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weeds (spoilers)

Spoilers because I don't know anyone but me who is watching in real time ... most people either ignore the show or are watching last season on DVDs.

I had intended to write something about the season premiere of Mad Men, but there's been enough written about that show to last awhile. As for Weeds, I have nothing more than the kind of lists I seem to be posting lately in place of actual analysis. This week's episode saw:

  • Nancy Botwin (the MILF pot dealer played by Mary-Louise Parker) getting spanked by the mayor of Tijuana.
  • Silas Botwin, Nancy's 17-year-old son, having sex with a woman his mom's age.
  • Isabelle Hodes, somewhere around 14 years old I think, discovering that her friend Shane Botwin, Nancy's son, has photos of his mom in the nude that were taken by her late husband. Isabelle is gay, and the next time she sees Mrs. Botwin, she seems quite appreciative.
  • Shane Botwin, using those nude photos of his mom as masturbation aids.

Of course, there was also the usual stuff about drug dealing. And a subplot about smuggling "illegal" aliens into the country. Not to mention the euthanasia plot from earlier in the season, where they pulled the plug on Nancy's ancient grandmother-in-law ... when the woman kept breathing, Nancy told her son to get a pillow, and that was the last anyone heard from Grandma.

There is more to Weeds than just envelope pushing, but it's pretty clear that, four seasons in, they haven't run out of envelopes.

Here's an envelope from Season Two. Shane Botwin speaks at his elementary school graduation. Shane is played by the kid who did the voice of Nemo in Finding Nemo.

the life of brian

I keep saying I'm going to do this sometime, and now is a perfect time, but once again, I'm too lazy. The question at hand is comedy, and why I don't get it. But that is not the real question ... the real question is, why is it that some things make me laugh, but other things, on the surface equally funny, do not. I laugh at Buster Keaton's silent movies ... I laugh at certain TV shows, like 30 Rock ... perhaps most importantly, I laugh at the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker stuff (the first Airplane!, the Police Squad/Naked Gun series, and most of all, Top Secret). I single those out because, if I wasn't lazy, I might find it useful to analyze the humor of those movies in comparison to more classic comedies that leave me bored.

My general complaint is this. Most comedies, or rather, the comedies that don't work for me, share a couple of attributes. They look good on paper, and they include scenes that work well in conversation when telling friends how funny the movie was. Perhaps a corollary to the latter is that comedies often make for great previews, because you can take the biggest laughs, squeeze them into a three-minute preview, and make a 90-minute movie seem like a laff riot, even if the only funny parts are in the preview. Similarly, if you see a comedy, and you tell your friends about the funny parts, your enthusiasm will be contagious, and the five minutes you spend talking about the three funny minutes will make the movie as a whole sound good. Finally, if you like comedies, and you go to a comedy, and you only laugh at three minutes, but afterwards you recall those three minutes and how hard you laughed, you will remember having a good time.

But I'm an old sourpuss, and if I have to sit through 87 laughless minutes just so I can tell my friends about the three minutes that were funny, I'll think of that movie as weak.

As for the "good on paper" theory, some of the best comedies have excellent setups. Monty Python's Life of Brian is a fine example, a movie about someone who lived at the same time as Jesus, that works in biting satire on religion, mob behavior, and revolutionary movements, while tossing in a cameo by a Beatle, a clever nod to Spartacus, and an ironic song about happiness that, ironically, is often treated unironically in real life. This sounds like a movie I would like.

And I did laugh a few times. But for the most part, I was just staring at the screen.

I wish I knew why, because, in the case of Life of Brian, I am definitely in the minority. This is a movie that has been called the greatest comedy in British film history, and I'm complaining.

One problem, for me, is that jokes go on too long. Perhaps this is why I like the ZAZ movies ... they barely leave time for you to laugh at something before they pile on another joke, and if they repeat jokes (and they do), they spread them out, so instead of a Pythonesque "that parrot is dead" which goes on for several minutes, they tell a parrot joke, and then 20 minutes later they repeat the parrot joke, and 15 minutes later they surely repeat it again (and don't call me Shirley). They don't leave me time to get bored. But almost every time I laughed at Life of Brian, the thing that made me laugh was beaten into the ground long past when my laughter had died out. Yet, if I tell somebody about one of those scenes (oh man, it's so funny, Pilate has a speech impediment!) it will sound hilarious, because it will only take me a few seconds to describe it, but it takes forever to watch it.

Life of Brian gets points for directing its satire towards useful targets, and I might like it more if it wasn't a comedy. But the first thing I want from a comedy is that it make me laugh. If it fails in that regard, I end up admiring the intentions but disliking the movie.

Still, the appreciation of comedy seems even more subjective than most things, and I always feel like it's my fault rather than the work in question's, when I don't laugh. I don't mind, either ... knowing how many people love Life of Brian is good enough for me. It's not like I object to it on principle, the way I might with, say, Mississippi Burning, to cite one I watched recently. But I need someone to explain to me why Ricky Gervais makes me laugh, but Monty Python doesn't, why I love Top Secret but don't love Big Momma's House. Why do I think the video below is hilarious, when it isn't qualitatively different from any six scenes from Life of Brian? (I should add that Robin thinks I laugh at representations of people who are ridiculed for being socially inappropriate, which may be the first and last word, to be honest.)


People who know me from this blog are probably aware that I have a 60s fetish. Mostly this plays out in my obsessive archiving of the music of FM underground radio. But there were people involved, as well. I was a wannabe, never a real hippie ... I was only 14 years old for the Summer of Love. My older brother was 20, though, and he lived what seemed like a very romantic life, first in San Francisco, and then later in Mill Valley, where he lived in a big house with four friends ... they weren't exactly a commune, they were just friends with jobs who lived together, but they did a lot of the things I imagined people in communes did, and it was always liberating to visit them. When I got out of high school in 1970 and moved in with my brother in Capitola, I finally had my chance to be a "real" hippie, which mostly meant being a bum, hanging out on the beach, and taking drugs. Friends would visit us, including Stephanie, who I'd known since I was a kid and who also lived in the area at the time, and MC, who was a fascinating person, when quirkiness was highly valued. She had lived in the Mill Valley house, too. They were all in their early 20s, me and my friends were still teenagers, and we thought those older folks were like mentors. All of my friends and I had big, unspoken crushes on MC.

Time passes. I still see my brother, of course, and Stephanie lives close and we see her on occasion as well. But I haven't seen MC since 1971 or so.

Until tonight. Stephanie met us at Juan's for the usual Friday night carnitas, and she brought a friend. Yep ... MC had returned.

Here's a picture of the two of us:

a new record

I was going to post a few links from articles on Mad Men which are popping up everywhere ... some of them are right on target, IMO ("it is possibly the slowest, most deliberative show on television" ... "Christina Hendricks has single-handedly brought voluptuousness back to television"). But then I saw the Onion-esque piece at Dateline: Hollywood, "Mad Men becomes first TV show with more articles written about it than viewers," and knew they had said it all:

"Mad Men," which chronicles the lives of the workers at a Madison Avenue advertising agency in the early 1960s, set the record this weekend after a glut of stories in the arts sections of Sunday newspapers helped it reach a total of 1.15 million articles written about the show, over 1 million of which came in the past month alone. During it first season last summer, "Mad Men" averaged 1.1 million viewers per episode.

"We are extremely proud that the hard work of our publicity department convincing journalists around the country to write an unprecedented number of articles about a show that 99% of their readers have never seen," said AMC executive vice president and general manager Charlie Collier. "It's all part of our new strategy to blackmail the American people into watching 'Mad Men' just so they won't feel like an idiot when reading their favorite newspapers and magazines."

Collier added that AMC will use the record to launch a new marketing campaign for the show with the slogan, "You're already sick of reading about 'Mad Men.' Now get sick of watching it."

team fights

Am I a bad person because I love it when a team fight breaks out at a sporting event? Actually, I'm more pro-active than that. It's guaranteed that anytime I'm at the baseball game and the game itself is kinda boring, I will yell out "TEAM FIGHT!" whenever a pitch comes within a foot of the batter.

friday random ten, 1986 edition

1. Cameo, "Word Up!" They'd been making albums for a decade when this one came out.

2. Run-D.M.C., "It's Tricky." I love the kinds of people they put in their videos. This one has Penn & Teller.

3. Laurie Anderson, "Language Is a Virus." "O Superman" may be one of the weirdest records to be a hit, not weird as in "novelty record" but weird as in "arty." She worked with William S. Burroughs ... she released a five-LP live album ... she directed her own concert film, from which this song is taken ... she invented instruments ... she was an artist-in-residence for NASA ... hell, this year she even married Lou Reed.

4. The Pretenders, "Don't Get Me Wrong." Chrissie as Mrs. Peel. Seems so obvious, but until the video I hadn't ever thought of it.

5. The Beastie Boys, "No Sleep Till Brooklyn." The first rap album to hit the top of the pop charts. Whenever Rich Aurilia bats for the Giants, they play this song (Richie's from Brooklyn) ... I always wonder if Aurilia actually likes rap music.

6. Timex Social Club, "Rumors." Berkeley's own (take that, Green Day).

7. The Bangles, "Manic Monday." Since we're making local connections, Susanna Hoffs went to Cal. This track is proof that in those days, even if Prince didn't appear on a list like this, he appeared on a list like this.

8. Peter Gabriel, "In Your Eyes." If you can't guess in advance what the video link is, you don't know your Lloyd Dobler.

9. David & David, "Welcome to the Boomtown." One nice thing about talking up music from 1986 is that I get to promote this album, which has to be one of the great one-offs of all time.

10. Billy Bragg, "Levi Stubbs' Tears." When the world falls apart, some things stay in place.

[Edited to add Spotify playlist]

am i blu

Almost finished re-watching Season One of Mad Men. It really rewards a second viewing, which makes me all the more excited about the upcoming new season. But right now, I want to talk again about Blu-ray.

There are times when these discs look so wonderful that it is distracting. Tonight I was watching the episode "Long Weekend," in which several crucial plot occurrences take place, giving many of the fine actors on the show a chance to shine even more than usual. John Slattery in particular has a couple of scenes that extend his character in ways we haven't encountered until that point. But when he is in close-up, I can't help but look at the details in his face. Slattery is one of those people who is younger than you might think ... he has grey hair, has for a long time, I think ... but he's only 45. His face doesn't look that old. But, like most of us who haven't gone under the plastic surgeon's scalpel, Slattery has an un-perfect look. He's a good-looking guy, and I'm not trying to say he's got blotchy skin or anything ... in fact, that's the point, Slattery looks just fine, but Blu-ray is so good that the smallest imperfections are visible. And since I'm not used to that, I stare at it and forget to pay attention to what really matters.

What is also interesting is what my beloved Christina Hendricks pulls off in that episode. She spends most of it in yet another astonishing dress that shows off her remarkable bosom. Yet, late in the episode, when she is confronted with some bad news and she has to mostly submerge her emotions, Hendricks offers up some subtle and very effective acting. And one reason I know this is because even though a goodly portion of my befuddled brain wants to gaze at those Blu-ray breasts, I can't, because I don't want to miss what's going on in Hendricks' eyes. The quality of the picture threatens to distract me, but the intensity of the acting draws my attention anyway. And, for that matter, Blu-ray helps Hendricks with her acting, or at least my response to it, because I can "really see" her as she emotes.

I could even take this a step further, and note that her character, Joan, works on a level similar to what Blu-ray does in a technological sense. Joan displays her body both as a means of getting attention and as a means of distracting men from the "real" Joan. This paradoxically allows Joan a place of privacy ... while men are slobbering over her body, the "real" Joan is in a safe place. Similarly, the visual brilliance of the Blu-ray experience gets our attention, but also distracts us from the "real" by directing our focus to the surface rather than to what's underneath. But great acting trumps all ... when that occurs, Blu-ray doesn't distract, but rather enhances.

It's also important to note a non-Blu-ray matter: that Joan is destined to be ultimately frustrated, because she is always going to be perceived as the body rather than the "real" Joan the body disguises. She'll never break out of that shell. Meanwhile, Peggy, the secretary with creative skills, actually has a chance to rise above the social expectations of the time. Her contributions to an advertising campaign force men to look past her body to the person underneath. That most of the men don't get it, and continue to objectify her, is another one of the many stories Mad Men is telling. Those men are in for a shock when the world changes and they don't have a clue.

and i thought i went over the deep end

Randy Shaw has written a piece comparing the San Francisco Giants' brain trust to Joseph Stalin:

"Giants' Stalinist Approach to Barry Bonds"

After Joseph Stalin seized control of the Soviet Union, the official history of the Bolshevik Revolution was altered. Onetime heroes were redefined as traitors and counter-revolutionaries, creating a pattern of erasing/rewriting of history that continued through the 1980’s. I don’t know if the owners of the San Francisco Giants studied Soviet history, but the team’s treatment of Barry Bonds is consistent with this legacy.... [J]ust as Soviet leaders had to rewrite history to explain food lines and declining wheat crops, so do the Giants have to justify the mess they have made of their franchise.

Shaw would probably do better if he called the team's revisionist approach Orwellian, although even then, the hyperbole would be suffocating. But even I am not ready to associate Peter Magowan with Stalin. And Shaw isn't just using the gonzo journalist technique of exaggerating for effect, he's making a "serious" argument.

don't tell me you're innocent, because it insults my intelligence

I believe in the importance of popular culture, and am committed enough to the analysis of culture that I regular assign texts in my classes that are more popular than canonical. And I don't think of pop culture as interesting "merely" in a cultural context ... I think the best is worthy of detailed textual analysis as well. (I think one reason my dissertation was oddball is that I took popcult "junk" like Mickey Spillane and examined it via close textual readings as much as I put it in its cultural context.)

Having said that, there is always a danger that an interest in popular culture makes us vulnerable to marketing. Deciding what is important enough to consider critically ends up too closely tied to what is popular, which isn't so bad in itself but which is a problem in a world where marketing drives the box office as much as does "quality." (This isn't just true for movies. I write a lot about television, and many assume I must be interested in the popular simply because I like TV. But what I like on TV is rarely what sits atop the ratings. I don't watch reality shows, to note the most obvious example. People like me are obsessing about Mad Men right now, but the truth is, hardly anyone actually watches that show. Buffy was perhaps the #1 example of a show that intrigued critics while remaining near the bottom of the ratings charts ... and lasted seven seasons nonetheless.) The movies that get talked about are almost always those that get the most pre-release advertising. The buzz created by such marketing has little to do with "populist" word-of-mouth ... the only mouths passing along words are those of the marketers.

It is certainly possible for mass entertainment to be both popular and profound ... this happens all the time. But when most of the energy behind a production is devoted to marketing, too little is leftover for the actual cultural product itself. As Pauline Kael wrote (28 years ago!):

The studios no longer make movies primarily to attract and please moviegoers; they make movies in such a way as to get as much as possible from prearranged and anticipated deals. Every picture (allowing for a few exceptions) is cast and planned in terms of those deals.... [T]he project must ... have an easily paraphrasable theme, preferably something that can be done justice to in a sentence and brings to mind the hits of the past. How else could you entice buyers? Certainly not with something unfamiliar, original....

There is an even grimmer side to all this: because the studios have discovered how to take the risk out of moviemaking, they don't want to make any movies that they can't protect themselves on. Production and advertising costs have gone so high that there is genuine nervous panic about risky projects. If an executive finances what looks like a perfectly safe, stale piece of material and packs it with stars, and the production costs skyrocket way beyond the guarantees, and the picture loses many millions, he won't be blamed for it — he was playing the game by the same rules as everybody else.

If, however, he takes a gamble on a small project that can't be sold in advance — something that a gifted director really wants to do, with a subtle, not easily summarized theme and no big names in the cast — and it loses just a little money, his neck is on the block.

I thought of this while reading Andrew Tracy's article on Hellboy II:

Talking faux-seriously about juvenilia has become a marvelous way to avoid talking seriously about the serious. The slew of hyperbolic, overheated critical rhetoric that follows in the wake—hell, in advance of—the latest high concept blockbuster is enough to make one gag. In these cases, critical investigation has by and large become a matter of repeating verbatim the films’ stridently announced surface-level themes with some linguistic curlicues and intellectual tumbling tossed in. As it has so often, commercial calculation finds a willing handmaiden in critical laziness, even (or perhaps especially) that evinced by those more intelligent and discerning writers who devote their efforts and talents towards designing elaborate intellectual justifications for films that neither require nor deserve them.

What’s most obscene about this pop-cultural mythmaking is that it works so resolutely against expanding taste or knowledge about movies. By focusing so obsessively and voluminously on the most readily, tyrannically available items, critical discussion is not simply reflecting the commercial film distribution situation in North America, but actively contributing to it. By elevating the latest pop detritus to the level of godhead, by implicitly declaring the centrality of pop moviemaking (most often bad pop moviemaking) above all else, it only further occludes those films that don’t have the advantage of being relentlessly drilled into our consciousness by the marketing machine. Why bother wrestling in print with films that are challenging, strange, obscure, or entertaining in different and novel ways when The Truth is playing in 2500 theatres?

I agree with most of this. What I would add is that there ARE popular works that deserve "elaborate intellectual justifications," that are challenging, that reward serious talk, that help expand our horizons. (Mr. Tracy, meet Battlestar Galactica.) The problem isn't that there are popular movies; the problem is that popular movies are crappier than they used to be. This isn't a paean to the good old days, exactly ... I'm not saying that movies in general are crappier than they used to be. I'm saying that Spider-Man 3 is crappier than movies used to be. The best of the Spider-Man movies ... take your pick, they're all the same to me ... is nowhere near as good as the worst of the Evil Dead movies, which surely says something about how today's blockbuster mentality affects even good filmmakers like Sam Raimi. (What makes Peter Jackson's Tolkien movies and King Kong so remarkable is that they are as good as the splatter-core stuff he made before he was famous.) I shudder to think what The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II might be like if they were made today. Instead of being the greatest movies ever made, they'd be ... well, they'd be The Godfather: Part III.