going into the broad city

The city in the title of Robert Christgau's new memoir, Going Into the City, is New York. The television series Broad City, which just ended its second season, is also New York to its core. There is nothing else to connect the two works in any obvious fashion ... in one, a man in his 70s looks back on his life, in the other, two women in their 20s create versions of themselves in something resembling the present. In both cases, though, the presence of New York City goes beyond merely adding local color. Christgau grew up in Queens, and so has greater New York in his bones, but the title refers to his move to Manhattan.  Abbi Jacobson, one of the two creators of Broad City, spent her formative years in Pennsylvania, but met up with Ilana Glazer when both were members of New York's Upright Citizen's Brigade (Glazer's background is a little harder to pin down, but she seems pure New York). What matters, in all cases, is that New York City is a crucial component of the people. I can't really call Christgau a "character" ... while he constructs a "Robert Christgau" for his memoir, the construction is "really" him, while Jacobson and Glazer are based-on-themselves "real" characters in Broad City, as Abbi Abrams and Ilana Wexler.

Christgau admits from the beginning that his memoir might seem different than the norm, partly because other than being a rock critic, his life isn't all that unusual. "Only a teensy bit famous no matter how much of my small pond I hog ... I've had my share of adventures, but nothing all that spine-chilling or at all epic.... As writers go, I'm a fairly normal guy." He quickly adds, "Some might hold that if my life has been interesting enough to write about, it cannot have been normal. As a democrat in all things, I say that's snobbish baloney. All lives are interesting -- how interesting depends on the telling."

Christgau is a fine writer, with a lot to tell, and an audience that is already interested. He doesn't exactly ignore his audience's desires ... he just tells his story in the manner that suits him, and it is largely interesting for the reasons he notes: it depends on the telling, and he's good at it.

I don't know what others expected of the book. Speaking for myself, I was ready for anything, because it was Christgau, which meant I assumed I'd like it. Which I do. There is some name-dropping, but less than you might think. He spends time talking about working at the Village Voice, but as he states, "I didn't want people to think it was about the Voice. That's a book worth writing, but I don't know by who ...." He talks about the members of the first (and to some extent subsequent) wave of rock critics, but I don't think Going Into the City would be the primary text for an historian of the era. We learn which of those critics were his close friends, and get a hint of some of their approaches, but it's a memoir, not an evaluation. What Christgau pulls off is a memoir that might be written by a "regular" person, where the primacy of his experiences is more important than what celebrity he knows.

And the primacy of his experiences includes his intense devotion to the two most important women in his life, his first great love, Ellen Willis, and his eventual wife and life-partner, Carola Dibbell. In his introduction, he discusses this:

The main way marriage impacted my vocation, however, was intellectually. That's why I feel deprived when, for example, Christopher Hitchens or Ed Sanders or Richard Hell -- all of whose recommended memoirs share ground with mine, and all of whom have their reasons -- fail to indicate how their wives changed their lives and I bet their work. My '60s partnership with Ellen Willis ... set me on the path I've followed ever since.... my chief guide has been my legally wedded wife of four decades, Carola Dibbell, who's also a fine rock critic ... No banal bow to discretion or cool could tempt me to minimize the place of these relationships in my life, or to mince words about them either.... Till death do us part, my marriage is my most satisfying achievement.

This is the kind of thing usually dismissed in a brief note about how "I couldn't have written this without the love of my partner". But Christgau wants us to know from the start that his memoir will integrate his important relationships into his discussion of his work as a critic. There is almost no need for an acknowledgements page for Willis or Dibbell ... the entire book acknowledges them.

It also gets to the core of my own relationship to memoirs, especially since, if I ever had the ambition to write a book of my own, it would fall into that category. The motto of this thirteen-years-and-counting blog is the Pauline Kael quote, "I'm frequently asked why I don't write my memoirs. I think I have." To know my take on movies and TV and music is to know me, as well. Christgau goes beyond this, though. His approach is almost the opposite: to know his take on music, it is crucial that you know about his experiences, particularly with the important women in his life.

I accept that it is a stretch to connect all of this to Broad City. But New York is a major character in Christgau's book ... it's a titular character, no less. Part of what sets Broad City apart, though, is that Abbi and Ilana are already in New York ... there is no "going". It's less that New York is a character, and more that Abbi and Ilana have New York inside of them. New Yorkers often assume that outsiders like myself don't "get" the city, that you have to live there, experience it on a daily basis. And I'm sure I miss many nods to locals in Broad City. It is very specific about its New York-ness. But Abbi and Ilana feel universal, despite their specifics as young New York Jewish women in their 20s. I'm much closer in age to Robert Christgau than I am to Jacobson and Glazer ... my kids are a decade older than those two. A typical day for me usually involves doing something with my wife of 40+ years, and while we have memories of the stuff we did when we were young, in honesty, memories are mostly what they are at this point. I don't get high all the time anymore the way Abbi and (especially) Ilana do. I don't have the energy to pursue anything that crosses my mind (Ilana is irrepressible in this regard). But the spirit with which they engage in their world is inspiring, not because I know what it's like to be a young woman in New York, but because that spirit is contagious.

Which is something they share with Christgau. As you read his memoir, you understand better the things that drive him. It no longer seems odd that he listens to music a billion hours a day. He loves to engage with music, loves to keep learning about music, and, of course, he's a master as a critic of writing about these things in ways that engage the reader, and, yes, inspire us in some way.

carlos (olivier assayas, 2010)

I've tagged Carlos under both film and television, which I think is appropriate. It was made as a TV mini-series running in three parts. It has been shown rarely as a complete movie, but the more standard presentation, as far as I can tell, is to show the three parts separately on TV. There are also edited "movie versions" than run two-and-a-half to three hours. I watched the entire series of three, which makes it a mini-series, but if you watch it, you'll see why I think it's a movie. It has the look of a movie, with its 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Carlos plays like the long-form serial television series that have become the standard for quality TV today, taking advantage of the extended running time to offer depth that wouldn't be possible in a shorter film. But the way the story unfolds reminds me more of a movie like De Palma's Scarface than it does a series like The Wire.

In fact, Scarface makes an interesting comparison with Carlos. Both are epic-length stories of the rise and fall of a narcissist on the wrong side of the law. One thing that would seem to make Carlos different is that its titular character isn't a mere gangster, but is rather a political terrorist. But politics takes a backseat throughout the film ... it's not as different from Scarface as you might imagine.

The scope of the movie is impressive. In covering the career of Carlos, Assayas takes us from 1973 through 1994, and crisscrosses nations and continents: London, Paris, Vienna, the Netherlands, Yemen, Germany, Algeria, Libya, Budapest, East Berlin, Syria, Sudan. Yes, at times it's a bit confusing, but the overall feel of the life of an international terrorist is clear.

Édgar Ramírez plays Carlos as a charismatic man who we can see would easily impress others. He's ultimately not very good at his job ... his most famous escapade, a takeover of an OPEC conference, mostly results in flying from airport to airport with hostages, never accomplishing any goals, until finally they take money in return for releasing the hostages. Nonetheless, the OPEC sequence is a masterwork in the world of action/thriller cinema. Assayas is more successful with his representation of the OPEC events than Carlos was in trying to pull off the caper.

The film does well in showing the grungy glamour of the lifestyle of Carlos, as well as his gradual fade from importance. The third chapter, which deals with the decline, is necessarily less exciting than what came before, but it does provide some closure on the story.

What is missing is a sense of the politics that drove Carlos and his associates. People toss off standard catch phrases about the revolutionary struggle, but the film rarely goes deeper than those phrases. Assayas is more interested in the character of Carlos, and he is very successful, but the ultimate lesson to be taken from the film is that the politics never really mattered, that Carlos' self-involvement was the key to the story. I don't need Assayas to provide an explanation for terrorist acts, but even with the decades-spanning nature of the movie, the individual acts almost seem to lack context. They work as scenes in an action thriller, but you wouldn't watch Carlos to learn about revolutionary thought.

Nonetheless, Carlos is a triumph of epic film making, riveting for most of its long running time, with a terrific performance from Édgar Ramírez. #205 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 9/10. For a companion film, try the aforementioned Scarface, or something with a similar topic, like The Baader Meinhof Complex.

the jinx, series finale: quick notes

The final two minutes of The Jinx were the ultimate Holy Shit moment ... just check Twitter. I could do like the pros have done, and crank out a piece right now about the series and how it ended. But I’m not a pro, so I get to take my time.

I can think about what to do regarding spoilers (hint: I won’t be able to avoid them). I could already talk about the show from an aesthetic perspective, how the documentary was constructed, the creepy appeal of Robert Durst. I could even just say “Holy Shit!” along with everyone else who watched those last two minutes.

But The Jinx warrants some more measured thoughts, particularly about ethics and journalism. I don’t know how I feel about the ethics of The Jinx, and I’m not ready to just blather on the topic. For now, suffice to say the connection between what was on the screen and what was happening in real life went beyond the usual for documentaries. The question must be asked: was the astonishingly dramatic final scene, which went where non-fiction is rarely able to go, so worthy in terms of the art of The Jinx to overcome some obvious questions about withheld information.

So I’m going to postpone my more detailed thoughts for a few days.

togetherness, season one

Series on HBO only run for ten or so episodes a season, so the feel of HBO Sundays changes over the course of a year. Right now, the triad of Girls, Togetherness, and Looking turn Sundays into ... well, what to call it? The life and anxious times of middle-class white people? Each show has a particular setting within that grouping: Girls is about NYC women in their 20s, Togetherness is about SoCal adults in their late-30s, Looking is about gay men in San Francisco about 30+ years old. Although the geographies are different, you could imagine the various main characters knowing each other, or at least knowing people like the characters in the other shows. The combination of sameness and difference makes for a solid programming slot, but watching the shows, you see how the differences are what matter.

Togetherness just ended its first season (beating the other two because it was only eight episodes.) It sounds pretty generic: middle-class couple, late-30s, married for ten or so years with two kids, reach a point in their marriage where nothing seems quite right. The husband’s best friend moves in with them; so does the wife’s sister. Hilarity ensues, sort of ... Togetherness is another one of those genre-busting series that the word “dramedy” was coined for, although it doesn’t really feel right here. Suffice to say that laugh-out-loud moments are rare, but there are plenty of humorous situations, as well as serious things happening to the characters. The show is not groundbreaking, and, as many critics have noted, it would be unfair to tout Togetherness too effusively, because it you approach it as if it’s the next big thing, you’ll be disappointed by the often low-key presentation.

But it does stand out from the crowd. The characters are interesting, and the acting is on target. The great Melanie Lynskey does wonders with a role that too often comes across negatively: Michelle, the frustrated wife. Amanda Peet’s sister shows another angle on how it feels to approach middle-age ... she still hasn’t “found herself”, and she’s getting old enough that time may be running out. Steve Zissis is a real find as the best friend ... again, you think you’re getting a stereotype (lay-about slob), only this time, the character has depth and a love of life and of love. Some good character actors turn up, with John Ortiz especially good as a single father who catches Michelle’s eye (and maybe heart). This is not a show where nothing happens, but it moves quietly enough that you might not think it’s headed anywhere, in which case, the season finale will be a surprise. None of the characters are to blame for their actions, although at times they act poorly. But Togetherness helps us understand why the characters act as they do.

I want to say that everyone would find something to like about Togetherness, but its charms are probably too subtle, and you might decide you don’t like the characters in the first place (my wife didn’t make it past the first episode). The finale sets up some interesting possibilities for Season Two, and I’m glad I stuck with it. Grade for Season One: B+.

marvel's agent carter

Well, eight weeks have come and gone. Next week, Agents of SHIELD will return. I looked forward to Agent Carter each week, and wouldn’t mind it being renewed.

But the series has to deal with two groups of audience members: those who are fluent in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the rest of us. While I am not usually a fan of gigantic film franchises, the MCU has some talented people I enjoy, so I have a passing knowledge. I saw and liked the first Iron Man, and also had fun with Joss Whedon’s The Avengers. But outside of those two movies (and the Agents of SHIELD series), I haven’t seen any of the MCU material. So while the question for fans is how well Agent Carter fits into the structure, for me, the question is whether I can enjoy the show without knowing the ins and outs.

I thought it did pretty well with this. Some of the material was meant for the fans ... I had to research to find out that one character in the show has a passing relationship to Scarlett Johansson’s character in The Avengers, but I assume that was obvious to people in the know. (And there was one brief scene at the end of the final episode that introduced a character who was apparently a big deal in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which also included Peggy Carter.) None of this mattered to me, and it wasn’t necessary to know the shout outs to enjoy the TV series.

Agent Carter takes place in 1946, and plenty of time is spent on showing how women were marginalized in that era. Carter isn’t just the equal of her fellow spies, she is better than them, but no one pays any attention to her. Eventually, with some help, she saves the world, only to see the credit go to the man who is her boss. This set up the statement that to a large extent served as the show’s motto, as Carter states, “I know my value, anyone else's opinion doesn't really matter.”

The show was often fun, it only rarely took itself seriously (and chose the right times to do so), and it made its points about gender equality with flair. All of which adds up to slightly better than “meh” ... fun to watch, never necessary. If it came back for a second season, I’d be there, but I won’t miss it if that doesn’t happen.

Except ... Hayley Atwell. First off, she’s great as Carter, and she pulls off the 1946 look as if she were born to it. Her Carter is positively iconic, easily the best thing about the show. (And Atwell proved to be a popular person to follow on Twitter.) And there’s no way around it ... Hayley Atwell is a bombshell. It’s a bit off to say that about a woman playing a character who fights sexism, but if I didn’t mention it, you’d think I was blind, and my take on the series would be invalid. Plus, of course, Carter kicks ass ... the fight between her and “Sin Rosetro” (see, I can make sly allusions just like the Marvel fans do) in the season finale was a highlight of the series. Grade for Season One: B+.

the roosevelts: an intimate history

I’m not sure if this qualifies as a film or a television series ... I’m going with TV, since that’s where Ken Burns always ends up.

Burns’ style is so recognizable that I know it quite well, even though the only other one of his documentaries I’ve watched to the end was Baseball. I don’t know why I haven't seen more ... they always get good reviews, and I do like documentaries. Anyway, as my previous viewing demonstrates, I tune in when the topic is particularly interesting to me, like baseball. So you can infer something about me when I tell you I made it through all 14 hours of The Roosevelts.

I was raised to believe that FDR was the greatest American president. Not by my parents ... my dad was pretty much on the border between Democrat and Republican in those days, and while my mom and I often discussed important topics, they tended more to philosophical concerns than political. But her mother, my grandmother, loved talking politics, for hours on end. She was a New Deal Democrat, and she loved Franklin Roosevelt. I can’t count the number of times she told me about FDR’s dog, Fala. She had a box set of LPs titled F.D.R. Speaks that we would listen to ... it had his four inaugural speeches, a selection of Fireside Chats, the “Day of Infamy” speech, and yes, the one where he talked about Fala. She would explain the context for the various speeches ... this would have been around the mid-60s, I knew very little beyond what she told me.

Like many fans of FDR, I’ve often wondered how the country would be different if LBJ hadn't screwed up on Vietnam. And I’ve wondered why President Obama hasn't done what Roosevelt did. My friend Jonathan Bernstein, who has forgotten more about the U.S. presidency than most of us actually know, was good at reminding me that it’s not 1932 any longer.

The selling point about The Roosevelts, beyond the part where it’s the latest epic from Ken Burns, is that it looks at three members of the family instead of one. From Teddy’s birth to Eleanor’s death covers just over a hundred years. They were connected by more than blood, and Burns keeps things moving forward by effectively intertwining their stories. Naturally, Teddy dominates at first, Eleanor blossoms most in the final hour, and Franklin gets lots of screen time (as perhaps befits a man who won four presidential elections). Burns is known for presenting a seemingly unbiased narrative that nonetheless is driven by Burns’ own beliefs. As Matt Zoller Seitz noted:

Where real history is concerned, Burns is as much of a cinematic mythmaker as John Ford, Steven Spielberg, or Oliver Stone. You’re aware that what you’re seeing isn’t a just-the-facts recitation of what happened and to whom, but one filmmaker’s presentation of a particular political worldview (mainstream liberal, optimistic verging on rosy, but hypersensitive to issues of race, class and gender that other big-ticket documentaries tend to gloss over).

The other key to The Roosevelts can be found in the subtitle: “An Intimate History”. While the series covers a century’s worth of history, it also spends significant time delving into the psychological makeup of the three protagonists. This can be a bit tricky ... the more we learn about them as people, the more we empathize with them, the more we are willing to accept their weaknesses. Eleanor comes across the best here, perhaps because she’s the only one of the three who wasn't President. Her mistakes were not as crucial to the world, so we are left with the good things she accomplished, and there are many. Plus, by outliving the others, she gets the last word ... the majority of the final episode is devoted to her life and career post-Franklin.

There is another kind of trickery involving the personal lives, one that Michelangelo Signorile addresses effectively. Burns spends plenty of time telling us about FDR’s many affairs, and how they impacted his relationship with Eleanor. Those affairs are not off-limits ... they help make this “an intimate history”. But Burns consciously chooses to leave out part of the story entirely:

It's long been discussed that Eleanor Roosevelt had a close and deep relationship with the Associated Press reporter, Lorena Hickok, with whom she went on a road trip, alone, across the country, and who even had a room in the White House for a time -- and those facts are included in the series. Also included is the fact that Eleanor had friends and colleagues with whom she organized on women's issues who were lesbians, some of them in deeply committed relationships.

But the way Burns treats all of this is to discuss Eleanor and Hickok as close and intimate "friends" -- he has Doris Kearns Goodwin telling us Hickok was "in love" with Eleanor, almost as if it was one-sided -- but never using the "L" word, or even raising the possibility of sex, seeming to view that as sleazy.

He then quotes Burns saying, “This is an intimate [look at the Roosevelts] not a tabloid”, and asks, “Why is it ‘tabloid’ rather than ‘intimate’ to speak of the possibility of a sexual relationship between two women?”

Signorile also discusses lesser-known items about FDR’s role in anti-gay scandals, “lesser-known” to me, at least ... I hadn't heard about them before.

I mention this mainly to show how even a director like Burns, who seems to cover every possible angle of his subjects, invariably leaves something out, with the decisions about what to avoid being the choices of a specific individual “mythmaker”.

throwback to cbs

Yesterday I got another of my many inane ideas. I was thinking about how certain TV series are like comfort food, and I found myself wondering: what if you chose one network, and only watched that network? Say, CBS, beginning when my wife and I got married in May of 1973. It’s like you have a TV set that only gets one channel, and so that’s all you watch. I told you it was inane.

The first occurrence of February 5 during our married life came in 1974. Given the Inane Scenario, this is what we would have watched on TV (i.e. CBS) that night. First, the episode of Maude where Florida left to go be on Good Times:

A Season Six episode of Hawaii Five-O … the more things change (the plot: Steve and the team are looking for the man who is sexually assaulting and killing women.):

And finally, one of the seven episodes broadcast of Hawkins, starring James Stewart:

mozart in the jungle, season one

Mozart in the Jungle is another series from Amazon, meaning you can’t watch it anywhere but via Amazon streaming. It’s about a symphony orchestra in New York, and while there are missteps, Mozart in the Jungle has great heart, avoiding the sappiness that statement might suggest.

The setting works well or poorly, depending on your perspective. Good for people like me, who know little about the running of a symphony; bad for lovers of classical music, who have been vocal about all of the things Mozart in the Jungle gets “wrong”. I sympathize with the latter … I feel the same way when a series or movie about something I know gets it wrong. But given my lack on knowledge in this case, my enjoyment is unspoiled by complaints about whether Mahler was the proper selection for the orchestra.

Mozart in the Jungle isn’t particularly adventurous … it’s a typical backstage dramedy, unusual because of the setting but mostly settling for the standard plot lines and characters. Gael García Bernal is charismatic as the new maestro, Rodrigo … he personifies the heart at the center of the show, making us believe that he cares passionately about serving the music. Lola Kirke does well as the stand-in for the audience, as an oboe player trying to make her way into the orchestra. (And we’ve come a ways for the Kirke family … when Jemima Kirke got our attention on Girls, it was oft-noted that her father was Bad Company drummer Simon Kirke, but now, Lola is described as Jemima’s sister.) There are some other notables in the cast: Malcolm McDowell as the maestro who is replaced by Rodrigo, Bernadette Peters as the chairperson of the symphony board. Both actors refrain from scenery chewing. Saffron Burrows does her “I’m very tall and have great cheekbones” thing, and does it well … once we get past the pilot episode, her performance grows along with her character.

The show takes its time reaching its peak. My favorite of the ten episodes were numbers 6 & 7. #6, “The Rehearsal”, is one that took a lot of flack from the classical fans … Rodrigo drags his orchestra to an abandoned lot and has them play the “1812 Overture”, and I didn’t want to be caught up in the corny tugs at my heart, but I couldn't resist. It was followed by “You Go to My Head”, the one episode that took adventurous chances, and the episode many felt was the best of the season. The final episode of the season is a bit too neat, but if you've stuck around until that point, you’ll be captivated nonetheless.

Near the end, Rodrigo says, “This orchestra is capable of doing amazing things. And we’re not there yet. I know, I know. We will be. But in the meantime, please, bear with us.” It’s a perfect description of this series. Grade for Season One: B+.