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I’ve always described Game of Thrones as an eight-year object lesson in Stockholm syndrome. Almost every important story arc is about somebody coming to identify with their captors or kidnappers. How many times has somebody fallen in love with or identified with, those who have captured, degraded or beaten them, robbed them of their true selves? How many times have captives taken kidnappers’ values as their own? Theon was a hostage. Sansa was a hostage. Lyanna Stark. Arya. Daenerys. Jamie. Jon. It’s not one plotline. It’s more than half of them.

And after a week of reading unhinged rants by fans angry about this season, I’m starting to think the last hostages were the audience, the people too closely identifying with characters who “suddenly” did indefensible things, when in fact they had always been doing indefensible things. We cheered on revenge; we put our hopes in outcomes that couldn’t possibly be good and people who couldn’t possibly succeed in moral ways. Beheadings. Burnings at the stake. Crucifixions. Daggers in the heart. We were always happy to let these things happen to the right people–and that has always been the meretricious nature of fascism. (Our favorite character Tyrion nicely bright-lined this problem last night in the finale.)

So the show in the end did the absolute right thing: made us see our addiction to wrongness and did it in an accelerating pace the way all good fiction does as it races toward its end–in a frenzy of action that excited and shattered us in equal measure. That is so very difficult to accomplish. I think the show completely lived up to its promise and was right to break our hearts. We live in a world where good people turn evil out of political and religious conviction, as well as from conviction in the movements they join and from the false esteem they place in empty symbols (red hat, anybody?)

Spoiler here: Did Daenerys Targaryen turn evil too fast? She’d been fighting for innocent victims her whole life, right? Well, she’d also been crucifying and burning people, too. And doing so mostly out of conviction in her own destiny. Her empathy had always come in part from being downtrodden herself. And the moment she lost that empathy was the moment she finally seized total power–and knew the potential that the downtrodden of the world will never know. She’d had her closest advisors either die or turn on her and the only political capital she had was the fire and blood she’d always promised. I waited for this scene to feel forced to me, like the writers were coaching me how to feel over my shoulder. I never did. And trust me, I’m a writer of fiction. And a former critic. I know when it’s happening. My anger and sadness came from knowing that this change in a character, who had developed a obdurate existential quality all her own, was totally inevitable.

One of the most heartbreaking things was Tyrion’s insistence to Grey Worm that he still wanted to fulfill his queen’s ideals, even though his queen needed to die to fulfill them. It was a tragic admission that the queen and her ideals could not together be. Virtue and power come into conflict. This show isn’t Shakespeare, but the parallels to Caesar should have been obvious and should have been the context we put this tragedy in.

I was just asked in a chat room about why I singled out Arya Stark as a serial killer when she lives in a world of killers. I was just using the dictionary definition, friend … and you’ve employed moral relativism here why?

I’ve also seen chat room fanatics argue the show owes it to fans, the ones who kept the show alive, to give them more of what they wanted. In other words, they should have been pandered to more. As the great comedian Julie Brown once pointed out in a TV sketch, when fans write the shows, we end up with nothing but women in bikinis playing volleyball.

But my sincere condolences to the Game of Thrones fans who have been let down by their heroes and, especially, their feminist heroines this month. I am shocked and saddened to learn that so many people did not seem to understand what show they were watching for eight years.

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It was difficult la-okc-trip-2004-029.jpggrowing up with the name “Eric Rasmussen” for a few obvious reasons. It’s a funny name for children to say, and given children’s talent for innovation, a fun name to mock. (“Raisin Muffin” was the sobriquet the junior high kids finally settled on for me.)

My name is now a problem for a different reason: It’s not anywhere near as as rare as many people think it is. “Rasmussen” is kind of like the Scandinavian “Smith.” and “Eric” is a natural fit for it. So not only are there tons of Eric Rasmussens in New York City (I even bumped into one at a party), but tons of them working in the same fields I work in–fiction, music, film and journalism. After I began recently releasing a slate of my novels, I realized there’s another Eric Rasmussen who writes short stories. He, like me, is published in several places.

I’m a hyphenate, which makes things more confusing. I’ve been working in at least four different media for years, subjects I’ve been passionate about since my teens. I never saw a reason not to pursue all of them at once, and I dare say I’m good at some of them. But to the outside world (and definitely to a career coach) it probably looks like I have multiple personality disorder.

So now I realize it’s become necessary to tell people both who I am and who I’m not. I talk about the latter in this companion piece. But for now, I’m going to give you my CV, if for some reason you get confused about which Eric Rasmussen you’re dealing with. My name is Eric Randolph Rasmussen. I grew up in Oklahoma, went to college in Austin, Texas, and I’ve lived in New York City for over two decades. I have a fairly large amount of content on the internet in multiple media.

Journalism

I’ve been a journalist since my college days. I focused first on arts and entertainment; in 1997, I started writing about finance. The following are the publications I’ve written for (if you see my name pop up in a different newspaper or magazine, it is not I):

The Daily Texan (the University of Texas student newspaper)
The Austin Chronicle
The Alcalde (The University of Texas alumni magazine)
Io magazine
Swing
magazine
Civil Engineering
Investment Management Weekly
Financial-Planning.com
Nurseweek
Financial Advisor magazine

Film

I’ve been making short films since 2006, and created a web series with my wife from 2007 to 2009. These are my works:

S&M Queen For A Day (2006)
Scrabble Rousers (2006)
The Retributioners (web TV series, 2007-2009)
Candy Rocks Doesn’t Grow Up (a screenplay and semi-finalist for the Austin Film Festival comedy screenplay competition in 2012)

Music

I am the sole musical artist behind Salon de la Guerre, which just released its 19th album. I worked on music through the 1990s, but didn’t start releasing definitive versions of my songs until 2007 on MySpace and didn’t start publishing them in album form until 2012. As of April 2019, I had 276 songs in circulation.

I’m listing the albums here with the dates I published them on the streaming sites (these are not the copyright dates of the songs, which go back as far as 1993). My albums are:

Time-Traveling Humanist Mangled by Space Turbine (2012)
Four-Track Demons (2014)
Diasporous (2014)
The Mechanical Bean (2014)
Toe-Tapping Songs of Pain and Loss (2014)
Your Eyes Have Mystic Beams (2014)
Clam Fake (2016)
Roses Don’t Push the Car Home (2016)
Gravitas: A Life (2016)
Liberty (2016)
The Church of Low Expectations (2016)
In the Lake of Feral Mermaids (2017)
The Widowhood of Bunny (2017)
Keep Your Slut Lamp Burning (2017)
Driver, Take This Cab to the Depths of the Soul (2017)
All Else Dross (2017)
Yipano (2018)
You’re Going To Regret What You Did (2018)
Bleed (2019)

Fiction

I’ve been writing fiction for well over two decades; however, for many reasons, most of them banal, my seven novels sat unpublished on my computer for years. A couple of months ago, that all changed: I began releasing my novels as e-books on Amazon, with the hopes of releasing the paperback versions on the platform later in the year. As of yesterday, five of my novels are now available on the site, and I plan to release the other two (one of which has three volumes) later this year. The books are mostly comic, though they also stretch into historical fiction and absurdism.

Here’s the complete list (I’ve listed the dates I released them on Amazon, though many of these books were finished at least five years ago):

Zip Monkey (2019)
Detective J (2019)
Letters to My Imaginary Friend Leticia (2019)
Traffic Waitress (2019)
Did it End? (2019)
American Banjo (2019)
The Ghost and the Hemispheres, Vol 1-3 (planned release date: 2019)

Poetry

My big plan as a teenager was to be a poet, and oddly enough, this is the field I’m least prolific in. I have only some few dozen poems to my name, almost all of which are available on this blog. However, I did get a few bits into the college literary magazine back in the day:

Analecta 1989-1991 (the University of Texas literary and arts journal)

The Blogosphere

Beauty is Imperfection is the blog you are reading right now. I started posting these little musings on MySpace in late 2006 and switched over to WordPress in 2009, moving a lot of the MySpace content over after seeing that the latter platform was dying.

As my long-suffering readers know, even in my blogging life, I’m something of a schizophrenic. For its first few years, Beauty Is Imperfection was a comedy blog with lots of Top 10 lists and other silliness, most of which was meant to help create buzz about my web series, The Retributioners. In 2010, my mother died, and the blog took on a more somber tone, and I also started posting a lot of political material to give the world a taste of my long-stifled polemical voice. My posts have been infrequent in the last few years; occasionally I post new poetry, but otherwise I use the blog to let people know about all these many other projects I’m working on.

Hopefully, this post gives you a more complete picture of me. I rarely talk about these projects with friends and colleagues, mostly because I’m not the bragging sort, I don’t like to shove art down people’s throats and I know how much great, perhaps better art is out there that I’m competing with. I’m offering this summary of my career mostly to help people navigating the internet avoid confusion if they see a name like mine and don’t know whom they are dealing with.

For the record, I haven’t written any plays.

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When I heard tonight that Robin Williams had died, apparently by suicide, the thought that jumped into my mind instantly was the last line of Cyrano de Bergerac, the defiant claim that the hero would sweep heaven’s floor with his hat and make his “panache” immortal. Whose panache (or “style,” in the often dumbed down English version of the word) was as big as Williams’? To be honest, I hadn’t seen his work in years. Maybe I thought it had become watered down, or that he was pandering too much to broad tastes. Or maybe I thought his “panache” had been created already and needed no constant witness. Style is deathless, says Cyrano. Williams was around and still lurking in my jaded hipster heart, whether I was watching his movies or not. Always I could catch his breathless, voluminous jokes spilling out in a cameo appearance or some talk show. And I thought he’d always be there for me to go back to, so maybe I took him for granted.

In any case, it’s for that reason—his vitality—that a lot of people will say his death feels unreal. As unreal as the sadness in him that only insiders seemed to acknowledge. He was not a suicidal icon. He was the human Jaws of Life. He’s the guy who reportedly talked a disabled Christopher Reeve out of suicide. He’s the guy we turn to when we’re down.

The comic crying on the inside is a cliché. But when you turn it over, you can ponder how great artists become estranged from their own talents, how their ability to summon brilliance in words or movement might become a blank or banal experience for them—a horrifying idea, especially to the audience that craves a connection to the people who bring them joy and perhaps dreams of somehow giving it back. I think of a Williams movie, “The World According to Garp,” a movie I saw when I was perhaps too young because, despite its flaws and weirdness, it had a very strange grip on my heart and even influenced the course of my life. I think of the short story “Magic Gloves” described in the movie, about a man who can make people happy by touching them, yet can’t feel them, and dies trying, and I’m sad again, because today that seems appropriate.

The comics of the ‘60s redefined their art as philosophy, examining the mundane, questioning what language was, what nature was, in an appropriate revolutionary spirit after Vietnam and Watergate. Williams came up a bit later and reflected something very different: the aesthetic experience of life as television. He was as fast in his patter as the boob tube—probably one of the few people who was faster in associative thinking than teenage channel changers—and could synthesize weird cartoon voices, hippie wisdom, unconscious horrors, puerile boy fascinations, feminist critique and political schadenfreude all at once into one experience of being the way the Beatles could synthesize “Blue Suede Shoes” and Fluxus. Williams was the living remote control for the 80s. He didn’t merely give voice to ideals of the time; he showed the experience of all the information noise and offered possible transcendence of it. His style was such that he was like the rocket once described by Louis C.K.: something that sucks everything up into it, including flowers, trees, lakes and (according to a few comedian detractors) maybe other people’s jokes.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Williams’ career and cable TV developed together. Here at once was the benign Mork who offered you “nanoo nanoo” on Channel 5 side by side with Robin Williams the cocaine animal spirit on Home Box Office talking about bawdy sex and the dangers of toot, the red and the blue side by side, the barriers between our Vaudeville silliness and our dangerous private compulsions exploded. (Before that, comedians kept their risqué stuff for when they were “working blue” off camera.) The convergence of 24-hour TV, HBO’s premium content and the unity of light and shadow in Williams’ characters allowed straight culture and the underground to feed off each other and offer us the best (the beast?) of the two.

What did this mean for me as a kid going through puberty? A lot. I almost hate to admit it, but probably one of the reasons I moved to New York when I was 25 was that T.S. Garp told me in 1982 that that’s what real writers did. (OK, Woody Allen helped, and later Lou Reed, Sonic Youth and Thomas Pynchon.) But Robin Williams and other comedians pondering the unconscious on pay cable also offered me a glimpse into what sex was, at least if you joked about it, what religion really was, if you joked about it. There’s a lot that kids ought to learn in school but don’t because there’s no point of view on it. From Williams (and Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy and George Carlin) you got a viewpoint, and thus a narrative, and thus a reason to remember all these confusing dates and places and rituals. Honestly, I only remember what the Edict of Nantes is because Anne Beatts once told a joke about it.

For a not very intellectually curious kid (me circa 1982), Robin Williams offered explanations of who Alexander Haig, Charles Manson, William F. Buckley and P.W. Botha were, and by the way, they were ridiculous.

And it was a talent whose sweep was broad enough for horror. Garp witnessed two assassinations and succumbed to another. Williams did not buckle as an actor in confronting these developments. Instead, his face registered the pain of watching idealism die (those fake assassinations were about real ones). If you were young and watched Mork confronting existential terror, you realized finally that there was a way to reconcile it to your innocence and maybe even your optimism and go on. The comic who had showed you what style was in the postmodern era, was there to show you all the facets of what’s comedy and horror and comedy again.

But ultimately, a lot of his routines were life affirming, inoffensive to the powerful, interested in shared humanity rather than fraying human bonds with acid, which is why the love for him today is largely apolitical. He could joke about childbirth. Joke about generation gaps. Joke about cats having sex (and being offended by the dog watching) in a way that the president or a 5-year-old could laugh at. Sometimes I wonder if that’s the best mark of greatness in art there is—something accessible to a child that you grow to love more as an adult.

Today we have to confront Robin Williams’ sadness, and to assume a man so beloved by millions had no one to talk to about his despair, even to his family and children. Depression, like genius, wants no company. (I think of the wife in Mrs. Doubtfire, who was tired of being in the shadow of such a staggering personality, having all the style sucked out of the room before she could use any, and wonder if any of that happened in Williams’ real life personal relationships.) Both depression and genius reflect, if nothing else, a brain talking to itself, trying to find satisfaction in itself. Depression is both a psychological and neurochemical problem. Whether you’ve seen it work directly or indirectly through somebody you care about, you probably know that it’s a constant headache. A lack of motivation. A feeling of helplessness or a zombie-like feeling of being trapped in your body where you are forced to do things you don’t want to do—like be awake ever again. Pleasant physical sensations like laughter or sexual fantasy no longer succor this person. I would almost go out on a limb and say that the “reason” for being sad doesn’t matter to somebody who’s truly depressed. He or she will simply make something up to choir with the pain. (“The world is awful.” “I’m a fake.” “I’m worthless,” etc.) So as much as I’d like to think Williams simply forgot he was a genius for a brief tragic moment and that he’d made us all happy, what I really think he forgot was the nature of his affliction and that if he’d waited, not listened to himself, he might have emerged from the depths into the arms of those who truly knew and loved him. But what is an artist if not someone who goes on instinct? Could anyone stop him?

I’d like to think we could. Because how many more geniuses do we have to lose this year? Let’s let the kid in me talk: I grew up with Robin Williams, and I loved Mork, and “The World According to Garp” made me want to move to New York and be a writer. Even when Williams’ movies were bad, I often loved watching him make stuff up. A person who helped fill the creative ether with ideas for me to drink from is filling the world with his ideas no more. I hadn’t put him on a list of my artistic heroes in a long time, because I’ve never wanted to be an actor or a standup comedian. But he’s part of my subconscious in numerous ways, feeding my ideas, a guy whose talent I’ve probably at one point or another secretly wished I had. He’s always been an affirmation of life for me. That won’t change because of what happened today.

 

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I got a sinking feeling watching Mad Men in its sixth season. A show I’ve loved from the beginning was starting to show signs of being the very thing its less-astute detractors accused it of–light melodrama, or worse yet, soap opera. The show had thrived more or less in its preceding years as an almost perfect satire, a tilling field for rich dramatic irony illuminating what we thought the past was, what the people of the past thought it was … and what it actually was. What we got for paying attention was two shows–the melodrama and the satire, the ability to watch the daily struggles of people at a certain time on one hand (and even love them) and yet also the ability to laugh at their unintended gaffes and overt racism and sexism, on the other–to see them as not us. To revel in the fact that we now know better what their biases, delusions, and their psychology were than they did. We loved them maybe because we saw them trapped in their time. It was a comedy of manners and etiquette where “danish” was plural, and you did not congratulate the bride but offered her “best wishes,” and where characters used etiquette as a form of monkey posturing. And at it’s best, it was a show in which a man could insult a woman’s intelligence and worth under the pretense that he was paying her respect. (Even by chasing her like a calf and tackling her!) Our understanding now of what women were actually going through and relishing the irony is the show’s real reward.

Or is it? I don’t know, because I don’t know where in the hell that Mad Men has gone. Instead of watching the two shows, I’m watching just one. An inferior one. A show in which the characters’ motivations and struggles are taken at face value. There are fewer double entendres. There is less moral ambiguity. Remember how we used to cheer Don Draper on, say when he was schooling a hippie on the value of hard work, even though we knew his conviction was self-serving and grounded in a delusion that hard work had paid off for everybody? Remember when Don convincingly made the case that Muhammad Ali was a showboating clown and we could feel swept up in Don’s charismatic argument before remembering that Muhammad Ali was actually a one-man revolution of strength, political clarity and style–as the ad men from the 60s were not.

Don’s belief in America–the one he worked for and invested himself in to pull himself out of the depredations of poverty–invests every object he sells, every pitch he declaims. We know now it was all fake, that the dream is recycled Jungian symbolism to be purged constantly in an era of dialectic. Values are brittle things.

Don even castrated his own belief system by straying constantly from his “perfect” marriage. The problem with the utopia Don created (and which is constantly being alluded to in the show) is that to thrive it must also constantly create new desire. “You invent want,” said one Beatnik to Don in the first season. Don could shrug that off. Don had to shrug that off, because he’s the biggest victim of his own sexual need. It has led him to hookers. Led him to abandon his family. Led him to drunk tanks. And meanwhile, his attempts to sell the perfect present make him doomed to let history pass him by. There is a reason that he’s the only one in Season 6 who didn’t have muttonchops on his cheeks. Don is really married to the ’50s ideal of America: We won the war. Every man can be a king of his castle, have a beautiful wife and kids in the suburbs. He loves the idea so much, he’s willing to go down with the ship if it turns out that ideal is dying.

The tension between what was American life back then and what the characters expect it to be has always been so taut on Mad Men that you could forgive the show for frequent lapses. Many episodes throughout its run have been less well-thought-out or paced than others. Some seasons (2 and 3 come to mind) seemed to meander, its characters shifting in their motivations as if new writers were constantly being brought in, getting a turn at the wheel of dad’s new car. (The tightest seasons, to me, are 1, 4 and 5.)

But never did I get the sinking feeling I did in Season 6. Never have I felt the writers kowtow so much to protect beloved characters by simply empathizing with their feelings. The show’s strength always stemmed from the fact that bad people were charming, and good people were whiny sore-losers you didn’t mind throwing under a bus. Perhaps the show, doomed as it was to sail into the present, simply can’t offer that tension anymore. The bad people are getting their comeuppance. The 70s are almost upon us. We can’t make jokes about Xerox copiers not existing yet.

So now we find Roger Sterling alone in a room of naked people, suffering the degradations of La Dolce Vita. An emotional cypher and smooth-talker has talked himself out of a family and obligations, and for that he is alone with a bunch of naked kids who don’t understand him and he has no place to sleep.

Let’s call that what it is: Petty moralizing.

I only have one episode of this new season (7) to go by, so I’ll have to do what I’ve wanted to do for a long time and vomit all over Season 6, because that’s where the petty moralizing started. It was probably a weakness with Mad Men in the first place that it never really dealt with race relations very well. It seemed to answer that by giving secretary Dawn a brief lunchtime conversation last season. Then it abandoned her. (Thanks for nothing, sez Dawn.) For similar reasons, the show’s treatment of Martin Luther King’s assassination seemed so anti-climactic, so much less than what it was supposed to be. The emotional temperature of that episode was colored yellow: All the characters made this historical event about their own petty problems and infighting, even if they were supposedly talking about MLK. Being helpless, they seemed to want to lash out at each other or turn to their own gardens. That’s an OK way to approach politics and anomie, I suppose, and yet for some reason I felt no emotional involvement in that episode. If the characters could sweep it under the rug, so could I. It was much more telling when they swept Lane Pryce’s death under the rug in Season 5. When you have just abruptly ejected a character you have come to love and you’re forced to watch everybody argue about things like who gets his office and pretend it didn’t happen, it hurts a lot more.

But last year seemed so much more to be about comeuppance, about paying the fiddler. About reckoning with your mistakes. Sorry, but that has never been what the show is about. If you want to see reckoning, read the Bible. So many times last season I felt like a ham-fisted writer was finally getting even with characters he didn’t like by  exposing, after six years, their hypocrisy. More observant people should have known, especially after this long, that the show is not really about facing your hypocrisy. If it were, it could have ended after Season 3 when Don was unmasked by his wife. Take Don’s affair with the neighbor last year. I was never into this relationship (a sweet Catholic girl doing bad things to indulge her sinful nature was kind of old hat to me, and didn’t reveal anything about Don in the least). I finally was forced to admit that this was really about the woman’s saintly husband–a selfless, zenlike doctor that Don really wanted to be in bed with (so to speak). But that didn’t mean I wasn’t appalled when Sally Draper found her father in flagrante delicto with the wife. The ambiguity in that scene was supposed to be that the affair had already ended, but let’s be honest–the soap opera discovery of dad’s infidelity was just too easy.

It capped off for me what the problem with the whole year was: Is Mad Men really more interesting because we’ve always known Don Draper will be caught with his pants down? Or is it interesting because it asks the question: What’s the price of getting away with it, if anything? The great art has always asked the latter question. Woody Allen asked it in “Crimes and Misdemeanors.” Dostoevsky asked it in “Crime and Punishment.” David Chase asked it in “The Sopranos.” By having Sally Draper swoop in and stop daddy, we’re stuck with a dreary hypothetical imperative. Of course you wouldn’t cheat on your wife if your teenaged daughter could easily catch you. Also, don’t murder people. You might go to jail.

Another food-throwing moment was Don’s sexual reunion with his ex-wife. Here I’ll confess something nobody will like: I think Betty Draper’s story has been dead a long time, and that she should have disappeared at the end of the third season. Her story before that was all about living as somebody else’s doll, and being turned into a child. As soon as she assumed her own body and financial direction, her Feminine Mystique journey was over. You might argue with me, but you’d have to ask: if Mad Men’s producers weren’t thinking the same thing, why has Betty’s story been largely eclipsed by that of her daughter? There were times in seasons four and five I actually thought January Jones was a glorified extra. In fact, she’s had several soap opera story lines dumped on her–the weight problems, the cancer scare, the search for a missing daughter figure. All quickly raised and just as easily dispensed with. If anybody wants to get rid of Betty, I’d say Matthew Weiner does.

But no, last year, for reasons that seemed more drummed up by January Jones’ agent than any cogent storyline, heavy Betty Draper was in two seconds thinned down, blonded out, and thrown into bed with her ex, a man who just one episode before she’d found out abandoned his children while on a bender and left them vulnerable to a thief. There are lots of examples you can find in literature of exes sharing a bed, seeing life and each other with new eyes. There was never a good time to do this with Don and Betty Draper, least of all right after the home invasion. These two were living a life of mutual narcissism for so long, that after the divorce they projected the anger for their own foolishness onto each other. To me the only believable moments between these two now are the ones of unadulterated hatred. “I want him dead,” sounds like high school, but it’s not if your husband cheated and betrayed your ideals and your idea of yourself simply by being human, as you did to him. I could never believe in these two sharing a bed ever again, because despite their beauty, they have turned ugly to each other. Thinking divorced exes having a bittersweet tete-a-tete would be a nice storyline was misplaced enthusiasm, and to me highlights the fact that the whole season seemed too strange, wayward, spontaneous and adrift.

I felt the same way about the quickie merger between SCDP and the firm run by Don’s archrival Ted. Hey, you didn’t see that coming! Nor, after a while, did you care. Suddenly, there were just more people whose stories you weren’t interested in. Then there was an episode where everybody started hallucinating while taking a potent “vitamin shot.” I’m of the school that believes surreal drug fantasies are easier to write than you’d think, and this one was no exception. I didn’t come away from it thinking, “Gee, I learned something about Ken!” I came away thinking, “Well, that was sure weird.” Then we had Ted McGinley, patron saint of shark jumpers, show up to offer Don a foursome with his wife. That sure was weird, too! Forget shark jumping actors and focus instead on unexpected foursomes, a shark-jumping plot point all by itself.

And last, but not least, there was Peggy’s assault on her boyfriend Abe, who she accidentally stabbed with a harpoon when she was stalking a putative thief  (OK, I know it was something else besides a harpoon, but why look it up, really?). I’ve heard people defend this moment for revealing how bad Peggy and Abe were for each other, that their value systems were so out of whack only an impaling could bring the rift to the surface. I’ve heard it was just too funny that Abe broke up with her in the ambulance. But really, the stabbing was just a stupid accident. And accidents in fiction usually say more about a writers’ weaknesses than his or her characters’. The horror hurt the tone of the show (as it didn’t when the secretary ran over the guy’s foot with the lawnmower in Season 3). We’ve never gotten the sense that Peggy’s sublimated feelings about her relationship, vague as they were, were ever murderous. This moment suggested they were, mainly because the writers didn’t know. It’s something I felt several times last year. Finally, Matthew Weiner’s boast that he doesn’t know where the show is going seems to be something he shouldn’t boast about.

So what do we have this year? Peggy has a new boss who doesn’t value her ideas and is mistreated. OK. Who cares? I’ve seen that before, and it was more interesting when I liked her and liked her persecutor. Don is jobless and his wife is setting up a life elsewhere that he doesn’t fit into. He is literally on a conveyor belt, just floating. Maybe this could lead somewhere good, and there are interesting nuances to the acting here, but the pall of moralizing still casts a long shadow on this whole storyline, over any nuances one might want to see. (And Mad Men fans are very faithful in that respect.) When Don has been in desperate circumstances before, we’ve seen him pathetic and even violent. His contradictions–his ability to behave decently for the wrong reasons and his ability to pull astounding marital or business triumphs out of catlike, unethical behavior–were always on display and made for such good television. Now I am simply supposed to feel bad that he’s not the man he said he was and everything is a charade. Boo hoo.

Oh yeah, and then there was Joan’s story this week. She’s sometimes powerful for being a woman and sometimes not. I don’t know what the hell it added up to.

I think of how Roger Ebert once skewered the end of Woody Allen’s Manhattan by saying it wasn’t ironic enough that Woody’s character came crawling back to his teen lover after setting her adrift. All of a sudden he was sentimental. I feel this way about Don and Megan Draper: If Don is a prodigal and wants to fight his way into redemption, he’ll do it in ways that make us uncomfortable or should make us so. His victories and his belief systems should always be making us uncomfortable, especially when he wins. So the fact that he’s losing right now just makes it all so … trite. What I shudder to think is that the show was doomed to go this way all along. The past is ridiculous until it slowly moves into the present, at which point the need for talking about the past is no longer. I think of Wittgenstein’s belief in philosophy, concerned only with the things language can address, more or less talking itself out of existence, and wonder if Mad Men, now talking with this new, unwanted earnestness free of the hateful past, was always destined to fade away in similar fashion.

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ImageRoger Ebert, the famous, portlier half of the film television film critic duo Siskel & Ebert, died Thursday at age 70 after a long fight with cancer, a disease whose complications robbed him of his voice and his jaw, but thankfully, not his ability to make prose. Many people remember Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert as not just movie eggheads but icons–regular guys who pioneered intelligent everyman film comment and made us all want to be homesteaders. Not only that, let’s be honest–they were simply a classic TV comedy team, by turns grouchy and excited, dismissive and starry-eyed. Perfect foils for each other both temperamentally and visually. They were well aware of this and played it up–one making fun of the other’s thick middle, only to be ridiculed for this thin top. You always got the sense that Roger was more of the romantic and Gene more acerbic, but they could switch roles. Also, you could tell Roger was a bit of a star fucker.

And he liked large-breasted women. A lot. Enough to write dialogue for Russ Meyer vamps and to give films like My Tutor three stars, which is about three stars more than it deserved.

But even though I loved Sneak Previews as a child (remember “Dog of the Week,” S&E fans?) and the successor shows as a teenager, I soon grew out of Roger Ebert the TV star and grew to love and be influenced by Roger Ebert the writer. For anybody sensitive to language, for whom the written word holds endless pleasures, Roger Ebert wrote spare, wonderful, epigrammatic lines free of pomposity and pseudo-intellectual BS. He didn’t need three-dollar words in every sentence to cover up some intellectual insecurity about his job. He was too busy navigating his emotional reaction to film in commonsense language with razor-like accuracy and a journalist’s power of observation. He could tell you with one line of e.e. cummings poetry why the sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey didn’t work. He could tell you with a quick, effortless, snide comment why something that had pretended to art had failed so miserably. He reminded me all the time what Charles Bukowski said of all writers: If they can’t write a simple line like “The little dog walked down the street,” they probably can’t write at all.

This golden gutted instinct was not on display, necessarily in his few, very strange attempts at screenwriting for Meyer, which went from Shakespearean verse to shit and back again. Of his lines from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, one of those I have never been able to get out of my head is “E’er this night does wane, you will drink the black sperm of my vengeance.” And I do not mean that as a compliment.

But his prose is as cutting, feeling, compassionate as Hemingway’s, just as concerned about what made cinematic emotional sense as real emotional sense. You learned to appreciate his idiosyncrasies, including his inability to say anything bad about his favorite stars even when they’d done bad work. And you might also notice if you read his oeuvre for a long time that he was maybe a bigger supporter of Lesbian sex in film than Lesbians themselves might feel comfortable with.

I could look up all his barbs to Siskel on YouTube. But I prefer to share some of my favorite lines from Roger Ebert, the writer, the guy who showed you that if you wanted to express yourself about life and art and movies, and where they meet in screwed up ways, best to write from your heart.

A selection of Ebert:

“What idea or philosophy could we expect to find in Apocalypse Now–and what good would it really do, at this point after the Vietnam tragedy, if Brando’s closing speeches did have the “answers”? Like all great works of art about war, Apocalypse Now essentially contains only one idea or message, the not-especially-enlightening observation that war is hell. We do not see Coppola’s movie for that insight–something Coppola, but not some of his critics knows well. … Coppola also well knows (and demonstrated in the Godfather films) that movies aren’t especially good at dealing with abstract ideas–for those you’d be better off turning to the written word–but they are superb for presenting moods and feelings, the look of a battle, the expression on a face, the mood of a country.”

“In Blue Velvet, [Isabella] Rossellini goes the whole distance, but [director David] Lynch distances himself from her ordeal with his clever asides and witty little in-jokes. In a way, his behavior is more sadistic than the Hopper character. What’s worse? Slapping somebody around or standing back and finding the whole thing funny?”

“All those years ago, when 2001: A Space Odyssey was first released, I began my review with a few lines from a poem by e.e. cummings: ‘I’d rather learn from one bird how to sing than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance.’ … 2010 is very much a 1980s movie. It doesn’t match the poetry and the mystery of the original film, but it does continue the story, and it offers sound, pragmatic explanations for many of the strange and visionary things in 2001 that had us arguing endlessly through the nights of 1968. This is, in short, a movie that tries to teach ten thousand stars how not to dance.”

The Muppet Movie not only stars the Muppets but, for the first time, shows us their feet. And if you can figure out how they were able to show Kermit pedaling across the screen, then you are less a romantic than I am: I prefer to believe he did it himself.”

“Watching [Robert Altman’s] Nashville is as easy as breathing and as hard to stop.”

“Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories is a deliberate homage to , the 1963 film in which Federico Fellini chronicled several days in the life of a filmmaker who had no idea where to turn next. The major difference between the two films is that Fellini’s movie was about a director bankrupt of new ideas while Allen’s is a movie by a director with no new ideas.”

“When Hubert Selby Jr. wrote the book that inspired [Last Exit To Brooklyn] 25 years ago, it was attacked in some quarters as pornographic, but it failed the essential test: It didn’t arouse prurient interest, only sadness and despair.”

“In [Personal Best], Mariel Hemingway plays plays a young, naive natural athlete. … Patrice Donnelly, as a more experienced athlete, tries to comfort the younger girl. In a dormitory room that night, they talk. Donnelly shares whatever wisdom she has about training and running and winning. They smoke a joint. They kid around. They arm wrestle. At this point, watching the film, I had an interesting experience. I did not already know that the characters in the film were homosexual, but I found myself thinking that the scene was so erotically charged that, “if Hollywood could be honest,” it would develop into a love scene. Just then, it did!”

“From the moment [in Black Widow when Debra Winger and Theresa Russell] meet, there’s a strong undercurrent of eroticism between the two women. We feel it, they feel it and the movie allows it one brief expression–when Russell roughly reaches out and kisses Winger. But Ron Base, who wrote the screenplay, and Bob Rafelson, who directed, don’t follow that magnetism. They create the unconvincing love affair between Winger and the tycoon to set up a happy ending that left me feeling cheated.”

“I approach Heathers as a traveler in an unknown country, one who does not speak the language or know the customs and can judge the natives only by taking them at their word. The movie is a morbid comedy about peer pressure in high school, about teenage suicide and about the deadliness of cliques that not only exclude but also maim and kill. Life was simpler when I was in high school. ‘Teenagers don’t have any trouble with it,’ the film’s director, Michael Lehmann, has said of the movie. ‘It’s always adults that are shocked.’ This statement is intended, I assume, in praise of teenagers. Adulthood could be defined as the process of learning to be shocked by things that do not shock teenagers, but that is not a notion that has occurred to Lehmann.”

“I know, I know: He’s trying to demystify the West, and all those other things hotshot directors try to do when they don’t really want to make a Western. But this movie [Heaven’s Gate] is a study in wretched excess. It is so smoky, so dusty, so foggy, so unfocused and so brownish yellow that you want to try Windex on the screen. A director is in deep trouble when we do not even enjoy the primary act of looking at his picture.”

“Your Movie Sucks.” [A book title]

“[Van] Heflin, as the guy with the bomb in his briefcase, is perhaps the only person in the cast to realize how metaphysically absurd Airport basically is. The airplane already has a priest, two nuns, three doctors, a stowaway, a customs officer’s niece, a pregnant stewardess, two black GIs, a loudmouthed kid, a henpecked husband, and Dean Martin aboard, right? So obviously the bomber has to be typecast, too. … What Heflin does is undermine the structure of the whole movie with a sort of subversive overacting. Once the bomber becomes ridiculous, the movie does, too. That’s good, because it never had a chance at being anything else.”

“We sense that in some ways [Hannah and Her Sisters knows the characters] better than they will ever know themselves. And to talk about the movie that way is to suggest the presence of the most important two characters in the movie, whom I will describe as Woody Allen and Mickey. Mickey is the character played by Allen; he is a neurotic TV executive who lives in constant fear of death or disease. … If Mickey is the character played by Woody Allen in the movie, Allen also provides another, second character in a more subtle way. The entire movie is told through his eyes and his sensibility; not Mickey’s, but Allen’s. From his earlier movies, especially Annie Hall and Manhattan, we have learned to recognize the tone of voice, the style of approach. Allen approaches his material as a very bright, ironic, fussy, fearful outsider; his constant complaint is that it’s all very well for these people to engage in their lives and plans and adulteries, because they do not share his problem, which is that he sees through everything, and what he sees on the other side of everything is certain death and disappointment.”

“[River’s Edge] is the best analytical film about a crime since The Onion Field and In Cold Blood. Like those films, it poses these questions: Why do we need to be told this story? How is it useful to see limited and brutish people doing cruel and stupid things? I suppose there are two answers. One, because such things exist in the world and some of us are curious about them as we are curious in general about human nature. Two, because an artist is never merely a reporter and by seeing the tragedy through his eyes, he helps us to see it through ours.”

“One day I will be thin, but Vincent Gallo will always be the director of The Brown Bunny.”

“Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull is a movie about brute force, anger, and grief. It is also, like several of Scorsese’s other movies, about a man’s inability to understand a woman except in terms of the only two roles he knows how to assign her: virgin or whore. There is no room inside the mind of the prizefighter in this movie for the notion that a woman might be a friend, a lover, or a partner. She is only, to begin with, an inaccessible sexual fantasy. And then, after he has possessed her, she becomes tarnished by sex. Insecure in his own manhood, the man becomes obsessed by jealousy — and releases his jealousy in violence. It is a vicious circle. Freud called it the “madonna-whore complex.” Groucho Marx put it somewhat differently: ‘I wouldn’t belong to any club that would have me as a member.'”

“I am trying to imagine what it would be like to write this review [of My Left Foot] with my left foot. Quite seriously. I imagine it would be a great nuisance–unless, of course, my left foot was the only part of my body over which I had control. If that were the case, I would thank God that there was still some avenue down which I could communicate with the world.”

And last, but not least, my favorite line from Roger Ebert, from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, a line so silly you can’t help but think of him now sweeping heaven’s floor with his panache:

“This is my happening, and it freaks me out!”

RIP

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–*You are fashion forward.

–*You are fashion forward and you were snubbed in a major actress category.

–*Somebody rolled you up in a carpet and tried to kidnap you, and after you escaped, you thought you could own the rolled up carpet look.

–*Your water just broke.

–*You are truly curious about which appendage might fall off without blood circulation.

–*You are trying to embarrass Ryan Seacrest.

–*You are in violation of networks standards and practices.

–*You look best in bias cuts and 40 weight motor oil.

–*If Joan Rivers wasn’t abusing you, you wouldn’t know who you are.

–*Your ombre hair extensions make it highly likely you cheated on your SAT.

–*Shiny shiny I am 12.

–*The L.A. County Sheriff is aware of your movements.

–*Whale bone corsets in the early 1900s led to multiple health problems in women and why are we better than they are?

–*If it can hold my bait and tackle, it’s good enough for these Hollywood big shots.

–*You were comfortable enough with yourself and your success to wear a tie-dye and jams.

–*Your plunging neckline is a pleasing distraction from the fact that your movie defended codified torture.

–*I am Russell Crowe, and I am not afraid to go outside my comfort zone and take all of you with me.

–*I am Sally Field, and if you are a TV host who tries kiss me without my permission, I have a battery of lawyers who will crawl up your ass and start removing the contents like the crew from Ben Hur Moving Company.

–*You are comfortable around both couture and medical trepanning equipment.

–*You are a 31 in the legs, which means nobody makes anything for you and you do not deserve to be here.

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What were some of the highlights of the 2013 Golden Globe Awards?

–*Jodie Foster took 50 years and what seemed like 10 minutes to come out of the closet.

–*In her speech accepting the Cecil B. DeMille award, Foster begged for privacy and then said she was lonely and single and went into excruciating detail about how she liked her lesbian sex.

–*E! Entertainment television’s pre-show noted that the red carpet was thick with highly glamorous possible flu carriers.

–*Salma Hayek’s and Paul Rudd’s inability to improvise during a teleprompter gaffe cost millions of dollars in precious air seconds, time that they must pay back with their lives!

–*To get a Steven Spielberg movie made about him, Abraham Lincoln had to pay for it … with his life!

–*Former president Bill Clinton came to introduce the film Lincoln, about America’s controversial 16th president whose record is very mixed among historians.

–*Lena Dunham proves with her show Girls that if you’re naked a lot, on some level you can’t really be insufferably coy.

–*As we honor President Abraham Lincoln at an awards show, we must wonder if his last thought might have also been, “Hey, this is a pretty good show!”

–*Lena Dunham made a joke about the 2000 Oscars, which means she’s been watching these shows since she was 2.

–*Kanye West breathed a sigh of relief when he saw how badly Taylor Swift can behave at an awards show.

–*Tony Mendez, the hero of the film Argo, made a speech onstage about his Iran mission in very hushed tones, far away from his microphone, leading one to ask: “Did anyone tell Mendez the mission was declassified? They made a movie about it!”

–*”Adele!”

–*Kevin Costner once carried the moral authority of the masculine American on the big screen. But now everybody’s gay and we all think he’s a douche bag.

–*Tommy Lee Jones is a star. But he is a distant star, and when he laughs at a joke, unfortunately we will not see it for 2.5 million years.

–*Tina Fey and Amy Poehler show that when you insult Americans you better be an American, Ricky Gervais.

–*Look, we know Sacha Baron Cohen is making fun of us. The real surprise and delight comes from figuring out how he’s making fun of us. This can take days to work out.

–*Argo proves that Ben Affleck is no fluke as a director. His acting career, however, continues to be a fluke.

–*Zero Dark Thirty has been called controversial by those who say it implicitly supports the American policy of torture. Torture among teenagers is already up 30%, says a worried Ed Asner.

–*Meryl Streep couldn’t be here tonight because being lauded so much has finally made her physically ill.

–*Really, I don’t think I was kidding about that Kanye West thing. If he had a football right now, he’d be spiking it!

–*The Golden Globes has people hotly anticipating the Oscar race now that people know how many good movies accidentally got made last year.

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