Laughing Matters — George Carlin, “It’s the old American double standard….”

Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.

This snippet of a longer George Carlin routine was recorded nearly thirty years ago, as part of the 1988 comedy special What Am I Doing in New Jersey? All that’s missing is a reference to football — a subject that the master comedian of course covered ingeniously elsewhere — to make these couple of minutes shockingly pertinent for the current moment.

“We got the only national anthem that mentions rockets and bombs in the goddamn thing.”

It’s tempting to speculate about what commentary Carlin would have crafted about the politics of today. But even a cursory examination of his material shows that Carlin has long recognized, understood, and convincingly challenged the portion of the national character that has come to the forefront in our misbegotten current era.

 

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Laughing Matters” tag.

From the Archive: Little Miss Sunshine

sunshine

As Battle of the Sexes makes its initial, limited-engagement foray into theaters this weekend, I double-checked the filmography of co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, figuring that I’d been largely tuning out their work since their feature debut, Little Miss Sunshine, became a sleeper hit and a Best Picture Oscar contender. Instead, I found that there hasn’t been much to ignore. In the eleven years between their debut and their latest, the husband-and-wife team delivered only one other film, the poorly-received Ruby Sparks. Here’s why I wasn’t paying attention: I really disliked Little Miss Sunshine. This review originally appeared at my former online home.    

Little Miss Sunshine is the sort of film I’d expect a powerful computer to create after compiling data gleaned from all of the comedic films that generated buzz at the Sundance Film Festival over the years. It’s a road movie with a dysfunctional family at the core. It’s got an old person who uses foul language and illegal drugs, a self-help guru who can’t get his own life in order, a teenager who’s sense of personal detachment from the world has led to a vow of silence, and on and on. The movie is so mercilessly crammed with archly colorful details that the family drinks from McDonald’s glassware and embark on their roadtrip in a dilapidated old VW bus. It feels orchestrated rather than created, carefully engineered to hit the Sundance jackpot. On that front, mission accomplished.

Despite the scorn sprinkled through the above paragraph, that’s not automatically a damning crime. One of the things we get from going to the movies is that comforting satisfaction of the familiar or the expected. Sometimes when a movie ends exactly the way we expect it to, it feels right rather than disappointingly predictable. That’s even true for independent fare, when all the pieces lining up properly can be an indication of artistic assurance. The problem with Little Miss Sunshine is that it has little to offer besides its standard-issue parts. The film aims it satiric darts at easy targets and can’t even capitalize on the comedic possibilities offered by the characters. The few times they are allowed to really spark off of each other generally correspond to the moments when the film briefly generates some energy. When Steve Carell starts giving Greg Kinnear a backseat lesson in sarcasm, cherish it. It’s like won’t soon come again.

Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (veterans of music videos and Mr. Show) assemble the film adequately, at least having the sense to give their talented cast the room to squeeze whatever they can from Michael Arndt’s limp screenplay. It’s always satisfying to see Alan Arkin and Toni Collette, no matter how much you long for them to have something beyond the simplistic to dig into. Arkin has the designated showboat role, but Collette fares better in some respects, occassionally inserting an intriguing detail in a fluttery throwaway or small reaction. Carell continues to combine crack comic timing with a genuine investment in real acting, and Kinnear is as good as he’s ever been here, hitting the right mark of irritable worry for his character with a constitent level of commitment that–Oscar nomination be damned–is fairly rare for him.

I kept waiting for these gifted performers to pull it together, to transcend their thin material. Despite scattered memorable moments–the methodology employed by Abigail Breslin’s Olive to retrieve her emotionally wounded brother is an especially nice example–the film remains defiantly tethered. The family never feels like people with long-standing relationships, and the emotional turning points are too often driven by illogical story construction, ludicrous coincidence or plain old plot holes.

Near the end, there’s a scene that involves the family members stepping up to support one of their own in an especially low moment. The result is an exuberant celebration of the character’s ill-conceived choice, the entire family united through the mutual embrace of their own off-kilter connection to the world they move through. It’s not a great moment, but it’s one of the places where the familiarity of the filmmaking choice at least feels right. With Little Miss Sunshine, those glancing connections to genuine accomplishment are the best you can get.

One for Friday — The Magic Numbers, “This Love”

magic numbers

When I spent time in the broadcast booth at various college radio stations, one of the finest gifts that came with it was the chance to flip through the ever-changing batch of new music that sat on the shelf. It was a constant exploration process, supplemented by trade journals, record company suggestions, and other media resources, but it was primarily driven by simply going through the albums, scrutinizing their song titles and sampling tracks until gold was struck.

I always took a certain amount of pride when I found my way to some tremendous song on my own, but my fonder memories are those instances when a friend at the station pushed me in the right direction. “Yeah, that song is good, but the best song on the record is actually this one,” they might say, completely transforming my view of an album, or even a whole band.

When the debut album from the U.K. group the Magic Numbers landed at the Florida college radio station where I served as the advisor to the students — while also getting in a fair amount of airtime, given the culture of this particular broadcast outlet and the preferences of those students — I gravitated to the the couple of the more boisterous pop songs on the record, which had been fairly successful singles in their homeland. I was pretty satisfied, too. And then, as the above set-up implies, I discussed the band’s music with a friend at the station. While conceding those songs were solid, she noted that the true standout was the ballad “This Love.” Of course, she was correct.

In this simple story sits one of the aspects of music fandom I value most. While much of my listening has been done in isolation, just me and the records (and maybe a bottle or two of something, depending on the night), the songs are also a conduit to others who take the same rejuvenation from the perfect mix of words and tones, rhythm and melody, giddy invention and great pop hook. Music is for sharing.

Listen or download –> The Magic Numbers, “This Love”

(Disclaimer: It appears to me, on an admittedly very cursory bit of research, that the self-titled debt from the Magic Numbers is out of print, at least as a physical object that can be acquired at your favorite local, independently-owned record store in a manner that compensates both the original artist and the proprietor of said shop. The music file is shared in this space at this time in this way with the understanding that doing so impedes no fair and proper commerce. That noted, I do know the rules. I will gladly and promptly remove this track from my little corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

Playing Catch-Up — Wind River; Ship of Fools; Demolition

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Wind River (Taylor Sheridan, 2017). With just a handful of credits for major creative roles behind the camera, Taylor Sheridan is already establishing a pretty compelling philosophical thesis about the way the world works. In Wind River, those who exist outside the power structure are so removed from real safety and justice that the only recourse is personally bloodied hands. While hunting predators in the remote chill of Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation, a U.S Fish and Wildlife agent (Jeremy Renner) finds the dead body of a young Native American woman (Natalie Chow). Since crime-fighting resources are scarce on the reservation — and because of a relevant past marked by tragedy — the agent winds up immersed in the investigation, especially after a neophyte FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) is assigned to the case. Sheridan makes powerful points about discarded populations in his writing, but his pedestrian directing makes a compelling case for the valuable contributions David Mackenzie made in shepherding Sheridan’s Hell and High Water screenplay to the screen. Visual panache and an acutely developed sense of timing go a long way towards elevating a film.

 

ship of fools

Ship of Fools (Stanley Kramer, 1965). Adapted from a novel by Katherine Anne Porter, which had been published just a couple years earlier, Ship of Fools benefits from the readily available storytelling possibilities that come with throwing a big batch of characters together in the confines of a ship on a transatlantic journey. All screenwriter Abby Mann needs to do in order to stir a scene to life is sit a couple people together at dinner or on the deck. Director Stanley Kramer was famously committed to exploring social justice issues in his cinematic efforts, and the timing of the film — a few years before the cataclysmic start of World War II — allows him to make his points in barbed, cunning ways, even if the sensibility on display is ultimately far too modern. Kramer juggles the cross-crossing plots admirably, and is wise enough to approach his skilled actors with obvious generosity. Everyone in the stacked cast performs admirably, but Vivien Leigh and Simone Signoret are standouts.

 

demolition

Demolition (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2015). This drama is so disastrously bad, it boggles the mind that it was Jean-Marc Vallée’s follow-up to the inventive, sublime Wild (not to mention its status as the director’s last big-screen effort before moving on to conquer television). Jake Gyllenhaal plays Davis Mitchell, a man working in finance who is reeling after his wife (Heather Lind) is killed in an auto accident, right in front of his eyes. Davis isn’t saddled with grief, though. He’s more troubled by the indifference he feels, and the guilt (or anguish, or something) that stems from that causes his to act increasingly odd, primarily manifesting in a propensity to disassemble machinery, furnishings, and entire structures. He also befriends a women (Naomi Watts) and her troubled son (Judah Lewis). The entire thing plays as if it were constructed by space aliens taking a stab at depicting human emotions after observations conducted over a single weekend, while they were half-drunk. Gyllenhaal tries real hard, but the film is so bereft of anything genuine that his eager portrayal of a man tilting towards madness comes across as tedious showboating.

Beers I Have Known — 3 Sheeps Brewing Fresh Coast

fresh coast

This series of posts is dedicated to the many, many six packs, pony kegs and pints that have sauntered into my life at one point or another.

As summer slowly wobbles to its inevitable topple and stillness, I’ve been thinking of my happy discoveries from the past few months, especially those beers that seemed to taste especially good when offering myself a reward for working up a sweat in the out of doors. I have a few beautiful standbys that fulfill that particular hankering, but there’s always room for a few more.

That brings me to Fresh Coast, billed as a “juicy pale ale” by the fine people at 3 Sheeps Brewing, in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. It is what it claims to be, delivering one of those bursts of refreshment that can set the tongue and soul reeling with equal rapture. With cunning undercurrents of complexity, the beer adheres to the compelling tenet of drinkability.

I’m don’t mean to imply that this beer can only be enjoyed in the summer sun, but I know when the calendar circles around to this season again, my craving for it is going to fiercely reassert itself.

 

 

College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 4

4 burning

4. Talking Heads, “Burning Down the House”

The highest-charting single of the Talking Heads’ career came about because drummer Chris Frantz attended a Parliament-Funkadelic show at Madison Square Garden. Energized by the propulsive sound he heard coming from the stage — and the enraptured reception to it of his fellow concert-goers — Frantz figured a similar sound could be created by his own group, then more typically characterized by a restrained, almost icy type of post-punk.

Talking Heads had recently finished an extended tour that included musicians Bernie Worrell and Busta Jones, provided a more funk-driven undercurrent to the music. That gave Frantz confidence the main quartet — also comprised of bassist Tina Weymouth, guitarist and keyboardist Jerry Harrison, and guitarist and lead singer David Byrne — could effectively push into similar territory on their own. In a jam session that was an integral part of the band’s creative process, Frantz drew inspiration from the thunderous concert and drove his cohorts to a fuller, more soulful sound. The sonic exploration gave the band the basic instrumental track that would become “Burning Down the House.”

“We gradually get the musical structure of the song set, so that when we went into the recording studio we just play about four-and-a-half, five minutes of it,” Byrne told NPR around the time of the song’s release. “We think, ‘Well, that’s enough. That’s long enough for a song.’ We leave it at that.”

When it came time to add the words, Byrne sang improvised lyrics, intuitive finding sounds and verbal rhythms that seemed to work with the music. That could lead to some odd steps along the line, including a little stretch in which the main repeated line was “Foam Rubber, U.S.A.” He eventually settled on “Burning Down the House,” a loose interpretation of the “Burn down the house” chant Frantz carried over from the P-Funk show. Despite the improvisational development process, the lyrics were built upon pure randomness.

“I’d have loads and loads of phrases collected that I thought thematically had something to do with one another, and I’d pick from those,” Byrne noted in the NPR interview.

Still, the lyrics remained abstract enough that plenty of listeners decided they were just plainly nonsense, an instinct compounded by the fact that the track appeared on an album Speaking in Tongues, released in 1983. The album title’s borrowing of a term describing people so moved by religious experience that they shout out jagged, basically indecipherable syllables led to a suspicion that Byrne was basically doing the same.

“The words in this particular instance don’t mean anything, do they?” David Letterman asked after Talking Heads played “Burning Down the House” on Late Night.

“They do, but not if you try to figure them out,” responded Byrne.

In the NPR interview, Byrne distinguished that a lack of an explicit expression of intellectual intent isn’t the same as offering no deeper thoughts in the song.

“I felt the meaning, but it wasn’t put in in a conscious way,” he said. “I think the meaning was put in in a more intuitive way. My assumption was that it might have a deeper meaning, or a meaning that was more universal, or spoke to more unconscious feelings in people, than one in which I just told a story.”

More specifically, Byrne saw the burning of the house as symbolic of the personal reinvention process people often go through.

“It symbolized rebirth and destroying oneself or destroying some sort of transitory personality, and shedding a shell and coming out with a new one,” Byrne told the BBC.

If some might be confused by the song, Byrne realized he had a new tool to convey his artistic intent. Other musicians chafed at the sudden influence of music videos, but Byrne was all for it. For one thing, he quickly figured out that the new form provided an avenue to get his music heard while radio programmers were perplexed by it.

“MTV and they were starving for content; they’d play pretty much any decent material they were handed,” Byrne wrote in his book How Music Works. “Not too many had cable TV back then, so mTV had no hesitation about playing the same videos over and over. Hard to believe, but at the time, if you made almost any halfway interesting video you possibly could have it up and running on cable TV almost instantly. For me it was a godsend — a way to reincorporate my art-school roots into the music side of things.”

The themes of the song were underscored by the music video, which found the band members being sporadically replaced by others as they performed. MTV gave it saturation airplay, helping to elevate the single into the Billboard Top 10. And it’s endured as a staple of the rock radio stations that were originally reluctant to play the song.

“I guess it was a good title, because I heard it on classic rock radio twice today,” Frantz later told Rolling Stone. “Hey, it was a classic title…. What we really wanted to do was rock the house.”

As we go along, I’ll build a YouTube playlist of all the songs in the countdown.

The hyperlinks associated with each numeric entry lead directly to the individual song on the playlist. All images nicked from Discogs.

From the Archive — The Fountain

fountain

On the occasion of a new film from Darren Aronofsky, arriving to acclaim and debate, and as I eagerly await my opportunity to screen said film and join in the carousing argument, it’s perhaps worth remembering that most of the director’s films simply aren’t very good. This was written for my former online home. As a nifty bonus of “From the Archive” timing, the review contains an offhand reference to a 1990 medical-based thriller that will see its remake hit theater in just a couple of weeks. 

Darren Aronofsky’s new film The Fountain is like What Dreams May Come altered so it’s less for a Mitch Albom crowd and more for a Chuck Palahniuk crowd. If all those references muddy the water a little too much, let’s put it this way: just because it’s arty and edgy and self-referential, all steeped in anger and darkness and blistering imagery doesn’t mean it’s not still a laughable piece of junk.

The film is about eternal love and endless life with science and mythology engaging in a tentative dance together around these subjects. The film moves willfully back and forth in time and between the fiction of the film and the fictions within the film. Aronofsky handles his multiple plot threads nimbly enough. It’s never especially confusing, but nor is it compelling. At its worst, the film is layered in woefully hoary conceits, stranding a talented cast to strain and emote or beam and twinkle. Poor Ellen Burstyn is reduced to the scientific equivalent of the tough precinct captain, berating obsessed doctor Hugh Jackman as “reckless” as he frantically tries to cure his wife’s illness by toiling in the most poorly lit operating rooms to grace a screen since Julia and Kiefer played with defibrillators.

Aronofsky had a wonderfully warped debut with 1998’s Pi, the wildness of the story secured by being grounded in ideas that felt right. With 2000’s Requiem for a Dream, the ideas and humanity were buried by his relentless addiction to his own techniques. It took him six years to craft a follow-up and he’s only managed to compound the misjudgments of his prior film.