You Should Be Watching Girls

The second season of Girls started last night on HBO. Although I have not yet seen the episode (maybe tonight), I did have occasion to speak about the series at dinner last night with friends and while three of us really like the series, one friend can’t stand it.

I shouldn’t have been surprised, to be honest. I’ve had a look at my friend’s DVR queue and it is dominated by drama series from USA and TNT. I’m not judging her solely on that (after all, I enjoy Burn Notice) but on top of that she also doesn’t like shows like Parks and Recreation and Louie. So why does it bother me that she doesn’t like Girls?

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Other Thoughts on TV Drama’s Golden Age

A number of years ago I was corresponding with a friend about the current golden age of TV drama and I gave him my opinion that Oz on HBO was the series that started it all. About a year ago I started toying with a post about where all this good TV came from, using IMDB to trace the careers of various showrunners. It didn’t really come together in the way I wanted so I left it in drafts and moved on to other things.

It turned out that not only did I never have to finish the post and if I had waited I could have just sent my friend a copy of The Revolution Was Televised by Alan Sepinwall, which came out in November. Sepinwall agrees that Oz was the series that made The Sopranos possible and Sepinwall further traces where those shows came from much better than I ever could. I enjoyed the book and I think it will be one of those books that I will revisit from time to time to remind myself about this era.

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A Hundred Floors Above Us

I have just returned from the Leonard Cohen concert at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn and am pleased that the show surpassed my expectations. What where they? Well, Cohen turned 78 this past September and I wasn’t certain if he would be able to move around the stage. Cohen answered that question immediately when he trotted onto the stage after his band. True, Cohen’s movements on the stage are primarily limited to kneeling on one or both knees, tensing his entire body to deliver on a specific moment in a song or bowing, fedora in hand, in the direction of a band member who just completed a solo. Still, that was more than expected.

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Long Time Gone

I’ve found that I haven’t wanted to come here and post anything in quite some time. It’s not because I haven’t been writing but because I have been writing other things that won’t work in this forum. It is amazing to me the amount that other people write, but then again for a lot of them maybe this is all they do with their day.

I don’t believe that there are only a finite amount of words that I have in me but I do believe that there is a limited amount that I can write every day. Responsibilities of work and family reduce the time to a fraction and in that time I have to try and satisfy all forms of release, like writing as well as reading and watching television and movies.

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Bonnie Versus Bon

Recently, a friend of mine sent me a message saying that  while she typically agrees with my theory that we prefer the version of a song that we hear first over subsequent versions that we hear. However, she felt that she preferred Bon Iver’s (not his real name) version of “I Can’t Make You Love Me” over Bonnie Raitt’s original.

With all due respect to my friend, I knew she was completely wrong. As good as the song sounds in Mr. Vernon’s sweet falsetto, the song lacks the poignancy of a forty-something woman who struggled for years in a male-dominated industry and finally was able to break through with some (initially) well-earned success (which was only partially undermined by the Grammy love affair).

Thanks to Spotify, I was able to go back and listen to a song that I remember loving when it came out in 1991. I have to admit, the studio version doesn’t hold up so well now. I had forgotten how different production was back then. I hadn’t realized that Don Was (not his real last name) kind of sucked. I started to worry that the song wasn’t as good as I remembered. So listened to it again.

I hate the drum intro. The piano is a bit too much. Was that wind chimes? How could I have forgotten all this?

Okay, so maybe I can ignore the music. (Again with the fucking wind chimes?) But what about the vocal? Does it have the power that I remember?

I almost lost faith through the first verse and chorus. Raitt has a great blues voice and you should feel the ache in a song like this. In the first verse and chorus it was too clean, too pretty. Again, Raitt was a bluesman, never a sex symbol. She wasn’t too clean or too pretty. This was wrong. Thankfully, in the second part of the song, Raitt delivers. Even Was can’t fuck up “And I will give up this fight”, although he tries with the background music.

So I had to make a quick aside with regard to Was. He has produced quite a lot of stuff that I’ve listed to. Does he really suck? I noticed that he produced “Arkansas Traveler” by Michelle Shocked (not her real last name) back in 1992. I remember that there was a song I really liked on that album. What was it? Ah, yes, “Come a Long Way”. Does that song suck now? Let’s check Spotify.

The song starts quietly and Ms. Shocked’s vocals are out in front. As the song builds, the music threatens to intrude but maybe it’s the force of Ms. Shocked vocals that the music never overwhelms her. I still like that song. I will head over to Amazon later to download it.

An aside to the aside. The album is still playing while I write this. The next song on the album is “Secret to a Long Life” and I think I hear Levon (his middle name) Helm singing background on the chorus. Thanks to Ms. Shocked’s website I find that not only did Mr. Helm sing on that song but fellow Band-mate Garth Hudson was also on the song. I have always loved Mr. Helm’s voice. Time for another quick tangent. Pause Ms. Shocked, cue The Band.

I don’t know a lot of the deep cuts by The Band so I go the obvious route and choose “The Weight”. (I know this link is from “The Last Waltz” and features the Staples Singers but the Staples Singers are so great.) Mr. Helm sings the lead except for the fourth verse where Rick Danko does the honors. Listening to this on Spotify convinces me that there is nothing wrong with the sound. The music on “I Can’t Make You Love Me” really does suck.

It is interesting that Helm’s vocal is in the right channel. (I quickly check to make sure I have my headphones on right.) The snare seems to be a bit to the right also. Danko is right in the middle on his verse. I think that’s Richard Manuel on the left. Now I want to check another Helm lead on “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”.

God, Robbie Robertson was great at writing song intros. Helm is in the middle here, as are Manuel and Danko in the back. Great drum work on this. Rest in peace, Levon Helm. And thank you. Now back to where I was.

Here’s the Bon Iver version. The piano intro is a bit much but at least there’s no wind chimes. Also, it must be cold in the studio. Or maybe Vernon is losing his hair. Just saying.

The camera operator seems confused about when to focus on Mr. Vernon’s face and when to focus on his hands. Canted frames. I could do without.

I see the track is on Spotify so now I’m going to listen to the song without the distracting visuals. I notice that Vernon changes the chorus slightly. For Raitt, she will lay down her heart and will feel the power but her lover won’t. Mr. Vernon, on the other hand will lay down his heart but feels the power right now while his lover doesn’t (“don’t”). I wonder if this is a mistake.

Vernon also doesn’t bring the power on “And I will give up this fight”. Instead, he breaks out of his falsetto a few times, especially on “When you’re holding me”. So Raitt wants one more night and then she will defiantly give up the fight. She’s tough and she will prove it. Vernon is apparently more interested in the hypocrisy of his lover holding him even when (presumably) she doesn’t love him.

Finally, the “Nick of Time” piece tacked on the end is not necessary. Maybe Vernon is just obsessed with the hypocrisy of females. “Nick of Time” was on Raitt’s album before the one containing “I Can’t Make You Love Me”. So Raitt finds love but then evidently doesn’t. Is she just pandering? Maybe Vernon thinks so.

In the end, I have to tell my friend that I prefer the Raitt version. In reality, I’d like to hear a version with Vernon on the piano and Raitt singing, with Vernon providing backing vocals. That could be definitive.

Season Two of “Game of Thrones” is Coming

Now I know that no one comes here to get updates on the HBO series “Game of Thrones”. Why would you when the folks over at do such a good job? Still, the inner geek in me can’t help but be excited by the trailer that debuted last Sunday.


The Barnes Foundation and Technology

Editor: This post was written about a year ago but was never posted. There is an update at the end of the post.

Recently, my wife and I watched “The Art of the Steal”, the excellent documentary about the disgraceful way in which the city of Philadelphia finally got its hands on the paintings of The Barnes Foundation. To be fair, it’s not really the city of Philadelphia that got its hands on the work. Rather its the moneyed elite who used its power to destroy the explicit wishes of Dr. Barnes in his will.

After watching the movie, my wife and I got tickets for The Barnes Foundation, which is still located in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania. The Barnes Foundation is slated to move to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in 2012. We felt it was important to see the works the way that Dr. Barnes intended them to be seen, before the entire collection is hijacked forever.

While the parts of the collection that we saw did not disappoint, we only found out when we arrived that it is no longer possible to view Matisse’s “Joy of Life” as the second floor is no longer open. Disappointed does not cover our feelings. “Joy of Life” may be the best known piece in the collection, a piece that most have seen even if they don’t know its name. Not being able to see the entire collection means that sometime after Barnes on the Parkway opens we will have to make the trip to Philly to view the collection again. After watching the movie we didn’t want to spend a dime ever again in Philly but we have no choice now. (I’m lobbying for exceptions for Geno’s Steaks and Pat’s King of Steaks.)

So what about technology? Only that this trip would never have happened twenty years ago or it would have happened much differently. We watched the movie on Netflix, streaming on our (my) PS3. We bought tickets on the Barnes Foundation website. We used our GPS to get us from Brooklyn to Lower Merion. I tried to use my smartphone to find a restaurant for lunch before we came back but we ended up doing it the old-fashioned way, selecting from what we were driving past.

Because change comes so slowly its easy to forget how different our lives are now than twenty years ago. No World Wide Web then, no cellphones, no GPS. I wouldn’t be writing about this in a blog and you wouldn’t be able to see it. No doubt the Barnes Foundation would still be moving to the Parkway but most of us would never have heard the story behind it. There is so much information out there now that its hard to imagine that there was every anything different.

Is there a day coming in the future in which we won’t even have to leave our couches to see something like the Barnes Foundation? Will there be no point in traveling to Philadelphia to see paintings in person when we can see lifelike reproductions on our computer screens (or whatever replaces them)?

I’m sure Dr. Barnes would be livid with what has happened to his foundation. But I also think that nothing stays the way we want it to. We could never have imagined the things that we take for granted now and most of us will live long enough to take for granted things that seem impossible to us now. Without progress, I never would have seen the Barnes Foundation save for by chance on a trip to Philadelphia.

Update: The “new campus” for the Barnes Foundation will open on May 19, 2012 on the Ben Franklin Parkway in downtown Philadelphia.

Kill Your Darlings

Note from yourhost: This piece contains spoilers about various television series.

Like probably anyone else that writes, I fall in love with things I write. Sometimes I re-read something and mentally pat myself on the back. (I don’t actually pat myself on the back because of my father’s constant warning from my childhood; “Don’t break your arm patting yourself on the back.) The only problem is that sometimes these sentences or phrases, even though they are really great, just don’t work with the rest. As noted author Stephen King advised, you have to “kill you darlings”. It is the mark of an artist that he or she knows what to include as well as what to take away.

Terrance Winter, showrunner of HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”, is an artist who understands this. At the end of season two of the show, Mr. Winter made the decision to kill one of his darlings. In a conversation with the TV critic Alan Sepinwall, Winter made it clear that he and the other writers all wanted to keep the character of Jimmy Darmody alive. They just couldn’t find a dramatic justification for doing so. Contrast this with another show , “Sons of Anarchy”. While I have read Kurt Sutter’s explanation of why he wants to keep Clay Morrow around at least for next season because of the the potential for conflicts between Clay and Jax, it is difficult from a dramatic standpoint to understand why Clay lived. (I’m glad this blog is too small to get the attention of Sutter. He can be thin-skinned, especially from people like myself who are not qualified to render critical opinions.) Clay is Sutter’s darling and while there will likely be intriguing story lines next season involving Clay, he should have died this season.

Earlier this year, fans of the show “Game of Thrones” (who hadn’t read the books) were shocked when the de facto lead of the show, Ned Stark, was beheaded in the ninth episode of the first season. I was similarly shocked a few years earlier when I read that scene in the books. My friend who had recommended the series told me beforehand that “Martin plays for keeps”. My friend’s meaning, as I came to understand, is that everything is in play. From having read the entire series to date, it is clear that Martin has no issue with killing his darlings. (The two showrunners for “Game of Thrones” have stated that they hope to make it to a particular event which is the best example in the series so far of killing your darlings. I also hope they make it.)

Of course this doesn’t mean that the only way to be a real artist with regards to a TV series is to kill of a major character. Walter and Jesse are still going strong on “Breaking Bad”, Don and Peggy are still at the center of “Mad Men”. It just means that if you are going to keep them around then you’d better work out a plausible reason for them to make it. I think sometimes writers get so focused on where they want to get to that they don’t take as much care as needed to figure out how to get there. Sutter wanted Tara standing behind Jax while he held the gavel, among other things as an echo of a photo of Gemma and JT. But the way the story broke this past season, it feels like that could have happened a few episodes earlier.

Contrast this with season three of “Breaking Bad” when Vince Gilligan and his writers realized that they couldn’t figure out how to keep the cousins alive for the whole season as they originally planned. Instead the cousins were (for the most part) taken care of in episode seven of thirteen. After that, the writers scrambled to figure out the rest of the season. That the rest of the season was excellent is a testament to how killing your darlings can inspire something better.

“Homeland” is another series that figured out how to resolve the major conflict of its first season in a satisfying way. Some may feel that the resolution was obvious given that the showrunners wanted to continue with Brody and Carrie. That may be so, but Brody still does strap on the vest, still does walk up to the vice president and still does flip the switch to detonate the vest. That the wiring in the vest had malfunctioned is not a cheat. We needed to see Brody go through with his plan and we needed to see Brody next season. Problem solved. (If we really want to figure out how this could happen, remember that Brody wouldn’t hug his daughter while he was wearing the vest. Later, in the limo, Brody had difficulty getting his identification out of his jacket. Maybe it happened then. Or maybe it happened later when Brody was thrown to the ground or when he was hurried into the bunker. There’s enough room there to explain the malfunction.)

The best know that they need to kill their darlings. The best example ever? How about the final episode of “The Sopranos”.

The Best Movies of the Year

This time of the year is filled with top ten lists, simultaneously satisfying our cravings for lists and for groups of ten. (I wonder how people with more or less than ten fingers feel about this time of year.) In order to add my views, I now present my take on the best movies of the year.

The year in question is 2006. The rush to finish lists for the year that just ended is a bit silly. We need perspective to accurately judge what is best. Deciding too soon means that we end up trying to predict what we will still be thinking about in the future. So it has been a little over five years since 2006 ended. (Five is ten divided by two. See how that works.) What movies do I remember that came out in 2006?

Oh, and there are spoilers.

I remember laughing out loud during two movies from 2006. I laughed a lot during “Little Miss Sunshine”, no time harder than during the dance sequence at the Little Miss Sunshine Pageant. I’m not sure I remember everything about that movie but Abigail Breslin at the pageant was brilliant. I also laughed long and hard during “Borat”. I’m not sure I’ll ever watch it again and I’m pretty sure I won’t see another movie in which Sasha Baron Cohen employs this technique, but “Borat” was great.

I’m not always a fan of Almodovar. Sometimes I wonder if its because I’m not Spanish or gay or a woman. (I’m really not in Almodovar’s demographic.) However, beginning with “All About My Mother” in 1999, I feel more connected to Almodovar’s work. Either he’s changed or I have. In 2006, Almodovar released “Volver” featuring Penelope Cruz, in what I believe was her first Almodovar film since “All About My Mother”. “Volver” is on my list of my favorite Almodovar films, along with “All About My Mother”, “Talk to Her” and “Broken Embraces”.

In 2006 there was the Mexican Invasion, with three notable movies directed by Mexicans; “Pan’s Labyrinth”, “Children of Men” and “Babel”. “Pan’s Labyrinth” is thus far Guillermo Del Toro’s peak effort as a director. (A friend tells me that the vampire trilogy that Del Toro co-authored is brilliant. I’ll wait a little bit for some vampire detox.) “Children of Men” had a compelling premise and an fine performance by Clive Owen and the Battersea Power Station. Alfonso Cuaron had gained significant notoriety  with his previous two movies, “Y Tu Mama Tambien” and “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”. I’m not sure that “Children of Men” is better than “Harry Potter 4”. “Babel” was a marked improvement by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu over 2003’s “21 Grams” but he still has yet to surpass “Amores Perros” from 2000. At this point, it looks like the Mexican Invasion crested in 2006.

I also remember “Little Children” surpassing my expectations, especially given director Todd Field’s previous overrated directing effort, “In the Bedroom”. Jackie Earle Haley’s solution to his problem was a heart-breaking as could be, given that he was a sex offender. Plus, Patrick Wilson will forever be the Prom King. “The Departed” failed to meet expectations, possibly because they were too high to begin with, given the director (Scorsese), the source material (a well-regarded Hong Kong movie), the subject matter (gangsters) and the lead actors (Nicholson! Di Caprio! Damon!). As it turned out, the story was good but Scorsese failed to rein in Nicholson and it derails a significant part of the movie.

“The Lives of Other” and “Casino Royale” were two other movies that I remember enjoying. I can no longer remember the exact details of “The Lives of Others”. I just went to the most trusted source on the Internet, Wikipedia, and read the plot summary. That sounds really good. I can no longer remember if the story was rendered effectively, although I really liked the movie so it probably was. As for “Casino Royale”, the promise of the latest Bond re-boot that was contained in that movie lasted exactly until Bond arrived in Bolivia in the next installment, “Quantum of Solace”. I have low expectations for “Skyfall”, which is out later this year.

Daniel Craig is an interesting case as I first remember him in “Road to Perdition” in which he played the unworthy son of Paul Newman. Then I saw him play Ted Hughes. I never would have picked him as the next Bond. But Craig was great in “Layer Cake” (the first movie directed by Matthew Vaughn; he has yet to reach that level again). Suddenly he’s buff and is the new Bond and is probably a little too fit to be a credible Mikael Blomkvist. (Although it does explain why Lisbeth Salander is interested in him.) Interesting career so far and since he’s only a year older than me, he has a long time still to go. (Not surprisingly, I’ve only seen one movie featuring one of the three leads from “The Lives of Others”, “Unknown”, which featured Sebastian Koch in a small role. Hey, I was in a hotel and it was on HBO. What was I supposed to do?)

“Sleep No More” and Being Manipulated

“Sleep No More” is a play currently running in New York.

That is probably the most boring way to describe what is, to date, my most enjoyable theater experience in New York. “Sleep No More” is performed by Punchdrunk, a British site-specific theater company. I have no idea what else Punchdrunk has done. What they have done with “Sleep No More” is take over three abandoned warehouses on the west side of Manhattan and convert them into a 100,000 square foot set. Inside the set, which includes part of a 1920s era hotel, a lunatic asylum, a graveyard, an English high street and a lot more, Punchdrunk performs a play inspired by “Macbeth”.

If you are having trouble imaging how a play takes place on such a complex set, then I should add that the audience, wearing identical white Venetian carnival masks, wanders around the set during the three hours of the performance. You are allowed to wander in and out of rooms and up and down the (I think) six levels with only minimal interference from from stewards, wearing black Venetian carnival masks, who are standing silently throughout the set.

The actors are not wearing masks and they move around the set, interact with other actors and sometimes with the audience members and sometimes disappear through doors through which the audience is not allowed to pass. Certain scenes repeat themselves until the final shocking scene that ends the night. My wife and I went twice and combined we had four different experiences. Our friends have gone and they had different experiences. I still not sure what exactly happens or why and although I think I’ve visited every corner of the set there are a number of scenes that I’ve never experienced. There are other scenes I’ve experienced two or three times. It is weird and brilliant and disorienting and I can’t imagine it’s like anything else. It is so enjoyable that the run has been extended at least twice. It is the type of thing that makes you feel glad to live in New York and glad to have the types of friends who tell you about such things and glad to be able to tell other people about. My only misgiving is that it is so interesting that I bet there is someone who right now is trying to figure out how to bring this show or something like it to one of the casinos on the Las Vegas Strip.

The only problem that I had with “Sleep No More” is that it is my nature to start trying to bring order to the chaos. On my first visit, I was lucky enough to know very little about what I was getting into. I wandered around and was never completely sure what I was supposed to do or where I was supposed to go. When the performance was complete I was certain I’d experienced something great but I didn’t know why. It stayed in my head for days and when I learned that it was having the same effect on my wife we decided to see it again.

Armed with the knowledge from my previous visit, I set out to see new things and also see again some of the things that I’d seen the first time. I was a different participant than I’d been the first time. I started constructing what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go. I started noticing the stewards moving into place during certain scenes. I noticed props being put into place. I saw scenes repeated. In short, I started to notice the manipulation that goes into putting on “Sleep No More”.

As I’ve said before, all art is manipulation. The artist tries to get the audience to feel something. In some cases, the artist doesn’t want you to consider that there is an artist. “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.” Ideally, the artist would prefer you didn’t know there was a curtain. (Alternatively, in some art the point of the show is the curtain, or lack thereof.)

In trying to bring order to chaos, in trying to understand how I’m being manipulated, I subconsciously start taking myself out of the moment. It can be frustrating. While watching a movie I’m thinking about how the director got that shot or why the actor made that choice. When listening to music I start to notice how I’m being set up for the climax. Lucky for me, I don’t do this while I’m reading. It is a blessing as it allows me to be surprised when other readers think something is so obvious. (Of course Ned is his father. What?)

This is not to say that I am always successful at sussing things out. “Breaking Bad” has never let me behind the curtain. I still have no idea where Bon Iver is going once the song starts. But other times, like in my second trip to “Sleep No More”, I can’t not see what’s happening. I suspect if I went again that I’d deconstruct the entire show in my mind. So maybe it’s better to stop at twice.

If you haven’t seen it, see it at least once. If “Sleep No More” ever closes in New York (and never opens in Las Vegas) then you will have missed something unique.