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compulsion

We don’t go to the theater much since our friend Arthur moved south, but Robin loves Mandy Patinkin, so tonight we went to see him in Compulsion at the Berkeley Rep. They got the star worship out of the way quickly … Patinkin just walked onstage to begin the play, giving everyone a chance to cheer Inigo Montoya, after which we all settled in. Patinkin buried himself in his part (a semi-fictional recreation of Meyer Levin, who wrote a novel, play and movie based on Leopold and Loeb called Compulsion and who had a long, complicated relationship to Anne Frank’s diary), but to my eye, it was his interaction with the two other actors that wiped away the “look, it’s a big star” feeling … soon enough, we were watching three fine actors instead of a star and two fine actors.

The most interesting part of the play was the use of marionettes. I don’t know much about them, and haven’t seen them live more than once or twice, so it was fascinating me to see the remarkable way they were manipulated to not only appear as Anne Frank and others, but to be acting.

Patinkin’s character, called Sid Silver in the play, gradually goes over the top with his compulsive desire to get Anne Frank’s story told the “right” way. By “right,” he means to emphasize the Jewishness of Frank, and to connect her story as a Jew to the larger story of Jews during the Holocaust and forward into the creation of Israel. His criticism of the play based on the book, which is taken out of his hands and given to others (it won Tonys and a Pulitzer as a play, and three Oscars as a film), is directed to what he sees as the burying of Frank-as-Jew in favor of a more “universal” message. The play Compulsion insists, as well, on its identity within Jewish culture … it doesn’t make many efforts towards the universal, assuming, like Sid Silver, that the universal should come to the specific Jewish culture, rather than the culture giving way to the universal. But Silver’s obsession results in an unhappy man with an unhappy wife, beating his head against the wall unsuccessfully. If The Diary of Anne Frank is taken as oddly uplifting, Compulsion is the opposite, even as it ends by lifting the diary’s famous line, “I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are really good at heart.”


omfg and beyond

I’ve spent the last two days gradually going from OMFG! to “and now what.” The emotional highs and lows that are a matter of course to sports fans are exaggerated during crucial post-season action, and, while in the past the rest of the nation hasn’t noticed, fans of the San Francisco Giants have been particularly abused over the years by the ups and downs of their team.

The emergence of Twitter as The Place to watch a playoff game coincides with the Giants’ run in 2010. And Twitter is the perfect venue for emotional expressions … no one is going to offer a cogent analysis in 140 characters, but you can type OMFG! a couple of dozen times and fit it into one tweet.

But now, we’re halfway between Juan Uribe’s home run and the start of the World Series, and our brains are pushing our hearts aside. I expected this, and expected to write something here … if you’re wondering, the thesis would be that the defining feature of the Giants, embodied in their unofficial motto, “Giants Baseball: Torture,” is that the makeup of their roster (great pitching, mediocre hitting) ensures that most games are close (the pitchers keep the other team from scoring, the hitters keep the Giants from scoring). The conclusion would point out that while it is often assumed that a team which wins the close ones is exhibiting some depth of character that has special value in crunch situations like a World Series, in fact, the inability to blow away your opponents is a sign that you aren’t as good as it might appear.

That’s what I was going to write. But then, as often happens, other people had their say, and they were so good, I couldn’t really waste your time on my thoughts without acknowledging that better stuff is out there. I found these links on Rob Neyer’s blog this morning (it’s worth noting that Neyer, getting the jump on me as usual, has already written his “the Giants aren’t quite good enough to win it all” post).

Tim Marchman at Slate notes that this version of the Giants is similar to earlier versions of the Sabean Era … the subtitle of his piece is “How the San Francisco Giants are winning with a bunch of creaky, mediocre veterans.” Marchman makes an interesting argument, one that combines "Moneyball” and “Sabean” in a positive way for perhaps the first time in history. Marchman notes that the key to the Moneyball approach is to identify undervalued players and sign them for less than they are worth. He then explains that the success of teams like the A’s and, more importantly, the Red Sox, have convinced the vast majority of baseball organizations of the importance of sabermetrics in player evaluation. He reminds Giants fans (who need no such reminder, we are very much aware of this) that Brian Sabean is a true dinosaur in this regard, particularly in his quest for Proven Veterans ™. All of this is finally working to the Giants’ advantage:

Inadvertently, in his blind faith in the power of 33-year-olds with middling power and plate discipline, Sabean seems to have chanced on a Beane-esque arbitrage opportunity. Today's trend-chasing general managers can think of nothing more absurd than building a team around unimpressive veterans. Assuming, reasonably, that bargains are to be found among players no one else wants, Sabean has his pick.

Neyer also points us to a terrific post by Jeff Sullivan, who lists the ways the Giants have picked up their post-season wins, then explains why those wins are so delightful:

I'm not surprised that the Giants are in the World Series. But I am surprised that they're in the World Series in large part because of Cody Ross, and Javier Lopez, and Juan Uribe, and bad defense by their opponents, and that whole bullpen effort in Game 6. …

I'm not surprised that the Giants are where they are, but the way in which they've managed to arrive is absolutely sensational. Their path to the World Series makes sense from afar but makes no sense up close, and it's for that reason that I'm not even going to bother trying to predict how this next week and a half are going to play out.

BTW, Sullivan’s post is a must-see for another reason, a fascinating series of graphs showing where Juan Uribe’s home runs land. Uribe has hit 88 regular-season home runs over the past five years. All but three were to left-field, and the three that weren’t to left were just as close to center as to right. Which is to say, the place where Uribe’s series-winning homer landed on Saturday was a place Uribe hadn’t managed to reach in at least five years. It’s not a surprise that he homered, but the way he did it? That pretty much sums up the Giants’ season. (You really should check out Sullivan’s post, since the graphics tell the story much better than my words.)

So, there you have it. Tim Marchman and Jeff Sullivan put the proper perspective on the Giants, removing the need for me to attempt to do the same. But I want to add one last link, which Neyer also spotted but which, since Henry Schulman is a local guy, I had already read last night. It’s a piece for the Chronicle titled “SF Giants a cast of loveable knuckleheads.” Check it out … I won’t excerpt from it here … meanwhile, I can’t quit thinking about that title. In an unbelievable season, where Brian Sabean’s Giants have made it to the World Series, there is one amazing point above all others: that the Giants could be called “loveable” without irony. Honestly, I think that surprises me more than Sabean’s accomplishment.


i can’t make you love me

There is no right or wrong on this one, unless I’m full of shit, in which case, yeah, it’s wrong. It’s mostly a case of me trying to quantify a thought I had, a thought that needs no quantification.

On weekend mornings, we usually listen to a Pandora station I created for my wife’s musical tastes. Today, Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me” came on. Now, there are a lot of assumptions here, all of which can be questioned, but stay with me.

First, I'd say that this song has become Raitt’s signature tune, and we might as well start with the questioned assumptions here. Fans of her early career would argue for something with slide guitar … my own personal favorite is “Sweet and Shiny Eyes” from an underrated mid-70s album. But from the moment she recorded “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” it was recognized as a classic. In the years since, it’s been named in Dave Marsh’s postscript to his earlier book, The Heart of Rock and Soul, as a song which would have made the book if he’d written it later; was #8 on the Mojo list of the 100 greatest songs of all time; was one of the songs Blender listed under “The 1001 Greatest Songs to Download Right Now”; made Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time … you get the idea. If nothing else, this song is clearly one of the most important in Bonnie Raitt’s long career.

OK. Raitt was born in 1949, and cut her first record in 1971. A longtime critical favorite, she had fallen victim to substance abuse problems … by the late-80s, she’d beaten them, but she’d already been dropped by her label. She bounced back in 1989 with Nick of Time, which won a bunch of Grammies and made a lovely comeback story.

In 1991, she recorded the album that actually was as good as people thought Nick of Time was. Luck of the Draw became her best-selling album, cementing her status as not only a critic’s fave but a fan’s fave. “I Can’t Make You Love Me” was on that album. Raitt was turning 42, and had been recording for 20 years.

So, here’s what I’m wondering: how many pop musicians can you think of who recorded their signature tune in their 40s, 20 years after their first record?

There are all sorts of reasons why this is rare. Most obviously, not many artists last for 20 years, and most (all?) that do are past their peak. Plus, a signature tune would seem to be one that first got our attention … “Born to Run” might not be Bruce Springsteen’s greatest song, but it was the first one that resonated with a large audience. In other words, this post is really just a long-winded commentary on what is already known, that Bonnie Raitt had a remarkable career resurgence.

But plug in your favorite long-lasting artist, and ask yourself if, 20 years into their career, in their 40s, they created one of their signature tunes? The Rolling Stones recorded their first single in 1963 … in 1983, their big single was “Undercover of the Night.” Bob Dylan has made some strong music late in his career, but the songs he is most identified with came early on … the albums he made around 20 years after his first were Shot of Love and Infidels, and I don’t think anyone would say those album are what you think of when you think of Bob Dylan. Aretha Franklin first hit the charts with the songs we remember (“Respect,” “I Never Loved a Man,” “Natural Woman,” etc.) in 1967 (she’d already been recording for a decade) … 20 years later, in 1987, she hit the top of the charts via a duet with George Michael, and does anyone think “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me)” is the pinnacle of Aretha’s career? Prince has been recording forever, and he still puts out some fine music, but when you think of Prince, you think of Purple Rain, six years into his recording career, not Crystal Ball from 20 years in.

Even if you think I’ve exaggerated the importance of “I Can’t Make You Love Me” in Bonnie Raitt’s career, I don’t know that it’s possible to over-estimate the remarkable nature of the power of the song and when it occurred in her career.


random friday, 2001 edition: alicia keys, "fallin'"

We're into the 21st century, which causes some problems, because I’m a guy in his late-50s who is several decades past my connection to contemporary pop music. I have to fight the nostalgic spiral … eventually you either listen only to new stuff that reminds you of old stuff, or you quit listening to new stuff at all. For me, with my tastes, that means songs like “Last Nite” by the Strokes, which are very reminiscent of old stuff (i.e., it happily rips off Tom Petty’s “American Girl,” which was Petty ripping off the Byrds), grab me by the collar no matter how derivative they sound (or perhaps, because they sound derivative).

To give myself a little credit, my favorite band at the time was Sleater-Kinney, although now that I think about it, their raucous rock and roll wasn’t that far off from what I’d always listened to. Perhaps I should note my love of Pink, who had her biggest commercial success in 2001 and who was “contemporary” the way Alicia Keys was. (Of course, Pink has increasingly become more attached to traditional rock … the first time I saw her, she was covering Janis Joplin songs, the last time it was Led Zeppelin and Queen.)

Alicia Keys has talent to spare, she’s good-looking, it’s not hard to see why she became an instant star with her first album, or why she’s maintained her standing amongst Neo-Soul royalty, even as she expands her musical horizons (like Pink, at one point she collaborated with Linda Perry). For me? Honestly, she’s the kind of musician I don’t usually care for, a technically adept singer and pianist who seems a bit too tasteful. That’s my problem, not hers. But I think one reason for her popularity is the way she reminds older listeners of the stuff they liked back in the day. Not everyone will understand this reference, but I can put Alicia Keys on a mix for my wife, and she’ll like it.

As for “Fallin’,” it’s a tremendous track, but in the context of the above, it’s worth noting how part of that excellence comes from the James Brown sample. And it’s interesting that while JB is one of the most-sampled artists of all time thanks to his endless supply of funky breaks, in “Fallin’” what insinuates itself into our brains is an elegantly-played take on ‘It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” sans funk.

And, why not, here’s James Brown in the 60s, singing the original:


zooey

Anyone who has ever been to a baseball game with me knows that if it’s one of those days where they’re going to sing “God Bless America,” I try my best to be taking a leak at the time. At some point, I always say the same thing: “I hate that fucking song.”

I was watching on TV today, which makes it a lot easier to walk out of the room. But I didn’t, because I’ve got a bit of a crush on Zooey Deschanel, who was about to sing that fucking song. I’ll let El Lefty Malo take it from there:

One of my least favorite songs is "God Bless America." Apart from your feelings about America, God, or the separation of church and baseball, "Bless" is kind of a hacky tune, especially when belted out in a resolute march tempo. … But Zooey Deschanel did something stunning at the game this afternoon; she made "God Bless America" sound wonderful.


rubicon season (series?) finale

Rubicon’s finale ran under the radar, much as the show has done throughout its first season (no one is watching, and a second season is far from assured). Since it is AMC’s lead-in for Mad Men, and since Mad Men overflows with cultural cache, and since Mad Men also had its season finale last night … well, it’s easy to understand why people who never watched Rubicon in the first place (i.e. most people) ignored the finale.

This is too bad, sure, but really, those of us who became fondly attached to Rubicon long ago accepted that it was never going to be water-cooler material. As many pointed out at the beginning, Rubicon was something of an anti-24, superficially about terrorism and intrigue but without the constant edge-of-your-seat action/violence of 24. Rubicon was 24 for intellectuals, and by that I don’t just mean it was directed towards smart people. Rubicon was about intellectuals … the heroes weren’t emotionally distraught shoot-first-ask-later archetypes, but instead really smart, neurotic office workers who pored over endless piles of intelligence documents, looking for connections. Jack Bauer in 24 suffered for his country and his ideals because he was always having to do things he didn’t want to do, out of respect for his personal code. The workers of Rubicon suffer the way most of us do … working too late, getting wrapped up in the job. Rubicon showed us that the kind of personality good at filtering through intelligence data (super smart, socially inept, good at abstract thinking) was also the kind of personality that fed on itself in such a work environment. It’s not just that no one had a life outside of work … it’s that every slim chance that they might finally escape was overwhelmed by yet another stack of documents. One of the intelligence workers was an addict, but really, they all were, addicted to information, to making connections, to overloading their brains. (Interesting that as the season/series ended, the only one who opted to leave the company was the admitted addict.)

It is understandable that such a show would always walk a fine line between engrossing and boring, and for most of America, the boring side won out. I thought Rubicon did a good job of making us care about scenes where someone thought really hard and looked through lots of papers. But I’m not naïve … I know that Rubicon is not for everyone, that a lot of what made it intriguing guaranteed a small audience, and I know those who ignored Rubicon are just as “right” as those of us who stuck around.

Instant critical reaction to the finale seems a bit negative, and it is true that the ending seemed in some irritating way designed to be unsatisfying to everyone who watched it. I agree that the final episode drew too much attention to the things that never made sense, and that the use of Miranda Richardson’s character as something of a MacGuffin was poorly executed (for one thing, I’m not sure she was a MacGuffin … she may well have been crucial to the narrative). (Although perhaps she was a meta-commentary on the series: you have to follow every lead, but most of them will turn out to be useless.) But the part of the series that drew upon the paranoid movie thrillers of the 1970s? That part was well-served by the finale, and while that ensured that some people would find the ending inconclusive, pessimists like me found it quite appropriate. The final lines would be perfect for the show’s tombstone. Our hero has finally put all of the pieces together, and he tells his boss, the marvelously-named Truxton Spangler (played by the equally marvelous Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Michael Cristofer), the mastermind behind the nefarious plot, that he will expose them all by sending the information to the newspapers. “Do it,” says Spangler, before asking, “Do you really think anyone is going to give a shit?” Now THAT is meta. Grade for finale: A-. Grade for season: A-. My prediction is that the show won’t be given a second season … look at how often I used the past tense in the above. But I also predict it will develop a cult following over the years.


what i watched last week

The Secret in Their Eyes. A movie for grownups … do I sound like a crotchety old fool when I say that? It doesn’t seem to have any special effects (a scene at a soccer match is remarkably filmed, though, and might be helped out a bit by some lab work … on the other hand, there’s a rear-projection shot worthy of Hitchcock late in the film). The plot, which bounces back and forth between 1974 and 1999 or so, requires makeup which, since the actors are not the same age, means that some of them get the tricky makeup in the 1974 scenes and others in the 1999 scene. What is most important, though, is that the actors, all of them excellent, make you believe. A rumination on passion and memory that never stoops to nostalgia, it won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film last year. (Giants fans may be thrown off for a bit when a character turns out to be named Pablo Sandoval.) 8/10.

Pierrot le fou. Is it just me, or has Jean-Luc Godard’s reputation taken a big hit since his glory days in the 50s and 60s? It’s not just that critical opinion of his post-60s films was mixed at best … I can’t speak to that, since I haven’t seen anything later than Weekend (1968). No, I’m talking about people reevaluating movies they once loved, and finding them lacking. Roger Ebert is a good example. When Pierrot le fou was first released, Ebert gave it 3 1/2 stars out of 4, saying of Godard that “if he is not the greatest living director he is certainly the most audacious, the most experimental, the one who understands best how movies work.” On the film’s re-release 40 years later, Ebert’s rating had dropped to 2 1/2 out of 4, calling it “the story of silly characters who have seen too many Hollywood movies.” Pierrot le fou gives us an idea of what Bonnie and Clyde might have been like if that film’s producers had followed through on their attempt to get Godard to direct. #92 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 8/10.


mad men season finale

Season Four is in the running for Best Mad Men Season Yet, but that’s not saying much, since every season has been great. I found the season to contain more ups and downs than in previous years … I don’t mean in terms of the quality of the episodes, but in the lives of the characters. This was the season when Don Draper hit as close to bottom as we have ever seen him, and I’d like to think it’s the season where everyone but a few stragglers will admit that Don Draper is not a good guy. Megan says he has a good heart, and that he tries to get better … he says everyone tries to get better, but that doesn’t mean they succeed. Pair that with Henry Francis’ comment to Betty that “There is no fresh start … lives carry on,” and you realize that, despite the surface happy endings scattered all over the season finale, everything will still be fucked up when Season Five begins.

I’ve found the female characters to be one of the most fascinating aspects of Mad Men, and for the most part my admiration for the show increased in that regard. Peggy and Joan are finely-drawn and superbly acted, and the secondary characters (Pete’s wife, Don’s various girlfriends, Miss Blankenship) were either complex or, in the case of Blankenship, hilarious. Special props to Kiernan Shipka as Sally … she has been a delight since the beginning of the series, and the now-10-year-old handled her dramatic scenes this season very well.

Betty Draper is the fly in this ointment, though. In the past, I identified with Betty, while also seeing bits of my own mother in the character. The way in which circumstances worked to stunt her emotional and professional growth, the way she embodied the more frustrating aspects of being a stay-at-home mom in the 60s, the way in which she was an outsider in a series devoted to the work lives of people (while she was at home, working as a wife and mom, but not doing a very good job at the latter and doomed to a cad of a husband for the former) … even as Betty acted out, I felt for her, understood her plight. But this year, it became too much. There was no longer anything to like about Betty. She was a witch to her kids, treated everyone else with disdain, manipulated all who entered her orbit … and the finale, when she fired Carla, was perhaps her worst moment of the entire series. Mad Men offers so many great female roles, and Betty Draper used to be one of them. Now, she’s just a bitch.

This instant critical take on the finale is mixed, but not here. I’m already looking forward to Season Five. Grade for season finale: A-. Grade for season: A.