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girls, season two

Girls demands that we talk about it.

Writing about Girls, Ellen Gray noted:

Maybe I’d have been more shocked if I weren’t already a much bigger fan of Showtime’s “Shameless,” a show watched by more people that seems to generate only half the buzz, despite plot points that recently included a man trying to impregnate his own mother-in-law — the old-fashioned way — and more teen sex than “Skins” ever dreamed of.

If I continue to prefer “Shameless” to “Girls,” it’s not so much for the sex as it is for the sheer exuberance of its characters, who for the most part have problems bigger than Hannah’s and who still mostly manage to pull themselves out of bed every day.

I think the last few words are a cheap shot … the characters in Shameless are indeed exuberant, and their problems are bigger than just about anyone’s, but those of us who have had our fair share of “can’t get out of bed” days know how debilitating it can be. And I know I’m supposed to be writing about Girls, not Shameless. But I’m puzzled that Girls gets argued about while Shameless gets ignored, when they are both pretty great shows dealing with 20-something women with no money struggling in the big city. If I had to guess, I’d say Lena Dunham’s skills at self-promoting make the difference (and more power to her, I’m not complaining). Shameless tries to get our attention by the outrageous things that happen on the show; Girls gets our attention by locking onto the current Zeitgeist. As Hannah said, she thinks (or thought) she might a voice of a generation. (Most people just quote the first part, before she qualifies her statement: “I think I may be the voice of my generation”. The difference is crucial, Dunham knows it, and too many people ignore it in their hatred of the character, the show, and Dunham.)

GirlsDunham provides the focus for Girls, which is “her show” even more than other show-runner classics like The Sopranos, The Wire, or Deadwood. Significantly, all three of those series were violent and male-centered, while Girls is perhaps emotionally violent but, as the title reminds us, very female-centered. Combine Dunham’s work on the series as creator, director, writer, and star, and the autobiographical connections to Dunham’s real life, and you have a series that people assume isn’t just about Hannah Horvath, but also about Lena Dunham. No one thinks David Simon “was” McNulty, or that David Milch “was” Al Swearengen. But people do assume Hannah is Lena, and since Hannah is extremely self-absorbed and not particularly likable, it appears people who don’t know her think the same about Dunham.

You could say she invites this kind of deranged identification. But, to the extent that it is true, it merely marks the brave way that Lena Dunham is producing the work that she wants, how she wants it, which is a kind of power not many people have. I don’t think many people are jealous of Fiona Gallagher on Shameless. Emmy Rossum is brilliant in the role, and we empathize deeply with the character. We might envy her rock-solid commitment to her family. But Rossum is just the star of the show, not the creator, and the realities Fiona lives with (working poor, scrounging to get by, responsible for more than she should be handling) mean her life isn’t enviable. But we can watch Girls and feel jealous of Lena Dunham, if not of Hannah Horvath, precisely because she’s doing what she wants the way she wants it, and being rewarded for her efforts. Hannah is self-absorbed in the worst ways, but Dunham is self-expressive, creating art from her self, and it’s nonsense to be a hater because she’s doing what she wants to do.

Of course, if Girls sucked, none of this would matter. But the characters are finely drawn, Dunham gets the milieu down right, and there is some excellent acting going on. Girls isn’t wonderful because Lena Dunham shows off her naked regular-person body, and it isn’t reprehensible because it shows people acting in less-than-admirable ways, even though at times it seems like that’s all anyone wants to talk about, as if Girls isn’t a piece of art/entertainment, but is a social marker with a clear impact, for better or worse, beyond the screen. I’m not saying the social context is irrelevant, and again, in many ways, Dunham invites such speculation. But in twenty years, when the social context has fallen to the background, people will watch Girls solely because they like it. Grade for Season Two: A-.

what i watched last week

One, Two, Three (Billy Wilder, 1961). I didn’t much like this comedy “classic”, but I was willing to blame myself as usual for not getting comedies. But once I read all of the rave reviews about how great and how funny One, Two, Three is, I wanted to barf. The gags come fast and furious, and James Cagney works his ass off. The problem is, the gags are hoary (a word I’ve often wanted to use). They might have been funny once, but it’s hard to believe people were still laughing in 1961, much less 2013. (Sample jokes: “We have emergency meeting with Swiss Trade Delegation. They send us twenty car-loads of cheese. Totally unacceptable... full of holes.” “I forgot he doesn't wear shorts. … No wonder they're winning the Cold War!” “Any world that can produce the Taj Mahal, William Shakespeare, and striped toothpaste can't be all bad.”) This stuff assaults the viewer for 108 minutes, and all I can figure is people are so exhausted by the end that they assume they must have had a good time. There are comedies that elicit laughs by being intentionally dumb in clever ways. One, Two, Three treats dumb jokes as if they were the pinnacle of wit. The result is so much worse than something like Top Secret that I can barely consider them to be the same genre. #919 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 5/10.

pizza moda

For many years, Robin and I enjoyed dining at Fellini Restaurant. I’ve mentioned it here a few times. The guy in charge, Jeff Davis, left, and after a couple of visits, so did we … it just wasn’t the same. Eventually it shut down.

A couple of days ago, we were driving around looking for somewhere to eat, and Robin said “let’s try that new place where Fellini used to be.” So we did, in part because they have parking. We entered the restaurant, called Pizza Moda … and there was Jeff! Turns out he’d returned to the restaurant biz. We are glad he did. The food was excellent across the board (we had an interesting salad, yummy pepperoni pizza, mac and cheese, ice cream with chocolate sauce, and apple/pear/cranberry crisp), the service was perfect, and Jeff was his usual effusive self. Basically, Pizza Moda is good at the same things Fellini used to be good at.

We look forward to stopping by in the future. We have our basics: Homemade Cafe for breakfast on Saturdays and Mondays, Juan’s Place every week or so for Mexican, Rudy’s Can’t Fail Cafe for comfort food accompanied by punk rock, and delivery, always delivery. We’ve gotten accustomed to going to Paisan for our semi-fancy Italian food, and it’s as good as ever, plus it’s very close to our house. But the parking sucks, Pizza Moda isn’t much farther away, and … well, you get the idea. I suspect we’ve found our new semi-fancy Italian place. And the cool thing is, it’s our old favorite semi-fancy Italian place, with a makeover!

big blue plumbing berkeley

I don’t enjoy posting nasty screeds when companies screw up … I just can’t let things slide. But it’s nice when I can say something positive, especially when it’s regarding a very negative situation.

We had some weird plumbing stuff going on for a bit, and it finally came to a head in the middle of last week. By Tuesday, if you ran water in the bathroom sink, it came up in the shower, and made the basement toilet and shower gurgle. We tried various combinations of drain cleaner and snakes, to no avail, other than making the standing water in the shower smell like Liquid Plumber.

Friday, we called in a plumber, Paul from Big Blue Plumbing. He checked everything out, made suggestions for what needed to be done, and showed us how much the work would cost. I have no idea if the prices were high or low or in-between … you don’t do a lot of comparison shopping when you’re afraid to flush your toilet. It seemed fair enough, let’s put it that way. And it was very clear. He doesn’t charge by the hour, he charges by the job, and he carefully explains what each job entails and how/why it will cost what it does. Friday afternoon, he had a guy taking care of the job.

Unfortunately, fixing the original problem only made the fundamental problem more obvious: we needed to replace around 17 feet of sewer pipe. They came out today, worked until late afternoon, and all is well. Almost … the inspector will come out Monday, and until then, they can’t cover up the trench they dug, so we’ve got several containers full of semi-stinky mud lying around. But I took a shower just a bit ago, and I can use the toilet again (thanks to the Homemade Café for having a nice bathroom when we ate there this morning).

The workers were all great, personable and hard-working. Paul is a delightful fellow who is dedicated to getting the job done right. When there was a problem today, he rode over on his bike (he lives nearby) with his dog, and got himself all dirty helping finish the job. They do immaculate cleanup work; the shower, for instance, looks cleaner now than it did a week ago before this all started. Everyone from Paul on down exudes trust. Even the woman who answers the phone is wonderful. When I called to make an appointment, she answered in a very cheerful voice, saying it was a happy day … it was so silly yet so honest my own day got more happy immediately.

Paul made some suggestions for a few other jobs that are, if not necessary, at least good ideas. We agree, and we’ll have him do that work, as well. But again, he was always very clear about what was necessary and what was not, and each job along the way was priced so we could see where our money was going.

Only time will tell how the job works out, but as I was standing in the shower this evening, I knew we’d already done well.

So consider this a recommendation to check out Big Blue Plumbing if you are in Alameda County. And color me impressed.

harry belafonte, calypso

I had Peggy Lee for last week’s Music Friday. Why not take another album off of my parents’ shelf.

Calypso was Harry Belafonte’s third album, released in 1956. It was history’s first million-selling LP, spent 31 weeks at #1 on the album charts, and 99 weeks on the charts overall. The most famous song from the album was “The Banana Boat Song”, known to baseball and Beetlejuice fans as “Day-O”:

Another hit single from the album was “Jamaica Farewell”:

Belafonte, still alive and in his mid-80s, has had one of the great careers of our time. He won a Tony award in 1954. While his name was made in music with Calypso, his interests were wide-spread … he returned to the calypso sound many times, but he only released calypso albums at five-year intervals. In 1959, he released what AllMusic calls “the granddaddy of all live albums”, Belafonte at Carnegie Hall, a double-LP package. The album finished with an 11 1/2 minute version of “Matilda”, which was his first hit back in 1953. “Matilda” remained a cornerstone of his concerts:

In 1968, he appeared on a TV special hosted by Petula Clark. At one point, Clark briefly touched Belafonte. As this was the first time a black man and white woman had touched on American TV, the sponsors got cold feet. Nonetheless, the special was telecast and was a critical and ratings success:

Belafonte was a noted political activist, as well, from the March on Washington to the present day.

And it must be noted that he is one of the handsomest son-of-a-guns ever. He was gorgeous when he was young … he’s pretty damn good-looking in his 80s. Some guys have all the luck.

five years ago: gogol bordello live

Five years ago today, we saw Gogol Bordello in concert. Here’s what I wrote at the time:

Holy shit.

That's the quick review. I suppose I could say a few more things. There's the music itself, which you can appreciate via their records, what they call Gypsy Punk. Then there's the stage performance, and that's where the holy shit comes in.

There are six basic members of the band, and they're quite a crew on their own, the usual guitar/bass/drums, but also accordion and violin. The lead singer and the violinist are very energetic, in their playing and in their physical performance. Something is always going on ... those six on their own would be a fine, fine show.

But they're just getting started. There are two women who burst onstage occasionally, striking poses, singing backup, running around the stage, playing bass drums and cymbals, egging on the crowd ... they're loony and great fun.

And then there's a guy ... he's listed as "percussion and MC," and I suppose that's accurate enough, but basically he seems like some guy who wandered onto the stage and started acting out his rock star fantasies. Sometimes he plays bongos, other times he grabs a mic and sings, other times he, like the women, goes up front and encourages audience participation. He stage dives into the crowd ... near the end, he dove off a speaker, and at one point, when he hadn't planned a dive but had just run over to the edge of the stage to incite the audience, he ran over the edge and scrubbed badly enough that we thought he was a goner ... nope, he bounced right up.

So you've got a band playing a fervent brand of gypsy punk rock, and if you're thinking to yourself "I don't like punk rock," well, you might like this because the gypsy is just as important, and if you're thinking "I don't like gypsy music," well, wait until you've heard it punk-style. You've got the music, you've got a front man with seemingly limitless energy running around the entire night, singing, playing guitar, putting on spike heels and a long wig, playing a drum solo on a pail ... you've got a violin player with long gray hair and a long gray beard offering one fired-up gypsy solo after another ... you've got women appearing almost at random and acting like freaked out Kabuki wannabees (and, of course, running all over the stage) ... you've got some "MC/Percussionist" who has as much energy as the rest of the band combined (and, of course, he runs all over the stage, and into the crowd, and backstage, and right now he's probably running down the street for all I know).

There is so much going on that the guy who takes care of the guitars and untangling the mic stands and cords and such is basically a tenth member of the band ... he runs onstage in the middle of songs, picks up turned-over mic stands, gathers up stuff thrown from the audience, gives the singer a new guitar, and then runs off stage again.

Do you get the idea that there's a lot of running around on stage? You're right.

Oh yeah ... they do this for a full two hours.

Like I say, holy shit.

what i watched this week

Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin, 2012). Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy is reminiscent of the Feral Kid in The Road Warrior. Which is not to suggest that Beasts is an action-packed blockbuster like the Mad Max film. In fact, where the Feral Kid seems a bit the outsider even among his community, Hushpuppy fits right into hers. Many critics have noted that Beasts of the Southern Wild doesn’t hold up to detailed scrutiny. What is interesting is how many of them also say it doesn’t matter. Zeitlin convinces us that this world exists in the “now” of the movie, and allows us to go with the flow. Dwight Henry as Hushpuppy’s dad adds just the right amount of unpredictable danger to his role (and thus, to the film), but ultimately, all of the residents of “The Bathtub” are shown as good people, including Daddy. And Wallis deserves all of the kudos showered upon her, although it’s worth remembering that whenever you see a good performance from such a young actor, the director needs to be praised, as well (and Zeitlin also praises Wallis’ mother, who was on set and helped explain the story and Hushpuppy’s motives). The responses to the film have been varied, if mostly positive … President Obama liked it, bell hooks vehemently disliked it. I think it would make an interesting companion piece to Spike Lee’s two “Katrina” documentaries. 8/10.

Bubba Ho-Tep (Don Coscarelli, 2002). 7/10.

The Lady Vanishes (Alfred Hitchcock, 1938). 9/10.

by request: the lady vanishes (alfred hitchcock, 1938)

Robin chose this one, which she had never seen. It’s one of Hitchcock’s most delightful movies. The gentle comedy works as well as the mystery, and there is a refreshing lack of disturbing subtext going on (unless you count Caldicott and Charters, and they aren’t actually disturbing). This may be why The Lady Vanishes is a wonderful movie, but Vertigo is considered a great movie: the latter is stuffed full of subtext of a disturbing nature, so you never really get to the bottom of it, while The Lady Vanishes impresses more on the surface.

Which isn’t to say that The Lady Vanishes is a shallow film. Like all of the best Hitchcocks, this movie is a favorite of directors who can pore over the ways Hitch gets the precise effects he wants. But I would argue that, just as sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, here, the twists and turns and surprises in the plot are just that, twists and turns, not windows into the psychological soul of Alfred Hitchcock. If those are precisely the kinds of things that make someone like me rank Vertigo as our favorite Hitchcock movie (I had it at #16 on my Facebook Fave Fifty list), it’s good to be reminded that sometimes, you just want The Lady Vanishes.

Perhaps because of the above, I don’t have a lot to say about The Lady Vanishes. I don’t want to spoil the plot, and there’s only so much I can say about the cast or the directorial touches. I could talk about Caldicott and Charters, played by Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford in such an appealing concoction as a certain kind of cricket-obsessed Englishman, and how they turned up in other movies, sometimes as the exact same characters, sometimes as the same characters with different names, sometimes on the BBC … how many secondary characters do you know with their own Wikipedia page? #565 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 9/10.

music friday: peggy lee, latin ala lee!

My parents had quite a few records when we were growing up in the 50s and 60s. Lots of Sinatra, of course. Pearl Bailey, Herb Alpert, Ella and Louis. Stuff that brings up memories of a specific time (Martin Denny, The Soul of Spain by the 101 Strings Orchestra). Latin ala Lee! was on their shelf, as well.

Lee’s singing career went back to the 1940s, and she was still recording interesting music into the 70s. Latin music was a crossover hit in the 1950s, thanks to artists like Pérez Prado. Latin ala Lee! was released in 1960, and, as the cover told us, featured “Broadway hits styled with an Afro-Cuban beat”. That sounds like a guaranteed train wreck, but the results were actually quite good, in large part due to Lee, who at 40 years old was still a fine stylist, willing to stretch. The songs were well-known to my parents’ generation, or anyone with a taste for Broadway musicals such as My Fair Lady, The Music Man, and Oklahoma! The arrangements weren’t as awful as you might think, although there were some odd lyric moments. “Heart”, from Damn Yankees, featured a group of male singers moaning “Corazón!” as Lee cruised through the lyrics. Mostly, it seemed incongruous to hear “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top” with a Latin beat.

Whatever we thought of this stuff when we were kids, it’s a bit like musical comfort food now. Latin ala lee! even won a Grammy … for Best Album Cover:

Here is the entire album (ain’t YouTube grand?):

lists, lists, i have lists (criticker version)

Criticker is yet another film recommendation site. They have a different methodology than most. The average site will take your rating (say, 7/10 for Bubba Ho-Tep), and treat it the same as someone else’s 7/10 rating for this or that film. Criticker works on the assumption that what 7/10 means to me is different from what it means to you. It breaks my ratings into ten “tiers”, and uses those as the basis for recommendations. For instance, if I gave a movie 9.1/10 or higher, that movie is in Tier 10. Bubba Ho-Tep’s 7/10 puts it in Tier 5. Another person might also give Bubba Ho-Tep a 7/10, but their rating system differs from mine, and Bubba Ho-Tep is in their Tier 9. Criticker doesn’t treat our 7/10 ratings the same and assume we both liked it about the same; instead, it assumes the second person liked it more than I did, because a 7/10 from them is a high rating, relative to their ratings as a whole.


Anyway, I promised lists. Here are some from Criticker.

I have ranked 1,674 films. Of those, 922 are “dramas”. The average distribution for dramas out of 1,674 ratings is 639. IOW, I watch more dramas that the average viewer. Genres I watch less often than the average viewer? Comedy, Family/Kids, Animation.

Of the 1,674 ranked films, 602 are from the 2000s. Two are from the 1910s. The number of films rated by decade grows in a straight line from 1910s to 2000s (i.e., I ranked more 1920s films than 1910s, more 1930s than 1920s, etc.). The 2010s aren’t complete yet, obviously.

I’ve seen 79% of the most popular films of the 2000s. I’ve only seen 46% of the most popular films of the 1980s.

Of the decades where I’ve rated at least 100 films (1950s-2000s), I liked the 1950s the best (average Tier: 6.69) and the 1990s the least (average Tier: 4.82).

Criticker thinks I’d place the 1975 HK movie The Valiant Ones in Tier 10 if I watched it. They think I’d place Prince’s Under the Cherry Moon in Tier 1 if I watched it.

(OK, those weren’t really lists.)