive job, and they ordered a practically unprecedented 30 half-hours for next season.
Why so much love from the execs for a show with such pedestrian ratings. Because, in today's fragmentary pop universe, overall ratings mean practically nothing. What matters is demographics, and The Office is a leader among demographics that advertisers crave, particularly viewers ages 18-34 and those with incomes over $100,000.
The "affluent" demographic has become increasingly important over the last few years and it has tended to favor low-rated, critically-acclaimed shows. This makes logical sense, as higher income is, on the whole, tied to higher levels of education. It is the "affluence" factor that has allowed NBC to keep low-rated shows like The Office, 30 Rock. and Friday Night Lights on the air.
This all leads to the paradox that may unravel the typical notion of mass culture. In an entertainment world in which the quality of the audience becomes as important, if not more important, than its overall size, there becomes a financial reward for producing quality television.
Obviously, this is a half-baked idea at best right now, but it is something to keep in mind.
Wednesday, June 13, 2007
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
A lot of Sopranos fans are still feeling this way close to 48 hours after wannabe artiste David Chase finally got completely lost up his own ass and chickened out of giving us a proper ending. As I have written here before, I have always been more critical of the series than most and have felt Chase's pretensions have hampered the series. Therefore, I was not as surprised as many that he would pull a stunt like this. However, that doesn't stop me from wanting to take him fishing on Lake Tahoe.
Of course, everyone is talking about the copout ending, but on the whole this episode was a huge disappointment. Its awkward pacing and hamfisted writing and direction (both by Chase) had already made the episode a failure before the abrupt cut to black, which might have worked if the 60 minutes before it had provided a proper setup. These problems overshadowed the many good aspects of the episode. Lets take a look at the good, the bad and the bungled of "Made in America":
- Meadow: I knew that after last week's action-packed episode in which war broke out between the two families, the finale would focus on Tony's other family and that the final tragedy would not be Tony getting capped or arrested, but watching his kids, whom he had worked so hard to give a better life, following in his footsteps, morally if not career-wise. Meadow's denoument was a perfect followup to last week's great closing shot of her and Carmella mirroring each other in matching coats. This week, she finally became Carmella, reaching a new level of denial in saying that she was inspired to study law because of the racism of the FBI's persecution of Tony. The look on Tony's face let us know that even he realized that was bullshit.
- Janice: Though she had little to do this past season aside from the premiere episode, Aida Turturro was given the opportunity to give Janice a proper sendoff. Janice is one of the most loathsome and unlikable characters in TV history, and the combination of genuine greif and self-pity she showed in mourning Bobby's death was pitch-perfect.
- Tony and Uncle Junior: I thought Uncle Junior was done after the wonderfully heartbreaking scene of him petting the cat a few episodes back. But we needed a final scene between Tony and Junior, and it was brilliantly done. For me, the series ended there, as Tony realized the answer to his question for Melfi: "Is this all there is?" The answer was yes: this is what you can look forward to Tony. If you manage to survive a life in the mafia and not get shot or go to jail, you end up in a crummy retirement home, with no memory that you ever ran North Jersey. Brilliant.
- Agent Harris: Matt Servitto's Agent Harris has been one of the show's great supporting characters, but everything about him in this episode was horrible. After years of hovering in the background, he suddenly, with no motivation, decides to compromise his professional ethics to support Tony in his gang war. Nobody knows better than Harris what a scumbag Tony is, so why would he suddenly choose sides. The idea of an FBI agent being seduced by the mob life is interesting, it is appropriate for a multi-episode arc, not the last half-hour of the series finale.
- Paulie and the cat: The less said about this stupid plot thread, the better.
- Phil's Death: The number one argument against ever letting Chase behind a camera again, as he shoots the climactic murder of the series like he was Chuck Jones. From the mawkishness of the two grandbabies to the ridiculousness that a mob boss at war would be so unprepared to the cartoonishness of Phil's head being crushed, it was a disappointing end for a series that perfected the art of killing off characters.
- A.J.: The most interesting plot thread of the final season goes down in flames with A.J.'s SUV. I liked A.J. being cured of his depression by once again becoming his selfish and venal self. But his "cure" felt rushed and his rant at Bobby's funeral was hamhanded and redunant.
- The final scence: And finally we come to it. I don't wish to contribute to the growing Talmudic commentary accumulating on the internet as we speak, but I will just say this. I loved the idea of ending the series with Tony not getting killed, arrested or turning government witness and instead ending up in a grimy diner with his screwed-up family, whom he has managed to infect with his "putrid fucking genes" and realizing that escaping his way of life means a lot more than working a legitimate job. But then Chase has to go and screw it up with his modernist trick. What was the point? Who cares anymore?
Thursday, May 31, 2007
1) Christian fundamentalists do something silly, taking Genesis literally and tossing in shots at gays, abortionists and the generally crappy state of our modern, secular world.
2) "Enlighted" liberals mock said silly enterprise and use it as another opportunity to assert their moral and intellectual superiority and talk about how America is a redneck country run by intolerant bigots and their life would be so much better if they lived in Paris and drank cappuccino by the Sienne with their fellow enlightened liberals blah blah blah.
3) The only people who read or hear said liberals are fellow liberals who nod in agreement and members of said silly religious group who are able to use it as proof that America is going to hell and they are an embattled minority being persecuted by the gays, abortionists et al.
4) Both sides are able to sleep at night knowing that they are the morally superior ones while the rest of us are made to feel like outcasts because our beliefs do not fit into a tiny ideological box while nothing gets resolved, nothing ever changes.
It seems that all of the major liberal publications have published their snarky reviews of the new Creation Museum, but I will just link to Salon's. It works best for my purposes here because Salon's letters sections is to idiotic liberalism what City Lights was to the Beats. Look, I agree that the Creation Museum is a stupid idea. And I have laughed at Kirk Cameron's Way of the Master. But, as someone who has known may evangelical Christians and found them, on the whole, to be more open-minded than my harcore liberal friends, I know that things do not break down into such easy categories and seeing such intelligent people thinking so narrowly is disheartening. Both sides continue to to crawl further into their ideological holes and grow more idiotic by the day.
Sunday, May 27, 2007
Let's talk about the Manga Shakespeare first. One one level, this is just an update of the old Classics Illustrated comic books from the '50s. However, it has the potential, at least in theory, to be something much better. When the Classics Illustrated books were published, no one, including the people producing them, considered comic books a legitimate art form. Classics Illustrated was a form of atonement for their usual corrupting of young minds. Today, of course, the "graphic novel" has taken on respectability, and the rise of Japanese manga was largely responsible for this.
Manga Shakespeare is not true manga in a strict sense. The line is produced by a British press and illustrated by English artists working in the manga style. Both volumes take what could be called the "Luhrman approach", using Shakespeare's original text (albeit heavily edited to fit in the word balloons) but setting the story in a hip, modern context. The R&J volume, in fact, should probaby pay some type of royalty to Luhrman. Set in modern Japan, it takes much of its updates straight from Luhrman's film: the Capulets and Montagues are rival crime families (since it is set in Tokyo, they are yakuza), Escalus is a police captain, and Paris is a successful business man. According to the Dramatis Personae, Romeo is also a rock star and Juliet is Sibuya girl, but we see no evidence of this in the actual story.
Manga Hamlet, meanwhile, owes a debt to The Matrix, as it is set in 2107 in a cyberworld created after the environmental destruction of earth. Again, this is all told in the extra-textual prologue and Dramatis Personae and does not have any bearing on the story. In the end, both volumes are not masterpieces of either Manga or Shakespearean adaptation, but they do find a connection between manga's frequent tales of youthful alienation and Shakespeare's moody young protagonists. Having exhausted the two stories that most lend themselves to the Manga form, it will be interesting to see where they go from here. Though this seems to be a PG-version of Manga intended to be an educational tool for teenagers, it would be interesting to see what a true Manga artist could do with something like Titus Andronicus.
After reading these books, it was great to come across the Shakespeare Illustrated website and ponder where they fit in the long history of illustrating Shakespeare. Perusing the images after having recently reread a large selection of the plays, one is struck once again by how much of what we know as "Shakespeare" is not in Shakespeare. Theatre is an inherently visual medium, and Shakespeare left so much of that visual information up to our imaginations that the work of artists and directors in shaping what we know of the plays has been such an integral part of keeping the works alive as living things. That is why I am always excited by projects like Manga Shakespeare, even when they are not masterpieces. They are all a part of the great tradition and cultural conversation.
Saturday, May 26, 2007
This essay was written in 1993, and in the intervening decade, old-school country music, bouyed by Johnny Cash's Rick Rubin-produced renaissance and the influence of alt-country, has taken on a hipster sheen. This renaissance has romanticized the supposed primitivism of early country and disdained the prepacked commercialism of what has come to be known as "Wal-Mart Country". Today, the alt-country ethos has started to seep back into mainstream country through artists such as Miranda Lambert, Jack Ingram and Big & Rich. But there is still a perceived divide between the hipster intellectuals who view old country has the work of charming primitives and the "white trash" who consume country as a regular part of their cultural diet.
This distinction, and the musical cross-pollination between the mainstream and the underground, has put country in a particulary white trash version of a problem common to all popular arts. The best example of this is the case of the Dixie Chicks. To non-country fans, the story is simple: brave artist makes a political statement and is crucified by her simple-minded, Bush-loving "white trash" fanbase. The story in fact is much more complicated. Even before Natalie Maines' famous comment, the Chicks were being viewed with suspicous eyes by many in the country world. They seemed to want to aspire to the hipster street cred of alt-country while keeping the financial rewards of mainstream country success. While on the one hand this alt-country cred meant keeping the rawness of old country alive in the face of the slickness of Wal-Mart country, it also meant taking a slightly superior attitude toward country music fans. The chicks, like other alt-country types, were trying to keep what they saw as the "real" tradition of country music alive despite the effort of country music fans (the "white trash" buying Wal-Mart country) to kill it.
As I said, this problem exists in all popular arts, it just takes on a specific class-consciousness in country music. All popular arts -- film, TV, pop music -- are created for mass audiences by a small elite subculture that considers themselves superior to the masses. Popular artists -- actors, directors, musicians -- are often fans of avant-garde artists who do work that they view as superior to their own. This leads to incidents like The Monkees hiring an unknown Jimi Hendrix to open for them and causing outrage when he simulates sex with his amplifier in front of an audience of prepubescent girls.
This tension will never be resolved and is in fact necessary for popular art to survive. The best pop art will synthesize the best of the underground and the mainstream to create a work that appeals to both audiences. this rarely happens, but when it does it is a glorious moment, and it is those moments--memories of past ones and anticipation of future ones--that keeps us coming back.
Tuesday, May 22, 2007
Let's start with The Sopranos. In the episode, also titled "The Second Coming", Tony's mentally unstable, dimwitted son A.J. is sitting in an English class listening intently to his teacher read Yeats' poem. We then see him reading the rest of the poem in his room in the Norton Anthology. The point seems pretty obvious: A.J., endlessly concerned with the problems of the world and struck with guilt about his family's materialistic existence, is affected by the poem's portrait of civilization crumbling. In the context of the show, the poem is also commenting on the final season, in which Tony's life is falling apart.
Now, was it too obvious to use this poem? No. While we English major types may groan when hearing these all-too-familiar words repeated once again, The Sopranos, while appealing to us English major types, is not made specifically for us. It is made for a mass audience for whom this poem may be only vaguely familiar, or not familiar at all. It also makes sense in the context of the episode, as it is exactly the type of well-worn poem that A.J. would be reading an Intro to British Literature class, which the Norton Anthology tells us he is taking. It is also exactly the kind of poem that would connect with A.J. The powerful, horrible imagery grabs even the most novice reader. Those of us who remember first reading the poem in their own undergraduate lit class may remember how we too were shook by the poem and thought we were the first to see its eerie parallels to current events (I took my Survey of British Literature 2 class first semester sophomore year, which happened to be in fall 2001).
In The Sopranos then, the choice is dictated by plot. But what other purposes do literary references serve in pop TV shows. I was thinking about this because, as I have mentioned before, one of my other favorite shows, Gilmore Girls, ended recently. The reason this girlie show attracted a surprisingly large number of straight male viewers like myself is that it took the usual WB melodrama and embroidered it with a stinging intelligence. The show's trademark dialogue took the rat-a-tat rapid-fire delivery of 30s screwball comedies and Billy Wilder films and stuffed it with literary, historical and pop culture references.
Literary references were the show's specialty, propelled by its bookworm lead character Rory, who, especially in the early seasons, was rarely seen without a classic in hand. Literary references on the show ranged from offhand in-jokes (Lorelai, on her society matron mother's party: "I think Edith Wharton would be proud, and taking notes") to colorful background (in one episode, Lorelai's inn hosts an Edgar Allan Poe Society convention). Most significantly, books were relationship markers, as most of the show's relationships, romantic and familial, were signified by sharing a book, from Rory and her grandfather bonding over Menken's Chrystomathy to Lorelai remembering lost love Max when she finds his copy of Swann's Way.
What is the purpose of the literary reference in this context? The literary references were mixed in with references to cool music and TV showsand films both high and lowbrow. Gilmore Girls, in other words, attempted to make reading cool. And not just reading, but reading "the classics". Popular writers like Michael Chrichton were treated with the same disdain as lame bands like Linkin Park. For this show, then, aimed at a teenage audience, the references served an admirable pedagogical aim of making reading classic literature part of regular cultural diet. The Sopranos, on the other hand, is aimed at an adult audience who has either already been exposed to the literature being referenced, or, like its lead character, never will be. In this context, it serves as a reminder for those who get the reference and a moment of profundity for those who don't.
Monday, May 21, 2007
The simultaneous end of the tax season and the spring semester leaves me with a lot of free time on my hands. And a 21st-century office drone with free time and internet access finds himself reading a lot. I came across an especially interesting crop of articles today that I want to talk about:
- First up, two of my favorite love-hate objects: Ron Rosenbaum and country music. Rosenbaum outs himself as a fellow mainstream country fan and ponders the recent spate of songs about cancer. He ponders whether or not these songs are honest expressions of emotion or manipulative sentimentality. This is an interesting question for country music which, at its best, can be the most honest and direct form of popular music and, at its worst, can be the most glossy and superficial. This does not come down to some juvenile issue of "authenticity" as defined by music critics and indie record store workers. Country music, more than other pop genres, excells at fictional storytelling, so defining the difference between the emotionally powerful and manipulative can be blurry. The best part of this article, though, is country music being written about seriously in Slate. In the Mobius strip cultural existence that we now inhabit, mainstream country is so uncool among hipster intellectuals that it has almost become cool to declare your allegiance (Stanley Fish came out a few months ago in "Guilty Pleasures of Famous Intellectuals" article in the Sunday Times).
- Which leads us to our next article, on "white trash" and its history and current reappropriations. As someone whose past few Sunday dinners with the family have been devoted to discussing the fallout of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s departure from DEI, I feel qualified to discuss this. Is "white trash" an offensive term? Wray has a typical academic's lack of a sense of humor is his implication that using the term "white trash" in a joking way somehow implicitly endorses early-20th century eugenic practices. The term, when used among poor whites, is used to demarcate between those poor whites that have respect for themselves and those that do not. A poor white may not have much class or taste, but they maintain a certain level of dignity that those marked "white trash" do not. Is is similar to Chris Rock's famous routine. I won't pull a Michael Scott on you here, but you know which one I am referring to. The troubling thing is how "white trash" is so widely accepted and used by all groups but that other word is strictly off-limits to all but a certain group.
- Finally a pair of hilariously stuffy and off-base articles from yesterday's LA Times: 1 2. Nothing much to say, they are just pretty damn funny in their grumpy old man-ness. Shickel's article takes one classic approach to the grumpy old man op-ed, taking the worst examples of a new a confusing media form and arguing that it will destroy all that has come before it. Never mind that 100 years of technology rapildy changing our culture have taught us that the emergence of new forms of communication do not destroy old ones but merely take their place alongside them. The pefectly named Darlymple takes an even more idiotic and offensive tack, assuming that consumers of mass culture are mindless automotons that lack the ability process any of the information or entertainment they take in. They believe everyone has the same aversion to irony they do.
Programming note: I have not abandoned the Shakespeare film series and it will return sometime this week just as soon as the copy of Welles' Macbeth I ordered comes in. The combination of the end of school and Welles' Shakespeare films being harder to find than Keyser Soze have put us a little behind the schedule.
Wednesday, May 16, 2007
I mentioned Miranda Lambert a few posts ago. She is one of the best things going in mainstream country right now. I remember seeing her on CMT with her innocuous first single "Me and Charlie Talkin". I figured she was the latest in a long line of label-created Shania clones that get a little exposure on CMT based on their looks alone and then quietly disappear. Then I saw the video for the brilliant "Kerosene" and saw her on "Austin City Limits", where she name-dropped Steve Earle and Buddy Lee Miller. It turns out she is a singer-songwriter with undoubted skill and a wild streak, more Gretchen Wilson than Carrie Underwood. This performance of "Kerosene" from the CMAs a few years ago shows why she is among a handful of up-and-coming country artists that can succesfully straddle the divide between alt.country and the mainstream, combining killer songwriting with a love of 80s rock show pyrotechnics.
Tuesday, May 15, 2007
Now, onto my summer /viewing list:
- Cultural Amnesia by Clive James. Started this one about a month ago and have been slowly working my way through it. It is a collection of short essays organized around an A-to-Z list of important cultural figures of the 20th century. The major theme of the essays is the way artists and intellectuals responded to the two great cultural threats of the century: fascism and communism. It is the best type of political criticism, raising serious questions about the moral standards we should hold artists to. They are the types of questions many avoided in the wake of the Paul de Man Nazi controversy but they need to be asked. But this is far from James' only concern and he proves himself to be the best type of dilletante, letting his omniverous intellect range from Dick Cavett to the death of the teaching of prosody.
- 7 Seconds or Less by Jack McCallum. I have always loved the Phoenix Suns, coming of age as a sports fan just in time to witness their fabled 1992-93 season in which Charles Barkley, Kevin Johnson and Dan Majerle led them to the finals and united the city like no other cultural event before or since. Their renaissance over the past three years has been one of the great sports stories in the city's history. We have long been both a sports and cultural backwater, but the current Suns team has revolutionized the game and simultaneously injected a dash of intelligence, class and innovation into the usually staid, conservative and red-state world of pro sports. Head coach Mike D'antoni is an Italian celebrity who spends his summers at Donna Versace's villa. Leader Steve Nash is a (formerly) long-haired Canadian who reads Marx and favors anti-Bush t-shirts. Leandro Barbosa grew up is Sao Paulo, Brazil and his life apparently inspired the movie City of God. Boris Diaw is a dapper and classy Frenchman. Raja Bell became a folk hero by bodyslamming Kobe Bryant, the epitome of everything intelligent and decent people hate about sports. They are the rare sports team that a lefty book nerd can love unconditionally. Anyway, this is all to say that I am happy McCallum's book has come along to document this wonderful creation. McCallum folowed the team for most of last season, shadowing the coaching staff. It is a fun and entertaining read and a great examination of the job of NBA coaches.
- Veronica Mars Season 1. I got into this show towards the end of season 1, then lost interest about halfway through season 2. Apparently, I jumped off at the right time, if critics are to be believed. Anyway, I always wanted to go back and watch the rest of the excellent Season 1 and I found the DVDs for $20 yesterday. I figured it is a good way to wean myself off of the equally witty and brilliant Gilmore Girls, which ends tonight.
That is all of my list for now, but more is to be added in the weeks to come. In closing, I would just like congratulate David Stern. Once again, your half-assed enforcement of your own rules is putting the Spurs and Pistons on a collision course in an attempt to break their own record for lowest-rated Finals ever. I don't know why Stern seems intent on punishing clean-playing, entertaining teams like the Suns and rewarding teams like the Spurs, who are only interesting when doing something dirty.
Monday, May 7, 2007
A brand new Stratford to QC!
Yeah, I know it's only two months old, but I decided it was time to tidy up around here and make it look a little more professional. I started this blog as a way to procrastinate from my "real" writing projects and did not plan for anyone to actually read it. However, I have received some positive feedback that has shown me that people are actually enjoying it and that has encouraged me to spend a little more time around here this summer. I have also found it a liberating experience to write here and it has even influenced the direction my research is taking, so it's been a great experience so far.
I still have one more paper to finish for this semester, so there won't be a full post until at least Wednesday. Until then, a few odds and ends:
- Did everyone watch The Sopranos last night? Wow. I have a lot to say about this show and have been dying to do the weekly recaps I started, but school has gotten in the way these last few weeks. I will have a lot to say later this week.
- On a related note, Ron Rosenbaum (whose fantastic The Shakespeare Wars should be on every academic's summer reading list) has a great piece over at Slate on The Sopranos, Tarantino, Abu Ghraib and media violence. He swooped me on a topic I was going to bring up here which I have not seen elsewhere, which is that this season of The Sopranos is self-reflexively focusing on the idea of the Mafia as entertainment, perhaps in an attempt to come to terms with its own troubled legacy.
- For any of you who still turn your noses up at mainstream country, buy Miranda Lambert's new album. Now.
- Finally, a request: if you are reading this, drop me a line to let me know what you think of the blog so far. I would love to know what people think of it, what is working and what needs improvement.
Monday, April 30, 2007
I am typically opposed to our government using torture, but everyone involved with this film needs a trip to Gitmo.
It's not enough that Dan Whitney has become a millionaire portraying a racist, homophobic white trash version of Stepin Fetchit, but now he has to insult our troops too, not to mention make a mockery of the disaster of historical proportions that our president has gotten us into? Whitney's target audience are the same people that elected Bush, now they're expected to laugh at the disaster they helped create? How come Whitney and the makers of this film get a free pass but John Kerry gets raked over the coals for one idiotic comment about the troops' intelligence? I am really just unable to process this.
Friday, April 27, 2007
Wednesday, April 18, 2007
A better head her glorious body fits
Than his that shakes for age and feebleness.
Mafia dons, both the real ones and the much more interesting fictional ones, have long liked to link themselves with their Roman ancestors, none more so than History Channel fan Tony Soprano, who once used the reign of Augustus to attempt to tutor Uncle Junior on being a benevolent dictator. And as The Sopranos winds down, it appears that Tony and his colleagues are learning the lesson of their fictional ancestor Titus.
In declining to be named Emperor, Titus argues that he is an old man, soon to die, which would only lead to them having to find a new emperor sooner rather than later. He is man that has achieved success through brute force and physical strength. He has survived 40 years on the battle field seeing many younger men, including his 21 sons, fall, and that has added up to . . .what? His physical strength is rapidly dissipating, his body is betraying him, he is too old to be emperor. What is waiting for him at the end of the road? If the play has a redeeming quality, it is this affecting portrayal of a man out of time, who only knows one thing and can't do it anymore, who is a stranger in the land in the fought to protect, in many ways more of an foreigner than his Goth prisoners.
It is a drama modern sports fans are intimately familiar with. Like the ancient epics and mythologies handed down over generations of oral storytelling, sports deals in similar master narratives retold for every generation with new actors in the lead roles. One of our favorites is the star past his prime who refuses to hang it up. It is superb tragicomic tale. Elite pro athletes are made up of two things: a natural athletic ability combined with an unhealthy competitive streak. From puberty (at the latest), their entire existence revolves around perfecting a very specific skills and using it to destroy their competitors. Then, in their late-30s, just as their peers in almost every other profession are just starting to hit their professional stride, that natural athletic ability starts to disappear, though the competitive streak is still there. So they hang around until they have been embarrassed by younger versions of themselves enough times that they finally are forced to give up the only thing they have ever know how to do. And they are only 40, with close to half their life left to live. Like Titus, their fortune is made by their bodies, which then betray them.
Which brings us to Tony and his pals. Let's take a look at the last three episodes, going back to last season's finale:
"Kaisha": Phil Leotardo, acting boss of the New York family and Tony's chief rival, suffers a heart attack and has quadruple bypass surgery.
"Soprano Home Movies": Tony, boss of the New Jersey family, celebrates his 47th birthday and gets his ass kicked by his creampuff, model-railroading brother-in-law Bobby, and spends the rest of the episode lamenting his lost manhood and worrying that Carmella will no longer be attracted to him.
"Stage 5": Johnny Sack, currently-incarcerated boss of the New York family, is diagnosed with terminal cancer and dead by episode's end. At the beginning of the episode, he is told that it is Stage 4 lung cancer, and fills in the blank himself "And there's no stage 5, is there?" Later, Phil, still recovering from his heart surgery, tells Tony he does not want to be boss: "Being a boss is young man's game."
Tony, Phil and Johnny Sack, the three most powerful men on the show in terms of mob hierarchy, are all being betrayed by their bodies. A mob boss's power is not embued by sovereignty or rule of law, but physical strength. However, having spent possibly all of that strength getting to the top, they no longer have the strength to hold on to it.
All of this takes us back to show's first season. Forty-something acting boss Jackie Aprile dies of cancer, creating an opening at the top. Mob bosses, like Roman emperors, always have trouble with succession because it is neither strictly heritary or strictly meritocratic. In this case, the captains want Tony, but Uncle Junior thinks the title is rightfully his. Tony creates a compromise by giving Junior the title, but running things behind his back. Junior, like Titus, has fought his way to the top, only to be too old to rule once he got there. Tony is now facing the same problem.
A quick off-topic note: Radio Open Source, a public radio show from Boston, excerpted my "Batshit Crazy" post on their website in conjunction with an episode entitled "Entertaining Violence", dedicated to a Boston of production of Titus. It is a great listen, and very relevant in light of the Virginia Tech incident on Monday.
Speaking of Virginia Tech, I feel like I should say something in light of Monday's comments on Grindhouse and Paglia's Mozart/Jack the Ripper comparison, and I will eventually, but I just don't think I can right now.
Monday, April 16, 2007
This post is going to be all over the place, but I promise you that it makes sense in my head, if nowhere else. Do you ever have one of those stretches when everything you come into contact with—movies, TV, books read for pleasure, books read for class, class discussion, casual conversation with friends—seems to have some underlying connection? Over the past few days, the same ideas have kept popping up and I am going to try to draw them together here.
Let’s start with Titus Andronicus, the subject of my last post and of an ever-growing obsession with me. I first became aware of the play when the film came out but have only recently become intrigued with it. I don’t think people truly appreciate the magnitude of its importance. Shakespeare, the revered bard, the secular saint, really wrote something this messed up. It’s truly mind-boggling.
I had Titus on my mind when I went to see Grindhouse this weekend and I couldn’t have found a better movie to feed my obsession with. The Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino double-feature inhabits the same grey category between art and trash, exploitation and satire, that Titus does, and features even more severed limbs. Severed limbs are a recurring motif in Grindhouse, much as they are in Titus. In Planet Terror, Rodriguez’s film, we have, most famously, lead actress Rose McGowan’s severed leg, which is outfitted with a machine gun in the film’s climax and plays a decisive role and saving the heroes. But there is also Marley Shelton as another heroine, a doctor whose hands are anesthetized by her deranged husband and spends a good portion of the film groping, Lavinia-like, without them.
Both McGowan and
But we can’t read too much into Planet Terror. Not surprisingly, Rodriguez’s film never rises above the B-movie gimmickry of the Grindhouse idea. His much more intelligent and talented friend, however, uses the guise of this gimmick to make what is perhaps his most personal film yet. Death Proof, Tarantino’s half of the double-feature is, on its surface, a B-movie homage just like Planet Terror. While Rodriguez covered the sci-fi/zombie movie, Tarantino took two other grindhouse staples: the slasher film and the car chase film. But Death Proof, the story of Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), a deranged former stuntman who kills women with his reinforced, “death proof” stunt car is both much more and much less.
While Rodriguez fulfills your expectations with his film (that is meant both positively and negatively), Tarantino confounds them. He uses the Grindhouse label to make an art film disguised as a genre film, in the mode of past B-movie auteurs such as Sam Fuller. The film is, with one notable exception, surprisingly gore-free and spends most of its time focusing on the nine women Stuntman Mike is stalking. Tarantino says his favorite slasher films were the ones that let you get to know and care about the victims before the violence began, and we get that here, with long scenes of typically Tarantino-esque dialogue as the characters shoot the shit in cars and diners. The difference is that this time the characters spitting the dialogue are women, and Tarantino obviously exhibits a fascination with how women talk when men aren’t around. He is also mesmerized by their bodies and uses the guise of the exploitation film to let his camera linger longer than it should on their curves, but they are shot in such in loving way, just as women in his films always are, that it never even reaches exploitation. All of the women in the film, especially Sydney Tamilia Poitier, Vanessa Furlito and real-life stuntwoman Zoe Bell, join Uma Thurman, Pam Grier and Lucy Liu in the Tarantino Goddess pantheon.
Which brings us to Stuntman Mike, who shares with Tarantino a voyeuristic fascination with these women and a nostalgia for old-fashioned, non-CGI stuntwork. The difference is that, while Quentin channels these notions into a film, Mike releases them by crashing his car into the women and killing them. It’s an almost perfect illustration of Camille Paglia’s famous and controversial formulation that there is no female Mozart because there is no female Jack the Ripper.
I have much more to say on this, including a discussion of last week’s episode of The Sopranos which ties into all of this, but I have to wake up in five hours so that will have to be put on hold.
Wednesday, April 11, 2007
There is a great article over at Inside Higher Ed by Scott McLemee about Titus Andronicus and the current production at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington. He gives perhaps the greatest critical judgment of the play ever, describing it at "Shakespeare's batshit crazy play". I have been really interested in Titus recently. My Shakespeare playreading group recently read the play as a part of a series on his controversial plays along with Taming of the Shrew and Merchant of Venice. I have also been reading Camille Paglia's "Sexual Personae", in which she described Titus as a satire on Spenser's pageant of rape and torture in the Fairie Queene and suggests that it should be performed by drag queens. Like many of Paglia's opinions, it is out there, but frankly, do you have anything better? In the family that is the Shakespearean canon, Titus is the meth-addicted, thrice incarcerated cousin that no one likes to talk about and you watch your wallet and your kids around when you see them at Christmas. But, just like that cousin, it can't simply be ignored and forgotten about, it has to be dealt with. It potentially blows a hole in the entire business of bardolatry, which all people in the Shakespeare industry, whether they admit it or not, take part in.
Titus' profile has risen greatly in the last several years, and has picked up since Julie Taymor's film version, and I think it is only going to increase. It both speaks to modern tastes (look at last week's big movie release, Grindhouse) and is reminds us that Shakespeare, for all of his genius, was an extremely weird guy. We can gloss over the weirdness of the other plays because of their brilliance but Titus doesn't let us escape from it. When thinking of Titus, I am always reminded of the poster for famed B-movie house Troma Pictures' infamous parody "Tromeo and Juliet". The tagline reads "Body Piercing, Kinky Sex, Dismemberment. All the Things that Made Shakespeare Great." Replace body piercing with cannibalism and kinky sex with gang rape and you have an accurate description of Titus. In other words, even the creators of the Toxic Avenger and Sgt. Kabukiman didn't go as far into dark as Shakespeare did.
McLemee stumbled on to something interesting when he compared Titus' moral universe to that of professional wrestling. Pro wrestling good guys, like Titus the play's ostensible hero, are violent oafs who lack any sense of introspection or self-awareness. The only thing that separates them from the bad guys is the code of honor they live by. This has especially been true over the past 10 years, as pro wrestling has taken a darker turn and good guys have become just as likely as bad guys to torture opponents with foreign objects or abuse women.
Which leads us into the big question about Titus: is it simply A) morally repugnant violence for the sake of entertainment on the scale of pro wrestling or pseudo-snuff films like "Saw", or is it B) a more knowing comment on the culture of violence, and violence as entertainment, such as the work of Tarantino or "The Sopranos"? The bardolater in us all wants to say option B, and that may very well be so, but, unlike any of Shakespeare's other violent works, we have to at least entertain option A as a possibility. Its a disconcerting thought, but I think ultimately an enlightening one, especially in today's world when violence permeates our art and entertainment and the line between option A and option B becomes ever more blurred.
Monday, April 9, 2007
All of the purple prose spilled over the series over the last few weeks has of course missed a larger point: the last three seasons, taken as a whole, sucked. And it easy to see why: money.
Let's backtrack. Starting with the show's second season, creator David Chase started saying that he had planned for the show to go four seasons, and had the ending planned. After the groundbreaking brilliance of the first season, which as a self-contained unit may very well be the greatest accomplishment in TV history, the show suffered a slight sophomore slump in the second season, which was extremely entertaining but did not reach the emotional depths of Season 1. That season was redeemed, though, by the shockingly absurd and affecting finale in which Big Pussy was killed. More shocking than a series' lead character killing off another regular character was the fact that an episode that featured a talking fish could be so moving.
The show rebounded from the relatively lightweight season 2 with the astounding season 3, in which Chase and company exploded everything we knew about the series. Everything about the show, from the acting to the visual style, took on a darker tone. The two episodes that are seared in my memory more than any other are from that season. "Employee of the Month" brought the normally detached Dr. Melfi deeper into the moral morass as she is brutally raped--perhaps the most brutal scene in the history of TV--and grapples with whether or not to seek retribution by telling Tony. "University", a sequel of sorts to Season 1's "College", traces the parallel mental dissolution of a sweet, damaged Bada Bing stripper and Meadow's college roommate, along with the dissolution of Tony's relationship with his daughter.
Most importantly, Season 3 had an overarching feeling of impending doom, as things were obviously being set up for the series finale in Season 4. Then, a funny thing happened: HBO backed up a dump truck full of money to David Chase's house. While Chase and the show's other principles got bigger paychecks and HBO helped to prop up Time Warner's flailing stock, we the audience got three seasons of Columbus Day protests, subplots that trailed off to nowhere, new characters introduced with great fanfare and then quickly killed off, dead racehorses, and ever more ludicrous dream sequences. While the show still had moments which reminded you of its former greatness, the overall feeling you got these past three seasons is that Chase was simply killing time, filling up hours for syndication and coming up with new ways to frustrate his audience. The idea of a main character being killed, so shocking when it happened to Big Pussy, became old hat, to the point that they had to come up with a particularly loathsome way to kill Adrianna to make it sufficiently shocking.
Which brings us to this final, seventh season, (or Season 6, part 2 according to Chase and HBO, who apparently went to the George Lucas school of nonsensical episodic numbering). I had high hopes for this season, hoping Chase would pull out those original Season 4 stories and find an appropriate way to wrap things up. Last night's premiere episode, "Soprano Home Movies", was a step in the right direction. It was a reestablishment of the trust the show established with its audience in the first few seasons which was later so badly betrayed. It is an incredibly slow-moving and plot free episode that revolves around Tony's 47th birthday party at Bobby and Janice's lake house in upstate New York. Tony, Carmella, Janice and Bobby take up almost all of the screen time, with only token appearances by some of the other regulars. While it does not advance the overall plot, the episode sets up what will most likely be the prime themes of the final season: Tony's intimations of mortality and his lingering Oedipal problems that have played out with Janice as a proxy ever since Livia died. The episode recalls "Mr Ruggiero's Neighborhood", the Season 3 premiere, with its clean plotline that doesn't really lead anywhere but allows us to get reacquainted with the characters and reassures us that the ensuing season will have a purpose. Even the visual style backed away from the past few seasons' aspirations of cinematic grandeur to the softer style of the earlier seasons, reminiscent of 80s dramas like Hill Street Blues.
In the end, that Entertainment Weekly review was more accurate than the author intended. The Sopranos is TV's Sergeant Pepper: groundbreaking and overblown, brilliant and self-indulgent, affecting and maddening, overreaching and eventually overrated by critics and audiences who want it to be more than it really is. But Sergeant Pepper redeems almost all of its negative qualities with "A Day in the Life", its brilliant epilogue. Lets hope The Sopranos can do the same.