Don’t Let the Chlorine in Your Eyes

I recently netflixed the 1991 Gus Van Sant film My Own Private Idaho, starring River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves. The story centers on Mike (Phoenix), a young gay Portland street hustler who suffers jarring narcoleptic episodes. He’s in love with Scott (Reeves), the wealthy mayor’s son who turns to the hustling life out of a sense of defiance and restlessness. Scott takes care of Mike when he suffers his stress-related sleepy breakdowns, and the two eventually embark on a quest to locate Mike’s mother, a figment from the pastoral Idaho childhood he frequently dreams of. Thanks to a large tip from a kinky German patron (Udo Kier), they make it all the way to Italy. Mike’s mother eludes them, but Scott falls in love with an Italian woman, later marrying her and gravitating back to straight society and the success that awaits him. Mike, more lost than ever, returns alone to the Portland squatter’s den where Bob, his mentor, and his fellow street kid hustlers await.

The film has its flaws, the most glaring of which is Van Sant’s attempt to incorporate Shakespearean dialogue from Henry IV, especially early in the film in a drawn-out sequence detailing Bob’s mentorship of Scott and the rest of the hustlers. Once that pretension drops away, however, Phoenix’s delicate performance (James Dean updated and therefore, more subtle) and the beauty of the framing and cinematography make My Own Private Idaho incredibly memorable. Even Reeves is well suited to the role; Scott is fickle and distracted, but feels compelled to protect Mike. The touching campfire scene in which Mike professes his love is at once exhilarating and heartbreaking.

The film opens and closes with Phoenix narrating in the middle of an empty Idaho highway, and these and other scenes in the film are occasionally interrupted with Mike’s home-movie style memories: a distant view of a modest house, a woman, a child.

The shots in Italy emphasizing Mike’s loneliness are simlarly affecting (and roads continue to be a theme):

The funeral scene toward the end is one of the most memorable. Newly reformed Scott attends his father’s funeral, while at the same time a makeshift “funeral party” for mentor Bob rages just down the hill. For some reason, the exuberance of this scene reminded me of the end of Richard Linklater’s Slacker, which is pretty impossible to describe in words. Mike still has conflicted feelings towards Scott, as we see in his sidelong glances across the cemetary.

Despite its flaws, this film to me represents Van Sant’s particular visual genius at its best.

On a side note, this film visually reminded me of another I enjoyed recently, Larry Clark’s Another Day in Paradise, from 1998. The film stars Vincent Kartheiser (of Mad Men) and Natasha Gregson Wagner as Bobbie and Rosie, dirt poor teenage delinquents recruited by a big-time crime couple (James Woods and Melanie Griffith) for a job that goes horribly awry. Similar to My Own Private Idaho, lost kids in search of parental figures are the focus, but instead of the delusional ramblings of Bob, we have sweating, swearing, homocidal maniac James Woods. They get deeper into drugs and violence, Rosie ODs, and Bobbie must escape the wrath of Woods in a nail-biting finale at an isolated rest stop.

What’s striking about the film is the way, similar to My Own Private Idaho, that it juxtaposes a gritty city landscape with a pastoral country one. Later in the film, the characters must relocate to what’s basically the middle of nowhere in the western plains. Where the city was visually cluttered and grimy, the rural locations are shot through a lens of perpetual dusk, dim but sharp and occasionally bathed in an orange glow.

The final scene, of which I cannot find an image or video anywhere, sticks with me as a higher-stakes reimagining of Truffaut’s final tracking shot of Jean-Pierre Leaud in The 400 Blows. Bobbie runs for his life through a field of corn just barely high enough to conceal him, accompanied by the aformentioned orange glow and Dylan’s hymn “Every Grain of Sand.” 

I’ve always been a sucker for endings, and what these two films lack in plot and character they more than make up for through the sheer power of images.

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Girls! Girls! Girls!

Despite my last post on the sorry state of music television today, I spent my weekend surprisingly entertained and fulfilled by that very thing (or, at least, its Internet approximation). Hipster music behemoth Pitchfork answered my prayers by livestreaming their annual 3-day festival from Chicago. While there were quite a few bands I was indifferent to, I was pretty thrilled to see the likes of The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion (fresh from their Pittsburgh show, which I attended) and Girls up close and personal, far from Union Park’s 90-degree temperatures. The only flaw in the broadcast was that Sunday night’s final show, a reunited Pavement, did not stream as advertised, sparking the ire of many indie rock fans (myself included) who planned their Sundays in anticipation. As it turns out, we didn’t miss much. Though I would’ve preferred to watch the festival on my TV screen (and I know I could have with the right set up), it was great to be able to watch the festival online. While I’ve watched the occasional youtube concert bootleg, it was a treat to see a festival professionally shot, capturing the mood of the crowd and the sweat of the performers.

And now for a digression unrelated to television. One performance I really looked forward to was Girls, the sun-soaked Cali project of Christopher Owens and JR White. 2009’s shimmering, simmering Album combined 60’s-style hooks with an intense shoegaze buzz. When I caught them live in April, their sound translated effortlessly, guitars building to a deafening hiss as Owens stood meekly at the mike, rocking a tangled mass of hair flipped over a deep side part. Owens always seemed to me somewhat off-kilter as a frontman: oversized 90s clothes (with the occasional zany baseball cap) and a vocal delivery that walks the line between innocence and a self-mocking, pseudo-toughness. After the show, I looked up Owens and discovered that he spent his first 16 years traveling Europe as a prisoner of the Children of God cult (of River/Joaquin Phoenix fame), playing “safe” music like the Everly Brothers on street corners for money and clinging to bootleg Michael Jackson tapes as proof an outside world existed. So how’s that for a goddamn backstory?

A full interview from FAQ Magazine is here, and shares fascinating tidbits involving Owens’s early cult-free days in Amarillo, TX, working invisible jobs like overnight stocking and dishwashing, desperately clinging to the local punk scene as a lifeline. Needless to say, it confirms his status as weirdest guy in the room. And here I thought he was just on drugs!  It’s true that an interesting biography does not a good musician make. Owens’s natural talent and pure passion for music shine through on Album, but what could easily be dismissed as a bunch of throwback love songs just makes so much more sense if you know where Owens is coming from.

One of the great rock ‘n roll themes of all is longing. Longing for the girl, the recognition, the lost youth. Springsteen build a career on longing, but the dingy confines of Asbury Park have got nothing on the Children of God. Christopher Owens knows real longing, and it comes through on Album, both in the lyrics and the sound–that repetition, those guitars crying out, louder and louder still. There are few traditional love songs on this record. The opening track “Lust for Life” is an anthem of longing, written by someone who has a vague idea of what’s out there to make life worth living. A boyfriend. A father. A pizza. A beach house. Owens ticks down the list of what makes people happy and normal, lamenting “But now I’m just crazy/and fucked in the head.” “Laura” is about lost friendship and “Big Bad Mean Motherfucker” seems like a nod to his days emulating punk rock heros, trying desperately to be someone new.

The record’s opus is “Hellhole Ratrace,” a song that seems to directly reference Owens’s upbringing and subsequent purgatory in Amarillo. The song centers on a few lines: “I don’t want to cry my whole life through/I want to do some laughing too/So c’mon and laugh with me” and “Sometimes you’ve just got to make it for yourself/but sometimes, honey, you just need someone else.” These lyrics repeat over and over until the song kicks into overdrive and the messy, buzzing guitars stifle the delicate vocals. Owens may be an unusual person, but his sentiment here is universal: the sense that we all want to be out there, living life the best way we can, and we’re all trying to reach out and get what we want before it’s too late.

Girls’ performance at Pitchfork was nothing that would blow anyone’s mind: delicate melodies, some incredibly loud noise, and a lead singer clad in what can only be described as something Judith Light probably wore on a Hawaiian themed episode of Who’s the Boss. But Owens has crafted an immensely personal record that, despite being a year old, is a worthy soundtrack to a weary, sun-stoned August.

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Heyday of the VJ: why real music television should come back

I’ve made my peace with MTV, for the most part. As a preteen and young teen, I enjoyed what I consider to be its finest hour (lots of videos, weird VJs, House of Style, Unplugged, Rock ‘n’ Jock, 120 Minutes). I was stricken when this format began to dissolve in the late 90s and videos were largely replaced with extended screaming teen segments (TRL, Fanatic) and money-grubbing contortions of the Real World/Road Rules franchise (bungee-jumping challenges! Road Rules on a boat!).  Instead of a channel featuring new and interesting music alongside improvised shenanigans, MTV became the channel of the rerun and the retread. Every day was the same. I watch a lot of TV, but it was rare then (as it is still) for me to turn on MTV and see something I’ve never seen. Shows seemed to be rerun over and over on loop, TRL featured the same daily videos, and VJs had largely disappeared. Beginning in the late 90’s, MTV shifted to the same haunting, dystopic trajectory as Clear Channel’s radio takeover: that spontaneous, dorm room hijinks feeling it was once known for is gone. What remains, in my imagination at least, are some unmanned production booths in the depths of the Viacom headquarters, running automatic programming loops of ANTM and The City.

But look, as I said, I’ve made my peace. MTV is not for me anymore; I’m 27, and their demographic, though ostensibly 18-49, is actually more like 12-22. But here we are in the crux of a nineties nostalgia wave, and I’d like to make a suggestion: bring back music video on TV. Now I know there are plenty of places to see music videos nowadays. Youtube, Pitchfork, MySpace, facebook, band websites, dvd, and probably other places I’m not cool enough to know about. And yes, I know Lady Gaga blah blah blah, Beyonce etc. Indeed, some music videos are still getting popular play. And the great thing here is that artists are still making interesting and kick-ass videos because of this Internet audience. But much like the death of radio, the death of music television has largely forced us to sacrifice the art of spontaneity. Despite access to way more music videos, each individual’s musical universe is arguably smaller. This is because now (with the exception of popular sites like Pandora) we are almost always the authors of our own playlists.

Even in the early days of MTV, of course, most VJs were not curators of music video. They were, like most DJs, personalities instructed to play what record company muscle was already pushing. But there were moments, and segments (like those on 120 Minutes, or any celebrity-choice marathon) that featured unexpected and even magical juxtapositions of artists and styles. After MTV started to get a little stale, the 1996 birth of MTV2 (then M2) was a dream for music lovers: a perpetual stream of commercial-free music videos curated by three music-geek VJs (Matt Pinfield, Jancee Dunn, Kris Kosach). Too bad one needed a satellite dish to see it. I still remember one of the few times I was able to catch a glimpse of M2. I was at the house of some random kid my friend was dating, or thinking about dating. They could care less about the magic of M2, but he had a satellite dish and graciously put it on for me. I saw videos I was sure were never shown on MTV, videos I didn’t even know had been made. It’s funny how the pleasure of seeing indie music videos that day has stuck with me. I still associate Pavement’s “Spit on a Stranger” with They Might Be Giants’ “Ana Ng” after seeing their videos back to back; somehow those shots of Stephen Malkmus frolicking in some shrubbery transition beautifully to the two spastic Johns in an industrial office park.

Music videos had and still have the potential to present us with some of the most joyful, frightening, confusing, and generally batshit imagery ever allowed on TV. As a child and preteen, I was deeply unsettled by the likes of “Closer,” “Paranoid Android,” “More Human Than Human” and “Jeremy” (particularly Eddie Vedder’s demented facial contortions). As they aired more often, some began to seem comedic and others more enthralling. I’ve been moved by music videos for both songs I like and those I could care less about, from the overwrought (Radiohead’s “Just“, R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts“) to the simple/silly (Smashing Pumpkins’ “Today,” Beck’s “Loser“).

What I miss perhaps the most of all about music television is the juxtaposition of imagery. Hours of music videos create a more complex and interesting montage than most film is capable of. While any unit of television viewing is, if you’re of the Raymond Williams school of thought, montage-like, there was something so satisfyingly smooth about earlier MTV’s (and especially M2’s) programming blocks of videos, whose nonsensical imagery swirls around in a viewer’s head, combining with unconventional promos and VJ non-sequiturs. In my heavy MTV-viewing days, I even remember this format penetrating my dreams: my head was full of blue-toned shadows, neon technicolor, the occasional fish-eye lens. Some might find that alarming, but I thought it was pretty cool.

Perhaps I’m romanticizing a bit. But if we’re always on the Internet anyway, and television is just background noise, music television is the ideal format. Television, especially HDTV, has a lot to gain by returning that most surprising and hypnotic form of cable-approved art.

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Daria, Sometimes it’s Hard to Believe You’re in High School

From its inception, MTV has been an alluring mix of substance and vapidity. Part of its genius throughout the ’80s and ’90s was that it could appeal to the cool kids while still attracting the attention of the sheeplike masses: those content to turn sleepy eye on cheesecake bikinifest The Grind, chuckle at Bill Bellemy’s beach house hijinks,  and even occasionally share the fidgety, unhinged enthusiasm of TRL’s spastic adolescents. Hard to remember though it may be, MTV used to be a channel that showed music videos (substantial and vapid), reality shows, and some surprisingly unique comedy. The State, Beavis and Butthead, Buzzkill, Daria and various shorts like Donal Logue’s “Jimmy the Cab Driver” series are all evidence of the off-kilter sense of humor MTV once had. Even between-show promos were an outlet for little-known artists and animators who wished to work their magic on that morphing MTV logo. As we all know, in the aughts and beyond, MTV has departed from their musical roots in favor of “reality” programming like Laguna Beach, The Hills, 16 & Pregnant, Made, True Life, etc. etc. They’ve abandoned attempts at comedy (for the most part), as well as programming focusing on anything 0utside-the-mainstream (such as the long-cancelled 120 Minutes). I think it’s safe to say that MTV no longer saw the point in including the cool kids when the popular kids were making them rich.

When I heard that MTV was finally releasing Daria on DVD after eight years off the air, I was so excited that I pre-ordered the set two months in advance. Since Daria graduated high school a year after I did (with the so-so final movie Is It College Yet?), I’ve only been able to revisit the show via the occasional late-night rerun on The N or hopelessly truncated snippets on youtube. But seeing the fervor with which the DVD set is being received, I’ve realized that the far from forgotten series may get its due after all. Daria was one of the best television shows of the 90s, and certainly one of the all-time top female protagonists on the small screen.

Daria premiered in early 1997, when I was inching through my final semester of junior high school. I don’t remember when I first saw it; I watched so much television in those days that it was a rare cancelled pilot or midseason replacement I didn’t catch on its original airing. I may have been initially turned off by the animation, but as it’s prone to do, MTV aired the reruns nonstop until my defenses wore down. Daria couldn’t have coincided more perfectly with my adolescent development, as 1997 was my year of Catcher in the Rye-obsessed, poetry-writing, headphones-wearing misanthropy. Finishing 8th grade was a relief; entering high school was a disappointment, and the next four years were a boring slog toward the future. Though I was never able to be as detached, sarcastic, smart, and sharp-witted as Daria, the show was a great respite from everything at that age that says “Join! Join! Join!” Daria was not interested in fitting in, or joining things, or even having plans for Friday night. It sent the message that we didn’t need to keep straining for and being rejected from the things we didn’t even really want. We could, like Bartleby, simply prefer not to.

Daria wouldn’t have worked very well, of course, if it has just been about one teenage girl and her disdain for the world. Her one good friend, Jane Lane, was a slightly more adventurous, less churlish misfit. (Once a high school classmate told me I reminded him of “Jane from Daria,” and I was so flattered I could have hugged him.) Rather than riding around with boys and a gaggle of friends after school, Daria and Jane usually end up in Jane’s room, Jane painting as Daria flips through a book. This always struck me as a surprisingly realistic depiction of what many high school kids do. Most episodes focus on the banal: a trip to the mall, avoiding parents’ friends, a particular field trip or class assignment. Jane and Daria, similar to Enid and Rebecca in Ghost World, tend to drift around not doing much of anything besides mocking Daria’s sister, Quinn, and her fashion club acolytes.

The “popular” kids on Daria are stereotypes, of course, but they have many sharply observed moments. Daria’s sister Quinn is a shallow, preening, pain-in-the-ass, but she often reveals how her insecurities lead her to behave the way she does. More often than the teenage characters, adults and the school system are implicated in the creation of monsters like Quinn. Daria is  not afraid to present Daria and Jane as its main protagonists, leaving the in crowd in the lurch. On a related note, I keenly remember one day in the gym locker room at school hearing one of the most popular girls mention watching Daria the previous night. This notion left me perplexed for the rest of the day. What would Daria have to offer her? Couldn’t she see that it was mocking her lifestyle and everything she stood for? The only conclusion I can draw is that Daria makes being a misfit so cool that everyone, even the most popular girl at school, wants to be like her.

"The Road Worrier"

My personal favorite storylines always involved Trent, Jane’s slacker-musician brother with his smoker’s cough, whispering voice and affable demeanor. He is, of course, the kind of guy that sets the hearts of artsy, bookish girls aflame, and Daria is no exception. Daria’s dealings with Trent are some of my favorite moments in the series, because she reacts to him the way I always reacted to any boy I was even remotely interested in during high school. Blush, clam up, occasionally flee. In the episode “The Road Worrier,” Jane does her best to snap Daria out of it. While Trent and his bandmate wax poetic about success, she urges, “Say it, Daria. Whatever you’re thinking, just say it. They’ll go on like this forever.” Of course, as Daria eventually lets her guard down, she finds that saying what’s on her mind works much better than keeping quiet, and Trent observes “You know, Daria, sometimes it’s hard to believe you’re in high school.”

Much like Daria, as high school went on I began to enjoy being myself more, hanging out with my one or two close friends on the fringes of high school life, sitting home Saturday nights reading and listening to Bob Dylan. I found a few like-minded people to be sarcastic with, and managed to scrape by until graduation. The later seasons of Daria were not as magical to me, but they remained realistic and true to the characters. The episodes that remain the hardest to watch center on the love triangle between Jane, her prep school boyfriend Tom, and Daria, who eventually steals him from Jane. Jane and Tom getting together in the first place was disappointing in the same way as when a real-life best friend gets a boyfriend; we felt we were losing her, and that somehow this bond between Daria and Jane would be interrupted. And of course, it was. Jane and Daria made up, but they were never as close. Despite being cartoon characters, their friendship was more real to me than almost anything I’ve seen on TV.

I imagine that through hype, older siblings and such, younger audiences will be discovering Daria on DVD. It holds up remarkably well, and remains full of some of the sharpest observations out there on high school and female friendship. Without Daria, my teenage years would have been a little bit lonelier. Here’s to all the brains and weird girls.


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‘Parks and Recreation’ and the Struggle of the Sitcom

Parks and Recreation

Today, I read that one of my favorite shows, NBC’s Parks and Recreation, is struggling so much in the ratings that they have enlisted the wooden, blank-eyed talents of pretty boy Rob Lowe to help attract female viewers. This is a show with a strong female cast which already has (for my money) and resident ladykiller in southern charmer Paul Schnieder. How could this be? I asked myself, but the answer was already clear: nobody watches sitcoms anymore.

This led me to check out the Nielson ratings for the first time since TV Guide was novel-sized, and boy, how things have changed. I remember way back when NBC was on top, and CBS was famous for old people programming like The Cosby Mysteries and Touched by an Angel. Now CBS is the number one network, riding high on programming about crime scene investigators, Naval investigators, investigators in Los Angeles, and psychic investigators, a decade-old reality game show, and a newsmagzine prominently featuring eightysomething anchors struggling to understand contemporary phenomena.  All of which constitutes, well, old people programming. CBS, not one to change horses midstream, has simply plowed ahead, operating under the assumption that aging boomers, the first television generation, would be their best bet. Leave those elusive big-spending youngsters to their Mad Men.

The most noticeable shift over the past fifteen years (using my TV Guide-reading timeline) has been the demise of the sitcom. This was where NBC flourished with their “Must-See TV” formula, a genius plan to dump terrible shows (The Single Guy, Veronica’s Closet, Jesse, Caroline in the City, and a host of short-lived failures) between shows like Seinfeld and Friends, as a way of duping those too lazy to change the channel. Charting the death of the sitcom is not new territory; well all know that reality TV is cheaper, crime shows have a higher success rate, and spin-offs are cowardly but a good bet (see the multitudes of CSIs and NCISs, as well as the putrid dramedy Private Practice). As I wrote in an earlier post on Television, Flow, & Liveness, both reality TV and serial drama create more urgency than sitcoms: American Idol and Lost need to be watched live if an audience member wants to experience all aspects of the show (and watercooler conversation counts). We have no need to watch sitcoms live; in fact, syndication has turned sitcoms into more of an anytime treat–Frasier with breakfast, Seinfeld before bed. Why should we be expected to get all excited about a prime time lineup of sitcoms? We’ll watch the American Idol  results because we need to see it now, and catch up on comedy during a Saturday morning hangover.

Sara Gilbert and Johnny Galecki on The Big Bang Theory

Two sitcoms have found their way around this conundrum by adhering to the CBS philosophy of not changing a damn thing. Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory, like ABC’s According to Jim before them, simply ignore the fact that television culture has changed since the 90s, and therefore cater to an audience that either doesn’t know things have changed, or wishes they hadn’t. Static camera, laugh track, wacky neighbors, funny theme song, check. Say what you will about these programs, but on the rare occasions I have tuned in, I was surprised by the comfort I felt settling into that old formula (not to mention indulging my love for nerd-heroes Jon Cryer and Johnny Galecki). The Big Bang Theory doesn’t want us to forget that Johnny Galecki was on Roseanne, but rather takes pains to remind us, featuring guest stars like Sara Gilbert and Laurie Metcalf. You see? It seems to be saying, Things haven’t really changed. The Big Bang Theory wants audiences to be able to draw a straight line back to Roseanne, past The Simpsons, through Laverne and Shirley until we get back to square one. Next stop, golden age.

The ratings problems encountered by a great sitcom like Parks and Recreation can be traced to the lack of a direct link to the comforting golden age sitcom. It’s aligned itself closely with The Office, when really it’s more about character development and relationships than quirky discomfort. While I don’t think Parks and Rec should be turned into a Two and a Half Men clone, the position it and many shows find themselves in demonstrates that the sitcom is at a crossroads. It can be our cozy companion in childhood reminscence, or it can develop and establish itself as something new. Whatever happens, I just hope this beloved format can fight the crime show wave to the other side of 2010.

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Why Does Everyone Hate ‘The Marriage Ref’?

Ever since its premiere following the Olympics closing ceremony, critics have been shitting all over The Marriage Ref, NBC’s new Jerry Seinfeld-produced game show which features celebrities helping real life couples resolve marriage disputes. Entertainment Weekly called it “tedious” and Time‘s James Poniewozik used words like “corny,” “low-rent,” and “god-awful.” Even Ricky Gervais, appearing on the program alongside Larry David and Madonna (an intriguing lineup if ever there was one) exclaimed early on, “What is going on? This is a strange program. I feel like someone’s put crack in my drink. What is going on? This is the weirdest show I’ve ever been on. It’s already weird. It’s weird that I’m here with you two. I don’t know what they’re doing up there.” After watching two episodes, I’m not convinced it’s hopeless, and with some changes it could become a hit. Who doesn’t want to see famous and entertaining people sitting around making jokes with one another ? The View, after all is wildly popular, and the women featured on that show are not terribly funny or really famous for anything else (Whoopi aside).

Unfotunately, Poniewozik and Gervais are right: The Marriage Ref is corny, and uncomfortable and off-kilter. Seinfeld’s goal was apparently to harken back to the game shows of the 1960s, which often featured celebrities cracking jokes and bantering with one another. Perhaps it’s that dusty retro feel that makes The Marriage Ref so strange: TV has changed, and this kind of old-fashioned set up can at times come across as more strained than Cosmo Kramer’s dumpster-salvaged, imaginary Merv Griffin Show. The idea itself is not a bad one. Seinfeld has oodles of famous friends, and seeing them onscreen together week after week is a delight. And one can’t just put a bunch of celebrities on TV; they need something to talk about. The couples featured are wacky and familiar, though the presentation of the couple segments is perhaps edging scarily close to America’s Funniest Home Videos-style sound effects and Bob Saget voices. (Maybe it’s the jaunty background music? What is it, exactly?) This is where the corny comes in. Nothing on The Marriage Ref is untouched or left to stand on its own. Everything is fussed with and tortured, in what is indeed a very retro way, making it all feel hammy-awards-show-funny instead of prime time comedy funny.

The laughter is a big problem. Tom Papa may indeed be a funny comedian, but his monologue is stuffed with so much raucous, canned-sounding laughter that it’s impossible to appreciate his wit. There’s allegedly a studio audience, but one that I imagine is strapped to their chairs, Clockwork Orange-style, and forced to laugh loudly at that ever-illuminating laughter sign. This is a mostly improvised comedy program. I understand that not every gem from the mouths of these famous funnypeople will have a crackerjack punchline. Some of it may be lame, some serious, some deeply unsettling. But what’s even more unsettling, in a David Lynch’s “Rabbits” sort of way? When the audience laughs uproariously at things that aren’t even really jokes. It’s creepy. And corny. And tedious.

Another misstep that has been pointed out by many critics is the presence of poor NBC newswoman Natalie Morales, who must have drawn the short straw somewhere along the line. Smiling uncomfortably and perched on a chair, she does “research” on her little computer and pipes up with banal statistics that she seems to realize we could have easily looked up ourselves if we really cared. This is another retro touch that, as much as Seinfeld may want it to, simply doesn’t work in the age of Wikipedia. Statistics are not hard to find, and this exercise backfires by leaving the guests of honor figeting uncomfortably in silence.

So what’s the point of my analysis? I’m just being hard on Jerry like all of these other critics, never forgiving him for leaving us to wallow in syndication after nine iconic Seinfeld seasons. I believe it’s true that Seinfeld’s involvement has made critics hate the show even more. What betrayal! What bitter disappointment! Our golden boy, our baby blue! But all is not lost. The Marriage Ref can be saved. There is a lot of tweaking that needs to be done. But the idea of three mismatched celebrities actually hanging out and talking to each other, instead of some neutral talk show host, is too exciting to pass up.

It actually reminds me of that other show about a bunch of famous people getting together, joking and arguing about stuff: Bill Mahr’s Politically Incorrect. Jerry Seinfeld was actually featured on the very first episode of that program, which entertainingly combined politics, comedy, and the spectacle of dumb people arguing. Sadly, the show was cancelled amidst Mahr’s (ridiculously overblown) comments regarding the September 11th attacks, in what would be a death-knell for open political discussion on network television. I wasn’t really old enough to appreciate the show until the end of its run, but I think it’s something that The Marriage Ref could look to for guidance. Of course, I’m aware that TMR isn’t at all political, and is supposed to be goofy and lighthearted. But why is it so nervous? One of Mahr’s best qualities and a host (and occasional pundit) is his laid-back nature and sense of reason. TMR comes across as nervous and high-strung as George Costanza during a massage. It needs to let its guests relax, and breathe, and banter like they’ve all been trained to do by publicists and comedy club one-night-stands. It needs to present its likable couples as they are, and trust the audience to acknowledge their quirks for themselves. To answer my question, people hate The Marriage Ref because it tries too hard. Jerry, of all people, should know enough to just relax. He’s even Steven, after all. Things will work out for him.

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Understated and Underrated: forgotten performances of 2009

Oscar season is upon us, which means that awards are characteristically doled out to actors who have all given performances that fit neatly into a few narrow categories. First and most sickening, there’s the biopic role: this year, see Meryl Streep, Sandra Bullock, Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon, Christopher Plummer, and Helen Mirren. Then there’s the “showy villain” role, inhabited nicely by Mo’Nique, Christoph Waltz, and Stanley Tucci. Finally, we’re left with the ingénues (male and female), who play that complicated, usually beautiful person who seems too complicated and/or put upon, until it becomes clear to the audience that they’re simply human.  These roles often pop up opposite each other in romances, and this year’s crop of nominations belongs to George Clooney, Jeff Bridges, Colin Firth, Jeremy Renner, Carey Mulligan, Gabourey Sidibe, Vera Farmiga, and Maggie Gyllenhaal. Those who don’t quite fit in are typically a breath of fresh air. This year, it’s Penelope Cruz, Anna Kendrick, and Woody Harrelson (whose pure freakishness qualifies him).

Don’t get me wrong; I enjoyed quite a few of these performances very much, and no doubt they’re all talented actors. I mean, who doesn’t want to see Jeff Bridges honored, if not for puking in trash cans as Bad Blake, then for the everlasting genius of His Dudeness? (Though I would welcome a Harrelson upset.) Anyway, the Oscars never fail to fill me with a comforting disappointment and indignation. And who doesn’t enjoy that every once and a while? But back to the point of this post. I feel like this year there were so many satisfying, charming, impressively deft performances by actors in small, inconspicuous roles or films. Even if I can’t analyze the key to such performances, or parse the subtext behind every thespian’s eyes, here are six performances and characters who stayed with me this year (honorable mention goes to Michael Stuhlbarg for A Serious Man, who was robbed in terms of Oscars but who has gotten so much critical praise that I can’t think of new things to say…):

Martin Starr (Joel), Adventureland

Adventureland was probably my favorite film of the past year. Everything about it was right, from the period details and the music to the finely wrought characters. Though Jesse Eisenberg’s neurotic, romantic James was the film’s lead character, Martin Starr’s Joel was, for me, the most memorable. Joel is a Russian-lit loving hipster who smokes a pipe and is quick with a clever joke, yet is insecure and drifting in his life. While James finds himself in the midst of the all-American coming-of-age-summer we see so often in the movies, Joel represents what these listless summers spent in limbo usually, more realistically, entail: trying to keep your dignity in the face of a humiliating job and a group of shallow acquaintances. Starr plays Joel with a pitch-perfect mixture of confidence and insecurity, and his affectations mask a growing unhappiness and fear about the future. “Girls aren’t going to go near me when there’s all these fucking yuppies around,” he complains, “Look at me: I’m ugly and I’m poor.” Starr delivers the line with the perfect comic touch. Much like his work in Freaks and Geeks, Adventureland gives Starr a chance to tap into the misfit in all of us. Hopefully we’ll get to see him in more juicy roles like this.

Alia Shawkat (Pash), Whip It!

Allow me to quote Rochelle, Rochelle: The Musical: let the naysayers nay. I was quite fond of Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut about a high school misfit (notice a theme here?), played by Ellen Page, who discovers her calling in the hard-knock world of roller derby. What satisfied me most about this movie was its allegiance to female friendship, and gleeful willingness to abandon romance for the sake of it. Alia Shawkat, so wonderfully deadpan on Arrested Development, brings charm and sensitivity to her role as Pash, Bliss’s best friend and partner in crime. Despite the focus on the derby girls, this friendship stays at the core of the film. Shawkat captures her character’s conflicting feelings perfectly: the hurt, the jealousy, and the excitement. Even when Bliss has a dreamy romance with a rocker boy (the miscast and unfortunately named Landon Pigg), the audience is still thinking about the film’s more important relationship. Much like Joel in Adventureland, Pash is the character who doesn’t get to have that life-changing event; she helps us to see teenage friendship as it really is, with all the pain and frustration it can cause.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Tom Hansen), 500 Days of Summer

Ever since the middle of the last decade when he released the double whammy of Mysterious Skin and Brick, Joseph Gordon-Levitt has proven he won’t be another washed-up child actor. After a slew of offbeat performances, it’s refreshing to see him play something as straightforward as a love-struck twentysomething greeting card writer whose heart is broken by a flightly (and frankly, kind of heartless) girl named Summer (Zooey Deschanel).  Gordon-Levitt’s Tom is a prime example of how an actor doesn’t need a flashy role to show us their chops. Throughout the film, we see in Tom’s eyes his enchantment, insecurity, bewilderment and hurt and he embarks on a frustratingly unfulfilling romance. One of my favorite moments in the film is one of the simplest. Teasing Tom outside the bar, Summer asks, “Is it true? Do you like me?” Gordon-Levitt’s expression transitions from panicked to bravely embarrassed as he grins shyly: “Yeah, I like you,” he mutters.

Alec Baldwin (Jake), It’s Complicated

The rumors are true. It’s Complicated is one of those romantic comedies directed at Women of a Certain Age that features an attractive divorcee and a less attractive older gentleman falling in love, something they previously didn’t know was possible in their crusty, dried-up old lives. But I was shocked to discover that It’s Complicated was really fun, and funny, and actually even kind of ridiculous. And Meryl Streep blah-blah-blah best actress ever, blah blah beautiful and old, still marketable etc., etc., but much of the movie’s success is due to Alec Baldwin’s irresistibly goofy screen presence. Ex-husband Jake is set up to be your typical aging Lothario, a sarcastic good-life-livin’ Jack Nicholson type. But he’s not at all! As Baldwin plays him, Jake is a needy, good-natured teddy bear whose exuberance borders on the pathetic. He’s overweight and rarely shown onscreen not stuffing large amounts of pasta or other savory dishes into his impish face. Unlike, say, Jack Nicholson in Something’s Gotta Give, Jake (and Baldwin) has a sense of humor about himself and a willingness to admit that he’s a screw up and a baby and fat and kind of a dumbass. And it’s specifically this kind of lighthearted attitude that’s needed in romantic comedies these days.

Adam Brody & Amanda Seyfried (Nikolai & Needy), Jennifer’s Body

Jennifer’s Body was another underrated film of the past year. Sure, Diablo Cody can be annoying, but her brand of annoyingness is so well suited to tongue-in-cheek high school horror that I can forgive it in this case. Megan Fox got all the press, but it’s thanks to Seyfried, the movie’s real star, and Brody,  that it all came together. Seyfried’s performance had a great sense of momentum to it, as she built slowly from the almost comically bashful girl into a swaggering, aggressive juvenile delinquent. Megan Fox was good enough as the vacant Jennifer, but Seyfried was the one who really captured the movie’s twisted take on female friendship. Similarly, Brody was the film’s comic savior as a Wentz-ian emo rocker with a taste for success—and blood. His stage presence, demeanor and singing on mock-hit “Through the Trees” was spot on, and even made me forget about Seth Cohen for a while.

Vincent Gallo (Tetro), Tetro

Yes, I know what you’re thinking. Vincent Gallo?? THE Vincent Gallo? He of the conservative rants, the greasy-leather appearance, the onscreen fellatio, the offscreen self-obsession? Yes to all. So, yeah, Vincent Gallo is a ridiculous human.  He’s the kind of celebrity that is so distasteful we feel as though he’s putting us on. And maybe he is, but that’s beside the point here. I think I might be one of three people who saw Francis Ford Coppola’s Tetro (at least, that’s how many of us were in the theater), so you’ll have to take my word that it’s a crazy, quirky musical melodrama that’s at times absurd and surprisingly comical. I won’t try to explain the plot, because it tires me. I’ll just say that Gallo plays a character who is very much like his public persona, and like the latter, he plays it seamlessly. He’s an unreasonable, grouchy artistic genius who hobbles around on crutches with a demented, bug-eyed purpose. If you believe that some sense of humor lurks deep in the black heart of Gallo, you might even guess that he is poking fun at himself. Regardless, it’s an energetic and riveting performance worthy of unbiased attention.


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