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Honorifics are funny things. I like using them, but feel unworthy when someone uses them to refer to me.

We got married by a judge. But not just any judge ... Judge Rose and his family were friends of both Robin and I. I’ve known a couple of the Rose children longer than I’ve known Robin ... they used to live across a big dirt lot from our house in Antioch. They were and are a fine family, and Judge Rose is a fine fellow (I’m sure he was also a fine judge, but since I never went before him, I’ll have to just guess about that). We referred to the parents of most of our friends growing up as Mr. or Mrs., and there were also the various medical doctors who got the “Dr.” title. Oh, and priests or ministers were “Father”. Of all of those, though, the best was Judge Rose. Somehow, it made you feel good to refer to “The Judge” ... it’s not that he was a better person than the other parents, but he had earned his title.

When I got my Ph.D, I found my new title to be a mixed blessing. Some things changed in nice ways ... in a single day, I went from being in a ceremony accepting the title of Doctor to sitting on the stage at another graduation and reading the names of graduating undergraduates. (I also got to sit next to the Rev. Cecil Williams.) Perhaps the strangest thing about the latter was when we were in line to enter Zellerbach Hall ... an old friend, a geography professor I hadn’t seen in some time, turned around, saw me standing behind him, and exclaimed, “What are YOU doing here?” Other things weren’t as nice, because while I was proud to have finally accomplished something, I still felt funny having an honorific bestowed on me ... I wasn’t sure I deserved it.

Soon afterwards, a favorite neighbor who happened to work on campus showed up at our door with a lovely gift, an Elvis Presley quilt that she had made. I remember answering the door to be greeted with, “Is there a doctor in the house?” I was delighted, if also slightly embarrassed. But it was a bit like knowing The Judge, from the other side. My friend made me feel like my accomplishment was something the whole neighborhood could be a part of, and I was grateful.

Another friend who also lived our block worked for many years doing virtually every odd job imaginable for us. He passed away a few years ago, and remains sorely missed. He was delighted that I was a doctor ... he seemed especially impressed that I had written pieces for a lot of books, and I gave him copies of a few, which he was proud to show at his home. I think sometimes he would tell his friends, you know that guy down the block, he writes books, a slight exaggeration, but again, I think he felt a part of it all. Sometimes it got a little silly, though. He would come to me with some difficult question about science or nature or the like, assuming I’d know the answer because I was “a Doctor”. I’d always tell him he should ask Robin, who knew about way more things than I did ... I was a “Doctor of Television”, I’d say, or a “Doctor of Movies”. But he’d insist, and so I’d go in the house, ask Robin the question, she’d tell me the answer, I’d go back to our friend and pass along the information, making sure he knew that it was Robin who had the answers, not me. But no, I was a Doctor. Funny thing is, our friend could do just about anything ... he was the model of a handyman, always coming up with some unknown-to-me skill. Since I have no skills ... I am the anti-handyman ... I was at least as impressed with him as he was with me. But I had the honorific.

When I was a teacher, my students would refer to me using various honorifics. I always referred to myself as Steven, in person and in online communications. But my students would call me Professor Rubio, or Mr. Rubio, or Dr. Rubio. (“Mr. Rubio” bothered me quite a bit ... “Mr. Rubio is my father!” I would shout, until one day I made a student cry and I realized I was being an ass.) One oddity is that the various places I taught had different official job titles. At Cal, where I was first a Graduate Student Instructor, and then, for some years, an Lecturer (or Adjunct), my title was never officially “Professor”. When I taught at San Francisco State, I was a visiting professor, I guess ... to be honest, I taught there twice without ever figuring out exactly what my job title was. And when I taught at a community college, my job title was Professor, even though I was still technically just another adjunct making ends meet.

Just last weekend, at a family gathering, a cousin of mine, on finding out I was “Dr. Rubio”, started telling me about a medical problem she was having. Sorry, I explained, I’m just an English teacher.

The point in all of this is that I like offering honorifics to others, but when they are offered to me, I’m just not sure it’s right. More than once, I’ve been asked out of the blue to contribute to an anthology, and I always say, “How do you know me?” (or, in the case of one academic tome, “Are you sure I’m the person you want? Have you read my writing? Do you know my style?”). Google has been my friend ... I’ve had a couple of cases of “it’s who you know”, but more often, someone finds something I’ve written via a search engine (I guess that’s the advantage of having this decade-plus blog). My insecurities remain ... as I said earlier, I’m never certain I deserve honorifics, or other accolades. (In the case of writing, that’s particularly pathetic, since I know writing is far and away my best skill, yet I’m still surprised that anyone notices.)

You know what I really find attractive? The honorific “Champ” when it’s given to a boxing champion. I love that no one is called “Champ” unless they have actually earned it. Even more, I like that you can never lose the title, as a referent if not literally. Even after you are no longer the literal champion, you remain “Champ”. So Muhammad Ali is “Champ” ... George Foreman is “Champ” ... they will never not be “Champ”.

And I guess I’ll never not be “Doctor”. It’s not the same, though ... no one calls me “Doctor”, and I’d feel funny if they did. Manuel Rose is “The Judge”, Cecil Williams is “Reverend”, the person who takes care of me at Kaiser is “Doctor”. But me? I’m Steven.

mad men series finale

After Mad Men finally ended, my wife said she was sorry our show wouldn’t be on anymore.

While “our show” is a general term meaning “show we both watch”, I usually thought I liked it more than she did, so in a way, I was pleased by her comment. (Similarly, when she joined the audience applause after Mad Max: Fury Road, I was very happy that she had liked it.) I don’t think there’s a pattern to “our shows” ... some I like more than she does, some the opposite. You can usually tell when more than one show is on the DVR ... the person who picks what to watch is demonstrating a taste preference. I probably like Penny Dreadful more than she does, she probably likes Outlander more than I do. She definitely liked Sons of Anarchy more than I did, while Treme was more my favorite. What is most important is that these are shows we both like. Thus, as I began to process the end of Mad Men, I wasn’t alone, which seems to matter.

If I had to name my worst character flaw, the thing that led to actions I wish I could change, near the top, I’d note my willingness to piss on other people’s pleasures. I recall quite clearly when Frank Zappa died, and in the midst of heartfelt expressions of sadness, I said something glib about how Frank Zappa sucked. Time and place, as they say. I did this all the time. Even now, when I try much harder to be more tolerant, it slips out on occasion. Well, I suppose we all do it, but it’s usually the case that one can express their own taste preferences without trashing the differing tastes of others. Especially in something as taste-related as art, where there are no absolutes. Pitch Perfect 2 outdrew Mad Max: Fury Road on their first weekend, and that’s an interesting factoid worthy of a cultural context analysis. But liking one shouldn’t negate the possibility of liking the other, and it’s pretty much irrelevant anyway ... unless you’re looking at that cultural context, you don’t need to mention Pitch Perfect 2 in your review of Fury Road. And if you loved Fury Road, there is no reason to dismiss Pitch Perfect 2, especially if, like me, you haven’t seen it yet.

I mention all of this after reading a large number of pieces on Mad Men since the finale. Mad Men is a smart show, and several critics noted that they raised their own efforts just to keep up. There has been a variety of critical responses to the finale, but the discussion still exists in a zone of respect ... one critic doesn’t hate on another critic because they don’t agree about this or that angle in the finale. My sense, though, is that those of us who are part of the “non-professional” audience don’t feel the same need to respect. We have our take on Mad Men, and those who disagree are idiots. Too often, I’ve acted that way myself. I like to think I’m better now ... blame the meds. But if I can change, or at least improve my behavior, how can I relate that to Mad Men? How can I turn this post into my longtime template, “Mad Men and Me”?

Well ... a major theme of Mad Men throughout its run revolves around the question of whether anyone really changes. As we got our final glimpses of the lives of these characters, I felt, not that the characters had all changed, but more than many of them had finally become comfortable with who they always were. Peggy has changed outwardly, going from secretary to copy chief, but her character arc wasn’t about her evolution as much as it was about how she fought to stay in the game, rising close to her real worth. She already had worth at the start of the series. By the end of the series, that value was more recognized. But it was always there. Similarly, Joan figures out how to get into a position to accomplish things she was capable of from the beginning. She isn’t a different person, just differently placed thanks to her hard work. (Both women have to fight to be recognized by others in this world, of course.) At first, Roger was a boozing, womanizing raconteur. At the end, Roger was a boozing, womanizing raconteur. He found the right woman at last, but he hasn’t changed ... he has just accepted who he is.

But what about Don? Much of the discussion about him is directed at that question, does he change? Some think the way he gradually lost the trappings of Don Draper over the final episodes prepared us for an actual change. Others look at the ending, where it is implied that Don, hanging out at Esalen, will eventually return to advertising and be a massive success, and see a pile of cynicism about how in the end, nothing changes, especially Don.

I think it is very hard for any of us to get outside of ourselves at times like this. I’m not even sure if we should try to be distanced. I know that it has long been accepted that critics should avoid having their opinions tainted by too much personalizing. I also know that I pattern myself after Pauline Kael ... hence, “Mad Men and Me.” Specifically, I think that what we brought to the finale seriously impacted how we interpreted the finale. For the most part, we saw what validated our already-existing impressions. And since Mad Men was a complex series, and because the audience is made up of complex humans (a redundant phrase), a variety of people constructed a variety of impressions, so our takes on the finale are diverse.

I will give you a rather embarrassing example. A popular game as we neared the finale was to guess what the last song would be. My own guess was Rod Stewart singing Dylan’s “Only a Hobo”, which I suppose reflects my notion that Don would never change, that he would never outgrow the hobo mentality. As “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” came on, I was locked into that guessing game. I saw the slight smile on Don’s face as he chanted “Om”, subconsciously thought about how I wanted Don to turn out, and decided that smile meant that he’d finally seen the light ... about his life. I thought the song was appropriate, if ironic, and I took it almost at face value. (Keep in mind, in the fall of 1970, I was acting out my desire to be a hippie, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I wanted something similar for Don.)

Imagine my surprise when I find that virtually everyone saw the connection between Don’s smile and the Coke ad as a sign that Don had returned to McCann, pulled off that Coke ad, and once again returned to the top of the ad game. That never occurred to me, although it seems obvious with hindsight.

Again looking at what I was bringing to the table: I don’t like advertising. The fact that Mad Men focused on advertisers worked on me rather like The Sopranos did by focusing on mobsters. In the age of the television anti-hero, I rooted against the characters as much as I rooted for them. Don was a brilliant ad man, but he was an ad man, just the same. Since I ultimately wanted to like Don, I wanted his escape from advertising to be real. So I didn’t even see that he came up with the Coke commercial at Esalen.

I’m not exactly “wrong” ... Matthew Weiner at least left things open-ended enough to leave room for multiple interpretations. But the point remains: my interpretation of the final scene was impacted by what I personally brought to the table. Which is always the case with criticism, in my oft-stated view ... it’s just a matter of whether or not the critic admits it.

And so, the moment that hit hardest for me in the finale was directly related to my personal life. I have said since the first season that Betty Draper reminded me of my mother: talented, good-looking, giving up her talents to be a housewife and mother, submerging her best qualities. When Betty shot those birds with a cigarette hanging from her lip, I saw my mom, even though as far as I know she never shot a firearm in her life. As the end of Mad Men approached, Betty got cancer. It was inevitable that someone on the show would get it ... the incessant cigarette smoking was a running joke throughout the series. Well, my mom died of cancer, too. And when I picture her last days in my mind, I see her sitting at a dining table, cigarette in hand, insisting on enjoying one of her only pleasures until the end. The picture in my mind looks exactly like how Betty Draper looked, the last time we saw her. For the average viewer, that shot fit into their vision of Betty Draper. For me, that vision meant I saw my dying mother, cigarette in hand.

Mad Men was never perfect (except, perhaps, when Don gave us The Carousel). The disappearance of gay art director Sal Romano was sad, and he never returned. At least Sal had his time as a significant character ... it is hard to feel badly about the disappearance of any particular character of color, because there were so few of them, and they were so marginalized. Betty Draper was written so inconsistently that January Jones never got credit for her fine acting.

But the pleasures far outweighed whatever problems existed. If I had to list some of those pleasures, I’d point to the actors. Who knew Jon Hamm before this show? I sure didn’t. Elisabeth Moss was the president’s daughter on The West Wing ... on Mad Men, she was a grownup. Before Mad Men, her great work on Top of the Lake would have been startling. After Mad Men, it was just further proof that she was very, very good. And Christina Hendricks, a fave since Firefly, finally got the break she needed ... now everyone knows who she is.

Best of all was Kiernan Shipka as Sally Draper. Only six years old when the series began, Shipka made it possible for Sally to become increasingly important over the years by being that rarest of creatures, a child actor who just keeps getting better. Mad Men could have existed without Shipka ... witness Sally’s brother Bobby, who was played by four different actors over the years. But it would have been a different Mad Men, because Shipka brought it year after year. By the end, Sally Draper was clearly the one character that would have made you watch a spinoff. And a delightful future is in store, as we get to watch Shipka continuing to grow. (It doesn’t hurt that Sally was the one main character who was an actual baby-boomer ... she was born a year after I was. Much of Mad Men consisted of people acting like my parents did. Sally acted like I did.)

Was Mad Men one of the greatest of all TV dramas, or just one of the best? It maintained a high level over its entire run, it gave us a multitude of interesting characters, it showed us a vision of the 1960s, it introduced new-to-us actors ... maybe it was never perfect, but it came closer than most series. When it was on, it was always one of the top shows ... if all of our shows were on the DVR, Mad Men would have been the first choice as often as not. Yes, I’d say it was great. People already miss it so much, they’re filling the Internet with arguments and memories, and the show hasn’t even been gone for 24 hours yet. Grade for series: A+.

what i watched last week

À Nous la Liberté (René Clair, 1931). I watched this after I had written my postscript to Snowpiercer, but some of what I said there could apply in this case as well. À Nous la Liberté is an early sound film with some humorous, if obvious, comments on modern society. We see prisoners working an assembly line making toy horses. We see workers on an assembly line making phonographs. The similarities between the two far outweigh the differences: prisoners and workers perform highly regimented functions while dreaming about a freedom that is always out of reach. Clair is clever, and his approach to sound is inventive for its time. Also, his attitude towards capital (favoring the workers), combined with the afore-mentioned regimented approach to production, clearly influenced Chaplin for Modern Times. The film’s ending, with the workers owning the factory (allowing them a life of complete leisure), is both optimistic and ironic. Yet, despite the ingenious set design and staging, À Nous la Liberté isn’t nearly as good as Modern Times. The latter was funnier, and it has Paulette Goddard. À Nous la Liberté is gentler, and I appreciated it without laughing very often. #852 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10. The obvious companion piece is Modern Times.

Monkey Business (Howard Hawks, 1952). David Thomson called it “a version of screwball as if done from lawn chairs at the end of a fine summer evening”, and I think he’s right. But he thinks the movie is a “casual masterpiece,” while I find myself not as interested in the casual screwball of lawn chairs. Monkey Business is ripe for those who find subtext more important than laughs in a comedy. Hugh Marlowe being scalped isn’t funny because Marlowe looks silly with his fake hair, it’s significant as a symbol of castration. Your enjoyment will depend in part on how much you like excavating subtext. And how much you like Marilyn Monroe, who has a supporting role and doesn’t have much to do. For me, that’s a good thing ... she doesn’t have time to overdo those facial things that always irritate me. Best moment: when Ginger Rogers does a balancing trick with a coffee cup. Howard Hawks is one of my favorite directors. This is not one of my favorite films. 6/10. See Bringing Up Baby instead.

I Shot Jesse James (Samuel Fuller, 1949). Fuller’s first film as the man in charge (he wrote and directed) is an economical 81 minutes, which ought to embarrass anyone associated with The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which took twice as long and was many times more boring. Fuller’s approach can be found in the title: this isn’t a movie about Jesse James, but rather a movie about Robert Ford. Fuller is fairly sympathetic to Ford’s problems, although Ford also comes across as a bit of a dimwit. (Hat tip to John Ireland, who does a fine job as Ford.) In this telling, which is at least as unreliable as other attempts to tell the tale, Ford hates himself for what he has done to his best friend. Fuller shows that Ford became famous in the “wrong” way. At one point, Ford takes part in a play that stages the James’ shooting ... Ford walks off the stage, not being able to recreate the crime. And in another scene, a troubadour comes in and sings a song about “that dirty rotten coward” Ford, not realizing Ford is right in front of him. Ford demands the singer finish the song, taking the punishment for what he knows he shouldn’t have done. There are plenty of such interesting touches, but in truth, the film doesn’t amount to much. Interesting side note: two of the actors in the ensemble, J. Edward Bromberg and Victor Kilian, were later blacklisted, while Ireland sued producers who thought his politics were shaky. 6/10. For another Fuller film, try Shock Corridor.

Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015). 10/10.

mad max: fury road (george miller, 2015)

There are a few reasons why Mad Max: Fury Road feels familiar. First, it’s the fourth entry in a continuing series. Second, earlier editions were influential, such that many inferior copycats were made over the years. (There is even a Wikipedia page titled “Mad Max series legacy and influence in popular culture”.) And by now, we’ve become used to expensive summer action pictures.

So yes, it is safe to say if you liked the earlier Mad Max movies, you will like Fury Road. Even though it has been 30 years since George Miller gave us a Mad Max movie, he hasn’t lost his talent or his desire to put something great onto the screen.

And it is an excellent effort in the context of the series, at least the equal of The Road Warrior, and far better than Beyond Thunderdome. Which, for those of us who loved past entries, means we’re pretty much guaranteed a good time. (A few years ago, I listed The Road Warrior as the 51st-best movie of all time, so you know where I’m coming from.)

The most notable thing about Fury Road is that many of the things that make it a clear counterpart to the earlier films is also what sets it apart from other action movies in 2015. As noted on the IMDB, “Over 80% of the effects seen in the film are real practical effects, stunts, make-up and sets.” In recent years, the stuff that amazes generally comes from the astounding things that can be done digitally. Fury Road goes back to a different time, one that seems more “human”. Watching Mad Max: Fury Road is like checking out an old silent Buster Keaton feature or a Jackie Chan HK film. Real people are actually doing these things. Add to this the care with which Miller presents the action, and you have a movie that has rarely, if ever, been topped for its genre.

You could say that the film is nothing but one long car chase, and you wouldn't be too far off, although I admit I thought there would be even more action. I understand the argument that Fury Road may be near perfect, but it’s still just a near-perfect car chase movie. I think the adrenaline rush of the film squashes such complaints, but your mileage may vary.

There is one other notable point to be made regarding the most obvious difference between this film and the prior Max movies. Charlize Theron plays a female version of Max, and she is so good, and her part is so integral, that the only reason “Mad Max” appears in the title is for brand recognition. This isn't the story of Max and his sidekick, it’s the story of two people fighting (mostly) in tandem. Theron’s Imperator Furiosa is actually more important to what plot there is than is Max. This led to the remarkably absurd article by Aaron Clarey, “Why You Should Not Go See ‘Mad Max: Feminist Road’”:

This is the vehicle by which they are guaranteed to force a lecture on feminism down your throat. This is the Trojan Horse feminists and Hollywood leftists will use to (vainly) insist on the trope women are equal to men in all things, including physique, strength, and logic. And this is the subterfuge they will use to blur the lines between masculinity and femininity, further ruining women for men, and men for women.

So do yourself and all men across the world a favor. Not only REFUSE to see the movie, but spread the word to as many men as possible.

Clarey’s paranoid position strikes a chord with some men, I’m sure. But his screed actually falls into the hole he argues against, for I’ve read more discussion of feminism and Fury Road inspired by his broadside than I have from any other source. (An update at the website on which the original article appeared claimed, “Our Call To Boycott Mad Max Movie Spurs Avalanche Of Mainstream Media Anger”.) If he was worried that we might look at Fury Road through a feminist perspective, well, he has helped that process along.

How feminist is Fury Road? There is no one kind of feminism, and any simplistic response to the question will refuse to acknowledge the breadth of feminist thinking. Yes, Imperator Furiosa is the match of Max Rockatansky. Yes, Charlize Theron is the match of Tom Hardy. And I admit, many of my favorite female characters are ones that kick ass (Buffy, Starbuck). But that taste preference is limiting in that too often “kick ass” means “acts like a man”, which shouldn’t be the only point. Furiosa may be remembered as important a film character as those played by Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2, or Sigourney Weaver in the Alien movies, and that’s a fine thing (and Theron is good enough that she deserves to be mentioned along with those others). But for the most part, Furiosa can be described as a woman who kicks ass as well as a man.

There are some plot details that change my simplification a bit ... for instance, Furiosa is trying to save sex slaves. But I would argue that plot details are more irrelevant in a movie like this than is the norm, because no plot point works as anything other than a breather between action scenes. One reason Beyond Thunderdome was a letdown was that it had too much plot.

Judged as an action movie, as part of the Mad Max franchise, which is how I prefer to judge it, Mad Max: Fury Road is at least as good as The Road Warrior. I gave that movie 10/10, so you know what I’m giving Fury Road. 10/10. Best companion piece is obviously The Road Warrior (aka Mad Max 2).

Postscript: we saw Fury Road on the first night (Thursday). I hadn’t done the “gotta go to the first showing” thing since On the Road two years ago. Apparently, I have a thing for movies with the word “road” in the title.

music friday, too old edition

A recent viral hit on the Internet, the origins of which I'm having trouble finding, suggests that “we” quit caring about popular music in our 30s. This is my best guess at where the current discussion began:

In this piece, Ajay Kalia uses data from Spotify and The Echo Nest to ascertain the listening patterns of users. It gets complicated, and I'm not even going to try to summarize ... one thing I think people are getting wrong is making their own assumptions about the original information. Read Kalia, and other links I’ve provided. Here is what I find to be the most important thing in Kalia’s post:

What I found was that, on average…

  • … while teens’ music taste is dominated by incredibly popular music, this proportion drops steadily through peoples’ 20s, before their tastes “mature” in their early 30s.
  • … men and women listen similarly in their their teens, but after that, men’s mainstream music listening decreases much faster than it does for women.
  • … at any age, people with children (inferred from listening habits) listen to a smaller amounts of currently-popular music than the average listener of that age.

One example of how this is being fudged is that the meme which grew out of this discussion seems to focus on the age 33, which is more specific than Kalia suggests. Kalia is also describing an ongoing process, not an endpoint to discussion.

But what I’ve noticed is that three angles in particular are most common, at least in my neck of the Internet.

  1. People who link to one of the articles, with the unstated hint that the articles tell truths about their friends.
  2. People who read the articles and immediately claim that they are not subject to this, and in fact they still listen to current pop music.
  3. People who read the articles (or not) and claim it’s not their fault the best music came in their formative years, and would you please get off of my lawn.

It’s no secret, but I’ll state this again: I like to pretend I am #2, but I’m much more like a #3 without the shitty attitude.

Call it Steven’s Theory That Data Doesn’t Lie (in this case, anyway, as I am using it). Outwardly, you could look at my love of Sleater-Kinney, which began in my late-40s, or the five Pink concerts I have attended, or even the way I am always ready to turn it up when “Tootsie Roll” comes on the air, and say hey, he’s pretty cool for an old guy. But what does the data say? tallies up everything I listen to online. There are limitations, and in the last few years, this amounts mainly to what I listen to on Spotify. But it gives as good a sense as anything of what I really listen to, rather than what I want to believe I listen to. According to, these are my Top Ten artists of all time:

  1. The Beatles
  2. The Rolling Stones
  3. Bruce Springsteen
  4. Bob Dylan
  5. Sleater-Kinney
  6. Jefferson Airplane
  7. Van Morrison
  8. The Who
  9. Pink
  10. Neil Young

Seven of these ten acts come directly from the 60s. Bruce Springsteen was already making music in the 60s. I’ve seen Pink cover artists like Janis Joplin and Led Zeppelin. And at times in concert, Sleater-Kinney sounds like Blue Cheer.

So much for the idea that I still “keep up”.

I can tweak the data a bit. Since I use shuffle play a lot, I listen to a lot of artists ( lists 475 artists I have listened to at least 15 times since they began profiling me). But I can't escape the truth. I listen to variants of the same thing I listened to in my formative years. And since I turned 33 (in 1986), I’ve become obsessed with very few artists.

Which is what I take from this discussion. Yes, there are plenty of people who remain engaged in contemporary pop music long beyond the age of 33. But the kind of obsession a music fan might have felt half a dozen times in their earlier years is barely possible after a certain age. As I have said many times, the hardest thing for me to accept when Sleater-Kinney went on their “hiatus” was that I knew I’d never feel that obsessive ever again. And it’s true ... at this point, my obsessions are the same old ones.

Here are a few other pieces on the topic:


I wrote the above yesterday, before I heard the news about the death of B.B. King. King was an important part of my musical heritage ... perhaps not surprisingly, he and I go back to the aforementioned formative years. I played the hell out of his 1965 album Live at the Regal, which is still the place I go first when I want a taste of BB. I was lucky enough to see him in concert in 1971. Here's a video of him performing his classic, "Sweet Little Angel":


throw it to me, dad

This picture was taken soon after June 20, 1953. I say that because, to the best of my knowledge, the baby in the picture is me. My brother would have been six years old. My mom was 25, and my dad was 29.

Mom Dad Geoff Steven I think

Today is my dad’s birthday. If he had lived, he would be 91 years old.

So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars'll be out, and don't you know that God is Pooh Bear? the evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what's going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.

-- Jack Kerouac, On the Road

marvel's agents of s.h.i.e.l.d., season two finale

The best thing I can say for Agents of Shield (special spelling be damned) is that I am not the audience for it, yet I’ve stuck through two erratic seasons. The Joss Whedon connection is why I watched in the beginning, which is odd, because while Joss is listed as one of the creators, he seems to have had very little to do with the series after the pilot. Also, despite my loyalty to Whedon, I am nowhere near the level of fanboy that others are ... I loved Buffy, eventually came around on Firefly/Serenity, liked some of his other stuff. The series did not get off to a great start ... it felt like they hadn’t decided what kind of show they wanted to produce, and it always seemed like a little sibling to the big Marvel movies.

Things picked up in the later part of Season One, and Season Two has had some interesting episodes. But the truth is, I preferred Agent Carter, which ran during a mid-season break for SHIELD. (Even there, I suspect I was more entranced by Hayley Atwell than by the show itself.)

But in middle of all this, there are some things I like quite a bit, starting with some of the cast. You can’t go wrong with Clark Gregg, and Ming-Na Wen is ever-watchable as a fairly small woman, aged 50 or so, who is extremely believable as an ass-kicker while also providing depth to her often stoic character. Adrianne Palicki has been a welcome second-season addition (she’s another good actress, and she’s half-a-foot taller than Ming-Na), as has Henry Simmons (who is welcome in anything, is another good actor, and is half-a-foot taller than Palicki). The show makes good use of what I assume is a relatively limited budget, and is entertaining enough that I haven’t given up on it yet.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is the work of Chloe Bennet as Skye, a young hacker who for awhile just seemed like an annoyance. Bennet had little acting experience prior to SHIELD ... only recently turned 23, and born Chloe Wang, she moved to China when she was 15 to be a singer, and later returned to the U.S., where she was on a few episodes of Nashville. It is safe to say I knew nothing of her, and given the annoying character and disappointing series quality, I was ready to dismiss her as a pretty face. But in almost every case, the actors on SHIELD have improved as the series improved, which is to say, they were solid from the start but it was hard for us to notice. By the end of Season Two, Skye is arguably the second most important character on the show, and Bennet seems fully capable of handling the added responsibility.

Still ... when I say a show is “almost as good as Agent Carter”, there’s an element of faint praise in the air. I’m not up to snuff on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so I can’t follow occasional plot threads, but then, that also means I don’t do much comparing of the TV series to, say, The Avengers. It’s a decent show with enough interesting things going on to keep me around. I seem to be skipping the grades on TV series of late, but if I gave a grade here, it would be in the high-B range.

jane the virgin, season one finale

Let’s get the spoilers out of the way. Yes, Jane has the baby in the finale.

Jane the Virgin is one of those shows that scares people away from the start, just because of the title and/or premise. A young woman becomes pregnant despite being a virgin ... that’s all many people need to know. It sounds like a wacky concept with nowhere to go. But if you’ve never seen Jane the Virgin, you’ve missed one of the most innovative series on TV right now, and not because of the premise.

So much creativity is involved in Jane the Virgin that it’s hard to know where to start. It doesn’t just borrow some of the frills of a telenovela ... it is a telenovela, albeit a very knowing one. The genre is treated with love, even when the exaggerations become more joke than tragedy. There is a narrator (“Latin Lover Narrator”, according to the closed captions), played by Anthony Mendez, who becomes a character in his own right. Jane’s abuela speaks only in Spanish, with English subtitles, but Jane speaks to her in English, and she understands. When people text, we see the texts on the screen. There is a telenovela within the telenovela. There are outrageous plot developments (one man, Roman, dies by being impaled on an ice sculpture; then later his twin brother Aaron turns up; still later we find “Aaron” is actually Roman, who killed his twin). Everyone wears their hearts on their sleeves. Excess piles on excess, and somehow it all works.

Part of it is due to the excellence of the cast. Deservedly, Gina Rodriguez gets the most attention as the title character, but also worthy of extra mention are Ivonne Coll, a legendary Puerto Rican actress who plays Jane’s grandmother, and Mexican actor Jaime Camil, who plays Jane’s telenovela star/father, Rogelio. There’s even Bond Girl Priscilla Barnes as a Czech schemer in a wheelchair.

More important, the family feels real. The relationship between the three generations of Villanueva women comes across as natural, even when the plot sends them to silly places. And, despite the silliness inherent in the premise and in the telenovela approach, Rodriguez’ Jane is always grounded. She connects so fully with the audience that we can latch onto her as the narrative swirls surrealistically.

Ultimately, the plot shenanigans threaten to overwhelm the series. The cast may do a great job of convincing us in an individual scene, but they are asked to be too inconsistent. I love you, no I don’t, well yes I do but I can’t tell you, yes I do, no I don’t ... the repetition got to me after awhile. It feels like a show I’ll lose interest in. For now, given the brazen use of multiple genres, given the diversity not only of the cast but of the milieu, given the fine balancing act between the absurd and the moving ... Season One was a nice ride, and it will be interesting to see what next season offers.

what i watched last week

Snowpiercer (Joon-ho Bong, 2013). Has a little of everything, but surprises along the way. It’s a near-future dystopia, it’s an action adventure set on a train, it’s a caustic screed against the 1%, it has black humor and violence, and it’s the first American film from Korean director Joon-ho Bong. The violence will scare some people away, and others might be scared away by the trailers, which emphasize the grimy look of much of the film. It owes much to Brazil, a movie I didn’t much like. It also reminded me of Michael Radford’s film of 1984, although it’s been awhile since I’ve seen that one (as I recall, I liked it). The various compartments on the train each had its own décor, which was nicely done, and if the condemnation of the 1% was a bit simplistic, well, so what, I was glad it was there. If you are looking for an introduction to the wonders of modern Korean cinema, this isn’t the place to start ... it’s more American than Korean. But it is also more successful than the movies of many other Asian directors in the U.S. ... John Woo had his hand in more than half-a-dozen U.S. films, and only one (Face/Off) came close to the level of Snowpiercer. (Of course, Woo also made many HK and Chinese movies that are better than Face/Off or Snowpiercer.) #510 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 8/10. Check out 2009’s Mother for a different side of Bong.

Since there is only one film on the list for this week, I’ll take this space to expand a bit on one aspect of Snowpiercer that it shares with some other movies. I write these short, one-paragraph reviews, knowing that in most cases, the movies in question deserve a lot more space. I try to address things that caught my attention, while also avoiding spoilers when possible, which in itself is a limiting move. [What follows includes spoilers.] In the case of movies like Snowpiercer, I don’t think it would be useful to extend what I’ve written above. It’s worthy and complicated and there are a lot of talking points. But I fear I’d just resort to a check list. The construction of Snowpiercer is ingenious ... it’s also perfect for a good six-page essay in an honors class for college undergraduates. The class structure presented in the film is clearly delineated, and while you could watch Snowpiercer simply as an entertaining action movie, it is almost impossible to miss the underlying themes about class. That’s why it would make a good topic for an undergraduate essay: there is something to talk about, but it isn’t hard to find. It would also make a good topic for an extended essay that closely broke down the presentation of class, critically analyzing what Bong has done. But I’m not going to write either of these on this blog, not a six-page essay, not a chapter for a book. I’m going to write a paragraph, or two or three. And in the case of Snowpiercer, once I’ve mentioned the basics, I don’t see the point in adding a paragraph to state the obvious: that the cars on the train represent various social classes, that even if the nominal hero manages to take the train away from the nominal villain, nothing concerning classes will have been truly answered, that the two young people who escape the train are the future because they don’t conquer the train, they escape it. I could say all that, but if you watch the movie, you’ll figure it out for yourself. And unless I’m prepared to write 2500 words on the subject, I’m better off just sticking to a paragraph.