music friday: bruce springsteen, "valentine's day"

Tunnel of Love was Bruce’s Blood on the Tracks. I’m far from the first person to say that, although when I wrote about it during the very first year of this blog, I compared it to Planet Waves. “Brilliant Disguise” was released as a single before the album came out. Understand that in 1987, Bruce was coming off of Born in the U.S.A., which sold upwards of 30 million copies, and a live box set that was one of the biggest-selling live albums of all time. (This evidence is anecdotal, i.e. it’s what I remember but I don’t have the energy to look it up, but I feel like the story was a lot of people bought CD players so they could play the live set.) It is safe to say anticipation was high for Tunnel of Love.

And the first thing we heard was this:

Tonight our bed is cold

I’m lost in the darkness of our love

God have mercy on the man

Who doubts what he’s sure of

Tunnel of Love was a great album, and “Brilliant Disguise” is a great song. But, as I noted back in 2002, “Tunnel of Love reeks with despair over love (never was a album dedication more ominously plain than this one: "Thanks Juli"). Juli was his first wife, Julianne Phillips, and it’s rough, that he thanked his wife in the notes for an album filled with the traumas of love.

The album closed with “Valentine’s Day”, one of my favorite Bruce songs. “Brilliant Disguise” was a #1 single, but I last saw him play it in concert in 1992, and I’ve seen him 18 times in the 23+ years since then. It’s as if once his marriage ended, and he began life anew with Patti, he didn’t like returning to those earlier times. (In the last five shows I’ve seen, going back to 2008, he hasn’t played a single song from Tunnel of Love.) But at least I got a handful of “Disguises”. “Valentine’s Day” is one of the rare Bruce songs I have never heard him play live. And I don’t expect to hear it when I see him next month, either.

“Valentine’s Day” doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the album at first. It’s the closing track, the story of a guy who misses his girl. He’s on the road (it’s a Bruce song, after all), driving back to see his honey. It isn’t ironic ... Bruce rarely is ... you can tell he really loves her and really misses her and really wants to get back home to her.

But it’s also the most melancholy version of love. This guy is terrified: “I got one hand steady on the wheel and one hand's tremblin' over my heart ... What scares me is losin' you.” Even when he finally gets to her, a feeling of sadness lies over everything: “So hold me close honey, say you’re forever mine, and tell me you’ll be my lonely valentine.”

oscar noms: shorts

A few short comments about a few Oscar-nominated short films.

World of Tomorrow (Don Hertzfeldt, 2015). Up for Best Animated Short. Hertzfeldt stuffs a lot into his seventeen minutes. It’s a philosophical examination of cloning, a clever futuristic sci-fi tale, a delightful presentation of a four-year-old, and an odd combination of dystopia and hope. 8/10.

Last Day of Freedom (Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman, 2015). Nominated for Best Short Documentary. Uses rotoscoping blended with other drawings (more than 30,000 total), and occasionally, the distancing rotoscoping inserts into our viewing experience can be “more real than real”. Last Day of Freedom is one of those occasions. Several things contribute to its excellence. The drawing as a whole is remarkable, and serves the story well. The story, of a man with PTSD, is a strong one. And the decision to tell the story through interviews with that man’s brother adds a heartbreaking element. You can come away from the movie feeling angry about the ways our society mistreats its downtrodden, but you also come away with an affecting insight into the brother. It’s both a social commentary and a personal voyage. 9/10.

Chau, beyond the lines (Courtney Marsh, 2015). Also up for Best Documentary Short. This is the most straightforward of the three films I watched. Chau is a Vietnamese victim of Agent Orange. Marsh follows his story over the course of eight years (this isn’t always clear), as he attempts to live with his severe disabilities. Marsh lets the context of the U.S. use of Agent Orange lie in the background ... it’s evident in all of the kids in the care center where we meet Chau. But ultimately, what we get is an uplifting story about a boy with a dream, who begins fulfilling that dream as he becomes a man. Chau wants to be an artist, and after many struggles, he teaches himself to paint with his mouth. The resulting works are quite remarkable ... my expertise is limited, but his use of color is beautiful. 7/10.

spoiling perfectly good shows

Supergirl is a perfectly good show. The cast is perfectly pleasant, a mixture of veterans and youngsters, most of whom you’ll remember from other shows ... Melissa Benoist, who plays the title character, was on Glee, Mehcad Brooks, who plays “James” Olson, was on so many shows you’re sure to say “hey, it’s that guy!” (for me, it was his role as “Eggs” on True Blood), then there’s David Harewood (Homeland) and Calista Flockhart, and Peter Facinelli (Nurse Jackie) and, in stunt casting, Helen Shaver (Supergirl in the movie of that name) and Dean Cain (Superman on Lois and Clark). It has a perfectly good overarching theme about family and belonging, and perfectly good action scenes whenever Supergirl is needed. Perhaps most importantly, I’m still watching after 13 episodes.

But Supergirl is spoiled by a couple of other shows that couldn’t be more different. Angie Tribeca is a hit-and-miss comedy that brings back the Police Squad/Naked Gun approach to television. Some of us have missed that kind of humor, and Angie Tribeca is OK ... the nice thing about a show like that is if one joke falls flat, another four jokes will follow immediately.

Is Angie Tribeca a “better” show than Supergirl? I don’t know. I prefer watching it, but it’s mostly a toss-up. But Angie Tribeca, like its spiritual father Police Squad, is so relentless is its destruction of clichés that it’s hard to watch an ordinary show after seeing an episode of Angie. Things that aren’t supposed to be funny on Supergirl remind you of something similar on Angie Tribeca that was supposed to be funny, and you end up laughing inappropriately.

Which is unfair to Supergirl, because that show isn’t trying to be funny, or to remind us of Angie Tribeca. But the latter makes it harder to sit through the former.

Coming from the other direction is The 100. This is a show that spoils you for other shows that are perfectly good, because The 100 sets a higher standard. A show like Supergirl offers interesting extensions of the usual, but with the emphasis on “usual”. The title character is marginally different from other superheroes, Jimmy Olson is a grown-up black guy named “James”, Calista Flockhart is a catty Perry White. Over time we get to care about the characters, at least the primary ones. The occasional death of one of those characters can hit us emotionally. But ultimately, Supergirl is comfort food, with just enough changes from what came before to keep our attention.

There is nothing comfortable about The 100. In almost every episode, one or more characters must make life-or-death decisions that can affect hundreds, and the writers make sure that we understand all aspects of what brings the character to the moment of decision. Maureen Ryan, who has written smart pieces on The 100 (and in fact is the one who convinced me to give the series a try), writes:

When a person on “The 100” is given an array of bad options, a viewer will understand why a character picked a certain path, even if the viewer doesn’t necessarily agree with that choice. Hand-waving away concerns about set-up and follow-through doesn’t work with this show, because half the appeal of “The 100” centers on our ability to empathize with people who often do terrible things. We need to know why they do those things, and we need to care even if they make choices that ends up working out very badly for them and for others.

Consequences ... that word pops up constantly when thinking about the actions of the characters on The 100. Thus far, at least, there are no happy endings ... we’re a few episodes into Season 3, and there has been maybe one brief scene in all that time that conveyed a sense of joy. (When one character, Indra, smiled on a recent episode, Twitter went wild ... who could have believed she had it in her?) The 100 takes place a hundred years in the future, on a post-apocalyptic Earth, where everyone must make daily choices the likes of which most of us could never imagine. Yet the characters on The 100 are recognizably human, with all the depth and complexity that suggests. There are no superheroes on The 100, just people doing their best.

After that, Supergirl comes up a bit short.