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August 2005
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serenity: i aim to misbehave

Serenity offers a great time at the movies. I'd be very interested in knowing what non-Firefly people think of it, if any of them actually go see it, because some effort is made at the beginning to gently nudge newbies into understanding the basic setup of the Serenity universe and meeting the main characters, so it won't be obscure even if you've never seen Firefly. But I suspect the resonance the film will have with fans of the television series won't easily be transported to people who don't already love the characters.

While Joss Whedon has done some writing for films in the past, Serenity is really his movie coming-out party, the first time he's written and directed for the big screen. It's hard not to feel proud, watching Joss' work in a movie theater. There are a lot of people out there who love movies but don't have the time or inclination for television watching, and there are also plenty of television watchers who have managed to avoid Whedon's teevee work as well. So it's a joy to hear Joss' dialogue in a movie. The standard Whedon trick of having his heroes and heroines mouthing snappy patter in the face of danger is reminiscent of Rio Bravo. It's hard to explain just how wonderfully odd it was to hear Whedonesque dialogue coming out the mouths of movie characters.

As for the movie itself, I think it's better than the teevee series, but ... a movie offers plenty of pleasures unavailable to television, but the reverse is also true, and Whedon's television shows, most notably Buffy the Vampire Slayer, all focus on the strength we get from communities that are never stagnant, but are always vital to our well-being. Come to the characters of Serenity cold, and you'll like them enough, in an action-movie-hero kind of way. Come to them from Firefly, and you'll already know them, know how they interact with each other, and the characters will matter. They'll matter because you've seen them in a dozen or so episodes. I don't know that any single episode of Firefly is as good as Serenity, but the best compliment I can pay to Serenity is that it's like the best episode of Firefly. And I wouldn't blame moviegoers for wanting something more from a film.

Me, I'll just savor the dialogue, which, it should be added, is delivered perfectly. It's not really worth it to quote the best stuff, because what makes it "best" isn't just the words, it's the delivery. But the style is instantly recognizable to anyone who's ever watched an episode of Buffy. Eight on a scale of ten.

Finally, I've hopefully avoided spoilers in the above, but I'll add one note here. My least-favorite character in Firefly was River. But in Serenity, she wins the heart of this Buffy fan. Sarie, if you're reading this, at one point I half expected you to jump out into the theater yelling "BUFFY!" just like you used to back in the day.


friday random ten, r-rated version

1. James Brown, "(Get Up I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine, Pt. 1." Did James Brown have the greatest titles, or what? I forget where I first read the idea that James Brown was famous around the world because you didn't need to understand English to understand JB. His gutteral squeals transcend English.

2. Lou Reed, "She's My Best Friend." Coney Island Baby is my favorite Lou Reed album of the 70s, and while the title cut is my fave on that album, I love this one, too. "She's my best friend, Certainly not just like your average dog or car."

3. The Animals, "It's My Life." Great as this version is, when I think of this song I always recall Bruce's 70s concert versions with the epic story about fighting with his dad as a teenager.

4. 2Pac, "Me and My Girlfriend." When Neal and Sonia lived downstairs, they used to play this song all the time. All I could hear was the booming bass and a bit of the chorus, "All I need in this life of sin, is me and my girlfriend." One day I finally played it for myself. It IS a love song, but they didn't write 'em like this in my day. "I love finger fuckin you."

5. Norman Greenbaum, "Spirit in the Sky." There's always room for a one-hit wonder on the Friday Random Ten.

6. The Rolling Stones, "Cocksucker Blues." Maybe they DID write 'em like that in my day. Hearing Mick Jagger slur "Where can I get my cock sucked? Where can I get my ass fucked?" hasn't lost any of its scariness.

7. Dogs Die in Hot Cars, "Celebrity Sanctum." What would Friday Random Ten be without at least one song of recent vintage that I barely recognize and about which I have nothing interesting to say.

8. Sleater-Kinney, "Funeral Song." An S-K version of Dogs Die in Hot Cars, i.e. I have nothing to say.

9. Nelly, "Over and Over." C'mon, you know you always wanted to hear Nelly and Tim McGraw together.

10. Ry Cooder, "Poor Man's Shangri-La." I couldn't explain why, but Ry Cooder kinda gives me the heebie-jeebies. Taj Mahal, on the other hand, doesn't. Give me the heebie-jeebies, that is.


book news

I got the proofs today for King Kong Is Back, the book which includes my essay "Not the Movie: King Kong '76." One of the contributors is David Gerrold, perhaps most famous for writing the "tribbles" episode of the original Star Trek. I crossed paths with Gerrold in the late-80s, when we were both on CompuServe and I, a new grad student, was learning about literary theory and slash fan fiction. I can't recall any longer what the argument was about, but Gerrold tore me a new one or two, I remember that. Heck, I probably deserved it. This book should be out to coincide with the release of the new Peter Jackson remake, so maybe it'll actually sell.

Meanwhile, my friend Peter Richardson has a new book coming out next month, "American Prophet: The Life and Work of Carey McWilliams." Since it's not out yet, I haven't read it, but Mike Davis called it "superb" in The Nation, Pete's a fine writer, and I expect this to be a good one. The book has had a long period of gestation ... I was teaching California Culture at SF State back in 2000 and had Pete in as a guest lecturer, and I remember him telling me then that he'd been working on this forgotten guy named McWilliams.


firefly, or, serenity part one

With Serenity set to open tomorrow, it must be time to chime in on Firefly, the television series that established the characters who continue on the big screen. While I remain a champion of the series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I am not nearly as big a fan of Buffy creator Joss Whedon as are some. That's not to say that I don't appreciate him, but I didn't watch the Buffy-spinoff, Angel, and I didn't watch Firefly during its original run, only catching up recently on DVD. Still, I'm going to be supportive of Joss and go see Serenity, maybe on opening day.

Firefly was not a great series, although it looked like it would have staying power ... I'd give it a "B" but I could see it growing into an "A-" over the years, because the characters were enjoyable and their interactions a pleasure to watch. The concept (space opera set in the future, only everyone acts like they're in a Western, with dialogue like "'pears we got here just in the nick of time" and people riding horses and wearing futuristic six-shooters) is somehow unique and yet typically Joss (he loves to mix and match his genres). The subtle political underpinnings (the heroes are individualistic renegades who fought on the losing side in the big civil war between the Alliance of Everything Really Big and all the other folks) are interesting, and not easy to analyze.

The television series, though, never rose above its concept, at least not on a narrative level. The plots were fairly standard issue teevee, neither good nor bad. What makes the series, and what I suspect will make the movie, is the characters. They're a finely-drawn lot with something for everyone. None of the actors are "stars" ... not sure the average moviegoer will recognize any of them, with the possible exception of Ron Glass who used to be on Barney Miller (and Gina Torres, who has done a lot of teevee and is married to Laurence "Cowboy Curtis" Fishburne). Basically, I'll be happy if I have a good time at the movie, and it will be nice if Joss Whedon gets some props for being so wonderful.


amy rigby

I'm sure sometimes it seems that all I do is download music these days, so it's important to point out the artists who 1) I love, and 2) aren't big superrich stars, because I always make certain to buy all their stuff, as often as I can directly from the artists (or at least their website). Which brings me to Amy Rigby. I have all of her albums ... doesn't that sound so I'm-a-teenagerish? ... even ones that came as bonuses for whatever reason. I even have a cheapie concert DVD she sold for awhile. And, as I mentioned a few days ago, when her new album came in the mail, it included a personal postcard signed by Amy, which thrilled me far more than it should have.

Anyway, I'm not the only Amy Rigby fan out there. Christgau gives her new album an "A" in the latest Consumer Guide, and ... well, let's just say he's an even bigger fan than I am:

It really is quite simple—no one of any gender or generation has written as many good songs in Rigby's realistic postfolk mode since she launched Diary of a Mod Housewife in 1996. She's the best, plus a fine singer in an apt doing-the-dishes mode.

Check her out ... go to her website, buy one of her albums, I don't think it matters which, although Xgau gives his highest rating to Mod Housewife and the new Little Fugitive, and AMG goes with Housewife. If you like to try before you buy, there are excerpts from four songs here. She's also on iTunes if you want to sample more of her stuff, or Rhapsody if you have that.


no direction home

Martin Scorsese's film about the early years of Bob Dylan's career, No Direction Home (I'll assume Scorsese is the "author," although there is some question how much input he had ... it appears equally true that Dylan himself is the author), has a lot of classic footage I'd heard about but never seen. As is usual for these kinds of documentaries, the music takes a back seat to, well, to everything else, which is odd for a film about a musician. I understand the difference between this and a concert film, but nonetheless, it gets extremely frustrating over the course of four hours how often a great version of a great song gets cut off midway through to allow another talking head to say their piece.

I don't know if this film would convince a newbie that Dylan is one of the great artists of our time. It does a decent job of placing Dylan in the context of the 60s folk movement, and makes sense of Dylan's move into electric music. What isn't clear, if you don't already know the songs, is that Dylan's lyrics were moving away from so-called protest music long before he went electric. The Times They Are A-Changin' is perhaps the most "protesty" album he ever made, but it finishes with "Restless Farewell" ("I'll make my stand, and remain as I am, and bid farewell and not give a damn"). And Another Side of Bob Dylan, which followed and was the last non-electric album of his early career, is filled with personal songs and wild imagery ... even something like "Chimes of Freedom," which often gets treated by others as a "protest" song, is almost psychedelic in its lyrics ("Through the wild cathedral evening the rain unraveled tales, For the disrobed faceless forms of no position").

The position of the movie seems to be that it was the switch to electric music that marked the big change, and certainly the Pete Seegers of the world were reacting against the supposed commercialism of electricity. But the sound of electricity only emphasized how far Dylan had come lyrically from the days of "Blowin' in the Wind," and that doesn't come across in the film.

Among the various interviewees, Joan Baez comes across as very aware in a retrospective manner of what happened back in the day (plus she has the foulest mouth of anyone on the show, which is a crack up), and it's good to see the late Dave Van Ronk being the ranconteur as he tells the twisted tale of "House of the Rising Son." Dylan himself is remarkably forthcoming in a charming way ... of course it's a performance, but it's one we're hungry for, and it makes a nice extension of the Dylan who appears in Chronicles Volume One.

"Like a Rolling Stone" is the central song in the movie ... it gives the film its name, and the infamous "Judas" version closes the movie (or rather, the first verse closes it ... if there was any time in the entire film when the whole song should have been shown, it was that one). I was 12 years old when "Like a Rolling Stone" was released, and looking back, I can't believe I got it, but I did. I mattered to me then like few songs had up to that point, and while over the years I've gotten different things from the song, it still matters. The trick is that, while the song is yet another one of Dylan's many put-down numbers, we (he?) are both snide assassin and proud victim of the song's taunts. As I have always heard the song, we are all the person Dylan sings about, which is why when we sing along "how does it feel?" we're asking that question of ourselves. I've said many times over the years that "Like a Rolling Stone" is the National Anthem for a certain generation of people who imagine ourselves with no direction home, cast outside the mainstream, perhaps by choice. As aging yuppies there's more than a little nostalgic bullshit about such notions, but they have always felt real to me.


challenge

OK, so the idea that's making the rounds is to see how many of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books you've read. Here's my list:

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Beloved by Toni Morrison
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Cujo by Stephen King
Ordinary People by Judith Guest
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Native Son by Richard Wright
Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo A. Anaya
Carrie by Stephen King
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

Not very many, really.


premieres and more premieres

Curb Your Enthusiasm and Desperate Housewives kicked off their new seasons last night, while U.S. audiences finally got our first look at Ricky Gervais' new series, Extras.

CYE is more of the same. This episode didn't have Wanda Sykes, my favorite of the bit players, and the plot felt more like a setup for the season to come than it did anything internally coherent. Good, not great, episode, with the usual Seinfeldian look-how-all-the-plots-come-together-in-the-last-scene stuff, which is always good.

Desperate Housewives didn't grab me. I like this show but don't love it, so I'm a bit behind the mainstream, I guess. I'm not sure the blend of comedy and drama works on this show ... for one thing, the comedy isn't that funny, and I think it detracts from the more serious moments. If Desperate Housewives isn't as bad as a late-season episode of Ally McBeal, it isn't as good at balancing the drama and comedy as Ally was in its earliest seasons. I may be a bit influenced in a negative way by the DH fans ... they all seem to love Marcia Cross and love her character, Bree, while I admire Cross for her work on the show but think the character is deplorable. I see her as so bad she's fun to watch, but for lots of fans, she's not bad at all, which kinda disturbs me.

Extras is one of the most anticipated new series. It's already played in the U.K., as well as showing up on torrents, but I waited. My friend Steve Hammond was disappointed, felt it was The Office in a different setting and thus not really any different. I see his point, but I thought the second half of the episode really picked up the pace as far as laughs go ... Kate Winslet was every bit as funny as was rumored ... and in the end, I think it's less like The Office Part Two and more like an extension of Curb Your Enthusiasm, in the way it finds humor in the cluelessly brutal honesty of its main character (the difference there being that "Larry David" is a rich and successful man, while Gervais' new character is just a movie extra). On paper, the various scenes looked like standard shock humor (nuns talking dirty, poking fun at cerebral palsy, goofing with swastikas), but I thought it played pretty well, and I'll be back next week.


49ers

Neal took his dad to the 49er game today, the first time I'd been back to Candlestick since the Giants' last home game there in 1999, first time I'd seen the 49ers live since 1978, when OJ Simpson was in their backfield. Neither the 49ers or their opponents, the Dallas Cowboys, seemed much good to me, although the Cowboys ended up being not quite as bad, winning 34-31. It was interesting returning to Candlestick ... there were plenty of fights in the stands, just as I remembered!

Neal got us great seats ... this isn't a very good photo, I took it with my Palm, but it gives you an idea of where we sat (20 rows behind the 49er bench):

Niners


it's a disgrace, all right

I'm sorry to keep ranting on the same topic over and over, but each day brings new fodder to piss me off.

Barry Bonds has played 9 games for the Giants since coming back from multiple knee surgeries. (Even the surgeries are up for grabs, if you're a Barry Hater ... Skip Bayless wrote the other day, "you never know ... who knows what really happened, if anything? You assume the knee got infected, as Bonds said it did. But who knows?") In those nine games, Bonds has hit .360 with a .469 OBP and .880 SLG (those are really good numbers, for you non-fans). In the eight games he was in the starting lineup, the team has seven wins and only one loss. From this, you might conclude that Barry was once again amazing us with his great abilities.

Nope. Nope.

Bruce Jenkins, perhaps the worst regular columnist on any topic in Bay Area history, has a column today titled "Disgraceful Bonds needs to look in mirror." The problem? Having come back from all those surgeries, Bonds, who at 41 is very old for a baseball player no matter what surgeries he's had, is taking off day games after night games. He's still working himself back into playing shape, and likely won't really get there until next season. Jenkins' take on this? Barry is being selfish: "The Giants deserve a full-time commitment after six months without their mainstay, and they're getting casual indifference."

He helps them win game after game, and he's selfish?

Coincidentally, I just finished reading a book about Hank Aaron's pursuit of Babe Ruth's home run record. Aaron finished 1973 one shy of Ruth's record. That season, Aaron, 39 years old at the time, played in roughly 3/4 of his team's games, often sitting out the day game after a night game. The great Aaron, you see, was getting old. Which is OK for Hammer, but apparently not OK for Barry Bonds.

The majority of Jenkins' column is taken up with a laundry list of ways that Barry Bonds is an asshole, which as far as I can tell means jack shit when you are playing baseball. But it matters to Bruce Jenkins, and Skip Bayless, and all of the other idiot "journalists" having such a fine time ripping on Bonds.