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Musings: On “Quality,” Diversity, and Subversiveness

Recently the NYT hopped on the bandwagon of folks claiming television has transcended (Hollywood) film. About six months ago during dinner with a couple in their 60s, I said almost exactly that: “In the last decade or so, I think TV has surpassed film in terms of quality.” The matriarch picked up her wine glass, waved it slightly, and murmured, “Damning with faint praise.” That one stung – but it isn’t particularly surprising. Sometimes I forget that other people aren’t as invested in media, as in love with the art form, as I am. Likewise I sometimes forget that our parents’ version of TV was Kraft Mac & Cheese compared to our current gourmet buffet. The discerning epicure has plenty of delights from which to choose these days, as does the gent who really just wants his Velveeta (who in the bloody hell actually watches Two and a Half Men?!). The thing is, some (some, mind you) “junk food” TV is paving the way for a richer, more diverse future.

As a slight snob and consumer of all things buzzing, I watch the good stuff. I tune in and burn through House of Cards, Mad Men, Game of Thrones (farewell Joffrey, you deplorable, inbred psychopath. Sorry not sorry for spoilers), The Walking DeadTrue Detective, Dexter, and Breaking Bad.

Mad Men Season 7 Key Art

This is the good shit. Photo courtesy AMC.

But on top of these things, I’m also paying attention to a bunch of shows I don’t usually admit publicly. I watch Scandal, Revenge, and Hannibal every week. I’m way behind on The Vampire Diaries and Supernatural, but I’m watching them. If you know much about me, you’ll see the tonal connection: they’re dark, soapy, and totally implausible, every one. In these alternate worlds, though, I can turn off my brain for 47 minutes and not contemplate life, the universe, and everything.

Scandal (ABC) Cast Shot

More color and more ladies than you’d expect. (ABC’s Scandal)

But you know me. Even in “off” mode, I’m thinking about the context, the casting, the creators. These shows, the ones that are “marginalized,” at the edges of popular culture, have immense room to play with gender, race, and sexuality; they have the freedom to subvert norms and mores. Revenge‘s Nolan Ross is virtually the only bisexual male on broadcast television, and you know what? Nobody cares, either out here in the real world or in the goofily decadent Revenge-verse. (Let’s not talk about House of Cards‘s Frank Underwood. We’ll leave that for later.) Scandal‘s team of Gladiators, led by Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), is richly comprised of women and men of color. (I thank Shonda Rhimes for this – it’s amazing what happens when you stick a woman of color in the director’s seat.)

Gabriel Mann as Nolan Ross.

Indeed, Nolan. Indeed. Credit to Tumblr user bravonolanross.

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I’ve redecorated. Help warm my (metaphorical) house!

Big things are afoot. In the last few months I’ve decided firmly to take my own happiness, my few belongings, my space (both physical and online), and my work, and shape it into something that makes me feel proud and comfortable.

Needless to say, I’m a little extra antisocial and more depleted than usual. On top of moving and assembling actual furniture, figuring placement of decorations and lights, and deciding (yet again) to renew the lease with my less-than-ideal landlady, I’m also studying for a huge exam that’ll help me obtain a three-letter title (and hopefully more mobility and more money). Finally, I’m revamping this place (which has a much better landlord). The redecoration process has been lengthy and unexciting – but it is nearly complete.

Just in time for the final season of Mad Men, I’ve archived all of my recaps of seasons 5 and 6 (and holy shit, do you guys remember just how trippy season 5 was?). Likewise, all my recaps of The Walking Dead are up, starting from a blog after the series premiere and continuing all the way through to this Sunday’s episode. Finally, use the navigation up top to browse through old movie reviews; they’re loosely categorized for search purposes. I only put up the ones I want to show you. It’s kind of like rearranging my downstairs bookshelf so that the pretty hardcovers, the “sophisticated” Salinger, Oates, and Chabon are on display. The Charlaine Harris and Stephen King books reside upstairs (and are dogeared because I love them).

I’m no graphic designer, but in preparation for Mad Men I’ve pasted up some temporary wallpaper that’ll make your eyes twitch (like so many of the color combos of the 1960s did). I also made my hair purple, because you know what? I feel purple.

Settling is for suckers.

Settling is for suckers.

So come in, please, and make yourself comfortable. Make yourself a martini. Do take a tour. It ain’t much, but it’s home. For now.

On Celebrity, Addiction, and Art: Why Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Death Matters

Update, 2/7/2014: Aaron Sorkin‘s brief tribute to Hoffman from Wednesday, February 5 struck a chord, so you should go read it. DeBieHive also published a great piece on addiction, and the way it affects not only the addict but everyone around him. 

Yesterday one of my favorite actors, Philip Seymour Hoffman, was found dead in his New York apartment with a needle hanging from his left arm. He’d openly discussed his issues with addiction before, and today a friend of his claimed the actor genuinely seemed to have his life back together. This is exactly what people said about Cory Monteith.

“We are uncool.” A discussion of the quicksand that is celebrity in Almost Famous.

Every time someone famous and talented dies, those of us in the real world are subjected to ridicule for mentioning it. My Facebook has blown up with snarky, “I’m so sorry for your loss,” and “I have no sympathy for this,” and “Who the fuck cares? You didn’t know him.” These same folks said the same thing about Paul Walker and Monteith when I mentioned I was upset to hear of their deaths. (And by the way, though I can’t say I respected Walker’s acting career particularly, NO ONE deserves to die that way, particularly not someone who devoted large chunks of his personal life to charity.)

Why is any death less significant than any other death? Why do people feel the need to slither out of the woodwork and vehemently attack those who mourn the passing of young, talented people?film Heist 2015

I have seen either 28 or 29 of the movies in which Mr. Hoffman performed, and each time he was onscreen he affected me. That means at least 60 hours of my life, not counting time in the college classes in which I studied his roles, and time spent contemplating and writing about his performances, I spent with this man. He played grief, anger, intensity, love, and poignant humanity in a way that no other actor of our generation has. He had an incredible presence, a way of inhabiting each and every role he got his hands on, that deserves recognition no matter the way he died.

“I do many, many things.” (2012’s The Master).

Maybe instead of taking to the internet to claim you lack sympathy, that “the only reason people give a shit about this guy’s death is that he was famous,” it’s time to discuss why our culture venerates celebrity, loves to follow the travails of Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, and their ilk, but condemns the drug abuse that so often accompanies this celebrity. These people live in a world where anything and everything is available to them due to stature, money, and a cadre of hangers-on who wish to provide. Maybe it’s time to quit being self-righteous dicks about death, and discuss the fact that drug abuse is common, not only in the poor and under-educated, but among the wealthy, famous, and talented. Let’s face it: it’s even common in the middle class. And that in any case, it’s a terrible illness that needs not your contempt, but a discussion of how to help stop it. How do we care for the addicted? How can we provide assistance to those in need? Publicly scrutinized deaths like those of Hoffman, Monteith, River Phoenix, or Amy Winehouse (and the list goes on) should not be ignored or shoved aside. Those who mourn them should not be viewed in contempt. Let’s actually talk about drug abuse. Let’s actually talk about celebrity. Let’s not diminish the importance of someone’s death because of the cause; let’s not diminish death, period.

Rest in peace, Mr. Hoffman. I, for one, will miss you as though you were a friend. Your brilliant performances will live on in celluloid and digital prints and your memory with the people who loved you. I hope your demons no longer haunt you. I’ll continue to hope that a life like yours will bring out the best in people instead of the worst. That you’ll be an inspiration for those to come.

“I’m a fucking idiot!” In one of my favorite performances in film history, Hoffman played poor, rejected, messed-up Scotty in P.T. Anderson’s Boogie Nights.

Holiday Greetings from Wes Anderson & Co.! The Big Short 2015 movie now


Fox just sent me this lovely motion poster for Wes Anderson’s upcoming quirk-fest The Grand Budapest Hotel. Brilliant advertising, tasteful greeting; it’s perfectly suited to the film’s campaign. With that cast and Anderson at the helm, it’s bound to be an elegant, strange exercise in oddity and symmetry.

Forces of Nature: Experiencing Cuaron’s GRAVITY

On Monday, I went to see Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity by myself. Considering how infrequently I’ve visited theaters since I’m no longer getting paid to do so, it should feel both cathartic and exciting every time. This is even my favorite time of year to see theater movies – the trailers are for upcoming Oscar films (indeed: The Counselor, Captain Phillips, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and The Monuments Men aired prior to the feature – along with some Keanu Reeves incoherence called 47 Ronin, which will probably be a terrible masterpiece) or the year’s horror fare. Mostly, I was just anxious. Gravity was bound to be a tense, emotionally vivid experience for somebody claustrophobic like me, who is in complete awe and terror of space, who as she gets older realizes (and rebels against – hello skydiving) her own impending mortality.

Bullock in Cuaron's Gravity

Sandra Bullock in Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (Courtesy

As it turns out, alone may have been the best way to see Gravity. Scott Foundas wrote a piece over at Variety that claims the movie, which draws inspiration from art films of the 1920s and ’30s, might be considered a religious experience. That’s taking it a little too far, if you ask me…and after the Aurora shootings, I was known to call the theater my sanctuary, my temple. When you really think about it, though, isn’t that what you’re doing, going into a massive, darkened space to view flickering pictures by yourself? You’re deliberately removing yourself from one world and entering another; you’re atoning for your “sins” through voyeurism, or you’re taking comfort in others’ plight (for me, anyway, there’s always an element of schadenfreude). You’re worshiping larger-than-life actors, brilliantly imagined other worlds, technology that continues to develop a century after the first picture moved.

Gravity begins with an off-key orchestral forte that builds in volume until you’re not sure your ears can take it, then snaps off, leaving you alone in the dark and relative silence. (I was reminded of the original THX sound – remember that?) For an hour and thirty minutes, you’re trapped in space with Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock), a medical doctor who is for some reason working for NASA, and Matt Kowalski, a seasoned vet who’s looking to break the record for longest space walk. The characters are minimally developed, their arcs relatively simple and even predictable. When disaster strikes (at 90 minute intervals in film-time, hooray for suspense!), Stone and Kowalski perform exactly as you’d expect. Read more