Monday, January 31, 2011

90's Hit Parade #92

Hole - Gold Dust Woman

Writing about Courtney Love can be very complicated. On the one hand, she gets so much shit that you want to defend her. On the other hand, the shit she gets is pretty much earned. Courtney Love is, on her best day, an asshole. On her worst day, she's a truly repellent human being. But back on that first hand, so are Jim Morrison, Axl Rose and Keith Moon. And I can hear the reply already: "Hey, I think Axl Rose is an asshole, and I've said so many times." And people DO think Axl Rose is an asshole, but nobody is really obsessed with saying Axl is an asshole the same way they are with Courtney. He doesn't inspire the kind of vitriol that Courtney does. And I don't think you have to be a women's studies major to figure out why. So one ends up having to do all sorts of verbal contortions to defend Courtney without really defending Courtney.

We'll talk more about Ms. Love as we move up the list, but for now, let's talk about this song. "Gold Dust Woman," released on the soundtrack to the second or third sequel to The Crow, is one of those covers that fits the performer so well that you listen to it and you can't believe it was ever NOT a Hole song. Could this really have been a Fleetwood Mac song? Did they write it with the intention of giving it to Courtney Love?* She keeps the gothic majesty of the original, but douses it in gasoline and sets it aflame. It swoops down like a bird of prey, like an avenging angel screaming in triumph over the corpses of her enemies, turning what was once a mournful ballad sung in a funereal hush into an arena rock anthem. You can feel so many emotions here: grief, anguish, wrath, release. It's the complicated mess of emotions that makes up Courtney Love's mental state spat back at the world.

Bonus Reading: Why Courtney Love Matters. Really great read. Read the NYT piece it's commenting on while you're at it.

*OK, Fleetwood Mac's "Gold Dust Woman" doesn't exactly fade into the background like Otis' "Respect" or Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" or Junior Parker's "Mystery Train." It's still probably my favorite song on Rumours (maybe tied with "The Chain"), and since my parents listened to that 8-track on a constant loop for several years during the 70's, it's pretty much got permanent residence in my mind. But man, I love what Hole do with it.

Friday, January 28, 2011

90's Hit Parade #93

Willie Nelson - Still is Still Moving to Me

Amazing that, some 30 years after writing "Crazy" for Patsy Cline, Willie Nelson could still write a song this good (and now, nearly 20 years down the road, he's still at it!). A classic gypsy drifter anthem, with a Mexicali/surf sound that moves along with the propulsion the lyrics describe, and a great line that any acid head will take to heart: "It's hard to explain how I feel/It won't go in words but I know that it's real." Yeah, I can relate, dude! Sometime in the last decade, Willie released this reggae version with Toots and the Maytals (actually, I believe it's on a Toots album, not a Willie Nelson album).

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

90's Hit Parade #94

Sebadoah - Brand New Love

The platonic ideal of 90's indie rock? This seems like the best example of that Jesus and Mary Chain/late-80's Sonic Youth style of melody-noise juxtaposition songs. The guitars are just so damn unruly on this! And like the Jesus and Mary Chain, when the band later tried to ditch the noise and get by on the melodies, they only succeeded in demonstrating how uninteresting their songs were. Or at least that was my opinion at the time. Maybe I'd think differently now, but it's not something I want to invest the effort in figuring out. But on their early records, when they were working out their equal love for songwriting and noisemaking, they were something to behold. I wish I could find "Cecilia Chimes in Melee" on YouTube, because the dissonant chords on that one just kill me!

Friday, January 21, 2011

90's Hit Parade #95

Victoria Williams - Century Plant

The myth of the young star who burns across the sky is so pervasive in our culture that it's very common to find yourself at 30 or 40 having not conquered the world, and to become discouraged, to resign yourself. "If anything was gonna happen, it would have happened by now." This tune, which kicks off Victoria Williams' 90's comeback album, is a bit of inspiration to late bloomers. It's never too late. Corny as it sounds, I often think about this song during moments of doubt.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

90's Hit Parade #96

Beastie Boys - Funky Boss

Adolescence is a time for manifestos and mission statements, to defiantly tell the world "this is who I am." You might make several contradictory mission statements over the course of adolescence. That's just how it is. And that's pretty much what the Beastie Boys' two 80's albums are: definitive statements of "who we are," at least for the moment.

In the 90's, the Beastie Boys entered that phase of late adolescence/early adulthood where one becomes less sure of who one is, and embarked on a decade of experimentation and discovery. Check Your Head is like their summer backpacking through Europe, or the year they decided they were bisexual. They try on different styles, different sounds, different combinations. It's a bit messy, but man does it sound good. I love the way DJ Hurricane just lets the reggae record he's been scratching throughout the song play at the end. It only adds to the funky stoner dorm room sound of the track. They would build on this sound, producing more focused versions of it on Ill Communication instrumentals like "Sabrosa," "Ricky's Theme" and "Transformations," but I love the chaos on this track.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

90's Hit Parade: A Belated Introduction

So why am I doing this, exactly? Well, on the one hand, I find writing about music much more difficult than writing about movies or TV. I feel like I could use some practice at it. On the other hand, writing about music doesn't require the same level of forethought as movies or tv, since my appreciation of music is always more intuitive than analytical. And writing about a song is easier than writing about an album, because my feelings can usually be expressed in a short paragraph that takes about 15 minutes to write. So this series will be easier to work into a busy schedule than the movie writing, and I'm going to try to keep my thoughts as spontaneous as possible. Of course, the other reason is I started thinking about doing this series, and now I won't be able to stop thinking about it unless I do it. So here we are.

I don't think I could do this with the 80's. That is, I don't think I could pare the 80's down to a list of 100 songs. I basically went through my entire adolescence in the 80's, so my feelings are too jumbled and complicated, and there's an almost limitless reserve of songs that I have some kind of emotional attachment to. How do I resolve my feelings toward Iron Maiden, Angry Samoans, R.E.M., Run DMC, and the Go-Go's? But the 90's, when I was in my 20's, is a good fit for this project. Not only was I the right age, but it was kind of an interesting time, with the "alternative rock" bands topping the charts, and the lo fi indie bands happening parallel to that, and the apex of the Golden Age of Hip Hop happening right at the start, and electronic music (techno or whatever) emerging. There's just a lot to write about.

And this is a completely subjective list. I don't know if it's literally my 100 Favorite Songs of the 90's, but it's 100 great fucking songs that came to mind while I was making the list. Not any attempt to define what songs were "important" or "influential" or "culturally relevant," just songs I dig, some of which have been nearly forgotten. (There are four or five that I placed in the top 15 as a nod to their relevance that would probably have been much lower otherwise, and just to get this out of the way, I did pick the obvious song for my number one spot, but for the most part this is a "from the gut" list.) I'm not making any commitment to myself to get this done in the next year, or to do one a week, or anything. We'll just see how it goes.

Friday, January 14, 2011

90's Hit Parade #97

I saw the Meat Puppets at the 40 Watt when they were touring for this album. They opened with this song. In the middle of the third song, the guitar sound went out. They fucked around with the equipment for a few minutes, then started again. Halfway through the next track, Kurt's mic went out. They jammed for a couple minutes, then fucked around with the equipment some more. They started up again, the mic went out again, and then the band sort of snapped. Chris Kirkwood threw his bass down and walked off stage. When he reappeared, he was carrying beer bottles in a towel. He began opening them and passing them out to the audience. Kurt Kirkwood, meanwhile was setting his guitar and Chris' bass both in front of their amps, getting solid feedback, and had started smashing equipment. The drummer was still playing. Things get a little fuzzy after that. I know at one point, Kurt took the towel, rolled it up, and was hitting the strings on his prone guitar with it. Chris was smashing the house lights over the stage with his bass while the club owner screamed at him to stop. A naked guy ran up on stage. This chaos lasted a good 15 minutes, the drummer playing the whole time, and then the band left. The house lights came on. I loitered there for about twenty minutes, hoping they'd come back. Finally I went home, although I heard later that they eventually did come back out and play a few more songs, including jamming with the opening band on "I Wanna Be Your Dog."

I'm tempted to say this could never happen in L.A., where every performer has at the back of their head the idea that this could be the show where they are discovered. I know that's not quite true, but there's something fun about living in the boondocks, where performers know there's nobody that can make or break their career in the audience.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

90's Hit Parade #98

Fugazi - Great Cop

I saw Fugazi around 1993. I have never seen a band put more sweat, toil and tears into a performance. After the first song, Ian McKaye began to tell a little story. "Earlier today, I was hanging out with my friend Michael Stipe, and we were walking to this great little restaurant that I like to eat at whenever I'm in town, The Grit, it's a really great place, you should eat there, and we saw this little bird on the sidewalk, and..."

at this point someone in the crowd yelled something like "Shut up and play some fucking music!" If you've ever been to a Fugazi show, you can guess how that turned out. Ian started going off on the guy, "No, I will not shut up and play some fucking music! I am not some TV that you can just click the remote control at! You know, this is a perfect example of this whole MTV instant gratification mindset, in fact I'm going to dedicate this next song to you, it's called YOU'D! MAKE! A! GOOD! COP! YOU! FUCK! ING! PIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIG!!!!!!!!!!!!!" And then they just tore through this song.

I like Fugazi's albums, but after the first two EP's, they never really captured the sound and energy of their live show on record. So when I include this song on my hit parade, just understand that it's the live version I'm talking about. I think the SPIN review of In on the Kill Taker described "You'd make a great cop" as "the ultimate punk insult," which sounds about right.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Star 1973

Thanks to Joe Stumble for passing this along via Facebook. Somebody had the good sense to scan the entire five existent issues of a 70's magazine called Star, which was sort of like a sluttier version of Sassy for the glam rock groupie set. Articles on how to find your own superfox, how to avoid getting trapped in a relationship with some guy, and how to deal with competition from "black foxy ladies." And the psychedelic groupie cartoons are amazing! A great little cultural artifact from the early 70's L.A. glam scene.

Friday, January 07, 2011

90's Hit Parade #99

Pearl Jam - Spin the Black Circle

It probably comes as no surprise to anyone that I'm not a particular fan of Pearl Jam. Nothing against them, I'm sure they're talented musicians and nice guys, but they're just not my cup of tea. Still, when they're playing what sounds like a vintage '83 skatepunk record (with a singer who can actually carry a tune) paying tribute to the greatness of vinyl records and smothering the whole thing in shrieking feedback, I can't help but feel that they're trying to break into the lucrative Chris Oliver market.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010)

I've enjoyed Darren Aronofsky's films up to now, but Black Swan is the first one that really hit the bullseye for me. I still think Pi is a great lo fi sci fi flick, a good indication of what was to come. Requiem for a Dream is a powerful film, brilliantly composed, but such an unpleasant experience that I can't really get enthusiastically behind it. The Fountain is amazing. It's not a prefect film by any means, but I doubt any film with that kind of ambition could turn out perfect (2001 sure didn't). And The Wrestler is a good, solid film, although the heavy-handed Christ imagery irked me a little bit (seriously, that "sacrificial ram" line?). Black Swan fits well into this body of work, but also stands out as his first near-perfect film.

The thing about Aronofsky is that he makes art movies, in a very specific sense of the word. He values imagery, composition and rhythm (editing) over traditional ideas of storytelling. Or maybe a better way to say it is that he conveys his stories through imagery, composition and rhythm. I don't think he neglects story and character, but he comes at them from a different angle, like they are the skeleton that he hangs his cinematic compositions on. The actual films feel more like pieces of music or animated paintings than screenplays, and they produce the same sublime feelings in the viewers that a concert performance does.

Which is not to say that these films (besides The Fountain, anyway) are difficult to understand. Black Swan is a very straightforward story about a performer pushing themselves past the limits to achieve an artistic breakthrough.* This is a scary process. It's much easier to just go through life coasting on autopilot than to push yourself to a breakthrough. And this fear is the unifying motif of the film. Aronofsky illustrates that fear throughout the film with horrific nightmares and hallucinations. The film's protagonist, Nina, goes through a psychological breakdown over the course of the movie, where she is haunted by all sorts of terrifying images. This is, of course, an exaggerated way of getting at this story, just as ballet and opera are not entirely realist forms of storytelling. Nothing wrong with that. The question is, does the story move you. To me, sitting in the theater, I didn't just watch this movie, I experienced it. By the time the credits rolled, I could feel a physical sensation of exhilaration in my chest. Requiem for a Dream had a similar effect on me, but as I said, that feeling was deeply unpleasant. The resolution of Black Swan is triumphant.** It's inspiring. Now, personally, I don't have much relationship to the world of sports, so movies like Rocky or that one where the fat kid gets to play for Notre Dame or whatever don't really effect me much. Black Swan is like a sports movie for people that don't relate to sports. Seeing the film at the dawn of a new year in which I hope to push myself more than ever, Black Swan is an inspiration. I'm going to carry this movie around with me for the next year.

* On a more mundane level, it's also about taking responsibility for one's own life and making the tradition to living as an adult, as illustrated in Nina's rejection of her overbearing stage mother who keeps her unnaturally infantilized. In that respect, Black Swan is like one of those Judd Apatow comedies, except with a female protagonist.

**The exhilaration at the end is partially because it's so easy to imagine an alternate ending where, after leaving the stage, Nina is arrested for having murdered Lily, Beth and possibly her mother in her psychotic state, or where she's hauled off to a rubber room before her debut.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Top 50 Films of the 00's, Part 4 (35-31)

I've fallen behind on this, not only because of my schedule, but because I've hit a difficult patch in this list. See, the top 25 or so movies are the ones that I really fell in love with and live with in my mind and think about all the time. And the bottom 10 or 15 are the movies that I love so much that I had to come up with justifications for including them on the list even if they're not that great. But here we are, at this middle ground, where sit the movies that I haven't spent that much time with, but that are obviously great films that deserve to be on the list. After the shoddy paragraph I wrote about The Saddest Music in the World last time, I was determined to do better here, and went back and watched some of these films again to try to get more of a grip on them. Also worth noting: when I looked up the dates for these films, I found that I had guessed wrong on every single one of them. What does that mean?

35. Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007)

Audiences most likely went into Zodiac expecting a serial killer movie, which it most definitely is not. It appears at first to be more of a police procedural, but this proves to be not quite right either. It's a sprawling epic that stretches over decades, but leaves the mystery of the Zodiac Killer tantalizingly unresolved. What we are left with, then, is a portrait of Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), a cartoonist who enjoys solving puzzles, and is confronted with a puzzle that can't be solved. It's about that frustration you get when you're just one word away from solving a crossword, and you can't possibly think about anything else until you figure out that last word, but this guy spends DECADES trying to solve his puzzle. Thus, it's a lot like JFK, without a bunch of looney talk and overacting. Oh yeah, acting, let's talk about that! Because Fincher's best move was casting this whole thing, down to the smallest roles of local police, with great character actors who are interesting to watch even when they're just talking bureaucratic monotony. And in the bigger roles, you have Robert Downey Jr., the decade's best movie star, lighting up the screen with his flashy cool as crime reporter Paul Avery, and Mark Ruffalo doing the classic, rumpled detective bit as Inspector David Toschi. Watching the frustration on Graysmith as he realizes that both Avery and Toschi have sensibly given up this case (which, Toschi points out, is not even a particularly significant serial killer case), you can feel that frustration that the puzzle may never be solved.

(Honestly, going back and watching it again, I'm not sure it really deserves a place on this list, but it's a good film, and fuck it, I'm not going to go back and change things in the middle of writing this.)

34. Lost in Translation (Sophia Coppola, 2003)

Why was Lost in Translation an arthouse hit, and why has Sophia Coppola been unable to duplicate this success before or since? LiT, with its minimal plot and languid pace, isn't exactly a recipe for appealing to the American public. Is it just a matter of Bill Murray being awesome? Well, Bill Murray is certainly awesome, and probably elevates the film quite a bit, but it's also a very warm, human film that lets the audience in rather than pushing them away. Coppola's films are always cryptically autobiographical, and her life story is not exactly the stuff of universal shared experience, but I think this story of two lonely people stuck in a hotel in a foreign country making a connection with each other really touched people. Of course, it can't hurt that the movie begins with a close up of Scarlett Johansen's butt.

33. The 25th Hour (Spike Lee, 2002)

In Spike Lee's breakthrough film, Do the Right Thing, there is a scene in which different characters face the camera and let loose with a string of ethnic slurs. It's ugly, but also funny. It's meant to reflect the hot tempers flaring up on a hot day in a crowded, racially charged city. The whole thing lasts about one minute, and when it's over, the omniscient narrator steps in to tell everyone to "cool that shit out."

Early in The 25th Hour, in a scene that seems meant to be an echo of the scene from DTRT, Edward Norton delivers a soliloquy where he first curses and degrades every ethnic group in the city, then goes on to curse cops, the church, God, every person in his life, and finally himself. There's no wink or smile behind the curse. He fucking means it. The monologue/montage takes up a full 5 minutes of screentime. And ultimately, the motivation isn't anger, it's fear.

Every moment of the film is filled with a sense of dread, of impending doom, of a fear that can only be resolved through an act of violence. Terrence Blanchard's score spends most of the movie rumbling in the background like distant thunder (aside from the extended nightclub scene set mostly to Cymanide's epic funk jam "Bra"), and everywhere you look you see a reminder of the scar left on the city by the 9/11 attacks, reflected in the wounds on that dog in the beginning, on Norton's face in the end, and the invisible scars on each character's life. This is storytelling as exorcism, an attempt to both express something nearly inexpressable and to come to some kind of understanding of one's condition. On second viewing, I think I may have ranked it far too low.

32. Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006)

Casino Royale is so deceptively good, that I didn't recognize its greatness on first viewing. There's a lot of fan service going on here, little bells worked into the script to make fans of the franchise respond with Pavlovian applause. "Hey, it's the Astin Martin! Yay! We love the Astin Martin!" And hey, lifelong Bond fan that I am, I enjoyed this stuff as much as anyone, especially the way they built to the "Bond. James Bond." and the introduction of the Bond theme at the very end. But put all that stuff aside, and look at all you're left with. Look at the dialogue between Bond and Vesper on the train, worthy of a Howard Hawks movie. Look at the brutal fight on the stairway, the rare movie fight where you can feel the desperation of the protagonist to stay alive. And most of all, you have Daniel Craig, a genuine movie star, somehow managing to convey a thuggish beefiness and a sophisticated charm at the same time. The fourth act, a necessary mechanism to restart the franchise, is unfortunate (especially as it now seems this franchise would never quite take off), but this is just the way it is. This is Hollywood product at it's best.

31. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)

America was carved out of the wilderness by men like Daniel Plainview, obsessive characters who seem to have forged entire industries through the sheer power of their will. To Ayn Rand, these men are saints. To Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, they are despots. To Paul Thomas Anderson, they're sort of both right. So we have Daniel Plainview, a man of insatiable lust for conquest. Faced with an endeavor, his tenacious strenth can move mountains. Absent such goals, he is consumed by his vicious impulses. He's a dishonest bully who nonetheless is an admirable achiever. Really, isn't everyone with the ambition to accomplish something a bit of an asshole? (In the present moment, all the people I see doing something significant in the world, from Julian Assange to Michelle Rhee to Kanye West, are huge, megalomaniac assholes.) This is the story of America, the light and the dark sharing the same space in equal measure, just as they do in the bodies of Charles Foster Kane and Don Corleone.

Daniel Day Lewis, in what so many consider the performance of the decade, inhabits this juicy role, and makes it burn from the inside out with a ferocious flame. I like this film, but I've noticed that other people seem to like it much more than I do, and I think I understand what the variable is. I have a great relationship with my father, a mellow guy and probably the best dad in the world. If you grew up fearing your father, Lewis' performance probably resonates much more. You probably wake up in the middle of the night with his face burning under your eyelids.

But I also have to mention the amazing visual style that P.T. Anderson and cinematographer Robert Elswit create for the film. Anderson is in full show off mode (when is he not?), not only on the two striking sceens that open the film and the looney scene that closes it, but on a smaller scale in the way every scene is lit, shot and composed. I can't say that the film entirely holds my interest in those smaller moments, but I do feel that there is a significance in every moment of the film. Like the Bible or Moby Dick, you can find something in each of those scenes, and what you find may be entirely dependent on what you bring to it.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

90's Hit Parade, #100

Goldfinger - Here in Your Bedroom

OK, first of all, don't watch that video above. These guys look like such douchebags that it will make you hate the song. In fact, after watching it for the first time just now, I very nearly struck this song off the list and replaced it with Save Ferris. This ska-punk-pop song got a little airplay back around '97, when the band was touring with No Doubt. It's a ridiculously catchy earworm, but I also like the lyrical concept: boy meets girl, maybe at a party, they go back to her place and fuck. Now he's lying awake in her bed while she sleeps (either she passed out first, or he woke up first the next morning). He's in love with her, but he has no idea how she feels. Maybe she's just thinking of this as a one-night stand, maybe even one she regrets, and has no interest in ever seeing him again. How is he supposed to act? I like the little gender-role-reversal that's going on here, and the nervous energy is conveyed well in the busy ska rhythm. Besides, I've had that chorus stuck in my head for the last 13 years.

Monday, January 03, 2011

2010: The Year TV Defeated Me

It's kind of amazing how much TV has improved over the last 20 years. When I think back to when I was in high school, and Moonlighting was on, I just couldn't believe something that creative and unconventional had made it on TV! Now, in 2010, there's a Martin Scorsese-directed period epic about prohibition era gangsters in Atlantic City starring Steve Buscemi on HBO, and I'm like "'s OK."

In another year, I probably would have stuck with Boardwalk Empire, but this year (as alluded to in the title of this post), I just had too many damn things on my TiVo (all of the good stuff came on on Sunday night, for some reason), and I was too busy to find time to watch it all, so I had to just let some things go, and frankly, Boardwalk Empire wasn't grabbing my attention. At this point, I've also stopped watching 30 Rock, which was the only prime time network show I was still watching (although it's worth mentioning that the live episode was much better than anticipated). Everything else is cable now, including AMC, which is surprisingly gaining on HBO, and has definitely surpassed Showtime. Showtime makes some good efforts, but none of their shows have really hit the bullseye so far. Weeds started out fun, but it's just such a silly show that its reality has no weight. This despite a lot of strong points (it being a show about pot isn't even the best thing about it). I like that Weeds' female protagonist is allowed to be so fucked up and have real personality problems, but the writers just can't seem to make these characters behave like real people instead of sitcom characters. I had high hopes for The Big C, but it feels a lot like Weeds, two-dimensional and sitcom-y, with the characters resembling TV characters more than actual people. I guess Nurse Jackie is the most successful of these shows. I believe the characters on Nurse Jackie. And I commend all three of these shows for having female characters that are allowed to be as mutli-dimensional as Tony Soprano or Dan Draper.

As for Dexter...well, I have to admit that this has been my favorite season, and that was maybe Peter Weller's best role ever, but I still just don't like the show. Dexter stands in contrast to shows like The Sopranos, The Wire and Breaking Bad, all of which I think face a certain reality: that you can't be a criminal and be a good person. If you are involved in a criminal enterprise, sooner or later you will have to kill someone. Dexter, from day one, lets the audience off the hook with its "he's a serial killer who only kills bad guys" premise. I guess that's fine, like a vampire with a soul, or a good guy pirate, or a hit man with a heart of gold, those are all nice fantasies, but when it's contrasted with all these shows that really challenge the viewers' sense of morality, Dexter just looks very adolescent. Look at the beginning of this season, when Dexter encounters Lumen. He's faced with a dilemna: killing this innocent victim would be against his code, but letting her live could be dangerous to him. Within a couple episodes, the two are working together to leave a trail of bloody vengeance against a cartoon cabal of evil yuppie rapists. Compare that with the arc that stretches over the first 3 episodes of Breaking Bad, where Walter and Jesse have to deal with meth dealer Krazy 8. It's resolved in what can be the only logical way to resolve it, and it challenges the audience right away: you can't be a good guy and a criminal. You have to commit to one or the other.

As for the Sopranos prequel Boardwalk Empire, it was pretty good. I liked the period details, the glimpse of what music and entertainment looked and sounded like in the early 20th Century (that scene with the weird effeminate comic wearing pancake makeup made me want to go on a research binge to find out what that was based on). The story and characters never really hooked me, but it was nicely shot and acted. And if I had had more free time, I'd have probably stuck with it. But there's just too damn much to do, and too damn much to watch.

Normally, at this time of year, I would be writing a list of my favorite movies, but I've hardly gone out to the movies at all this year (I just watched Inception for the first time on DVD, if that gives you some idea of where I am). But I made a top 10 list of my favorite TV shows. It's kind of tedious that everyone who writes a list makes the same kinds of disclaimers (I guess writing lists is tedious in itself, but it's a convenient way to organize a post like this one), but in this list, or at least the top 7, these shows are really all about equally good in different ways, so the rankings are sort of arbitrary. I was going to embed a few videos here to make it more visually interesting, but I'm sick of working on this, so I'll just assume you know how to use Google.

1. Treme (HBO) - By whatever objective standards you can come up with to judge art, Treme is probably not the "best" show of the year. The stories seem underdeveloped, some of the characters feel a bit trite, and it has the natural disadvantage of being a David Simon joint, and thus being compared at every turn to The Wire. But I can safely say that I enjoyed Treme more than any other show (or movie) I watched this year. Treme, from its opening shot, is a parade of the music, food and culture of New Orleans. As I wrote earlier this year, I've heard of the Mardis Gras Indians for years, read plenty about them, heard recordings by The Wild Magnolias and Wild Tchoupitoulas, seen bits of video on YouTube, but only now, after seeing Treme, do I feel like I really understand what Mardi Gras Indians actually do. And that applies to the other bits of NOLA culture we see, what Mardi Gras parades look like, what people do during the parades, all the little nooks and crannies of this incredibly rich culture, the King Cakes and begnets and midnight mass on Ash Wednesday. I've spent less than 24 hours in the city, and I'll probably never attend a Mardi Gras due to my hatred of crowd scenes, so it's a great opportunity. All this plus some incredible performances by what may be my two favorite actors currently working, Wendell Pierce and John Goodman (and they are far from the only ones giving great performances here).

2. Louie (F/X) - I am of the opinion that Louis CK is the best standup comic working right now. I'm also of the opinion that his new show, Louie, is the best sitcom since Arrested Development. Louie is a shaggy, unpredictable beast. You never quite know what you're going to get when you tune in. Sometimes it's surreal and absurdist. Sometimes it feels like the most honest thing you've ever seen on TV. Often, it's both at the same time.

Louis has the good luck of getting his (second) sitcom in this new golden age of TV, when he can really shape it into whatever kind of show he wants. While Roseanne and Seinfeld were excellent shows that embodied the peronae of their respective stars, they were still boxed in by the traditional limits of the sitcom form. Louis CK, on the 245th-ranked F/X network, is pretty much free to fill up his allotted 30 minutes with whatever idea pops into his balding head, and what you get is as raw and individualist as a standup working shit out at an open mic.

3. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart/The Colbert Report (Comedy Central) - Remember when Obama got elected, and a lot of people asked the stupid question of whether comics like Jon Stewart and Bill Maher would be able to get as much material out of the new administration as they did out of Bush? Well, in the case of Bill Maher, it turned out to not be such a stupid question. Throughout the Bush years, Real Time with Bill Maher provided a vent for my spleen. But there was a strange phenomenon during those years, an illusion that everyone slightly left of center all saw the world the same way. We were all united in that sense that we could not fucking believe how horrible that administration was. Now that we've had a year or two of the new guy, we're all starting to look at each other and think, "oh, you're a sexist douchebag who thinks vaccines cause autism and all diseases are caused by eating junk food."

Don't get me wrong, I still watch Bill Maher, because when you have Christopher Hitchens, Patton Oswalt, Barney Frank, P.J. O'Rourke, Andrew Sullivan, Sarah Silverman, Salman Rushdie and Reihan Salam on an uncensored panel together, you're going to hear some interesting conversation, but Bill's comedy just doesn't make the transition to this new world, and it's aggravating as hell to listen to him say incredibly racist shit about Muslims, or to nod along while Michael Moore and Sean Penn say astoundingly stupid things.

Which makes it all the more impressive how well both Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert (and their respective crews) have adapted. In fact, both shows are probably funnier now than they've ever been. Bill may have a point here, but generally speaking, the Comedy Central hosts have, throughout the year, managed to mine a rich vein of comedy from our exasperating political climate. I'm not even thinking about the big rally event in Washington, although it was a good example of how the two shows compliment each other, often coming at the same joke from two different angles, and their early-late-night scheduling fits perfectly into one's day. They've reinvented late night TV, and created a new focus of comedy, and maybe even changed the way people look at the world of politics.

4. Mad Men (AMC) - Mad Men is, simply, the state of the art of television right now. The show is so well written, acted and directed that it makes everything else look amateurish. They use all the tricks: multiple storylines that comment on each other, lines of dialogue and images that carry deep meaning while still being lively and fun to watch, a wide ensemble of fully living, breathing characters, and an ongoing arc reflecting on the changing world of the mid-20th century. Plus, Mad Men has inspired so many writers more talented than me to explicate every episode that reading the reactions to each episode the next day is as entertaining as watching the episode.

5. East Bound and Down (HBO) - You remember that scene in Animal House, the "Mind if we dance with your dates?" scene? Remember that weird moment when Flounder, or Otter, or one of those guys, asks his date what she's studying, and she says "Primitive cultures," and then they cut to a shot of Otis Day and the Knights singing "Shama Lama Ding Dong," and you're like "uh, what the fuck?" Or maybe you just sat there quietly and pretended you didn't catch it? You could never get that joke into a movie today, and really, that's not a bad thing, you know?

East Bound and Down is a riff on that sort of pre-PC school of comedy, and I can't quite figure out how we're supposed to feel about it. Jody Hill clearly loves this kind of comedy. He's the kind of guy who loves pushing people's buttons. And Danny McBride is uniquely suited to be the voice of Hill's misanthropic humor. McBride has the same sort of over-the-top presence as John Belushi. In East Bound and Down, McBride is like a volcano spewing an endless flow of profanity and abuse, a larger than life character who nonetheless believes he is even larger than he is. As Kenny Powers, McBride is wide open about being racist, misogynist and homophobic, and indulging in endless drug abuse (which is never portrayed as tragic, only as fun). So it's difficult to get a handle on how exactly you're supposed to feel about Kenny. He's an unrelentingly terrible person, but you get the uncomfortable feeling that Hill thinks he's an honest portrayal of the American Dream.

This second season has a little difficulty living up to the greatness of the first season, just because the shock has worn off a little. But McBride's portrayal of Kenny's bottomless obnoxiousness, his oblivious narcissism, his unquenchable appetites, is a thing of beauty (however uneasy) to watch, and the supporting cast rises up all around him. In this world, either Kenny's obnoxiousness is not all that unusual, or it's contagious, and infects just about everyone he comes in contact with.

6. Breaking Bad (AMC) - Breaking Bad is what Weeds would be if it took its subject seriously. The characters generally survive in BB, but the consequences for their actions are always real. The drug trade takes real tolls from everyone it touches, even if they had no desire to be touched by it. BB has a lot razor's edge tension, and manages to put Walt and Jesse in some life and death situation every other week, but we accept it because the show is honest about the stakes. Now, full disclosure, I'm talking about seasons one and two here (just finished two, in fact!). I haven't seen the season that actually aired this year yet. Maybe it will be even better, maybe it will jump the shark. The characters are slowly starting to emerge, with only the in-laws still feeling a bit like written characters.

7. The Green Room with Paul Provenza (Showtime) - The Green Room is a talk show, with Provenza hosting a round table discussion with 3 or 4 other comics. The whole season seems to have been filmed in one day, and the audience is also populated with comics, so you get this rolling party atmosphere. As the title implies, this is as close as you will get to hanging out in the green room after a show, with all the comics riffing and trading war stories. If you haven't watched it, some of the highlights you've missed include a rousing anti-censorship rant from Penn Jillette, Bobby Slayton race baiting Paul Mooney, Larry Miller recounting the worst hell gig of his life, Eddie Izzard explaining the traditions of British music hall comedy (and I honestly can't figure out whether he was bullshitting or not), and Penn, Martin Mull and Tommy Smothers trading very long, very filthy shaggy dog jokes. Actually, my favorite moment was an argument between Jillette and Smothers over Jillette's appearances on Glenn Beck's show. Penn was right, Tommy was being an asshole, but in the end, Tommy kind of won the argument, just because he was funnier. As far as I can tell, this has not made it to DVD, but God, I hope it does.

8. Bored to Death (HBO) - Pairing this show with East Bound and Down was a good move. The two shows, with such different senses of humor, make for an extremely pleasant hour of comedy. I don't quite like Bored to Death as much as East Bound, but it has it's own charms. I wish they were able to make Zach Galifinakis' character work a bit better--the writers seem to have a cloudy understanding of what makes this character tic, or what kind of comics become popular even in the underground comix world--but this is balanced out by Ted Danson's great performance as an aging boomer playboy, and in the second season Danson has been given a more interesting storyline and a bit more to do. In the middle, star Jason Schwartzman does the Jason Schwartzman thing (I really did not expect this guy to still be around 10 years after Rushmore), with a fair portrayal of early 30's lifepath angst.

9. The Walking Dead (AMC) - Shows like The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and Mad Men have great hooks that get you watching, but then turn out to give you much more than promised. This has set a new standard for TV, and Walking Dead's low placement on this list is a result of its failure to rise above its own hook. Walking Dead is exactly what it says it is: a show about a zombie apocalypse. Still, that's a pretty great idea for a show. As zombies have become mainstream over the last decade, this show is probably inevitable. The concept of surviving in a zombie apocalypse lends itself well to long form exploration. It's actually kind of surprising that this has never been done before. Walking Dead gives you all the gore you expect from zombie stories, but in 2010, the novelty of seeing someone disemboweled by zombies has mostly worn off. What we're interested in now is the mechanics of how you survive day to day in a world overrun by the living dead. And I'd say that Walking Dead does a good job of portraying that agonizing life. It's a heavily plot-centric show, and so far it has failed to bring its cast of characters to life, or to give us any real surprises, but the concept is so rich that I'm enjoying watching it play out.

10. True Blood (HBO) - True Blood has a problem: its central characters are boring. It's a common problem for genre shows, actually. Think of Joss Whedon's slayerverse, where Buffy, Angel and Spike are by far the least interesting characters (played by the least interesting actors). Worse yet, think of Jack on Lost. (It's tempting to put Mad Men in this category--Peggy Olsen's story is much more interesting than Don Draper's--but I will spare that show, because (a) the writers seem to understand this, and despite her limited screentime they manage to make Peggy feel like a second lead character, and (b) nobody could argue that Don is not an interesting character, or that Jon Hamm doesn't do an amazing job with him.) So it is with True Blood, a show where these fascinating characters like Lafeyette, Jessica, Jason Stackhouse and Arlene keep getting rushed off the stage to make way for the tedious love triangle between Sookie, Bill and Eric, who seem to be competing to see who can be the most boring. But in their third season, just as I was ready to give up, the folks behind this show found a solution: go big. And they did, filling every episode with ridiculous amounts of gore and pure batshit insanity. Come on, Russell Edgington killing the anchor woman on TV? Or rolling in his dead lover's gore goo? Or Bill twisting Lorena's neck 180 degrees in the midst of hitting that booty? Hey, if this is pandering, by all means pander to me. You have preserved my viewership for at least another season.

But wait! There's more!

I guess I can't really talk about this year of TV without bringing up Conan and Jay. I like Conan O'Brian, but I've never really had much attachment to his talk show. The period of time in which Conan had a late night show on NBC basically lined up exactly with the period of time when I was working 9 to 5 and thus not watching late night talk shows. This is, in fact, the first year since I graduated college that I've been able to watch them with any regularity. So I think I'd seen Conan's show maybe a half a dozen times by the time the last episode aired.

Of the current hosts, I think Craig Ferguson has the best show. He's got a completely looney sense of humor, and a robot sidekick, and one of the best theme songs in TV history. Most of all, he's got the best monologue on late night. For one thing, he's the only one that does something different with the monologue. All the others just do what Johnny did (and for all I know, what Steve Allen and Jack Paar did), tell a bunch of lame one-liners about the day's headlines. Craig basically does a thematic, stream-of-consciousness standup routine every night. As for the interviews, I don't think any of them are half as good as Johnny was, because they don't know how to just shut the fuck up. I know that's an rotten old wanker kind of opinion, but it's true. Anyway, it hardly matters, because the interviews aren't "real" interviews, they're just celebrities hanging out, which is what you want to watch while you're flossing. I might even say that for the interview segments, Jimmy Fallon is my favorite, because he seems like he's just having fun with the guests. He also seems to genuinely love hip hop (obviously, he's got The Roots as his house band). I was kind of outraged when they gave Fallon a show, because I've always thought the guy was completely unfunny, but in the context of a late night talk show, he's alright. And of course, I still have a soft spot for Letterman.

Hey, wait, let's talk about one more show! Parenthood. Now, this isn't one of the best shows on TV or anything, but my wife's been watching it, and I have to say, I enjoy it. It's a sweet show. it's got Lauren Graham, and she's good with the rapid, overlapping dialogue, and her daughter is played by Mae Whitman. You remember Mae Whitman, right? She played Ann on Arrested Development, and the lesbian girlfriend in Scott Pilgrim. This is the first role where she's got a little space to move around, and she has great comic delivery. I think I like her interactions with Lauren Graham even more than Alexis Bledel. And it has stuff like the patriarch giving his maybe 12-year-old grandson his first beer after Thanksgiving dinner, a really sweet moment that's also more real than what you're usually presented with on holiday episodes.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

A Very Good Year

I enjoy the progression of the holidays. In October, we celebrate the worst in us: our fears. And in doing so, we exorcise them. In November, we reflect on that for which we are thankful, and celebrate those things that are good in life, yet so commonplace that we don't notice them: our family (note that this is the day when everyone gets excited about eating the most mundane and flavorless foods). In December, we celebrate that which is best in us: generosity and caring. For most adults, it's a time when giving yields good feelings in the giver, a reminder of how we should feel any time we act selflessly. Then we have a week to reflect on the last year, celebrate it, and plan for a new start. Curmudgeons smugly note the arbitrariness of dividing our life up into solar cycles, or of picking this particular date to mark the transition, but I say you need some kind of unit of time to provide perspective, to mark your progress.

For me, 2010 was a very good year. This was the first year of my life where I can say that I'm not doing anything I don't on some level enjoy. No stupid job that I have no interest in. Maybe I'm a little old to be reaching this point, but that's fine. I took my retirement first, spent my 20's and 30's with no real stress in my life, working jobs I didn't have to think about when I wasn't there (and barely thought about when I was).

Not doing anything I don't enjoy is very different than what I would have thought it would be like 10 years ago. I know it can't possibly be true, but I feel like I'm busier now than I was two years ago, when I was working two jobs and editing video during every spare second. There's just always something to do, always something to stress out about. But I like it. I feel alive and fulfilled.

In the last year, I've become a better teacher (an ongoing process, I'm sure that will be true every year as long as I work as a teacher, which I assume will be forever), taken improv classes and performed in four improv shows, and Bobbie and I started a podcast, completed a script with our collaborators, and put on what will hopefully become an annual comedy festival (although my contribution to the last was limited). Not to mention that I completed all the paperwork and hoop-jumping to clear my teaching credential. And I plan to build on this foundation in 2011.

With all these things happening, this blog sometimes got a bit neglected, and that will probably happen again in 2011, but this blog isn't going away. I need this outlet, if only to get persistent thoughts out of my head. So if you follow this blog, I appreciate your patience. I also appreciate you reading personal posts like this which I'm sure are of no interest to most people. I appreciate you putting up with posts on music and politics when you're waiting for me to write something about movies or TV, or vice versa. I'm entering the third and final week of my Winter break, and I'm going to try to get a few more long pieces up this week, posts that I've been working on for a while. I also intend to start a new series that will work with shorter posts that I can put up quickly, which will hopefully make my writing a bit more productive.

A lot of people are giving up their blogs and moving to Twitter. I'm gonna stick with this, because I'm a long-winded guy, and I just can't see how you can communicate much of anything in 140 characters. Besides, I have Facebook, which at least gives you a little more space, and has a built-in audience of all these people I apparently know from high school and college (I'm pretty sure the 250 friends I have on Facebook is about 5 times the people that read this blog, and much more than I could get to follow me on Twitter), with the added bonus that Facebook feels much more adaptable to real, two-way communication. If you want to read my snarky one-liners and random links, feel free to add me on Facebook--I pretty much accept anyone these days, unless it's a comedian that I've never met, and I enjoy the connection it can give us.

Goals/Resolutions for 2011:

1. Pick up a second class. This has to be first priority, because we need some more money coming in. Unfortunately, I'm stuck in limbo on this at the moment, as I wait for my cleared credential to arrive in the mail.

2. Begin the process of grad school. Not saying I'll actually be in classes by the end of the year (it would be nice), but I intend to get the ball rolling. It's becoming clear that my employment options will continue to be very limited until I can put at least an M.A. after my name.

3. Return to stand up comedy. Bobbie suggested this goal. At first I was resistant. I don't like doing stand up, it stresses me out. And with the blog, the improv and the podcast, I don't feel like I'm lacking in outlets for expression. But it would be the thing to pull me out of my comfort zone, which is important. I barely even get nervous for improv performances now, so I need something to make me a nervous wreck. Besides, I work in the comedy world, so I feel like I can't really get respect unless I can put myself in front of the mic.

4. Finish the 50 Films of the 00's series. Entries one, two and three are up, and I intend to have the fourth one up before the end of the week. These are difficult, but I should be able to write about 30 more films in 12 months.

5. Figure out some way to incorporate exercise in my life. I was hesitant to include this on the list, because I have no plan for how to make this work, but it really needs to be done.

6. Successfully barbecue a pork shoulder or butt. I bought a smoker last summer, and dabbled with it a bit, but never really went all the way. And going all the way means producing a plate of smokey pulled pork. This summer, it will happen.

7. Learn to fry chicken. Today, I am going to cook blackeyed peas and turnip greens, and get some KFC to go with it, because I have never successfully made fried chicken. By January 1, 2012, I intend to have my technique down and be able to fry the chicken myself.

There are a few smaller things, like creating an RSS feed for the podcast and stuff, but that seems like a good start. Happy New Year, one and all. Let's show 'em how it's done in 2011.