January 30, 2005

MOVIES: La Grande Seduction (Jean-Francois Pouliot, 2003)

English title: Seducing Doctor Lewis.

Ste. Marie is an isolated fishing village of 120 people that has fallen on hard times. The residents may be able to persuade a factory to come to town, which would provide jobs for everyone, but the factory's owner insists that the town must have a resident doctor. When they manage to finagle a one-month visit from a Montreal doctor, the villagers set out to convince him that Ste. Marie is the town of his dreams.

This is light-hearted comedy in the mold of (though far better than) Waking Ned Devine. Dr. Lewis is oblivious to the town's frantic attempts to impress him, which include the sudden appearance of beef stroganoff on the diner's menu, and the town's inexplicable preference for cricket over hockey.
It's not a deep movie, but it does take seriously some issues that we don't often see addressed in movies -- the shame of being unable to support one's family without government assistance, the slow death of a community, the need to be useful. When the ringleader of the villager's scheme, Germain, finally explains to Dr. Lewis why they've spent nearly a month lying to him, it's a moving moment.

The lead performances from Raymond Bouchard as Germain and David Boutin as Dr. Lewis are both very good, and the father-son relationship that starts to develop between them is sweet; Bouchard does a fine job of getting across the mixed feelings he has in taking advantage of that relationship with a man he's genuinely come to like.

There are moments when the movie drags a bit, and some of the supporting performances are a bit too broad, but on the whole, La Grande Seduction is a charming treat.

January 29, 2005

TV: Numb3rs

Oy, enough with the cutesy numbers-instead-of-letters spelling, already.

When the crime-show craze ends, CBS is going to be in big trouble, but as long as the shows are so popular, you can't blame a network for cranking them out. And based on the first two episodes, this is a reasonably entertaining example of the format.

Rob Morrow stars as FBI agent Don Eppes, who frequently calls on his math-genius brother Charlie (David Krumholtz) to help him solve cases. The supporting cast includes Judd Hirsch as their father, Alan; Sabrina Lloyd as Don's partner, Terry Lake; and Peter McNicol as Charlie's eccentric mentor, Larry Fleinhardt.

The relationship between the Eppes brothers is interesting (and it's nice to see TV relatives who actually look like they could be related). Don genuinely values his younger brother's genius and assistance, but also resents him; growing up the brother of a genius meant never getting a lot of parental attention. Charlie enjoys being able to contribute (even if it takes time and attention away from the academic work he should be doing), but tends to feel intensely guilty if his equations don't work perfectly to solve cases.

I'm a bit worried that the show will go a bit too heavily into the old cliche that genius (especially mathematical genius; see also the recent Broadway hit Proof) sits right next to insanity, and I hope that Charlie's moments of instability won't become too prominent a part of the show.

I'm still not quite adjusted to the sight of Morrow as a gun-toting lawman, but he's fine in the role. Hirsch and Lloyd haven't yet been given much to do, and McNicol's umpteenth variation on the sweetly befuddled eccentric is already growing a bit tiresome.

Krumholtz, though, is terrific, giving a more subtle performance than you'd expect from this kind of show; you get a real sense of how stressful it must be to have people always asking you to generate genius-type results on demand.

The show has its share of CSI-influenced graphics; at least once or twice per episode, we see Charlie working at the chalkboard while equations float across the screen. Those are the show's weakest moments; to be fair, they're its most difficult moments. How do you make a guy working on abstract math dramatically interesting? It may not be possible, and Numb3rs wisely keeps those moments to a minimum.

The danger is that the show will fall into a formula: open with crime; Charlie generates crime-solving equation that should work, but doesn't quite; Don browbeats Charlie to figure out why; Charlie makes conceptual breakthrough twelve minutes before the show ends; bad guy is caught.
But the Law & Order and CSI franchises are pretty formulaic, which hasn't slowed them down at all. Perhaps the familiarity of it all is part of the appeal, and all Numb3rs needs to do is generate enough subtle variations on its own formula. I can't say I'll make a point of watching every week -- I'm not a particular fan of crime dramas in general -- but if I've got nothing else to do on a Friday night, I'd be willing to check it out.

January 26, 2005

BOOKS: Moth and Flame, John Morgan Wilson (2004)

Sixth of Morgan's mysteries featuring ex-journalist Benjamin Justice.

First, a hand to St. Martin's, the publisher of the series. Morgan's books have always been marketed in the same way as any of their other books, rather than targeted specifically (or exclusively) to a gay audience. The cover of this one even makes reference to Wilson being a winner of the Lambda Literary Award, along with the Edgar.

As for the book, it's one of the best in this solid series. Justice is an ex-journalist, forced to retire after a Janet Cooke-like scandal involving some fictional elements in a Pulitzer-winning series. Now he works as a freelance writer.

As Moth and Flame opens, he's been hired by the city of West Hollywood (CA) to complete a booklet on the city's historical building, its original author having been murdered in an apartment burglary. Justice quickly finds himself caught up in a controversy over the fate of a group of dilapidated cotteges. The city's active preservation group wants them restored and declared historical landmarks; their owner wants to raze them and build condos. Both sides believe that Justice's booklet has the potential to sway opinion to their side, if only they can convince him to present the issue properly.

Justice doesn't particularly want to get drawn into the preservation drama, or the investigation into the original author's death -- it will come as no surprise that the two are connected -- but his best friend is the Los Angeles Times reporter assigned to the murder case, and his disagreement with some of her journalistic tactics helps lead him to do some investigating of his own.

Wilson gives us a fine array of colorful suspects and other characters here. There's the city's chief computer whiz, an aloof and chilly man; the ex-porn star city councilman who makes no secret of his desire to see those cottages torn down; a young Russian immigrant whose struggle with the legacy of his father lead to his involvement in the case; and the tough-as-nails detective whose search for her own missing father proves more important than she'd imagined.

Then there's Justice himself, a terrific character, loaded with guilt over an impossibly difficult childhood and his journalistic scandal. Throughout this book, he's still adjusting to a physical disability (inflicted in the previous volume) and to the side effects of Prozac. And in a story where fathers and their absence is a central theme, Justice finds that the ghosts of his own past are being called forth more strongly than he'd like.

More than earlier volumes in the series, Moth and Flame makes fine use of its West Hollywood setting. I happen to live in West Hollywood, and Wilson gets all of the details right. It's not just the geography, though that's done right, too, and there are no embarassing scenes where a character travels eight miles in three minutes; he gets the complicated relationship between the city's large gay population and its sizable Russian immigrant community, the mixed feelings of a middle-aged man living in a city that often seems to value youth above all else, and the obsessiveness some residents feel about preserving the city's history, perhaps the result of a civic inferiority complex (West Hollywood as an independent city is only 20 years old).

Terrific stuff, and recommended with enthusiasm.

January 23, 2005

MOVIES: Maria Full of Grace (Joshua Marston, 2004)

Maria is 17 years old, and has just lost her job as an assembly-line flower packer, which is very bad news, since she is the primary support for her family -- mother, grandmother, sister, and infant nephew. With nowhere else to find work in her small town, she goes to Bogota, where she is recruited to smuggle drugs into the United States.

Joshua Marston's first feature film, Maria Full of Grace, is an unsentimental look at the human side of drug trafficking. It's told in so straightforward a style that it sometimes feels like a documentary, and it provides a detailed portrayal of the plain mechanics of drug smuggling. We see how the marshmallow-sized packets of cocaine are prepared, how the mules practice with large grapes to be able to swallow the packets, and so on.

The movie is anchored by a fine performance by Catalina Sandino Moreno as Maria. It's clear very quickly that Maria has a reckless and impulsive side. She makes a risky climb to a rooftop for no particular reason; when her nephew becomes ill, she dismisses her sister's concern as excessive worrying; she quits her job knowing very well how difficult it will be to find another.

That tendency, combined with her economic desperation, make it easy to understand why Maria agrees to become a "mule" for Javier, whose patter is smooth and reassuring. To be sure, Maria knows what she's getting into; she may be naive, but she is not an innocent.

When things go wrong on the trip -- one of the other mules dies when a drug packet breaks open in her stomach -- Maria's limited coping skills are pressed to the limit, as she tries to find a way to survive in New York, a task made more difficult by the presence of her hometown friend, Blanca, who has followed Maria into smuggling, and who is not a very bright girl. (It's one of Marston's few really unsubtle steps that the stupid girl is telegraphed as such by the fact that she's also plain and overweight.)

This section of the movie is the movie's weakest; it stretches the limits of disbelief that Maria would forget the threats Javier had made against her family if his drugs were not successfully delivered. And Marston occasionally crosses the line between asking us to understand Maria's criminal behavior and asking us to sympathize with it, a line I wasn't willing to cross. Still, it's a very well made movie, and Marston tells his story in a brisk, efficient, mimimalist style; it's surprising how little dialogue there is for some stretches.

And Catalina Sandino Moreno is a real discovery; her long face and large eyes are deeply expressive, and her performance is so sensitive and natural that it never feels like acting. She's the biggest reason to see the movie.

January 22, 2005

BOOKS: The Sopranos & Philosophy, Richard Greene & Peter Vernezze, eds. (2004)

Open Court Publishing has been doing a series of books on "Popular Culture and Philosophy" for a few years now; of the earlier volumes, I'd particularly recommend the one on The Simpsons, and suggest that the Seinfeld volume is best avoided. (Other topics thus far: The Matrix, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Lord of the Rings, and baseball. Coming soon: Woody Allen -- that should be fertile ground -- and Harry Potter.)

This is a fairly solid entry in the series. There's a certain knowledge of philosophy assumed, though the essays are no doubt far too simplistic for serious philosophy students; they'd make good supplementary reading for an Intro to Philosophy course. The knowledge of The Sopranos that's required is a bit more complete; if you haven't seen most of the show (or at least the first four seasons; the book was apparently compiled during the gap between seasons four and five), you'll be floundering at many of the references.

It's interesting to see which moments from the show recur in the book as key points to understanding the show's philosophy. Tony's description of himself and his associates as "soldiers" who won't be going to hell pops up a lot, as does Melfi's conversation with her ex-husband about the "cheesy moral relativism" of their profession.

Among the highlights:
  • Lisa Cassidy's "Is Carmela Soprano a Feminist?," an analysis based on Carol Gilligan's distinction between "justice" ethics (a traditionally male style of thinking) and "care" ethics (traditionally female)
  • Michael E. Gettings' "This Thing of Ours: Language Use in The Sopranos," which is a touch heavy on the linguistics jargon, but provides an entertaining look at the things that aren't being said and the ways in which they aren't said
  • Mike Lippman's "Know Thyself, Asshole: Tony Soprano as an Aristotelian Tragic Hero"

Entertaining reading, and a different way to look at the show.

January 17, 2005

MOVIES: Unconditional Love (P.J. Hogan, 2002)

Hogan's the writer/director who made Muriel's Wedding and My Best Friend's Wedding; this movie was co-written with his wife, Jocelyn Moorhouse, herself a talented director (if you haven't seen Proof, you really should). The stars are Kathy Bates and Rupert Everett; the supporting cast includes Jonathan Pryce, Dan Aykroyd, Lynn Redgrave, Peter Sarsgaard, and a cameo from Julie Andrews as herself. Your natural first thought on seeing that kind of talent gathered together is that you're in for a terrific movie.

Then you notice that the film never did have a US theatrical release -- it just played at a few film festivals -- and you begin to think you may be in for altogether different kind of pleasure: This could be one of the classic fiascos of movie history. A cast like that, and the movie can't even get released? It must be absolutely wretched!

The truth lies somewhere in the middle. Unconditional Love has some fine moments, but it's far too long, and it can't make up its mind what kind of movie it wants to be.

We start off with Grace Beasley (Bates), an unhappy, frumpy Chicago housewife who's just been left by her husband Max (Aykroyd), who wants to go off and "do dangerous things." She hopes to break out of her depression by attending a TV taping of her favorite singer, Victor Fox (Pryce is dead-on as an Engelbert Humperdinck/Tom Jones type, all glittery suits and cheesy love songs); alas, Fox is murdered on his way to the studio. Grace makes the impulsive decision to do something "dangerous" herself; she's going to England for Victor's funeral.

Up to this point, the tone of the movie is roughly that of a very classy Lifetime movie-of-the-week (which sounds more dismissive and pejorative than I actually mean it to). Bates is very good, giving a quiet, subtle performance as a woman who's only beginning to realize how bored she is with her life.

But then Grace gets to England and meets Dirk (Everett), who has been Victor's "valet" -- that is, boyfriend -- for ten years; like Grace, Dirk is fed up with living in the shadows, and he proposes that they should team up to do something really dangerous: They'll go back to Chicago and hunt down the Crossbow Killer, the serial killer who murdered Victor.

And we're off for 90 minutes of madcap antics, completely at odds with the tone established in the first act. The cast is still good -- Everett does nicely with the transition from bitter, grieving widower to the hero surprised at his own recklessness; Redgrave is quite good as Victor's sister, determined to protect his reputation at any cost; and even Bates almost manages to pull off her character's radical switch from mousy frump to determined avenger.

We don't laugh as hard as we should, though, because we're so surprised at suddenly finding ourselves being asked to laugh at all. What this movie needed was one more pass through the editing room. Had they cut the first act by 15 minutes, emphasizing the humor in it, so that the rest of the movie didn't feel so jarring, it would have been a very pleasant comedy.

An interesting note on that Julie Andrews cameo: I don't think it gives away too much to say that she sings in her scenes (there are two; the first quite funny, the second less so, since it repeats exactly the same joke). The movie was made at a time when Andrews was unable to sing at all, due to medical problems; the singing is dubbed in from her pre-existing recordings.

January 16, 2005

MUSIC: "Saginaw, Michigan," Lefty Frizzell

Every now and then I hear a song that clicks with me so strongly that I have to let it take up residence in my brain. I'll listen to it nonstop for an hour or so every day for 4 or 5 days in a row, getting to know it better, letting it worm its way inside my head, absorbing it as completely as I can. I think of them as instant earworms.

I stumbled across one this week, which I'm still listening to obsessively: Lefty Frizzell's 1964 "Saginaw, Michigan."

I grew up listening to country music; my parents were big fans of all the 60s/70s singers who are legends today -- Merle Haggard, George and Tammy, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn. When I went off to college, of course, I abandoned country music as hopelessly uncool. It's only in the last ten years that I've started listening to it again, and most of what I've been listening to is the same stuff I grew up hearing.

So I knew the name Lefty Frizzell; I'd seen him pop up in countless interviews as someone who was a huge influence on nearly everyone from that generation of singers. But I'd somehow never actually heard any of his music. He died relatively young, in the mid 70s, so he never got to have the late-in-life rediscovery that so many country singers are getting these days (Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, for instance), and for the last decade of his life, he wasn't as successful as he'd been in the 50s, so my timing was just right -- born in '64 -- to miss him entirely.

But this week, I picked up one of Eric Records' "Hard to Find 45s on CD" anthologies, mainly because there were some 70s and 80s songs on it that I hadn't heard in a while, and on it was Lefty's last big hit, "Saginaw, Michigan." It's a story song -- poor boy outsmarts rich man in order to marry his daughter -- that packs romance, economic class, and revenge into a concise three minutes. (Songs that even mention economic class differences are fairly uncommon in American music, I think, except in country, where they've always been a significant part of the story.) It gives us a superficially happy ending -- father-in-law's out of the picture, and "we're the happiest man and wife in Saginaw, Michigan" -- but there's a dark undercurrent and hints that this marriage isn't going to be all that happy (and that the poor-boy narrator is going to be, in his own way, just as judgmental and unkind a man as father-in-law ever was).

And as soon as the song begins, from the first phrase -- "I was born in Saginaw, Michigan" -- you can't help but hear the connection to those singers who cite him as an influence; my first thought was, "Oh, so that's where Merle Haggard comes from...".

But what really struck me as I thought about this song was just how much good music there is that I'll likely never hear. This is not, after all, an obscure song; it was a chart-topping hit from someone who was a major star for 20 years, and it was popular within my own lifetime (just barely). And I had never heard of it before.

Recorded music as a significant part of American culture is roughly 70 or 80 years old, and there are millions of records out there, thousands more added to the pile every month. Even if I eliminate all the stuff in fields I know don't much interest me -- instrumental jazz and guitar rock among them in my case -- there's still more than I can ever hope to listen to. Throw in all of the books I'll never read, the movies I'll never see, the plays I'll never attend -- it's overwhelming.

The optimistic point of view would be to think "at least I'll never run out of entertainment options," and I try to think of it in that way. But I still want more time, time enough to hear and see and read it all.

January 15, 2005

TV: Queer Eye for the Straight Girl

After the success of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, it was inevitable that we’d get Queer Eye for the Straight Girl. The formula is the same: In place of the Fab Five from QE/Guy, QE/Girl gives us the Gal Pals, three gay men (Robbie, Danny, and Damon) and a lesbian (the fabulously-named Honey Labrador) who swoop into the home of a straight girl in need of a life makeover. They re-do her apartment, overhaul her wardrobe and makeup, provide cooking tips, and prepare her for some special event.

So why, on the basis of the first two episodes, is QE/Girl so much less interesting than QE/Guy?

The problem starts with the cast. The Fab Five are one of those rare magical flukes of casting; their personalities are big enough for TV without ever feeling forced or artificial, and they mesh perfectly. They seem to genuinely like one another and to enjoy spending time together. Even more important, they enjoy what they’re doing and take great joy from helping these men get their acts together.

The Gal Pals, on the other hand, have yet to develop any real group chemistry, and their attempts at witty banter feel forced; as individuals, they’re trying too hard to mimic the personalities of their QE/Guy predecessors (Robbie, in particular, wants so badly to be Carson that you can taste the desperation). They’re also cruder than the Fab Five, who have a knack for walking along the line between risque and vulgar without crossing it.

That takes us to the next problem with QE/Girl. A lot of the risque humor in QE/Guy, and a lot of the entertainment value, comes from the sexual tension between a group of gay men and a straight man (especially in a situation where the gay guys are the ones in control). QE/Girl doesn’t have that tension to play with; there’s no taboo being broken when a straight woman gives herself over to a group of gay men for fashion advice. It would have been interesting if the producers had made the Gal Pals an all-lesbian group, but even that dynamic wouldn’t have had the tension that is built into QE/Guy.

As interesting and culturally significant as QE/Guy’s straight-gay dynamic is, though, the real breakthrough of the show was that it was centered on men. Most makeover shows take women as their subjects; the few “makeover” shows that generally feature male guests are usually redoing the men’s stuff – a car, a house – not the men themselves. There’s an implicit criticism of their female subjects built into these shows: How sad are these women, the shows ask, who don’t already know how to dress, to do their own makeup?

Watch, for instance, TLC’s What Not to Wear (I’ve never seen the British version), in which a woman (only rarely is the show’s victim male) is ambushed by the hosts and told that her friends and family have reported her as someone in desperate need of help; they then show her their secretly filmed footage, criticizing her wardrobe at every step; finally, they toss almost all of her clothing into the trash. The show reinforces society’s message that women are supposed to know these things – fashion, style, makeup – and if they don’t, they must be scolded, humiliated, and punished for that failure. At its most extreme, this leads to Fox’s The Swan, in which a group of women are given diet and exercise advice, fashion and makeup assistance, and massive plastic surgery, leading to the climactic pageant in which all but one of the women are told that they still aren’t pretty enough.

So part of the sweetness that comes across when we watch QE/Guy is a cultural thing; men aren’t expected to know anything about grooming or interior design or cooking, and isn’t it adorable that this guy wants to learn? We’re predisposed to be sympathetic to him from the start, and the genuine fondness that the Fab Five feel for their subjects adds to that; the cultural assumption that women shouldn’t need help with these things means that QE/Girl has to work a lot harder to win our sympathy and interest in its subjects.

To be sure, QE/Girl is a far kinder show than What Not to Wear and most of the other makeover shows; it shares QE/Guy’s “we’re not here to change you; we’re here to help you be the best possible you” philosophy, and like the Fab Five, the Gal Pals seem to genuinely enjoy what they’re doing, and to take real joy from watching their subjects blossom. (One thing that’s striking in the first two episodes is how dramatically the womens' confidence increases over the course of the show; it’s a sad comment on how we teach women to equate beauty and self-worth.) Queer Eye for the Straight Girl isn’t an awful show; it’s good-natured and pleasant, and as the Gal Pals grow more comfortable on screen and their interactions less forced, it may well become quite entertaining. But it’s always going to feel like a pale imitation of the original.

January 10, 2005

BOOKS: Never Coming to a Theater Near You, Kenneth Turan (2004)

Turan is film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Morning Edition. Here, he collects roughly 150 of his Times reviews (with minor editing and updating), focusing on movies that probably didn't play at the multiplex in most smaller cities, or that didn't get the attention Turan thinks they deserved.

The book's divided into five sections: English-language films, foreign-language films, documentaries, classics, and "Retrospectives." That last section is a collection of essays focusing on specific directors (Max Ophuls, Anthony Mann) or types of movies (Yiddish cinema, pre-Code Hollywood) , each one generally written in response to a festival of such films.

Turan's a nice writer, with a particular knack for openings that draw you in, like this one:

Flirting With Disaster doesn't just begin, it irrepressibly erupts,
like champagne too impatient to stay in the glass.

or this:

Bela Lugosi may have made it look easy, but being one of the undead, Cronos insists, is hardly a simple thing

He's skilled at explaining why a movie works (or doesn't, though given the nature of this collection, that's fairly rare here) and at giving just enough information about the story to interest you without giving away key plot twists.

I may actually be at something of a disadvantage in reading this book. Living in Los Angeles means that I've had the chance to see most of these movies, and being a movie fanatic means that I actually seen more than half of them. Even so, I've stumbled across a few movies that are being added to my Netflix list (Speaking in Strings and Laws of Gravity, for instance), and it was great fun being reminded of several obscurities I'd enjoyed (the documentary East Side Story, a history of movie musicals from behind the Iron Curtain, or the lovely Australian movie Proof, featuring Russell Crowe and Hugo Weaving in early roles).

And even when Turan tackles a movie I didn't care for (Waking Ned Devine comes to mind), he writes about it in such a way that I can understand why he enjoyed it, and I'm left feeling slightly more charitable about the movie than I had been.

This is entertaining reading, and if you're not in one of the major media markets, it's a great resource for that next trip to the video store.

January 09, 2005

TV: Committed

First two episodes of this ran last week, and I liked it a lot. It's a dating-couple sitcom, but the characters are quirkier than usual for TV (some, I suspect, will be annoyed and find them to be nothing but quirks), and the actors are appealing.

Josh Cooke and Jennifer Finnigan star as Nate and Marni, who meet on a blind date in the pilot; the second episode jumps ahead at least a few weeks, and they're now a couple. Nate's hopelessly neurotic, terrified of elevators and obsessively worrying about whether emergency exits are blocked. He's got an Ivy League degree, but works in a used-record store because his family has a history of great success followed by spectacular burnout and early death; "every day I work in that record store is a day I'm cheating my destiny."

Marni is eccentric and unfailingly optimistic, and Finnigan has a very distinctive style. Her vocal timbre and rhythms aren't quite like anyone else, and she knows how to use them to get a laugh even when the joke isn't all that funny.

Each has a sidekick, who thus far aren't terribly interesting, but may develop with time into interesting characters. Bowie (Darius McCrary) works with Nate at the record store, and is not shy about offering advice; Tess (Tammy Lynn Michaels) works as a nanny across the hall from Marni's apartment, and is the show's resident wisecracking know-it-all.

The fifth regular character is the weirdest: Tom Poston as a morose clown who lives in Marni's closet. It's a largely silent role, and Poston plays his sight gags with impeccable timing; he's sort of a slower, older Kramer, walking out of his closet every now and then to interrupt the main action.

The writing has some edge to it; you won't find many sitcoms in which "you can't touch me there; you're my uncle" is a punchline, and the second episode is built around Nate's awkward relationship with Marni's friend, Todd, a black man in a wheelchair.

I think it's probably too offbeat to be a massive hit, but if the writing holds up over time and the supporting characters are developed a bit, this could be a really good one.

MUSIC: A Sunday Sampler

Lots of 60s box sets added to iTunes/iPod this week -- Nuggets and Nuggets II, Phil Spector, Simon & Garfunkel, Doo Wop Box III -- taking the total to just over 900 songs.

Highlights of the week:

"Words Enough to Tell You," a mid-60s song from Sweden's The Mascots which sounds like an early Beatles song.

"Stay Awhile," by the Clovers. Doo-wop with a weird tinkling piano accent and a fabulous electric bass riff.

This week's 20-song sampling:

The Mascots, “Words Enough to Tell You”
Huey Lewis & the News, “If This Is It”
ABBA, “Angel Eyes”
Anne Murray, “Allegheny Moon”
The Bobs, “Bird on a Wire”
Bobby Bloom, “Montego Bay”
Jessica Molaskey, “All the Cats Join In”
Tracey Ullman, “Bad Motorcycle”
The Chords, “Sh-Boom”
Al Green & Annie Lennox, “Put a Little Love in Your Heart”
Mindy Smith, “Come to Jesus”
Darlene Love, “A Fine, Fine Boy”
Glass Bottle, “I Ain’t Got Time Anymore”
Tears for Fears, “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”
June Carter Cash, “I Used to Be Somebody”
Clay Aiken, “Solitaire”
The Magnetic Fields, “Deep Sea Diving Suit”
Carlene Carter, “Hallelujah in My Heart”
The Gladiolas, “Little Darlin’”

The Valentines, “Don’t Say Goodnight”

January 08, 2005

TV: Wickedly Perfect and The Will

More mediocre reality shows from CBS.

Wickedly Perfect and The Will sum up all of the things that people hate about reality TV. The competitions are contrived, and in the case of The Will, borderline offensive; the people are all chosen solely for "entertainment" value, which is to say obnoxiousness.

Wickedly Perfect gives us a dozen would-be Martha Stewarts competing to be the "next great stylemaker." All of them are bitchy and unpleasant, and from the little we've seen of their crafts in the first episode, none of them are particularly creative or talented. The show itself isn't bad enough to get upset about, but it's never terribly interesting, either.

The Will is worse. Here, we get a 71-year-old rancher who can't decide which of his family members should inherit his estate, and so is putting them through a competition; one person is "cut from the will" each week, and the surviving contestant wins it all. (Unless, of course, Bill decides to change his will at some point; can't imagine how the show could prevent him from doing so.) The show, apparently unable to round up enough actual family members, has as part of its "family" Bill's best friend, one of his wife's employees, and his stepson's ex-girlfriend.

Each show has, to its credit, come up with a relatively novel way of determining who's eliminated each week. Wickedly Perfect requires its players to compete in team challenges while also completing individual projects; the judges -- stylist David Evangelista, chef Bobby Flay, and author Candace Bushnell -- choose the winning team entry, then choose the two worst individual projects from the losing team; those two are the people who are subject to elimination by their team. The Will has an "inheritance chain;" the potential heir who wins each show's challenge chooses the person he wants to save, then that person chooses someone, and so on, and the last person chosen is the one "written out of the will."

The problem with shows like these (and from earlier in the week, Who's Your Daddy?, which was a ratings flop -- Hooray!) is that people look at them and use them as an excuse to condemn all reality TV as exploitative trash; it's like condemning all novels because Danielle Steel is a hack.

The best reality TV -- Survivor, The Amazing Race, Bravo's new Project Runway, or non-competition shows like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy -- is carefully made entertainment, and every bit as worthwhile as the best scripted TV.

January 06, 2005

BOOKS: Very Bad Deaths, Spider Robinson (2004)

One of the most appealing things about Spider Robinson's writing is that his characters are such good people. Occasionally, they're so good -- decent and kind and funny and humane to a fault -- that you could almost become annoyed with them; the Callahan's Bar series falls into this pit once in a while.

The principal villain in Robinson's Very Bad Deaths is not a good person; he's the most evil villain I can ever remember Robinson creating. Allen is a serial sadist, who has studied all of the ways pain can be inflicted -- physical, emotional, mental -- and become a master of all of them. And the torture/murders he's planning to commit next week will be his masterpiece.

Unfortunately, those plans have been discovered by Zudie, who reads minds (this is the only remotely SF element in this book, which is otherwise a solidly mainstream thriller). Unfortunately, Zudie doesn't have enough details to find either Allen or the family he plans to kill. He can't go to the police himself; reading minds, it turns out, is intensely painful, and Zudie lives in remote isolation, avoiding human contact as much as possible.

That's where our narrator, Russell, comes in. Russell was Zudie's college roommate, and is one of the very few people whose company Zudie can tolerate for any length of time. Zudie assigns Russell the task of convincing the police that the murders are going to happen, and helping them find Allen.

It's a pretty nifty premise, and Robinson does a nice job of working out all the possible twists and complications arising from this set of characters. Russell and Zudie (and Nika, the police officer who winds up helping them) are solidly in Robinson's tradition of ultra-decent people, and they are well aware of the ethical implications of their actions at every turn.

As always, Robinson's prose is smooth and entertaining, without being flashy or calling attention to itself. Don't let the horribly ugly cover art chase you away; this is a solidly crafted thriller.

BOOKS: "Reading at Risk" Symposium

This will be a long post, but I think book readers will find it interesting. A few months back, the National Endowment for the Arts released a report called "Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America." It was not an optimistic report, and today, NEA Chairman Dana Gioia led a symposium on the report at the Los Angeles Public Library.

Gioia began by presenting a summary of the findings. You've probably heard them, but in brief: Less than half of American adults (46.7%) had read any literature -- defined as novels, short stories, poetry, or drama in any format, including online -- in the previous 12 months, down from 54% ten years ago, and 57% twenty years ago.

The decline is accelerating, especially among the youngest adults (18-34), and crosses all demographics -- age, gender, race, geographic location. (One minor exception: Reading among the ethnic group classed as "Other" by the Bureau of the Census, which conducted the survey, rose by one percentage point from ten years ago; this group is made up primarily of Asian-Americans.)

In response to one common objection that's been raised to the study, Gioia noted that publishing industry statistics suggest that had non-fiction reading been included, the drop would have been smaller, especially among men, but would still be alarming.

Though no single factor can fully explain the drop in reading, the report notes the increasing prevalence of electronic media -- DVD, computers, video games -- as one factor. As a percentage of total entertainment spending, spending on electronic media has quadrupled in the last decade, while spending on books has decreased slightly. Gioia believes that society is increasingly "bifurcating" between people who spend their leisure time watching TV and DVDs and browsing the web, and "people who leave their houses."

"Culture is a conversation," said Gioia as he introduced the three panelists who would take part in today's conversation: California State Librarian Susan Hildreth; book critic and San Francisco Chronicle columnist David Kipen; and Steve Wasserman, editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review.

In her remarks, Hildreth struck the most optimistic tone of the afternoon, noting that public library circulation has steadily increased since the mid-90s, and rose 6% between 2000 and 2003. (She did not, however, comment on how much of that circulation is made up of books.) She noted that only four activities -- watching TV, going to the movies, exercise, and gardening -- were participated in by more people than reading, and wondering if the increase in online reading might have led to under-reporting by readers who don't think of their web browsing as reading. She also noted the growing popularity of "One Book, One City/State" programs in the last few years.

Book groups in general have been growing in popularity of late, Hildreth noted, and suggested that for many readers, book groups may be a way to develop the sort of critical reading skills that they didn't get in college, as the traditional liberal arts education has given way to more career-oriented degrees. She also suggested that one tool librarians have to help fight the decline in reading is readers' advisory, which has been somewhat in decline as libraries have focused on technology and web presence.

Kipen spoke next, and responded to Gioia's call for "stupid ideas" by noting that San Francisco was currently embarking on an ambitious library renovation program, even as Salinas, not too far away, was planning to close its libraries for lack of funding. While it is good that San Francisco has funding for such a program, Kipen argued, it is "absurd" that such inequalities in funding exist, and some mechanism needs to be developed to more equitably fund all of our public libraries.

Next, Kipen noted that the increasing conglomerization of publishing has led to demands for higher profits; publishers who were once happy with 5% profits are now pressured for 15% by their corporate owners. Publishers "need to be shaken down" and accept lower profits if they hope to continue to have any profits.

Finally, Kipen wondered if satellite radio companies XM and Sirius could be persuaded to devote one of their 100-plus channels to books -- author interviews, on-air book group discussions, books-on-tape broadcasts -- as a radio equivalent to C-SPAN's Book TV.

Last up was Wasserman, who is a remarkably good extemporaneous speaker. He began by noting that the American "experiment in mass literacy is historically unprecedented," and that the collapse of American public education over the last twenty years is surely a factor in the decline of reading. Our "McLuhanite distress at the advancement of technological distraction" is not enough to solve the problem; we must deal with the political dimension as well.

Part of the problem, Wasserman suggested, is that people are simply overwhelmed with choices; the number of titles published each year has more than doubled in the last decade, and it appears that "no book, however mediocre, goes unpublished in America today." With so many choices, and no good way to separate the wheat from the chaff, many potential readers may have simply given up.

In closing remarks, Gioia agreed with Wasserman that part of the problem lies with the American educational system, which he described as "broken at so many levels" that money alone cannot fix it; it is a problem of vision. In response to an audience question, Gioia said that the decline in reading is similar, though far less dramatic, in western Europe, and worried about the long-range implications; these trends, he claims, are "incompatible with democracy."

It was an interesting discussion. I do think that the trend is real, though I am less worried by it than the panelists were; I think Hildreth is probably correct to suggest that online reading is under-reported, and I do not worry that we are heading, as Gioia, suggests, for a second Middle Ages, when a small literate class serves as interpreters and disseminators of information to the predominantly oral culture of the masses. There was something of a Chicken Little quality to the proceedings, a "wallowing in voluptuous despair," as Wasserman put it.

January 03, 2005

TV: On "Who's Your Daddy?": A Sermonette

Is there any institution left for Fox to trash? They've made a mockery out of dating and marriage; they've created a show about gay/straight men that was so vile even they couldn't bring themselves to actually air it; and now they're turning the reunion of child and birth parent into a fun-filled 90-minute game show.

I hate to admit it, but there's a part of me that actually wants to watch this thing, just to see how horrific it really is.

And if there were a button on the remote that let me tell the network, "Please don't think I'm watching this because I approve; I'm watching in horror and shock and loathing," then I might.

But there is no such button, and watching it would just be taken as approval and enjoyment, and it would encourage Fox to air more of the six episodes they've reportedly filmed.

So I won't watch it, and I hope you won't either.

January 02, 2005

MOVIES: Best of 2004

If they let me pick the Oscar nominees, here's what you'd see in the biggest categories:

House of Flying Daggers
The Incredibles
Bad Education
The Five Obstructions

The top three are awfully close, and if you asked me tomorrow, they'd probably be in a different order. The rest of my top ten for the year: Paper Clips, Touching the Void, Kitchen Stories, Dogville, and The Door in the Floor. Not a good year for the Hollywood studios.

Gael Garcia Bernal, Bad Education
Jeff Bridges, The Door in the Floor
Colin Farrell, A Home at the End of the World
Jamie Foxx, Ray
Paul Giamatti, Sideways

Not a surprising list, I suppose, with the exception of Farrell, whose character was a walking distillation of all of the worst "all you need is love" excesses of the 60s. Bobby was so trusting and innocent and loving that you should have wanted to smack some sense into him; Farrell managed to make him not only believable, but likable.

Jennifer Garner, 13 Going on 30
Nicole Kidman, Dogville
Tea Leoni, Spanglish
Isabella Rossellini, The Saddest Music in the World
Uma Thurman, Kill Bill Volume 2

There's a list of names you won't hear on Oscar nomination day. It was an absolutely horrible year for leading female roles, and you had to look in some weird places to find them. Garner, in the female version of Big, was every bit as good as Tom Hanks had been; Leoni's performance was trashed by most critics, but I thought it was a remarkable and brave performance. Rossellini in Saddest Music may have been more a case of ideal casting than of great acting, but either way, she was perfect for the part.

Thomas Haden Church, Sideways
Phil Davis, Vera Drake
Gordon Liu, Kill Bill Volume 2
Josh Peck, Mean Creek
Peter Sarsgaard, Kinsey

Not enough people saw Mean Creek, in large part because it was such a miserably hard thing to market. It was rated R, so teens couldn't get in; it was a movie about teens, so a lot of adults wrote it off. The ad campaign that made it look like a stupid Deliverance ripoff didn't help. But it was a fine small movie, with a talented cast of young actors (Rory Culkin was the last name I cut from my Best Actor list), and Josh Peck's work as the bully was marvelous stuff.

Cate Blanchett, The Aviator
Regina King, Ray
Laura Linney, Kinsey
Virginia Madsen, Sideways
Meryl Streep, The Manchurian Candidate

Not much to say about this group, except that Regina King's spot could just as easily have been filled by Sharon Warren or Kerry Washington, both also from Ray.

MUSIC: A Sunday Sampler

Slowly, my music collection is getting loaded into iTunes and onto the iPod. It takes a while, mainly because I don't load entire CDs, only the songs I actually like. I'm currently at just over 700 songs, with at least 80% of my collection left to wade through. Most recent addition: lots of George Jones.

A 20-song sample of the collection thus far, courtesy of iTunes shuffle play:

George Jones & Tammy Wynette, “Golden Ring”
Charlie Louvin, “I Will Go Sailing No More”
MFSB & The Three Degrees, “T.S.O.P. (The Sound of Philadelphia)”
Shelby Lynne, “10 Rocks”
Dusty Springfield, “The Look of Love”
John Langford & Sally Timms, “Broken Bottle”
R. Dean Taylor, “Indiana Wants Me”
June Carter Cash, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”
The Mavericks, “Pretend”
The Flamingos, “I Only Have Eyes for You”
Barenaked Ladies, “Lovers in a Dangerous Time”
Electric Light Orchestra, “Don’t Bring Me Down”
Agnetha Faltskog, “Fly Me to the Moon”
Rosie Thomas, “Wedding Day”
Howard Jones, “No One Is to Blame”
ABBA, “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)”
Terry Tufts, “For Lovin’ Me”
David Dundas, “Jeans On”
Pink Martini, “Let’s Never Stop Falling in Love”
Tommy James, “Draggin’ the Line”