Sunday, December 23, 2012

Best TV of 2012

Another topic I know not much about, but I'm gonna throw my hat into the ring. Here are my favorite TV shows of the past year. Much has been written in the past few years about how the locus of good writing has moved from cinema to television, and this I cannot disagree with. The quality of TV in the past ten years has been pretty incredible. Critics seem to date it to The Sopranos and then The Wire (for pay cable) and Lost (for network TV) but I have not seen any of those shows. For me, the first indication that TV might be amazing was Six Feet Under which ran from 2001 to 2005 on HBO. Of course, I didn't watch it when it originally aired but caught up on DVD sometime in its twilight years, but what a ride that was. And unlike 90% of TV, it ended on the highest possible note with a hugely emotional but not saccharine series finale.

My favorite shows of the past year were:

10. The Walking Dead (AMC, Season 3, Part 1): OK, stop right here. Let me be clear right up front: Season 2, which aired in 2011-2012 was execrable, just hideous, one of the worst imaginable runs of television created in recent memory. There was nothing redeeming about it. So the bar was set extremely low when Season 3 began in October of this year. And it wasn't half bad. In fact, it was actually pretty good and I looked forward to the show every week. In many important ways, the TV show has clearly diverged from its source novel, The Walking Dead graphic novel series (which began in 2003 and has gone 105+ issues so far). For starters, the TV version is not quite as dark or nihilistic. But without that darkness, the creators of the TV show resorted to blathering navel-gazing for much of Season 2. Thankfully, they finally chucked all the existential bullshit and went for taut action-filled episodes with lots of plot movement. And the results have been surprisingly good. Or maybe because the bar had been set so low that I'm willing to cut the show some slack. Hard to tell. But I will be watching when the final episodes of Season 3 air early next year.

9. Spartacus: Vengeance (Starz, Season 2): Let me be clear once again: We do not look to Spartacus as the erudite sequel to I, Claudius or some other upper crust British TV serial. No, we look to it for gratuitous nudity, sex, and violence. Who knew that violence could be so artfully displayed in slow motion CGI? The slo mo trajectory of splattered blood is a thing of beauty, or so it seems. That being said, the writers of the show know how to tell a compelling story of betrayal, betrayal, and much more betrayal. What is loyalty, after all, if it can never be betrayed? Liam McIntyre has replaced the late Andy Whitfield, but since I was never attached to Whitfield's portrayal, it didn't make much difference to me. We all know how this story ends, but it's hard to avert our eyes away from the glorious debauchery of this series.

8. 30 Rock (NBC, Season 6): How can this show still be funny? I don't know. I only have the following clip:

7. Parks and Recreation (NBC, Season 4): Parks and Recreation was always the mirror image of The Office. Both enjoy the conceit that they are basically documentaries about work. But where The Office was a show about intra-office dysfunction in the private sector, P and R focused on the public sector, and this makes the show a biting critique about the slow collapse of public funding and support in small town America. But really, that's beside the point. You don't have to give a shit about politics to see the funny here. The irony (or the genius, if you will) of the show is that the principal ideological conscience of the show is one Ron Swanson, who is basically to the right of Ayn Rand in the economic conservatism spectrum. Ron Swanson is also the funniest sitcom character since Col. Henry Blake on M.A.S.H.

6. Boardwalk Empire (HBO, Season 2): A slow burner of a show but definitely worth the investment. This is America in the post-Great War period--a show in the grand tradition of Irwin Shaw's Rich Man, Poor Man, one of the first and greatest TV min-series', broadcast in the 1970s. Every episode of Boardwalk Empire was pretty much a shocker and none no more than the Season 2 finale in which one of the central characters meets a bloody end. One wonders whether life on coastal New Jersey in the early 1920s was really this violent, but that's not really the point. Powerful people have always equated justice with violence, and often conflated the two. When you add greed into it--it was the Prohibition era after all--you get characters who were literally building Henry Luce's "American Century" with their bare hands (and sometimes with guns and crowbars).

5. Downton Abbey (PBS, Series 2): Julian Fellowes, of Gosford Park fame, continues to maintain the high level of Season 1 as the series moved on into the tail end of the Great War and into 1920. I had this momentary idea that the producers of Boardwalk Empire (see my no. 6) and Downton Abbey would do a crossover season, since they're both around 1920, but alas that was too much to hope for. Historical fiction can be done extremely poorly because presentiment always colors any kind of plot. (Teleology for all you historians.) In Downton Abbey, you know of course, that the Great War was awful and you know that it will end some day (1919, to be precise) but Fellowes manages to transcend these "historical moments" to illuminate the daily lives of the rich and the poor and those in between. Regardless of our station in life, we all love and hurt, apparently. No, but seriously, this is an extremely well-written show about the English upper class and their servants that is neither gratuitous nor boring. Sure, it skirts being a soap opera but that's not a bad thing here. Can't wait for Season 3.

4. The Colbert Report (Comedy Central): Stephen Colbert continues to be a comedic genius. I don't even know how to write anything meaningful about him. He has created a meta universe. I find it both funny and incredibly scary that Wikipedia has entries not only on Stephen Colbert (the real person) but also an entirely separate page for Stephen Colbert (the character).

3. Game of Thrones (HBO, Season 2): A bit like Lord of the Rings in its ambition to create an entire fictional universe, Game of Thrones (the TV show) continues to maintain its superlative standards. It's not just the high production values, but that the characters are all fleshed out, the acting is generally superb, and the pacing is never lacking. (Take note: Walking Dead, another TV show drawn from the written word). The second season upped the ante significantly with several parallel stories, some that explicitly intersect and some (the whole narrative with Jon Snow as part of the Night's Watch as they venture beyond the Wall) that don't. But for me, the joy of watching Game of Thrones is less about the political intrigues and shifting alliances (which in itself are fascinating) than really, to see..... just what happens next! And that, I think is really the best reason to watch anything on TV. For those who are still on the fence about Game of Thrones because it's "fantasy," yes, it is! Think of it as high political intrigue---a game of royal chess---invested with emotion at the very smallest, personal levels, with the occasional detour into "Where are my dragons???!!"

2. Mad Men (AMC, Season 5): I was one of those who thought Season 3 and 4 of Mad Men didn't measure up to the halcyon heights of the first two seasons. But Season 5, the one that they showed in 2012, was unbelievable. It may have been the best season of the show so far. Every episode of this show is written like a mini movie, something so artful that you forget you're watching a TV show. One of the defining aspects of the show has always been how the writers balance the 'real' history of the 1960s with what they show every episode. We know, after all, all the obvious cliched touchstones of the mid-1960s, but where hack writers would have invoked every single 1960s milestone in heavy-handed tones, Mad Men writers have expertly negotiated this minefield in subtle and unexpected ways. The 'real' 1960s was like any other decade, intensely personal struggles amid immense changes. And as the show reminds us, the dirty secret of the 1960s was that the 1950s survived for a very long time well into the 1960s. Don Draper is an (im)perfect epitomy of that. We know the 'future' is coming, and the premonition of that was shown artfully in the following clip from the episode "Lady Lazarus," one of the best of an incredible season. I have never ever heard a Beatles song in any TV show or movie so it was every bit as jarring as one might expect (and expensive):

1. Breaking Bad (AMC, Season 5, Part 1): This was over the top brilliant. One of my favorite TV shows of all time, for sure. The first 8 episodes of Season 5 set up the denouement of the entire series, as Walter White, our erstwhile protagonist, moved ever so slow further and further into the dark recesses of the human condition. Where he began the series as a befuddled middle-aged man incapable of asserting himself in even the most banal of circumstances, we see now a man who defines his own morality, one who is willing to kill to maintain what he sees as his tenuous sense of order. I think that's been one of my favorite aspects of the show, the evolution of a central character on a TV show from its moral center to one who is unmoored from any sense of conventional moral obligations. He will do anything to preserve his life. The question, it seems, for the remaining episodes of the series (to air in the summer of 2013) is how that will affect his family, his wife, his son, and his sometime associate Jesse Pinkman. Undoubtedly, one or some of them will not make it out of the show alive, but the question is not who, but how. This show is like Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment brought down to disposable pop culture levels; soon we will see how our New Mexico-based Raskolnikov will fare in this minefield of blurred moral choices.

Remembering Joe

Who died 10 years ago this week.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Top 10 Movies of 2012

OK, year-end lists and all that. Since I tend to spend a lot of time listening to music and a lot less time watching TV and/or movies, my lists for TV/movies will be very limited and uninformed. Nevertheless, it's still fun to revisit what I liked this year.

So movies first. This is my weak spot as I haven't basically seen much of what people saw or liked this year. But the following movies (in reverse order) resonated:

10. Trishna (Michael Winterbottom): A grim adaptation of Pride and Prejudice Tess of the d'Urbervilles set in modern India, starring Freida Pinto and Riz Ahmed.
8. Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik): A violent meditation on how economics and $$ are the foundations of the American spirit.
8. The Amazing Spider-Man (Marc Webb): A surprising re-invention of Spiderman, one that's actually much closer to the comic book than the lackluster and strangely lifeless movies that came out a while back.
7. Jeff, Who Lives At Home (Jay & Mark Duplass): A funny but touching movie about... well, about a lot of things covered under the veneer of hapless comedy.
6. Cloud Atlas (Lana & Andy Wachowski and Tom Tykwer): An ambitious (if a bit flawed) movie about the value of freedom from tyranny, set in different times and different places.
5. The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard): An incredibly smart meta commentary on the horror film genre even as it tells a completely entertaining tale.
4. The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan): Beautifully filmed movie that shows the dangers of quasi fascism even as it critiques the Occupy movement.
3. Argo (Ben Affleck): A perfectly paced thriller with the added bonus that much of it is based on actual events.
2. Marvel's The Avengers (Joss Whedon): One of the best superhero movies ever made. It's a perfect blend of action, overarching plot, witticisms, lean script, and emotional investment.
1. Prometheus (Ridley Scott): Pretty much a home run as far as a movie was concerned, and I have no reservations in putting it first on the list. Granted, I'm a bit of a sci-fi geek but the movie managed to pack together a tight-action packed movie that added to the "Aliens" canon and hinted towards some big "what is life"-type questions." It was also visually beautiful, a total cine classic, lush, rich, a whole universal experience, in both senses of the word. It obviously drew a lot of aesthetics and tone from Stanley Kubrick, particularly (but not just) 2001: A Space Odyssey, but upped the ante with the mood of Alien and a bit of the ass-kicking of Aliens.

Michael Fassbender's "David" is a perfect update of HAL:

Now, there are a bunch of movies I have not seen that came out this year which I want to see, which deserve some mention (in alphabetical order);

1. Anna Karenina (Joe Wright): I loved Atonement, and the conceit of this adaptation, that it's a theatrical production within the movie, sounds intriguing.
2. The Deep Blue Sea (Terence Davies): Postwar England, Rachel Weisz, ex-RAF pilots, stiff upper lips, and forbidden love--what's not to like?
3. Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino): Probably won't top the awesomeness of Inglorious Basterds but few movies could. But Christoph Waltz is in it!
4. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Peter Jackson): I'm cautious but excited. I loved the book as a kid. And as a friend pointed out recently, Martin Freeman is more hobbitish than... pretty much real hobbits.
5. The Loneliest Planet (Julia Loktev): Have to see this.
6. Looper (Rian Johnson): Sci-fi with JGL looking a bit like the badass from Inception.
7. Robot & Frank (Jake Schreier): Recommended to me as one of the better (the best?) portrayals of robots on screen.
8. The Sessions (Ben Lewin): This will be sad.
9. Skyfall (Sam Mendes): Bond apparently feels patriotic.
10. Wuthering Heights (Andrea Arnold): It has Kaya Scodelario from Skins. She potentially has a great career ahead of her.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Books

I am in DC this night at the (in?)famous Willard hotel founded in the mid-19th century on 1901 Pennsylvania Avenue. Apparently Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his famous "I Have a Dream" speech while staying in this hotel in 1963. Other past guests include P. T. Barnum, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Samuel Morse, the Duke of Windsor, Harry Houdini, Emily Dickinson, and Charles Dickens. I am in a giant room.

I am here to (apparently) determine the future of the American space program.

I'm listening to "That Right Ain't Shit" by the late lamented Books on my iPod. I think I have posted this song before but it's such a brilliant song by such a brilliant band that I have to do it again.

And the live version. One of the best concerts I've ever seen.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

What the Kids are Listening To

Listening to music these days is like living in your own little gated community. You are generally aware of what's going on in your own little niche (or age group) (or genre of music) but you have little or no idea what's going on in the other little gated communities. Methinks the main reason for this is that these days (2010s), there's very little music that's "consensus music," i.e., music that everybody agrees is good or popular. You know hipsters, teens, parents, lawyers, rednecks. Maybe PSY's "Gangnam Style" was a brief moment of "consensus music"? A very brief moment. But these are few and rare. And if you spend a lot of time within your gated community of taste, it's a rude awakening when you realize what's going on elsewhere. This is what happened to me a few weeks ago when I got a brief glimpse of what the modern American teenager is listening to these days. In Los Angeles recently, I found myself at a show (by an accident of timing) by a band called Falling in Reverse who I'd honestly never heard of. The show was at the Wiltern Theater, which, according to the internets remains one of the "finest examples of Art Deco style architecture" in the United States. Built in the early 1930s, the theater is on the western edge of Koreatown in LA, and has a maximum capacity of 2,000+ people. It's a stately and ornate theater, and one wonders what great stars (Fay Wray? Peter Lorre?) must have attended movie premieres here.

Who are Falling in Reverse? There are part of an entire universe of music that completely avoids conventional methods of publicity and exposure. These bands are never (or rarely) featured in places like Rolling Stone, Spin, Mojo, Q, or other mainstream pop/rock magazines. You will certainly never find them mentioned on Salon or Slate or paper magazines such as People or Entertainment Weekly. They are also never mentioned in indie-centric websites such as Pitchfork or Stereogum or All Songs Considered (which is, let's face it, more like Dull Songs Considered) and only sparingly mentioned in places like the industry standard Billboard (I could find not a single article about them in Billboard). They are never played on the radio. Even the AV Club, the freakin' AV Club!, that purveyor of the notion that everything ever made by humans -- every last detritus of low culture -- is worthy of serious discussion, has NEVER once mentioned them. They have zero hipster credibility. Yet, they are wildly popular, play kickass rock'n'roll and have a devoted fanbase of mostly early teens (evident the night of the show as a veritable sea of young acned teens screamed out every word to every song...)

Where do people hear them? My guess (only a hunch) is that much of their success has depended on a combination of newer social media conduits, particularly YouTube and Facebook. Their biggest "hit", "The Drug in Me is You" has over 12.6 million views on YouTube.

What do they sound like? Well, I had little idea until the show itself, part of Falling in Reverse's "The Thug in Me is You" tour, which unbeknownst to me included three (yes three!) opening bands. This was like a mini fucking Lollapalooza of teen punk! First there was a fairly workmanlike three-piece punk band led by Matt Toka, a minor figure in the Warped Tour circuit. The second act was letlive, a ferocious (and that is coming from someone who has seen the most ferocious punk bands of eighties hardcore) outfit fronted by a frenetic lead singer with an unholy scream combined with an oddly positive message of self-respect, self-growth, and (proto)feminism. The theme of their set was basically triumph over adversity. This wasn't explicitly spelled out, but there between the lines and wails was the story of a young boy from the bad side of LA who done good, who made something of himself, now 27 years old, who was able to invite his mom and sister to see him be a star at the Wiltern Theater. What can you say? You could draw a direct line from Minor Threat (!) to Let Live.

The ante was upped with the third opening band, Enter Shikari, named after the Sanskrit word for "hunter." The band are part of a relatively new sub-genre known as "electronicore" (cough) basically an amalgamation of hardcore punk and metal with bits and pieces of electronic music thrown in. (Think NIN's "March of the Pigs" but with more guitars). The UK-based Enter Shikari was hard and heavy but with a more melodic sense and yes, electronics (or what the kids these days call "dubstep breakdowns," 'cuz, you know, every successive generation must refer to the same thing by different names). Again, I thought of such nineties pop bands as Stabbing Westward or Gravity Kills who enjoyed brief moments of fame between the rise of NIN and the (inevitable) arrival of the ready-for-malls Marilyn Manson. All three of Enter Shikari's albums have apparently charted top 10 in the English charts but they have obviously not made much of an impression on American consumers, although their stage show would suggest a a potential and lucrative future here in the U.S. Judging from the (far too long) entry on Wikipedia, they seem to do nothing but tour constantly so I don't doubt that one day all this hard work will pay off. I see a certain demographic of American high school kids that would seriously like this shit.

After three bands, I was approaching band fatigue. But I had downed three beers by then so I was sufficiently lubricated to enjoy people-watching. Enter the main act: Falling in Reverse. Their music is basically a trifecta of punk, metal, and pop. So nothing new. Bands have been playing this stuff for years. But there are reasons why their performance made even jaded me stand up straight. First of all, they know that playing live is not just about the music, it's also about performance, and this was entirely performance. This was the theater of the (punk) absurd. Their frontman is a guy by the name of Ronnie Radke, a charismatic young man (now 29) who walked non-stop from one side of the stage to the other during their entire set, dressed in a suit and skinny tie. What came immediately to mind was the feral spawn of Mick Jagger and Freddie Mercury. It was hard not to be transfixed by his presence. 100% star material. The band, meanwhile, were here to entertain, not to wallow in their personal angst. Most of the songs were indeterminable from the others, and they either seemed to be about (a) being pissed off at somebody or (b) wanting to fuck somebody, or um, both. Much of the lyrics were vaguely misogynistic, not surprising given that our friend Ronnie has an unsavory record of despicable behavior to put it mildly. Radke, a not tall man with still very youthful almost baby-faced features, spent about two years in prison for his involvement in a murder. Recent continuing spats with the law include "domestic assault" on his girlfriend (which apparently caused "corporal injury" to "his spouse"). There are many other line items on his arrest record, far too many to mention, but I wonder if that's also part of his draw. Certainly, the thousands of young girls who no doubt would make themselves fully available to service Ronnie were only too eager to overlook his past indiscretions. A quick search of Ronnie Radko-devoted tumblrs will either make you very afraid for the future of humanity or just plain depress you.

Falling in Reverse played a tight set and I was not bored at all. A bit of everything here: punk, metal, the big pop chorus, a lot of inbetween song banter sprinkled liberally with various attacks on Ronnie's enemies, past and present. [In case you're interesting, here are reviews of shows on the same tour, from Chicago and Orlando.] The band were competent enough as musicians: there were metal solos, drum solos, synchronized hopping, and matching suits. But Ronnie was really the centerpiece, his vocals alternating with from screaming to Freddie Mercury-esque operatic flourishes.

This is not music I would ever listen to at home or on my headphones. Maybe if I was 13 and had never heard any punk in my life, sure it would be revelatory. But I give them props for putting on an a solid hour of entertainment. While their songs on album sound generally sterile and unimpressive, live they pummel and pound and keep your attention, a not inconsiderable achievement in an age when nobody has the attention span for anything. Is it good for 13 year olds? That I can't answer. But you know, one of my favorite songs as a 13-year old was "Midnight Rambler' by the Rolling Stones, probably one of the most misogynistic songs ever, and I somehow managed to turn into Mr. Feminist.

I noted above that no one really talks about these bands. This is not entirely true. Two magazines, one based in the U.S. (Alternative Press) and the other based in the U.K. (Kerrang!) frequently put these bands on their covers and do headline stories on their respective websites. So there are outlets for these bands. Interesting story about Alternative Press. Back in the eighties and nineties, AP was a super cutting-edge music magazine, catering to a kind of indie-white-college-student-hipster demographic. It was through them that I discovered Aphex Twin, Autechre, Oval, and a lot of fringe electronic music. I'm sorry to say that I actually subscribed to the magazine for many many years but I did learn an enormous amount of new music from AP. Then, at some point in the late '90s I noticed that it was basically bought out and began targeting the teen market. So my subscription lapsed. But I guess it still remains viable with that demographic. What's on the cover of the latest (January 2013) issue of Alternative Press, you ask? Falling in Reverse, who the magazine named their "Artist of the Year." Take that Frank Ocean!

P.S. Thank you to my fellow companions at the show, one a fan of Falling in Reverse, and the other a curious observer such as I. 'Twas a fun evening all around. A trip to Pink's afterwards would have been the perfect conclusion.