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June 30, 2010

"Freaks and Geeks" is on!

Freaks and Geeks

One of the most talked-about TV shows of all time that nobody watched while it was on the air is "Freaks and Geeks". It's one of my favorite shows ever, and today's big news is that IFC is going to air the entire series, starting this Friday!

The show gets so much attention now because it represents the earliest stage of what has become the Judd Apatow Juggernaut: that group of writers, directors, and actors who have dominated the R-rated comedy scene since 2005's The 40 Year Old Virgin. The show was the brainchild of Apatow, Paul Feig (who went on to do "Arrested Development" and "The Office") and Mike White (Orange County, School of Rock).

The stars have almost all gone on to bigger things: James Franco, Seth Rogen (at a tender 17!), Jason Segel, Linda Cardelleni, and Busy Philipps all got their start on the show. My very favorite actor on the show is Martin Starr, who's now an awesome character actor and has become handsome and sort of beefy--surprising, considering how good he was as super-nerd Bill Haverchuck on the show.

(In other news, Martin Starr's latest show "Party Down" just got canceled by Starz.)

Anyway, "Freaks and Geeks" was an hour-long comedy-drama about being in high school in Michigan in the mid-80's. It's hilarious and nostalgic in a non-manipulative way and heartbreaking and great. If you missed it when it ran for all of 18 episodes in 1999-2000, now's your chance.

It airs on IFC on Friday, Monday, and Sunday nights. In a few months, IFC is also going to run the entire series of "Undeclared", which was the next show produced by most of the same people. That one's about freshman year of college. It was pretty uneven and never reached the greatness of "Freaks and Geeks", but it does feature a great performance by Jason Segel as the obsessive hometown boyfriend of the main girl who during one episode comes to visit her on campus--he's completely unnerving and manic, and it's the best thing he's ever done.

When IFC was airing "Arrested Development" a few months ago, if I ever happened to come across it while flipping around the channels I would always sit and watch the episode, even though I've got the DVDs sitting right there under the TV. I'm sure it will be exactly the same with "Freaks and Geeks"--it's just more exciting to be lucky enough to catch a favorite episode on TV, plus no commercials.

IFC has gotten really good at picking my favorite shows. What's next? "Spaced"?

June 25, 2010

World Cup in America

Diana Ross at the World Cup opening ceremony, 1994

Now that the US team has done well enough to advance to the next round, it's time for World Cup fever to sweep America! We like sports that we're good at. The game against Ghana tomorrow afternoon (2:30 on ABC!) is probably going to be the most watched soccer game yet this year.

The first time I remember being aware of the World Cup was in 1994, when it was hosted here in the US. In doing some research about that year's tournament, my friend T-Rock happened upon the description of the opening ceremony, which was held in Chicago. Here's the Wikipedia entry. It keeps getting better:

The opening ceremony of the World Cup was held on 17 June at Chicago's Soldier Field. Numerous dignitaries attended, including US President Bill Clinton, Chancellor of Germany Helmut Kohl and President of Bolivia Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada. The ceremony was emceed by Oprah Winfrey.

In addition, Daryl Hall, Jon Secada and Diana Ross gave musical performances. Ross was also supposed to kick a football into the goal from the penalty spot at the end of her performance, with the goal then splitting in two as part of a pre-orchestrated stunt. She kicked the ball wide to the left, missing the goal, but the goalposts were collapsed anyway in accordance with the stunt plans.

From the American perspective, the most important aspect of the 1994 World Cup is definitely the video for Daryl Hall's horrific theme song, "Gloryland", which plays sort of like a 9/11 tribute video combined with a Disney World ad. It also features segments from the opening ceremony, which demonstrate that even a serious sports country like the United States is powerless to resist creating a big ridiculous Eurotrashtastic explosion of kitsch when planning a soccer-related gala event:

You can watch just Diana Ross's failed penalty kick and exploding goalposts here. For future reference, don't stage the crescendo of your globally televised soccer event around a 50 year-old diva scoring a goal.

June 23, 2010

McChrystal: the Stillwater of the U.S. Military

General McChrystal looking sad

Tough break, General McChrystal. Yammering to Rolling Stone about your ineffectual boss was a terrible idea, but it really seems like he lost sight of how his words would sound outside of the Paris bars where he hung out out with journalist Michael Hastings.

The issue of Rolling Stone won't hit the stands until Friday, and it's already the most significant/disastrous article of the year. It's worth reading. We already know about all the disses on Obama and no-nonsense military tough-talk, but there's some funny and surprising stuff in there, too. McChrystal sounds like a guy who's serious about his job, totally dedicated to his soldiers, misguidedly wedded to his counterinsurgency fantasy, and almost superhumanly disciplined. With the notable exception of his tendency to mouth off to reporters.

A couple of interesting bits:

  • McChrystal allegedly eats only once a day, and in the month (!) that Michael Hastings spent around him, he witnessed him eating exactly one time
  • His staff refers to themselves as "Team America", referencing the movie by the South Park guys in a way that causes me a lot of confusion about their degree of self-awareness
  • He's tighter with Karzai than the US ambassador or any other civilian government reps
  • He was personally involved in the cover-up of Pat Tillman's death by a fellow soldier in Afghanistan, one of the darker moments of this war
  • He wrote 7 short stories for the West Point literary journal while he was there

Michael Hastings did a short interview with Newsweek (his former employer) over the turmoil his piece has created, and discusses why McChrystal was so open with him. Specifically: he has no idea.

He's still in Afghanistan now, and says that he doesn't know why McChrystal agreed to talk to him in the first place. But it does seem like a lot of the more candid (aka ill-advised) stuff might have come out because a) they were in Paris and Berlin for some of the time, rather than in Afghanistan, and b) what was supposed to be two days of interviews turned into a month because of the the Icelandic ash cloud.

So I guess things got a little looser as time went on, and McChrystal and his staff probably stopped thinking of Hastings as a journalist. It happened in Almost Famous, when Stillwater got a little too cozy with their 15 year-old Rolling Stone reporter, and I guess it happened in real life, too.

One other interesting thing about Michael Hastings: he's also the guy whose girlfriend visited him while he was working for Newsweek in Baghdad as part of her job with a political nonprofit, and while she was there got killed in a Sunni ambush. He wrote a book about it.

June 18, 2010

Maybe this Al Pacino is a decent actor

Al Pacino as Shylock

I went to see The Merchant of Venice at Shakespeare in the Park last night, with Al Pacino as Shylock. I've heard it's been brutal trying to get tickets, and the show is still in previews (opens June 30), but I highly recommend it if you can go, it's one great production. It's like the best psychological thriller about contract law you've ever seen.

This is a tricky play--it often gets branded as anti-Semitic, what with every Christian character hurling non-stop abuse and hatred at Shylock and spitting the word "Jew" like it's a derogatory term. But it's really a play about anti-Semitism (and racism, and sexism) and this production shows all of that while staying true to the language and structure.

Characters are dressed in Victorian-era morning coats, and the set looks like a 19th century London trading company with a cool old ticker-tape machine and guys wearing visors. Shylock looks pretty much exactly like the old men who lumber along West 47th Street in the diamond district today, so I was glad they didn't go for anything too cartoonish. Pacino plays Shylock as a pragmatic, successful businessman who's sitting on an ocean of bitterness at being socially rejected from mainstream Christian society. He's not ashamed of who he is, he's just sick of living in an unfair, racist world.

It's not too hard to make Shylock a sympathetic character, but Pacino doesn't hold back on the anger and frustration that make him so bloodthirsty. The amazing thing is that he doesn't do any of the scenery chewing or hooah'ing that's made him into a caricature of himself in movies lately. Venice is basically an apartheid society, using its legal structure to keep people like Shylock down, so when he gets the chance to use the law to his advantage, he grabs on and won't let go. He wants that pound of flesh, not because he's a sadist killer, but because it's legally his.

But, of course, things don't go so well for old Shylock--the moral of the story seems to be Live by the contract, Die by the contract. Shakespeare structures the story as a rejection of rigid adherence to law and other pronouncements from on high that have little to do with people's actual lives, a theme that comes up in other plays like Measure For Measure.

The height of the action in the trial scene is really great and tense, with loads of moral ambiguity and really uncomfortable stuff about religious self-righteousness that makes Christians and Jews and pretty much everybody look like monsters. For a supposed romantic comedy, this is not at all a date play.

The play doesn't stress this too heavily, but the other big theme is how men unfairly control women's lives. Portia is the smartest person on the stage, but it's only when she's disguised as a man that anyone listens to her. She's played by Lily Rabe (daughter of Jill Clayburgh and David Rabe) and was clever and sassy without being self-righteous.

Al Pacino is the only huge star in the show, but there's also Law & Order's Jesse Martin and Mitch from "Modern Family" as the hilarious and campy comic relief.

June 16, 2010

Books about movies: the Brits beat us

BFI Film Classics, Star Wars

The other day I mentioned a new series of short books about individual movies that Soft Skull Press was going to launch later this year. Cool, right? Sort of like the 33 1/3 series of books about individual albums that I like a lot. Everyone's got a movie they've watched enough times they could probably write a book about it, it seems, so this sounded like a wonderful and novel idea.

Except that the British already did it. A film buff friend who knows a thousand times more than I ever will about German expressionism and film noir pointed out that if I'm so psyched about this new series, maybe I should check out BFI's existing series of short books about movies. Ahem.

Since the 90's, the BFI (British Film Institute) has been putting out these great little books as part of its Film Classics series, and they've got some really good ones. Like, well over 100 of them. They've got tons of standard selections like like Star Wars (above), Vertigo, and Lawrence of Arabia, and smart, less popular favorites like Night of the Living Dead, Cat People, and Sweet Smell of Success, which comes out later this summer.

But check these out. They did a book about Groundhog Day. Spirited Away. In August they're putting out Back to the Future. Manohla Dargis did the book about L.A. Confidential ! They got freaking Salman Rushdie to write the book about The Wizard of Oz !

They're all available in the US through Macmillan, and they're all up on Amazon, too. Just about all of them are 10 or 11 bucks, and mostly under 100 pages! Though, mysteriously, no books about Alien or Tootsie.

Wow. Hard to know where to start. Maybe I'll go for Mark Kermode's book on The Exorcist--he's pretty great, and apparently believes it's the greatest movie ever made.

June 15, 2010

Shinnecock tribe promises new world of casinos and cheap cigarettes

Smoking at the slot machines

Today the Bureau of Indian Affairs formally created a new tribe: the Shinnecock, who live on the east end of Long Island on a small reservation, but hadn't yet been federally recognized. An exciting day for native people! Tribal trustee Lance Gumbs said in an AP interview, "This is the most historic moment in Shinnecock history. Any discussion of a casino is a secondary thought."

Obviously, the rest of the article, and all the other press I've seen, is about a casino. Look, New York, it's the dawning of a brand new day! With a shiny new casino and as many tax-free cigarettes as you can cram into your car!

The Shinnecock people wanted to build a casino on their reservation right in the middle of the Hamptons in 2003. It was the resulting uproar from local rich people, not keen on the idea of the Hamptons being turned into a giant parking lot for the unwashed gambling addicts of Long Island, that led the tribe to seek federal recognition.

Now that they've got it, it seems that they're authorized to fill up their land with video slots, but they can't open a casino with table games. New York State and the federal government have to agree to the larger kind of casino, but if they do, the tribe could open it on any public trust land, not necessarily on their own reservation. Apparently they're considering Belmont Park, Nassau Coliseum, or maybe if we're extra lucky, somewhere within the 5 boroughs of New York City!

Let's build a casino in the middle of Gramercy Park.

June 10, 2010

Should I go to Rock the Bells?

Snoop Dogg on stage

The lineup for this year's Rock the Bells show just got announced, and they're doing things a little differently this year: all the big performers will be performing one of their classic albums in its entirety. Because of my ambivalence about big all-day outdoor music festivals, which has developed over the years into full-blown revulsion, I've never attended any of the Rock the Bells shows that have come to the east coast. But this year, I'm thinking about putting aside my aversion to standing around all day in a crowded field with no shade and $4 bottles of water for the chance to see some awesome performers. Maybe. At least this year it's at Governor's Island, which is a big step up from Jones Beach where it's been for the past 2 years.

Let's look at the lineup:

  • Snoop, doing "Doggystyle". Even with an impenetrable cloud of smoke around his head and swarms of Dogg Pound members wandering all over the place, this should still be great. Snoop has that combination of laid-back smoothness and tight precision that I love. He's the chillest rapper out there who enunciates. Plus: good old Michael McDonald sampling Warren G.
  • Tribe. Yes! Doing "Midnight Marauders". Huh? When you've got one of the greatest albums of all time, "The Low End Theory", under your belt, plus a fun debut album that didn't do as well commercially but is full of classics, why would you go with the OK but not as good third album? I love Tribe, but the album selection is a missed opportunity.
  • Wu-Tang Clan, doing "36 Chambers". Rock the Bells has always had strong Wu representation, and at first I thought I've got to see it. But when you think about it, ODB's gone, lots of the original members are more into doing their own projects these days, and it's entirely possible that only 2 or 3 original members will show up (Method Man and Raekwon, probably, hopefully RZA?) along with about 37 other random dudes who just hang around on stage. The year to see them was probably the first Rock the Bells in 2004 when ODB was still alive. This one could be transcendent and amazing or sort of a let-down.
  • Rakim doing "Paid in Full". Awesome.
  • KRS-One, Slick Rick, DJ Premier, all sound pretty good. Premier is allegedly doing a tribute to Gang Starr, which is ironic since right before Guru's death last year, he allegedly denounced Premier and said he didn't want him to be involved in any tributes. I guess it's Premier's show now. There are lots of smaller acts like Brother Ali and Clipse that look good.
  • Then there's a special performance by Lauryn Hill. Excuse me, "Empress" Hill. I don't know what she's doing here. It seems like she never recovered from the massive success of the "Miseducation" album, and remember her MTV Unplugged session from 2002 where she was completely unstable and started crying? Her behavior since then has been erratic and she seems to flake out of shows a lot of the time. It's a strike against the festival.

Just found out tickets are $99. To stand around all day and deal with long lines and sweaty 6' 3" guys who stand right in front of me in order to listen to a raspy Lauryn Hill while waiting for the good stuff.

Sitting on the couch and listening to "The Low End Theory" doesn't sound half bad.

June 8, 2010

French feminist encourages us all to be bad moms

Elisabeth Badinter

Feminist cultural theorists tend to be a radical, provocative bunch--they have to be. But it's the French feminists that have a special place in my heart. Maybe it's their legacy of existentialism, sexual freedom, and Joan of Arc, but the French feminists have always been way more incendiary and out there than their American counterparts. While Betty Freidan was hypothesizing that maybe women want to do something with their lives other than vacuuming, Monique Wittig was claiming that she didn't have a vagina because the naming of body parts imposed an artificial order and a masculine bias on the natural body.

Anyway, a contemporary feminist writer, Elisabeth Badinter, has gotten a lot of attention for her new book, "Le Conflit: la femme et la mère" ("Conflict: The Woman and the Mother") which isn't even out in an English language version yet. I first heard about the book on the Bust blog, which reported that it's causing a major ruckus in France over her argument that women should be women first and mothers second. Women are pressured to be perfect moms, which increasingly means staying at home, breastfeeding, making your own baby food, and using washable diapers--things that many women aren't interested in and others don't have the luxury to even consider.

In a great article in the London Times, Badinter says, "It may seem derisory but powdered milk, jars of baby food, and disposable diapers were all stages in the liberation of women." As for moralizing about women who eat unpasteurized cheese and drink the occasional glass of wine while pregnant, she says, "You don't enter a religious order when you have children."

Over the weekend, the NY Times did a piece on Badinter. It's in the Style section, where the Times continues to publish all its journalism about women's professional lives. Oh my God that pisses me off. Anyway, in the article, she advocates for a more open-minded approach to motherhood, letting women raise their children they way they want without passing judgment. A mother of three, she says, "I'm a mediocre mother like the vast majority of women, because I'm human, I'm not a she-cat."

Environmentalists and some feminists don't like her argument, but I think I love her. I also agree that many women don't seem to want other women to make their own decisions about how to raise their kids. When I hear women my age (always women, never men) vehemently insisting that all mothers must breastfeed their babies and women who don't are bad and selfish, I can't help but think of social conservatives spouting off about gay people being sinful or America being a Christian nation. For some reason, many progressive thinkers have no problem telling women what they can and can't do with their kids or during pregnancy, but would never consider telling other people what kind of sexuality or religious beliefs to have.

Hopefully when Badinter's book comes out in translation, it will inspire more women to embrace a feminist approach to motherhood, i.e. do what you want, and let other people do what they want. Have kids, don't have kids. Breastfeed, bottle feed. It's up to you. Do you see fathers passionately condemning each other over disposable diapers?

Also, I love that Jezebel used a photo of Lucille Bluth, bad mom role model, in their post about Badinter.

June 7, 2010

Club security: has it come to this?

Water Taxi Beach, LIC

I headed out to Long Island City yesterday afternoon to see Tom Middleton and his party DJ house/mashup style and frolic in the early evening sun. I'd heard they have pretty extensive security there, but let me tell you my story. It's graphic.

At the main entrance, the security lady went through my knapsack, rummaging around and quickly checking out the wallet, lipgloss, tissues, and magazines. She shook out a pair of shorts and a tank top, then came to a pair of underpants I had in there from the previous day. "We've got a pair of panties here!" she said to another security guy. "More panties?" he said.

She fixated on my dirty undies at the bottom of my bag and sort of pawed at them. I was lost. "Is there something, um, wrong with...panties?" I asked, not sure if I should be trying to explain what I was doing with underwear in my bag or what. She said, "Well, a lot of girls have been spraying GHB onto a pair of panties and carrying them into the club in their purse. Then they sniff their panties and get a hit."

I reacted with an expression of speechless confusion and horror, which must have convinced the security lady of my innocence. She handed me my bag and let me inside with my non-GHB-enhanced panties, that I'm very confident no one would have any desire to sniff.

People! Is this what we've come to? Huffing our panties in clubs? Creating security alerts over a pair of embarrassingly non-sexy cotton underpants in a backpack?

It was a funny and ridiculous situation, but the absurdity of it reminded me of airport security and how the TSA adds new rules in response to whatever attempted terrorist act happened most recently. We have to take off our shoes and can bring on only travel sizes of liquids, not because anyone necessarily thinks travelers are hiding bombs in their flip-flops or Vitamin Water bottles, but in reaction to something Richard Reid did in 2001. You raise suspicion at a club if you have a pair of underwear in your bag because someone got busted smuggling drugs on her panties.

I have to believe these reactionary security measures are designed to create an illusion of security rather than to make us more secure. People who are determined to bring drugs into a club or a bomb onto a plane will just move on from shoes and bottles of liquids and underpants and find some other way that security workers don't screen. We've gotten ourselves into a Red Queen's race, where it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place.

Keep your panties on, ladies.

June 3, 2010

Books about music, books about movies

They Live by John Carpenter

One of the coolest things to happen to music criticism in recent years is Continuum's 33 1/3 series of short books, each one about a different album and by a different author. Each book is around 100 pages long, and includes background, interviews, heady analysis, and often some wacky, highly personal musings, reflections, and rants on the importance of the album in question. They're a lot of fun--the experience of reading one is sort of like meeting an interesting person at a party and suddenly finding yourself in a long, meandering conversation about the album that's playing, which you both happen to really love.

The albums in the series range from the obvious but necessary ("Led Zeppelin IV", "Doolittle", "OK Computer") to the well-informed if less canonical ("Meat is Murder", "Born in the U.S.A.") to the truly inspired picks that you might not immediately think of for a series like this ("Rid of Me", "Trout Mask Replica", and one brave monograph about Celine Dion.) There are new ones coming out all the time--I can't wait to see the book for Wu Tang's "36 Chambers", especially the crazy recording studio anecdotes. Here's the whole Wikipedia list and Amazon list.

Many of the writers of these books don't have any other author credits on Amazon, so there's a tantalizing sense that you yourself could one day write a 33 1/3 book on "Dubnobasswithmyheadman" or "Faith" or "Elastica" or "Very Necessary", and that music fans everywhere would read about your own personal musical obsessions.

(As a side note, I've always thought it was an unfortunate indicator of my own musical ignorance that the one book in the series written by somebody I actually know is about an album I have zero personal connection with: The Minutemen's "Double Nickels on the Dime".)

This news has been out for a bit, but I just found out (via Rex) there's going to be a similar series of short books -- about movies! It's called Deep Focus, and it's being put out by Soft Skull Press. The first two books in the series will be about John Carpenter's alien takeover movie They Live, by Jonathan Lethem (!), and Charles Bronson's Death Wish by Christopher Sorrentino. Both are out in November.

So the next obvious question: if you could write a book for this series, what movie would you choose? It seems like they're going mainstream so far, but let's assume that the movie selection will be wide open. I might pick a favorite comedy like Tootsie. There's so much to say about that movie. Or, oh man, can you imagine getting to write a whole book that encompasses every tangent and diversion about Blue Velvet? Or The Apartment? Or Dead Alive? Or Hannah and Her Sisters? I can't wait to see where they go with the series.

If you were going to get paid to go off at length on your own totally subjective analysis and personal adoration of a movie, what would you pick?

About June 2010

This page contains all entries posted to Amy's Robot in June 2010. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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