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generation june

I recently finished reading a truly superb article in ESPN The Magazine, and the only reason I haven’t mentioned it before this is that I couldn’t find it online to share with others. Well, I’ve found it now, and as far as I can tell, it is not behind a paywall. It’s called “Generation June” and is written by Wright Thompson. The subtitle reads, “Fury, anarchy, martyrdom: Why the youth of Brazil are (forever) protesting, and how their anger may consume the World Cup.” ESPN deals with sports, and the World Cup is probably the only reason they ran the piece. But the World Cup is almost tangential to what Thompson describes, which is more accurately summarized by “why the youth of Brazil are forever protesting”. Thompson takes us inside the world of the youth, along the way providing some historical context while connecting such protests and the culture surrounding them to similar actions in other parts of the globe. I highly recommend the article:

Generation June

Here is a brief excerpt from near the end of the essay:

A 53-year-old photographer, Fernando Costa Netto, looked around at the young men and women in the cafe. An idea worked inside of him. Past midnight, the young photographers talked about changing the world, and the older photographers talked about being young.

"They think they are immortal," Fernando said.

He smiled, happy to feel the secondhand energy of the things they believe, melancholy he can no longer believe in those things himself. Long ago, he took his camera to Bosnia and the world he saw through his lens showed him the limits of both youth and his art. The heavy wheels of history roll over anything in their way, without pity or nostalgia.

He sighed.

"I thought I was immortal, too," he said. "Not anymore."

smith-rubio family xmas update, 12th annual edition

Turns out Facebook did a lot of the work for me. Not sure how they calculated this … I suspect some combination of likes, comments, and shares. These are the 20 biggest moments on Facebook for me in 2013:

  • January 1: Robin and I went to Homemade Café. She wore her PJs and got a free coffee drink.
  • January 20: A party celebrating the next generation moms and their new babies.
  • February 14: For Valentine’s Day, I watched TV with Robin, let her pick the shows, and didn’t offer smart-ass commentary.
  • February 22: While out for breakfast, a stranger asked to take a picture of Félix.
  • March 1: A couple of women came to our door selling tamales.
  • March 22: I went to see On the Road. The mostly-empty theater was largely comprised of men my age.
  • April 9: I posted a photo of Robin holding Félix.
  • April 18: I posted a photo of Félix.
  • May 26: Sara and Ray gave us a 40th anniversary party.
  • June 7: I quoted the 4th Amendment to the Constitution.
  • June 12: I posted a photo of our new roof.
  • June 22: I posted a photo of a pair of sox Robin made for a friend’s grandkid in Ronda.
  • July 1: We were in Nerja.
  • July 11: At the Plaza de Toros in Ronda.
  • July 13: I quoted Hunter S. Thompson about how we were a nation of used-car salesmen.
  • September 8: Some meme about my life when I was 19.
  • September 28: The 45th anniversary of our first kiss.
  • October 5: Félix meets Juan.
  • October 27: A photo of our family from the late-70s.
  • December 14: An “auto-awesome” video of Félix.

So, if I understand this right, my Facebook friends especially liked the above. In summary, they liked stuff about Robin and Steven in love, they liked stuff with the grandkid, Félix, they liked pictures from Spain, and the country continued to go to hell in a hand basket.

Even if I accept this as representative, there are a few obvious absences. Nothing about Neal and Sonia, for instance, simply because they aren’t on Facebook. If Google+ had done something similar, Neal would have been in half of the entries, since we spend a lot of time there, posting stuff and chatting in Hangout. Given the popularity of cats on the Internet, it’s a bit surprising our kitties didn’t show up, considering all three of them have Facebook accounts. And there’s the most notable absence of them all, but then, he only gets one mention a year, in our annual xmas update:

Yes, Spot is still hanging in there.

Now I’ll fill the rest of this post with pictures of Félix.

félix rests after a hard day

first birthday at raley field

showtime season finales

I was going to give the Showtime series Homeland and Masters of Sex separate posts, but I think they connect in some useful ways, so here they are, together.

Homeland had a very good first season, one that elicited an A- from me. The main characters were interesting, the main actors were excellent, and the spy story good enough to keep things moving. I gave the Season Two premiere an A, and looked forward to Homeland’s future.

But by the Season Two finale, my season grade had fallen to a B. I had lost interest in one of the main characters, Damian Lewis as Brody (although Lewis was always exemplary), and found the plot too full of dumb shenanigans.

Season Three started where the previous season ended, and at best treaded water. Not only had I lost interest in Brody, but Claire Danes’ character, Carrie, had gone from a sympathetic portrayal of an immensely talented woman with emotional problems to a walking bundle of unlikeable character traits (again, despite Danes doing her usual fine job). I didn’t want Brody to show up on the screen … I wished he had been killed off at least one season earlier … and I dreaded every scene with Carrie, not just because she was so annoying, but also because I feel we’re supposed to still be 100% on her side. Believe me, I identify with Carrie … the bipolar disorder, the stubborn anti-authoritarian streak, the smarter-than-thou attitude (which was deserved, because she was smarter than everyone). But in Season Three, all of these qualities had negative implications. Yet, to repeat the important point, Carrie was still “right”. Instead of rooting for her, I found myself wishing someone would put her in her place, and I don’t think that was the intended reaction.

Since my attitude towards the show had taken a bad turn, I ended up scrutinizing each episode, looking for the kinds of logical plot holes that plagued 24. And they weren’t hard to find … Season Three had far more “mountain lion” scenes than any series should have to address. It was bad enough that Jack Bauer’s daughter was a magnet for stupidity … seeing this happen to characters like Carrie and Mandy Patinkin’s Saul, both of whom were reputedly extremely intelligent, was simply ludicrous. The big reveal of the early part of the season, involving those two characters, was an insult to anyone who had followed the show to that point.

And so the touching final moments of the finale, which should have been a powerful culmination of the Carrie-Brody story, merely elicited a “thank god it’s over” from me. Grade for season finale: B. Grade for Season Three: B-.

Meanwhile, there’s Masters of Sex, which followed Homeland each Sunday night. This semi-biopic about the sex researchers Masters and Johnson approached its subject in an interesting way. Showtime viewers have come to expect plenty of nakedness, especially from its female actors, and Lizzy Caplan, who plays Virginia Johnson, had become something of a cult favorite for her vampire-blooded, super-charged (and naked) sexuality in HBO’s True Blood (always one of that networks most Showtime-like series). So when Masters of Sex turned out to have lots and lots of nudity and sex scenes, it was no surprise. But when that nudity and those sex scenes were presented in a mostly clinical manner, removing much of the titillation factor, that was indeed a surprise. Instead of the characters and plot being excuses for showing sex, the sex was there as a come-on to get us to pay attention to a series focused on relationships.

Homeland benefitted from the matchup of two volatile characters, Carrie and Brody, with two fired-up performances from Danes and Lewis. Masters of Sex took a different approach, something like what happened in movies pairing Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The famous saying about those two was that Fred gave Ginger class, and Ginger gave Fred sex. You couldn’t say that Michael Sheen as William Masters was a classy character, but he was stiff, standoffish, unlikeable. Against that was Lizzy Caplan’s Johnson, playing the Ginger Rogers role. And Virginia did indeed inject a serious sexuality into the relationship between the two main characters, a sexuality that seemed more pronounced because it was different from the “we’re doing this for science” feel of most of the sex in the show. Masters of Sex has two top actors at the core of the series, but the combination of Caplan and Sheen isn’t afire the way Danes and Lewis were. Caplan/Johnson gives us a way to appreciate Sheen/Masters, who on his own would be an awful lead character. Of course, when Masters mistreats Johnson, it hits hard in part because the series takes Virginia’s “side” as often as not.

Some critics have noted that Masters is a uniquely unlikeable anti-hero, because he doesn’t quite fit the standards of the traditional masculine anti-hero. But the presence of Caplan/Johnson gives us a path into the series, and allows Sheen/Masters to be a different kind of anti-hero. This makes Masters of Sex a different and better show than it would be otherwise.

The final scene between Carrie and Brody was appropriate, but it had been so long in coming, and the characters had lost so much of their appeal, that the scene fell flat. The final scene of the first season of Masters of Sex, which was a clichéd as could be (guy standing in the rain, expressing his feelings to the girl), should have been silly. But it was the place the season had been heading (and we knew it would come eventually, because it’s a biopic), and it triumphed over its clichés. I look forward to Season Two of Masters of Sex as much as I looked forward to Season Two of Homeland. I can only hope it rewards my anticipation. Grade for Season One: A-.

by request: hearts and minds

(This was requested by Tomás.)

Watching Hearts and Minds in 2013, it’s near impossible to remove the film from its cultural context. Not sure why I’d want to do that, to be honest. But it’s worth thinking about the value of Hearts and Minds not only as a polemic, not only as an artifact of its time, but also as a documentary. Granted, some would argue its aesthetic value is less important than its polemics, and while it is certainly “of its time”, it remains interesting not just as history but as a reflection on the current state of affairs.

The problem is that Hearts and Minds is much closer to the work of Michael Moore than it is to the work of a great documentarian working at the same time as Peter Davis, Marcel Ophüls. I am a fan of Moore’s work, but it has always seemed problematic, and some of those problems exist in Hearts and Minds, a film Moore has cited as influential on his own work. Davis proves himself an expert manipulator of information, and of course he has plenty to work with … I don’t disagree with his presentation of the U.S. debacle in Vietnam. Moore has a greater tendency towards humor, which is one reason his movies are relatively popular, and he uses humor to make points, not only to get cheap laughs (although the latter are there in his movies). But both Moore and Davis are at times about as subtle as Eisenstein in their juxtaposition of images and events. And this works against their arguments, because I can’t help wondering what they’ve left out, in their firm desire to make a point.

Davis also stretches a bit when he tries to connect aspects of American life to our approach to Vietnam. The silliest of these stretches comes from the insertion of a few segments of high-school football. Davis wants us to believe that the emphasis on football in small-town America is just another example of the corruption of masculinity in our society. There may be something to his argument, but the use here of things like a fired-up, near-abusive football coach comes across more as propaganda than as actual information.

Thus, Hearts and Minds is a good film that takes us back to the time when the Vietnam War was still active, and it did and does perform important work in establishing some of the reasons why that war was especially bad. But I can’t imagine ever watching it because I wanted to learn about the depths of human behavior, the way I do when I return to The Sorrow and the Pity. 8/10.

Peter Davis directed around a dozen movies, and outside of this one and the TV documentary The Selling of the Pentagon, I’m not familiar with most of his work. As you can tell from the above, if you’re looking for a documentary, there are none to match The Sorrow and the Pity. Hearts and Minds famously led to some political gesturing at the Oscars ceremony when it won Best Documentary. If you’d like to see what it was up against in that category, check out Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman, co-directed by Jill Godmilow and singer Judy Collins. For a documentary that covers the Vietnam Era using a style more subtly manipulative than Hearts and Minds, try Errol Morris’ The Fog of War.

candidate for binge-watching: dancing on the edge

It’s not appropriate, with many shows today, to treat them as parts of our weekly viewing. Binge-watching is upon us, and it occurs to me I ought to single out certain series that would make for good binge-watching. Thus, “Candidates for Binge-Watching”.

Dancing on the Edge is a BBC mini-series from earlier this year that turned up on Starz in the U.S. in October. It was created by Stephen Poliakoff, and I’ll have to expose my ignorance here, since I didn’t know his work. He is highly regarded in England, especially for his television writing. Dancing on the Edge takes place in London in the early 1930s, and uses a focus on a jazz band to examine issues of race and class as they play out within the story of the band. Poliakoff had done some research on the topic while filming an earlier mini-series, The Lost Prince, and was fascinated by the interest taken in jazz by, among others, the Duke of Kent and the Prince of Wales. While the rest of society fought through the depression, royalty and the well-to-do found the new sound of jazz to be a thrill, and integrated the music and the artists into their lives.

Chiwetel Ejiofor plays the lead, Louis Lester, leader of the band at the center of the tale. By now I assume everyone knows that Chiwetel Ejiofor improves anything he participates in. Here, his style and inner strength are captivating, and as things go wrong for Louis, Ejiofor manages to portray both that strength and the fears of what might lie ahead. A huge cast of British (I assume) actors largely unknown to me help create a fine acting ensemble, especially Matthew Goode as a music writer and promoter, and Angel Coulby and Wunmi Mosaku as singers in the band. Some more familiar names also turn up: Anthony Head (Giles from Buffy), John Goodman, Jane Asher, and best of all, Jacqueline Bisset as Lady Cremone. Poliakoff, as writer and director, and the cast, help make the large cast of characters more than an ensemble … we get to know most of them a lot better than you might expect from a five-episode series.

Some critics complained about the leisurely pace of the series, and not everyone was impressed with the jazz music, which never sounded all that different from the boring stuff it was replacing. Coulby and Mosaku made up for a lot of that, though. Hard times eventually come to Louis, and the upper crust that were his friends start to fade out of the picture, leaving Louis feeling paranoid and alone. Ejiofor makes this very intense; he is the best thing about Dancing on the Edge.

I should point out the look of the series, which is gorgeous. There is also a sixth episode, which I didn’t watch. For that reason, I can’t comment on it too much, except to say that it is apparently more of an addendum in the manner of a DVD extra, than it is a continuation of the story.

Dancing on the Edge has been nominated for three Golden Globes: Best Miniseries, Best Actor (Ejiofor), and Best Supporting Actress (Bisset). I would never have discovered the series, except recently we started getting Starz … not by anything we did, it just turned up one day.

Grade for series: A-.

music friday: led zeppelin edition

Spotify has grabbed the Led Zeppelin collection, and I’ve seen a lot of their songs turn up on my Facebook friends list of “listened to X on Spotify”. So, since I’ve been sick all week and don’t have the energy to be creative, why not have a Led Zep Friday?

Babe I’m Gonna Leave You”. Pink did a good version of this on her Funhouse tour.

Communication Breakdown”. Probably my favorite song on the first album when it came out in 1969.

Whole Lotta Love”. I was never as big a fan of Led Zep II as others were.

Immigrant Song”. I always think of Led Zep III as a favorite, but what I really mean is …

Since I’ve Been Loving You”. This song is a favorite, probably my favorite of their songs from the “early” period. According to Wikipedia, “One story mentions Jimmy Page taking a break following a series of failed attempts to track the solo. Seemingly unable to get the tone he was craving, he set about a walk around the studio to clear his mind. Sitting outside of the recording area was an unplugged amplifier, which he utilised, and recorded the solo we hear today on the next take. Audio engineer Terry Manning called it ‘The best rock guitar solo of all time.’”

When the Levee Breaks”. I know I should stick “Stairway to Heaven” here, but no one would click on it.

Over the Hills and Far Away”. I’m not including enough of their acoustic sides, although this one doesn’t exactly qualify.

Trampled Under Foot”. Physical Graffiti gets my vote for best Led Zep album, even given the bloated nature of its “double-record” nature. And this song, combined with the one that follows it, makes for a pretty wonderful one-two.

Kashmir”. The ultimate Led Zeppelin song, “Stairway to Heaven” included.

Nobody’s Fault But Mine.”

sons of anarchy, season six finale

I adopted a wait-and-see attitude as Season Six began, and the waiting is over. That any series is worthy of discussion, six years into its run, is impressive on its own. I don’t think Season Six was an advance over previous seasons, but it may be asking too much to think that would happen.

The quality of Season Six was at the level of its predecessors, for the most part. There were more “extended” episodes … I lost count, but a lot of them ran 90 minutes. And it didn’t always seem necessary. On a show like this, which at its best is still often spinning its wheels in a circle, the extra time just meant more room to stretch out storylines that were already too extended. It’s an odd thing: I suspect Sons of Anarchy would work better with, say, a four-season limit. It would force Kurt Sutter to trim the excess (not that he sees any of SOA as excess). Having said that, the series remains compelling, and that fact alone suggests there is no reason why the show should have ended its run.

As always, Season Six gave us the deaths of many characters, including two of the most important. Both of their deaths were filled with emotion, but the truth is, one of them should have died a couple of seasons ago, and I’m not sure the other needed to die at all. The buildup to the latter was superb, even if it took too much time to get there, and that might summarize Season Six, and in fact many of the last few seasons: the outcomes of events carry great impact, but the road to those outcomes isn’t always concise.

The connection between Sons of Anarchy and Shakespeare’s tragedies is oft-noted, and this was especially evident in the season finale (Sutter has noted this, himself). The last shocking event was done as well as any in the history of the series, and while I might complain about the way things stretch out in the show, in this case, you understood why. There are too many dead bodies strewn across the SOA landscape, in that so many of them are unknown to us, just the detritus of gangdom. But Sutter is always at the top of his game when it comes to the deaths of characters we have come to know. Some of the more outrageous moments of violence get our attention … they are another thing Sutter is very good at. But it’s the end of people we know deeply that sticks with us, and which makes Sons of Anarchy so strong.

I can’t say Sons of Anarchy is erratic. Its highs are equal to earlier years, and it doesn’t have lows so much as it has repetition. There are only so many ways to hold our attention in the endless gang battles. I felt frustrated a lot of the time while watching Season Six, but looking back, I realize I still looked forward to it, and it still had its powerful moments. And as I said before, the ability to keep this up for six seasons is something. Season Six finale: A. Season Six: B+.

what i watched last week

White Material (Claire Denis, 2009). My first film by Denis, and as far as I know, fairly representative of her work. At least here, she doesn't bother too much with clarifying events for the viewer … she does not force-feed us as if we were stupid. It helps to let the movie wash over you, without attempting to impose your own structure. Eventually, the film becomes a whole, and I suppose if you watched it a second time, “what happens” would seem much more clear. But I don’t think the movie calls for that kind of second viewing. Denis isn't as concerned with “what happens” in a concrete sense; she wants to explore the inner perspectives of her main character (Isabelle Huppert), and she wants to offer a feel for life in contemporary Africa. It’s very idiosyncratic, but in a way that draws viewers in. Often, this kind of approach just closes the door on the audience. Huppert and Denis work perfectly together to create a character as single-minded in her way as Lee Marvin’s Walker in Point Blank. #179 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 250 films of the 21st century. 7/10. Not having seen her films before, I can’t really recommend a Denis movie as a follow up, although Beau Travail seems to be highly regarded. If you’d like more Huppert, she has a secondary role in the recent Amour. White Material is apparently inspired in part by a Doris Lessing novel, The Grass Is Singing. That book was made into a movie, Killing Heat, with Karen Black … it’s hard to find anyone with something nice to say about that one.

Limelight (Charles Chaplin, 1952). Oh, my. I admit to being a participant in the past in the silly exercise of arguing the relative merits of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, as if there wasn't room for both. It’s a discussion that is unnecessary and unproductive, telling us more about the analyst than the artist. I’ve always been a Keaton guy, and so I’ve spoken more negative things about Chaplin than I actually believe. Hopefully I’ve outgrown that. Limelight is a film I’d missed, and I never really looked forward to watching it, later Chaplin being of little interest to me. But as I sat down to watch it at last, I found myself in an encouraging mood, ready to enjoy a movie I’d ignored for no good reason. Now I know the reason. Limelight consists of Chaplin, through his character Calvero, making one little speech after another filled with the kinds of witticisms found on fortune cookies (“The heart and the mind. What an enigma!” “Time is the best author. It always writes the perfect ending.” “Life can be wonderful if you're not afraid of it.”). Charlie saves a suicidal dancer played by Claire Bloom. He nurses her back to life while mentoring her with his grand philosophies. And somehow, it is always all about him. He’s like a time-traveling refugee from the age of singer-songwriters. Limelight is 137 minutes of Chaplin showing us how much he has to offer, even at an advanced age, but the bits he gives us are pale shadows of the truly funny material of his prime. He doesn't just beg us to love him, he insists on it, in a way that is more aggressive than passive, although it has elements of both. I wasn't expecting much, and I was still disappointed. #485 on the TSPDT list of the top 1000 films of all time. 5/10. For examples of Chaplin at his best, try Modern Times or The Great Dictator.

Hugo (Martin Scorsese, 2011). 7/10.

music friday: robert johnson

Robert Johnson, “They’re Red Hot”. I'm gonna upset your backbone, put your kidneys to sleep.

The Rolling Stones, “Stop Breaking Down”. Stuff gonna bust your brains out, baby, gonna make you lose your mind!

Robert Johnson, “Love in Vain Blues”. I was lonesome, and I could not help but cry.

Elmore James, “Dust My Broom”. I quit the best girl I'm lovin', now my friends can get in my room.

Robert Johnson, “Stones in My Passway”. My enemies have betrayed me, have overtaken poor Bob at last.

Cream, “Crossroads”. Nobody seemed to know me, everybody passed me by.

Robert Johnson, “Hellhound on My Trail”. The day keeps on remindin' me, there's a hellhound on my trail.

Taj Mahal, “The Celebrated Walkin’ Blues”. Minutes seem like hours and hours seem just like days.

Robert Johnson, “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day”. If I had possession over judgment day, Lord, the little woman I'm lovin' wouldn't, have no right to pray.

Mick Jagger, “Come on in My Kitchen / Me & the Devil Blues”. I said hello Satan, I believe it's time to go.