Friday, July 30, 2010

A Day of Aiding and Abetting

Two Saturdays ago my day began early in Central Park, volunteering for the Central Park Conservancy Run for Central Park. I was pitching in for the team that I’m training with,the Running Club, although I’m not in contention to race yet. But people on the team need to guarantee a certain number of volunteers for various New York Road Runner events, and so I was helping them.

The Run for Central Park is only a 4 mile run/walk, and yet the behind-the-scenes machinations are still fairly elaborate: teams of people pick up water and post-race goodies at warehouses at 3:00 a.m. By 6:00 a.m. or so long tables are put in place for water along the route, and after the finish line cases of apples and bags of pretzels. The starting line and finish lines themselves are set up, as well as the volunteer tent, check in table, medical tent, lost and found.

It’s all a well-run machine, staffed by hundreds of “professional” volunteers, many who work for the city in different capacities, supervised by a small staff of paid Road Runners staff.

I checked in with my team at the volunteer tent, and was given an orange safety vest and emergency phone numbers badge.

My little subgroup was assigned to the pretzels table after the finish line, which comes after the water table and just before the apples.

5,000 runners were signed up. It was 93 degrees at 9:00 in the morning. A little crazy to be running in such weather. But more than 3.500 people finished, and every one of them had to pass by my station at the pretzel table.

The elite male runners came through very fast, DROWNING in sweat with all the humidity, followed a few minutes later until the first women came through. Then the second tier guys. And then, a sea of humanity. It was quite a sight, thousands of runners finishing in that ungodly heat.

I was struck by the range of the legion going by: truly every shape, size, height, width, age. Everyone struggling to different degrees, but united in the struggle, and that was the beauty of it.

I was also struck by the range of interaction, from people who say thank you and then politely asked for a second bag of pretzels, to other who literally grab bags out of every volunteer’s hands. Small behavior moments that I’m sure scale up to much more important issues.

Then I Was an Accomplice

Only because Neil Patrick Harris told me to. He played the one in New York and went on to produce the one in Hollywood. What is Accomplice? “Is it a Show? A Game? A Tour? It’s an Experience” says the website.

Another way to describe it is The Game (1997 Michael Douglas/Sean Penn movie) meets “Dead Man’s Treasure” (season 5 of The Avengers), striving to be Scorsese’s After Hours.

It’s a RL game of sorts, think scavenger hunt with a plot. You buy a ticket---so it’s like a show. Then you are called the day before and given the first place to meet. Once there, someone contacts you with your first clue, and you’re off and running.

Our first meeting place was South Street Seaport. We were 4, so we were paired with 6 strangers. The first clue was a series of cropped photographs of nearby places that we had to figure out, which then lead us to the next clue. Along the way we meet actors who move the story along.

The plot of the show is broad and kinda cheesy. The interesting moments depend upon the improvisational skills of the actors, which varied: some were much more adept in the impromptu exchanges than others. There were a couple nice fake-outs, and we were all taken in by the ending. Don’t want to say more. In general, the Downtown NY game is not as sophisticated as you might want it to be, but it’s still fun. It’s ideal for out-of-town guests: the downtown loop is a nearly 3 hours of walking, and you cover a good chunk of ground.

Maybe an actual car rally, like “Dead Man’s Treasure” is in my future. Now, if I only had a car . . .

Clue 1: The vaults at Mithering
Clue 2: Swingingdale, get a move on!
Clue 3: The village of GALDING Mr Smith's Hammer

Monday, July 26, 2010

Mad Men, a.k.a. Weiner’s "Interiors"

The faithful gathered back together tonight for the 4th season premiere of Mad Men. I updated my party look for the occasion. (The avatar choices still not yet far enough in time to offer the classic long straight locks for Emma Peel.)

“Who is Don Draper?” This question from the Advertising Age reporter opens the episode, the script finally catching up to that obvious Atlas Shrugged motif that many of us saw back in season one.

But it’s our first look at the new offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce in 1964 that is the first “wow” of the season, that stunning Modernist style. Specifically and in general sensibility it looks like it's based around the Barcelona Collection designed by Mies Van der Rhoe, Eero Saarinen’s Tulip chair, and Marcel Breuer’s Wassily chair. The whole place looks like Knoll and Herman Miller showroom (both places which I have recently visited), down to the glass walls of the conference room.

It’s a sleek, fresh environment, and while Don’s inner life continues in chaos, he has landed in a place of order and beauty for his professional creativity.

UPDATE 7/26. The Mid-Century Modernist has an excellent feature on the Furniture of Mad Men (h/t Basket of Kisses). The look also derives from the Eames chair of Herman Miller.

The SCDP logo is great—-the bold Helvetica (?) letters in their independent quadrants. Some echo of Robert Indiana’s 1964 stacked LOVE, and of the Pop Art sensibility in general.

UPDATE 7/30: The font is Akzidenz Grotesk, with comparisons to Ariel. Burn Down Blog shows the comparison.

The costumes for the series have gotten a lot of attention, but this season more attention needs to be paid to the graphics and interior design. (Design Observer, this means you.) UPDATE 7/30: Great roundup of design and font posts from DO's Michael Bierut (thanks very much Michael) as well as his own Jerry Della Femina, Mad Men, and the Cult of Advertising Personality.}

Here’s where I will be joining the conversation, as we groove our way through the sixties:

Alan Sepinwall

Matt Zoller Seitz

James Wolcott

Basket of Kisses

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Lincoln Center Festival: The Brits and the Dutch, and then the Americans

In the beginning, there was Mostly Mozart. The year was 1966, and the innovation was that Lincoln Center’s Philharmonic Hall (known to we later generations as Avery Fisher Hall) was air conditioned, giving rise to this first indoor music festival in the United States.

Some thirty years later, Lincoln Center decided they needed a broader-based festival, and so created the international-focused Lincoln Center Festival, with John Rockwell serving as the first director, 1994 to 1998. (Wonder what he is up to these days?) It showcases a dazzling array of theater, music, dance, and multimedia. I first attended in 2000, to see the Olivier Messiaen tribute, comprised of Turangalîla-symphonie (1946-48), Des Canyons aux Étoiles . . . (1971-74), and Éclairs sur l'Au-Delà . . . (1987-91). The two evenings were transcendent, spending time in the sound poems of that genius. Messiaen is not in the usual repertoire rotation, and it was thrilling to hear the theramin, ondes Martenot, and other pieces in that exotic orchestration.

This year is the first I’ve attended since. I went, partly, because I have not been drinking of the well of “deep, serious think” for a while, something a friend commented on. My thoughts of late have been engaged in the realm of popular culture, and so I took this sojourn back to the grownup table of intellectual pursuits.

A Disappearing Number, a.k.a. Vanishing Passion

To make a longish story short, A Disappearing Number, which is being presented for a short run by the Lincoln Center Festival 2010 and the David H. Koch Theater, is a thrilling, thrilling, thrilling play -- perhaps a surprising statement for a work about mathematics, a subject that can instantly make eyes around the globe glaze over. David Finkle, Theatermania

The reviews for this theater piece were consistently good. Simon McBurney and his cohorts Complicite juxtapose two tales: a contemporary one of math professor Ruth Minnen (an engaging Saskia Reeves) and a businessman Al Cooper (a sincere Firdous Bamji) falling in love, marrying, trying to have a child; against a tale from 1914 of Cambridge math professor G. H. Hardy and the Indian phenom Srinivasa Ramanujan (Shane Shambhu), who writes to Hardy with his theories and whom he joins for a time at Cambridge. The tie between the two stories is that Ruth teaches Hardy’s classic work A Mathematician’s Apology, and Al’s parents are Indian.

The production is visually stimulating, with the staging combining conventional screen video as well as Matrix-like effects for the dancing numbers. The play tackles life, death, love, infinity, time, cultural identity: all “big think” ideas. But for all its depth, for me it lacked passion, real spark. I generally find mental gymnastics sexy, but this prattling left me cold, even the Grecian ending, with the “libation bearers” pouring out the “potassium phosphorous and calcium” that the body distills to. The only small moment that pinged my ear was “ a blast of statistics about the disappearance of honey bees in America that doesn’t seem to connect with anything else.” I thought it was a knowing goof amidst the proofs, the great X-Files meme about the disappearing bees.

Stranger in a Stranger Land, a.k.a. Governor’s Island

The festival put two performances on Governor’s Island, that odd white elephant with beautiful views of the Brooklyn Bridge, Statue of Liberty, et al between NY and NJ. The one I didn’t attend was the 12-hour Peter Stein adaptation of Dostoyevsky's novel The Demon.

The other was the Dutch interpretation of Pieo Pasolini’s original 1968 film Teorema. Ivo van Hove and his Toneelgroep Amterdam troupe brought a stark story starkly to life in black and white: the venue was a warehouse, allowing for an enormous stage of an Ikea-like house. Into the lives of Mother, Father, Son, Daughter, and Housekeeper comes a Stranger, although in the program he is called “the Guest,” an important refinement.

The family is alienated from each other, and collectively soulless. The production tried to update the 1968 script with current pop culture references, including Meekrat Manor playing continuously on the TV, and Nirvana and Who songs.

So the Guest comes into this family and has sex with absolutely everyone. And that shocks them out of their false ways, until the father is literally naked amid a primal scream, and the housekeeper is floating, Christ-like arms outstretched, amid some dry ice.

A few people left midplay. The NY Times reviewer Jason Zinoman didn’t like it: “Instead of rising miraculously, her feet stay lodged to the ground. So does the entire production.”

It also left me cold. Except for the warm memory of Dennis Potter’s Brimstone and Treacle—-similar idea, although the “Stranger” there is clearly the Devil--and my editing of a piece of Potter’s writing when he contributed an essay to the catalogue of his work that I put together for the day job. The acting was very good, but it was striving too hard to be deep.

I’m done with my conscious “big think” sojourn. I find satisfying richness and depth in Terry Teachout’s list of 15 favorite songs written for Hollywood movies, everyone one of which I know every note and word of. And I love Teachout's observation, “that seven of these songs were written for Fred Astaire to sing on screen, a statistic that speaks for itself.”

• "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" (Blane-Martin, from Meet Me in St. Louis)
• "How About You?" (Lane-Freed, from Babes on Broadway)
• "I'm Old Fashioned" (Kern-Mercer, from You Were Never Lovelier)
• "Let's Face the Music and Dance" (Berlin, from Follow the Fleet)
• "The Man That Got Away" (Arlen-Gershwin, from A Star Is Born)
• "Moon River" (Mancini-Mercer, from Breakfast at Tiffany's)
• "One for My Baby" (Arlen-Mercer, from The Sky's the Limit)
• "The Shadow of Your Smile" (Mandel-Webster, from The Sandpiper)
• "Something's Gotta Give" (Mercer, from Daddy Long Legs)
• "Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year" (Loesser, from Christmas Holiday)
• "Swinging on a Star" (Van Heusen-Burke, from Going My Way)
• "That's Entertainment" (Schwartz-Dietz, from The Band Wagon)
• "They Can't Take That Away From Me" (Gershwin-Gershwin, from Shall We Dance)
• "The Way You Look Tonight" (Kern-Fields, from Swing Time)
• "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To" (Porter, from Something to Shout About)

There's so much "deep think" in them thar songs . . . .

Friday, July 16, 2010

Leveraging His Leverage

The rich and powerful take what they want. We seal it back,
Sometimes the bad guys make the best good guys. We provide, leverage.

is the story of Nate Ford, an honest man in a crooked world, a retired insurance investigator who runs a crew: a grifter (Sophie), a hitter, (Eliot) a hacker (Hardison), and a thief (Parker). In tv-speak it’s Mission:Impossible meets Banaceck meets It Takes a Thief (more about that later) framed by The A-Team. (A more recent parallel was Tony Jordan’s series for the BBC, Hustle, about a grifter who runs a crew and cons bad people out of things.)

Nate is nursing extreme grief at the loss of his son, who died because the insurance company wouldn’t approve the drugs that might have saved his life. He’s an alcoholic with a fairly realistic struggle with the disease. He lives on the edge, but he tries to do the right thing for the people who come to him for help.

The stories show you some of what happens, but the delight is seeing the “inbetween scenes” that come at the end, in black and white, that show you the slick machinations that made the cons work.

The crew is cool and funny. The dynamics between Sophie and Nate, between Hardison and Parker, and Eliot in general are engaging, and the cons are good. One of my favorites is “The Inside Bank Shot Job,” when Hardison and Parker impersonate FBI agents.

Now in its third season, Nate lives above a bar, John McRorys, and of course I love the Irish tints to the series. That Irish sensibility in general comes through Timothy Hutton. I am a big TH fan, particularly his Nero Wolfe work.

Really Breaking the 4th Wall

Leverage would be a keeper for all of the above, but there is another aspect to its charm: its cocreator and current showrunner, John Rogers, writes a blog, Kungfu Monkey, and he invites fans to ask specific questions about specific episodes, and he patiently answers almost every question. What a great use of blogging. What a great way to engage the audience directly.

I posted some thoughts on a recent episode, “The Inside Job.” Here’s the exchange on his site:

@M.A. Peel: Also love the nod to The Avengers in "Inside Job." Sophie as "M.A." Peel (great minds) and Hardison as Jonathon Steed. Commentary of sorts that no one said, hey, you guys have the same name as the Avengers? And Archie Leach? Nice to see Cary Grant isn't forgotten either. But he seemed more reminiscent of Fred Astaire in the tv It Takes a Thief.

: "We had a couple people say "Come on, those aliases were too easy! No way the corporate humans wouldn't have spotted them!" To which I reply, I assure you genially, "You are a person who writes to other strangers about television on the internet. You are not a good representative sample." The Avengers went off the air forty years ago!

You want to know where the cultural norm is now? We were having dinner with friends and their geeky, brilliant anime-obsessed 17 year old daughter. Super normal, super cool kid. And in the middle of our conversation about the latest scandal, she squinched her nose and asked "Um, what's a Mel Gibson?"



The Fred Astaire role on It Takes a Thief was definitely an inspiration for Archie, but of course most hipsters will realize we're referencing Cary Grant's real name."

Ok, I think it’s possible he’s saying that I’m not a hipster, but I forgive him because he doesn’t know I do tv for a living.

But how great that he thought of M.A. for Emma--which Sophie clearly annunciates--in his script, when he wanted to slightly permutate the name!

The show is appearing at Comic Con next weekend. I am seriously thinking about jumping on a plane . . .

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Benign Universe of Northern Exposure


“Yeah, O’Connell”

It’s been 20 years since we first heard that call and response. Northern Exposure debuted in the summer of 1990, against reruns of L.A. Law, which it beat out.

It was indeed a surprising summer replacement series sizzler, and so CBS asked creators Joshua Brand and John Falsey for a full season. Negotiations took quite a while, so it didn’t come back until April 1991. But the wait was worth it to the team, because they were given the coveted Monday night, 10 p.m. slot, following the well-established hits of Murphy Brown and Designing Women.

And that says a lot. Northern Exposure entered the TV landscape of the acerbic, Washington insider, just-out-of Betty Ford, uber tv magazine anchor, and the Atlanta, Ga., collective of feminine charm and smarts that was Sugarbaker Designs, with its signature monologue of indignation delivered by Julia. Both series brought issues into prime-time entertainment: racism, homosexuality, single parenting, AIDS, breast cancer, and medical marijuana, among others.

Northern Exposure dealt with issues too, but with no soap box in sight.

And it wasn’t about “women,” it wasn’t from a female pov (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Instead, it was about community and how the social organism relates to our emotional and inner lives. Heart and emotions: that was the magic of its appeal.

There was one TV community that cast a largeshadow over the Alaskans — that crazy lot over in Snoqualmie County, Washington.

From Jeanine Kasindorf’s much-quoted April 1991 article for NY Magazine, “The New Frontier, How ‘Northern Exposure’ Became the Spring’s Hottest TV Show”:
“The show seems to have caught the imagination of an audience still hungry for the eccentric characters of Twin Peaks but no longer hungry for that show’s obscurity and rootlessness.”

Funny she should say that. Ron Powers in TV Guide, July 1991:
“Some strange spell falls over reviewers when they tackle the wonderfully woolly Northern Exposure on CBS: They always make a reference to Twin Peaks. Oops. Look at that: I've gone and done it too, keeping the record perfect. The lockstep wisdom seems to be that Exposure is Peaks' younger, smarter, nicer brother. Or that if David Lynch hadn't invented earflap-chic, viewers might not be able to make sense out of the more recent Joshua Brand-John Falsey creation without an interpreter's guide.”

Ron then goes on to say that NoEx goes much deeper into American mythology than being the sweeter Twin Peaks.

That avenue of explicating seems to have been misguided, if the creators get to decide intention (with due respect to Wimsatt’s Intentional Fallacy): “For what it’s worth, “ Falsey says, “we hadn’t even heard of Twin Peaks when we wrote the pilot, and it wasn’t going on the air for another three months.”

Cicely, Alaska: Pop Culture Heaven

Morty the beloved Moose walking through the opening title sequence was an important visual that declared an important idea: that there are stories in this big country worth telling outside of spitting distance of US 1. (Interesting to note that the Bloodworth-Thomason’s Evening Shade, set in Arkansas and starring Burt Reynolds, ran from 1990 to 1994.)

Dr. Joel Fleischman, the Jewish New Yorker from the Upper West Side, is the bridge to this strange new world for the audience that isn’t comfortable away from the Northeast corridor. He’s the fish out of water, the doctor who has to pay off his college loans by working in Anchorage, a good-size city. In the pilot, he learns that Anchorage doesn’t need him and they have sold his debt to Cicely, Alaska, a very small, genuinely rural town.

The pilot starts with a very conscious Joel-as-Woody-Allen voiceover telling his backstory to the guy sitting next to him on the plane, who is none other than Dr. Anspaugh! When Ed Chigliak drives Fleischman to Maurice’s house and starts spouting medical jargon, Ed says “St. Elsewhere, I love that show” (created by the very same Brand & Falsey).

So while we may not know much about Alaska, we are instantly swaddled in unifying elements of pop culture. This is a place we will enjoy visiting.

The Benign Universe

Kasindorf wrote that Brand & Falsey often called their creation the “benign universe” — a nonjudgmental place where individuals can flourish while serving the greater good of the community. Where Joel and Maggie can pas a deux to their heart’s content and a 62-year-old man marrying a 19-year-old girl isn’t creepy because Holling and Shelly Tambo make sense; a place where a Native American medical secretary exerts steely control over her boss and Chris in the morning (John Corbett in his pre-Carrie Bradshaw days) can wax poetic from Voltaire to Einstein to Kerouac as a welcomed Greek chorus of one (although some did find him cloying).

The memorable episodes are many: “Aurora Borealis,” when Chris discovers Bernard is his black half brother drawn to Cicely by the midnight sun, and Joel runs in to Adam, the wild gourmet cook in the wild; “Jules et Joel,” when Joel’s slick twin brother comes to town; “The Big Kiss,” when Chris loses his voice to a beautiful woman, and can only get it back by sleeping with another beautiful women, that being Maggie; TV’s second gay wedding (but the first most people saw); the story of the lesbians Cicely and Rosalyn who founded the town; Chris flinging the piano (in lieu of the cow); and “The Quest,” the last episode for Rob Morrow/Joel, when he and Maggie go searching for the Jeweled City of the North. When they come to a crossroads, Joel sees his future and goes through the woods and comes out of the fog on the Staten Island Ferry. The view of the Twin Towers was surprising to me — I still flinch when I see them in a TV show that I’ve forgotten that they might be present in.

"It's not the thing you fling; it's the fling itself." — Chris

It was the emotional side to these stories that viewers found very satisfying, and that dynamic was heightened by the exquisite use of music. Miami Vice was the first series where the weekly soundtrack was as important as the dialogue. Its sounds were classic rock and ‘80s mélange. NoEx brought the American songbook into prime time, with Louis Armstrong, Mancini, Bacharach, kd lang, Peggy Lee, Patsy Cline, Etta James, Van Morrison, and so many others.

Ned/Ed from the Cicely episode:
“One person can have a profound effect on another. And two people...well, two people can work miracles. They can change a whole town. They can change the world.”

Brand & Falsey didn’t change the world, but they did bring a unique sense of love and well being to the airwaves. And they employed David Chase as an executive producer for 47 episodes from 1993 to 1995. Who knows, without that we might not have had The Sopranos.

(Written for Edward Copeland on Film.)

Tuesday, July 6, 2010


I’m turning to the musicians to help lift my spirits into the cool zone, away from the infernal heat that feels like August at its dog-days worst, here in early July.

Bad enough that nature decided to bake Gotham until it’s good and crispy. The MTA quietly cut back service pretty dramatically on June 27 on both bus and subway lines. Meaning that mass transit is significantly more crowded, all the time. Bad enough under normal circumstances, very bad when you can’t bear to wait on the platform “until the next one” both because it’s too hot to wait there, and because the next one will be just as crowded.

So as I stand waiting for the #1 train, I summon these songs into my head, and I start to feel cool and happy.

Lovin' Spoonful: Hot town, summer in the city, back of my neck getting dirty and gritty

Ella and Louis, Summertime. Louis’s playing is sultry personified. Makes the sweat running down my back in the subway almost feel sexy (almost).

But the best song to lift the heatwave spirits is from MARTHA and the Vandellas. Woo hoo! The beat is so happy, her voice so clear and declaratory you just want to start dancing. Bring it on, heatwave.

Whenever I'm with him
Something inside
Starts to burnin'
And I'm filled with desire

Could it be the devil in me
Or is this the way love's supposed to be

Just like a heatwaaaaaaaaaaave
Burning in my heart
Can't keep from cryin'
It's tearing me apart

Friday, July 2, 2010

Let's Say it with Firecrackers (and Vuvuzelas)

The annual ritual of the long weekend of our national birth kicks off tomorrow with Brazil vs. The Netherlands. I’ll be tweeting back down at the Paley Center. I guess I’m rooting for Brazil, football powerhouse that it is. And because I found this site that translates your name for your jersey if you played for them. (Of course the patriotic bones in my body have to agree with the Post, after our loss to Ghana last Saturday.)

From there it’s off to a concert at Lincoln Center where West Point’s US Military Academy Band joins the NY Phil under the direction of Lt. Col. Timothy J. Holtan. I love the precision and élan of a military band, and they’re playing Gershwin, Gould (Morton, not Glenn!) and Sousa, three strands of the DNA of American music.

Celebrating American music is always easy. As for the birthday itself, it’s hard this year. There’s so much bad news from every angle, from the unmitigated, unstoppable flow of oil in the gulf to our stagnation in Afghanistan, and people are still suffering from the economy collapse of 2008, the result of horrific corporate greed and stupidity.

But when the going gets tough, Americans get tougher. That’s been our history, that’s also in our DNA. So is a great deal of talent, like this gentleman, the child of immigrants from Linz Austria and East Prussia/Alsace, generally considered the greatest dancer of all time.

In Holiday Inn he dances with firecrackers: it’s one of the great imaginative scenes in film history.

The music is an instrumental medley of songs Irving Berlin wrote for Independence Day in the movie, including "I'm singing a song of freedom," which pretty much sums up what it's all about.

I'm singing a song of freedom, For all people who cry out to be free

Free to sail the seven seas, Free to worship as we please, If the birds up in the trees can be free, Why can't we?

I'm bringing a song of freedom, To all people wherever they may be

Free to speak and free to hear, Free from want and free from fear, Sons of freedom far and near who agree, Sing with me, That all God's children shall be free

Happy Birthday America.