Friday, November 27, 2009

TV Tidbits: House, Curb, and Monk

Catching up on some tv viewing.

House, the recent episode called “Ignorance is bliss.” House says the line during the episode, in the general sense of “not knowing is good.”

It’s one of the great literary misnomers (if a phrase can be considered as a single word.) “Ignorance is bliss” is a phrase wildly out of context. It’s from Thomas Gray’s “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College.” The narrator is looking at the playing field of Eton, at the young boys playing football, and he’s musing upon the gift of being young and not knowing about the pains of life. Then he starts thinking about how difficult life is, and the added burden of knowing you will die one day.

He restates that “thought would destroy their Paradise” because

“WHERE ignorance is bliss, ‘Tis folly to be wise.

The actual quote is all about the second phrase, “’Tis folly to be wise.” Gray is one of the finest writers/poets of all time. His “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” is held by many as the pinnacle of English poetry. He would not make such an unnuanced statement like “Ignorance is bliss.”

Ignorance is blissful in children, so that they can enjoy unburdened time. The line is not a blanket endorsement of being unaware.

In the annals of tv, however, it will now be known as the “throw in the towel” moment for the series for Alan Sepinwall. That’s pretty big. Alan was an early, big supporter of the series, but David Shore and the writers clearly don’t know what to do with their distinctive doc and the fans are leaving. For Shore, this is clearly not a time and place WHERE ignorance is bliss. He had better wise up fast.

Curb Your Seinfeld Nostalgia

Speaking of awareness, self-awareness, self absorption: Larry David. I’m not a fan of Curb Your Enthusiasm, but I watched the season finale 2-parter to see the Seinfeld reunion. It was terrific.

I hated the finale back in 1998. Larry David had come back to write his cocreation’s ending, and it felt like he brought nothing but anger to the story, for his own characters, for the loyal viewing public. He put the Fab 4 on trial for violating a Good Samaritan law, allowing the whole universe of Seinfeld to parade by and say how horrible they are, and by extension, those who follow them.

I saw it only once in syndication, just a few years ago. I still didn’t like it, but I didn’t feel the anger I had in the nineties.

But it doesn’t come close to how well the show-within-a-show reunion worked on Curb. David said he didn’t want to do a reunion show, because they are always so lame. Well, he broke the mold, and has set the new gold standard. So many delicious parts, like Jerry saying, “We already screwed up one finale, we can’t do it to another,” and Larry playing George. The characters were all funny--so at ease in the diner, in Jerry's apartment--the dialogue was funny, and watching Larry David watch the reunion on his flat-screen tv was a great tv moment.

Monk. D.O.A.?

Monk is paying homage to one of the classics of the film noir genre, D.O.A., the original 1950 film directed by Rudolph Mate and starring the handsome Edmond O’Brien. Breckman and Hoberman lifted the plot for the first half of their finale 2-parter straight from the film: someone has poisoned Adrian Monk. He doesn’t know who or how or why, but he’s going to die in two days if he can’t identify the poison. It’s an interesting, unexpected set up.

Will they really kill off their detective? If they follow the film—-short for 'dead on arrival'——he will die.

But Breckman has acknowledged his debt to Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes, which lead him to create the Dr. Watson-like charcter in the nurse Sharona, and the Inspector Lestrade-character in Captain Stottlemeyer. If that’s the paradigm, then they may create a Reicehnbach Falls, where Holmes fell to his death in "The Final Problem," along with his archnemesis Professor Moriarity, until Doyle resurrected him 4 years later. Doyle wanted to stop writing these stories and do more serious literary work, but the outcry for more Holmes was overwhelming, and he relented. Maybe they will kill Adrian, but in that ambiguous, there's-no-body kind of way, so that's it's possible for him to come back.

I am a big fan of the series, but I’m glad it’s ending. In the recent seasons/episodes, Monk seemed more buffoon and less the brilliant detective. I like the episodes that show the broken man who does the best he can to live after his world fell apart.

Taking another cue from the film D.O.A., Adrian tells his shrink Dr. Bell that he’s sorry that he wasted so much time, being a prisoner in his own head since Trudy died. In the movie, O’Brien’s Bigelow also has an awakening, knowing that he has little time left. Maybe Breckman and Hoberman will let Adrian enjoy his new-found consciousness, finding bliss in knowing that it’s better to live than to fear.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

"I’ve Got Plenty to be Thankful For”

Leave it to the uber immigrant turned voice-of-the-century composer Irving Berlin to have written a song for Thanksgiving. It’s in Holiday Inn. It never made it into the mainstream, not like the defacto T-Day “Over the river and through the woods, to Grandmother’s house we go,” nor the one hymn deemed for the day, “We gather together” a 16th century hymn from the Netherlands to celebrate the Dutch victory over Spain at the Battle of Turnhout.

We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing;
He chastens and hastens His will to make known.
The wicked oppressing now cease from distressing.
Sing praises to His Name; He forgets not His own.

If, like C.J. Cregg in The West Wing episode, "Shibboleth" you have never heard the Thanksgiving Song, you can listen to the Celtic Women’s version here.

Irving Berlin’s song "I've Got Plenty to Be Thankful for" is simple and powerful, like much of his work (embed disabled, but you can click right over for the great scene with Crobsy). In Holiday Inn, the Bing Crosby character Jim Hardy has recorded it on an LP and in an early “media moment” he is listening to his own recording.

“You haven’t eaten anything Mr. Jim”
“I’m poutin’ Mamie”

Jim Hardy goes from poutin’ to a renewed plan for getting his life back on track. That’s why I’m thankful for the films of 1940s Hollywood.

I've got plenty to be thankful for
I haven't got a great big yacht
To sail from shore to shore
Still I've got plenty to be thankful for

I've got plenty to be thankful for
No private car, no caviar
No carpet on my floor
Still I've got plenty to be thankful for

I've got eyes to see with
Ears to hear with
Arms to hug with
Lips to kiss with
Someone to adore

How could anybody ask for more?
My needs are small, I buy them all
At the five and ten cent store
Oh, I've got plenty to be thankful for

Another on my fun list of thanks (after the important stuff life health and family) is The New Yorker, both for its covers and its articles. There is an amazing Constantin Alajalov cover from 1949 that depicts a Thanksgiving feast that has been changed by the new marvel that is TV! Showing us that the black box had invaded the home, changing the cultural landscape forever, and, thankfully, giving me a career.

Friday, November 20, 2009

“Le Beaujolais est arrive"

I love the tradition of the Beaujolais Nouveau. It was released yesterday, the third Thursday in November, like it has been for decades.

Some look down on it as nothing but a over-active marketing campaign for vin ordinaire. And it is that. I don’t drink vin ordinaire as a matter of course, except when in France, where it accompanies all meals unless you specify to upgrade. So I enjoy my attention being focused on this Gamay grape once a year.

I love that it started as a celebration of the end of the harvest, vin de l’annee. Wiki says that before the appellation was established in 1937, it was only sold locally, harvest to table in 6 to 8 weeks.

Its distinction now is its immediacy and its lightness. Here’s the Wine Spectator’s review of the 2009 Georges DeBoeuf:

A firm red, with bright acidity and flavors of raspberry, blackberry and plum, all underscored by a pleasant grapey note. Would be a nice match with light cold cuts. Drink now.

This year’s label is autumnal incarnate, deep reds and shimmering golds in a paisley-like design. It’s a welcomed respite from the forced “holiday green and red” that is appearing before Halloween, and better than the sixties abstract labels it has recently sported.

I love that it's so connected to the harvest. The immediacy reminds me to think about the person in Beaujolais who picked the grapes (as by law they must be picked by hand).

The Beaujolais Nouveau ushers in the holiday season for many people. On the Upper West Side, it pairs beautifully with the sweet, delectable Clementines that are appearing everywhere

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Spike and Sergei

It’s been a weekend incarnate of culture, high and low: live tweeting a panel on vampires at the day job at the Paley Center literally in between two performances of the Rachmaninoff Vespers with The Gotham Scholars, (one in Connecticut last night, and on the Upper West Side tonight). An appetizing, artful sandwich, New York style.

The Paley Center curators decided to look at the phenomenon of the resurgence of the undead, from the recent past—Joss Whedon’s Buffy/Angel universe---to True Blood, Twilight. They ran a poll for who is the greatest tv vamp, going back to Barnabas Collins, and Spike won. He got my vote. The dry wit and his desire to get his soul back to “become a better man” for Buffy made him the winner in my book.

One of my all-time favorite Spike moments is in Buffy, Season 4, episode 8, "Pangs." It happens that it’s “the Thanksgiving episode.” Spike ends up at Giles’s with the Scooby gang, and they tie him to a chair as they argue what to do with them. At one point he says, “So this is the crackerjack team that thwarts my every move,” in that deadpan way.

Then the evil spirits of Chumash Indians attack, and Spike is hit with multiple arrows. When the spirit takes the form of a bear, all he can do is try to jump with his chair out of the way, which makes it tip over. It really is one of the funniest things in the whole series.

The joy of being a fan is the love of specific moments, specific scenes.

Same for singing a piece of serious classical music. There is a transition from Bb to B in the Nunc Dimitis that is sublime, fun to sing, beautiful to hear.

Rachmaninoff emigrated from Russia in 1918, settling in Beverly Hills. I believe he understood American pop culture. From The Atlas Society:

“Like Ayn Rand, Rachmaninoff loved Hollywood, lived there, and was moved by the spirit of what it represented. A famous letter to a friend exults that a newly concocted melody "sounds like Hollywood," which he considered a high compliment. His music can perhaps be heard as an abstraction of the Hollywood spirit, an emotional concretization of all that Hollywood's vision of life offered to the troubled world of the twenties and thirties.”

One of the joys of singing with the Gotham Scholars is the company of first-rate choral musicians, most of them soloists with their own careers. The joy of the Vampire event was the gathering of smart, informed fans, and the likes of Sookie Stackhouse who tweets all things True Blood with finesse.

I'm so happy to be living at a time when it's possible to sample culture across an energizing, broad spectrum, and not have to choose one sensibility over the other.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

War and Rembrance

Yesterday was Veterans Day, the US modern incarnation of Armistice Day, which ended World War 1. “I always thought we should have kept the name Armistice Day. The implications were somehow a little more profound, a little more hopeful.” - Walt Kelly (Pogo cartoonist)

Europe is still observing the Armistice. A NY Times article on the observance in Paris put the death total of WW1 at 16 million---8 million military, 2 million missing in action (presumed dead) and 6 million civilian. The numbers are surreal. It is no wonder that 91 years later the children of the carnage are still trying to make sense of it. The rift that the Great War caused in modern history cannot be overstated.

And so it is historic and meaningful that German Chancellor Angela Merkel became the first German leader to attend the ceremonies in Paris. In England, the Queen led the country in observing a two-minute silence at 1100 GMT for the "passing of a generation": Bill Stone died at 108 in January followed by both Henry Allingham, 113, and Harry Patch, 111, in July.

Along with looking at the distant past, the ceremonies, particularly in England, focused on the soldiers dying in Afghanistan and Iraq. Andrew Sullivan reported on the 200th British soldier to die in battle.

Veterans Day in the US is a federal holiday (no mail), but the day has not had much cultural weight. That may be changing. There are VFW parades across the country, as there always have been, but the day is getting more recognition than the ubiquitous store sales. The tragedy at Fort Hood focused more serious attention on the day this year, as does the debate about increasing our troops in Afghanistan.

To find some meaning myself I attended a Concert of Remembrance at St. Thomas Church tonight. The Episcopalians in the Anglican communion (at least for the moment) do this very very well.

The world-class men and boys choir sang several motets, including the exquisite Byrd Justorum Anime and shimmering Tavener Song for Athene, which was sung at Princess Diana’s funeral, but the highlight was the Durufle Requiem. Based on the plainsong from the Mass for the Dead, it is a sublime piece of music that is an extremely emotional and poignant experience to hear live. I have sung it myself, so I know it from the inside.

Throughout I tried to hold in my heart the idea of all those who have died in service to this country. My most sincere honor for them is to appreciate and exercise the freedoms their lives have paid for us all, and to pray deeply for those who are making decisions about putting more lives at risk.

And it occurred to me: it took France and Germany 91 years to come together fully to mourn their dead of the muds of the First World War. Those two countries have more in common as cultures than differences. In that light, how long will it take the United States to come to terms with the Middle East, where there are significant differences of culture. It's a daunting thought.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Madness Concludes: "Don’t Act Like a Stranger, We Have Tea”

Man, these Mad Men seasons are going by in the blink of an eye. Here we are already at the end of season 3. I have enjoyed it much more than the previous 2 because the storytelling pace is tighter and more things are happening. The minutiae of details finally feel in service to a narrative, rather than for their own sake. The wry dialogue is also very appealing, particularly in the mouth of Roger Sterling. That said,the series is still the most depressing hour of fiction on TV.


This season finale was the ultimate workplace fantasy (to go along with the ‘when white men ruled without compunction’ fantasy.) Don got to take all the people he likes at the office and start a new company with them. “Shut the door and take a seat.” Who hasn’t had the thought of running off to work with just a core a people who “get” it. Who hasn’t daydreamed to get away from TPTB and become your own PTB.

The finale also showed Don having his consciousness raised in terms of relationships. He finally sees the light that he hasn’t valued what Roger Sterling does, or Pete and Peggy’s talent.

Betty’s life is in motion too. She is going forward with the divorce, with the lifeboat named Henry. But alarms are going off in everyone’s head about him. Getting divorced in the sixties must have been very painful, with the society condemnation on top of the individual emotional piercing.

The episode gave us 2 Don/Dick flashbacks. One showing how his dad stood up to the farming collective, not to sell his grain at a low market value; and the other showing how Mr. Whitman dies via the family nag. A strange death, echoing the 1960 Dean Martin song from Ocean’s 11, “Ain’t that a kick in the head.” Not so funny I guess when it really happens. One of Alan Sepinwall's major points about the finale is that it had the aura of a "caper," like Ocean's 11. Hmm.

Deconstructing for Our Times

What I find MOST enjoyable about this series is its online community. The program for me does not have the power of The Sopranos or Deadwood, but its fans are deconstructing it with a verve and gusto that is a wonder to behold. Why is it that so many people are that interested in the exegesis of this hour drama? What’s going on in RL that is leading to this?

The TV landscape is an interesting indication of the mainstream national psyche. For instance, in the seventies we still had variety shows, a cultural vestige of the forties that showed we still valued being entertained by song and dance.

The current landscape is dominated by police and medical procedurals of all types, with the strange subgenre of forensic dramas. An entire subgenre devoted to figuring out how people die and who is responsible. That fascinates me. Isn’t that a projection of the desire to be able to make sense out of chaos? If we just understood the clues, if we just applied science to the facts, we could KNOW something. We could dispel some of the mysteries that enshroud our days. We all want to KNOW what’s going on, then we will be happy, then we can be at peace.

That desire for knowledge, for making sense, is part of the microcosm of watching Mad Men. We watch, and since it’s an artful work, there are ideas and tropes within the piece that we can mine. And now with the community at our fingertips, it’s instant gratification if we are right about an idea---the community agrees---or if we are off, the community tells us that too. No visual or aural clue goes unexamined. The patience that the online community has for the minutiae of MM is astounding.

And so we leave Don for a third time. It’s Christmas time, 1963, and he’s moving in to a furnished room in the city. The Beatles arrive in 3 months. That’s a lot to look forward to. I’m hoping that Matt can find a way to give his characters and us some moments of joy when the Fab Four start to play.

Until then, Dino, swinging the 1960, Jimmy Van Heusen/Sammy Cahn tune from Ocean's 11.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Celebrating the Day the Wall Came Down

I was surprised to see a prominent feature on the 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall coming down on the homepage of the NY for a while on Saturday. Besides the fact that the tragedy at Fort Hood and the House debate on health care are two important stories for the prime space, world events that don’t directly affect Americans aren’t often seen as front and center pieces.

The wall coming down was of course an event of world proportions, but the commemorations seem to be for “them,” for Europeans. It’s good to see the NY Times try to bring us into “their” stories and celebrations. On Monday, 2o years after the wall was opened, in part due to a bureaucratic error, Berlin will celebrate with a wall of 800 oversized dominoes between the Reichstag and Potsdamer Platz that will be symbolically knocked down as Bon Jovi perform their current single “We Weren’t Born To Follow.” The festivities, held at the Brandenburg Gate, will include Germany’s Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Russian President Dimitri Medvedev and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Berlin-based superstar DJ Paul Van Dyk’s freedom anthem will be played when the final domino topples, while fireworks light up Berlin.

What Toppled the Wall: Would You Believe, Knight Rider?

I have a dear East German friend. Born in 1971 in East Berlin, he lived under the Communist rule and witnessed November 9 in the city. He said that beginning with Regan’s “tear this wall down” speech in June 1987 they knew “the West was coming.” That’s how it felt to him and his high school friends. Not that they were breaking out of the East, but that the West was crashing in.

Three years ago he sent a childhood friend of his to see me at the Paley Center. We were browsing through the collection, Russian roulette style, just punching numbers into the video system and seeing what program came up. We stopped on a show that I recognized as Knight Rider, before the opening credits. The scene was a huge flat valley. A car is going a hundred miles or so. Carson says to me, “ the floor is going to open up, and the car is going to go underground.” And that’s exactly what happened!

I was stunned. He grew up in East Berlin, how did he see an obscure Knight Rider episode? He said that in the eighties a lot of Western shows started seeping in. The East couldn’t afford to create a full slate of programming, and things were already laxing and they were buying cheap shows. The scene is visually striking and he remembered it.

So it’s official. David Hasselhoff gets some credit for making the wall fall. Because once you’ve seen Kit, you’re just not going to accept total government oppression.

And, in a full-circle thing, it turned out that Hasselhoff performed “Looking for Freedom” on the wall in 1990.

Germany: A Country Like no Other

Germany has a unique place in the American psyche. For the generations of the 20th century they represented, in broad strokes, a harsh, dominating people who were at the center of two world wars and were Nazis then Communists. Sure there was Beethoven et al, but the beauty of music was pretty abstract when compared to the SS Storm Troopers. Germany turned on its own people, first the Jews to the obscene degree in the Holocaust, then the people of the GDR, the East Germans, held captive behind a wall for 28 years. The Germans seemed completely antithetical to the American spirit of freedom.

The idea of the 96-mile Wall is still shocking; the idea of the Iron Curtain still chilling. My Cold War childhood was after the days of “ducking and covering” under the school desk, but the idea that “they” were trying to take over “us” was still in the air, and it was frightening. People were shot and killed whenever they tried to escape those Eastern Bloc countries---it’s a child’s nightmare come to life.

That oppression has been over for 20 years now. A generation of Germans has been born in a unified country, with no East or West classification. For the postwar generations, they could not imagine that in their lifetime the Wall would ever be gone.

And So a Gigantic Idea
Berlin is an artful city, a seat of European sophistication and avant-garde aesthetics. To celebrate the gigantic idea of unifying the city and the country they turned to the French marionette street theater company Royal de Luxe to create a 3-day street theater on October 3, the official national day of celebrating Germany’s unification. Many felt that November 9, the fall of the Wall, would be the more appropriate day for the annual national day, moreso than the bureaucratic Oct. 3 (1990). But November 9 is also the date of the Kristallnacht pogram (1938) against the Jews. There are 365 days in a year, and fate gives Germany 2 wildly different and important historic events on the same date, but the former does not allow for celebration of the latter on that day. Germany's struggles with its past is far from over.

And so on Oct. 3, the Big Giant, with the help of his French Lilliputians, rose out of the river and searched for his niece the Little Giantess so they could be reunited. The Boston Globe has stupendous pictures of the theater by John MacDougal.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Coen Brothers' A Serious Man: Taking a Page from Winslow Homer

I saw A Serious Man in a serious city, New Haven, CT, surrounded by a sober audience of middle-aged and older, white men and women, many of the Jewish persuasion, who laughed loudly and often. I laughed a lot too, at the wit and wisdom of this cinematic middle-class Jewish community in suburban Minnesota, 1967.

It captures the Jewish spirit—-questioning, arguing, wry, witty, respectful, communal, tribal, educated—in a spirited way. The storytelling is so artful that the charge of “stereotype” never crossed my mind. Archetype (in a loose sense of the word), maybe, given how well-drawn the characters are.

Critics in an Indiewire poll have voted Serious as the year’s best film, but there are serious charges of anti-Semitism by several critics:

Denby, The New Yorker: “As a piece of moviemaking craft, “A Serious Man” is fascinating; in every other way, it’s intolerable. . . . . The Coens’ humor is distant, dry, and shrivelling, and they make the people so drably unappealing that you begin to wonder what kind of disgust the brothers are working off.”

Ella Taylor, Village Voice: “. . . the visual impact of all these warty, unappetizing Jews (even the movie's obligatory anti-Semite looks handsome by comparison) carries A Serious Man into the realm of the truly vicious. The production notes are larded with the Coen Brothers' disclaiming protestations of affection for their hapless characters, but make no mistake: We're being invited to share in their disgust. And God help the rube who can't take the joke.”

If Taylor had ANY understanding of this film her last sentence would have been, “And Hashem help the rube . . .” echoing the Jewish conversational use of “the Name” for G-d that is said over and over throughout the film. Clearly she has a tin ear for this entire story.

A Job for Our Times
The tale revolves around Larry Gopnik, a university physics professor whose life is imploding: he’s up for tenure, while a student tries to bribe him and an anonymous poison-pen writer denigrates him to the tenure committee; his wife is leaving him; his brother is unemployed and picked-up for loitering of a possibly sinister nature; he’s fighting legal battles on several fronts, straining his already strapped budget; his son and daughter are teenagers.

The big questions of the “whys” of life’s vicissitudes are part of the story’s fabric. He looks for guidance from the Rabbis, and doesn’t find much there, except for a great tale about messages etched in the backed of a goy’s teeth.

Larry is frightened and bewildered that he is having so many troubles, because he knows that he is a good person. The most telling proof of that is in the movie poster image for the film, Larry on the roof of his house, near the tv antenna. Critics have deconstructed this image for the bleakness and isolation of modern life. But I see it differently. He’s up there because his brat of a son has repeatedly asked him to fix the reception so that he can watch F Troop. It’s an act of kindness and generosity by a father for a son.

This Is Where Homer Comes In

The film is filled with surprising twists, as characters’ actions impact one another like bumper cars and the unfolding of Burn After Reading. The ending is surprising in its own way.


The film ends completely unresolved, like a song with an unresolved chord: a tornado is coming, and the son has yet to get to the shelter; Larry gets a hint from the chair of the tenure committee that “he will not be displeased tomorrow”; he gets a call from his doctor about x-rays taken in the first scene, and the doc says he must come in now to discuss. Cut to black.

Is he going to get tenure, and get that part of his life on track, and/or does he have some terrible disease, and/or is his son going to be hurt/killed in the storm?

This ending brought to mind a famous painting by Winslow Homer called “The Gulf Stream.” In it, a black man is lying on a small boat with no mast and no rudder amidst shark-infested waves, as a tornado funnel is approaching in the distance. A ship is faintly seen in the other corner of the canvas (very hard to see in this picture).

My brother had a print of this painting, because it hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and he bought in on a school trip. For some reason my father once looked at it with me, and I vividly remember him saying, “ What’s going to happen? Is the storm going to get him, or the sharks, or is the ship going to save him first?” I looked at that print for hours, to see if I could find a clue to what was most likely to happen.

The Coen’s ending is pretty similar, don’t you think?


I’ve been reading more about Homer and the Gulf Stream painting. Most of the commentary on the painting speaks of the ship as distant, unseeing, uncaring, sailing away from the human in need. My father definitely thought it was possible that the ship could save the man.

But then my father was of Irish descent, and we all know about the soul bonding between the Irish and the Jews. Anything with Hashem is possible.

It turns out that Dad was right. This is from a letter from Homer to his art dealer:

“You can tell these ladies that the unfortunate negro who is now so dazed & parboiled, will be rescued & returned to his friends and home, & ever after live happily.”

Hopefully our Larry will be as lucky.