The idea is to get better

Justified’s finale featured a rare “shocking” twist that involved neither a character revelation nor a body count. Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens is finally staring down his nemesis, Boyd Crowder, in the gunslinger duel the show had been building to (and viewers had been expecting) for six seasons. He kicks a gun over to Boyd to allow for a fair fight, but Boyd refuses to pick it up. “If you want to kill me, you’re going to have to do it in cold blood,” Boyd pronounces. It’s a tense, weighted face-off between two men who have always lived parallel lives on opposite sides of the line between lawman and outlaw. One smash cut later, Boyd is being hauled off in handcuffs under the letter of the law.

The time jump initially feels like a cheat, robbing viewers of release and resolution — but that exchange is honestly about as definitive of a climax as Justified can offer. Think back to the show’s opening scene, where Raylan saunters into a crowded Miami restaurant and reminds a local mobster of an ultimatum that is about to expire: get out of town in 24 hours, or die. The mobster is incredulous that anyone would follow such outdated cowboy logic, but Raylan calmly and violently sticks to his word. Five years later, that scene, which set the stage for Raylan’s purgatory in Kentucky, feels like it came from a different show. Cable television history is filled with anti-heroes who start a show as despicable and either remain that way or turn into the skid, but Raylan Givens is a surprising rarity: an anti-hero who becomes, if not necessarily a hero, a genuinely better person. This is also true of the Western genre in general, filled with strong, stoic gunslingers who represent a mythos but never exhibit true growth. Raylan’s decision to take Boyd alive is rooted in six seasons of character growth, a gunslinger caricature who grew an inner life.
Read more

It’s about time: The emotional whiplash of ‘Whiplash’

Everyone seems in agreement that Whiplash, Damien Chazelle’s two-hander about the rivalry between aspiring jazz drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) and his psychologically abusive conservatory instructor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), is a brilliantly crafted, beautifully shot musical thriller. But morally, the film is shaping up to be this year’s equivalent of Zero Dark Thirty or Wolf of Wall Street (albeit in the form of a smaller, much more personal film), with discussion centered on the question: How much is the viewer meant to endorse what’s taking place onscreen? Does Whiplash write off its own brutality in the end as a necessary evil on the road to greatness? And for all of Fletcher’s posturing about what makes a great jazz musician, is Whiplash a great jazz movie?

Richard Brody of the New Yorker takes issue with what he sees as the film’s superficial take on the genre, emphasizing soulless technical mastery over the more abstract qualities that define true inspiration. Andrew’s musical idol is Buddy Rich, a figure jazz aficionados consider more of personality than someone to take seriously. Fletcher repeatedly cites a story where Charlie Parker played so poorly that Jo Jones nearly decapitated him with an errant cymbal — something that never actually happened, but it conveniently fits into Fletcher’s grander model. This facile understanding of jazz is in service of a flawed outlook on how great jazz is made, argues Brody, who dubs Whiplash “a work of petty didacticism that shows off petty mastery.”

I don’t buy this at all. Whiplash, to me, is not an argument that the price of greatness is one’s humanity and a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. Rather, I see it as the latest in a recent spate of films (Monsters University, We Are the Best!, Jodorowsky’s Dune) bearing the mark of the deepening social scars of the global economic recession. These films all argue on some level (Monsters’ underachieving collegiate frighteners, Best’s scrappy girl-punkers late to a dying movement, Jodorowsky’s general thesis that the collapse of its titular film led to the birth of even greater art) that failure, or merely the lack of absolute success, is sometimes a perfectly viable option. But Whiplash is the first film of this type that I’ve seen that argues that not only is it OK to be Second Best, but sometimes the ambition that fuels The Best! is so toxic that it can, and does, infect other human beings like a virus.
Read more

Two #3: David Byrne & St. Vincent, ‘Weekend in the Dust’

‘Weekend in the Dust’

Track 2 on

Love This Giant (2012)

The sudden pairing of Talking Heads’ enigmatic, stiff-limbed silver fox David Byrne with equally enigmatic indie-rock diva St. Vincent for a collaborative album and tour caused me to raise an eyebrow at first. Granted, this was in the wake of Lou Reed and Metallica’s disastrous Lulu, which put a black mark on both the end of Reed’s career and the entire concept of rock and roll collaborations. And the more I thought about the pairing, the more it made sense — both Byrne and St. Vincent come off like permanent alien residents in human society, using the form of popular music as a couch for their own unique, arm’s-length observations of the world around them. Byrne once famously flipped anxiety about death into anxiety about the afterlife, describing heaven as a place where “nothing ever happens,” while St. Vincent’s “Cruel” deconstructs the societal pressures placed on women to their barest skeleton (“Bodies, can’t you see what everybody wants from you? / If you could want that, too, then you’ll be happy”).

Despite this, Love This Giant was released to somewhat mixed reviews, with reviewers positing that the album felt less collaborative and more like Byrne molding St. Vincent’s music in his own vision. While the album is drowned in the sort of brassy, percussive world beat that has become a trademark of Byrne’s solo career, I disagree with this sentiment and feel that this is an issue of sequencing. The album’s opening track and single, “Who,” isn’t a bad song by any means, but it leaps between the two vocalists in a stilted and inorganic fashion, coming off like a Byrne B-side with St. Vincent surgically grafted in after the fact. It feels like a song designed to show off the novelty of this unusual pairing, but it doesn’t stand up very well as its own piece of songwriting.

This is where track 2 comes in to save the day. From the first moments, “Weekend in the Dust” feels like a true collaborative effort — the dense brass arrangement of pulsating trumpets, tubas and trombones is par for the course for a Byrne project, but St. Vincent’s vocals are much more tightly integrated into the rhythm, practically serving as percussion in their own right. The lyrics were clearly her doing, impressionistically describing lovers whose relationship is now devoid of mystery, all that was once alluring and intriguing having settled into dust. But most importantly of all, where “Who” stops, starts, and sputters, “Weekend in the Dust” grooves, delivering on the promise of mashing together two talents as bizarrely, awkwardly compatible as this pair. It’s the point where Love This Giant springs to life, and the remaining songs benefit from the adrenaline.

There’s something impressively cyclical about the working relationship between Byrne and St. Vincent on this album. It’s tempting to call St. Vincent the disciple to Byrne’s guru, especially since she seems to have inherited his gray hair as of lately, but that unfairly implies that she’s the only one who has something to learn. Byrne’s lyrical approach on his solo work has always verged on the unbearably precious, so it’s wonderful to see him working with an artist who paints in broader, more subtle strokes. It’s like how Janelle Monae takes clear musical inspiration from Prince, but leaves out the sexism, shows regard for the accomplishments of other humans, and releases an album only when she’s stockpiled enough quality material. But that’s another entry. Love This Giant is one of my favorite albums of 2012, and if you were turned off by “Who” (but turned on by its sexy video), I urge you to listen to the whole shebang. Once “Weekend in the Dust” kicks into gear, the journey it charts through the rest of the album is truly wonderous.

Live long and be careful out there

I’ve only just now started the third season of Hill Street Blues, Steven Bochco’s influential, foundational police drama, but there’s already a lot to like. I love the wandering roll call monologues of Sgt. Phil Esterhaus (Michael Conrad), delivered in a stately murmur amid the sleepy morning bustle of the Hill Street precinct. I love Joe Spano’s humble performance as the nebbish Det. Sgt. Henry Goldblume, eternally bucktoothed, eternally bowtied. I love that there isn’t a mandate for gritty urban realism under every corner, which means an episode where the hawkish Lt. Howard Hunter (James B. Sikking) proposes a solution to slum violence by commissioning a $6 million armored combat vehicle — which is then stripped for parts and dumped into the harbor after he leaves the keys in the ignition. But no character is more fascinating to me than the center of the action, precinct Capt. Frank Furillo, and here’s why: He’s a Star Trek captain in cop’s clothing.

Granted, the only people exploring any strange new worlds on Hill Street Blues are the viewers; though the series’ exteriors were filmed primarily in Chicago, the creators opted to let the show’s location remain ambiguous. In that sense, Furillo (Daniel J. Travanti) is at the bridge of the precinct’s peacekeeping mission, calling the shots but also serving as your point of contact, your experienced elder, there to orient you and help you feel welcome. Even more importantly, he talks like a Trek captain, bringing to mind the measured, theatrical diction of Deep Space Nine’s Capt. Benjamin Sisko, capable of exploding into righteous rage at a moment’s notice. He’s got the friendly swagger of Kirk, the respect-commanding, dignified aura of Picard, and Janeway’s steely ability to dress down errant crewmembers with equal parts disappointment and understanding. And who is Sgt. Esterhaus if not his Mr. Spock?
Read more

Two #2 – ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic – ‘Hardware Store’

The release of Mandatory Fun marked the moment when “Weird Al” Yankovic finally cashed in on two generations’ worth of goodwill and nostalgia and took over the Internet, unleashing eight music videos in eight days, all of which went viral. Al’s innovative business model has already been dissected ninety times over, but what I found interesting and awesome is that he devoted a full half of this music video real estate to his original material. As he damn well should have! It’s a poorly kept secret that Weird Al’s parodies are what sell his albums, but the original songs are the real reason to listen to them, and his reigning achievement is 2003’s “Hardware Store.”

‘Hardware Store’

Track 2 on

Poodle Hat (2003)

Granted, Yankovic’s originals are often “originals” in name only, usually serving as thinly veiled “style parodies” of existing bands. “Dog Eat Dog” from 1986’s Polka Party! celebrates the minutiae of life in a cubicle in the style of Talking Heads, right down to directly lifting its bridge from “Once in a Lifetime,” and “Mission Statement” from his new album is so close to Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” that it’s practically a cover. “Hardware Store” is unique in this regard, and I think the purest example of a Weird Al original — not only is this a piece of songwriting wholly of his brain, I can’t even tell you what genre (beyond “novelty”) it belongs to.

For some reason, Weird Al has revisited the topic of handymen several times over the years without providing much variation on the subject matter. He recently transformed Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” into “Handy” — itself nearly identical to 1992’s “The Plumbing Song,” a mash-up of Milli Vanilli’s “Baby Don’t Forget My Number” (“Baby Don’t Forget My Plumber”) and “Blame It on the Rain” (“Blame It on the Drain”). The Rembrandts’ “I’ll Be There for You” became “I’ll Repair for You” as a concert-only song, the ubiquitous Friends theme rebranded with the subtitle “Theme from Home Improvement.” All of these songs are pretty much exactly the same: a boastful battle rhyme about Al’s prowess with tools, and though “Fancy” is still in the zeitgeist, none of them have the makings of a classic.
Read more