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Someone Please Explain Why The Goldfinch Is So Good

I did not enjoy Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. Critics and friends have praised it highly. That and the premise — a young man’s life changed by the death of his mother and a painting that falls into his possession, and the chaotic years that spiral out from that moment — intrigued me enough to dive in. But somewhere near the middle, aside from some annoyance at a tendency to describe in ten pages what could have been conveyed in two, I asked myself, “What am I missing?”  I was not having the epiphany I’d been hoping for. If after 300-plus pages the book still hadn’t got its hooks in me, maybe it never would. But why not?

By the 500th or so page I’d figured out the core problem: the protagonist doesn’t want anything. Yes, Theo Decker desires a few things. A stable family. The painting he associates with his mother. More drugs. And admittedly, the thing he seems to want most, the girl he pines for, provided some of the book’s best scenes. But for most of this novel we’re stuck following a person who has no goal, no dream, no quest. He bounces from one sad state to another with little aim. He avoids mishaps and catastrophes by the luck of a friend or family member being in the right place at the right time (most of which turn around and cause the next tragedy). But for the most part (and even in the case of the love of his life), he doesn’t take a single considered action to pursue a purpose of his own. His lack of agency, his seeming not to care what happens to him enough to do anything about it, ever, made it impossible for me to care either.

That’s the whole point!, one might argue. Life is a series of unfortunate events and we simply tumble from letdown to heartache to horror, powerless to slow this grim descent. If so, the philosophical closing chapter addressing art and beauty and love as life’s only redeeming qualities feels even more unearned — an uplifting soliloquy delivered by someone who had no such realization at any point during the book’s actual events. A last-minute reflection summing up the unchronicled months between the story’s conclusion and the book’s final pages. Why not take us on that emotional journey of realization, instead of wallowing in 750 pages of misery before skimming over what caused this great change in worldview? Why not have those values be his savior at some point during the action of the book, instead of a surprise influx of cash, the convenient reappearance of an old friend, or some other twist of fate?

Normally I enjoy books about disaffected men struggling with the seeming pointlessness of life. I could point to a dozen on my shelf right now from Lethem to Yates, Netherland to The Stranger. But in this case I think the problem was that there was no struggling on the part of our narrator. He wasn’t trying to figure anything out, he just floated through it in a depressed haze. Unless someone can explain why I should feel otherwise, it’s a haze I’m grateful to be out of.

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Spring Break Forever: The Better Film at Confronting Our Darker Selves

Both The Wolf of Wall Street and Spring Breakers are beautifully filmed journeys through fantasy-level excess. They’re highly entertaining, yet deeply troubling. Both mesmerize but also provoke, and after both I stumbled back into the night feeling spent — dazzled yet shaken.

They rub our faces in ugly truths about modern American dreams. They show us the ways we’ll debase ourselves in pursuit of pleasure. They interrogate our desperation not just to be happy, but to live something grander and more exciting than an average life. Because as these characters clearly believe, average is the worst kind of life we could ever be condemned to.

Simply put, both are must-see works by filmmakers at their best. But after wrestling with how each addresses the central question it poses, some of the choices that make Wolf problematic make Spring Breakers even more impressive by comparison. The under-seen art film deserves more credit than it’s received, while the reception of the Oscar-buzzing bigger brother has some frightening implications.

……….

That’s not to say Wolf doesn’t earn its praise. An A-Team of former tween stars on their best day can’t hope to match the work done here by DiCaprio. (Though Franco’s scenes as the sleazy gangster Alien — proudly displaying his plentiful ninja weapons, soulfully covering Britney Spears on his seaside piano — stand as some of the year’s most memorable moments.) Scorsese’s use of the camera is as masterful as ever, and the man knows how to make a clever edit; he just doesn’t do nearly enough editing. Spring Breakers makes an equally vivid, more interesting point in an hour less time.

Wolf of Wall StreetIn fact, spending so much time partying with Jordan Belfort and crew creates the film’s main problems. In both cases we’re meant to begin the movie complicit in the debauchery, and eventually recoil from its extremes. But in Wolf, we spend so much time reveling in the bacchanalia it borders on exhausting. Our extensive tour of “how bad these men are” includes so many dreamy slow-motion sequences glamorizing their excess, so many extended comic scenes that make light of their exploitation of others, it’s easy to lose perspective. We can tell ourselves we’re laughing at their misbehavior as a way of distancing ourselves from these bad men, but at a certain point it feels more like hero worship. The depiction sends less a mixed message than a diluted one.

So it comes down to a moral question. Sophisticated viewers commend Wolf for exposing the rotted core of capitalism that spoiled the American dream for a generation. But when we leave the theatre, do we really come away hating these characters, or end up wanting what they have? At the very least, does the film make us question why we want what they have and what that means about all of us? Do we condemn their criminality, or envy their savvy in getting rich off the rubes of the world? (Because of course, none of us viewers sees ourselves as one of those rubes. We’re much better than that.)

Scorsese conveys that tension so beautifully with his final shot, so we know the intent is there. A crowd of hungry eyes await Belfort’s secrets on how to game the system. Those innocent faces are naive of the part they’re playing: that the system relies on the few (like Belfort) exploiting the many (them) by chewing up their dreams and spitting out profit. That if they’re not doing the selling, they’re getting sold. Every one of those people want in on the scheme, none of them want to end the scheming. More importantly, they don’t see that that’s the problem. Just because one can argue that Scorsese includes this beautifully subtle disclaimer, based on the preceding three hours, it feels like too little too late.

Goodfellas also painted an attractive portrait of a life above the law. True, it glamorized the mythology of gangster life and is loved by millions, but at least those characters are clearly marked as awful. They’re fun to watch, but they rob, they brutalize, they murder. Fans of that film may aspire to a certain type of crude machismo, defiant independence, or deep-felt brotherhood they see on screen, but they don’t aspire to kill and steal, not really. Watching Goodfellas is like kids playing at war. It won’t inspire legions of copycats.

But when crowds cheer through Wolf’s darkest scenes, and idolize Belfort instead of realizing that this is how the financial elite really are and why that should terrify us, it’s hard not to feel like Wolf fell short in answering the question it poses. What happens when greed goes unchecked and essentially unpunished? Truly awful human beings thrive. If this film creates sympathy or even jealousy of those awful creatures instead of the disgust and anger any honest person should feel, then one might even describe Wolf as a failure, or at the very least, irresponsible.

Despite its brash entertainment value, excellent craft, and the outstanding talent involved, it’s ultimately less satisfying and possibly maddening because it loses sight of its thesis. It tries to hold a mirror up to our unhealthy fantasies of wealth and excess. Then it has so much fun seducing us with a lifestyle it’s trying to condemn that it ends up using that mirror as a party accessory instead, getting high on its own supply.

……….

Wasting no time getting to its thesis, Spring Breakers challenges its viewers from the first images it forces upon us. How we react to the opening shots of gyrating, beer-soaked beach celebration in super-slow-motion (set to Skrillex, no less) acts as a Rorschach test. Are these just kids partying: a natural, appealing, and possibly even necessary part of youthful exuberance? Do we want to be them? Or is this debauchery gone past the point of no return: an ugly and dangerous symptom of a culture that prizes youth, beauty, and limitless stimulation to a level that’s no longer defensible? Should this frighten and sicken us?

The conflict we feel witnessing that opening sequence sets up the arc of the characters perfectly. We meet them as troublemakers testing boundaries and yearning for fun and excitement — a bunch of kids letting off steam. But as the film plays out they move that line, little by little, until they’re uninhibited monsters. It’s not surprising how one of the girls gets overwhelmed and bails out; it’s surprising how smoothly the others slip into new forms of transgression. The transition happens by degrees, and how little the two ringleaders seem to notice or care makes the transformation that much more troubling.

Spring BreakersNot that the film is pure cautionary tale; an after-school special version of Spring Breakers would have been blunt and artless. Like Wolf, there are plenty of laughs, but of a different sort. We’re laughing at how innocent and inexperienced these girls are, and at the bad decisions they make with such cheerful abandon. At the juxtaposition of their childlike natures with the all-too-grown-up things they find themselves doing. Where Wolf draws us in with laughs until we’re on the side of the criminals, the absurdity of the situations in Spring Breakers supplies the humor. It doesn’t make us into accomplices; more like shocked witnesses laughing to hide the shame.

How SB plays with tone is another part of what makes it so striking. What starts off feeling like a soft-focus music-video montage becomes something much weirder and more uncomfortable. Same with how it plays against expectations. What we thought would be a fun vacation romp about girls breaking rules becomes something dark and twisted. The shift works not only because we don’t see it coming from a story of some pretty girls having a good time, but because the film has the courage to answer the moral question it asks.

No matter how shocking it may be, it’s more honest because it pushes our dark fantasy far beyond the point of reality to make its point. What happens when our current values of excess and pleasure-seeking are carried to their logical conclusion? In a culture that prizes “memorable, visceral experiences” so highly, we require a continuous pushing of boundaries to get our experiential fix, until there are no boundaries left to push. What happens then? Who do we become?

But unlike Wolf’s unending carnival of excess, SB offers more to explore: by allowing its two fledgling criminals a seamless entrance back into polite society, does it tell only a heightened coming-of-age story about how it’s necessary to test our boundaries before becoming adults? Or is it a story about privilege, and a condemnation of how the types of young people who have the means and the opportunity to act out as “part of growing up” never seem to suffer the consequences as those growing up under less fortunate circumstances? The film pokes at white America’s co-opting of gangster culture and ignorance of its ugly consequences. It rubs our faces in the casual way celebration becomes exploitation, especially of women. Where Wolf brushes off the bigger questions like this with more humor (intentionally or not), Spring Breakers lingers on these scenes long enough to make us deal with our discomfort, and is stronger for it.

The Wolf of Wall Street is essentially a legend: based in reality but larger than life, and told in a way that de-emphasizes any of the real-world repercussions. It’s cowboys or gangsters or soldiers, focusing only on the fun parts. But because it’s a true story, it lacks the distance from reality to clearly mark itself as myth, with the problematic hero-worship that comes with legendary figures. Fables, however, give us situations that are clearly false, but meant to exaggerate real-world ideas, parodying them to give us something to consider long after the telling. This is why the surreality of Spring Breakers is so much more interesting than the The Wolf of Wall Street’s sick joy ride. One may be more fun while it lasts, but the other poses more interesting questions, and actually makes us face the emotions that come with the answers.

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Trying to Connect With Upstream Color

Upstream Color is gorgeous. It’s surreal and complicated, but totally hypnotic. It is never dull. But the question I can’t shake is the one I feel guilty for asking, or ashamed to admit needing to ask: Is it a good movie?

I went into the theatre with nothing but optimism and an open mind. As I left, I felt grateful for having seen something truly original and interesting — but with the creeping doubt that I was forcing myself to rationalize away the fact that something was missing. Considering further, I had to admit that I was so preoccupied with following the threads of the film, of keeping up with its fragmented story, I wasn’t sure if I’d actually felt anything along the way. Afterward, I played it back in my head and even talked through it with friends at dinner. As we hashed out the details, I realized how quickly we confused the need to figure out the what of this movie (that is, what exactly happens within the fiction, what is real or imagined or symbolic) and the desire to understand the why (what it’s trying to say, what its creator wants us to think or feel, both in the moment of the experience, and about life in general). As is sometimes the case, I wondered if I had missed something. And that may still be true. But I couldn’t help but suspect this might be an instance where being creative with the what doesn’t automatically imply the why is anything all that moving or profound or even well thought out.

Put another way, is it possible that as a work of abstract narrative, we find Upstream Color attractive because it’s opaque and we feel smart for even attempting to appreciate it? Is Shane Carruth saying something of value, or is he similarly attractive as a filmmaker because he shirks Hollywood, both as an industry and as a set of storytelling conventions, making him someone we want to identify with? Is our gratitude that he doesn’t feel the need to talk down to his viewers, and respects us enough to figure it out on our own, such a rare and flattering thing to our tastes that we set aside judgment on whether what he’s attempting to say is worth hearing?

I’ve continued to think about the movie over the intervening days, so in that regard, Upstream Color is a successful work. Whether Carruth earned that success with the work itself, or its mystique and cultural standing compelled me to build a critical case on its behalf, I’m still not sure.

Either way, I’ve come to an interpretation that satisfies me: this is a story about the need to connect, something we all feel intrinsically. When some event severs our familiar connections to the world, we feel lost. But the central characters, both having suffered this disconnect, luck into a rare, powerful connection that saves them both. Of course building a deep connection with someone new isn’t always easy. It can be strange and frightening. Even disorienting, as we lose ourselves to a greater whole. At times it’ll drive us almost to the brink, but in the end it’s all we really have.

Meanwhile… (and here’s where it stops making as much sense if you haven’t seen the movie, though the term “spoiler” hardly applies.)

Meanwhile, the creative mind, represented here as the farmer, has found a way to connect to something bigger, wider, more moving than anyone else can. This is why his character is known as The Sampler. He’s addicted, in a way. He wants to connect to an ever wider array of experience, to feel as much of the world as he can, which leads him to perpetuate this cycle of “sampling” ever more strangers.

In my mind, Shane Carruth — the odd, brilliant, secretive, obsessive hermit filmmaker — is represented through the contrast between the dual dilemmas faced by both the couple and the sampler. Carruth wants to create art, to feel endless connections to greater and greater truth, and it drives and sustains him. But he also feels the difficulty of connecting with just one person, of the pain and pleasure but inherent weirdness of trying to link two lives together in a meaningful way. And in the end, to put it in a politely vague way, he knows we all make a choice, and we decide from there how to live.

Is this the right interpretation? I’m not totally sure. Is there any right interpretation? Maybe there isn’t. If my theory is definitively wrong, because Carruth didn’t intend for there to be any concrete truth, is that the only right interpretation? Or did he intend for us to interpret something he sees so clearly but failed to effectively put into his film? That’s also not beyond possibility.

So is this movie any good? Who can say?

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A New Perspective: Tenth of December and Gone Girl

No one should have to tell you to read these two books. Or rather, everyone already has. Both bestsellers, one graced numerous top ten lists last year; New York Times declared the other, on only January 3rd of 2013, “the best book you’ll read this year“. Assuming no toxic allergy to short stories, no childhood trauma involving a well-plotted thriller, both Tenth of December and Gone Girl should be on your shelf — read by now, or patiently waiting their turn. They’re both five-star reads.

Since praise for each of these books is still echoing through the halls, there’s little left to add to the conversation on either beyond enthusiastic agreement. (Well, that may be harsh. I am an intelligent person with opinions and feelings like any reviewer — and as we’ll get to, everyone’s point of view is valuable.) However, I may be in the minority for having read them back to back, being late to the Gillian Flynn party but eager to get in early on the latest Saunders salon (though it’s wildly hard to find people prepared to discuss even the most popular short story collection; I need more book friends, frankly. Applications welcome).

What sparked my attention in back-to-back reading is how these two incredible books use a similar structure to two totally different ends, yet to equally devastating effect. Both tell a single story (or series of stories) from multiple points of view, which is not a groundbreaking method, I’ll admit. Tons of books from Game of Thrones to Infinite Jest have multiple narrators orbiting their central plot.  But the juxtaposition of these two in particular helped highlight how crucial that structure is to giving each of these books their meaning and impact.

Saunders is the master of creating empathy. Whether crafting a portrait of the painfully pedestrian or a slightly skewed sci-fi future, his characters throb with humanity. Inner monologues bare the souls of their speakers in voices so sad and vulnerable and honest, one can’t help but be drawn in.

Part of the time his use of dual narrators is literal, as in some of Tenth of December’s best selections: for example the story of a well-to-do mother going to adopt a puppy, and the barely-getting-by mother with questionable uses for said puppy’s leash. Or in the eponymous (and best, final) passage, where a boy just arriving at manhood and an elderly man just losing his find ways to save each other at a crucial moment. Other stories play the game more subtly, but just as effectively, by flipping a single character’s view from looking up in awe at those he envies one moment, to down at those he pities the next.

In either case, he uses these multiple perspectives to open our hearts and minds, to offer a view into someone else’s pain, insecurity, fear, doubt, courage, generosity, kindness, warmth. As our hearts break with recognition of life’s frail moments, or we cringe at how close our unsavory thoughts are to these characters at their worst, we’re forced to reckon with how others experience the world. He teaches us in vivid lessons that seeing things from the other side might make us all better, more sympathetic people. This is Saunders’ special talent, and what makes his latest such a vital piece of fiction.

Where Tenth of December builds bridges, Gone Girl builds fences. Instead of helping us open our hearts, Flynn takes our tendency to sympathize and uses it against us. Her page-turning suspense novel tells two sides of a relationship in crisis while daring us to choose the right and the wronged. That is, until she flips everything we think we know on its head and keeps barreling ahead anyway. (This is only the vaguest of spoilers; anyone who glances across the table of contents before diving in knows something interesting is coming, but to the book’s credit it’s hard to guess exactly what.)

Flynn offers an almost diametrically opposed lesson from Saunders here: that being too open, too willing to accept another’s version of the world, can make us too easily manipulated. We read the first half of the book and start thinking we understand these characters for who they really are. We start taking a side, and are proven dangerously mistaken. But there’s more to Gone Girl than a clever plot twist. The characters are rendered with a sensitivity that elevates the book beyond another genre thriller.

The opening chapters tell a convincing, revealing story of what it means to be in a relationship, and are just as absorbing as the advancing plot. Here, as with Saunders, the multiple viewpoints are vital to the story’s purpose. Seeing this couple’s turmoil from two sides highlights the pitfalls of mixed messages, unvoiced feelings, and the constant need to rationalize why we do the petty things we do to the ones we’re supposed to love. It’s an insightful enough look at married life to deserve its own recognition, all the while lulling us into believing we know where we’re headed.

Without ruining the later chapters, it’s safe to say that once things are upended, those dual viewpoints remain equally crucial. But the meaning shifts as we learn more. What was a tale of miscommunication leading to pain and tragedy transforms into a story of knowing another’s mind painfully well. Empathizing with the person lying next to us, knowing exactly how their mind works, becomes almost too much to bear. It forces us to accept that perspective as real, to live life fully aware how someone else sees us in all our ugly weakness and terrible truth. It’s a less savory perspective than the generous spirit of Saunders, but it’s no less gripping.

This is why I love reading fiction.

One of the only scientific studies I’ve seen referenced that actually stuck with me (and which I surely hope hasn’t been disproved since, as I quote it so often) showed that reading fiction increases empathy, so long as the reader is ‘emotionally transported’ by the story. I want so badly for that to be true. In part because it sounds like a great reason to keep reading books like these that are so emotionally transporting, instead of being guilted into reaching for inspirational essay collections that’ll help me ‘figure it all out’ or ‘jumpstart innovative thinking’. But also because it takes for granted that more empathy is better. That being able to see the world through the eyes of others — experience their triumphs and tragedies as our own, feel their pain and pleasure and understand their difficulties — should be measured, increased, encouraged. Not just for the writers who use it to tell such affecting stories, but for us as readers and as people.

Both of these books place that element of empathy at the core of what they try to accomplish, and do so with real skill. These are the kind of books that make us better.

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The Parody Trap: Portlandia vs Key & Peele

Let’s play a game. It’s called, “Write a sketch that makes fun of hipsters who ______.” Now fill in the blank with a trendy affectation, niche hobby or urban fad, take it to its extreme, and ta da! Comedy. Portlandia excels at this game. Occasionally you can substitute yuppies (hipsters with money), or hippies (aging hipsters older than Gen X; because Gen X hipsters are still clinging to not being old yet), but the formula still holds. The wigs are just different.

Fred Armisen’s skill at impersonating a wide range of hipster neuroses has taken Portlandia a long way so far. Over a few seasons, Carrie Brownstein has revealed a real gift for comedic timing and restraint that’s a terrific balance to her cartoonish costar. And every few episodes their talents combine with some excellent writing in a sketch that perfectly skewers some thing the kids (or adults-in-denial) are doing. When they nail a target like that, they rightly earn the huge laughs and retweets a great comedic parody deserves. But it’s hard not to see this well running dry after their third season. There are only so many hipster quirks to ridicule.

Not to say the show isn’t clever, or one of the funniest sketch shows on TV. Unfortunately, that just isn’t saying much. Portlandia faces a problem that’s long been plaguing Armisen’s other gig, SNL, where every third sketch is a parody game show, talk show, or commercial (seriously, try to find a single episode that doesn’t have at least one of these three). These formats almost always depend on outsized stereotypes or celebrity impressions for laughs, which is type of crutch. When in doubt, rely on a shallow formula: the humor of recognition.

Laughs brought on by mirroring back to us what we already know earn the easy reaction of, “Oh my god, that’s totally how those people are! How crazy are they, right?” It’s not so different from what a million Gangnam Style knockoffs are attempting, or what comedy fans scorn Dane Cook for leaning on so heavily (”Remember POP TARTS, guys!?”). Fred and Carrie get a little more credit for targeting the narrow over the broad, but are farm-to-table cafes or a bunch of people shushing each other over TV spoilers all that different than airplane food or the driving habits of minorities? We laugh because we’ve totally noticed that too!

This is the humor of identification, where the connection starts from a safely accepted common ground and exaggerates it into absurdity so that we can all comfortably mock from a distance.

……….

Stand-up comedy is currently enjoying a resurgence, primarily on the wave of performers willing to find comedy not in bludgeoning easy targets, but in probing laughable realities to reveal emotional truths. Louie CK. Marc Maron. Patton Oswalt. (Even Kyle Kinane, a personal favorite.) They start with challenging premises, then lead us down a winding a path of cleverly constructed comedy until we come around to their skewed view of the weird world we live in. Instead of distancing themselves from a subject in order to ridicule, they dig deeply into the specifically personal to find new but strangely relatable interpretations of reality.

Key & Peele operates closer to this mode. Their willingness to push their sketches past simple parody — to go the extra distance to find moments of universal, emotional truth in their comedy — makes them the best sketch show on television.

Not that they don’t also do pure parody, and do it as sharply as anyone. Their “East/West Bowl” sketch hit its target so precisely the laughs are tear-inducing. But more often Key & Peele play a different game than Portlandia’s (or SNL’s) fall-back parody-premise-generator. Instead of choosing a target first, they start with, “Wouldn’t it be funny if ______?” And instead of choosing something we all already know to mirror back to us, they explore absurd situations for their inherent humanity. What if two gangsters bonded over their love of vampire romance? What if a bully had no filter and gave voice to every messed-up thing he was really feeling? What if (in a personal favorite) an overweight nerd, pretending to order pizzas for a whole party, so he could eat three pizzas on his own, had to deal with a pizza guy that wanted to come to his party and hook up with his fake friend? And crucially, how can we end up seeing something of ourselves in these characters?

None of these sketches exist solely so we can laugh at gangsters, bullies, or nerds for the stereotypes associated with them. Sure, they exaggerate characters for laughs along the way, but each bit has a turning point. Each one hinges on something real: unlikely friendship, insecurity, loneliness. Key & Peele push through the easy laughs for deeper ones.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in one of their most brilliant pieces, the non-stop LMFAO party. Any comedy team could easily poke fun at the goofy outfits and continuous stream of jello shots that go along with the club life as depicted by these kind of songs. But Key & Peele do us one better. They don’t just skewer the inane lyrics (though they do), or overplay the glazed looks on the faces of zombie-like partygoers (though they do that too). That would be the simple route, the humor of recognition. In the world of Key & Peele, LMFAO aren’t just ridiculous. They’re trapped in an existential nightmare. The joke lands exponentially harder because we’re not laughing at the ridiculous thing we already knew — that these guys are themselves kind of a joke. We’re laughing at something revealed through humor that we may never have realized was true: a non-stop party is actually a kind of hell.

……….

All this isn’t to explain why one show is funny and one is not. Few things are less interesting than picking apart jokes. Both shows have shining moments and clunkers, and either makes a fine way to spend a happy half-hour. But one show seems to get much more credit in pop culture than the other, and it would be a shame if the one that lasts longer and enjoys more success is also the one more in danger of running on fumes. Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele deserve credit for the huge amount of care they obviously put into their writing, not to mention their skill and range as actors. They might not ‘go viral’ as often as they would parodying easy targets, but theirs is the more satisfying work. Similar to the all-time best sketch shows like Kids In The Hall or Mr. Show, Key & Peele may not be non-stop laughs every episode. But at their best they hit on something deeper, something harder to express, and something truer that will stay with us longer.

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The Missing Comedy of the Year Was in the Penalty Box

Just the other day some friends and I were complaining: we usually get at least one new quotable comedy per year, but 2012 totally lacks anything of that caliber. What movie from the last 12 months might you re-watch over and over again on HBO, then TNT, and eventually Comedy Central for the next several years? We couldn’t name a single contender on the level of an Anchorman or 40-Year-Old Virgin, much less a Bridesmaids or even a Tropic Thunder if we’re being generous.

Not that those are ever my favorite movies of the year, but it’s nice to get a fresh jolt of classic comedy every now and then. One can only rely on lines from Old School for so long to form fast bonds with other outwardly-adult males. After a while those knowing nods turn to eye rolls.

[Side note: Is it possible there was a candidate that did fit the bill for guys still in their early 20's, and I just matured out of this category? Or have we really been robbed of a truly memorable comedy for a whole movie season? I can think of a few potential qualifiers, but if that's the best Hollywood can do, someone outside the Ferrell-Apatow complex really needs to step up and break this sucker open next year.]

Facing this tragic situation, I submit a write-in candidate from last year that seems to have slipped under most people’s radar: the minor-league hockey comedy, Goon, starring Seann William Scott. A truly great comedy worth watching and repeating lines from for the next year or so among the guys you rely on to watch football or play yard games at barbecues.

Not only are there great throwaway lines that reward repeat viewings, just like the movies mentioned above — pay attention to the announcer — Goon is full of seemingly innocuous lines whose delivery alone makes them surprisingly and endlessly hilarious, particularly from the supporting bench. As a bonus, a truly funny comedy becomes a genuinely moving sports film by the end. Not in a manufactured Happy Gilmore way, but in a sincere one that falls somewhere between Rudy, Rocky, and Caddyshack.

Not enough people must have seen this movie, or surely it would have been more highly recommended to me. Though it never seemed like something I’d like, what with the sports and the punching, I’m glad I got on the right side of this one, . Catch it on demand, Netflix Instant, or (if you got Showtime to watch Homeland, like I did), on cable reruns, right where it belongs, for as long as possible.

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No Other Gods Before Me: Belief in The Master

Among the early reviews trickling out for Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film, whether quick tweets or careful paragraphs, an unusually high percentage include disclaimers like  “I have to see this a second time,” or “I’m gonna need a while to digest this.” If it can be said that a particular breed of moviegoer is naturally predisposed to PTA, they seem to be collectively hedging their bet on this one — as if The Master is too spectacular to comprehend fully, or the work of a talent so revered it must only be approached with caution.

Essentially, it’s as if their belief in the glory of this film is too overwhelming to express in words to another human being. Faith does strange things to people.

Having seen The Master last week at the lovely Castro Theatre (in full 70mm**), and spent the days since mulling over it myself, I think I can help relieve some of the burden. The trouble isn’t an incredibly complex story, an overly subtle message lying deep within the text, or an intricate puzzle that needs piecing together over multiple viewings. It could be that this particular denomination of cinephiles are simply stalling. They need to figure out the reason they like this movie so much, because they think they should like it a lot and can’t quite explain it yet.

Why commit to a fully reasoned argument when you can appeal to the sense of something beyond comprehension, make people feel as if there’s something deep and pure just out of their reach — that if only they’d open their eyes and their hearts, they could understand for themselves?

Like I said, faith does strange things to people.

The Master certainly feels like a masterwork. It takes its time getting where it’s going, much like There Will Be Blood before it, and lingers on lush wide angle scenes or pores over minute character details. Boosters will turn to words like ‘mesmerizing’, while some will simply say ’slow’. Also like its predecessor, several Oscars are all but guaranteed. One will rightly go to the score, which centers around an unsettling percussive undercurrent that sounds downright revolutionary compared to today’s trend toward Inception-style blares. At least a few more are due for powerful performances from Hoffman, Adams, and a particularly transformed Phoenix — so long as a certain actor’s rendition of Abraham Lincoln doesn’t swoop in to steal it away. Though they don’t come as often as one might hope, there are several moments where these characters leap off the screen with frightening dramatic force.

So formally, it feels deliberate. Important. It has a weight that few films do, and that’s to be commended.

A more overarching sense of gravity comes from its sometimes disturbing, sometimes absurdly comical, but eternally fascinating subject: the strange things faith can do to people. Some it turns into blind followers as they’re willingly subsumed by an idea greater than themselves. Maybe that’s the point for them. Some are disenchanted by it, but are tempted into going through the motions to have a place in the world. Maybe because it’s all they know.

Some it makes into warriors, and these are the most dangerous. The fictional religion-slash-cult depicted in The Master is, very intentionally I’d say, called “The Cause”. It’s an important distinction. Unlike an Eastern philosophy like the Tao — “The Way” — which is a set of principles to live by, or an explicit ethical code — like the Golden Rule, or the Ten Commandments — a cause is something you fight for. A cause is a with-us-or-against-us proposition that requires the amassing and protection of power against the nonbelievers who would stand in its way.

For the leader of a cause, someone in whom others place their faith entirely, it can create a dangerous delusion. No matter what nonsense springs forth from their leader — and again very intentionally, most of this leader’s sermons are complete freewheeling garbage on paper — even nonsense said with conviction allows the faithful to keep believing. Maybe because they want so badly to have someone to follow. They stay loyal to the cause despite itself, to the point where the man at its center will start to believe his own vision, even as he lives in fear of the grand illusion being swept away at any moment. He continues to fortify his fragile kingdom and withdraw ever further within its walls.

But some faith disappoints in the end. They want to believe, to feel the overwhelming sense of belonging, understanding, peace. They want the calm of knowing an underlying, reassuring truth; but they never quite feel it fully. It may cause them constant pain. It may cause them to lash out. Or to finally see through the lies and look for the answers elsewhere.

Maybe that kind of man would have been a happier, better person had he just played along, going through the motions until it stuck. Maybe his life would have more meaning had he become a full-fledged warrior. Maybe fighting on behalf of something larger than himself, even something he never fully understood, would have given him purpose and direction. Maybe there’s no peace out there for him no matter what, living a majestic lie or a chaotic truth.

The Master asks these questions, and they’re big questions. It may not ask them directly, and it may not answer them to our satisfaction. But they’re questions so big they feel deep and weighty and important. They’re questions you want to digest and discuss and go over again in your mind before trying to form an answer. They deal with a truth that always seems just out of reach, and many of us aren’t comfortable confronting directly. Faith certainly does strange things to people.

……….

**A note on seeing in The Master in 70mm, which is apparently is a rare treat that few theatres in America are even equipped to provide. Visually, the film is gorgeous. Vivid colors, excellent details, and shot like you’d expect from an auteur. But to be honest, I was seeing it from the balcony of the Castro, a huge 1400-seater, so the distance between my seat and the screen surely detracted from my ability to appreciate the format’s advantage. Another issue from that vantage point: the sound was not ideal, causing a few Bane-like moments with Phoenix’s character, an incessant mumbler. I recommend trying to see it the way it was meant to be seen; I also advise getting there early enough to find better seats.

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reading side notes

Programming Note: Another Podcast Crossover and More to Come

Why hello.

I’ve been off for six months working hard at the day job, spending time with the wife, reading things on my iPad (it really is the best way to turn your RSS feeds into an infinitely interesting magazine), watching lots of TV and playing lots of games and generally situating myself in my new San Francisco habitat. It’s been good, but I’m ready to do some writing again.

Which is good because there are some interesting things to write about! I just played Papo y Yo, watched Homeland finally, and am going to see an early 70mm screening of The Master tomorrow — and that’s just this week, so there’s really no excuse. (Short answer if you really can’t wait: the first two are totally worth your time and I’m cautiously optimistic about any PTA film.)

Just can’t wait to hear some of my opinions on recent entertainment? You’re in luck! You may have missed me on The Brad Bogner Show about a month ago, on which we talked for almost two hours about a wide assortment of recommendable amusements.

Now that some time has passed, the discussion may have died down enough to where you can tolerate a few more opinions on The Dark Knight Rises. Or maybe you’re curious why someone with supposedly good taste is sticking with The Newsroom? Haven’t heard sufficient people tell you why you should have watched Deadwood? You’re in luck! Plus you can satisfy that curiosity as to whether one of last year’s hit novels, The Art of Fielding is as great as people say it is. All in one fun podcast.

Before listening, forgive two grievous errors: I mistakenly used the expression “50/50 hindsight”, which was pretty stupid. But much worse, I mixed up the origin stories of Tim Drake and Dick Grayson and didn’t catch myself on the air. Mortifying, as a Bat-fan, and I apologize profusely. It’s still a pretty great conversation though if you can get past my gaffes and a minor glitch in the audio around the halfway point.

Check it out at Brad’s website.

Or go straight to iTunes.

Back soon with written-down thoughts, whether anyone’s still out there reading or not.

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watching

Enjoyable Teen Superpower Movie Named Poorly

Chronicle is a palate cleansing comic book movie for those of us who skipped all twelve that came out last year and are waiting patiently for another Dark Knight. The intimate story of friendship and teen angst underneath the special effects is definitely original and well-executed enough to make it worth seeing. No time is wasted finding a far-fetched explanation for why its heroes can do what they do and how they should use their powers to right past wrongs. That’s boring, so they skip it. In fact, our heroes don’t really focus on any acts of heroism, for the most part. It’s a movie about what actual young people might actually do upon suddenly finding themselves with super-human abilities, complete with the bad decisions they might make. Like only the good parts of Hancock done right (there were some good parts, come on, be fair), Chronicle is willing to take the darker side of the ‘regular, screwed-up human beings with incredible abilities’ story where it deserves to be taken.

But why is it called Chronicle, and why is it force-fit into this ‘found footage’ schtick? It’s not as if I have a problem with the genre; I love it when it’s at its best and used for the right reasons. I’m not even saying that a first-person or found-footage superhero movie is a terrible idea. But I get a distinct feeling that it was a gimmick used to get this particular movie pitched and made, not a tool used in service to better storytelling. In fact, I challenge anyone to tell me how that choice added to the film in any way — with points awarded only if the rationale outweighs the multiple distractingly awkward exchanges necessary to justify the camera’s constant presence.

Let’s examine the a few low points required to stick to the form. The worst offender was Blogger Girl, whose camera usage was so unnatural all I could think about was how incredibly boring her blog must be. She films people coming to her door at home, with herself framed perfectly in a nearby mirror, in the absolute height of narcissistic tedium. Then there’s the ultimate cringe-moment, during a line where Good Guy (I’m really bad at remembering character names) straight-up asks Tortured Guy “Do you really need to look at everything through that camera? It’s like you’re trying to put distance between you and the rest of the world!” — and Tortured Guy totally takes the bait and says, “Maybe I do” [pout]. I know the only reason they brought Boring Mopey Guy along to the cave of superpowers in the first place was because he had a camera, but his cousin could have easily said, “Hey, you look lonely, come check this out,” instead of Popular Guy saying, “Hey, you have a camera, come check this out.” Done.

Also, that last shot was totally weird and forced and a waste of a perfectly good piece of electronics.

Without the camera gimmickry the film is a down-to-earth superpower movie with great highs and lows, like realizing what they can do with these powers, and then dealing with consequences when they overreach. It has interesting moral questions, like how and when it’s okay to use power over others for your own gain. It works in teenage coming-of-age drama and parallels to Columbine and classic comic stories like The Killing Joke’s ‘One Bad Day’ premise. Guess what guys, that’s enough to make an interesting film on it’s own. Or rather, your movie is interesting despite your having leaned on an unnecessary stylistic decision. Next time out, call it Powerkidz for all I care. Just keep the cameras in your hands, not your characters’, unless you have a better reason than a cute idea for a title.

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side notes

The A.V. Club Problem: On Lists, Fandom and Mortality

Too often the choice comes down to this moment. Do I take a few hours to write about something I’ve recently consumed — be it a movie, game, book — or use those hours to consume something else new that might be even better, more involving, more thought-provoking than the last thing I’ve barely finished digesting? The former is challenging and occasionally rewarding, but carries with it the risk of exposing my lack of wit or originality; the latter is safe and comfortable and easy to accomplish while snacking. Often I lose those hours to Twitter and RSS feeds and end up doing neither.

But not today, my friends! Today I return to these dusty columns — which by now should have contained a Best of 2011 list — to explain why they do not.

The short version: you don’t need one. No one really does any more, do they? I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that pop culture has exploded in quantity and quality, ease of access and abundance of enthusiasm to the point where suggestions arrive so steadily they’re becoming meaningless. We’ve reached a level of entertainment saturation such that the expanding class of culture junkies are largely redundant and potentially harmful to us as mortal beings with a finite amount of life-minutes to spend on said entertainment.

We need fewer recommendations, not more.

Think about it. Everyone sharing a list presumes to be doing the world a favor by steering us toward transcendent works we may have missed. And sometimes they do. Sincerely, I thank you, wise writers, for helping me discover such overlooked cultural treasures! I will also admit that were it not for best-of lists and award recognitions, I may have missed out on A Single Man, which is a beautiful, moving film. Same with The King’s Speech. But aside from learning I should pay closer attention to the career choices of Colin Firth, any given list is going to have some picks I will love, some I will not enjoy at all, and some that are fine but don’t leave an impression on me the way they did the list-writer.

Here’s the root of the problem. Say I were to take the best-of lists of films, albums, books, TV shows, podcasts and video games of 10 major outlets and follow every single one of their recommendations. After accounting for the certain percentage I’ve already seen/heard/read/watched, it could still easily take all of 2012 to catch up with what was supposedly the best of 2011. There’s my entire entertainment agenda set out for a year, with no room left for discovery, serendipity, or personal preference. The pressure to stay current could simultaneously keep me from ever living in the present.

Or take just one site, a personal favorite with critics I’ve found both insightful and adept at pointing me in the direction of quality work: The A.V. Club. They employ a full staff of writers to examine the best across all of pop culture, to go back and mine treasures from the past, and provide an all-around primer on everything worth my time. At least in theory.

But let’s be honest. Even setting aside the time it would take to read all of their criticism (some of which is seriously illuminating and valuable, I should note, particularly the ‘Scenic Routes’ column), which could become a whole hobby unto itself: if I were to subscribe to every podcast, play every game, dive into every bit of Cult Canon or Undercover artist, I would have to quit working, exercising, socializing or daydreaming just to keep up with all this great stuff. As they dig deeper into culture gone by or further off the beaten path in search of more pop art to feed their opinion machine, no human can possibly have time to enjoy everything they work so hard to determine as enjoyable.

In fact, once they’ve interviewed every auteur, considered every hypothetical, and list-ified the world from every possible angle, they risk going beyond expert, past obsessive, and entering a whole new dimension of hyper-pop-literacy. A sort of geek singularity in which everything is amazing and disappointing all at once, whose paradoxical vortex of arcane knowledge threatens to spaghettify Nathan Rabin’s head while Tasha Robinson screams on in horror, eyes bleeding. No one wants to see that happen. Maybe we need to establish some personal boundaries to prevent it instead.

The alternative for the community of enthusiasts could be to put value in critics who help us scale back, filter out, and maybe even determine there are plenty of things that aren’t worth our time [*cough*MarthaMarcyMayMarlene*cough*] instead of making lists of “Standout Episodes of Shows that Aren’t Great but Are Worth Checking Out Just This Once.” I’m at the point where I want a critic who says definitively, “Dexter only gets worse after season one; don’t bother.” or “You know what, the Harry Potter books are great for kids and it’s good they exist, but as an adult there are better ways to spend your time.” Of course then the issue becomes one of lack of choice and freedom and diversity of opinion, which no one wants either. And we still end up with all these goddamn lists.

Not to sound merely negative or contrarian, I offer a counterpoint. But first, a goddamn list:

No Color by The Dodos
David Comes to Life by Fucked Up
Attack the Block
I Saw the Devil
Bridesmaids
Batman: Arkham City on Xbox
Bastion on Xbox
Louie on F/X
Breaking Bad on AMC
Game of Thrones on HBO
A Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
Bossypants by Tina Fey
The Visible Man by Chuck Klosterman
The essays of John Jeremiah Sullivan
The WTF podcast by Marc Maron

These are some of the things I enjoyed the most in 2011. If you haven’t heard of any of these, by all means look them up and enjoy them. Maybe you already have! There are certainly enough people in the world telling us these things are good (or bad) that you’ve probably made up your mind by now anyway.

The point is, I’ve realized I would much rather talk at length with one person who loved — or even hated — any of these things listed, rather than have the satisfaction of knowing I turned 100 new people on to any one of them. The discussion, the analysis, the extrapolation, these are all way more valuable to me as a human being than convincing a bunch more people to enjoy what I enjoyed, before immediately moving on to the next shiny thing.

So, after some delay, that counterpoint:

We need fewer recommendations, not more.
We need better conversations, not more judgments.

Here is something that has happened to me several times recently, to the point I’ve become very self-aware when caught in its clutches. It’s a lot like this already-classic Portlandia sketch, but for television shows and without the competitive edge or paper-eating. It’s a friendly and well-meaning conversation that goes like this:

“Have you watched Louie?”
“Oh yeah, it’s so good. Man, I love Louie.”
“Me too, it’s sooooo gooooood! You know what’s great in a totally different way, is Archer.”
“Yeah, I watched a few episodes but it didn’t really do it for me. Have you seen this season of Always Sunny though? They are so back on their game!”
“Oh, I’m not caught up yet, don’t spoil it! I’ve been burning through Boardwalk Empire though and that show is sooooo goooooood. Especially season two.”
“Totally! It reminds me of The Sopranos, which I just started re-watching. Man, what a great show…”
“That should keep you busy until Mad Men and Game of Thrones come back, right? Oh my god, I can’t wait.”
“Me neither!”
[everyone dies. the end.]

Okay no one dies. But there is a zombie quality to this conversation once you become self-aware. Everyone spending hours and hours absorbing these deep, complicated, wonderfully high-quality series, just to gloss over them all with a quick thumbs up or down. If you’re lucky someone might pause to identify a scene that was particularly memorable, so others can nod in agreement. Everyone has proven they are current, they are with it, and they have opinions, without committing to anything of substance or actually engaging in a meaningful discussion.

No one asks, “How do you feel about fatherhood as presented by Louie’s character?”, “Why are we so drawn to protagonists trying to balance power struggles and family life in all these HBO series, and how does Daenerys flip that trope on its head?”, “Do we really want Don Draper to shed his false exterior and be genuinely happy despite his natural skill at manipulation, or do we get more satisfaction by seeing a handsome uber-man fall repeatedly into misery despite his outward perfection? And what does that say about us?”.

I’m not saying every conversation should be exactly that (or that pretentious). But I would hazard a guess that the people making all this art, television or otherwise, were hoping to spark thoughts, emotions, and discourse. If art is supposed to convey meaning, why don’t we spend more time talking about that meaning instead of just rendering verdicts on any artwork’s supposed quality? Perhaps we’ve been conditioned by a culture of Like buttons and American Idol text-to-votes to express opinions in binary, or a lack of the vocabulary to articulate our reactions because we’re starving out all the good high school English teachers. Or as I suspect, it may be simply that it’s much easier to take another trip back to the stimulus buffet than spend much time savoring those rare morsels of truly great work.

At the end of my life, I can’t imagine laying back in pride at having stuffed my every waking minute with as much entertainment as possible. All these nuanced expressions of human emotion shouldn’t be reduced down to a checklist. What I can imagine is relishing all the meaningful exchanges of ideas, facilitated through moving, provocative art, that enriched my understanding of others’ experience in this world. Those moments brings us closer to other humans, not our glowing screens large and small, and expand our minds, not our pupils. As Mr. G.R.R. Martin himself wrote this past year, “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies…The man who never reads lives only one.’ Though I would amend the fact that a thousand lives aren’t much good either unless they’re shared with other people.

All this is to say, that’s what I hope to do more of that this year now that I can stop pretending it mattered what I liked most last year. More posts if I can (last year was a weird mix of busy and lazy), with a mission to consume less, consider more.

Now if you’ll excuse me I have to go try to finish season three of Doctor Who, book four of Song of Ice and Fire, and part two of Assassin’s Creed. They’re soooooo gooooood.

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