Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Adjunct Breakdown Blues

There's a spectre haunting academia known as adjunct nation.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education adjuncts account for roughly 70% of teachers in higher education (including me).  Many outside the confines of academia are ignorant of what being an adjunct instructor actually entails. In a word, adjuncts are part-time instructors at a university or community college (also including those cesspools of exploitation known as "for profit colleges"). Usually a Masters degree is a minimum requirement to teach, but many PhD's must resort to part-time work due to the lack of tenure track positions available to them.  

Part-timers receive virtually no benefits. Teaching loads vary by semester and long-term contracts are rare.  Low enrollments for a section can lead to its cancellation which translates to less income than expected. Therefore, one must work at more than one institution and contend with crazy schedules while navigating grueling commutes. No summer vacations either (in fact no vacations period) because you need summer classes to pay the bills. Tenure is beyond the realm of possibility. 

The "publish or perish" rule proves pivotal in hiring full time instructors, but most adjuncts simply don't have the time to pursue research.  As a rule, universities don't fund travel expenses for adjuncts so they can attend conferences.

In recent years, there's been a growing outcry against the absurd burdens placed on adjuncts.  This past fall the death of 83 year old adjunct Margaret Mary Vojtko at Duquesne University became a cause celebre when her story went viralVojtko, a longtime adjunct at Duquesne, lacked health insurance to pay for her cancer treatment while the university cut her course load considering her "ineffective."  While her story is more complex than meets the eye as reported in Slate; it is a more than likely fate for career adjuncts who will never get retirement benefits.  Generally, college administrators and tenured professors respond with no more than a shrug of the shoulders when it comes to the plight of the teaching underclass

Most students are clueless about higher education's growing reliance on adjuncts. They seem to think all college instructors are full professors with all the benefits.  At community colleges, adjuncts are not provided office space to meet with students. With tuition on the rise everywhere, students deserve teachers who can see them outside of class- especially at a community college where they often need extra help.

To add further insult to injury, at the end of every semester, adjuncts are subjected to student evaluations.  Those can determine future pay and employment. I recall one administrator condescendingly going over an evaluation with me and said the students always know best as he treated me more like a product than a human being. I can understand the need to evaluate full time instructors, but many adjuncts live and die by them.  I've known some who must grade inflate to keep their jobs.  Students should have the right to critique their teachers, but it's unfair to force low paid educators to deal with the administration and the students with no support.  Teachers are not a consumer item. Students are not clients.

At 34, I see no future whatsoever in continuing on as cheap labor for the corporate ethos taking over universities.  I do not have a PhD nor do I have a desire to get one, although I once had the ambition.  A PhD will only slightly improve the chances of getting a full time job after at least five years of intense study. Sometimes I feel trapped.  The only option remaining is to get out.

I enjoy working with students who are willing to learn, but the outright scorn many of them have for the humanities and books can be maddening and discouraging (certainly not all students display this attitude, but it's there nonetheless).

Over the past few years I've come across many eloquent obituaries lamenting the end of the humanities.  And there's enough blame to go around.  Most literature professors only teach theory and consider literary criticism a relic of the 20th century. Meanwhile, the left blames the crude anti-intellectualism of the right (I have no argument on that account).

Roger Ebert in one of his final columns pointed to the careerist mindset of 21st century undergrads as a cause for the end of vibrant literary culture on campuses.  He had a point there. Recently a student snidely remarked to me "I thought only bored housewives majored in English these days." Reading Roth or Updike or Borges or Sontag in a coffee shop has lost its sexy aura.  Anyway, an I-phone looks way cooler than a beat up copy of Rabbit, Run.

Ebert recalled the excitement of not just studying, but living and breathing literature as a way of life during his undergraduate days at the University of Illinois in the 1960s.  He remembered carrying a briefcase full of New Yorkers, Playboys (for the articles of course), the short stories of Katherine Ann Porter and John Cheever, and maybe even a few Marvel comics. Writers were not famous for just being famous; they actually had something to say.  They challenged their readers.

In school, I was always told a college education guaranteed a good career.  Unfortunately, in my experience, and for many others, the claim amounts to a big lie.  The 21st century economy hums on like a dangerous machine devouring everything in its way. 

I believe in the idea of America and consider myself patriotic, but am deeply troubled at the unforgiving rancor coming from everywhere of the political spectrum these days.  Our culture places a premium on making money and end results. If you fail to meet those standards society considers you a failure.  Nothing new there of course. Just getting worse.   

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Book Review: Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut's 1961 novel, Mother Night, dealt with the questions he tackled later in his more widely read novel, Slaughterhouse-Five. Questions of war, morality, and the 20th century stand front and center in both works.  Vonnegut's like the mad professor enticing you into his office and then proceeds to rip apart the fabrics of your belief system.  

Mother Night's protagonist, Howard W. Campbell, is an American native who has spent most of his adult life in Germany.  He's well known in the German theater as a crowd pleasing, apolitical playwright. While Campbell feels some antipathy towards the Nazis, he also acknowledges they are just "people after all."  Before the war, he is approached by an American spy who recruits him to provide information to the Allies. In time, Campbell rises to the top in Goebbels' propaganda ministry by way of his radio broadcasts endorsing the Nazi philosophies of racism and paranoia.

Throughout the book, Vonnegut often vears into meta-fictional asides.  In one instance he summarizes Campbell's play, A Nation of Two, which imagined a couple in wartime Germany who put all their politics aside and pledge loyalty to nobody (or idea) but their love towards each other.  If only things were that simple.  For the world Vonnegut paints, there's no middle ground between embracing a cause and standing completely outside of it.  During the Second World War any thinking person faced the temptation to stand back and scoff at fascism, communism, and democracy with equal amounts of cynical resignation.  But only if one had the luxury of distance.  No matter what we do or don't do; history's footsteps have a way of catching up.  

When intellectuals try to rationalize war you know some bad stuff is about to go down. Ezra Pound invented modernism and championed the careers of many great writers, but also evangelized for Mussolini.  Ivy League educated WASPS masterminded the Vietnam War.  Or think of all the tracts written to justify the "War on Terror" with titles likes "The End of Evil."  Even Albert Einstein, one of the greatest spokesman for peace, had a part in creating the A-bomb. Modern history thrives on moral relativity and that's an issue, possibly the most worthwhile, for 21st century literature to take up.  

Mother Night begs many questions: What is the use of art?  Does being "cultured" make you a moral person?  A better person?  Not really, I believe Vonnegut would say.  There's something Fascistic about making grand all embracing statements about anything whether one be critic, historian, or philosopher. 

Campbell's belief in art fails him at every turn as the Nazis use him to espouse an aesthetic of purity and hatred.  Art did not prevent the holocaust nor did love prove enough to save Campbell's loved ones.  As Vonnegut wrote, "The hare of history once more overtakes the tortoise of art" (261).  Nazi propaganda helped Germans rationalize their crimes against humanity. As part of the "spin" machine, Campbell can never distance himself from the moral ambiguities of his world.  In the end, Who are we anyway? The identity by which the world knows us? Or what we believe to be the truth in our minds?  Haunting, Haunting, questions. . 

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Farewell Breaking Bad

Remember the chorus to the Malcolm in the Middle theme, "You're not the boss of me now!" Prophetic.   As a postmodern family sitcom, Malcolm brought the irreverence and goofiness of The Simpsons to the live action format.  Bryan Cranston played the father Hal as an overgrown child. When the show ended after six seasons, it seemed Cranston's take on the sitcom father would pass into the TV ether as a Trivial Pursuit question. Far from it.

Few saw Walter White coming.*  Over the course of five seasons, Bryan Cranston played a mild mannered chemistry teacher who transformed into a ruthless drug lord of the American Southwest (or from Mr. Chips to Scarface in the words of the show's creator, Vince Gilligan).  A grim cancer diagnosis drove Mr. White to cook crystal meth to provide for his family before he succumbed to the Big C. Along the way, he partnered with a former student Jesse Pinkman to produce the wonder drug.  Walt also contended with Hank, his macho brother-in-law who also happened to be a DEA agent.  At the beginning, his wife Skyler remained clueless about her husband resorting to criminal activity, but eventually found out and faced some tough decisions of her own.  With each season, Walt matched wits with new antagonists who threatened his burgeoning meth empire.

Protagonists of TV shows rarely evolve like characters in a novel.**  J.R. Ewing remained a greedy oil man throughout the entire run of Dallas and Archie Bunker stayed frozen in time as the lovable bigot.  The gang from Cheers rarely ventured outside the friendly confines of their bar. The characters on Seinfeld never transcended their stone cold narcissism.  Even a more complex character like Tony Soprano pretty much remained the same man throughout the Sopranos (an amoral gangster modern psychiatry failed).  As a viewer, it can be comforting to usually know how characters will react in situations.  But in the past decade TV has embraced embraced complex story lines with some real character development.  While Breaking Bad will be grouped among these shows, I think it's importance will persist for other reasons.

Breaking Bad premiered on January 2008, as the Bush era came to a grim conclusion.  By the end of 2008 America faced economic collapse.  In a coincidence, the government shut down the day after the finale aired.  During those years, rhetoric crisscrossed social networks about the 99 percent getting screwed by the one percent. Class proved pivotal during the 2012 election between the venture capitalist and the community organizer.  In such an unforgiving political climate: What happens when one takes business into their own hands and refuses to play by the rules?  

Walt's new occupation brought him a pride and prestige he never attained as a teacher.  Like Michael Corleone, Walt wanted to save his family and build his power, but lost both in the process. Nevertheless, he did gain a self-reliance; a sense of controlling his own fate.  Although we celebrate Walt's triumphs over some repugnant people including psychopathic cartel leaders and viscous modern day Nazis, he made his own moral compromises along the way. Audiences can emphasize with Walt's dilemma in the political maelstrom of 21st century America.

Mr. White now stands as television's great anti-hero.  Anti-heroes were celebrated in 1970s cinema used eccentricity, rage, and intelligence against a system up to its neck in hypocrisy.  Jack Nicholson set the tone with his performances in Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, The Last Detail, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.  Nicholson's anti-heroes were loners who dropped out of the American mainstream.  Now we've entered new territory where the everyman feels the whole world aligned against him.  Breaking Bad spoke to that anxiety.

All the credit goes to the entire cast of Breaking Bad for creating a modern day fable steeped in the tradition of the West. Every character had depth.  The third to last episode, "Ozymandias" stands one of the most intense hours ever aired on television.  The final two episodes had a biblical sense of justice as Walt searched for redemption in the existential void he created for himself and the others in his life.  Rock on, Heisenberg.  

*Cranston starred in the X-Files episode "Drive" written by Vince Gilligan where he played a man pushed to the edge due to secret government experiments conducted on his family.  The part win him the role of Walter White.

** A generalization with many exceptions.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

A Blurb for Leonard Maltin: The Book

Every year, usually around September, my family made one of our most important book purchases of the year: the Leonard Maltin film guide.  As a kid, and even to this day, the book has the aura of final judgement.  It's like the bible.  The book lists every film ever made (not really), rates them from one to four stars, and includes a pithy capsule review with all the harsh finality of a decree from some divine source.  I'd like to imagine that every year Leonard Maltin treks to some mystical mountain and the book materializes from some mysterious source. That's why the book never leaves my sort of coffee table.  

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Music Review: Bob Dylan: Another Self Portrait

The release of Bob Dylan's long awaited Bootleg Series Volume 10: Another Self Portrait (1969-1971) casts some light on his "lost years."  Upon its initial release, Self Portrait drew the scorn of critics.  Griel Marcus began his Rolling Stone review with, "What is this shit?"  Everything about Self Portrait offended Dylan's crowd: no original material, obscure folk and country covers, and way too much production. In perhaps the most infamous track, Dylan crooned a sloppy version of Simon and Garfunkel's, "The Boxer."  Many wondered: Was it all a joke?  Writer's block?  Did he just not care anymore?  As usual, Dylan refused to provide any answers.

In his memoir, Chronicles Vol.1, Dylan wrote at length about living up to the expectations of being labeled the "voice of his generation."  For his own sanity, he focused on raising his family.  Between 1967-1974, he granted few interviews and rarely performed.   Meanwhile, hangers on camped outside Dylan's farm in Woodstock begging for his answers on everything under the sun.

Dylan continued to write and record music during these years.  Throughout 1967, Dylan and the Band spent months working on the Basement Tapes.   Every afternoon they played whatever they felt like.  Next came the haunting John Wesley Harding and then the country splendor of Nashville Skyline.  Fans were nonplussed at the collection of laid back country tunes on Skyline.  With the Vietnam War still raging and Richard Nixon in the White House, the counterculture wanted Dylan to record more "protest" music and take a leadership position in the anti-war movement. Self Portrait is Dylan doing his damnedest to distance himself from the intense history of the era.

The revamped version of Self-Portrait moves along at a leisurely pace.  Think of it as Dylan unplugged.  Highlights abound from the vaults of Columbia with tracks like "Thirsty Boots," "Pretty Saro," "Spanish is the Loving Tongue," and "Railroad Bill."   Al Kooper's subtle organ solos adds a new texture to the album missing in 1970.

Included in the collection are outtakes from the New Morning LP.  George Harrison, a friend of Bob's, appears on "Working on a Guru" and "Time Passes Slowly."  Years later Harrison and Dylan played together on the Traveling Wilbury's.  On "Went to See the Gypsy," Dylan pays homage to Elvis Presley, "he can do it in Las Vegas and he can do it here."  

Another Self Portrait will satisfy Dylan's admirers and will win some new converts.  For those who are weary Dylan the protest singer or flummoxed with his recent world weary persona - they will get a glimpse of him inventing a new genre of music: Americana. Although misunderstood at the time, Another Self Portrait adds another chapter to Dylan's epic dialogue with America.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

21st Century Moviegoing

At a recent press conference, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg predicted the major
 studios are doomed to crash if they continue bankrolling gargantuan summer blockbusters. They see ticket prices going as high as $150!  Thus the question is raised: Why bother going at all these days?

First of all, tickets are expensive enough, but concessions are another story.  I know theaters depend on concessions to make profits, but the prices amount to outright theft. And theaters already charge higher rates for films shown in IMAX and 3D.  But if I had to choose between watching Ironman 3 or Jaws 3-D - I'll go with Jaws 3-D anytime.

Manners and politeness are another casualty of digital age.  I've witnessed some maddening behaviors in the movie house: people taking off their shoes, treating the place like they own it, cellphones and texting, pretentious commentaries from self-appointed film experts (I'm not sure who's worse 16 years olds or middle aged couples).   During Looper,  a husband spent the whole movie translating the plot to his clueless wife.  

So, why bother going?  
Who wants to brave all the rudeness and sense of entitlement? These days one can easily watch movies at home without all the distractions. I grew up during the heyday of the VHS boom when a video stores appeared on every block.  If you couldn't go you could always wait for it to come out on video. Those with the means can create their own "home theaters." 

Cultural commentators used to pontificate on the movie theater as the church of the 20th century.  In many respects, that's true.  Where all else could people of varying backgrounds come together and share a common experience for two hours?  Not many.  The power of cinema is its ability to allow a spectator to feel all sorts of things.  When you're in the theater you cannot stop the movie or hit the pause button.  Nope, you pay the money and sacrifice a few hours of your life to sit in the dark to experience something oddly familiar and new.

A NY Times article celebrated the Midnight showing as a truly unique theater experience. Fans of a franchise can gather at the midnight premier and enjoy their film with others who share their passion for a particular series.  In a midnight screening of Star Trek: Into Darkness I attended, the crowd sat in silent reverence for the entire film.  Only the die-hards will head to the theater at Midnight on a Thursday.  And what's better than being alone together with friends?

Recently, I experienced the drawbacks of home viewing.  Watching a DVD of Dr. Zhivago at home left me cold.  These days, with all the distractions around us, it's almost impossible to sit through a three hour movie. So, what happens?  You watch the film in segments.  Movies, unlike books, are designed to be experienced in one sitting. Sometime I need to make a list of films I want to see on the big screen.  Lawrence of Arabia and 2001: A Space Odyssey would top my list.

So, how can the movie going experience be salvaged?  For starters, it would be nice to see more revivals of classic films on the big screen and I don't just mean the classics, but b-movie classics as well (like Jaws 3-D).  Maybe we need another Roger Corman to gather young talent and allow them to make quality films on a limited budget (so many crucial filmmakers got their start with Corman's American International including Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich to mention a few. Or let's see what some of the most skillful directors today can do on a limited budget.  No matter what happens theaters will endure because the experience remains truly unique.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Book Review: 11/22/63 By Stephen King

Stephen King's 11/22/63 begins with an intriguing premise: What would America look like if JFK had lived?  Would history have taken a different course? The question has long haunted the baby boom generation who lived through the agony of Vietnam.  Many believe America never recovered from that awful day in Dallas.  Oliver Stone's 1991 film JFK added more fuel to the fire by suggesting the assassination amounted to nothing less than a military coup d'etat.  King's novel, like most of his long fiction, hits some rough spots in the middle, but recovered as it moved towards a gripping climax.

Jake Epping, the tale's protagonist, teaches High School English.  As a character, Jake's an all around good guy who finds himself caught in extraordinary circumstances.  When his friend Al, who owns the local diner, introduces him to a time portal, he convinces Jake to travel back in time to save Kennedy from Oswald (the time portal always goes back to October 1958).  He quickly learns the travails of time travel and the dangerous consequences of meddling in past events (the butterfly effect).  Even when Jake tries to prevent the murder of his friend's family he learns nature will resist in the most uncanny ways.

The first half of the novel allows King to revisit some familiar territory as returns to Derry, Maine, the locale of of his well known novel It (Jake even interacts with some characters from that story).  King does a great job of illustrating some subtle differences between the 1950s and 2000s. But the novel doesn't romanticize the past either, as Jake witnesses firsthand the shame of segregation and racism.  Also, post-war America remained painfully close minded about the place of women in society.  Women were expected to bear the humiliation of bad marriages and their presence in the workplace remained strictly in a servile capacity.

When the setting shifts to Texas the novel loses some steam. Jake finds a teaching job in a small town outside of Dallas and falls in love with the kindly school librarian, Sadie.  Sadie's a bit too good to be true at times, but she adds some poignancy to the tragic arc of Jake's story. When he plays detective the novel gets caught up in trivial details surrounding Oswald's life in Dallas.  Epping follows Oswald to learn if he acted alone or was the "patsy" of a much larger conspiracy.  Another novel, Libra by Don Delillo, handles Oswald's tale in a far more effective way by portraying him as an ignorant kid exploited by a nefarious intelligence community.  In 11/22/63, he's a hateful, one dimensional drone.

Despite the meandering lead up to the climax, the final 150 pages are tension filled and thought provoking.  Without revealing too much, there is something to be said for avoiding hero worship when it comes to Kennedy.  In King's version of time travel, every decision made, no matter how mundane, will have consequences.  And when you start changing major events in history things can quickly spiral out of control.

Fans of King's fiction will find much in common with his 1979 novel, The Dead Zone, in which the protagonist suffers a brain injury. After coming out of a coma he has the power to see into the future.  In time, he learns a man destined to become President will trigger a nuclear war.  The story asks, Would such knowledge justify murder? The David Cronenberg starring Christopher Walken stands as one of the best adaptations of a King novel.

From a historical standpoint, King challenges his audience to be wary of nostalgia.  Yes, an exhaustive list of challenges loom for 21st century America.  We are reminded of those constantly.  At the risk of sounding too optimistic, it is useful to think of the progress America has made in the past 50 years - and to consider how things could always be way, way worse. In other words, don't let anyone tell you live in a time of decline and moral erosion - those arguments always stem from false premises and a selective memory. Instead, remember Kennedy by living up to his words "ask not what you're country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man."

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Heartless Bastards Live - August 4, 2013

Don't be misled by their name: this band has heart.  Erika Wennerstrom, the band's lead singer and songwriter, has a powerful and versatile rock and roll voice.  At the Greaves Concert Center within Northern Kentucky  University, coming off a performance at Lollapolozza in Chicago the night before, the bastards played two sets for a hometown crowd.  The majority of their songs came from their past two albums, The Mountain (2009) and Arrow (2012).

Each band member made a separate entrance: Dave Colvin gave a drum solo, then bass player Jesse Elbaugh added a bass riff, then some lead guitar from Mark Nathan, and finally Erika taking over on lead vocals as they played their hit single "Parted Ways."  Other excellent moments included a song about Dayton, "Skin and Bones," old school rock in "Got to Have Rock and Roll," and the bluesy rock of "Sway."

Heartless Bastard's sound often gets compared with the classic rock of Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Faces, and Tom Petty.  Their music encompasses folk-rock, country, blues, and elements of punk. A no nonsense stage presence conveys one thing: they are all about the music.  On Arrow, there's a Western influence as well with songs evoking the West of Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone, especially on "The Arrow that Killed the Beast." Their recent output has gone for a more epic sound evoking the grandeur of America.

These days, despite all the choices of music available, the power of rock continues to endure. Heartless Bastards would be at home in almost any era.  Their straight up rock and roll and unpretentious stage presence will win over any crowd.  Their best work is yet to come. 

Monday, July 29, 2013

Never Travel Far Without a Little Big Star

Rock and Roll is replete with its own mythology   For example, there's the one about the obscure band who made a few albums no one appreciated at the time, but ended up influencing countless others who went on to much greater success.  Big Star stands as one of those bands who laid the groundwork, but received none of the spoils.

From 1972-1975, Big Star made three albums for the Memphis label, Ardent Records. Chris Bell and Alex Chilton, both rising stars in Memphis music scene, formed Big Star in 1971. As a teenager Chilton had been part of The Box Tops who had number of chart topping hits, most famously, "The Letter."  The first Big Star album, #1 Record, featured a splendid assortment of British infused rock owing more to the Beatles than anyone else (apparently in 1972 the Beatles were considered passe). The first track, "Feel," sounds like an outtake from Abbey Road with lyrics full of angst, "feel like I'm dyin/I'm never gonna live again." Thematically, "Feel" set the tone for most of of their music: emotional turmoil, unrequited love, and wounded romanticism.  Bell's, "the Ballad of El Goodo," is a melancholy epic in which he pledges "to fight on against long odds."  The third song, "In the Street," later made famous as the theme to That 70's show, blends Byrds like harmonies with a tinge of Southern soul.  "Thirteen," one of most fragile love songs ever recorded, includes lyrics like "won't you tell your dad to get off my back/tell him what we said about paint in black" displays a tenderness rare in pop songs.  Another highlight, written by bassist Andy Hummell, "The India Song," imagines India as a paradise of indolence, "drinking gin and tonic and playing a grand piano."  Between its Lennon/McCartney harmonies, Byrds riffs, and delightfully inane lyrics, #1 Record stands as a classic reverberating through the decades.

Unfortunately, the Bell-Chilton partnership lasted for only one album.  Resenting Chilton's growing influence on the band, Bell embarked on a solo career.  But Big Star soldiered on as a trio.  Their second album, Radio City, in many ways surpasses the first in terms of scope and ambition. Listening to the first track, "O My Soul," overwhelms the senses with its ramshackle guitar sound evoking frustrated desires with Chilton screaming "dying to see you/i'll knock off your doors."  There's a harsher and less compromising attitude throughout Radio City as if they feel fate closing in on them.  On "Mod Lang" Chilton finds refuge in booze as he declares in slurred speech, "I can't be what you want me to be." Other amazing tracks include "She's a Mover," "September Gurls," and" "Daisy Glaze."

Rock critics loved Big Star, but due to poor distribution and marketing from Ardent they failed to sell albums.  Chilton's refusal to tour didn't help matters.  Nevertheless, he made a follow up to Radio City that's known as both Sister Lovers and Third.  Some debate whether Third qualifies as a Big Star album at all since only Chilton and drummer Jody Stephens played on it.  Third sounds far more experimental.  The lyrics weave between despair and absurdity. Strange juxtapositions occur throughout with the pro-Christian "Jesus Christ" to a cover of Lou Reed's "Femme Fatale." Peter Buck of REM cited Third as one of the chief influences on their music and it has it's own cult following.  Third stands as a bizarre, but fitting, epilogue to Big Star.

For most of the 1980s, Big Star albums were out of print and forgotten by all except a few devoted fans.  Sadly, Chris Bell died in 1978 at age 27 in an auto accident just as he was finishing work on a solo album, which included the magnificent, "I am the Cosmos." Interest in Big Star revived as "alternative bands" like REM, The Replacements, Teenage Fan Club, and many, many others sang their praises to the four guys from Memphis.  Paul Westerberg, in a song entitled "Alex Chilton" declared "he never travels far without a little Big Star." In 1993, the surviving members performed at the University of Missouri and came together for one more album in 2005 properly entitled, In Space.  Chilton and Hummell both passed away in 2010.  Jody Stephens has continued to perform through the years, notably as the drummer for Golden Smog.

In many ways, Big Star foreshadowed the rise of indie or alternative rock way before those terms entered the culture.  Their music favored the underdogs.  It's the type of record that sounds great at full blast on a Saturday afternoon or on low volume at 2am on a Wednesday morning.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Americanarama: July 6, 2013: One for the Ages

When the Americanarama Festival of Music tour was announced last spring I knew it would be a special show since it would feature some truly special and historically relevant acts like My Morning Jacket, Wilco, and Bob Dylan.  And they did not disappoint. 

My Morning Jacket performed an ecstatic set of tunes ranging from hard rock to spaced out psychedelia.  Like a good opening act they raised a high bar for the others on the bill.  In one of the night's most memorable moments, Wilco joined MMJ onstage to perform George Harrison's "Isn't it a Pity" from All Things Must Pass.

Ever Since Wilco's modest beginnings they have gained a loyal following through non-stop touring and the versatile songwriting of Jeff Tweedy.  In 2013, Wilco stands as one of the best American bands currently recording. Their live sets display an excellent musicianship and an array of musical styles within the classic rock tradition.  Their collaboration with English folk rocker Billy Bragg of unrecorded Woody Guthrie songs revived the folk tradition for the Gen X crowd.

In their 14 song set list Wilco mixed the old with the new.  They opened with the subdued "Either Way" from Sky Blue Sky.  Two tracks from the Mermaid Avenue sessions "When the Roses Bloom Again," and "California Stars" tapped into their Americana roots.  Richard Thompson joined them for a cover of his 1970 Fairpoint Convention song, "Sloth."  Their alt-country roots were displayed with "Forget the Flowers" from Being There.  Another standout was a lush version of "How to Fight Loneliness" from Summerteeth.  In their 90 minutes on stage, Wilco delivered a nice slice of their recording history.

Dylan, now in the 25th year of his "Never ending Tour," took the stage wearing a white jacket and a fully pressed suit looking like he just stepped off a riverboat.  He stared into the audience like a figure from a Sergio Leone film.  As darkness descended on the Pavilion, Dylan kicked things off with his Oscar winning song, "Things Have Changed," in an almost unrecognizable Tex-Mex beat.  Next came a blistering version of "Love Sick" from Time Out of Mind with Dylan emphasizing the line, "I wish I never met you."  The moodiness continued with "High Water (for Charley Patton)" from "Love and Theft" with its irreverent blend of erotic and apocalyptic imagery, "don't reach out for me/ she said/can't you see I'm drowning to."

Three songs from Dylan's most recent album Tempest were played.  "Soon After Midnight" recalls the tender 1950s doo-wop sound with Dylan reminiscing about an old lover 
while considering wiping out one of her new suitors, "I'll drag his corpse through the mud." Another new song "Duquesne Whistle" evokes a vanishing America existing only in memory, "I wonder if that old oak tree is still standing/ that old oak tree/the one we used to climb."  The bluesy "Early Roman Kings" backed by a Muddy Waters riff continues Dylan's one man war against mortality - a dominant theme in his 21st century recordings.

Classics from Dylan's back pages highlighted the second half of his performance   Hearing Dylan sing the lyrics to "A Hard Rain's a gonna fall" never fails to lose its power.  And then came "Blind Willie McTell" , an outtake from Dylan's 1983 album Infidels; a song many consider one of his best.  Never released until 1989, "Blind Willie" is a tribute to a blues legend, while confronting America's history with slavery. Dylan closed the evening with a restrained version of "All Along the Watchtower" and "Ballad of a Thin Man."

At age 72, many wonder what motivates Dylan to keep up his heavy touring schedule. In a revealing 2002 interview with Ed Bradley on 60 Minutes, Dylan explained he was upholding a tradition and honoring a pact he made "a long time ago."  The "Neverending Tour" makes me think of an anecdote I once heard about baseball legend Joe DiMaggio. When asked by a friend why he continued playing so hard in the latter stages of his career "Joltin" Joe replied:  "Because there might be somebody out there who's never seen me play before." Dylan knows his music means many things to lots of different people and the concerts allow him to share the gift of his art to all who have been touched by his amazing gift.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Wild Palms: TV Takes a Surreal Look into the Future

Twenty years ago ABC aired a truly original and challenging mini-series - Wild Palms. With Oliver Stone as executive producer, the five-part series explored areas television had never explored before and rarely since.  If you combine the elements of a Sophocles, the Bible, Jacobin revenge plays, the poetry of Yeats, Whitman's Leaves of Grass, Phillip K Dick's science fiction, L.A. film noir, William Gibson's cyperpunk alongside a rocking 60s soundtrack and you get Wild Palms.  By exploring themes of virtual reality, mass media manipulation, drugs, polarized politics, and technology, the series put coherence aside in favor of a disjointed narrative.  As the series progresses each episode delves deeper into surrealism.   Kathryn Bigelow directed an episode ending with a dizzying, Peckinpah inspired shootout set to "House of the Rising Sun."  The costume motifs envision a future where every style's a retro.  Based on comic book series by Bruce Wagner, Wild Palms stand alongside The Prisoner for its willingness to question modern notions of politics, technology, drugs, and reality.

Wild Palms is set in a futuristic Los Angeles, and its not the dying metropolis of Blade Runner, but a sunny utopia.  Two shadowy groups known as "the fathers" and "the friends" are in a covert war over the use of technology.   Although Wild Palms did not anticipate the internet, it did foresee a society under increasing media consolidation. The "fathers" are corporate elitists
using technology as a means of mass mind control, while the Friends are an underground movement of libertarians trying to free humanity from its reliance on technology. While politics are one of the many themes in the series - it's interesting to compare with the present.  By my understanding, libertarians oppose the government, but not corporate power.  Occupy Wall Street's critique of the financial system, at least in their moderate expression, advocates more government regulation. The "Friends" oppose any kind of tyranny.  In Wild Palms, the "friends" use poetry as their mantra, primarily Whitman's "My Captain, My Captain."  They're keeping humanism alive.  I like the idea of an underground movement using poetry as the last defense against tyranny.

Jim Belushi gives the performance of his life as Harry Wyckoff, a corporate lawyer living an average upper middle class life with his wife Grace (Dana Delaney) and their two kids.  His life changes after a politician-media mogul Anton Kruetzer, played by Robert Loggia, in a totally over the top performance, offers Harry the chance to run a TV network.  That's the basic plot.  Through the course of the series Harry gradually finds out most of his reality is fiction.  Harry's character arc has a strange trajectory from an everyman hero to a new age media prophet.  Scientology also looms in the background with the the film's emphasis on spirituality and technology.

There's quite a bit going on.  Unlike modern television which uses linear storytelling (with exceptions of course), Wild Palms still looks (and feels) subversive with its use of vivid imagery and fractured narratives - thus standing as a unique moment in TV history well worth revisiting.


Saturday, June 1, 2013

"I read the news today oh boy"

Forty-six years ago today the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.  Rock critics love to dismiss it's candy colored ideals.  Even the Beatles themselves had their misgivings over the years.  George Harrison openly scorned the idea of a "concept" album ( not to mention his secondary role throughout its genesis.)  John openly admitted Sgt. Pepper was mostly Paul's idea, and that he, under the haze of LSD, just went along for the ride.  Ringo recalls learning chess during the recordings.  Their previous album, Revolver seems more adventurous.  And The White Album continues to overwhelm all who encounter it.  Or maybe there's a Paul backlash going on?  McCartney developed the Sgt. Pepper concept and his voice appears on most of the tracks.  Some of the best moments are Paul's sweet songs about stalking meter maids or digging holes in the garden or fixing holes in the roof.  Paul's contribution to "A Day in the Life" adds a comforting contrast to John's dark surrealism.  Others find Paul's optimism tiresome.  Or maybe it's the album everyone outgrows as adult life locks it's hold upon you.  John parodied Sgt. Pepper on "How Do You Sleep," as a fluke - the song set the narrative for all who attack McCartney.  Or maybe it's the pop art cover which celebrates all those cult heroes ranging from the occultist Aleister Crowley to the 60s hipster Terry Southern.  They out Warholed Warhol.  Or maybe it's the music itself?  Cultured music theorists praise the arrangements on "She's Leaving Home," as something worthy of Schubert.  And "Within You, Without You", besides it's enchanting music, is a hynotic sermon against the ego (I totally see where you're coming from George!).  But melancholy undercurrents always accompany the masterful arrangements: the characters we meet are all sad and lonesome and looking for outlets to escape the pre-determined fates of Father McKenzie and Eleanor Rigby - even the Sgt. Pepper band laments going home on the reprise.  Or maybe it's the idea that piece of art can reach many people and bring about positive change simply by putting out some good vibes. Or maybe Sgt. Pepper still reverberates through the decades as a reassuring beacon saying: "hey, we know it can be rough sometimes, but it's ok , just keep going."

Friday, May 3, 2013

American Splendor: Review

Harvey Pekar (1939-2010) lived the life of a real working class hero.  Most know about his life and work through the 2003 film American Splendor. In 2005, he published his own account of how the film changed (and didn't) change his life.  The comic is totally honest as usual with Harvey finally getting some recognition for his work while he struggled through depression, anxiety, and cancer.  Since the 1980s, Hollywood had expressed interest in making a movie based on his comics.  Eventually in 2001 pre-production began on the film which starred Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis.  American Splendor proved a critical and commercial success with its innovative approach to a formulaic genre, the biographical film.  By blending comic book storytelling, cinematic recreations, documentary interviews, American Splendor stands as a classic.

Pekar produced groundbreaking comics while holding a day job at the VA hospital in Cleveland.  In the 1960s he befriended Robert Crumb, who brought a counter-cultural edge to underground comics, and encouraged Pekar to start writing on his own.  He believed the life of a flunkie (his words) file clerk still had the makings of great drama and possibilities for narrative storytelling.  He knew lots of interesting people, saw comical things happen everyday that rivaled anything in a Hollywood movie.

In "Our Movie Year" our man not only chronicles his year as a movie star, but also his influences as a comic writer: jazz music, realistic literature, and politically aware artists.  We also meet some of Harvey's close friends in comics Robert Crumb, Alan Moore, and many others.  In addition, Pekar provides a travelogue with his travels to Sundance, Cannes, Japan, and Australia.  

A recurring theme throughout Pekar's career is how comics remain a largely untapped resource.  Superhero films have ruled the box office for the past decade;  DC and Marvel still dominate the industry.  He believed the narrative power of comics had infinite possibility to inform people on important issues like political repression, censorship, issues of race and class, and the struggles of everyday people.  

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Infinite Jest: The Future is Now

Infinite Jest brings to mind the Irish saying, "Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan?"  No novel published in the past 20 years has attracted more analysis than David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest.  As I spent the past two months reading the 1000+ book, I've listened to several interviews with Wallace.  He's always so self deprecating, polite, and interested in what the interviewer has to say. He was a master of deflecting questions by always relating them to his own experience without ever really addressing the question directly.  Wallace saw and processed so much in a world where people are so strange, sad, isolated, hilarious, heroic, petty, and full of so much curiosity, loss, and regret over history.  Yes, reading Infinite Jest feels like victory; albeit, a victory more akin to Austerlitz than Waterloo.

Honestly, I believe the novel is at least four scrunched into one.  All the plot lines do intersect at the end - or so I've been told The ending lacks the satisfaction one finds in Ulysses or most literature, but maybe that's the point.  In a first reading I won't even try to venture a theory.  I will say the final 150 pages the descends into one anti-climax after another.  Wallace takes the reader into the darkness of an imagination thriving on the banality of existence in modern America.  

Addiction and entertainment. In a narrow those are the penultimate themes in the novel.  Set at some point in an early 21st century where everyone lives for getting the entertainment.  Most of Infinite Jest takes place at various locations in Boston. One is a tennis academy for prodigies.  The other is a halfway house for recovering addicts.  Life at both places is highly structured to provide assurance for people in highly sensitive situations.  Hal Incandenza is the protagonist, the seventeen year old son of the deceased founder of the academy, who is in a constant state of anxiety.  Hal carries the world on his shoulders and smokes large quantities of pot.  At the halfway house the patients have every part of their daily routine under surveillance as they struggle to imagine life without drugs. The halfway house is the place where the American dream is not only broken, but squashed into goo.  Wallace writes about addiction in such a terrifyingly realistic way and with such virtuosity that one gets a visceral sense of its corrosive aftermath.  But the writing goes beyond mere accounting of addiction and into insights on the human condition, namely, the conflict within the human heart.  What happens when our pleasure outlets no longer satisfy?  How much do we need to escape from reality?  The void awaits . . .   Sometimes these dilemmas, as Wallace presents them, feel insurmountable. And then maybe there lies a faint hope.

The plot of Infinite Jest revolves around entertainment discs ( a precursor to DVD's) where any sort of film is available on demand. One such film causes so much pleasure for the viewer it will literally kill them. Today millions of people are addicted to the internet and its endless opportunities for pleasure.  What does it all mean? Where do we go from here?  Wallace was obsessed with boredom in a world where so many luxuries are available while the need for anti-depressants keeps rising at time when so much entertainment is available.  

The geopolitical situation of Wallace's 21st century plays like a comic tragedy.   America has formed a union with Canada and Mexico, most of New York state is a landfill and angry Canadians plot war with the United States.  Vague references are made to massive population shifts, civil unrest, and economic catastrophe.  A renegade group of Quebec terrorists plan on using the film to alter the geopolitical balance.  The American president, Johnny Gentle, is combination of Ronald Reagan, Howard Hughes, and other oddities in the landscape of American celebrity.  

At the forefront of, is the saga of the Incandenza family.  Hal, the tennis prodigy, is the youngest son of James Incandenza, an avant guard filmmaker  (the footnotes contain a ten page filmography).  Hal has two older brothers as well: Orin and Mario.  Orin is a punter in the NFL who has an obsession with insects and single moms.  Mario is kindly, eternally optimistic, and Hal's conscience.  Their mysterious mother is headmaster the tennis academy.  All are in various stages of grief after the patriarch James took his own life; they are also in need of something they cannot quite define.  Themes of longing are juxtaposed with wrenching passages on the dread of loneliness:

Even when alone, able to uncurl alone and sit slowly up and wring out the sheet and go to the bathroom, these darkest mornings start days that Orin can't even bring himself for hours to think how he'll get through the day.  These worst mornings with cold floors and hot windows and merciless light - the soul's uncertainty that the day will not have to be traversed but sort of climbed, vertically, and then that going to sleep again at the end of it will be like falling, again, off something tall and sheer (p.46). 

Struggles to make connections haunt all the characters as they ricochet like atoms off each other.  In Wallace's dialogue the characters tend to talk not at, but, past each other. 

The novel is made accessible with all the its pop culture references. The 1980s TV shows Cheers and Hill Street Blues are reassessed among other things.  One character devotes his entire life to watching reruns of MASH.  Relationships with media, TV shows specifically, can, for many, be more meaningful than real world relationships.  That's a conflict any American living in the 21st century must face whether they are aware or not.  All are in danger of being trapped in Plato's cave, only now it's in the form of screens representing reality.  But back to my first point, some predict the end of literature as an art form in the digital age.  However,  If good books are written - people will read them. 

What did I get from reading Infinite Jest?  For starters, I know it's made me a better reader.  It took me about 200 pages to get comfortable with Wallace's writing style.  After a while I felt like I was absorbing the prose instead of reading it.  The effect is cinematic because the text overwhelms
with so many images, almost like a collage at times, that it felt akin to watching a fast paced action film on another level entirely   Paragraphs come in large clumps going on for multiple pages.  My favorite section is about a role playing game called Eschaton;  a game simulating nuclear war on a tennis court. The book also triggered an interest in math (my least favorite subject) and the idea of it being a secret language and a skeleton key into philosophical thought.  Mathematics is the antithesis of the fragmented mindset perpetuated by a mass media driven age.  And the book demands rereading after rereading because despite all its intricate wording, fractured plotting, and shifting perspective Infinite Jest is an immensely entertaining and consistently thought provoking read.  Wallace delivers a rhetorical beating to the reader, not as a disavowal, but a plea to wake up and try to see hope within the white noise of the 21st century.  

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Midcult and the 21st century

 Post-war USA saw the predominance of mass culture with the rise of television, rock and roll, bestselling books, self-conscious consumerism, pop heroes, pop art, and pop stars.  Mass culture, designed as a one size fits all entertainment to reach the widest possible audience.  Elite culture went into retreat.  I read Dwight MacDonald's seminal essay, "Masscult and Midcult." The essay, which appeared in 1960 in the New Yorker, lashed out at middlebrow art. While low art always existed throughout Western history in the form of folk art; the new midcults took high art and transmogrified it in a way to reach the masses.  Basically, MacDonald argued midcult cheated its audience.  For example instead of reading Romeo and Juliet, one could watch a massively popular Broadway show like West Side Story.  For MacDonald, such artistic endeavors cheapened literature because it had the pretension to masquerade as high culture.  Yes, I suppose it's fair to call to MacDonald a snobbish elitist, but his ideas are are an intriguing mix of stodginess and prophecy.

Building upon the work of the Frankfurt School's Marxist critque of the show business industry, MacDonald used Ernest Hemingway's career as a case study.  In his early writings, Hemingway mastered the short story while living as an ex-patriot in Paris under the strong influence of modernists Gertrude Stein and James Joyce.  MacDonald cited "The Defeated" as a masterful examination of mortality with the story's painstaking attention to character development through detailed descriptions of mood.  In 1953, Hemingway won the Pulitzer Prize for The Old Man and the Sea and later the Nobel Prize.  MacDonald crticized the novel as a sellout to the middlebrows with its "pseudo-biblical" language and overtly broad characterizations.  The nuance of Hemingway's early work gave way to a need to write something the "masses" would read and consider literature.  Thornton Wilder's Our Town is another target.  Wilder, who's play is about the passing of time in small town America with all its folksy wisdom.  Once again, instead taking on issues of mortality and the real problem of economic equality, Our Town, side steps the issues in favor of bland sentimentality.
High and Low Culture Merge

Ideas raised in "Midcult" seem partly from another era, but strangely prophetic.  By the late 1960s, the whole "middlebrow" system broke down.  Intellectuals started taking rock music seriously. The London Times declared the release of Sgt. Pepper Lonely Heart's Club Band  a decisive moment in Western Civilization. College kids couldn't get enough of Marvel Comics brand of complex superheroes the Fantastic Four and Spiderman (one fan was Italian filmmaker Fellini once visited Marvel headquarters).  Pop culture began to envelop high culture.  MacDonald insisted a democracy must insist on the highest standards of art and never settle for quick, easy solutions.  By essay's end he envisions a revolt of the artists who aspire to high art will find their esprit de corps and set themselves off from society.

 Mad Men, which many consider the finest fiction writing anywhere these days, shows the possibilities of good TV.  Long running dramas like The Sopranos unfolded like a novel with complex character developments, subplots, and ambitious themes.  Mad Men is set in the 1960s; a time when mass media exploded on television.  In a brilliant fifth season episode, ad man Don Draper and colleague attend a Rolling Stones concert and witness the powerful combination of rock and roll and youth culture; a young fan tells Draper, "you guys are jealous because you never had any fun."  Both are enthralled with the energy or the Stones, but also see them as a marketing tool.  The irony, however, is Madison Avenue now uses anything considered hip and revolutionary as a marketing tool.  Outbursts of personal expression fall under the spell of mass media.  One time revolutionary bands of the past now sell their songs to monolithic corporations. A recurring theme in Mad Men is the struggle for individual identity in an increasingly homogenized world. I would speculate that Macdonald would be a fan of Mad Men because of its realistic engagement with 20th century America.

MacDonald predicted the fragmentation of culture in his essay. As audience tastes become more and more diverse he hoped the middlebrow impulse would go away, and he predicted, "perhaps one would rather pay for bread than get stones for nothing."  But today, with so much entertainment out there; consumers know some of is good for them and some serves as time filler.  Currently, I'm in the process of reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. The addictive nature of mass media is central to the novel.  In the bleak 21st century of of Infinite Jest, the West is controlled by corporations (corporate sponsorship replaces the Gregorian calendar), people thirst for non-stop entertainment available at a moment's notice.  The catchphrase, "getting the entertainment"  takes on many meanings in the Jest.  Personal relationships are dissonant.  Is isolation the price we pay? Champions of middlebrow maintain art aimed at the masses can have a transcending (or cosmic) effect.  MacDonald scoffed at the notion; he imagines great art usually comes from alienation and isolation.  Are such distinctions still necessary?  Does the question still matter?  

The passing of Roger Ebert is significant here as well.  Ebert wrote about every type of movie. Campy classics or obscure b-movies had a place beside the films of Antonioni or Bergman.  Ebert's Midwestern background had a strain of anti-elitism combined with an open mindedness towards art films made to challenge or even provoke its audience.  MacDonald himself wrote film criticism in a recognition of film's ability to weave between levels of expression.  Nevertheless, over 50 years later the idea of Midcult still has an edge and a point of view to ponder.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Brought to you by Netflix: House of Cards

David Fincher's new Netflix series House of Cards revitalizes the political thriller for the 21st century.  Starring Kevin Spacy as Congressman Francis Underwood from South Carolina and Robin Wright Penn, House of Cards goes to the heart of modern politics.  Like a panoramic novel, the show weaves through the web of lobbyists, the media, and the underworld of politics.  Based on a British television series (and novel which I plan to read) of the same name, House of Cards is not necessarily a procedural, but a study of personality and power.   Unlike Hollywood films which usually go for satire, Fincher keeps the focus on the realities of 21st century American politics.  And what are those?  We get a glimpse the unholy alliance of lobbyists, amoeba like multinational corporations, and a mass media undergoing identity crisis.  House of Cards follows the tradition of the 1970s paranoid thrillers.

The protagonist is Congressman Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacy), a Democratic Congressman from South Carolina.  As a new administration enters the White House, Underwood learns he was passed over for a cabinet position.  Like Iago, he's prepared to gain a place in power at any cost including betrayals, manipulation, and lies.  Underwood has mastered the art of backroom dealing and drawing people into his orbit.  There are no dramatic debates or filibusters in the House floor.  All the action and intrigue is off the record through the maze of congressional politics, the media, and the lobbyists.   

Kevin Spacey has always possessed an affinity for playing men of power in shifting variations: the mystery man behind the scenes in The Usual Suspects, a terrifying psychopath in Se7en, the comically hateful movie executive in Swimming with Sharks, and the mild mannered office drone turned reborn existentialist in American Beauty.  Connections to Shakespeare abound in House of Cards with obvious connections to MacBeth, Othello, and Richard III. The parallels are quite explicit with Spacy's asides to the camera.  Making Underwood a Southern politician is fitting as well as he channels the backroom chicanery of Lyndon B. Johnson, Bill Clinton's cunning pragmatism, and possibly a smidgen of FDR's charm.  Spacy invites us into the his world of fractured morality and and as a result we admire him and root against him, amid a glistening world of power and privilege, albeit never far from the sewer. 

All the characters in the show orbit around Congressman Underwood.  His wife runs a non-profit with ties to multinational corporations.  Clair is just as morally ambiguous as her husband, but not quite as interesting.  In another storyline, Francis takes on young Pennsylvania Congressman Peter Lance as his apparent protege in the congress.  The most satisfying character arc is that of Zoe, a young blogger/reporter with a talent for getting the scoop.  During the series she finds out the dangers of getting too close to Underwood.  Out of all the characters, Zoe does develop a conscience and a purpose.  Journalists remain the heroes when when it comes to political thrillers in a thread going back to the good old days of paranoia in the 1970s in The Parallax View and All the President's Men.  By the end, Zoe and a fellow reporter channel Woodward and Bernstein.

The web of power in American politics is more complex than any time in history.  Nevertheless, Americans have always displayed a fascination with understanding power.  Robert Caro's biographies of Lyndon Johnson continue to sell, as wells as books on Abraham Lincoln. Steven Spielberg's recent film Lincoln dealt with the intricacies of 19th century politics.  We see  Lincoln resort to backroom deals to secure passing an amendment to end slavery - making it okay since emancipation was for a higher cause.  Today few speak in such terms; those that do are considered anachronistic.  After watching House of Cards I noticed few of the characters take a moral stand on anything (except one Claire's underlings at the non-profit who quits to protest the increasing ties between corporations and politicians).  In All the President's Men Woodward's secret source Deep Throat told him "to follow the money." By following the money they connected the White House to the Watergate scandal. If one followed all the leads in paranoid thriller genre the truth would lead to the highest reaches of power - usually a shadowy organization.  House of Cards weaves a web of power defying explanation and populated with only those who want power.  No conspiracies.  Just more white noise.

The political thriller is apt territory for Fincher.  In arguably his best film Zodiac, Fincher's narrative follows reporters and detectives in their quest to unravel the Zodiac killer case.  Their failure to capture the killer haunts them throughout the film and serves a fitting metaphor for the impotence pervading the American psyche in the 1970s- and beyond.  A similar hopelessness sneaks through House of Cards. As the politicians and lobbyists spin webs within an increasingly implausible system some of the real political issues raised in the show - education, labor, nuclear energy are no more than pieces on a chessboard.  As Bob Dylan once wrote, "you play with my world, like it's your own little toy."

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Classic TV: The City on the Edge of Forever

What makes great television?  Television always seems so . . . disposable.  Most television series are DOA when their pilots fail with executives and test audiences.  If a show is successful it may actually make it to air and get a chance to build an audience.  For those shows who stay on the air, they inevitably seem dated after leaving the airwaves.

Even for the most successful of TV shows there's maybe a few episodes audiences remember.  The original Star Trek is one anomaly since it achieved cult status after NBC, canceled it.  To the surprise of programmers ratings soared in reruns for local stations. Star Trek capitalized on the popularity of Sci-Fi in the late 1970s and later reemerged as a highly profitable film franchise for Paramount studios.

One episode all fans remember is "The City on the Edge of Forever."  So I watched it and to see one if it still holds up.  Written by the legendary Harlan Ellison, the episode in many ways latched on to themes that made the show unique: the camaraderie between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, a mission involving time travel, and a chance for Shatner to overact.  

"City on the Edge of Forever" is Ellison's sole contribution to the Star Trek canon.  For years he  expressed bitterness over producers meddling with his script (the original script is available in book form).  In addition to writing for television, Ellison wrote groundbreaking television criticism in his collection of essays, The Glass Teat.  Writers like Ellison did inspire a later generation consider the idea of television as a useful storytelling medium and to not shy away from being subversive.  

The episode itself starts with Dr. "Bones" McCoy accidentally injecting himself with a serum making him temporally insane.  In his madness he is beamed down to a planet and enters a time portal transporting him back to 1930s earth.  Kirk and Spock beam down and discovered McCoy had changed the course of history.  Earth never achieved space travel so the Enterprise is not there.  So they enter the portal to restore history to its proper course.  Ellison's original concept centered around a drug dealer on the Enterprise who enters the portal!  But the revised story still hinged on Kirk and Spock making history right.

Once they arrive in 1930 there are the obligatory scenes we get with time travel stories. Spock must don a cap to cover his Vulcan ears.  They meet a cop and both improvise an explanation about Spock's ears? The concept of Kirk and Spock as lost time travelers was later revisited in one of the best films Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.  Eventually they are taken in by the angelic Edith (Joan Collins) who runs a homeless shelter who Kirk falls in love with, but then tragically learns she will prevent America from entering into the Second World War thus allowing the Nazis to prevail.  Someone disrupted the timeline by saving her life.  You can guess how the show ends.

I have not watched every Star Trek episode, but have seen many over the years.  At its worst the show is campy fun.   As for "City on the Edge of Forever," the episode epitomizes why the franchise endures.  At its best, the journeys of the Starship Enterprise are a space adventure with a sense of humor and that sparked the imagination of a whole new generation.