All posts filed under “Television

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Influenza Playlist

Being sick loosens the customary strictures of my TV ethos. Normally, oppressed by my needs to maximize efficiency and minimize shame, I mostly try to watch things I haven’t seen before and things that aren’t total garbage. But six days on the sofa with the flu lends license to revisit old things and wallow in crap.

In addition to random episodes of various television shows, a Green Bay Packers playoff game, a Crimson Tide championship game, the Golden Globe Awards where Meryl Streep talked about how we need to protect journalists and insulted MMA, and dunes of additional flotsam (I discovered my Apple TV can stream every Simpsons episode ever, which is good to know), here’s some of what I can remember watching in living DayQuil-vision over the last week.

Once Upon a Honeymoon, Leo McCarey (1942). Carey Grant and Ginger Rogers try to conduct a playful romantic comedy amongst the Nazi intrigues leading up to WWII. Featuring a scene where they’re mistaken for Jews and confined to the Warsaw ghetto. One of the most schizophrenic movies I’ve ever seen.

Being There, Hal Ashby (1979). Revisited for obvious reasons. Ashby, working off a script byJerzy Kosiński, posits that a complete idiot uncomprehendingly reciting snippets of TV advertisements could rise to political power, but he doesn’t quite dare to get Chauncey Gardiner all the way into the Oval Office, he just hints at the possibility. Outrageous satire then, business as usual now.

Caddyshack, Harold Ramis (1980). This amused me less than I thought it would. I didn’t remember how much of the comedy turned on sexism. The Chevy Chase character has held up better than the Bill Murray character, I think.

High Fidelity, Stephen Frears (2000). This wasn’t as fun as I remembered, either, and for sort of similar reasons. The movie proposes the girls as existing only to thwart or satisfy the boys. The boys are the only characters whose problems actually matter, and they’re all a bunch of assholes. It was fun seeing all the posters in the record store, though. The Silos! God. The year 2000 was a lot of years ago all of a sudden! Amazing how little consciousness of hip hop these boys have.

Rushmore, Wes Anderson (1998). Very nice, but really all I can think about it what a quantum leap it was from this to The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), which is so infinitely better.

His Kind of Woman, John Farrow (1951). Uneven and claustrophobic romance/noir suffered a lot of production problems and it shows. But I’d watch Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell hang wallpaper, and Vincent Price is a hoot.

The Hateful Eight, Quentin Tarantino (2015). You know, I got about eight hateful minutes into this and turned it off. It’s just boring. Probably unfair.

Blue Velvet, David Lynch (1986). Hasn’t lost an ounce of weirdness in thirty years. You can’t imagine it being made today. There’s something so frank (forgive me) about its presentation of depravity. It doesn’t wink at itself, or us; it doesn’t say, “Ooh, look how naughty and outré I am.” It’s just like: Look at this.

The Secret Rules of Modern Living: Algorithms, David Briggs (2015). Notice how both this documentary and the article I mention below mention “secret rules.” I’ve been abstractly terrified of the Internet for some time now; since the election it’s not very abstract. (I squarely blame the Trump presidency on the Internet, period.) I came across this documentary on Netflix and I’m glad I watched it. Math has never been my strong suit, but the cheerful Oxford don explains algorithms in terms even I could understand, and I feel I have a glancing knowledge now of how, for instance, Google search works. Pretty fascinating.

The Secret Rules of the Internet,” Catherine Buni and Soraya Chemaly (2016). I so wish we had Orwell with us to see what is happening to the nature of public discourse. This article really got me thinking about how we’ve increasingly ceded authority and standards for truth to the radical flatness of the Internet, where information moves because of money and/or ideological agenda, and the truth is completely optional. Meryl Streep was right; we need to support real journalists now more than ever.

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Ketchup

KetchupCan’t keep up the full-blown posts while school’s in session. This isn’t everything seen, heard, and read this semester — just what I can remember off the top of my head.

Atonement, Ian McEwan (2001). Hundreds of terrific sentences and a lively yarn. Is it now always necessary that every novel has to be about both what it’s about and also about novelists?

Ex Machina, Alex Garland (2015). This made me so mad but now I’m having trouble even remembering it. I think it had to do with the fact that it was masquerading as being all Jaron Lanier philosophical when really it’s just about grubby horny boys wanting to look at sexy naked girls without feeling bad about it. Two choices available to female-coded beings in this world: slave or murderer. See my commentary elsewhere regarding those recent Scarlett Johansson movies; she’s the queen of this kingdom, and Luc Besson is its Don King.

Believing Is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography, Errol Morris (2011). Manic, obsessive, repetitive, and great investigation of photography’s truthiness and its consequences. Particularly astute on the ways photographs can be put to use as political propaganda.

Diogenes the Cynic: Sayings and Anecdotes, With Other Popular Moralists, ed. Robin Hard (2012). I didn’t like Diogenes as much as I thought I would. His inconsistencies irritate me. Turns out I’m more of a Seneca guy. What are you going to do.

Dialogues and Essays, Seneca. Still working on this. Not as immediately accessible as Marcus Aurelius but I’m warming to it.

Meditations, Marcus Aurelius. I love this like I love Montaigne; their spirits are so close. (My understanding is that Montaigne oddly doesn’t seem to have known Aurelius — a pity.) The Staniforth translation is the best. The Robin Hard one may be “better” for classicists but it’s awful for human consumption.

Welcome to Me, Shira Piven (2014). A little Truman Show, a little Nurse Betty, a little To Die For. Doesn’t quite hold together, is too one-note and too relentlessly committed to despair, but it’s still a smart movie.

Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3), Suzan-Lori Parks (2015). If you’re struggling to write a play about a soldier come home from a war and you find out that your favorite living playwright’s new play is titled “Father Comes Home from the Wars,” you have some kind of mixed feelings. But the main feeling here is satisfaction, since this is one of Parks’ best.  I admire her so much. I’m particularly impressed that she’s getting less and less obscure, but isn’t losing any of the fundamental ambivalences that make her work so provocative. This work is every bit as incisive and destabilizing as, say, The America Play, but I can also imagine this one put on by a high school drama club, whereas earlier work was a bit too far out for that kind of venue. Wonderful, wonderful piece; wish I could have seen it at the Public.

The Sellout, Paul Beatty (2015). Beatty reminds me of my good friend Jeffrey McDaniel, such a fecund imagination that he’ll never use one clever metaphor when three have come to mind. The novel works as a crazy comic satire on contemporary race relations, politics, poverty, capitalism, Los Angeles, and also as a sort of fictional beard for Beatty’s more essayistic commentaries on all of the above. I sometimes wish Beatty didn’t feel the need to stuff every single sentence with as many jokes as possible, but all that candy is laced with enough acid that I suppose it balances out in the end.

Also reread Roth’s The Radetzky March  and The Emperor’s Tomb this fall, for fun.  

Also reading more Simon Stephens plays.

TV: Sandy convinced me to watch Orphan Black. It’s pretty dumb but I did watch the whole thing. It’s kind of ironic that here you have a show with all these strong female characters, but only one actress getting work! Also watched the Netflix series Narcos, FX’s The Americans, and Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle. Also re-watched the entire span of The Wire and thought it’s holding up very well. More and more, I find I watch fewer movies and more series. This depresses me a little, but I don’t know why.

Listening: Nicholas Jaar, Claude von Stroke, The Juan Maclean, Dexter Gordon, McCoy Tyner, Maya Jane Coles. Utterly in love with my absurdly expensive Spotify subscription.

Looking: Thinking a lot about August Sander’s People of the 20th Century, Sternfeld’s Stranger Passing, and this post from Blake Andrews on “docutrinity.”

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Orange is the New Black, Jenji Kohan (2013-)

feelcopI enjoyed Jenji Kohan’s Weeds, but I always felt kind of uneasy about it at the same time. It was set up as a standard fish-out-of-water comedy — suburban soccer mom enters the world of illegal drug trafficking — and it was funny in many predictable ways, as we watched Nancy Botwin (Mary Louise Parker) widen her wide eyes in recognition at each stage of her education as she gradually mastered her new milieu. Our pleasure came from watching her first learn the ropes and then learn to pull the strings, but there was always a sense of tension too, because whenever it seemed like Nancy had figured it all out, she’d stumble into some unforeseen dark corner of the trade and find herself confused and panicked.

My uneasiness came from the fact that those dark corners got darker and darker. It was one thing to watch Nancy to blunder and stammer through her first attempts to buy wholesale dope from a seasoned dealer. When, at some point, I found we’d got into the territory of rape, murder, and human trafficking, I felt disoriented — was I still supposed to be laughing?

Kohan’s new project Orange is the New Black, starring Taylor Schilling as Piper Chapman, gives me similar fantods. Once again we have a nice white lady from money enter a demimonde where the kinds of savvy she possesses (how to start an artisanal soap company) are useless, and the kinds she needs (how to deal with an aggressive suitor or angry rival in the communal shower) seem unattainable. And also again, there’s a — for me — discomfiting confusion over the genre mindset I’m supposed to be in. When the inmates are arguing over who’s going to get to play the good parts in the Christmas pageant and who’s going to have to play the cattle in the manger scene, I feel safely in Barney Miller sitcom country. But when a fellow inmate orchestrates Piper’s being remanded to the solitary confinement unit, I’m not amused. Abuse of punitive solitary confinement is a horrific and persistent issue in the American penal system, and I don’t like seeing it represented in a comical context. The scenes of Piper in the security housing unit aren’t themselves comic, but the overall context of the show is. The effect of having documentary/dramatic type passages mixed in with clearly contrived/comic passages is that the comedy seems bizarre and the drama seems undermined.

The series’ sexual and racial politics are also difficult to manage. There’s a sweet feel-good love story between a couple vulnerable and nice kids, one of whom happens to be a white male corrections officer and the other of whom is a female Hispanic inmate. We seem to be asked to see this as a light and frothy and charming star-crossed lovers story, but when things get problematic in the relationship, the series seems to also require us to take our Foucault down from the shelf and start thinking about power. Again, I’m not sure what’s funny. It doesn’t seem funny.

OK, enough, I think I’ve made my basic point. Were I to go on, I would talk about how the show consistently portrays whiteness as a norm. White characters get to be complex in this show; characters of color are almost completely reduced to stereotypes. But OK, enough. Oh, we should also talk about how Lesbians are represented. And we should also talk about how thrilled the series is to show us naked female bodies—constantly, and almost from almost the first frame!—and why that might be. But right, enough.

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Ketchup

These endless summer days I ingest culture faster than I can process it. In addition to a lot of material about PTSD, which I’m reading for a writing project, this is what’s been passing in front of my eyeballs. 

White Material, Claire Denis (2009). Denis goes back to Africa. Isabelle Hupert makes me nervous. The politics here are a mess, totally confused. A good example of how sloppy thinking likes to masquerade as ambiguity. But it’s Claire Denis, so of course we must still love it.

Somewhere, Sofia Coppola (2010). Just letting the camera keep running on a lifeless scene doesn’t make it Cassavetes. This is a deeply boring movie.

Another Year, Mike Leigh (2010). Another heartbreaker from Mike Leigh. It’s not really a story so much as it is a kind of temporal vitrine, in which are displayed a half-dozen fully-realized characters, interacting with each other and trying to be alive.

True Grit, Joel and Ethan Coen (2010). Lacks the Coen whimsy of Fargo, etc. and also the Coen fatedness of No Country for Old Men. Fine, but neither here nor there.

F for Fake, Orson Welles (1973). Sloppy, self-indulgent, self-important, gimmicky, dull. And that’s coming from someone who’s genuinely interested in and who has great patience for this theme. Poor old fucker.

American Experience: Stonewall Uprising, Kate Davis and David Heilbroner (2010). Nice doc. Lots of fascinating footage of Village life in the 60’s.

The Fighter, David O. Russell (2010). Stolid family drama, worth seeing. Has the kind of genuineness and moral seriousness of purpose you rarely see at the multiplex these days. It’s about a hundred times less interesting than, say, Raging Bull, but I think contemporary audiences are so incredibly grateful when they’re not pandered to, they wind up thinking something like this is art for the ages.

Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, Jonathan Shay (1994). Perfect idea, poorly executed with slack, repetitive prose and a lot of unnecessary self-dealing.

Speed the Plow, David Mamet (1988). Dialogue perfection. Perfect dramatic efficiency.

Still Life: A Documentary, Emily Mann (1982). Really lively, allusive, slippery drama about the collision of eros and thanatos in the post-war life of a Vietnam veteran.

Lethal Warriors, David Philipps (2010). Philipps didn’t ask for this job; he was a sports writer in Colorado Springs when the “Band of Brothers” started coming back from Iraq and killing each other and others. Philipps does an admirable job of stepping up and becoming a real reporter, covering some of the saddest stories of the war. Good, thorough, clear reporting. See also the Frontline episode, The Wounded Platoon.

Louie, Louis C.K. (2010-). Makes Seinfeld look like Happy Days.

The Passenger, Michelangelo Antonioni (1975). Oh, it’s horribly pretentious and aimless and even sometimes irresponsible, but it’s also of course gorgeous and dizzying poetry. I had to go get my camera to take pictures of it. Then I had to spend an hour planning a trip to Andalusia. 

The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann (1924). Been clambering up this Alp since May. Certainly skimmed some of the later Settembrini discourses, but I genuinely enjoyed almost all of these 700 pages. Took extensive notes elsewhere. This is utterly worth your time. Read it while you’re young. What’s it about? It’s about a young man who decides — the verb is too strong — to absent himself from history.

Port of Shadows, Marcel Carné (1938). Oh, France. Merci pour Michèle Morgan.

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Damages, Glenn Kessler, Todd A. Kessler & Daniel Zelman (2007-)

This is one of the most claustrophobic and nasty pieces of television I’ve ever seen. There’s not a single likeable character, everyone is a lying and cheating power-mad narcissist out to stab everyone else in the back and then self-justify. Worst of all, no one even seems to enjoy the overripe fruits of their iniquitous labors. The show is completely humorless and profoundly amoral. Watching it makes me feel dirty and ashamed, but I’m halfway through it now.

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Treme, Eric Overmyer and David Simon (2010)

This started slowly and creakily. Ours is a household that loves New Orleans, and we were wary. Despite all the protestations precisely to the contrary we heard the filmmakers utter in interviews, it seemed to us the show was bogged down in a lot of explaining, pandering, cliches, and oversimplification. Its New Orleans is a place where everyone eats rice and beans on Mondays, everyone knows who Kid Ory was, everyone dances second line every other day. I’ve been watching The Wire lately, and they don’t make everyone in Baltimore eat nothing but crabcakes; I think N.O. gets singled out for this kind of overtypification simply because it seems, to people from other parts of the country, like something of a foreign country. I almost want to call the show’s vision of N.O. a kind of orientalism. I hope viewers realize there are square people who live there, too. There’s only one square person on the show–a dentist–and he’s been banished to Baton Rouge.

All that said, things did pick up and we wound up sticking with it, even developing an iota of affection for the initally hugely irritating and grotesquely caricatured Steve Zahn (as Davis). I don’t know if we’re going to make it much further, though. Looking over the remaining chararacters, I find that the only one I really want to know much more about is the one played by Wendell Pierce (Antoine Batiste). I am fervently hoping that the troubled couple of young musicians (Annie (Lucia Micarelli) and Sonny (Michiel Huisman)) fall off a ferry as quickly as possible.

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The Pacific, Jeremy Podeswa (2010)

You could write a dissertation–someone probably has–on how successive generations of WWII narratives–movies in particular–have shaped the way we remember these events. This vivid and dynamic miniseries succeeds as a story because it has, obviously, the unity of opposites in spades, and also some quite idiosyncratic and well-developed characters to care about. But it also intends to revise or enlarge some of our assumptions about the war in the Pacific, and it succeeds at that too. First, it introduces, among the more familiar locations like Iwo Jima and Guadalcanal, some less familiar but nonetheless devastating and crucial battles, like those at Peleliu and Cape Gloucester on New Britain. Second, the series contrasts–gently, gently, ever so gently–the nonstop hellishness of fighting in the Pacific, which could sort of be like D-Day every day, with the different type (i.e., less hellish) of fighting in Europe. Third, and most notable, the series deeply engages with the fact of the psychological trauma soldiers experienced during and after the war. “Shell shock” here isn’t ignored, mocked, covered up, or glossed over: It’s pretty much front and center the whole way through, which seems as much to reflect our growing contemporary awareness of the ubiquity of war’s invisible wounds as it does the historical reality of the phenomenon.

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Maria Bamford

I watched John Oliver’s New York Standup Show — I’m not a big fan of standup comedy, it just happened to be on — and I thought Maria Bamford was alarmingly funny, or maybe funnily alarming. At one point she did an impersonation of a female comedian doing a set of cliche jokes for a comedy club audience (my boyfriend this, shopping that, etc.), and it was really trippy, because everyone in the audience was laughing, but you couldn’t tell if they were laughing at the jokes, or laughing at the fact that people laugh at jokes like that, or some combination. Nice.

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Lost, J. J. Abrams et al. (2004-2010)

I recently watched the entire first season of Lost while trapped in a hotel room for four days. I like that the show’s name is just one letter away from an anagram of “plot,” because it seems to me a great example of how plot can be manipulated in such a way that the reader is always yearning for coherence and conclusiveness without ever being, well, lost. The program’s narrative line works very much like one of those morphine drips they give to hospital patients in pain: The first time you push the button you get a rush of thick, sturdy narrative, but over time the coherence begins to crack and fissure. You start mashing at the button for another hit, but nothing comes, until just when you’re about to holler for the nurse (or switch in disgust to a rerun of The Office), WHOOSH, here comes another wave of totalization. The effect reminds me of Lyotard’s idea that knowledge isn’t a condition but a phenomenon: local, ephemeral, transitory. However, like many a “postmodern novel,” the show’s cleverness resides solely in its system, not in its effects, by which I mean that once you figure out how the plotting works, there’s not much more fun to be had, by which I mean I don’t think I’ll continue on to season two. Unless the temperature stays in the teens, in which case I might want to see me some more Hawaii.

UPDATE 01/28/10. Just a week and a half since I wrote this smarmy post, and I think I’ve watched something like 275 more episodes. I’m somewhere in season 43 or thereabouts. I am losing sleep, not sorry, pathetic, etc.

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Ketchup

All blogging energy still going to Harriet at the Poetry Foundation, but here’s what’s up on the home front.

Drunken Angel, Akira Kurosowa (1948). Beautifully shot but plodding story of an alcoholic doctor (not unlike Graham Greene’s whiskey priest in The Power and the Glory) determined to treat a self-destructive mobster with TB in postwar Tokyo. A kind of allegory of Japan trying to muck out its stalls. There’s a bubbling miasma right in the middle of the neighborhood just to remind us of where and when we are.

I Live in Fear, Akira Kurosowa (1955). Patriarch of a large family in the smelting business becomes so obsessed with his fear of nuclear weapons he insists on selling everything and moving to Brazil. The family doesn’t want to go, also doesn’t want to disrespect papa. A lot of long anguished silences ensue. Still, it got to me; Mifune’s absolutely terrific as the terrified and terrifying protagonist.

The Making of a Chef, Mark Ruhlman (1999). Ruhlman goes to the CIA and writes about what it takes to make it. Lively and engaged journalism, great fun if you’re the kind of person who enjoys debates over how dark a roux should be used in the making of brown sauce, which I am.

House of Games, David Mamet (1987). I’ve probably seen this ten times and it’s still really. really. good. It seemed kind of antique when it first came out, and has aged beautifully. The big red convertible seemed Twin Peaksish before there even was a Twin Peaks.

The Spies of Warsaw, Alan Furst (2008). One of my many guilty pleasures. Read more than half of this on a day of LGA delays while listening to Radian on the iPod. Was almost happy!

The Dark Side, Jane Mayer (2008). Probably the most significant and comprehensive account of Richard Cheney’s efforts to secure unlimited and incontrovertible power for the executive branch, and the inevitable results. The accounts of Jack Goldsmith, Dexter Filkins, Seymour Hersh, Phillipe Sands, and others are certainly also worth reading, but this one is the one to read if you’re only going to read one, in my opinion.

Beacons of Ancestorship, Tortoise (2009). Yuck! Way too noisy. Sounds like high school students covering Can songs. Had to listen to Millions Now Living ten times before I was able to forgive the lads for this betrayal of my love.

Dying City, Christopher Shinn (2008). This rather lightweight play, which uses the device of identical twins to investigate certain dualities to be found in human nature, was, amazingly, nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Weak.

A lot of drama in current rotation. Bert Brecht (esp. Galileo). Georg Büchner (I hesitate to mention this name, since I am loving this book so much I don’t even want anyone else to know about it. Do you ever get that way about a book? It’s a weird feeling.) Mark Ravenhill (wildly overrated). Suzan-Lori Parks (fantastic, esp. Venus, but all of it is terrific). Genet, Lorca, Peter Weiss. On deck: Edna Walsh, von Kleist, Wolfgang Borchert.

TV worth watching: Smith. You can only watch this if you have DirecTV, and there are only seven episodes. CBS produced and then killed it in 2006-2007. It’s very good; Ray Liotta’s character has a lot in common with DeNiro’s in Mann’s Heat.

TV which might be worth watching; I can’t really tell: Weeds. I find this show very disconcerting, but completely addictive. It’s so weird. What does it even mean? Cheech & Chong + Three’s Company + Good Fellas. Or something like that. I suspect if I lived in California, it would just seem like a reality show. As it is, I’m bewildered but fascinated.