how good are you

It was one of the stupider things I’ve said. I was, and am, much taken with the work of television critic Tim Goodman, currently with the Hollywood Reporter. Here in the Bay Area, we think of Tim as ours, thanks to his years of work at the San Francisco Chronicle and Contra Costa Times. One day, after reading a particularly good column, I emailed Tim and asked him something like, “Do you know how good you are?”

I see now that there were many levels of arrogance in that question. For one thing, there’s the impression I may have given that I was the only person in the world who recognized his excellence. This is nonsense ... Goodman is known across the country as one of our best TV critics. But even worse was the notion he might not have known how good he was. I’m not talking about an egotistic overconfidence. I’m talking about the ability to put words together in a way that informs and entertains. The underlying idea to my question was that he didn’t know what he was doing, he just did it.

One of Sleater-Kinney’s most popular songs is “Modern Girl” from The Woods. On the current tour, it usually gets played during the encores, often as the very last song. It’s seems like one of their simpler songs, with Carrie singing, Janet coming in on harmonica and then drums, Corin mostly taking a backseat. It has a pretty melody. But what gets me is the oft-repeated line from the chorus: “My whole life was/looks/is like a picture of a sunny day.” Carrie may begin by singing, “My baby loves me, I’m so happy, happy makes me a modern girl”, but by the end of the song, the singer is angry, even given her baby’s love. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, though ... it’s inherent in that chorus. Her life isn’t like a sunny day, it’s like a picture of a sunny day, and the addition of “a picture” makes all the difference.

I appreciate that this isn’t exactly the deepest bit of close reading ever done. But the thing is, for a long time, I wondered if Carrie knew what she had written, or if it was “just” inspiration. Which is as dumb as thinking Tim Goodman didn’t know he was good. That lyric exists as written ... the person who wrote it knew what she was doing. It’s arrogance to think otherwise.

And this is true of all of their work. Carrie’s idiosyncratic guitar lines? They don’t come by accident, as if she were a primitive guitarist who “doesn’t know what she is doing”. Her idiosyncrasies are purposeful. The way Corin and Carrie blend their vocals, rarely using straight harmonies and often singing entire different lyrics simultaneously? They made a conscious decision to do this. The way they pretend they don’t want a bass player, then give Corin lots of bass lines to play on her guitar? Not an accident.

And yes, I know this is obvious. Or should be. Except too often, I unconsciously assume I know more than the artist. I’m not talking about some version of reader-response theory, where once a text enters the world, it becomes ours. I’m talking about the idea that the artist never knows what they are doing, never really owns their work.


thursday right now

What's the opposite of Throwback Thursday?

Today I sat down to watch a soccer match on my TV. The entire process was a mini-demonstration of life in the USA in 2015.

First, there was the fact that I was able to watch the match without resorting to illegal foreign-based streaming. It was a quarter-final match in the UEFA Europa League, which is the second-level European club tournament. It lacks the prestige of its big brother, the Champions League, which is the best club competition in the world. The opponents for the match were Sevilla, a good Andalusian team that exists in the shadow of the great teams from Spain, and Zenit St. Petersburg, probably the best club team in Russia. These are fine clubs, but they lack the glamour of the more famous participants in the Champions League. In short, this is the kind of match that would never have been shown on American TV in the good old days.

Now, though, it was on ESPN Deportes. (Trivia note: the color commentator was Giovanni Savarese, who actually played four games for the San Jose Earthquakes.) At this point, we enter the zone of First World Problems. We're not talking malnutrition or disease ... we're talking about watching soccer on TV. Anyway, in our neck of the woods, Comcast offers ESPN Deportes, but only in a standard-definition version. Better than nothing, to be sure. But, just as the Europa League is forgotten compared to the big boys of the Champions League, ESPN Deportes isn't a prestige channel, at least not in the Bay Area. So there is no real SD feed ... they just take the HD feed and lop off the edges. The result is the occasional pass that goes off-screen. It's annoying, knowing the picture is being framed for an aspect ratio you can't see.

But this is 2015. Since the match is on ESPN, it is also available via WatchESPN, a web-and-smartphone app that shows lots of ESPN programming. Like, for instance, the ESPN Deportes offering of Sevilla-Zenit. And it's in HD, which means you can see those guys on the edges of the screen.

But this means I'm watching on my 6" phone screen, or on my computer.

Luckily, there's Chromecast. I open it on my phone, the open the WatchESPN app, select Sevilla-Zenit, and tell the phone to cast the match to my TV, which has a Chromecast plugin. Voila! I'm watching the match in HD on my TV with the proper screen ratio.

To summarize: a match that in the past wouldn't be televised in America is shown on an ESPN affiliate, and I watch it on my phone which sends the broadcast to my TV.

Ah, technology in 2015. There is one problem. Live sports and Twitter go hand-in-hand nowadays, but I couldn't keep track of Twitter and the match at the same time, because the trip from ESPN to phone to TV has a bit of a delay. Twitter is more immediate, meaning if a goal is scored, Twitter would tell me about it before it happened on my TV.

See? First World Problems.

Postscript: It was a fine match, with Sevilla putting together a furious second-half comeback for a 2-1 victory in the first leg of two.


justified reaches the end

I've long understood that it is pointless to use this blog to convince people to check out the stuff I like. It's been a curse of the blog for so long, I almost forget it exists, where people say "I don't watch television but I like reading what you say about it". Really, though, I do better when I just say what I think without worrying if I'll influence anyone.

Thus, it is more accurate for me to say that Justified is one of my favorite series of all time, than to say that Justified is a great series that you should watch, even though I do think you should watch it.

Season Six has been as good as any, perhaps even as good as the much-lauded Season Two. That's especially nice because Season Five was the least-good of the series, so there was always a chance the show had stuck around too long.

As you look at what I've written about the first five seasons, you'll see several continuing themes: the lead actors are great, the secondary actors are great, all of those actors benefit from interesting characters and some of the best dialogue ever on a TV show, and Justified has succeeded in creating a believable community, where you know it was there before the series started and you know it will be there when the series is over. (I haven't seen the finale, yet, but somehow I doubt Harlan will disappear the way Sunnydale did in the last Buffy episode.) Season Six has also done an excellent job bringing back characters from prior seasons, in a way that feels organic. This is partly because the representation of community is so strong ... when a character reappears, it's not strange, they've just been off-screen for a spell. Best of all in this regard is Loretta, the teenage marijuana queen ... we've watched Kaitlin Dever grow before our eyes since her first appearance in Season Two, and Loretta is crucial to the way the entire narrative is headed towards the final episode. Contrast this with Mad Men, which seems to be wasting its final episodes with insignificant new characters. (Matthew Weiner more than deserves the benefit of the doubt, and I feel certain it will all be right when the series ends, but right now, he is puzzling a lot of his fans.)

Here are links and excerpts from some of the things I've written about Justified over the past several years:

Series Premiere: "Justified has atmosphere, it has a charismatic pair of actors, it has nifty dialogue (if you're partial to the Elmore Leonard school of writing, that is). It looks to be one of the best new series of the year."

Season One Finale: "The acting on Justified is often the best thing about the show. Walton Goggins in particular is terrific. The series wavers between standalone episodes and 'story arc' episodes, and the transition isn't always smooth. But there haven't been any bad episodes, and there are plenty of good ones."

Season Two Premiere: "It’s not as easy as it looks, creating a believable community. What usually happens is, there’ll be the lead and co-lead, and then each week some person you've never seen before will show up, the stars will act like we've all known good old Joe since way back, Joe’s story will be told, and we’ll never see Joe again. There are no Joes in Justified. When we meet someone for the first time, time is taken to create a believable relationship between the new character and the ones we already know. In a small community like the one in Justified, everyone knows pretty much everyone else, and that adds a depth that works very well."

Season Two Finale: "Margo Martindale as Mags ... was marvelous in every scene she was in, deftly playing her complex character so that you believed both the ruthless crime boss and the maternal stand-in mom. ... The final scene between Raylan and Mags is one of the finest scenes I’ve come across. Both actors knock it out of the park."

Season Three Premiere: "Last season it grew enough for me to consider it one of the best shows around, and while the loss of Margo Martindale will hurt, there are plenty of other fascinating characters, and the dialogue is going to be great as usual. Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins are bringing it once again."

Season Three Finale: "Some of my favorite moments come when two characters just shoot the shit, always talking about something other than what they are talking about, always talking like they popped out of an Elmore Leonard novel, appropriate since Leonard created Raylan Givens in the first place."

Season Four Premiere: "The dialogue here is so wonderful, I would watch it if all they did was put two characters in a room for an hour and had them talk. Great acting, intricate plotting that doesn't make a big deal about itself, solid continuing arcs, and a real feel for the community it has created (Harlan County, Kentucky)."

Season Four Finale: "Justified is good enough, though, that it doesn’t let Raylan off that easy. Over the course of four seasons, Raylan has become more like Boyd (which is to say, more like his father). And he knows it. The message of Justified isn't that Raylan’s way is right because he’s a lawman. The message is that Raylan is being destroyed from the inside. He no longer believes that his actions are justified. But he can’t escape those actions."

Season Five Premiere: "We see these people trying to change, and we learn more about them with each season, but one of the underlying themes of Justified is that we can't escape the place from which we came. So Raylan Givens works hard, as a lawman, to escape the future left him by his scumbag crook of a father, but as time passes, we (and he) realize it’s a case of like father, like son. Raylan doesn’t step over the line into a life of crime, but his pent-up anger at the world can’t be suppressed forever. And always looking over his shoulder is Boyd Crowder, the son Raylan’s father always wanted."

Season Five Finale: "Season Five felt too much like it was standing in place. We didn’t learn much new about the main characters … It was too obvious, though, by the end of the finale, that everything was just setting up the final season we've always known was coming. Season Six will be Justified’s last, and that can only mean that Boyd Crowder will finally be the Big Bad, and he and Raylan will finally reach the conclusion of their long trip together."


lon simmons

Every baseball fan understands how Giants and A's fans are feeling today. Because every team has announcers that not only become part of the team, but become our companions over the long six months of a season. 162 games a year, we hear the announcers, and they are as familiar to us as our next-door neighbor ... probably more so. So if you are a baseball fan, you have a special relationship with an announcer or two or three, and if you live long enough, some of those special people will pass away.

Lon Simmons died today at 91. He was a long-time announcer for the Giants ... he was a long-time announcer for the A's. Hell, he was a long-time announcer for the 49ers, and some of his most famous calls came with them, but you don't have the same relationship with football announcers, who are only with us once a week for fewer months than baseball.

Lon didn't just disappear when he retired. He came back and did some games for the Giants in his 80s, and if he wasn't quite as good at following the action, he always had his jokes. The Giants make a big deal of honoring their past, and Lon was always welcome at the park. He won the Hall of Fame's Ford Frick Award for broadcasters, and there is a marker commemorating this at China Basin, alongside ones for Russ Hodges and Jon Miller. Lon looked older as the years progressed, although he never looked as old as he really was. And his mind never quit working, so it was a pleasure when he'd stop into the booth for an inning or two.

The Bay Area has long been blessed with great announcers. Bill King was tops in three different sports. Hank Greenwald was a favorite of Giants' fans. The current baseball announcers are all wonderful, with the unnoticed Ken Korach, and the Giants' well-known team of Kruk and Kuip, along with Jon Miller, possibly the best of his era. Kruk and Kuip are truly loved. Yet I don't think even Bill King's biggest fans would argue with my claim that Lon Simmons was the most-beloved sports announcer in the history of Bay Area sports.

 


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+.