→ Day 1: LA to Murderville to Flagstaff

You said, “Let me know you’re alive once in awhile during your road trip.” I said, “You know what, why don’t I just BLOG about it?” And then you were like, “That’s not necessary,” but I didn’t hear that last part over the sound of AMERICA’S HEARTLAND!

This jabroni here *points thumbs* is driving from Los Angeles to New York for the next two weeks. So this is the start of a travel project, a.k.a. me combining my cross-country driving adventurethoughts with pop culture reflections (in keeping with the genre of this blog).

Here’s the itinerary – not including The World’s Biggest Rubber Band Ball or The Lost Cat Colony of New Mexico or whatever happens to tickle my fancy with well-placed road signs.

June 22-23: Flagstaff, AZ and The Grand Canyon

June 24: Moab, UT and Grand Junction, CO

June 25-27: Boulder, CO and Denver, CO

June 28: Wichita, KS

June 29-July 1: St. Louis, MO

July 2: Lake Hope, OH

July 3-5: Philadelphia, PA

July 6: New Fuckin’ York

(What goes East must go West – the end of August brings Part II: The Return).

This is definitely the biggest car trip I’ve ever undertaken, and about half of it will be solo. I won’t encounter any familiar faces till Boulder, and won’t pick up a travel companion till St. Louis. I’ve armed myself with a behemoth of a playlist, podcasts, and a small group of people who have begrudgingly agreed to take my calls. And luckily, as it happens, my singing voice is absolutely breathtaking in the acoustics of an empty vehicle. Here’s to discovery and the possibility of meet-cuting with new friends in random cities.

SO. I left this morning around 7 AM, bidding one last farewell to my barista and the city I love so much. Los Angeles, it’s late June and you were just getting good: sweet breezes and California sun that left me burned to a crisp this past weekend. It was a weird feeling to fight my way through Monday morning traffic down the 405, teething at my venti coffee like every other commuter, but actually ADVENTURING. LA was just trying to suck me back in with car congestion, tryna keep me from manifesting my destiny.

I was finally able to slam the pedal to the floor around Norwalk, where the freeway opened up to pleasant but underwhelming hills of dry brush. This was the case from So-Cal all the way to the Arizona state line, where the mountains finally started to get excited and sprout some proper forest. Honestly, I leave the city so rarely that any unpopulated landscape strikes me as God’s handiwork; today’s views were no exception and I never got tired of staring awestruck out the window, smiling, and wondering, “How many bodies are buried behind that majestic boulder?”

SPEAKING of the dead, I happened upon Ludlow, CA about 4 hours into my trip when I needed gas. It is a super scary and desolate ghost town with naught but an abandoned cafe, crumbling ruins, and a couple of burned-out vintage cars for good measure.  I stretched my legs for awhile and desperately looked for tumbleweeds to fulfill my desert road trip fantasy. No luck. Just lost souls and scrub.

On my next gas stop, I stumbled across some quaintly named restaurants in Seligman, AZ (see pictures below), as well as an EXTREMELY old woman who sang “Spice Up Your Life” at me as I crossed the road. Keep in mind that I was wearing a Spice Girls shirt, but, ya know. I startle easy. Also drove past a car towing a small boat titled (I kid you not) the PRETTY PUNZ. Still regret not snapping a pic. Perhaps one day I shall sail a P.P. of my own on the ocean blue…

Seven and a half hours after I set out this morning, I concluded today’s first leg in the incredibly dry, hot, and sassy Flagstaff AZ. This town is basically like if half of Seattle was abducted and woke up in an enclosure in the middle of the desert, and then had to make do. Very colorful, artisanal, charming. Have spent the last couple hours strolling around downtown and sampling the local iced tea and ice cream selection. I’m a big fan of the Grand Canyon International Hostel, where I’m staying tonight and tomorrow night. So homey! My bunkmate Rebecca was moisturizing when I got back, and we just had a nice conversation about moisture, and lotion, and how important they are. I smell a new friend, and she in turn smells like shea butter.

Here’s my fave playlist selection, blasted today into the searing wind. “OH MY GOD I CAN’T BELIEVE IT, I’VE NEVER BEEN THIS FAR AWAY FROM HOME” is a great travel battle cry.

Tonight I’ll probably turn in early and watch the rest of True Detective, which I abandoned mid-episode last night. Guys, it’s not a good show. The ingredients on their own are wonderful: strikingly written single lines, sumptuous cinematography, performances that are visceral and dark and dragged from the best hidden corners of every actor (Vince Vaughn is really holding his own, who knew!). However, together…TD is television compost. All of HBO’s cast-off artistic garbage in an overwhelming heap that we all think is good for the environment. It takes itself very seriously and adds nothing innovative to the already heavily populated crime genre. Moreover, it’s all I have on Sunday nights now. Curse you, McConaughey! I think I need to start House of Cards finally, so I have something to return to on the road in moments of boredom and reflection.

Tomorrow I hit the Grand Canyon and find out how many licks it takes to get to the center of the earth. Good evening, friends!

 

Mad Men S7BE1: “Severance”

“Is that all there is?”

Peggy Lee, you said it. This premiere episode was a tough nut to crack – a lot of unsteady philosophical meandering leading to a casual ending. It was a visually dazzling hour (What color! What mustaches!) but…inscrutable. What just happened? What does it all mean? How is this episode going to set up the finale? Is that all there is?

I have oodles of faith that the rest of Season 7B will be vastly more enjoyable. The Mad Men premieres have always been weird and uncomfortable and slightly creaky under the weight of theme introduction (remember “The Doorway”?). So let’s talk about this strange episode – its fast-paced structure, strained dialogue, time-jumping, and sense of cheerless nostalgia.

“Severance” followed four major storylines: those of Don, Joan, Peggy, and Ken. Let’s start with the big D.

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The opening scenes give us a full blast of voyeuristic discomfort, without the usual pleasure that used to come with watching Don go all Draper on some girl. It’s an audition for a fur campaign, a very intimate roleplay – and, the camera reveals, it’s happening in front of a roomful of other men. At this, I admit my heart sank. After the tenderness of the 7A finale, I wanted to believe we’d advanced past Don’s super gross side. He’s always needed to dominate and decorate women in order to define himself; this first scene is meant to prepare us for a disappointing Don rewind. It’s an interesting way to begin the half-season; a faithful callback to what we first loved about our protagonist. But now, in 1970, in this clinical brown office, it’s not so sexy anymore. It’s a regression. It’s pathetic and it’s sad.

Don goes through a lot of back-cycling during “Severance.” It’s an episode that interrogates the way he’s built an identity through sex and intimacy, a cobbled-together Perfect Man built from the dreams and projections of so many women, so many loves, so many first kisses.

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Two women from his past confront Don in a compressed period of time. One of them is Rachel Menken – we all remember her from Season 1 (and I screamed out loud when we first saw her because I’d missed her so much) Rachel was the first woman in the series whose emotional magnetism truly prompted Don to consider abandoning his facade and starting anew. She’s a powerful symbol of nostalgia in Mad Men, as it was Rachel’s presence that brought out the Don we first came to love – his iconic poeticism (“Love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons”) and his wild romanticism.

But Rachel’s already dead by the time she reappears (in a dream sequence which, no matter how beautifully it’s done, always makes me feel betrayed). Her avatar in Don’s mind is pretty on-the-nose – she smiles mysteriously, glimmers in her fur, and tells him, “I’m supposed to tell you you missed your flight.” She wasn’t his only chance to live passionately and authentically, but she might have been his first. When Don attempts to reconnect, inspired by his vision, we find out that she’s only just succumbed to leukemia a week before. The cosmic devastation throws Don off for the rest of the episode. He attends shiva at her apartment, struggling to make sense of the loss, staring at her young children knowing that in another life, they could have been his. He’s frightened and needing answers about the coincidence of her reappearance in his subconscious. She was gone as quickly as she returned. Is that all there is?

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Don’s assisted in his existential crisis by a sad-eyed waitress named Di (I mean, talk about on-the-nose). He’s convinced he knows her from somewhere, and they share a soulless quickie behind a diner. Di does look like a lot of girls Don’s pulled over the course of the series – she’s got the hawkish beauty of Midge, the mysticality of Rachel, and the uniform of the dozens of waitresses he’s winked at for decades. For God’s sake, Don’s already shtupped a random flight attendant during the course of this episode! He’s deep in the throes of dark neediness, repeating his romantic cycle. Don doesn’t know Di, but he knows how this starts and how it ends. He’s fucking a memory.

It’s an extremely depressing setup for the rest of 7B.

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Another character who’s grasping for a do-over is Ken Cosgrove, who makes a really welcome return in this episode. The title alludes to Ken’s unceremonious firing by Roger and the head honcho at McCann. Said honcho is an Irish brute named Ferg, who’s long had a professional vendetta against the company-hopping Ken.

Kenny has always been a unique character on which to map the war between creativity and pragmatism. He’s a rare kind soul amongst his colleagues, who hid his idealism and writerly spark in order to advance in the accounts department. Although he’s Head of Accounts, his wife thinks he ought to go back to penning beautiful science fiction novels and leave the ad game altogether. And just as he’s made the decision to bow out gracefully and follow his dream, he’s canned by McCann. Ferg is cruel about it and Roger is cool about it, and both approaches fill the normally level-headed Ken with bewilderment and rage.

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“The life not lived” is Ken’s succinct restatement of Don’s problem (and Peggy’s as well, but we’ll get to that in a moment). Ken could just walk away from this sour turn of events and begin to build the existence he always wanted – a farm, a family, a writing career. But it turns out that for Ken, the best revenge isn’t living well, or living differently. It’s just revenge. His corporate maneuvering provides the absolutely high point of the episode, a fun bit of comeuppance that’s quick and lively and a phenomenal hint of a very amusing storyline to come.

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Let’s move on to Peggy and Joan.

First of all, Peggy’s on a bit of a backslide as well. She’s back in a mental place of ennui and self-pity – single but too busy to mingle. She’s set up on a date with her coworker Mathis’ brother-in-law. WHO IS BRIAN KRAKOW. PEGGY’S ON A DATE WITH BRIAN KRAKOW. I know the rest of the internet shares my delight.

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It’s a cute storyline, but frankly not one I feel like spending much time on. Their chemistry is easy and fun, and Stevie (that’s his actual name) seems to like Peggy for all her stubbornness and brilliance. It’s nice to see Peggy’s flirty side, because both she and we have forgotten that workplace satisfaction isn’t quite the same as happiness. Her “life not lived” is the life of a girlfriend, a mother, a second fiddle – and although that’s never going to be her style, Peg seems to enjoy roleplaying once in awhile.

Peggy’s trouble in “Severance” stems from the fact that she’s unable to be spontaneous and fly off to Paris with Stevie at a moment’s notice (because her passport is in an office drawer, surprise surprise). She finds every excuse in the book not to trust this stranger or the genuine connection she’s made with him.

It’s hard to be sympathetic towards Peggy, though, because of The Elevator Scene. A watershed moment for the episode.

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Some background: Peggy and Joan are tasked with pitching Topaz pantyhose to their superiors at McCann, who are a bunch of sexist assholes. Their crude jokes are nothing new to these two, but this is the first time they’ve been working together as a team in a professional setting.

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Unsurprisingly, Peggy handles the toxic atmosphere much better than Joan does. She’s been in conference rooms for years enduring similar blows to her dignity, and has learned to emphasize her “masculine” side to cope – more conservative dress, a harder exterior, swift judo chops to halt any small talk.

But that’s simply not the way Joan is built, so to speak; Joan thrives off her own sexuality and finds power in deploying her femininity and emotional instincts in business dealings. We, as fans, love to see Peggy and Joan find common ground and use each other as lifeboats in their male-dominated war ground of an office – but this is 1970. This is not a time when women lived their personal truths in the workplace and lifted one another up. And Peggy and Joan’s heated conversation in the elevator as they leave that meeting is a short, terrible microcosm of that. Peggy basically calls Joan a slut, and Joan tells Peggy she’s too ugly to even be a slut. It’s a saddening interaction that recalls their Season 1 relationship in all the worst ways.

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As a coping mechanism, Joan engages in a little retail therapy – playing up her assets rather than taking Peggy’s harsh advice to hide her curves and bury her sensuality. In this scene, Joan also shows us the narrow gulf between her life and the life she could have lived – as the salesgirl points out, Joan’s spending thousands of dollars in the same dress department she once managed (forced, by her rapey ex-fiance, to quit Sterling Cooper in disgrace). “You must have me confused with someone else,” says Joan coolly. No one’s going to write her story, ever again. Is that all there is? If so, she’s damn well going to be dressed to the nines for it.

Loose ends…

  • I mustache you a question, Roger…WHY?tumblr_nmdab07a401qhmg1fo1_1280
  • Ooh, Pete’s former secretary Clara is now pregnant out of wedlock! Juicy.
  • Speaking of Pete, he’s living a new/old life too. He’s back in New York, and says of his long and lovely LA vacation: “At the time it felt so real…”
  • Ken’s father-in-law Ed (who memorably once told Don that he’d never get hired again after he screwed Philip Morris) has an amazing advertising voice. He could sell me Pop Tarts any day.
  • Stan. Looks. So. ’70s. Hot. That beard is BITCHIN’.

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So, what did you all think of “Severance”? Did you feel confused and kinda bitter (like I did, and apparently the rest of Tumblr)? Did you love the episode? What DOES it all mean?

The End of an Era: A Guide to Mad Men’s Final Season

Whether or not you’re ready for Mad Men to end (you’re not), tonight is the premiere of Season 7B: the second half of episodes comprising the show’s last season. They have the potential to be some of the best aired on television, period – and you know me, I’m not usually prone to histrionics. Here to debrief you on this once-in-a-lifetime cultural phenomenon is myself: public Mad Men debater, obsessive, and recent rewatcher of Season 7A. Let’s ride this zeitgeist together. Do you want some ice in that?

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Different TV shows call for different modes of analysis and enjoyment. You have to set your mind at a certain frequency in order to really GET a show (this is why I had such a hard time on Sunday nights in 2013 – very difficult to shotgun Breaking Bad followed by The Real Housewives of New Jersey). The thing that I find most groundbreaking and mesmerizing about Mad Men is that it operates on many more levels than the average TV narrative – even The Sopranos, to which it’s historically been compared most often. Like SopranosMad Men is a series of complex interweaving character studies. They’re both period pieces. They’re about male anti-heroes. And they’re epic poems – full of rich allegories and cultural callbacks.

But there’s something very special about Mad Men that really differentiates it and makes it so of-the-moment: it’s art about making art. It’s more meta than any television drama that’s come before it, with perhaps the exception of Six Feet Under. But while SFU only occasionally touched on the creative process, Mad Men‘s an ode to it (and if it’s taught us anything, it’s that advertising is the most romantic and important creative outlet there is). It’s an excavation of the creative mind and the human impulse to weave and consume fiction.

I think it’s an extraordinarily special piece of work – and I really mean piece of work. It takes a metric fuckton of brainpower to absorb Mad Men in all its glory. So let’s reset our minds to Season 7A. Here’s a review of where the last half-season’s going to pick up:

Themes to keep in mind…

The first half of Season 7 took us in a (blessedly) new direction from a strange, frightening, and often aimless 6th season. 7 had a few core themes that sewed it together and began to steer the show into its final harbor.

  • Sentimentality. From Bert Cooper’s touching musical farewell to Peggy’s Burger Chef epiphany about family, the show played up what has always been one of its greatest strengths. The ad work, and the characters, were at their best when they spoke from the heart, and Don and Peggy’s strained relationship was seemingly resolved with one tender slow dance. 7 started off sad and ended up kind of triumphantly sappy. Mad Men believes in love.
  • Cycles of change. Back in Season 4, a man from Heinz told Don that “food is cyclical: there’s a time for beans and there’s a time for ketchup.” In Mad Men, there’s a time for dreams and a time for fuck-ups. Season 7 has deeply explored the way we helplessly repeat ourselves (i.e. Don blowing up his marriage to Megan in the same spectacularly slow, coolly cruel way he did Betty) and also how the mistakes of the old echo in the lives of the young (Sally is now, psychologically, a frightening composite of Betty and Don). Talk about a carousel.
  • Time. Probably the most crucial theme of the entire show. Mad Men is a hyperreal depiction of aging, learning, growing, and dying – for everyone, not just Don. From the commonplace time jumps to the more recent aesthetic markers of Season 7 (Pete Campbell’s bitterly receding hairline) it’s clear that this last season will deal with the inevitable march. Death is this show’s sexiest and most interesting recurring bedfellow.

Where are they now?

In case you haven’t caught up (even though Season 7A is now on Netflix, FYI), here’s where we left the primary players and various bit characters.

  • Don is back as SC&P’s de facto head of creative, after a demeaning season of writing coupons for his replacement Lou Avery (and a hurt, vengeful Peggy, who memorably served as his direct superior for most of 7A). He briefly struggled with a relapse of his ever-latent alcoholism, connected with the collapse of his bicoastal sham of a marriage – and a long struggle to rebuild his professional relationships after the infamous Hershey Pitch of Season 6. Don found his groove by the end of 7A, his creative zest sparked by the emotionally overwhelming moon landing of 1969, shown in the finale. This half-season humbled him greatly, and his Wild West iconoclasm of earlier seasons has given way to a practicality and a Dick-Whitman-like commitment to hard work. He now seems to fully support Peggy as the heir apparent to his crown, and in a show of maturity, agrees readily to a deal that will make SC&P a subsidiary of their long-hovering rival agency McCann.
  • Peggy spent a lot of 7A fighting Lou Avery’s poor leadership of the SC&P creative team. She’s now Copy Chief and thisclose to pushing out one of the Creative Directors – my money’s on Ted, considering that the half-season ended with Don convincing a very reluctant Ted to keep his job. Peggy also struggled with a lot of working-woman insecurities, exemplified by her attachment to her young neighbor Julio and her tearful admission to Don that her single, childless status makes her wonder “what she did wrong.” I’m not a huge fan of this trope with Peggy, but whatever. This is a recap. Peggy is otherwise starting Season 7B with sizeable power and confidence: she absolutely murdered the Burger Chef pitch, with a performance that evoked Don’s classic conference room magnetism. The show is beginning to figure out that Peggy’s journey towards finding her voice has less to do with the novelty of her female perspective in a male-dominated workplace, than with the fact that she’s simply a genius.
  • Roger took a bit of a backseat this season, offering his usual workplace wit without much growth or character development. He experimented with free love (it was 1969, after all) and spent a confusing, sad 24 hours with his lost daughter at a commune upstate. His most notable role was as office peacemaker, arranging for Don’s return to SC&P and eventually brokering the deal to join McCann and eliminate his rival partner Jim Cutler. Bert’s death hit him hard. It’s my belief that he and Joan will be endgame in 7B.
  • Joan continued to soar to new heights in her relatively new position as partner. She’s a little older and wiser and has largely outgrown the corporate missteps that plagued her after she sexed her way into the job (as evidenced by a quick scene in which she mistakes a financial expert’s proposition for a, well, proposition). She spares no love for Don, angered by his disregard for the consequences of his actions, which constantly “cost [her] money.” Thrillingly, Joan completely transitions out of her role as office manager towards the end of 7A, handing off the job and the awkwardly placed cubicle to Don’s secretary Dawn. She’s essentially the new Lane now. Personally, however, Joan’s starting to exhibit a hard edge and a panic in her romantic life – she turns down a desperate marriage proposal from her Gay BFF Bob Benson. In one of her most beautiful and vulnerable moments on the show, Joan declares: “I want love…and I’d rather die hoping that happens than make some kind of arrangement.” Seriously. Joan and Roger are endgame.
  • Pete spent most of 7A finding inappropriate places to sex up his smokin’ real-estate-agent girlfriend, a perk of his lucrative work as SC&P’s dedicated LA account man. He’s evolving into an ever-savvier, ever-seedier character: he now sports a deep tan, a growing bald spot, and a lascivious twinkle in his eye. In my opinion, Pete has experienced very few narrative missteps throughout the entire show – his evolution into a rich sad sack has been steady, sure, and blackly humorous.
  • Megan is (hopefully) beginning to be phased out of the main narrative, as of the conclusion of 7A. We left her at an uncertain moment in her acting career – not starving but not even close to famous – and she’s visibly hardened as a result of the slow but inevitable decline of her marriage to Don. A mechanical threesome involving her actress friend, and a jealous rebuff of Don’s niece Stephanie, were not nearly enough to salvage the wreck of romantic idealism that the two of them created. Megan is not a mystery anymore, nor is she a fantasy or a blank creative canvas. She’s a girl who’s had a very rude awakening, and has been left to muck through it alone in the Hollywood Hills.
  • Betty and Henry are useless. I’m sorry, but they are. It’s not really Mad Men‘s fault, when there are so many more interesting characters and places to be than Senator’s Manor. Betty is still a terrible mother, keeping the Season 5 weight off but plagued by food issues. Although she occasionally chafes at her role as Henry’s gorgeous Stepford political wife, she’s still as well-adjusted as we’ve ever seen her.
  • Sally has grown into a beautiful cipher, the mutant superhuman you’d expect when you combine two slightly sociopathic and very attractive parents. Her jaw-dropping teenage debut in 7A – all short skirts and cynical, morbid digs at her mother – was coupled with a welcome character evolution, separate from her relationship with Don. We spent a lot of time with Sally at boarding school and at home, getting some fascinating insights into the cultural and sociopolitical uncertainty that molded baby boomers (what Sally is destined to be). More and more, she has been presented as the embodiment of the passage of time, indicating that her role in 7B will be crucial and probably disturbing. She’s very much in the throes of darkness and budding sexuality.
  • SC&P players like Harry, Jim Cutler, and Ginsberg had a lot of great spotlights in 7A. The season saw the introduction of an office computer, a huge and humming behemoth that many employees interpreted as a harbinger of doom and the automated destruction of creativity. The computer drove all three men to distraction: Harry used it as leverage to change the face of SC&P’s media division; Cutler drove it as a wedge between himself and the rest of the partners; Ginsberg tipped over the edge with his latent mental illness and made the computer his enemy. Ginsberg’s descent into madness was frightening and poignant, concluding with him handcuffed to a hospital cot, being wheeled out of the workplace that fostered his talent and broke his spirit. At least he managed to coin “Free The Nipple” before his departure.

Moving forward…

So yeah, I’m pretty goddamn excited for 7B. There was so much going on in 7A, and yet it retained the tightness and emotional immediacy that had really made Mad Men great in the first place. The show has returned to its groove with a vengeance, and Matthew Weiner’s writing and direction has been reassuringly confident so far.

Can we expect lots of twists and turns in 7B? Methinks…yes and no. Based on old flame Midge’s very satisfying episode arc in Season 4, and Paul Kinsey’s surprising return (as a Hare Krishna monk!) in Season 5, I’d put my money on one or two more familiar faces showing up for Mad Men‘s swan song. Like I said, Mad Men is both a narrative and a meta-narrative, and the theme of sentimentality includes you and me as viewers. I almost don’t want to jinx the return of Sal Romano, but it’s a callback that I’m really hoping for and that would delight all of us, a small nod to the more buttoned-up and quietly poignant days of the show.

But Mad Men (to quote Paul Kinsey/T.S. Eliot) will end not with a bang, but a whimper. It’s a show that, for all its abrupt and disorienting time jumps, and philosophical flourishes, and weirdness – moves at the speed of life. The best things in life are free, and simple. Laughter. Sorrow. Love. Hate. And so on. Mad Men‘s legacy was transforming the soulless – the advertising industry – into the very vessel and medium of the soul.  It began as a stylish drama, but has evolved into a genre-less manifesto, a kind of microcosmic portrait on the modern condition. Season 7B will have things to say about capitalism, but it will also tell us about the feeling of watching ourselves decay. Mad Men is a snowglobe, and when we look into it, we see confused normal people who don’t know they’re beautiful, and crucial, and indelible. Whatever happens in Season 7B…we are going to feel it, and so much of it.

Starting tonight, let’s start living like there’s no tomorrow. Because there isn’t one.

Better Call Saul S1E2: “Mijo”

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“It’s showtime!”

Although I could’ve seen Saul as a half-hour show, the advantage of hour-long episodes is the sheer amount of storyline. “Mijo” is way more of a Breaking Bad comparison piece than “Uno” – we get lots of violent desert action, we get a long character-exposition montage, and most importantly, we get Tuco. But the key difference of the Saul experience is that we don’t have to jump from character to character. Everything that happens in this episode, happens solely to Jimmy McGill. I think for the viewer, that kind of focus is refreshing, and Bob Odenkirk is really carrying us all on his back.

Part II: “Mijo”

I didn’t enjoy “Mijo” quite as much as “Uno,” but I think that’s because I’m still kind of burned out on BB. I don’t think Tuco is compelling enough to revisit. For the first half of the episode, we spend a lot of time with the younger, less methy, equally insane version of him, and I kinda missed the ese I used to know. Raymond Cruz is a great actor, a very effective and fleshed-out villain, so it was interesting to see Tuco played a little gentler, a little heavier on the stupidity. Certainly I enjoyed watching him cower in front of his little abuelita.

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Enough harping. Can’t say I didn’t enjoy Tuco’s early scene with Jimmy, in which Jimmy tries to negotiate his way out of the abuelita’s house. Tuco gets what is possibly the best line of the episode: “Wow,” he rasps, after a 6-minute lawyerly diatribe. “You got a mouth on you.” No matter his issues, Tuco respects theatricality – and that’s something that apparently will never change.

Basically, for the first part of the episode, Saul gets to go on a vintage Walter White adventure. Tuco brings him and the two ne’er-do-well skateboarders out to the desert to exact justice. Everybody’s tied up and thrown in front of a sandy grave. At this point, we’ve got a few familiar faces – what’s up Gonzo and No-Doze! – as well as a new member of Albequerque’s meth underworld. Unfortunately, his name is Nacho.

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I think the overbearing and welcome-wearing-out presence of Tuco is very much mitigated by Nacho, who seems to be either his partner or colleague who’s a little higher up. Michael Mando is fantastic as the scene-stealing petty criminal Vic on Orphan Black, and he morphs nicely here into a calm, pragmatic mastermind.

I found the “Mijo” script a bit clunky (more on that later), but one scene that did stick out favorably. Mando, Cruz, and Odenkirk all got to shine in the hilariously dark and drawn-out desert sequence, in which Jimmy tries desperately to negotiate for his and his clients’ lives. What’s so notable about Jimmy McGill, pre-Saul, is his naive commitment to justice. He actually attempts to appeal to Tuco’s humane side by repeatedly telling the truth! This is such a far cry from the guy who “once convinced a woman I was Kevin Costner, and it worked because I believed it.” It’s only after Jimmy realizes he’s dealing with an unhinged ball of fury that he tries a last-ditch fib, which is identifying himself as an FBI agent. Couldn’t contain my snorts at “Special Agent Jeffrey Steele.”

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Jimmy’s performance in the desert scene is breathless, hilarious, and pure gold. Loved his passionate speech about the skateboarders’ mother and her sad life as a maid. Watching him parry with the moronic Tuco, asserting his professional wisdom while remaining subservient to a loose cannon with a gun, is a huge treat. This is so not the way Walt dealt with the same situation – in a lot of ways, it’s way better.

Jimmy: Ever hear of the code of Hammurabi? Let the punishment fit the crime. Eye for an eye.
Tuco: You want me to blind them.
Jimmy: No, no. All they did was trash talk.
Tuco: So I cut their tongues out!
Jimmy: Wait. See, I’m advising that you make the punishment fit the crime.
Tuco: Columbian neckties. I cut their throats, and then I pull their lying tongues through the slits!
Jimmy: Or you could sprain their ankles. They’re skateboarders, right? That that’s how they run their scam.
Tuco: I ain’t spraining nothing, bitch. I’m gonna break their arms, and I’m gonna break their legs.
Jimmy: Arms? When when When did we get on to arms? Let’s –
Tuco: I’m cutting their legs off.
Jimmy: We were talking about breaking. I think we’re heading in the wrong direction.

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And Jimmy’s actually successful! He manages to save everyone’s lives (the skateboarders escape with only one broken leg each) and kind of remains on a meth kingpin’s good side! His clients don’t quite see it that way, but getting sand-stomped by a crazy man will leave you bitter. “I just talked you down from a death sentence to six months probation,” Saul tells them. “I am the best lawyer ever.”

At this point, “Mijo” changes tone and transitions back into Jimmyworld. The experience with Tuco and Nacho has left Jimmy shaken and doubly determined to prove himself, inside and outside the courtroom. Even as he’s puking on a date (triggered by the shattering of a breadstick), Jimmy’s shining in front of every jury. Michelle MacLaren is one of the best TV directors ever, and she knows how to montage the shit of anything. The rapid progression of Jimmy’s defense speeches was cleverly edited, another highlight of the episode.

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It really is a lot of fun watching Jimmy come into his own. What’s fascinating about his current persona is that he exhibits a lot of Saul Goodman’s physical and verbal characteristics, but he’s using his powers for good. He doesn’t consider himself a deceptive or underhanded person, and certainly he sees his profession as something noble. We see that loud and clear when Jimmy’s approached later by Nacho, who thinks the two of them can pull off a heist with little risk. Jimmy rejects him, less out of fear than out of moral responsibility. “I’m not a criminal, I’m a lawyer,” he protests. It’s a line that Saul Goodman will pull out years later, but when Saul does it, it rings completely false. Jimmy actually believes it.

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It’s kind of bittersweet, since we all know how Jimmy’s gonna end up, but this is another reason I’m glad Better Call Saul exists. We knew Saul Goodman wasn’t evil, but calling him a bad man wasn’t a stretch. This guy Jimmy doesn’t have half of Saul’s powers, but he’s got a mouth on him, and he’s using it for good. That’s what she said.

We end the episode with another complicated coda – another insight into the relationship between the McGill brothers. At this point, it’s clear that Chuck is not only dying, but he also is likely a little bit OCD or schizophrenic. He has a fear of electricity and insists on wearing a space blanket. It’s this scene that caused my faith in the writing of “Mijo” to waver. The sheer number of times Jimmy repeats, “Take off the space blanket, Chuck” – it’s a repetitive, unfunny, and tonally strange scene that I guess is suppose to deepen the nuance of their brotherly bond. Obviously, Jimmy cares for his older brother and doesn’t like to see him mentally compromised. But I’d like for Michael McKean to have some better material, to elevate him from a sad burden kinda archetype.

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Although “Uno” was so much more successful for me than “Mijo,” I’m still wholly confident that Saul‘s off to a great start and has a lot of original, artistically viable, and narratively exciting tricks up his sleeve. There’s definitely enough elements here that aren’t BB fan service – Chuck and Nacho being chief among them – and I have faith in Gilligan and Gould that those elements will be used shrewdly.

And as always, the cinematography and production design is breathtaking. That’ll never change.

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Random addendums…

  • Mike is yet again shown onscreen, in a short but amazingly funny conflict with Jimmy. I like how they’re seeding him rather than introducing him with a one-two nostalgia punch.
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  • I still don’t buy that those kids are taking videos on their cell phones. This is 2002, remember?
  • Last night, I laid in bed thinking about whether they’re going to bring Jesse back in the present-day Saul timeline. It made me so excited and scared I had to take a melatonin.

Better Call Saul S1E1: “Uno”

Take a drive with me, buddy. Let’s go all the way back.

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Nostalgia is the watchword of Better Call Saul, a really intriguing piece of TV that’s currently tiptoeing into our homes in the too-large shoes of its big brother. Saul is a rewind, a retcon, a strange kinda memory. In this prequel, we get to spend all of our time with Breaking Bad‘s beloved comic relief: the slippery lawyer Saul Goodman, who was once Jimmy McGill. Watching Saul is like seeing your weird uncle in an old family photo, frozen in time and seeming so much more human. It’s also like a comic-book origin story – not about the superhero, but the sidekick.

Better Call Saul is an experiment. It has to be satisfying for Breaking Bad fans, but also stand on its own two feet. It’s got to fabricate an entire history starting in 2002, while remaining steady on a temporal track towards the events of BB, which begin in 2008. This is a really complicated and ambitious conceit for any spinoff, let alone a spinoff of a show with such deep cultural impact and hysterical audience loyalty.

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Based on the first of the two-part premiere – “Uno” – I think it’s all gonna work out just fine.

Part I: “Uno”

First and foremost, “Uno” was an aesthetic statement. This episode reminded me that creators/writers Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have vision. This episode was striking, both visually and narratively, with a bravely economical script.

You don’t need to look any further than the first quarter of the episode to see what I mean. For the first twenty minutes of the show, there is no dialogue. We open with a very long black-and-white flash-forward to Saul’s post-Breaking Bad existence as a Cinnabon store manager in Omaha*. He wears nondescript eyeglasses and a sad wiry mustache. He kneads dough and stares jumpily at his customers. It’s a colorless life, depicted in noirish high-contrast.

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At night, he drinks a strong, nonsensical cocktail (Dewars and lime juice?) and watches Saul Goodman’s old commercials. It’s a sad image paired with sad sounds: the first person who we hear speaking is effectively dead and exists only on a VHS tape. This is how the show begins: at the end. It’s almost practicing a reverse Breaking Bad: set the stage with tragedy, in order for the comedy to shine brighter.

Which it does.

“Oh, to be 19 again. You with me, ladies and gentlemen? Do you remember 19? Let me tell you. The juices are flowing, the red corpuscles are corpuscling. The grass is green, and it’s soft, and summer’s gonna last forever.”

Those are the first actual words spoken by our protagonist, Jimmy McGill, back in ’02 when Saul begins. He’s attempting to defend, with romantic poetry, three kids who fucked the head of a human cadaver. That’s how someone like Saul Goodman started out. And that makes perfect sense.

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It’s so cool to watch Bob Odenkirk work. He was so larger-than-life as Saul, but as Jimmy, he’s tentative and high-strung. The character hits many of the same neurotic, blustery, salesman-ish notes, but he hits them softer. He’s still trying on his shark suit. Jimmy doesn’t have a secretary – he’s got a fake British accent that he uses to schedule Mr. McGill’s appointments. He doesn’t rumble into his office parking lot in a white Cadillac DeVille – he parks on the street in an incredibly shitty Suzuki Esteem and works in a closet behind a nail salon*. Early on, we watch him try to win a client at a coffee shop, and his anxious face says it all as he watches the guy almost sign the dotted line. Jimmy McGill is a nobody, who’s in the beginning stages of building the persona of a somebody.

I really enjoyed the storyline involving Jimmy and two scam-artist skateboarder brothers, who he meets when they choose him as their mark. Their scheme is this: one guy videotapes while the other deliberately jumps in front of cars and artfully takes a hit. They then extort the driver. Great scene in which the brothers unsuccessfully try to shake Jimmy down:

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This plotline offers us our first small glimmer of Saul Goodman.

In the scammers, Jimmy sees an opportunity for the kind of hybrid criminal/legal partnership which will eventually become his bread and butter. He attempts to inspire his accomplices with a rambling autobiography, puffing himself up as a legal mastermind. He takes them on a drive to test their skill at remembering crime-scene details.* He’s making clients, fabricating advantageous situations out of nothing, which will eventually become Saul’s number one survival skill. It’s a fun way to introduce the methodology of the character, with his first small-time racket.

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I’m also really excited to learn so much more about Jimmy’s brother, Chuck McGill. Much of “Uno” focused on Jimmy’s efforts to force Chuck’s legal practice to buy him out, since Chuck’s dying of cancer. The two brothers live together in Jimmy’s squalid apartment, eating uncooked bacon from a watery cooler and having conversations by the light of portable lanterns. Chuck is played with great aplomb by the timeless Michael McKean, who effortlessly parries with Odenkirk (“That’s correct, minus the sarcasm”). We get some valuable insight into their relationship in their scenes together: Jimmy is protective of Chuck, but also seems a little jealous of his older brother’s success as a partner in a legitimate multi-million-dollar practice.

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Wonderful scenes at that business as well, in which Jimmy grandstands in front of Chuck’s partners. I plan to walk into every room shouting “YOU HAVE MEDDLED WITH THE PRIMAL FORCES OF NATURE, AND YOU! WILL! ATONE!” It is so Jimmy/Saul to quote Network and then feel the need to explain that he’s quoting Network. A tic right out of Michael Scott’s playbook.

Also have to mention the beautifully staged moment outside Chuck’s practice, in which Jimmy shares a cigarette with a woman who appears to be a sometime-girlfriend. The shot is dramatically lit and lingers long, allowing us to see subtle changes in the actors’ faces. Great cinematography, which is again unsurprising considering Better Call Saul‘s pedigree. This team has always been amazing at breathing life into bland industrial spaces.

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Anyway, back to the plot. “Uno” ends with a giant bang, as Saul follows his witless skater accomplices into a home that belongs to none other than TUCO SALAMANCA. Tight tight tight tight tight! As a BB fanatic, I was so excited to see Tuco, but we shall see in Part II how gimmicky his inclusion proves to be.

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Lastly, I just have to say that I’m so consistently impressed with this team’s commitment to authenticity when it comes to costuming, hairstyle, even the attractiveness of the extras. Everything about Saul screams early 2000s, and it really makes it easier to accept the show as a prequel when the actors have noticeably aged (I’m looking at you, Mike Ehrmantraut).

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A review of Part II: “Mijo” – up tomorrow!

Random addendums…

  • * I starred every Breaking Bad  nod (excluding Saul’s paycheck, which says he lives on Gale’s street: Juan Tabo). It is a running mental list I am compelled to keep.
  • Obsessed with the Back to the Future tribute, in which the skaters cling to the back of a pickup truck! Was this a reference to the 2015 premiere date? A meta wink to the time travel back to Saul’s beginnings? So brilliant.
  • Wondering if anyone caught Bryan Cranston’s charming Mad Men promo spot during the commercial break.
  • The title card was so very chintzy and analog:
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  • Seriously, that long introduction was so fucking beautiful. I’d almost like to see the whole series in black and white. It would be amazing to see a show someday that’s unafraid to embrace the B&W palette.
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The Transcendentl Queerness of “Yentl”

Tell me where –
Where is it written, what it is I’m meant to be?
That I can’t dare to have the chance to pick the fruit of every tree?
Or have my share of every sweet-imagined possibility?

Shalom, ignorant sluts! It’s my personal pleasure to bring you today’s forgotten Hebraic slice of pop culture history, a seminal moment for gentiles and chosens alike.

DID JEW KNOW: 31 years ago today, Barbra Joan Streisand became the first woman to receive a Golden Globe for Best Director. On top of that, Yentl (1983) made her the first woman in the history of motion pictures to produce, direct, write and perform a film’s title role. That’s how Babs rolls.

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Why should you care? That’s a great question, you uncultured swine. On this great day, I want to put a humble spotlight on Yentl, which is one of my favorite movies ever and a huge step forward in feminist filmmaking. Sure, I’m a Barbra obsessive, as is my inalienable right as a walking Jewish cliché. But if you’re interested in queer sexual politics and revisionist history – and especially if you like to sing about them – you must not miss this film.

First of all, it took more than a decade to get Yentl off the ground. Coming off the success of Funny Girl in 1968, Barbra gained the rights to the source material, a short story. “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy” is about a young village girl circa 1900 who yearns to become a Talmudic scholar. Yentl loves to learn and disdains women’s work and societal inferiority; as a result, she leaves home, lives as a man, and even takes a wife – all in order to study freely.

For fifteen years – fifteen! – various studios, directors, and even Barbra’s boyfriend discouraged the project, saying that B was too old and the concept “too ethnic.” She managed to secure the directorial seat and creative control from Orion Pictures in the late ’70s, who promptly cancelled the movie due to financial downturn. But she fought. Finally, she took the reins in 1982, shooting the picture in Czechoslovakia for six months and then recording the soundtrack, and finally paying $1.5 million from her salary in order to preserve the budget.

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Yentl was an incredibly long labor of love for Barbra. This was probably because Barbra was Yentl. The hero/heroine of this story is a weird-looking, uncategorizable person with a miraculous gift – Barbra had her voice, and Yentl had her mind. Barbra had built a career on redefining beauty, sticking her proud schnozz through closed doors, and here was a story about doing just that – and a Jewish story to boot. In a way, Yentl is a bit of an autobiography, a reflexive critique on the cultural significance of that voice, that face.

But things get more interesting when one considers the gender/sex politics of the film – and the fact that a lot of B’s detractors argued that she was too feminine to play a trans man. And Yentl was a trans man. The character’s transformation into the male student “Anshel” was only superficially about a change of clothing and a haircut.

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Both in the story and in the film, Yentl declares that she was born into the wrong gender. Such a realization carries a different import in this historical context; in Yentl’s world, qualities like ambition, high intellect, and argumentativeness were strictly masculine. Thus it’s the newly invented Anshel who becomes the true embodiment of Yentl’s authentic self. Barbra was quite faithful to most aspects of the source material, and her film does not shy away from these themes – onscreen, Yentl falls in love with a (male) fellow student, but ends up having to marry her crush’s intended wife in order to keep him close.

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This starts out as a shitty and confusing time for Yentl (who thinks she’s a genderless being in love with a straight man), but it ends up as kind of a revelation. Yentl’s trans-ness is unique in that she adopts male signifiers as a means to an end, but in her performance of maleness, she makes surprising discoveries about her own fluidity. As Anshel, Yentl falls into romantic and sort-of sexual love with the beautiful Hadass, and in turn attempts to “un-gender” her wife. The lines of sexuality and gender that divide these characters become blurry, as they struggle to perform their identities and reconcile their desires.

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I think this is all especially fascinating when you consider the effect that Barbra had on this story, both as a writer and performer. At its bare bones, Yentl is a musical romance, which is one of the most heterosexual and hegemonical and frankly diabolical approaches to pop love. And Barbra is too feminine to pass as male. Her inner monologues are sung in her familiar soprano, and they sound like a woman’s heart as it breaks and soars. On paper, this could easily be a comedy that plays on traditional male-female politics. The thing that really makes Yentl so extraordinary is the gravitas with which all of this comes together. This film is mostly a tragedy. Most spectacularly, it’s a tragedy with a happy ending, and the happy ending is this: Yentl ends up alone.

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This is a great time to mention Mulan (1998), as is any time in the history of times. In many ways, it’s the lighter kids-table version of Yentl – Fa Mulan looks like a man, but remains a steadfast heterosexual woman. Her love interest, Shang, only develops romantic feelings for her after her boobies are revealed in that tent on the mountain. You remember. But in Yentl, Mandy Patinkin’s character is horrified by the homoerotic tension between him and his bro. His sexual crisis is palpable, and it’s part of the reason that he and Yentl don’t work out as a couple in the end. He doesn’t want an Anshel; he doesn’t even want a Mulan.

As a man, as a woman, as a human, the character of Yentl can barely be contained in the boxes available. This is one of those rare movies in which the protagonist searches for love and self-actualization for two hours, and by the time the credits roll, they’re not even halfway there. In fact, even The Kiss is unattainable: the moment hovers, a breath away, then falters.

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All of this to say – Yentl could only ever be made by a woman filmmaker.

There’s a specific taste to this film, a persistent tone of yearning and introspectiveness and bubbling frustration that I find distinctly relatable. Women tend to “get” gender, sex, and selfhood more intuitively, because they’re forced to think about it all the time. It’s tough to put your finger on what makes women tick, particularly creatively, but Yentl sheds a lot of insight into the modern female psyche. Said Babs:

Yentl represents what I believe about life. The Jewish tradition – that love of learning and growing. Yentl starts off in a little village. She takes a path, she crosses the ocean to America. These symbols, mostly unconscious when I shot them, of a growing world, outside and also within one’s self, the opening up of possibilities, of growth…I feel so inarticulate about it because I realize looking at the film now, how many things were subconscious, you know?

What I find so cool about this movie it’s that it’s very tropey (see: musical romance) as it completely mutates familiar tropes. It’s also my belief that only Barbra could have made this film as effectively as she did, because she herself is a mutated trope. All her wrongnesses are somehow right together.

These are protestors who believe "BARBRA WAS ROBBED" of a 1983 Oscar nom. Their cause is just.

These are protestors who believe “BARBRA WAS ROBBED” of a 1983 Oscar nom. They stand for truth and justice and they are great at alliteration.

Now, Yentl is by no means perfect, but it’s close. As a product of the 1980s, its progressiveness is pretty groundbreaking. Without getting sentimentl (that title pun keeps on giving!) I also think it really stands the test of time. So if you haven’t seen, go ahead and light a candle in the dead of night and fire up that laptop. The forever-classic “Papa, Can You Hear Me?” might help you motivate, so I’ll go ahead and throw it in here.

P.S. Barbra Joan Streisand has also had a #1 album in every single decade for the past six decades.

P.P.S. That is insane.

P.P.P.S. I am insane.

A Dangerous Thing With Style

Here’s what I got out of 2014: being alive is enough.

If you’re lucky enough to breathe, you can want it, do it, eat it, write it, make it, kiss it, defeat it, be it. For the last 12 months, as the world fell down around us – from Ferguson to Robin to Cosby to Pakistan to beyond – I’ve felt an increasingly desperate and lusty need to live, so much better.

It’s true that I’ve produced less creative work. Like any other year, I kept up on culture and engaged with it obsessively, stalking the perimeters of social media from dawn to dusk and vulturing around art and gossip and pop philosophy. But I didn’t write about it as much, because I wasn’t as wanting inside. My drive to disappear inside a screen has sharply declined.  I can’t explain it, but something happened to me in 2014. I suppose I finally happened to me. I started to let myself talk without rehearsing my lines. I gave my heart to exactly who I wanted, when I wanted. I stopped deciding when it was and wasn’t acceptable to be alone. And it happened like THAT (I’m snapping). My brain chemistry just…turned over. Suddenly, being in my mid-20s and searching for a meaningful existence seems like the most brilliant thing to do with my time. And writing about movies and television was part of that; no longer a distraction but the sharpest tool at my disposal.

As an artist of any kind, it’s hard to live a whole year, and at the end, not be terrified that you didn’t make a mark??? It turns out that there are actually no answers to questions like that; questions of self-worth and creativity and identity. You just kind of get comfortable asking questions. You start to like being made up of questions. Who knows if, in 2015, I’ll end up in school, or writing like this for real money, or under a brand-new sky, or rolling over to someone I’d never expect to see in bed? There’s going to be some really amazing and really terrible films and television and music and pop phenomena this coming year. We are all so alive to see it and do something with it, about it.

Let me close this ramble with one of my favorite literary discoveries of this year, a poem called “Style.”

Style is the answer to everything.
A fresh way to approach a dull or dangerous thing.
To do a dull thing with style is preferable to doing a dangerous thing without style.
To do a dangerous thing with style, is what I call art.
Bullfighting can be an art.
Boxing can be an art.
Loving can be an art.
Opening a can of sardines can be an art.
Not many have style.
Not many can keep style.
I have seen dogs with more style than men.
Although not many dogs have style.
Cats have it with abundance.

When Hemingway put his brains to the wall with a shotgun, that was style.
For sometimes people give you style.
Joan of Arc had style.
John the Baptist.
Jesus.
Socrates.
Caesar.
García Lorca.
I have met men in jail with style.
I have met more men in jail with style than men out of jail.
Style is a difference, a way of doing, a way of being done.
Six herons standing quietly in a pool of water, or you, walking
out of the bathroom without seeing me.

– Charles Bukowski

A champagne toast to style, however you give it. What a fucking year it’s been. I can’t wait to see the other side of 2015.

Thank you so much for being part of my written and real life this year. Love to you all.

Come What May

“Madam President! The Moulin Rouge soundtrack! IT’S BEEN TAKEN OFF SPOTIFY. What are your orders?”

After a long moment, she turned around. A lighter sparked in the darkness, illuminating the hard lines of her face as she drew deeply on a cigarette. After several coughs and loud retching sounds, she spoke. “Fire at will.”

“F-Fire? But…Madam Pres-”

“I said fire.”

The corporal fell to his knees. “Please. Spotify will retaliate, madam!” he shouted at her retreating back. “They’ll delete Dreamgirls. West Side Story. Maybe even Newsies. They’ll all DIE.”

The President’s shapely silhouette paused in the doorway, her head upturned and proud. “The French are glad to die for love,” she whispered. Again the cigarette glowed, setting off another round of coughing. “Fuck,” she wheezed. “Fuck.”

Mike Nichols: The Invisible Director

RIP Mike Nichols, the Invisible Director.

His touch was so subtle that it’s hard to pin down what really makes a Mike Nichols movie (save the fact that they’re critically acclaimed – The Graduate, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Closer). His favorite genre seemed to be “people trying really hard to be the ideal versions of themselves.” He was content to let great writing and great performances shine without any bells and whistles. No need to promote the storyteller’s brand when the story was what mattered.

For me, The Birdcage is the best example of Nichols’ tender and practical eye. He centered his actors, let the camera rest at eye level, and let Robin Williams and Nathan Lane talk around love.

Mike Nichols – thanks for bringing real humanity to the big screen for nearly 50 years.

The Sopranos and Authorial Authority: Stop Believing

Have you heard? You were wrong about The Sopranos.

I had been talking with Chase for a few years when I finally asked him whether Tony [Soprano] was dead. We were in a tiny coffee shop, when, in the middle of a low-key chat about a writing problem I was having, I popped the question. Chase startled me by turning toward me and saying with sudden, explosive anger, “Why are we talking about this?” I answered, “I’m just curious.” And then, for whatever reason, he told me.

I don’t blame David Chase for this. I really don’t. It’s the critics and the fans that have pushed him to this, to revealing the “answer” behind the beautifully ambiguous ending to his beautifully ambigious masterpiece, The Sopranos. Which he did this morning, in a Vox interview. To my chagrin.

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For a showrunner or an author, the temptation to reveal The Master Headcanon can be too great to resist. (Once burned by Lost, never again, am I right?) These geniuses sucked in all of the millions, into their exquisite fictions, where their word is law. And the audience? We all want our shit solved. We want our stories tied up in a bow. J.K. Rowling had this oversharing problem, too, but she doesn’t see it as a problem (and she still doesn’t). Gay Dumbledore, indeed. When an Author-God makes a pronouncement outside the fictional universe, it’s like we’re unearthing the epilogue to the Bible.

In case you’ve been living under the biggest and heaviest rock of all time, here’s the final scene of The Sopranos. I’ve watched it probably hundreds of times, I’ve dissected it to death, I’ve read enough think pieces for a lifetime, and it still leaves me full of awe.

Before this morning, I shared a certain perspective with most of the audience: that Tony is dead. Cut short in a brief moment, in the middle of dinner, in the middle of a conversation, in the middle of his life…in the middle of his favorite song. The sudden cut to blackness and silence represented the abrupt emptiness of death in the face of a human life: both prosaic and so vivid, mundane and miraculous, until it’s just over. That’s not the only way to read the ending, but it was mine. What I found most artful about it was its audacity. It was final and decisive. And it managed to be inexplicable, too. Very fitting in the context of the series and its protagonist.

When he answered the “Did Tony die” question, he was laconic. He shook his head, “No.” And then, simply, “No, he isn’t.”

While this is very frustrating to have to read – why’d you even open your big mouth, Chase? – I actually find it easy to ignore. To rewind and tape over, mentally. Because even though Chase created Tony and his world, and the end times, none of it belongs to him anymore. I was there from Episode 1, night after night, and I was there during the final credits. So now, The Sopranos belongs to me.

As always, art must be consumed, or it’s not art. This story and these characters are not real unless I accept them and treat them as such. This ham sandwich is not “food” and it doesn’t “taste good” until I eat it. It’s not even really “a sandwich” until I eat it. Until I experience this sandwich, it’s a useless exercise in bread slicing and mustard spreading. Tony and his life and death are what I decide to experience while I watch David Chase’s show. And I decided long ago to experience death.

Even David Chase supports me on this, oddly enough. The greatest TV reviewer of all time, Alan Sepinwall, wrote a book called “The Revolution Was Televised,” and he also asked Chase about the scene:

“It just seemed right,” he suggests. “You go on instinct. I don’t know. As an artist, are you supposed to know every reason for every brush stroke? Do you have to know the reason behind every little tiny thing? It’s not a science; it’s an art. It comes from your emotions, from your unconscious, from your subconscious. I try not to argue with it too much. I mean, I do: I have a huge editor in my head who’s always making me miserable. But sometimes, I try to let my unconscious act out. So why did I do it that way? I thought everyone would feel it. That even if they couldn’t say what it meant, that they would feel it.”

So I reserve the right to feel it as I feel like feeling it. A little capricola, a little provolone. Delicious ingredients that we all get to taste differently. And so it goes, on and on and on and on.