music friday: bruce, sleater-kinney, and a promised land

My two favorites are on my mind today. It’s Bruce Springsteen’s 67th birthday, which he is marking with the release of his autobiography, Born to Run. Meanwhile, Sleater-Kinney have announced a New Year’s Eve show in San Francisco.

In 2002, we saw Sleater-Kinney for the 8th time. It was the second time we’d seen them at the Fillmore. It was, in fact, exactly 14 years ago today. Which, as you might have figured out, meant I saw Sleater-Kinney on Bruce Springsteen’s birthday. And they did me a favor: they played “Promised Land”.

Someone named Han Q Duong had a website devoted to S-K back then, and he wrote after I commented on this show, “I'm glad they played Promised Land for him, as his entire blog is pretty much entirely Sleater-Kinney and Bruce Springsteen, with a little bit of the San Francisco Giants mixed in.”

When I got home that night, I had to post something to the blog before I went to sleep:

they played promised land

Tuesday, September 24, 2002

More later, I gotta go to bed.

Theirs is a sped-up version, with highlight moments for all of them. And, as Michael Tedder said, “Weiss is playing the harmonica while drumming on this, because there’s nothing Janet Fucking Weiss can’t do.”

The date on this is September 25 ... close enough:

And then there’s this, one of my favorite photos:

corin bruce

mr. robot season two

Mr. Robot sneaks up on you. Last season, I got about halfway through and then it fell into the bottomless, always full pit of DVR hell. It was interesting, and Rami Malek was great, but there was always something else to watch.

Eventually, I caught up, inspired just before Season Two began, to see what all the fuss was about. I’m not sure what happened, except that maybe I just wasn’t ready for it during my first attempt. But by the time I finished binging Season One, I couldn’t wait for the new season to begin. And Mr. Robot became one of the few shows that I had to watch when it was aired.

In the season finale, a character recites the William Carlos Williams poem “The Red Wheelbarrow”. This poem is ever present in high school and college English classes, where students grapple with the deep meanings said to reside inside the poem’s sixteen words. I am not here to explicate the poem, nor am I here to specifically place it in the context of Mr. Robot. But one thing seems crucial to me: the meanings that reside inside Mr. Robot are often just as hard for viewers to ascertain as Williams’ meanings are for students.

Or maybe it’s something as simple as writer Sam Esmail wanting to give his character something short to recite.

Mr. Robot got a lot of acclaim for its first season, in particular the ways in which the show, which was unlike other series on the USA Network, expanded that network's possibilities. (In truth, Mr. Robot is unlike most series on most networks.) Whatever constraints USA might have placed on Esmail for Season One seemed to disappear for Season Two, perhaps hiding under all the acclaim. Remarkably, Esmail rarely resorted to self-indulgence, and when he did (the “Alf” episode), it was often so fun no one cared about indulgence. But Esmail walked a thin line with what seemed to me to be conscious obfuscation. While some obsessive viewers correctly anticipated some of the more startling plot moments, others (i.e. me) were simultaneously intrigued by the mystery and frustrated by the lack of revelation. Yes, Mr. Robot specializes in big, grand revelations, and they are part of what makes the series compelling. But they are satisfying in part because Esmail has been leading us along for long stretches. (Again, for me ... others claimed to know everything before it happened.)

We haven’t yet fallen into Lost territory yet, but the potential is there.

Meanwhile, Rami Malek’s Emmy was well-deserved, and the casting in general effectively matches actors and characters. Carly Chaikin looks like Malek/Elliot’s sister, and she does great work as a bad-ass who is vulnerable on the inside (but not as much as that cliché might suggest). I don’t think Michael Cristofer has ever given a bad performance. Best of all is B.D. Wong as a mysterious character (are there any other kinds on this show?) who is both a transgender head of the “Dark Army” and the Minister of State Security for China.

Like I say, there’s nothing else like this out there right now. That novelty won’t carry the show forever, although Rami Malek might be able to pull it off. Suffice to say that, at the end of an erratic finale to an erratic season, I can’t wait for Season Three to begin.

film fatales #19: tallulah (sian heder, 2016)

Debut feature from writer/director Sian Heder, who has worked on Orange Is the New Black. Tallulah focuses on three complicated women, all of them damaged, all of them different, all of them to some extent mothers.

Ellen Page is the titular Tallulah, a woman of the road who was abandoned by her mother when she was six. (Or so we are led to believe ... Tallulah tells us this story, and she lies frequently.) Her past allows for a simple explanation for her problems with committing to others. In fact, it’s a sign of the biggest problem with Tallulah, that there are lots of plot turns that seem to exist only to advance our understanding of the characters. Those characters are interesting, but it requires a healthy suspension of disbelief to get through the movie.

Tallulah is stealing leftover food from a hotel corridor when she is caught by Carolyn (Tammy Blanchard), who is drunk and assumes Tallulah is hotel staff. She drags Tallulah into her room, which she shares with a toddler. She drunkenly leaves Tallulah in charge of the baby while Carolyn goes out with a man ... when Carolyn falls asleep in a drunken stupor on returning, Tallulah decides the baby is endangered by her mother, and so she kidnaps the tyke. All of this makes sense in terms of the characters, even if it’s all a bit much as “real” events.

It makes a kind of fragile sense that Tallulah ends up staying with the mother of her boyfriend, who has disappeared. Margo (Allison Janney) is a mess, too, with a husband who left her for another man. She has been alienated from her son (the boyfriend) for two years. She’s been a crappy mom, Tallulah has never really been a mom, and Carolyn thinks she’s a bad person because she didn’t want her baby. The interaction between these three (for the most part, Margo and Carolyn only meet with Tallulah, who is the connector) is, again, too obviously staged for maximum effect. But the characters make it worthwhile.

None of which would matter if the actors weren’t carrying the load. All three are great, creating characters whose flaws are off-putting but whose basic humanity is winning. I love Ellen Page, but Tammy Blanchard may do the best job here ... there is very little to like about Carolyn, but Blanchard makes us feel her overwhelming emotions so we think we understand her.

Tallulah is a decent movie, worth seeing for the acting. It’s not great, but it doesn’t really need to be. 7/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

film fatales #18: obvious child (gillian robespierre, 2014)

It’s unfortunate, but true, and must be gotten out of the way at the beginning. This is the “abortion comedy”. Gillian Robespierre, who created the original short on which this feature is based, isn’t happy with that description, for good reason, but there’s really no getting around it.

There are surely people who made up their minds about Obvious Child without seeing it, after hearing that description. And that’s why the easy catch-phrase does the film a disservice. Because while Obvious Child is a comedy, and while an abortion is a key plot point, it’s not a movie about abortion, it’s a movie about a group of characters, one in particular, stand-up comedian Donna Stern, delightfully played by Jenny Slate. Robespierre walks a very thin line here, in part by acting as if there is no thin line. Abortion in Obvious Child is both an important decision/action, and fairly mundane. Donna’s abortion isn’t nothing, but neither is it the key moment in her life. Mostly, the movie is a rom-com with a knowing attitude, including the Meet Cute and the ambiguously hopeful ending.

Slate dominates the film, no mean feat when she’s surrounded by fine character actors like Gaby Hoffman, Richard Kind, and Polly Draper. Donna’s stand-up comedy draws on her personal life, in a scary way if you’re one of the characters in that life (her boyfriend at the beginning of the film breaks up with her after she uses their relationship for its comic potential in her act). It’s a standard character, the comedian who is crying on the inside, but as with so much of Obvious Child, the similarities to genre expectations are more a jumping-off point than a template into which to stuff a movie. Slate is almost always adorable, even when Donna is nowhere near adorable, not in a Zooey Deschanel way ... more like Ilana Glazer on Broad City.

Broad City makes for an interesting comparison, because Obvious Child seems very much of a piece with many contemporary TV sitcoms with women characters at the center. Girls is the most well-known example, but it’s also reminiscent of Catastrophe and the newer Fleabag. Each of these shows has its own perspective ... if there’s a genre here, it’s pretty vague ... but Obvious Child would make a fine double-bill with any of those series.

The biggest problem with Obvious Child is that Donna’s stand-up isn’t particularly funny. The second longish stand-up segment is bad on purpose ... Donna’s personal life is crumbling in a non-funny way, and she can’t translate it into art. But her final set, where she talks about her abortion in a way that is on target in terms of the film’s presentation, isn’t any closer to being funny than the earlier disastrous appearance. Yet somehow we’re supposed to see it as triumphant.

Heck, it’s a small indie film with plenty of new talent, engaging material, and a wonderful performance by Jenny Slate. It’s not perfect, but the problems are minimal compared to the film’s accomplishments. 7/10.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)