Top Eleven Things: Sometime in June Edition

Farts.

I was going to publish a  post or two this week, but things piled up, and now I don’t have time. I’m overdue for one of these lists, anyway. Some of these might end up as bigger posts later on, in a perfect world I guess. Enjoy.

11. Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud

This is basically a guidebook to comic book criticism, and it is a must-read for anyone who is even vaguely interested in comics, art, literature, movies, looking at things, using a brain, etc.

10. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit

Yeah, this is my summertime album for real.

9. Halt and Catch Fire

When  Mad Men ended, I was like, I want more of this, but skip the seventies and make it about computers. Lo and behold, AMC was way ahead of me.

8. The theme song from The Adventures of Pete and Pete

This is the most infectious earworm I’ve encountered. I think it has been stuck in my head since 1995, and it gets uncontrollably more pronounced each day. I still don’t mind, because it’s such a great song. However, in my early twenties I made the mistake of looking up the real lyrics (or at least, what someone on the internet assumes are the real lyrics) and that’s when I became a grown up. I wish I could have just stayed in Wellsville.

7. The Star Wars ring theory

This is a daunting read, but really worth it. I take issue with the author insisting that this structure is so groundbreaking that is redeems George Lucas eternally or whatever, because it doesn’t, and the prequels still suck. In fact, I think some of things are partly to blame.

6. Rob Ager’s Shining analysis

Ager has a great YouTube channel dedicated to film essays, and they’re usually pretty enlightening. Though his recent Star Wars plotholes series is kind of nitpicky. Anyway, he released another video about The Shining which brings up an important point the documentary Room 237, a film I absolutely love, by the way. But the film does faultily give equal credence to every interpretation of Kubrick’s Shining that are out there, but some of them are a bit more significant than others. And, unfortunately, the one that is the least plausible is the one that everyone always talks about.

5. A good pair of headphones

I just can’t seem to get my hands on one.

4. Marriage equality in Ireland

Fair play to ye.

3. Marc Maron’s interview with Terry Gross

I’ve been listening to Maron since the early days of WTF, and I think listening for that long brings a perspective on his work that’s impossible to understand if you jump in now or any time in the last three years or so. His interview with Terry Gross is truly a landmark for his podcast, and hearing his satisfaction is delightful. And well-deserved, because this is one of the best performances he’s given as an interviewer, interviewing perhaps the greatest interviewer in radio.

2. Mad Max: Fury Road

Of course. It’s one of those films, man.

1. Father Ted Island

Ok, there’s actually no such place, but last week I went to Inisheer, the island that can be seen in the opening credits of Father Ted. It’s the greatest Irish TV show ever, and the island was perfectly quaint and beautiful, even if the boat ride made me unbearably nauseous.

11406185_10203667891972344_8562492862337720666_o
Standing in front of the MV Plassey, a ship that wrecked on Inisheer in 1960, carrying Irish whiskey and yarn. Below, the Plassey from the opening credits of Father Ted.

What Happens When You Buy The World A Coke

I cannot get the ending of Mad Men out of my head, man.

There is surprisingly no consensus on what really happened, and even less so over the tone of the finale. There is somewhat of a neat divide over what kind of future the show leaves for Don Draper. Is it a cynical inversion of human emotion fitted to capitalism? Or a triumph of Don’s creativity and humanity? I think it’s both, but more on that later.

This whole last season really threw me, and I started picking up on what exactly has drawn me to this show in the first place. When it first landed on Netflix, I watched the first few seasons in a very steady pattern; alone, in the dark, after long days of studying and delivering pizzas. It was escapism, for me, living as far from the glamour of 1960s New York City as possible. I didn’t always get it, but I consumed it like a sweet-toothed caffeine addict consumes cans of Coke.

In fact, I think it was the first TV series I really started looking at critically. Those nights of binging on the exploits of Sterling Cooper coincided with my internship for Under the Radar, and with the prospect of reviewing TV and music for a major publication looming on the horizon, I needed to start sinking my teeth into scripted drama. I discovered that Mad Men was rich with meaning, symbolism, and just amazingly complex moments.

But for some reason it was always a show I couldn’t explain, even to myself. If I wasn’t watching it, I could never remember why it appealed to me in the first place. But then I’d put it on and remember just how satisfying a world Matthew Weiner created.

Back to the ending. The simplest way for me to digest what the final moments really mean is as an objective viewer. Meaning, I don’t think it is necessary to speculate much on whether or not Don found peace or squandered his humanity for capitalism, or whether he wrote the ad at all. I think it is fairly obvious that Don conceived of the famous Coca-Cola ad during meditation, and his state of mind is, at least in that moment of conception, completely at ease and in balance with nature.

Which, is exactly right. Because as much as we spent the last seven years trying to understand the kind of man Don Draper is, that moment is really the final revelation. He is an artist for hire. That is his purpose, his zen, the end.

My other big takeaway from that moment, though, is that it signifies a bigger global change that we’re still grappling with in modern day reality. Don’s submersion into hippie ideals turns out to be no different than his day-to-day among corporate ad agencies. In the end, they’re both selling an idea. Don’s epiphany is the moment that brings them together. Global idealism and pragmatic capitalism. The birth of post-modern consumerism.

That’s the death of the sixties, isn’t it? When the suits twisted the values of counterculture into for-profit mechanisms, everything got mixed up and truth and art and lies all bled together. It started with Coca-Cola broadcasting a feel-good jingle about global solidarity with a diverse cast on a sunny hilltop in Italy, and now it’s Tom’s promising a new pair of shoes for third world countries with every pair purchased, it’s Starbucks’ charitable foundations, the Ronald McDonald Foundation, etc. These are all marketing disguised as altruistic responsibility. It’s still a lie, just like all the lies that Don Draper concocted over the years. Only, before “I’d Like to Buy The World A Coke,” companies didn’t have to worry about grand statements of global unity and social responsibility, they just had to sell you a product. Which method is more honest?

Mad Men was always about change. The setting of the ’60s heightened the elements of change, while it’s main protagonist seemed impervious to the shifting tides. He was stuck in the past, in nostalgia, and never quite grasped what the undercurrent of counterculture was trying to accomplish. Until he does, and his response is to adopt the aesthetic of anti-capitalism means for a capitalist end.

A lot of people have pointed out the opening theme as a perfect summation of how the show ended. It always looked like Don was going to jump to his death, but of course, he didn’t, in fact, the opening always ends with him back on the couch like nothing happened.

Because Don is a survivor. He spent the sixties lost in the chaos of social change and personal meaning, but after all is said and done he just adapts. But because of who he is, and what he represents, his adaptation changes the landscape of corporate culture, globalism, consumerism, politics, everything.

Is that a bad thing?

It depends. From a Marxist point of view, absolutely. We’ve become blind to the oppressiveness of capitalism because it assimilates its greatest critics for its own purposes. But on an individual level, maybe it is not so bad. We no longer have to choose between our comforts and our souls, because the machine is taking care of the world for us.

All we have to do is buy a Coke.

We Are Actually Living In “The Age of Ultron” (SPOILERS)

I saw Avengers: Age of Ultron last night, because that’s what we do now, as a species. All hail the Marvel Overlords, they will forever entertain us.

The series, so far, manages to incubate a cohesive, believable world full of interesting characters and exciting sci-fi action, yet it is increasingly difficult to form an opinion about the Avengers films. That’s because they are increasingly good at avoiding anything substantive enough for discussion. We are drawn to the films because they are maddening spectacles of achievement in entertainment, but after subjecting us to nearly three hours of heroic deeds and Hulk-smashing previously unimagined by humanity, the films give us very little to think about.

This is by design. Not the filmmakers’, or studio executives’, or writers’ design. This is by design of the franchise itself, the ethereal intelligence that has the next decade of our summer movie spending planned for us. This weekend, the Marvel Universe becomes self-aware.

In the film, Ultron comes into existence and takes over the world and follows a protocol of needless self-destruction with seemingly no motivation whatsoever. He becomes self-aware out of a necessity to drive the plot. Much like the franchise itself, which is moving along simply because it has nothing else to do, and we couldn’t stop it if we tried.

If you’ve seen the trailer, you have as much understanding of Ultron himself as you do by the end of the film. He is an evil robot who likes to sing Disney songs, much like Wall-E. Sure, there are hints of an internal struggle or a plotted vengeance against his ‘creator,’ Tony Stark, but it manifests as a cartoonish plot to create a meteor and crash it back down to Earth. The character exhibits no depth apart from his Spaderisms.

I half suspect James Spader didn’t even read the script, they just put him in a motion-capture jumpsuit and filmed him complaining about it.

Wikipedia tells me the comic book version of Ultron suffered a homicidal oedipus complex, and focused in on destroying his creator while also developing an obsession with his lover. But, since the cost of hiring Gwyneth Paltrow went to blowing up half a dozen CGI robots, that opportunity for complexity is vacant.

They couldn’t even incorporate the Pinnochio mythos–you know, the source of the “There Are No Strings On Me” song that Ultron sings throughout the whole film–by developing Ultron’s maniacal evil out of a desire to please his creator only for Tony to express disappointment, rather than an instantaneous need to kill him outright. Did nobody working on this film bother to think about subtext?

The Avengers films are so formulaic and expensive they simply cannot defy expectations and truly deliver the storytelling necessary to elevate the series. It desperately needs it, but cannot deliver. The film’s best moments (Vision, the Black Widow/Hulk romance) are smothered by its incessant need to cutaway to the Avenger’s World Destruction Tour. Ultron lives up to the established pattern of exposition/action/tension/action/resolution/action, and grows increasingly tiresome for it. Mostly because the character development is merely an inversion of “we can’t seem to get along” that brought the ensemble together in the last film, but without a clearcut goal and focus. The intersecting plots in Ultron just turn it into a mess. Nothing builds on anything else, and every promising moment of character arc is left irksomely unresolved, with one or two exceptions.

It’s a shame, since the film centers on a sequence where Scarlet Witch exposes the team to their darkest fears. But rather than explore what those fears mean to each of them, they just move on and try to punch more bad guys. Well, we do find out that Black Widow can’t have babies. And Thor’s vision-quest leads him to a magic pool that gives him the secret of… actually, I’m not quite sure how his bath revealed that he was supposed to electrocute Vision to life, probably because there was just no other way to incorporate the larger gem-mythology. But that’s it. Scarlet Witch makes Thor hallucinate, which leads him to take a bath, and then he does some lightning trick and now we have Vision. That’s Thor’s entire story in Age of Ultron. 

The decision to introduce the Maximoff Wonder Twins as mere plot points, and in the end to kill off Quicksilver (who Marvel fans are quite happy to pretend never existed in the first place, since Days of Future Past already established the gold standard for that character) proves that the Marvel film franchise has very little fear of death, and much like Ultron sees it as just a method of purging real emotion from a soulless reality. Why not kill off someone who matters? Because the franchise sees itself as indestructible. Despite knowing that it must raise the stakes to get anywhere interesting, Avengers has to play it safe and keep them all in the game, endlessly dodging bullets and lightning bolts and energy beams and boulders and Hulk smashes because that’s essentially what these films are built on. Great-looking people doing poses and not getting killed by the millions of things that should be killing them.

Which means there are just no more stakes to raise. The problems with Age of Ultron begin literally in the first moment, an overlong single shot of the team in action picking off Secret-Nazis in the snowy fortress level from Inception: The Video Game, utilizing some of the laziest CGI  the Star Wars: Special Editions and more witty banter. By the way, this film’s dialogue is nothing but witty banter. Wittier and wittier, and banterier and banterier. 

The imagery of the opening sequence is meant to remind us of the final battle from the last film, where we follow a tracking shot through the skyline of New York City to focus on each Avenger slaughtering interstellar henchmen. The thing is, that film–not particularly keen on subtlety itself–spent the majority of its runtime building up to that moment of harmonious violence. Age of Ultron shoves it out of the way, clunkily, in the first five minutes. Where do you go from there?

Nowhere. Just change the scenery.

The Avengers franchise is running on its own momentum, and will take no prisoners in its train wreck of a serial. Plots are increasingly dependent on a myriad of sources, inevitably giving rise to contradictions, confusion, and watered-down ideas. Heroes that once inspired us are reduced to a soulless existence, living out an endless battle with forces unnamed and irrelevant. We are subjected to overblown violence to prove the reaches of our arrested imaginations. We are living in the Age of Ultron. The biggest film franchise in the world is an unstoppable algorithm of crowd-pleasing factors. It is infected with its own self-importance, feeding us the exact amount of visual and aural stimuli to null our minds to the existence of a massive entertainment conspiracy that will inevitably lead us down a path of self-destruction, as we worship the hero-gods of our own creation and neglect the dreams and hopes that we need to sustain us for another generation. The end of the world will come, and we’ll be comfortably snacking on popcorn in the air-condition tomb of the cinema.

Vision was pretty damn cool, though.

Pulitzer

I want to point out this photo from The St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s coverage of the Rams’ protest back in October. The Post-Dispatch won a well-deserved Pulitzer prize for their coverage of the Ferguson protests. Plenty of the photos in the series are phenomenal, but I hadn’t seen this one before, and it really moved me.

Ferguson Protests

It’s a little too perfect of a metaphor for the conflict born out of Ferguson. I went to one of the early protests, on a day when the police presence was significantly reduced and there was the hope of healing in the atmosphere. Nine months later, and that moment is sweet but swallowed by the whole of the relentlessness of injustice in America. The death toll among African-Americans at the hands of police is consistently rising, and the disillusion over Ferguson complicates the feelings of a revolution taking hold. There is a lot of work to be done, and a lot of healing still to take place. There’s not a lot I can say about what this photo means, because it says enough. It’s worth a look, though. I’ll come back to this topic soon, because it’s not something I can ever let go.

Journey Through Twin Peaks

One of the most engrossing films I’ve seen in recent years is Room 237,  a film essay exploring the depths of critical analysis on Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The Shining is one of my all-time favorite films, because it carries an atmosphere that is almost intangible, but careful viewers have pieced together the various tricks that Kubrick used to create that atmosphere. A lot of people focus on the moon-landing theory behind The Shining, but that’s only one interpretation of the film among many, and it’s the least plausible. It doesn’t fit in with the some of the other more plausible analyses, but leaving it in certainly helped spread the word about Room 237. 

Mostly, I just love the idea of film criticism as entertainment. So much so that I immediately planned on a similar treatment of another work I find as equally open to interpretation, Twin Peaks. If you couldn’t tell, since this is not the first blog I’ve written about the TV show, and until JJ does another layout change you’re looking at some heavy Peaks imagery directly to the left, I’m a little more than obsessed with the franchise and will needlessly fit it into unrelated conversations. “Oh, you love the new Batman vs. Superman trailer? You know what else is dark and brooding? Twin Peaks. Go home and watch it. Yes, it is on Netflix.”

If I couldn’t make the film essay myself, I at least wanted to present my interpretation of Laura Palmer’s struggle as a powerful symbol of ending a cycle of physical and sexual abuse. Laura is the hero of Twin Peaks because she refused to let the horror that tormented her continue, whether it was by some demonic presence or something closer to home.

Joel Bocko beat me to it. His series, “Journey Through Twin Peaks,” presents a thorough and beautiful analysis I could never pull off on my own. Unlike Room 237, however, he did it all himself and threw it up on YouTube, instead of submitting it to Sundance. But I think that’s fitting, because it turns out there is quite a bit more to Twin Peaks than the feature-documentary format offers.

I’ve watched Twin Peaks in its entirety about four times since 2010, and Bocko highlights points in the series that I never noticed. It’s the loving criticism the series deserves. He presents a coherent thesis, that the magic formula of Twin Peaks is a child of the tension between David Lynch and Mark Frost, and backs it up with specific examples of the different ways they treat characters and situations. I wouldn’t recommend doing so, but someone could easily watch his series without any knowledge of Twin Peaks and have a clear understanding of what makes the show work.

But there’s no good excuse for not watching Twin Peaks. I particularly like the analysis of the end of Fire Walk With Me, though he credits it to someone else (spoiler, obviously) that the flashing light on Laura’s face as she sits in the Red Room with Dale Cooper is actually Laura watching the entire series and reacting to the impact her life had on the town, both good and bad. Seeing it through that lens completely decimated me emotionally. It could easily be one of David Lynch’s most beautiful moments. (Update: Joel provided the source of this theory in the comments below.)

Bocko also suggests that everything Lynch has done since is not only influenced by Twin Peaks, but actually about the experience of making Twin Peaks. That’s a powerful realization, especially since I was also under the assumption that Lynch never lingered on projects, and for years seemed too willing to put the series behind him.

However, I think he and I would disagree about whether the series should continue without Lynch. I think Frost’s vision of the series is underrated, as does Bocko, but I also think it’s only fair that he gets a crack at developing his ideas on his own, since Lynch had a chance to go back and explore Laura Palmer’s character. I stand by it. Twin Peaks without David Lynch would still entice me.

Anyway, the whole series is on YouTube, in 28 different videos, divided into four parts. He covers the entire series with surprising depth, explains some background on the mystical influences on the mythology, and defends Fire Walk With Me as a crucial masterpiece to Lynch’s entire career. I’ve been waiting for a satisfying treatment of Twin Peaks like this, and if I couldn’t do it myself, I’m at least glad it’s done so well.

Twin Peaks Without David Lynch Might Still Be Pretty Good (But Give Him Everything He Wants Anyway)

Yesterday was the 25th anniversary of the original air date of the Twin Peaks pilot. This is a huge deal, both in the context of the show itself, and in the real life influence of the series on television and pop culture in general. Twin Peaks undeniably changed television forever, and changed it unlike any other groundbreaking series.

It is about the mystery of “who killed Laura Palmer?” but grows into something much deeper and poignant than that. It is a surreal work of elegant Americana, flawed but beautiful. Once someone asked me what my biggest geek obsession was, and without hesitating the words “Twin Peaks” left my mouth. I hadn’t ever considered that before then, but it felt right. Since then, I think fascination over it has only grown.

Part of what hooked me originally was the hero, Dale Cooper, and his wise optimism when facing unspeakable darkness. David Lynch is surely capable of pulling off some disturbing imagery, but the show always portrayed horror through the lens of Cooper, which dangled hope in front of us even when staring down the toothy gaze of Killer BOB.

Try going to sleep after watching that.

Now that television is in its renaissance, nearly every show has creative roots in Twin Peaks, as showrunners and TV writers are all basically trying to recreate the magic formula the David Lynch and Mark Frost stumbled upon in the early ‘90s. I make a point to include Frost because it seems like he’s left out of too many Peaks-related discussions. Especially considering the sometimes larger-than-life creative personality of David Lynch. But Lynch is an artist, truly, and brings with him some inherent flaws that alone would have made Twin Peaks impossible. He’s temperamental, unfocused, incoherent—all the marks of a real visionary. But Frost managed to reign in Lynch’s surreal images and disjointed storytelling and form it into a reasonably easy to digest drama.

I bring this up because this anniversary is marred by Lynch’s recent announcement that the Showtime-produced third season of Twin Peaks might have to go on without him, due to contract negotiations. Immediately fans of the show rallied behind the filmmaker to #SaveTwinPeaks, followed quickly by the residents of Twin Peaks themselves. They have a point. The core of Twin Peaks is trademark Lynch, a dreamy exploration of the seething underbelly of American suburbia.

Last month, Lynch hinted that he wasn’t sure how involved he would be in the new project, and I thought (after the initial mournful gasp) that it was a perfectly executed negotiating tactic. I still think that’s what’s going on now, even moreso that he’s flat out admitted this is all about the money. I honestly hope it works out, because returning to Twin Peaks without David Lynch would be bittersweet. But it might not be a disaster. In fact, it could still be amazing.

I think Twin Peaks’ fans should consider that maybe the new series will be fine without Lynch. There are plenty of good writers and directors influenced by Lynch’s style to complete his vision, and plenty of reboots were disasters in the hands of their original creators (Star Wars, Indiana Jones) while passing the torch worked far better in other cases (Battlestar Galactica,  Star Trek: The Next Generation). Not to mention, Mark Frost is still on board, and to me, that’s just as good. I don’t want to say Twin Peaks would be better without Lynch–but I think everyone can agree that Star Wars would have been better if Lucas kept his role minimal during the prequels.

Don’t get me wrong. I want David Lynch on board, and he’s much more capable and self aware than Lucas. But I also want new Twin Peaks episodes, even if he can’t work things out. Yes, some of Twin Peaks’ best moments had Lynch at the helm, but he left the series fairly early in the second season, around the time the network pressured the creators to reveal the killer—a move that proved to undo the plot in a way that spiraled Twin Peaks into cancellation. That wasn’t really anyone’s fault, though. And when David Lynch did revive Twin Peak for a feature film, it wasn’t nearly as consistent as the series at its best. I do love Fire Walk With Me, especially because it really gives Sheryl Lee a chance to portray a three-dimensional version of Laura Palmer. The film is remarkable for her performance alone, especially considering she was originally hired solely to play a dead girl on a beach. It is, however, a perfect example of Lynch without restraint. Which brings me back to everything I love about the work of David Lynch—it is cerebral, but arty, and often lacks a coherent narrative. That works just fine in an insular work like Eraserhead or Blue Velvet. Twin Peaks, on the other hand, relies on a focused plotline that uses Lynch’s trademark strobelit performance art with subtlety. David Lynch is a visionary, but television needs more structure than that. It needs to hold together and keep at least one toe on the ground so audiences can come back and know what they’re getting into.

There is something uniquely Lynchian about the whole debacle, though. The series was born out of a writers strike, otherwise no network in their right mind would have aired something so edgy on prime time. Behind-the-scenes controversies pushed and pulled the series in all sorts of directions, and now the new series is starting off with the same kind of production struggles. If anything, it gives me hope that whatever direction Twin Peaks is headed, it’s the right one.

RECOMMENDED:
If you liked this blog, check these out:

  • Twin Peaks, of course. It’s on Netflix, and yes, it is worth all the hype
  • Blue Velvet – one of Lynch’s best films, and also stars Kyle McClachlan
  • Beach House “Bloom” This whole album sounds like Twin Peaks, which is pretty cool. They even got Leland Palmer for one of their videos.

Top Eleven Things, March 21 Edition

Eleven Things is back, with eleven more things, if I can come up with eleven things that is. Let’s do this.

11. Spring

Is it here yet, or what?

10. Horrible Disaster Movies

I’ve been watching The Core in bed in fifteen minute chunks for the last few nights. It’s so bad. I’m only at the part where Aaron Eckhart tells all the leaders of the world that everyone is going to die in a year. Crap like this is essential for my sanity.

9. Tommy Wiseau’s Reddit AMA

It is a masterpiece. 

8. Shoes

A good pair of shoes is essential, people. I cannot stress this enough.

7. Broccoli and Cheddar Soup

I make a mean pot.

6. Legacy of the Wizard on NES

Here’s this game I used to play all the time when I was a kid, because I would just get lost in the massive labyrinth. I had no idea what the goal was, or how to play, but it has all the beautiful marks of a great NES game. Modern critics dismiss it as too difficult and confusing, but those are exactly the reasons I love it. In an alternate universe, it was this game that set the standards for RPG gaming instead of Final Fantasy, which, admit it, was pretty terrible on the NES as well.

I’m playing it again and I really never get tired of it. Then I found this video, and this guy gets as far in 4 minutes as I did with ten hours of gameplay, and that’s with an online strategy guide. What I’m saying is, this video doesn’t do the scale of this game justice.

5. LCD Soundsystem

I don’t know why it took so long for this band to click for me, but it was this song.

4. Sonic Youth

Ok, so I also just read Kim Gordon’s book Girl In A Band, which made me want to listen to every Sonic Youth album. Which I did. There’s no easy way to get into Sonic Youth. They don’t ever “click” like LCD Soundsystem did for me this week. They just wash over you until you can’t make any room.

3. Grant Morrison’s Multiversity

I feel like this was on last week’s top eleven. No? I don’t know. I’m not going to check. It’s amazing.

2. The donuts from the Galway Market

This guy makes fresh donuts at the market and I’m really addicted to them.

1. Too Many Cooks, Election Edition

Fair play, CNN.