One of the odd, enduring, shadow-stars of American film history made a big comeback this year: the President. Not in a literal sense, as was true during the Clinton years, when a remarkable number of movies were made with the President as a starring figure. But how Americans feel about their President, how he makes them feel about themselves, how our sense of a President seeps into and colors the popular imagination - that President was the true subject of several of the better known movies this past year.
The five movies nominated for Best Picture are a good example. Looked at from a certain angle, the three male-centered films could be seen as different verdicts on George Bush: the old-fashioned, decent lawman who can't cope with what seems like a new kind of evil in the world (No Country For Old Men); the simple, bloody, take-no-prisoners oilman who destroys everything in his path, including - especially? - that most dear to him (There Will Be Blood); and the unseen, undefeatable puppetmaster pulling the strings in all our worst paranoid visions of corporate America (Michael Clayton).
Prior to this past year, Bush made little impact on movies or TV - surprising, given the vast impact of events initiated during his administration. Now that Bush has finally hit the big screen, though, my bet is that the dark, ugly feelings he generates will be a significant presence for the next few years. The hallmark of the Bush movie may well be a pervading sense that we have all become like Edmond O'Brien in D.O.A. - slipped a fatal dose of slow-acting poison, with no way to save ourselves.
Just as many of the movies starring Bush will very likely be released after he leaves office, the movies where we feel the presence of Richard Nixon continued to be released for years after he resigned in 1974. These would include not simply those most directly about him - All the President's Men (1976), or its trashy/fun fictionalized TV version, Washington: Behind Closed Doors (1977) - but the movies that got to the heart of the vertiginous paranoia and disillusionment that were the essence of the Nixon Era. Among these I'd include The Parallax View, (1974) Night Moves ('75), Chinatown ('74), Shampoo ('73), The Last Detail ('73), Three Days of the Condor ('75), the first two Godfathers ('72, '74), The Conversation ('74), Save the Tiger ('73), Hustle ('75), Taxi Driver ('76), Who'll Stop the Rain (1978), Apocalypse Now ('79), and several Robert Altman movies, including McCabe and Mrs. Miller ('71), The Long Goodbye ('73), California Split ('74), and Nashville ('75). The last gasp of Cinema Nixon came in 1981, with Cutter's Way (a.k.a. Cutter and Bone) - a heady blast of Watergate-via-Chandler brimstone that looked awfully lonesome, stranded in Reagan's America. Still, it could be argued that Nixon's most lasting contribution to American culture will be that clutch of movies held in thrall by his dark ju-ju.
Jimmy Carter, with his jive "I will never lie to you" campaign promise, was never anything more than a dim negative image of Nixon. Perhaps less obviously, though, Ronald Reagan crafted his role as President in large degree as a rebuke to the 1970s, a time most defined by the dark consequences caused by those personal characteristics that seemed to emanate from Nixon like ghosts from a seance. Reagan was after all elected in large part due to his implicit promise to bring an end to the infamous malaise of the post-Nixon years - years that were, in fact, still very much in the shadow of Nixon. What was It's morning again in America other than a collective agreement to repress all the Nixon era's doubt and self-recrimination, and above all to deny the realization reached in the Vietnam War of the great darkness that lurked within, and with it any tragic sense of life? So Reagan's representatives on screen were the cartoon heroes of the day, Arnold and Bruce and Sly, who existed to promote a one-dimensional, juvenile view of life as an action movie with an inevitable happy ending, in direct refutation of the more mature moral shadings of the previous decade's movies. (In this sense, Rocky Balboa and Luke Skywalker, in 1976 and 1977 respectively, were the John the Baptists of the Reagan Era of movies.) The cinematic irony of the 1980s was that, as President, Ronald Reagan finally became - by proxy - the great star of the silver screen that he'd longed to be in the 1940s and '50s.
As with regular movie stars, our Presidential movie stars sometimes cross over to the smaller screen. For example, I suspect it's more than a coincidence that the rash of rural-based sitcoms in the mid-1960s hit their peak during the same years when the President was Lyndon Johnson (native of Stonewall, Texas, population 469, according to Wikipedia). I've always thought these shows were an unconscious expression of the American public's view of LBJ - part amused acceptance, part condescending superiority. Jed Clampett and his kin, packing up and moving into their big white mansion in the hills of Beverly, possibly make more sense, and certainly are more interesting, when viewed not as a sitcom, but rather as an absurd expression of Lyndon and his folks moving into that other big white mansion on the East Coast. As the gaping wound in Southeast Asia widened and bled out, this jocular view of LBJ darkened finally into that act of cinematic insurrection, Bonnie and Clyde, where the folksy, charming, murderous heroes wind up dead in a bloody massacre that still has the power to shock.
Living in a poignant parallel universe alongside TV's Life With Lyndon during these mid-1960s years was a fictional embodiment of Johnson's fallen predecessor, John F. Kennedy - one that is, amazingly, still with us today: Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise. (It can't be an accident, moreover, that the suburban Jack and Jackie of Rob and Laura Petrie were eclipsed by the rural residents of Petticoat Junction and Green Acres just as the real Jack and Jackie were being replaced by Lyndon and Lady Bird.) At the very same time that Captain Kirk was exploring his New Frontier, perhaps the single most iconic character in the movies of the 1960s - also still with us today - was at his peak: the very Kennedy-esque James Bond. Bond's creator, Ian Fleming, was Kennedy's favorite author; surely JFK saw himself in Bond - or rather, hoped to see Bond in himself. In a way, some of the more foolhardy undertakings of Kennedy's administration (the Bay of Pigs, the assassination of Diem in Vietnam) make more sense if we imagine Kennedy watching a Bond movie unspool in his head - one where he starred as President Double-Oh-Seven. (If, instead, these were rational policy decisions, they were just plain nutty.) As Bond and his brethren - Derek Flynt, Matt Helm, Napoleon Solo - jet-setted across the decade, we could imagine a Kennedy whose suits and bon mots were too cool, whose guns and women were too golden for him to die in Dallas.
Kennedy succeeded Dwight Eisenhower, another President who starred in both movies and TV. What were all the sweatered sitcom dads of the 1950s if not stars of a huge, unacknowledged show called I Like Ike, starring Eisenhower as the ideal National Daddy? Hugh Beaumont and Danny Thomas and Robert Young and Ozzie Nelson all starred as Ike, and collectively that show ran for 38 years. (Not only that, it made a big comeback in the 1970s, as American Graffiti and Happy Days and Grease, during the dark days brought on by Ike's wayward son, Tricky Dick, who'd taken many a forked path since first finding TV fame by defending his puppy back in 1952.) People often jokingly wondered what Ozzie Nelson, the longest-lasting TV dad, did for a living. That same joking question was probably asked on not a few occasions about Ike. As it turned out, the joke was on the jokers, since both men were very busy daddies: Ozzie wrote, directed, produced and starred in The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (1952-66), while at the same time negotiating the first million dollar, lifetime music contract for his son, rock musician Rick Nelson; for his part, Ike appointed two of the most influential Supreme Court Justices in history, Earl Warren and William Brennan, sent the National Guard into Little Rock, Arkansas to enforce the Court's desegregation decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, used the CIA to topple governments in Guatemala and Iran, and began America's long and bloody involvement in Vietnam. This darker, more anxiety-ridden Ike, the one who chain-smoked his whole life and had the heart attacks to prove it, starred in a number of big screen movies throughout the decade, including Bigger Than Life (1956), There's Always Tomorrow (1956), Executive Suite (1954), The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956 - the Fredric March role, not the Gregory Peck), and any number of other movies focusing on an experienced, well-meaning paterfamilias vexed by the problems of an unsettling age.
Harry Truman is one of three Presidents - the others being Carter and Bush the Elder - who seem to have utterly failed to capture the cinematic imagination of the American public. Perhaps in Truman's case it's because he was a small town boy, through and through, at exactly the instant when America first became decidedly urban. Consider that film noir was perhaps the dominant genre in American movies of this period, then picture how out of place our collective image of Harry Truman would be in the urban, shadowy world of any film noir. Truman was a 12-year-old farm boy in Missouri when the first public showing of a movie took place in New York City in 1896; maybe it makes sense that he was never ready for, nor even interested in, his close-up: the movies were for city slickers, not good Missouri folk. There's an intriguing contrast here with Eisenhower, who sprang from the equally humble surroundings of Abilene, Kansas, circa 1890; perhaps thanks to his years spent circling the globe with the Army, however, Eisenhower always seemed much more the cosmopolitan than Truman ever did. There's another irony in the fact that the workings of the Kansas City political machine run by Tom Pendergast, Truman's patron for the first 20 years of his career, were not unlike what we might see in any film noir - yet, despite that, we can't imagine our Harry in such a fetid cinematic setting. It's significant that Truman only became an object of public fascination in the Nixon Era, when our sense of having fallen from grace made us yearn for a supposedly simpler world, represented by someone who was already a man out of time in his own day. It's notable too that Truman's star rose via the old, prosaic medium of print, courtesy of Merle Miller's Plain Speaking, rather than the modern, poetic medium of cinema.
Regarding our two remaining cinematic nullities, little needs to be said. In the case of Jimmy Carter, that self-righteous scold, has anyone ever dreamed of making a movie about Tom Sawyer's Aunt Polly? And with poor old George Herbert Walker Bush, his political downfall was his inability to know who he was as a public man; if he didn't know, how could we? And, not knowing, how could we dream our movie dreams about him?
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a master of the public imagination for an amazing length of time, through many of the most significant events in American history. And yet, despite that, his presence is scarce in American movies of his time. A silhouetted figure here or there (Yankee Doodle Dandy, to name one movie), but not much else. Why? Anti-Semitism was at a peak in American life in the 1930s and early 1940s, with the American Bund - a powerful political force and a figure as famous as Charles Lindbergh being very open about his attraction to Germany and his dislike of Jews; in an effort to show their loyalty in this fearful time, the movie executives thought it wise to treat the President as an object of quasi-religious adoration - meaning we could not gaze upon His face. This is the feeling I get during those rare and fleeting moments when an actor dons the sacramental robes of Roosevelt. In my memory of these moments, He is forever seated in shadow, shot from behind, and speaking in hushed tones, while angelic choirs sing reverently in the background. It's peculiar, and leaves me feeling both a little queasy and more than a little sorry for the powerful movie bosses who still felt so isolated and at risk, even with an ocean between them and the Third Reich.
The last starring Presidential role worth noting may also mark the first appearance of the President as a character on screen. That happened during the brief interregnum when Herbert Hoover was on his way out, but FDR was not yet in - when the tsunami of the Great Depression had struck, but the lifeboats of the New Deal had yet to arrive. Two examples: Gabriel Over the White House (1932), where an angel appears in a vision before the hack politician who's been ram-rodded into the White House by political bosses, inspiring the hack to become a paladin of the people, and The Phantom President (1932, starring George M. Cohan!), where a bland but decent Presidential candidate hires his doppelganger, a charismatic huckster, to stand in the spotlight as the public face of the candidate, while the genuine article stays hidden off-stage. These movies record that brief sizzling flare of a moment in the early 1930s when we sense that the peasants came very close to storming the castle with pitchforks and torches. It's remarkable that Hollywood put this on screen, and it's startling to see it today - as if we'd stumbled across an old cache of family letters in which our grandparents were plotting sedition.
Prior to these early Depression years, I can't say whether the President was a starring character in movies, because I haven't seen enough work from the Silent Era to know. But even if he didn't make his cinematic debut until 1932, the President - sometimes in the Oval Office, but much more often in civilian camouflage - has been an enduring, sometimes dominating movie star for more than seven decades. Other than Lillian Gish, no one else comes close to this career. Given every President's saturation advertising every night and day on TV, it's inevitable that nearly any future choice to serve in that office will also be securing a second career as the latest actor filling the role of the World's Longest Lasting Movie Star. It's America's version of Dr. Who, with A-bombs.
I think I may
have written at most two poems over the entire previous span of
my life. But for some reason, in each case this seemed the best
way to go - in the first, to express my dismay at how utterly
lousy the second season of "Heroes" has been (the most
recent phony deaths sent me over the edge, but even before that
was there ever such a precipitous drop in quality between a show's
first and second seasons?); in the second, to convey the fond
glow the subject still maintains in my memory.
ODE ON A BURBANK URN
No mortal coil, no consequences
All sinful wages mere pretenses
No food for worms, no grief, no gore
Ignore the Raven's "Nevermore"
No fatal stab of ancient asp
No fading light, no final gasp
Death, oh death, where is thy sting?
Vanquished by the great Tim Kring
Good old Ghoulardi
Threw a big party
In Cleveland long ago
His hair it was green, man
A spectacle seen, man
In crazy carny shows
The children were dancing
The animals prancing
With carnival rides and games of chance and
Everyone you know
Would come each week
To the Great Ghoulardi Show
When I was a boy, one of the pleasures of TV viewing was the summer replacement show. For the most part, these belonged to what has become the dodo bird of TV genres, the variety show. The pleasure sometimes came from one classy show choosing a classy stand-in - the Smothers Brothers begat Glen Campbell; likewise, Johnny Cash gave us the Everly Brothers - but just as often it came from the sheer cosmic weirdness that three broadcast networks working without competition used to produce with remarkable frequency. (Memories of Paul Revere and the Raiders hosting "Something's Happening!!" in the summer of '68 come to mind. The title pretty much tells the story: we, the TV execs of America, don't have any clue what exactly is happening, but we know something is, so please God let the kids think this show is groovy or cool or hep or whatever it is they say nowadays.)
For twenty years or so, nothing much was stirring on the tube from June to September. But over the past few years, cable channels have started counter-programming with their own original shows, leading to what looked like the crest of a wave this summer. Having scanned Entertainment Weekly's list of new shows set to debut this fall, I think it's a pretty safe bet there were more good shows this summer than there will be in the "real" season that's about to start.
So here's a quick rundown of shows that gave me some degree of enjoyment over the past three months.
Burn Notice: The best new show. Hot shot CIA operative Jeffrey Donovan gets his powers revoked; stranded in the wilds of Miami Beach, he seeks a way back into the Company with help from a couple old friends (Bruce Campbell's burned-out spook turned low-rent gigolo, and Gabrielle Anwar's explosives expert/ex-girlfriend - two terms that are in this case a redundancy). Also offering aid is his dear old mother, played with a refreshing lack of dearness by Sharon Gless. A very pleasing blend of thrills and humor, clever plotting, and characters that are, like the best summer cook-out food, tangy without being too heavy.
Eureka: Perhaps a smidge less delightful than its first season, the core concept (a small town where all of America's half-mad scientific geniuses ply their trade) is still a winner, and the cast remains a happy group to spend an hour with. The turn toward slightly darker tones following last season's finale didn't bother me, but one o two o the later episodes this season were like Coke bottles that someone had forgotten t shoot carbonation into. It's a very tricky job t create something effervescent and pixilated; i any one element i off even slightly, the whole thing can seem too sweet, o too labored. For the most part, the people making this show continued t keep the balance right.
Psych: One of the few places where the spirit of the Marx Brothers still can be found. As with "Eureka," a few percentage points below its first season's batting average. But any show that can give us the following exchange is OK by me:
Police dude: (Referring to a crime scene) I found prints.
Psych dude: Was he driving a little red Corvette?
Psych dude's friend: Under a cherry moon?
There's no way I can resist a show that speaks so sweetly to my eternal inner 15-year-old.
The 4400: For my money, this show does a better job of using its characters' powers and the continuing plot lines as metaphors for current social tensions than does the more highly touted "Heroes." NBC's mega-hit also can't seem to master this show's knack for going around the bend in a whacked-out, did-they-just-do-that way - and I mean that as a compliment. Tom Gretsch has been having fun playing evil this year; by contrast, the actress who plays Isabelle is doing much better this season playing regret than she ever did in the past with lip-smacking villainy. Like the other shows here, this one must walk a fine line: in the case of the others, it's between humor and drama, here it's between too stolid and too zany. So far, so good.
Dead Zone: The title has become all too true. Almost all of the supporting players have been bounced, and way, <i>way</i> too much time has been spent on the Johnny/Sarah relationship. (Let's just say that if the height of fictional romantic passion is represented by Anna Karenina throwing herself in front of a train in the Moscow mist, Johnny and Sarah might best be represented by one or the other catching a Super Shuttle at the Bangor airport.) Easily the two best (the only two good?) episodes this season were those that got Johnny away from Sarah, one where he had an intriguing mystery to solve while picking up a (much more interesting) friend of Sarah's at the bus depot, and the other where he had an unexpected reunion with the (much more interesting) woman psychic from a season or two back.
My Boys: From moment to moment, I go from liking to hating this. Maybe I've just reached my limit on what has become The Judd Apatow Type: supposedly lovably shlubby men who won't stop acting like boys, no matter what the calendar says. Where did all these eternal adolescents come from? In this sense, the show's title is all too true. I suspect that very same outlook produces the likable parts of the show, though, almost all of which focus on the way a small, tight-knit group of long-time friends derive great pleasure from small moments of humor expressed in what amounts to a secret code shared only by them.
Mad Men: Apparently, "Men" became "Boys" sometime between 1960, when this show is set, and now. Remarkable sets and wardrobe, and a surprising willingness to show the casual sexism and racism of its era without either preaching or approving as a way of cuing the audience on how to respond. The live bloggers at newcritics.com have criticized this show for using its era as a way of commenting on today, which strikes me as an odd kvetch: what was "The Godfather," to pick an obvious example, if not a means to explore the corruption of the Vietnam/Nixon era through the lens of one Mafia family? There were reasons for the various social upheavals of the 1960s, and I think "Mad Men" does a nice job of letting us see why a person, or whole big bunches of persons, might have wanted some serious changes at the dawn of that decade. It's also starting to give us a very interesting character in the truly self-invented Don Draper. (Plus, big points for giving Robert Morse a juicy part as the ad agency's major domo.) People seem to either love this or be filled with a powerful desire to beat it to a pulp; in that sense, it's a fine representative of the decade it depicts.
Feasting On Asphalt 2: The River Run: I would never have guessed that my favorite show of the summer would be about a bunch of guys who ride their motorcycles from the mouth of the Mississippi to its headwaters in Minnesota in search of great road food. But that's the truth. Anyone who likes Steinbeck's "Travels With Charley" or Bill Bryson's "The Lost Continent" will enjoy this show. (Ditto its equally good predecessor, about an-east-to-west transcontinental road trip in search of the same greasy Grail.) Our host, Alton Brown, is pleasantly wired without ever crossing over into annoying. Among several strengths, his best might be that he never once condescends to a single person he meets at the various joints where he and his merry band stop to sample the grub. My favorite bit might be the quotations on travel and food that precede each commercial break, with perhaps the two most memorable being Steve McQueen's "I'd rather wake up in the middle of nowhere than in any city on Earth" (I don't share the sentiment, but I applaud the eloquence with which it's expressed, and am pleased by its source), and Kit Carson's profoundly poetic Famous Last Words: "Wish there was time for just one more bowl of chili." Eating what Brown and friends ate would truly slay me, but watching them do it filled me with delight.
If this list shows anything, it's that the broadcast networks ought to make limited series - shows in which a season is comprised of eight or ten episodes, rather than the network standard of twenty-two. It's clearly easier to maintain high quality when you only need to make a handful of episodes. It's also clearly never going to happen on the networks, for all sorts of commercial reasons. And that in a nutshell is why cable was invented. For their part, the Big Three networks have responded to this challenge with precisely the same level of creativity and far-sightedness with which the record companies responded to downloaded music. As they said in everyone's favorite dead language, "Mole ruit sua": It collapses from its own weight. Boy, howdy.
It occurred to me recently that the two TV shows I most enjoyed in 2006 were "Eureka" and "Psych." Both are original series on basic cable, both decent-sized hits, and both reflect - or, more precisely, rebut - some aspect of our current Official Story.
The lead character in "Psych" is a very bright young man who, as a very bright little boy, was bullied by his hard-ass cop dad into honing his latent ability to observe and analyze detail until he became the best eight-year-old detective ever seen. Naturally, the little boy rebelled as a teen and beyond, becoming a wise ass of epic proportions, flitting from job to job until he stumbles into his current role as fake psychic on call to the Santa Barbara police. This unique job description, one he invented on the fly, allows him to use his two skills: to bullshit and to solve crime (which, in a sense, is the ability to detect bullshit committed by others).
The freak upsetting the applecarts of the straights in "Psych" has its mirror image in "Eureka": average Joe sheriff-slash-divorced single dad tries to stop the applecarts from overturning in a town full of freaks. That town is the Eureka of the show's title, a kind of Cold War Brigadoon in which a government-funded group of scientific geniuses is hidden away in its own Pacific Northwest hamlet, picturesque and perfect in every way, save for the odd missile silo and fubar'd time travel experiment.
Without reaching very far, we see here the celebration of two archetypes that have been vilified by our current political leaders, elected and otherwise: the individual and the community. The browbeating father of "Psych" is Dick Cheney/Ann Coulter/You Name It - the rancorous blowhard whose mantra is "You're with us or against us," defining "With us" as "Total capitulation to what I say." (In this regard, Forrest Gump would be the ideal American for Bush's America: he never had any ideas and he always did what he was told.) The Merry Andrew son is an American type reaching back all the way to Yankee Doodle himself, who stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni. Skepticism of authority is for this person as basic as breathing and just as essential to continued good health. (Would that our Congress had shown the same healthy skepticism a few years back.) Naturally, nothing is more of an anathema to our current fearful leaders.
Book-ending the individuality of the lead character in "Psych," there is the rejection of individualism that underlies the community in Eureka. "Individuality" and "individualism," often mistakenly used as synonyms, are of course very different: "To thine own self, be true" versus "Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps." A vivid depiction of a community such as Eureka refutes the idea that any one of us ought to be, or even can be, on our own. When that community is made up of individuals as ardent and unapologetic as the ones in this show, it's a double-whammy to our current powers that be: non-conformists who depend upon each other. What a concept!
Both shows work because all of this heavy lifting is done without breaking a sweat - without even drawing attention to what's being done at all, in fact. If the touch were not so deft, if the sub-text ever became text, if the tale weren't told with a wry grin and a laconic tone, the whole enterprise would tumble down immediately. The fact that both shows must have been conceived, marketed, and approved at least a year or two before hitting the airwaves in the fall of 2006 means that somehow there was a sense on the part of the creators and network executives that, all evidence to the contrary, there was a market for a light heart, a cheeky grin, and a helping hand, despite the dour face and kick in the shins offered by the cronies of the Crown Prince of Crawford.
STUDIO 60 ON THE SUNSET STRIP
Finally got to see the second episode of "Studio 60" and I liked it. As the hour progressed, my enjoyment grew, which I found a hopeful sign. It was a pleasure to see Matthew Perry in a role that was very different from Chandler Bing: I've always thought Perry was a good actor, an opinion buttressed by his previous work for Sorkin on "West Wing;" what I saw in "Studio 60" makes me think he'll have a chance to show more of what he can do in this show. Bradley Whitford gets Sorkin's writing in the same way that the Temptations got Smokey Robinson's writing; this kind of sympathetic creative collaboration is always deeply satisfying to me. Sarah Paulson is flat-out a terrific actress who gets more out of her role than is on the page. Making her character a devout Christian doesn't play to one of Sorkin's strengths, but her interaction with Perry's character, both personally and professionally, was excellent. I've never enjoyed D.L. Hughley before in anything, not even his talk show appearances, so I was surprised to find myself liking his interplay with Whitford's character. Intelligent talk about race, not to mention the delicate dance of highly intelligent people sporting big egos, does play to one of Sorkin's strengths, so Hughley and Whitford could have some good scenes in the future. Steven Weber was good in a non-Steven Weber role: no smart-ass-ery, but rather a shrewd, quiet caginess, with just a touch of droll wit. (A good example of Sorkin's ability to use familiar faces in new, unexpected ways.) I've read a lot of negative comments about Amanda Peet, but I thought she was decent. I think she needs to get comfortable with the kind of stylized dialogue Sorkin writes, but I didn't see any cringe-worthy moments. Having said that, I find myself thinking how good Paget Brewster, late of "Friends" and "Andy Richter Controls the Universe," might have been in this role. Although I don't think the subject matter is as rich as that of "West Wing," the backstage setting of "Studio 60" has certainly been a fertile ground for drama ever since there's been such a thing. With that thought in mind, and with the evidence of this second episode at hand, I'm hopeful about this show's future.
Better than expected: that's my reaction to "Heroes" (in some regions, "Hoagies"). It suffers from the characteristic malady of the cartoon superhero genre, the lack of a sense of humor. Which is just another way of saying the folks who make it take this shit much too seriously. (Or, to put ot more precisely, as people with stressful jobs in real life know, stuff this serious can't be taken without some humor.) There were dangling plot threads that bugged me. (Why was the cheerleader videotaping herself?) There were moments demonstrating the old axiom that imitation is the sincerest form of not having your own ideas. (I kept expecting Chris Carter to grab the bespectacled boogyman and lead him back to the "X-Files" episode from which he clearly escaped.) And I groaned at the prospect of yet another apocalyptic engine chuggin' down the track. (A mushroom cloud over NYC in a painting by the "If you can see the future, why don't you bet on this week's football game?" tortured artist? Do we really have to get on board with that one again?) Despite these cavels and kvetches, though, I'll keep watching. There were enough honest "I can't freakin' believe this is happening to me" moments from the cast to make it interesting. (And I liked that both the cheerleader and the single mom were creeped out by their powers.) But please, producers, let the characters have some fun with this, too. I mean, Tim Kring, dude: you made "Misfits of Science;" you can't NOT have some appreciation of the absurd.
In fact, I suggest that at least once per episode, some character should say with great sincerity, "Do I look like an expert in worm-hole physics??"
I liked it a lot. It wouldn't work at all without America Ferrera's performance. But she manages the difficult feat of hurling her character at full speed into situations that we expect will humiliate her, but in fact leave her undiminished. That's almost impossible to do without sentimentalizing either the character or the outcome, or both, but I never saw that happen in the premiere. I repeatedly found myself thinking, "*I'd* be so embarrassed by this, but - oh, good - *she's* not." That made the difference for me.
I'd say "The Office's" days
are numbered. Specifically: "9" and "41,"
those being the respective rankings for the premieres of "Betty"
and the much-hyped, Emmy-bedecked "Office." That can't
be the predictor of a rosy future for the latter show, no matter
its merits. I find myself surprisingly OK with that, because for
all its good points, I have serious issues with the show, whereas
"Betty" has a big heart and huge potential. (And in
what ought to be an irrelevant aside, but isn't quite yet, if
the show is good, a big hit starring a Hispanic woman who doesn't
look a picket fence rail wouldn't be a bad thing, in the bargain.)
One of the fun things about popular culture is its ability to function as a giant Freudian slip. The anxieties gnawing at the public at any given moment, the ones we least want to discuss, the ones that most make us squirm, slip out in unwitting ways in movies and TV shows and music. Both the fear of Communism and the fear of capitalist conformity were on display in the sci-fi flicks of the 1950s; going back further, the populist anger at the fat cats who led the country into the Depression were frequently the target of Westerns in the 1930s, where railroad and banking robber barons were the villains much more often than Indians.
Something similar is at work today. Big screen adaptations of comic books constitute one of the most popular genres of the past ten years. They've replaced the Arnold/Sly/Bruce action movies of the Reagan years as the dominant summer blockbuster, complete with Roman numeral-ed sequels, overseas box office, and ancillary paydirt via DVDs, video games, and action figures. And just as with Eisenhower Era sci-fi and New Deal Westerns, the current comic book movies share a common message - one that's a surprising contradiction to the strapping confidence that drove the "Uncle Ronnie Versus the Evil Empire" cycle. That message is: Pity the Powerful For They Are Truly Miserable.
I see these movies and their deeply unhappy, profoundly lonely protagonists as an unconscious expression of how we see America in today's world. Spider Man, Batman, Superman, Wolverine, Daredevil, you name it - each of these super heroes is isolated from the rest of humanity, finds his good works unappreciated and even resented, is often treated as an object of derision and fear. In every case, super power secures nothing more than physical pain and spiritual torment. And, boy, do these folks know what a rotten hand they've been dealt. Shoulders slump, brows furrow, capes droop - if you could F/X angst, the folks at CGI could work three shifts a day, seven days a week.
If any of the talent behind these movies had the first clue about the message they were sending - if they had even a glimmer of how future generations will see their work in the context of this post-9/11, Iraq War, Osama historical moment - their movies might have the wit and insight needed to unsettle audiences in the way "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" did in 1956. But, with the sole exception of the wry wags behind "The Incredibles," they don't. The weird upshot of all this gloomy self-flagellation is that Christian Bale's Batman seems to have more in common with Jim Caviezel's Christ than with Christopher Reeve's Superman. Imagine if Randy Newman had meant it when he wrote "Political Science" and you've got the mood of these movies.
The political angle is what finally lets
us see the real leading man in every one of the current woebegone
super hero movies. It's not Jesus, it's George Bush. Or rather,
George Bush as stand-in for America. Listen in your memory to
every time the President has said that America is the world's
only super power. Think about him saying that we must stay the
course, that we can't cut and run. Leaving aside policy issues,
doesn't he sound exactly like Toby Maguire as Spider Man, Christian
Bale as Batman, and that new guy as Superman? Couldn't it be Wolverine,
feeling again the pain as his own blades pierce his skin at the
start of yet another battle? What was George Bush doing in uniform
on the deck of that battleship other than introducing a new comic
book hero? He even provided his own dialogue balloon: not "Bang!"
or "Pow!," but "Mission Accomplished!" And,
just as with all the other comic book heroes today, America feels
isolated, unappreciated, misunderstood. No wonder a poor old super
power would want to go away to Krypton for a few years: No one
on Earth has our power, or our pain.
"One of the biggest and dumbest fallacies of the avant-garde is the idea that the more popular and less outré music is, the more transitory its appeal. Overwhelming evidence in my experience suggests just the opposite - hooks and structure and songs recognizable as songs are easier to remember as time goes by than the lack thereof; they also greatly increase the possibility of adding up to a coherent personality that might leave a lasting impression. In contrast, I've got scores of records on my shelves that I know sounded really cool last time I put them on, but damned if I could pinpoint anything beyond that." - Chuck Eddy
With that in mind, here are a few songs
I've downloaded recently from iTunes, on whose sunny shores I've
only lately made landfall.
"Sun"/The Toms: Bright, happy melody about a certain wistful rue - classic pop tunemaking, in other words, bolstered by a terrific stomping drummer and a simple catchy guitar figure that does what a good hook should do: it gets a little more pleasurable each time you hear it. The fade should probably come about a minute sooner, but that small failing is more than outweighed by the singer's refusal to adopt the willfully weird vocal approach that has become the universal signifier of fierce individuality among indie rock acts. (Note: I don't know for certain that everyone in this band is named Tom, but I like to think so.)
"Alcohol"/Brad Paisley: Country music has always been better than any other music at two subjects: cheating and drinking. Arriving right at the end of 2005, this song might just be the best damn drinking song country music has ever produced. For now I'll say it's Top Five for sure. The inspired choice by Paisley, who co-wrote it, was to sing it in the first person, with the "person" being Alcohol Itself. This allows him to tell his tale in the flat, unsentimental tone of a Mafia hit man or corporate polluter: Business is business, the narrator seems to be saying, and if you want to drink, who am I to stop you? "I'm medicine and I'm poison" packs a real verbal punch, while the reference to the terpsichorean deficiencies of Caucasians is the rare joke that holds up to repeated listening. The melody has more range than the typical pop song - it almost sounds like some great old folk tune that's only now been discovered - and the guitar solo manages the neat trick of achieving an aural expression of lurching drunkenness through the most precise and skillful playing. This is an instant classic from start to finish; most good artists go their whole careers without achieving anything close to what Paisley did here, and he pulled it off it with that willed casualness masking fierce concentration that often marks a good artist's best work.
"Since U Been Gone"/Kelly Clarkson: The first time I heard it, I thought, "Hey, Avril Lavigne learned how to sing." No such luck, but she sure can write a hook. And she, or someone, had the great good sense to give the song, monster hook and all, to someone who could really bring it home vocally. The result proves the wisdom behind the old Brill Building division of labor among songwriters, singers, and musicians: very few people can do any one of those tasks well, and even fewer can do all three. Beyond Clarkson's simple competence as a singer (a quality not to be undervalued in today's market), what makes this burn, even after hundreds of hearings over many months, is Clarkson's determination to prove herself to a wide audience. Every so often someone who's been miscast or misjudged has a breakthrough moment - a song or an album where you can practically hear the singer saying, "See? I TOLD you I could do it." Whenever that happens, it's an electric shock for almost anyone who hears it. It's that shock that kept this single alive for its very long run, helped by the absolutely furious drums and guitar, each of which reiterates the singer's message: "I will not be denied."
"Kerosene"/Miranda Lambert: This is a rock and roll record in every aspect, from the relentless drums to the guitar riff (Charlie Watts and Keith Richards, respectively, in all but fact), right down to the unabashed twang of the singer, surely Wanda Jackson's lost daughter. Wanda is key, for this is soaked in the same Southern brew that produced rockabilly, and the result has that same taut feel of a knife fight about to break out in a nasty bar. The song itself and its vocal delivery is in the grand and glorious tradition of righteously pissed off women; in that cause, Miranda Lambert's "Ha!" is surely the best use of that exclamation since Nancy Sinatra set the standard in "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'" four decades back. A bonus in the pay envelope for whoever thought of using a blues harmonica on the solo, instead of the standard issue guitar part you'd expect. It refreshes the whole record, and it nails down the fact that this is an act of insurrection, not a genuflection to tradition. A rock and roll record, that is, not a country one, no matter what chart it's listed on.
"1 Thing"/Amerie: The credit is a ruse: this record is by and about Ziggy Modileste's fabulous drumming. The levees couldn't keep back Katrina's water, but listening to this music, you believe that Modileste, the king of New Orleans drumming, could have done it all by himself. In the presence of such a titanic force, Amerie's pleasant, indistinct voice functions as the equivalent of an accompanying organ part. No shame in that: the power of Ziggy's beat would turn the strongest wind into no more than a light breeze.
"Who Says You Can't Go Home"/Bon Jovi with Jennifer Nettles: As a singer, Jon Bon Jovi is a natural hambone, not unlike Jon Lovitz in his SNL role as the Great Thespian. As a lyricist, Bon Jovi turns to the cliche like a labrador swims toward a downed mallard. Often, these traits make the band's music dull, but once in a while they produce something truly satisfying and tasty, like that rare perfect cheeseburger from a fast food joint. "Livin' On a Prayer" is the ultimate example; this song is another. The lyrical cliches fly thick and fast, often two or three to a line, but at some point it becomes like early 1970s interior decoration: you start to kind of like the shag carpet and orange walls, and even the macrame and sea shells hanging from the ceiling. The melody is a winner and the subject touches something that's common to many of us, with the last line even achieving a grace note unusual for this band: "Take it in, take it with you when you go." A commendable piece of work.
"Blame the Vain"/Dwight Yoakam: Country music's worst feature is its defensive insularity. This can produce off-putting work that is at once smug and self-pitying, preening in its self-satisfaction and paranoid in its sense of persecution. In very rare cases, a country artist will take a sober look at these regrettable tendencies and the results can be memorable. For example: "Blame the Vain," a song that, if you look at it sideways and kind of squint your eyes a little bit, just might be a comment on our current misadventures in the Big Sandbox. Follow this one with a spin of Tim McGraw's "The Cowboy In Me" and you'd have a surprisingly scathing self-critique of American folly. The punch line? Yoakam has scored his first big hit in years with this song.
"We Got the Meat"/Uncle John's
Pizza TV Ad: Re-write of the Go-Go's biggest hit, once a statement
of independence, now a weird endorsement of cannibalism and porn,
blasting over our living room TVs twice hourly. Somewhere, Adam
Smith is laughing hard.
"The Green Fields of Canada"/Ladies of the House: Six-and-a-half minutes of vocals and piano pure and pristine, with lyrics that shift from stark clarity to deliberate muddle, like codes sent in war time, create a sense of foreboding and unease: somewhere buried in this long tale, we sense, there lies the awful history of two, maybe three countries, and if we could really understand all of it, it would keep us awake at night. So the singer, with the most understated sense of irony, delivers it to us as a lullaby. And then walks off, smiling at the prospect of all us sleepless children pulling the covers up tight under our chins, watching the shadows of ghosts on the walls.
"George Bush Doesn't Care About Black People"/Kanye West: Not a "real" single, whatever that means these days, available only via mp3, and unheard by me. But it's an example of how the Internet can fill some of the gap left by the eradication of small record labels by big conglomerates starting at the end of the 1960s. It made a big enough bang that it finished high in this year's Village Voice poll., so somebody heard it And it has a pretty memorable title.
"Smells Like Teen Spirit"/Paul
Anka: Deathbed Sinatra, cut by a one-time Teen Idol vanquished
by the Beatles, who paid the bills with royalties from Johnny
Carson's theme song and Ol' Blue Eyes' "My Way," before
making his comeback post-Roe v Wade with the puke-a-licious "(You're)
Havin' My Baby," after which he took up residence in that
living wax museum-cum-vampire's castle known as Las Vegas. An
unusual pop career, in other words, whose practitioner has spent
more than his fair share of time staring into any number of abysses
and lived to tell the tale. This record is it, and it takes Kurt
Cobain's sulfurous kiss-off to levels of the Inferno never seen
by Kurt, except perhaps in his worst nightmares about the perils
of stardom. Anka's too-cool-for-any-room "Yeah" after
the first time through the "My libido" line - tossed
off with immaculate nonchalance - is Tony Soprano's autobiography
in one syllable, and it's at least a chapter in Frankie's, too.
Plus, the whole thing swings. An inspired moment from a completely
LIFE ON A MOVIE SET
I work in the Daily Planet Building. I get my morning coffee in the rotunda of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., I drive home in the evening through the bustling streets of Manhattan in the Roaring Twenties, and from time to time on the weekends I pass a spot where Buffy Summers battled demons, or the Keystone Cops went careening around a corner, back when Woodrow Wilson was President.
In other words, I live in Los Angeles, where on any given day, at any random moment, you're apt to find yourself walking through a place you know in a way that is at once intimate and one step removed, via a movie or TV show.
This isn't about illusion versus reality. In real life, no one yells, "Cut" and you don't get ten percent of the box office gross. And it's not about how we all want to be celebrities in this celebrity-mad culture, because, let's face it, what sane person wants that static?
But it's no news flash to say we live in a world saturated with media of all kinds, as a result of which we watch ourselves, and are aware of ourselves being watched, more than any other people at any other time in the history of the world. As a result, I suspect we're more aware than past generations of how the high profile products of our mass culture reveal something about our secret selves - "the dreams and wishes you wish at night when lights are low," as Buddy Holly put it. We watch the event, and react to it, but the little color commentator, or spin doctor, or deconstruction theorist, in our heads analyzes our reaction in a way and to a degree that I don't think used to happen in the many millennia of human drama that played out before cameras were invented.
So these little pieces won't be about politics or philosophy or car repair or advice for the lovelorn, since I'm patently unqualified to comment on any of those subjects. But as a TV baby and citizen of the City of Re-Takes, maybe I can offer a few stray comments on the passing parade of pop culture and our responses to it.
"V For Vendetta"
I wasn't a fan of "The Matrix." Its philosophical musings reminded me of the scene in "Animal House" where Pinto gets stoned for the first time with the help of his college professor; Pinto stumbles upon the new - to him - revelation that the entire universe could exist in one molecule in his little finger, man! It was the perfect depiction of the newbie stoner, but the Wachowskis appeared to take it seriously, to the detriment of their movie. Visually, I found "The Matrix" to be strikingly ugly, the whole thing a uniform and unappealing olive green, as if it had been filmed through a filter made from an old Army jacket. And the supposed breakthrough visual effects have proven useless, both because they tend to bring a movie to a screeching halt - returning the medium in essence to the the pre-cinematic era of flipbooks - and because every filmmaker knows that if he borrows the effect, everyone will say he ripped off "The Matrix."
So I went into "V For Vendetta" with less than lofty expectations. I was happy, therefore, to find it more enjoyable than I anticipated, while sensing that it missed its mark nonetheless. This is a movie that was conceived and executed with the clear intent of creating a cinematic Molotov cocktail, one that would become a cause celebre, dominate cable talking heads and Internet blogs, not to mention the good old morning water cooler at work, through its ability to excite, incense, and generally rile us up. In that sense, I suspect, it fizzled.
I think the failure to ignite is both cinematic and philosophical, which fits the pattern establsihed by "The Matrix." The director, a non-Wachowski named James McTeigue, has a "show and tell" approach to directing: he plants the camera in one spot and shows us what he wants us to see while the actors tell us what he wants us to hear. In a post-Spielberg era, there's surprisingly little camera movement and a remarkable sense of the old proscenium arch. This drained the energy out of a movie whose plot should have guaranteed a gathering sensation of hurtling toward the climax; instead, the second half sagged. (A supposed comic scene involving Stephen Fry's TV host, coming mid-way through the movie, was just plain awful; the movie never seemed to regain the energy it had prior to that.)
Philosophically, the flaw in the makers' thinking can be seen in their target for V's vendetta, the Houses of Parliament. The notion being promoted is that the people's elected leaders failed them so badly that a cathartic purging of the old order is needed. The problem here is that Parliament represents what is still the best approach to government we people have managed to come up with; destroying that symbol serves as a rejection of that approach, which doesn't strike me as a great leap forward for humanity. If our elected leaders failed us - a failure, by the way, that we the supposedly pure folk bear responsibility for, since we chose those leaders - then by all means throw the bums out. But blowing up the building solves nothing, rejects what is best about us, and misses the point in the bargain.
I have a hunch that the audience recognized this philosophical mis-fire. I suspect that the ads, which highlight V's "People shouldn't fear their government, it's the government that should fear the people" - heard this as the load of hooey that it is. I have a hope that people responded at some level by concluding that fear shouldn't be, doesn't need to be, part of the equation, and that filmmakers who try to sell the idea that it is are part of the problem of our age, not the solution to that age's troubles.
So what worked? Surprisingly, the performances. Natalie Portman was engaging and charming in the lead role. She has shown in all her non-Lucas roles that she is an intelligent, self-assured young woman who can hold the camera and our interest. This role, or the director, didn't allow her to provide some of the ambiguous tones she found in "Closer," but she seems capable of being an enjoyable movie star and interesting actress for a long time. Hugo Weaving had a terrible handicap in the mask he wore through the entire film; the irony here is that the static medium of comic books requires the audience to provide a feeling of movement that the mask would otherwise prevent, whereas the kinetic medium of film serves only to highlight the inability of the mask to provide the movement we want in the "face" of our lead actor. Thankfully, Weaving has a remarkably expressive voice - it can't make us unaware of the problems created by the mask, but without that voice the movie would have been in big trouble.
Even more than the leads, though, the best part of "V" was in the wonderful series of supporting players, each of whom provided the fire and pain that the movie aimed for, but otherwise lacked. The Stephens Rea and Fry, Sinead Cusack, Rupert Graves, Tim Pigott-Smith, Natasha Wightman, Roger Allam - each appeared, some for only a scene or two, and made us care.
And that's the final irony of "V
For Vendetta." The Wachowskis say we should blow up the building
for the sake of "the people," but it's clear that as
filmmakers they care only about the building - the effects, the
sets, costumes, the technological edifice of a film. They have
no sense of connection with us living breathing humans, the ones
that V and their movie are supposedly so hellbent to avenge. It's
a kind of justice, then, that those most fallible and quixotic
representatives of the species, actors, give their movie whatever
life it has.