Empty spirit/ In a vacant space

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Wish I’d Never Bought This Hyundai

by gradus22

The Walking Dead kicked off it’s fourth season this Sunday with a perfectly watchable episode – there was some light thematic work, a little character movement and a lot of zombies getting their heads caved in. Overall, it had a back-to-school feel to it: say hello to all your old friends, and hey, look, here’s the new class. This year we’ve got D’Angelo Barksdale, whose character has some type of an alcohol problem, I wonder how long he’ll stick around.
When The Walking Dead premiered, it was planned as part of AMC’s Emmy machine, but it went against the trend and somehow traded critical success for a wide viewership; Sunday’s premiere was seen by approximately three times as many people who saw the Breaking Bad finale. The show’s success is based on the fairly obvious appeal of an already popular genre in a medium that had never figured out a way to broadcast it properly. Zombie movies had been insanely popular and successful for decades, but any concept involving multiple murders per episode was never going to make a network television. Enter AMC.
Still, I think there’s a certain shelf life for any story that relies on the deaths of its principal characters as plot delivery system. If the rate of attrition is too high, there’s no continuity, too low and it gets dull. You can bring in new characters to replace the old ones, but it’s never quite the same. Popular characters and children usually survive, and so on. And no matter how dark the series’ premise may be, it wears thin after a while. The best example is probably Oz, HBO’s prison show; by the eighth season, the show’s depiction of male-on-male rape was no longer horrifying or even thought-provoking, it was laughable.  
I have absolutely no complaints about a show that delivers exactly everything it promises, but I can’t say that The Walking Dead is really appointment television anymore. It is, however, still the only place on network television where you can find zombies, samurai swords, crossbows, motorcycles – fanboy marks of authenticity – in one place on a reliable basis. In the first season, I was invested in sheriff Rick, deputy Shane, the wife and the son who were caught between them. The show, drawing on already successful source material, offered a type of novelistic story-telling that I had not seen on television before: Rick wakes up from a coma to discover a broken world and tries to find his family. He encounters a chained door with an ominous message scrawled on it. The gripping last half of the pilot had Rick struggling against an insurmountable number of zombies, escape into a tank, and left him surrounded, helpless with no conceivable way out. The second season was still fun: Rick vs. Shane ran out of string and it met its inevitable conclusion, which was fun, but not quite as novel. The third season introduced new conflicts and characters, but a post-apocalyptic landscape is somewhat necessarily averse to world-building. And slowly, all those cynical, back-of-the-movie-theater observations started to intrude. The survivors’ light green 2011 Hyundai Tucson, still clean, reliable, and otherwise completely untouched by chaos and horror around it, became a regular part of the viewing experience. The fact that it was clearly a paid promotional consideration on the part of Hyundai just enhanced the viewing experience. At first, it was just a funny observation, like the extraneous red-shirted crew member from the original Star Trek; if you want to survive the zombie apocalypse, take the Hyundai. By the end of the third season, I was looking for it in every scene. At the start of the fourth, I am now more invested in the light green 2011 Hyundai Tucson than any of the characters. I was worried that Hyundai might have pulled their support, but there it was in this week’s episode, an emerald in a sea of lesser stones, still pristine under a light, non-disfiguring layer of dust.
I’ve never completely bought into the fear of advertising. I understand that advertising preys on people’s insecurities, it convinces people that they need things that they don’t and that it has had horrible consequences on female or underage viewers. Advertising did play a pivotal role in conveying cigarette smoke to the lungs of young people. But the pervasive fear, the idea that advertising is a form of brain-washing, still feels very 1990s to me: Generation X, David Foster Wallace, Pearl Jam protesting Ticketmaster. In a late stage capitalist economic system, is anyone over the age of fourteen really fooled by corporate advertising anymore? I expect corporations to do everything short of murder to get my money, and I suspect lots of people feel the same way. To me, the Hyundai-AMC relationship seems a like a workable Faustian contract. Hyundai can buy promotional consideration in The Walking Dead – money that fills AMC’s coffers, sure, but also pays the cast and crew so that I can continue to watch it for free. In exchange, Hyundai can either broadcast commercials, which I can skip or otherwise ignore, or go for broke, and try for some hilariously inept stealth marketing strategy. Sure, there’s some brand recognition and awareness gains here, and ironic purchases are made with very unironic dollars, but some essential facts remain: I have no desire to ever buy or own a light green 2011 Hyundai Tucson, or any type of Hyundai. I would not accept one as a gift. I will never visit the Hyundai website to learn more about the available models or accessories. And what’s more, I don’t know anyone who disagrees with me here. I don’t have a degree in marketing, but I have to wonder if Hyundai is really spending their promotional dollars effectively here.
If I was in charge of marketing at Hyundai or even just a writer for The Walking Dead, I would demand more scenes with or about the light green 2011 Hyundai Tucson. There has never been a more organic opportunity to deliver the creepiest part of every car dealership’s sales pitch – how easy it is to get blood, brains and fecal matter out of the upholstery. Characters could explain the safety features as they flee for their lives from swarms of zombies. But why stop there? It could be a central part of the plot. Sheriff Rick, still grieving for his wife, could have hallucinations of an eerily luminescent light green 2011 Hyundai Tucson. Daryl, the reformed redneck, could credit Hyundai’s impeccable Korean engineering for his change of heart.
Who am I kidding? Even as just a fan of the show, I would like to see more of the light green 2011 Hyundai Tucson. I’m not sure if I want cast members to ever explain why it’s always clean or not. Part of me wants to see the light green 2011 Hyundai Tucson to get torn apart by zombies so that new members of the Hyundai family can be introduced. Another part of me wants the car to just flat out start talking, I’m sorry to say. I think the Hyundai Tucson should be a credited part of the cast with its own backstory, flashback episode and emotional arc. I want it featured in all of AMC’s promos. I want the Hyundai Tucson interviewed at Comic-Con and on the red carpet for the premiere. I want it to resurface on another show in a couple of years when the spin-off doesn’t work out. Hyundai in the morning. Hyundai at night. As long as it doesn’t touch my wallet, it’s fine with me. Have you seen the new Honda CR-V? They make some pretty good cars, don’t they?


Some Final Thoughts on FX’s The Bridge

by gradus22

the bridge fx posterLet’s give FX some credit for trying.

In the last few years, FX has given us some solid dramas – Justified, Sons of Anarchy, and The Americans, to name a few. They’ve all had their moments – Justified, despite its pulp origins and ambitions, pulled off some great season-long story arcs, let Timothy Olyphant revisit his Deadwood role, and embraced a cutting, low-key country humor along the way. Sons of Anarchy’s “Sopranos meets Hamlet as told through a motorcycle gang” was bloody, explosive and fun, at least for a while. And who knew that Felicity, of all people, would be so terrifying as a KGB spy? Not only were these good halfway houses for former series stars, these were great ideas for tv shows. Given a one sentence premise document for each of these shows, who didn’t want to learn more? If these shows never quite reached the must-watch, Mad MenBreaking Bad plateau, at least they were different and refreshing. FX could be greenlighting New York police procedurals, fat-guy and skinny-wife sitcoms, subversive-but-not-in-a-good-way bro-comedies or over-the-top network style melodrama, and they went with these instead. That has to mean something, right?

Which brings to that confounded Bridge, another great idea show. The inspirational material – the disturbing number of women who been murdered or gone missing around Juarez – is a story disturbing and different enough to merit its own show. The leads are appealing, at least on paper: Diane Kruger as a damaged American detective with Asperber’s, and Demian Bichir as her Mexican counterpart, which should provide some degree of mismatched partner scripting humor, but the dynamic just isn’t there. Kruger’s depiction of a character with Asperbers’ sometimes sacrifices entertainment value for truth, which is not necessarily the best choice to make for a television show, as the success of The Big Bang Theory shows. Kruger’s character wins you over through prolonged exposure; she has trouble with emotional subtlety, she can’t lie or read a situation correctly, but her good intentions come through eventually, it’s frustrating for the other characters as well as the audience. Bichir has a charm and a comedic sensibility of his own, but it’s not clear if he’s a lead for this show, or if the writer’s haven’t found his character yet.

El Paso and Juarez are filled with arresting imagery that doesn’t get a lot of TV time otherwise, and the supporting cast builds an odd, sub-Lynchian atmosphere that’s distinctly its own. Characters have lots of unexplained tics and vocal impediments. Matthew Lillard makes a surprisingly strong comedic showing as a douchebaggy reporter with a drug problem. He doesn’t do anything that you didn’t seehim do  in 1998, but it’s nice to remember that he had a certain type of charm at one point. He might be due for a Jason Batemanish revival; it’s nice to have him back, and frankly, he’s suffered enough. The pieces for a good show are certainly there, but they aren’t in the right places, at least not yet. In 2666 (every post on The Bridge must include one 2666 reference, so here’s mine), Roberto Bolano approached the Juarez murders by insinuating that they were the work of one deranged man, and introducing a group of detectives to hunt him. After many long pages of detailed murder scenes, the detectives rest at a local bar. One of the police officers tells a sexist joke. Another joins in, and then another, and the detectives trade sexist jokes and the scene continues long after the initial humor wears off. It’s Bolano’s way of pointing out that the Juarez murders could not possibly be the work of one person, or a group of demented individuals, but something from a deeper, more frightening problem implicating all of human nature. It’s a brutal passage and a grueling work to read, and it takes a long time to build the desired effect. It remains to be seen if The Bridge will follow this example.

The first season of The Bridge left many questions unanswered, but none more compelling than this: is that Demian Bichir singing the theme song over the opening credits? And if not, can we get Demian Bichir for season two? Is that too much to ask? It worked for Frasier and his tossed salads and scrambled eggs, didn’t it? (Seriously though – how the hell did that happen?) Opening montages, no matter how well put together, are boring by the second episode anyway. I’m pretty sure Gilmore Girls (and I want to say Ally McBeal? Don’t ask me how I know these things) featured awkwardly cast musicians for that sole purpose. The Wire had that guy who played Bubbles’ drug counselor. Seinfeld originally began with Jerry’s standup. Donald Glover even sings the theme song for Community. (That last one might not be true.) Wouldn’t your enjoyment of every show be demonstrably improved if you knew that a cast member was performing the theme song? It would be like those public schools that insist that the teachers coach the sports teams. Better yet, the credited cast should be required to perform the song, Muppets-style, live on television, using whatever musical skills they – and they alone – can muster. Why can’t this happen?


by gradus22

As you may or may not already be aware, the Milwaukee Bucks, my favorite basketball and team and chosen form of masochism, selected a Greek teenager named Giannis Antetokounmpo (or Γιάννης Αντετοκούνμπο in the Greek alphabet) in this year’s NBA draft. This is intriguing for several reasons:

1) Watching basketball jersey manufacturers struggle to get a thirteen-letter last name to fit on the back of a NBA jersey. Will they use smaller letters? Will the name be printed in a 270 degree arc? In either case, don’t plan on reading it from the cheap seats.

2) Antetokounmpo was born in Greece, but his parents are originally Nigerian.  I suppose this could make him “Nigerian-Greek,” if second-generation national identities can be said to have any real meaning or purpose. If only we had Kurt Vonnegut here to define “granfaloon” again. For what it’s worth, Antetokounmpo played on the Greek national team, and waved a Greek flag when he was drafted.

3) That’s Ray Allen’s old number. I’m not sure how I feel about that.

3) “Antetokounmpo” has been translated at least twice – converted into the Greek alphabet and then into English. Let me explain. The seemingly unpronounceable “nmp” combination is the letter-for-letter translation of “νμπ,” which is pronounced like an English “b,”  – a letter otherwise unrepresented in the Greek alphabet. (English speakers and mathematicians may insist that the second letter of the Greek alphabet, b, is pronounced “beta” with a hard “B” as in “brother,” but those stubborn Greeks just keep pronouncing it like “Velveeta” all the same.) If Giannis Antetokounmpo’s parents had emigrated to an English-speaking country, his name would have probably been transliterated into a slightly more manageable, “Antetokumbo” instead. I think most Americans would read that name and assume that he was Nigerian – well, at least from some country in the African continent, let’s be realistic. As it is, there’s a distinctly Greek consonant combination stuck in there. His name reads as both Greek and Nigerian. In the last fifty years, it’s been exciting to watch those national and ethnic identities break down, but you rarely get such an immediately visible example.

4) Since the 2009 housing crash, Greek politics has gone completely off the rails. In the 2012 elections, the right-wing “Golden Dawn” party – for all intents and purposes, the Greek neo-Nazis party – gained eighteen seats in the Greek legislature. Their popularity has continued to swell since then; Golden Dawn is currently the third most popular political party in Greece. It’s terrifying and disturbing. When Antetokounmpo was drafted, the leader of the Golden Dawn party compared him to a chimpanzee and was rightly condemned by Greece’s more mainstream politicians. Obviously, my own sympathies will lie with anyone who opposes neo-Nazis in any form, but a Greek teenager who plays for the Milwaukee Bucks? It’s like it’s been plucked from interior monologue already. Come to think of it, I think the last time a Greek teenager came into conflict with the Nazis was The Guns of Navarone. I love that movie! This just keeps getting better and better.

5) As the roster currently stands, the Bucks are poised to challenge for the eighth seed in the East Conference, a position that will get them a consecutive invitation to lose to Miami in the first round of the playoffs. If you watched any of that series this summer (and I don’t blame you for skipping it), you would not be eager to repeat the experience. If Antetokounmpo, his game, his backstory, his jersey, the spelling of his last name, or anything else Antetokounmpo-related can scrub those images of Monta Ellis taking contested three-point shots from my memory, I’ll be grateful.


by gradus22

I’ve been watching Luther for the last couple of weeks, and I have to say that I whole-heartedly recommend it. I think I can boil this show down its component parts pretty easily – it’s got Idris Elba in a starring role, and it’s essentially the British version of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, in both character and color scheme. Before we go any further, I should probably point out that Idris Elba doesn’t actually wear the costume to do his crime-fighting, but his character is still one of those obsessive TV detectives with a broken family life, an overdeveloped conscience, and a convenient set of lunatics on the opposing team to encourage the audience to wonder Just Who Is The Crazy One, but never force them into any truly uncomfortable territory. Luther never does anything truly objectionable, if he breaks the law, it’s For the Right Reasons, if he kills someone They Deserved It. It’s the shape and pattern of an anti-hero but never the real thing. Batman. Phillip Marlowe. Bruce Willis in Die Hard or Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon or any number of aging character actors who somehow get their own TV shows years after they stopped caring but still need the work. Or, if you prefer, we could re-appropriate Dookie’s summary of Dexter from the fifth season of The Wire: he’s a serial killer, but he only be killing other serial killers. (A seriously underrated moment from The Wire, by the way. You can just see Dexter wilting away. The Emmys are a joke.)

I’ve been over this before, but the whole obsessive cop story is a premise that has made good movies and bad movies, good TV shows and bad shows, and there will be shows about demented police officers long after we’re all in the ground. It’s probably a story as old as time. “Dostoevsky” and “brooding protagonist” go hand in hand. Hamlet. The rest of Law & Order: Shakespearean Tragedies Unit. I wouldn’t be surprised if cave paintings featured brooding Cro-Magnons looking for mastodon poachers. Or if original drafts of Don Quixote had the sad-countenanced knight and Sancho Panza hunting a cannibal through La Mancha. The good news about this ubiquity is that it provides the perfect environment to test an actor’s skills. And I have to say that Idris Elba does pretty fucking well. To be fair, it’s not like he’s working from a deficit – “Idris Elba” is practically a synonym for “sexually attractive” in today’s culture – but it’s easy to forget that the guy can really act. He was great as Stringer Bell, but he was surrounded by other great actors, and he was part of the greatest television show ever at the time. It was hard to get an accurate idea. In Luther, unencumbered by strange accents or complex character development, Idris Elba punches doors, pleads with his wife, interrogates suspects, gets shot at, and it’s all great. The man fucking owns it. It’s a lot of fun. Elba’s got those big brooding eyes and a hulking, limping gait that make him perfect for this sort of tragic superhero story. (People of the world who find Idris Elba attractive: no one will ever argue with you.) And to think, American media had this guy guest-starring in The Office? A second banana in the Thor movie? How is this guy not a movie star?

But a good police story is always a function of its leads, and Luther’s supporting psychopaths can be a little uneven. Ruth Wilson – an actress best known for a Jane Eyre adaptation that I certainly haven’t seen, thank you very much – sets the bar almost impossibly high. She knows her role and plays it perfectly – she’s in pure Hannibal Lector mode the whole time, almost impossibly entertaining, simultaneously funny and terrifying. I’m sure that Hollywood will manage to hide her in bland supporting roles for the next decade.

A letter to Wes about Private Empire

by gradus22


The geese are flying south for the winter. Breaking Bad is over. All over the country, college freshmen are breaking up with their high school sweethearts. It’s time to come back to Versuseverythingland.

When did corporations become the default villain in American films? The most recent example I can think of is probably Avatar – the James Cameron movie with the eight-foot tall smurfs, not the one directed by M. Night Shymalan – but it’s a trope you can expect to see at least once during the summer blockbluster season. It was to remarkably easy to compare Avatar to Aliens when it came out. Critics (or rather, people with internet connections who tried to take themselves seriously after watching Avatar) liked to point out that Avatar reversed the man-machine fight from Aliens: in Aliens, you were rooting for Ellen Ripley in the robotic exoskeleton; in Avatar, the filmmakers clearly tried to get you to root for Sam Worthington’s CGI alien, even if a scenery-chewing Stephen Lang was twice as entertaining. This role reversal point is a solid observation, and an excellent idea for an eighth-grade research project if you need one, but to me, those anonymous evil corporations are still the most interesting part.

In Aliens, all corporate stooge Paul Reiser needed to do to earn our hate was lock poor Ripley in the same room with the alien hatchling and watch as it tried to kill her. It was cold-blooded, terrifying, understated, perfect for the character and the movie, and from a plausible corporate decision-making standpoint, it  made sense – it kept the company’s investment while preserving plausible deniability. Paul Reiser returned to his life in New York with Helen Hunt, but America never really forgave him. We knew that there was something going beneath that placid, upper west-side demeanor.As the Evil CEO in Avatar, Giovanni Ribisi was asked to do pretty much everything except point to a chart that listed the specific monetary value of human life from the get-go. That part was twice as cartoonish as any of the aliens could have ever been. Compared to the headlines of the day or elaborate conspiracies thought up on the internet, the Avatar corporation barely rated as a villain at all. The nineties version of James Cameron would never have let that happen. Until we can do more testing in a real-time environment, I suggest we use Aliens to evaluate corporate decision-making on a spaceship full of Alien monsters. But I have to ask, how is it that the corporate villain from the last century has a better feel for contemporary corporate culture than anything more current?

It’s no mistake that people say we’re living in a new golden age of corporate power. You’ll find proof of this just about anywhere you look: Citizens United, the growing income gap, examples are almost too numerous to mention and certainly too depressing for me to list here. But how do you trace these symptoms back to the source? How do today’s corporations really act? Private Empire, Steve Coll’s history of ExxonMobil from Exxon Valdez to Deepwater Horizon spill, reads like an unfinished detective novel. ExxonMobil is surrounded by third-world dictators, human rights violations, legal, ethical and scientific questions, but nothing seems to stick. Remember when the Ford Motor Company was setting honey traps for Ralph Nader? Or when cigarette companies discovered irrefutable links between their products and lung cancer, but continued to deny them for years? Those days are gone. In Private Empire, ExxonMobil is shielded between insulating layers of efficiency and doubt. Its scientists are not asked to refute climate change, but to embrace the idea that the research is still incomplete. Lee Raymond, (Exxon CEO until 2005 or so) uses one number in the company press releases and a different one to the SEC, all in a plausibly deniable and perfectly legal way. ExxonMobil’s lawyers promise to pay all damages to earn juror sympathy in the post-spill trials, but when the trial ends, they certainly make use of all their appeals. In the planning stages of the Iraq war, ExxonMobil declines the chance to expand, but only because of poor efficiency. But when the circumstances change, they return; ExxonMobil was perfectly willing to profit from that misguided invasion, but certainly not willing to pay for it. It’s a little like the friend who joins you for dinner, declines to order anything, but happily gobbles up the uneaten leftovers afterwards. And it’s the same story, from Indonesia to Chad to Saudi Arabia to the Deepwater Horizon. The company earns your respect like criminal mastermind – not from the movies of James Cameron, but from the 19th century Dr. Moriarty, Jack the Ripper. Private Empire is the product of four years of research by a Pulitzer Prize winning author and his team of researchers – Steve Coll is such a good journalist that his writing style can suffer as a result – and its conclusions never reach the point of outrage. And all this in a business that must continue to find new oil reserves every year. As a whole, the company comes off as smart, efficient,careful and ruthless. It’s also an interesting window into the reality of international relations in the twenty-first century: ExxonMobil is a company with shareholders all over the globe, but still an American company. What exactly does that mean, now? Does it mean that the company should put American interests first? Second? Should it consider them at all? Don’t ask Lee Raymond that question.

I think we need better metaphors for corporations in this century. The concept of corporate personhood – more popular today than ever before – seems a little inadequate. Reading Private Empire, I found myself thinking about the Frankenstein’s monster, an amalgamation of parts from different people, but instead of the physical parts, a monster with the drive of thousands of successful and ruthless people, the scientific know-how of thousands of successful scientists, the courtroom demeanor of successful tort lawyers, MBA efficiency and JD doubt. I’ve often wondered if the shareholder-employee dichotomy has unintentionally re-created the Milgram experiment across the country – shareholders invest, expect a return but remain ignorant of the company’s methods, employees ignore their ideological qualms and pursue the company’s goals out of sheer professionalism. An oversimplication to be sure, but is that symbiotic deniability – the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing –  another Frankensteinian amalgamation of parts?

I’ll leave you here, slouching towards awkward W.B. Yeats references, waiting to be born. Bleh.

A letter to Wes about the Breaking Bad premiere

by gradus22

Dear Wes,

Rejoice, for Breaking Bad is back! When we last left our intrepid group of misfit heroes, Uncle Hank had excused himself to use the White family bathroom and accidentally discovered Walt’s inscribed copy of Leaves of Grass, the only piece of incriminating evidence that Walt had the poor judgment to leave around the house.  It was a Kobayashi moment cut directly from The Usual Suspects, and it was the perfect cliffhanger for the finale of Breaking Bad’s fifth season. Or the first half of the fifth season.  I’m not completely sure how these episodes will need to be indexed in the Library of Congress. But five seasons or six, it’s been away too long.

I’ve enjoyed the fifth season so far; I’ll take any excuse to watch more of the best show on television, especially when it features Bryan Cranston playing every part of his range for and against type in alternating fashion. But I have a hard to time determining what this final season could possibly add to the show as it stood at the end of the fourth season.  The situation was pretty dire for Walter White back then; he was still working for Gus Fring, just days away from being executed and replaced.  It seemed like he had even lost even poor gullible Jesse’s trust; when his girlfriend’s son was unexpectedly sent to the hospital, he suspected Walter first and foremost.In the chaotic series of events that followed, Walter managed to convince Jesse that hurting a small child was a line he would not cross, and they took out Gus Fring in a series of spellbinding and creative episodes. The question of who poisoned the boy hung in the back of our minds the entire time, until the final shot confirmed that it was Walter all along. It was masterful because we were duped right along with Jesse. We remembered Walter, even if distantly, as an affectionate father, a supportive teacher and most importantly, the guy who ran down those child-murdering drug dealers down in the family car.

And now? There is no bridge too far for Walter White. He’s told us himself that he’s in the empire business; no matter the substance, it’s just a matter of time before it falls. Most of the fifth season so far has been spent reviving the show’s themes.We’ve got another dead innocent, another heist, another young man set up for the student-teacher relationship that that we always wanted for Jesse Pinkman. Walter White has flipped between family and the drug business one time too many. The cast of characters is growing smaller and Gus Fring is not walking through that door. It’s still a lot of fun to watch Bryan Cranston use his good teacher voice to manipulate Jesse for his own ends, but the ambiguity is gone.  This is the smallest and most predictable of complaints regarding serialized television:  things have gone on a little too long. This isn’t even a flaw specific to television, but the serialization in general. If Charles Dickens was alive today, he’d probably be demanding more informative preview scenes from Mad Men in place of criticizing Elizabeth Gaskell’s cliffhangers.

But I’ll take what I can get and I’ll enjoy it. It’s still a pleasure to watch, even if it feels like I’ve seen it before. Hank emerges from the bathroom, Leaves of Grass in hand, looking eight to ten months older, and cycles through the Heisenberg obsession habits in short order: panic attack, data review, GPS tracker. Walt breaks out the good teacher voice. Jesse Pinkman is still hanging out with Badger and Skinny Pete, just short of redemption and with little motivation and even fewer viable options. It seems to be a classic Breaking Bad slow burner, with Walt just one step away from disaster, but the Walter-Hank confrontation comes early, in Hank’s garage, with the garage door opener. Walter plays friendly, then passive-aggressive, pleads, threatens, and when nothing else seems to work, he makes Hank the first family member to know that his cancer has returned. This may have been one of the lowest blows we’ve seen from Walter White in the last five season, and it pushes the show into interesting new territory. There will be no chase this time around. After five seasons, we’re still wondering if there’s something Walter White won’t do. Successive seasons require escalating shocks, and I’m worried that the worst has been saved for this season. I don’t know how that will play out, but I think it involves something that walks with crutches and gives attitude to his mother. I hope I’m wrong.

A letter to Wes about Taken

by gradus22

Dear Wes,


Have you seen either of the Taken movies? They’re a pair of lovely, whimsical films, about American tourists who get abducted by mysterious, vaguely ethnic sex slavers. The Irish actor Liam Neeson pretends to be an American security expert trying to rescue his teenage daughter. The sequel is set in Istanbul and I’m pretty sure it features precisely zero Turkish characters, but I didn’t check the script or anything. At one point, Maggie Grace – as the daughter – runs along the rooftops, throwing hand grenades at random targets to give her father an idea of her location via the Doppler effect. I’ve never been to Istanbul, and come to think of it, I’ve never had to rescue my daughter from mysterious, vaguely ethnic sex slavers either, but I imagine this is probably not completely representative of daily life in the Republic of Turkey. These movies are hyperactive nonsense, which is another way of saying that they’re also pretty enjoyable, solid, action-thrillers. The original is much, much better than the sequel, but that is the way of the world.

There’s a lot to talk about here. I don’t even know where to start. At the very least, the scripts don’t claim to be anything more than they are. Liam Neeson’s background is never discussed in detail, a good decision, since there are enough ex-Navy SEALs, CIA/FBI/DEA agents, and hardened big city cops in the movies already. At this point, I think most movie-goers would accept “Liam Neeson has magical powers that help him hunt down sex slavers” if it meant getting to the action ten minutes earlier. Strangely enough, Liam Neeson has never really needed the Sean Connery Memorial backstory – the exposition which tries to explain away the male lead’s foreign accent, but draws attention to it instead. Audiences just assume he’s whatever nationality he needs to be. He’s a pretty good choice for the lead, he’s aged his way into those leftover scripts from the 90s that called for a craggy Harrison Ford or Robert DeNiro. He’s convincing as both a sad-sack, overprotective father and your standard middle-aged action hero. If Taken is Not Without My Daughter for a male audience, then Liam Neeson is definitely Sally Field. His transformation into a killing machine after his daughter is abducted is .. well, I wouldn’t say realistic, but it’s at the point where the relatable movie characters and wish fulfillment meet.

But if I could only make one revision to these films, I would demand the scriptwriters put the the movie title somewhere in the script, exactly as written, no matter how awkward it gets. Here’s how I see it playing out for the first one:


INT. A high-class Parisian apartment. Day.

Liam Neeson’s daugher is hiding under the bed while mysterious, vaguely ethnic sex slavers kidnap her best friend.

LIAM NEESON’S DAUGHTER: (on her cell phone) Dad, help! These mysterious, vaguely ethnic sex slavers are kidnapping my best friend! What should I do?

CUT TO: Liam Neeson’s apartment.

LIAM NEESON: (on phone) I want you to listen very carefully. This is the hard part. You’re going to be … Taken.


See? That wasn’t so hard, now was it? If we could flash the title card of the movie here, or have it scroll across the screen, even better. Things do get more complicated for sequels, but it’s still doable:


INT. A dark basement in Istanbul. Day.

Liam Neeson is standing up, handcuffed to a drainage pipe. He’s been captured by a different set of mysterious, vaguely ethnic sex slavers, but he’s cleverly hide a cell phone in his sock. (That part’s in the actual movie, Wes – that’s not just me being an asshole.)

LIAM NEESON: (on the cell phone he’s cleverly hidden in his sock) Are you all right?

LIAM NEESON’S DAUGHTER: Dad! Where are you? I’m so worried!

LIAM NEESON: I’ve been abducted by a different set of mysterious, vaguely ethnic sex slavers. Now I need you to listen. This is the hard part. You need to get to the American embassy as soon as you can …

LIAM NEESON’S DAUGHTER: I’m not leaving without you, Dad! Tell me what I can do to help. I can do it.

LIAM NEESON: Well, I suppose, but only since you came away from your earlier abduction by mysterious, vaguely ethnic sex slavers with absolutely no scars, trust issues, or travel-related fears whatsoever. I need you to. ..

LIAM NEESON’S DAUGHTER: Wait, what about Mom? Is she with you?

LIAM NEESON: I’m sorry. She’s been … taken too.


You see? You can use the word “too” instead of the number two! Since they are homophones! English really is the language of kings.

 I should probably stop here, before questions of grammar, style, and factual accuracy catch up with me. In my last post, did I really imply that Tolstoy wrote in English? (Yes. Yes, I did. Mistakes were made.) Use plenty of sunscreen out there.

A letter to Matt concerning the Summer Jams

by iroqu0ispliskin

Dear Matt,

Since the beginning of the iPod era (it’s been like 6 years or so, for me), I’ve been making these seasonal playlists, two per year. It’s been been kind of a ritual by this point, and it usually involves a liberal mix of modern hits and classic music I’ve retrospectively discovered. If you followed these things over the year you’d see me first discovering The Smiths in fall 2008, the Beatles in fall 2009, and the Clash in fall 2010.  It’s like watching your little brother discover rock n’ roll.  Which, come to think of it, is a great song. A few notes:

Pressure ZoneOkay, I think that Sea Change is basically the best Beck album and also one of the greatest albums of all time. But right before that album was Midnite Vultures — this freaky album he made in 1999. At the time, this aggressively freaky foray into R&B, conducted under the unpronounceable sign of Prince, was was considered a bizarre abberation from Beck’s trademark white-boy rapfolk material, and now it strikes me as the road not taken. This song is not strictly representative but it is the one that gets me the most hyped.

Hang On Sloopy: This all-time classic also functions as the unofficial theme song of Ohio, the land of my birth. I gather, from context, that Sloopy is a woman of some kind.  But what she is supposed to be hanging onto?  What is the hazard here? History is silent on these topics.

Price Tag and Bright Lights, Bigger City: These songs both figure prominently in the denoument of the feature film Pitch Perfect. Matthew, I watched this film on a plane flight back from America last December, and I am still aca-ashamed of how much I enjoyed it. I might have watched it two times on that plane flight alone. I suppose it is fashionable to hate popular music but I cannot pass up gems like these.

I Feel Free: I’ve finally gotten around to the first season of The Sopranos. This song plays over the credits of the second to last episode of the first season, the one where he hallucinates about the voluptuous Italian dental student next door, over at the Cuzmanos’. In context, it has a somewhat ominous undertone.

Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe (Remix) feat. Jay Z: Jigga is squarely in the Greg Maddux phase of his career. I mean, you expect him to be pretty workmanlike and not make any stupid mistakes. But then occasionally he finds himself inspired and pitch a series of shutout innings.  Listen, I’m not great with sports metaphors.  I’m lead to believe Greg Maddux was a famous sportsman of our era.

Tangerine (Gentleman’s Club Remix) feat. Rick Ross, Fabolous, and Bun B: Uhh, this song is incredible, perhaps the finest of the stripper-homage rap tracks on wax.  It’s greatest feat is Rick Ross rapping that he’s “Got Pocohontas on his Yokohamas”, although I also enjoy everything that Bun B does on principle.

Starships: My 5-year-old nephew is, incongruously, a really big Niki Minaj fan. He likes to sing along to this song, oblivious its fairly raunchy lyrics. For the record I’ve always been in favour of Niki Minaj despite her being somewhat crazy, because of the incredibly high quality of her peak output. It takes quite a lady to kill Jay Z on a Kanye West track.

The Motto: Both the anthem of our era, Matthew, and also the finest Drake song yet to touch the earth. I blame the gorgeous beat and Lil’ Wayne’s effortlessly gonzo contribution. I honestly don’t know how this man has established himself as the most successful rappers of his generation.  It would be like William S. Burroughs dominating the New York Times Bestseller list for a solid decade.

In Da Wind: I am not entirely certain who Trick Daddy is, but I’m pretty certain that he adores today’s youth.

A letter to Wes, on Tolstoy vs. Austen again

by gradus22

White hot fury! I’ve been waiting forever for someone to say those words to me. It’s just like I dreamt it would be!This must be how Anne Hathaway felt when she won her Oscar .. .no, this is must be how Anne Hathaway felt on the set of Becoming Jane! Our dorky little duel (weapon of choice: classic literature) has been a great deal of fun, but I’m glad to see that you’re mature enough to concede that Tolstoy was probably the greater writer. Reader, I buried him!

Let’s get this clear, before the Austenophiles come after me: both Jane Austen and Leo Tolstoy are in that first tier of the greatest authors. Nothing I could possibly say could change that. They are still published, widely read and praised centuries after their time. If there’s a global catastrophe, Tolstoy’s works will be preserved. If humanity is ever forced to flee Earth on a giant spaceship, Jane Austen’s works will  … probably be brought on board, most likely somewhere near the back, with the women writers and the other romance novelists. (Kidding! Jane Austen fans might be the easiest demographic to offend on the internet. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel).

But seriously, any effort to definitively choose between the two is an exercise in splitting hairs; any decision on the matter probably indicates personal preference more than anything else. I’ve tried Jane Austen and she does nothing for me. (I strongly suspect that I’m not the first male reader who has come away with this impression.) I’ll never feel comfortable completely dismissing her, but I’m certainly not going to read her for the sole purpose of doing so. That’s no way to express one’s appreciation for literature.

At our core, I think human beings are story-telling telling creatures. That, more than anything else, is what puts us over the other animals: our ability to store and communicate information and how it has evolved into complex artistic expression over time. A good story will always matter more to most readers than identity, demographic data, technical expertise or stylistic experimentation; you can see proof of this in Tolstoy and Austen as well as the best-seller lists. And story-telling is the function of an author’s choices, conscious or unconscious, starting with the big one (What should I write about?) and going all the way down to questions of usage and punctuation. Sometimes it’s reassuring when writers make the same choices – after all, you can’t have a meaningful system of language without some consistency. Sometimes it’s frustrating. It’s one reason I can’t stand the idea of genre fiction – that out of the millions of story-telling permutations conceivable at the intersections of imagination, experience and intelligence, anyone can settle on the default. I don’t hate detective novels, I hate the idea of detective novels.

When we evaluate the best story-tellers that human history has to offer, we start holding them accountable for the decisions that they didn’t or couldn’t make: Nabokov’s novels all have a strange aristocratic bias to them, Saul Bellow gets points off for failing to include a single African-American in his portrayal of 1930s Chicago (the same setting that gave us Native Son). We compare these brilliant and ambitious people to some mythical and non-existent species of super writer. It’s beyond unfair. It might be the most exacting standard imaginable.

So, given the choice of flaws, I’ll take the messy large books every time. The ones that can’t even hope to answer all the questions that they raise. For one thing, they’re rarer and rarer these days. I think you’re being a little unfair to good ol’ Bill. He may have leaned on the concept of romantic love a little much (hey, anything to sell those tickets!), but only if you overlook the better half of his work. In Hamlet, Shakespeare and his protagonist treat the entire romantic endeavor brutally, in a manner that plays perfectly with the theme and larger plot of the play. Jane Austen may have been a more perfect writer than Tolstoy, but maybe that perfection is part of the problem; it also fosters a cloistered, self-enclosed atmosphere. I cannot accept that decision on every page to reduce a woman’s priorities – or all of human experience, for that matter – to courtship. My brain rejects that proposition at a fundamental level. I have the same problem with most novels of manners or coming-of-age stories. (If you’re having girl problems, I feel bad for you, son.)

Maybe Austen isn’t a hedgehog after all, but some manner of perfectly-formed prehistoric mammal that survived the ice age and continues to thrive today, like those pygmy horses that used to live in the rainforest, a tarsier or early rodent. Tolstoy, on the other hand, is pure megafauna, whose influence can only seen today in similar mammals: a shaggy mastodon, gigantic three-toed sloth or glyptodon, foraging for vegetable matter from the highest branches, evading predators, fearful of early human hunters with their primitive stone tools, not knowing that an ominous cloud of dust and ash that will drive him to extinction, forever changing the planet, just an insignificant speck in a universe contained in one of the beads of the cat’s necklace in the closing credits for Men in Black II.

I think I just nailed it. Here come the men in black, Wes. Will Smith still has so much to teach us.

A letter to Matt concerning Austen, again

by iroqu0ispliskin


Dear Matt,

Shots fired! This is exactly the kind of debate I hoped this blog could inspire. As I was running on the beach today, my every joint in complaint, my white hot fury at your literary views was the fuel.

Fortuitously, I have at my disposal a metaphor expressly created to capture the contrast I’m looking to capture: Tolstoy is a fox; he knows many things. Austen is a hedgehog, she knows one big thing. Her thing is courtship, not marriage, which is an important distinction. There are marriages in Austen’s books, and they are often unhappy, but they exist on the outside; we never follow her heroines into the wedded state. (The great English novelist of marriage is George Eliot, of course, whom one’s female relatives can read without qualm.)

True, Tolstoy has some insights about marriage in Anna Karenina and elsewhere, because he has insights about everything. But his settled views on the topic are greatly to his discredit. It is one of the areas of human life where his puritanism got the better of him. Tolstoy is clearly the more capacious writer and probably the greater writer. But he is untidy: he never produced any book as perfect as Pride and Prejudice, a novel whose every gesture is in perfect order. All I”m trying to say is, these two are different beasts, each of whom possessing virtues that are to some extent incompatible with the virtues possessed by the other. To dismiss either would be a mistake.

I’m not the biggest fan of the Austen industry either. But if we’re looking to lay blame for the existence of poor-quality works structured around the pursuit of romantic love, we might was well lay it at the foot of Shakespeare, who got this whole enterprise going in the first place. He is the patient zero, not Austen, which is why so many of his plays are now teen movies. The popularity of Austen’s work today may partly owe to an overemphasis on marriage as the chief component of a woman’s happiness in our society. But she (and Bill Shakespeare) also deserves much of the credit for popularizing the whole modern idea of romantic marriage at all: the idea that marriage is more than a strictly pecuniary affair, and that the goal of courtship is to find a person with whom it would be tolerable (spiritually and intellectually) to spend one’s life with. If Sex and the City is the price we pay for this societal innovation, than I’m willing to make that trade.

As for the issue of edification and art, I think we are basically on the same page. To have gone through your life listening to Blurred Lines without ever hearing Illmatic would be an impoverishment. But man does not live by Tolstoy alone, and the world as been generous enough to afford us many sources of pleasure in this life. And fortunately, there are works that are both a sheer delight to read and also wise.  Austen provides several of them.