Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Candide Camera

Last night we watched all eight episodes of the second season of The Comeback in a row.  It was worth it.  The last couple episodes, prior to the finale this past Sunday, felt to me as if Valerie had jumped the shark, into a territory close to a John Cassavetes movie spliced with a very special episode of Facts of Life.  The parking-lot meltdown between Valerie and Marky Mark went on way too long and brought up issues that didn't seem dramatically and thematically earned.  Also Mickey's illness was becoming a little too much of a standing joke, something to tap into when scenes seemed to be going South.  
But then Sunday that beautiful finale happened. 
When Valerie decided to leave the Emmy's to go to Mickey in the hospital, The Comeback transcended its own apparatus, and that necessary break from the reality-camera-crew trope allowed me to mentally revamp what the show is and means and has accomplished.  I mean I've loved Valerie and her big bag of bull-shit since the beginning, but those eight shows in a row last night really seemed to illuminate the fact that Lisa Kudrow has created in Valerie a character that transcends her medium:  Valerie is beyond cool, beyond satire, beyond dramedy, beyond HBO.  She's the female equivalent of Voltaire's Candide.     
Bam.  Chew on that.
Published in 1759, Candide is a picaresque, sardonic novel about a guy named Candide, a naïve, good-hearted young man who through the course of the plot discovers that optimism in the face of horrible tragedy doesn't really work; in fact it makes things a lot worse.  Voltaire's triumphant satirical skills are effusive and hilarious, and yet there's a sadness under-girding the whole enterprise.  We don't really want Candide to lose the part of himself that allows him to stay hopeful, and yet the whole novel's purpose is to critique and complicate "hopefulness" in an effort to get a more actual and verifiable and truthful "truth."  Candide witnesses debauchery, earthquakes, and other horrors, on his way to an education that becomes more about understanding the world (and himself) than about how wonderful the world is. 
Like Candide, Valerie is naïve and good-hearted and kind of stupid, always on the lookout for her own redemption, which for most of the series comes in the form of fame and notoriety.  Her optimism stems from her need to be successful, and she spins every humiliating encounter and failure into a "lesson" or in many cases an outright lie just so she can feel better about her situation, and the world she's living in.  She is steadfast in her belief she is going to make it, to the point that "making it" loses all meaning.  But in the second season of the show, she actually does "make it," and she wins an Emmy for portraying herself as a dragon-mother-monster (as written by Paulie G, her nemesis/catalyst).  Then that win becomes meaningless in the face of tragedy (Mickey rushed to the hospital, as well as Marky Mark leaving her for the Palisades).  She rebukes all that self-indulgent optimism, that false hope of fame/awards/ass-kissing, in order to figure out what life means.  
So all my internal bellyaching about shark-jumping melted in the face of that pivot the show made in the finale, when Valerie says goodbye to Jane and Billy and the whole Emmy Awards audience, and joins the land of the not-real-but-real.  She breaks the fourth wall at that moment, and the show loses its reality-show machinations for the last ten minutes or so.  We see Valerie somehow resplendent even in a soggy evening gown, even in a hospital room with her flamboyantly gay and morally superior hairdresser...  She becomes a real person once she is no longer a real person. She gets her husband and her groove back. 
The satire in The Comeback, like the satire in Candide, is mean-spirited enough to do damage and yet sophisticated enough to heal.  That sensibility is nowhere else in television or movies.  I miss it already.

Saturday, December 20, 2014


Bennett Miller's Foxcatcher is a true-crime fairy-tale that is all over the map tonally.  It does a strange dance across that map, moving from balletic/animal-grunting/brother-bonding/wrestling homage to chilly thriller about the frozen inarticulate seas between certain classes of men to a homoerotic plunge into lalaland to finally an examination of a love triangle that has no geometry to it, just a sort of lonesome collection of angles and points that end up cutting everyone into pieces.  Chiefly it's about Mark Schultz, a 1984 Olympic-gold-winning wrestler whose brother, David, coaches him; John Du Pont, a rich crazy freak in the mold of Mr. Burns, contacts Mark to become his mentor in 1987, and eventually both David and Mark get caught up in Du Pont's fever-dream of self-delusion.   
At the start of Foxcatcher, Mark is giving a speech in front of some bored middle-schoolers, after which he receives a twenty-buck check written by the school secretary.  The whole enterprise feels totally sad .  After he cashes his check he goes home to his lonely apartment, eats Ramen noodles with hot sauce, and stares into space.  Mark is played by Channing Tatum, and it's Tatum's movie from start to finish.  The broody wordlessness that Miller turns into mood and scenes is overseen by Tatum's muscular, stony sorrowfulness that can't be exorcised outside of a wrestling match, outside of grueling training.  At times, Mark becomes so frustrated he starts hitting himself, punching his cheeks and forehead out of sheer frustration, and Tatum accomplishes these scenes without losing a sense of innocent abandon, a sort of ecstatic freedom born of self-flagellation, as if all he were meant to do on earth is beat himself to a pulp.  Tatum is definitely a movie star here:  he carries this movie through sheer commitment to a seemingly one-note part that cracks open into a world of heartache and isolation.  There's no redemption, just performance.
Speaking of which:  presenting Steve Carell as John Du Pont.  Carell's performance is helped along with a prosthetic nose and a pallid makeover that gives him a grim and yet almost glossy countenance.  He's like a monastic wicked witch, but also there's something of a lost and totally sad little boy uncurling constantly in his glassy eyes.  Carell does comic work here that can only be funny in this way because it's ensconced in tragedy.  His Du Pont slinks into the wrestling gym like a Will-Ferrell SNL character (remember that pretentious professor in the hot tub?), all glorious self-involvement and awkward arrogance, but also Carell, like the movie, lurches between caricature and total precision, and by the time the movie is through you don't necessarily understand why he does what he does, but you believe it all.  The laughter is part of the whole she-bang.  I put a picture of the actual Du Pont up top, and there you go:  he's Nosferatu getting arrested, right?  That's the gig here, a look into the sordid machinations of a super-rich mofo who seemed torn between sexual jealousy and sexual repression, aching for friendship, yearning for more, and yet unable to connect with anyone outside of his own implied social power structure.  Carell's best scene in the movie occurs when he tries to put on a big show in front of his ailing mother in her wheelchair (played with icy regal grandeur by Vanessa Redgrave):  all the wrestler he's bankrolling are ordered to sit on the floor while he stands above them awkwardly pontificating.  In the middle of his speech, his mother quietly orders her accompanying nurse to wheel her out of the room, obviously disgusted with her son's inability to do what he thinks he's doing.  He looks on with both frustration and surrender.  He owns the plantation after all, and when things don't go his way he seems to feel he has the right to kill what he considers his property.
The property he kills is Mark Ruffalo's David, Mark's older more attuned brother, who moves to Du Pont's Foxcatcher compound to coach the team (including his brother) Du Pont takes to the Olympics.  Ruffalo is  the normative hypotenuse of the triangle.  He's not the apple of Du Pont's eye; he's a tool Du Pont is trying to use to torture Mark psychologically, bringing him into the fold in order to solidify their relationship.  Ruffalo's brotherliness and kindness are so needed in this thing, and he accomplishes it all effortlessly, to the point you wonder why it all has to end the way it ends, with a totally banal shooting in front of a snowy little house.
The movie is all about a sort of glittering banality.  It takes true-crime into a dreamy world of fixation and realism.  It's probably one of the most precise evocations of the late 80s I've ever seen on screen, and not because it tries to evoke nostalgia as much as capture a mood of soft-lit devastation and fuzzy TV light and gaudy riches, all of it rolled into a hellish episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. You leave this movie not edified or fulfilled.  It's more like you're waking up from some beautiful, horrible nightmare closer to real life than nightmares should ever be.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

School Daze

Tuesday this week I got to visit some public schools in Hamilton, Ohio as a part of this Chamber of Commerce Leadership Training thing I'm in, and it was inspiring in a way I didn't think it would be.  I'm in this class with business leaders and non-profits leaders and sometimes I feel a little out of my element, but still there's a feeling among all of us I think that we just want to see how things work, and what their worth is. 
What truly touched me, though, was visiting this small elementary school out in a residential neighborhood in the middle of nowhere.  The principal there was hyper-cordial and super-excited in a way that didn't feel phony, and as we walked in the little kids there sang Christmas songs and they gave us hot chocolate.  It sounds corny as hell I know, but somehow it wasn't.  And as I got the lowdown on what the school is about, it made me think that the principal was truly curating the school's activities and identity and mission, as opposed to just running a school.  She seemed focused on making sure the kids that go to the school, and their parents, have as many opportunities as possible to explore what learning is, and also what life is.  They have taken the back few acres behind the school and transformed them into an "outdoor classroom," replete with log-stools and open-air nature-viewing areas.  They have a backwall of windows that the kids use for bird-watching, and have connected that ornithological exercise with some scientists via the Internet so that what they are accomplishing is more data collection that just plain old in-school activity.  We visited an art class filled with first-graders who had drawn crazy-looking monsters, and those drawings had been transformed into three-dimensional ceramic monster-dolls by some local high school kids, and some fourth and fifth grader were now assisting the first graders to write stories about their monsters, all culminating in an art-show at the local arts center next year.  We went into a math classroom where they were playing a gameshow based on learning percentages, a big wall-screen filled with phosphorescent gameshow graphics framing long rows of numbers.  Lots of sound effects and giggling and the kids totally in it to win it.  There was a sweet energy in the air, and even though it was partially because they were doing a dog-and-pony routine for the Chamber of Commerce Leadership thing I totally felt like this was just a day in the life, and that all the teachers and administrators and helpers and kids were doing what they wanted to do, only heightened because of being able to show off.
At the end, all of us were given gifts.  Mine is above, a red ceramic bowl I just took some photos of.  It's an object that really is a sort of icon, symbolizing something deep and simple.  It's beautiful because it comes from a really good place, that little school with its backyard woods and gameshow math classes and first-grade magic-marker monsters.  And I'm thinking maybe that school is more of an art gallery or art museum than most galleries and museums that try so hard to be galleries and museums.  The function of that school feeds the style and form; the energy comes from the art being used to make something better happen, and that sense of hope makes that little red ceramic bowl kind of glow.  It's a flower, it's a toad-stool, it's a monster's brain.  It's handmade and shiny, virtually nonexistent and yet purely what it is.  A lot of artists reach for that when they make their stuff, but can't find it because they want to conjure instead of produce, want to make something fine when they should just make something feasible and there.  That's where my heart is, I guess, when I look at art now:  I'm always trying to find that silly little red bowl in paintings and sculptures and performances and drawings...  That is the center of the universe somehow, something given to a stranger without knowing where it will go, all good intentions, no secondary need for attribution or even acknowledgment.  It hardly ever happens, me finding that moment, that purity, that whatever.  I saw it last year at the Mike Kelley retrospective in New York City.  I see it sometimes in the works we show at Thunder-Sky, Inc. and the shows at Visionaries + Voices.  But it's totally best when it just comes out of nowhere, not a surprise as much as a reprieve.
Back in 1961, one of my favorite artists, Claes Oldenburg, wrote a manifesto called "I Am for an Art..."  Here's part of its beginning mantra:

I am for an art that grows up not knowing it is art at all, an art given the chance of having a starting point of zero.
I am for an art that embroils itself with the everyday crap and still comes out on top.
I am for an art that imitates the human....
I am for all art that takes its form from the lines of life itself, that twists and extends and accumulates, and is heavy and coarse and blunt and sweet and stupid as life itself.

That's a great description of what I felt at that little school on Tuesday, that sense that art happens in the most secret and mundane places and we don't have to see it for it to exist.  We just have to recognize it when we have the honor and opportunity, and then move on. 

Friday, December 12, 2014

Just Wanted You to Know

We got off I-75 at Corbin, Kentucky, and right there is David's Steakhouse and Buffet.  Neon "choice steaks," a long brick ranch-style, a comfort.  As soon as you go in, they say howdy and it's not forced.  It feels like they really want you to be there, like church except less creepy because it's not church.  And you get your tray and they ask you what drink you want, and that smell of steakhouse-buffet, pleasant mix of dishroom bleach-water cutting through gravy vapors, fried-food phantom exhaust and spice-cake lit with 100-watt bulbs.  It's dark and homey in here, back-window glimmer and fluorescence combining into nursing-home kindness.  The buffet spans out like the control-panel in a great big spaceship except overflowing with country food, and protected by multiple sneeze-shields.  It's heartening.  It does not hurt to be here.  Everyone is like me, except they wear a lot of camouflage and say grace before they eat.  A gentleman-manager asks what drinks we'd like.  I say Diet Pepsi, and he offers up, "We have Diet Mountain Dew now too.  Just wanted you to know."
We pay the teenaged boy running the register.
We find out seats in the back area, with a big wall-installed TV showing a football game.  Kiwanis and Little League plagues all over the walls.  Paneling and beat-down carpet and chunky wooden tables with steak-sauce bottles and napkins.  A couple waitresses over on the other side of the room rolling silverware and talking about the snow. 
I go and get what I want:
  • Meatloaf covered in catsup and tasting like what I used to eat back when food was like this, totally simple and tasting like food, so stupid and simple it makes you want to cry, like you are eating a part of a couch from your childhood, like you are eating a day in your own past life, like you are finding a way to remember something that doesn't need to be remembered and yet comes through so loud and clear it makes you want to cry.
  • Baked chicken with the skin still on, soggy, just the kind of soggy necessary to make you feel alone with it.  Baked chicken sort of greasy but clean tasting, fleshy and stringy and hot, and there's a non-sauce to it, what has baked off in the pan, that tastes like Campbell's Chicken Noodle soup, that smell of being sick and eating even though you are sick,  total comfort in the face of all that's wrong, and you not knowing where you are going to be or go.
  • Fried okra from a deep-fryer, that taste of dirty grease somehow a delicacy now, here, but still reminiscent of restaurant work in the South, what's left on a buffet when you close.  Slimy sort of once you get past the breading, but still a taste of summer in there, bland and green and boring and yet again here I am enjoying it beyond enjoyment, close to those tears.  Nobody is sitting near us.  We eat like a little ceremony, like we've rehearsed eating this way.  Plate after plate, beautiful robot-hillbillies. 
  • Greens cooked to the point of not being green, splashed with vinegar:  that's what I wanted right away, this.  Mossy, gamy, gorgeous green, watery, vinegary, like mown grass transformed into a taste you always taste when you feel homesick, or at least when you feel like you need a place to hide. 
  • Cooked carrots, boiled to their banal essence, cooked into contentment.  They taste like you're eating a sentence you said in 1979, when you wanted not to talk but somebody made you.  Orange, grainy, disappearing across your tongue.
  • Banana pudding.  Like a prayer in a Baptist church.  Like amnesia with banana flavoring.  Vanilla wafers are so lovely, symbols of loneliness in a small town,
That's all I got.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

In Space No One Can Hear You Scream

Something about Interstellar and East Tennessee, about time crushing into time the way a Faulkner novel collapses in on itself, Faulkner in outer space, As I Lay Dying staged on the 2001:  A Space Odyssey set. 
It was daylight when we went into the Cineplex in Johnson City, Tennessee the day after Thanksgiving 2014.  It was pitch-black when the movie was over and we stumbled out from a spaceship's hull into a dark mall parking lot.  And all that feeling around finding yourself trapped inside a moment you don't understand, kind of blissful and kind of not.  It was just a pretentious big-budget movie anyway.  But outside and inside of all the wormhole gobbledygook in it is an emotional strangeness, a wistful sense of what you can never figure out even if you have a big slate wall and lots and lots of chalk. Time itself is the main villain, sweeping and gutting meaning, seducing people into believing they can escape themselves while also swallowing them whole. 
That's the whole situation here.  My East Tennessee roots are pretty messed up, especially the relatives who did not escape.  They live in backwoods trailers and sad dilapidated suburban homes, and they either work crappy jobs or figure out ways to get on disability.  Some of them have kids they don't take responsibility for; some of them are strung out on oxycodone.   Some of them take responsibility for everything and look haunted.  Some of them are morbidly obese.  I think a few of them might be making meth.  I think a few of them still go to church, still go through the motions.  Those are my relatives.  It sounds like I'm a horrible judgmental person, which I probably am, but that's the truth when you pull away all the niceties, and every time I go I try not to see them even though that's what I'm there to do. 
Those mountains are so beautiful and yet so encoded with secrets you just try to not see them.  You go to the Dollar General any time you have a chance just to get out of it for a while.  You get a motel room a half hour away just so you can have a place to go to when you can't take it anymore.  I know that sounds awful.  But I was there before.  I witnessed all these sad sunken people through a kid's eyes 30, 35, 40 years back.  I followed them through to what they are and what they aren't now (and what I am and what I'm not now too), and the "then" wins because it has a sort of insulated hopefulness, a sense that we will all be immune, even when you know it's all going to hell.  At least there's time to take the pain through, to help tell the story, back then.  The story is now finished however, or at least close.  It has devolved to nothing, into dark-night mountain roads without any streetlights, into a Golden-Corral Thanksgiving so dreamy and claustrophobic it was like being on a boat of refugees, into a meanness inside a tree that you can't get at but know is there, into a sallow, gaunt face inside a trailer window. 
One story that sticks with me from this last trip:  one of them was arrested last year when she was riding in a truck with her five-year-old son and her 65-year-old boyfriend, and the boyfriend was drunk-driving.  Turns out she was drunk and high too, and the kid was only wearing short-pants in the back of the truck.  It was like 30 degrees.  It all got into the paper.  She got arrested.  Her kid was taken away.  He's back with her now.
And then that movie with all those arctic mountains, frozen clouds, pristine spaceships, glowing rings around Saturn, boxy robots and blighted cornfields.  That pounding organ soundtrack, the seriousness filling your head with an artificial urgency you often crave in real life.  All of it perfectly executed.   Time is suspended.  Someone else is in control of what you see.  You witness the world without the world in it.  You go in when its daylight and come out to night.  The alchemy happens but then dissolves, and you know who you are again, but still there's a manic/magic little interregnum, moments before you make it to the car in the parking lot, when that darkness maybe isn't darkness, but made up, and maybe everything is made up, and then you're back where you are, wanting not to be there, and yet that's kind of life itself.  
My sister, who didn't want to be here either, took my mom Christmas shopping while Bill and I and my sister's husband snuck away to see Interstellar. Mom and my sister were waiting in the dark outside the Cineplex in my sister's car.  We had planned to go out to dinner with mom and her husband but he got sick at work and went home early.  Mom, Bill, my sister, her husband, and I went to Longhorn Steakhouse closer to where she lives.  We ate there, and then once back at her little house (the right side of a duplex) out in the middle of a mountain road, the snowy, muddy outside of it surrounded in the lawn ornaments she likes to buy and display, she gave us our Christmas gifts:  a wallet, a set of holiday candles.  And my sister's husband put together a lamp my sister got my mom during their shopping spree, a floor-lamp with glossy amber glass shades.  Bill and I found out they didn't have light bulbs, so we offered to go buy some at Dollar General.  My mom's husband, who is real big, was in his bedroom, still feeling sick.  He was in bed, watching a little TV in there; you could almost feel his exhaustion like you feel heat through a register.  We drove those dark mountain roads back to civilization and got light-bulbs at Dollar General, a boxy small over-lighted place filled with snack-cakes and coat hangers and toilet paper and magazines and chewing gum and rubber-bands and little girl dresses and furniture polish and mittens and socks and furnace filters and steak sauce and so on so forth.  People milled in and out buying stuff.  It was cold and spitting snow.  Once we got the light-bulbs we went back to my mom's place and for a second I felt like this might be the best visit we've ever had because I was able to avoid everyone but mom and her husband.  And I was able somehow to make sense of everything because I did not have to witness it.  Which might be a triumph, I guess.  Hiding from things is one way to survive them, and here we were in the dark, walking up the muddy path to my mom's front porch, delivering light-bulbs, and we went in, put the light-bulbs in the lamp.  Everybody said it looked great.  Then the phone rings, and it's one of those relatives we were avoiding with her latest little flare-up.  Mom retreats into her bedroom, and Bill, my sister, her husband and I wait, listening to her voice, looking at each other, kind of knowing suddenly how unimportant we are to her, even though it's vitally necessary to see her, be with her, especially as she gets older. 
I kept flashing on scenes from Interstellar, sitting there, waiting to go back to the motel in Johnson City.  Kept my focus on distant frozen ferocious planets and videos from dead relatives making astronauts cry and blighted cornfields bursting into flames and chalk boards filled with equations that never really work out.  Right then I knew that Christopher Nolan's movie is probably a masterpiece because it somehow leaked out of itself into a realm most movies can't attach themselves to anymore.  Nolan has left his Batman bull-shit behind.  His Kubrickian genius somehow melted in the face of his own heartfelt need to make something beyond Kubrick, and he found moments, completely plastic but still warmed up enough to cause a chill, an impulse for nostalgia and memory almost like Proust and almost like Hallmark and yet irrevocable, kind of real.  All of those tricks and sentiments shined to a supernatural gloss, and played on a screen in East Tennessee.  I guess it was meant to be.
This is a picture of the motel we stayed in in Johnson City.  The place we went back to after saying goodbye to mom and her husband: